8 December 2011

A day of innovation on the future of the book

I’m here at the Media Futures day on books and innovation and the future, that sort of thing.

Coming at this with no expectations; the programme seems interesting.

First off is a short introduction, followed by talks on innovation and the book by William Higham, Alastair Horne, and Michael Kowalski

Then we have show and tells on making money on digital by Anna Lewis, Meg Geldens, and Charles Catton.

After lunch there’s a panel which has something to do with the question pioneers, or playing it safe? At least, I think it’s supposed to be a question. It seems like one of those things you’re supposed to ask, or think about, in events like these. The panel members are: Dean Johnson, Erica Wolfe-Murray, and Naomi Alderman.

The next to last part will be talks and show and tells on inventing the future by Dave Addey, Chris Book, and Alexis Kennedy.

Lastly, talks and show and tells on how to innovate by Matt Marsh, David Burton, and Mike Phillips.

This might be an interesting day.

The chair Nico Macdonald mentions that innovation has historically been lacking in publishing. Not sure I agree with that, it’s just been completely ignored by the mainstream.x

Innovation and the book

First off, William Higham, the Next Big Thing. He works with applied trends. That’s a glorified fortune teller, then (haruspex is my favourite term for these professionals).

I remember this guy from monday. Was bored then, feels like boredom isn’t far off now, either. A lot of these observations can be kind of interesting, the problem is with pretending that they are about the future; they’re about the present and the past. He doesn’t have any way of knowing whether any of these current trends will carry into the future.

Anyway, I’m skeptical, but I’m sure somebody out there finds his talk useful.


Next, @pressfuturist, Alastair Horne, author of Future of Publishing Report.

Roughly, his points in my words (I’m less polite than him):

The effects of the digital transition affect everybody in the publishing chain, all disciplines. People in the industry now a new adaptable mindset, an agile and flexible approach. The problem is that people in the publishing industry do not have these skills and many of them don’t have the mindset. The low turnover of staff in the industry compounds the problem, as publisher will need to invest quite a bit of money in training staff, which makes them more desirable by other industries. In short, pay will have to rise, which means higher costs in an environment where margins are collapsing and prices are descending.

Workflows and processes for print don’t work with digital. They limit potential business models, revenue models, and product opportunities. The problem won’t be competing with publishers (because they’re broken as well) but competing with startups and new entrants into the field.

The new devices that are growing the fastest are multi-functional devices. It’s easy to buy a book on them, but it’s also easier to buy games and movies (and they’re probably considerably cheaper, and the games will last longer).

Interactivity doesn’t work as an afterthought, it needs to be there from the start. Essentially, it’s hard to interpret this differently, he’s saying that we have to stop thinking about books.

He does a massive comparison with the intro to WWI. Quite a few mischaracterisations, IMO, but let’s see where he’s taking this. Essentially, things are volatile. Goes into an entire thing about alliances (but I thought one of the things that started WWI were all of the alliances that forced everybody into the war after that Archduke dude got shot?).

Publishers, in his opinion, need to partner with newcomers, gain all the same skills as the competitors have, build up a direct sales business to compete with Amazon and Apple, walk on water and turn the water into wine. (I’m skeptical that they can do this. Can you tell?)


Baldur’s opinion: It’s nasty to say this, but maybe the new entrants and startups should win and the old guard should just go bankrupt. Then the new media capable staff from the old guard can just go work for the new guys. In fact, that’s what almost always happens with these sort of disruptive changes. I’m also not sure that it’s healthy to view Amazon or Apple or any of the new big customer relationship companies as your enemy. What’s healthy is not being beholden to them, but an adversarial stance isn’t going to benefit anybody.


Next, Michael Kowalski from Contentment. Talks about cheap and easy app production. You need to deliver a product that works in both orientations.

He raises the idea that ebooks and apps are just two different kinds of containers for the same content.

Two types of ebooks: Flowed and fixed layout. (Old news to anybody familiar with eproduction). He presents fixed layout as the only way to design ebooks, that you can only to damage limitation in flowed ebooks.

Two which I say: Dude! Web design! Flowed all the way! Designed! Sheesh.

Mentions that printed books have a few interactive affordances themselves that shouldn’t be discounted. OTOH, he presents the digital solutions as superior, which isn’t necessarily true.

Anyway, he’s now going to show us how to make an app thingy. Presents the magic solution: HTML! Everything’s based on HTML.

I hope this isn’t news to anybody here who’s listening to this.

Points at Phonegap, pugpig, and Baker, which are all app frameworks for turning HTML apps into native apps.

There’s a lot of history and methodology that web developers have learned that can now be applied to ebook development. This is a point I’ve been harping on incessantly.

“Indesign is a paint program.” Both the epub and HTML outputs are, in his opinion, unusable out of the box.

He says that web people don’t understand designed content. Speak for yourself, dude.

He’s planning to show some screenshots from the app version of the Future of the Book Report. Looks like he’s embedded the PDF there and added interactive content around it – tweets, at the moment, and links – (all of the pages look identical to the PDF I read yesterday).


Baldur’s opinion: Judging from both Futurebook 2011 and today, there is a clear flight to higher margins taking place in the industry. That’s the reason why everybody is still hoping enhanced ebook apps thrive. The need to produce apps on the cheap is a part of this flight.


Making money from digital

Haidee Bell Chairs.

Anna Lewis begins. Founder of Completelynovel, an online publishing platform with all the doodahs and wingdings. Valobox is a digital-oriented spinout. It’s about creating a ‘premium content layer for the web’.

Whatever that means.

Books are premium content. As they tweeted it: “@pressfuturist: #publish2011 @anna_cn: ValoBox creates a premium content proposition for the web. Agrees publishers shd work with start-ups, unsurprisingly.”

Books should be as accessible as a web page (my caveat: as accessible as a well made web page). She isn’t talking about accessibility here, but about lowering barriers to purchase and use. Put the content first.

Social. She says that there has been a fundamental shift in the way we access information.

Valobox is an online widget, basically. A widget that embeds the book with social features and doohickeys. Doesn’t look that bad.

The widget looks like is just a preview, and you can buy the whole book or just for each page. You can pay your way into the book piece by piece, just buying one page at a time.

Also has the same sort of sharing thingamajigs as your average over-cluttered web page.

Private beta. ‘Social commerce.’ Rewards for sharing if people buy.

She’s asked: How would you sell the idea of this?

The answer: Think about conversion rates. Certain bits of the book are more valuable than others, information about which bits are those valuable bits is, well valuable. (She was more eloquent than that, my syntactic failure, I’m afraid.)

Somebody asks a question of how you prevent people from just stealing the content.

Her answer: You can’t really. Which is an honest and true answer. You can just try to make it difficult.


Baldur’s opinion: I’m very skeptical about the whole pay for every page thing, the embedded widget thing, the social thng, well, the whole Valobox, in fact. This concept also only really has value for non-fiction that can be exploded and disintegrated. Reference books, etc. The problem with that is that those titles are being slaughtered by free, ad-supported, web sites, which are always going to trump the nickel and diming that this business model is based on.

There’s a good chance you won’t eve be able to get people to steal these books, they’ll just go to the websites instead.


Meg Geldens. CFO, Touchpress, makers of the Elements and Solar System. This should be interesting.

Two distinct things about the company: 1. Brings together a diverse set of skills; software, engineering, tv, design skills all in one company. 2. Partnership model. They partner with content/intellectual property owners, publishers, museums etc.

Looks really good. These are in essence, high end boutique projects, the iPad equivalent of coffee table books you actually enjoy.

They didn’t expect the sequence of content adaptation they’ve been seeing: The iPad versions are later adapted into book form. Their next project is already lined up for adaptation into print form.

On making money: It depends on how you define success. 1. Financial success. Quick return versus long shelf life. 2. Critical success, awards. 3. Attention getters. Apps that have garnered a lot of attention.

Their unit sales seem to vary a lot. Revenue/royalty model, the money’s shared between partners.

Their budgets are big and getting bigger: A hundred to a hundred and fifty thousand pounds and more. She describes fifty thousand pounds as “bare bones.”

Shows The Waste Land. It’s a pity that I have a lifelong dislike of any poetry written after Paradise Lost (give me Sonatorrek or Divine Comedy any day over the newer stuff).

Looks very nice, though. Full of the kind of rubbish obsessive compulsives like and pseudo-intellectuals pretend to need.

Key features of a successful product on Apple’s platform:

We get a preview of Skulls. Which does sound cool. It’s in the hands of Apple, should be released soon.

She got some ‘book is still’ king comment from the audience that I’m immediately tuning out.


Baldur’s opinion: This sort of product isn’t going to save the publishing industry, the skills and competencies involved are too rare and valuable for that to happen. But it is going to be a nice niche for those who have a passion for making something beautiful. Very expensive. Very difficult to pull off. Even harder to sell. The production budget is going to have to be matched by an equally big advertising/promotion budget for this kind of business to work reliably. I’ll bet the average combined production and marketing budgets for this kind of project will end up in the one million dollar range within a few short years.

Hard to do. There will be a lot of dead bodies on this road.


Charles Catton, Publishing manager, Amber Books.

His presentation is called “The Great Gamble?”

How can we get the content to people in the best possible way, sometimes it’s print, sometimes it’s ebooks, sometimes apps.

Amber books are an illustrated book packager, sometimes publisher. He shows some of the print books they’ve done in the past, full of high quality illustrations. They own the rights to everything outright, don’t have to pay royalties or anything. They pay everybody a guaranteed fixed fee.

Gives them an advantage in the digital world, they are free to experiment as they choose.

Apps and ebooks, two key areas.

The only way to make money in apps is to ‘make awesome apps’. It’s a tough market with big budgets and low prices.

They’ve done apps with different models. Expensive budgets, he calls the ‘roulette option.’ Or, cheaper budgets, which he calls the ‘blackjack option.’

Some of the apps they’ve done is on a revenue share basis: They give an app developer the content and get a revenue share deal. Simple apps. Low cost to them, and low risk, (hence profitable).

Other apps have a higher budget, with simple animations, which have sold well in the education market. Few features, but focused on the needs of students (like notes).

The Dragons! app is actually something I’m more likely to buy than anything Touchpress does. Dragons are cool.

Ebooks: The safe bet? Don’t cost very much and you see revenue quickly.

Charles says, true… for fiction. Illustrated fiction isn’t there yet. The formats available for flowed ebooks today aren’t that interesting for illustrations, yet.

Fixed ebooks. Shows a hybrid chinese/english version of Art of War (which looks super-cool, can I have a hybrid italian/english version of Dante’s Divine Comedy? I’d pay good money for that.) He isn’t happy with the costs of converting PDFs to fixed layout ebooks.

Next experiment is an ebookstore app that allows people to buy the print PDFs through an app. (Should be interesting, provided the prices are reasonable.) It’s a low cost avenue to getting a big backlist of illustrated books onto the market.

They’re planning on doing the vertical niche thing and approach other publishers in that genre (military history).

Publishing has always been a gamble.


Baldur’s opinion: I think the biggest takeaway here is that Amber Books are both lucky and smart. They take considered risk and don’t bet the house. Neither of their app approaches look as good as Touchpress’s but they do the job, people seem to enjoy them, and they are, by the looks of things, consistently profitable.

Hard to find any flaws with their strategy. Ebookstore, ebooks, all look like sound tactics.


Pioneers or playing it safe?

Chaired by Suzanne Kavanaugh from Skillset. Should be more of a discussion/debate thing than the others.

They plan to explore the conflicting needs of taking risk. Apparently the chair likes disagreement.

Dean Johnson from Brandwidth.

“What Book?” Brandwidth are in the camp of intelligent pioneering. They’re playing with client’s money, so even though they do take risks, they need to be somewhat qualified.

Publishing isn’t all about books. (I seem to be hearing this a lot, both today and on monday.) They want content that has more potential, “access all areas”.

The preexisting market (book readers) have specific expectations about UIs, how things work, what sort of content, etc., while the games market has more flexible expectations.

“Discoverability is key.” Keep hearing that as well.

They have a lot of cross-pollination between the games, music, and book app categories.

“Fun and discovery.” Go beyond boundaries. (Hard to tell what that means, in practice.)

Take outside influences and feed back into publishing. App innovation is about looking at the past, find hidden gems in the back catalogue, present, look at current cutting edge, future, look at devices, future capabilities.

TV is suddenly going to become relevant again, because of discoverability. Your content becomes discoverable within other content. Apps promoted within TV shows and bought through some sort of interactive thingamabob.

What advice would you give publishers whose content are page turners (as in book material, not app material). Answer: You don’t need us.


Baldur’s opinion: I get the feeling that these companies are getting further and further away from text content. Not that it’s a bad thing, just some people might be shocked how different the business might end up being in the future.


Erica Wolf-Murray, Lola Media.

A lot of businesses have intellectual assets that could be used to create content that generates new revenue from new markets.

Uses an example of a company that had a lot of experience involving colour, colour choices, design, decoration and mentions that they could have been able to do something like an obscure TV show I have never heard of.

There is a huge space to develop your apps in other ways. Sounds like she is a particularly inventive licensing agent, really.

She is platform agnostic.


Baldur’s opinion: No real opinion. This is definitely expertise that the publishing industry today is looking for: Adapting diverse and complex assets into revenue.


Naomi Alderman, novelist, journalist, games writer.

She’s presents a game concepts: A phone-based running game. When you run it features audio clips that present the story. Zombie-themed. Looks like a lot of fun for running types. With missions. Very cool.

Big part of the idea is that it is fun to make. Pre-funded with Kickstarter. The pre-funding helped with publicity.

Zombies can obviously be used to sell anything.

Kickstarter enables you to gauge what is a little idea and what is a big idea. You can’t guess that alone behind your desk. Kickstarter gives you extremely qualified feedback, people are voting with their money. So, you can get a feeling for how much potential the idea has before you start your work.

Exciting times.

Transferring plainly your back catalogue without creativity or ideas is more of a risk than not. Involve the writer, tech people, and designers from the start. Get the collaboration started from day one.

Her recommendation for Brits who want to use Kickstarter? Get an American friend.


Baldur’s opinion: Kickstarter, or that model of pre-funding, really is a game changer. Other people have explained it better than I have, but I love love love the idea behind it and the concept. And zombies are always cool. Impossible to dislike the combo of the two.


Questions:

One question is where can we find more authors like her, who engage with the digital arena? Naomi’s answer: If you have authors who are under forty, they are probably up for it. Just ask them. Many of them would love to do it, if the publishers were, well, game.

The inevitable “what do I need publishers for?” question: Naomi’s answer: Some of the major publishing houses are going to go to the wall. When major authors are jumping ship (like JK Rowling) the hit will be too much for some houses. Publishers need to come to their authors with exciting ideas. If you just play the money game, then the authors will leave when the money’s better elsewhere. Also, she says that she doesn’t really get editing from the publishers any more. “Editorial input? Where is it?” (Justifying yourself, as publishers do, by an act they are patently not performing, is a fairly reliable path to self-immolation.)

Dean talks about how publishers have a lot of ‘disconnected assets’ that can be turned into apps and other products. There are opportunities for both publishers and readers when they come together.

“What do you use to create your apps? Do you design them just for Apple?’ Dean says: Built as sensibly as they can, but there are limits. When you want to make the most of a platform, both in terms of features and revenue, you need to do a lot of work specific to that platform that isn’t transferable to others. But you try your hardest to work sensibly.

Naomi: Make friends with developers who know what they’re talking about.


Inventing the future

Adam Gordon, Future Savvy, chairs. He went into great detail explaining that he is a futurist and what that involves. I used the chance to rest my fingers.

Dave Addey, Agant.

Did “Malcolm Tucker: The Missing Phone”. (I really like this idea. Have to get this app.)

First app nominated for a TV Bafta.

If you haven’t seen The Thick of It, then you have missed out!

Faber & Faber published a book that is “Malcolm Tucker: The missing dossier.” Agant was approached to adapt, and they had the idea of doing it as a missing phone, instead of the missing dossier, with phone specific stuff. It’s Tucker’s iPhone, with voicemail, twitter, voice notes, who has been calling. The twist is that there is one new voicemail on the phone: A message to Ollie. Sooner or later you start getting e-mails, messages on the phone. The story plays out in real time. Personal calls. Then you begin getting messages form Malcolm himself.

Has a 17+ age rating due to the swearing. App cost 4 pounds, people were more than willing to pay. Paraphrased quote: “This is the kind of app that makes getting an Iphone worth it.”

It was done with the writers and Armando Ianucci and the publishing company, but no involvement from the BBC. The creative people, actors, etc. got very much behind it. Faber also get credit for taking a risk on this.

People bought both the app and the book, cross-promotion, not cannibalisation.

What next?

Something less sweary (limits promotion): The story of Apollo 11, based on the same story engine. They’ll be writing about the experience of creating it at apollo11app.com and @apollo11app.

Q: What made them choose the price? Dave: There is a slightly arbitrary threshold for apps, so they had to match the environment. They knew though, roughly how big the potential audience was (based on iPhone ownership and TV viewing figures) and that they are borderline fanatics, hence the slightly high, for an app, launch price (it’s lower now).


Baldur’s opinion: Fuck it. Just go and buy this app. Throw money at them. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.


Chris Book, Bardowl.

“Audiobooks Reinvented.” Calls himself a technologist. Knows nothing about publishing. Massive audiobook fan.

There was really only one retailer in the audiobook market, so he saw an opportunity to solve a lot of the problems with the established model.

Delivering the entire book is both a business and technical problem. The reader has to commit their money beforehand, without actually knowing too much about whether the audiobook is any good, beyond a small preview.

Their technical solution (Bardowl’s, that is) is also a business solution: Streaming audiobooks on a subscription basis. Subscription revenue is allocated based on minutes listened, per title. More like radio revenue than audiobook revenue.

Shows some smartphone adoption stats. (Short version: lots of ‘em).

Mentions that social music has boomed and the ‘second screen’ blablabla. (Not wrong, just heard it a lot this week.)

Technically it caches the stream so that there aren’t too many disruption as you commute, wander off into the wilderness. Also, the obligatory sharing thingamabobs.

Audio is an underused asset, in his opinion. (Sounds right to me.) 50/50 revenue share.

The futurist chair asks a question about social media feedback. Answer: You can measure consumption accurately (where people stop or start listening). The quotes can tell you what parts strike an emotional chord.


Baldur’s opinion: Seems like a good idea that promotes sampling of audiobooks. Could be complementary to the “buy the whole thing” model. Nobody ever mentions any numbers or estimates of what value these lightweight social features add to the platform. Not necessarily saying they’re bad, just would like to see harder, more empirical, justifications. Seems like a neat company for those who like audiobooks.


Matt Marsh, Firsthand Experience.

“How do you go about designing for these new reading experiences?” About a collaboration with PlasticLogic, a UK-based eink company that makes flexible eink screens. (Or, at least develops them. Aren’t they perpetually on the way?)

This is a story from 2006, PlasticLogic didn’t want anybody talking about this sooner.

In 2006, the iPod was the hottest thing around. They wanted to be the iPod of text. (Must have got punched thoroughly in the gut by the Kindle, iPhone, iPad combo, huh?)

They had to start by estimating what all of the requirements were. What would drive adoption, content, behaviour, locations, etc. Do few things well, rather than lots half-arsed.

They wanted a device that was perfect for the moments it was good for. Did a series of interviews with early adopter type people. (First mistake there, IMO.) Tried to use ethnographic research to investigate leisure reading. (A standard tactic used at pre-self-destruction Nokia, actually. Which just about tells you how well it works.)

Easy to design for yourself. Designing for lots of people is tricky. (That’s why so many fail.)

Findings: Create a set of live sketches of people, what made them tick in terms of reading.

“Reading reality.” People do an awful lot of interrupted reading and have four or five different kinds of reading matter on the go at the same time.

The client (that’d be PlasticLogic) was thinking about the iPod approach of having the entire library available on the device all the time. Research told them that making sure the device was with you at the right time mattered more, being able to catch moments of reading.

Then the obvious digital features, annotations, samples, etc.

When people were reading for longer, people chose different sorts of content.

People had an incredible aversion to being locked into a single distributor. They don’t want to be owned by a single company. (Kindle’s neatly disproving that, at the moment.)

The luddite skew has obviously changed in the intervening five years.

The conclusion: Unapologetic (proudly digital), undemanding (just about the text), flexible, simple, robust.


Baldur’s opinion: I’m not sure how far you can get in designing a device using this methodology. But, then again, what do I know? The observations are sound. One of the key selling points of reading on mobile phones is interrupted reading, catching moments throughout the day. OTOH, you could argue that most of their conclusions have been disproven in the intervening years.


How to innovate

Chaired by Paul Squires. Founder / Managing Director, Perera.

Tom Abba, Lecturer, University of the West of England.

Everybody’s already said what he wanted to say, saves him time. We’re talking about the book and it has been unpacked in a variety of ways today.

The relationship between form and content: Make beautiful things. (Not a bad principle in general.)

I’ll need to link some of Tom’s blog posts about his project here. He describes it better than I ever could. But in short, it was a mixture of physical objects and atomised, video clips, audio, and distributed atomised text. It began with a physical object and attempted to draw you into the digital fragments through mystery.

He wanted to make websites that don’t look like websites and to force people to download the story fragments rather than read/watch them on the web.

Make things that are ever so slightly mysterious, don’t explain everything.


Baldur’s opinion: My only real feedback, and I’ve told Tom this, is that his project was too cryptic. You din’t know what you were getting into which led some who should have been interested to avoid it, and some who shouldn’t have looked at it to become very frustrated.


David Burton, Head of Innovation, RedWeb.

“How to create an environment for rapid innovation.” Trying to do something a bit more exciting. Got awards by changing their processes and values. One of the projects was Hackproject: Where people get together and build cool stuff in 32 hours. No extensions. Very active, no chance for research. Always ends with deliverables, have to deliver a fairly polished prototype.

“We’re going to make something that hasn’t been done and might not be possible.” Some get excited. Some not.

Why hack projects? OK to fail, low cost, everybody is in the same circumstance. Good way to explore. Chance to show off your capabilities. It gets stuff built.

First you create the environment, set apart the time, and you start with a problem to be solved.

Early part of the hack day is about ideas, what, not how.

Then they visualise and share (sketches, layouts, etc.).

Some of the projects are just fun and funny, some are practical. But the fun trumps the practical. Random House is going to use one of the ideas developed in a hack day.


Baldur’s opinion: One of the keys, it sounds like, to hack days is creating an environment where it’s okay to do stupid things and fail. It’s effectiveness probably depends on what the culture in the company is like. Some won’t, well, hack it.


Mike Phillips, Director of i-DAT, Plymouth University.

Makes the point that software is the thing that is actually driving everything, the hardware serves the software.

Tools, concept and context of media and publishing has been changed by digital. The problem is the concept has been juddering on with little changes.

(He misinterprets a toilet diagramme he puts up as there are quite a few squatting toilets in use in Japan, for example. It’s not that these people are unfamiliar with toilets, they are used to a different design.)

I’ve lost track of where he’s going with this. It feels like he’s skipping over tech history like a flat rock over water.

One of the project they’ve been working on is with architects, a tweeting building among other things.

Another is tweeting pods that hang from trees. Another a monitoring doohickey that connects to a phone and broadcasts your bodily stats.

You put two things that don’t work together and something new appears.

Things go wrong on a regular basis and things need to be reinterpreted and adapted. That’s why he thinks we need academia.


Baldur’s opinion: Sorry, faded out a bit during this one. It seemed a bit disjointed, but that may well have been my concentration failing.


Question: Can each of the panelist give us one principle for innovation?

Tom: Design for yourself first, worry about your audience later.

Mike: Being comfortable with uncertainty. (He didn’t put it that clearly, he waffled.)

David: Start with an idea. Work with a personal problem.

Questioner’s own answer: Build for quality, where quality is fit for purpose.

Question: What will happen to the climate for innovation over the next few months?

Tom: We talk ourselves into austerity (a mindset thing) and once the 2012 Olympics are over, a gap will open up for a lot of things. Smaller, nimbler might be in a better position than larger institutions.

Mike: Austerity is going to break a lot of monoliths and universities will have to begin to talk to people outside of academia and the civil sector. Financial limitations can promote creativity.

David: DIY culture is feeding innovation faster and faster.


That’s it. The end!

Everything on this site is written by . In case you hadn't guessed already.