Friday, December 19, 2008

How 2008 Changed the Market for Digital Editions

Keeping the list to manageable lengths, there have been five really important developments this year. Let us work back through the year which as it happens is pretty much the order of importance:

  1. October/November: The depression/recession. Hardly anybody saw this coming and, according to one who did, it may be even worse than we have yet grasped. But the depression is a shot in the arm for digital editions. For exactly the same reason that it is now a good time to be in the business of designing wind farms, building solar panels or battery powered vehicles. Terrible news for Detroit, for airlines, for big city newspapers and dire for the advertising budget of consumer magazines: but there is a substantial new business for the magazines, newspapers and book publishers that can deliver efficient digital services. Digital editions tick all the boxes: energy efficiency, global access, low investment, consumer facing, distance learning, transparency, economies of scale, network enhancing etc.
  2. October. Google settles with the Author's Guild and AAP. A completely game-shifting agreement. It has still to be finalised and approved by a judge, but it seems likely that the Google system and the new Book Rights Registry will define the shape of the publishing industry for years to come. Digital books will be database-driven, page-oriented, url-guaranteed, access-managed and completely searchable for free. Books will not be freely readable but how they will be sold and subscribed to has yet to be determined. Although the agreement was limited to books in the USA, it seems very likely that the same general regime will apply to books, newspapers and magazines (and other print objects) everywhere. Google Book Search has always been scalable. Game defining and game just started....Publishers of all stripes have still not grasped how much this changes their market, and how big the potential opportunities are for digital publishing in which every publication can be searched, read and referenced through the web. Book publishers are begining to get it, magazine and newspaper publishers are straggling and struggling.
  3. July. Apple launches the 3G iPhone in 22 countries. Perhaps as important the first Android phone appeared in October of this year. The iPhone and the Android phones have been designed to be completely web-capable and this takes the digital edition into the pockets of billions of people who will in the next three years be buying mobile phones with instant web connectivity. If books are on the web as digital editions (see point 2 above) billions of people will be able to read them.
  4. May. Amazon S3. Amazon's cloud computing was launched in 2006, but this is the year in which it really took off. In May and again in October they reduced charges at all tiers. Cloud computing is the next shape for collective computing and Amazon's cloud computing infrastructure is increasingly attractive to information providers and web services of all kinds. Digital libraries and digital editions are moving into the cloud, and in the same move these buckets of books become shareable and potentially usable by other web applications.
  5. January. Amazon's Kindle was out of stock despite being one of the must-have presents for Christmas 2007 (except that it was out of stock in December and remained unavailable until April 08, and is unavailable again until March 09). But since that broadly successful launch the device has gone rapidly sideways. Amazon has not been able to launch the product outside the US. They have been very coy about their sales and their plans for the future of the device. This has definitely not been the year of the Kindle. One could say that it has been sidelined by the iPhone -- why buy a dedicated device to read books when you can read any web-deliverable object through the device already in your pocket? But they have also been scrunched by the Google Book Search proposition -- do we need downloadable books when they are all, always, in the cloud?

Institutional Licenses

We started offering Institutional, or Site Licenses a year ago. This was not a part of our original business model, but the Exact Editions founders know that market from previous experience. We have, even so, been surprised at the strength of interest for consumer magazines. To judge by the range of libraries subscribing to our services (government departments, international organisations and schools as well as universities) there is a large global market for subscriber content delivered via IP to private networks. It is a 'rule of thumb' in STM publishing that there are 2/3,000 universities world wide that constitute the market for periodical literature. The market for digital books and consumer magazines in libraries world wide is potentially two or three orders of magnitude higher (think schools and public libraries).

There is a large market, but there must be real pressure on the budgets to acquire information. At the high end, STM academic databases are very, very expensive (individual universities are often spending millions on their scientific periodical budgets). It seems likely that new entrants in the books and digital magazines space will thrive if they keep their prices down (by which I mean significantly less than $1,000 per title, per institution). Digital books may need to be priced in the region of $100 pa, per site, if they are to achieve widespread adoption.

Perhaps much lower? When Google Book Search starts selling its massive archive of mainly 'out of print but in copyright' books it will be fascinating to see how that is priced. On a per title basis the collection will need to be priced at much less than $1 a title if individual universities and colleges are to subscribe for access (there are already 7 million titles in the aggregate).

It is at least possible that the advent of the Google system will lead to a two-tier market. A huge pile of mainly little-used books in the Google mass, and slivers of high value and highly current content which will be marketed and promoted direct by the publishers, or perhaps by Google in a 'premium stream'. That will pose problems of channel contention and regulation. It may not be too long before authors, publishers and even Google are saying that books in the 'slush pile' should be free. One suspects that this is what Google may have wanted as an outcome from the beginning.

PS 'Slush pile' is here merely a technical term. Slush piles contain many books of outstanding quality. The Google collection will be very valuable and useful, though, of course, with plenty of rubbish in it!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Phone Numbers and Books

Yesterday one of our publishing partners asked that the phone numbers in their catalogue should not be 'live'. Incidentally, they were very pleased to have the ISBNs targetting their e-commerce engine, but for some reason not so keen on the phone numbers being immediately usable. Ours not to reason why..... the numbers were switched off. We have had such requests before, and it is not difficult for the database to switch phone numbers 'off', (ie to 'non-clickable') if this is requested. It can be done for a whole publication, or even for individual phone numbers within an otherwise 'live to call' publication: (my colleagues will not thank me if this leads to a torrent of requests for shielded phone numbers).

It seems to me absolutely right that authors or publishers should decide for themselves whether links are to be live in their publications. This is not a decision that should be taken by other players in the process. But the reason for having the numbers in the image but not clickable, not immediately usable, struck me as strange: "I honestly do not think anyone will be calling us from Skype or from an iPhone".

I am probably a minority in using Skype (Skype Out) and the iPhone every day, but I know plenty of academics who Skype a lot, and I am sure there are lots of librarians and booksellers getting into the habit of requesting books, even placing orders, from their iPhone. There will be a LOT more next year when the Android phones start landing.

It is surprising to me how often one goes to web sites that have lots of phone numbers and there is no automatic way of using the phone numbers -- except 'cut and paste' (which is not a lot of good to iPhone users). The idea that phone numbers should be dead is by no means limited to book publishers. Web publishers make the same mistake. I guess not supporting 'cut and paste' on the iPhone is another example of underestimating the way that users will use resources that we make available to them. Users will always do more with whatever is given to them than we can anticipate.

Usage Statistics from Exact Editions Institutional Accounts

Librarians who subscribe to our institutional content licenses now have some convenient statistical tools which summarize monthly page use and search terms.

The statistical reports are only available to Librarians who have a personal management account with Exact Editions (typically the librarian who places the original order). When such registered librarians log in to Exact Editions with their username and password they will find a new "librarian: stats" link on the toolbar.

This link takes them to our stats page, with traffic reports on each available issue (we stop at this level - we don't show exactly which pages of each issue are being read). We also display the principal search terms used by the library's members in any period (this data can be quite informative and is not intrusive -- no individual data is logged).

The figures are available by month, by issue, and by publication and can be exported to Excel.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gift Subscriptions

We are seeing a surge in gift subscriptions. Could this be a sign of Christmas? Or is it the first loosening of consumer budgets as we climb out of the recession? Your guess is as good as mine.

If Christmas shopping is on your agenda, here are some last minute ideas (we are 24x7 so you can even delay your shopping to Christmas morning if you expect to wake up before your nearest and dearest are online). Here are some suggestions: Whitelines for that troublesome snowboarding nephew. Taste Italia for the brother-in-law who wants to open an Italian restaurant. Prospect for your intellectual friends. Opera or The Wire or Jazzwise for your musical buddies. Finally, the Ecologist for anyone who cares about the environment and Red Pepper for the anti-capitalists in your network.

We don't yet cater for every special interest and taste (I wish we had something on Tropical Fish for Uncle Fred), but we are getting there.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Does XML really matter?

There is a new burst of enthusiasm for XML amongst book publishers. Mike Shatzkin, who often has cogent things to say, has produced a little encomium for XML in Publisher's Weekly.

Here's what we call the Copernican Change. We have lived all our lives in a universe where the book is “the sun” and everything else we might create or sell was a “subsidiary right” to the book, revolving around that sun.

In our new universe, the content encased in a well-formed XML file is the sun. The book, an output of a well-formed XML file, is only one of an increasing number of revenue opportunities and marketing opportunities revolving around it. It requires more discipline and attention to the rules to create a well-formed XML file than it did to create a book. But when you're done, the end result is more useful: content can be rendered many different ways and cleaved and recombined inexpensively, unlocking sales that are almost impossible to capture cost-effectively if you start with a “book.” What the Hell Is XML? Publisher's Weekly 15 Dec 08

At the risk of being taken to be the kind of oaf who burps loudly in the presence of royalty (questioning the supreme value of XML is a bit like breathing garlic all over her majesty), I am inclined to pour cold water over this.

XML has been with us for 10 years. It certainly has its uses, especially in managing large complex texts and integrating text databases. But XML has not been and is not the be-all and end-all of digital publishing. XML is a property of texts, a style of handling them for flexible representation. In the last five years (especially since Google Book Search started motoring) it has become increasingly apparent that the book-as-book is the critical output of book publishers. Indeed PDF's are still a crucial component of the book publishing process and for many of the most useful applications of the digital book, the PDF file is the crucial starting point. Copernicus, after all, was right, the sun is the centre of the solar system. Books really do matter and they are at the centre of the GBS system.

In one crucial respect XML has been and is a damagingly misleading tool for publishers (as deleterious in its effects on newspapers and magazines as on books) it has encouraged the mistaken view that text objects can only be used on the web if they are repurposed. XML was invented primarily because it was seen as a flexible way of 'marking up' the incredibly diverse world of print in ways that could be reconciled with HTML and the web. Everything printed would be repurposed for the web and XML would facilitate this step. This now looks like it may not be an efficient way to look at things. Google Book Search and other digital representation platforms are showing us that repurposing a book or a magazine is not necessary and usually results in the loss of important information. It is certainly a mistake to suppose the XML is necessary if books are to be effectively used in the web or in databases -- as Google Book Search, the largest print database, demonstrates. Above all, XML, and any particular implementation of XML is only as good as the design for which it was crafted, XML is not future-proof, and it is highly misleading of Shatzkin to recommend:

"You'll save the most money right away if you create many books that are similar in structure and thus can be rendered from the same “style sheet.”
Books should only be similar in structure, and their texts should only share the same style sheet, if they are similar in purpose. A rigid XML style sheet for the whole of a publisher's list is for many publishers a lousy idea. Designing, or selecting, your books to fit your style sheet is putting the cart before your horse.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Google Books (and Magazines)

I had a wry chuckle on noticing the form of the url's that Google is using in its magazine service. They are something like this: (http) // which is more or less gobbledeygook because it doesnt need to be anything else. But the chuckle was over the way that Google give magazines a 'book' id.... Our system is not too dissimilar and having worked from 'magazines' towards books, we were until a week ago putting a 'magazine' moniker in the url for the books. We must have had a thorough parse and replace, spring-clean, of all our code, because we now label book pages and magazine pages in a neutral style. This is a small 'presentational' issue, nothing really hangs on the fact that a 'magazine' url looks a bit odd with book id's in it, or vice versa, but I will not be surprised to see Google evolve their nomenclature, both in the code and in the way they characterise the service. Perhaps, when they have a good archive of newspapers and magazines, they will change the name back to Google Print?

Since the Exact Editions architecture and our method of presenting books and magazines is very similar to Google's in Google Book Search, some people ask us whether we are worried by having a model and a business proposition that could be 'blown out of the water' by GBS. Maybe we should be more worried than we are, but here are some of the reasons why not:

  • Any web-based business could be blown out of the water by Google. Being Google-incompatible is not a good choice. Having a completely contrary model for book/magazine representation to Google is a far worse place to be in at the moment.
  • Google is not going to be a monopoly distribution route for books, magazines and other titles, because its not too difficult to distribute digital books in that way. Its just hard to do it well. Google Book Search will certainly not be the only distribution game in town.
  • Google is not going to be a preferred commercial distribution partner for many publishers because their commercial terms are quite stiff: 37% is a significant margin chunk to allocate to a distribution partner. Premium content will often not want to go that way
  • Google is going to be used by everybody. Google Book Search should be used by everybody, that does not mean that publishers will not want to control their own markets and manage their own quality of service. Alternative distribution is an 'and' choice, not an exclusive 'or'. Google will accept that, and Google would be, should be, very worried at the prospect of becoming an exclusive or sole distribution resource for digital content.
There are a few more reasons for not being too worried about Google competition, which is a fact of life but not a death-ray, but those are enough to be getting along with.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Big Cloud Descends Over Europe

And this is not about the recession. This is Amazon's news that they are now putting some of their cloud in Europe. I have to say that I always thought that it always was in Europe. But I guess it is more in the EU now than it was (probably so that businesses that have to say that they host stuff in the EU can stay with that). Even so, it seems to be going against the grain a bit (if clouds have grains). I thought that half the point of cloud computing was that you were never too certain where the computing was. I guess we will move our buckets to the European of these days (that is the other thing about clouds, no need to be too precise about when they are wherever they are).

Google Does Magazine Search

Google Blogs the news and Danny Sullivan has an excellent summary of what the service does and currently doesn't do.

Here is a 2-page spread from New YorK Magazine on Tom Stoppard.

Google is mainly (entirely?) working from scans (yes I know that there were no PDFs in the 50's, 60's and 70's). I am not sure that there are any current issues in the archive I couldnt see anything yet from the noughties (correction Popular Science is there up to Feb 2008). In this respect the magazine service is rather like the historic newspaper archive that Google has also been working on. It is building up a large 'long tail' whilst the magazine and newspaper publishers dither about what to do with the short head (hint: think about selling subscriptions -- that is what Google is soon going to be doing for new books). Isn't this the strongest possible wake-up call for magazine publishers? Hey folks, time to get your current issues up and running on the web. Make your magazines searchable through Google and sell subscriptions to them through Exact Editions!

Thanks to Google for pointing out the way things should go. Thanks to Google for once again creating a proper web version of print objects.

Footnote: Google is now indexing magazines in the Exact Editions service where the pages have been made open access by the publisher. Google reads the ascii version of the pages, which is also there to aid the print-impaired audience. It would be practical for Google to index all our pages and produce search results for the whole content even the stuff behind subscription barriers. If any Google publisher-liaison person reads this perhaps they can tell us how to link up with Google on that!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Government and Innovation

Why does this Guardian article about the Government putting aside £1 Billion to fund technology startups give me a gloomy feeling?

Somehow one knows that if the government does this, the bureaucracy will kill or at least stifle too many of the innovative companies that go with it. When we started in 2005/6 we wasted too much time (not a great deal thank heavens) talking to and negotiating with VCs and getting a small firms loan guarantee. That was a particularly dispiriting experience because we found out in the end that although our bank pretended to be part of the scheme, it really was not. It turned us down because it had done hardly any such guarantees in the previous two years but remained officially 'part of' the scheme because the government expected the scheme to have the support of the main banks. We managed our start up funding by keeping our commitments very low and at least we do not have to worry about VCs and second or third rounds of lending/funding.

Here is a really good blog by Paul Graham (who is behind the very early stage and light-weight investor Y combinator) on why innovators in information technology now dont need VCs. Here is his argument:

......many Internet startups don't need VC-scale investments anymore. For many startups, VC funding has, in the language of VCs, gone from a must-have to a nice-to-have.

This change happened while no one was looking, and its effects have been largely masked so far. It was during the trough after the Internet Bubble that it became trivially cheap to start a startup, but few realized it because startups were so out of fashion. ......
VCs and founders are like two components that used to be bolted together. Around 2000 the bolt was removed. Because the components have so far been subjected to the same forces, they still seem to be joined together, but really one is just resting on the other. A sharp impact would make them fly apart. And the present recession could be that impact.
If the UK Government wants to give a real impetus to IT innovation it should emulate Barak Obama's commitment to 100% broadband availability so that all American kids have access to state-of-the-art broadband. The UK Government could make that happen next year. In schools, colleges, libraries and the streets next year that would make a real difference to thousands of innovators, inventors and startups, a much bigger difference than scores of subsidised VC-style startups, that would only get going in 2010 (if you haven't negotiated with them you have no idea how slow VC's can be, even when they are moving).

Friday, December 05, 2008

Information Sources -- so many Sources

This week I have been dabbling with Twitter and its a very good source of topical references. If you would like to know what Tim O'Reilly or John Battelle are thinking about, then you will get lots of good ideas following them on Twitter. Or you can pick up JAFurtado's tweets, which scatter plenty of topical technology and publishing references (I like the fact that some of them are in French or Spanish and Portuguese, although I can only cope with the French).

Twitter is on a roll, partly because Obama had 140,000 followers on Twitter at the end of his campaign also because lots of Mumbai news came from tweets. Tim O'Reilly recently had a good blog posting about Why I love Twitter. He is right to emphasise that the model of social interaction that Twitter encourages is beguiling and simple (followers and following). Tim does not make much of the fact that Twitter's brevity (its messages are restricted to 140 characters, the SMS limit), while an obvious limitation, in fact has a lot to do with its deep appeal. That and the compressed syntax of tinyurl and similar services.

Tweets in their allusive conversational style reinforce the deeply 'referential' character of the web, just as much as Google's page rank algorithms for search. But twittering is just another layer, and if you want deeper analysis we are still pretty reliant on blogs to pick up on what is happening in the technical areas that are of special interest. For me PersonaNonData, OpenAccessNews, Techmeme and Ars Technica continue to be among the best news sources, in the area between publishing, the web and technology that most concerns me.

I have also been experimenting with a free trial of the daily news briefing Insights service provided by Outsell. This week, I found particularly interesting their notes on Twitter (again), and a summary of a company, unkown to me Ringgold, that is specialising in information about institutional IP ranges and open identity solutions. These are matters of considerable interest to libraries, aggregators and periodical publishers. Outsell's service is commercial and its coverage of big commercial publishers is particularly good. A free private email list with a similar remit, Read 2.0, is run by Peter Brantley. Brantley has a good eye for new trends and developments (broad view -- almost a fish-eye lense), but you have to be asked to join his now quite large list, and if you join it you will then see a lot of email from sometimes over loquacious participants. Some of the best parts of the Read 2.0 conversation appear at O'Reilly's Tools of Change. I wonder if Brantley's talents would shine better if he Twittered?

When we have done with twittering, blogging and email lists we come back to personal meetings and it is still true that the traditional Trade Show has a lot to offer. This year's Online show in London was smaller than I can recall, but there was certainly a buzz of innovation and a lot of useful information came my way. Some of it will get twittered or blogged about.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Google's Gravitational Pull

Google were not much in evidence at the Online show at Olympia this week. But they were much in the mind of publishers and aggregators that I met. Its rather odd to be at a trade show where by far the biggest actor is not present, but the influence is pervasive. This got me to wondering how one might measure the Gravitational Pull of Google Book Search. One measure would be the number of published titles available through GBS compared to the Kindle, Sony's eReader and other systems such as the iPhone. Here is a guess:

The Google figure of 7 million titles is based on the claims that have recently been made about the number of titles which they have added to Google Book Search through their library project ("and we're just getting started"). While it is true that the figures are not strictly comparable (and my guess for the iPhone is highly conjectural) the graph is telling. Google has a huge arsenal of titles in digital format and once they have a functioning way of licensing and selling access to their resources the Google Book Search library will dwarf all others.

Some people might read this graph and, shrugging shoulders, say that Google is the only game in town. But that does not seem quite right. A more balanced response would be to start with the proposition that any good digital books strategy is going to work alongside Google Book Search. The best strategies will work with it, even take advantage of the fact that it works to everyone's advantage.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Naming of Parts

We now have a flexible system of web access management that allows a publisher to select areas of a book which can be assessed and sampled in full view before a purchase. For example here are some full size pages from the Time Out City Guide to London.

From the book's home page, there are some named links which allow the user to grasp the context of sample pages that might be of interest. Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia is a better handle in a city guide to London than pages 106-113.

So now we need a good methodology for encouraging publishers to name and open relevant parts of their books for sample access. The obvious solution, the one we have adopted, is probably the right one: Chapter 1, or Chapter 1's title, Bibliography or Table of Illustrations etc.... Is there a way of extending this nomenclature to readers and users? Is a vocabulary for chunked reference in books something that they will want? When every print page is a web page its a simple enough matter to provide names to groups of pages. Will each web-published book aquire its own patina of user-generated tags in the way that Flickr and now have clouds of very helpful handles? Its an intriguing possibility, especially sine the handles would be used by other programs and resources.

Henry Reed's Naming of Parts

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts......

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Warehouse Test

Thirty years ago, when I was a rookie editor at Oxford University Press, there were quite serious discussions within that august organisation about electronic publishing. I remember being astonished when the then Finance Director, now deceased, wondered aloud whether it was wise to be building a new warehouse facility at Corby if the whole market for books was to be computerised by digital editions within five years.

At the time (this was when the standards for CD ROMs were still being defined) this struck me as a wildly extravagant concern. I am not so sure now. Are many publishers planning this year to build large warehouses for books? It seems pretty likely that the market for printed books will be transformed and perhaps for educational and academic books, largely replaced by digital books within 5 or 10 years. That is the kind of time horizon that impacts on warehouse investments.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Petticoats and Halos

We have been working for some months with a way of selectively revealing content. Our internal codeword for this system has been 'petticoats', the idea being that there are some layers in the system which can publishers can raise to reveal more content.

Time Out City Guides can only be viewed in their 16 pp thumbnail format. But the text of the whole book is searchable.

Some of our other titles are viewable as double-page spreads throughout, and we also support free, full view (all the magazines in our shop have at least one such sample issue).

We have been wanting a system which will allow our publishers to mix and match the 'petticoats' style of layered display with some of the content being open to full view. Our code-word for this development was 'halos'. The idea being that thumbnails which would be open for full view would have a small 'halo' round them, inviting further inspection.

The first title mixing halos and petticoats, which is the incredibly tempting Sawdays book Pubs & Inns of England and Wales.

If you have an iPhone and want to check out the way you can call a pub and find the Google map straight off the page from within your iPhone. Here is the link for two fine Clerkenwell watering holes. When you land on the open page click on the phone numbers and then on the Post Codes.

eBooks and Digital Editions

Yesterday I bought myself Stanza and Classics from the iPhone ApStore. Stanza was free, gives me free access to a lot of books and samples, and the Classics collection cost me 99c. So it wasn't an expensive day. They both work fine. I will read some of The Time Machine in the Stanza format, and some of Paradise Lost with the mildly annoying page-flip in the Classics reader. Since I havent read too much H G Wells or Milton in book form for a good many years, the iPhone can claim some credit for educating me -- at last! But if I do enjoy the Milton, I will go to my old but little-read Oxford edition, inherited from grandmother.

These reading systems both come from small innovative companies with very few employees (Classics may have only two). They are working ingeniously within the Apple eco-system. For sure, they must be giving the product managers of Amazon's Kindle and the Sony eReader a headache. Apple have an installed base that the speacialist hardware ebook solutions can merely dream about and the Stanza distribution system looks as though it will be adopted by some big publishers. But these are not web-based reading systems. They are fine for reading the text but they are using the internet to communicate literary resources. The pages are not web pages. In my terminology they are ebook systems not digital edition platforms (with a digital edition: pagination and layout is conserved).

All the Exact Editions publications already work on the iPhone, all our pages are web pages, so its not in our plans to develop a comparable solution for fungible text. We think (and more important Google Book Search thinks) that pages and page lay-out matters. This 'conservative' or 'post modernist', 'hyper-referential' preference comes with predilections for colour, illustrations, complex layout, paginated references and citations. All the gorgeous apparatus of print that is lost when books, magazines and newspapers are boiled down to a simple ASCII/XML stream. Staying with web pages and web delivery is our mantra. We do get support questions asking whether we can do Kindle editions and I expect that we will now get questions asking us if can sell subscriptions for the Stanza platform. Easy answer in this case: Stanza no, but any of our subscriptions will work on the iPhone, on the Wii, and I am confident although I have not yet verified it on Android devices.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hardware Standards Proliferating

The Register has a tantalizing and extraordinary glimpse of a 'new' Samsung device, which is both a mobile phone and a fold-out 5" digital viewer. Here is a YouTube of the device clamped in a showcase at a trade show:

The market for mobile phones and similar (or dissimilar) devices will explode in the next three years. They will be a lot smarter and more content aware than today's models. Publishers are not yet thinking hard about these potential markets. The Samsung device will make it very easy to consider reading a digital edition of a book or a newspaper on the move.

The very diversity of these devices will make it impractical for publishers to create different versions of their properties for different platforms. Rather than re-format and re-package content for devices with varying interfaces and form factors, much better to offer a digital edition that can be served and used through any valid web browser. Let the browser take the strain as Apple have done so magnificently well with the new Safari on the iPhone. Safari defeats the small scale of the screen by allowing web pages and images to be squeezed and slid around within the browser. I wonder if Samsung's fold-away marvel has a touch screen?

I am so enchanted by my iPhone that I am already spending quite a lot of my time on the move looking at content. Favourite sites such as the BBC, the NY Times and the Guardian, seem poorly adapted to iPhone delivery. These sites have too many columns, the links are sometimes over-dense and the lack of thumbnail perspective is disorienting. The newspapers are perhaps better than the BBC, which is particularly irritating since it shoehorns one to a clunky mobile version of the site which is poorer than it needs to be on the iPhone. Is this the last hurrah of WAP? I have a strong intuition (perhaps not solely and entirely motivated by bias) that the Exact Editions use of the original format of content as pages, aided by search, linkage and thumbnails is clearly the way to go.....Don't reformat when you go digital, do let the browser take the strain, do embrace the new platforms with books, newspapers and magazines exactly as they were meant to be: searchable and citeable digital editions.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Magazines Coming out of the Recession II

What would Google do? I think that the CEO of any magazine company should ask themselves this question. We are now in a really tough recession. Advertising is getting scarce, shrinking in print and going to the web. Subscriptions are tough. News stand sales are tougher. Magazines and periodicals are explicitly excluded from the scope of the Google Settlement with the Authors and Publishers. But what would Google do with magazines?

The short answer is that Google would not be doing what most magazine brands are doing. Google would not be building something other than the magazine which tries to capture, enshrine, repurpose, reposition whatever it is that great magazines do really well. Google, if it had its way with magazines, would be doing with magazines what it has won the agreement of the publishers to do with books. It has started doing this with newspapers (also excluded from the settlement), digitizing historic newspaper archives. It would be building a database system which coherently and elegantly puts magazines on the web exactly as they are and then selling digital subscriptions to those digital magazine properties. That is exactly what Google is planning to do with books and that is what the magazine publishers should be doing with their magazines. Working with Exact Editions consumer magazines can sell digital editions with no upfront costs. Just new revenues. The conventional magazine wisdom is that the magazine's web site needs to be somewhat like the magazine content but somewhat mixed up, that customers don't buy subscriptions to digital magazines and that magazine ads do not work on the web. Wrong, wrong and wrong again.

Magazine publishers who see their magazine coming out of the recession stronger than they went in, will realise that they need to build digital subscriptions and build them fast in a pure web platform. Make sure the magazine works on the web. Make sure that it works on an iPhone and Android. Make sure that Google searches it and that anybody can link to it.

This is a matter for CEO's. Its a matter for owners and for those who care and see the magazine in its total consumer space. The conventional wisdom that consumer magazines will somehow 'morph' into web sites needs to scrutinised very carefully. In few cases does it really work. A lot of consumer magazines are building themselves expensive and irrelevant web mausoleums. Portfolio, a great new magazine launched in 2006 has recently fired most of its large web staff. For a while it had a cool but unprofitable web site. But you still cannot subscribe to a digital edition of the magazine. The magazine is in most cases the best possible vehicle to put itself on the web. As a digital edition. Do that and then supplementary resources (blogs and competitions, newsgroups and communities) can be built around it.

If magazines get their act together and start offering themselves for inspection and for sale on the web, they will be in a good position to work with Google when it has finally got its act together and is selling millions of book subscriptions. That could be 2010. Get ready for the other side of the recession. The upside and the out-side. It will be more digital.

Real Travel

Real Travel joins the shop

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Sidewalk skates in to our shop

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Amazon's Cloud gets more Cirrus

Amazon announces its new Content Distribution Network: Cloudfront. This allows their 'pay as you go' web services to be even more widely and efficiently distributed, see a helpful blog at allthingsdistributed. Think of your content as being distributed in the higher reaches of the atmosphere accessible to all, from the cirrus layer. Cirrus clouds being those "which may appear as delicate white filaments, featherlike tufts, or fibrous bands of ice crystals." Cloudnomenclature.

Media will benefit from this distribution of all content through the cloud, perhaps more than we can yet appreciate. When all music, print and video is available in the cloud and available to myriad devices at negligible cost to anyone we will all indulge in this cultural diversity, this trivial availability. Cloud-based access will encourage the already strong trend towards very simple and light-weight electronic and digital devices which can provide access to media.

The Amazon cloud sets admirable standards of transparency and simplicity in its pricing. In their words "Amazon CloudFront passes on the benefits of Amazon’s scale to you. You pay only for the content that you deliver through the network, without minimum commitments or up-front fees." They provide a simple calculator from which you can predict the cost of your requirement [storage, data-in, data-out, put requests etc]. The whole system is so elegant and straightforward that I am inclined to draw unfavourable comparisons with the hugely convoluted, and complex access system and pricing models envisaged for Google Book Search (foreshadowed in the agreement and Registry). Will books really be encumbered by such a bizarre and fragmented pricing and rights management solution? I suspect that the Google proposition may yet be subverted by something much simpler.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Magazines Coming out of the Recession I

The recession is hitting magazines hard and there is no doubt that 2009 is going to be a tough year. Bad news this week from Haymarket, Centaur, and Time Out. These are publishers with top quality magazine properties. We assume that it must be even tougher for the second tier players. Advertising, mostly the lack of it, is a big part of the problem. But circulation figures are also being challenged. This makes it really incomprehensible that the major magazine companies have mostly failed to introduce, in many cases failed even to explore, the practicality of building a digital subscription base.

Digital editions work. They tend not to be competitive with a print subscription. We have very little evidence of customers switching from print to digital (except for a few 'ecologically motivated' subscribers); but our steadily rising subcription rates, usage rates and the direct feedback from subscribers tell us that customers like their digital subscriptions. Any magazine ought to be able to get a rise in its subscription figures of 5-10% in the first year by offering a digital subscription and promoting it through the web.

Any magazine CEO who is planning to cut the editorial budget by 5% or more for 2009 should be asking themselves why they are doing this when they have not yet launched a digital subscription option to their key magazine properties? If you will get an uplift of 5% to 10% in your circulation for 2009, and to your subscription revenues, by promoting a digital edition, should you not be doing this?

The Exact Editions business model involves no upfront cost, no investment at all for consumer magazines (its commission based for any well established magazine). And since digital subscriptions to individuals and institutions will grow even through a recession (especially during?) deciding to offer a digital edition is a real no-brainer.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

UK Booksellers diss the Google Book Settlement

The BA reaction is summarized on the Bookseller web site:

The trade body warned that the arrangement could create "a de facto monopoly" and "have a hugely damaging effect on the publishing and bookselling industry" if adopted in the UK.
One can hardly blame the BA, since booksellers would appear to be thoroughly disintermediated by the Google type of digital book platform (to declare an interest: the Exact Editions system is very similar in this). It is indeed hard to see why we will need high street bookshops if book distribution goes completely digital (hard to see why we will need Blockbusters or CD shops if film and music distribution goes completely digital). One does not see many typewriter shops these days. Sewing and knitting shops no longer carry as many printed patterns as they once did.

But will book distribution go completely digital? I wonder whether the bookselling outlook is really quite so gloomy. It is conceivable that traditional bookselling could continue in parallel with digital distribution. Several of our magazine publishers distribute what we call 'combined subs'. The print subscriber also gets a digital subscription. One reason this works is that the products are really rather different. Print magazines cannot be digital magazines and vice versa. The customer who gets both editions is actually getting something more useful, not a mere duplication.

We think publishers and booksellers should try selling 'combined' book and digital offerings. Whenever you buy a book and register your ownership you would obtain access to a personal subscription. Or the mechanism could work the other way round, digital offers could be used to promote hard copy sales. Proof of purchase of a digital edition would entitle you to a discount on the book {at Borders, Waterstones and participating booksellers}. That could help the traditional bookshop to retain its traditional showcase role. If the combined book+digital offer catches hold perhaps the digital delivery of books will help bookshops to sell more books. The publishers however have the whip hand in this. Its unlikely that the booksellers could set this system up without a publisher lead.

iPhones and Projectors

The iPhone is a surprisingly good reading platform. The touch interface works wonderfully, both in sliding digital pages and in shrinking or enlarging them; and the brilliance of the Apple design means that no one needs a user manual. Even with its very small screen area, broadsheet digital editions are easily read. The main snag holding us back from awarding Apple the universal digital reading device accolade is its limited battery life. iPhone users get used to coaxing and feeding the machine but it would be nice not to be aware of this.

Yes the screen is certainly small, but I am now used to peaking at my iPhone and to reading solid text off it; however it would be good to be able to project a sharp image on to the wall. How about this?

According to Engadget the Optoma PK-101 will cost about $500, weighs 120g and it throws a sharp and bright 60" image (can't be too sharp if its 480x320 pixels?). But I can see this becoming a must have add-on to the iPhone. If the Vodafone 3G connection in London were just a little bit faster, a little bit more predictable, I would feel happy about projecting live demos from my iPhone when we visit partners. That would be a wee bit cooler than the usual PowerPoint.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The iPhone Ocarina

A YouTube is worth 1,000 words

The video clip shows you how it works, and its great fun to play with. Costs 79 euro cents. Very easy to get started with little breaths.

Perhaps the cleverest aspect of this invention is the way Smule have made the toy viral. The app also lets you see any other ocarina players out there. There is a navigable 'earth' interface that allows you to zoom in and select named ocarina players. The app politely invites you to switch 'location services' on when you launch it.

Its a beautiful toy, a brilliant design, a very sweet application. It also leads me to wonder how inventors are going to start thinking about the social interactions we have with literary objects, books, magazines and documents when we access them from mobile devices as smooth and seductive as the iPhone.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Regulating the Google Settlement

While it is a very good thing that Google and the authors and publishers are not going to be involved in years of fruitless and expensive litigation, there may be some awkward consequences. The draft settlement stops the head-on dispute, but the compromise does appear to have some rough edges. Signing off on this settlement is going to be a tricky problem: no judge will want to be blamed for approving a system which violates public trust or creates a de facto monopoly. A lot in the settlement is indicative and provisional and interim (they don't quite say "If this doesnt work both parties agree that we will whistle up something else", but they come damned close to doing so on more than one occasion). Who, at this stage, knows how the various business models will work out (take a look at Georgia Harper's speculations on pricing "bins" here)? Will a poorly crafted and hastily approved settlement create as many problems as it solves?

But one of the clear things is that there is going to be a Books Rights Registry. This doesnt wait for the judge. It is already whirling into action and authors and publishers are addressing it. This agency is something that the books world needs and it has precedents and cousins in the many 'collection societies' that look after dispersed copyright interests (eg in music, graphic art, xerography etc). So we have a new 'Rights Society' one which serves the interests of authors and publishers in the management and exploitation of digital texts (so far only in the US, but the same model will doubtless be rolled out in other jurisdictions -- think about it: we just called up 150 or more digital collection agencies in different jurisdictions and languages). Google is paying $34.5 million for the creation of the first Books Rights Registry (whose ongoing operation will be funded by a levy from the rights managed) and it would seem highly likely that Google is already building it. That Google is doing this is in many ways a good thing -- what an appaling prospect if the publishers were to try and build such a system! But there are dangers and ironies in a situation where Google as the commercial fox, the first and prime exploiter of the distribution opportunities flowing from the settlement, is also designing the chicken wire and building the coop in which the hens will be housed. It is a bit odd for a commercial operator to building its own regulator. Yes, I know that the 8 directors of the Registry are all appointed by the publishers and the authors (4 each). But directors decide the issues that havent already been decided, its the architect and the plumbers who get the building to function. Odd, but possibly unavoidable in these strange circumstances.

Google, unlike the publishers, the authors or their agents, is capable of rapidly and elegantly building a databases system which maps and regulates the incredibly complex real world of copyright exceptions (I recall Frances Haugen's comment about Google's management of 'amazingly complicated' viewability restrictions). Google's code already understands much of the bizarre detail of the world of rights and Google also understands how these rights might need to be exploited (or 'circumnavigated' the international ramifications are quite mind-boggling) so their system is more than likely going to work. This is certainly an area in which code will become law.

But all this makes me wonder whether the judge who signs off on the settlement will really devote a small portion of his/her time to the 300 odd pages in the settlement documentation. A lot of that documentation will and should evolve in the light of experience. She should really be looking very carefully at the API which the Rights system will incorporate and the principles which underline the API. Devising the principles which should govern this API and crystalising the objectives that the Rights Registry should foster is a matter on which the judge can make a real impact. These are matters of principle and public good, barely touched on in the public documents about the settlement, where we need judicial oversight. Perhaps she will spend some of her time looking at the Android constitution and I hope she will require that the commercial exploitation of literary rights is as open and at least as un-Google biased as Google has promised to make the Android playing field. Some of the Android slogans work rather well for our vision of digital books: 'Books without borders', 'Books can easily embed the web', 'Books are created equal', 'Books can run in parallel'. Digital books should do all of that and if they run on Android devices as well, who knows all books may soon be 'available' anywhere for everybody. Nearly all available for free search..... but that is not yet enough.

Friday, November 07, 2008


Whitelines is the UK's premier snowboarding magazine and it has joined our shop.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Long Run

My colleague has just reminded me that the blogosphere is waiting to hear whether I completed the New York Marathon last weekend. Yeah right! But since you ask, I did, and great fun it was. Apart from the last two miles in Central Park when my legs decided that they were really not intended for such distances.

I knew that the flight home was going to be a challenge; the idea of sitting upright for seven hours with 'wooden' legs was not an appealing thought. However, as 'luck' would have it when I arrived at my seat there was someone already in it. I think the air hostess could see the terror on my face when I heard the words 'jump seat' being muted and quickly suggested that I take my seat - or bed, I should say- in 'Upper Class.' Never before has the idea of stretching out for hours on end seemed so appealing. That's not to mention the unlimited champagne, of course! And access to all kinds of magazines and newspapers. Not able to find the rack of papers, I asked the air hostess on three occasions if I could have a newspaper and she enthusiastically said she would bring me one before promptly forgetting each time. As an imposter in 'Upper Class', I didn't feel that I could ask again. All I really wanted to do, of course, was see whether I had made it into The New York Times along with thousands of others who had completed the 26.2 miles in under 5 hours.

Too bad that a digital version of The New York Times wasn't available to be accessed from my screen before take-off. Virgin really should think about offering such a service to their premium customers. I'm sure their clientele would welcome access to a collection of searchable newspapers and magazines.

I did finally get to see a copy and found my entry. The listings give your name and your age and are organised in order of times. I proudly showed one of my kids on my return, thinking he would appreciate the effort that had gone into just completing the course. He was quick to point out, however, that I was pipped over the line by two seventy year olds! Must do better next time, I guess!

Hard Times for Print Media

The combination of a fierce recession and a big shift in advertising budgets towards new Media is making life very difficult for newspapers and consumer magazines. Take this article in this week's Advertising Age, Will Print Survive the Next Five Years?

In the worst-case scenario, however, advertisers won't come back. The downturn will drive them into the arms of efficient electronic media that can better demonstrate a higher return on investment. Auto looks likely to behave that way. Marketers will get the hang of building friendly social networks and advocates around their brands, undermining their interest in the trusted brands of newspapers and magazines.

The hemorrhaging of jobs will scare the print industry's top talent into other businesses entirely. The focal points of culture and commerce will swing further from faded institutions such as newspapers and magazines. The print products that continue will rely on smaller audiences than ever.
Portfolio is chopping out its web team, and "doubling down on its print edition" but it still has not launched a digital edition. What is the point of doubling down on your print edition if you dont offer it through the web? Where is the sunlight? If you look around the newspaper and magazine industry pundits optimism is very thin on the ground. The problem is that the industry has not yet appreciated that the web can be used to deliver the magazine, it has made the terrible mistake of trying to repurpose its content to a format and a package which will attract the same audience as the print product. As though mashing up a print magazine as some kind of web service could conceivably deliver the same audience and the same commercial benefits. Oddly enough this last week's announcement from Google and the publishing industry really tells the magazine industry what it should have been doing in the last five years. Books are now to be sold as web services. Magazines should be sold as digital subscriptions for the audience that uses the web. This audience is growing and will value the fantastic advantages of web delivery (speed, archives, searchability, omnipresence and multiple access). None of the major consumer magazine companies in the US or the UK has an effective program of digital subscriptions and paid digital circulation. If they had been building this for 4/5 years they would by now be seeing 20% or more of their ciculation coming from digital only subscribers, at much higher margins than can be realised by a print product.

The gloomy pundit will point out that it is still not entirely clear how digital magazines can deliver the advertising benefits which make consumer magazines highly profitable (circulation revenue is not the 'cream' of the magazine business -- the cream comes from ads). But magazine experts are being too blinkered if they write off the potential for consumer magazines delivered as high value advertising through digital editions. One can begin to get the flavour of this digital potential if one looks at the free sampler that we now have running for Dazed & Confused. On this page note the discreet link to, or the Blackdice ad with its phone number. Within the index of advertisers there is a wealth of linkage that can be used to generate instant targetted responses for advertisers. That is a nexus which the magazine reader and the advertiser need to see integrated through the digital magazine.

Wii Magazines

Reading The Spectator on your TV

If buying a Wii to improve your fitness and well being is not enough for you, its also quite OK to buy a Wii so that you can project your magazine subscriptions on to the TV in your lounge or kitchen.

Just a reminder that digital editions benefit from being pure web solutions. If a digital magazine or book runs on any standard web browser then it should run on any new web-connected gadget or device that appears in the consumer market (with the emerging Android open standard there are going to be quite a few). Take home lesson for publishers and aggregators: there is no need to develop and support different versions of your content for a multitude of platforms. Just make sure that your content is available on the web through a standard web browser. That is what software compatibility now means.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Minor Monthly

Minor Monthly joins our shop:

Monday, November 03, 2008

Ecological Approval

Speaking of the ecological impact of print (which we just were): we have had a nice bouquet from Ecovelo:

The Exact Editions interface is one of the best online magazine interfaces I’ve seen, providing the ability to zoom each page and navigate through the document using embedded hyperlinks, spread thumbnails, and navigation buttons on the interface. In my opinion, the EE interface is even better than a high quality, fully bookmarked and linked PDF document. The page scans are relatively high resolution and hold up well to magnification, and the reading experience is as good as, if not better than, the experience of reading traditional paper magazines.
But you must read the whole thing. Alan and Michael think that digital magazines have lesser ecological impact than print magazines, and bikes are a low impact way of travelling. That must be right.

Printable PDFs

We recently enhanced our service so that a complete issue can be printed from a PDF file. We have offered page by page printing from the begining, but many publishers do not like the idea of a complete magazine issue being printed from a single downloadable file (the worry is piracy, with one person taking out a subscription and then sending out scores of PDF copies to all his/her friends). I am not sure how valid this worry is, but it is a real one for some publishers. So the option to have a printable PDF of a complete issue is now available on some of our magazines. It will remain a publisher-dependent option. Athletics Weekly is the first magazine to have opted for it.

The PDF is taken at a reasonable resolution, but it is not high-res and so the user can download an issue without undue drumming of fingers on the desk or undue strain on bandwidth (yours or ours). We also omit the external links. The PDF alternative will probably be most useful to subscribers who like to read the magazine on the train or in a plane. It will also be useful to those subscribers who like to use our service so that they can print out the whole magazine --- but when I see those requests in the support log files I tend to grit my teeth. My puritanical, ecological streak is aroused by the thought of such wastefulness. Lets hope our provision of this alternative file format is not damaging to the eco-sphere......


DIVER joins the Exact Editions magazine shop. The free trial issue has:

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Enhancement for Screen Readers

We have upgraded our service so that we can generate a text version of pages which we present as facsimiles (JPEGs in the browser). This has been on our 'to do' list for a long time and now that we have it the 'screen readers' that help the visually impaired to navigate and search web pages can get a grip on our service.

The text-only version of any particular page is accessed by clicking 'Show All' on a grey bar near the bottom of each page. Our import process has been changed so that we can rebuild the text in an appropriate order as we extract words from the PDF files supplied by publishers. The process is not 100% perfect (mainly because magazine layout can be very free form) but the result is quite readable and will be useful to many with print disabilities. We expect to be able to tweak some improvements as we move forward. Files in the archive will gradually be converted, meanwhile you can see it in action from today with the French version of Le Monde Diplomatique, Taste Italia, and The World Today.

Try this Recipe for Spinach Dumplings

A screen shot of the recipe's final stages as the text version is presented on screen.

The resource can also be used to cut and past a quotation from the magazine into a document (previously users could only 'clip out' a selection from the JPEG or retype).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Google Book Search Settlement

The rumours of a settlement were correct. The publishers and Google have settled their law suit (the agreement is here). That is a very good thing and it opens up a new chapter in the development of publishing and digital libraries. The main thing is that digital libraries are going to be incredibly important and a large part of our cloud-based knowledge systems: furthermore they will be run along the lines of the Google Book Search system (database-driven, page-oriented, url-guaranteed, access-managed and to a considerable extent free). There are plenty of interesting blog comments: the Laboratorium, Peter Suber, Medialoper, PersonaNonData, and TechDirt.

There are winners and losers in this settlement, and I agree with the Medialoper view "the only entities that don’t seem to have fared so well are parties who weren’t involved in the suits"; by and large the settling parties look like the winners (Google, publishers, authors and libraries). But I wonder whether there is not an element of a 'winner's curse' about to descend on Google. Some parts of the settlement outline a fantastically complicated and ingenious business model for our future access to digital books. Very specific mechanisms for the pricing of books and the regulation of access, access to content within books, and access from within institutions to digital resources. If you read the stuff about 'Pricing Bins' and 'Pricing Algorithms' (pp49-50) you will get a good flavour of the extraordinarily detailed prescriptions.

A lot of this setup and this detail really needs to be established by innovation, by experiment and by markets, not by a court approved Settlement to a private dispute. Google may find itself subject to a lot more regulation and attention whilst it attempts to make these business models work (many business models or modes of exploitation are encompassed in the agreement). The settlement appears to be highly transparent and open, but it is not so transparent how the split between authors and publishers and other rights holders is intended to work. That may be a rather crucial consideration which may now be the subject of discussion between the Authors Guild and the AAP!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New York...New York...

I am hoping to run the New York marathon this weekend. The training has just about gone according to plan, but with only days to go until 'the day' I am suffering from all sorts of niggling doubts and looking for any information, anywhere that will give me comfort that, miraculously, it will all be OK on the day.

Yesterday evening I took a train out of town to see a youth production of an obscure play. Someone I know was in it so it was more out of support than anything else. Having dashed home from work I found myself at Clapham Junction ready to board the train with no reading material. I dived into the nearest newsagent and searched for one of a number of running magazines that can usually be found on their shelves. I thought the journey could be usefully employed getting last minute running tips.There was not a single copy of any of them to be found despite the newsagent being crammed full of magazines on everything from railways to rustic living.

As I sat on the train reading one of those gossipy weeklies full of pictures of WAG's and their friends, I thought how wonderful it would have been to have had access to all of the running magazines and to have been able to cross-search them from an iPhone or wireless laptop. I could have searched for 'positive thinking' and 'marathons -made -easy' or 'ways to reach the finish in under four hours without feeling exhausted!' Guess I'll just have to rely on Lucozade.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Google Book Search Rumours and Rumbles

A week ago there was a report in the Library Journal that the publishers and Google were going to settle their copyright dispute very soon now. No further news on that so far -- and if there was going to be a friendly settlement the Frankfurt Book Fair would have been a good place and a good time to smoke the pipe of peace. My own hunch is that Google will gain more by prolonging this argument than by settling it, so I am not expecting an early compromise. Perhaps there was no subtance to the rumour

The rumble, of elephants crashing around in the forest, is another matter. Something is really happening with HathiTrust, which sees a score of top american university libraries collaborate to produce a giant shared digital library. See an early interview with John Wilkin, its director in the Library Journal. Why elephants? Hathi is the hindu word for elephant, and the name was chosen because elephants remember, elephants are large and they are strong. The focus of the consortium is on preservation and access. On being there when Google has gone. They are already doing some important things which Google Book Search does not do (like being open and informative about what they have). Major university libraries have staying power and I bet this organisation will prosper.

Google Book Search is still the elephant in the library, but the existence of this consortium shows two things. Three years ago major libraries were saying that they could never do the kind of thing which GBS contemplates. Now several of them are collaborating in a much more ambitious project than anybody would have dreamed of in 2002. When we have a universal library in the 'computing cloud' there will be not one, but many literary digital platforms. There will be a whole herd of digital literary elephants kicking around. There will be a lot of platforms to choose from, partly because there is a lot to be done and different ways of doing it. The second and immensely encouraging feature of this new consortium is that it is obviously condoned if not encouraged by Google. The members of the consortium are almost all working with Google and it is to be concluded that Google is keen to see 'collaborator/competitors' in the digital book space that Google has pioneered. Good for Google and good for all of us. The universal library will be open because there will be a herd of elephants. Google may be the dominant male, but not a monopoly .....

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Web Services

We are a web service in the strict sense. We deliver a service through the web to subscribers and to publishers. We turn print pages into web pages and organize, search and serve them; and that is all we do. We are a set of pure web services but the funny thing is that we have never hosted our own web services. We never even thought about buying or owning our own servers, let alone running them. Sure we have some physical machines in the office, but nothing critical runs on them. We don't own any hardware that matters. Why buy when you can rent?

From the moment we founded the company and for some years we were happy customers of Vanillamachines (one of the biggest Linux box collocation services) and they gave us a very reliable performance, though nobody from Exact Editions ever set eyes on the 'machines' that we were renting from them. I was never too sure whether the actual boxes were in Texas or the UK but it was vaguely comforting to know that there were some air-conditioned boxes of blades somewhere that were in some sense ours (three or four of them I believe). But a few weeks ago we moved over to the Amazon computing cloud (EC2 -- Amazon Elastic Computing Cloud), and I do not think that anybody outside of Exact Editions will have noticed, and the strange consequence is that our computing is now entirely virtualised. We are using the Amazon computing cloud and there are no physical boxes that anybody could point to and say 'that is where the Exact Editions service resides'. For sure we have a number of 'virtual boxes' in the Amazon cloud, that seems to be the way that Amazon are able to monetize and charge for their commoditised service, but there is no determinate corresponding set of physical chips running our code. For me, the most convincing moment in this transition occurred when our Technical Director noted that, immediately following the transfer, our main database seemed to be running a bit more slowly than he would have liked. He decided to double the size of the virtual server for a day to see if that made any difference. It did. Search and rendering was a lot faster, and as a result he decided to make the upsizing permanent. For an additional $300 a month, (some such relatively modest fee), we had doubled the scale of our database machine and could upsize or downsize them whenever we chose. If we decide that we need so many mega-teraflops for a couple of days, Amazon's computing cloud will allow us to comfortably and temporarily use them. Its this just-in-time flexibility that is so impressive about the Amazon service.

Mind you, perhaps I would have been a bit more nervous about the switch to Amazon's cloud if I had known that they were still in beta. Only today has the beta label been removed from Amazon web services. I guess they did this because they noticed our successful transfer? [feeble joke]

I still occasionally meet publishers who ask if they can host their own Exact Editions service. In future I will have the perfect and honest answer to this request: we don't even host our own service......That is the real beauty of cloud computing. You don't need to host your own. Let the cloud take the strain.

Shopping Around

The Exact Editions service started with an 'aggregation' model for digital subscriptions to magazines. There is an Exact Editions shop where you can buy most of our magazines. Then we added 'shops' for magazine subscriptions in Euros, and another for Australian magazines. As we have started working for book publishers we have worked with a different model. We are building shops 'per publisher' branded for each publisher. There are now shops for Berkshire Publishing, Debretts, Alastair Sawday's, Profile Books, Time Out and recently Gower. There is a page on our service where all these shops and more can be referenced.

The book publisher's shops are branded for the individual publisher. Different shops, different publishers, different languages, different currencies -- but for the individual who buys a subscription there is only one account, one service. All his/her/its content goes in the same account ('its' for the institutions -- did not earlier mention the various 'institutional shops' we now support). As was to be expected, users are now buying collections of mixed magazines and books in the same shopping basket. This ability to buy, search and read books and magazines in the same way from different publishers will become an important factor in our appeal to small and medium-sized publishers.

Here is a mixed shopping basket, which has the 'look and feel' of the Gower shop because the two Gower books were those most recently added to it.

What you cannot do at the present time is buy books and magazines priced in different currencies in the same shopping basket. Mind you, this isnt a real limitation because you can buy in different currencies from the same account. PayPal or your credit card can see to that.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Browsing but not Reading

We are now delivering a service for magazines in the Dazed group which allows users to browse these magazines for free, but not to read them properly. The browsing is limited to the two-page per screen view, at this resolution most text is unreadable but the pictures are fine. As each new issue is published it will be available in this browse mode until the succeeding issue appears. Here is the current issue of AnOtherMan. The site is simply branded for the magazine's style

This is an open account, but you need to be logged into it and the issue in it will be available for a limited period, so to see the links that follow in this discussion you will need to be logged into here (, and when the next issue jumps into that account the links will only be available to magazine subscribers).

There are two principal justifications for offering free previews at the browse level for a magazine of this kind.

(1) Like all the Dazed magazines AnOtherMan is visually gorgeous and the publisher believes that as users become familiar with the quality of the photography and the advertisements they will be more likely to subscribe. And the 2-page view works nicely since many of the double page spreads are compelling, Ralph Lauren, Burberry, and Paul Smith. Or Lucien Freud, and Viggo Mortensen. One could say that making the current issues open to this free browsing is a bit analogous to the 'sampling' which is possible in a newsagent. However since the online browsing is unlimited it is considerably more generous (this issue is a whopper at over 300 pp).

(2) The second reason for putting the browseable version of the magazine completely in the open is that it will encourage usage of the advertisements and response to them. Although the format is not really readable, it is completely searchable. So if you are looking for the Belstaff leathers and after browsing the magazine you decide you will actually buy one, you can click on the url or the phone number to place your order. See the corner of p83.

La Politesse Française

I should declare myself a Francophile from the outset. I love the food, fashion, literature, mountains, beaches, cafés and the language.

I love the turn-of-phrase. The way something so simple can sound so beautiful. So, last year, when Le Monde Diplomatique asked us to deliver the French version of their publication in addition to the English edition, I was delighted!

Part of the service offered to all our publishing partners, is to manage the customer service queries relating to the electronic publication. This mostly consists of forgotten passwords. On the whole a query comes through by e-mail, it is answered and the customer quietly carries on with accessing their digital subscription. Except in the case of the French subscribers. On a frequent basis after helping them out, they will write back and thank us. And its not just a simple ' merci beaucoup', but a wonderful ' merci de votre gentillesse' { thank you for your kindness} or 'bien à vous { good wishes to you}.We are often wished a pleasant day or evening and always addressed with such politeness - 'Bonjour Chère Madame/Cher Monsieur'

An institutional customer mistakenly addressed me as 'Monsieur' today - easily done given that my name, Daryl, is more prevalent as a male name and Daryl Hannah, the actress-come- mermaid, seems to be the only other female whose parents chose such an ambiguous moniker.

In my reply I pointed this out, by signing myself off as Madame Daryl Rayner. I promptly received a very polite note back apologising profusely.It did not require an apology at all , but how polite I thought! Good manners are certainly alive in French cyberspace.

International DJ

International DJ joins the Exact Editions shop.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Copyright Czar and Copyright U-turn

The outgoing US President has signed a bill which creates a US Copyright Czar. See the PC Magazine report.

Bush signed the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property (PRO-IP) Act, a measure that will create several new government enforcement positions.
If it turns out that it is President Obama who is in fact charged with appointing this Czar, there must be a small chance that Laurance Lessig will fill the post. That would be an ironic turn of events.

As a copyright loyalist, one has to recognise that it is often the supposed advocates and defenders of copyright who are its worst enemies. Copyright would be stronger if it were more permissive and less onerous. Witness the ludicrous decision of the German courts who have decided that Google is infringing copyrights when it includes thumbnail images in search results. Whatever the technicalities of the German law on this point, we can be certain that incredibly useful services such as Google image search will not be derailed. At a certain point technology simply plows on and works its way around obstacles of this kind.