Jack Uldrich
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To Survive the Future, The Publishing Industry Must Unlearn the Past

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On August 5, 1949 Wag Dodge and a team of fire-fighters went into the Mann Gulch in Montana to battle a fire. The conditions were hot and dry. As evening approached, the fire changed directions and hot embers flew over the crew cutting off access to the Missouri River. It was soon apparent to everyone that they could not contain the fire.

Dodge and his fellow team members did the most logical thing and sprinted toward the top of the closest ridge. Soon the winds grew faster and the fire began advancing at a rate of 600 feet a minute. The crew dropped their gear and 50-pound packs in an attempt to run even faster.

Feeling the heat now pressing upon his back, it was clear to Dodge that he and his team weren’t going to make it to the ridge. He yelled at his men to stop. Either not hearing Dodge over the din of the roaring fire or thinking he had lost his mind, the men continued running. Dodge then did something even more incredible. He lit a fire.

As expected the dry brush quickly ignited and raced aheadof Dodge. With the larger fire still roaring down upon him, Dodge doused his handkerchief with water from his canteen, stepped into the still smoldering embers of his self-ignited fire, and laid down and began sucking up what little oxygen remained as the larger fire leapfrogged over the small patch of burnt land.

Amazingly, Dodge survived. Unfortunately, thirteen members of his crew did not. They couldn’t outrun the powerful fire.

Out of this disaster was born something positive. On that fateful day, Dodge inadvertently invented the escape fire—a tactic that is today standard operating procedure among forest firefighters—but which was created, literally, “in the heat of the moment.”

The story is relevant to the publishing world because, like a raging forest fire, continued exponential advances from the world of technology are going to continue to wreak havoc on the industry. For example, the first edition of the Amazon Kindle held 250 books. The second version—1500! It’s not going to stop there. Data storage capability is doubling roughly every 6 months. In other words, when Kindle 3.0 comes out, it will store 6,000 books. At this point, it is foolish for K-12 and post-secondary administrators not to use this technology.

Because of continued advances in bandwidth, it is already possible to download an electronic book in a minute. What this implies for textbook publishers is that rather than publishing annual updates, their authors can modify textbooks on the fly as new knowledge becomes available. Of course, this makes eminent sense because scientific and technical knowledge is now doubling every two years.

The changes won’t stop here. Advances in flexible electronics will make e-books easier and more enjoyable to use. The addition of color “digital” ink will make it feasible to include visual animations into books. The net impact is that books can become multi-media in nature. Is there really any reason why the printed word must stay confined to the printed word? No!

Another exciting technological advance I have written about before is Live Ink. The current paradigm for reading the printed word—in straight lines read from left to right (as you are doing right now)—was created because historically paper was a limited commodity. When the written word transfers to an electronic format, however, a new paradigm—such as Live Ink—can emerge.

Wikis, crowd-sourcing and collaboration will also continue to transform the publishing world; as will other unexpected advances in other areas. For a example, consider the following paragraph:

Dave Striver loved the university–its ivy-covered clock towers, its ancient and sturdy brick, and its sun-splashed verdant greens and eager youth. The university, contrary to popular opinion, is far from free of the stark unforgiving trials of the business world: academia has its own tests, and some are as merciless as any in the marketplace of ideas. A prime example is the dissertation defense: to earn the Ph.D., to become a doctor, one must pass an oral examination on one’s dissertation. This was the test Professor Edward Hart enjoyed giving.”

As a writer, I think it is a fine piece of work and, like most good fiction, it seems to possess an aura of real- world experience. Here’s the problem–especially if you’re in the publishing world or if you are a writer like me—the paragraph was written by a computer program, dubbed StoryBook.

Change is coming to the publishing world and it is unlikely anyone is going to be able to outrun the technological winds fueling the conflagration. Like Wag Dodge, the best strategy is to take a match to your own industry and start thinking of an entirely new strategies for surviving. To do so, it will help if you can first unlearn.

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