Amazon has changed the way that it pays authors for books that readers borrow via Kindle Unlimited from a per book payment to a per page read payment. This has, obviously, caused uproar, which I’ve mostly ignored because I still loathe Amazon, am no longer self-publishing (though still writing), and don’t have a snail in the race. 

However, people’s differing interpretations of what a per-page model will reward have been quite interesting, in that they’ve shown up one of publishing’s biggest blind spots: Quality. 

Hugh Howey says that the new system will reward good books

In fact, I think most people analyzing KU and the length of works to offer are getting it wrong. KU does not reward longer works: It rewards good works. It rewards gripping works.

In fact, KU will not reward good books, but books which are “finishable”, and some of those finishable books may be gripping, but being gripping is not a prerequisite for finishability. 

Finishability is a concept that Michael Bhaskar, Chris McCrudden and I came up with during a Twitter conversation a while back. It means exactly what it sounds like it means: That quality of a book that keeps you reading, sometimes despite your better instincts. 

Some books are delightfully finishable. You just sail through them like a skiff on friendly waves, barely aware of the act of reading. Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker or Tigerman, for example. You feel almost bereft when you finish them. 

Some books are finishable with a little effort: Harry Potter 4, which really needed to be half the length and put me off the rest of the series. 

Some books you finish because although they are terribly written, they are still somehow compelling. Flood by Richard Doyle is one of the most appallingly written books I’ve ever read, but it’s a firm favourite of mine. There’s no craft there at all, no skill or finesse, yet the book is a page turner, and it’s a fun read because of the plot. 

Some books you need to be bloody minded to finish. They’re awful. Really terribly awful. No craft, no plot, no joy at all, but you keep going because goddammit you are going to finish it because your paid good money for it. Harry Turtledove’s Supervolcano: Eruption is the perfect example. Only stubbornness kept me going through this turgid heap of shit.  

Then there are the unfinishable books, the ones that life’s just too short for. The Casual Vacancy, for example. A book where I could not have cared less about the characters, and where I rapidly realised that I was resenting the time it was stealing from me. 

So a finishable book is not necessarily a good book. There’s no linear relationship between quality and finishability. A shitty book can be very finishable. And some books are finishable not because of any inherent qualities at all, but because they have become a cultural touchstone which peer pressure demands that you finish. Whatever all the reverse-snobbery types say, 50 Shades is a truly shitty set of books, and their massive popularity has little to do with quality and much more to do with people not wanting to be the only one who hasn’t read them. 

Which brings me to another point: Rarely does finishability have anything to do with popularity. Only for aberrations like 50 Shades does popularity force finishability, and it’s important to recognise that 50 Shades is an aberration, in every possible way. It is not how publishing usually works, so it teaches us nothing other than that aberrations happen. 

So what actually is finishability? I’m going to borrow a concept from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a book that many see as a productivity, bible although personally I didn’t manage to finish it. Allen talks about ‘open loops’, which he defines as: 

anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is.

So open loops are things like tasks that you know you need to do but haven’t written down or done yet. Open loops lodge in the mind like a pip between teeth. They irritate. They draw your attention. They demand to be resolved. They cause procrastination. 

GTD deals with this by getting you to write everything down so that your open loops are saved somewhere and you can put them out of your mind and focus on what you’re supposed to be doing. And it works. It’s why I keep comprehensive lists, and it’s also why tools like Omnifocus, for me, become the place where my To Do items go to die. If I write it down, I might discover that it’s not worth doing. 

How does this relate to finishability? A finishable book is one that sets up open loops which your mind demands that you close. These might be big, meaty questions: Does she survive? Do they get it together? Who is the mysterious stranger? Does the island get blown up at the end? Sometimes they might be subtler: How does this peculiar relationship play out? Is this person really who they appear to be? How reliable is our narrator? 

You can’t put the book down because you need to have your questions answered, and as soon as possible please. You need to know what happens. You have. To. Know. You cannot go through life not knowing. 

This is why books that end without answering the key questions that they’ve set up are so fundamentally irritating. You are robbed of the opportunity to close that damn loop, get rid of that mental pip that lodged in your brain. And worse, you know that you’ll never be given the answers (unless they come in a sequel). 

An authors ability to set up compelling questions in the reader’s mind has no relationship to how good they are as a writer. People love Dan Brown not because of the grace of his prose, but because he knows how to pace the opening and closing of loops. You have a constant flow: Each new open loop provides a reason to keep reading, each closing loop gives you a jolt of satisfaction at a “task” completed. 

Amazon’s new pay-per-page regime will not reward long or short books, or good books, or well written books. It will reward finishable books, and particularly easily finishable book. 

The thing that worries me is that not every book that is worth finishing is easy to finish. 

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Amazon’s offers are pure propaganda

by Suw on July 8, 2014

In the long-running dispute between Amazon and Hachette over their terms of trade, Amazon has used its power over Hachette’s book sales to hurt authors and publisher alike. Amazon has removed pre-order buttons from Hachette books, de-stocked so that some titles appear to be unavailable, suggested to Amazon users that they buy alternative books from other publishers that are similar (and cheaper), and told buyers to go elsewhere if they can’t find the Hachette books they want.

These sanctions are designed purely to strong-arm Hachette in to agreeing the terms that Amazon wants, but Hachette are resisting even though it’s not just the publisher that’s hurting from lost sales, but also authors, especially those with books newly released or due out soon. Debut authors may be hurt particularly hard if their book’s early sales tank due to lack of visibility or availability on Amazon, where a large majority of purchases are made.

Amazon then suggested a slush fund for Hachette’s authors affected financially by Amazon’s sanctions against the publisher. Hachette declined that “offer”. So now Amazon has floated the idea that it and Hachette both forego their usual cut of sales and instead give 100% to the authors. Hachette has again declined, saying: 

“Amazon has just sent us a brief proposal. We invite Amazon to withdraw the sanctions they have unilaterally imposed, and we will continue to negotiate in good faith and with the hope of a swift conclusion […] We believe that the best outcome for the writers we publish is a contract with Amazon that brings genuine marketing benefits and whose terms allow Hachette to continue to invest in writers, marketing, and innovation. We look forward to resolving this dispute soon and to the benefit of the writers who have trusted their books to us.”

Amazon’s offers are nothing more than propaganda. Amazon decided to punish Hachette and its authors by taking actions that it knew would hurt sales, and it decided to do that as a negotiating tactic. Both the slush fund and the royalty offer are no more than sops to appease authors and persuade readers that Amazon are the good guys really and that it’s Hachette that’s being mean and intransigent. That’s utter bullshit. 

Contract negotiations do not require Amazon to impose sanctions on its suppliers. It is perfectly capable of running its shopfront normally whilst negotiations are ongoing, which would result in no authors getting hammered, and no readers being told to go elsewhere. Of course, then Amazon wouldn’t then have as much leverage, which is why they’re doing it in the first place. 

Hachette is absolutely right to reject Amazon’s disingenuous offers: Agreeing would imply that Amazon is in the right and Hachette is the aggressor which is simply not the case. 

If Amazon actually cares about Hachette’s authors and whether they are losing money, it has a very, very simple remedy: Resume normal service, and don’t impose sanctions again in future. It’s easy, and there’s no need to change any royalty rates or set up slush funds (or figure out how to fairly apportion that money, a question that I suspect is much more complicated than it might seem).

So try implementing normality within 72 hours, Amazon. You know you can.  

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A while ago I stumbled on this post from Eric Hellman exploring the question of what sort of front- and endmatter makes sense for ebooks, given that many of the pages that we see in the front of paper books have a purpose related to the printing process. Says Hellman:

A good example is the bastard title (or half title) page. This a page, usually printed with only the book’s title, that precedes the title page in the book. When dinosaurs roamed the earth, the function of the bastard title was to identify and physically protect the paper text block until it was bound. Sort of like the tissue paper they still put in fancy wedding invitations. I daresay that ebooks do not require any such protection. It is utterly without use in an ebook. Begone!

Next, consider the title page. It typically displays the books title, author, and the publisher.

In a print book, the title page is a declaration of bookiness. You don’t have title pages in magazines or newspapers. The title page says “get, ready, here comes a book, so go find a comfy chair.”

But a digital book needs something different. It needs a start page. Think about the start screen of a DVD. (You DO remember those, don’t you?) Now think a bit more generally. Modern ebooks share their underlying technology with websites, so why not convert the title page of a book into a home page for the book, with the sort of utilities you expect on a home page?

frontmatter graph

Frontmatter choices (click to embiggen)

That got me to thinking, which then got me to asking questions on Twitter, and finally, to setting up a wee questionnaire. Rather than try to guess what people might want, I thought it was easier to just ask them, and 137 people gave me their opinions. The results were in some ways surprising. But first, the not so surprising bits.

For the front matter, people mainly want to see the cover, dedication and table of contents. Several people on Twitter made the point that the Kindle dumps you in at the first page of text, meaning that you then miss out on seeing the cover, so a link to it in the table of contents to the cover is actually rather useful.

Although people aren’t massively keen on seeing a copyright notice, I think it’s only fair to tell people what they’re getting up front, so I personally think that should be retained. And the title page, which Hellman suggests could be replaced by a ‘start’ page, got a pretty good response despite the fact that it serves no real purpose in an ebook.

Perhaps it’s just that a title page is for many people a key part of the visual language of the book, it’s comforting and expected. That ‘declaration of bookiness’ is still important, so whilst removing it might make logical sense, does it make emotional sense?


Endmatter choices (click to embiggen)

For endmatter, people wanted to know about the author, find other books by the same author, see acknowledgements and other credits, get information about the author’s mailings list, blog etc., as well as get sample chapters of other books.

Interestingly, some of the stuff that an author’s ego might be tempted to include scored very badly, such as the blurb and quotes from reviews, and there was little interest in offers and discounts. I’m surprised by the latter, to be honest. Who doesn’t like a bargain? Book readers, apparently.

After some really vehement reactions about ‘share this’ links on Twitter, I asked specifically for people’s reaction to them. What did they think of them? What I got was, well, interesting and, again, a bit surprising.

Yes, some people said that they appreciated ‘share this’ links, and a lot of people said they were non-plussed by them or ignored them, but others were quite vocal in their objections. Here are some of the positive responses:

“I think they’re fine. I like to share things I like with friends.”

“I like the idea of sharing what I’m reading with my friends/followers.”

“Just seems natural to me.”

And some of the, erm, less positive responses:

“I’m trying to read. Leave me alone!”

“Really irritates me. Naked attempt at marketing, very offputting. If a book is good I wont need reminding to word of mouth it.”

“I find them annoying”

“an irritating page to be clicked past – I have no desire to share my reading habits with others”


“I don’t getting social points for what I’m reading, but I don’t want to be seen as *seeking* social points for what I’m reading. So screw you, “Share this” links.”

“Don’t use them – I find them intrusive.”

“Get annoyed and ignore it.”

“I think ‘not fucking likely’.”

“HATE, HATE, HATE them. I don’t “share” every minute of my time on FB or twitter, and resent the assumption that I might want to.”

“I find it extremely irritating – I have no desire nor need to ‘share’ everything I buy with everyone I know or might know!”


“If I like a book I’m more than capable of typing the title and author name in myself to recommend it to others- and if you use the “share this” button people can always tell when its a prewritten message.”

“Basically, these links are a bad thing, probably the worst thing about ebooks from a reader’s point of view, and I am against them.”

Although many were entirely unbothered by ‘share this’ links, the intensity of emotion amongst those who disliked them was so fierce that I think it’s just not worth risking antagonising readers by including them. If someone’s taken the trouble to read my book, the last thing I want to do is accidentally leave them with a sour taste in their mouth. If they want to share it, then they will, and they’ll do it however they wish, whenever they wish.

Finally, I asked people whether they actually read front- and endmatter, with 1 being ‘never’ and 5 being ‘always’:

Frontmatter frequency

Endmatter frequency

I’m actually quite surprised that people mostly do read front- and endmatter, so the question of what to include really is worth carefully considering.

I think I’m starting to get a standard set of front- and endmatter that ticks the right boxes for me and hopefully for my readers too. But the nice thing about ebooks is that they are easy to change and I’m still interested in people’s opinions, so please do leave a comment!

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IfBookThen: Keep It Up!

by Suw on March 21, 2013

Javier Celaya, Dosdoce

How can we have publishers working with start-ups? How are publishers using new technologies. Asked 174 publishers and start-ups and asked what were the relationships with them? 

Tech is changing the publishing world. First transformation has been content driven. Next stage is driven by devices, not devices, but services. 

Moving to service driven industry – services mean different things. Tech companies help define those services, they think in a different way to publsihers. 

What are the difference between publishers and tech companies? They have different legacy, different managerial structure, different way of doing business. 

Hard to find publishers that are already working in this collaborative way. 

When publishers meet with start-up, they have a different objective than the start-up. Publisher wants to know what’s going on, what are the trends. Start-ups want to close a deal. Few follow-ups because different goals. 

Start-ups are desperate for feedback. Is their tech, their idea, validated? Any feedback, if it needs extra features, those comments are strongly appreciated by start-up community. 

Appoint someone in the oragnisation who’s responsible for meeting regularly with these people, so they have someone they can have that conversation. And that person should be responsible for going to conferences and finding new trends. Internet has no frontiers, so have to look globally for technology. 

Try to engage. Not about investing, but can do many things with these companies. All about data, engagement, direct sales. Whatever problem you want to solve, there’s probably a start-up out there doing it. Start-ups believe publishers can give them value. 

Publishers – 83% said they were willing to invest but felt there wasn’t anything out there. But there is a lot out there. Start investigating. 

Other sectors, big companies invest in start-ups because they are going to investigate opportunities. 

Few publishers investing in the start-up community. 

Have to jointly transform ideas into products and services. 

Anna Lewis, ValoBox 

Make web-friendly books. Take ebooks and deliver them through the browser. Interested in a particular question: How do you sell books to people who aren’t looking for them. 

By  making books a part of the web, have opportunities open. Each page on ValoBox has a unique URL and can be linked to from anywhere. Can preview any page. Can share and are rewarded for that. 

Start-ups are good for doing something by what big companies can’t. Very hard for small company to deal with larger companies. How do you make the relationship work.

Advice for publishers who might want to work with start-ups: 

Laying the groundwork – make sure that you as a business are ready to work with start-ups. Be in a place where you’re looking to work with start-ups.

Tell me how you want me to work with you. Job titles mean nothing. Tell them who to go to, who to pitch to.  Give the start-up an idea of the kind of process that they can expect to experience. Have some indication of how the process might look like, what are the stages. 

Have well-managed files and metadata. So much easier when the building blocks are solid. Stops so much back and forth between you and the start-up. O’Reilly are brilliant at this, and that’s one reason they do work with start-ups, it’s all very straightforward. 

Ask stupid questions. If you don’t understand when a start-up is blathering on, then do ask them. If they can explain it to you, then they understand it. If they can’t then maybe you should be questioning whether you want to do business to them. And if you like the project and need to sell it to your boss, you need to do it well. 

Getting the most out of the relationship: 

Keep it lean. Once had a bit project but it just kept getting bigger and bigger, and then it just got out of control and was shut down. If had started small could have seen what was working and deveop that. Do a small, meaningful trial then expand. 

Take advantage of a start-up’s skill and flexibility. Tell them what your problems are, what questions you have. Start-ups are flexible, can adapt. Is there a product tweak that will help solve your problem? 

Innovate in small steps. 

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” Woodrow Wilson. 

Start-ups have to make the new sound boring and un-innovative. It’s much easier to meet in the middle. 

When it’s not meant to be. Say no if you’re not ready. Would rather be told up front. 

Don’t be afraid to try. Sometimes it won’t work out and that’s fine. 

“Failure is simply the opportunity to being again, this time more intelligently” – Henry Ford. 

Molly Barton, Penguin Books

Investors are reticent to invest in start-ups that involve publishing at all because they see publishers as too slow. 

Typical hurdles for publishers. 

Structural: Who should the start-up talk to. Is it distribution? Product? Business development? Depending on the answer to that is who gets to talk to that contact. Need to find the right people to consider the idea. 

Sales people focused on making their numbers, but need to set targets through new channels, including unknown channels. Asserting that structural forecasting can be really helpful to encourage people to take these opportunities seriously. 

Contractual: How does the idea affect existing contracts. 

Cultural: There’s discomfort with how people use some language, so be careful. 

Hurdles for start-ups. 

Lack of industry knowledge: A few people in NY who act as a concierge, work with them for 3/4 months at a time, coach them in language, connect them with the right publishing houses. Can be a productive way of moving forward. They are almost literary agents for products. 

Taking models from other media sectors, eg TV or movies or music, without thinking of what makes books different. 

Competition: Been pitched ‘Netflix for books’ by more than 20 companies. Lots of people working on similar ideas. Productive way forward is for those companies to talk to each other, be aware of the value proposition others have. Either collaborate or be clear on what makes you different. Know your competitors. 

Pivoting too fast or too slow. May start with one idea which takes you somewhere else. That’s normal, but be careful how you communicate that to partner companies. 

Goals not aligned with the publisher: A lot of start-ups coming up with a particular idea and their goal is to be acquired. For a publisher, that’s anxiety-producing because who’s going to buy that platform? Amazon? Google? Be straightforward as possible. 

Examples of Penguin’s efforts to collaborate with start0ups and funding innovation. 

Penguin/Pearson team choosing ten business problems and inviting start-ups to embed themselves into the business to help look at solutions, and sending execs out to embed in start-ups. 

Inkling is an start-up, exposing the guts of a book to search, very media rich ebook experience. Now partnering with Penguin. 

Citia, addressing an interesting problem, bit ahead of the curve, most people know that fiction sells better than non-fiction. Why is that? Why aren’t they picking up ebooks? Lots of information available on the web. But also, we’re changing the way we consume information. 

Kevin Kelly, ed of Wired, take a book that he wrote about ‘what tech wants’, Citia took that, stripped away most of the content, and  present it. “Table of contents on steroids”. It’s cards. Faster way of reading non-fiction. How can we make reading non-fic faster but not stupider. 

Small Demons, trying to enrich metadata around books, connect books more effectively with pop culture. 

Those are all start-ups that came to Penguin. 

Penguin-funded start-up: Ebooks by Sainsbury’s. Sell print and ebooks. Rnadom House, Harper Collins, Penguin, wanted to create new market place. 

Bookish, independent company, sell ebooks, print books and audiobooks. Focused on discoverability. Recommendation engine. Have editorial team covering books. 

Book Country, start-up within a corporation, within Pearson. Wanted to start a community where people could improve their books and go on to self-publish if they wanted. the goal in doing that was really to create a brand that wasn’t a penguin brand where could experiment, learn what it’s like to really create a community, that was a new experience for Penguin, and learn what’s it’s like to run a direct to consumer business. 

Would recommend that you set aside money for R&D and experiments. Don’t put those experiments into business as usual analysis for 18-24 months. Allow things to be confidential if they need to, don’t make people defend their ideas every day. 

Create targets for trying things you’ve not done before. Share what’s working and what’s not working. Come to conferences like this! 

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IfBookThen: Book of One

by Suw on March 21, 2013

Nille Svensson, Publit

If the printed book is not going to die or be replaced by the ebook, what can we expect from the future?


– Commerce moves towards an on-demand economy. People will have more influence on the things they consume.

– Physical objects will increasingly become integrated parts of the digital world.

Digital printing made print-on-demand possible, so can print shorter runs, and ‘demand’ is the publisher’s assumption of the demand from the market.

Publishers still has to make an informed guess about the demand, but talking in 100s instead of 1000s, so doesn’t change much of how the business works.

Is now possible to print one book at a time, which is real print-on-demand, where the demand is the demand of the reader.

Best vantage point to talk about on-demand economy is is the point of purchase, where the decision is made by the end consumer to buy something.

For mass production, point of purchase is the end of a long chain of production, logistics, distribution etc. Business opportunity is upstream of the point of purchase.

On-demand economy turns it upside down, the purchase is the beginning of the process, nothing is produced until it is bought. Business is located downstream.

Don’t produce anything until it’s sold. Can understand where is the end consumer? That guides production, where the book should be printed. Order goes to printing press closest to consumer.

Consumer can also decide how the book will be produce: Is it paperback, hard cover, should it have a dust jacket. What was a publishing decision becomes a consumer decision. May be ways to customise the product.

What is going to be produced? A book is traditionally looked upon as copyright protected material, as artwork, as a set form that can’t be changed.

But what way can we change the content in a way that everyone is comfortable with.

Every book will be unique, no one will an exact copy of others.

Part of a larger trend, we have a consumer society, able to surround ourselves with things that are the products of our own wishes, influenced by how we want things to be. A situation that’s more like a pre-industrial society than the current period of industrial society where everthing is mass produced, clones of each other.

Changes how people look at things. Will expect things to bear the marks of our own personalities.

Physical objects also connected to the digital world, eg QR codes, augmented reality, RFID, conductive ink/printed circuits.

RFID – every copy of the book can trigger something unique to happen or have an identity in the digital world.

Conductive ink – will be able to print electronics directly on to the pages of the book, so the book will in itself becomes an electronic device. Could create a printed book able to display ebooks.

The book of one:

– Produced only when it’s wanted, when bought and paid for. Near future, this is how all printed books will be produced.

– Produced in a way that is influenced by that demand, is unique

– Connected to the digital world, as a uniquely defined object, may have own IP number.


Svein Moe Ihler, Océ Nordic

Cross-media environment we are in, strength in the different channels, working together to find their space.

Communications started as one to one, then mass communication, now back again to one to one.

Today’s publisher’s challenges:

– increasing number of titles

– need to reduce stock levels

– manage backlist titles

– reduce cost of returns and pulping

– ned to reduce transportation costs and time

– 40% waste in trad book value change

40% waste is crazy from environmental and business point of view. Wasting energy producing and moving books around the world, warehousing, etc.

Average order size in print on demand is 1.8 books. Need to have sophisticated system, need to create enough volume to have good margins.

“We canot continue ourgrowth by building new storehouses.” Hans Villem Cortenrad, Centraal Boekhuis.

Have to make a shift, new business model. But tough to shift to the future, as business based on one model and changing can hurt.

Going from long runs, inventory, stock, waste and long tail, to short run production, on-demand production, cost optimisation.

Changes in job run length – long runs decreasing, short run lengths and one-offs gaining influence, down to 1 item.

Mass produced static content is under pressure.

If something can be digital, it will become digital.

But have intermediate period, and have to find a way to run a business during it.

Production environment based on steady content and long runs results in massive cost explosion.

Digital print also changed, moved from short run to on-demand.

High efficiency needed for small orders. Need to automate and process jobs, and need no warehousing for on-demand. But need to make sure that have the resources in place, eg enough paper.

Joakim Formo, Ericsson

Belongs to small group of researchers in Ericsson, try to make the abstract visions of future technology into more concrete examples or product designs.

Was going to talk about the Internet of Things, about connecting things to the internet and then perhaps remotely controlling them. Used as a bucket term for everything related to the mix of physical objects, digital collection, networks, clouds, big data. It’s a soup, but it is happening.

Graph of usage of networks is showing typical hockey stick shape. Number of people using internet-connected things is increasing eg cars, electricity meters.

But Internet of Things is also about the things, not just the internet.

Shows demo of a book that when you turn the pages also turns the pages of an electronic version. Object is related explicitly to something else.

Looked a few years ago at how to enhance video with metadata. Tagged a movie catalogue with location data for the scenes in those movies. Use the data as a hub for other interactions with the movie. Can use that data to connect to other movies, eg with scenes filmed in same location. Use the data to go from movie to movie.

Another project, Social Web of Things, trying to make the networked-ness of things more visible. Not a one-to-one connection between things, but full many-to-many connectivity. So created a Facebook for things. So these are connected things and their data is shared. Things connecting horizontally.

Berg and Google Creative Labs, Smart LIghts, augmented reality and connected data. Made a projector wit eyes that could identify things and then project stuff on to them. Enhance the real world, rather than having an introverted world for one person. Can be used on dumb things, not just internet connected smart things. This has been done, so will become cheaper as it is done more.

Flipboard prototype for machine narratives. Robot-jouralism on data from things. Take date from things, ingest into an algorithmic journalist bot, which has read a lot of newspapers and found a way to replicate the pattern or templates in those, so can generate readable text in article format directly from data from things.

Can take that one step further by ingesting that output text into a web animated avatar services with text-to-speech and lipsync, then ingested that into a news studio template, to do a news report of your things.

What is possible today with these technological environments?

Moving towards things having apps, but won’t stop there will explode sideways and connect with others. So will become, metaphorically, socially connected. World of fuzzy objects, composites with physical materials and internet services.

Expectations will change. Products will increasingly be expected to have interrelations with other ecosystems.

So what is a book? What is an artefact in this future?

Will need some new competencies. How to product and compose physical-digital ecosystems.

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IfBookThen: Letters by Numbers

by Suw on March 21, 2013

Tove Leffler, The Swedish Bookseller

Discoverability: how do we find books and how do we find readers? Over last ten years, number of books in bookstores has decreased, see less books and more other stuff like cards and toys.

Death or the physical bookstore that has happened in UK and US is not yet here, in Sweden bookstores have grown since 2005. Per capita, Sweden has more bookstores than US/UK. But, in small decrease, 3% have closed in last few years.

In 2011, 75% of bookstores decreased turnover. More stores will likely have to close.

Don’t buy as many books in bookstores as we used to. Apart from that being a problem with revenue. There is another issue to face: Where do people find their books.

Article in Swedish Bookseller about struggling literary reviews. Reviewers are paid less, fewer books are being reviews, newspapers facing huge losses in readers, so reviews not necessarily a good way to reach readers, esp young ones.

Internet can be  useful, all familiar with concepts of ‘also bought’ algorithm. Easy to search for a book that’s been recommended. But what we lose with the internet is serendipity. Hard to find things we don’t now we want or have never heard about, or outside our comfort zone. That is something that online bookstores have to figure out. Because it’s not really about randomness, it’s about being told about something you would never think of, or that people who have the same taste as you would never think of.

Bookish is trying to work around that with its recommendations from staff, and make recommendations from a more complex algorithm than other systems. But that’s hard, because when you come to computers someone has to do the coding and you lose a bit of ‘human error’, and that error is vital to finding new reading, or new readers.

Need to understand readers. Eg. Where are they? What else to they buy? What do they read? Why do they read? What do they eat? What music do they listen to?

Finding this out is easier on the internet.

“If you like this book, you will most certainly not like this book.” Good to recommend the unthinkable.

Nick Sidwell, Guardian

Guardian Books is a very small publisher, trying to do something that is different, have access to the wider environment of the Guardian newspaper.

Have access to a vast range of different writers, and to an enormous audience. 30m monthly unique browsers, 215k print circ, global audience, millions of followers on social media, 10,000 of bookshop customer.

Useful to tap into this audience, but these figures are the equivalent of sales figure in that they are straightforward measurements of a single factor, but what’s more important is the data behind these figures.

Based on what was popular amongst the paper’s reader, decided to publish a book called Swim, which is about swimming in wild places.

Now trying to construct more of a story from the data.

Guardian Shorts, ebook only short-form non-fiction or long-form journalism. Same thing. No longer just taking popularity factors, but also asking questions of that data and understandings of the audience. So understand how they engage with content, how they behave on the website. Team of data analysts take from that deeper, richer more targeted and more focused understandigs of what it is that people want. Then apply that to editorial decision making.

Three questions to ask ourselves:

1. Which subject areas should we focus on?

2. What should that content be?

3. How big is the potential audience, who are they and where can we reach them?

Have a lot of data about who these people are, where they are, what devices they have. Can answer some of the questions Tove mentioned in the intro.

Most popular areas on news website: news, sport, culture, travel, tech. So develop shorts in those areas.

Now have nearly 60 titles. Take a lot of archival content from both the Guardian and Observer, and with editorial work can curate that into short packaged ebooks.

Now trying to move beyond curating archive content, into commission new stories, not just a title or subject, but to use that extra data for how we structure of the book itself.

Facts are Sacred is about data journalism. Used how people were engaging with the Guardian data blog, knew there was a very engaged audience and looked at what they were interested in, and looked at what was keeping them coming back, what was important. Decided on eight chapters to understand what was done, whether they could do it themselves, to how it changes the role of journalism.

Simon Rogers, editor of data blog, wrote the book. Were able to use understanding of the engagement that people were showing to predict what their possible sales were. Knew that 10% of 1mn audience were engaged, knew how any had ereaders, how mmany in UK or US, and how many read short-form non-fiection — 4,844. Also knew from archive content, and knew 50% of sales came from non-core Guardian readers, so realistic figure for sales target is 9,699. Have sold 7,000 copies so far, but that ebook is no longer available as redeveloping it.

Felt happy with that, was a very useful proof of what we were trying demonstrate. Could take this deeper analysis of how people respond to the newspaper to inform decision making for book content.

New editions published next month, moving to a printed book an a rich ebook developed for the iPad, which is better for the type of content, including videos and interactive elements.

Been using marketing data to try and match where we’ve got to with our editorial decision, and then to make sure that we bring it to the right people, commercial profiling of customers, so can match up characteristics of book buyers who have shown engagement with similar products.

What lies at the heart of this is the editor. It’s still the editor that makes the decisions, the data without someone to make use of it is just a big spreadsheet of numbers. Even when the different metrics are put together to generate insight, unless we know what to do with it, ask it specific questions, have a goal, it remains a spreadsheet full of numbers. Editor remains central.

Still need all traditional editorial talent. Don’t let the data dictate what we’re doing, use it to inform decision making and understanding. It’s a tool much as an editor will take on all sorts of information about a market, the data about our reades is just another tool. Allows us to make wiser, more informed decisions.

Been doing this a year and a half. At the beginning of this year we made a switch, moving away from the archive material, commissioning more new titles. All of those titles have come from an understanding of our audience.

Great opportunity to gather more data. Want to not just use data to commission, but also to develop how we distribute. If you understand how people read your books, that’s possible digitally, not always easy to get hold of, but if you have channels that feed back to you, it can be enormously valuable.

– be data first

– data is a tool editors shouldn’t be without

– data needs organising and interpreting

– use data to prove your assumptions

– …but also allow it to change your mind.

Andrew Rhomberg, JellyBooks

Industry gorilla – Amazon. How do we not get squashed? Where is that gorilla weak? Discovery. Amazon is where you go to buy book, few peopel discover new books on Amazon. Amazon doesn’t share data. If we have a data-focused approach, can we use that data and collaborate around it? Can we be DRM free? Can we share book samples?

Discovery is not one thing. Five forms of discovery:

– Serendipitous

– Social

– Distributed

– Data-driven

– Incentivised had just covers, no price, no text, because it’s easier to browse pictures.

Want to make books more viral and engaging, so create a ‘twitter card’ which is easy to share.

Widgets for book sampkes so authors, agents, publishers and reviwers can embed them on homepage blog or website. Samples which are easy to include, and people can download a sample later for reading.

Oldest data-driven discovery is the best-seller list. Can have a data-driven approach that’s unique to each person, not just mass popularity. In a wider concept, think of book as the paper book, butthinkn of the ebook as a file, a container. Couldthink of a book as a URL, maybe to the produce page, Goodreads review, quote that has been pulled out on readmill, these links are shared over the internet – blogs, Pinterest, emails. These links are accessible, can’t see amazon sales data but can see how People share link to Amazon product pages.

Who’s sharing? Who’s acting on that sharing? Use a book link as a reference, and because have index the links, can track them.

Data is very messy, so track it, clean it up, and put it out as an open API, so that others out there can use that data and create fabulous new ways of discovery. People can do data visualisation, data mining, and others benefit from their work.

Jellybooks data: want to know what people are reading, without asking them or them telling us. If you ask someone what they are reading they will not tell you the truth. Books on the shelves are what they want you to believe they are reading.

So through the links on sharing and consumption can get an idea of what they are really doing.

If we want to influence a reader, can you influence the people who influence them rather than spam them?

Any publisher can participate, and then they start tracking the books. Discovery only of interest when it’s their books being discovered.

Incentivised discovery – you get a special discount but only if you can get enough people to join in. Group deal. So get an email, download the sample over breakfast, first 10% of book, share it with others, and if you like the deal you sign up with your credit card. But you need to share it, and get others to buy it as well.Can monitor how you are progressing, don’t tell you what the minimum is (set by publisher) the deal is activated and you get the book discounted by 50%.

Deadline is 6pm, so there’s only 12 hours to do it. Most people in London commute home at about 6pm, so they can then get the whole book to read on homewards commute. Change those times in different countries, eg. Spain is 9am – 9pm.

Not about trying to kill Amazon, but about an alternate strategy.

Soon launching in Spain, US, Latin America.

May be targeting a smaller market than amazon, but because it’s such a big world, can make this niche big enough to be viable.

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IfBookThen: Stories at Heart

by Suw on March 21, 2013

I’m at the IfBookThen conference in Stockholm today. Later on I’ll be talking about direct sales, but in the meantime I’m looking forward to some really interesting sessions which I will, of course, blog here in as much detail as I can capture. As usual, I’m live-blogging, so expect errors!

Joanna Ellis, The Literary Platform

Stories sit at the heart of publishing, without them we don’t have a business, and storytelling is shaped by the technology at hand. Shames the relationship between author and reader. 

Digital technologies shape the network, which shames the story. Rich opportunity to evolve.

A few key themes emerging: how the audience is becoming participatory; how the creative impetus of digital tech is bleeding back into physical and shaping the print world. 

Inanimate alice

Episodic novel for teens, readers drive the story forward by performing various actions. Students & young people encouraged to hack the story themselves, so readers can add their own media. Was conceived as enterntainment, but now adopted by teachers in 70 countries as a way of developing digital literacy. Shift away from the auteur to collaboration, created by team of 8-9 people and the audience. 

The Silent History

Dystopian future story. More adult than Alice, but also episodic, short episodes delivered as you read, written by team of 5 people. Using GPS, stories are located in the physical world that you have to go to. Can contribute in term from that place back into the story. 

Dreams of Your Life

Interactive story, written by AL Kennedy. Quite dark, written to go with a documentary about a woman who died and wasn’t found for three years. As a reader you respond to questions and the responses shape the story. Unfolds over one half hour. Responses are pre-designed but still feel tailored to each reader.

Composition No. 1

Another in which the reader shapes the story. Box contains 1000 pages, each page has a self-contained narrative, and the reader chooses which order to read them in. But readers were unwilling to shuffle the pages, they felt it “breaks the rules”. But in iPad version the pages shuffle automatically and only stops when your finger is on the screen. Technology liberates us from rules and conventions we’re used to. 

Enchanted Books

Not released yet, part of Library of Lost Books. using physical computing tech to bring life to an old print book. Sensors are hidden in the spine, and send data back about whether the reader is turning pages, and triggers the sending of audio back to the reader’s iPhone. 

What we see more and more, there has been one way of being for so long. Vanilla ebooks are an extension of the print book world these projects are more individual. 

Heard from authors that they felt excluded from the process of discussing the future of publishing, so set up The Writing Platform. Are trying to pair writers with technologists, got two writers, two technologists for three months to experiment and see what happens. 

Evan Ratliff, Atavist

About two and a half years ago, was working as a freelance journalist for a magazine, and was complaining to editor about how they couldn’t do stories of the length they wanted to do. And sometimes, when print stories moved to the web, it was just thrown up and didn’t take advantage of what you could do with the web. 

So came up with the idea of a digital publication something in between magazines and books. So built a platform. Asked journalists to pitch a story to them, but people were not interested in writing for something that didn’t exist. 

So Ratliff heard about a robbery in Stockholm, so came here and researched it, and wrote the first Atavist story, Lifted. Story opens with the actual footage of the robbery, landed a helicopter on the roof of a cash depot and robbed it. 

Wanted to tell the story but happy to mix media. Decided that footage was a better lead than anything they could write. Chapter one is about the planning of the robbery. 

If you don’t know where the locations are, you can call a map up, you can see the view from the bench that the robbers sat on when they planned it, photos of the people involved you can bring up by tapping on their name. 

Evolved over last two years to be a story telling company. Make short books. Set out to tell true stories, what you call that – book, magazine – doesn’t matter. 

Recent one was primarily a documentary film with text built in. 

Created tools to allow them to write stories, but provide those tools to publishers and soon to individuals. 

Stories are sold individually or by subscription. Can download to ereader, or read online, or through an app on your phone. The story is the key thing, where it gets told is just a matter of technology. Multimedia designed into everything. 

Country Club in Baghdad – first chapter is an animated narration of how the story starts. 

Try to do stories once a year about music, as this model is perfect. Piano Demon is a story about a musician from the 20s/30s, with original recordings of his music. The idea is to give the reader an experience that feels different. Feels like reading but has a cinematic quality. But it’s not the same for every story, but every story has something. Try to keep it different. 

Had to find an audience, and some people read on ebook readers, so that strips out media, but need a broader audience. 

Software: helping others tell their stories. Platform: Creativist. Eliminates the need to create tech middlemen to converts files. Tech allows you to do everything in one place.

User agnostic: needs to be usable by the storytellers, not coders. 

Media agnostic: doesn’t care if a chapter is video or audio or text. 

Platform agnostic: doesn’t care where you want to send it, so can do video heavy version or it can strip out the video and make it text-only. 

Everyone can create something that looks different. Paris Reviews, TED Books. 

Going to be doing full-length books, fiction and non-fiction, taking these principles to apply it to print and see what goes. 

Opening up Creativist to individuals too. 

Frank Rose, author

Talking about the idea of story worlds, re-imagining it and making room for the reader or viewer to explore it. 

Looked at the Steig Larsson’s character Mikael Blomkvist, how would he have reported a story? Did the research and produced the piece. 

Expanding the story of the film. Part of a project doing with Fincher to explain his take on Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Puzzles, treasure hunt. 

Immersive. Immersion not a new idea – Don Quixote lost his mind due to reading too much.

Dickens, participatory story telling. Era of migration from countryside to city, at a time of social upheaval. Cities good for publishing – literacy rates soared, 30% to 67% in ten years 1830 – 1840. But no one had money, but had better printing presses, paper was better quality and there were railways to distribute stuff. So publishers decided to print novels cheaply and sell in instalments, a few chapters a month at an affordable price. Almost all of Dickens’ novels were serialised. He knew his audience very well having lived it. 

What Would Google Do? People should turn for guidance to Google.

Perhaps ask, What would Dickens do? Industrial revolution created mass media, generated new industries like newspapers and magazines, and book publishing. But didn’t allow audience to connect with author. 

Dickens’ serialisation did allow connection. He was writing chapters at a time. He worked at a magazine called Master Humphrey’s Clock which was weekly. Wanted to shorten the “intervals of communication” between him and his readers. 

People over time forgot what Dickens did, and how he was in constant contact with his readers. They wanted some sort of voice in his stories, though he didn’t always listen. There was pandemonium when it became clear that Little Nell wasn’t going to make it in the Old Curiosity Shop. Ship coming into NY harbour greeted by a crowd of poeple shouting “Is Little Nell alive?”

If a story wasn’t going well, eg Martin Chuzzlewit, he listened more to his reader, so moved the action to America. 

What would Dickens Do? He would have had a blog. His web skills would have been good, but he would have faced issues. And challenges of daily publication would have been worse than weekly publication. Might have done like John Lanchester, wrote Capital, about the residence of Pepys Road. 

Matt Locke worked with Faber & Faber to create online version of Lanchester’s fictional world. 

Personalise the story through a game. Get a series of emails, including news stories tailored to your circumstances, would learn how you’d be effected by the next ten years, the ‘lost ten years’ predicted by economists due to austerity. 

Another example, The Strain Trilogy, website that takes the story further. What would life really be like if you lived in a world where vampire were in charge and humans were just food. 

Pottermore. Would Dickens have done Olivermore? Oliver Twist the serial was different to the novel. 

Readers have been trained to think of a book as a book, but now starting to see books in a different way. Want books to embrace them and draw them in. New relationship with readers. 

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