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August 02 2012

18:49

The Future of News As We Know It, July 2012: A new ebook collection from Nieman Lab

It’s the start of a new month, which means it’s time to reflect on what we learned in July. And that means it’s time for our second ebook collection, The Future of News As We Know It (*as of July 2012).

Just as we did last month, we swept up our most interesting stories from July into one easy-to-download package for e-readers. It’s designed to look best in Apple’s iBooks, on iPads and iPhones, but it’ll also work well on Kindles, Android phones, or desktop or laptop computers.

This was another good month at the Lab, with a nice mix of breaking news, analysis, and commentary, from our own staff and from outside contributors. (It’s a little bit shorter than June’s ebook — 263 iPad pages vs. 376 for June — but hey, we took a couple days off around July 4, okay? Stop pressuring us.)

As with last month, it’s available in two formats, EPUB and MOBI. EPUB is the best choice for everyone unless you want to read it on a Kindle — then you’ll need the MOBI. (Amazon’s stubbornly refused to get on the EPUB-as-standard bandwagon.)

Q: How do I install this ebook in my ereader?

A: For iBooks on your iPad or iPhone, any of these methods will work:

— Visit this webpage on your iDevice, tap the EPUB download link above, then select Open in iBooks.

— Email the EPUB to yourself and open that email attachment on your iPad or iPhone.

— Move the EPUB into your Dropbox folder and then open it from the Dropbox app on your iDevice.

For other EPUB readers (Nook, Sony Reader, etc.), follow the directions that came with it. You can probably load it via email or USB. If your device has a web browser, downloading it from this web page might work too.

For Kindle, you can load it onto a device by USB or by emailing it to yourself at your Kindle email address. All the options for iBooks will also work for the Kindle app on your iPhone or iPad.

Q: I don’t have an ereader, iPhone, or iPad. Can I read this?

A: Yes! There are a number of good EPUB readers for other devices.

Desktop/laptop computers: There’s the cross-platform Calibre, which is available for Macs, Windows, and Linux. Barnes & Noble’s Nook has apps for Mac, Windows, and Android that will read the EPUB file just fine. Adobe Digital Editions works on Windows and Mac.

For readers interested in sharing: I rather like Readmill, which bills itself as “a curious community of readers, sharing and highlighting the books they love.” It lets you read share highlights within and comments about your EPUB books with other readers. It’s built around an iPad app and stores your books in the cloud.

In browser: You can also read .epubs directly in your web browser, using EPUBReader for Firefox or MagicScroll for Chrome. I’m sure there are others.

Android: There are also a number of EPUB apps for Android. I’ve heard the best is Aldiko.

Kindle apps: The MOBI version of our ebook will open in any of the various Kindle apps, including for Mac, Windows, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 7, Android, and BlackBerry — or on the web via the Kindle Cloud Reader.

Note that ebook readers are still a growing field, and different platforms choose to display books in different ways. If you do have an Apple device, iBooks will give you the best results.

July 25 2012

17:25

Ars Technica fights through hassles to sell John Siracusa’s OS X review as an ebook

Mountain Lion review

Almost exactly a year ago, when Apple released Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion), Ars Technica put a spin on a time-honored tradition: The website published John Siracusa’s epic review of the software free of charge, as always, but also sold the tome as a $4.99 ebook. (Siracusa’s reviews are legendary among Mac nerds for their depth, precision, and length.) After 24 hours, Ars had sold 3,000 copies.

With the release of Apple’s OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion) today, Ars is trying out the hybrid free-paid model again for Siracusa’s 26,000-word review. “The ebook format proved rather popular last year, so we’ve taken extra care this year to make the ebook version every bit as good as the web version,” said Ken Fisher, Ars Technica’s founder and editor, in an email.

Fisher said Ars sold “several thousand” paid copies of the Lion review in total, but he wouldn’t provide a specific number. Siracusa did not share in those profits, because Ars had negotiated a one-time fee with Siracusa upfront; they’d never done this before, and no one was sure how well it would go. “This time we were careful to structure an agreement that would explicitly compensate John for each purchase,” Fisher said.

Unfortunately, the process of producing and selling an ebook, like the initial release of a major operating system, is still a little buggy. The utopian vision of ebook publishing — instantaneous publishing across platforms, bug-free production — is still a ways away. Siracusa’s review went live a few hours ago, but the ebook is nowhere to be found on what would seem to be the two most important ebook stores for it: Apple’s iBookstore and Amazon’s Kindle.

Amazon has a simpler and quicker process for publishing an ebook than Apple, but Ars “incorrectly predicted the publication lag time,” meaning Ars is missing out on the critical first wave of nerdy excitement. As for an iBookstore version, Ars wouldn’t have been able to even submit the book to Apple for review if it wanted to until today, because the content was protected by NDA until Mountain Lion’s public release. Apple’s review process could take two weeks. (That’s what happens when the same company controls the content and the distribution.) Siracusa says an iBookstore version probably isn’t in the cards, irony of ironies.

At the moment, only paying Ars Premier subscribers can download ebook versions, in unrestricted .epub (for iBooks, Nook, and more) and .mobi (for Kindle) versions of the book. (Premier membership is $5 per month, which just happens to be the same price as the ebook itself.)

Of course, being on the major ebook sales platforms also means giving them a piece of the pie. Ars Technica had considered selling the ebook at a lower price, but Amazon’s tiered pricing incentivizes slightly higher prices. By my math, according to this complicated pricing page, Ars will take in somewhere around $2.70 for every ebook sold in the U.S. store once it’s posted. And Siracusa takes an undisclosed percentage of that.

Unfortunately for Siracusa’s sanity, there are still severe limitations on both the creation and reading sides of ebooks. User experiences vary widely. From Siracusa’s blog today:

For the best ebook reading experience, use a device or application that supports Kindle Format 8. KF8-capable readers support amazing new technologies like text that flows around images and the ability to tie a caption to an image. Yes, that was sarcasm.

Unfortunately, many Kindle reading devices and application don’t support Kindle Format 8 — most notably, the iOS Kindle app. The Mac version does support KF8, however, as does the Kindle Fire.

The Kindle ebook is a single file that contains two versions of the content: one in Kindle Format 8 and one in the older Kindle format. Open the same ebook file in both the Mac and iOS Kindle reader applications and you’ll see two very different appearances.

You could read Siracusa’s Twitter feed on any given day in the last few weeks to see what a trial it has been.

It seems like a hell of a lot of work for a lousy ebook, but there is money in that banana stand. We’ve written before about the value in repurposing otherwise free content into paid ebooks. Consumers are willing to pay for the convenience, simplicity, and uncluttered design of a single file. (We’ve even tried it ourselves with a free ebook featuring past work; more to come there.)

The success of Siracusa’s last ebook might have inspired another well-known Mac blogger, Federico Viticci of MacStories, to release a similar ebook for Mountain Lion. Viticci is selling a PDF version of his Mountain Lion review (apparently eschewing the iBooks and Kindle stores) and bundling other feature stories from the website. That edition sells for $6.99, with 30 percent of proceeds going to the American Cancer Society.

Viticci wrote on his personal blog that a paid ebook is a way for fans to support his work, many of whom have been asking for a way to give him money. Likewise, Siracusa wrote that his paid ebook is the best way for people to say “thanks” and get something in return.

Siracusa has said before he worries his nerdy, niche audience is a shrinking piece of a growing pie, as Apple products now reach a mainstream audience. “But the web traffic and ebook sales from last year’s Lion review showed me that, at the very least, my audience is still growing in absolute numbers even as it may be shrinking as a percentage of the whole,” he wrote.

Fisher told me the web — mature, open, free — remains the primary platform for Ars Technica content, while ebooks are a new frontier.

“The overwhelming majority of readers will read the review online, and that’s our primary way to share the review with the world,” he said. “Those who want to buy the ebook can, and we love it when they do, but the web is still our home and its the force that is driving readers to the review, in whatever format they consume it in.”

January 23 2012

23:14

January 20 2012

19:00

Matthew Battles: It doesn’t take Cupertino to make textbooks interactive

Absent the glamour of the black mock turtleneck, Apple’s Thursday event, held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, still came bearing flowers of rhetoric, lovingly transplanted from their native soil in Cupertino’s sunny clime. One such rhetorical staple, the feature checklist, made its appearance about nine minutes in. Usually, the checklist is used to contrast Apple’s latest magical object with the feature set of lesser smartphones or other misbegotten tech tchotchkes; it was more than a little eye-popping to see the same rhetoric of invidious comparison used against the book in full — that gadget which, as senior VP Phil Schiller reminded us, was invented (in its print incarnation) back at the end of the Hundred Years’ War.

As Schiller ticked down the list, for feature after feature — portability, durability, interactivity, searchability, and currency — the book earned a big red X. Curiously, Schiller didn’t let his earlier observation of the antiquity of books undermine his critique on the grounds of their durability; not only the technology of the book, but many actual tomes survive from Gutenberg’s era; and when older formats are taken into account, far older books are still with us. It is comparatively difficult to imagine an iPad of today, much less an app designed to run on one, still in use two hundred, five hundred, a thousand years hence.

In a more focused sense, Apple’s critique of the textbook is valid. But the problem with textbooks isn’t that they’re books per se; it’s that they’re overdetermined, baroque in their complexity and ornamentation.

Modern textbooks are monsters — heavy, unwieldy, battened on siloed content. They’re like ’90s-era computers, loaded with bloatware that blunts their processor speed and complicates their interfaces. Already, today’s textbooks rarely come as paper-only devices, but include (for significant extra licensing fees) websites, online editions, networked assessments, and interactive assignments. For the wired child, these electronic ancillaries solve the portability problem; for the less prosperous or fortunate pupil, the backpack is still very heavy.

The major education publishers have become massively efficient inhalers of content, capturing licenses for images and objects held in museums around the globe, hiring phalanxes of MAs and ABDs to craft mazes of matrices, rubrics, and quizzes, and deploying batteries of sales reps to market-test every page, every image, every checklist. It’s a prosperous model — and as Tim Carmody evocatively documented at Wired yesterday, this prosperity has enabled education publishers to leverage their way into trade publishing and other media. It’s no wonder Apple is taking aim at them.

The iPad is an extraordinary device, but it’s hardly the first avenue multimedia has taken to the classroom. The filmstrips and 16mm movies of my childhood could be engaging experiences too — and they could be time-fillers for addled, overstretched teachers as well. Schiller made a sentimental play to this constituency, opening his presentation with a series of excerpted interviews in which teachers sang the sad litany of challenges they face: cratering budgets, overcrowded classrooms, unprepared, disengaged students. The argument that Apple — founded by dropouts and autodidacts — is fundamentally motivated to change this set of conditions is as ludicrous as the notion that the company could ever hope actually to do any such thing.

The textbooks demonstrated in yesterday’s event were lovely and compelling — and they looked strikingly like current textbooks. Roger Rosner, who heads productivity software for Apple, gave a tour of Life on Earth, a title created in conjunction with E. O. Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life project; after playing the book’s cinematic introductory sequence, he swiped through pages featuring familiar modalities of intertextual braiding and layering: things like tables, block capitals, and callout boxes, which derive from mid-20th-century rotogravure magazine production — only sprinkled with videos, animations, and interactive images, in Apple-controlled formats, subject to development cycles originating in Cupertino (and routed through Shenzhen). At one point, he dove into a microphotograph of a cell to pop out a rendering of a strand of DNA. The helix shimmered invitingly, but disclosed none of its secrets.

Here’s the thing: Interactivity doesn’t exist. More properly, everything is interactive. We use the catch-all term “interactivity” to brand as novel the qualities exhibited by digital objects striving to be like real-world objects. But chairs, raindrops, sandwiches, and envelopes are also interactive — in their own evolved ways. Books in fact exhibit rich interactive habits, evolved to engage us in peculiar ways (and increasingly, these very features are counted as bugs).

Digital objects, too, evolve their own ways of reaching out to meet us halfway. The spell of the real makes us strive for a specious virtuality, to try fashioning uncanny appendages for objects that live in databases and go to work in networks. Tellingly, it’s at those uncanny intersections where digital objects most strenuously try to emulate objects in the real world — books, shelves, desk blotters, gaming tables — that Apple’s legitimately vaunted design sensibility breaks down. For its part, a pop-up animation of a lipid molecule might be enlightening — or it might merely be twisty and pretty. That’s why I almost want to say that, those heartfelt teacher testimonials at the start of yesterday’s show notwithstanding, it’s not the book Apple is trying to replace — it’s teaching.

Tools exist — they’re getting more powerful everyday — that allow us to treat digital objects as digital objects: to collect and organize them, to fashion stories from them, to turn them into bespoke devices uniquely tuned to unlocking the world’s mysteries. Apple wants to offer us those tools as well. Yesterday’s event also introduced iBooks Author, a free app for building iPad-native textbooks like Life on Earth. But increasingly, such vital aggregates can be engineered in classrooms, hacked together on the fly by teachers and students learning and teaching collaboratively. I’m thinking in particular of Zeega, an open-source toolkit for collecting media and telling stories, which is in the midst of development in association with metaLAB, the research/design group I work with at Harvard — but a host of other such tools exist or are on the way.

We can never count Apple out — the company’s visions have an implacable way of turning into givens — but the future is undoubtedly more complex. There will still be overcrowded classrooms, overworked teachers, and shrinking budgets in an education world animated by Apple. But I prefer to think of teachers and students finding ways to hack knowledge and make their own beautiful stories to envisioning ranks of students spellbound by magical tablets.

Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History and cofounder of HiLobrow. He is a program fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where he works for metaLAB, a research and design group investigating the arts and humanities in a time of networks.

16:00

This Week in Review: The SOPA standoff, and Apple takes on textbooks with ebooks

The web flexes its political muscle: After a couple of months of growing concern, the online backlash against the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA reached a rather impressive peak this week. There’s a lot of moving parts to this, so I’ll break it down into three parts: the arguments for and against the bill, the status of the bill, and this week’s protests.

The bills’ opponents have covered a wide variety of arguments over the past few months, but there were still a few more new angles this week in the arguments against SOPA. NYU prof Clay Shirky put the bill in historical context in a 14-minute TED talk, and social-media researcher danah boyd parsed out both the competitive and cultural facets of piracy. At the Harvard Business Review, James Allworth and Maxwell Wessel framed the issue as a struggle between big content companies and smaller innovators. The New York Times asked six contributors for their ideas about viable SOPA alternatives in fighting piracy, and at Slate, Matthew Yglesias argued that piracy actually has some real benefits for society and the entertainment industry.

The most prominent SOPA supporter on the web this week was News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, who went on a Twitter rant against SOPA opponents and Google in particular, reportedly after seeing a Google TV presentation in which the company said it wouldn’t remove links in search to illegal movie streams. Both j-prof Jeff Jarvis and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram responded that Murdoch doesn’t understand how the Internet works, with Jarvis arguing that Murdoch isn’t opposed so much to piracy as the entire architecture of the web. At the Guardian, however, Dan Gillmor disagreed with the idea that Murdoch doesn’t get the web, saying that he and other big-media execs know exactly the threat it represents to their longstanding control of media content.

Now for the status of the bill itself: Late last week, SOPA was temporarily weakened and delayed, as its sponsor, Lamar Smith, said he would remove domain-name blocking until the issue has been “studied,” and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he won’t bring the bill to the House floor until some real consensus about the bill can be found.

That consensus became a bit less likely this week, after the White House came out forcefully against SOPA and PIPA, calling for, as Techdirt described it, a “hard reset” on the bills. The real blow to the bills came after Wednesday’s protests, when dozens of members of Congress announced their opposition. The fight is far from over, though — as Mathew Ingram noted, PIPA still has plenty of steam, and the House Judiciary Committee will resume its work on SOPA next month.

But easily the biggest news surrounding SOPA and PIPA this week was the massive protests of it around the web. Hundreds of sites, including such heavyweights as Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, BoingBoing, and WordPress, blacked out on Wednesday, and other sites such as Google and Wired joined with “censored” versions of their home pages. As I noted above, the protest was extremely successful politically, as some key members of Congress backed off their support of the bill, leading The New York Times to call it a “political coming of age” for the tech industry.

The most prominent of those protesting sites was Wikipedia, which redirected site users to an anti-SOPA action page on Wednesday. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ announcement of the protest was met with derision in some corners, with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and PandoDaily’s Paul Carr chastising the global site for doing something so drastic in response to a single national issue. Wales defended the decision by saying that the law will affect web users around the world, and he also got support from writers like Mathew Ingram and the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who argued that Wikipedia and Google’s protests could help take the issue out of the tech community and into the mainstream.

The New York Times’ David Pogue was put off by some aspects of the SOPA outrage and argued that some of the bill’s opposition grew out of a philosophy that was little more than, “Don’t take my free stuff!” And ReadWriteWeb’s Joe Brockmeier was concerned about what happens after the protest is over, when Congress goes back to business as usual and the public remains largely in the dark about what they’re doing. “Even if SOPA goes down in flames, it’s not over. It’s never over,” he wrote.

Apple’s bid to reinvent the textbook: Apple announced yesterday its plans to add educational publishing to the many industries it’s radically disrupted, through its new iBooks and iBooks Author systems. Wired’s Tim Carmody, who’s been consistently producing the sharpest stuff on this subject, has the best summary of what Apple’s rolling out: A better iBooks platform, a program (iBooks Author) allowing authors to design their own iBooks, textbooks in the iBookstore, and a classroom management app called iTunes U.

After news of the announcement was broken earlier this week by Ars Technica, the Lab’s Joshua Benton explained some of the reasons the textbook industry is ripe for disruption and wondered about the new tool’s usability. (Afterward, he listed some of the change’s implications, including for the news industry.) Tim Carmody, meanwhile, gave some historical perspective on Steve Jobs’ approach to education reform.

As Carmody detailed after the announcement, education publishing is a big business for Apple to come crashing into. But The Atlantic’s Megan Garber explained that that isn’t exactly what Apple’s doing here; instead, it’s simply “identifying transformative currents and building the right tools to navigate them.” Still, Reuters’ Jack Shafer asserted that what’s bad for these companies is good for readers like him.

But while Apple talked about reinventing the textbook, several observers didn’t see revolutionary changes around the corner. ReadWriteWeb’s John Paul Titlow noted that Apple is teaming up with big publishers, not killing them, and Paul Carr of PandoDaily argued that iBook Author’s self-made ebooks won’t challenge the professionally produced and marketed ones. All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka did the math to show the publishers should still get plenty of the new revenue streams.

The news still brought plenty of concerns: At CNET, Lindsey Turrentine wondered how many schools will have the funds to afford the hardware for iBooks, and David Carnoy and Scott Stein questioned how open Apple’s new platforms would be. That theme was echoed elsewhere, especially by developer Dan Wineman, who found that through its user agreement, Apple will essentially assert rights to anything produced with its iBooks file format. That level of control gave some, like GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, pause, but Paul Carr said we shouldn’t be surprised: This is what Apple does, he said, and we all buy its products anyway.

Making ‘truth vigilantes’ mainstream: The outrage late last week over New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s column asking whether the paper’s reporters should challenge misleading claims by officials continued to yield thoughtful responses this week. After his column last week voicing his support for journalism’s “truth vigilantes,” j-prof Robert Niles created a site to honor them, pointing out instances in which reporters call out their sources for lying. Salon’s Gene Lyons, meanwhile, said that attitudes like Brisbane’s are a big part of what’s led to the erosion of trust in the Times and the mainstream press.

The two sharpest takes on the issue this week came from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and from Columbia Ph.D. student Lucas Graves here at the Lab. Friedersdorf took on journalists’ argument that people should read the news section for unvarnished facts and the opinion section for analysis: That argument doesn’t work, he said, because readers don’t consume a publication as a bundle anymore.

Graves analyzed the issue in light of both the audience’s expectations for news and the growth of the fact-checking movement. He argued for fact-checking to be incorporated into journalists’ everyday work, rather than remaining a specialized form of journalism. Reuters’ Felix Salmon agreed, asserting that “the greatest triumph of the fact-checking movement will come when it puts itself out of work, because journalists are doing its job for it as a matter of course.” At the Lab, Craig Newmark of Craigslist also chimed in, prescribing more rigorous fact-checking efforts as a way for journalists to regain the public’s trust.

Reading roundup: Not a ton of other news developments per se this week, but plenty of good reads nonetheless. Here’s a sample:

— There was one major development on the ongoing News Corp. phone hacking case: The company settled 36 lawsuits by victims, admitting a cover-up of the hacking. Here’s the basic story from Reuters and more in-depth live coverage from the Guardian.

— Rolling Stone published a long, wide-ranging interview with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange as he awaits his final extradition hearing. Reuters’ Jack Shafer also wrote a thoughtful piece on the long-term journalistic implications of WikiLeaks, focusing particularly on the continued importance of institutions.

— Two interesting pieces of journalism-related research: Slate’s Farhad Manjoo described a Facebook-based study that throws some cold water on the idea of the web as a haven for like-minded echo chambers, and the Lab’s Andrew Phelps wrote about a study that describes and categorizes the significant group people who stumble across news online.

— In a thorough feature, Nick Summers of Newsweek/The Daily Beast laid out the concerns over how big ESPN is getting, and whether that’s good for ESPN itself and sports media in general.

— Finally, for those thinking about how to develop the programmer-journalists of the future, j-prof Matt Waite has a set of thoughts on the topic that functions as a great jumping-off point for more ideas and discussion.

January 19 2012

16:30

The day the bookshelf shook: Four lessons for news orgs from today’s Apple iBooks announcements

Apple’s New York education event — smack in the middle of the book publishing world — has concluded. You can see coverage from The Verge here, but the main takeaways are a new version of iBooks that enables great-looking interactive textbooks; a new Mac app called iBooks Author that promises to make it much easier to assemble and publish ebooks; and a new iTunes U app that makes it easier for universities and schools to create and distribute an entire course’s worth of material, from lecture videos to readings to assignments.

The focus was on education, and Apple faces some significant hurdles in getting their products into actual schools (where textbook and technology purchasing are constricted by forces bureaucratic, fiscal, and otherwise). But in truth much of what Apple announced was squarely aimed at further disruption of the publishing industry — in this case, the book publishing industry, already facing disruption from Amazon and ebooks more broadly.

So what should someone in the news business take away from today’s announcements? Here are four ideas I think are worth keeping in mind.

News organizations: Now’s the time to figure out how to jump on the ebook bandwagon.

As I wrote the other day, ebooks as a platform have been limited by the relatively clunky process for converting a stack of text into an attractive digital product. It’s not impossible, of course — it’s just a pain.

Today’s announcement of iBooks Author promises to make that process a lot easier. (Although just for iBooks, of course — in most cases, of course, you’ll also want to publish to the Kindle.) Particularly for news organizations — which typically have lots of good art to go along with their longer-form content — pulling together an attractive package could now be a matter of minutes instead of hours. (Or, to put it another way, something done routinely in-house instead of farmed out to a contractor.)

How will news organizations react to that newfound ease of publishing? What are the ebooks already lurking inside the heart of the newsroom, just waiting to be unlocked? Is it a compilation of all a newspaper’s restaurant reviews? A popular columnist’s collected works? A compendium of all the paper’s stories about the local high school football team, player profiles and game stories, full of big art? Several years’ worth of gardening columns, filtered to focus on what grows well in the local soil? A local band book/database that includes MP3 samples from each? An expanded version of the 100 Biggest Local Businesses section the biz desk puts out once a year? A detailed guide to the local public schools, aimed at people new to area?

In the print book era, deciding to try one of these ideas would involve estimating the potential audience, deciding whether it’s worth investing the time to design it, guessing at a print run, figuring out how to get it in the hands of local retailers, and a host of other complications. But with ebooks — if publishing those ebooks is uncomplicated, just a few more steps than hitting File -> Save As…, built around common templates — what kinds of value could be unlocked?

“Book” content can be episodic too.

One of the standout new textbooks announced today was E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, the Harvard professor’s attempt to rethink the biology textbook. Aside from what wisdom it will bring about the Mesozoic Era, perhaps its most interesting element is that it is being released chapter by chapter. The first two chapters are available for download now; the remaining ones will be available later at an “aggressive” price.

Think of Charles Dickens, whose books were famously serialized and left crowds hanging out at the New York docks for a new chapter to roll in to find out what happened to little Nell.

News organizations have traditionally thought of books — when they’ve thought of them at all — as something to be assembled after the fact. Maybe it’s a 10-part series that gets massaged into paperback form after the newsprint run is over. Or it’s a recap of the local football team’s championship season.

But news orgs are really good at producing episodic information. And if books like Wilson’s begin to train readers that books can start incomplete and fill in over time, the technology’s already there — in iBooks and on the Kindle. (The tech book world is already ahead of the game here; books about programming languages now regularly appear first in “beta,” for instance, and O’Reilly’s Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto is adding chapter over time — in part in response to reader feedback.

Once books stop being only finished, whole things — when they can also be works in progress, works in development — the possibilities for journalists open up. Imagine a book on the health-care reform debate that could be updated with each twist and turn, adding profiles of the players, daily news updates, legislative summaries, and more as the story developed. Imagine if buying a book was less a purchase of a contained story and more a statement of desire — “I’m interested in this subject and I want to have all the important news and analysis about it delivered to me, in the place I’m used to reading.”

“Publishing” is becoming a convergence of technologies and workflows.

As Apple showed off the process of making ebooks with iBooks Author, what stood out for me is how much it draws on all the disparate workflows that you could lump under “publishing.” There was a bit drawn from word processing, a little from layout design, some from presentation-building, a touch of web-page building, and even a little drawn from app development. (The preview-on-an-attached-iPad comes straight from Xcode, the app you use to build iPhone, iPad, and Mac native apps.) And of course, I haven’t even mentioned all the (important, duh) work that happens before iBooks Author gets launched — namely writing and editing.

It’s a mish-mash of styles. It looks, at very first glance, that iBooks Author does a good job of making it all user friendly, but it’s a reminder that “publishing,” as an act and as a field, pulls together a full liberal-arts curriculum’s worth of skills. Those whose abilities cover a wider range of those skills will do well; those who stick to one part of the process had better be really good at it.

Desktops and laptops are out of style.

There’s no reason, technically, why there couldn’t be a version of iBooks for the Mac. (Or the PC, for that matter.) But Apple has stuck to its guns: Reading iBooks is something you do on your iPhone or your iPad, not a desktop or laptop computer. (And today’s presentation went even narrower, focusing squarely on the iPad. For people who think a tablet would duplicate the kind of work they can already do their MacBook, today should help nail home the differentiation.)

I can’t imagine news organizations need any further evidence that reading is going to keep moving from big screens to smaller ones, from stationary to mobile. But judging by a lot of news sites’ abysmal mobile experiences, maybe they do. So here’s one more data point: Apple’s investing big in a creating a new kind of reading experience for a new kind of content, and they’re completely ignoring every desktop and laptop computer in the universe.

January 17 2012

13:30

A GarageBand for ebooks: Simplifying publishing could mean a flood of new content

It’s not just the platform — it’s the tools.

That’s the line that kept coming to mind this morning as I read this Ars Technica scoop on what Apple has in store for its press event in New York Thursday. Here’s Ars reporter Chris Foresman:

While speculation has so far centered on digital textbooks, sources close to the matter have confirmed to Ars that Apple will announce tools to help create interactive e-books — the “GarageBand for e-books,” so to speak — and expand its current platform to distribute them to iPhone and iPad users.

…[A]uthoring standards-compliant e-books (despite some promises to the contrary) is not as simple as running a Word document of a manuscript through a filter. The current state of software tools continues to frustrate authors and publishers alike, with several authors telling Ars that they wish Apple or some other vendor would make a simple app that makes the process as easy as creating a song in GarageBand.

We’ll see on Thursday, of course — but making ebook publishing easier has the potential to have a significant disruptive impact on information industries.

The first disruption of the web, after all, was making it possible for people to publish online without caring about money. Ebooks have already allowed a new generation of small-scale (and large-scale) publishers to reach an audience — sometimes for money, sometimes just for passion. But the process of ebook publishing today reminds me a bit of the early days of blogging, when publishing online was possible but still a pain.

The web as a platform dates back to 1991, and nerds like me were publishing personal webpages not long after. But it took the development of tools like Blogger, Greymatter, and Movable Type — nearly a decade after the web launched — for the power of personal publishing to start to be fulfilled.

Doing it by hand meant learning HTML, then manually FTPing an updated .html file to a remote server. It wasn’t outrageously complicated, to be honest — but it was enough of an obstacle to keep most folks from writing online. When tools reduced personal publishing to typing words in a box and clicking “Post,” a whole new universe of potential contributors was suddenly ready to pitch in, and you saw the blogging explosion of the early 2000s.

And further improvements in tools — think Tumblr and Twitter — have brought even more people to publishing. For a host of creative endeavors — think desktop publishing, motion graphics, video editing, data visualization, coding — it’s the arrival of tools or frameworks that abstract away complexity that marks when they move from niche to mainstream (or at least slightly more mainstream).

While there are many hundreds of thousands of them published every year, books have historically been the most constrained form of publishing. Getting a book into print usually convincing an agent, then an editor, then a publishing house that your work was worthy — and that’s before trying to convince the Barnes & Nobles of the world it should have a place on their shelves.

Ebooks have blown open that world of exclusivity — but the ease of use still isn’t there.

There’s a long list of tools that try to make ebook creation easier, from big names (Apple’s Pages, Adobe’s InDesign) to smaller ones (Scrivener) to open source alternatives like calibre. But it’s still a complicated enough business that there’s a healthy ecosystem of companies offering ebook conversion services.

That task is made more complicated by the format divide between Amazon, which uses a proprietary .mobi-based format called AZW, and most other ebook platforms, which tend to stick to a flavor of .epub. My girlfriend is a book editor (buy her books!), and that’s given me a front-row seat to the still-frustrating world of ebook conversion and formatting. The world of iBooks is particularly frustrating because its greater multimedia and formatting capabilities. (The Kindle keeps display options significantly simpler. Although that too is changing with Format 8, the engine that runs underneath the Kindle Fire and, presumably, future tablet Kindles.)

Here are a few questions to ponder as we wait to hear the details from Apple on Thursday:

Will ease of ebook authoring come with greater ease of ebook publishing? Once you have a properly formatted file, getting your ebook in the Kindle Store is a breeze. That’s not true of the iBookstore, where — perhaps inspired by Apple’s app-approval process — it can take weeks from submission to first sale. That’s kept some publishers from jumping on Apple’s bandwagon, particularly in the journalism world where a couple weeks’ wait can have a significant impact on a work’s timeliness. If Apple wants to make the production process easier, will it also make its go-to-market process easier?

Will there be an iBooks for Android? The Kindle and Nook platforms have the advantage of living on multiple types of devices: both on their own e-ink and tablet devices and on iOS and Android smartphones and tablets. Apple’s iBooks thus far lives only on iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads. If they’re aiming at widespread adoption in schools, sticking to Apple-only devices could be a hindrance. Apple’s bitten this bullet before, putting out a version of iTunes for Windows when it became clear keeping music purchasing Mac-only was a recipe for irrelevance. An iBooks for Mac seems like an obvious next move, but are sales of non-iOS smartphones and tablets sufficient to also spread the platform in new directions?

Will this new tool publish in multiple formats or simply create iBooks? Apple’s platform is in either second or third place in the ebook race, well behind Amazon and possibly behind the Nook. Will Apple see a new easy-to-use tool as a way to support its ebook platform — by pushing more content into it — or as a way to gain widespread usage by also supporting the bigger Kindle market? The former would support iBooks; the latter would support Apple’s Mac business, since presumably the software would only run on Macs.

Apple’s gone both ways on this before. GarageBand creates MP3s that will play anywhere; iWeb creates webpages that can be uploaded to any server and viewed in any browser; iWork apps will export into the more popular Office formats like Word’s .doc and Excel’s .xls. In each of those cases, Apple supported market-standard technology because the market had the power. But for years, music purchased through its iTunes Store famously included DRM that only let it work on its industry-leading iPods.

If ebook publishing really does become super easy, how should news publishers fit it into their workflows? Imagine it really did take just a few clicks to get a work onto an ebook platform. What would it make sense to publish there? Should every three-part newspaper series be turned into an ebook? Should every sports season produce a newspaper-generated ebook made up of the year’s game stories, player profiles, and so on? Should a compilation of a newspaper’s restaurant reviews be pushed out as a $2.99 ebook each year?

To the extent that news publishers have dipped their toes into ebooks, it’s been for only the most special projects. But if publishing is dirt simple, what other kinds of content should find its way into the paid-content marketplace? And, on the flip side, how would publishers (book, news, and otherwise) respond to an even greater flood of competing content than the ebook world has already produced?

August 12 2010

17:42

A Self-Publisher's Primer to Enhanced E-Books and Book Apps

In a previous article I described how self-publishers can easily create, market and sell e-books. In this article we'll discuss the differences and steps required to create more complex enhanced e-books and apps based on books.

In a nutshell, an e-book is a digital snapshot of a book, an enhanced e-book adds multimedia and interactive features as interruptions to the linear story, and a book app is based on a book but acts more like a game with multiple pathways that require the user to interact instead of simply scrolling and clicking.


Enhanced e-books are also referred to as rich media books, book mashups, enriched, hybrid and amplified books. The media and interactivity is provided by you, the self-publisher, who collects and integrates music, audio, video and color photo slideshows, news feeds, illustrations and background materials. You may also provide searchable text, tilt scrolling, internal and external links and Flash animations into the linear story. (Here are some video demos of these features.) To create an enhanced e-book requires the skills of a web developer.



A book app can do everything an enhanced e-book does, but crosses the line from linear storytelling to non-linear storytelling, allowing the user to choose from multiple pathways and select from a potentially huge number of photos, videos, audio files, illustrations, hyperlinks, and interactivity. Apps are third-party software programs requiring a programmer with C++ or Apple's Objective C programming skills.

Much confusion arises from the fact that so many books are simply bundled as apps so they can be sold in an app store. In April 2010 there were twice as many e-books as games in the iPhone App Store, and it's been posited by one pundit that Apple may purge such e-books as they have purged other overly simple apps. There seems to be little point to e-book app-wrapping when compared with more elegant, library-based e-book stores and their e-reader apps (the iBookstore download to the iBook e-reader app, for example), which gives customers a more consistent user experience and keeps the device desktop uncluttered.

What makes a good enhanced e-book?

wwwirelandmag.jpg

A few years ago I produced a multimedia e-zine, Ireland: The Sacred and the Profane. It was offered for download directly from the Wild Writing Women website until I recently found it easier to offer it via Scribd. Though most links, audio and video don't work inside their browser-based reader (they tell me they're working on that), they perform nicely when you download the PDF. The magazine was very time-consuming to produce, but incredibly rewarding and the enhancements offered readers extra value.


What's a good enhancement?

"If it's a book about music history, having music people can play at certain points in the book can be useful," says Amazon's Jeff Bezos, in an interview with USA Today. "You're not going to make Hemingway better by adding animations."


"Enhancements should only be in support of the central proposition of the writing rather than a 'I can do it therefore I will do it' approach," says Peter Collingridge of UK-based Enhanced Editions. New Media storyteller J.C. Hutchins also has some good advice, such as avoiding "self-congratulatory 'behind the scenes' content such as author bios, old drafts of your manuscripts."

jobsipad.jpg

The iPad's capabilities quickly made it the enhanced e-book platform of choice. Designers can create endlessly entertaining distractions within a linear story. The "amplified edition" of Ken Follette's Pillars of the Earth promises a huge cache of multimedia, an interactive character tree, video and still images from the Starz television series, the author's multimedia diary with his impressions of bringing the book to the screen, interviews with the actors, director and producers, and music from the series.

How much does this cost in terms of time and money? It took me months to create the Ireland magazine working in InDesign and with my group who painstakingly reviewed and edited every iteration. It would have been a huge project even without the learning curve, so when Collingridge quoted $8,000 to $15,000 for enhanced e-book production, that sounded about right.

Enhanced e-books are not device-specific but it's impossible to optimize for all of them. For example, audio, video and color simply do not work on the Nook or Kindle, and Flash does not run on the Apple iPad. You'll want to format your book for the platforms you think the majority of your audience is using. Popular format choices are:

  • Portable Document Format (PDF) is for very highly-formatted publications and can be read on many devices. Readers are forced to view the book exactly as it was designed, which, while it offers design stability, means users cannot reflow the text or change font sizes or colors.
  • International Digital Publishing Forum's Open eBook standard (EPUB) is a versatile winner. It's the format used by Apple iPad, Sony's reader, the Nook, and many other vendors. An export feature in the InDesign page layout program (on which your original print book was likely designed) lets you output an EPUB file. The results are not perfect, but they're getting there.
  • Microsoft's XPS platform is used by the new Barnes & Noble Blio software platform. They hype their enhanced e-book features and seamless integration with Quark a la the InDesign-to-EPUB export.
  • Amazon's Kindle/Mobipocket (mobi/azw) format is great for e-books but not a good choice for enhanced e-books because it does not display color or video. ebookformats.jpg

Yes, the relationship between hardware devices, software platforms and formats is complicated, especially with Google Editions and Copia entering the game this year along with the Blio, and there are rumors that RIM is planning an iPad competitor.

When enhanced is not enough: The book-based app

When you've got so much material that linear is no longer practical, then it might be time to consider an app as an add-on product to your book. (The fuzzy boundary between enhanced e-books and apps are discussed in the Digital Book World webcast eBooks vs Apps: The Pros, Cons and Possibilities).

To start the process, you'll first need to have a deep discussion about multimedia, formats, platforms and devices with the team you hire to do the work. "Book-based apps are more likely to be ancillary products with complex graphics and page layouts that can't be handled in something that auto-flows," says Michel Kripalani, founder of Oceanhouse Media (OM). "That's where you cross the line into the need for custom code." Kripalani assembled a team of former interactive CD-ROM and game developers to start his business, and has built over 100 since the company was founded in January 2009.

omapps.jpg"Children's books are especially ripe for apps, and compliment the e-book edition," noted Kripalani in an interview with Book Business Magazine. OM has also created a variety of card decks, calendars, and spoken word apps inspired by books from Hay House and Chronicle Books.


The price tag for a complex, quality book-based app? "In the five-figures," says Kripalini, "and requires a team that "includes C++/Objective C programmers, graphic designers, professional actors and custom narration, music soundtrack and sound effects, interactivity, editors and page layout designers for the different devices."



For the budget-impaired, DIY app builders are emerging. Travel guidebook publishers already know their audience is looking online and to apps instead of to the paper book. For them, Sutro Media has created a browser-based tool to let publishers upload material to a content management system, which then gets ported into Objective C on the back end. Co-founder Kevin Collins says, "these apps do things that books can't possibly do. sutromedia.jpgFor example, you can use all the photos you had to leave out in their book versions, and include live maps and hyperlinks, too."



Sutro does not require the author pay any up-front costs, but they carefully evaluate proposed projects. Their payment model is a revenue-sharing agreement with a royalty split of 30% each going to Sutro, Apple, and the author, with the remaining 10% going to their in-house editor.



If you're a technically inclined DIY self-published author, there is a growing list of inexpensive app development options, here are some for the iPhone. And remember, you'll need to decide which devices you want to reach. You can develop for more than one, but that will add to the time and price tag. Today's popular choices are:



* Apple's iBook app for the iPhone and iPad

* The Kindle or Stanza app (both owned by Amazon)

* The B&N eReader, or Kobo (a Borders partner)

* Google's free ebook reader for the iPhone and Android

* The Kobo app for Android

Selling it: The biggest challenge

corydoctorow.jpg

Once you've created your enhanced e-book or app, how do you get it distributed to e-tailers and to readers? Author Cory Doctorow has long and publicly wrestled with these issues, and has had only spotty success with distribution and sales via the major channels. Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been particularly problematic, as some e-tailers require it.

The enhanced e-book and app space is still all very experimental, but expect industry standards to emerge and the market to adjust to the technical possibilities. Apple is letting self-publishers upload directly to the iPad, as long as they adhere to very strict formatting rules.

Personally, I'm offering enhanced e-books on my own websites and on Scribd, amassing digital assets, paying for InDesign upgrades, studying EPUB, renewing my SPAN membership, and keeping an eye on Mark Coker and Smashwords for an easier enhanced e-book aggregation solution for self-publishers.

Carla King is an author, a publishing and social media strategist, and co-founder of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp program providing books, lectures and workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994 and has worked in multimedia since 1996. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and as diaries on her website.

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June 07 2010

19:26

Apple’s impact: What Steve Jobs’ WWDC announcements mean for the news industry’s mobile strategy

Apple CEO Steve Jobs just stepped off the stage in San Francisco at this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference. His announcements focused squarely on the new iPhone 4, about which you’ll find no shortage of information at Apple’s site and elsewhere online.

But what do Apple’s announcements mean for the news industry, which increasingly looks to mobile product — Apple’s in particular — as a new delivery mechanism and (fingers crossed) a revenue driver? Here are five takeaways from Jobs’ keynote that will have an impact on news organizations.

Apple’s spate of satire- and morals-related rejections of apps rejected from the App Store appear to be a pretty low priority for the company.

Apple’s come under a lot of criticism from developers for how it manages its App Store, the major platform for reaching iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad owners. An Apple rejection can mean the investment of building an app is rendered worthless, and it’s not always clear why, precisely, an app is being rejected.

Here’s what Jobs had to say about the App Store approval process, paraphrasing from gdgt’s liveblog of the event:

We get about 15k apps submitted every week. They come in up to 30 different languages. Guess what: 95% of the apps submitted are approved within 7 days. What about the 5% that aren’t? Why don’t we approve them? Let me give you the three top reasons.

The number one reason: it doesn’t function as advertised. It doesn’t do what the developer says it does, so we tell the developer to change the app or the description.

The second reason: the developer uses private APIs. … If we upgrade the OS and the app breaks, we won’t have a happy customer.

And the third most frequent reason: they crash. If you were in our shoes, you’d be rejecting apps for the exact same reasons.

I just wanted to give you the facts — sometimes when you read some of these articles, you may think other stuff is going on.

Maybe number four was “violates Apple’s sense of morality,” and number five was “makes fun of powerful people.” But we don’t know that, because Jobs didn’t mention either. News orgs are fine with the technical guidelines he outlined, but App Store rejections based on rude editorial cartoons or an artfully bare nipple are harder for them to take.

Apple still has not done the obvious: state clearly what is allowed and what is not in terms of morals and satire. Not doing so, of course, maximizes Apple’s power because it can decide on a case-by-case basis. But it also means that content producers can’t have any confidence in the system, and open platforms like Android will have increasing appeal.

Apple’s become a big player in the ebook space very quickly — and that’s a space news orgs want to be in.

In the two months since the iPad launched — and with it Apple’s new ebook platform, iBooks — Apple has taken over a remarkable 22 percent of the ebook market. (That’s based on data from five of the six major publishing companies; the sixth, Random House, isn’t on the iPad.)

In one sentence, Jobs revealed more hard data about ebook sales than Amazon has in 2.5 years of the Kindle. (I exaggerate, but only slightly. Amazon still hasn’t unveiled any hard numbers on Kindle device or ebook sales. Maybe this will prompt them.)

Those Apple ebook sales are based on the 2 million iPads sold, which are the only Apple devices that have iBooks. But iBooks is coming to the iPhone and iPod touch later this month — around the same time Jobs said the 100 millionth iPhone OS device will be sold. In other words, iBooks’ momentum is about to get punched up.

I continue to maintain that ebooks are a huge potential opportunity for news organizations. Ebooks favor timeliness and quick turnarounds in a way that traditional print books can’t, and the digital format means that expectations for length are tossed aside. There’s not much of a print business model for a 50-page printed prose book — but there absolutely can be one for a 50-page ebook. And people feel comfortable paying for ebooks, much more so than for anything labeled “news.” A growing ebooks market with dueling distribution systems (Amazon and Apple) fighting over content is a good thing for news organizations.

Better mobile screen quality could be a push away from print.

The new iPhone 4 features four times the pixels of its predecessor in the same space, which Jobs promises creates images and text far crisper than ever before. The images on display at the demo looked really impressive. And while the iPhone appears to be in the lead now, undoubtedly its competition will catch up soon enough.

Pro: A better screen means more people will find using mobile devices more pleasant. That could lead to more use of news orgs’ apps and websites on them.

Con: A better screen limits the salience of one of print’s best selling points: higher visual quality. Jobs said 300 dpi is the limit for what the human eye can typically detect. Past iPhones have been at 162 dpi. The new iPhone 4 is 326 dpi — a level Jobs says is indistinguishable from print. (“Text looks like you’ve seen it in a fine printed book, unlike you’ve ever seen in an electronic display,” Jobs said, paraphrasing.) We’ll see about that, but newspapers and magazines are still a lot more effective monetizing print publications than digital ones, so devaluing one of print’s best qualities probably won’t help.

The “mobile” part of mobile video will increasingly mean editing, not just shooting.

Jobs unveiled a version of iMovie for the iPhone; a version for the iPad can’t be too far off, even though the iPad (currently) lacks a camera. There have been editing apps for video on the iPhone and other platforms before, but iMovie looked both powerful and relatively simply. Reporters in the field getting iPhone video will find it easier than ever to do their own edit before shipping it back to headquarters. I wouldn’t want to be Flip right now; the reasons to have a Flip in addition to a smartphone seem fewer now.

Even before launching, iAd is proving to be a big gorilla in the mobile display advertising space.

I’ve written about iAd before. It’s Apple’s new immersive, interactive advertising platform being offered up to iPhone developers to put into their apps. Today Jobs showed off a sample iAd, and the crowd seemed to like it.

But the most stunning datapoint was Jobs’ claim that iAd would take in 48 percent of the U.S. mobile display advertising business in the second half of 2010. Remarkable if true, although it’s derived from some questionable math (dividing Apple’s hard-dollar sales numbers into a JP Morgan estimate from the start of the year — see page 46 of that document for the origin). And mobile display advertising is only a small slice of overall mobile advertising — in the same report, SMS advertising is a $3.2 billion business and mobile search advertising is another $321 million.

But in any event, it’s a sign that Apple is here as a big player in yet another market. For large news organizations that could afford to do their own mobile ad sales, Apple’s probably a competitor. For smaller ones that would have a tough time breaking into the mobile ad game, getting 60 percent of iAd revenues — the share Apple is promising — might not be such a bad deal.

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