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May 18 2013

08:13

Why I stopped working with print publishers (for a while)

Scraping for Journalists book

This was first published on the BBC College of Journalism website:

I have just spent 10 months publishing an ebook. Not ‘writing’, or ‘producing’, but 10 months publishing. Just as the internet helped flatten the news industry – making reporters into publishers and distributors – it has done the same to the book industry. The question I wanted to ask was: how does that change the book?

Having written books for traditional publishers before, my plunge into self-publishing was prompted when I decided I wanted to write a book for journalists about scraping: the technique of grabbing and combining information from online documents.

There was a time when self-publishing was for those who couldn’t get themselves printed. Increasingly, however, it’s for those who cannot wait to. This was just such a case, with classic symptoms: a timely subject that is prone to change; a small market (or so I thought) and a dispersed and knowledgeable audience.

To carry it through I turned to the self-publishing website Leanpub, having seen what my Birmingham City University colleague Andrew Dubber had been doing with the service. Most ebook services offer the timeliness of ebook publishing, but Leanpub had something else: agility.

‘Agile development’ is a popular concept in technology development: it is the idea that, rather than launching a ‘finished’ product upon the world, you should instead launch something part-finished and develop it in response to user feedback.

In other words, it is better to see how people actually use something and respond to that, than to assume you know what they will use it for. My ebook was designed to be used – but would people use it how I imagined?

So, in July 2012 I put up a page announcing the imminent publication of the book. Users could suggest how much they might be prepared to pay. Immediately, I had some indication of suitable pricing. Free market research.

When the first two chapters were published, I started with a cheap price: readers were, after all, taking a gamble on the content that followed. You might also argue that these ‘early adopters’ of the book would be key to its continued success. Why discount a book that has grown old, when you can discount one that isn’t even finished yet?

I published a new chapter every week for the first few months. People who had bought the book would receive an email alerting them to the new content to download. An accompanying Facebook page, and my own Twitter account, helped provide other platforms for announcements, but also reader feedback.

One reader told me about idiosyncrasies in how tools worked in different countries: I added additional notes in the books. Others told me how they used links: I changed the way that I formatted them. Readers suggested alternative solutions to problems outlined in one chapter – and I added those at the end of that chapter.

The book evolved out of that call-and-response, including usage data: which formats were most popular; how pricing affected buying behaviour; what languages might be best for future translations. It has combined the best elements of blogging (readers as editors; iterative writing; analytics) with the best of books (comprehensiveness; structure).

When I set out to write it, I thought there might be barely 100 people in the world who would want to buy it. As I began that final chapter, it had sold five times that – the rate of a mildly successful textbook. This has genuinely shocked me. No publisher would have guessed that market existed. Even if they wanted to bet on it, they couldn’t have distributed the books effectively enough.

So this is the book industry in the internet age: not only publishing without delays for typesetting, printing, or distribution – but before a book is even finished. And is it finished? Not quite: I have the Kindle Store edition and the print on demand version to do now…

08:13

Why I stopped working with print publishers (for a while)

Scraping for Journalists book

This was first published on the BBC College of Journalism website:

I have just spent 10 months publishing an ebook. Not ‘writing’, or ‘producing’, but 10 months publishing. Just as the internet helped flatten the news industry – making reporters into publishers and distributors – it has done the same to the book industry. The question I wanted to ask was: how does that change the book?

Having written books for traditional publishers before, my plunge into self-publishing was prompted when I decided I wanted to write a book for journalists about scraping: the technique of grabbing and combining information from online documents.

There was a time when self-publishing was for those who couldn’t get themselves printed. Increasingly, however, it’s for those who cannot wait to. This was just such a case, with classic symptoms: a timely subject that is prone to change; a small market (or so I thought) and a dispersed and knowledgeable audience.

To carry it through I turned to the self-publishing website Leanpub, having seen what my Birmingham City University colleague Andrew Dubber had been doing with the service. Most ebook services offer the timeliness of ebook publishing, but Leanpub had something else: agility.

‘Agile development’ is a popular concept in technology development: it is the idea that, rather than launching a ‘finished’ product upon the world, you should instead launch something part-finished and develop it in response to user feedback.

In other words, it is better to see how people actually use something and respond to that, than to assume you know what they will use it for. My ebook was designed to be used – but would people use it how I imagined?

So, in July 2012 I put up a page announcing the imminent publication of the book. Users could suggest how much they might be prepared to pay. Immediately, I had some indication of suitable pricing. Free market research.

When the first two chapters were published, I started with a cheap price: readers were, after all, taking a gamble on the content that followed. You might also argue that these ‘early adopters’ of the book would be key to its continued success. Why discount a book that has grown old, when you can discount one that isn’t even finished yet?

I published a new chapter every week for the first few months. People who had bought the book would receive an email alerting them to the new content to download. An accompanying Facebook page, and my own Twitter account, helped provide other platforms for announcements, but also reader feedback.

One reader told me about idiosyncrasies in how tools worked in different countries: I added additional notes in the books. Others told me how they used links: I changed the way that I formatted them. Readers suggested alternative solutions to problems outlined in one chapter – and I added those at the end of that chapter.

The book evolved out of that call-and-response, including usage data: which formats were most popular; how pricing affected buying behaviour; what languages might be best for future translations. It has combined the best elements of blogging (readers as editors; iterative writing; analytics) with the best of books (comprehensiveness; structure).

When I set out to write it, I thought there might be barely 100 people in the world who would want to buy it. As I began that final chapter, it had sold five times that – the rate of a mildly successful textbook. This has genuinely shocked me. No publisher would have guessed that market existed. Even if they wanted to bet on it, they couldn’t have distributed the books effectively enough.

So this is the book industry in the internet age: not only publishing without delays for typesetting, printing, or distribution – but before a book is even finished. And is it finished? Not quite: I have the Kindle Store edition and the print on demand version to do now…

December 19 2011

07:37

Magazine editing: managing information overload

In the second of three extracts from the 3rd edition of Magazine Editing, published by Routledge, I talk about dealing with the large amount of information that magazine editors receive. 

Managing information overload

A magazine editor now has little problem finding information on a range of topics. It is likely that you will have subscribed to email newsletters, RSS feeds, Facebook groups and pages, YouTube channels and various other sources of news and information both in your field and on journalistic or management topics.

There tend to be two fears driving journalists’ information consumption: the fear that you will miss out on something because you’re not following the right sources; and the fear that you’ll miss out on something because you’re following too many sources. This leads to two broad approaches: people who follow everything of any interest (‘follow, then filter’); and people who are very strict about the number of sources of information they follow (‘filter, then follow’).

A good analogy to use here is of streams versus ponds. A pond is manageable, but predictable. A stream is different every time you step in it, but you can miss things.

As an editor you are in the business of variety: you need to be exposed to a range of different pieces of information, and cannot afford to be caught out. A good strategy for managing your information feeds then, is to follow a wide variety of sources, but to add filters to ensure you don’t miss all the best stuff.

If you are using an RSS reader one way to do this is to have specific folders for your ‘must-read’ feeds. Andrew Dubber, a music industries academic and author of the New Music Strategies blog, recommends choosing 10 subjects in your area, and choosing five ‘must-read’ feeds for each, for example.

For email newsletters and other email updates you can adopt a similar strategy: must-reads go into your Inbox; others are filtered into subfolders to be read if you have time.

To create a folder in Google Reader, add a new feed (or select an existing one) and under the heading click on Feed Settings… – then scroll to the bottom and click on New Folder… – this will also add the feed to that folder.

If you are following hundreds or thousands of people on Twitter, use Twitter lists to split them into manageable channels: ‘People I know’; ‘journalism’; ‘industry’; and so on. To add someone to a list on Twitter, visit their profile page and click on the list button, which will be around the same area as the ‘Follow’ button.

You can also use websites such as Paper.li to send you a daily email ‘newspaper’ of the most popular links shared by a particular list of friends every day, so you don’t miss out on the most interesting stories.

Social bookmarking: creating an archive and publishing at the same time

Social bookmarking tools like Delicious, Digg and Diigo can also be useful in managing web-based resources that you don’t have time to read or think might come in useful later. Bookmarking them essentially ‘files’ each webpage so you can access them quickly when you need them (you do this by giving each page a series of relevant tags, e.g. ‘dieting’, ‘research’, ‘UK’, ‘Jane Jones’).

They also include a raft of other useful features, such as RSS feeds (allowing you to automatically publish selected items to a website, blog, or Twitter or Facebook account), and the ability to see who else has bookmarked the same pages (and what else they have bookmarked, which is likely to be relevant to your interests).

Check the site’s Help or FAQ pages to find out how to use them effectively. Typically this will involve adding a button to your browser’s Links bar (under the web address box) by dragging a link (called ‘Bookmark on Delicious’ or similar) from the relevant page of the site (look for ‘bookmarklets’).

Then, whenever you come across a page you want to bookmark, click on that button. A new window will appear with the name and address of the webpage, and space for you to add comments (a typical tactic is to paste a key quote from the page here), and tags.

Useful things to add as tags include anything that will help you find this later, such as any organisations, locations or people that are mentioned, the author or publisher, and what sort of information is included, such as ‘report’, ‘statistics’, ‘research’, ‘casestudy’ and so on.

If installing a button on your browser is too complicated or impractical many of these services also allow you to bookmark a page by sending the URL to a specific email address. Alternatively, you can just copy the URL and log on to the bookmarking site to bookmark it.

Some bookmarking services double up as blogging sites: Tumblr and Stumbleupon are just two. The process is the same as described above, but these services are more intuitively connected with other services such as Twitter and Facebook, so that bookmarked pages are also automatically published on those services too. With one click your research not only forms a useful archive but also becomes an act of publishing and distribution.

Every so often you might want to have a clear out: try diverting mailings and feeds to a folder for a week without looking at them. After seven days, ask which ones, if any, you have missed. You might benefit from unsubscribing and cutting down some information clutter. In general, it may be useful to have background information, but it all occupies your time. Treat such things as you would anything sent to you on paper. If you need it, and it is likely to be difficult to find again, file it or bookmark it. If not, bin it. After a while, you’ll find it gets easier.

Do you have any other techniques for dealing with information overload?

 

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