Tuesday, 19 January 2010

How do we read books online?

This is such a wonderfully interesting article. I opened it as a link from a trusted Tweeter, thinking I’d just scan the headline, and ended up spending ten minutes reading it over my sandwich!

Martin asks a very sensible question. In the ‘hoop-la’ over electronic delivery devices, we have got a little tied up with the question of how we find information. Of course that’s a very useful and important question to ask. But, as he says, wouldn’t it be worth us taking a step back and asking how we read information. Or, rather, how we are likely to read in the future. The way he teases out the implications of that approach are extremely apposite.

Martin’s article is mainly about reading journal content. But it is certainly relevant to those of us concerned with the future of the book. In fact, this gets to the heart of one of my bug-bears about this wonderful electronic future we are facing in the books industry: will it be at the cost of the integrity of the very thing we are looking to advance? I’ve written about such things here. And I probably will again.

Anyway, I would heartily recommend Martin’s article. He looks at all the formats through which we have consumed (journal) content since its invention, including paper, photocopy, printed, PDF, PDF-on-a-computer, mobiles, e-readers, and webpages (oft-forgotten!), and, looking forward, to a tablet-orientated future.

One comment from me is this: let’s not forget the origins of the www! What do I mean? Well, the more we extract content from the web (that is, from the inter-related, inter-operable web of html as originally envisaged by the founders of the Internet) onto a device (even if that device has some kind of search or store or retrieval function of its own), could it not be that we are impoverishing the reading experience? For it’s the world-wide web as a whole that can supply the depth and breadth of knowledge required: not objects-in-themselves, whether that be a paper, a journal, a book, or whatever. It’s understandable that we’ll need to (in some way) extract the mass of content onto a non-inter-operable platform, but we shouldn’t work that way to the exclusion of serving the Internet itself. For the Internet is the starting-point for real value in the reading experience.

Anyway, have a look and see what you think.

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Where have you been?

I'm sorry for the lack of posts recently! Normal service is now being returned for the new year!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Research scientists and social networks (part 2)

In my last post I introduced a theme that I’m going to follow up over the next couple of posts: are social networks really being used by research scientists?

It’s a valid question, I argued, because not every segment of the academic – let alone the general – publisher marketplace has the same information needs and workflow systems. The working day of a research scientist needs to be considered for what it is – not for what we think it is – in the same way as a social scientist’s needs to be, or a literary critic’s needs to be, or a Dan Brown reader’s needs to be.

I suggested that the premise that for a social network to succeed, it relies on the following assumptions:

  1. that the target user audience has something they want to share
  2. that they want to share it
  3. that they have time to share it

So are these premises true in the case of research scientists?

I work within academic science publishing. I talk to scientists often. I’m married to one! So although these thoughts are not quantitative, they are qualitative.

So what about the first question: do research scientists have things they want to share?

This very interesting article by Kent Anderson
of Scholarly Kitchen suggests not.

But I think the answer is ‘yes’. Sure, some information that a research scientists produces falls under the category of ‘restricted’. But lots doesn’t. There are insights about recently published papers and science presentations or discussions, as well as information about grants, careers, science policy, and other items can all be of interest.

Some people say: ‘there are other means for scientists to access this information; in fact, more controlled ways, like RSS or Google News’.

True, but there’s nothing like social media to flag up that little-known paper, research finding or presentation. And the beauty of social networks is that, once they are posted about, they enter a web of interest and engagement from a community which adds to their value.

Anyway, more about that in the next post, when I move on to the second question: if it’s true that research scientists have information to share, do they want to do it? That’s a more knotty question. More next time…

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Thursday, 12 November 2009

Research scientists and social networks (part 1)

Next week, I’m going to post a few thoughts on the development of social networks by publishers.

'Ah, that's what you write about most days', you say! Well yes - but this time, I'm going to be looking at one group of people in particular - the research science community.

Why? Well, let's take a step back. When we think about social networks, we tend to assume that their tentacles of influence will reach into every single market in the world. It's unstoppable.

But is that right in the case of research scientists? After all, there are some differences in the way scientists work, compared to say lawyers or students or nurses. Research scientists have different information requirements. They have different methods of sharing information. And most of all they have different issues to do with data sensitivity.

So, at any level, we shouldn't assume that research scientists are as likely as any other constituency to dive head-first into social networks. It may be true, but we shouldn't assume that ...

As a structure for this series of posts, I'm working on the premise that for a social network to succeed, it relies on the following assumptions. It pre-supposes:
  1. that they have something they want to share
  2. that they want to share it

  3. that they have time to share it

In other words, if it’s going to secure a critical mass of users, a social network needs to have people with something to write about, a reason to write about it, and time to actually do it.

And I'm just going to be asking: is that true in this case of the research science community?

Keep your eyes peeled for more next week...

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Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Reading books on an iPhone

Usually, people assume that the iPhone is not the best device for reading books. And so most industry observers have been waiting for the advent of the (fabled) Apple Tablet as the device that (probably) would be the tipping point for an iTunes-like book store.

However, here’s an interesting article suggesting otherwise. Analytics firm, Flurry, has published a report which shows that in the last four months, book apps have exceeded the popularity of games apps – with one out of every five new apps launching in October having been a book.

This is an interesting trend for publishers to take note of, for a number of reasons:

  • It suggests that Apple could be in a position to take market share from the Amazon Kindle
  • It suggests that, in spite of its display screen losing 2 inches to the Kindle, people may nevertheless be happy reading books on the iPhone
  • It suggests that iPhone book reader apps may be an avenue worth exploring for publishers
  • It suggests that ‘mobile’ might trump ‘clarity’ as people decide how to read books on mobile devices.

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Monday, 9 November 2009

Cory Doctrow and a gauntlet thrown down to the publishing industry

I remember going to a seminar with Cory Doctrow in London about 5 years ago. I hadn’t heard of him much then. I quite enjoyed it. But most of all I was struck by the impression of being in the presence of someone who had a strong, a burning, almost a ferocious desire to prove something.

Now, everyone involved with book publishing knows what that is. It’s the desire to overturn the established publishing model.

Here’s his challenge to the publishing industry, laid out in a special guest slot in Publisher’s Weekly: it’s an experiment to prove that he can publish a book with the same degree of margin, profit and success as any publisher can. It’s a challenge to the brewers of this world that his home-made beer is superior. And this time, he’s got science to back him up.

Here he is in his own words:
This business of my giving away e-books is a controversial subject. I encounter plenty of healthy skepticism in my travels, and not a little bile. There's a lot of people who say I'm pulling a fast one,
that I'd be making more money if I didn't do this crazy liberal copyright stuff, or that I'm the only one it'll ever work for, or that I secretly make all my money from doing stuff that isn't writing, or that it only works because I'm so successful. Of course, when I started, they said it only worked because I was so
unknown. People want proof that this works—that I'm not deluded or a con artist.

But it's hard to prove. I don't have a time machine I can use to republish all my books without the free downloads and compare royalty statements. And the skeptics aren't the only people who claim I've got it wrong. There are also the True Believers. The True Believers are the people who say that I'm a fool to
give 90% of the cover price of my books to the publisher and bookseller. After all, I have three or four million people a day who read my blog. I could just self-publish all my material and get it directly into the hands of my readers, and pocket the lion's share of the income.

I'm a contrarian on both of these propositions: that I'm losing money by giving away e-books, and that I'm losing money by using a publisher. I have a nice little Goldilocks gig going—not too hot, not too cold, just the right amount of DIY, independent publishing and just the right amount of professional support and administration from my publisher to sell. But I'm as curious about both propositions as anyone. While it's fun to argue about whose intuition is more correct, I think facts on the ground beat a priori assumptions every time. So I've come up with an idea to get some facts in evidence, while making some money and raising a little hell.

So what do you think? Can this work? Is it real science (see here for a very subtle analysis of why he might be wrong)? If you're a publisher, does this concern you?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Interactive children's books

Here's an interesting new type of children's book from Macmillan: Room on a Broom. It's a a picture book in the old fashioned sense but also a fully interactive experience - it includes a CD that provides an animated version of the story, games, activities, extras - and even a facility for 'creating your own story' (you know: when you make a decision for a character within the story-line, and that decision takes you in a certain direction, and so on, and so on).

It reminds me of those old books I used to have as a child: the Fantasy Forest series of books... Do you remember them? You would get to page (7) and then be able to turn either right (go to page 75) or left (go to page 112).
Not so slick, but still, I enjoyed them. My favourite was 'Dungeon of Darkness'!

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Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Understanding the reasons for textbook shenanigans

Textbook pricing is a difficult, complex and even polarising issue for academic publishers - but at the same time it's important from time to time for publishers themselves to step back and be reminded of the reasons why many of their customers are complaining.

Textbooks are very expensive. No question about it. And that causes our customers to come up with ways of getting around the purchase of a £120 book they desperately need - but simply can't afford. Some of these ways are innovative; some are illegal. But whilst none of these are excusable (because they essentially constitute theft), they are understandable. And if publishers understand this, maybe we can work more closely with customers for mutual benefit

Here's a few ways in which customers will look to acquire textbooks more cheaply than RRP, ranging from the obvious to the innovative:

  • Second-hand textbooks, sold online or via a scheme local to a university campus or geographical area
  • Ebooks (a whole new debate - but yes, we need to mention them, because (at least in theory) these can and should be cheaper than print hardbacks)
  • Campus stores running a legitimate (ie. publisher-mandated) textbook 'hire' scheme
  • Students running an illegitamate (ie. not publisher-mandated) digital textbook 'hire' scheme
  • Professors who recommend previous editions (which can be bought cheaply) to their students, highlighting the chapters in which there is outdated or redundant information
  • Students purchasing international editions (a perennial problem for global academic publishers)
  • Digital piracy
  • And, the old favourite, photocopying

Can you think of any other ways? Please comment below.

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Wednesday, 14 October 2009

100 ways to use Twitter in your Library

A great article. Worth reading if only for the '10 best library feeds to follow'. Here are the first few suggestions:
  • Read the latest news: Many major news sites, like MSNBC have Twitter feeds. This makes it easy to quickly check up on news and find the latest information.

  • Identify experts in a specific area: Find out who’s talking about subjects that interest you or your patrons. You can’t get the same affect by using traditional email and resources.

  • Find out what other schools and libraries are doing around the world: Get ideas on how other libraries all over the globe are using Twitter effectively in their library.

  • Share a tip on finding or accessing information online or in the building: Spread the knowledge of your learning with others. If you’ve found a website that has specific resources or data, send a tweet and let everyone know.

  • Posts can link to interesting news stories about literacy or about libraries. When appropriate, the posts can link to a library’s own website and blog for more in-depth information.

  • Use Twitter as an assessment tool: For example, subscribe to a handful of patrons or students, in return they should follow you also. By tweeting, you can learn about such things as what services are being used the most in the library.

  • Find contacts working on similar projects. Stumped about a presentation or project you are working on? Twitter is a great way to find others that have had a similar problem and get a swift response.

  • Patrons can ask questions about specific materials. Let your patrons know if you have a certain book or article they are looking for or let them know where they can find it. This also will keep up the community feeling that your library is looking for.

  • Search Twitter for references to the ALA (American Library Association): If it’s something there you can respond to then go ahead. If it’s not something in your area, then pass along the information.

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Sound strategy for your social media

Here's an interesting article from The British Computer Society (BCS) detailing some of the ethical and regulatory issues stemming from engagement with social media.

All these issues need to be faced up to and addressed if you're interacting with customers on social networks.

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Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Is the Kindle going global?

The Kindle may be finally going global!
Amazon announced late Tuesday that it was introducing a new version of its Kindle e-book reader that can wirelessly download books in the United States and more than 100 countries. The Seattle-based e-tailer said international customers will have access to about 220,000 book titles at its Kindle Store compared with the 350,000 titles available to U.S. customers. Publishers involved with the store include Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Lonely Planet, Harlequin, Penguin, Bloomsbury, and Hachette.

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Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Searching with Cuil

I've been using Cuil for search for a while now and would like to take a moment to extol its virtues.

What is it? Cuil makes (some) use of principles of semantic search and, therefore, will always provide a different 'angle' on how the content of your page registers on SERPs. Try putting in a few entries and get a feel for how different your results are when compared to Google!

So what are these semantic principles? They're used to improve online searching by using data from semantic networks to disambiguate queries and web text in order to generate more relevant results. In other words (here's my very potted summary): when you type in a search term, most engines are interpreting this as a search for a specific document or item. But in semantic search, the engine assumes that there is no particular document which the user knows about that s/he is trying to get to. Rather, the user is trying to locate a number of documents which together will give him/her the information s/he is trying to find. So it's better for general research. This is the principle that Cuil works on.

Will it catch on? Of course, at the moment, Cuil is a gnat on an elephant's back. But it claims that it can index web pages significantly faster and cheaper than Google (due to the back-end search architecture and relevance methods). Semantic search is developing apace and some people are claiming that Cuil beats Google, Yahoo and Bing in one particular metric: amount of time spent on a site after referral from a search engine. That's a key stat and indicator of how successful a search engine really is.

Why should I care? Because Cuil is much more 'content' and 'relevancy'-driven, the key point is that it might show you some 'black-spots' in which your web copy or your product information is not hitting the spot. Try typing in some product terms and see what comes up. And put it this way, semantic principles aren't going to get less important in a hurry ...

And finally, here's the screenshot you come to when you access:

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A primer on ebook readers

Here's an interesting summary of the recent history, the challenges and the formats of ebook readers. It won't be news to many of the readers of this blog, but might be a useful summary for some.

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Monday, 5 October 2009

Justin and the Sony Ebook Reader

Although it's the only main-stream Ebook Reader that has been available to users in the UK so far, the Sony EReader has played the rather anonymous 'younger brother' to the Kindle over the last 18 months. But maybe they're now making their play, Here's a launch advert on prime time TV with a slick advert featuring Justin Timberlake (I'm a big fan), Super Bowl player Peyton Manning, America’s Next Top Model judge Nigel Barker, comedienne Amy Sedaris and ESPN reporter Erin Andrews. The campaign includes broadcast, online, radio and newspaper advertising. As this article points out, it is working along the 'expert' concept: each celebrity talking about something they 'know'.

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Slap an App around it ... and I'll buy it!

Here's a very interesting article from today's Media Guardian.

It appears that web applications (API) are starting to change the way publishers will be able to monetize their content. For years now, of course, we've had the despairing argument from publishers (particularly news publishers) that customers don't want to pay for content online, since it is assumed that it should be free.

But slap an app around it and deliver it on a mobile device, and it appears users are willing to part with their cash to read it. This holds even if the app is little more than an aggregator or search engine for the content (ie. if it supplies a little 'order' to the content it is displaying, but not much more). In other words, what users would expect for free on a browser, they are seeming to agree needs to be paid for on a mobile interface such as an iPhone or other Smart phone.

Why? The article seems to suggest there's a certain psychology involved. Mobile consumers can be persuaded to part with some cash, they argue, because they are already used to paying for lots of things on their mobile:

People are used to paying something for content and services on a mobile phone, whether it's a text message or a download or ringtone or wallpaper, There is a comfort factor. In that medium people are more aware of the need or requirement for some sort of payment. (Tim Faircliff, General Manager of Consumer Media at Thomson Reuters and Co-chair of the Association of Online Publishers)

I wonder how many traditional book publishers are developing apps like this to 'envelop' their content - rather than complaining that no one want to purchase their PDFs online?

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Thursday, 1 October 2009

Books and Vooks

I've been reading this article from the New York Times on 'vooks' this morning.

Apparently, Simon & Schuster (but I'm sure many other publishers too) are moving forward rapidly to sell and promote multi-media 'hash' titles, in which videos, audio or other online features are scatteded throughout the electronic text that can be viewed online or on an iPhone or iPod Touch or other device.

Of course, the 'vook' format is great for titles with an academic or reference content.

But what's interesting here is the speed with which what we call 'trade' titles (novels, fiction, and so on) is receiving the same treatment. Examples given include HarperCollins The Amanda Project (teenage) and Level 26: Dark Origins (CSI spin-off), in which additional web video is essential for the moving forward of the plot (ie. you can't read the book without it).

The tone of this piece is generally sceptical about such development, which no publisher should be, but I think the author is right when he comments:

Some publishers say this kind of multimedia hybrid is
necessary to lure modern readers who crave something different. But reading
experts question whether fiddling with the parameters of books ultimately
degrades the act of reading.

This is something I've written about before here.

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