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March 16 2012

Take a break and "PressPausePlay"

Are you a cultural conservative? Progressive? Do you think once we get through this non-linear bit, digitally-produced culture will settle back down into a recognizable pattern? Or will this fragmentation last forever? Would that be utopian or dystopian to you (or have I just re-phrased the first question)? Did it ever make sense to have music / film / art "industries" or was that just a blip in history? What does this post contribute to your cultural signal-to-noise ratio?

It's Friday so give yourself a break and take the two hours you would have spent by the water cooler talking about March Madness and watch "PressPausePlay," a wonderful film on the digital upending of cultural production. Then open up Garage Band and write a song about it ...

March 14 2012

The state of ebook pricing

This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert's Publishing 2020 Blog ("iBooks Author: Appreciating Apple's Intent"). It's republished with permission.

With all the buzz about the agency model, the Justice Department, allegations of collusion, etc., I figure the time is right for a post about ebook pricing. Here are some quick thoughts as both a consumer and a publisher:

Eliminating waste is always a good thing — Walmart has mastered this for years. They squeeze every bit of waste out of the supply chain and generally end up with the lowest prices. I'm a frequent Walmart customer, and I greatly appreciate this. In fact, the only people who don't like this are (a) other retailers who can't match those prices and (b) ecosystem players who are part of the waste that's being eliminated, including suppliers.

Loss leaders are a great retail model — Selling some products at or below cost is a great way to bring customers in the door, regardless of whether that door is physical or virtual. I'm sure I've bought many cartons of milk at a loss for the retailer who made it up by selling me other items at a nice profit. It's a model that works, but have you ever seen a store that sells most of their products at a loss, every day?

Taking loss leadership to a new level — Remember when Amazon first launched the Kindle and pretty much every ebook was $9.99? It's no secret that Amazon was losing money on the majority of those sales. In fact, they still are. Prior to the agency model, Amazon was free to set whatever customer price they wanted for ebooks, even if it meant they were selling every single one of them at a loss. That brings up the razor/blades model, where it's not unusual for the razor to be sold at a loss, but the profit is made on the sale of the blades. So, if ebooks are the razors, what are the blades? The ereader device? According to iSuppli, the Kindle Fire's manufacturing cost is slightly higher than its retail price. How long can a retailer stay in business when they're losing money on both the razors and the blades? Presumably, they're making some money on other products they're selling (e.g., shoes, electronics, etc.). Perhaps. Then again, if they have deep enough pockets they can continue selling all their products at a loss until the cash dries up. In the meantime, competitors will find it difficult, if not impossible, to compete, so they'll disappear. What happens after that? Do prices remain low as products are still sold at a loss? Not if that company wants to stay in business.

The agency model prevents brand erosion — Think of the premium products you've bought or admired. Oftentimes, their prices are higher than most of the competition's. What would happen if those prices were suddenly significantly reduced? Would those products retain the full value of their premium brand? Highly unlikely. And shouldn't the owner of that brand have a say in what price is associated with it? Again, it's OK for a short-term loss-leader model, but I'm talking about selling something at or below cost for years and years, not just for a day or two. Over time, the value of that brand is affected. That's why I think publishers should definitely have the option to go with the agency model so they can manage retail prices and not let their brand lose value. By the way, consumers will ultimately vote with their wallets. If they feel the publisher's prices are too high, they'll stop buying and that publisher will either need to make adjustments or go out of business.

Fixed prices vs. price-fixing — In the U.S., we're so used to competitive retailer discounts that we're surprised to hear of the fixed price models used in other countries. For example, in Germany the price you pay for a book doesn't change from one retailer to the next. They're all required to sell them at the same price. Obviously, there's a huge difference between Germany's fixed price law and the price fixing the Justice Department is alleging. Germany's model doesn't lend itself to squeezing out waste like the U.S. model, but I'll bet it prevents one deep-pocketed retailer from putting its competitors out of business.

I don't work at a big six publisher, but I believe publishers should have the option to choose between the agency and wholesale models. The key issue though is that the Justice Department has suggested that Apple and a number of publishers colluded to keep prices high. I think this article by Gordon Crovitz in The Wall Street Journal sums it up quite nicely, particularly in the closing two paragraphs. Read that piece and ask yourself if the Justice Department's efforts will actually fix or merely add to an existing problem.

What's your opinion of the pricing questions and allegations currently facing the book publishing industry?

TOC Bologna — Being held March 18, TOC Bologna will feature sessions, demos, workshops and keynotes covering the art and business of storytelling in the digital age.

Register to attend TOC Bologna


January 13 2012

A study confirms what we've all sensed: Readers are embracing ereading

The recently released Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading study by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) showed impressive growth in ereading. From October 2010 to August 2011, the ebook market share more than tripled. Also notable, readers are committing to the technology, with almost 50% of ereading consumers saying they would wait up to three months to read a new ebook from a favorite author rather than reading the same book immediately in print.

In the following interview, BISG's deputy executive director Angela Bole reviews some of the study's data and addresses growing trends in ereading.

Bole will further examine the study's results — including data from the new third volume — at the "Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading" session at the upcoming Tools of Change for Publishing conference.

Are readers embracing ereading?

AngelaBole.jpgAngela Bole: When the first survey in volume two of BISG's "Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading" was fielded in October 2010, the market share for ebooks was less than 5%. In the latest fielding, conducted in August 2011, the market share was almost 16%. Clearly, readers are embracing ereading. The greatest interest today seems to lie in narrative fiction and nonfiction, with interest in more interactive nonfiction and education taking longer to develop.

How are most readers consuming e-books?

Angela Bole: In the October 2010 and January 2011 survey fieldings, there were two distinct categories of ereaders — tablets like the iPad and dedicated devices like the Kindle — with a wide functionality difference between them. During the May 2011 and August 2011 fieldings, the NOOK Color and many new Android-based tablets were released, and distinctions between device categories began to blur. Even so, dedicated ereaders remain the favorite ebook reading device for book lovers, especially for reading fiction and narrative nonfiction. The Kindle, in particular, remains strong.

A graph illustrating responses to the study question, "What device do you now use most frequently to read e-books?"

What are the most popular genres for ebooks?

Angela Bole: This depends to a degree on whether you're a "tablet person" or a "dedicated ereader person." Data from the Consumer Attitudes survey shows that the Kindle and NOOK are the preferred devices of survey respondents in all fiction categories, while tablets like the iPad hold the edge in nonfiction categories. In these reports, the data have suggested that dedicated ereaders may be better optimized for narrative reading, while the richer media capabilities of tablets may be more appropriate for nonfiction, education, and scientific and professional titles.

A graph illustrating responses to the study question, "What genre(s) do you like to read, overall (in any format)?"

Do people typically buy ebooks on their computers and then transfer them to their devices?

Angela Bole: Until August 2011, our data showed that the computer (desktop or laptop) was the prevailing purchasing platform. Today, however, more and more people are purchasing directly on their dedicated ereaders — 49% of respondents to the August 2011 fielding, up from 36% in May 2011.

Does the research point to digital publishing helping or hurting the publishing industry?

Angela Bole: Consumers who migrate to digital are spending less on physical hardcover and paperback books. The research supports this out quite clearly. That said, respondents to the survey actually report increasing their overall dollar spending as they make the transition to ebooks. Almost 70% of the respondents to the August 2011 fielding reported increasing their ebook expenditures, compared with 49% in the October 2010 fielding. Respondents reported increased spending on books in all formats to a greater degree than they reported decreased spending. Assuming the publishing industry can develop the right business models, this is good news.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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


January 10 2012

Three reasons why we're in a golden age of publishing entrepreneurship

We are entering a golden age for entrepreneurship in the publishing industry. The Books in Browsers conference last October and the London-based Futurebook conference in December showed a rich array of startups from all around the world. Profile Books' Michael Bhaskar has compiled a list of publishing-related startups that he intends to add to as it grows.

There are three reasons why this growth is happening.

Books are digital

Or, I should say, books can be digitally managed. Standards such as EPUB or ONIX enable both the content and the metadata of the books to be digitally available. And this means that new capabilities and services can be built around the content. You can think of e-bookstores, of course, but startups try to look beyond the obvious: What about recommendations based on the book's DNA á la Pandora, like BookLamp? Or relating places, songs, or others books, as does SmallDemons? And what about some remixing, like BookRiff?

Processes are digital

Internet technologies have simplified some of publishing's processes. For a few years now, digital publishers and self-publishing platforms have experimented with new ways of approaching the market, the authors, and, most importantly, the readers. Self-publishing initiatives like Smashwords or Lulu are pretty well known, but new ventures are also popping up, like the commoditization of EPUB processing proposed by Pressbooks or BiblioCrunch. Startups that focus on offering new back-end tools and services to boost efficiency in the publishing lifecycle will be, as Don Linn hailed them, 'heroes, even if largely unrecognized, this year."

Readers are digital

Most importantly, readers are becoming more digital. I have been reading almost exclusively in digital format for more than a year. When, a week ago, I started "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" in print format, I fully understood how significant the digital leap is. I found myself thinking: "I don't understand this word — where is the dictionary?" "I loved this passage, how do I share it?" I truly felt that I was going backwards. And this is where all the startups focused on social reading like GoodReads, Anobii, or Flatleaf will be competing.

Entrepreneurs from the IT and publishing industries will find many opportunities now. And they must, because startups play at least one critical role in any industry: they challenge assumptions. One of the innovation myths is that people like change, but that's not really true. So, when an industry reaches some type of stability, and when competition starts to look like an oligopoly, then someone else needs to think differently. And startups typically do a great job there. Many of them will be wrong or will execute poorly, of course, but even if they fail, these challenges will be good for the industry. As Steve Blank states, a startup is an organization where the main goal is to find a repeatable and scalable business model. And if a specific startup is unable to achieve it, others should try.

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


December 02 2011

Top Stories: November 28-December 2, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

Don't blame the information for your bad habits
Clay Johnson, author of "The Information Diet," says information consumption, not the information itself, is what needs to be managed.

Big data goes to work
Alistair Croll looks at how data is shaping consumer expectations and how those expectations, in turn, are shaping businesses. He also examines where business intelligence stops and big data starts.

The paperless book
Todd Sattersten: "The publishing world needs some new language that describes what happens and, more importantly, what is possible when the words are separated from the paper."

How Twitter helps a small bookstore thrive
Learn how Omnivore Books, a cookbook store in San Francisco, uses Twitter to solidify relationships with customers and break through the publisher blockade.

Web-first workflows let publishers focus on the stuff that really matters
In a recent keynote, PressBooks founder Hugh McGuire said web-first workflows streamline book production so publishers can focus on more important matters, such as writing, finding, and editing great books.

Tools of Change for Publishing, being held February 13-15 in New York, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. 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


October 28 2011

Top Stories: October 24-28, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

Dennis Ritchie Day: October 30, 2011
Tim O'Reilly: "I don't have the convening power of a governor, but for those of us around the world who care, I hereby declare this Sunday, October 30 to be Dennis Ritchie Day."

You say you want a revolution? It's called post-PC computing
Spurred on by a Googler's rant against his own company and Apple's release of a new phone, a new OS and a new cloud infrastructure, Mark Sigal wonders what the "post-PC" revolution really looks like.

We're in the midst of a restructuring of the publishing universe (don't panic)
Hugh McGuire, co-author of "Book: A Futurist's Manifesto," explains why publishing's digital transformation goes way beyond format shifts. He also reveals nine ways the publishing industry will change over the next five years.

"Revolution in the Valley," revisited
With "Revolution in the Valley" making its paperback debut and the work of Steve Jobs fresh in people's minds, we checked in with Andy Hertzfeld to discuss the legacy of the first Macintosh.

What to watch for in mobile web apps
Sencha's James Pearce discusses the most promising mobile web app technologies and explains why device APIs could make the web a lot more interesting.

Velocity Europe, being held November 8-9 in Berlin, brings together performance and site reliability experts who share the unique experiences that can only be gained by operating at scale. Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20.

October 26 2011

We're in the midst of a restructuring of the publishing universe (don't panic)

A new book released this week called "Book: A Futurist's Manifesto," by Hugh McGuire (@hughmcguire) and Brian O'Leary (@brianoleary), examines the future of book publishing from an advanced perspective. Beyond pricing and delivery mechanisms, beyond taking print and displaying it on a screen, the authors look at the digital transformation as more than a change in format — as stated in the book's introduction:

The move to digital is not just a format shift, but a fundamental restructuring of the universe of publishing. This restructuring will touch every part of a publishing enterprise — or at least most publishing enterprises. Shifting to digital formats is 'part one' of this changing universe; 'part two' is what happens once everything is digital. This is the big, exciting unknown.

I reached out to the book's co-author Hugh McGuire to examine some of the elements at play in the future of publishing and in the "exciting unknown" of doing things with books that have never before been possible. Our interview follows.

What's the story behind "Book: A Futurist's Manifesto"?

HughMcGuire.jpgHugh McGuire: I'd been working on building — a digital book production tool designed for publishers — and I wanted to get a real sense of how it worked, hands on. How better than to manage a real publishing project, working with a real publisher, from beginning to end, using PressBooks?

Of course, it made sense to make it a book about the future of books and publishing. So much ink is spilled about that topic, but we wanted to get away from the abstract and right down to the nitty-gritty. We wanted to produce something that would be a handbook you could give to someone starting a publishing house today.

I talked to my friend Brian O'Leary about co-editing with me, and he was on board. With that, I pitched it to Joe Wikert at O'Reilly — he loved the idea, and off we went.

It's been a bit of a challenge, producing a book while simultaneously building the book production tool on which the book is produced, but we've managed ... if a month or two late.

This is a broad question, but what are the major ways digital is changing publishing?

Hugh McGuire: It's more like in what ways isn't digital changing publishing? First, we very quickly dispatched of the pre-Kindle, pre-iPad question of, "Will people read books on screens?" Yes, and the growth curves are spectacular. The publishing world has, in a pretty orderly way, adapted to this change — with digital files now slotting alongside print books in the distribution chain. I think is this just the start, however.

The publishing world has managed the "digital-conversion disruption" pretty well. Publishers make ebooks now as a matter of course, and consumers buy them and read them on a multitude of devices.

What we as an industry haven't managed yet is the "digital-native disruption." What happens when all new books are ebooks, and the majority of books are read on digital devices, most of which are connected to the Internet? This brings with it so many new expectations from consumers, and I think this is where the real disruption in the market will come.

The kinds of disruption there include: speed of the publishing process, reader engagement with content, linking in and out of books, layers of context added to books, and the webification of books. I think the transitions we've seen in the past three years will pale in comparison to what's going to happen to publishing in the next three years.

Book: A Futurist's Manifesto — Through this collection of essays from publishing thought leaders and practitioners, you'll become familiar with a wide range of developments occurring in the wake of the digital book shakeup.

Which digital tools should publishers focus on?

Hugh McGuire: Publishing is such a strange, conservative business, and I think there is a real hesitancy to invest heavily early on until there is real clarity on what the long-term standards will be. But EPUB is based on HTML, and I think whatever happens, HTML will be with us for the long haul.

So, tools I think publishers need to start working with:

These are the keys to having a successful publishing company that is future-proofed as best as it can be.

Why is metadata important to digital publishing?

Hugh McGuire: Physical bookstores provide a range of crucial services beyond being a place where you can buy books. Stores offer selection, curation, and recommendation. The digital book retail world is very different because it offers nearly unlimited selection. While retailers like Amazon spend a fair bit of energy trying to recommend titles to readers, the task of sifting through and finding books is increasingly left to consumers.

So, having good metadata — which really should be renamed "information about a book" so it's less intimidating — means providing information that will: A) ensure that people looking for your book, or for the kind of content in your book, will find it; and B) help potential buyers of your book decide they want to buy it.

On the web, companies spend lots of time making sure their sites are search engine optimized, so that people looking for those websites (or the information on them) will find them. Attaching good metadata to a book is much like search engine optimization — it's the mechanism you use to make sure your book gets found by the people looking for it.

What will the publishing landscape look like in five years?

Hugh McGuire: In five years:

  • Print is a marginal part of the trade business.
  • There's a huge increase in the number of small publishers of all stripes.
  • There's a massive increase in the number of books on the market.
  • The Big Six publishers will consolidate to become the Big Two or Three.
  • Most writers will continue to have a hard time making a living as writers.
  • Good/successful publishers will be those that provide good APIs to their books.
  • All books will be expected to be connected to the web, allowing linking in and out, and contextual layers of commentary, etc. (Will this be driven by publishers or retailers? To date, retailers have lead the way.)
  • The distinction between what you can do with an ebook and what you can do with a website will disappear (and it will seem strange that it ever existed).
  • While books will become more webby, the web will also become more bookish, accommodating more book-like structures in evolving HTML standards.

What's the publishing schedule for "Book: A Futurist's Manifesto"?

Hugh McGuire: The book comes in three parts:

  1. Out now: "Part 1: The Setup" — This addresses what's happening right now in publishing.
  2. Out sometime before Christmas: "Part 2: The Outlook: What Is Next for the Book?" — Given the technology we currently have, what can we expect to see happening with books going forward?
  3. Out in early 2012: "Part 3: The Things We Can Do with Books: Projects from the Bleeding Edge" — Case studies of real publishing projects, technologies, and enterprises working right now at the bleeding edge.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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


September 30 2011

The future of looking back

This post originally appeared in Tim O'Reilly's Google+ feed.

A lot of manuscripts cross my desk at O'Reilly Media. This one, "The Future of Looking Back," which is featured as the inaugural title of a new Microsoft Research series from Microsoft Press, really caught my attention when I saw it a few months ago.

Richard Banks, the author, writes:

The Technology Heirlooms project has been all about thinking about what legacy means for the digital things in our lives. For example, in the past we took analog photos and could count them in the hundreds, maybe. Now we take digital photos, thousands of them, and post them online to share instantly with others. With the analog photos we might have just kept them in a shoebox or a photo album, which is how they would be passed on to our family. What’s the equivalent of that for digital photos? Similarly, in the past we might have written a diary, which again would be passed on to others. Now, we share our thoughts and actions online with friends, which is the closest digital equivalent to a diary and like a diary could form a valuable record of our lives once we pass away. In what form should we preserve these digital diary entries?

With this project, then, we’re interested in looking at the fundamental human values of legacy — why it feels instinctual to want to preserve and treasure the things we’ve been left by our grandparents, for example — and thinking about how those values apply in our digital world.

See comments and join the conversation about this topic at Google+.

September 23 2011

Top Stories: September 19-23, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

Cooking the data
Open data and transparency aren't enough: we need True Data, not Big Data, as well as regulators and lawmakers willing to act on it.

BuzzData: Come for the data, stay for the community
BuzzData looks to tap the gravitational pull of data, then keep people around through conversation and collaboration.

At its best, digital design is choreography
In this brief interview, Threepress Consulting owner Liza Daly tackles a question about formatting content for browser publishing. She says for design to succeed, authors, artists and developers must work together.

Five digital design ideas from Windows 8
Microsoft's Metro interface offers plenty for digital book designers to study. The best part? Whether or not Microsoft actually ships something that matches their demo, designers can benefit from the great thinking they've done.

The problem with deep discount ebook deals
Joe Wikert says publishers should move away from one-product deep discount campaigns and start thinking about how to build a much more extensive relationship with customers.

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders. Save 20% on registration with the code AN11RAD.

September 13 2011

When media rebooted, it brought marketing with it

This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we'll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months.

As president of Twist Image and author of "Six Pixels of Separation," Mitch Joel spends a lot more time thinking about digital marketing than most people. Joel sat down recently with O'Reilly's Joe Wikert to explore the publishing and marketing topics that are currently on his radar. These include:

  • "The how versus the why" — Why are you on YouTube? Why are you tweeting? Are those outlets actually suitable for the things you're trying to say, or are you using them because that's what everyone else is doing? Joel says it's important to question the time and energy you're investing in various platforms. [Discussed at the 6:08 mark.]
  • Advertising in books — Placing ads in books (digital or otherwise) is anathema to some publishers, but Joel doesn't share that view. As magazines and Google have shown, advertising can be made palatable by targeting the advertising to the content. What publishers need to do is resist the urge to "poison the well" with broad-based generic ads. [Discussed at 9:44.]
  • Why publishers should "burn the ships" — You can't look at the media as if it's the same media it was 5-10 years ago, Joel notes, and that means you can't look at advertising and marketing the same way either. Cramming traditional marketing models into digital platforms simply won't work. It's time for something completely different. [Discussed at 13:46.]

The full discussion is available in the following video. Joel will expand on some of these ideas during his keynote address at next month's TOC Frankfurt.

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


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
Register for this free webcast


September 12 2011

If you're a content designer, the web browser will be your canvas

Blank browser windowThe upcoming Books in Browsers conference will focus on books as "networked, distributed sets of interactions," as opposed to content containers. I've asked several of the event's participants to address the larger concepts surrounding books in browsers. We'll be publishing these interviews over the coming weeks.

First up is Peter Brantley (@naypinya), director of the BookServer Project at the Internet Archive and co-founder of the Open Book Alliance. Brantley, who also is a co-organizer of the Books in Browsers conference, tackled a question about how content publishers should regard the browser.

Have browsers already become our default mechanism for content consumption? And if that's the case, do content industries need to think "browser first" rather than "digital first"?

PeterBrantleyMug.jpgPeter Brantley: I think the browser — or more specifically, the browser rendering engine, e.g., WebKit — has been the dominant rendering mechanism for digital content since the advent of the web. Although computer text interfaces were dominant for several decades, non-browser graphical implementations, such as those available on Xterms, were quickly relegated to niche applications once the HTTP protocol was widely implemented.

The network offers a low-barrier distribution mechanism, and the browser provides for a relatively coherent set of standards over content presentation and behavior. This set of more or less open standards is growing in sophistication through the addition of support for sensor and geolocational awareness as well as more transparent media inclusion and user feedback. Designing for the browser will be what designing content means.

There's one new issue that browser-based design propels forward: We are just now beginning to grapple with how we learn from, and use, complex media.

Text has been a persistently desirable format because it offers a low threshold for cognitive processing and conceptual understanding. Creative arts will have to acquire an understanding of when and how we can mentally take advantage of the technologies that are beginning to emerge: e.g., when should their affordances be made visible — and when transparent — to the user. Even more importantly, we will have to make sure the user can control the experiences that they are increasingly helping to craft, and not be unwilling victims of them.

How we tell stories to each other will remain a challenge at the nexus of our technology, intuition, and empathy.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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


September 08 2011

RIP Michael S. Hart

Michael Hart is dead. He was the founder of Project Gutenberg, and an incredible visionary for online books, and someone who touched my life. I was in email contact with him from 1990, when I got my first access to the Internet and found Project Gutenberg. I ran New Zealand mirror archives of Project Gutenberg texts, scanned and proofread books, and fell in with the write crowd, to to speak.

I made a trip to the US around 1993 or 94. It was a family trip to a bluegrass festival in Kentucky, but I asked Dad if we could tack on a few extra bits as we'd be "close by". Those bits: a trip to Champagne-Illinois to meet Michael, and a trip to Rhode Island to meet a girl. "Close by" if you're in NZ and looking at a map of the US and don't pay much attention to scale. Dad drive us to Rhode Island and I got to meet the girl, but he said I'd have to do my geek stuff by myself.

So I flew into there somehow, and Michael picked me up and drove me around town. In Wellington, where I got my degree, the university sits on a hill above the town. In UIUC the town was built around the university! He showed me the divide between arts and science, made literal and laughable by the road that actually did divide the arts faculties on the left from science faculties on the right. We crossed the tracks, the actual tracks, to the bad side of town. He fed me American Pizza, and my clearest memory of the whole trip is watching him empty packets of sugar onto the top of his pizza. Something like that really sticks in one's mind ....

Then we went back to his house, which I believe he had inherited from his academic family. In my memory it is huge, but I think that's principally because it was full of books. I remember him as loving physical books as much as he loved digital books, but most of all I remember him as generous with his time. He took a lot of time out of his busy days to show this goober of a boy, 21 years old if that, around town. He can't have got much back in conversational joy, as I wasn't a particularly worldly chap, and I didn't realize then what a lot of time I'd asked for and he'd given. He put me up in his house, I made my way back to the family the next day, and when I eventually built a life for myself in America (not with the lass from Rhode Island, however) I often thought of Michael but never made the time to follow up. I regret it now.

I learned a lot from Michael, though I don't think he realized it at the time. I learned how hard it is to be a pioneer: doing work that others don't value is thankless and marginalizing. I learned how hard it is when others eventually follow you: they don't value what you've done nearly as much as they should, and they have lots of different ideas about the future than you do. I learned to be generous with my time. I learned that sugar on pizza is a taste it takes longer than one day to acquire. And, most importantly, I learned that people can and do make a life for themselves doing what they love.

RIP Michael.

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?

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

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.

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June 17 2011

Augmented reality and books, together at last?

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.)

Most people — certainly readers of this blog — know about "augmented reality," whereby camera-powered computers gussy up the real world with extra layers of info. A popular example: point a smartphone's camera at a crowded city street and watch a bunch of labels appear onscreen indicating bars and restaurants. (The restaurant-finding Yelp app does that trick; just tap Nearby and then Monocle.)

It didn't take long, of course, for publishing types to scratch their heads and wonder: You know what? We could use the same trick in our products. And, man, have people come up with some pretty neat examples. Already we're starting to see models from human anatomy books "jump" off the page and become animations on nearby screens. Or dusty architecture tomes whose fragile and one dimensional drawings get charmed into 3D versions on a computer.

AR-powered architecture book

Here, then, are a few examples I've run across during my research, each of which illustrates how books and other publications are starting to use AR to power their pages.

Dorling Kindersley's 3-D books

Publisher DK is known for its visually lush books. Whether it's intricately designed page interiors, pull-out maps, or even a die-cut cover that lets readers peer inside at body organs — this crew likes to make books that are fun to look at and play with.

So it's no surprise they're experimenting with new ways of bridging print and digital. The initial titles in its just launched "3-D" series ("Human Body," "Dinosaur") feature AR extras that spin animations off the print page onto a nearby computer screen. Getting it to work does take a bit of work, but the results are novel enough to justify the setup effort, which goes like this:

  1. Buy the print book
  2. Download and install the free software on any computer with a webcam
  3. Open the book's pages and point any of its six "AR spreads" at the webcam. The webcam/software duo spots the special AR logo and the visuals begin. Onscreen you see a live shot of you holding the book, which now bears a superimposed animation of a walking human skeleton, a flexing dinosaur, and so on.

AR-powered architecture book

The result is a visual extra that depicts motion in a way that's obviously not possible in print. Now an equally obvious question: Why force readers to go through all this book/software/webcam hassle? Couldn't DK simply print a web address in the book and have the reader visit that web page to see an animation? Sure. But by staging the action quite literally on the print pages, there's at least a fighting chance the reader's journey is going to continue within the book rather than wandering off onto the web. It's certainly a valid question as to why DK chose to create PC-based software versus, say, a smartphone app. But these kinds of print/digital joint ventures are a fun glimpse of how print can do what it's good at (rich interior layout, large spreads) and digital can bring its special sauce to the party.


Let's face it: plenty of mainstream consumers are never gonna jump through all the steps the DK books require. U.K.-based Aurasma recently released a tool that makes the whole process a bit easier. First, the software is part of a smartphone app (iOS and Android), which eliminates the need to crack open, say, your laptop while on the bus. And they've figured out a way to eliminate those special on-page codes that only a geek could love.

Using image recognition technology, the app automatically recognizes on-page and on-screen visuals like logos and photos. Launch the app, point your smartphone or tablet camera at the target, and watch the extras spring to life on your display. For example, the company has put together some demos that use logos from USA Today, the New York Times, and other papers.

Aurasma has even rigged up the app so you can create your own AR extras. Want to thrill your kids with a video of them running on the front of a Cheerios box? It's pretty freakin' cool.

Star Walk

And yet, let's be realistic: even something like Aurasma requires a chain of participants lengthy enough that — no matter how innovative the results — it may never go mainstream. That's why the genius of the Star Walk app is less about the way it uses AR than how its users never even need to know about that geekish term, much less how to assemble its component parts. All that's required is to launch, point, and marvel.

Say for example you're trekking in Nepal and want help deciphering the night sky's star fleet. Fire up Star Walk, point your iPhone or iPad wherever you're curious and watch the screen alight with labels. Without having to do a lick of work you immediately see constellation names and the outline of those sometimes obscure objects (do you know what a Cetus is?) that boggle the imagination of many amateur sky watchers. As you rotate the device around, the labels change, reflecting whatever you're now pointing toward. Even better: the app lets you "watch" the sky from any location worldwide. So you can be in your windowless basement in Boston and see what the astronomical outlook is in, say, Sydney. All you need to do is use the built-in Google Earth-style map to pick the viewing location and up pops the relevant view.

Total Immersion's AR Magic Mirror

Woman with illustrated headgear composited on her face by Magic MirrorIt's worth noting that AR is not all about science and newspaper experiments. Sometimes it's just about being plain silly. Magic Mirror is an app that lets you futz with faces. Use your iPad's front-facing camera to frame your mug, and then add a wacky pair of sunglasses, a crazy hat, and so on. It all gets added to the live version of you.

For now the fun lasts about five minutes or so. In other words, it's a nice party trick. But the ways that a tool like this could be incorporated into publications like fashion catalogs, electronic greeting cards, and instruction manuals (think: hair stylists and beauticians) doesn't take much imagining.

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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