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June 13 2011

How one publisher uses "aggressive marketing"

OpenRoadLogo.pngLast month, Jane Friedman landed $8 million in equity financing for her digital publishing company Open Road Integrated Media. In a recent NPR interview, Friedman talked about the company's business model, with 50/50 profit splits for authors and a focus on digitally publishing backlist titles. Friedman noted that "aggressive marketing" is the key to the company's success.

What does aggressive marketing involve? The NPR piece hinted at a few elements:

Open Road backs its titles with aggressive multi-platform marketing campaigns, making creative use of the Web, social media and video. The company produces short documentaries to promote its authors.

For more on what aggressive marketing entails and how the campaigns are handled, I turned to Open Road's chief marketing officer Rachel Chou. Our short email interview follows.

What does "aggressive marketing" mean?

RachelChou.pngRachel Chou: Aggressive marketing means marketing throughout the term of contract and not just at the book's launch. It also means balancing real-time marketing vs planned marketing. We build quarterly marketing plans for every author or publishing partner and continue to think of new themes, topics or pitches.

What kinds of resources are used to market titles?

Rachel Chou: Each author is assigned a marketing lead who builds out the quarterly plans. We use online advertising, social media ads, video and photo distribution, content partnerships, as well as traditional publicity. In addition, we listen to the social media and online conversations with all the available tools, like TweetDeck, Facebook, and Google alerts.

Being ready to add high-quality content to a conversation that has just gotten started online has become essential. Real-time marketing vs planned long-term marketing is the most dramatic shift in digital marketing.

How long does a marketing campaign last?

Rachel Chou: Our author campaigns go on for the term of contract. If we publish an author, we are committed to having their brand be part of the conversation. Short-term campaigns are added, such as National Library Week or our upcoming summer reading campaign, but those are supplemental to our author campaigns.


Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup — Pete Meyers looks at the growing number of digital book tools: what's best, what's easiest to use, and what's worth putting in your book-building toolkit.


Join us on Thursday, June 30, 2011, at 10 am PT


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Related:


May 26 2011

Part book, part film, part website

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)


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.

Title page for Welcome to Pine Point
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.

I'll highlight below some features that make the work especially noteworthy, but I urge you to have a look for yourself. It's Flash, so no go for Apple's mobile gadgets. But, please, don't let that scare you off. And, hey, one other suggestion: don't try gulping this one down between meetings or while on a conference call. Wake up early one of these days or watch after the kids have gone to bed. Like any great book, it rewards attention and suffers from skimming.

Creator-led reading path

The impulse to hand over navigational control to readers in a digital book is considerable. After all, the web gave us the thrill of wandering across its endless terrain ...and who hasn't delighted in that? But books are different. Part of their appeal — especially those that tell stories — is how they offer a "sit-back" experience for readers. We follow, entranced, the author's tale; our only job as audience is turning the page. Tarting up a story with links to Wikipedia, "enhancements" that launch other apps, and anything else that requires the reader to decide what to explore — none of these things are in and of themselves bad; they just don't induce that magical feeling of losing yourself in a book.

And what you get when viewing "Pine Point" is exactly that. Thanks to the authors' decisions on what not to include, on how to arrange this picture next to that bit of prose, on how to compose a tightly scripted narrative ... they've betrayed every 21st century notion of reader-as-director and in exchange given us something precious: a polished vision that only happens when an artist labors and creates.

Now, that doesn't mean there are no bells, whistles and clickable lures in this work (more on those baubles in a moment); but the viewer is only invited to explore in ways that, to me, matched how my eye might linger on a rich and complexly designed print page.

Reader-controlled pacing

Movies proceed at whatever pace the director decides. A book, by contrast, puts the reader in charge of pacing. You can pause at any point to digest some surprising revelation, or re-read a passage that didn't quite register or moved you deeply. "Pine Point," it's true, is a kind of book/film/website hybrid. But where it feels most "book-like" to me is the way it's been designed to let the reader determine the speed at which he moves through the material.

Minimal interactivity

Everything, in other words, is not clickable — only the stuff that benefits from reader inspection (e.g. playing a video, click-turning a platter of buttons to explore what's on their backside). For everything else, the designers have made the great choice to minimize distraction and user anxiety by not littering the screen with "Hey!, Yo! Click me!" options.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup — Pete Meyers looks at the growing number of digital book tools: what's best, what's easiest to use, and what's worth putting in your book-building toolkit.

Join us on Thursday, June 30, 2011, at 10 am PT
Register for this free webcast

Soundtrack

You know how, in a great movie, the score becomes part of the film in a way that's practically inseparable from the visuals and whatever the actors are saying? You don't notice the music because it's blended with all those other elements. Meanwhile the quality (even if you know nothing about sound design) matches the rest of what's onscreen. That's what you get in "Pine Point": a serious, contemplative, mood-setting score (courtesy of The Besnard Lakes). It's mesmerizing.

Video headshots

So maybe The Goggles guys didn't come up with this one on their own. I've seen it done elsewhere on the web and football fans will recognize it from the player/stat profiles in most big time games: the headshot that's not a still, but rather uses video. The effect is as instructive as it is unsettling: you watch the person and it's not exactly that they're squirming, but their face moves — an eye twitches or wanders; a finger comes up to scratch the face; lips get wetted. All told, you learn something more, something different, in these video portraits than you do in a normal headshot.

Custom-drawn UI

There's a definite visual theme — call it something like Nostalgic Scrapbook — throughout this work. And by spending the extra time to hand craft control elements ("page next" and "Go" buttons, menu trees, and so on), the designers have made sure that no visual intrusions occur, as would be the case if the stock Adobe controls were visible.

Graceful integration of text and images

This one rarely get done well, in my opinion. And you don't have to be a typography geek to notice what's easy to botch: as prose, pictures, and video mingle in digital books there's a certain amateur quality to things like font selection and positioning. What the "Pine Point" designers have done right is settled on a thematically consistent font, crafted a nice background for each phrase (to ensure visibility on the widely ranging videos and pix upon which the text is superimposed), and laid each block down with line breaks and alignment that's suggestive of the poetry that this writing aspires to. It's wonderful to read, it's lovely to look at, and it meshes perfectly with the visuals that accompany it.

Text and images integrated harmoniously
Text and images integrated harmoniously. Click to enlarge

Looping videos

If a page appears with a video queued up and waiting, readers need to lean forward and press play. That leads to the problem I touched on earlier: audiences like authors to "drive"; they're used to not having to make any decisions beyond turning the page. But then there's the flipside risk: if you present a viewer with a video on auto-start: a) if it's annoying you're gonna alienate the viewer, and b) what do you do when the video stops?

There's a kind of fluid continuity — a momentum — to books that can easily get disrupted if you reach the end of, say, a one-minute video and it just shuts off. So the "Pine Point" creators make the risky but ultimately successful decision to play their videos in an endless loop. What you'll notice, though, if you look closely at the start/restart seams, is the care they've taken to choose these points for maximum continuity. The effect of these video loops is that they contribute to the work's overall mesmerizing quality ... you can linger on a page and even forget you're seeing the same thing over and over.

Beautiful writing

From start to finish: it's spare, finely crafted, and consistent with the elegiac visual tone. Lovely.

Exploration encouraged ... within limits

I know, I know: I just got finished writing about how reader-controlled exploration is poison to the book-reading experience. But we're talking about a web-based book here for pete's sake, so maybe a teensy bit of well-crafted, carefully selected, and browsing-within-close-boundaries is ok? Okay. One of the best instances can be found in the Shelf Life section. It's a grid of looping videos, each of which you can click to play.

Grid of continuously looping videos
Grid of continuously looping videos. Click to enlarge


You'll see how smoothly the play action is when you switch between videos: no lag, no jarring audio break ... the sound of one gently gives way to the sound of the next. No pop-up window or different media player launches to break the spell of the book that you're within. It's all perfectly immersive.

Side-by-side videos

For example: the opening frame of the What's Weird section. It's a comparison between 1987 (left) and 2009 (right).

Grid of continuously looping videos
Side-by-side videos showing before-and-after scenes of Pine Point. Click to enlarge

It's a powerful way of depicting before and after, with the left video underscoring the point that life was teeming back then and the right side showing how, today, it's a desolate and abandoned site.

Source document integration

This one's also in the What's Weird section, about four screens in. (Okay, I've done enough gushing to lodge one complaint: they need to come up with a better way to cite individual pages.) Here we see memos from the government announcing the town's closing. Without any annotations these documents contain too much text to focus on what's important. The solution? Highlight the key points in yellow so the viewer can home in on the key points.

Grid of continuously looping videos
Key passages highlighted in yellow. Click to enlarge


Enough telling. Go, watch it yourself. See what digital books can do that can't be done in print and still satisfy that reading experience that all of us book fans crave.

P.S.: Just learned a bit more about The Goggles' production partners in this effort: the interactive division of the National Film Board of Canada. Looks like they've got a bunch of neat projects on their site.



Related:


May 16 2011

Marginalia is still alive in the digital world

Openmargin.png The New York Times recently featured an article bemoaning the death of marginalia at the hand of digital publishing. Referencing a post by Joe Wikert, I wrote about how creating a solution to a problem is usually more effective — and difficult — than simply pointing out an issue or assuming there's no recourse.

There are, of course, solutions to the digital marginalia obstacle, and a startup in the Netherlands has brought one to the table. The creators of Openmargin are readying an iPad app for review at Apple's App Store that allows readers to add personal notes to digital text in a communal-type setting. So, book groups can make notes together and readers can discover other like-minded readers.

In an email interview, Joep Kuijper (@joepkuijper), co-founder of Openmargin, talked about their new app and how Openmargin works. Kuijper said they are just finishing up beta testing and expect to submit the app to Apple in the next couple of weeks. Our interview follows, as does a video demo of the application.

How does Openmargin work?

Joep Kuijper: People are already using the margin of a book to add personal notes to the original text. With ebooks, it's possible to make this margin into an open margin, an open space where the readers of the same books share their notes with each other. To this end, we developed the Openmargin app for the iPad, with a reading environment where readers can highlight passages. When readers tap on a passage, they enter the open margin, where they can leave a note and explore those of others.

Through Openmargin, readers also can discover like-minded people. Discovery is based on a thematic match with the specific sentences in the text that have been highlighted. There's also a web platform where all the notes are collected in a profile. Looking through this profile is like looking through another person's bookcase full of marginalia.

What are the roles of authors and publishers on this platform?

Joep Kuijper: An author has a special place on the platform — having written the book, he or she has essentially started the dialogue. We think it would be a good thing if the author also acted as a host. This would give ebooks added value because they're not just text anymore, they're also a place where the reader can be in direct contact with the source — the author.

For this to happen, the tools aren't enough. Authors still need platform and branding support — this is where the publisher comes in. The publisher is also the one with the overview. They might, for example, connect several authors and propose that they annotate each other's books.

Is there an option to notate only for personal use (i.e. notes for a class)?

Joep Kuijper: There are no personal groups. All the readers of one book are the group. Or even more specific: the readers around one sentence are a group. This also means you're not in a dialogue with friends, but with peers you've probably never met before. We think this is the interesting thing about Openmargin. It's an implicit network where the relationships are based on the specifics in a text. And your relationships develop and grow along with your reading habits.

Who owns the marginalia?

Joep Kuijper: The user is the owner. There will be a creative commons license so we're able to present the notes on our platform.

Are your long-term plans for Openmargin more platform-oriented or more software-oriented?

Joep Kuijper: Openmargin will be more platform oriented. We built the iPad app to show the world how this idea works, but we also built an API through which other ereading device developers can plug into our platform. The API can have a big impact because people will be able to share their thoughts and give feedback. That said, we're taking software very seriously at the moment because we want to set the example for the user interface. The software design has to be elegant in order for users to like the platform.


The Openmargin demo video follows:

This interview was edited and condensed.



Related:


April 20 2011

An iTunes model for data

iTunes and a spreadsheetAs we move toward a data economy, can we take the digital content model and apply it to data acquisition and sales? That's a suggestion that Gil Elbaz (@gilelbaz), CEO and co-founder of the data platform Factual made in passing at his recent talk at Web 2.0 Expo.

Elbaz spoke about some of the hurdles that startups face with big data — not just the question of storage, but the question of access. But as he addressed the emerging data economy, Elbaz said we will likely see novel access methods and new marketplaces for data. Startups will be able to build value-added services on top of big data, rather than having to worry about gathering and storing the data themselves. "An iTunes for data," is how he described it.

So what would it mean to apply the iTunes model to data sales and distribution? I asked Elbaz to expand on his thoughts.

What problems does an iTunes model for data solve?

Gil Elbaz: One key framework that will catalyze data sharing, licensing and consumption will be an open data marketplace. It is a place where data can be programmatically searched, licensed, accessed, and integrated directly into a consumer application. One might call it the "eBay of data" or the "iTunes of data." iTunes might be the better metaphor because it's not just the content that is valuable, but also the convenience of the distribution channel and the ability to pay for only what you will consume.

How would an iTunes model for data address licensing and ownership?

Gil Elbaz: In the case of iTunes, in a single click I purchase a track, download it, establish licensing rights on my iPhone and up to four other authorized devices, and it's immediately integrated into my daily life. Similarly, the deepest value will come for a marketplace that, with a single click, allows a developer to license data and have it automatically integrated into their particular application development stack. That might mean having the data instantly accessible via API, automatically replicated to a MySQL server on EC2, synchronized at Database.com, or copied to Google App Engine.

An iTunes for data could be priced from a single record/entity to a complete dataset. And it could be licensed for single use, caching allowed for 24 hours, or perpetual rights for a specific application.

What needs to happen for us to move away from "buying the whole album" to buying the data equivalent of a single?

Gil Elbaz: The marketplace will eventually facilitate competitive bidding, which will bring the price down for developers. iTunes is based on a fairly simple set-pricing model. But, in a world of multiple data vendors with commodity data, only truly unique data will command a premium price. And, of course, we'll need great search technology to find the right data or data API based on the developer's codified requirements: specified data schema, data quality bar, licensing needs, and the bid price.

Another dimension that is relevant to Factual's current model: data as a currency. Some of our most interesting partnerships are based on an open exchange of information. Partners access our data and also contribute back streams of edits and other bulk data into our ecosystem. We highly value the contributions our partners make. "Currency" is a medium of exchange and a basis for accessing other scarce resources. In a world where not everyone is yet actively looking to license data, unique data is increasingly an important medium of exchange.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photos: iTunes interface courtesy Apple, Inc; Software Development LifeCycle Templates By Phase Spreadsheet by Ivan Walsh, on Flickr



Related:


March 18 2011

Publishing News: Week in Review

Here are some highlights of what grabbed my attention in publishing news this week. (Note: These stories were published here on Radar throughout the week.)

Margaret Atwood said "No!" to merchandising

As traditional publishing revenue is diluted by digital content sales, new revenue models are being bandied about. One example: merchandising. Authors and publishers can use online tools like Zazzle and CafePress to quickly create promotional merchandise to accompany book releases. These items (theoretically) could help authors own their brands, connect with fans, and bring in much-needed money.

slide2Deadauthor.jpg
Click to see full Dead Author slide

One author, Margaret Atwood, has already employed the merchandising model — not in connection to a book release, but in connection to a keynote speech she gave at TOC 2011. Her vivid imagery involved the "Dead Author" (pictured above) and the danger of solar flares.

So what does Atwood think of this merchandise model? Is it a boon to authors? Does it hint at a bright future for publishing?

Don't get your hopes up.

"No, I don't think it's a good model!" she said via email.

This story continues here.

Does the Facebook comment plugin increase the quality or just reduce the number of comments?

Alistair Croll and Sean Power recently reviewed how embedded Facebook comments affect the number of comments on posts. They used TechCrunch as a test case, comparing comment totals, Facebook likes, Google Buzz and Twitter activity one week before and one week after TechCrunch implemented the FB comment plugin.

FBPlugin.png

On first blush, the numbers might be surprising, and even a bit disconcerting. Croll and Power's analysis showed:

  • For all posts, implementing FB Comments caused a 42% reduction in the total amount of comments, and a 38% reduction in comments per post.
  • For the average post, implementing FB Comments caused a 58% reduction in the total amount of comments and a 56% reduction in the average amount of comments per post.

The story continues here.

Piracy manifesto indicates price isn't the only factor

Manifesto.pngLast week, the Social Science Research Council published the results of a three-year study on piracy in the "Media Piracy in Emerging Economies" report. The report concluded that price was the overwhelming issue contributing to piracy around the world. In a post for thinq_ summing up the study results, James Nixon described an example from the report:

They cite the example of Russia, where legal versions of the film "The Dark Knight" sold for $15 — roughly the same price that consumers would pay in the US. But with wages much lower in Russia, that price represents a much higher percentage of consumers' income — the equivalent of a US buyer shelling out something like $75 on the film. Pirate versions, says the report, can be obtained for less than a third of the price.

In February, a group of contributors got together at a workshop and came up with piracy guidelines. Of the five points outlined in the "Don't Make Me Steal" manifesto, only one addresses the price issue.

The story, with comments from Brian O'Leary, continues here.

Lonely Planet threw the print book out the window to make its first all-digital product

LPTour.png In a recent interview, Gus Balbontin, director of transformation at Lonely Planet, talked about some of the the development challenges facing publishers in the digital age:

What we face is breaking down the barriers of a very long-standing way of operating and working. For Lonely Planet, for almost 40 years, we've been creating books, in a particular way, with a particular process and tools and workflows. That's been all thrown up in the air as new mediums and platforms come out. The lucky thing for Lonely Planet is that we've been in the mobile guides business for a long time. Although they were manifested as books, they were still mobile guides.

Balbontin discussed the challenges of content origination as well, suggesting that when developing digital content, it may not always be best to begin with the printed book, as is the tendency in traditional publishing:

The mechanics of getting [mobile digital products] out are very tricky — all the way from where we originate our content, which is originated primarily for a book, which then needs to be repurposed. The things that you create or generate for a book don't apply for an app or an ebook. Stripping those things out or changing or morphing or massaging that content to fit the different mediums is a serious challenge.

Balbontin and the team at Lonely Planet recently addressed this challenge with a completely new product: walking audio tours. The Audio Walking Tours iPhone app is Lonely Planet's first digital-only product with material that did not originate from a print book. The app takes users on city tours, much like the walking tours available in many museums. According to a press release:

The apps provide detailed information to let people explore at their own pace, with an easy to navigate location aware map that allows the user to stop and start their journey or skip ahead to any of the selected stops. The tours also work offline so roaming charges for international users can be avoided.

For more on how the Audio Walking Tours app came about, the importance of handling content in nimble ways, and why authors need to be more flexible as well, check out the entire interview with Balbontin in the following video:

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.

February 16 2011

Want to succeed in online content? Get small, be open, go free

The web is dying, online advertising is already dead, and the entire publishing model has been undermined by an army of algorithmic-minded content drones. Or so we've been led to believe.

Sam Jones, CEO of Formation Media, is ignoring the death notices. While other publishers turn their weary eyes toward tablets, or construct walls around content no one wants to buy, Jones believes a complete embrace of the web's strengths is the key to reinvigorating media brands (or, as he puts it, "I buy dead magazines").

In the following interview, Jones discusses his recipe for online content success: It has to be free, it has to be widely available, and publishers must operate at a web-appropriate scale.


Why did you found Formation Media?

Sam JonesSam Jones: I was working at Demand Media in corporate development and I noticed there was some major disruption happening in the media space, specifically in the magazine space. A significant number of very powerful brands were dying off. These were brands with strong audiences, passionate users, and great content, but the incumbent models just couldn't support them. I saw a clear opportunity to really change the game and make some of these great brands thrive. Formation Media was born in 2008 to take advantage of that opportunity.

From there, we looked over the 3,000 magazines that have died over the past 18 months to decide which we should go after. While we were building things out, we purchased Car Audio and Electronics Magazine. It's a smaller publication that has a passionate following, but in 2008 it was transitioned to online-only because it couldn't survive as a print magazine in a tumultuous market. We took the archival content and that powerful brand and added that to our model, which allows us to inexpensively create massive amounts of high-quality text, video and pictorial content.

What are the components of your model?

Sam Jones: We combine brand, editorial content, and social media to create engagement. Then we syndicate that content out and allow others to take it wherever they want it, for free. There's absolutely no way to subscribe. There's absolutely no way to pay for an "issue" or a PDF. We want people to consume the content when and how they want to consume it.

Up to 80 percent of our traffic is from syndication partners and search, where brand, content quality, and the opinion of others you trust matter. Users come back to our site engaged and looking for richer content and community interactions.

It's also clear that people like free. That's a bad word in the incumbent model because free works against the traditional value proposition. But on the digital side, if you have faith in the brand, the quality of the content, and the user experience, all sorts of wonderful magic happens for the business. Depending on the year, between 70 and 90 percent of our available inventory is from double-digit branded advertisers, and 95 percent of our costs are taken out. Monetization follows when you focus on doing the right things for your users.

How many full-time staffers do you have on your editorial teams?

Sam Jones: We want dedicated stewardship over a voice, we want to create engaged communities, and we want to deliver high-quality content. We're not trying to create a farm or an engine or any of that stuff. That's why I'm hiring the best possible editors to run the vertical markets that we go into, and each vertical will have their own dedicated editorial team.

But staffing will be appropriate for the profitability that we need and expect. For Car Audio and Electronics Magazine, which had 85 people that ran that publication, we now have two. That's what works for that brand. If we were to buy into the shelter space, which has larger brands and different content needs, we would require more than two people to maintain a strong editorial voice. That said, it's still not like we'll have 20 full-time employees for a shelter publication.



Has the media industry put too much emphasis on the potential of tablets, and the iPad in particular?


Sam Jones: The fastest growing product in Apple's history is the iPad, and they've got 10 million installed units, which is huge. But what I'd rather do is instead of looking at that 10 million installed base, let's look at the 1.6 billion Internet-enabled devices.

Frankly, the most important app on the iPad is Safari. It's on every iPad and iPhone and it has a consistent and proven user experience. When we make it easy for people to get what they want for free, engagement and brand can be monetized through advertising and e-commerce throughout the published and syndicated environment that we manage. The users win, our syndication partners split revenues, and we reach several times more people.

Does that mean your mobile strategy is primarily web based?

Sam Jones: We'll create apps, but our primary strategy is always going to be the native experience through the browser. If somebody wants our content, you can get it in any way that you can possibly ask for it. If you have two tin cans and a string with an Internet connection, our goal is to get it to you.

Has online advertising failed?

Sam Jones: There's three aspects to this. One, if you look at online advertising as a monolith, it's been really bad for a whole bunch of folks. But brands and deep engagement have done very well. As I noted earlier, 70 to 90 percent of our available inventory — depending on the time of year and other factors — is double-digit CPMs.

Two, advertising to support a business entity has to be scaled. At one of the magazines we looked at, they had six people on their dining staff. That magazine failed. You have to be mindful of the context and the economics of your situation.

Finally, we need to stop thinking in terms of standard ad units. The user experience should come first and that engagement should drive monetization. If you have a platform that allows for richer integrations, or actually provides value by weaving that monetization solution into the user experience, then you start to see significant margins.

What's your take on paywalls?

Sam Jones: Paywalls are like asking my two sons to work really hard so they can be Michael Jordan. Only a few people could come close to being MJ under perfect circumstances. Similarly, only a few companies and brands could make paywalls work.

If you extend this thinking to newspapers, there's only a few companies that have the brand, the audience, and the monetization hierarchy that would allow for a paywall to work. There's the Wall Street Journal. There's potentially Bloomberg, which is an interesting combination with BusinessWeek. And maybe if you stretch it, there's the New York Times. Beyond those unique brands, paywalls simply get in the way of the user experience.

Paywalls are an example of companies holding on to the pillars of incumbency instead of seizing the disruptive opportunity. I believe in the face of unprecedented disruption, there's no place for incrementalism. There's just not. We have to be bold in our actions in order to not just survive, but to thrive.


Note: Sam Jones discusses his "radical point of view" for magazines in the following presentation:


This interview was edited and condensed.

Related:


September 22 2010

Nearly 1,000 additional O'Reilly and Microsoft Press ebooks now available in Kindle Store

When we first started selling O'Reilly ebooks on Kindle, the limitations of the device prevented us from including our full catalog of ebooks. The first generation Kindle wasn't able to display tables or computer code -- two classes of content that are obviously quite common in O'Reilly books.

Although we (and our authors!) had hoped that Amazon would update the software on those Kindles (especially since many O'Reilly readers are also typically early adopters of new devices and technologies), it's clear that Amazon is focusing their efforts on their newer devices and apps for other mobile devices like iPad and Android.

Amazon won't disclose any data about how many customers use specific Kindle devices or apps, but we believe the number of Kindle 1 users is a small and shrinking part of the overall Kindle user base, and since there are multiple additional apps and desktop readers from Amazon, with a few specific exceptions we're now making the full catalog of O'Reilly and Microsoft Press ebooks sold at oreilly.com also available in the Kindle store. We submitted the files to Amazon early last week, and they've begun appearing in the store today.

Another unfortunate limitation with Kindle (though not unique to Amazon) is that they don't offer any way of providing customers who purchase ebooks access to publisher updates. We regularly update our ebooks to correct errata and make other changes, and free updates are one reason many O'Reilly readers come to oreilly.com for their ebooks. So we're now extending a special offer to buyers of our books on Kindle to upgrade to the full ebook bundle (which includes multiple DRM-free formats including PDF and EPUB along with free lifetime updates) for $4.99 through oreilly.com. Information on how to take advantage of that offer is included within the Kindle ebooks, and we've also posted instructions for how to add a .mobi file from your O'Reilly account onto a Kindle device. Here's a few screenshots from the latest batch of titles added to the Kindle store (more at the bottom of this post):

html5_uar_table_and_code.png

win_7_plain_simple_figure.png

There are still some titles that aren't suitable for a reflowable format like EPUB or Mobipocket; titles such as the "Head First" series of books, or certain digital photography titles. But any ebook available in EPUB from oreilly.com (which is over 1,000 titles when including Microsoft Press) should now be available in the Kindle store, or will be shortly.

All O'Reilly and Microsoft Press ebooks sold in the Kindle store are unencrypted and DRM-free, and can be used with any device or reading app that supports the Mobipocket format.

Thanks to Sanders Kleinfeld and Adam Witwer for their substantial work dealing with the limitations and quirks of the proprietary Kindle format to make the reading experience for these ebooks the best it can be.


Ebooks will be a hot topic on the agenda at next month's TOC Frankfurt and at TOC New York coming up in February 2011. Registration is open for both events.






code_complete_table.png


kindle_for_iphone_figure.png


kindle_for_ipad_code_2.png


kindle_for_mac_learn_php_mysql_js.png


July 08 2010

Ruminations on iPhone 4, iOS and mobile video

"It's a little bit like holding a high-definition television just inches from your face."
-- Travis Boatman, EA Mobile (talking about the iPad)

Follow the path that Apple has forged in creating a 100-million-device-strong iOS platform and ecosystem (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad).

Next, watch the seamless flow of tens of billions of consumer downloads from an iTunes and App Store marketplace that is backed by 150 million active credit cards.

Then, understand that behind the scenes, many tens of thousands of developers, writers, artists, musicians and filmed entertainment professionals are pretty much able to post, manage and monetize their creative vision within this same marketplace, guided by Adam Smith's invisible hand and the "soft touch" of Steve Jobs and Co.

Simply put, whether you consider the emerging "it" a phone, a computer, a media player, a netbook or a gaming device, is it even a stretch to argue that Apple is on the cusp of completing the last mile to ... something?

The "it" is, most basically, a domain where compute, communications, mobile web, gaming, media playback and media creation tools are literally and perpetually at your fingertips.

Now don't get me wrong. PCs will continue to have a useful life for a decade or more. But make no doubt that Apple has irrevocably marshaled in the post-PC era.

I say "irrevocably" so Android devotees won't accuse me of saying that Apple is destined to be the gorilla of the post-PC era. My point is more basic; namely, that win, lose or show, it's game, era, on.

That said, a tip of the hat should go out to Apple for pushing the stage forward so forcefully. Lest we forget Apple's supremely high customer satisfaction and customer loyalty rates, not to mention how much of a favorable departure the Apple approach represents from what came before it.

The mobile video studio arrives

mobile-studio.png

One can see this truth in action with Apple's inspired incorporation of iMovie into the new iPhone 4 (and ultimately, one suspects, other camera-equipped iOS devices).

For one, this speaks to the company putting a stake in the ground that iOS will be a platform for serious photo and video capture devices going forward.

Specifically, look at how iMovie overlays the iPhone's video and photo functions with touch-based editing, theming, the ability to add music and photos into video creations, and the agility to wirelessly share the finished production with anything from palm-sized screens to big-screen HDTVs.

Now, think about how such a workflow could open up new forms of mobile programming, such as multimedia postcards, live and recorded shows, news programs, spontaneous broadcasts of "flash events" and FaceTime meetups.

Imagine a tripod attached to your iPhone. You can create click-by-click animation sequences just by moving physical items in, out or sideways on your desktop or whatever physical space you're staging your video production from. Future versions of iMovie could facilitate green screen overlays and augmented reality sequences.

A creative mind could apply this cinematic vehicle to engage, entertain or educate by creating stories, asking questions or cultivating dialogues in new, media-rich ways.

If you think about it, the existence of iMovie within iOS-based devices opens a logical front for Apple to foment a revolution in digital content creation by doing for the consumer what desktop publishing did for the graphic design and print professional in the early days of the PC era.

When you see the fork in the road, take it

Fork-in-the-Road.jpgSo here's a riddle: Apple's supposed advantage over Android is that by controlling and shaping the end-to-end, it can deliver a consistent -- and superior -- user experience.

But, therein lies a conundrum. If the iPad is analogous to holding a high-definition screen in front of your face, and the iPhone 4's Retina Display pushes optics to a whole other level ... And if the next Apple TV is simply an iOS-powered Mac Mini viewed on a 60-inch big screen ... Is iOS then still to be judged primarily as a communications device platform? Or, as a low-end gaming disruptor to Microsoft Xbox or Nintendo Wii in the living room? Is it a personal media library, home theater or something else entirely?

To fragment or not to fragment? To support a matrix of different form-factors and function sets (phone, camera, 3G, direct, touch-based input), so as to optimize around a broadened segmenting of "jobs" and outcomes? Or, to constrain device-type variants, so as to maintain the Apple credo of elegant simplicity?

And don't forget the developer in this equation. We can talk about shielding developers from the added complexity, but I am here to tell you that such a scenario has the usual caveats attached to it. Nothing is free.

Then again, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?


Related:



Visit iphone.oreilly.com for a complete list of books and resources to successfully create, distribute, and market iPhone apps.

June 10 2010

June 09 2010

Streamlining craft in digital video

I ran across an article this morning in the New York Times about The 48 Hour Film Project. I thought it was cool and it got me thinking about how a digital workflow makes filmmaking so much more accessible -- even before the new iPhone puts iMovie in our palms.

In short, the 48 Hour crew comes to your town and runs a contest that gives you two days to complete a four- to seven-minute film from script to screen. Some of the films are surprisingly watchable and engaging in a DIY-meets-media-culture kind of way.

I'm a still photographer but I occasional dabble in film and video. Before it died under the weight of the digital avalanche, I used to subscribe to a magazine for 8mm filmmakers called "Small Film" (I think the German version still exists but I can't find the link at the moment). It regularly featured filmmaking contests like "make a super 8 film with only in-camera cuts" or "make a film with a budget of $x." They could have never run a contest that lasted only 48 hours though. It simply wouldn't have been possible with a film-based work flow.

This style of personal filmmaking has been around in some form or another for a long time, but digital workflow has really allowed the emphasis to move away from the technology and its time-consuming limitations.

To a make a seven-minute film, on film, would probably require 300 to 500 hundred feet of 8mm film pre-edit at something like 65 cents per foot processed. Processing would take a week or two unless you were in L.A. with access to the last labs in the country that will do same day. The cameras, if you could still find them, would be at least as expensive (probably a lot more) as a current prosumer / light pro digital video camera. The biggest difference, at least in terms of time, would show up when you started cutting. If you started the weekend with processed film in hand chances are you'd still be cutting (and sniffing the glue) the following weekend.

It's interesting to go back and look at films by artists like Joseph Cornell, who was shooting mostly on 16mm in the '60s and '70s, and see how much more amateurish they look than these 48 Hour films -- at least in terms of technical appearance. The process and associated craft informed the look so much more than modern systems seem to with their machine-perfect reproduction, image stabilization, consistent color, and infinite-seeming depth of field from small sensors.

With more and more video being shot on DSLR I think we'll see the visual quality of DIY filmmaking go up dramatically. Finally the amateur can afford a camera that will shoot HD with interchangeable big=aperture lenses that are figuratively and actually ready for prime time. Digitally captured films on a budget will finally be able to isolate on a subject the way only expensive 35mm film could before.

Naturally, you still need a story to tell if you want to make a film people will sit through, but it's a very cool time to be a visual storyteller on a budget.

April 15 2010

Ebook annotations, links and notes: Must-haves or distractions?

Liza Daly's recent piece in the New York Times inspired a great back-channel discussion among O'Reilly's editors. The subject: pros and cons of ebook links, annotations, and notes. There was a lot of interesting back-and-forth, so I asked participants if we could publicly share a handful of excerpts.

Mike Loukides on the reading path:

iBook screenshot showing embedded dictionary... inasmuch as I have lots of questions when I'm reading, I don't think I'd like to have the tools to answer them right at my fingertips. It's too easy, at least for me, to move from Little Dorrit to the entry on the Marshalsea in Wikipedia to a history of debtor's prisons, and sooner or later: what was I reading?

I suppose it depends on the implementation. The "Annotated" series from the 70s was, I think, just annoying. Better to just read the book and go back later for the commentary, rather than shoving it all in the reader's face.

There's an excellent book titled "What Jane Austen Ate and Dickens Knew" that goes into all the nitty-gritty background: how much was rent, how much did bread cost; if someone has an income of 500 pounds, is that a lot or a little? But it's a good thing that this information is packaged up in a separate book, not embedded into my copies of Dickens' books. But if someone could figure out the right way to build this kind of reading experience in a way that wasn't intrusive, that would be really good.

Adam Witwer on annotations as an option:

As a formerly serious student of literature (I got better!), I couldn't agree with Mike's sentiments more. The more difficult and rewarding stuff that I've read required all of my focus and attention. The only secondary aid I wanted was a dictionary, which is why the built-in simplicity of the iPad dictionary is such a beautiful thing.

Still, there are some texts for which the annotations are an indispensable part of the experience. I would have found "Ulysses" to be nearly impenetrable in places if I didn't have the annotations handy. To have those annotations somehow built in to the ebook so that I could easily flick back and forth between text and annotation sounds very appealing to the grad student in me.

Tim O'Reilly on anticipating a reader's needs:

The Oxford edition of Trollope has amazing footnotes, but they really get in the way of reading the book. If you don't ignore them, you don't get the benefit of the narrative because you're constantly distracted.

But I still think back to my days editing. One of my principles was that you had to anticipate the reader's questions and objections, so that just when they were about to leave you anticipated their need and filled it. It's what makes a great book compelling. I was so delighted when a reader wrote in about one of our "X" books to say that just as a question was starting to bubble to the top of his mind, Adrian [Nye] answered it. That's an awesome technical book. So even if the reader can go out for more info, it increases the need for thoughtfulness about what the reader really needs to know.

Russell Jones on a toggle solution:

There's a difference between linked information (where links can become obsolete) and embedded information, which is persistent. I'm sure you've all had the frustrating experience of clicking on a link only to find that the information is no longer available. In contrast, footnotes or endnotes in a book are always available. Ebook publishers can use both, as needed. If the information is critical (and small), embed it; otherwise, link to it.

The UI problem of all the ancillary material getting in the way of a clean reading experience can be solved easily, by simply making the links/extra info invisible until the user reveals them. That can be done through a gesture, a Ctrl+Click or some other unused-in-ebook-reading action. The reveal would be a toggle, so users could turn it off equally easily. That lets publishers include as much ancillary information as they wish without interfering with the reading experience.

And because I can't resist adding my own two cents ...

Ebook discussions sometimes degenerate binary debates. Digital vs. print. Disconnected vs. connected. Sometimes even good vs. bad (although that's a bit much). But what I found most interesting about this conversation is that everyone approached the topic from a use-case perspective. And use cases vary wildly between people, and even within people. It all depends on the particular need, goal or subject. That's precisely why I find the toggle solution proposed by Russell Jones so compelling. There's no "or" involved. You'd have public and private, disconnected and connected. Just flick a switch for your desired experience.

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