Visuals and Text

There is often a perception that digital text is somehow different to print.  It hyperlinks, is easy to update and is, according to the argument, filled with pointless invective and ephemera. It doesn't allow for deep and considered reading, catering as it does for the atrophied attention spans of the Youtube generation.  Despite their recreation of print, ebooks are often included in this category. However the Youtube generation isn't even reading online. It's, er, watching Youtube.  In "Is Youtube the Next Google" read/write web outlined a growing trend- rather than looking for a search term in Google kids will type into it Youtube and see what turns up. Alex Iskold writes:

"Whenever his son needed any information, he would open up YouTube, type in the search term and then just watch the videos that showed up as matches. He never Googled anything; he never went to any other site; his entire web experience was confined to YouTube videos."

Doing some comparisons it turns out that for many search terms Youtube offers a viable alternative to Google. Currently Youtube has about half the searches of Google e.g. a lot of searches indeed, and this is growing.  Whereas Google is largely text based in the results it throws up, Youtube is by definition visual, you don't read Youtube you watch it.

This has enormous ramifications. At the moment I am reading a book about the science of reading, about how the act of learning to read reconfigures and restructures our brain.  Reading changes us innately and irrecoverably; it is the key in allowing us other points of view, in going beyond ourselves.  The author, Maryanne Wolf, is concerned about the transition from print to digital text that I mentioned earlier. This doesn't worry me- in the book she frequently mentions how it is not so much the content as the mere fact of reading that can be beneficial.

What is more worrying is the way we are evolving out of a text based culture. Sure there will always be a place for the economy and density of text. This place could get ever smaller though. The early days of the internet might come to be viewed as a golden age for text, a time when web sites and blogs poured forth a profusion of words such as the world had never seen, a textual Eden before the video Fall.

Ok, that may be a little dramatic. But this is something we should be thinking a about. While in many ways we live in, and have always lived in, an illiterate culture (and I mean this in a non-pejorative sense), think say of the non text entertainment industries stacked against the text based, this further evolution of a non-text culture presents a profound shift. If people are largely not reading then the very biology of human thought will change, and not for the better. As a species we will be less able to empathise, less able to imagine and less able to articulate and formulate complex thoughts.

While it's futile to rail against new technologies, and generally I am all for them, the emergence of visualisations, Youtube search and on demand and ubiquitous video presents a massive challenge to educators and publishers.  Google is lucky (rich) enough to own Youtube; the same cannot be said of us.

Author meets the future: how electronic is it?

We invited one of our fave authors, David Hewson, to blog his experiences using a Sony Reader over the next week or so. David's hardly a technophobe, but on the other hand he ain't no geek. Here's the first of his guest posts as he begins his journey into 'digital reading.' Back in the mists of time when I wrote about technology for the Sunday Times I once asked Bill Gates about ebooks. It was at a press event in a house in Gramercy Park New York, circa 1995 when the Microsofties were trying to prove to the world that they were family-friendly by launching a bunch of products, some successful, some disastrous, aimed at the home, not the office.

Mr Gates (who had allegedly somewhat ruined the atmosphere by referring to children in one interview as ‘basic subsets of the family entity’) was, for once, up for any question I could think of. So I wondered if he thought we would all be abandoning paper to read books and newspapers on screen before long, fully expecting a technophiliac answer predicting the death of print everywhere.

‘No,’ he said, confounding all expectations. ‘We don’t have the technology and we don’t have the need, not for a long time.’

Is thirteen years long enough? On my desk now is Sony’s newly-released PRS-505 ‘portable reader system’, available at Waterstones and a variety of other outfits - if you can find one in stock - for £199. These things have been thrust at journalist, publishers and lucky readers for a little while. But Sony very kindly thought they would shove one at an author too to see what one of us thinks, and I am the lucky scribe.

I’ll be taking it on the road for some promotional events up north this week, and showing it around to people I know to get their opinions too. So look for a couple more posts when I am more familiar with the beast. But first impressions count - as do first prejudices.

To be honest I’ve always felt a little sympathy with Mr Gates’ initial view. I spent a lot of my time staring at computer screens. All of my books are written using a very nifty piece of software specially aimed at authors, Scrivener. Even so I will print out drafts of the manuscript repeatedly and read them with a pen in hand because, let’s say it out loud, reading on screen just isn’t the same.

At least not on a conventional flat screen, which the Sony very much does not have. I won’t bore you with the technology but it is nothing like the flat screen in your TV or computer monitor. This is a kind of electronic ink. A tedious fact in itself were it not for two things: it actually looks very good indeed, sharp and very much like real text. And it has no backlight so the Sony uses no power whatsoever when you are simply reading a page - only when you ‘turn’ to a new one.

How close to paper is it? Very close, particularly in bright daylight (when most electronic screens are utterly readable). The background isn’t as white a you’d expect, and you can’t see much in dark situations where a laptop would be very readable. But it’s a lot better than I expected, and I was quite happy flicking through books very quickly with it indeed.

So there’s the first lesson I learned about the Sony. You need to see it to believe it. Prejudices, for or again, really don’t count for much because this is quite unlike anything else you’ve ever encountered before.

Here’s the second big surprise: the size and feel of the thing. It’s tiny, little bigger than a paperback book, beautifully made, with a sturdy and expensive-looking satin metal shell encased in a cover that feels very like brown leather (which it isn’t). I’ve seen other book readers and they all, let’s be frank, look like calculators that have spent too long in McDonalds. The Sony isn’t plasticky, doesn’t shout ‘geek’ and feels very, very nice in the hand. It’s also, perhaps deliberately, under-featured compared to something like Amazon’s Kindle (which isn’t available in the UK and won’t be for some time). The Kindle has a keyboard, wireless internet and a lot of possibilities.

The PRS-505 is pretty much an ebook reader plain and simple. You can load mp3 files on it (using an external memory card since the built-in memory is aimed at book storage, not music). You can even load your favourite photos and look at them in black and white, though quite why I don’t know. But this is about reading books really, and I rather like that idea. You don’t get distracted by thinking, ‘Let’s just check the email’. It’s also dead easy to use - with buttons for moving forward and backwards in a book, a bookmark button that ‘turns’ the corner of the page to store a location, and some other buttons on the side that let you browse your library (and, a little tip, allow you to go to a page number if you type them in).

The thing comes with a hundred free out of copyright classics such as Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and Dracula. You buy ebooks online from the Waterstones site, download them to your computer, then transfer them to the reader via a simple USB cable. There’s special software to automate this on Windows, though you have to do it manually if you’re a Mac user like me - which isn’t hard. You can also load pdf and Word files on it too.

So first impressions are good, better, to be honest, than I expected. I shall be climbing on board the train to Newcastle with more than a hundred books on this thing, including one of my own, and the first 25,000 words of the book I’m writing now (which you lot won’t see till 2010). Supposedly I can turn 6,800 pages before needing a recharge which ought to set me up for a four-day trip I’d hope.

Next week some time I’ll tell you what it feels like after a couple of days.

Attention Deficit

Whole business empires are now founded upon that most fleeting of things, at once profound and perfunctory, the human gaze. In buzzword bingo "attention economy" is a winning ticket. In this model of super abundant information invisibility is a function of excess and simply being noticed becomes the prerequisite for sucess, whether this is measured in monetary terms or by other criteria. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Go into any bookstore and what you notice is hardly an absence of choice, title vying against stylishly covered title for our hungry eyes. Indeed Reuters claims that the UK has now overtaken the US as the country with the most books published per annum, with over 206,000 books published in 2005 alone.

Even as our frazzled attention spans are being catered for by five second ad slots and continuous partial attention becomes our default the deluge of books expands. Media coverage of literature contracts. The result is that the publishing space is crowded, an attention addicted junkie with not enough eye balls to satisfy its craving.

And then along comes the web.

Here is the issue: despite the attention competition in the current bibliographic climate once you've walked into a bookshop your attention is focused on books. Ok, some bookshops sell cds and dvds but by and large you are almost exclusively surrounded by print objects in that environment.

In the AIDA (attention, interest, desire, action) model once you are in a bookshop the action is likely to be a book purchase.

On the web this is not the case, as there is no singular destination where books are the sole option (other websites are only a click away).

Take Amazon. You might search for a book, but this doesn't mean that only books will come up. This might not seem a problem, but if attention is a currency it has, in book terms, been devalued in that seconds glance.

Google is supposed to create greater attention efficiencies- PageRank is designed to send us where our attention most wants to go. However let's say we are interested in Doctor Who on a particular day. Say we are standing outside a bookshop. We would likely go in and devote our "Doctor Who attention" to a book in that shop. In that time slice the Doctor Who book has our attention and possibly the rest.

In the week that the BBC has upgraded it's (hugely popular) iPlayer Google is more likely to send us there than to the Amazon book page. Whatsmore even if we were searching for something much more specifically bookish we are only ever a click away from something beyond the orbit of books.

My point then is that the web might exacerbate issues surrounding the value of people's attention for publishers by diluting-eradicating- the singular focus possible in both physical spaces and traditional formats (literary magazines etc).

When time is a currency a publisher's main competitors are Playstations, House box sets and Twitter. It's a not a new point but one that bears repeating.

The answer is clearly not a retreat from the web, a manoeuvre that would only serve to completely remove the genuine positive opportunities presented by the web in both delivering content and connecting with new and existing readers. In truth there is no easy answer. Yes it means everyone has to learn how to eke out every last drop of value from the web. It's still a challenge. But it's a challenge we should relish. It means that publishers really have to ensure there stuff is worth its weight in attention gold.

My guess is that this is what publishers, writers, readers, in fact anyone involved with books and texts at any level, is into anyway.

zoom zoom

User interface design is all about creating onscreen metaphors for real life objects, actions and behaviours. Browsing books on Amazon is more like flipping through a catalogue than wandering through the aisles and lingering over shelves in a bookshop. Zoomii.com offers a realworld metaphor for book buying - visual bookshelves, covers out (if this takes off, I wonder if they'll start putting books in spine out and charging publishers to show the cover on the shelf?) that you can click, grab and move along. You can zoom in and out to see more or less books, or examine a cover in detail.

It is perhaps a sign of the times (or just the Bezos strategy) that this new book browsing service is built on Amazon's cloud computing services, EC2 and S3 (via ReadWriteWeb)

The challenge now, as I'm sure the folks at zoomii are aware, will be to keep the prices competitive, get more books in there, refine the UI in response to user behaviour, and spread the word. Good luck to them!

Update: Shelfari has had a makeover - looks like visual bookshelves are making deeper in-roads on the web. (via GalleyCat)

Photo: Entering Hyperspace by Eole Wind

Communitisable

Map of Online communities by D’Arcy NormanIt's not a pretty neologism. Following on from my previous post I got thinking about the value of community for publishers and there seems to me a distinction between building a community and making something "communitisable". Gavin Bell of our sister company the Nature Publishing Group has given an intriguing talk on publishers and community which argues that developing closer and more long term relationships with the most dedicated book buyers should be a priority for publishers. Whilst for some publishers- like Nature- building a community around the publishing brand can work well (see Nature Networks) I believe that for trade publishers the best strategy is to ensure that products are fully compatible with existant platforms; platforms that transcend the parameter of any given brand and thus offer the most utility to consumers whose reading habits are largely dictated by favoured writers, not publishers. Bell suggests this approach, advising publishers to "Find the people, reviews and discussions on the internet and link them into the books you sell."

Building a community website isn't easy. There are some great examples- Penguin have produced the sumptuous Spinebreakers and we have a thriving community at the Picador blog. The Picador blog is designed not to be a ghetto for Picador books, instead opening itself out to cover many different aspects of literary fiction and appeal to readers in the broadest sense, rather than just readers of Picador books.

Community from a publisher perspective can all too easily mean community around the products a publisher produces rather than the space as a whole including those parts of it occupied by other publishers . Google, Amazon, librarything, whoever, do not have this limitation, whilst already existing as destinations for those looking to find out more about books or use them as a vector of contact. On top of this they are eager for any content they can get to add value to their own brand.

In practice all this simply means making work available online, making it searchable, taggable, postable, findable, shareable- communitsable in general. Of course most online content is already most of those things, including this post. There is a vibrant culture of literary discussion on the web that publishers could serve well by opening up the closed, sealed off world of the book and enabling it to be integrated into those discussions, a move that in no way necessitates creation of a community but amply serves the needs of a community. At bottom this is an economic imperative, rather than an ideal. In essence it satisfies the minimum requirements of community.

The question is: if a community site is built and run by a publisher will this ultimately mean more sales, more of a relationship, than if the community exists elsewhere, on hobbiest boards or facebook groups. If we accept the premise (and I am not fully convinced) that social contact is the key here then as long as contact is taking place this should translate into some kind of positive feedback for a publisher.

For the first time Facebook usage figures have fallen. Perhaps it's wrong to read too much into this but it does suggest that social networking may be reaching its inevitable plateau or at least approaching that point. There may also be a kind of fatigue in joining endless sites (which is why Bell strongly advises using OpenID) as there is simply not enough time in most peoples lives to keep apace with the proliferation of social media. In a climate of super abundance and web 2.0 overdosing it makes sense to work existing channels rather than create new ones. A further issue is the wariness some users have of corporate websites, a sense that their contributions might become property of a money making machine or that their attention is not a dialogue but little more than a pretext for a sales pitch, which inhibits the very purposes of the site.

There are a number of things standing against this position: authors do work as brands, on that crucial granular level, which publishers can effectively leverage; making a product communitisable may require big strategic decisions (do we let Google index our paid for content? do we have the rights to put book covers on flickr?); without any moderating role things could quite easily turn bad and it may be the case that nothing has, or is likely, to grow organically on the web around a given piece of content. Moreover for journals or niche publishers operating in clearly demarcated verticals there is more obvious value in creating community spaces that can occupy that vertical.

What ultimately I am arguing is not that community is unimportant- I absolutely think that it is- but that being the builder of community need not be the only way of engaging readers on the web, and that communities can be encouraged by making books, writers, series communitisable. Its no different from viral marketing- scattering seeds rather than owning the garden. This is a point I feel it is important for publishers to make as lacking the vast new media budgets of, for example, television (e.g. this kind of thing) there is only so much we will be able to do.

Photo: Map of Online Communities by D'Arcy Norman

Google Knols

Google has announced a new initiative that threatens to seriously disturb the precarious knowledge ecosystem of the web: Google Knols. The project is still shrouded in mystery with only one screen shot so far released and only this Google blog entry, by VP Engineering Udi Manber, to work with. Predictably the blogosphere and tech commentary press have gone in to overdrive, but this time with good reason. The core of the Knol project can be described as the first realistic challenge to Wikipedia as THE knowledge portal on the web. Here is a brief summary of the project- it describes how Google will allow anybody to contribute articles to a public database on any topic. In contrast to Wikipedia articles (Knols) will be single authored with popular articles rising to the top of the rankings in a given topic. Knols will also feature advertising like Google Search, with ad revenue being shared between Google and the author of the Knol supporting the ads, the idea being that useful or particularly good Knols will generate revenue and hence will be rewarded.

This has people understandably worried for a number of reasons. Techcrunch questioned whether this might be a step too far for Google, as it moves into the space previously occupied by websites like Wikipedia, Squidoo, About and of course traditional publishers. Ben Vershbow on if:book offers a thorough and meaty dissection of the concept, accusing Google of a myopic, insular and self serving attitude that threatens to turn the web into little more than a directory of Google products.

Potentially Knols could be the first step on a journey whereby all content is provided free on Google or perhaps some unforeseen site, a prospect that has and should see publishers concerned. If people can read a book quality entry on Gordon of Khartoum they are less likely to buy the book.

Part of the fear surrounding Knols keys into the recent rejigging of the Google algorithm that saw many prominent websites slip down the crucial PageRank system. Google argues that the system is designed to counter some of the effects of black hat SEO but many think that Knols could be given a search advantage over, say, Wikipedia in the long term through such PageRank reevaluations. Given that Wikipedia's traffic is driven from their uniformly high search position such a move could seriously damage the Wiki Foundation flagship. This conflict of interest between content hosting and content indexing is an old chestnut for those familiar with Google Book Search.

Unlike many commentators I actually think the Knols really could work: if the information is useful then people really will go there. Everyone has a lot of affection for Wikipedia's model, even if it is not 100% reliable; but only hardcore web activists will refuse to use Knols should the information to be found there prove more useful. For most people getting the best results quickly and simply is the main priority and in this area Google has a track record second to none. Plus, as Open Access points out, Knols look like they come with a CC licence meaning it will be easy to distribute and re-use the articles.

Yet there is a lingering sense that Google are moving into, and trying to dominate, too many areas of the web, so, as if:book describes it, they become "the alpha and omega" of the internet. Recently they have launched the open application platform OpenSocial and the mobile platform Android, which while being laudable for their commitment to open development show a willingness on Google's part to occupy and own the central ground of virtually everything.

There are also some question marks about the proximity of nominally objective knowledge with the quick buck mechanism of click through ads- might not the temptation to maximise ad revenue prove too much for some authors, and without the auto-corrective ability of a wiki, might this not then remain?

Whatever happens it can be confidently stated that a new front has been opened in the dissemination of knowledge and entertainment.

‘Digitizing the British Library’

The February 2008 issue of PC Pro reports on the British Library’s plan to digitize 100,000 books published in the nineteenth century - 25,000,000 pages. The digitizing partner chosen is Microsoft, with the actual work being done by a German firm, Content Conversion Specialists; the library ‘retains the rights to all the data being collected’ but Microsoft has the right to host the collection on its Live Search Books site, for a duration not revealed by the library. The team of five people scans 50,000 pages a day to complete the project in two years. Books smaller than 28 x 35.5 cm can be automatically scanned, and so 20-30% must be scanned manually. All books are visually checked for loose or torn pages, then placed under a lectern with two Canon 16.6 megapixel lenses; the operator turns the first few pages then the machine uses suction to turn the remainder, at one page every two or three seconds. The operator at the station sees all the pages as thumbnails on a PC, to fix errors. Fold-outs that can’t be scanned by the machine are around 1% of the total, and they’re scanned separately and integrated later by software. The project has a 12 CPU blade server with 40TB of storage.

Resolution is 300dpi for both text and images, which the library says is ideal for reading online but also suitable for print on demand if required in the future. Output formats are JPEG 2000, PDF and plain text; OCR is used to capture plain text which is ‘specially processed’ to deal with antique orthography and typography. A secondary check takes place in Romania, and the library batch-samples files delivered by CSS to ISO 2859-1.

Scanning takes place underground with no natural daylight, to ensure colour consistency, and the scanning room is air-conditioned: 'Just one degree in temperature changes the light tuning and requires colour adjustments.'

To deal with copyright issues the library is using ‘a database of authors’; those in copyright (less than 1%) won’t be digitized, and orphan works (about 40%) will be but with a ‘notice and takedown’ procedure on the website.

Note: the article uses ‘scan’ throughout but it’s clear from the diagram that a static photograph of each page is used.

Titans at War!

Google Book Search has been much publicised and has become a shorthand for both the colossal ambition of Google and its casual disregard for intellectual property or the sensitivities of potential partners. The latter are possibly unsurprising for a company that has seen profit growth of 46% in 2Q07, added nearly 3000 employees in the same period and whose share price hovers casually above $600. This is much like the growth experienced by Microsoft in the 90s, where, according to The Change Function, growth ran at 45% per annum 90-96. Microsoft, who recently capitulated in their long running antitrust battle with the EU, are now the only tech company to have a larger market capitalisation than Google. Not only have Google had all the best ideas (e.g. Google Earth), they have a rock solid, simple business model, a corporate ethos and share structure that has attracted staff away from Microsoft and an approach that specifically targets MS strongholds like email (Gmail vs. Hotmail) and word processing (Google Writer edging towards Word).

Now MS is fighting back by specifically targeting Google strongholds, namely search, the sine qua non for Google's success. Windows Live is the result. Like Google it comes with a clean and simple interface and boasts sophisticated algorithms and an awesomely powerful infrastructure to produce the best and most reliable results. Going back to Book Search, Live features a direct rival: Live Search Books. Like GBS, Live Search Books will integrate text and wide ranging metadata into search thus massively expanding a books visibility. Like Google they will scan all your works and enter your metadata free, taking the onus off publishers by negating the start up costs of what will be a hugely valuable exercise. Unfortunately LSB also claims ownership of the files they create, perhaps the biggest sticking point publishers have so far had with GBS. However unlike GBS MS is handing control of the files back to publishers. So whereas Google are demanding a blanket 20% access, MS are willing to let publishers set this themselves, as well as leaving it up to publishers whether books are included in the first place. Google, in contrast, started with the (maybe noble, maybe evil) presumption to include every book in the world on Google Search.

The two giants slugging it out offers a breathing space for publishers, as the monopolistic, even ideologically hegemonic position of Google is now being challenged by the only people that can.

Talking of giants News International, the parent company of HarperCollins, has been making a big push into the web, famously buying MySpace. Now HC are launching Authonomy in early 08. The Bookseller:

Authonomy, at www.authonomy.com, will initially be rolled out by HCUK in early 2008, with the intention of it becoming a global programme in the future. The site will connect unpublished authors with readers, and will allow anyone to participate. Readers will be able to support their favourite manuscripts, with HC guaranteeing to consider the most popular for publication. HC anticipates that many of the readers will be industry professionals looking for new talent.

Pan was well ahead of the game with MNW. Two things spring to mind regarding Authonomy. First is a certain amount of admiration that they actively hope publishing professionals from across the industry will use it- sure they will try and get good stuff out of it, but so will, potentially other publishing houses. I wonder what they will do if they repeatedly lose out. As Eoin Purcell says:

if, as HC suggest themselves, the site is also a magnet for publishing professionals from beyond HC there is no guarantee that they will take the cream. In fact they could well forced the price of the cream up and simply improve the scrum for talent while costing themselves quite a bit in hosting and marketing.

Secondly this could be huge. As Andrew Kidd recently mentioned on the excellent new Picador blog a YouGov survey found that being a novelist is literally the most coveted job on earth. MNW anticipated and confirmed that. What HC do is basically take the barrier to entry down a step further- you don't even have to send in a manuscript anymore.