THERE'S A CERTAIN irony that one of the most successful businesses that's grown up with the Net is a book publisher, the kind of business so many people now think the Net will doom to extinction.
In a chance meeting at a London show in 1997, Tim O'Reilly explained the secret of his burgeoningly successful publishing business: "I publish books people have to buy." That remains one of his company's guiding principles, along with publishing in areas where the company can offer "significant unique value."
O'Reilly is a notorious book lover; it's hard to come up with a title of any note that he hasn't read. He founded O'Reilly Publishing in 1978 and quickly became famous for publishing the kind of reference books geeks couldn't find anywhere else. The company has continued to branch out, including launching a long line of successful conferences.
In 2009, O'Reilly says the company's most successful books tend to be either learning titles such as its Headverse series, or in its entertainment-based Make line, which includes books, a magazine, and a conference. "Sixty-five thousand people came to the last Maker Faire," he said.
But, he adds, voicing a principle that drives the choice of speakers at the company's annual Emerging Technology conferences, "The deeper idea we've been exploring throughout all aspects of the company is the idea that a lot of times the most interesting technology can be discovered by what people do with it for fun. It's not clear yet what the entrepreneurial opportunity is in synthetic biology – but it is really clear that thousands of highschool students are doing genetic engineering, and that means that's fundamentally interesting because it has people engaged with it. Make is the same way. Playing with sensors and robotics, how to instrument the planet – and then sure enough along comes IBM four years later and its big thing is smarter planet initiatives."
Similarly, he says, "Open-source hardware is telling us something about the future of manufacturing – playing with mass customisation in various ways." This trend began with sites like Threadless, in which communities collaborate and vote on T-shirt designs; now there are all sorts of start-ups enabling people to design items for manufacturing. "That's open-source hardware. People are realising there's no real advantage in owning the design. The cost may come down if more people use and manufacture the parts."
One technology that has never achieved the success projected for it, however, is ebooks. O'Reilly had a lot of success with its Safari line, launched in 2001, but these didn't get counted as ebooks because they were sold as a subscription channel for online reading. "For years, Safari was bigger than the entire reported size of the book market. Our idea there was based simply on watching TV – subscription channels way outpaced the growth of pay-per-view. The value of having a large aggregate body of information was huge. What can you do better online that you can't do in print? Search a lot of content. It is our second biggest channel - behind only Amazon - for O'Reilly in terms of revenue back to our office."
Ebooks in the more traditional downloadable sense, he says, are finally beginning to take off – and the agent of that change is largely the iPhone. O'Reilly quickly spotted the iPhone as a possible ebook reader, and began by releasing iPhone: The Missing Manual for the iPhone's Stanza app.
"Immediately, it shot to the top of the charts." Its sales rate would have made it one of the top computer books, and so would the revenue it was generating – and it sold at only $4.99. So we said this was a real channel. I always believed that among ebook readers a general purpose device like a phone would probably end up outperforming a special-purpose device like the Kindle."
While everybody who's tried one likes the Kindle, he adds, the iPhone and Stanza has blown past it. "Looking a little further ahead, it's hard to believe we're not going to have some kind of breakthrough in heads-up technology projected onto your eye. Look at the wearable computing people." µ
Sign up for INQbot – a weekly roundup of the best from the INQ