Friday, September 26, 2008

Reviewers and Bloggers

Martyn Daniels who writes a good blog for the UK Bookseller Association led me to an interesting experiment by Michael Hyatt, another blogger, CEO and President of Thomas Nelson Publishers, a big religious publisher in the US. Michael had a clever wheeze: why not give away books to bloggers who agreed to write reviews and publish them on their blog..... He has had over 100 bloggers review The Faith of Barrack Obama. I wonder what difference that made to sales? The few reviews I sampled will have been very gratifying to the author and publisher. Probably also to Barrack.

Magazines don't often get reviewed, and so its not surprising that we have had few reviews of the Exact Editions platform or the digital magazine experience on it (one recent one here). Books, on the other hand do get reviewed, and getting new books reviewed is one of the key publisher skills. As it happens we offer publishers a generous allowance of gratis subscriptions for every title in our system. Now that we are doing books we must encourage the publishers to give free subs to bloggers. Obvious really, thank you Martin and Mike.

Mike also requires that the reviewers produce a 200 word review and that they post it not only on their blog, but on the Amazon details page about the book within a month of getting the book. Exact Editions would be offering a one year subscription to a digital book, but I guess it would be reasonable for any publisher offering these review subscriptions to similarly stipulate that the review should (please) appear on the Amazon details page. Would that be disintermediating Amazon?

Launch Party for a Blog?

Charkin Blog is a blog published in book form by Macmillan. I missed the launch party, but from several reports it was an enjoyable and intriguing event.

I was amused to see in the Macmillan page about the book that it is listed as weighing 0 Kg. That seems to me very light for a book of 576 pp. Could it be that the weight is indeterminate, customisable according to requirements, the book is after all Print On Demand? Perhaps one can order a deluxe version on Indian paper, that would weigh very little, but surely at least 0.2 Kg? The British Library (which presumably gets a free copy) should look after posterity with a copy printed on vellum.

The weightless version of Charkin Blog is still here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Amazon will it be more Cloud than Kindle?

Its one of life's little ironies that with the Kindle, Amazon has espoused a download method for distributing digital books, approximating to the traditional model of bookshop which feeds individual libraries. In the world according to Kindle we all have our own individual libraries, which are defined by the content held on the Kindles that we own. Google is going with a books as streamed-service approach, in its Google Book Search platform, which approximates to a universal library service. With the Kindle approach there are lots of 'local copies', but with the Google library in the cloud, there may ultimately only be one copy of each title. Google's (and that is what people find worrying).

I find this Amazon position mildly ironic, because one of the few areas in which Amazon is competing directly with Google and possibly winning, is in the provision of Cloud Computing Services to third parties (Google's own cloud infrastructure is much better than anyone else's, but they are not making such a success of engendering third party use of their system). Amazon has an impressive cloud infrastructure of which the S3 service [S3 = Simple Storage Service] is the best known example. Amazon has just announced that it is extending and enhancing its S3 service with an improved method of delivering content rich services. If Amazon decides to switch tack on the Kindle and treat it simply as a blank slate on which users can rent rather than outright buy titles, they will have the infrastructure in place to make this change. Amazon is a true believer in the 'cloud' for next generation computing, but it apparently thinks that digital books are different: droplets on the ground rather than nodes in the cloud network.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Its All In The Job Title

One of my day-to-day challenges in speaking to publishers about their digital plans is to understand the structure of the company and where the digital buck stops. In very small publishers this is easy because the founder and owner is usually also head of editorial, marketing guru, director of all-things-digital and probably makes the tea too. They are also usually very keen to explore new distribution routes for their magazine/s and are agile in their decision making processes.

Small to mid- size publishers tend to have a hierarchy but I can usually be sure that the publisher or circulation director will be available. I can also usually rely on the fact that they will have the decision making power to quickly decide that selling magazines in a digital web format is a no-brainer in terms of increasing their subscriptions and, therefore, revenues.

The 'big five' of magazine publishers have had more of a challenge on their hands in dealing with the digital landscape. The more magazines being published, the more people involved, the more meetings to be organised, the more decisions to be made. Or are there more decisions to be made? Or is it that once a publishing house reaches a certain size its employees begin to operate within a living and breathing Venn Diagram? A situation where each job specification slightly overlaps another meaning that decisions are often required to go back and forth until they move out of the overlapping territory and into the safety of the free area within circle A or B.

I made a list of the job titles that I have come across during my recent meetings and conversations with one publishing company: Digital Director, Online Subscriptions Manager, Head of Marketing, Digital Development Director, Head of Digital Marketing, Head of Online, Marketing and Strategy Director, Head of New Business Development Digital and Circulation Director are just some that appear on the list.

To an outsider it is hard to navigate. Its rather like playing the children's game where something is concealed and you are told whether you are getting 'warmer' or 'colder' depending on how close you are to the hidden object. Perhaps colour -coding could be introduced and someone could flash a red light when you are 'hot' and close to the 'hidden' centre of digital decisions.

Google Street View Car getting lost in Florence

Yesterday, after playing with the new iPhone and blogging about Android, I set out on my usual walk to the bread shop. For the first time with an iPhone in my pocket (tempting to walk along playing with it). I had gone barely 50 metres when I noticed a black car moving up the street, rather uncertainly, with a large tripod on top. Could it be? Is it really? Yes, as it turned left towards Via Dante Castiglione, I noticed that the large tripod superstructure was certainly a bunch of cameras, and there was a prominent Google logo stuck on the inside of the rear window. A Google Camera car on its rounds, canning street views of our leafy suburb, which almost surely means that I will now be fixed and smudged as the indistinct figure in a sloppy jumper, when the Google Street view shows the rest of the world this part of Florence in 2 months time (wonder what the delay is in processing street views?). I was too slow with my iPhone to take a shot but there are plenty at Flickr:

Google Car in Bristol

And here is a close up of the camera: there is something almost comic about the Heath Robinson quality of the Google survey cars, which look somewhat experimental. But the whole process will surely be completely automated once the digital video gets into the Google workflow. I can not believe that they employ 'street view editors'. If they did, there is just a chance that one of them might intervene in my interests: "We can't have our view of Florence messed up by that tramp in sloppy jumper at 0.016181,0.038409&z=15. Can someone erase him?".

Nope, its bound to be completely automated and I am afraid that I am now immortalised as a smudge in Google Street View. It is quite extraordinary the way in which the web now touches us in the most specific and exact detail throughout our lives, and so many web systems are now ingesting mundane information from all corners of the earth.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How many publishing CEOs know what an API is?

Google yesterday announced their API for the Google Book Search platform (well it had sort of been pre-announced more than 6 months ago) but it has been given more breadth and visibility via this blog announcement. An API or Application Programming Interface is what allows one web service to integrate with and collaborate with another. If you have an API you need to be prepared to welcome the fact that other systems will figure out how to do cool stuff with your data that you never thought possible. The Google Book Search API is pretty tightly constrained, they list 3 API's and I expect that there will be more, but cool stuff will happen.

The system works efficiently and its much faster than some of the clunky preview systems on offer elsewhere. Here is a title from Arcadia that comes across swiftly and informatively. I can well imagine wanting to buy this book after glimpsing it in the Google search and preview mode. But there is a tendency for the Google system to reduce all the titles it manages to a grey uniformity. In some cases, as with this OUP book hosted at Blackwells, the text appears to be literally grey-ed. Is this because many of the titles are being scanned into the system? I am not sure. But I am sure that many publishers who care deeply about the look and feel, the design and readability of their texts, will not be won over to the Google platform.

The Google Book Search API is a great start, but it is not rich and deep. For that Google will need the active participation of publishers, Google itself will need to be committed to a more open Google Book Search, and there will be a lot more work on structuring texts.

Why does it matter whether your CEO knows what an API is? It matters because publishers (and newspaper owners, TV networks, film studios, content makers of all shapes) are not going to allow Google (YouTube, he she or ItTube, or anybody else) to manage and define the API which has access to their content. Having, or buying into, allying with, the API's which manage and accesses your content may be the key decision for media companies in the next decade. Either your CEO knows what an API is, and can find out how, in strategic terms, to negotiate Google's, Amazon's, Facebook's and Apple's, or he/she needs to be a media genius who does it by gut instinct (Rupert Murdoch is the only one of those that I can think of and he is the wrong side of 70). The heads of Random House, Conde Nast, Elsevier, Cengage, Hachette and Pearson really ought to have an intuition about the way their business can develop an API to the servers which are hosting all their content. I wonder if any of them do?

Why Today is a Really Important Day for the iPhone

Well before I get to that.....Today is a really important day for me because I bought my iPhone yesterday and it has been charged up during the night, while fresh firmware and a new operating system were installed etc, etc. [ Fresh firmware, a new O/S, and a new version of iTunes on my Mac...Why dont they just ship a virgin device and get all the bits installed over the internet? ]. Its now all lickety spit, charged up, and ready to go. And it is wonderfully impressive. I have been slow to get an iPhone because it has been slow to make itself available in Italy (where I mostly live). Of course, it was launched here three months ago, and Italy is the most telefonino-dominated culture in the world (maybe after Korea) but it has been impossible to get hold of them till this week.

It would seem that I have finally gotten on board the iPhone bandwagon just as it faces its most important challenge: Android, aka the Gphone will be launched today by T-Mobile. Android is Google's 'open' platform, operating system for mobile telephony and mobile computing. Greg Sterling at SearchEngineLand has some good facts and figures explaining why the web will become predominantly mobile. As Greg explains the iPhone and the soon to be revealed Android have an important competitive but collaborative interdependence:

The iPhone is like the "proof of concept device" for the mobile internet. And it is the device to which the first Android phone will inevitably be compared by everyone. Google has seen its mobile fortunes rise with the iPhone. But the iPhone has tiny market share ......

Android is, in some respects, the anti-iPhone. Like the iPhone it seeks to provide a better user experience but also features a totally open platform unlike the highly controlled Apple device. At a conference last week, I had a mobile company executive tell me, "Steve Jobs re-wrote our press release." That can be seen as a metaphor for the tight controls that Apple imposes on developers and the entire process of launching iPhone applications.

The Android software ecosystem promises to be more freewheeling and more uneven as a result.
Google is going to have its hands full competing in the mobile space. Although Android has been a bit slow to come on stream, I like the idea of a freewheeling ecosystem. Competition is good for Google, as it certainly will be for Apple. It will also be interesting to see how the Google 'marketplace' compares with the evolving Apple AppStore.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Shibboleth or שיבולת

The Exact Editions platform now uses the Shibboleth system for federated sign-on to web services. The system is Open Source and much used in the British academic universe, amongst others. Here is a video from JISC explaining some of the advantages (warning: the vides is a little bit 'corporate').

Federated services are always a good idea on the web? Such shared technologies all depend on trust....which is becoming ever more important in the web as services are layered on top of each other.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Faber Finds and Cool Covers

Faber Finds is a new list of POD (Print on Demand) titles from Faber the distinguished London publisher which revives titles buried in their extensive list of out of print titles. It is a very impressive list with many attractive authors and subjects. The motto of the series is 'Bringing Great Writing Back into Print.' I bet it will do that well and lead to steady sales from their long tail (there is more meat in the Faber long tail than most).

And clearly a good deal of thought has gone into the project. At Postspectacular, Karsten Schmidt gives a fascinating account of how he came up with the formula for generating 100's and potentially 1000's of front covers in a flexible but automated way. Having tasteful and inviting covers for such a series is obviously important. For a traditional publisher such a series of republished 'classics' would call for individual picture research, negotiation as to image rights and typographic design. Clearly completely unsustainable for a series of the kind that Faber project (I guess that even a 'budget' of $100/£50 per title would have seemed too much to the POD planners hunched over their spreadsheet, and £50 gets you umpence design time). At any rate, Faber had the bright idea of commissioning Karsten Schmidt

"to help with the design of a software system to generate complete & print ready book covers for their new imprint.... the task given was to build a “design machine” which would be flexible enough to generate a very large (theoretically infinite) number of unique designs, one for each single book ever printed in this range...." Postspectacular
The covers work very well, elegant and fresh in my opinion, and are of course much more attractive than the synthetic covers Google produces for titles without jackets in the Google Book Search library.

Some publishers are worried that Google may usurp the publishers role. I would say that this is one small example (one of many) where it is so obvious that the skill of the publisher (in this case design skills) will never be usurped by Google Book Search. Even if GBS were to become the generally preferred digital reading platform, which may happen although I think it unlikely, there will still be scope and a demand for publishing which takes the digital edition to a higher level. It is especially pleasing that in this case the designers have used a generative, algorithmic and automatable approach to their brief of which the sternest Google engineer will approve.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Google's Newspaper Project

Barbara Quint (always worth reading), in Information Today, has some interesting comments as she reports on the massive Google Newspaper archiving project.

Google's efforts in this space are undoubtedly impressive. But the readable quality of old newspapers is inevitably poor. Take a look at this 1944 issue of the St Petersburg Times. Google can break the newspaper up into articles and can find the headline "Russians Nearing Minsk" -- this is not easy and totally cool -- but the readability of a facsimile of a 1944 newspaper is going to be poor. I also find it a trifle intriguing that searching on the phrase "Russians Nearing Minsk" in the Google archive, or indeed on the complete Google web index finds no results at all. How can that be? Did I misread the headline?

There is a real question in my mind why Google is doing this. And I take it that their process is entirely (ok 99.99%) automated. There would be no justification for doing it if it cost them significant man hours. And I also take it that they are in principle willing to digitise every newspaper. Google does not usually bother to 'negotiate' about what content should be put into its system, anything that can be scanned and that comes from one of their partners goes in the maw. Google does not do things by halves: see the correspondingly outlandish projection from Chad Hurley, that Google's YouTube appetite will lead to exponential growth of video on the web and in the cloud.

It is highly intriguing the way in which Google's confidence that every newspaper edition is worth digitising contrasts with the widespread gloom in the mainstream newspaper business that they fundamentally have no basis for a profitable future, especially the local papers. It is very puzzling that very few newspapers have made proper efforts to sell digital editions to their current subscribers. Deeply puzzling given Google's appreciation of the value of archival databases.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Digital Editions and Stuffed Aubergines

Sandy Smith who blogs at Paper Palate has a thorough review of the trial issue of Taste Italia and in the process she has also produced some interesting practical comments on the digital platform.

But I was pleasantly suprised by how convenient this format is. You have an entire magazine - and with your subscription, all the back issues - laid out before you. You just click on a page to browse, expanding and collapsing pages at will. Unlike ad circulars, you don’t have to progress in a linear fashion. You can skip around, even search keywords or specific ingredients. What I especially loved about this was no clipping and filing of recipes. My recipe files are enormous and unwieldy, the somewhat distressing task of organizing them looms large. So this feature feels liberating. I know where the recipes are, they don’t take up any physical space, and I can access them if I need them.

Having said that, what then? If I want to cook the dish, I’ll have to print out the recipe. And then what? Throw it away? Filing it would only defeat the purpose of having it online..... Paper Palate
Like Sandy, we are no good at keeping the recipes that we have cut out from magazines. I never know which of several recipe books is most likely to contain that walnut cake recipe. But if, like me, you often have the laptop in the kitchen, surely the solution is to bookmark the recipes, or save the most delicious at delicious, and come back to them that way. I am not sure that Sandy realised that every page in the Exact Editions digital editions can be bookmarked. And for sure, page links can be emailed to friends. As a matter of fact I can recommend this recipe for stuffed aubergine. Whilst field testing the digital edition I followed the recipe. Scrumptious!

To adapt Shirley Conran: "Forget mushrooms, life is much better when you have stuffed an aubergine".

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Digital Newspapers and Digital History

Was it a coincidence that on pretty much the same day Google made an announcement about its massive newspaper archiving project, Plastic Logic announced its plans for an eInk newspaper reader? Both stories were caught by the NY Times: plastic papers here, and deep print archives here.

If Plastic Logic have their way you will be able to read any of today's newspaper anywhere in a digital format on a single fold away sheet, something like a napkin (perhaps they will have a gingham pattern when they are in idle mode?). If Google have their way you will be able to read any days newspaper anywhere, going back over 100 years. Space and time are melting before our eyes. Everything becomes readable. Not that we have any more time to read stuff.

Whilst welcoming these marvellous advances, I completely share Martyn Daniel's concern, that the propositions will fail if we need multiple reading devices for reading different sorts of digital print. A Kindle for books, a Plastic Logic napkin for newspapers, and no doubt an iMag reader of some kind for magazines. That way lies madness. Google have a better plan try to deliver everything through a web browser. That should work in the direction of universal access. I hope Plastic Logic realise that their device needs to run a standard web browser before they commit everything to a Kindle-like proprietary device.

Of course Google has to view the digital proposition in the way that it does. Google is a search engine. Google's newspaper announcement is a not so subtle reminder that digital stuff, even flakey yellowing newsprint from the nineteenth century, has to be searchable to be useful. From which it follows that it really has to be deliverable through a web browser. What is the point of having something searchable if it cannot be delivered through a web browser? From which it follows that proprietary formats and platforms are doomed. Amazon would be well advised to re-visit their strategy.

Modern Poetry in Translation

Modern Poetry in Translation joins the shop. Enjoy the free trial issue:

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Taste Italia

Taste Italia joins our shop. Taste the trial issue

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Bloomsbury goes into Academic Publishing

Bloomsbury have made an unconventional entry into Academic Publishing. It is not unconventional to start a new list: Bloomsbury Academic, but the business model that they outline is highly radical and very intriguing:

All titles will be made available free of charge online, with free downloads, for non-commercial purposes, immediately upon publication, using Creative Commons licences. The works will also be sold as books, using latest short-run technologies or Print on Demand (POD). From the News Release 5/9/08
This could be the best way to publish academic monographs for the rapidly growing global network of universities and scholarly communities. Universities which are web connected to the core.

One senses that some aspects of their business model are not yet fully formed. They mention spending a lot of time with libraries, "exploring how best to serve the academic community". That sounds promising and the fact that they are commited to Creative Commons licenses and to making works available for free as downloads means that they can explore the project of offering publisher backed digital library service which delivers real value to libraries. Value based on service rather than proprietary exploitation of copyright exclusivity. The prices charged for such aggregated services will have to be modest if they continue to offer free downloads.

This may be an even more adventurous and bold model than the PLoS or BioMed Central propositions for scientific periodical publishing. I wonder if Bloomsbury can make it work without adopting the model of collective and open-ended sponsorship which PLoS and BMC are using, and which may be becoming rather indistinguishable from the conventional approach of heavy institutional subscriptions? The boldness of this approach is impressive. Bloomsbury Academic will surely attract important authors. Good news for academic monograph publishing.