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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


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.


December 13 2011

Now available: "Breaking the Page" preview edition

I'm thrilled to announce the release of the preview edition of "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience" (available through the iBookstore, Amazon and O'Reilly). In this free download, I tackle one big-ticket question: how do we make digital books as satisfying as their print predecessors?

I've studied hundreds of recent publishing experiments, comparing them all to what I've learned during a 20-plus year career as writer, editor, and publisher. My goal: distill best-practice principles and spotlight model examples. I want to help authors understand how to use the digital canvas to convey their best ideas, and how to do so in a reader-friendly way. As app book tinkering flourishes, and as EPUB 3 emerges as an equally rich alternative, the time felt right for a look at the difference between what can and what should be done in digital book-land. That's my mission in "Breaking the Page."

The preview edition's three chapters focus on some basics: browsing, searching, and navigating. This ain't the sexiest crew, I know, but it's amazing how hard it is to get this stuff right. I focus on examples good and bad, toss in a few design ideas of my own, and suggest how to include these services in a way that makes digital books pleasing on eyes, hands, and minds.

Ahead, I've got a head-to-toe tour of model digital book features planned for the full edition (coming mid-2012). I'll be focusing on questions like:

  • What's the best way to integrate — and not just add — different media types? And, on a related note: is it possible to make the viewing experience as seamless and immersive as reading is in print?
  • How do you design content and reading paths on what is, essentially, an infinite canvas?
  • How do you pick the best balance between personalized design (reader-controllable font sizing, for example) and author-driven fixed layout? Are there any acceptable compromises?

While I'm pushing ahead to the finish line, I'd love to hear what you think. Suggestions, examples, critiques … send 'em all my way.

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


November 29 2011

Sometimes one screen isn't enough

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." 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 fiddling with the idea of using multiple displays to give a presentation — putting different slides on different screens. One design sketch — working title: "Documan" — has gotten some chuckles around my office (yes, I work alone):

Illustration of five iPads attached to a man, standing next to a computer display
Man-mounted iPads, plus a nearby monitor. A few possibilities not shown: each iPad could contain images, not just text; objects could move between iPads or from iPad to monitor; and presenter could rotate one or more iPads.

Why on earth does the world need to see a man strap on a half dozen iPads? And, more importantly, what kind of message would benefit from a rig like this?

Beats me. But I do think that content experiments, designed expressly for the screens we all use — rather than our ancestors' print pages or single PowerPoint slides — are the best way to figure out how stories and teaching change when they move onto the touchscreen.

I'll spare you, for now, the words and images I'm testing out to fill those screens. (One teaser, though: think about how easy Keynote for iPad makes it to build an action that exits screen right and enters screen left. Now, if you could just get the timing right when using two iPads ...).

Clearly, I'm not the only guy playing around here. Ahead, I round up a few content confections that span multiple screens. Some involve separate physical displays, others use different virtual windows. Not all of this stuff is new. But I find it thought provoking how creative types are using the small, medium, and large screens that increasingly coexist near each other.

iPad + projector

Joe Sabia calls himself an "iPad storyteller" — love it! He showed off his stuff at a recent TED talk where he uses his tablet and a variety of different apps (iBooks, a drawing app, Google Earth, Photos, and so on) to entertain an audience that is variously fixed on him, the big projector screen which his iPad is attached to, and the iPad's display itself.

iPad + magician

Sleight-of-hand artist and iPad maestro Simon Pierro pulls off some awfully clever tricks with his iPad and a real tennis ball, a glass of milk, and a weather forecaster's hair (she's on a video inside the iPad). I have no idea what's magic, what's video editing trickery, or what he and the iPad are actually doing. And, you know what? It doesn't matter. What he demonstrates here is how man and machine can team up to entertain in really innovative ways. Don't miss his part two, where he — sorta/kinda — sheds light on what he's done.

iPad-powered window displays

Gin Lane Media filled up three of Saks 5th Avenue's storefront windows with 64 iPads and nine 27-inch displays.

iPad/iPhone partnerships

A few apps use the big and small screen of a tablet and a smartphone in tandem. The iOS app Scrabble, for example, lets you conduct group games in which the iPad serves as publicly viewable board and the iPhone is each player's private letter stash. Remote Palette is a painting app where the iPad is the canvas and the iPhone is the paint palette.

Multiple browser windows

The band Arcade Fire worked with director Chris Milk to compose this mind-blowing HTML5-powered interactive video for its song "We Used to Wait." You give this web app the address of the house or building where you grew up in. It then whips together a custom-built video (woven around some stock footage) that incorporates Google Maps footage of your old neighborhood and other graphical magic mashups … all in multiple browser windows of various sizes. (It only works in the Chrome browser.) If you like this one, you'll love, which uses snapshots of you from your laptop's webcam, and your Facebook and Twitter feed, to compose a multi-window extravaganza. It all culminates in a mosaic of your face built out of pix pulled from your social media feeds.

Multi-screen patterns

Here's a pattern-style analysis of different content and interaction designs for multiple displays, from the basic (how Amazon uses Whispersync to keep book location and notes coordinated across a user's different reading devices) to some innovative software that helps end users take an image, chop it up, and display it on their own collection of displays. That's what the next item is about.

Junkyard Jumbotron

Free to use (beta) software from some MITers that automatically splits up an image and displays it on whatever collection of screens (smartphones, tablets, PCs) you assemble. This demo shows it in action.

The multi-screen experience

Here's a five-minute video, with a bunch of TV and consumer electronics execs and analysts. Nothing hugely revelatory, but a nice little brain-tickler about how we are entering an age wherein audience and content producers alike are thinking about how to create and consume stories that play across displays of many different sizes.

Splitscreen: A Love Story

Heartwarming. Winner of a Nokia smartphone video-making contest, this video shows how split-screen stories can add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Google Wave cinema: "Pulp Fiction"

Not really — okay, not at all — safe for work, but a really nifty example of how innovative, multi-pane software (in this case, the soon-to-be late Google Wave), allowed one artist to take a scene from "Pulp Fiction" and render it within this program, weaving in videos, image, text, and maps.

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


November 17 2011

What we could do with really big touchscreens

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." 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 don't hear much talk about Microsoft's Surface computers, those industrial-strength touchscreens-on-a-tabletop. But maybe the idea was about $10,000 too expensive and a few years ahead of its time. Hear me out while I play connect-the-anecdata-points and argue that 10-inch tablets are just the start of the touchscreen publishing revolution. I'll bet that large, touchscreen canvases are coming, and I think they're going to change the kinds of documents we create.

But first a quick bit on why on earth we need larger compositional spaces. After all, any decent novelist, blogger, or journalist can get by with a 11-inch laptop, right? Sure, but what about creative types who like scattering notes, sketches, and outlines across their physical desktops? And what if they want to mix and match different kinds of media and incorporate touchscreen gestures? Some tools (Objective-C, HTML5) exist, but how many creative minds have the skills necessary to use that stuff?

Last week in my digital publishing tools webcast I previewed a handful of apps and online software that let people create "media mashups": compositions that break free from the rigidly sequenced vertical layouts that many writing tools impose. Take for example Microsoft Word or pretty much any blogging tool — only with some serious effort can you break free from producing a stacked sequence of editorial elements:

<some text>

<an image>

<a header>

<some text>


Rigid layout structures like that are, of course, great for mainly-prose narrative. But they make rich page layout — think: the interior design you see in a magazine, infographics, and their touchscreen successors — tough.

I hope you all take some time to play around with the software I mentioned — Webdoc, Blurb Mobile, Polyvore's editor, Storify, Hype, and Mixel. Only by practicing with these rich media canvases will we begin to see the kinds of stories and messages that might emerge if we move away from the constraints of tools that segregate word from image.

But what I didn't mention in my webcast, and the heart of this post, is a hardware development that feels increasingly likely: the arrival of large touchscreens that will make composition even easier than it currently is on devices like the iPad. Consider how the spread of really big touchscreens could improve the kinds of personal publishing projects we all work on ... from family photo books to website design, and from slideshow presentations to scrapbooking. If we could combine the touchscreen's signature talent (allowing us to signal our layout wishes directly: put this picture over there) with the large displays and workspaces that many of us enjoy at our work desks, wouldn't that change the kinds of documents we create? And wouldn't that require authoring tools that make it easy for us to mix and match different media types?

So, here's my list of recently spotted data points and observations:

The slow but steady convergence of Mac OS X and iOS

Anyone who follows Apple closely knows the deal here. Some headline developments for those who aren't Mac geeks: Lion's elevation of iOS-style, touch-friendly app icons; the increasingly high profile of touch gestures on all Mac laptops and, for the desktops, the availability of the Magic Trackpad. Steve Jobs rightfully dismissed the notion that we'd ever reach out and touch vertical displays. But it only takes a quick stroll down memory lane, and a glimpse at the sunflower-inspired iMac, to imagine a screen design that could easily shift between vertical (for long-form writing and reading) and horizontal-ish for touchscreen activities like page layout.

The heart of Windows 8: the touchscreen-friendly Metro

Microsoft's next big operating system update is built around the premise that people will want to switch between keyboard/mouse-controlled computers and those operated via touchscreen. They're counting on manufacturers to build tablets that do both. In one of their Metro demos, presenter Jensen Harris (a senior executive on the Windows user experience team) makes the case that in a few years it'll be rare to find any display — tablet, laptop, or desktop — that isn't touchscreen capable.

Touchscreen software for the big display

The New York Times' Nick Bilton wrote recently about a sneak peak Adobe gave him of a 50-inch "drafting table running Photoshop Touch where you can essentially draw and create on a screen." As Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch told him: "The creative process has been tied to a keyboard and mouse until now, and we want people to be able to touch the screen to create, just like we all used to use pencils and X-acto knives in the past."

Decreasing prices

We all know how this works: new technology gets cheaper as it matures. Those first generation Kindles sold for $399; now they start at $79. It's not hard to imagine a time when not only 20-plus-inch desktop monitors (the swivel variety, as I described above) are affordable, but also imagine portable touchscreen displays everywhere from your office walls to your refrigerator.

Growing familiarity with touchscreen gestures

Beyond early adopters, you see it everywhere: toddlers, deliverymen, senior citizens, checkout clerks — all of 'em understand how to tap, pinch, swipe. As a culture, we're becoming touchscreen literate.

The way I work

This one's personal, but I wonder how unique I am. My writing method often involves a bunch of writing surfaces: draft notes that I crank out on my desktop display; a sheet of physical notebook paper where I take notes on what I've written; another piece of paper on which I construct an annotated outline. I don't quite know what it is, but I just need to see it all spread out. And, man, do I love — do I need — to be able to draw lines, curves, circles, and arrows, connecting this idea over here, to that idea over there.

Writing, for me, on a laptop display feels claustrophobic. (I'm talking about the idea-generating and the drafting phase here; when it's time to revise, I'm plenty happy blocking out all distractions and focusing on a single, limited-size writing viewport.) LiquidText is one company I'm following closely; they're developing touchscreen-friendly reading tools that let so-called active readers tap, touch, highlight, and move text in ways that resemble my compositional tactics. They call it "multitouch document manipulation," and it's just one reason I'm incredibly excited about what may turn out to be the next desktop publishing revolution.

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

Photo on home and category pages: 40+242 Work by bark, on Flickr


November 08 2011

October 18 2011

Six ways to think about an "infinite canvas"

masterpiece by 416style, on FlickrThis is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." 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.)

Next week, I'm speaking at the Books in Browsers conference on "the infinite canvas." When I started chewing on this topic, my thoughts centered on a very literal vision: a super-ginormous sheet for authors to compose on. And while I think there's some great creative territory to explore in this notion of space spanning endlessly up, down, left, and right, I also think there are a bunch of other ways to define what an infinite canvas is. Not simply a huge piece of virtual paper, but instead, an elastic space that does things no print surface could do, no matter how big it is. So, herewith, a quick stab at some non-literal takes on the topic. My version, if you will, of six different ways of thinking about the infinite canvas.

Continuously changeable

The idea here is simple: refreshable rather than static content. The actual dimensions of the page aren't what's elastic; instead, it's what's being presented that's continuously changing. In some ways, the home page of a newspaper's website serves as a good example here. Visit The Boston Globe half a dozen times over the course of a week and each time you'll see a new serving of news. (Haven't seen that paper's recent online makeover yet? Definitely worth checking out, and make sure to do so using a few different screen sizes — laptop, big monitor, mobile phone ... each showcases a different version of its morphing, on-the-fly design.)

Deep zooms

Ever seen that great short video, "The Power of Ten"? It's where the shot begins just above two picnickers on a blanket and then proceeds to zoom out so that you see the same picnic blanket, but now from 100 feet up, and then 1,000 feet, and on and on until you've got a view from outer space. (After the zoom out, the process reverses, and you end up getting increasingly microscopic glimpses of the blanket, its fabric, the individual strands of cotton, and so on.) Here's a presentational canvas that adds new levels of meaning at different magnifications. So, the viewer doesn't simply move closer or further away, as you might in a room when looking at, say, a person. As you get closer, you see progressively deeper into the body. Microsoft calls this "semantic zooming" (as part of its forthcoming touchscreen-friendly Metro interface). Bible software maker Glo offers some interesting content zooming tools that implement this feature for readers looking to flip between birds-eye and page views.

Alternate geometries

A printed page is a 2-D rectangle of fixed dimensions. On the infinite canvas, the possibilities vary widely, deeply, and as Will Ferrell's character in "Old School" might say, "in ways we've never even heard of." Some possible shapes here: a 3-D cube with content on each side, or pyramid-shaped ebooks (Robert Darnton wrote about those in The New Age of the Book, where he proposes a multi-layered structure for academics with excess material that would bust the bindings of a printed book).

Canvases that give readers room to contemplate and respond

I just got a wonderful print book the other day called "Finish This Book." It contains a collection of fill-in-the-blank and finish-this-thought creative exercises. It reminded me that one thing digital books haven't yet explored much is leaving space for readers to compose their reactions. Sure, every ebook reader today lets you take notes, but as I've written before, these systems are pale replicas of the rich, reader-friendly note taking experiences we get in print books. Job No. 1 is solving those shortcomings, but then imagine the possibilities if digital books are designed to allow readers to compose extensive thoughts and reactions.


Print book lovers (I'm one of 'em) wax on about their beloved format's special talents: the smell, the feel, its nap-friendly weight. But touchscreen fans can play that game, too. Recall, for starters, the first time you tapped an iPhone or similarly modern touchscreen. Admit it: the way it felt to pinch, swipe, flick, and spread ... those gestures introduce a whole new pleasure palette. Reading and books have heretofore primarily been a visual medium: you look and ponder what's inside. Now, as we enter the age of touchscreen documents, content becomes a feast for our fingers as much as our eyes. Authors, publishers, and designers are just beginning to appreciate this opportunity, making good examples hard to point to. I do think that Erik Loyer is among the most interesting innovators with his Strange Rain app, a kind of mashup between short fiction and those particle visualizers like Uzu. It's not civilian-friendly yet, I don't think, but it points the way for artists interested in incorporating touch into their creations.

Jumbo content

A movable viewport lets your audience pan across massive content panoramas. Some of the possibilities here are photographic (Photosynth, Virtual History ROMA). Others have begun to explore massively wide content landscapes, such as timelines (History of Jazz). One new example I just learned about yesterday: London Unfurled for iPad, a hand-illustrated pair of 37-foot long drawings of every building on the River Thames between Hammersmith Bridge and Millennium Dome, complete with tappable backstories on most of the architecture that's on display.

These are just a few of the possibilities that I've spotted. What comes to mind when you think about the infinite canvas?

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

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

Photo: masterpiece by 416style, on Flickr


October 11 2011

October 04 2011

iPad vs. Kindle Fire: Early impressions and a few predictions

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." 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.)

Who knows for sure how the Kindle Fire will do? It's crazy how confident some folks are about who it will kill, maim — or catapult to corporate dominance. The dang thing hasn't even been touched yet by more than its birth parents and a close relative or two. (Me, I got a finger or two on it at last Wednesday's press conference. I can't add anything concrete to what you've probably already read.)

But what I can do is offer one man's report, a year and a half in, on how I use my iPad. My goal? Compare and contrast the iPad's talents with what we know the Fire will deliver. From there, maybe there's a conclusion or two to be drawn about how this new tablet matches up against its two main competitors: the Color Nook and the iPad.

So, to begin with, here's a rough tally of my iPad usage:

Most Frequent Tasks (~ 1 hour/day)

  • Email (Mail app)
  • Zite
  • Twitter (Twitter app)
  • Safari (general surfing)
  • Facebook (via Safari)
  • New York Times app

All together these six activities consume the majority of my iPad time. I list them roughly according to how frequently I use them, but the difference between the first and the last isn't much, I'd bet.

Next Most Frequent (~ 15 minutes/day)

  • Various newly released apps (or ones I've just learned about). I wrote a book last year recommending the "Best iPad Apps." This year I'm working on another book about designing digital books. So I need to keep up with what's new.

Periodic (~ 1/2 hour/day, every couple of days)

  • Kids book apps with my two young daughters
  • Flipboard
  • iTunes (for podcasts while stretching or cooking)

As I mentioned, for professional reasons I'm always playing with new apps. When apps like Our Choice or The Wasteland launch, I get them &mda and probably play with them a dozen or so times to get a feel for how they work. The only three I've ever added to my regular rotation are Twitter, the New York Times, and Zite. But I wonder, really, how unique that makes me. Don't most smartphone and tablet owners hear about new apps from friends and others online and then spend a little bit of scattered time trying new ones out?

Probably worth mentioning: the vast majority of my computing time gets spent on the laptop (a MacBook Pro) I'm typing on right now. Second place: my iPhone, which I use mainly for email, Twitter, ebook reading, web surfing, and phone calls. Let me wrap up this iPad audit with a few general observations:

  • I rarely use 3G (I've probably paid for three month's worth of service in the one and a half years I've owned both 3G models‚ the original and the iPad 2).
  • I don't read ebooks on the iPad very often. I find it bulky and too big, and prefer my iPhone (for plain text narrative) and print (for everything else).
  • I only pull it out on the subway (I live in NYC) when I can get a seat. Holding it in two hands requires more balance than my genes are ready to deliver.
  • I don't really like typing on it. It's okay for a few sentences (a quick email reply, for instance); anything longer and I wait till I'm at my laptop.
  • I'm not very conscious of missing out on Flash-enabled websites. I'm aware, of course, that many sites still use Flash, but I guess I just don't visit those sites.
  • I rarely sync my iPad to my laptop (maybe once a month, or maybe even longer). Feels like every time I remember that I'd like to sync (to get some new photos on it or refresh my music) I decide I don't have enough time. With the coming release of Apple's iCloud service, this will all likely improve, but it remains to be seen how completely, and how well executed, Apple's wire-free efforts go.

Now, what does all this mean when it comes to the Kindle Fire? I am of course getting one (and may have some big writing-related news on that front in the coming days … stay tuned!). But if I wasn't Pete the Gadget Geek, and I didn't yet own any tablet, knowing what I know now about how I use the iPad, which one would I get? Here are the big factors I'd consider:

  • $200 seems incredibly appealing. Like many other working professionals (a little bit of disposable income, worried about paying for two kids' educations, second homeless), I worry about spending $500-plus each time Apple releases a new "must-have" device.
  • The only item on my iPad use-case list that feels hard to match is all that new app reviewing I do. The key question: will "long tail" apps show up in Amazon's Appstore for Android? I'd bet, in many cases, yeah.
  • The Fire's smaller screen size seems as much a plus as a minus. Won't know for sure, of course, till I've had a chance to play with it, but at a minimum it will be easier to operate one handed.
  • Given my current subscription to Amazon Prime (which I will likely never give up), I suspect I'll watch more TV and movies on the Fire than I do on the iPad.

So, what's my prediction about the Fire's fate? Way too soon to say, of course. But if I were a betting man, here's where I'd put my money:

  • Nook Color will be the big loser in all this. There's just not enough compelling content there to win a showdown with the Fire (if it performs as well as it did in last Wednesday's demos).
  • iPad's growth will slow from hockey stick-like to something still enviable and profit-worthy. But a year from now, we'll no longer be forced to say what we must right now: there really is no tablet market; there is only an iPad market.
  • Amazon will sell, as Mr. Bezos predicts, "many millions" of these Fires.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

Join us on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at 10 am PT
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September 27 2011

Pictures that propel prose

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." 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.)

What's the best way to combine text and pictures? Most designers — print or digital — try to artfully position both on the same page. Brian Selznick, author and illustrator of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" uses a deceptively simple alternative: he devotes an entire spread (that is, two pages side by side) to each of the hundreds of illustrations in this charming and inventive story of a boy living alone in a train station. So, it's a page of text, a page of text, drawing spread, a page of text, and so on.

Now that might sound like a lousy idea, one that could easily impose a page-flipping burden on the reader as she flips between pages to see the drawings or, worse, skips right over them. You see this happen all the time in computer books (sorry, O'Reilly!). The text on one page references the figure on another. All that back and forth between this page with the prose and that page with the picture impedes understanding and futzes with any flow the reader has established.

But Selznick puts his drawings to work, doing more than just illustrating what his prose explains. In "Hugo Cabret," the art takes the storytelling baton from the text and, on its own, advances the plot. It's an elegant device.

For example, at one point, the text describes an episode in which the boy, Hugo, follows a man who's taken a notebook from him. We follow the pair leaving the train station, walking out onto the street, and the man ignoring Hugo's pleas to return his notebook. The last paragraph in this scene, which is found at the bottom of a right-hand page, reads:

"Stop clicking the street with your heels," the old man hissed through his teeth. "And don't make me say it again." He shook his head and adjusted his hat. Then, quietly, he said to himself, "I hope the snow covers everything so all the footsteps are silenced, and the whole city can be at peace."

Next comes five spreads showing the two walking through the city, with Hugo tailing the man. On the final drawing the two enter a cemetery.

illustration from Hugo Cabret showing a cemetery
In "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," the text that follows this illustration assumes the reader has taken note of the pictured graveyard. (Click to enlarge.)

The text picks up again on the next page and begins: "They soon arrived at a decrepit apartment building across from the graveyard."

See what happened there? The illustration is what first signaled the reader that the pair had entered a graveyard; when the text mentions it again ("the graveyard"), the assumption is that the reader already knows of its role in the story. By turning the visuals into part of the plot, Selznick earns his artwork more attention than a typical illustration-enhanced work of fiction. Readers, many of whom have gotten used to regarding art as "just a picture" that they can safely skip, learn that they need to pay attention to find out how the story unfolds.

So what's the digital book takeaway? While I'm not advocating a direct replica of this perfect-for-print solution, I do think it holds one especially valuable lesson. By not cramming loads of different media types onto the same page and by purposefully relegating different items onto their own pages, Selznick gains control of the "reading path": the order in which he's decided the content should be consumed.

But isn't that kind of authoritarian mandate heresy in an era of interactive, pick-your-path productions?

Not necessarily. Especially when it comes to fiction, letting the author control the reading experience is not necessarily a bad thing. By relieving the reader of any choice-making responsibilities — even as subtle as, Should I read this or that? or, Should I play this video or finish the text? — you give the audience something priceless: the ability to focus on the story.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

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September 20 2011

Five digital design ideas from Windows 8

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." 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.)

Microsoft deserves most of the design criticism it gets, but let's give them credit when they move in the right direction. What they've previewed in Windows 8 — especially the Metro touchscreen interface — is really lovely. It's humane, efficient, and innovative. In fact, I think there's plenty in it for digital book designers to think about emulating. I whipped out my notepad while watching one of their Build presentations — "8 traits of great Metro style apps" — and jotted down some key takeaways. (Also included are approximate timestamps so you don't have to sit through the whole 90 minutes.) The best part? Whether or not Microsoft actually ships something that matches their demo, you can benefit from the great thinking they've done.

Tablet users' postures and hand positions (16:31)

Microsoft did loads of research, hoping to identify how tablet users sat and where they placed their hands when holding these devices. The results are probably intuitive for anyone who's spent time with a tablet, but the conclusions are nevertheless helpful. Most people use both hands to hold a tablet, and the most frequent touch zones are on the edges. The lesson? "To design for comfort, you need to position [key controls] near the edge" (19:23). And: "It takes a posture change to reach comfortably into the center of the screen (in any orientation)." In other words, it's not that users can't reach things in the middle of the screen, but it does require they change how they're sitting. So, "put frequently used interaction surfaces near the edge," and "locate key controls to be comfortable to use while holding on to the edges of a device."

The difference between "fast & fluid" and "slow & jerky" (25:45)

The first phrase is Microsoft's (it's how they claim Windows 8 will perform; by the looks of the demo, they're pretty far along). The second phrase is mine, but in the demo it's clear that's what they want developers to stop doing. How? By using Microsoft-supplied transitional effects — for example, animating the way picture icons arrive on screen as users add them to a list. This might sound like frivolous eye candy, but the demo makes the point convincingly: these little points of polish make users feel a closer connection to the content and less like there's an engineer standing between them and what they want to do.

Specifically, what Microsoft is encouraging developers to do is use Windows 8's "Animation Library" to implement these effects and take advantage of things like hardware acceleration. This, they argue, saves programmers from having to master animation flourishes or learn After Effects; the ready-to-use animations take care of the design work. I mention all this because a sluggish reading experience — even one that's half a second too slow — can cause readers to bail.

This reminds me of a conversation I had last winter with Theo Gray, author of "The Elements for iPad" and one of the principals behind Touch Press. He was previewing an in-progress app for me and stopped the demo mid-way through. One of the gems onscreen that was supposed to spin was lagging a tiny bit. If you're even off by a little, he said, users will notice. Sweating the details like this may be one reason the Touch Press apps are so successful.

"A language for touch" (27:30)

The point Microsoft makes in this part of the presentation is, if you're making a touchscreen app, don't have fingers and touch gestures replicate what a mouse does. Multitouch screens can and should be controlled differently than our regular computers. And Microsoft makes this case by poking fun at the cumbersome steps an iOS user has to go through to drag an app icon from one home screen to another that's far away: "it's like driving a car from one side of the ocean to another." Anyone who's got more than a few screen's worth of apps knows what they're talking about. What Apple has currently designed is really the equivalent of how you'd scroll horizontally with a mouse (except in iOS there are no quick scrollbar shortcuts).

The solution that Microsoft demos is neat (28:48): you hold the app icon you want to move in place with one finger and then, with your other hand, you pan under it, swiping the screens quickly to get to the new placement spot where you want to drop the icon. It's very slick, and it's a reminder of the benefits of designing explicitly for a touchscreen.

"Semantic" zoom (33:25)

By now we're all used to tapping touchscreens to zoom in closer on an image or bump up the font size of an article. Microsoft has introduced a twist: zooming gestures now frequently deliver more and different kinds of info as users view content at different magnification levels. For example, when viewed up close, a group of neighboring app icons on the home screen might look like this:

But when the user zooms out to a bird's-eye view, that same group acquires a label, delivering an extra helping of information to help browsers decide where to go next or to rearrange groups into a different order.

The same kinds of semantic additions at different zoom levels could be helpful for digital book designers looking to provide different views (book-wide, chapter-level, and so on) for readers browsing through different levels of detail. A few months ago I wrote about Glo Bible and something similar they've done with their outline zooming tool.

True multitasking (46:42)

In Metro, two apps can co-exist side by side on the main screen. One sits center stage, and the other gets tucked in this so-called "snap" state: a compressed rectangular view that apps occupy when they cede the main part of the window to another app.

"A great snapped state," presenter Jensen Harris says, "invites users to keep an app on screen longer." These truncated views are fully functional. One fun example that gets a mention: imagine a piano app in snap state, a drum app on the main screen, and the user playing both of them at the same time. In other words, true multitasking and a world in which users are encouraged to make their apps interact with each other. It's a compelling reminder of something many serious readers (and writers) do all the time in the real world: keep multiple documents open simultaneously.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

Join us on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at 10 am PT
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September 13 2011

Keeping images and text in sync

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." 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 got some seriously mixed opinions about Biblion — the iPad app for browsing the New York Public Library's 1939 World's Fair archive. On the one hand, it's got few peers in rethinking how a document and photo collection can be packaged up in a fun-to-browse way. On the other hand, the whole design feels like one of my sketchbooks: overflowing with every kind of zany document design experiment that my caffeine-fueled mind can squirt out. Five minutes or so with this app and I find myself suffering from what might be called document disorientation — an unsettling sense that I don't quite know where I am, what I've read, and how much remains to explore. I don't, in short, find it a soothing or immersive reading experience.

But despite all that, I'm here to sing Team Biblion's praises (the shop behind this effort is named Potion). Included in their feature fest is one innovation that's particularly promising. It's a system for posting a handful of images above an article and then pushing to the forefront whichever picture matches the current reading point.

As the reader scrolls the prose column upward, the app enlarges whichever image matches the top few lines of text.

Launch state for lightbox layout image collection
The article in its "launch" state. Eight lines down, the text mentions Joe DiMaggio, who's pictured in the enlarged photo. (Click to enlarge.)

Further down in the article; a new image is on-stage
As the reader scrolls further down, new images are enlarged, one at a time. Here, the Babe Ruth photo matches what's discussed in the second paragraph. (Click to enlarge.)

Overall, the feature doesn't work as consistently as one might like — some articles offer this souped-up up treatment, some don't; some images get summoned exactly when you'd expect, others never get enlarged. But the thinking behind the feature succeeds, I think, because it targets a specific reader need (spotlighting the image that is currently important) while at the same time addressing a shortcoming of iPad page layout (limited real estate).

Beta620, the experimental playpen over at the New York Times, has been tackling a similar problem: how do you keep a single image visible even as a reader scrolls further down into a long article? They've come up with a feature I hope they promote to the big leagues. It's a dead simple layout tweak that keeps an image "above the fold" even as the reader scrolls down the page. Here's an article that puts this feature to use:

As the reader scrolls further down screen the art on the right stays in place.
As the reader scrolls further "down screen" the art on the right stays in place. (Click to enlarge.)

Maintaining a persistent visual in this manner is a hugely valuable reader service, especially for pieces like this essay on a Velázquez painting.

Lots of different kinds of digital books and web publications can benefit from this kind of customized, dynamic image spotlighting. I'm reading a book right now called "A History of the Illuminated Manuscript." A digital version of it would be perfect for keeping images onscreen, shuttling them off, and then re-summoning them as the reader progresses through the text. Save readers the hassle of having to flip back and forth between body text and referenced images and they'll learn better ... and want to buy more books with simple but useful enhancements like these.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

Join us on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at 10 am PT
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September 02 2011

August 26 2011

To page or to scroll?

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." 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.)

Designers of digital books and magazines face an elemental question: to page or to scroll? Might as well ask: Android or iPhone? There is no single correct answer. Here, I'll chip off a teensy portion of the tussle: some very specific use cases in which it feels like the content itself helps point to the right choice.

I think vertical scrolling is good for long magazine articles or even chunks of a lengthy narrative (chapters in a book, for example). The unbroken, flowing layout matches the mental state you engage in when following a writer's extended argument or story. In the case of magazine apps like Project and Wired, these vertical dives into individual articles contrast nicely with the horizontal swiping required to move between articles; that action, I think, matches the kind of browsing we do while flipping through a magazine looking for something to read.

Furthermore, in a long, vertically scrolled piece — a New Yorker article, for example — the only material that's important is what's visible on the screen. The reader of a 5,000-word profile doesn't "need" to see beyond the text they're currently viewing. If the article is interesting they'll keep scrolling down. If not, they'll stop. My point is that there's no risk readers will miss the remaining text because it's submerged off screen. If they bail out, they'll do so intentionally, because the writing failed to hold their interest.

In contrast, where I think scrolling is a bad idea is with any kind of table of contents or other place where you want an audience to pick from a content collection. Anything "below the fold" gets diminished attention. The home page of The Atavist app, for example, showcases the titles available for purchase.

Catalog page for iPad app The Atavist
Catalog page for iPad app The Atavist

But look at that poor, hair clipped fella down at the bottom of the screen; even more are hidden further below. Unless a user knows more selections await, they'll miss out on a chance to read some of the great stories this startup publishes.

The problem here is the same one grocers have known about for decades: stuff that's at eye level sells better than stuff that's not. Similarly, when a table of contents dumps its listings on a long scrolling page, the stuff that's off-screen doesn't get as much attention.

Better, then, to design a birdseye-view style home page — one that gives visible placement to all the main categories. The Fotopedia Heritage app, for example, does a nice job giving viewers multiple points of entry into its photo collection.

TOC for photo browsing app Fotopedia Heritage
TOC for photo browsing app Fotopedia Heritage

The only stuff not given full top-level placement are other apps the publisher is promoting; three are shown in the bottom row and others await by clicking the downward pointing triangle. Seems like a good decision.

And thanks to the fluid qualities of a digital display — think: content that refreshes, showing different versions; modal pop-overs; and so on — lots of quick peek opportunities exist for those who choose to confine their TOC content to one screen. The cover of the business book Bold: How to Be Brave in Business And Win cycles a new photo and pull quote onto its TOC every seven seconds or so and offers drill-down menus into the main parts of the book.

TOC for business book app BOLD
TOC for business book app BOLD

Finally, copywriting and visual design are especially important in any effort to turn the TOC into a single-screen effort since the page not only needs to "sell" what's featured, it also has to effectively describe which sub-categories are available for further exploration. Entertainment Weekly's Must List app does a nice job on both fronts. The variable-sized content boxes break up the visual monotony that a fully symmetrical grid creates and suggests, subtly, what's most important. And the tabs at the bottom of the screen — Movies, TV, and so on — let the user further explore the stuff they like.

TOC for Entertainment Weekly's Must List app
TOC for Entertainment Weekly's Must List app

One last example I can't resist throwing in: Music discovery app Aweditorium. Its home screen is a nearly endless mosaic of tappable album art. Their neat twist? To let users know that choice awaits in every direction, there's a birdseye view tucked into a mini window at the top left of the screen.

Home page for music discovery app Aweditorium
Home page for music discovery app Aweditorium

It's a nice, quick visual way to say, "hey music lovers, there's much more to explore than we could fit on one screen."

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

Join us on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at 10 am PT
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August 19 2011

August 05 2011

Sometimes the questions are as enlightening as the answers

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.)

Kindle with question markNow that I'm well into this book-writing project — Breaking the Page — one thing's clear: the questions I'm jotting down as I write are sometimes as interesting as any answers I, or anyone else for that matter, have come up with.

Put another way: we who work on the forefront of the transition from print to screen should operate with a certain mindfulness that frequently we have, um, no idea of what we're doing. And that in addition to experimenting vigorously we should bear in mind that the simple act of saying I don't know sometimes is the best way to figure where we need to turn our attention.

So, with that in mind, what follows are some of the questions I've been chewing on and plan on tackling in my book.

What kinds of new forms will digital books lead to?

The prevailing "shape" of a print book is linear. The writer writes 384 pages, the reader reads 384 pages, one after the other. In formal terms, I picture that as a straight line — maybe a curve if you want to think about the narrative arc (introduction, exposition, conflict, resolution, denouement). The path is fixed by the author who himself is working within the limits imposed by the paginated, bound book. And while all that is possible on a touchscreen display, none of it is necessary. You can mix & match horizontal panning (across a timeline, say) with vertical scrolling (in-depth looks at specific timeline events); you can create a series of hyperlinked pages, which a reader can click across & explore as she might on a website, visiting some (but not necessarily all) of the pages in whichever order she likes; you can construct a twhirlable geometric object, each side filled with text, audio, video or any combination thereof. It's gonna be really interesting to see if and how writers experiment with all these different options.

What happens when you introduce movement onto a page?

I'm not talking about video or animation, at least not the kind we tend to associate with cartoons or Pixar movies. I'm talking about the new kinds of messages authors can deliver when doing things like bullet points or whole paragraphs that slide onto the screen in a sequential manner. How does the reading experience differ compared to a "normal" page where all the items show up as soon as the reader turns the page? Or, consider: what would happen if a footnote suddenly broke free from its page bottom station and burrowed upwards, through the body text, challenging some point made by the author? Would that be the most annoying development in the history of human communication? Or would it be the kind of maneuver that appeals to the next David Foster Wallace — if only she had a tool that made these actions easy to compose?

And, on a related note ...

What would happen if, when the reader swipes or taps the right side of the page (signaling he's ready for the next page), rather than the next page showing up, a monocle appeared on the screen enlarging a particular passage — turning it into a kind of pullquote, around which the author added some new commentary. Something like: "Reader, friend, countryman: I'm begging you … this point is HUGELY important. If we cannot figure out how to teach our parents the difference between 'Save' and 'Save As' this country will continue to lose billions of dollars in productivity."

How exactly do you integrate, rather than just add multimedia to text?

Virtually all the authoring tools we use today offer no guidance on this front. In fact, programs like Word and WordPress tend to encourage a seriously fragmented presentation. It feels to me like we're still in what might be called the Ingredient Phase of digital publishing. We encourage authors to present all sorts of digitized goodies — text, links, videos, and so on — but don't spend any time helping them think about how to combine all this stuff. Is it any surprise, then, that readers complain they have a hard time focusing? How would your stomach react if you were asked to:

  • <first crack and eat two eggs>
  • <now drink a cup of milk>
  • <slice off 2 tablespoons of butter; let it dissolve in your mouth>
  • <wolf down a cup of flour>
  • <jump up & down to mix thoroughly>

So: how do we weave various media elements together so they work together in the service of the author's message rather than present a mish-mash collection of disparate objects?

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What is the cognitive purpose of the page?

The obvious answer, for me at least, is that each page divides a book's huge volume into smaller, more manageable parts. In the same way that hikers and long distance runners often focus on shorter-term, interim goals — get to the bridge; cross the bridge; etc. — readers benefit from the short span of pages & spreads.

But it's interesting to consider: since the human brain can only scan and process a few words at a time, you could theoretically present readers with far fewer words than what typically appears on a page. All the stuff that comes before the target area, and everything that's on the horizon is, in some respects, superfluous. We're not reading any of it, so: why is it there? Obviously, one big factor is the need to turn pages, be it in a physical book or on an electronic device. Even as these actions become automated & natural, they still impose an administrative overhead — a slight distraction. Who'd want to flick forward 20 times when you can get a tablet screen worth of text that's easy on your eye to move through?

What is the purpose of blank space on a screen?

And: when is empty space useful for an author to shape his message, and when is it useful for a reader to formulate, and maybe even jot down, his reaction?

How do you design documents so that they look & "work" differently based on what they contain … and what readers expect?

Here we enter territory where we need to start thinking about the different mental states of readers as they engage with different kinds of content. Someone reading a novel has a different mindset than someone learning how to scrapbook. A student facing a stack of books, preparing to write a research paper, is thinking "one-night stand;" a book lover facing that same stack is looking for a long-term relationship. Should we design more interactive features — sharing tools, discussion boards, character dossiers — for topics that aren't particularly immersive?

In an age of info overload and fragile attention spans, do books need to change to better address the mental state of their users?

For example, could you design a book so it comes packaged with different versions of itself: executive summary, key takeaways, smorgasbord-style "pick what you want" edition?

How do we design friction- and distraction-free reading experiences? (Or at least limit these intrusions.)

One of things that reading researchers have made clear is the enormous benefits enjoyed by so-called fluent readers. These folks rarely have to puzzle over vocabulary and concepts; as they power their way through the text, they not only ingest the author's message, they have room enough to host their own reaction to it. For them it's not simply a matter of understanding Malcolm Gladwell's point in Blink; advanced readers move onto some deep-tissue thinking about lessons worth applying to their own personal or business lives. How do we design documents that help readers at every point on the reading skill spectrum? What do we do to help those with impairments (either cognitive or visual), those who are skilled but still advancing, and even those who consider themselves experts at print books but may be having a hard time adjusting to screen reading?

How do we make sure the "reading path" is clearly visible?

I think of the reading path as the order in which the author wishes us to consume her content. Even individual pages present some kind of consumption order. In a print novel, it's simple: start on page one at "Once upon a time ...", keep turning pages till you reach "The End." Things get more complicated, quickly, as books and other digital documents incorporate hyperlinks, audio & video, and motion. How do authors make sure that readers:

  1. follow the presentation in the "correct" order (if there is one)
  2. if there is no single path through the content, how do you make each path similarly satisfying? (Think about a well-designed newspaper page layout; readers can read the pull-quote or view the photo-caption pair and read the associated article in any order they like and it all adds up, more or less, to the same article experience.)
  3. don't have to worry that there's stuff that they're missing. Reader confusion and anxiety (where should I click next?) are hugely under appreciated obstacles.

A wave of abandoned shopping carts in the late '90s caused web designers to focus on so-called usability. Word wranglers and other document producers need to acknowledge a similar kind of viewer bail out. It's happening, we need to realize, everywhere. And while lousy writing and uninteresting messages remain the biggest culprits, we now have to acknowledge that navigational difficulties can be part of the problem. Alternative reading options exist at the tap of a finger. How do we keep readers engaged?

Just because you can link to Wikipedia and other online sources should you? When? Why? Why not?

Avast!, as Melville liked to write in Moby Dick. I will stop with the questions — for now — and continue my hunt for answers.


July 29 2011

A story takes shape amidst tweets and pauses

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.)

"In music, in poetry, and in life, the rest, the pause, the slow movements are essential to comprehending the whole." — Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid (Harper Perennial, 2008; p. 213)

I've been thinking a lot lately about silence, about contemplation, about the meaning we derive from the blank spaces artists leave unoccupied.

The novelist Reif Larsen did something on Twitter last week that showed how, in an age of Information Overload, sometimes the best stories are those that arrive in small morsels, spaced generously.

So, here's what Reif wrote on July 19th:

Package from Serbia just arrived. I did not request such a package. I wonder the % of unrequested packages that end up being life-changing.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

That's odd, I thought. A little quirky, a little spooky in our post-Unabomber world. Next, came … well, what came next is I went away. I didn't check Twitter for a day or so, determined to keep my vacation free of digital bits. I cheated, alas, and what I saw from Reif was a report that:

Package is actually a series of packages nestled inside of each other, like a matryoshka doll. I'm on package #13. No sign of the center.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Hmm. Interesting. Now he had me thinking. Partly it was journalist-type questions: What's he up to with all this? Should I ping him and say “Not to be all Mom-ish, but, careful, man, ok? His next post arrived the following day:

I am at box #54, with still no sign of the center. At least the boxes are getting smaller. #54 was the size of old woman's fist.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

By now I found myself enchanted with this, the Tale of the Russian Doll Package. The following day he tweeted:

Box #79. Using tweezers now. Wondering how this ends.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Even away from Twitter and my various gadgets I found myself thinking about this box, the sender, what was coming next. I was, of course, drawn in by that age old question: What happens next?

The next day, a tiny hint arrived, a tapas-sized bit of plot, suggesting the end was near:

It's done. I opened the smallest box imaginable and inside was... I couldn't really tell. It's too small. Need to borrow a magnifying glass.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Now here's what's interesting, I think. Reif is someone with a demonstrated talent for creating long-form, immersive stories that last several hundred pages. His work as a novelist has cast its spell on me using all the usual tricks: great writing, compelling characters, plot twists.

And yet in this new, serialized Twitter tale, Reif wove for me, and others, another kind of story. One that didn't immerse us as deeply as a novel. But it showcased the quirky, elegant writing that seems to be Reif's style. And part of the charm here stems from the spaces that Reif inserted. The way he let his story linger and unfurl. He didn't, it's worth noting, try to take an already-told tale and sprinkle it out via Twitter. He composed, for this new medium, a new kind of story.

Reif ended things on a gentle, ethereal, mysterious (who's Elmore? I have no idea) note:

Borrowed Elmore's magnifier. Amazing. The thing at the center of all those boxes: a minuscule puppet. A woman. The size of a grain of salt.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Is there a business model here? Is this a helpful way to build Reif's online following? Who cares. For me the takeaway is this: the art of storytelling is alive and well … it just sometimes arrives in new packages.

TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR


July 14 2011

Notes that don't break the reading flow

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.)

Footnotes have got to be one of the more frustrating aspects of ebooks today. For starters, woe to the fat fingered among us who read on a touchscreen device. Even simply tapping the asterisk takes a couple jabs. Once you hit the tiny target, off you go to Footnote Land, the return from which depends on how well you understand your e-reader's "Back" button system.

Even in print, getting readers to shift their attention from body text to note is a tough sell. Schlepping to the bottom of the page — or worse, the end of the book — takes time, disrupts focus, and offers rewards that appeal mainly to the PhD set.

Now, of course, dedicated readers are perfectly capable of taking these kinds of excursions and preserving their attention. Heck, nursing mothers plow through War and Peace amidst interruptions. But the point is: in an age of ever increasing distractions and info temptations, we need to minimize obstacles to good reading flow — especially those that occur within the document itself.

The flexibility of the digital page offers promise.

The Shakespeare Pro iPad app offers one nice approach:

Embedded glossary in the Shakespeare Pro iPad app
Click to enlarge

The dotted underlines signal which words have available definitions. It's noticeable but unobtrusive; nice. (The same couldn't be said if instead we saw the classic blue web page link; the implicit message there is "I am a path to another document"). Having a touchscreen device is, of course, a key part of this design's success. Assistance is provided, at a tap, at the point of need. Clearing the note requires as little conscious thought as blinking; tap anywhere outside the box and it goes away. And a one-touch icon (the slightly open paged book in the upper-right corner) lets readers toggle the links on and off.

I might quibble with the decision (a business one?) to cite Shakespeare's Words in each pop-up box. Reasonable people might also differ on the positioning of the box (why not scooch it over into the empty margin? Perhaps, but move too far and you risk replicating the print page's attention zagging layout). All in all, though, it's very reader friendly.

Some notes are too long to fit easily in a pop-up window. More than a quick translation, these are brief extras in which an author or editor wants to provide background or commentary. In print, these items have traditionally been relegated to foot- or endnote status. The dynamic nature of a digital page — its ability to temporarily change what appears on its canvas — offers a chance to innovate.

Take a look, for example, at how the University of Virginia Press handles the transcripts of Lyndon Johnson's secretly recorded White House phone calls. (The material is password-protected, but you can sign up for a free trial.) The text of each conversation appears, when you first load the page, just as it might in print:

LBJ transcript, embedded notes not showing
Click to enlarge

Each time the editors wish to add a bit of extra background info — who George Reedy was or why the Gulf of Tonkin was important — they stuff that material into a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't part of the page canvas. The signal that extra info awaits is the universally recognizable plus sign, which morphs into the minus sign when the note text is onscreen.

LBJ transcript, embedded notes showing
Click to enlarge

It's an elegant, efficient, and unobtrusive way to offer this kind of background matter. What's the difference, you might ask, between this presentation method and the more common approach to linking to extra content at the bottom of the page? They both require the same number of clicks or taps: two. But the UVA Press's system offers a number of benefits.

First off: better continuity. Consider the jarring effect of being whisked to a different part of the page or a new page entirely. Whether it's print or digital, when you move away from the passage you're currently reading you lose your connection in a very literal way to the text. The state of immersion we all strive for as readers is both powerful and tenuous. No matter how strong its force field, it can be punctured easily: the phone rings, the baby cries, you realize you just missed your exit (kidding!).

A thoughtfully designed document does everything it can to maximize the reader's focus. Links that whisk people to different parts of a page or some other spot entirely disrupt the reader's focus. This effect is exacerbated when the reader gets dumped onto a new screen containing not just the note she tapped, but also the note's neighbors:

Page packed with lots of endnotes
Click to enlarge

Even if you don't read those other notes, their mere presence distracts. UVA Press' expandable page layout avoids such problems. You stay directly on the page, in the same location. It's even better than a print book's footnote, which requires you to shift your attention from the body text down to the bottom margin and you have to squint in most cases to read the extra info.

It's sweating the little stuff like this that's gonna turn ebook readers into ebook lovers.

TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR


July 07 2011

Images and text need to get together

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.)

Don't you find it annoying when you have to flip back and forth between a page of text and a picture it describes a few pages away? Consider, for example, this passage from an art history book on how Michelangelo combined doodles, text, and drawings:

At the top [of the illustration, a few pages away] ... is the horizontal sketch of a leg universally credited to Michelangelo and apparently belonging to a woman or a boy. At the left of the open top of the leg, the artist has written Am and fig, the latter actually appearing inside the outline of the upper part of the limb.

The text is on page 37 (of "Michelangelo: A Life on Paper"); the figure that the author, Leonard Barkan, refers to, meanwhile, is over on page 39, looking like so:

Michelangelo drawing in art history book with brief, uninformative caption
Michelangelo drawing in art history book with brief, uninformative caption. Click to enlarge

So you traipse back and forth between explanation and image, first trying to identify the items in question, and then trying to register why those things are worthy of commentary.

What a pain. What a drag on the reading flow you've established, thanks to Professor Barkan's otherwise incisive writing. What a pain for him, having to describe in text what would be trivially easy to point to were he standing next to you and the illustration. And how ironic, finally, that in a book devoted to the interplay between words and image so much of the author's commentary is segregated in body copy away from the actual figures. How much more useful and easy-to-follow would his comments be if they were bolted onto the figure, like so:

Same image as above, with body text added in margins next to image
Same image as above, with body text added in margins next to image. Click to enlarge

You want my guess as to why things weren't done this way? Two reasons: Professor Barkan uses Word rather than a page layout program like InDesign (no shame in that — those programs are awfully tough to learn). And the workflow in place at the publisher, Princeton University Press, doesn't easily let authors mark up figures with custom placed captions. The end result: a diminished reading experience.

Tools don't equal talent, goes the saying. Too bad the tools most of us use don't capture the simple things most of us would say if we were talking to each other.

TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR


June 23 2011

9 digital book-making tools

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.)

Demibooks ComposerI'm looking forward to the free webcast I'm giving next Thursday on digital book-making tools (June 30th; sign-up info here) . There's quite a land grab happening right now, as software manufacturers — new and old — try to become the tool of choice for authors, small publishers, and illustrators. I still haven't finalized exactly which software I'll be talking about, but now seemed like a good time to share a selection of my research notes.

Demibooks Composer

iPad-based app gives authors a touchscreen-based development tool from which they can create an iPad app. You can do things like move objects to indicate motion paths. Ideal for kids' books with lots of illustrations. In private beta, planned release later this summer.

My Story Book for the iPad

Like Composer, this app lets you create kids books on the iPad itself — though with fewer interactive and motion capabilities. Includes basic tools for adding and manipulating text atop photos and illustrations. Beta launching this summer.


Plug-in tool lets you add interactive and multimedia enhancements to InDesign or Quark layouts. Good for complex layouts featuring a mix of text and images. In limited pre-release.

Active Reader

Plug-in for Unity (high-powered game development program). Flowchart-like user interface lets you program interactivity and motion; especially useful for highly illustrated books like graphic novels.

Atavist's Periodic Technology

Authoring tool lets you add "Inline Extras" (e.g. pop-up character summaries, timelines, maps) to long-form articles that The Atavist specializes in (longer than an article, shorter than a book, they say). Export options include iOS app and stripped down Kindle files. Tool currently in private beta.


Desktop app (Mac or Win) for creating interactive iOS and Android ebooks, especially illustration-rich kids books. Open beta starting in July according to their Twitter account.


Desktop app (Mac or Win) lets kids book authors create iOS interactive ebooks.

App Press

Web-based tool for creating iOS apps. Early uses include photo histories and cookbooks. Web-based preview tool lets you share in-progress designs. Developer provides InDesign and Photoshop templates for preparing assets before importing into the App Press tool.


Lets you use pretty much any blogging tool to publish an ebook. System accepts RSS feeds, HTML, or Markdown and outputs ePub 2.1, Mobi and PDF. Built-in e-commerce system takes care of sales for author and offers very generous royalty rates (usually about 90%).

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I've looked at, easily, a couple dozen entrants and the ones listed above are mainly there because my notes on them are ready for sharing. My goal for the webcast is to give attendees a guided tour of the main kinds of tools out there, with a look at what feels to me like the most promising tools in each category. Hope you can join in!

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


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