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April 25 2012

As transmedia publishing evolves, experimentation is the name of the game

This post is part of the TOC podcast series. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.


Transmedia publishing is a phrase that means different things to different people. In this interview with Verane Pick (@veranepick), co-founder and artistic director at Counter Intelligence Media, we get an up-close look at what's involved in a transmedia operation and how they use the agile development approach to keep inventing new products.

Key points from the full video interview (below) include:

  • Transmedia at the heart — Counter Intelligence Media is a transmedia publishing company and is working on finding new ways to tell stories in the digital world. [Discussed at the 00:42 mark.]
  • The rules have yet to be written — Transmedia is a rapidly evolving area and there's no "right" way of producing this rich content. Experimentation is the name of the game. [Discussed at 2:14.]
  • Does repurposed content have a role? — Whether it's a digital-first or repurposed content approach, the most important thing to do is first think about the medium and how you want to leverage it. [Discussed at 2:50.]
  • Using agile in practice — Counter Intelligence Media uses small, independent, highly collaborative teams to create their products. The agile model makes the most sense for them because of all the experimentation and the need to make many adjustments along the way. [Discussed at 6:59.]
  • App + ebooksApocalepsy 911 was an "MVP," or "minimum viable product" in the agile world, for Counter Intelligence Media and serves as the foundation for their larger platform. [Discussed at 9:43.]
  • Serial publishing — Pick likens their use of serial publishing to a set of Russian nested dolls where all the different layers must be properly aligned. [Discussed at 13:27.]
  • Gaming mechanisms to come — Game techniques will become one of the "engagement silos" in a future Counter Intelligence Media product. Stay tuned for more details ... [Discussed at 14:58.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

The future of publishing has a busy schedule.
Stay up to date with Tools of Change for Publishing events, publications, research and resources. Visit us at oreilly.com/toc.

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April 17 2012

The anchor on ebook prices is gone. Now we'll see where they float

The publishing space remains abuzz in the aftermath of the Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit filing last week against Apple and publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Penguin. Much remains to be seen on how the suit will play out with Apple, Macmillan and Penguin (as the others have settled), and how the Big Six will now respond in relation to Amazon.

For a wider view and some insight into what needs to happen next for publishers to survive the tumult, I reached out to Don Linn, president at Firebrand Associates. Our interview follows.

What is the big-picture view of the DOJ lawsuit?

Don_Linn_Headshot.jpgDon Linn: The combination of the lawsuit, circumstantial evidence that's been revealed, and settlements by several of the parties, is a very big event. The point I think has been missed in much of the discussion is the perception that the agency model — and the alleged collusion that had led to it — affected consumers negatively via higher prices. The price umbrella agency effectively created benefitted only the alleged co-conspirators. That's something that never makes anti-trust enforcers happy.

The circumstantial evidence certainly suggests the DOJ had grounds for pursuing an action. "Double deleting" emails is pretty damning, among other things. The fact that three parties have settled, while legally having no effect on the others, clearly weakens the case of the remaining defendants, at least in public, that something happened. We will look back on this as an important date; the date that ebook prices once again were allowed to float. And things seldom float upward.

I'm not an attorney, but I believe that Macmillan, Penguin and Apple have a very difficult legal battle ahead. One I doubt they can win.

Does this strengthen Amazon's position in the marketplace?

Don Linn: Amazon's already dominant position has been further strengthened as their ability to set low prices locked into the Kindle ecosystem should only grow their share of the market. Whether this is a good thing for publishers over time remains to be seen, but most readers will cheer short-term price declines and Amazon's superior customer experience.

Cory Doctorow and others have argued that the DOJ has missed the point with this suit, saying that the DRM lock-in is the bigger anti-competitive threat. Over time this may prove to be true. However, when consumers benefit, regulators can claim a victory.

What do publishers need to do now?

Don Linn: Clearly, the most important thing for those who have settled is to get into — and stay in — compliance with the agreement. Additional legal battles are in no one's interest, which is why I was surprised that two publishers chose to fight.

Separately, the Big Six and others have to determine whether low prices are their enemy and by extension whether Amazon's low pricing is sustainable for them. The choices are pretty stark: either withhold content from Amazon until acceptable terms can be agreed upon, or further adapt business models to adjust to lower pricing. I would expect to see major pushback from the Big Six on Amazon, and some may take IPG's approach of trying to hold out.

Whether that strategy can be successful is questionable, but it may be the only viable approach if they don't believe lower prices can work. If the publishers yield to Amazon, consumers should hope they could — as Mike Cane has argued — extract something in return ... perhaps Amazon's willingness to adopt EPUB as a way to loosen the lock-in.

What do you think readers will get out of this?

Don Linn: As I mentioned before, consumers get the immediate benefit of lower prices, though there are those who argue that Amazon, once it controls the market, will ultimately raise prices for their locked-in consumers. The DOJ may have inadvertently created a less competitive marketplace with this action, though I feel sure they will be back if Amazon or any other party misbehaves to the detriment of consumers.

This interview was edited for clarity.

The future of publishing has a busy schedule.
Stay up to date with Tools of Change for Publishing events, publications, research and resources. Visit us at oreilly.com/toc.

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March 09 2012

Publishing News: The threat of censorship, from a non-government entity

Here are the publishing-related stories that caught my attention this week.

Censorship disguised as a business decision

Censored.pngThe PayPal-as-content-police saga continues this week. Publishers Weekly reports that PayPal is backing off Smashwords a bit: "As it stands now, PayPal has contacted Smashwords about the possibility of relaxing the enforcement and has assured the distributor that their account will not be in immediate risk of limitation pending ongoing discussions." The post outlines the background on the situation:

"The issue began February 18, when [Smashwords founder Mark] Coker received an e-mail from PayPal notifying him that Smashwords had until February 24 to correct titles with the controversial topics or else the Smashwords account would be limited. PayPal told Coker: 'Our banking partners and credit card associations have taken a very strict stance on this subject matter. Our relationships with the banking partners are absolutely critical in order to provide the online and mobile services we do to our customers. Therefore, we have to remain in compliance with their rules, which prohibit content involving rape, bestiality or incest.'"

Several anti-censorship and privacy rights organizations, including the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and the Internet Archive, have signed a letter to PayPal in support of Smashwords. The letter concludes by noting exactly how dangerous PayPal's intended actions are:

"The Internet has become an international public commons, like an enormous town square, where ideas can be freely aired, exchanged, and criticized. That will change if private companies, which are under no legal obligation to respect free speech rights, are able to use their economic clout to dictate what people should read, write, and think."

Magellan Media founder Brian O'Leary also highlighted a bit of the bigger picture:

As the tools of creation and production have become increasingly democratized, efforts to control supply have shifted to the platforms that support this more open process. After all, it's a lot easier to shut down Smashwords than it is to get its thousands of authors to stop writing.

The PW post includes comments that claim PayPal's demands are not censorship, just a business decision (... a decision that just happens to prevent people from being able to buy or read something). You didn't like SOPA? Meet the bankers.

The future of publishing has a busy schedule.
Stay up to date with Tools of Change for Publishing events, publications, research and resources. Visit us at oreilly.com/toc.

This kind of consumer demand should make you drool

Inspired by the Oatmeal cartoon detailing futile attempts at legally watching the "Game of Thrones" TV show (and several subsequent responses to it), David Sleight over at Stuntbox takes a look at the current state of piracy and makes a compelling argument to corporate America that pirate consumers are an opportunity:

"The audience is telling you, in no uncertain terms, they want your stuff. And they are telling you precisely what stuff. The people you're calling 'thieves' are telling you where you need to be. They are jumping through hoops only slightly less complicated than the ones you set out for them via official channels, displaying the sort of pent-up demand that should make you drool. This is what's commonly referred to in business circles as an opportunity."

Sleight points out that behind private, closed doors, corporate America acknowledges this but can't get seem to migrate the mindset into the boardroom. He offers several proposals to help them get a move-on. A few teasers include: "Start projects by picturing what the user wants to have in their hands and build up from that." And, "... the future is about frictionless access ..." And, "Stop thumping the table with these [bogus] stats." Sleight's piece is well worth the read.

And publishers might take a page from the TED playbook: Joshua Gans at the Harvard Business Review profiles the TED publishing platform, noting not only the openness of the TED talks themselves (the videos are freely available), but also the TED name (adhering to a few rules, anyone can hold a TEDx event). Gans concludes: "TED could have done the traditional publishing thing — put up walls and sold exclusivity. Instead, it has chosen to embrace the notion that information has the most value when it is shared widely. Perhaps traditional publishers of other forms of media should take note."

And in case you missed it, here's author Neal Gaiman on the opportunities of piracy:

What we have here is a failure to visualize

A new study from The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that newspapers' digital efforts are falling short in making up for losses in print revenues and that "most newspapers continue to contract with alarming speed." Fear of rapid failure seems to be fueling the slow, steady decline. One newspaper executive told the study group, "There's no doubt we're going out of business right now." The report continues:

"The problem, he [the newspaper executive] explained, is the dilemma that faces many trying to innovate inside older industries. If you changed your company and did not succeed, that could hasten the end of the enterprise. 'There might be a 90% chance you'll accelerate the decline if you gamble and a 10% chance you might find the new model,' he said. 'No one is willing to take that chance'."

PewStudyNewsRevenues.pngThe study investigates the decline in the industry from many angles — digital advertising to mobile to cultural obstacles. The study also asked newspaper executives to look five years down the road; the results were grim and highlighted the industry's lack of vision. Response highlights include:

  • The most common scenario was that the newspaper would be printed and delivered to people's homes less frequently, perhaps as little as two to three days a week-or even just on Sunday. This has already occurred in some markets, such as Detroit.
  • One foresaw a looming era of significantly downsized newsrooms. Another suggested the papers would inevitably get "thinner and weaker."
  • One thought it would be possible for papers to "limp along," but that another recession could be catastrophic to the industry.

The study report points out what is "probably the strongest underlying finding of this study: The people who run the newspaper industry are unsure of where it is heading or what it will look like."

Got news?

Suggestions are always welcome, so feel free to send along your news scoops and ideas.

Photo (top): Vitruvian by Mr.Enjoy, on Flickr

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January 20 2012

January 03 2012

Social is an integral part of tomorrow's reading experience

This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we'll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.

Book reading has always been considered a solitary activity, but maybe that's just because of the limitations of print. Social reading platforms are sprouting up all around us, and mobNotate is one of the more interesting ones. This TOC podcast features insight from mobNotate's founder, Ricky Wong (@kinwong), as well as their technical advisor, Sean Gerrish. They talk about where they are with the mobNotate platform, why social is an important part of tomorrow's reading experience and what it will look like.

(Listen to this interview via the embedded player or download the MP3 file.)

Key points from the full interview include :

  • Machine learning makes it happen — Related conversations are already happening on the web, but mobNotate ties them back to the text so you don't have to hunt them down. [Discussed at the 0:45 mark.]
  • Social reading is not an oxymoron — If social reading is implemented correctly it will feel like an on-topic conversation with a lot of really interesting people. If it's done poorly, of course, it's nothing more than a distraction. [Discussed at 1:38.]
  • Reader apps & devices don't lend themselves to content creation — And that's where a tool like mobNotate comes in, which makes it extremely easy to add your thoughts to the conversation. Think "tapping and swiping" rather than "typing" as well as "curation" rather than "creation." [Discussed at 6:41.]
  • Social isn't just for certain genres of content — There are different (and better ways) to implement social features on different types of content. [Discussed at 9:35.]
  • Community is an important part of the value proposition — Social features can help add to the value of your product and therefore help justify a higher price. [Discussed at 11:35.]


  • Social features can still result in a clean & simple reading environment — Sean's example here of Google "then and now" is a terrific analogy. Social reading functionality needs to be as important to the user experience as images and videos have become to search results. [Discussed at 15:00.]
  • The 80/20 rule applies here as well — A small percentage of users will likely create and curate the content that's used by the larger audience. [Discussed at 15:46.]

You can listen to the entire interview here.

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.

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December 27 2011

Open Question: Is it realistic for publishers to cut Amazon out of the equation?


Kindle79DRM is a hotly controversial topic, but most publishers continue to insist on employing it to protect content from piracy. In a recent blog post, author Charlie Stross argued that "the strategy of demanding DRM everywhere is going to boomerang, inflicting horrible damage on the very companies who want it." Stross said Amazon is publishing's next biggest threat after piracy, and employing DRM is like handing Amazon a big stick.

Until 2008, ebooks were a tiny market segment, under 1% and easily overlooked; but in 2009 ebook sales began to rise exponentially, and ebooks now account for over 20% of all fiction sales. In some areas ebooks are up to 40% of the market and rising rapidly. (I am not making that last figure up: I'm speaking from my own sales figures.) And Amazon have got 80% of the ebook retail market ... the Big Six's pig-headed insistence on DRM on ebooks is handing Amazon a stick with which to beat them harder. DRM on ebooks gives Amazon a great tool for locking ebook customers into the Kindle platform.

But what's a publisher to do?

A back-channel discussion started brewing around Stross' post, and suggestions of cutting Amazon out of the equation cropped up as a possible solution to its growing hold on the market. Kassia Krozser, owner of Booksquare.com, made a salient point (included here with permission):

Many in the industry see Amazon as a threat (rightly so, in some regards). However, trying to cut Amazon out of the ebook equation means cutting a large readership out of the equation.

One thing we know with absolute certainty about the ebook market is that we do not have a clue how large it is. If you only factor major US publishers into the mix, you get one set of data points. If you factor the entire ebook publishing spectrum into the mix, the numbers relating to market share will look very different — perhaps a bit broader than we'd expect, despite the fact that Amazon would still dominate.

I pay close attention to authors who discuss their digital sales, and while they give mad props to various retailers, they consistently cite Amazon as their largest, most consistent source of sales. Leaving Amazon "out" means leaving a large and growing number of readers out (based on recent press releases from Amazon — sans real numbers, of course ... but nobody gives up real numbers). Put another way, it means leaving a large percentage of sales on the table. I'm fairly certain this is not the goal of authors and publishers.

Stross' point that Amazon is doing very well at locking readers into its platform can't be denied, but its distribution reach also can't be denied. This begs a couple of questions: Could publishers quit Amazon — all of it — cold turkey? If not, how can publishers take advantage of Amazon's platforms without being undermined by them?

I invited Krozser to open the discussion with her response.

Kassia Krozser: Last week's rather confusing co-op story — in which Amazon is apparently demanding higher amounts for (digital) co-op and publisher-generated media — highlighted a fundamental truth: all is not fair in love and business. Like its bricks and mortar relatives before it, Amazon will squeeze vendors as much as possible.

But that is pretty much beside the point. Amazon's consumer base is too large for publishers to play serious hardball — readers have too many options for publishers to lock themselves out of the Amazon readership. And, frankly, it is the policies of many publishers that have led us to what I like to call retailer lock-in.

As a Kindle owner (happy, happy Kindle owner, I will note), it is near impossible for me to patronize other retailers because publishers insist on DRM. Amazon chose its own DRM flavor. As do other major retailers. Cross-compatibility is a fantasy for readers. I love publishers who eschew DRM (and I'd love a serious study that compares pirating of DRM-only versus DRM-free publishers ... something tells me those numbers are very interesting). Without DRM, I can buy from non-Amazon retailers. With DRM, I am stuck.

So, how not to be undermined by Amazon? Give consumers options. Policies that lock readers into a retailer don't help create a diverse marketplace. This is in the control of publishers.

That's Krozser's take. What's yours? Please weigh in through the comments.

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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December 20 2011

Quid pro quo will define the author-publisher relationship

In a recent interview, author and digital book producer Peter Meyers talked about what we can expect as publishing comes into its own in the digital era. He said customized book apps will largely go by the wayside, and HTML5 as a format will be a bit of a hard-sell to consumers. And using his own experience as a basis, Meyers said publishers aren't in danger of becoming irrelevant.

Highlights from the interview (below) include:

  • Different kinds of books gravitate toward different kinds of formats — Meyers said the majority of books in the future won't be customized apps. The ones that will be apps will be the ones that require interactivity. [Discussed at the 0:19 mark.]
  • HTML5 is still a wild card — Meyers said HTML5's core question is transactional: Are people willing to pay for web-based content? Consumers have been reluctant thus far, but as HTML5 gets fully supported, we'll see more experimentation. [Discussed at 1:40.]
  • Amazon's Fire tablet will be a problem for B&N — Even though both tablets are similar in a lot ways, Meyers pointed toward Amazon's ecosystem and said B&N just doesn't match up to Amazon's content and service offerings. [Discussed at 4:54.]
  • Will publishers become irrelevant? — Meyers said no. Using his own experience as an example, he highlighted the fact that his publisher (O'Reilly) provides a platform to publicize his work and technological support to produce works in particular formats. What he doesn't get — and said few authors do — is hand-holding, individual attention, detailed line editing, cheerleading and so forth. Meyers said authors need to go in with the expectation that they'll have to do as much for their publishers and their books as the publishers do for them. [Discussed at 5:26.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

Meyers' new book, "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience," will be released in the next couple weeks — you can nab a free preview copy now — and he'll host a workshop at TOC 2012.

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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December 15 2011

A war story, a Kindle Single, and hope for long-form journalism

Across the board, news organizations and publishers are struggling to find business models that let them stay afloat through the digital transformation. Journalists are a common casualty, with those who work in specialized areas encountering a market that's particularly inhospitable.

Marc Herman (@Marc_Herman_), a freelance journalist (notably for The Atlantic), is testing out a new solution: cut out the intermediary and sell the story directly to the readers. He recently took his long-form story, "The Shores of Tripoli," and turned it into a $1.99 Kindle Single. In the following interview, Herman talks about the Kindle Single experience and how he sees the future of journalism playing out.

What is it like to write a Kindle Single?

Marc Herman: Writing "The Shores of Tripoli" was harder than writing a traditional magazine feature. It's a demanding form. It's like a small book, and you have to write it really, really fast. Dave Blum at Amazon told me a reporter who did a Single on Occupy Wall Street wrote it in two days. That's freakishly fast, Usain Bolt-type stuff. To give you an idea, the average story you read in a magazine like National Geographic is 3,000 to 6,000 words long. The "Shores of Tripoli" was 12,000 (the first draft was 18,000). And it has to be written well — the reporting has to be of a very high professional standard, or it's just hackery.

In terms of production, the Single was more like a magazine story than a book. The news cycle mattered more than it does for a book. I had to respond to Qaddafi's death, for example, in real time. After returning from Libya, I happened to be in New York, and I looked up at that famous news ticker and it said, "Qaddafi killed." That's how I learned about the war ending. I have to confess, I had a very narcissistic response to Qaddafi's death: To me, the headline read, "Qaddafi killed; and in other news, Marc's deadline moved up two weeks."

Why did you price "The Shores of Tripoli" at $1.99?

Marc Herman: Most Singles are priced between $0.99 and $2.99. The guy who runs Singles said $2.99 only seems to work with brand-name authors. You're buying the Single because you'll buy anything by Stephen King or Amy Tan, not because that particular theme or story caught your eye. I went for $1.99 and not $0.99 because it seemed to me anything you'll spend a buck for you'll also spend two bucks for. Three bucks starts feeling like the price of lunch to me.

Did the royalty factor in your decision?

Marc Herman: The royalty isn't something I thought about too much, but it turns out to be a further wrinkle. Amazon pays a 35% commission for everything priced under $2.99. It offers a much better royalty — 70% — above $2.99. But only a handful of very well-known authors have found success at $2.99. So what to do? Fortunately, I was able to get a deal in which I get the 70% cut at the lower $1.99 price. That's a special deal for being part of Amazon's curated program, for which I was fortunate to have the story selected. My agent set that up.

It's a big question for the future, I think. Lots of people want the $1.99 price because it seems to be proving to be the sweet spot. But at 35%, I have to sell twice as many copies to make the same money. The royalty doesn't change as sales increase, like they did under deals with legacy publishers.

For journalism, the royalty issue will probably encourage me to do one of two things. You can't expect the sweet deal from Amazon more than once or twice because it's not in their interest, unless you're Stephen King. So, for non-fiction, you'd want to write shorter, faster, punchier stuff, even more closely timed to the news cycle — more like magazine stories — then price them at $0.99. If you produce good stuff at a pace that's roughly the same as that of a monthly magazine — three or four big stories a year — you'd have a shot at making up the lower royalty on each item by producing more titles, and ideally having fans who bought them all. Four would cost the same as a single copy of, say, the New Yorker, right?

The other way it might change is as the market evolves, viable rivals to Amazon may emerge and target that two-tier royalty scheme as a weak spot. In this space, an entity such as Barnes & Noble could compete for the best work just by offering 70% at any price point, no questions asked. We'll see.

What has the response been thus far?

Marc Herman: The most gratifying thing so far is that people seem to be reading the story with interest. I've received some really generous feedback from readers.

In a business sense, I'm cautiously optimistic. We're hanging around the top 500 of the million or so ebooks in the Kindle Store. Rankings measure movement, not volume, so I try not to pay attention to it. But hanging around the top 1,000 or 2,000 or so — the top few percent of sales — is clearly a good sign.

How would you compare the response to your experience with traditional publishing?

Marc Herman: I feel like I'll reach more readers this way than I have in the past. The trend is encouraging. I've sold more copies of "The Shores of Tripoli" in these first two weeks than I have in four years since my old publisher, Random House, brought out a $10 digital version of my first book, "Searching for El Dorado." I'm very certain I'll sell more copies of the Single in the next few months than I sold of that earlier book, despite similarly generous reviews, publicity, etc., for both.

The scheme of doing some on-scene journalism for a known title, in my case The Atlantic, as a loss-leader, and then using that work as the basis for a direct-published, long-form item, seems to be working out. I've only tried this once, and we're not even a month into this experiment. But already, I feel like I've reached a community of readers that compares favorably to my more traditional work — and the work is able to pay for itself. I'm on track to break even on the investment I made to travel to Libya and report the story. Once that happens, the next question is whether people will continue to download the story in large enough numbers for it to become a viable funding mechanism for the next story I decide to do. Right now it's looking promising.

If things keep going how they are going, I think in a few months I'll be able to say I have the beginnings of a viable business model as well as a viable way to bring long-form reporting about international events to the public. I'm still cautious in saying that, however, because it's a very new form, and we just don't know what's influencing people's decisions — it's Christmas season, the Kindle Fire is selling well, Libya is still an important topic. It's really hard to say what's driving this.

Why did you decide to experiment?

Marc Herman: I had nothing to lose. I'd published some of the reporting that became "The Shores of Tripoli" in The Atlantic, and it got a strong response. I had much more material, so I decided to expand it into a long-form story. The question I asked myself was whether the more comprehensive story had better odds of reaching readers in a broad market like Amazon's or a more narrow one — that being the small club of traditional editors, mostly in New York, whom one has to convince to buy work. I've had some success with them in the past, but I decided to bet on the broader market this time.

Traditional magazines have always been a tight, tough market in which to compete, particularly for international reporting. But post-crisis, sadly, it's just not a viable business. You're talking maybe 15 editors in the U.S. with the interest and the means to commission this kind of work. Digital news operations have greater interest but few salaried correspondents — and freelance budgets that boil down to between zero and $0.50 a word, which are not living wages.

How do you see Kindle Singles and their ilk benefiting and shaping the future of journalism?

Marc Herman: The Kindle Single feels to me like an opportunity to prove, in a clear way, a continuing public interest in news, particularly literary journalism. That could use some proving right now. I get the feeling that traditional publishers either feel offended that they have to put effort into articulating their relevance, or are scared they can't. I think we need to make the case because we've lost the public.

Look at something like "Lost in Kandahar." Lots of reporters I know want to cover Afghanistan. They can't get enough work, so, as a professional community, we're having huge trouble keeping Afghanistan on the pubic radar. And then Alex Berenson comes along, spends three days at a base in Kandahar and writes a barn-burner of a story about the experience, and it becomes a best seller for the Kindle. I'd argue he got the same kind of penetration that something like a big story in a big magazine would garner. Great for him, but also great for the journalist who is thinking of going to Afghanistan and can build on the case Berenson's made.

We're just out of the gate with "The Shores of Tripoli." My hope is for it to become an example like Berenson's, but for the Arab Spring. There will inevitably come a point where the editors and producers at legacy titles start saying, "Okay, this story is finished." I'd hope this is an example that can say, "No, this is a richer story than that, and we know so because we can point to a place where a lot of people are still reading and commenting and talking about it, and even paying $2 for the opportunity."

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.

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How do Kindle Singles compare to something like Spot.us?

Marc Herman: Spot.us is great, but it's slightly different: Funding journalism is different than linking that funding to the distribution — selling it.

Those of us working in non-fiction have lagged behind the fiction writers in experimenting with direct publishing. That makes sense because a novelist's biggest problem is finding readers while a journalist's biggest problem is finding money. Journalism has higher initial costs than do works of imagination — plane tickets, cameras, etc. So naturally, when you decide to do a story, your attention goes first to solutions for paying expenses, like Spot.us.

Distribution has always been something we expected the publishers or the hardware to solve. I think it's been clear for a while that tablets and ereaders were going to play a large role in a reporter's future prospects, but details were lacking. This year, the tablet boom implied the hardware was catching up to the problems the web had posed for journalism, and which traditional publishing still finds vexing. That finally moved the discussion from just funding to include distribution, in my opinion. Some of us in journalism started looking at what the fiction writers are doing because they're clearly the ones moving the needle on distribution models.

Do you see the Kindle Single as a viable funding model?

Marc Herman: I'm not expecting to be Amanda Hocking, but I do wonder if a few of us working with formats like the Single couldn't do as well as a respectable magazine. Look at Harper's. I trained there in my early 20s. I believe it has a circulation of 300,000 or so, it publishes two or three long features a month, and it sells for a few bucks a copy. That seems like an entity against which a small group of clever reporters could compete — or even better, collaborate — via the Kindle Single model or something similar. At a buck or two a story, you could run a little reporting project off that.

The key is quality. The journalism has to be as compelling and as politically or socially relevant as the stuff the traditional titles are producing. But if I'm already putting my work up for consideration by that caliber of publication, then I should be comfortable putting it in competition against them, too.

This ongoing struggle with digital affects all aspects of the industry — how do you see it shaking out?

Marc Herman: It's a mundane thing to say, but I think it's going to shake out by rewarding the publishers who get their organizational charts in order. I had a meeting at a big, big magazine recently, and I asked them exactly the same question. They've been smart, and their digital operation is profitable — except for the small detail that they are barely paying their writers. I think the bar's too low if we're willing to laud a business model that only works because it gets its raw materials for free — namely, me, reporting from Libya or wherever. The interesting question is that if they're doing so well now, why do they need other parts of the company, or whole other industries — such as contributors who are professors or who work at think tanks — to subsidize the writers who work for them?

Remarkably, at least to me, the editors said the problem was accounting. Many publications pay different rates for print and digital, and run two largely discrete business under the same roof. It's complicated organizationally to start mixing the separate budgets. I realize that is a bit technical, but at bottom, it affects the quality of their journalism, and that affects their ability to hold an audience. They can't hire some potentially fantastic contributors overseas because they can't figure out how to pay them. They pay so little, it doesn't reach the minimum for wire transfers, and paper checks written in dollars can't be funded in, say, Pakistan.

I also imagine that part of the future for Amazon and journalism will be a Video Single or Multimedia Single. The Kindle Fire seems to be headed in that direction. I have zero inside information, but I have to imagine that very soon I'm going to be able to embed video and audio and so forth, and at a reasonable download cost to the consumer. In fact, I'm already working with another reporter and a videographer on models for this, with the expectation that those stories are just around the corner.

How do you envision the future of long-form journalism?

Marc Herman: We'll be fine. The right business models and the appropriate technologies are all enormously important, but in the end, it comes down to the quality of the stories. If you tell a credible story in a captivating way, people won't want it to ever end.

We've been failing people, I think. Publishing is the only industry I can think of in which, when people stopped buying our product, we decided it was because they were too stupid — editors really say that to me. First, they blamed everything on the web or on Craigslist killing classified advertising, which generated a ton of money. Rather than think creatively, the publishers have moved on to blaming the schools for not raising good readers. Or on reality TV for lowering the bar. Or on video games and YouTube for killing attention spans. Readers on the whole are really, really smart. If they are not paying attention, it doesn't mean they don't want the story or can't handle the story. It means the way we're telling it isn't very interesting or useful or fulfilling.

There came a point after coming back from Libya where I got tired of hearing "no" — of discussing how the office politics of some midtown magazine would prevent this story from existing, where virtually every interaction with a publisher involved them somehow complicating the effort to be a non-fiction writer, which is already a considerable commitment. So, at this point I'll go with whomever is expressing a desire to find solutions and with whomever will be most successful at helping me do work like "The Shores of Tripoli." At the moment, that's Amazon. In six months, it might not be. Journalists doing this kind of work are a species of pragmatic idealists — we just want to stay in the game. I don't think we're much concerned with whose team we're on.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Related:

December 14 2011

Research and restraint: Two more things to add to your digital publishing toolkit

Since 2009, author and digital book producer Peter Meyers (@petermeyers) has been researching and documenting the digital publishing revolution in his project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." His investigation into digital books has uncovered a host of tools and use cases. The project has also shown that when it comes to digital book enhancements, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

A free preview edition of Meyers' project is now available — in ebook format, of course — and he'll discuss "Breaking the Page" in depth at his TOC New York 2012 session, "Breaking The Page: Content Design For An Infinite Canvas."

In the following interview, Meyers talks about how and why the project got started and what's surprised him thus far. He also reveals the unfortunate connection between today's enhanced ebooks and the font-filled newsletters of the mid-1980s.

What is "Breaking the Page"? What was the inspiration?

Peter MeyersPeter Meyers: I was an early adopter of everything that was happening around the world of the Kindle and ebooks. It struck me that it was still the very beginning of the digital publishing revolution, and all that was really happening in the world of Kindle was that publishers were taking these digital snapshots of print books and stuffing them onto the Kindle. As much as I love my Kindle and I love reading Kindle books on platforms like the iPhone, I felt like we weren't yet seeing authors and publishers deliver new kinds of reading experiences.

So, back in 2009 or so when it became clear that the industry overall was undergoing these significant changes and when it also became clear that some kind of tablet device was on the horizon from Apple, I felt that we were on the cusp of a sea change. Publishers and authors and readers alike weren't yet getting their heads around how books were going to change, and I wanted to take a systematic look at what these new kinds of books were going to look like. How are they going to change the things that authors create? How are they going to change the reading experience? What parts of the reading experience can and should stay the same? And I wanted to do so in a way that put the needs of the reader up front. "Breaking the Page," for me, was a way of taking a considered look at all of the innovation that was going on but trying to think through some of the best practices.

How are ebooks missing the point?

Peter Meyers: I'm not sure that I would say plain EPUB ebooks are missing the point. In fact, the sales figures show they're doing an incredibly good job of satisfying maybe everyone except for the bean counters at the big publishing firms, who, at this point, are understandably afraid of how things are looking for the future. But from a reader's perspective, I think traditional plain-vanilla ebooks are doing a great job — you get mystery readers and romance readers and serious literary fans, and they just can't get enough and they're buying more books. If I'm any sort of measure to judge by, I'm buying many more books on all my digital devices.

I think where things were less successful was in that first wave of enhancements, where the entire industry kind of decided collectively, "Hey, we need enhancements. We need enhanced ebooks." And I will raise my hand and say, "Guilty." I was complicit, and I participated in a number of enhancement projects.

The collective reaction on the part of readers was pretty much a big giant yawn of disinterest. Publishers spent a fair amount of money experimenting on that front. Now they're starting to conclude that the time and resources required to create these enhanced books are probably not worth the effort. In some cases, enhancements are a quick way to turn off people who are interested in reading books in the first place.

Which publishers and platforms are "breaking the page" well?

Peter Meyers: I certainly see a lot of experimenting happening out there. At the risk of sounding like a total company shill, I will say that O'Reilly does an admirable job in terms of not thinking of itself as a company that is in the business of selling print books, but staying true to its motto of changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. There are places in which a company, be it O'Reilly or any other publisher, is so centered on books as the unit of delivery that it's hard to respond to a disruption like StackOverflow, for example, where people pose and field questions having to do with technical challenges. StackOverflow is a great and constant reminder that the competitive threats to publishers often don't come from other publishers, but from different approaches.

In the world of textbook publishing, there's a firm called Inkling that specializes in textbooks for the iPad. A lot of what Inkling has done has been successful because rather than taking a PDF replica of a traditional print textbook and cramming it onto the iPad, Inkling has "XML-ified" everything — it's ditched, more or less, the print page. Inkling has a nice little trick in there for teachers who have classrooms that are split between students who have the print version and those who have the iPad version, and the company has really rethought how to design content and reading experiences for the iPad.

Screenshot from Inkling promotional video
Inkling integrates a music textbook and the scores that go along with it. Students can listen to what the music sounds like and follow along as the music is progressing.

What are the most important digital publishing tools?

Peter Meyers: It's funny. On the one hand, the list is pretty easy — it goes something like: Objective-C, HTML5, XML, and anything that will help your development team use those tools in conjunction with an author to create compelling stories or informative teaching material. But on the other hand, this has nothing at all to do with tools. And as crazy as this might sound, I think market research should be part of everyone's toolkit. The reason I say market research is because in this digital publishing world, a lot of times what publishers and authors must do is think through the consumer's need for their products.

For example, if you're a publisher and you've got an amazing coffee table book about great travel destinations for coffee lovers, the market research question might be, "Does that print book do the best job of satisfying people's need to learn about coffee-centric vacations, or will an app do a better job?" In many cases, the answer is going to be, "Print actually does an amazing job when it comes to coffee table books that have to do with travel." So, researching the market before we embark on these digital publishing initiatives is a way of determining where a product fits into the landscape.

Has there been something in your work thus far that has surprised you?

Peter Meyers: The biggest surprise was when I got started, roughly around the time of the arrival of the iPad. I had this hypothesis that storytelling and narrative nonfiction were going to be changed significantly as we entered the world of touchscreen publishing. I've more or less come 180-degrees around on that and come to the conclusion that the bound codex, be it a digital collection of pages or a printed collection of pages, is actually the perfect form for telling a story of about 100,000 words — and it probably just needs words, especially in the hands of the right author.

As so often happens when new technologies arrive on the scene, the new technologies don't eliminate the old technologies. Rather, they add to the kinds of stories that can be told. My revelation was that plain prose stories didn't go away and probably won't go away. They certainly will occupy a smaller portion of most people's media consumption in the years and the decades ahead, but they do a wonderful job in telling a 100,000-word love story or biography or what have you.

The other thing I have found extremely surprising and kind of eye-opening is the way that books, in an age and a time of information overload, provide a source of refuge for people. At the risk of getting too touchy-feely, we're assaulted by so many micro bits of content from status updates and Twitter and Facebook and RSS feeds that books of the 200- to 400-page variety give people a reason to focus and to follow a story. The books actually acquire an even greater value in a digital world because they give people continuity and a thread to follow while the rest of their days are fractured by so many different kinds of information sources.

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

What will the publishing landscape look like in 10 years?

Peter Meyers: I do spend time thinking about that — ten years from now, is it going to be Steve Jobs' youngest daughter taking over Apple and announcing the iHolograph while graciously ushering out Tim Cook? Who knows, that may be a possibility. What I am a little bit more confident about predicting is that the tools authors and publishers will have at their disposal will be a lot better and a lot easier to use. I really think that we're at a point in time that's analogous to web publishing in the mid-'90s, where most of the good stuff that you could do required hand coding and a certain amount of expertise.

Just looking at the companies I'm following in the world of authoring software and authoring solutions, there's so much activity on that front that's targeted at designing tools that let creative people tell their stories without having to master Objective-C or JavaScript. It's uncommon, I think, to find people who have creative dispositions who are also skilled in these kinds of programming-style tools.

The other thing I see happening in the next decade is more authors emerging who are multi-mode threats. My favorite example these days is David Pogue. He's a great speaker, he's a great writer, and he's also very nimble in the world of putting together fun and entertaining iMovie productions. As the next generation of authors grows up — hopefully somewhat capable in the world of writing — they'll also be adept in other media forums, like audio and video. [Disclosure: David Pogue is the creator of the Missing Manual series.]

Also, the urge to binge on multimedia will subside. It'll be less of a thrill to put every single thing that you can do as an author into your latest production. It's similar to how we all learned in the mid-1980s that putting 28 different fonts in the church newsletter just made it look awful. The instinct to put video and audio in an ebook — and, yeah, we can have a bird fly down as the cover opens — it's just too much. As authors get more skilled with these tools, they'll develop a restraint and a respect for the audience. Authors will know that not everything needs to be included.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Related:

November 21 2011

Exposing content via APIs

This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we'll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.


Publishers and authors obviously have a sense of how they intend their content to be used, but what if there are other ways of accessing and consuming content that a publisher and author didn't even consider? It reminds me of that great Henry Ford quote: "If I'd asked people what they wanted, they would have said 'a faster horse'." The point is, sometimes we just don't know what we want. That's where exposing content via APIs can help. As we talk about in this interview with Fluidinfo CEO Terry Jones (@terrycojones), APIs enable developers to work with your content like a box of Legos, building solutions you may never have dreamed of.

Key points from the full video interview (below) include:

  • What's an API? — Just as user interfaces enable access to information by users, APIs enable access to information by programmers. [Discussed at the 0:54 mark.]
  • The "read-only" model is not the future — Publishers have grown accustomed to a one-way communication. We produce content but generally don't let users enhance or modify that content. That may have worked well in the print world, but the digital world demands more. As Terry notes, the real world is "writable." [Discussed at 5:15.]
  • Publishers are just starting to recognize audience signals — There's value in not only detecting these signals, but also in acting on them. [Discussed at 10:55.]
  • Reading has always been a social activity — Much takes place in isolation, but think about why page numbers exist, for example. [Discussed at 12:10.]
  • How do you manage control in an open API access model? — It's not as scary as you might think. There are plenty of control mechanisms that can and should exist when exposing your content via APIs. [Discussed at 13:45.]
  • Mobile changes everything — Simple paywall access via a browser isn't the best solution. Mobile offers a completely new opportunity to distribute and monetize content ... but it has to be done correctly, of course. [Discussed at 18:50.]


  • Why not just offer access via HTML5? — HTML5 is a good delivery mechanism, but APIs are more like offering a toolbox for building even more powerful solutions. [Discussed at 28:16.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

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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