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January 16 2013

What tools do you use for information gathering and publishing?

Many apps claim to be the pinnacle of content consumption and distribution. Most are a tangle of silly names and bad interfaces, but some of these tools are useful. A few are downright empowering.

Finding those good ones is the tricky part. I queried O’Reilly colleagues to find out what they use and why, and that process offered a decent starting point. We put all our notes together into this public Hackpad — feel free to add to it. I also went through and plucked out some of the top choices. Those are posted below.

But I know I’m missing some good ones and that’s why I’m throwing this open for public discussion. Here’s what I want to know:

  • What are the information gathering, curation and publishing tools you use every week?
  • What do you like about these tools?
  • What would your ideal curation/publishing tool offer? How would it work?

Please weigh in through the comments.

A few picks from O’Reilly staff

Evernote — Notable features include collaborative editing on shared notebooks (in the premium version) and a Chrome extension that expands web searches to your Evernote archive.

News.me — This daily email selects top stories from your Twitter and Facebook networks. The kicker is that it really works. This is one of the few newsletters I always open. I usually click on something, too.

Spundge — “This feels like a tool for professionals,” noted Renee DiResta of OATV. “I can see this being very useful for diligence projects, especially for those I return to several months later and want to refresh.” Joe Wikert of TOC is also a fan.

November 11 2011

Publishing News: The standards of aggregation

Here are a few stories that caught my eye in the publishing space this week.

Jim Romenesko and the standards of aggregation

Quote.pngIn a bizarre turn of events, Jim Romenesko, the renowned blogger at Poynter who was on the brink of retirement, quit his post after Poynter ran a story about attribution inconsistencies in his writing — 12 years into his blog.

The Poynter post states:

Though information sources have always been displayed prominently in Jim's posts and are always linked at least once (often multiple times), too many of those posts also included the original author's verbatim language without containing his or her words in quotation marks, as they should have.

Calling Romenesko out raised eyebrows and ire. No one ever thought Romenesko was trying to take credit for others' work, but then again, some argue that aggregation should be held to journalistic standards. This is a much larger question than it may appear on the surface. Felix Salmon over at Reuters has a nice analysis on the issue and points out, "[Poynter's Julie] Moos is using the standards of original journalism, here, to judge a blogger who was never about original journalism." (He's referring to Moos' original post about the offending attribution errors and Poynter's guidelines.)

So, does aggregation require a new set of rules and standards, or should the traditional journalism guidelines apply? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Kobo gets new owners — and perhaps a larger playing field

Kobo.pngProbably the biggest industry news this week was the sale of Kobo to Japanese e-retailer Rakuten. The deal was summed up nicely in an All Things Digital headline: "The Amazon of Japan Buys the Kindle of Canada."

For Indigo, the majority shareholder in Kobo, the sale was about refocusing its core business. Brand strategist Anthony Campbell told the Globe and Mail:

Taking on Apple and Amazon and Google isn't just a distraction, it puts Indigo in a position where the brand would completely lose focus. By maintaining its focus, Indigo's better prepared to take on the likes of Target and other retailers who are trying to corner the lifestyle space.

For Kobo and Rakuten, the acquisition means expansion — for Kobo, geographic expansion; for Rakuten, market expansion. Michael Serbinis, Kobo's CEO, told the Wall Street Journal: "This is not a one-country game. Two-thirds of the book market is outside North America. We're going into countries where we will be No. 1." And according to All Things Digital, "[Rakuten] said the acquisition of Kobo will assist the company in its move to provide downloadable media to consumers, starting with e-books." Perhaps it won't be long before the "Japanese Amazon" is making a major play against the U.S. Amazon.

For more on the situation, there's a nice Q&A over at Canadian Business with Serbinis and Indigo CEO Heather Reisman about the sale and what comes next for both companies.

BISG study highlights the growth of ereading

BISGStudyCover.jpgThe Book Industry Study Group (BISG) is getting ready to release results from a new study that show the rapid growth of ereading. Highlights from the final survey in volume two of the "Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading" report include:

  • "... nearly 50% of print book consumers who have also acquired an e-book in the past 18 months would wait up to three months for the e-version of a book from a favorite author, rather than immediately read it in print."
  • "Amazon.com continues to be the preferred source for ebook acquisition (holding steady at 70%) and ebook information (44%). Barnes & Noble comes in second at 26%, with Apple in third."
  • "... although the cost of e-reading devices remains a reported concern, the single most popular answer to the question of what hinders respondents from reading more e-books was "nothing" at 33% (up from 17.6% a year ago)"

The full report is available for pre-order now. It will be published on November 21.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012 in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012

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August 24 2011

BookRiff: A marketplace for curators

BookRiffLogo.jpgEver want to compile your own cookbook, travel guide or textbook? Has your publisher edited out sections of your book you'd like to share with interested readers? Publishing startup BookRiff aims to solve these problems by creating new ways to access and compile content.

In the following interview, Rochelle Grayson, CEO of BookRiff, talks about how BookRiff works and how it can benefit publishers and consumers. She says her company is based on an open market concept, allowing publishers to sell the content they want at prices they set and consumers to buy and customize that content as they see fit.

BookRiff will be featured in the next TOC Sneak Peek webcast on August 25.

What is a "Riff"?

RochelleGrayson.jpgRochelle Grayson: A Riff is a remix of chapters from published books, essays, articles, or even one's own content. The concept behind BookRiff is to create an online platform that allows consumers and publishers to remix and to resell content, while ensuring that all original content owners and contributors get paid.

Who is the target audience for BookRiff?

Rochelle Grayson: BookRiff's target audience is "domain experts" who can curate — and perhaps even create — content that is of interest to a specific reading audience. This could include things like cookbooks, travel guides, extended "authors editions," and custom textbooks.

Can curators make their compilations (Riffs) available for purchase? If so, what's the cut? And how is money divvied up to the content owners?

Rochelle Grayson: Absolutely — in fact, we encourage curators to post and to market their Riffs to their social networks, audiences, and so forth. We have built ways for them to easily share their Riffs through these social channels, and we are building widgets to allow curators to promote their Riffs through their own websites and blogs.

In terms of the business model, we follow a standard agency business model, where the content owners set the price of the content and we split the revenues with them 30/70 — 30% goes to BookRiff, 70% goes to the content owners. For curators, or Riffers, we also have a Riffer commission, which is set by the content owner — we recommend a minimum of 5%. This means that when a Riffer sells a Riff, he would receive 5% of that content piece's price (or whatever % the content owner has agreed to pay). Assuming that every content owner in a Riff has agreed to 5%, the Riffer would receive 5% from the total sale price of the Riff, and BookRiff and the content owners would then split the remaining 95%, 30/70 as outlined above.

Can edits be made after a Riff is published?

Rochelle Grayson: Yes, once a Riff is published it can be "retired" and a new version with new edits can be uploaded to the system and sold. However, consumers who have purchased an earlier version will only have access to that earlier version. That said, the content owner can also sell the "edits" or "updates" separately to previous purchasers for an incremental price.

As a reader, how do I access a Riff?

Rochelle Grayson: During the purchase process, readers select the appropriate digital file for the ereader or application of their choice. Our files will be compatible with the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Adobe Digital Edition, as well as other ereading systems that support Adobe DRM. If the content is not DRM'd, as decided by the content owner, the Riff will be a standard EPUB file and will work on any ereader system that supports the EPUB format.

As a reader, can I share Riffs I purchase with other people?

Rochelle Grayson: At this time, we do not offer sharing for DRM'd Riffs. However, we are looking into ways of enabling this that work well for both content owners and readers. Non-DRM'd files, though, can be shared.

Can you share your launch schedule?

Rochelle Grayson: We will be launching at the end of September.

Expanding this a bit: Are we in a golden age for curators? And if so, how do you see curation evolving over the next five years?

Rochelle Grayson: It's definitely a golden age for curators. Over the next five years, the amount of published information will increase exponentially. It will become more difficult for readers to assess and to evaluate the quality and the relevance of a growing database of content. BookRiff aims to enable curators to participate in both the editorial and marketing process and to provide a valuable service as a human filter.

We want to facilitate a new kind of curatorial publishing that will reward not only the content owners and authors, but also the tastemakers and marketers who can further promote the most relevant content to broader and more distributed audiences. Social ecommerce, social marketing, and sharing are becoming critical to the success of any content marketplace.

What do you think is more important, access or ownership?

Rochelle Grayson: Our model is based on access to the specific content you want. We believe an open marketplace that allows publishers to sell their content at prices they set and also allows consumers to purchase and customize that content is a critical piece to making access ubiquitous. If consumers have access to purchased content whenever and wherever they want it, it may change the definition and expectations associated with "ownership."

This interview was edited and condensed.

Webcast: TOC Sneak Peek at BookRiff, LiquidText, and MagAppZine — Sneak Peeks are a TOC webcast series featuring a behind-the-scenes look at publishing start-ups and their products. Our next episode will feature presentations from BookRiff, LiquidText, and MagAppZine.

Join us on Thursday, August 25, 2011, at 10 am PT
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May 31 2011

News organizations still party like it's 1899

MobyDick.pngBen Huh (@benhuh), CEO of the Cheezburger, Inc., loves his Cheezburger project, but he's also ready to have a fling with news. In a recent blog post, Huh addressed the stagnant state of news presentation and consumption, which he's hoping to address with his new project Moby Dick.

In the post he described how news sites are not embracing new technology or exploring new ways to report and present the news:

The limited amount of space on news homepages and their outmoded method of presentation poses big problems for the distribution of news as well as consumption by the public. Even though it's been more than 15 years since the Internet became a news destination, journalists and editors are still trapped in the print and TV world of message delivery.

The traditional methods of news-writing, such as the reverse pyramid, and the various "editions" of news, pose big limitations on how news is reported and consumed. Unfortunately, Internet-based changes such as reverse-chronological blogging of news, inability to archive yesterday's news, poor commenting quality, live-blogging, and others have made news consumption an even more frustrating experience.

Because it's easy to find news outlets that are doing it wrong, I reached out to Huh via email for his thoughts on news organizations that are headed in the right direction. Our short interview follows.

If one of journalism's problems is digital presentation, who is doing it right?

Ben Huh: I love that MSNBC is trying out new ideas and new formats. Not everything works, but it's the trial and error that will help come up with answers. The Huffington Post's Big News pages are interesting, but are still limited to the old blog format. I do love Techmeme, and they do a wonderful job of curation.

MSNBC screen shot
Screenshot of an MSNBC article page.

Why is the current news consumption experience worse than it was five years ago?

Ben Huh: We get news from a wide range of sources, including blogs and social media. That's obvious. We also have to deal with a much murkier line between articles, editorial and advertising. We also have photos and videos that come in huge numbers and our ability to consume has increased dramatically.

Do you think the "article," as a form, needs to be reinvented?

Ben Huh: I think it should be augmented and, in some cases, tossed out entirely. It will take a long time for us to get used to this if it happens.

Webcast: What Do eReader Customers Really, Really Want? — In an encore performance of one of TOC NY's most popular sessions, Michael Tamblyn will cover reader trends learned from the Kobo platform.

Join us on Thursday, June 2, 2011, at 10 am PT
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May 27 2011

Publishing News: Curation for the Kindle

Here are some of this week's highlights from the publishing world. (Note: These stories were published here on Radar throughout the week.)

Web content curation welcomed a new platform — your Kindle

DelivereadsA new project called Delivereads curates interesting content from around the web and delivers it to your Kindle, via your Kindle email address. At the time of this writing, Delivereads was sending out selections like GQ's "Out on the Ice," The Atlantic's "The Lazarus File," Washington Monthly's "The Information Sage," and Time's "Zach Galifianakis Hates to Be Loved."

In an email interview, Delivereads founder Dave Pell (@davepell) talked about the project's origin:

Everyone who worked on the product, including designer Brian Moco and developer Alex King of Crowd Favorite, did so for free because they were excited about the idea and are subscribing to it themselves.

  • This story continues here.

Pete Meyers on how "Welcome to Pine Point" creates a truly digital reading experience not mired in nor based on print

I've been writing about and helping create digital books for about 15 years now and I don't think I've seen anything as innovative, as well executed, and as plain lovely to look at as "Welcome to Pine Point." No disrespect to the great work done by teams at Push Pop (Our Choice), Touch Press (The Elements), or Potion (NYPL Biblion), but all those projects take the print page as the starting point and ask: how can we best recreate that reading experience onscreen?

"Pine Point," instead, is an example of something that couldn't exist in any other medium. Its creators describe it as "part book, part film, part website," which sounds about right; it mixes audio, video, still photos, prose, and movable images to tell the story of a Canadian town that was abandoned, and then demolished, in the late 1980s. But as most people reading this blog know: that multimedia stew's been cooked before.

PinePoint
Title page for Welcome to Pine Point. Click to enlarge.

So why is "Pine Point" such a success?

Quality, for starters. The team behind this project — Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, aka The Goggles — have sweated the details on how to integrate all those various media elements in a viewer-friendly way, one that immerses the audience in the story. A story that, not incidentally, touches on themes (abandonment, aging, environmentalism) moving enough to reward the time it takes — about 30 minutes — to watch it.

  • This story continues here.



George Oates on how a minimum viable record could improve library catalogs and information systems


MVRAt first blush, bibliographic data seems like it would be a fairly straightforward thing: author, title, publisher, publication date. But that's really just the beginning of the sorts of data tracked in library catalogs. There's also a variety of metadata standards and information classification systems that need to be addressed.

The Open Library has run into these complexities and challenges as it seeks to create "one web page for every book ever published."

George Oates, Open Library lead, recently gave a presentation in which she surveyed audience members, asking them to list the five fields they thought necessary to adequately describe a book. In other words, what constitutes a "minimum viable record"? Akin to the idea of the "minimum viable product" for getting a web project coded and deployed quickly, the minimum viable record (MVR) could be a way to facilitate an easier exchange of information between library catalogs and information systems.

In the interview below, Oates explains the issues and opportunities attached to categorization and MVRs.

What are some of the challenges that libraries and archives face when compiling and comparing records?

George Oates: I think the challenges for compilation and comparison of records rest in different styles, and the innate human need to collect, organize, and describe the things around us. As Barbara Tillett noted in a 2004 paper: "Once you have a collection of over say 2,000 items, a human being can no longer remember every item and needs a system to help find things."

I was struck by an article I saw on a site called Apartment Therapy, about "10 Tiny Gardens," where the author surveyed extremely different decorations and outputs within remarkable constraints. That same concept can be dropped into cataloging, where even in the old days, when librarians described books within the boundaries of a physical index card, great variation still occurred. Trying to describe a book on a 3x5 card is oddly reductionist.

It's precisely this practice that's produced this "diabolical rationality" of library metadata that Karen Coyle describes [slide No. 38]. We're not designed to be rational like this, all marching to the same descriptive drum, even though these mythical levels of control and uniformity are still claimed. It seems to be a human imperative to stretch ontological boundaries and strive for greater levels of detail.

Some specific categorization challenges are found in the way people's names are cataloged. There's the very simple difference between "Lastname, Firstname" and "Firstname Lastname" or the myriad "disambiguators" that can help tell two authors with the same name apart — like a middle initial, a birthdate, title, common name, etc.

There are also challenges attached to the normal evolution of language, and a particular classification's ability to keep up. An example is the recent introduction of the word "cooking" as an official Library of Congress Subject Heading. "Cooking" supersedes "Cookery," so now you have to make sure all the records you have in your catalog that previously referred to "Cookery" now know about this newfangled "Cooking" word. This process is something of a ouroboros, although it's certainly made easier now that mass updates are possible with software.

A useful contrast to all this is the way tagging on Flickr was never controlled (even though several Flickr members crusaded for various patterns). Now, even from this chaos, order emerges. On Flickr it's now possible to find photos of red graffiti on walls in Brooklyn, all through tags. Using metadata "native" to a digital photograph, like the date it was taken, and various camera details, you can focus even deeper, to find photos taken with a Nikon in the winter of 2008. Even though that's awesome, I'm sure it rankles professionals since Flickr also has a bunch of photos that have no tags at all.

  • This story continues here.
Webcast: SneakPeek at Publishing Startups — SneakPeeks are a TOC webcast series featuring a behind-the-scenes look at publishing startups and their products. The inaugural SneakPeek webcast includes presentations from 24symbols, Valobox, Appitude, Active Reader and OnSwipe.

Join us on Tuesday, May 31, 2011, at 10 am PT
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May 26 2011

Delivereads curates content for your Kindle

DelivereadsA new project called Delivereads curates interesting content from around the web and delivers it to your Kindle, via your Kindle email address. At the time of this writing, Delivereads was sending out selections like GQ's "Out on the Ice," The Atlantic's "The Lazarus File," Washington Monthly's "The Information Sage," and Time's "Zach Galifianakis Hates to Be Loved."

In an email interview, Delivereads founder Dave Pell (@davepell) talked about the project's origin:

Everyone who worked on the product, including designer Brian Moco and developer Alex King of Crowd Favorite, did so for free because they were excited about the idea and are subscribing to it themselves.

The rest of our interview follows.


How are Deliveread articles curated, and who curates them?

Dave Pell: I do all the curation. I've been finding and sharing web content for more than a decade on blogs, in newsletters, and via Twitter. I've also started to get a lot of user submissions, which makes the process easier and a lot more interesting.

How does the web app work?

Dave Pell: The app is really only something that I use to tie the articles together into one delivery and give folks a simple table of contents so they can read articles in the order they choose. From a subscriber's perspective, you're just getting document emails sent to your Kindle address.

Should users be concerned about providing their Kindle email addresses — how is that data stored and how will it be used or shared?

Dave Pell: Users should not be concerned about sharing their Kindle email addresses for a couple key reasons. First, in order for anyone to send an email to one's Kindle, the sending address first needs to be added to that person's Kindle Approved Email Address list. In other words, if a sender is not whitelisted, they can't send an email to your Kindle address, period. This makes signing up for Delivereads a two-step process (submit Kindle email address, whitelist my sending address), but it's nice and secure for the subscriber. Second, I've been sending out newsletters, etc., for years, and I never share anyone's address or use it for anything other than what they signed up for.

Have you run into any publisher concerns about reformatting articles?

Dave Pell: I haven't heard any concerns. There are quite a few ways to read articles where you want and how you want these days. I'm not sure Delivereads is breaking any new ground there. It's really about curation. Also, it's a passion project. I don't have a revenue model. It's all about getting great writing in front of people who appreciate it.


Webcast: SneakPeek at Publishing Startups — SneakPeeks are a TOC webcast series featuring a behind-the-scenes look at publishing startups and their products. The inaugural SneakPeek webcast includes presentations from 24symbols, Valobox, Appitude, Active Reader and OnSwipe.


Join us on Tuesday, May 31, 2011, at 10 am PT


Register for this free webcast



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February 18 2011

An era in which to curate skills: report from Tools of Change conference

Three days of intensive
discussion about the current state of publishing
wrapped up last
night in New York City. Let's take a tour from start to end.

If I were to draw one point from the first session I attended, I would
say that metadata is a key competitive point for publishers. First,
facts such as who has reviewed a book, how many editions it has been
through, and other such things we call "metadata" can be valuable to
readers and institutions you want to sell content to. Second, it can
be valuable to you internally as part of curation (which I'll get to
later). Basically, metadata makes content far more useful. But it's
so tedious to add and to collate with other content's metadata that
few people out in the field bother to add it. Publishers are
well-placed to do it because they have the resources to pay people for
that unappreciated task.

If I were to leap to the other end of the conference and draw one
point from the closing keynotes, I would say that the key to survival
is to start with the determination that you're going to win, and to
derive your strategy from that. The closing keynoters offered a couple
strategies along those lines.


Kathy Sierra
claimed she started her href="http://oreilly.com/store/series/headfirst.html">Head First
series with no vision loftier than to make money and beat the
competition. The key to sales, as she has often explained in her
talks and articles on "Creating Passionate Users," is not to promote
the author or the topic but to promote what the reader could become.

href="http://www.toccon.com/toc2011/public/schedule/detail/17571">Ben
Huh of I Can Has
Cheezburger
said that one must plan a book to be a bestseller, the
way car or appliance manufacturers plan to meet the demands of their
buyers.

Thus passed the start and end of this conference. A lot happened in
between. I'll cover a few topics in this blog.

Skills for a future publishing

There clearly is an undercurrent of worry, if not actual panic, in
publishing. We see what is happening to newspapers, we watch our
markets shrink like those of the music and television industries, and
we check our own balance sheets as Borders Books slides into
bankruptcy. I cannot remember another conference where I heard, as I
did this week, the leader of a major corporation air doubts from the
podium about the future of her company and her career.

Many speakers combatted this sense of helplessness, of course, but
their advice often came across as, "Everything is going haywire and
you can't possibly imagine what the field will look like in a few
years, so just hang on and go with the flow. And by the way,
completely overturn your workflows and revamp your skill sets."

Nevertheless, I repeatedly heard references to four classic skills
that still rule in the field of publishing. These skills were always
important and will remain important, but they have to shift and in
some ways to merge.

Two of these skills are research and sales. Although one was usually
expected to do research on the market and topic before writing and do
sales afterward, the talks by Sierra, Huh, and others suggested that
these are continuous activities, and hard to separate. The big buzz in
all the content industries is about getting closer to one's audience.
There is never a start and end to the process.

The consensus is that casual exploitation of social
networking--sending out postings and updates and trying to chat with
readers online--won't sell your content. Your readers are a market and
must be researched like one: using surveys, statistical analysis, and
so on. This news can be a relief to the thousands of authors who feel
guilty (and perhaps are made to feel guilty by their publishers)
because they don't get pleasure from reporting things on Facebook
ranging from the breakfast cereal they ate to their latest brilliant
insight. But the question of how bring one's audience into one's
project--a topic I'll refer to as crowdsourcing and cover later--is a
difficult one.

Authoring and curation are even more fundamental skills. Curation has
traditionally meant just making sure assets are safe, uncorrupted, and
ready for use, but it has broadened (particularly in the href="http://www.toccon.com/toc2011/public/schedule/detail/18000">keynote
by Steve Rosenbaum) to include gathering information, filtering
and tagging it, and generally understanding what's useful to different
audiences. This has always been a publisher's role. In the age of
abundant digital content, the gathering and filtering functions can
dwarf the editorial side of publishing. Thus, although Thomson Reuters
has enormous resources of their own, they also generate value by href="http://www.toccon.com/toc2011/public/schedule/detail/17827">
tracking the assets of many other organizations.

When working with other people's material, curation, authoring, and
editing all start to merge. Perhaps organizing other people's work
into a meaningful sequence is as valuable as authoring one's own. In
short, curation adds value in ways that are different from authoring
but increasingly valid.

Capitalizing on the old

I am not ready to change my business cards from saying "Editor" to
"Curator" because that would make it look like I'm presiding over a
museum. Indeed, I fear that many publishers are dragged down by their
legacy holdings, which may go back a hundred years or more. I talked
to one publisher who felt like his time was mostly taken up with huge
holdings of classics that had been converted to digital form, and he
was struggling to find time just to learn how his firm could add the
kinds of interactivity, multimedia, links, and other enhancements that
people at the show were saying these digital works deserved.

We hope that no publishers will end up as museums, but some may have
to survive by partnering with newer, more limber companies that grok
the digital age better, rather as the publisher of T.S. Eliot's
classic poem The Waste Land partnered with Touch Press, the
new imprint set up by Wolfram Research and discussed in a href="http://www.toccon.com/toc2011/public/schedule/detail/17732">keynote
by Theodore Gray. Readers will expect more than plain old rendered
text from their glittery devices, and Gray's immensely successful book
The Elements (which brought to life some very classic content, the
periodic table) shows one model for giving them what they want.

Two polar extremes

Gray defined his formula for success as one of bringing together top
talent in every field, rather as Hollywood film-makers do. Gray claims
to bring together "real authors" (meaning people with extraordinary
perspectives to offer), video producers with top industry
qualifications, and programmers whose skills go beyond the ordinary.

I can't fault Gray's formula--in fact, Head First follows the same
model by devoting huge resources to each book and choosing its topics
carefully to sell well--but if it was the only formula for success,
the book industry would put out a few hundred products each year like
Hollywood does. Gray did not offer this economic analysis himself, but
it's the only way I see it working financially. Not only would this
shift squelch the thousands of quirky niche offerings that make
publishing a joy at present, I don't consider it sustainable. How will
the next generation of top producers mature and experiment? If there
is no business model to support the long tail, they'll never develop
the skills needed in Gray's kind of business.

Business models are also a problem at the other extreme,
crowdsourcing. Everybody would like to draw on the insights of
readers. We've learned from popular books such as
The Wisdom of
Crowds
and Wikinomics that our
public has valuable things to say, and our own works grow in value if
we mine them adeptly. There are innumerable conversations going on out
there, on the forums and the rating sites, and the social networks,
and publishers want to draw those conversations into the book. The
problem is that our customers are very happy on the communities they
have created themselves, and while they will drop in on our site to
rate a product or correct an error, they won't create the digital
equivalent of Paris's nineteenth-century cafe culture for us.

Because I have been fascinated for years by online information sharing
and have href="http://www.praxagora.com/community_documentation/">researched it
a fair amount, I made use of the conference in the appropriate way
by organizing a roundtable for anyone who was interested under the
subject, "Can crowdsourcing coexist with monetization?" Some of the
projects the participants discussed included:

  • A book review site that pays experts for reviews, and then opens up
    the site to the public for their comments. This approach uses
    high-quality content to attract more content.

  • O'Reilly's own Answers
    site
    , which works similarly by sharing authors' ideas as well as
    excerpts from their books and draws postings from readers.

  • A site for baby product recommendations, put up by the publisher of
    books on parenting. The publisher has succeeded in drawing large
    groups of avid participants, and has persuaded volunteers to moderate
    the site for free. But it hasn't taken the next steps, such as
    generating useful content for its own books from readers, or finding
    ways to expand into information for parents of older children so the
    publisher can keep them on the site.

  • Offering a site for teachers to share educational materials and
    improve their curricula. In this case, the publisher is not interested
    in monetizing the content, but the participants use the site to
    improve their careers.

In between the premium offerings of Touch Press and the resale of
crowdsourced material lies a wide spectrum of things publishers can
do. At all points on the spectrum, though, traditional business
models are challenged.

The one strategic move that was emphasized in session after session
was to move our digital content to standards. EPUB, HTML 5, and other
standards are evolving and growing (sometimes beyond the scope, it
seems, of any human being to grasp the whole). If we use these
formats, we can mix and mingle our content with others, and thus take
advantage of partnerships, crowdsourcing, and new devices and
distribution opportunities.

Three gratifying trends

Trends can feel like they're running against us in the publishing
industry. But I heard of three trends that should make us feel good:
reading is on the increase, TV watching is on the decrease (which will
make you happy if you agree with such analysts as Jerry Mander and
Neil Postman), and people want portability--the right to read their
purchases on any device. The significance of the last push is that it
will lead to more openness and more chances for the rich environment
of information exchange that generates new media and ideas. We're in a
fertile era, and the first assets we need to curate are our own
skills.

An era in which to curate skills: report from Tools of Change conference

Three days of intensive
discussion about the current state of publishing
wrapped up last
night in New York City. Let's take a tour from start to end.

If I were to draw one point from the first session I attended, I would
say that metadata is a key competitive point for publishers. First,
facts such as who has reviewed a book, how many editions it has been
through, and other such things we call "metadata" can be valuable to
readers and institutions you want to sell content to. Second, it can
be valuable to you internally as part of curation (which I'll get to
later). Basically, metadata makes content far more useful. But it's
so tedious to add and to collate with other content's metadata that
few people out in the field bother to add it. Publishers are
well-placed to do it because they have the resources to pay people for
that unappreciated task.

If I were to leap to the other end of the conference and draw one
point from the closing keynotes, I would say that the key to survival
is to start with the determination that you're going to win, and to
derive your strategy from that. The closing keynoters offered a couple
strategies along those lines.


Kathy Sierra
claimed she started her href="http://oreilly.com/store/series/headfirst.html">Head First
series with no vision loftier than to make money and beat the
competition. The key to sales, as she has often explained in her
talks and articles on "Creating Passionate Users," is not to promote
the author or the topic but to promote what the reader could become.

href="http://www.toccon.com/toc2011/public/schedule/detail/17571">Ben
Huh of I Can Has
Cheezburger
said that one must plan a book to be a bestseller, the
way car or appliance manufacturers plan to meet the demands of their
buyers.

Thus passed the start and end of this conference. A lot happened in
between. I'll cover a few topics in this blog.

Skills for a future publishing

There clearly is an undercurrent of worry, if not actual panic, in
publishing. We see what is happening to newspapers, we watch our
markets shrink like those of the music and television industries, and
we check our own balance sheets as Borders Books slides into
bankruptcy. I cannot remember another conference where I heard, as I
did this week, the leader of a major corporation air doubts from the
podium about the future of her company and her career.

Many speakers combatted this sense of helplessness, of course, but
their advice often came across as, "Everything is going haywire and
you can't possibly imagine what the field will look like in a few
years, so just hang on and go with the flow. And by the way,
completely overturn your workflows and revamp your skill sets."

Nevertheless, I repeatedly heard references to four classic skills
that still rule in the field of publishing. These skills were always
important and will remain important, but they have to shift and in
some ways to merge.

Two of these skills are research and sales. Although one was usually
expected to do research on the market and topic before writing and do
sales afterward, the talks by Sierra, Huh, and others suggested that
these are continuous activities, and hard to separate. The big buzz in
all the content industries is about getting closer to one's audience.
There is never a start and end to the process.

The consensus is that casual exploitation of social
networking--sending out postings and updates and trying to chat with
readers online--won't sell your content. Your readers are a market and
must be researched like one: using surveys, statistical analysis, and
so on. This news can be a relief to the thousands of authors who feel
guilty (and perhaps are made to feel guilty by their publishers)
because they don't get pleasure from reporting things on Facebook
ranging from the breakfast cereal they ate to their latest brilliant
insight. But the question of how bring one's audience into one's
project--a topic I'll refer to as crowdsourcing and cover later--is a
difficult one.

Authoring and curation are even more fundamental skills. Curation has
traditionally meant just making sure assets are safe, uncorrupted, and
ready for use, but it has broadened (particularly in the href="http://www.toccon.com/toc2011/public/schedule/detail/18000">keynote
by Steve Rosenbaum) to include gathering information, filtering
and tagging it, and generally understanding what's useful to different
audiences. This has always been a publisher's role. In the age of
abundant digital content, the gathering and filtering functions can
dwarf the editorial side of publishing. Thus, although Thomson Reuters
has enormous resources of their own, they also generate value by href="http://www.toccon.com/toc2011/public/schedule/detail/17827">
tracking the assets of many other organizations.

When working with other people's material, curation, authoring, and
editing all start to merge. Perhaps organizing other people's work
into a meaningful sequence is as valuable as authoring one's own. In
short, curation adds value in ways that are different from authoring
but increasingly valid.

Capitalizing on the old

I am not ready to change my business cards from saying "Editor" to
"Curator" because that would make it look like I'm presiding over a
museum. Indeed, I fear that many publishers are dragged down by their
legacy holdings, which may go back a hundred years or more. I talked
to one publisher who felt like his time was mostly taken up with huge
holdings of classics that had been converted to digital form, and he
was struggling to find time just to learn how his firm could add the
kinds of interactivity, multimedia, links, and other enhancements that
people at the show were saying these digital works deserved.

We hope that no publishers will end up as museums, but some may have
to survive by partnering with newer, more limber companies that grok
the digital age better, rather as the publisher of T.S. Eliot's
classic poem The Waste Land partnered with Touch Press, the
new imprint set up by Wolfram Research and discussed in a href="http://www.toccon.com/toc2011/public/schedule/detail/17732">keynote
by Theodore Gray. Readers will expect more than plain old rendered
text from their glittery devices, and Gray's immensely successful book
The Elements (which brought to life some very classic content, the
periodic table) shows one model for giving them what they want.

Two polar extremes

Gray defined his formula for success as one of bringing together top
talent in every field, rather as Hollywood film-makers do. Gray claims
to bring together "real authors" (meaning people with extraordinary
perspectives to offer), video producers with top industry
qualifications, and programmers whose skills go beyond the ordinary.

I can't fault Gray's formula--in fact, Head First follows the same
model by devoting huge resources to each book and choosing its topics
carefully to sell well--but if it was the only formula for success,
the book industry would put out a few hundred products each year like
Hollywood does. Gray did not offer this economic analysis himself, but
it's the only way I see it working financially. Not only would this
shift squelch the thousands of quirky niche offerings that make
publishing a joy at present, I don't consider it sustainable. How will
the next generation of top producers mature and experiment? If there
is no business model to support the long tail, they'll never develop
the skills needed in Gray's kind of business.

Business models are also a problem at the other extreme,
crowdsourcing. Everybody would like to draw on the insights of
readers. We've learned from popular books such as
The Wisdom of
Crowds
and Wikinomics that our
public has valuable things to say, and our own works grow in value if
we mine them adeptly. There are innumerable conversations going on out
there, on the forums and the rating sites, and the social networks,
and publishers want to draw those conversations into the book. The
problem is that our customers are very happy on the communities they
have created themselves, and while they will drop in on our site to
rate a product or correct an error, they won't create the digital
equivalent of Paris's nineteenth-century cafe culture for us.

Because I have been fascinated for years by online information sharing
and have href="http://www.praxagora.com/community_documentation/">researched it
a fair amount, I made use of the conference in the appropriate way
by organizing a roundtable for anyone who was interested under the
subject, "Can crowdsourcing coexist with monetization?" Some of the
projects the participants discussed included:

  • A book review site that pays experts for reviews, and then opens up
    the site to the public for their comments. This approach uses
    high-quality content to attract more content.

  • O'Reilly's own Answers
    site
    , which works similarly by sharing authors' ideas as well as
    excerpts from their books and draws postings from readers.

  • A site for baby product recommendations, put up by the publisher of
    books on parenting. The publisher has succeeded in drawing large
    groups of avid participants, and has persuaded volunteers to moderate
    the site for free. But it hasn't taken the next steps, such as
    generating useful content for its own books from readers, or finding
    ways to expand into information for parents of older children so the
    publisher can keep them on the site.

  • Offering a site for teachers to share educational materials and
    improve their curricula. In this case, the publisher is not interested
    in monetizing the content, but the participants use the site to
    improve their careers.

In between the premium offerings of Touch Press and the resale of
crowdsourced material lies a wide spectrum of things publishers can
do. At all points on the spectrum, though, traditional business
models are challenged.

The one strategic move that was emphasized in session after session
was to move our digital content to standards. EPUB, HTML 5, and other
standards are evolving and growing (sometimes beyond the scope, it
seems, of any human being to grasp the whole). If we use these
formats, we can mix and mingle our content with others, and thus take
advantage of partnerships, crowdsourcing, and new devices and
distribution opportunities.

Three gratifying trends

Trends can feel like they're running against us in the publishing
industry. But I heard of three trends that should make us feel good:
reading is on the increase, TV watching is on the decrease (which will
make you happy if you agree with such analysts as Jerry Mander and
Neil Postman), and people want portability--the right to read their
purchases on any device. The significance of the last push is that it
will lead to more openness and more chances for the rich environment
of information exchange that generates new media and ideas. We're in a
fertile era, and the first assets we need to curate are our own
skills.

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