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Pragmatic Publishing

Dave Thomas Talks about Ebooks, Agility, and the Future of Books

interviewed by Michael Swaine

Generic image illustrating the article
  For our inaugural issue (or First Iteration) it seemed appropriate to talk with one of the Pragmatic Programmers. Dave Thomas was willing to chat about the decisions behind Pragmatic Bookshelf’s comprehensive ebook program and about the revolutionary changes going on in publishing.  

A revolution has been going on in publishing, and current economic conditions seem to have accelerated it. At the end of March, Bookseller reported that the printing industry was in its worst state in 18 years.

Newspapers are dropping like flies. Clay Shirky points out that newspapers weren’t blindsided by the internet; it’s just that none of the perfectly reasonable strategies they came up with worked, because there literally is no new model for newspapers to replace the old one.

Books are also being hurt by the internet and the economy. HarperCollins cut Collins, Random House is cutting staff in waves, and Borders looks doomed.

At the same time, actual newspaper readership (print plus online) is up, and some book publishers in some markets are doing very well. It was in this unsettled context that the Pragmatic Bookshelf recently began producing all of its books in every popular electronic format: .mobi (e.g., Amazon Kindle), .epub (e.g., Apple iPhone), and .pdf in addition to print. And if you buy one, you’ve got them all: you have purchased a license to the content. You can purchase the ebook for your iPhone and then when you get an Amazon Kindle, you can download that version, too, because you already own it.

It seemed like an ideal time to chat with Dave Thomas, one of the two owners of the Pragmatic Bookshelf, about ebooks, agility, and the future of publishing.

ms: These are interesting times to be in publishing. Clay Shirky has described this as being inside a revolution, and says that the inside of a revolution feels like chaos, like constant change. Are we inside a revolution? And if so, how do you adapt to constant change?

dt: We are inside a revolution. It’s like being in a whirlwind. And no, you can never adapt to constant change, but you can deal with it. The trick is you have to be agile, you have to be able to refocus quickly. And we know something about that: to be able to refocus quickly you need to have all the mechanical stuff, all the non-intellectual stuff, automated. That’s something we work on all the time, to be as automated as possible.

ms: Although many book publishers are struggling, at least with books there is a plausible path forward, unlike the situation with newspapers. I’m referring to ebooks. You have embraced electronic publishing since the start and now all your books are available in multiple ebook formats. And it seemed like you were able to convert them to the new formats almost overnight.

dt: Because we built our company on agility, we’re in a comfortable position. All our books are authored in custom markup so all our content can be easily repurposed for multiple platforms, Kindle for example. It wasn’t literally overnight, though; it took a few days. But that’s because I did it all myself, one person, working on it part-time. And although we use custom markup—automating as much as possible—we converted each book individually to give each one its individual treatment. At this point we think all the books look pretty good on all supported devices.

ms: Any time you move content to a new medium there are unanticipated consequences. A recent New York Times article raises an interesting challenge for electronic books: once you’re on the platform, more immediately gratifying activities like games are just a click away from the book. Reading has always had to compete with distractions, but with ebooks it has to compete more aggressively, it seems.

dt: I disagree that games and such are competition for ebooks. Or rather, I totally agree when it comes to fiction. I would be afraid if I were publishing novels. But for our kind of publishing—nonfiction, reference oriented—games and the like are not competition at all. They address different needs. I have a time when I want to learn and a time when I want to play. No, the competition for the ebook isn’t games, it’s the Web and free content.

ms: Or even not-free content. In addition to new ways of presenting the contents of books, we are seeing new ways of marketing books, including self-published, print-on-demand books, like Author Solutions and Lulu. You can publish and sell a book on Amazon now for a few hundred dollars. If you have a recognized expertise, a website, and a following, you can sell on your own site. The odds are long but the startup costs are low, at least apart from the sizable investment of your own time.

dt: Lulu and other self-publishing options are a step up from simply selling on the Web. So why is that not a threat to ebooks? That really comes down to the question of what publishers offer. We think about that a lot. Most authors need help to get a book out. Help organizing their material. Help finding their voice. They need a coach, they need encouragement to get it finished. That’s something that a publisher can offer. Also, we’re a place where people come to buy books. When it works right, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. A good publisher’s reputation is built on the work of its authors, and the authors benefit from that reputation.

ms: So how significant are ebooks? Are they the future of books, or of major categories of books?

dt: That’s difficult to answer. I have mixed feelings about the fact that as an industry we have started using this term ebook. I can see why we do: it’s a comfortable metaphor. But it leads us into some strange decisions. For example. when we’re reading on screen, we’re clicking through a document page by page. Why? Why would we want to replicate one of the worst features of print? I’m concerned that the word “book” in “ebook” implicitly limits where we think we can go.

ms: So where might we go? Do you see something new that eventually replaces the ebook of today?

dt: Taking existing content and repurposing it for ebook readers is the first baby step. We need to look beyond that. But asking what will replace the ebook is looking at it the wrong way around. The fundamental issue we have to address is not what will happen to the book but what will happen to content. The real question is what we want to create in terms of content.

ms: So how do you go about answering that?

dt: Listen to the reader. The two keys to dealing with change are being agile and listening to your customers. In the past five years control has passed from supplier to consumer, in publishing and many other markets. That’s something that was talked about and it’s really happening, and it’s a wonderful position to be in. Well, maybe in the Chinese curse sense of wonderful. But it can be wonderful if you embrace it. The old model was the publisher gets to decide what we read. The new model is you listen to what your readers want and try to produce content for them. You succeed by listening to your customers and delivering what they want.

ms: And what do you find that readers want?

dt: One thing we’re learning that readers want is customizable content. When we get a new video game in my family, I want to start playing right away, but my kids want to spend the first half-hour setting things up: the colors, their characters’ names, and so on. They really enjoy customizing their environment—that’s what’s important to them. You need to deliver content that the customer can adapt to their situation. Some people want books, some people want audio presentation. Different people want different delivery of the same content. That’s why we’re doing screencasts, seminars, podcasts, this magazine, in addition to books on paper and in a variety of electronic formats. But that’s really just the beginning. We will be customizing the content—and enabling readers to customize the content—even more as we listen to our readers and determine what they want and need.

ms: How do you do that?

dt: How do you take an idea and create multiple implementations of it? It’s a problem. Customizability is hard. Most publishers can envisage incredibly rich content models. The problem is how do you get them made? Right now we can cobble something together with duct tape and Ruby scripts, but that’s not a solution. The challenge is that writing itself is hard. The average book is a labor of love. You tell an author that he also has to produce a podcast and courseware and you’ll drastically reduce the number of books that even get started.

ms: So what’s your strategy?

dt: Again, you have to trust your readers. They are the ones who know what they need and want. Publishers traditionally have tried to tell them what they need. We won’t do that. They say we don’t want DRM, well neither do we, so no DRM. We sell direct so we have that relationship with the customer, so we can have a conversation. And we use that conversation to inform our various experiments with different kinds of content delivery.

ms: I’m learning that you mean that pretty literally. You really engage with your readers. You do your own support. What if what readers want is unreasonable or unrealistic?

dt: You have to draw a fine balance between being reactive and being conservative. We play with a lot of stuff that never sees the light of day. We look for the long-term value as opposed to the short-term gain.

ms: It seems to be working.

dt: It seems to be. Last year we celebrated our fifth year in publishing. We’re a young company, but we’re growing every year, even in this economy. Publishers are struggling all around us and we’re going from strength to strength. We’re having a whole lot of fun. I just wish there were about three times as many hours in the day to do all the things we want to do.