Friday, January 30, 2009

Twitter and Books, Newspapers and Magazines

I started using Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Now it seems as though I have quite a number of new Twitter friends. Perhaps we are learning something from it. Twitter is clearly on a roll. John Battelle thinks that we may be on the edge of a new form of collective thinking, the borg hivemind.

The key characteristics of Twitter are mystifying and compelling: the hugely important limitation that no message can exceed 140 characters; the characteristically web-like assymmetry of the followed/follower relationship; the importance of citation (retweeting); and of indirect reference through devices such as tinyurl; the real but limited scope for style and intentionality.

So how is this new conversational medium, which aspires to collective thinking, going to relate to digital editions? It would be nice to get some suggestions in the comment stream. But here are a few wild ideas:

  • Surely some publicists or alert authors are creating Twitter accounts for individual books. Where are they listed?
  • Could someone create a Twitter interface to a database of ISBNs/ISSNs, or of public domain books, so that any Google Book Search book, (or any Exact Editions platform book or magazine) could be searched for its Twitter stream. GBS and Exact Editions, unlike ebooks, have referential reliability so can be directly linked from Twitter.
  • Has a bookshop created a Twitter stream of the books it is selling minute, by minute (I do not expect Amazon to do this)? Or has a library told us with a Twitter feed what titles it is loaning? Perhaps the loans could be returned with a comment for inclusion in the Twitter feed?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lessons from Feedback

Our users/readers sometimes email the Exact Editions support line, when they were intending to email the magazine's editorial team. We received such an email last night and I am pretty sure that the publisher of Permaculture and the e-mail's author will not mind if the message is shared more widely:

Dear Exact Editions team
I´ve been reading all year round your excellent Permaculture magazine Thank you very much I got it for free in your last year’s promotion. I’m a postgraduate student on Physical Anthropology with my thesis on Corn breeders from peasant families of highlands in rural Mexico. If by luck you still have the possibility to send it for free by mail or e-mail I will be much grateful, since it keeps me inspired. My income as teacher is minimal, my work hours long, and if you need a certified letter that I get it for free, I can send it. Nevertheless, thank you for your kindness, during all this year.
It is so good of 'Ana' to thank us for her magazine, but of course the thanks are due to Permaculture who not only make the magazine, they also had the clever, but wholly practical idea of sending sponsored subscriptions to ecological activists in other parts of the world who would never be able to afford a subscription to a print magazine priced for Western markets. It is a bit easy for us to forget, in the unsustainably privileged West, just how much education, culture and enjoyment can be packed into the magazine format.

As in the case of our totally blind reader of the Baptist Times, this is the type of feedback that leaves one pleased to be of service and completely impressed by the challenges that face our brothers and sisters. Humbled too, because obviously what matters to our readers is that they can read the magazine in its digital form and the magazine is what really matters to them. The platform ideally should be, as it really is for our blind readers, invisible. It is the magazines which matter. Exact Editions works best when our readers really do not notice the platform.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Google Pictures and Google Books

Did you investigate the recent news stories about Google putting 14 masterpieces from the Prado into Google Earth, so that you can zoom and pan these great works in extraordinary detail (search for 'Museo del Prado' on Google Earth)? Over 3 months Google engineers/photographers took 8,000 highly detailed photos of the 14 paintings and in painstaking fashion they have been pieced together to form magnificent reproductions. Here is a tiny detail from Goya's picture of Executions on Principe Pio hill.

You would need to be peering very close to the picture to see this detail of the terrified eye of the victim.

This is a great project and for me it immediately raises the question: "Will Google attempt to do for pictures and the world's great art what it is now doing for books and all the world's published literature?" Namely: will Google capture all of art, the contents of all museums in image form and render it searchable and viewable to anybody anywhere? It is a perplexing thought, and I suspect that at some level of detail Google does want to do this. Remember the Google mission: Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.

While Google has immense ambition and vast technical appetite, I wonder whether they really can be planning to capture all the works of art held in the world's museums and galleries. There is an awful lot of it, and surely its unfeasible to track and record it in the great zoom-detail of these Prado masterpieces. And, who, after all, is to say that even this level of magnification and detail is adequate? A thorough and scholarly appraisal of many objects will require even greater resolution and magnification. It also has to be said that it is hard to see great potential for advertising revenues, still less subscription revenues, from a database which captures all cultural artefacts in 2D or 3D high resolution. At some point, the goal of collecting and organizing all the world's information, becomes an incoherent and an infinite task. Indeed at some point well before that infinite limit, any conceivable or realisable value in the aggregate of all the information in the world runs out. If Google does plan a collaboration with museums and libraries as intensive as the collaboration it is now running with 20 of the world's leading research libraries, it will have to take on board the principle that selection, focus, metadata, and priorities need to be established before you database the lot. Especially when you are databasing only some of the lot.

If Google is planning to put a very large, but necessarily selective, database of art and all museum-worthy objects into a database drawn from the world's museums, it is interesting that they have chosen to do this through the medium of Google Earth, rather than be a development of Google Images. So you see these high resolution pictures as though you were visiting the Prado, guided to them through an excellent 3D model of the building and indications of where, in which room, the paintings are hung. You do not come at them as you would in searching for 'Goya execution' on Google images, where you arrive at vastly inferior reproductions of the same painting, mixed up with other stuff.

I suspect that museums and art galleries will do a lot of this sort of work themselves. This virtual Prado does not carry any ads, but let us face it, its a spectacularly good advertisement for the Prado itself. Rival galleries must be envious of the attention this has drawn to 14 masterpieces in Madrid. Similar resources will be free to the public and advertising will pay a relatively small part in the funding process. Google will be much more interested in providing the search services and the indexes for all this curatorship and detailed photography than in actually doing all the heavy lifting. Mind you, if it turns out that museums and art galleries are quite capable of databasing their own collections, it may also turn out that more libraries decide to do a similar job for their own collections. The fact is that the tools used by Google for capturing information held in books, libraries, pictures and museums are increasingly available to us all. Capturing information on your digital camera or your iPhone is almost a democratic right. It will be very hard for companies to build exclusive monopoly holds over information which anyone can collect with a wave of their hand.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Magazines need a Solution not a Bail-Out

Magazines and Newspapers are finding the recession very tough mainly because of a sharp drop in advertising, which co-incides with a shift in advertising budgets towards performance-based digital advertising. Advertising Age has an informative article which tries to analyse some of these trends and put some numbers on the digital revenues that magazine companies are achieving. According to the Ad Age figures, Time Inc is one of the magazine companies that is most successful in attracting digital ads (c. 10% of advertising revenue across the group comes from digital), and Conde Nast is one of the worst with only 3% of ad revenue coming from digital. But these successes are modest and the real problem with the major magazine companies (especially in the US but to an extent in the UK) is that they have pushed for advertising revenues at the expense of circulation:

A big part of the problem -- and the current pressure for change -- stems from the prevailing emphasis on building ad page sales and increasing ad page rates. Conde Nast practically fetishized ad pages for many years, but almost everyone played the game. Pushing circulation as high as possible, though, undermined subscription prices and ran up costs for marketing, paper and distribution. (Nat Ives: Ad Age 19/1/09)
In effect the magazine business has been experiencing an advertising bubble which has been expanding ad pages, but shrinking circulation revenues for over a decade. The music has stopped and the advertising budgets are popping. This is not a temporary problem, as Ives puts it: "And whatever relief arrives whenever the economy recovers from the recession, nothing suggests that magazine ad page sales will reclaim their previous heights." The magazine industry has a real challenge and is facing a tectonic shift. It has to get more digital and it has to replace advertising revenues which will not come back quickly. I would not be completely gloomy about the prospects for magazines acquiring new digital advertising revenues in due course. Magazines really have to have solid digital audiences before they can expect promising growth in digital ads.

All of this says that magazines must look at the options for building circulation revenues, including digital circulation and digital subscription revenues. There are straightforward and effective ways of doing this, for example with the Exact Editions platform for digital subscriptions. The banks have to go to the government for a bail-out, but the magazine industry can solve its own problems by building digital circulations. Digital subscriptions are clearly part of the solution, and it is extraordinary that many of the largest and most successful magazines have not yet seen this.


Maverick, a monthy magazine for fans of country music, joins our growing and rich collection of music genre magazines.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Information Infrastructure Projects

Today Obama is inaugurated and steering his economic recovery plan through Congress will be a key target for his first 100 days. Governments throughout the developed world are looking for significant infrastructure projects to stimulate employment and to stimulate demand. That is the good old Keynesian solution to a recession which has come right back into fashion. Why has there been so little attention given to public infrastructure investments in the information field? Universal broad band seems to be the only plausible candidate so far ($6 Billion is the projected cost of this in the US plan, less than %1 of the total package). Most of the ideas that we read about from Obama, or from think tanks, are that employment will be created by investing in mass transit, or in efficient power transmission, social housing, or neglected infrastructure projects (old bridges and roads etc). Surely we should also be thinking about infrastructure projects for the information sector? But whether the projects are physical or digital, it has to be recognised that there are at least two problems with pump-priming investments. In the blogged comment of the Nobel Laureate Gary Becker:

The activities stimulated by the [Obama] package to a large extent would draw labor and capital away from other productive activities. In addition, the government programs were unlikely to be as well planned as the displaced private uses of these resources. (Becker -- Infrastructure in a Stimulus Package)

So large-scale publicly funded information infrastructure investments that are to be part of a stimulus package must not suck up highly skilled labour which is in short supply, and if they are to be part of a timely intervention they must not involve substantial leadup and planning time. Its a no-no to suggest putting billions into the creation of vast libraries of Open Source software, after all most competent programmers are gainfully employed. As for the requirement of effective planning, it will be much easier to identify a promising project that can be scaled up or replicated than to start something completey de novo. There are such projects in the information field, and rapid scaling up looks most promising for initiatives which involve large amounts of data collection. Data collection is often relatively unskilled, or with skills that can be easily taught. Of course, it is also important that the information being collected is of real use. Here are three suggestions:
  • Open Street Map -- has been making great progress has global ambitions and is run and led by enthusiastic amateurs who appear to be capable of organising relatively large scale social endeavours (mapping parties/conferences). Governments could fund volunteer groups who would generate large amounts of geo-data, perhaps with particular emphasis on ecologically relevant mapping data, and culturally relevant historical data which is neglected by commercial cartographers.
  • Google Book Search has made a very substantial step towards solving the problem of 'Orphan Copyrights' in the USA, but there are nevertheless plenty of gaps in the US data, and the Google collaboration with university libraries is much less advanced in other countries. Although using this data to full-effect reguires the Google engine (or something like it from Open Source or another company), the accumulation of the raw scans is a relatively low-tech business. It needs little more than a careful and well planned logistic pathway and an investment in scanning machines. If governments in Europe and the rest of the developed world were now to invest in large-scale scanning of the published literature, they could reach effective agreements for Open Access or appropriately regulated Approved Access to enormous bodies of printed literature. This would have the additional benefit of putting in the public domain, material which ought to be of general benefit; the Google effort would also be, and seem to be, much less monopolistic if there was a large body of government funded scanning as a counterweight. Much of the technical expertise necessary for scanning the world's out of print literature already exists in libraries and, with the example of Google Book Search in front of them, the world's libraries could be geared up to scan, within a few years, several times the 7 million books already scanned by Google.
  • Ecological audits. As we tackle global climate change it will become increasingly necessary to have better information about animal and plant species and the environmental impacts of climate change on living systems. Amateur efforts like the British Bird Survey are pioneers in this work. If Governments invest now to create better and ongoing records of natural diversity these records will be very useful in the global challenge of moderating and putting a break on climate change.

Searching Twitter and Finding Tweets

In the last month I have been using Twitter and thinking about how it works and how it might grow. Its a puzzling phenomenon, but strangely compelling: mini-blogging, with messages limited to 140 characters, and a social model which is Facebook-ish). I am enjoying it, in part because I sense that we will see it grow in some quite unexpected ways in the next year. Tim Bray (one of the original designers of XML) has blogged a few reservations which carry some weight:

I love Twitter, but it’s a venture-funded startup with no business model, and these are tough times. They might make it and they might get rich, but it would be totally unsurprising if, 24 months from now, Twitter were gone, or a zombie site, or its BigCo acquirer was installing pointy-haired ["headed"?]bosses to Leverage The Synergies.

The basic problem is that Twitter is centralized; that’s not how the Internet works. I’m reminded of Netscape; we all owe them a huge debt for introducing the world to the browser; but the short period during which the Web was a Netscape Application was pretty painful for those of us trying to improve the state of the art.

I hope that the Twitter story plays out more gracefully than Netscape’s did, and I think that for their own sakes they ought to be encouraging federated-blogging work...(see Tim Bray: Ongoing)

There is another problem with Twitter. The genius of the system is that every message is restricted to 140 characters. But this means that messages are very compressed, links are most valuable (this is a blogging medium!) but they are often TinyURLs. So quite meaningless when scanned. This means that it is quite hard to keep track of interesting stuff that might have been in your Twitter-stream. Added to which Twitter is not yet well searched by Google, Yahoo, or anybody else. See Danny Sullivan's comments here on this. Having good searching on Twitter would be very useful and John Battelle thinks that isnt yet happening because Yahoo and Google both want to extract some competitive advantage, perhaps by building a Twitter competitor? That would be dumb -- but its what can happen when big companies get too entrenched in their own platform-strategies (is this what Tim Bray means by "pointy-headed bosses"?).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Magazine Formats and Business Models

Jeff Jarvis who has been predicting dire things for the newspaper business (some of which are coming to pass) is now becoming the Jeremiah of the magazine business. He has a very gloomy moan on his blog Magazines don’t look so slick now

First, the grim reaper came for newspapers….Now magazines are looking bad and worse by the day. ....

And magazine advertising is falling in the dumper - and it’s sure to get worse as the impact of the crash deepens. The Wall Street Journal reports at 17% plunge in ad pages in the fourth quarter against a year ago. For the year, they were off 12%.
Things are in some ways as bad as Jarvis says. Costs are going up and advertising revenues are plummeting. But Jarvis's outlook only sees more of the same. His vision of a digital future is of a world of the web as we know it now, where the only form of content distribution that works is free access paid for by Google-style ad-management. But the web is changing and the way in which it changes is giving new opportunities to publishers. In Jarvis's comment-stream Rex Hammock points out that there is a distinction between magazines-as-formats and magazines-as-business models.

The trick for magazine publishers now is to figure out how the changed circumstances of the web and a search for sustainable cultural values can support the magazine format. The great advantage of the magazine format is that it is ideally adapted to niche markets and so special interest content packages should thrive when a new business model is adopted draws strength from the web and internet distribution. Special interest consumer magazines (superior dress design, specialist cuisine, extreme sports, poetry, ecology, jazz and other musical genres, etc) can easily acquire a paying subscription audience on the web. It will be much tougher for magazines which are simply mass market and mass circulation -- they really do need the mass advertising, low subscription audience that is fragmenting and vanishing. Magazines of real quality and passion will work, and as their digital audience develops new models for attracting and delivering value to advertisers will emerge.

Jarvis is right to emphasize the urgency of the challenge, but the formats will be saved if the publishers steer to the appropriate business model. For many magazines that means developing a digital subscription audience.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Recession bites even Google

Google is trimming some services and has laid off some Googlers (not contractors but staff in recruitment). Of course, Google is going to feel the recession and it is big enough and its operations sprawl in ways that will benefit from pruning. We have long been intrigued by the Google Catalogs service, which now, according to Technologizer, folds. This was one of the web services that we looked at most closely when we started Exact Editions (Google Book Search was not then visible). It has always seemed like a good service which lacks a proper commercial motivation. A service with a business model which did not seem to connect to business. Where did they go wrong? What was not connecting with what it should have been connecting with? The short answer is that the service did not really connect with the transactions with which print catalogues are fundamentally concerned. There was no way that you could use the Google web-versioned catalogues to transact effectively with the companies that in most cases had excellent e-commerce facilities on the web: the product IDs and the phone numbers do not connect, do not link, to the e-commerce engine that transacts the business.

The Exact Editions catalogues service for book publishers does do this. ISBN's and of course email addresses all link from within the catalogue page to the appropriate resources. It is also relevant that the Google service was entirely free (free to the catalogue publishers), and this meant that it was unlikely that Google would ever invest in the tools which would enrich the scanned PDFs with the meta-data that is required. Exact Editions does make this commitment to each catalogue we process, and the publishers can choose whether they want the phone numbers to link, and whether to target Amazon or their own e-commerce operation with the ISBN links, but as a result of this fine-grained approach our service could never be a completely free offering.

This all has implications for Google Book Search. Dont get me wrong, I think that GBS is a magnificent project, and that it will work. It is working. But it will remain monolithic and there will be limitations with this monolithic approach. It is also inevitable that publishers who have a big commitment in their books will want to have additional and superior ways of presenting them to the public. Google will have to deal evenly with its partners, but it will necessarily leave scope for innovators and publishers and authors who find ways of pushing the envelope. Managing and creating the appropriate web presence for each book and magazine will remain a responsibility for publishers.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fit to Width

We have a new option to fit pages to your browser - there are buttons on the toolbar to turn this off/on.

The function will be particularly useful for magazines which have fairly small pages, eg the cycling magazine AtoB, or ones with really large formats, eg The Catholic Herald, which is broadsheet.

If you resize your browser window, the magazine page will shrink or expand to fill the available space.

It works for single pages and (full-sized) double-page spreads, and our superimposed links reposition themselves as required.

There's a keyboard shortcut too: ctrl+shift+down to turn it on or off, and ctrl+shift+up to swap between single pages and spreads.

Of course, this function is not needed on the iPhone, which is so incredibly good at expanding and contracting web pages within its browser. Point of interest, I wonder whether this so delightful feature of the iPhone has had the incidental effect of encouraging us all to expect and to enjoy resolution flexibility?

Books, Apps and Libraries

I recently saw a twitter from Tim O'Reilly to the effect that 'books as apps' dont scale. That struck me as quite sage -- Tim does a good line in sage twitters. But his proposal for creating a 'channel' on Stanza doesnt sound quite right (a channel for what? Editions, Versions, Texts?), and what about this suggestion that Apple might get into the business of selling eBooks? Apple have done pretty well with selling music through the iTunes store. They might be getting worried about Google having a free run at books with the Android an Apple eBook device or an iTexts for the Apple devices makes some kind of sense.

Still, I will be surprised if Apple create a dedicated eBook device, but they will carry on creating highly desirable hardware platforms that will work very well with eBooks, digital editions and other web services. But making an iTunes for books is not going to be an easy proposition. Books and Tunes are different, and the iTunes library functions will not work naturally and straightforwardly if applied to books. Managing the library function properly is where the requirement for scalability gets to be really tough, and all these file-download systems will find it harder than Google or other web-based solutions, such as our own Exact Editions.

This could get quite complicated. There is already a plethora of dedicated eBook reading devices: Amazon Kindle, Sony, Iliad Rex and others. There is an App store for the iPhone, there is a marketplace for the newly arriving Android phones (Google phones), the new Palm Pre is getting fantastic reviews which will herald another App store. Nokia will probably have another. A profusion of channels and App stores and marketplaces, each with somewhat different expectations and technical requirements.

Main conclusion: try not to make multiple versions of books, try to make digital books or magazines that run on any platform that supports a web browser. All our books and magazines run on the iPhone and so any subscriber can access their subscription on the iPhone, and on an Android phone.

Secondary conclusion: maybe certain kinds of books do merit becoming an actual dedicated App on the iPhone. Sure, this doesnt scale for all books. But there are certain kinds of books, directories, travel guides, how to books, for which a dedicated App might make sense. Thinking about O'Reilly, what about their current best-seller: iPhone: The Missing Manual? That would be an App which many iPhone users would love to have.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lights at the End of the Tunnel?

Magazine publishers are going through a torrid time. Yesterday I rang someone at a leading business/finance magazine for whom we have done a test file. But we couldn't talk because he was having to digest a decision announced yesterday about job reductions in the company. Some of his staff are affected.

We agreed to talk in a few days. What do you say? It is not helpful to point out that if they had been doing a digital edition in 2008 they probably would have 'saved' one of those jobs. With these middle to big magazine companies it is very hard to get anyone to think constructively about the potential they have for growing digital subscriptions and a digital audience. This is one reason why we tend to work best with the smaller magazine companies where decisions are made closer to the burning rubber on the road. Advertising Age thinks that e-books, digital editions are one of the bright spots for 2009. They are right about that....

Friday, January 09, 2009

Customer Support

We are still small cosy team, with no paper work (really none, except the occasional contract) but we still all see the customer support stream. That doesnt mean that we all read it, but its in our email flow and we can look at it, if we choose. I do read a fair bit of it. Occasionally you see a piece of feedback that sets you back, sets you up, causes the jaw to drop, stops you in your tracks!

Here was one last night:

Re: The Baptist Times

Hi webmaster, I am totally blind and use an audio screen reader with IE7 using Vista as my platform. My wife gave me an anual subscription to the BT online for my Christmas present. I thought you would like to know that your web facility is great. I have been able to go onto the site and learn to use it in a couple of hours, without any visual help. I have read all the pages fully and if I have a co(u)ple of more weeks I think I will be able to read it as fast as a sighted person using a paper newspaper.

Thanks a lot.

Wow! And thanks a lot for letting us have that feedback.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Apple and Google will there be a Tussle?

Are these two great companies on a collision course? They may be united in their disdain for Microsoft, but they are going to be knocking into each other in the coming year.

Google has its Android mobile platform, and Chrome which is looking increasingly like a lunge towards an operating system (Google seem to be embarassed that Chrome does not yet run on Macs, but do Apple really want another operating system pushing into their terrain?). Not to mention Google Docs which is a growing threat to Microsoft's Office. Steve Ballmer is blowing smoke when he pretends not to see how Google will make money out of this.

But Android will be a strong competitor for the iPhone, and it looks as though Google has taken a leaf out of Apple's book with its App Store for Android. The iPhone App store is already a huge success, but it the Android works and the App Store is as free-wheeling as is projected, Apple may find they face very strong competition with developers flocking to the less restrictive environment.

I am sure that these App Store developments are going to work, and they will be important to publishers and developers. But they are not the guts of the business, when you get down to it, its still really the web and the browser that matters. Perhaps the real story in all these exciting development is that the next generation of browsers will all be WebKit (Safari, iPhone, Chrome, Android, Blackberry, Nokia all using it) and that commonality is what is going to hold the web together.....

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Pricing and Devaluation

The sharp fall in the value of the £ is good news for exporters. Good news for subscribers who want to buy British magazines. This may explain why we seem to be having a boom in overseas subscriptions (which have always been strong).

A monthly magazine whose digital subscription costs £45 (eg the wonderful Opera) seems a lot better value when that translates into $69 rather than $99 which is what the $ price was a few months ago. Mind you, there is a completely free trial issue here.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Continuum Directory of Publishing

Continuum publish a comprehensive guide to British publishers which is now available through the Exact Editions platform.

Here are some sample pages. Note that some are available for full view. The index is also useful in full page view.

Positive Consumer Behaviour

Our publishers get an account in which they see in real time the subscription activity on their titles. That means that we can also see real-time sales activity. So I keep a weather eye on the sales window when I am working.

This afternoon someone popped up and bought one title, and then 15 minutes later they came back and bought 4 more. I reckon that most of our sales are down to the strength and quality of the magazines in our 'shop'. But when we get a multiple subscription with five or more titles in one sub (12 at a time is our record) it is clear that Exact Editions is the factor which is making the multiple sales.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Incremental improvements

One of the major advantages of a software delivered as a web service is that one can make steady improvements to the service, with (one hopes) no adverse impacts on the expectations of users. On average we have been tweaking and improving our service more than once a week in 2008. Here are the figures for the number of new site releases since we started:

2005 28
2006 32
2007 58
2008 76

Our big steps in 2008 included: shops/stores that could be branded per publisher, iPhone enhancements (especially a mini toolbar for the small format screen), ASCII text for the print impaired and Google (odd that Google should be bracketed with the 'print impaired'?), greatly increased flexibility in showcasing samples of subscriber content, live post codes, promotional codes, user stats for our library customers etc.... There are more radical improvements to come in 2009. And I am sure plenty of small adjustments as well!