Really Reading with ChildrenEP&T’s parent company—Tapity—has launched a new project to create an iPad app / digital book called “Really Reading.” It will be designed such that it can be given to a young child, and the child will be able to follow it step-by-step from being a non-reader to being able to read comfortably at a second-grade level. We are using a scientifically-proven method of teaching reading, but we will be able to combine sight, sound, and touch to enhance the teaching of reading in ways that are not possible without a tablet computer. We will be looking for collaborators to help bring it to life.

The most exciting keynote at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference was, I think, one on comic books (video linked below). I frankly have very little interest in comic books, but what comic book author Mark Waid spoke about is, I think, at the heart of the second wave of the digital book revolution. In the first wave, we saw text-based books converted to digital format and delivered to mobile devices. I think that a second wave of the revolution is about to follow in which we will see books re-imagined, category-by-category. Waid’s story get’s to the heart of what this second wave is all about.

Waid explains the process he went through to begin to re-think and reinvent the comic book for digital. His thought process included consideration of what is at the essence of the comic book form and artistry and then how digital media could be used to bring forth that essence. Along the way, he discarded adding sounds and animations that would take away the reader’s control over the timing of the comic book experience. He opted instead for sequences and transitions that feel very comic-booky, but arguably even better than in the print form.

Waid squarely faced the challenge that I think most all authors and publishers need to face as we move into the next wave of the digital revolution. The first wave improved the cost and convenience of books, but this I believe the second wave will be about improving the experience of books. Yet what is an enhancement for one type of book may be a distraction for another. Much imagination and experimentation will be required to invent the digital book forms of the future. Who will lead the way? I think for starters we should pay attention to innovators like Mark Waid and what he has done for digital comic books.

I highly recommend the entire linked video of Waid’s keynote, and also Joe Wikert’s commentary on it. Waid’s digital comic company is Thrillbent.

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Coursera LogoThomas Friedman of the New York Times concludes a column entitled, “Revolution Hits the Universities” saying:

I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world—some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh—paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment.

I hope this is the kind of future of education that we can expect. What will it take to get there? I think three big things: curation and dissemination of courses, recognized credentialing systems, and a global paradigm shift in education that allows the first two to happen.

The curation and dissemination of courses is already happening. Apple got started in promoting this idea with iTunes U, which offers full series of lectures from major universities, including such elite universities as Stanford. MIT and other institutions offer large libraries of lectures for free online. More recently, Coursera began curating and offering full-blown online courses from all different institutions. Friedman highlights Coursera in his column with high praise—apparently well-deserved. So big thing number one seems to be on its way.

The second big thing that is needed is widely recognized credentialing based on the completion of these world-class courses. Such credentialing implies important infrastructural elements to support it, such as reliable methods of measuring completion or mastery and proctoring systems to avoid gaming the system. Measurement implies standards against which to measure, and so on. So this big thing is not at all trivial. I think, however, that it will be impossible to credibly tackle these credentialing problems without the third big thing—the paradigm shift.

The kind of global paradigm shift needed is one that will have the effect of shaking up brick and mortar education rather violently. The required shift will be for educators and their benefactors to value the process of learning above institutions of learning. Technology makes possible the delivery of superior learning experiences and mastery of content at small fractions of the cost of delivery by traditional institutions. Allowing this to occur is likely to undermine the bricks and mortar institutions considerably. This is not to say that these institutions will not always have an important place, but technology will allow a large quantity of learning to occur outside of those edifices. Consequently, far less money may be available for new buildings, and funds available to pay professors to teach who are short of world-class pedagogical skill will plummet. This scenario is frightening to the current order.

Is change of the kind articulated by Friedman and hoped for by many inevitable? If so, it will not come easy. Many folks have a big stake in the old order. But perhaps education will be one of the final frontiers for massive disruption by the current wave of technology. I certainly hope so.

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Digital Book World vs Tools of ChangeI had the privilege of attending the Digital Book World conference in New York City last week. Two weeks from now, the Tools of Change conference will convene in the same great city. After attending the one and knowing the approach and emphasis of the other, I have to ask myself whether we now have, in a very real sense, two publishing industries.

On one hand, you have the traditional publishers, who find themselves in an epic fight for survival as the sands of change shift beneath them. This is the Digital Book World group. These stalwarts are working mightily to adjust their infrastructure and business models to accommodate the world of online sales and digital publishing. They exhibit some apprehension over whether they will be able to make the changes necessary—and make changes fast enough—to thrive in this new environment. They approach the digital revolution with trepidation because they have much more to lose than they have to gain. They are the kings of the hill, but are playing defense.

On the other hand, you have legions of self-publishing authors and new small publishers and publishing service companies entering into the publishing game. This is the Tools of Change group, or perhaps the “APE” group after Guy Kawasaki’s and Shawn Welch’s recent book, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur. These rising stars are working tenaciously to take advantage of the new world of digital publishing—they will publish what the traditional publishers would not help them publish and try to make more money by cutting the traditional publishers out of the split. They approach the digital revolution with excitement because they have little to lose and much to gain. They are at the bottom of the hill, but are playing offense.

Both the stalwarts and the rising stars are trying to publish books in a new world in which physical bookstores are declining, digital stores are growing, the discovery and marketing of books is transforming, and nearly nothing will be as it was just a few short years ago. The stalwarts approach the situation by trying to adapt the practices and assets they have built up over a couple hundred years to the radically new reality. The rising stars approaches the same situation with no baggage, sunk costs, or high overhead. They are nimble and free to experiment. Of course, the rising stars do not have the capital, editorial muscle, or sheer size of the stalwarts. I am not certain who will fare better as the future of book publishing unfolds, but I find it instructive to see the transformation of publishing as a strategy game between these two very different kinds of players.

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Community IconThe number of books available is proliferating as self-publishing becomes easier and less expensive for authors to accomplish. At the same time, folks are turning to recommendations from peers to find books as they do less and less browsing in physical bookstores. How do publishers and authors make their books discoverable in this environment? The ability of major publishers to garner shelf space and place display ads in bookstores is not as big an advantage as it once was. Book discovery is changing as rapidly as the rest of the book publishing business. What is the future of book discovery?

Amazon reviews and book discovery sites like Goodreads.com are certainly playing a role. But what can an author or publisher do to get a book noticed in this new world?

Kristen McLean, founder of startup Bookigee, suggests that:

Where it used to be that book marketing was something you stuck on AT THE END of the creative process, in this age of social media and word-of-mouth economies, the best success stories are coming from people who are doing it the other way around—they collect an audience (by marketing their interestingness) first, and then make a book or project for that audience.

She elaborates on this in a three-part post that can be found here (pt 1), here (pt 2), and here (pt 3). Good stuff, and the comments on the posts are also very informative. The essential thought is that if a prospective author first creates a community of interest around an idea, and cultivates that community to a sufficient size and level of interest, she then has folks who are likely to buy a product that is designed for that community, say a book.

Sound like hard work? Indeed. But unless you are an author or publisher with an already-established brand, building a community may be the most effective way to market a book, and even to find inspiration for writing it.

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Well, Digital Book World 2013 is over, the attendants are trickling out into the crisp Manhattan evening, the exhibitors are breaking down their displays, and the hotel staff is setting up for the next event.

I feel like I learned a ton, but much of what I learned had to do with what a turmoil the publishing industry has been thrown into. I will plan to share more observations in the coming days, but the following are some of the key themes that seemed to pervade the conference:

Publishers and authors seek alternatives to Amazon

By far the dominant retail channel for digital books is Amazon. That makes almost everyone in the industry uncomfortable, so there seems to be an almost urgent quest to find alternatives. Barnes & Noble, Apple, and, to a lesser extent, Kobo, are some obvious ones. But there are also a number of other attempts to create platforms that include independent retail “stores,” whether online or inside of platform apps. Some of the most promising independent platforms are specialty platforms—such as Inkling in education and similar nonfiction and Storia in kid’s books.

The future of book discovery is a mystery

Book discovery refers to the way people say they discovered the books that they purchased, regardless where they actually bought them. From 2010 to 2012, discovery of books in bookstores went from 31% to 20%, a huge drop. Meanwhile, discovery from recommendations by other readers went from 14% to 19%, a significant increase. Publishers understand how to market to and through bookstores, but they feel they have little or no control over recommendations, so this shift in discovery is another great source of anxiety for traditional publishers. The advantages of larger publishers in printing and distribution have virtually no value in digital publishing; this shift in how consumers are discovering books further diminishes the traditional advantages of big publishers when it comes to digital. I think it is fair to say that the publishing industry is mystified about how to address discovery going forward.

Self-publishing is a game-changing trend

When an author like Hugh Howey breaks through with a smash hit book like WOOL, going digital first with no help from the publishing industry—traditional publishing is threatened. It is not just that one book or series had success outside of traditional publishing, but that it shows the way for other authors who can build their own brand to bypass the trade houses and keep more of the revenues for themselves. A great survey presented at the conference showed that self-publishing authors make the least money and traditionally-published authors make more, but hybrid authors who strategically do both make the most. Interesting stuff.

Children’s books are special

There is a lot of focus on children’s digital books, and they have their own special set of conundrums: it is generally parents, not the children, who find and buy the books; parents and children often read together; parents generally prefer physical books when reading with their children; it is not clear what interactions enhance rather than distract from the content of children’s books; and there is a sense that digital children’s books are directly competing with other media. Children’s books seem to me to be on nearly an entirely separate track in the digital world because their challenges and possibilities are particular and vast.

There is much skepticism around interactive books

The feeling of publishers toward interactive books is ambivalent. They are expensive to create, yet consumers do not seem to be willing to pay much of a premium for them. Also, they are currently difficult or impossible to create across many platforms. There is also a perceived blurring of the lines between interactive books and apps, and the sense is that apps just do not make any money. On the other hand, there is a sense that interactive books cannot be ignored. If someone breaks the code and can succeed with books that provide a richer reader/user experience, others will be scrambling to catch up. So interactive books represents yet another source of uncertainty among publishers about what the future holds for them.

In all, I cannot emphasize enough that the publishing industry is in tremendous flux. Some presenters cited small signs of hope that the pace of change may be settling down, but one cannot take in this whole conference without gathering an overwhelming sense that the end of the disruption is not in sight.

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Digital Book World OpeningI am struggling with how to summarize the first day of Digital Book World in a meaningful way. I will first talk about what I am understanding to be the components of today’s world of digital books and then throw out some observations from the day.

Components of the digital book world

So here is my attempt to list the components of the digital book world today:

  1. Traditional players from print publishing: authors, agents, and publishers.
  2. Major retailing platforms: Kindle Store, iBookstore, Nook Book Store, Google Play, Kobo eBooks Store.
  3. Independent retailing platforms (most are iOS apps sold from Apple’s App Store): e.g., Inkling, Storia (Scholastic), Reading Rainbow.
  4. Physical readers and tablets: Kindle and Nook dedicated black and white e-readers, Kindle Fire and Nook HD color tablets, iPad, Android tablets, Windows 8 tablets.
  5. Reader software: Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, etc.
  6. Digital book file formats: EPUB 2, EPUB 3, MOBI/KF8, iBooks Author, PDF, iOS apps, Android apps, etc.
  7. Digital book authoring tools: MS Word, InDesign, iBooks Author, etc.

Many of these components are changing rapidly. Combine and recombine them all—in their various states of transition—and you have, well, chaos.

A few observations

And now for a few general observations:

  1. Traditional publishers are scared. Look at the chaos described above. Add to it fear of Amazon domination, digital book prices dropping, piracy concerns, competition from non-book media on the tablet platforms, competition from self-publishing authors, and uncertainty about what consumers want in digital books—and you get near panic.
  2. Everybody hates Amazon. Amazon is too big, it has draconian licensing contracts, it uses proprietary digital book formats, and more. No love here for Amazon.
  3. Everybody respects Apple. Apple allows authors to set prices, has robust support for EPUB 3 in addition to its own iBooks Author format, is expanding its stores internationally, and more. Apple is big, but is seen as opening the doors of innovation for everyone’s benefit.
  4. Nobody talks about Barnes & Noble. Well, that’s a little strong. But I think the feel of the conference is that the retail platform game is between Amazon and Apple.

This is a kind of sense of the conference. More tomorrow.

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Digital Book WorldDigital Book World, likely the biggest U.S. conference dedicated to digital books—starts with opening festivities tomorrow (Tuesday, January 14). I will be at the meat of the conference on the 15th-16th and plan to post about what I see and hear.

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Predictions 2013Writing in Huff Post Books, Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, makes 21 book publishing predictions for 2013. I commend these to you because they are generally insightful and well-reasoned. Keep in mind that Coker’s company, Smashwords, helps independent authors publish their digital books on multiple platforms, and his bias is betrayed here and there in his predictions.

As a little teaser, I will quote a prediction he makes about Apple’s place in the market, which I found intriguing:

11. Apple iBookstore will be the breakout story of 2013 ebook retailing

With little fanfare, the Apple iBookstore dramatically expanded its international reach in 2012, starting the year with iBookstores in 19 countries and ending the year with 50 countries – far outpacing the global expansion of other retailers. Internationally, iBookstore sales surged on the strength of explosive growth in iPads and iPhones, and with readers showing preference for multi-function devices over single-purpose e-readers.

My company supplies over 100,000 ebooks each to the Apple iBookstore and most of its competitors except Amazon. For the month of November 2012, sales of Smashwords-distributed titles at the Apple iBookstore more than tripled compared to the same month a year ago, a growth rate that exceeded the growth at other retailers in our distribution network.

The full blurb on this Apple prediction is itself worth reading.

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