Advantages Multiply for Open Source Publishing

If publishers tune out at the mention of “open source” approaches to publishing, it’s largely out of habit. For many, the idea of making content freely and publicly available is akin to surrendering the central asset of their businesses. But open source digital technologies are encouraging some to reconsider, according to experts who spoke in New York yesterday afternoon at the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) at Book Expo America.

Two key advantages of the open source approaches currently in practice are audience development and technological innovation — a pair of challenges at the top of every publisher’s list across the industry.

Sanders Kleinfeld, director of publishing technology at O’Reilly Media, said the first step for publishers to embrace open source publishing is dispelling the notion that it only deals with software development. “It’s about book content, too,” he said.

Related: Tailoring Workflows to Digital Content

That’s one area publishers are understandably wary of inviting the public to meddle in, but for certain titles the benefits can outweigh the risks. When it comes to complex multimedia projects — like children’s, educational, scientific and cooking titles — generating interest and even monetary pledges at the earliest stages not only can help underwrite production costs, Kleinfeld pointed out, it can also define and grow a base of customers and keep marketing resources in check.

Then there are the technological advantages. Publishers talk a great deal about digital innovation but sometimes recycle familiar ideas. Sanj Kharbanda, vice president of digital strategy at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spoke today about one such challenge: ceasing to approach digital as an end-format tacked onto the production process. He conceded people in the industry are “tired of hearing” about the need to change that.

With an open source development model, the digital production process is constantly being refined in tandem with the content that’s produced in it. As the public helps build a publisher’s code base, the digital production standard rises across the board and at a faster rate. Open source collaboration also means publishers never have to wait for a software developer to release upgrades to support emerging production needs. What’s more, Kleinfeld pointed out, publishers don’t need to open-source everything they do, “only what furthers [their] business goals or helps the industry.”

There are some challenges and drawbacks, of course. As IDPF’s executive director Bill McCoy pointed out (in a bit of an understatement), generating new strings of code every few weeks makes scheduling difficult. And in perhaps an even more uncomfortable transition, publishers working in an open source model “don’t necessarily have the creation of a single product in sight.”

But as publishers strive to connect more with readers and content creators and seek to become more agile in their move toward digital, those pain points could transform into strategic advantages.

Learn more: Sanders Kleinfeld discusses the foundations of O’Reilly Media’s open source, HTML5-based workflow.

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