Publishing In The Digital Devices Boom: The Importance of APIs

In Digital by Edward Nawotka

The number of digital reading devices are multiplying. Publishers can best handle this distribution opportunity by developing an API.

By Oren Michels, CEO,

Let me begin by saying something curiously unpopular: Publishing has never been in a better position.

Oren Michaels, CEO,

That may be difficult to believe, with bookstores closing, prices under continual pressure, and pundits bemoaning the death –- thank you, Internet –- of book culture. I’ll grant some of that; the traditional channels of getting the word out, involving pulp, presses, and real estate, seem to be giving way to new means of distribution. It is more accurate to say that they are shrinking to accommodate digital transmission. And to some extent this creates adjustments in the existing structure of the business, the same as big retailers did, and before that did paperbacks, book clubs, publisher-owned stores, serialized works sewn into bindings, and lots more going further back in the industry’s long history.

We attach ourselves to certain practices, and assume the world has always been that way, but the greater reality is change. And indeed, important breaks like digitization and digital transmission will cause adaptation and turmoil in some parts of the business. The trick, then, is to be among those who figure out what the big changes are really about, and be among those who act on them.

The first thing is to ask, “What is it that publishing does at its core, and how much will that be impacted by new technology?” Publishing is the packaging of information in accessible formats, and the fostering of a culture around that. This means securing and working with authors likely to produce desirable content, then effectively spotting and exploiting markets in ways that create a high likelihood of profitability, so the process can keep going. Anything else is less relevant to the process than horse feed is to horse racing – you have to have it, but it isn’t what you DO.

Next, let’s consider the new digital technology. To paraphrase MIT professor (and popular author) Sherry Turkle, just because we grew up with the Internet, that doesn’t mean the Internet is grown up. Web pages and online stores are now transforming into mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, connected readers, and more. Without getting into the technical details, these harness very different methods to offer the public constant connectivity to a ceaseless flow of information and communications.

The good news for publishers is that people use these devices for reading more than any other activity, and are likely to for some time to come. Reading is still the most efficient way to consume information, and for many of us, still the most fun. In fact, the average American reads over 35,000 words a day (the equivalent of roughly one third of an average novel). As a whole, our consumption of the written word has increased from 26% of our daily dose of information in 1960 to over 36% in 2008 –- the increase largely accounted for by digital reading. Authors are often great personalities, and that personal aspect of creation, communicating who they are and what they do, can be an iconic means of offering insight and delight to readers.

Content will become much more personalized, and more responsive to its owner’s location and context, and visible via new means of discovery. This creates new opportunities for leveraging existing content, and creating new ways to spot and exploit markets. Early efforts include “push to purchase” bestseller lists on iPad bookstores, author interviews on video, related games, or fan fiction pages.

The trick is to find the effective means, and get them out quickly, to partners and others who want your content on their machines. The new digital transformation is happening across hundreds of devices, wired and wireless, and in dozens of different cultures and contexts, at home and overseas. The challenge to publishers is the same challenge facing anyone marketing their wares in this new ecology -– finding effective, appropriate ways to make it onto all those devices.

Too often, content providers approach new distribution as a “mobile” strategy — porting similar content to one device, then another in succession. This linear approach will inevitably leave content providers behind given the sheer number of devices and platforms available and growing. Each device has its own design “rules,” which go beyond programming challenges to the right way information should look and act on the “screen.” Layout and navigation matter, both for intuitive delight and cultural relevance (where things appear on a Web page can be different from one country to another, and it is the same with mobile devices.) as well as capabilities unique to each device — like tactical interfaces, 3D or screen size.

How can any single outfit handle this distribution opportunity? The answer is in developing an API (application programming interface), the means by which content is utilized by an ecosystem of skilled developers developing applications for different consumer devices. Some of the developers may be in-house, while others are independent. There are thousands of them around the world, with individual knowledge of different devices and cultures. Content owners select and place the material they want in the appropriate databases, and programmers use APIs to access that content and transform it into the right product for an iPhone, say, or an e-reader, even the screen on a refrigerator.

Don’t laugh at that last one. Developers from connected TV manufacturers like Samsung have leveraged APIs from organizations like the Associated Press to put headlines onto their television sets. Internet enabled refrigerators are also now displaying AP headlines and display of meal plans or recipes are a natural next step. Someone with the right content will put out APIs for that kind of publishing.

More than worrying about the mobility business, publishers need to focus on being in the API business. Companies like Mashery offers ways that companies can expose their content, using APIs, to an ecosystem we have built of over 100,000 developers (and growing) worldwide. We consult with companies about what they might offer, if that is appropriate, and offer mechanisms to contact and foster developer communities. We also have the technology for controlling the access to content, the necessary security to set rules the client wants, and tools for monetizing content in new ways.

Among our publishing clients are, besides the AP, The New York Times, which along with several hundred applications consuming its content–got its best-seller list in prime position in the iPad bookstore; USA Today, which got out one of the first (and number one news) iPad apps using APIs, and The Guardian UK, which uses Mashery to enable the selling of content to tiers of partners – each subscribing to different layers of access to amount and depth of their content services.

That is my API pitch, delivered in service of a greater point. There are good ways at hand to focus on your core business, which is more valuable than ever in a world rich in information and still short on meaning. The important things is not to get bogged down into which device or software version you need to obsess about today, but instead focus on optimizing channels of discovery and distribution, by leveraging broadly applicable standards and a vast network of knowledgeable, skilled developers.

DISCUSS: Is Publishing’s Obsession with the Kindle and iPad Elitist?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.