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Hugh McGuire, a fellow Montrealer, shares his views on the state of newspapers and the rise of new media technology, of which he is an advocate. Learn how this entrepreneur has managed to balanced both passion and opportunity to make way for his many startups, including The Book Oven (see also The Book Oven Blog), Librivox, Earideas, and Datalibre.
Allentrepreneur: Welcome to Allentrepreneur Hugh and thanks for taking the time to talk. You’ve got quite a start-up resume to your name. LibriVox.org, earideas.com, datalibre.ca and your latest one, The Book Oven, which has me particularly curious since I’m a book junkie. Could you give us an introduction?
Hugh: The book business is going through massive changes, there are cutbacks all over the place in publishing houses, bricks and mortar booksellers are in trouble, and there’s angst everywhere about how digital and ebooks will upset business models that have been entrenched for 100 years. But books are still a $50 billion business, and there are passionate readers and writers all over the world. The book business looks a lot like the music business did 10 years ago, with these huge companies knowing things are going to change, but having great trouble adjusting.
One really exciting thing is new technologies that make publishing a book cheap and easy: print-on-demand and ebooks. In some sense these technologies can take the publisher out of the picture – in the same way that musicians can now make and distribute their music online, writers now have the same abilities.
But making a book is an arduous and collaborative process. Book Oven will help bridge the gap between writing, and publishing a finished product.
Allentrepreneur: What started you down the path of entrepreneurship and what are the qualities that helped you along succeed along the way?
Hugh: I’ve always been passionate about making a difference in the world, trying new things and finding ways to make people’s lives better. I’ve never been particularly interested in technology as-such, but instead the ways that technologies could be used, the kinds of things people could do with them. And particularly interested in how technology can help people do things that are deeply important to them. So I guess I’ve looked at certain kinds of problems that I’d like to see solved in the world, and thought about how I could contribute to solving them.
As for success, I think if you believe passionately in what you are doing, and you can articulate that passion clearly, then if your ideas are any good, people will want to join you. With LibriVox, for instance, I had this simple, crazy idea: “To make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet,” and enough people thought that was a valuable goal that we’ve become the most prolific audiobook publisher in the world. All driven by a simple idea, and thousands of people’s passions.
Allentrepreneur: Librivox.org is fascinating. You started this project 4 years ago with 13 contributors on your first day. Today, you have over 1,000 completed works in 18 different languages and about 1,600 contributors. It seems to me that podcasts haven’t reached their full potential. What other domain could benefit from a podcasting community?
Hugh: Actually, LibriVox started 3 and a half years ago (August 2005), and we’ve now completed 2,064 works in 29 languages, with 2,700 contributors.
“Podcasting” is a bad term, I think, because it confuses people. Audio (or maybe radio, or recording) might be better. All podcasting is, is sound recordings available on the web. So to answer your question: I think anytime ideas are spoken out loud, podcasting can be useful. I’d like to see all universities podcast all their lectures, as well as interviews with professors doing interesting research; I’d like to see a massive oral history project, to archive not just the stories of the generation that will soon be gone, but to record their voices as well. I think non-profits should be podcasting to engage better with their constituents, and politicians should podcast to talk about their policies. Any kind of news media outlet, or magazine should do at least one podcast to talk about their most interesting stories. We should be interviewing more writers and artists and musicians, and thinkers and economists, and scientists, and policy-makers, and… the list could go on and on. Anything anyone says out loud that is really interesting, or really challenging, or really valuable ought to be podcast.
Allentrepreneur: In your “defining what you are for (just like porn)” post, you argue that news providers, whether they are newspapers or blogs, win not by the dispensing of information but by the selection of it. That’s why blogs win. You happen to write for the popular Huffington Post, a “blog” that is at the forefront of a digital revolution that has caused quite a stir recently. Namely, the demise of newspapers as we know it. Would you care to share your opinion on the matter?
Hugh: Well it would take me a while to share all my opinions on that. The point I was making with that post is that newspapers and generally institutions that deal with knowledge and media have gotten stuck thinking about themselves as “providers of newspapers” or “publishers of books” or “buildings where students come to learn about things.” But these definitions of what these institutions “do” grew out of particular technological and environmental constraints. So what all these institutions need to do is consider the real value they bring to society, not how they bring it, and then figure out how changing technology will help them do that better.
So I’m arguing that these kinds of institutions should try to figure out “what they are for” and not “what they do,” and if they get that right, then it will be easier to navigate their course as technology changes. By focusing on what they are for and not what they do they can continue to be relevant. I read recently about Nintendo: it was founded in 1889 (!) as a playing card company. But they realized that what the are for is proving fun to people, not making card games, or board games, or video games for that matter. They are not constrained by the particular technology they are using at any one time to deliver their true value (fun), they use technology to as a means to deliver fun.
So for media and knowledge institutions, figure out what you are for and decide how you can best continue to serve that purpose, given all the technologies at your fingertips now, and in the future.
Allentrepreneur: One of the more fascinating start-up out there is actively reversing the process and leading a revolution all its own. Blurb takes digital content (the user’s) and gives it the power to publish his very own book. So first newspapers and now publishers. What new opportunity do you see coming out of this?
Hugh: I see lots of opportunity. Part of why the book business looks as it does is because the technology for making and distributing books was expensive. With offset printing you had to do a print run of 500 or 1,000 at least to make a book at any kind of reasonable price. To sell books you had to ship them to bookstores, who had to shelve them, and someone had to be at the till to make the transaction to the reader.
Now, you’ve got print-on-demand technology that means you can print a on-off copy of a book and sell it for roughly the same price as a mass-produced book that you would buy in a store; people can order your book online, and have it shipped to them directly. You can make an ebook that you can distribute essentially for free over the web. You have Amazon and other online bookstores.
So these changes in technology mean that the business will necessarily change. We are in early days of this change – it’s happening already, but more on the writing side, and less on the reading. I expect that will change as publishing cuts cost and writers find new ways to distribute their work.
So I’m certain we are on the verge of an explosion in independent book publishing and writing. Book Oven hopes to help that explosion along.
Allentrepreneur: In a previous interview, I inquired about whether one should follow his passion vs. his opportunities. It strikes me that you’ve successfully merged both. You’re a writer and a web-developer, and the nature of your start-ups are a perfect amalgam of both. Is this something that came by accident or did you firmly set out to follow this route?
Hugh: In some ways I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to come along to match my passions. I have three particular interests: books, new media technology, and mass collaboration. I don’t know if this will work for everyone, but it seems to me that by following my passion and my curiosity, a wonderful opportunity revealed itself to me. So in some sense it was an accident, but in another it feels like this was the inevitable path, given my passions.
Allentrepreneur: How about some suggested reading, business or otherwise?
Hugh: I don’t really read business books, but anyone interested in mass collaboration should read Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks.” I’m reading War and Peace right now, on the Stanza ereader on my ipod, and it’s great. I’m loving it.