Interesting thoughts from Dominique Raccah, at Sourcebooks publishing, on what makes a successful eBook. In the current market, with the current technology, she says it’s mostly fiction, and some narrataive non-fiction:

What’s selling in ebooks? It’s primarily narrative … Stories seem to be at the heart of eBooks right now. Even the successful non-fiction eBooks we’re seeing skew to narrative – memoirs and biography and history. They’re all stories – and they’re all linear reading experiences. [more]

And, from Raccah’s experience at Sourcebooks, what doesn’t work in eBooks is Reference and Childrens’ books, which are notably non-linear reading experiences:

Reference is the biggest category of non-fiction and our experience at Sourcebooks is that reference is … the hardest category to get right in eBooks. At Sourcebooks, reference is highly formatted: lots of subsections, sidebars, pictures, diagrams, pull-quotes, etc. It’s highly “browseable,” “dippable,” not necessarily a linear reading experience. All the things that we put in to make the book more experiential as a printed book are the very things that are harder to replicate as an experience in an eBook. And there are so many different kinds of reference books.

The other difficult transformation area right now is children’s books (as distinct from young adult books). E-tailers’ bestsellers lists, publisher-reported data, and our own data are not suggesting strong conversion to eBooks yet for juvenile books, outside of cross-over YA. [more]

Raccah’s comments echo the ideas of Jakob Nielsen and Paul Biba, who also decry the domination of eBooks by the linear book metaphor. They note particularly the poor fit of the linear book model for cookbooks, travel guides, and encyclopedias.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Keith Peters used his new USB microscope to take pictures of magnified text, snips of which are below. His article on this included the pictures and a discussion of iPad and Kindle. He says little about the book and magazine pictures, and they’re far down in his article. I thought they added an interesting comparison with the iPad and Kindle …

The voluminous comments to Peters’ article, mostly on iPad vs Kindle, are interesting, with many heated opinions and citing of tech issues like dpi, bit depth, resolution and contrast. The arguments give an indication of how little scientific proof there is on what makes text readable/legible — Seems to be a case of who can shout the loudest! Not only is it difficult to define clear criteria to judge text on computers and eReaders, it’s also surprisingly difficult to find evidence about text on print vs computer – Googling for subjects like readability screen and readability screen print turn up little that’s relevant (Please email me if you’re a better googler than I am!) In Wikipedia, the most relevant subject seems to be Typography, but it also doesn’t speak much to the issue of print vs computer.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Scott Stein at CNET wrote yesterday about what he calls iPad App fatigue — the growing realization, after the first flush of  iPad interest, that there aren’t many good iPad apps. This fits nicely with articles I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks suggesting that the primacy of Apps-Thinking is a holdover from the iPhone, where it IS valuable to have a separate app to tailor information for a small screen. But people are realizing that the iPad screen is big enough that it’s not necessary to have a separate app, that most web sites do just fine with the iPad’s Safari browser.

On this theme, Newsweek’s Daniel Lyons says that although many publishers have succumbed to Steve Jobs’s App fever, some more cautious ones are unconvinced. He reports his conversation with Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker Media: “Every single time something new comes out and people wonder what’s the killer app, the answer is the same. It’s the Web every time.The boring old Web.” The Web has grown into its own organic “ecosytem” — What advantage is there, Lyons and Denton suggest, in trying to create a separate ecosytem-app for each media source, a separate app that doesn’t talk to the ecosystem of the Web?:

Denton has looked at some of the news-media apps and says he’s unimpressed. … “I loved the look of the Time app, but then I tried to select and copy a paragraph to send to a friend. I did the action automatically, without even thinking.” And guess what? You can’t do that. “You can’t e-mail. You can’t bookmark. It made me realize how much the experience of reading has changed. Nobody really just reads anymore. They copy text, send links, tweet,” Denton says.

Dan Frommer, in a follow-up article, captures Lyons & Denton’s thoughts with his snappy title: Hey, Media Companies, The ‘Boring Old Web’ Is Way More Important Than Your Crappy iPad App.

Jacob Weisberg, over at Slate, writes on the same motif. He says traditional publishers’ idea that they’re going to make big bucks selling iPad apps for their magazines is off-target because the Web version of magazines is at least as good as the app versions:

The first problem with the publishers’ fantasy … is that you don’t need those cute little apps to read newspapers and magazines. On the iPhone, apps bring real advantages—it’s no fun navigating a complex Web page through that 3.5-inch window. The iPad, by contrast, has a 9.7-inch display that is big, bright, and beautiful. The Safari browser is a great way to read any publication on the device, so long as you have a good WiFi connection.

And finally, new media journalist Jason Fry weighs in — He says news sites are finding that their iPad apps are superfluous because the web version is just as good or better:

What surprises me most after a few weeks playing with the iPad is that the browser is so good. So good, in fact, that I don’t bother with apps from news organizations, or most anybody else. The iPhone taught us that the browser was only to be used in extremis and apps were king, but the iPad reverses that.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Last week I ordered a book by Kurt Vonnegut. He’s one of my all-time favorites. When the oversized brown package came in the mail, it was so light weight, I thought maybe Amazon had made a mistake and forgotten to enclose the book. But it was there – A tiny little paperback, hardly bigger than … well … my iPod Touch …

Seems like this says something about the economics of publishing — Doing the math — The cost of the book was $7.99 + 2.99 shipping, total $10.98. The Kindle version costs $7.19 (I didn’t buy it, the screenshot below is from the free sample ;-)) … Hmmm … How to compare the prices? Paying more for an insubstantial paperback, much of what I pay goes for the process of producing and transporting the physical thing, and these sorts of costs are certainly going to continue to go up in the future. Compare this with the Kindle eBook version, for which there’s no “physical stuff processing” involved, and the price is likely to drop, especially with competition for the eBook market. … The digital future of publishing looms …

020a017dp47

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

John C. Abell, in his recent Wired article Steve Jobs’ Legacy Is the Missing Clue to the Apple Tablet, suggests that in the same way that he invigorated animated film with Pixar, the music industry with iTunes, and the mobile phone market with the iPhone, Jobs’ next mission is to invigorate the publishing industry with the Tablet. Abell talks specifically about the newspaper and magazine publishing industry, but his comments, I think, can easily be broadened to books also, as he talks about making readers forget about the printed page. I’m excerpting here because the words about publishing may be missed by many readers — Short excerpts, but with considerably more valuable nuggets than will fit into a 140-char Tweet:

If he is looking for One Last Thing, saving journalism would be the Holy Grail. … The device will have to make readers forget — really forget — the printed page. E-readers, for all that they do, don’t do this yet.

After detailing Jobs’ accomplishments in invigorating other industries, as mentioned above, Abell concludes with these words:

Even given this track record — and what we choose to believe is the all-trumping motivator of perfecting his legacy — a device-centric initiative that saves newspapers and magazines that seem to be in perpetual, some say irretrievable, decline, sounds next to impossible.

But is anybody seriously willing to bet against the house — of Jobs?

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

This is excerpts from part 2 of Michael Nielsen’s seminal and long article, Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted?. Part 1 of Nielsen’s article is a general consideration of how industries fail, with particular discussion of the newspaper industry and blogs. Part 2 is the heart of Nielsen’s case (and has the same title as the article), so I’m excerpting it here to bring it to more certain attention …

Today, scientific publishers are production companies, specializing in services like editorial, copyediting, and, in some cases, sales and marketing. My claim is that in ten to twenty years, scientific publishers will be technology companies [3]. By this, I don’t just mean that they’ll be heavy users of technology, or employ a large IT staff. I mean they’ll be technology-driven companies in a similar way to, say, Google or Apple. That is, their foundation will be technological innovation, and most key decision-makers will be people with deep technological expertise. Those publishers that don’t become technology driven will die off.

What I will do … is draw your attention to a striking difference between today’s scientific publishing landscape, and the landscape of ten years ago. What’s new today is the flourishing of an ecosystem of startups that are experimenting with new ways of communicating research, some radically different to conventional journals. Consider Chemspider, the excellent online database of more than 20 million molecules, …. Consider Mendeley, a platform for managing, filtering and searching scientific papers, …. Or consider startups like SciVee (YouTube for scientists), the Public Library of Science, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, vibrant community sites like OpenWetWare and the Alzheimer Research Forum, and dozens more. And then there are companies like WordPress, Friendfeed, and Wikimedia, that weren’t started with science in mind, but which are increasingly helping scientists communicate their research. This flourishing ecosystem is not too dissimilar from the sudden flourishing of online news services we saw over the period 2000 to 2005.

Let’s look up close at one element of this flourishing ecosystem: the gradual rise of science blogs as a serious medium for research. It’s easy to miss the impact of blogs on research, because most science blogs focus on outreach. But more and more blogs contain high quality research content. Look at Terry Tao’s wonderful series of posts explaining one of the biggest breakthroughs in recent mathematical history, the proof of the Poincare conjecture. Or Tim Gowers recent experiment in “massively collaborative mathematics”, using open source principles to successfully attack a significant mathematical problem. Or Richard Lipton’s excellent series of posts exploring his ideas for solving a major problem in computer science, namely, finding a fast algorithm for factoring large numbers. Scientific publishers should be terrified that some of the world’s best scientists, people at or near their research peak, people whose time is at a premium, are spending hundreds of hours each year creating original research content for their blogs, content that in many cases would be difficult or impossible to publish in a conventional journal. What we’re seeing here is a spectacular expansion in the range of the blog medium. By comparison, the journals are standing still.

This flourishing ecosystem of startups is just one sign that scientific publishing is moving from being a production industry to a technology industry. A second sign of this move is that the nature of information is changing. Until the late 20th century, information was a static entity. The natural way for publishers in all media to add value was through production and distribution, and so they employed people skilled in those tasks, and in supporting tasks like sales and marketing. But the cost of distributing information has now dropped almost to zero, and production and content costs have also dropped radically [4]. At the same time, the world’s information is now rapidly being put into a single, active network, where it can wake up and come alive. The result is that the people who add the most value to information are no longer the people who do production and distribution. Instead, it’s the technology people, the programmers.

If you doubt this, look at where the profits are migrating in other media industries. In music, they’re migrating to organizations like Apple. In books, they’re migrating to organizations like Amazon, with the Kindle. In many other areas of media, they’re migrating to Google: Google is becoming the world’s largest media company. … How many scientific publishers are as knowledgeable about technology as Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, or Larry Page?

… Being wrong is a feature, not a bug, if it helps you evolve a model that works: you start out with an idea that’s just plain wrong, but that contains the seed of a better idea. You improve it, and you’re only somewhat wrong. You improve it again, and you end up the only game in town. Unfortunately, few scientific publishers are attempting to become technology-driven in this way. The only major examples I know of are Nature Publishing Group (with Nature.com) and the Public Library of Science. …

Opportunities

So far this essay has focused on the existing scientific publishers, and it’s been rather pessimistic. But of course that pessimism is just a tiny part of an exciting story about the opportunities we have to develop new ways of structuring and communicating scientific information. These opportunities can still be grasped by scientific publishers who are willing to let go and become technology-driven, even when that threatens to extinguish their old way of doing things. … Here’s a list of services I expect to see developed over the next few years. A few of these ideas are already under development, mostly by startups, but have yet to reach the quality level needed to become ubiquitous. The list could easily be continued ad nauseum – these are just a few of the more obvious things to do.

Personalized paper recommendations: Amazon.com has had this for books since the late 1990s. You go to the site and rate your favourite books. The system identifies people with similar taste, and automatically constructs a list of recommendations for you. This is not difficult to do: Amazon has published an early variant of its algorithm, and there’s an entire ecosystem of work, much of it public, stimulated by the Neflix Prize for movie recommendations. If you look in the original Google PageRank paper, you’ll discover that the paper describes a personalized version of PageRank, which can be used to build a personalized search and recommendation system. …

A great search engine for science: ISI’s Web of Knowledge, Elsevier’s Scopus and Google Scholar are remarkable tools, but there’s still huge scope to extend and improve scientific search engines [5]. With a few exceptions, they don’t do even basic things like automatic spelling correction, good relevancy ranking of papers (preferably personalized), automated translation, or decent alerting services. They certainly don’t do more advanced things, like providing social features, or strong automated tools for data mining. Why not have a public API [6] so people can build their own applications to extract value out of the scientific literature? Imagine using techniques from machine learning to automatically identify underappreciated papers, or to identify emerging areas of study.

High-quality tools for real-time collaboration by scientists: Look at services like the collaborative editor Etherpad, which lets multiple people edit a document, in real time, through the browser. They’re even developing a feature allowing you to play back the editing process. Or the similar service from Google, Google Docs, which also offers shared spreadsheets and presentations. Look at social version control systems like Git and Github. Or visualization tools which let you track different people’s contributions. …

Scientific blogging and wiki platforms: With the exception of Nature Publishing Group, why aren’t the scientific publishers developing high-quality scientific blogging and wiki platforms? … On a related note, publishers could also help preserve some of the important work now being done on scientific blogs and wikis…. The US Library of Congress has taken the initiative in preserving law blogs. Someone needs to step up and do the same for science blogs.

The data web: Where are the services making it as simple and easy for scientists to publish data as it to publish a journal paper or start a blog? A few scientific publishers are taking steps in this direction. But it’s not enough to just dump data on the web. It needs to be organized and searchable, so people can find and use it. …