From Printing Press to API: Book Publishers' Revolutionary Tools

Before 1500, monks spent their lives copying the Bible by hand. That method was replaced by printing presses for the next 500 years. Today, ebooks are set to end the practice of pulping trees and smearing them with ink. In all this change the direction of information access has been constant for half a millennium: faster and faster, easier and easier. The next revolution for publishers is APIs for books.

Hugh McGuire, writing on the site for the publisher O'Reilly gently spells out a new job description for an audience of professionals who were only a few years ago still relying on pen and parchment for editing. (As a publisher myself, I mean no insult; McGuire's nontechnical argument is appropriately aimed and skillfully done.) As he explains,

"If we start to think of “books as data,” then the traditional publisher’s role starts to sound a lot like the role of providing an API: A publisher’s job is to manage how and when and under what circumstances people (readers) or other services (book stores, libraries, other?) access books (data)."

But don't freak out. Think of these APIs as just new ways to create digital indexes, something we publishers do every day. Specifically, McGuire argues, publishers should make 'semantic maps" of their books that through APIs can allow readers to do a range of things. These include: take places that appear in a book and put them on a map, create lists of characters in a book complete with mini biographies, and much more.

McGuire, trying to make this both as painless as possible for those new to APIs and as compelling as possible, suggests that APIs simply help publishers do what they've done all along: get the information out there. The difference is we can free the reader from the constraints of the page, not only to graze as they see fit but to reconfigure the order and scope of what they are reading.

He gives examples of book APIs, including Dracula Dissected that takes Bram Stoker's novel and serves up information by character, date and location. Another example is, that "extracts definitional sentences from Simon and Schuster books and displays them as example sentences for dictionary entries."

As to how to accomplish this, McGuire says the tools are at hand, with outfits like PressBooks, that can take an index and create the APIs that app developers can use to help readers the world over.

Be sure to read the next Books article: 10 Most Popular APIs for Books for 2022