How to create value with a new thing

(This is the tenth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

The reason why the term ‘book app’ is so dangerous is that it blinds people to the sheer variety there is in content apps and to the many possibilities apps and websites offer.

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HTML is too complex

(This is the ninth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

The syntax of HTML and XML—angle brackets and closing elements—isn’t complex. It’s tedious, but it isn’t complex. If the problem lay in the basic syntax we’d have an easy time fixing it. The problem with markup complexity lies in the underlying model. Or, in the lack of one. Simply put, HTML is a mess.

This is from an email sent by Matthew Thomas to the WhatWG mailing list (that list was at the time responsible for the development of HTML5) almost ten years ago. Everything it says is still true:

In response to the proposal that HTML5 add a host of semantic elements, each with no default rendering to distinguish it from other elements, Matthew predicted the following:

  • The A-list of Web developers will begin using all the elements
    correctly on their Weblogs, and they will feel good about it.

  • A greater number of Web developers will never use most of these
    elements, but they will replace all occurrences of <div> on their
    pages with <section> because it’s more “semantic” (just like they
    did with <em> for <i> and <strong> for <b>), and they will feel good
    about it.

  • The vast majority of article producers (Weblogs and online
    newspapers) will never use <article>, because there’s no visual or
    behavioral benefit from doing so. So <article> will never become a
    reliable way of dissecting or aggregating pages.

  • The number of knowledgable HTML authors, the proportion of HTML
    pages that are valid, and therefore the overall usefulness of the
    Web, will be less than it otherwise would have been because of
    HTML’s increased complexity.

I’d argue that his prediction, ten years ago, was pretty much spot on:

  • The A-list rewrote their own sites to use fancy HTML5 semantic elements, then wrote books, presented talks, and sold workshops teach people how to do the same.
  • The hangers on and wannabes try a bit but don’t use any of the elements except maybe header and footer, and possibly article after that was blessed as a generic sort of standalone content container instead of section. Most of the elements are regularly used incorrectly.
  • The vast majority don’t use any of the semantic elements unless it’s by accident like a thoughtless copy-paste.
  • The only reason why the proportion of valid HTML files has increased is because HTML5 retroactively blessed invalid files as valid, provided they wear the HTML5 doctype.

The web remains too unstructured for article to become a good way for ‘dissecting or aggregating pages’ as originally envisioned. The HTML5 outlining algorithm isn’t used by anybody (except the A-list gurus) and, even worse, supported by very few browsers or screenreaders.

As Matthew Thomas mentioned in the email above, unless there is an immediate visual or behavioural benefit to using an element, most people will ignore it. This is compounded by the angle-brackets mess of HTML. By completely separating design (CSS), behaviour (JS), and structure (HTML) the specification gods have taken away the context that would make it easier for us mere mortals to give our documents a meaningful structure.

That’s without getting into the problems with the syntax itself.

While the separation makes using HTML for documents and ebooks more difficult, it is essential for it becoming an app platform, which obviously now the web’s primary purpose.

(Most websites today are just web apps for delivering ads. They certainly aren’t made with readability in mind.)

There was a long period of time when the markup of most websites was unreadable because they used a mess of nested table tags to render the site. The markup was meaningless and complex. For a few years, though, after that, when you viewed the source of your average website, you would have seen relatively clean and nicely structured markup that most people could understand, even without specific knowledge about HTML. Google’s web crawlers loved simple, well-structured documents and so the web filled with them.

Now we’re back to seeing almost the same level of complexity and messiness in most web pages as we saw in the worst days of table-hacking. The semantic elements from HTML5 are largely unused. Those that are used such as <header> and <footer>, are used incorrectly because people misunderstand what they mean. Every page is riddled with div elements with opaque classes and IDs nested in a document structure that is more complex than many I saw in the table-layout days.

This escalating complexity is arguably one of the biggest ongoing issues in web development because it makes things like authorship, search engines, discoverability, and automation more difficult than it should.

You see, if the markup you assign to a piece of content has a specific meaning, you can write code that’s aware of this meaning. You make human meaning machine readable. This is useful if you want to make the text more searchable or if you want blind people to be able to hear it with their screenreaders. If the markup is too complex (both the underlying model and the markup syntax) to use properly, the humans won’t be able to do the markup properly, making the content’s meaning machine-opaque again. HTML5 has a big problem with markup complexity where even A-list developers have spent countless hours debating what the various new semantic elements actually mean.

Hint: They don’t mean what most of us assume they mean. Section, Article, Footer, Header, all of them have differences in meaning from what we’d assume from existing practice or basic understanding of English.

HTML5 is itself complex. Most developers can’t or won’t put in the effort to properly mark up their content semantically. EPUB3 and its ilk add even more complexity, more ‘semantic’ elements and attributes, all of them even more difficult to understand and harder to explain than the basic new semantic elements of HTML5.

Badly implemented complexity, such as in HTML5 and EPUB3, means we get all the pain and difficulty of escalating complexity, but with few of the benefits. Unfortunately, these are formats whose limitations we have to work around and surpass. They are a disadvantage on both the web and ebook industry. One of the tasks publishing has ahead is to try to neutralise that disadvantage.

The ebook as an API

(This is the eighth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

The problem many publishers are facing is that their titles need to be reused in a variety of contexts.

Book apps are very unfashionable at the moment but there is a brisk trade in small, fairly cheap, and functional apps based on book content, where the content is often licensed by a small app development outfit from a small publishing outfit or book packager. These range from military history apps, to children’s apps, to travel guides and in many ways are prototypical Content Development Kits like I described in an earlier post.

Then we have a variety of web and app gateways popping up that sell access to ebooks on a subscription basis, either directly to consumers or to libraries or other educational establishments.

The source format for these apps is often an EPUB version of the title and this is, in the cases I know, the source of a lot of problems and complications. The structure of the EPUB doesn’t tell the app developer where to hook the functionality of their app into the title’s content. This means that the app developers have to spend considerable time adapting and editing the text of the title and its structure. In some cases they have to spend more time on pulling structured text out of a crap EPUB than on the development of the app itself.

For most large publishers they see development as the single biggest cost of creating apps from their titles. This is because they are focusing on the digital equivalent of a tent-pole blockbuster movie. Small publishers and small app developers tend to focus on smaller scale apps with a much bigger emphasis on code reuse. For them, anything that cannot be automated is a liability and a cost centre.

You can think of a structured ebook file as an API. Most existing ebooks don’t need any API capabilities. A novel benefits little from it.

Reference books, however, gain immense value from becoming detailed and functional APIs in the digital space.

A reference book that is the source of only one or two concurrent editions in print can be the content source for hundreds, if not thousands of apps. A classic example being the dictionary services built into Mac OS X and iOS.

Any reference title can be a similar source provided that its content has been made available as an API.

Unfortunately, we don’t have many formats or tools that make this easy, making a lot of these services custom jobs.


Stop. Go back. Reread. Can you tell what the big problem is with what I wrote above? The idea that publishers could benefit from turning their titles into well structured ebooks—files that can serve as APIs—has a fatal flaw:

Only certain kinds of books have the internal structure that suits this purpose. Books that can be mapped onto a database structure (e.g. reference books) work perfectly. Structured non-fiction tends to work well. Anything that has a story less so.

Even the most structured dictionary or reference book is still not flexible enough to really suit the purposes of app, web, and interactive media developers. They need more. They need content that is adaptive.

What they need are structured projects that offer enough variety in their fabric to adapt to varying devices and context. Instead of single length chapters you need entries that have full-length, abridged, even more abridged, and tweetable versions of the chapter’s content. You need the chapter’s full title, tweetable title, display title (if different). Every chapter needs descriptions of varying lengths (like the chapter’s content). Do that for every chapter in the project, mark it up so that it’s usable, and you’ve got the beginnings of something really flexible.

Adaptive content

What this means is quit thinking that what you are doing is designing and creating for the final presentation. You’re not in the business of making brochures. You’re not in the business of mobile applications. You’re not in the business of making web pages. You are in the business of making content and structuring that content so that it’s presentation independent, so you can get it out onto whatever device or platform you want to. (Karen McGrane – Uncle Sam Wants You to Optimise Your Content For Mobile)

Adaptive content—making things work for mobile, web, desktop, apps, tablets—is not just a design problem but an authorship, business, and editorial problem.

A large content library is not an asset in this context but a liability. It’s an ossified monolithic resource when you are surrounded by small and nimble players using small and flexible resources. The individual smaller players do not represent a threat—most of them are more likely to fail than not—but as a whole they do. Where each one may only address a tiny sliver of your back catalogue’s target market, they do so with content that is more flexible than yours because they had to start from scratch. Or, they have had the time and focus to adapt it by hand because their survival depends on this one title, which is a level of attention you can’t give to tens of thousands of titles.

As a collected whole, the smaller web players, self-publishers, three person publishing houses, indie app developers, and the like, are much more likely to be able to properly leverage the advantages of digital publishing than a large publishing mega-conglomerate. Publishers approach each edition as something that demands a unique design, custom editing, and detailed work to adapt the title’s content to that editions particular form. This isn’t scalable, neither in terms of labour or cost.

Adaptive content is essential when we face a plurality of devices. Having a ‘mobile content’ strategy means that you are just making the same dumb mistakes again because there will be other platforms in the future, and if your content isn’t readily adaptable you’re just going to face the exact same problems again that you are facing now with the mobile transition.

Not to mention the fact that you are opting out of a revenue stream from licensing your catalogue to various developers.

Your existing non-fiction titles are flies caught in amber. They exist only as evidence of a single evolutionary context, incapable of adapting or changing to survive in a new one. Because of the costs and work involved in making an extensive back catalogue adaptive, it becomes a liability when competing with a host of smaller outfits starting from scratch.

Changing your readership mix

(This is the seventh post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

The mix of reader types in your readership isn’t an unchangeable fact, a curse bound in iron by the gods of old, a universal constant for all eternity. It can be changed.

Actually, that isn’t really true. The readership mix for most titles and genres is probably set in stone, one of those big blocks of ‘fixed, can’t change’ that you just have to work around.

What you can do is create a new readership with a new product in a new product category, but one that uses the text, images, and other materials from the old product. A new product that appeals to a market that is different from your print edition.

Most of those new product categories are just rebadged interactive media, and to create those you need people who know how to create interactive media (interactivity designers, app developers, or whatever you want to call them).

Most publishers give the digital edition of a title thought only after the fact—after the book has been written, edited, proofread, line-edited, typeset, and on its way to the printers—preferring to see what they can accomplish by tweaking whatever piece of digital rubbish their print workflow automatically craps out, wipe the InDesign shit-stains off it, and call it an ebook.

If you want to do something interesting with the digital edition of the title, you need to plan this right at the start, before any work is done on the title. And please do involve a professional developer right at the beginning. Think of them as co-authors of the digital edition and not as carpenters putting up a shelf you’ve specced out.

Once you start, once you’ve planned the print version of the title, your options for the digital edition go down dramatically. At that point, the easiest thing to do is to gloss up the title with idiotic ‘enhancements’ or other interactive doohickeys. Anything else is too expensive because you are, in effect, reinventing your production workflow on the fly.

Don’t do that. That’s crazy.

If all else fails and you’ve been given the task of adapting a pre-existing title into digital, you have a simple set of options:

  • If the title is likely to have an ebook-friendly readership and the title is structurally an easy match for ebooks, just do a basic ebook.
  • If the title doesn’t have an ebook-friendly readership but is easy to adapt into an ebook, do one and hope you get lucky.
  • If the title won’t sell as an ebook and won’t be easy to turn into an ebook, don’t do an ebook. Do something radically different.

Avoiding wild dogs/ebook fanatics

One reason to do a totally unviable ebook that’ll just lose you money and only sell three copies is to avoid PR backlash. You see, people who want ebooks really want ebooks. They get very angry when there isn’t an ebook version and will complain loudly. It’s better to do what they—.

Hah! Had you going there for a moment. Don’t do that. That’s crazy. Here’s a simple rule for you:

Ignore crazy people who haven’t already given you money.

Which problem would you rather have?

  1. A few nutters complain on Twitter and on Amazon that there isn’t an ebook version available. Most people ignore them.
  2. A few dissatisfied nutters keep sending you support emails because the ebook edition you released is much worse than the print edition because it was a money-losing low-budget production.

I’d choose the first problem every time. The last thing you want to do is piss people off who’ve already given you money.

What does ‘radically different’ mean?

So, you’ve backed yourself into a corner. You have a title that probably has to be something other than an ebook.

At this point your only real options are:

Either do nothing (a perfectly valid choice, since nobody runs a business specifically to lose money, doing nothing is always an option)…

Or, you take the title and everything related to it, give it to an accomplished app developer, and tell them to make something out of it. Don’t tell them what to make because, if you work in publishing, you are almost inevitably clueless and incompetent when it comes to the web and apps. Give them a target audience they should serve. Any involvement by you beyond instigating the project will decrease its chances of success. Or, judging by some of you, it would massively decrease its chances.

Tell them to figure out a new product with a new title (the old title’s readership isn’t interested in digital, remember) using your materials. Set up whatever rules, goals, and benchmarks you need to feel comfortable. Set up whatever licensing agreement you both think will make you both some money. Then get out of the way because, honestly, if you’re in publishing, you probably don’t know what you’re doing.

(In digital media, I mean. Oh, you thought I meant in general? So, sorry.)

Best part? You can do this again with another developer. You can give another developer a brief to create another product from the title, for another target audience, with another name. Once you are playing at this level you are creating completely new products with new titles that just happen to be based on your stuff. Why limit yourself to one go at the roulette table? Especially if you can convince the developer to do the project without paying them up front payment while sharing the profits.

Even better, there’s a way for you to get almost unlimited tries at the table at little cost to yourself—all upside: just create a standardised licensing kit for a selection of your non-fiction titles. You don’t even have to do an API, just what you might call a ‘content developer kit’ or CDK: a zip package of the title’s content in a structured format that developers can license on whatever payment basis you want. Bonus points if you set up a self-serve ecommerce site where developers can buy CDKs at whatever price you set (preferably royalty-free; there’s room here for flexibility). Just lay down a few branding, contract, and promotional guidelines and you’re good to go.

You probably have to require your licensees to use something like “this app is based on X, published by Y” in their app or web descriptions, for the consumer’s sake, though.

Building up in-house digital product development is risky and expensive, especially at the start when you have to build up the necessary expertise and tools to do the job and change your organisations implicit value network.

The problem is that changing an organisation’s value network is next to impossible without firing everybody (yourself included) and replacing them with different people. Adding individuals who have different values from those prevalent in your organisation won’t change the value network. It’ll just make your new hires miserable before they quit or get fired. Which means that building a top notch, in-house digital product development team is going to be difficult for most publishers.

So, either partner up or build the team that is isolated and sandboxed from the rest of the company’s incompatible values. For most publishers, anything else is unlikely to work.

The various types of readers

(This is the sixth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

(Before I start, I’d like to make sure you know this is all speculation and probably wrong.)

My guess is you can break book consumers into broadly five different kind of behaviours. Emphasis here is on consumers so this doesn’t cover corporate, institutional, or similar professional purchases at all.

  1. Heavy reader. People who buy several books a month, read most of them, and still have a mile-high ‘to read’ list. This is relatively small number of people who have an outsized impact on the market and have mostly converted to ebooks.
  2. The literate reader. People who read anything from six to twelve books a year. How big this group is depends on the language and culture. In 2010 in Iceland, for example, an extensive survey pegged this group at over half the adult Icelandic-speaking population (PDF). For most countries that proportion will be lower. This group has partially switched to ebooks but at a much, much lower rate than the heavy readers.
  3. Blockbuster reader. The reader who only reads one book a year and then only a bestseller. These are the people that only buy authors like Dan Brown, J K Rowling, and whoever the dude is that writes those Jack Reacher novels.
  4. Super fans. They like this here one thing and aren’t ashamed of it. E.g. Twilight fanatics who haven’t read anything else in their lives. Harry Potter nutters. They’ve found that one thing they like and feel no need to branch out. More likely to reread and re-buy that one thing than to read something new.
  5. Gift givers. For whatever reason, these types have decided to forgo the universally accepted traditional gift of ‘cash in an envelope’ and foist their cultural selections upon undeserving relatives and acquaintances.

Group 1, heavy readers, is the one that has been driving most of the growth of the ebooks market so far. They’ve probably either completely switched over to ebooks or will have soon.

Group 2, is, in theory, the next major growth area for ebooks and also the one where ebooks are likely to stall. My guess is that most people in group 2 don’t read on the commute (if they did, they’d probably read more than 6–12 books a year) and so aren’t that affected by the bulk of your average book. A lot of the books they read are lent on or borrowed and so don’t cause major storage issues.

These people read a few books a year and share them with their friends. They have a lot to lose from switching to ebooks and little to gain. Ebooks in general are objectively more ugly. They can’t be shared easily with your friends. They require an expensive device that in many cases is shared across the household (i.e. to read on the iPad you have to take it away from your kids who are using it to play games). The specialised ereader devices cost as much as this reader’s entire year’s worth of reading (i.e. as much as six to twelve paperbacks would cost, but without the benefit of lending). Certain segments of Group 2 do benefit immensely from ebooks (those with poor sight who prefer bigger font sizes and those who do read on the commute). They are also the ones who have probably already switched.

Many members of group 3 will only ever buy an ebook by accident. If you do something only once a year you damn sure want a souvenir. I can’t imagine this group switching in big numbers. Nor should they.

Group 4 will probably buy their favourite book as an ebook, and a hardcover, and paperback, and the UK edition, and the Japanese edition off Ebay. They’ll hunt down a copy from the first print run. They’d kill for a copy of the limited first run from that small publisher before the title got picked up by the big publisher. They’ll read and write fan-fiction (so much fan-fiction). They’ll buy the book in Kobo, iBooks, and Kindle and compare the three but they won’t buy any other title because it isn’t what they love.

Group 5 is unlikely to ever give ebooks. Why give an ebook when you can just as easily buy an iTunes/Amazon gift card which you can then pretentiously wrap? Why give a gift card when you can give real cash? Why give cash when you can just confess that you don’t love the recipient enough to give their gift selection some thought, and tell them to just fuck off and not bother you again?

How these five groups divide the industry between themselves is going to vary wildly from market to market, genre to genre, and ebooks aren’t going to shift that composition in any major way.

Moreover, one person can belong to different groups depending on the market. Here’s Hypothetical Karen.


  • Is a huge SFF fan. Reads several titles a month.
  • Is a semi-regular reader of literary fiction. About six titles a year.
  • Only reads other genres when a mega-blockbuster comes along.

If my theory above is true, Hypothetical Karen’s SFF fiction library would be mostly ebooks, her literary fiction novels would mostly be hardbacks, while the blockbusters would all be paperbacks, probably borrowed from a friend, with the exception of the few that she bought cheap as ebooks. Her shelves would be dominated by SFF favourites—some that pre-date ebooks, some that are just too good to just own in digital—and literary fiction.

But most readers won’t belong to more than one group. I think it’s likely that Hypothetical Karen and her ilk have already had an outsized impact on the market as early ebook adopters but are too small a group to influence future developments to any substantial degree. If this is true then ebooks might have to cross a second chasm after crossing the early adopter chasm since the early majority group might well be smaller than expected and the late majority group could well be more recalcitrant than expected.

Of course, like everything else in this post, this is blatant speculation and probably wrong.

My theory is that these are the four basic reader archetypes (plus one buyer archetype) and that the split between these five groups varies dramatically from genre to genre, title to title. Romance novels are probably dominated by group 1 with a smattering of group 2. Since romance readers are a large collection of heavy readers, it’s unsurprising that the genre is an ebook powerhouse.

Genre readers, in general, are likely to be of group 1 or 2 with group 3 coming in occasionally with individual titles. Most mainstream fiction and non-fiction (like celebrity biographies and autobiographies) are dominated by group 2 with only a smattering of groups 1 and 2.

And a title that is almost exclusively bought by gift givers is likely to tank in digital unless the publisher lucks out in some way and it gets adopted by a niche audience of some sort.

Even though some market segments may well have a much lower percentage of ebook buyers than others, sales successes are likely to boost the sales of all of a title’s formats. A blockbuster in an ebook-light genre is going to sell more ebooks than a mid-list title in an ebook-heavy genre. Big sales trump customer mix every time. The problem is that blockbusters are unpredictable and somewhat random while building a solid genre mid-list catalogue is in theory less so. Which suggests that if you have capital, you should focus on blockbusters and lottery stakes, but if you don’t have capital but do have in-house expertise, you should focus on solid genre offerings.

Of course, this is all conjecture and probably wrong. (“This is all make believe!”)

Figuring this out for real

What you really need to do is to figure this out for your readership. Exactly how to do that is tricky.

You need to find out how reading activity is distributed among your readers (i.e. how many are light, moderate, or heavy readers). You need to figure out their past format choices. Don’t ask them their preferences; they don’t know and will make shit up—people lie. Ask them what they’ve actually done in the past, preferably the recent past. You need to find out how much of what they read they buy themselves. You need to know what genres they’ve bought in the past. You need to find out what they want from you, because that might not correlate with their past choices.

If it doesn’t correlate, then take it with a grain of salt. Only trust customer suggestions that they are willing to immediately back with money. You don’t have to take the money, but their willingness to part with it is an important indicator.

How do you find this out? Beats me. Almost every realistic and economically viable way of getting trustworthy information about your readers will be biased towards either heavy readers and super fans or towards digital readers.

If you figure out a way, let me know.

The unevenly distributed ebook future

(This is the fifth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

Data serves the status quo.

Anything new or undiscovered by definition does not have a data footprint. Existing data collection and filtering techniques have biases that do not take the unknown or unfamiliar into account.

Unless you have a clear theory and a well-designed experiment to prove or disprove it, the only thing more data will tell you is that your preconceptions and existing biases are correct. With enough noise, your brain will find it easy to ‘discover’ patterns and correlations that support whatever it is you want supported. Data, on its own, serves your worldview.

This is the problem with almost all analytics systems in common use. Unless you are running a tightly controlled experiment, the only thing data will do is paint you a general picture of the status quo; it’ll give you the shape of, say, your web traffic—the ‘sources’ of the nameless mass that fills your comment threads with tripe—but it won’t help you discover any of the ‘whys’. Why are they here? Why did they read it? Why did they comment? Why did they (or didn’t) come back?

Why didn’t they buy my book?

To pretend that an A/B test can tell you why a reader decided not to buy the ebook edition of a footballer’s biography is to accept a worldview that is incompatible with the very act of publishing longform prose in the first place.

For a simple A/B test to be able to tell you why a reader made the decision not to choose a book or a format you have to believe that the human mind is a simplistic machine, driven entirely by pre-programmed responses to external stimuli, to be hacked by an enterprising grifter. A mind like that is never going to comprehend, let alone enjoy, extended piece of text. A humanity like that would never have risen out of the mud to read or write books.

You can A/B test small theories and small issues, but it is not an experimental model that will help you find answers to complex questions or understand complex problems.

Before we do anything else, when we have an issue, we need to come up with a theory—an idea for how things work that you can then explore and try to prove or disprove.

Then you need to figure out an experiment that specifically disproves that theory, which is sometimes next to impossible because, we in publishing don’t have access to the environment where the experiments need to be implemented and run.

If this method seems slow and awkward (the only conclusive result you can have is partial disproval, not confirmation), then that’s because it is. It’s also the only way to know. Anything else is guesswork.

It’s a classic quote that is tailor-made for the modern internet: short, facile, glib, simplistic to the point of being useless.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

—William Gibson

The problem with the line is that it’s using the term future as a shorthand for technology and the changes it engenders—equating it with progress.

It has a simple message: progress remains a two-dimensional timeline (past → present → future), but that places, markets, and cultures are unevenly distributed along that timeline. Crap countries are stuck in the past. Good countries have a head start on the future.

As such it isn’t much of an improvement over the standard progress myth. In fact, it makes it worse by adding a dollop of neo-colonialism into the mix. “They are savages because they just haven’t had their share of our ‘future’ yet—not because a broken global economic system is holding them in debt-slavery”.

The publishing industry has bought into this idea wholesale. Some publishing markets are, according to this worldview, further ahead on the progress timeline than others. It also implies that advancement along the timeline is inevitable, even if it progresses at varying speeds. Romance and other genre fiction tend to dominate ebook sales and so must have more ‘future’. Non-fiction less so and must therefore have less ‘future’ and more of that crippling ballast called ‘past’. Big mainstream titles hit the ebook market in seemingly unpredictable ways. Some garner decent ebook sales while others seem to sell only in print. There, the ‘future’ seems to be randomly distributed, like a stress nosebleed over a term paper.

This, obviously, implies that the ebook will either eventually dominate universally or at least capture the same large percentage uniformly across the market.

I don’t think that’s going to happen.

The various publishing markets differ in fundamental ways that won’t be changed by ebooks. As others have said, ‘ebooks are terrific and haven’t changed a thing’.

Some will switch entirely to ebooks. Some partially. Some almost not at all.

If you’re going to generalise about readers, try not to generalise too much and stick to specific tastes and behaviours. Anybody claiming or even implying that an entire age group or economic class broadly behaves in the same way clearly hasn’t been observing book buyers for a long time. Claiming that those under twenty-four prefer print or that the more affluent prefer ebooks is useless even if it were true (probably isn’t) because those categories are too broad for us to guess what sort of books they are buying. Knowing that buyers of a specific genre prefer one format over another is clearly more useful than finding out that two-thirds of the young people who couldn’t avoid your survey didn’t like ebooks. One is actionable. The other isn’t.

It would be even better if we were able to make an educated guess of how a genre’s readers break down into behaviour groups:

  • Does a single kind of reader dominate? (casual readers, heavy readers, blockbusters only, etc.)
  • Or, is the readership more varied than that?
  • Is the distribution of the kinds of readers reliable across the genre or do sub-genres or individual titles differ substantially?

We are largely working blind here and unless you manage to get a critical mass of readers to buy from you directly and then read the books in an environment you control (good luck with that), it will be impossible to get even vaguely accurate guesses.

Some titles aren’t going to sell well as ebooks and there isn’t anything we can do about it except pray they turn into blockbusters. Because, if the title does turn out to be a blockbuster, you can always pay for a proper ebook version once the money starts rolling in.

The converse also holds true for ebook-heavy genres where the credo “ebook-first, print if popular” might well be printed above the door of every publisher (self- or other-) in the future.

If you have a title that is:

  • Visually rich.
  • Or, poses in some way to be an ebook production challenge.
  • And, is likely to appeal mostly to a print buying audience (this can happen for a variety of reasons).

Then the logical action to take is to quite simply not make an ebook version. Unless a high quality ebook is an almost free byproduct of your production workflow spending money on creating an ebook version of a title like that is likely to be a waste of money.

Conversely, print will not be viable for some markets within the industry, generally those dominated by ebook readers or have been thoroughly disrupted by apps and websites.

Either way, the single biggest concern publishers should have is to figure out ways to either discover or change the composition and shape of their readership. Making decisions on digital production will be next to impossible without that knowledge.

Bling it up for education

(This is the fourth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

One industry gambit these days is to annotate a literary classic with videos and audio and all sorts of interactive content before foisting a cacophony of celebrity videos on unsuspecting students—who are wholly undeserving of the torture, annoying as they can be.

The theory is that these apps are the natural progression from those hefty annotated versions of Shakespeare’s crap and other similar monstrosities that are used in education.

Unfortunately, education has become a cash cow for almost everybody except teachers and students—both are regularly forced to buy overpriced rubbish coughblackboardcough by a novelty-seeking idiot managers—so the prospect of ‘rich and complex’ (read: expensive) apps and ebooks fills the business peoples with glee.

(Whenever you hear of anything becoming a success in education, you can guarantee that students and faculty got shafted somewhere in the process. They always do. Education today does not exist to educate. It’s a vehicle that lets governments and local councils reward their corporate patrons with easy money while coincidentally babysitting children and adolescents at the same time. Education does very little educating.)

(I hope you can tell that I used to lecture at university, teach teenagers at junior college, and spent a decade or thereabouts in academia.)

Very few of these apps, or ‘rich’ textbooks in the iBooks Author style, are going to be long-term successes (at least, not if they are allowed to earn their keep on their own merits) for a simple reason: they don’t add anything that the reader values.

What most students need is for ebook reading apps to support two things:

  1. Proper—sophisticated—hypertext support so that the experience of reading an annotated classic is more natural and switching between the main text and an annotation is fluid and seamless. Bonus points if the student can easily add hypertext (and a variety of link types and styles) to the text.
  2. An easy way to get a student’s highlights, links, and annotations out of the app and into a writing program while maintaining structure and metadata so they can use them in their notes and essays and references.

And, of course, all of the above is kind of useless if it is joined at the hip to a single title. Curricula worldwide vary too much for this to be bolted on, ‘value-add’, features custom-built by a single publisher.

Stamping yet another talking head into the margins of yet another literary classic doesn’t help them at all. Getting another poncey TV celebrity to gush about how much they loved a piece of overrated mandatory part of the national curriculum does not add value. Worse yet, getting dozens of them to read the same goddamn passages of the same goddamn book that most students rightfully hate as the goddamn reactionary tripe it is, does not add value to the text.

It’d be different, of course, if studying performances of poetry and plays was a core part of the modern curriculum. But it isn’t. It’s all about the text not performances. Analysing performances isn’t marked or valued by the core curriculum so no student will get any value out of an interview with an actor on how they approach the role of Hamlet.

It should, obviously, be a part of the curriculum since digital video and apps are democratising access both to recordings of performances and to expert analysis thereof. But, it isn’t.

I should outline my basic educational philosophy since it goes a long way to explain why I hold the above opinions.

Of course, at most five of you will ever read this far since most blog readers will just scan the first few paragraphs and then decide I’m a nutter without reading any further.

Which is good, because it means I don’t have to appeal to the moron constituency for the rest of this piece.

The only thing you learn in school, college, and university is what you do—the methodologies, rituals, and practices of each discipline. What you remember isn’t what you learned because, most of the time, what you remember isn’t what you memorised in the first place.

You see, memory is notoriously useless. It degrades severely with time. It peaks very early (late teens to early twenties) considering the lifespan of the average human and is downhill from there. It is extremely unreliable—the very act of recalling something modifies the memory—so you can’t completely trust what you remember. In the very few situations memory is truly reliable it’s because it has been supported by habit, routine, rituals, and practices. So, again, actions and methodology are really all that you learn.

(There is quite a bit of research and evidence going back decades that lend credence to the above view of memory, by the way.)

This is the reason why universities, colleges, and schools today are, In My Not So Humble Opinion, next to useless for pedagogy. They are brilliant social institutions: halfway houses where barbarian teenagers are contained—figuring out the basics of community, friendships, and relationships—until they are fit to enter society at large. Teachers, on the other hand, have been reduced to over-qualified babysitters. At many institutions they are no longer allowed to grade people based on the work that went into the papers they write or the work they do. They can’t give those who plagiarise a stern warning by giving their essay a failing grade. In many of these establishments, ‘C’ is the lowest grade a teacher can give without getting reprimanded either by their superiors or by irate parents, who seem to think that taking away a vital feedback tool will improve their children’s education. Teachers at earlier stages of the school system (as in: not university) spend most of their time preparing students for standardised tests, which are educational toys that bear no resemblance to any sane practice outside of education. In the universities, teachers spend most of their time getting students to exercise rote memory skills until they have done their time and can be stamped ‘fit for employment’ with a diploma.

The only thing those kids are learning is how to sit still, listen to an authority figure, and take exams. And textbooks only work for autodidacts. (Autodidacts are people who habitually integrate what they read by exercising the new ideas they encounter. True autodidacts aren’t people with a talent for memorisation. They habitually integrate new ideas by doing, if not actually, then virtually—visualising actions as they read.)

What you learn in history class, for example, shouldn’t be dates or names or events, but how to discover those facts through research and present them, verbally or in writing. And the only way to teach that is to make the students do it. If a teacher can’t give a student a lower grade for not doing the work, then they are, by definition, not allowed to grade them for what they have learned. They are only allowed to grade them on a temporary biological anomaly: the young brain’s superior ability to recall facts.

Which should make it obvious why I consider most of these ‘rich’ educational apps—classic texts littered with videos or textbooks with zooming 3D and images—to be a waste of money. They don’t help the student do anything. But if you integrated proper writing tools into the reading app, enabling styles and structure in the notes the student writes and proper export tools for those notes so they can easily use them in their papers, then you’d be doing them a real service.

As writer, editor, and horseperson Seriouspony is fond of pointing out, there is a big opportunity here for changing the structure and writing of textbooks to match what we know about memory and learning—compensating for the basic flaws in human memory by changing the text, not by adding inconsequential interactive ‘bling’.

This is something publishers and writers could do that would have a greater impact on learning than any of these ‘enhanced’ apps or ‘rich’ textbooks.

The current educational orthodoxy among both educators and policy makers has for a long time been that education is a matter of moving information between two receptacles: the textbook and the student. Improving eduction in this worldview is largely a matter of improving the receptacles (better textbooks or better students through weeding out the incapable receptacles, i.e. the poor and those they consider genetically unsuitable).

You’ll note that the teacher’s skill at teaching doesn’t enter into the equation in this worldview. If this theory were true you’d be able to replace teachers with minimally trained low wage workers, so long as they made sure to use the latest textbooks. And because policy makers do believe this theory, this is basically what they’ve been attempting to do in the public education systems in many western countries.

It’s a worldview that has been thoroughly undermined just by research into memory—that’s without even getting into the results of other studies in education and learning, or experiences in countries where this model has been avoided. It’s understandable that people who labour under this delusion don’t worry too much when the practice of essay writing or presentation or other methodologies of the disciplines taught is being debased. In fact, if you think those practices get in the way of moving ‘stuff’ from one receptacle to another, you might even prefer them to be abandoned completely and cheer when they stop making students write essays.

It’s this very same worldview that drives the development of new textbook technologies, more interactive online learning environments, and the adoption of tablets in the classroom. None of these are designed or intended to improve the doing that the student does but to improve the source receptacle—add decoration and ’bling’—resulting in better teaching through better containers with more features.

Which is a pity, because the current drive for change and adoption of new classroom technologies could have been an opportunity to reform teaching; bring the doing in the classroom up to date with the doing in real life.

The above philosophy of eduction is not mine and it certainly isn’t new. It was best outlined by John Dewey in 1916, almost a century ago, in his book Democracy and Education.

(Yes, both my opinions on art and media and my opinions on education are based on Dewey’s ideas. At least I’m consistent.)

The core of his ideas, the essential heart of his view of education—long since forgotten—is that a public education system is not there to prepare people for the labour market; it’s not there to give kids skills they can use to get jobs and be better at them; it’s not there to improve the economy or increase the student’s chances of earning more money upon graduation.

The heart at the centre of his philosophy of education is that the only defensible purpose for a publicly funded education system is to create enlightened voters. Voters who can make informed and reasoned decisions when it comes to voting in elections.

The public education system is there to make citizens, not workers.

Anything else we get is a bonus.

Conversely, the motivation behind modern education—the system we have now—isn’t nearly as pragmatic (for what motivation is more pragmatic than the wish for a stable society with few opportunities for demagogues and fascists?). The foundation of modern education is a rapacious desire for more money, more power, higher acclaim, and more bodies under your foot that you can trample in your rat race up the status ladder.

Schools today are training grounds for mercenaries who understand that grades and status are a matter of power and coercion, not skill and practice. The parents know this and the students know this. We all know this.

And like all mercenaries, we sell out our ideals, our loyalties, our service, to the nearest scumbag willing to pay, while we let our governments serve the highest bidders.

Ergodic literature

(This is the third post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

Ergodic literature is a fancy term for being intentionally over-wrought and difficult. Sometimes this can be an effective tool, much like when a psychotic gym teacher forces you to run several times around the Reykjavík Pond the exercise makes you appreciate a coke and a hot dog (with ketchup and crispy fried onions) that much more. Or, you know, the effort makes arriving at the destination that much more blah blah blah.

(Actually, the only thing the psychotic gym teacher accomplished was to teach us how to sneak off and get hot dogs when we should have been jogging around the pond.)

The app Fish, for example, plays with being deliberately difficult and not allowing you to tap back and revisit earlier chapters. Reading it is a one way trip. You go from the beginning, to the end, and then you can start over. You cannot flip back. You cannot browse forward. You read it, in order, or you don’t read it at all.

Author control over the reading process also used to be a feature of many early hypertexts. What? That wasn’t just because they were a UI mess? Well, yes, that as well. They were an UI mess compounded by a severe case of ‘intentionally difficult’. Arseholes!. Lesson learned: only let yourself be deliberately difficult in a feature when the others are easy peasy.

The non-psychotic rationale behind this approach is often (mistakenly, in my view) conflated with a school of thought pioneered by John Dewey. You may know that school of thought by the more commonly known facile formulation by pseudo-intellectual bildungsphilister catchphrase artist Marshal McLuhan:

“The Medium is the Message.”

So, making something difficult, making it require some sort of effort, skill, foreknowledge, or time, changes the meaning of that something, because the medium with its difficulties has an inherent meaning. A piece of text that is only visible when you’re constantly drawing circles on your phone while hopping on one foot means something different than the same text on an otherwise straightforward website. Text that can only be read while standing in a bus stop in Croydon means something different from the same text in an ebook.

Academics love this line of thinking.

—Let’s wrap barbed wire around the reader’s iPad while I stomp on their toes and you threaten to defenestrate their pet Chihuahua.

—Ooh, what if we attach a GPS to the Chihuahua so the reader can see on the iPad where it lands? Locative media!

People obsessed with ‘innovation’ and doing ‘edgy’ things also like this approach. Computers are already a difficult pain in the arse. Making things difficult is easy and—bonus!—turns out it adds arty meaning to shit you don’t care about enough to do properly.


(Err, no. Most of the time readers will astutely observe that interactive ergodic literature is hostile to the reader. It also alienates every sensible person on the planet.)

It’s conceivable that this approach might be appropriate under some circumstances. Such as when the source material really does benefit from being closely tied to a location, or when the effort involved demonstrates something meaningful for the text. But even then the benefit is undercut by the fact that it’s fucking annoying.

Does my antipathy towards ergodic literature make me a populist. Yes. Fuck off.

This trend is particularly tragic because Dewey’s ideas (and McLuhan’s by virtue of being derivative as hell), as far as the artist and author are concerned, have more in common with wabi-sabi than ergodic literature. It’s about embracing the imperfect means by which you tell a story or create art, acknowledging the means, their flaws, their strengths as a fundamental part of your creation. It’s not about pissing off the reader.

The mistake of ‘enhancing’ novels

(This is the second post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

A novel does not benefit from a host of videos of talking heads, interactive maps, or the kind of gunk that clutters up most DVD extras. A novel is not a movie. The film production and marketing process lends itself towards the whole DVD extras phenomenon. You have dozens of unused scenes, a special effects team, the filming crew, and an army of people performing various roles. The stars are loved by millions. The movie’s launch and its production are events. Even a bog-standard TV series has buy-in from society at large and a wealth of collateral material that is rare in publishing.

A novel is just one person sitting in a room for what is sometimes years, occasionally talking to a couple of other people, with an itty-bitty burst of social activity towards the end. Some of them may launch with a bang but the revenue curve for most novels bears no resemblance to that of either a successful or unsuccessful movie.

Moreover, the interactive content most publishers have bundled with their ‘enhanced’ novels is hideously misplaced. They are marketing assets locked in a sealed, unseen, container.

All those talking head videos? Put them on the website. That interactive map of the fantasy world? Website. Unused scenes? Website. Those commentary bits on the author’s manuscript?

You guessed it. Put it on the website.

The core value of a movie is spectacle. (Obviously, I’m talking here about the US-oriented movie industry, not the form. The cinematic medium is capable of considerable nuance and subtlety. Hollywood, however, isn’t.)

Extras feed into and complement the spectacle. The selling point of a novel—even the cheap-o, sleazy, low-brow ones—is to disappear into a new world for hours on end. Marketing assets help readers discover novels to step into—explore the feel of it before they commit to reading. They don’t add any value when fused into the body of the novel like a malignant tumour. There they become a distraction.

Book apps, where you take a linear novel or piece of narrative writing and pin interactivity on it like a tail on a cartoon donkey, don’t make sense. They make slightly more sense for non-fiction titles (hence iBooks Author’s focus on textbooks and the like) but even there the costs often outweigh the benefits.

If we are looking for publishing titles—or even new ideas that have no print history—that would benefit the most from being digital—the most logical ones to look at are titles that are confined and limited by print.

A book that works great in print, that is adapted perfectly to its form, is exactly the worst candidate for digital. It’d suffer from high expectations on the part of the readers (because the print version was great) but it would also see little improvement in digital. Because it was already good.

This is the quintessential lose-lose double whammy. Like an author whose skills have managed to attract an audience that consists mostly of expert readers, you’ve navigated yourself into a scenario where you’re surrounded by passionate people with high expectations and both the capacity and motivation to outline, in public, your every single fault. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, your audience will find reasons hate you.

Instead of enhancing novels, what we should be looking at are titles and types of books that are a little bit awkward in print, ones that are useful and loved because of their subject matter, but have never had a chance to bloom due to the limitations of the printed form.

Those are the ones worth ‘enhancing’.

The publishing industry’s new product categories

(This is the first post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

A while back it was popular at many of the bigger publishers out there to release apps that they called ‘enhanced ebooks’. Some of them were branded as ‘book apps’, but that name too suffers from the same basic idiocy.

Enhanced ebooks is quite possibly the worst possible name that anybody could have thought of for a piece of media. It misses out on the one thing that is that particular genre’s greatest strength: it isn’t a book, not in any way shape or form. It’s an app.

And by virtue of being an app, it can have a structure and form that is entirely unlike the book, gaining in the process the business model flexibility that ebooks don’t have.

The state of play

The publishing industry has a set of standard bling that they use in place of interactivity whenever they implement something ‘enhanced’ or app-like. (Video, maps, slideshows, 3D widget crap, etc..)

Some of these approaches are confusing to say the least. Others are just plain dumb.

Commercial interactive textual content is a genre without direction. Everybody seems to be throwing stuff randomly against the wall to see what sticks.

Which would be fine if they didn’t keep picking up the spaghetti strands that didn’t stick just to try them again.

—Maybe I didn’t throw it hard enough?

Or, you just picked the wrong thing to throw.

—No, really. Jack over there is doing the same thing. I can’t let him get a lead in case this turns out to be a big market. I just need to throw harder.

No, you really don’t. Jack is making a mistake.

—Are you absolutely certain he’s making a mistake?

No, of course not. It’s impossible to be certain here, there are too many unknowns.

—Ah, so he could be right! Okay. I’ll try my best to throw harder next time. [Bends to pick up a cluster of spaghetti strands that hadn’t stuck to the wall and pitches it at the wall again.]

Nobody wants to be left behind so they all run as fast as they can in the wrong direction.

What to do, what to do?

Before you run, you first need a direction. Before you start an interactive project, you need to decide on what sort of project, and don’t just jump on whatever bandwagon you think others in the industry are on.

I don’t really care what your ‘why create’ reason is. As far as I’m concerned you don’t need a reason to create. But, if you want to create and if you want to do it on a regular basis, you need two prerequisites:

  1. You need projects you can figure out how to make.
  2. You need to have a sensible idea for how to fund project after project.

Costs and revenue. Two things that, at the very least, need to balance out.

If the projects are simple enough, then you can make them yourself and funding won’t be much of a problem. This lets you experiment and iterate your way towards discovering a genre, form, or medium you like.

But, a lot of the time you can’t do that. Especially not if the ‘you’ in that previous sentence is a corporation whose owners need it to stay relevant in a changing world.

There are three ways to slice the problem of deciding what to do.

  1. Look at the genres of interactive content (all of them, not just the crap publishers release). See if you find a few that inspire ideas.
  2. Look at the individual bits and features that make up the genres, go more granular than just looking at apps as a whole. Sometimes the approach and style is more important and inspiring than the whole.
  3. Look at your means and capabilities. It’s not a question of staying within your comfort zone but of making sure you don’t stray into mediocrity. If your ambitions vastly exceed your own capabilities, then you need a plan for how to grow them yourself, without outsourcing them to somebody who doesn’t give a damn and is just out for a buck.

(Yes, this is a lot of work even before you start planning the project. What did you expect?)

Finally, once you have a set of ideas and aspirational projects, you need to whittle them down, or at least prioritise them. That means you need to look at the cost-revenue balance for each one. And to do that you need to figure out the business model, often from scratch because, unlike print, interactive media doesn’t come with a business model attached.