Digging up a 15-year old speech, and a lesson in preservation
One thing I’ve heard often and dismissed is that we need print to preserve intellectual property. I figure that digital files are less destructible than paper and that, with any care at all, it should be possible to create more reliable preservation of bits than of atoms.
I still think that. However…
A month ago I was helping my sister clean out some of the old files of my father’s (now gone over eight years, but it takes a while to get around to this stuff.) Among his papers, I found the hard copy of a speech I had delivered at a VISTA Conference (VISTA is now a company called Publishing Technology) in November of 1995. As I started to read it, I realized I hadn’t seen it in a long time. I checked and it wasn’t on my web site. I checked further and it wasn’t in my hard drive.
So if Dad hadn’t saved this printed copy, I wouldn’t have had it to show you. I’m glad he did. Ironically, the speech was titled “How Quickly Things Change”.
The speech is too long (I’ve learned a thing or two about brevity in the past 15 years), for which I apologize. It is on the site without edits or corrections or updates (both because I’m honest and because I’m lazy). But I think many people of my generation and close to it will enjoy the refresher course about what the world of digital change looked like to book publishers in November of 1995. And the many people now thoroughly engaged in the issues that concern this blog and our industry who were still in school or in short pants at the time might be amazed at how little we knew at what was, at least for trade, the dawn of the digital publishing era.
At the time I made this speech, the obsession of most book publishers was to take advantage of the seemingly-vast amounts of data that could be packed on a CD-Rom. Several major publishers had formed “new media” divisions or departments to start creating what were, in effect, enhanced ebooks or apps out of their intellectual content. The industry was only on the verge of consciousness about how important connectivity was. In the speech’s opening sentences, I say “last year at this time, very few of us had heard of the World Wide Web” and I myself had been online since before the 1992 election. But “online” then meant, for most people, being connected within the walled gardens of America Online, Prodigy, and Compuserve.
I was happy to be reminded that I got a number of things pretty damn right at that early stage.
1. When most people in publishing didn’t believe it, I said that getting online was much more important than making fancy new products on CD-Roms.
2. I suggested resisting the trend to “new media divisions” because online communication was the key going forward and the move to exploit it should not be siloed.
3. I identified cell phones as (arguably) the fifth big new technology adoption of the past 20 years (the previous four being the VCR, the audio CD, the fax machine, and the personal computer.) But it is a time-capsule moment to recognize that the cell phone wasn’t ubiquitous yet.
4. I saw that professional publishing would shortly become mostly electronic, particularly directories.
5. I didn’t name it Wikipedia, but I did envision an encyclopedia online that is “dynamic, interactive, and perpetually being updated by organizing on-line tools to solve an age-old need.”
6. I said that we’d reach “universal connectivity”, defined as the point when just about everybody above the poverty line would be online, by the year 2000. At the time 16.6% of adults had internet access and only 10% had used the internet in the last month. By the way, those numbers constitute a reasonable approximation of where ebook uptake is today.
7. I said newspapers would be crushed first, magazines second, and that we’d be glad we’re in the book business as internet use grew.
8. At the time of the speech, there were 100,000 active domains and under a million home pages. In what I remember was an audience-gasp moment, I said that the small merchant on the corner would also have a presence on the Web. As I put it, Time Warner and MCI would be “joined, literally, by the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and the local real estate agent.”
9. At a time when “several hundred” American publishers had web sites (“plus 38 British, 31 Canadian, and a handful of Australian”), I cautioned publishers against thinking that having web sites would substitute for having booksellers. Some people thought they might.
10. I said there should be a web page for every book, although I was somewhat over-ambitious in how I saw it developing organically and being part of the development and early marketing process.
11. When publishers were thinking of digital products almost exclusively as CD-Roms, which were “enhanced ebooks”, I saw the value of just delivering the text file to be read on a screen. (Of course, I thought we’d deliver them on diskettes, and I was wildy wrong about that!)
12. I concluded with a summary of all the ways online could be involved in our business, from agent submissions to marketing to make the case again that “new media divisions” were not the answer for publishers as they entered the digital age.
Of course, there’s a lot I didn’t see coming. No mention of iPods and iTunes and disaggregating the album into songs. (But I did see the impact of disaggregation on newspapers.) No mention of piracy or DRM. And although it had existed for a few months at that point, no mention of Amazon. (I did say that “it will be some time” before we’d be selling substantial numbers of books online, which turned out to be true. Amazon was still two or three years away from having a significant sales impact for most publishers.)
My job in these VISTA conferences was to deliver a message which was “way out there.” I was supposed to throw caution to the wind, to be the guy who could say things that most people wouldn’t say even if they believed it. In some ways, the greatest utility of the speech today is to show people where “way out there” was 15 years ago, in November of 1995.
So a belated thanks to my wonderful Dad for saving a hard copy of this speech. But I’m not changing my mind about the fact that usually, digital files will be more enduring than paper.