A manifesto for container free content

A manifesto for container free content

"A fundamental question is being overlooked in this search for the optimal publishing strategy," writes Ryan Morrison. During the run-up to FutureBook 2015, one of our manifesto writers, Carol Strickland, wrote about art books in digital formats. Morrison, founder of Erudition Digital, is Strickland's publisher in its Masterpieces of Art series. Morrison now is here with his own commentary. And that "fundamental question," he tells us, is one we should be putting to readers: "What are the customer’s needs and how can content be packaged and delivered to meet them?"—Porter Anderson


Unpacking the book

The printed book has been the de-facto “container” or package for content for the majority of the publishing industry’s history.  As a result, the publishing value chain is overwhelmingly book-centric despite the recent proliferation of digital devices, platforms and formats. 

Many digital publications are just digital replicas of the printed product with minor adaptations here and there (industry expert Joe Wikert refers to this approach as “print under glass”). 

Effectively the attributes of the print format are also dictating those of digital publications, even though digital is an entirely different container.

What does the customer need?

The digital debate within the publishing industry has revolved around topics such as print vs digital (“is print dead?” or “is ebook adoption slowing?”) and the merits and pitfalls of various digital formats, platforms and enhanced content.  A fundamental question is being overlooked in this search for the optimal publishing strategy: what are the customer’s needs and how can content be packaged and delivered to meet them?

The following examples illustrate how the merits of different formats vary when considered from the perspective of customer needs: 

  • Fiction is generally read sequentially and therefore ideally suited to print.  Ebook versions are useful as an additional option in scenarios where the reader may be travelling with many weighty tomes. 
  • Reference publications are rarely read from cover to cover, therefore are more conducive to being presented as searchable online resources rather than ebook replicas of their print incarnations. 
  • Customers often only require pieces of content within a title or selections of content from multiple titles.  Online resources are also more useful in these scenarios as they can provide aggregation and personalisation functionality.
  • Beautiful print cookbooks or art books serve a dual purpose as both information products and objets d'art.  Apps are unlikely to supplant the latter use but can be more appropriate for aiding learning or practical application of content e.g. providing functionality for converting weights and calculating portions, accessing additional images, side bar information or zooming in on high resolution images.
  • Specific points within instructional materials, e.g. how to play the piano or perform a yoga pose, are often better conveyed using multimedia content.  Enhancement or enrichment can therefore add value and deliver the best of both worlds. 

Towards a customer centric approach

It is not simply a case of one or another format being preferable in all instances. 

The underlying content within a publication can be unpacked, repacked, packaged, and distributed in many different ways according to customer needs. 

Publishers (and authors) can achieve this by adopting a customer-centric (and ideally output-agnostic) mindset from the outset of a project. 

Delivering the right content in the right format at the right time will go a long way towards enabling publishers to remain relevant and even thrive in an environment of constant change. 


Our original call for "Five-Minute Manifestos" for The Future of the Book Business ahead of the FutureBook 2015 Conference brought out an extraordinarily robust response. You can see those manifestos here.

We're going on with more of them and invite you to consider contributing. Just drop a line to Porter.Anderson@thebookseller.com

Our most recently published manifestos are:

Main image - iStockphoto: PerkMeUp