An Interview with O’Reilly Ebook Guru, Andrew Savikas

Recently, I’ve been exploring and writing about ebooks*, something of great interest to me. In the process of leaning more about ebooks — and purchasing a technical ebook from O’Reilly which came without DRM — I bumped into Andrew Savikas, interim CEO of Safari Books Online and the VP of Digital Initiatives at O’Reilly media. According to his bio, he’s also “the Program Co-Chair for O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference, and is a regular contributor to the O’Reilly Radar blog on digital publishing issues.” I asked him some questions that have been on my mind as I’ve been learning more about ebooks, and he kindly provided some thoughtful answers.

TMO: In the context of declining to use DRM, what is O’Reilly’s philosophy and strategy regarding the publishing of online books?

Andrew Savikas: Tim O’Reilly likes to say that books are “user interfaces on information.” In other words, books are a technology, just like any other. They’re devices for sharing ideas. And like any other technology, the one that’s best at doing the job a customer needs done is the one that will win out. Word spacing, punctuation, title pages, indexes — all of these things were innovations developed and spread over the course of hundreds of years as the book evolved as a technology.

Andrew SavikasPeople don’t buy products, and they certainly don’t think about “content.” They think about themselves and their problems, and they hire products and services to do the job of solving their problems. For a very long time, many types of books were simply the best technology for doing particular jobs like reference. The most pronounced displacement of books by new technologies that are better at doing those jobs has been books that are essentially printouts of a database — a dictionary, a telephone book, an encyclopedia, a restaurant guide. A static printout of a database is simply less useful than the database itself, especially when that database can both be carried around in your pocket, and improves over time the more that people use it (think Yelp or Wikipedia).

So at the same time we as a publisher need to adapt to changes in what I’ve called the “Form” of certain types of information products (the decline of reference books in favor of online databases as an example), we also need to adapt to changes in what I’ve called “Format” — supply chain, pricing, delivery and consumption method, etc. Netflix sells access to the same “Form” we all recognize as a movie; yet they do it through a radically different “Format” than Blockbuster — digital, mobile, streaming, subscription. In many cases, our books are still the best at doing the job of spreading knowledge, especially tutorial information aimed at introducing someone to a complex topic, as well as deep dives intended to give someone a comprehensive view of a technology. But in order to remain competitive, we’ve had to adjust to changes in “Format” like primarily electronic delivery, priced differently and often sold direct. Choosing not to add DRM is just one aspect of offering a product that we think people will find worth paying for. Our customers value the flexibility to move their ebooks across multiple devices and computers, and the knowledge that their books won’t stop working in the future. Offering a convenient, high-quality product that’s priced attractively has been a recipe for success in our ebook program.

TMO: What technical considerations should the customer keep in mind when building a digital library of books, magazines, etc.?

AS: Standards are very, very important. A lot of magazine publishers are jumping into iPad apps, but they’re falling flat with consumers, both because they’re stuck with the print metaphor, and because they’re delivered in an opaque format that’s useless for digital archiving. If I buy electronic access to an information source, I surely should be able to search that archive. I only buy digital products that aren’t “protected” by DRM, and I recommend others do the same. In practice, that really limits your options as a consumer, but of course there’s nothing wrong with using software tools to remove the DRM for personal use and archiving.

TMO: Is the EPUB format equally suitable for magazines and newspapers as it is for books? Or do these formats require something more, say, interactive video, ads, ad-tracking and metrics, etc. that EPUB can’t deliver?

AS: EPUB is not currently appropriate for most newspapers or magazines. While that’s changing a lot based on the active revision to the EPUB specification, it’s vital we don’t weigh down new digital standards with the baggage of dying print delivery and distribution formats. Where would the Web be today if HTML “had to deliver” whatever arbitrary requirements the newspaper industry might have set out in 1993? Richly linked text and images deeply connected to the wider web will win every time, and that’s what publishers should focus on building, not on trying to cram their existing print workflow output into new digital containers. Ads may work for some audiences and content, but it’s not a magic bullet. Web-based advertising is ruthlessly efficient, and a publisher trying to support the accumulated overhead of a print-based ad program will be in serious trouble.

TMO: Along those lines, do you think EPUB can grow and become the viable, dominant format for the nest 20 years? Or do you wish for something better?

AS: I believe EPUB has the potential to become the primary standard for long-form, discrete digital textual works. There’s a lot of discussion about “enhanced ebooks” but to me the further you get from the long-form textual narrative (though delivered digitally and linked to the Web), the less you can really call something a book anymore. Google Maps isn’t an atlas; TV shows aren’t called “teleplays” anymore. New media forms evolve and proliferate, rarely if ever replacing their ancestors entirely. If an iPhone app is better at doing the job a book used to do, merely “enhancing” the book won’t be enough to compete.

TMO: What do you think about the relative future viability of the EPUB and Mobi formats? Will the popularity of EPUB force Amazon to cave in? Or will it be the reverse, thanks to the Kindle popularity?

AS: It would be a huge step for the industry and for the ebook market if Amazon moved to EPUB. I’m not holding my breath. I also don’t expect Mobi to spread, mostly because it’s such a black box. If Amazon published detailed specs and open source tools for working with Mobi, things might be different. For now we’re stuck dealing with both formats.

TMO: Books in the Apple iBookstore are protected with Apple’s FairPlay DRM. However, if O’Reilly doesn’t believe in DRM, why are there no DRM-free O’Reilly books for sale in the iBookstore? Is that because, once in the iBooks app, they’re trapped there? Or because Apple won’t accept DRM-free books? Or because you’d rather take 100 percent of the revenue?

AS: Actually, Apple offers publishers the choice of whether to apply DRM to their ebooks in the iBookstore. It would be better if they clearly indicated that to customers, but it’s great they offer publishers the choice, unlike Sony, which still won’t let us sell our ebooks in their store without DRM. Publishers indicate whether a particular book should include DRM when they upload it into the store.

TMO: Following up in that, tell us about the nature of your relationship with Apple. Also, do you feel they’re headed in the right technical direction with the iBookstore? Do you think Apple will stop approving single book apps?

AS: Our relationship with Apple is much like that of other publishers — they’re acting as our agent to make our ebooks available in their store. iBooks is a great EPUB reading system, and by supporting EPUB and making a very nice reading experience, Apple has advanced the state of the art for ebooks, which is a very good thing for everyone. In the long run, I do believe Apple will stop approving single-book apps, though I hope they don’t do that until they integrate search between iBooks and the app store. Our data suggests a lot of the people buying our ebook apps don’t necessarily know they want a book — they’re just searching the app store for a particular topic or keyword. If our ebook apps go away, so does that choice for the consumer who won’t be given that option. Also, we sell a lot of ebook apps in countries where the iBookstore isn’t yet available, and probably won’t be anytime soon.

Andrew Savikas

TMO: Apple is known for trying to preserve customer privacy. Do you think Apple can maintain that stand in the face of Google/Android’s willingness to cough up anything publishers demand about subscribers?

AS: I’m not sure I agree with your assertion that Google “coughs up anything publishers demand,” though it’s very clear that Apple’s review process has introduced more barriers to companies and developers looking to track users without using Apple’s own services like iAds.

TMO: There are two major vehicles for magazines now on the iPad. Zinio and iPad apps with “in-app” purchases. Do you have any thoughts on the proper way for this to go? Zinio is one consistent container, but apps may offer other additional features. Plus Zinio is available for PCs and Macs, ensuring some migratability. Where do you see the industry going? Is O’Reilly working on any initiatives to bring better coherence to the customer’s collection of books and magazines?

AS: Trying to cram the output of a print workflow into a digital container will fail. Every magazine app I’ve seen has been a disappointment (and it’s something I wrote about last year at ). Publishers need to think much more about how to adapt what they’re doing on the Web for mobile-friendly access and delivery than about how to adapt what they’re doing in print for publisher-friendly business models on mobile devices. I don’t expect there to be any more coherence in magazine and newspaper-style content on the iPad than there is on the Web. That said, I see a strong future for services like Safari Books Online (disclaimer: O’Reilly is a part-owner and I’m the interim CEO), which takes the headaches of file and format management away from the customer, providing thousands of books, videos, articles, and other media as part of a subscription. Like Rhapsody and Netflix, we’ll see more of these models emerge.

TMO: Who do you perceive as the leaders in the digital book, magazine, newspaper industry, etc, besides O’Reilly? What companies (or organizations) are making the biggest contributions to the state-of-the-art?

AS: Flipboard, Instapaper, the New York Times, Twitter, Foursquare, Groupon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and of course Safari Books Online are all companies that have already or will in the near future profoundly affect what we currently call the publishing industry.

TMO: Rupert Murdoch is apparently ready to release a major newspaper for the iPad, The Daily. Will they use the EPUB format? Do you have concerns about the long term archivability, stability and permanence of our newspaper business in the U.S. that preserves a permanent record for historians?

AS: I don’t know anything about Mr. Murdoch’s plans, or what format he’s intending to use. Nothing I’ve seen suggests that Rupert Murdoch understands the Web, which is a prerequisite for understanding the mobile web and related app ecosystem.

I have no concerns about the “permanent record” for historians. We’re capturing more information now than at any point in history. There are about 26 million books in the Library of Congress. At 500 pages each, that’s 13 billion pages. By comparison, Google has more than 1 trillion pages in its index. While it’s very important to support organizations like the Internet Archive, in the long run we’re moving toward a much richer record than ever before.

As for the “newspaper industry,” those people and organizations that are able to adapt to new technologies and markets will do just fine. But “newspaper” is not the same as “journalism.” Let’s not confuse the wine with the bottle. The economics of newspapers as we’ve known them for 50 years have changed. Yet for many of the jobs that people long hired newspapers to do — weather, sports, classifieds, movie times, local news — better and cheaper alternatives have emerged that show demand is still strong for that kind of information. That demand may no longer support the overhead and margins expected by a newspaper company, but that’s OK with me. Clay Shirky’s assessment is far more articulate than anything I can offer:


* Related TMO articles on ebooks and newspapers

1. Moving Your eBooks from a Mac to the iPad

2. How to Get Free Books on your iPad

3. How The Daily iPad Newspaper Can Succeed

4. Loan and Borrow eBooks with eBook Fling