To Chunk or Not To Chunk?

This is excerpted from a column I wrote for the most recent issue of The Big Picture, my free newsletter about technology and the book industry.

As we’re proceeding with Start With XML, I’m thinking a lot about chunking.

Chunking, at least as we’re talking about it, means carving up your content into chunks and distributing those discrete pieces of it. Travel content (distributed over GPS, the web, and in book form) and recipes (distributed via Epicurious and as well as in book form) are the most obvious examples of this. Textbook publishing does this as well – certain assets can be used in the main text, in supplementary workbooks and lab manuals, as individual activities to be downloaded to an iPod, or embedded in e-books.

And as we talk about chunking, it’s clear that there are certain types of content that don’t immediately lend themselves to that kind of carved-up distribution. Novels, for example. Narrative nonfiction such as memoirs. Philosophical or political works, where tracing the author’s thought from beginning to end is important.

The truth is, we may not quite know what will chunk readily and what will not. There are some blue-sky ideas right now – tagging content within narratives, to be pulled out later and stand on its own – but we just don’t know yet if readers are interested in that kind of thing.

But publishers can’t afford NOT to prepare for the unknown. There has never been uncertainty like this in publishing – uncertainty in stock prices and supply chain issues (paper prices, transportation/shipping costs, the costs of composition and conversion), uncertainty in revenue-generation, uncertainty as to who’s going to buy what in which format – and it’s not going to get any clearer for quite some time.

And you can’t chunk at all if you haven’t tagged – you can’t even begin to think about chunking if you haven’t tagged. Tagging is never a bad strategy – you will never regret doing it. But the risk of NOT doing it – the risk of not being ready for the next wave of consumer demand whatever that demand may be – means that you can’t afford not to do it.

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