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.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"Low hanging fruit"

Is a phrase I dislike, almost as much as "leaving money on the table". I tend to shudder when these phrases are used because bitter experience tells me that 'low hanging fruit' really only comes to us when we have put in a lot of effort. You need to be able to reach the fruit for it to be low-hanging: make sure that you are tall enough to reach it! Goose bumps from 'money on the table' for a slightly different reason. Consultants use the phrase as though it were a mistake to leave something on the table, but any good deal always leaves some of the benefit (ideally a good chunk of it) with the counter-party. A successful business will always leave lots of money sitting on the table. That way customers are satisfied and they will come back again next year.

These musings are sparked by today's news that on behalf of our publishers we have sold institutional site licenses to the embassy of an Arabic nation in Eastern Europe, a Lycée in Alsace, a middle-sized British charity, the city library of one India's biggest cities (yes India not Indiana!), and one British FE College.

I am certain that modestly priced institutional licenses, delivered via IP addresses which the clients supply to us, are a considerable market. Publishers simply have not twigged this yet. Only in the case of the FE College was there a visible promotional initiative from the publisher. In the case of the embassy there was an alert reaction from our support team -- a matter of confirming that an institutional license, rather than an individual license for the ambassador was what was needed. These institutional sales are mostly happening because the customers are finding that the offer of an institutional license is there for the taking, and they are taking them up because they are there. Of course, Indian libraries will be taking lots of digital subscriptions in ten years time (and I should not be surprised that some are doing so now). But the subs will have to be at a reasonable and affordable price. That means leaving quite lot of money on the ......

I hate to say this, but book and magazine publishers who do not offer site licenses to their digital offerings (who do not have digital offerings so that they can offer site licenses to them) are -- how shall I put this? -- leaving a lot of money on the table, or if you prefer they are ignoring low hanging fruit....It is a funny old world.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Gower using Exact Editions

The Exact Editions platform is this week launching a customised shop for c. 50 titles from Gower, a leading publisher of high level business and management titles. The books can be searched for free, and interested parties can buy subscriptions with a credit card or their PayPal account. If you log in to the Gower shop you will find that there are 30 pages in these books which use the word "bubble". It seems inevitable that bubbles are going to be even more studied in the next few years.

Several of these books clearly have particular relevance in this hectic and dramatic week.

Phil Griffiths' Risk-based Auditing

And one hopes that the UK Treasury and the Bank of England have closely studied:
Rull and Aziz Managing Communications in a Crisis

For graduate students starting their PhD this Autumn, Abby Day's How to Get Research Published in Journals may be the book they really ought to have.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Embracing Open Access Publishing

First there was Bloomsbury starting an Open Access academic publishing programme for monographs. Now we see that Springer is buying up BioMed Central, which publishes nearly 200 open access scientific journals. See Peter Suber's comments on this.

I am sure that Springer are not intending to close down BMC (well 95% sure!). I agree with Suber that the really interesting aspect to this acquisition is that the big commercial publishers are now begining to feel their way into a situation in which giving away content, making it freely available, is actually good for the profit-oriented business which also sells subscriptions to some highly prized content. And provides other services. Its what those other services are that is perhaps most unclear at this point, though BMC is clearly doing quite well from its author-generated fees. I am sure that publishers have scarcely begun to think about the ways in which making content freely accessible may be an effective and strange-as-it-may-seem profitable way of publishing. Locking it all up as tight as possible will not work well. Publishers need to go to bed with this mantra buzzing in their brains: the marginal cost of access is approaching ..... zero.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Site Licenses

It will soon be the first anniversary of our Institutional Shop, which we announced in November 2007. Institutional sales still form a relatively small proportion of our sale of subscriptions, but they have been an encouraging source of new business.

The system for making an institutional sale is completely automated, and web based. A number of institutions have bought their subscriptions and setup their IP-address based accounts with no intervention or action on our part. We knew that university and college libraries would be interested to subscribe to digital editions of magazines, but we have been pleasantly surprised to find that ministries, NGO's, businesses and schools are also keen to buy institutional licenses.

I am sure that our success with institutional licenses for magazines is partly attributable to the fact that individuals are buying the magazines for themselves, and then deciding that the digital magazine has good educational potential. There is an important lesson here for book publishers who want to make institutional sales. Make sure that the pricing for a single user is attractive, that way teachers/professors will buy before their institution makes a decision.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Recession, depression

This banking crisis is going to be more than a banking crisis. Seems like a full-scale recession is the least we can expect. Will this make much difference in the switch from print to digital? In the dramatic growth of the internet and web 2.0? I doubt it. The collapse in confidence is going to be bad for advertising, bad for investors, bad for consumers and pretty much bad all round. But the technological shift is not going to stall, it may even be accelerated. Sony have launched their latest eReader. A Kindle 2.0 is coming. The mobile web will surge out of the blocks next year. The big media companies are going to face a lot of pressure, especially from reduced advertising (but within this shrinking pie, the share and the absolute amounts going to the web will increase).

I bet the big newspaper companies and the consumer magazine companies are re-doing their 2009 ad revenue forecasts right now. The graphs will not be pretty. But consumers will be looking for better deals and that favours digital (our digital magazine subscriptions are on average 25% cheaper than print, more if overseas post is involved). Publishers will be under even more pressure to develop digital markets without re-inventing the wheel. Our distribution/e-commerce plan for publishers is low cost and low risk (largely underwritten by our small commission on digital subscriptions sold), and that will be an important consideration for cautious innovators.

The shift to digital may be accelerated as the economic tables are being turned. But this crisis is bad for us all. Especially in the way in which trust has drained out of the global financial system.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Blogging about Books or Travel Guides?

Time Out are offering, through the Exact Editions platform, digital editions of their renowned City Guides to NYC, London, Paris, Sydney and Beijing. The complete books are available for searching and thumbnail previews here.

If you are a blogger and interested in reviewing one of these titles with a free annual subscription. Please email, giving in the body of your email a link to your blog and mention the title that you would like to review.

We will send you details of your account which will give you access to the title selected by you, on the basis that you will:

== evaluate the digital title and write a 100 word review of it
== review the content and/or the platform
== publish this on your blog within 30 days
== obviously (!) there is no requirement that your review be favourable of either book or platform

Cloud Computing and Books

We have been blogged before about cloud computing, and thinking about it again. Partly in response to the rather extraordinary views of Richard Stallman reported in the Guardian.

"One reason you should not use web applications to do your computing is that you lose control," he said. "It's just as bad as using a proprietary program. Do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom-respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else's web server, you're defenceless. You're putty in the hands of whoever developed that software." Cloud Computing is a Trap.

This obsession with self-sufficiency and self-reliance, veers in the direction of paranoia. You don't necessarily lose control if you outsource a service, especially if there is competition between various service providers. I am sure that there are dangers with a model of cloud computing in which only one company provides a platform for published books (that company would at the moment look like being Google) but there is really no reason why only one company should host and serve print in the cloud. Exact Editions is using a similar approach to the Google Book Search platform and other platforms are emerging (recently launched is Gale's syndication offering, Acquire Content, but there are many more publishers with that potential and several startups trying to become the YouTube for PDF files). There are lots of reasons why we may expect there to be lots of cloud-based book-type services. Amazon itself may migrate from its Kindle-delivered download system to an access-based, lending bookshop in the sky. The desired outcome here is that there should be choice, and continuing innovation. That way we are all safer and we will get better services more quickly.

Stallman shoud be worrying about competition and barriers to entry, not about the inherent collaboration and interdependence that comes from cloud computing, and indeed from the web and the internet infrastructure which is the foundation. At all these levels interdependence is a source of diversity and of strength. So it should be with books in the cloud.