Books in Browsers is an annual conference at the Internet Archive, where for two days technologists and book publishers gather to discuss and share all the wonderful new ways to create digital content. It’s probably my favorite publishing related conference. I like it because it’s a small enough conference that you don’t miss any of the talks, the people drawn to the conference are very open-minded and excited about change, and it’s in a really cool building: the Internet Archive. Since I liked pretty much everything I heard at BiB, I’ll try to just list the highlights here. (The next best thing to attending the conference is to watch the videos of most of the talks on their YouTube channel.) So this isn’t a ridiculously long post, I’ve broken up the highlights into two posts–one for each day of the conference.
The first morning session, led by Craig Mod, outlined the concept of subcompact publishing. An example of subcompact publishing is Tokyo Otaku Mode, which started off as just a Facebook page, and has now more than 7 million fans. The idea is to build a community first, and then create more complex layers. Qualities of subcompact digital publishing include:
- small issue sizes for small file sizes (3-7 articles)
- reasonable subscription price
- fluid publishing schedule (every few days or weeks)
- no pagination, and simple navigation
- HTML based (for maximum portability)
People aren’t looking for products to buy, but rather for solutions to their problems. Also, it’s difficult to subscribe to a website and pay money without it feeling like a donation. Therefore, sites need to have better RSS and connect with cached reading, as well as push content to retailers like Apple. Building applications for Apple’s newsstand is also a good idea, as long as it’s kept simple and intuitive. It’s important to not mix “tappable” areas with “non-tapping” spaces.
The Library Within Us
Presented by Brian O’Leary, this session emphasized thinking of content as a vehicle to the outcome. One outcome is literacy, and publishing can be reshaped to consumer principles to solve customers problems and not waste their time. The key is to provide what the customer wants, where they want it, when they want it, by continually aggregating solutions. Content platforms that are agnostic, meaning they are not limited to only Apple, or only Amazon, or only one retailer, will help. It’s also important to try and find the needs of a market that may not yet consciously exist. There is a network of publishing, where content must be prepared, and traditional publishing is a network of gatekeepers. According to O’Leary, the market power of publishing depends on the quality of usability. “As power flows away from the center, the competitive advantage belongs to those who learn how to embrace decentralized points of control,” he said. The networks consist of readers and consumers at the end, publishers as mediated systems in the middle, and network protocols (the Internet). He argued that fixed formats like EPUB will exist, but will ultimately drive prices down. But, what if we looked at the book as an algorithm? According to O’Leary, in the principles of network design, this would mean nobody would own it, everyone could use it, and anybody could improve it.
We’ve Got the Tools
Adam Witwer from O’Reilly Media talked about how publishers should Identify a need and then see if the tool (most likely something open-source) to fill that need already exists. For example, O’Reilly built Atlas, to help people write books. To build Atlas, they turned to GitHub, a tool for developing and managing content. Witwer said that writing a book and writing code are fundamentally solo activities. But GitHub and Atlas help make it more social. With Atlas, you can see a lot of metrics because they are built on the tools, which means it can expose information to authors and collaborators.
The Webby Future
Many publishing conferences emphasize that publishers should use the XML structure for their content, so that it can easily be exported into multiple formats. But John Maxwell argued that XML is not about content creation, and that although eMax and oxygen XML are close for content creation, it’s still mostly about code editing. In reality, most people still write in Word, and according to Maxwell, converting Word to XML is the Holy Grail, but it doesn’t work because the way we think about writing is different from the way we think of structured markup. Markup is not about large scale management and content reuse or industrial use, but rather it’s about interoperability and fluidity on the web. Examples of fluid publishing on the web is Leanpub, which publishes in Dropbox, and Pressbooks, which uses WordPress.
When a Book is Not a Book
Laura Dawson from Bowker said that there are roughly 32 million books with ISBNs. But, we are approaching a world of fundamentally container-less content (content on the web). A lot of data can and will be packaged and sold as paper but increasingly paper is being regarded as a temporary medium. According to Dawson, the Internet provides persistence to even inanimate objects. For example, you can order anything online. With the web, she said, nothing goes away, it only accumulates. For search engines, it’s all just information to them, and book publishers have to sort this out. In the age of abundance, Dawson said, we have to understand how the market works, and the market revolves around search. One way to do that is to use Schema, which describes books in ways search engines can appreciate. Metadata is also important, as rich snippets give websites added uniqueness. It’s called semantic web coding, and one example of its use is Best Buy’s website, which used oncology called good relations to mark up pages and get highlighted more in searches. Dawson introduced the idea of the book as a website, where concepts of the book is linked to other concepts. By making books content on the web, they can be APIs to other books. We could tage, categorize, build bridges to other books, and link to websites that update more information. Books in browsers could become almost infinite, and the only way to restore order on this information overload is to create links in it.
Authoring for Discoverability
Hugh McGuire said that information wants to be liberated, and spread. Information wants to be used. He said that it’s the Internet versus ebooks versus print books. But fundamentally, information is more useful on the web compared to books. Pressbooks, his company, gives users data about its web books. Right now, there are free writing tools like Wattpad that are generating more and more content, making stories harder to find, and harder to promote and discover. In the long run, those who connect with their readers better will win. And, there will be a flourishing of new business models built on top of new tools. Right now, many approaches are closed silos, but McGuire said that to embrace the open web, we will need open tools native to the web that are flexible. Which is why Pressbooks is soon-to-be open source.
You’ve Picked An Authoring Platform. Now What?
My friend, Miral Sattar, is the founder of Bibliocrunch, and she gave a talk on how self-published authors could approach making their books. She gave examples of what works, such as crowd-sourcing cover designs, engaging beta readers, marketing with blog tours (instead of author tours), integrating social and community elements (such as links to Foursquare and Twitter, Yelp, and embedding Google maps in ebooks), telling stories on Twitter using hashtags, Facebook storytelling, and leveraging communities to get feedback, higher engagement, and to connect and stay on the cutting edge of resources.
Enabling Discovery Through Linking
Another friend, Ricky Wong, is the founder of MobNotate. He gave a cool demo of his site, which directs readers to other ebooks that are related. He said it’s in the nature of digital media to link, and that linking is the new profit center.
Michael Tamblyn from Kobo gave a talk on data. He said, when in doubt ask Twitter. He also said that the U.S. is outproducing in self-published content, and that everyone has 5.7 novels in them. Self-publishing is becoming a more uniform set in pricing, though authors are experimenting in pricing. There’s more intimacy in managing seven books, compared to hundreds or thousands. It’s important to bridge authors to date (which is what my startup, Write or Read, does). The analogy he gave is that authors and publishers are like submarines, and unit sales are like sonar–the only thing that tells you where you are. Therefore, there is a lot of behavior for price optimization. But all the analysis works in only one dimension. Other data could be looking at what people actually read, not just what they buy. With ebooks, these new metrics are possible. We could see what people like to read, based on the books they finish versus the books they abandon. And it can tell a bigger story than sales. Authors and publishers could see if their metadata is driving sales, if their cover, descriptive text, placement, and email marketing working. You could also see what the readers like. He said that unit sales metrics are handicaps for first time authors and mid-list authors. But what if publishers knew about unsigned authors with a growing audience? Or that an imprint has books that are finished more often than another? Publishers could then look into the editorial process. They could also gain momentum from early looks at the book and word of mouth marketing. For certain books, like fiction, this could work well to use data to drive personalization. This method doesn’t work well in reference, non-narrative non-fiction, academic, or poetry, however, and it does not solve what’s critically good about a masterpiece. Some stats he shared where that 50 percent of the time genre fiction is finished, and 38 percent of the time a YA book is finished, but it depends. Certain genres of erotica also have really high completion rates. Also, in a series, the least completed book is the first book. It doesn’t grow until the end of the series, and it tapers off. Authors who aggregate have higher completion rates as a whole, he said. And, finishing a book is generally more powerful than sharing in terms of recommendation.
Digital Books and dotRights
Chris Conley from the ACLU gave a talk on privacy. Apparently, the CA privacy act is the most stringent one, but it doesn’t apply in the rest of the country. Right now there are questions on how well protected reader records are, and digital due process. Companies are advocating for protections online and off. But there is also freedom of speech to consider. Conley said the government is not the online intermediary, and that online companies have a great deal of authority to advocate and protect privacy.
Books in Browsers…What’s Next?
Anna Lewis from ValoBox talked about full search terms within a book. Readers could see snippets of a page or chapter they want to purchase. They could read ebooks over the web, and ValoBox sells ebooks on a pay-as-you-go basis. This gives them analytics on books, and they have three levels of integration to make books more discoverable. The books are link based, meaning there is a link on every page and readers can share on social media to a specific level, or they can buy just a certain section of the book. ValoBox has a pay-per-page via a widget too. And affiliates can earn 25 percent to curate and promote books. They can also create mashups of paid content with other content. For example, they could embed a book on a web page, navigate through content to pull metadata out of the book, and display it on screen separately so when a user clicks they can see the page. Valobox also allows interaction with it and other applications, through the API. This way publishers (mostly educational currently) can maintain user data and the payment system themselves. They can also provide a content delivery subscription service. Other APIs also involve user data and finding out what purchases a user already has from other sites so they can buy the book once and have access to it on other services.
Learnings From a Year of Building a Service for Readers
Henrik Berggren of Readmill talked about providing a way to share, discover, and read books. Readmill gets people from buying to reading in a simple way, and the site is committed to navigation. He said he built a way for retailers to help get from buying to reading in one click, like Amazon’s whispernet, but for everyone else. He said he believes phones are the reading devices of the future. Also, the key to understanding the future of reading is you make time for what you want to do. Reading is like a run for your mind, he said, and how much time you have left to read in the book is a motivation factor. When someone comments on a highlight, they share more information and engage. They can also exchange author names with Twitter handles so the author can follow the readers highlights and see if the reader has finished the book. By having books in one place, on different devices, more people can connect. He said Readmill gets people excited about reading and discovering better things to read.
Failure is an Option
Peter Collingridge spoke of his failed startup and the lessons he learned. He said that enhanced apps are not the savior to digital publishing, startups must understand demand, and publishers are having trouble at marketing digital products. Also, data is king, though available data is limited (but not impossible). Examples of data about books could be mentions on twitter, clicks on bit.ly, mentions on Facebook, and Nielsen data. They are all vanity metrics in isolation, but in aggregate they tell a story, a vapor trail for your promotion, he said. His startup profiled when sales happened in a week and found out which factors influenced demand. His company built a prototype that took a title on Amazon’s rank, annotated different events and saw which thing gave a return, marketing wise. Through it users could see an impact of changing price. Unfortunately for his company, not enough publishers were on board early on.
The Reader Experience
Stefanie Syman from The Atavist said that in 2010, visual information for adult trade books was almost non-existent. But The Atavist can intelligently display and access notes as you’re reading or in between sections or online. It combines the best of print without being distracted and allows you to dive into extra information, she said. Now The Atavist is merging with browsers, and books are becoming part of the Internet. The compulsion, to tell and share stories will continue, she said, and stories will persist, with a full sweet array of media to share.
Reading on the Big Screen
Pablo Defendini spoke about using large TVs for reading. He said that we’ve been living in a small screen world, with hand held devices, tablets, and computing devices. But now hardware can be hooked up to the big screen, and HTML and CSS can help make viewing experiences in this context. It’s radically different from small screens. It would not be portable, but instead persistent and always there in the background. It could be generally viewed from a distance across the room, on a shared display, and not using personalized information. However, slinging services can help solve this particular problem and turn the big screen into a personalized device. All big screens are different, he said. Sizes, resolution, size, hardware, process rates are different and unpredictable in quality and speed. But there are two types of big screen: digital broadsheet and big board. The broadsheet has larger monitors, is high res, not mobile for now, and can be used 18-24 inches away from eyes. The big board includes 30-60 inch TVs, 5-10 feet away from viewer, has low res, and outdoor displays,and is used primarily for media consumption as secondary devices to smaller screens. Designing for a digital broadsheet means high res, close viewing and high info density. Designing for the big board is low res, large viewing distance, and low info density with linear, segmented screen navigation, large type, white space, and images. Digital broadsheets can be used to show a holistic view of publication, with commentary, notes, etc, instead of hiding with links. On the other hand, the big board can be good for an illustrated book. It can be used as a secondary screen with complimentary content, or for curation. There can be different uses for different screens. In school, it can be paired with a different view on portable devices to be viewed on desks. Students could then follow along, comment, and take notes. And in the future, projections can become big, and take up whole walls.