1995: “Publishing Models for Internet Commerce”

Here is another must read from long ago. So much is still perfectly relevant to today. Tim O’Reilly: 1995: Publishing Models for Internet Commerce:

We’ve based our work in these two areas on two distinct but overlapping observations about publishing:

1. On the net, “Information is plentiful. Trust and attention are
scarce.” (David Liddel) The development of brand identity is a
critical part of publishing success in what you might call
“commodity information businesses” where no one has a lock on
proprietary content.

2. A reference work is essentially a “user interface” to a body
information. What does that interface look like online? How can
a publisher who specializes in making sense out of complex
topics do it better on the net?

In an information glut, it is not content but context that is
king. Someone chooses the New York Times over the New York Post not
because of any kind of proprietary lock on content (though to be sure
there is a role for scoops and special features) but rather because it
has developed an editorial point of view that appeals to a particular
class of reader. In a similar way, there is an enormous role for the
establishment of “information brands” on the net–publications that
have established relationships of trust with particular audiences.

…The actual content is valuable–but far more valuable is the
relationship with the people who like the same kinds of things we like.

This relationship runs all through publishing–and not just
magazine publishing. Publishing marketing is always affinity marketing:

“If you liked Steven King’s last novel, you’ll like this one even better.”
“If you like Steven King, you’ll like Peter Straub.”
“If you like Steven King, you’ll like these other books from the same

…In the old model, the information product is a container. In the
new model, it is a core. One bounds a body of content, the other
centers it.

…I believe that there’s a tremendous market for those in the
publishing business to turn their experience in making sense of
complex bodies of information to this new world of online information

…In many ways, selectivity is the inevitable “other face” of
universal distribution. When you can get anything you want, how do you
select what you want? At the end of the day, while a consumer can walk
into a bookstore and order any book in print, he or she typically
browses through a much smaller selection offered by the bookseller. In
fact, one of the key grounds on which a bookseller competes (other
than location) is the nature of the selection that it offers.

And information has a funny characteristic. Up to a certain point,
more choice is better. Then the situation flips. The user gets
overwhelmed, and less is more. Publishing shows us the role not of the
gatekeeper (who allows only certain content to be published), but of
the adviser, whether that adviser is a trusted columnist or reviewer
in a newspaper, or a trusted clerk at the local bookseller.

Understanding this role will be important to the future of commercial
online services.

…The net isn’t 30 million people, it’s tens of thousands of
overlapping groups ranging from a few people to perhaps a couple of
hundred thousand at the largest. As I told one large publisher trying
to figure out what to do about the Internet: “Yes, there is a billion
dollar opportunity here. But you’re going to find it a few million at
a time.”

Think niche. It’s the net’s greatest strength.

Look for opportunities to reinforce the fundamentals of the
Internet–participation, access, communication.

Read the whole piece.