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26/01/09

“Content is Free… but curation is sacred”

One of the ideas going through my head for the past few months can be summed up in the following line

“Content is Free… but curation is sacred”

The phrase (see below for its origins) first came to mind during the Google [un-] settlement with US publishers, and since then I’ve become more and more interested in the notion of “curation”, and publishing.

What struck me with the Google deal (other than surprise it actually got through) was that from one perspective, it could create an unprecedented opportunity for a new wave of entrepreneurial publishers, who could see the oceans of digitised, rights-cleared material, as their new playground.

Putting aside the awful implications of the deal for traditionally positioned publishers (and also, perhaps those currently publishing out of copyright material, via print on demand), I was struck by this question, of what happens when previously “locked up” content – stuff that is invisible, lost, or in far-off backlist – becomes free, and even more freely available? How will we judge, choose between, or come to find/value content – new or old?

One answer was inspired by the famous CP Scott line,

Comment is free, but facts are sacred

(used by The Guardian to name their blog channel, CommentIsFree – and I sincerely apologise for bastardising this quotation.)

What I felt at the time was that if content becomes effectively free then it will be curation that is worth something. And that good curators will be those with the ability to add significant value to something which has effectively become free, and available in multiple formats.

What do I mean? Just that as the amount of content we are exposed to increases, without any discernible gauge of quality, it is the trusted curators of that content to whom we will choose to give our attention, time or money, rather then trying to filter it all out personally.

In my case, the curator may be the bloke in the record shop who knows my music collection and recommends something new, the staff in my local wine merchant, or a particularly good blog I follow, my newspaper – anything. However, it is not Amazon’s recommendation algorithm; it is decidedly human, and, over time, a relationship of trust is built up. If it works, that trust leads to action, purchase, attention, refinement and more trust.

So, perhaps one opportunity thrown up by the settlement will be for the publishers who can compile (say) a poetry or short-story collection from 100% “Google-Available” material, and create a compelling “curatorial” package out of the material? Or the publisher who makes a city guide peppered with locative literary references and extracts through the ages?

Whilst the role of the editor has always been curating the available material, with selective taste, perhaps one by-product of “free content” will be to
bring the selection criteria into sharper focus. Publishing has always been very focused on the “new”, rather than looking to the strengths of the (”old”) backlist, which must at one point, have been considered strong enough to merit publishing in the first place. Perhaps the agreement even puts the “old” and the “new” into competition?

There is one further angle to this last idea, which can be illustrated through the (possibly worrying) trend of the recent boom in reading on hand-held devices such as the iPhone or the DS. “Worrying” for traditional publishers only, in that they are barely benefitting from this boom. Currently, most of the material being read in this new way has been content taken from the deep backlist – out of copyright material, and classics in particular. People are finding joy in those classics – the free ones – in their hundreds of thousands.

Whilst the settlement (I think) allows Google to provide Print on Demand editions of the entire books they have scanned, they are less likely (I think) to enter the market of producing highly curated, highly produced, “chunked” anthologies of this content, selected by whatever criteria. That is a human task.

Publishers prepared to adopt new models (and find ways beyond the printed book to make it work commercially) may find a new lease of life from this. And they may find that in so doing, they create a relationship with their readers that is worth a whole lot in these difficult times.

Posted by Peter Collingridge in Copyright, Future of the book, Google print, Publishing, free.

British Council’s UK Publishing Entrepreneur Trip to India // Jaipur Book Fair, 22-24 January 2009 (UKYPE 09)

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