On the future of publising, today

I’ve had a couple of interactions with non-traditional publishing of traditional books in the last week, so thought I’d make a note of them as a way to digest the experience.

First, I wanted to learn Backbone.js, as it (or something like it) will likely be the basis of front-end web based software interaction for the next few years at least. My usual method for learning a new web technology/language/process is a to get a decent book with functional examples and read it quickly cover to cover. This is how I survey the landscape; like taking a helicopter ride over a national park before setting out to explore it on foot. The real learning happens on foot, but it’s useful to know where the lakes, rivers and mountains are before you head into the jungle.

You know you’re exploring the edge of current tech when the only book on the subject listed on Amazon won’t be published for another four months. So I dug around the Internet and came across a long and decent looking article ‘Developing Backbone.js Applications‘.

Using Instapaper, with one click on my bookmarks bar, and one click in my Instapaper account page I had the web-page converted into a Kindle friendly .MOBI formatted file. I emailed that to my secret Kindle email address and within a few seconds I was ready to start reading this article in book format on a screen designed specifically for this kind of job.

The process of getting this article to my Kindle is so easy that I didn’t actually spend any time reading the article before deciding if the effort was worthwhile. So when I started reading, I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. This ‘article’ was in fact a book; the very same book that won’t be published in a traditional format and available on Amazon for another four months. It’s shared under a Creative Commons license on the source code repository and social coding website, GitHub. An environment where if I find errors in the book, I can edit the text directly and post the update back to the original author, and if my changes are accepted, my contribution is attributed precisely to my GitHub account.

The second example was The Moneyless Manifesto, also shared freely online under a Creative Commons license. In this case the online version of the book has been split into chapters and subsections so it’s not quite a single click to get the book into Instapaper. Not one to be deterred, or to miss a chance to learn something, I knocked up a Python script to fetch each of the pages, pick out the relevant content and stitch this together as a single web page. Which I then sent through Instapaper and on to my Kindle, and my wife’s Kindle.

All of the above is perfectly legit. This isn’t like people who download music illegally, but it’s a challenge to publishers all the same. Most end users won’t be writing Python scripts to format online books in such a convenient way, or using Instapaper as a document converter, but in time more and more will and all of the processes will get easier.

The two publishers involved here are embracing the new world, but that doesn’t make it easy for them. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but The Moneyless Manifesto is full of interesting and challenging questions, and may have some ideas related to this future publishing conundrum.