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Reinventing the Book in the Age of the Web

There’s a lot of excitement about ebooks these days, and rightly so. While Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for the Kindle, there’s no question that it represents a turning point in the public perception of ebook devices. And of course, there’s Stanza, an open ebook platform for the iPhone, which has been downloaded more than a million times (and now has been bought by Amazon.)

But simply putting books onto electronic devices is only the beginning. As I’ve said for years, that’s a lot like pointing a camera at a stage play, and calling it a movie. Yes, that’s pretty much what they did in many early movies, but eventually, the tools of production and consumption actually changed the format of what was produced and consumed. Camera angles, pacing, editing techniques, lighting, location shooting, special effects: all these innovations make the movies (and television) of today very different from the earliest movies. YouTube is pushing the envelope even further. Why should books be any different? (Aside: Bruce Sterling just published an amazing rant on this topic – how the context of pulp magazines shaped the content of early science-fiction.)

In our work at O’Reilly as authors and publishers, we’ve long been interested in exploring how the online medium changes the presentation, narrative and structure of the book, not just its price or format.

A sample from my latest experiment, The Twitter Book, can be seen below.

Now, you might ask, how is a book authored in powerpoint a web publishing experiment? It boggles the mind!

The web has changed the nature of how we read and learn. Most books still use the old model of a sustained narrative as their organizational principle. Here, we’ve used a web-like model of standalone pages, each of which can be read alone (or at most in a group of two or three), to impart key points, highlight interesting techniques or the best applications for a given task. Because the basics are so easy, there’s no need to repeat them, as so many technical books do. Instead, we can rely on the reader to provide (much of) the implicit narrative framework, and jump right to points that they might not have thought about.

Perhaps the biggest driver, though, was the need for speed. We couldn’t imagine writing a book about twitter that wouldn’t be immediately out of date, because there are so many new applications appearing daily, and the zeitgeist of twitter best practices is evolving equally quickly. So we needed a format that would be really easy to update. (Again, modular structure helps, since new pages can be inserted without any need to reflow the entire document.) We plan to update The Twitter Book with each new printing.

The idea to write the book in powerpoint came to me while I was thinking about how quickly I write a new talk: I generally use pictures as visual bullets, to remind me about the order of my main points; I know what I want to talk about when I see each picture. And pictures are a memorable, entertaining way to tell a story. All I needed to do, I realized, was to write down some notes equivalent to what I’d be saying if I were giving this as a talk. (And in fact, I will be using portions of the book as the basis for my talk later today at the Inbound Marketing Summit, and a few weeks later at the Twitter Boot Camp.)

Of course, having the amazing Sarah Milstein as a co-author really helped. She immediately grasped the concept, and because she knows just about everything there is to know about the twitter app ecosystem, tools, and techniques, she actually provided much of the meat of the book. This allowed me to spend time on giving my perspectives on points that particularly matter to me, or that demonstrate my approach to twitter.

But even there, we saw real benefit in the format of the book. As wikipedia has demonstrated, collaboration is easiest when documents are constructed using a modular architecture. It’s hard to coordinate a complex narrative (even single authors sometimes lose track of their plot details); much easier to work on things in standalone units that share a common, “interoperable” format.

I first explored this modular approach to the book in Unix Power Tools, a book I wrote in 1993 with the explicit goal of emulating the hypertext style of the web in a print book. The book consists of a thousand inter-linked articles. In the print book, the “hyperlinks” were in the form of cross references to individually numbered articles. In online versions such as the one at Safari books online, the cross references are expressed as real hyperlinks.

Similarly, our “Cookbook” series of technical books (whose format was originated by Nat Torkington in 1998 with the first edition of the Perl Cookbook), effectively creates a database of answers to common problems.

In 2003, Dale Dougherty and Rael Dornfest developed the Hacks series, another approach to books as collections of loosely-related pages. The Hacks books provide a collection of tips, tricks, and documentation on the problem-solving approaches of cutting edge users.

Of course, modularity isn’t the only thing that publishers can learn from new media. The web itself, full of links to sources, opposing or supporting points of view, multimedia, and reader commentary, provides countless lessons about how books need to change when they move online. Crowdsourcing likewise.

But I like to remind publishers that they are experts in both linking and in crowdsourcing. After all, any substantial non-fiction work is a masterwork of curated links. It’s just that when we turn to ebooks, we haven’t realized that we need to turn footnotes and bibliographies into live links. And how many publishers write their own books? Instead, publishers for years have built effective business processes to discover and promote the talents of those they discover in the wider world! (Reminder: Bloomsbury didn’t write Harry Potter; it was the work of a welfare mom.) But again, we’ve failed to update these processes for the 21st century. How do we use the net to find new talent, and once we find it, help to amplify it?

I don’t exempt O’Reilly from that criticism. While we’ve done many pioneering projects, we haven’t fully lived up to our own vision of the ebook of the future. For example, Safari Books Online, our online library, recognizes that the reference work of the future is far larger than a single book. But we’ve done a poor job of updating the works in that library to be more “web like” in the way I’ve just outlined. It is still primarily a collection of books online. (We’re adding video, more web content, and working to update books to be more link-rich, but we’re not as far along as I’d like.)

Take a look at any ebook, and ask yourself how it could be richer, more accessible, more powerful, if it approached the job it was trying to do with fresh eyes, and a fresh approach.

Many of the products that result won’t look like books at all. After all, Google Earth is the new Rand McNally, Wikipedia is the new Brittanica, Google itself is the new competitor to many reference works, YouTube is becoming a vehicle for just-in-time learning, and World of Warcraft is the new immersive fantasy novel. What job do publishers do? And how can new media help us do it better?

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Comments: 55

  1. Tim
    Looking forward to checking out The Twitter Book.
    Have fun at IMS today. While you’re there be sure to check in with HubSpot to learn the latest on their free Twitter Grader and other “inbound marketing” software. Isn’t it great that marketing, sales and publishing have become fun again!

  2. This is something I’ve been thinking about. One of the strengths of a printed book as opposed to a web page is actually the absence of links and collaborative noise. If I am listening to one of the pieces from Bach’s art of fugue, I don’t want to be interrupted with references to other Bach works, other composers who were influenced or that were referenced in the piece, or even notations about contrapuntal practices. I want the pure experience. A book represents a clear lengthy line of thought from a single person uninterrupted, and in some ways digital books need to meet the requirement that peripheral noise be filtered from the content unless the reader calls it up. So in some ways I shy away from wanting to move books and publishing into the digital arena if there are too many features and options thrown in. The design will need to be kept very carefully spare for the enterprise to be successful. It also depends on the kind of content; our company is a Safari subscriber and with technical content I want all the links and subtext I can get my hands on. A work of fiction – forget it; I want the pure text. A philosophical text – I probably want primer commentary to help explain it if I am new to the content, or more advanced commentary from a certain perspective.

  3. I don’t really see any thing that could not have been published in PDF. Is just having power point slides embracing the medium? Or is this more a statement of how poor current publishing tools are?
    I also find it interesting that you preserve this idea of a right and left page(page numbers) in your slides.

  4. Interesting that a book is a printed collection of related articles/thoughts/ideas. And those can be sourced in a modular fashion.

    Is The Twitter book in PPT format? Not sure that would work very well with more than say 3 people.

  5. It’s interesting, I’ve been told that what you refer to as “the old model of a sustained narrative” is exactly why people like the books that I’ve written.

    People can find a description of an algorithm in Wikipedia, they can go download a library and look through the code, they can find blog posts about places where it worked and didn’t work.

    To me, the reason people will buy a book rather than use free resources on the web is that they want a cohesive experience, and the narrative is definitely one way to provide this.

    However, there are probably other ways to provide this coherent experience in a way that makes people willing to pay for information that is theoretically available for free online. I’m very curious what these turn out to be.

  6. Jim –

    Do you feel “pressure” to click on links if they are there? I don’t. When I read something online, I read it from beginning to end, and go back and check out links if I want more information.

    Even in fiction, it’s sometimes helpful to get context (although I found the Oxford editions of Trollope with all the footnotes and commentary to be a big distraction, as you said.)

    Your comparison to music isn’t really apt. No one is suggesting links within music.

    Nonetheless, I agree with your basic point: that there are styles of reading, and, in the immortal words of Larry Wall, “There’s more than one way to do it.”

    But let’s not forget that reading itself, as we think of it today, is an artifact of a particular technology. People don’t experience the Iliad or the Odyssey in the same way as its author(s) intended. Even more recently, it’s stunning to realize that Longfellow was the most popular author in mid-19th century America, with long narrative poems meant to be read aloud.

    Styles of reading (and writing) go in and out of favor, and anyone who thinks that the style that was in favor when he or she grew up will last forever is doomed to disappointment.

    There was a great piece recently about the decline of newspapers that made this same point, that the modern newspaper is really fairly recent, and that all those lamenting its decline are basically lamenting the loss of something familiar from their childhood, which was never as permanent as they imagined. I can’t remember where I read it, but this link provides some historical context: http://chnm.gmu.edu/worldhistorysources/unpacking/newsmod.html

    Also see this one:

  7. Toby – don’t get me wrong. I’m all for sustained narrative. But as a friend of mine said long ago, “You pick the hat to fit the head.”

    There are a lot of ridiculous books out there providing sustained narrative about how to use twitter, a format that doesn’t justify that kind of narrative. The service is dead easy to use. But there are hundreds of interesting add-ons, plus interesting ways that people have demonstrated to get more out of the service. The episodic format we chose is matched to the subject matter, just as your sustained narrative is matched to the subject matter of your superb book. (Disclosure: I am the publisher 🙂

    My point was that publishers need to think more broadly about what constitutes a book, and what constitutes reading, in the age of the web.

    Ditto filmmakers. YouTube has made the short a viable art form, for example, as opposed for something likely to be seen only by your friends and serious film devotees.

    We need to take advantage of new opportunities and new channels by doing more than trying to force-fit old formats into them.

  8. Aaron – powerpoint was just convenient. It was the realization that we could write a book like we write a talk, just by putting the narrative into text rather than voice-over, that sparked this book. But my point isn’t that PPT is a good authoring medium–just that the constraints (no more than a page on any topic) matched well with what we wanted to do. I can think of lots of other subjects that fit this format as well.

    My point, though, was that this format also matches something about the way that people are consuming information today.

    But something like this could be authored in virtually any tool.

  9. Sometimes I do feel pressure to click links, which is silly but is true. However, I tend to think that you design to the lowest common denominator when designing user experience, which means that maybe linkage in a text that is meant to be linear could be distracting. Perhaps more to the point, maybe the author should have the authority to limit peripheral linkage and commentary if they want; in other words, there are user requirements on several sides of this, not just the reader; it should all be considered.

    I think the music analogy is apt though, because one of the points I’m making is that reading a book is in many cases a linear experience, it is part of the form. It is definitely similar to listening to a piece of music. We don’t want to violate the spirit of the form by making the text of a book into a web page type of experience, which is a different form altogether.

  10. Tim,

    What you have done with the Twitter book is remarkable. Kathy Sierra also did something very remarkable a few years ago with the “Head First” approach. You guys broke the mold of what a printed book should look like. Really remarkable… for printed books. But I think you hit the nail on the head in your last paragraph: “Many of the products that result won’t look like books at all.”

    As you also observed, “simply putting books onto electronic devices is only the beginning” – but I think that the extent and depth of change required is such that trying to design the “book of the future” starting from the “book of today” is an almost impossible endeavour. True innovation here will mean breaking molds in many areas at once: content creation, distribution channels, business model. If your product is engineered around the printed page or it doesn’t cater to multiple learning styles, it won’t be the winner. If you charge $19.99 for a product that is obsolete before reaching the customer (and give a big chunk of that to a logistics and real estate company like Barnes & Noble), you are on the wrong track.

    Book publishers face exceptional challenges in creating this new breed of products. If your knowledge, experience and welfare are rooted in the printed book – both at a corporate and individual level – it is very hard to create a truly innovative product. It’s not by chance that Rand McNally’s, Encyclopaedia Britannica’s and Harper’s “online” products are irrelevant when compared to their new competitors. It’s not by chance that Kodak’s share of the photography market has shrivelled to virtually nothing despite many years of sustained investments in digital technologies.

    I believe, however, that if any book publisher can come out a winner in this battle for the “book of the future”, O’Reilly is it.

    (Incidentally, I hate the word “ebook”. It’s like calling a car a “gashorse”.)

  11. I wrote a short IT/business parable earier this year (think “who moved my software development team” – you can read it at tinyurl.com/RocksIntoGold if you’ve got 30 minutes to spare) and I was looking for a way to share the entire story for free but not distribute the full text. I ended up converting it into powerpoint then published it on SlideShare.

    Two things surprised me.

    First, a lot of people said the format was far, far easier to read than they thought it would be and definitely easier than a pdf.

    Second, SlideShare was a very effective way of promoting the book – it’s far easier to send a link to slideshare than to send a pdf. Plus once people started to read it the book got featured on SlideShare’s front page.

    I was pleased with the results – I’ve had 7.5K “views” in the last 3 months, loads of great feedback (left via SlideShare).

    I now think of the book as my business card.

    [BTW: I don’t read your blog, but I really enjoy your twittering. Some of the links are fantastic.]

  12. I don’t know if people quite get the point that “You pick the hat to fit the head” (thanks for that, Tim). But I am all in favor of trying new formats for reading dynamic content on these devices, even PPT (and why not PPT, as long as you can express ideas, provide links, and update quickly?).

    As a writer of high-tech tips books (iPod For Dummies, etc.), I also took an unusual approach with e-book publishing, with my iPhone app (Tony’s Tips for iPhone Users). I wanted to make something that is better than a manual in your iPhone — a reference that is always up-to-date, easy to search, and organized for quick reading. I used a wiki on the back end, and a wiki reader for the iPhone based on Wikipanion. I can update this content at any time, even every day, without the reader having to update the app itself, or update a formatted e-book.

    Authors should take every opportunity to find ways to publish content in a way that is more economically viable (not to mention green) — not just to jettison paper and the costs of distribution, but to sell directly to readers if possible, and if possible establish direct feedback loops with their readers. For authors like myself, it is very important to continually update the content.

    As for “static” or linear narrative, I love Stanza and I’m in the midst of reading Moby Dick from beginning to end, but… it lacks footnotes and illustrations! What’s up with that?

    Thanks for this thoughtful discussion.

  13. Folks may speak poorly of the Kindle and eBooks in general and it has taken a long time for them to become a common format from major publishers, but I have been a fan for a long time – at least since the days I started reading them on my Palm IIIc.

    I always found it disappointing that no one was creating books specifically for an electronic format. It sometimes makes informational books (like your Twitter book) very difficult to navigate in the way I want, flipping back to refer to previous chapters or leaping ahead to get a sneak peak at something I’d prefer to understand first.

    I looked at the book preview and I really like it.
    I applaud your effort and look forward to seeing the book in it’s entirety.

  14. Tim,

    In response to your Twitter question (couldn’t DM because you don’t follow me), I have read the ebook. Content was great. The form seemed to diminish itbut I’ve felt that way about Dummies for years.

    Just one guy’s view. It will sell very well.
    Keep experimenting.


  15. I found Sarah and Tim’s Twitter Book preview the perfect marriage of form and function.

    Twitter’s high churn rate demonstrates the need for a clear, easy to grok guide for those who tried Twitter and found it wanting.

    The problem, I suspect, lies less with the platform than the challenge of joining an online community that delivers a stream of information and overheard conversations.

    Twitter conversations ebb and flow like the tides, with waves of half-heard dialogues crashing over the new user, who may find himself drowning in a sea of swimmers unaware of his plight.

    Think of Tim and Sarah as lifeguards, throwing a lifeline to the vast population of people that Nick Carr refers to as “Fickle Twitterers.”

    Even if you’re only floundering in the surf, wouldn’t rather have a lifebuoy than “Total Immersion : The Revolutionary Way To Swim Better, Faster, and Easier”?

  16. Tim,

    As writers, we should start to think less about the book, as a reading device, more and more about how to tell stories on a digital medium. This is part of the evolution [even of the species]. I believe that a book published in a social network should use the interactive features of the medium.

    I explain: I’m publishing my novel of 2006, ‘Santos Dumont Number 8: The Book of Superstitions’ on Twitter since the first week of April.

    But I didn’t want a simple cut-and-paste, so I created 8 profiles and it’s them who tell the story and even interact with the public.

    It is the first Brazilian novel published in Twitter. Mark Coker, from Smashwords, interviewed me and wrote an article about the project @ sd8.

    I think we are at the moment that the storytelling should consider the interactivity and personalization of the story by the reader.

    At @sd8 I try to explore and analyze the Internet as a new space for creating narratives.

    Lately, I’ve being discussing this issue with a friend, Professor Brian Boyd, specialist in Darwinian literary studies, and great biographer of Vladimir Nabokov [he also has an interesting hypertext project about the novel ‘Ada or ardor’, launched by Nabokov in 1969].

    The formats of tell a history can and should be many. “Twitterized” versions, audio books, video books etc.

    My novel, @sd8, for example, has a trailer and even a soundtrack: a song was composed especially for the novel [sd8, the song] and as one of the characters, a writer, recall a love lived in 1968, from the Twitter, I link a radio established in Blip with hits of that year.

    The novel is also a meta novel as it talks about superstitions: in my opinion, many authors and editors, stuck to the past, are still very much supresticious, confusing content with the reading device. Let’s think different!

    Off course, the novel is not the software where it runs [but one they , I believe, they will offer APIs]. I also believe that novels, literature, one day, will be web services. But even using the medium, a narrative is not the medium, it’s influenced but always beyond the medium.

    But it’s very important that authors, editors begin to think different.

    And last but not least, Tim, my congratulations for this innovative “Twitter Book”!

    Best regards,

  17. @Tim – I see books becoming applications and reading devices (like the Kindle) becoming open firefox-like platforms. I still consume a large amount of print (books, not news), but increasingly my tastes are shifting towards audio on iPhone and ebooks (both digital and on demand). My audio consumption in particular is heavy. I consume about 10-15 hours of audio content a week while I’m in the car (I commute 1.5 hrs/day) and “read” while work out/run (another 1.5 hrs a day). I almost never listen to music – it’s all content.

    I’m also a blogger (see URL link for an article you’ll recognize), and I’ve found that based on heavy web reading I prefer (1) the link-rich formats you’ve discussed above (2) a modular structure where I make my own narrative. However, I also long for a desire to take notes, interact with the data (cut/paste/share/etc) and create my OWN meta data that becomes part of the experience, which is difficult/impossible with traditional media and current digital audio offerings. I’d love to have a platform with a hard drive where I could collect and export quotes, notes, links and bookmarks, voice recordings etc – I see a large potential market for Kindle-like platforms with Evernote and delicious-style plugins for example. Doesn’t it make sense to have an open “reader” platform that others can innovate with? The book will inevitably become more web-like and “Googly” as Jeff Jarvis says, but I see the publishing opportunity in the formatting, meta data organization/collection and distribution of new types of digital mashup-like content as part of the experience.

    My question to you is, do you worry as a publisher that someone will come up with an open, do-it-yourself publishing platform that allows authors to cut out traditional publishers and publish their own content to open platforms (the way bloggers do to their blogs)? Your thoughts?

  18. Steffan –

    On the subject of do-it-yourself publishing platform – we already have Lulu and Blurb, and probably others. Even without them, it’s fairly easy to publish your own book – always has been. After all, I started out as a self-published author.

    But consider the web: anyone can publish a blog or a web site, but that hasn’t kept “publishers” out of the mix. In fact, most of the top blogs are from publishers, not individuals. Huffpo, Gizmodo, Techcrunch…

    After all, if someone gets successful, they soon realize that they can hire others, grow what they are doing. It’s what I did with books, and what someone like Michael Arrington has done with his blog.

    If ebooks become a big enough new market, the people who get good at it first will become the new publishers.

    “The king is dead! Long live the king!” I think the old fertility cults had it right.

  19. tim said:
    > powerpoint was just convenient.

    that one made me slap my knee… :+)

    come back in a few years, once you’ve learned how to
    author books in this format using better tools — and
    you will see how silly that statement is. powerpoint is
    a clumsy pain in the rear if you want to write this way.
    (especially when you have it injest the graphics, since
    the file then becomes a terribly bloated monstrosity.)
    it doesn’t give nearly enough of the flexibility you need.

    as far as the philosophical aspects of this approach go,
    bob stein has been walkin’ the beat for a very long time.

    and as far as practical examples go, check out seth godin,
    whose e-books have used these principles for years now.

    it’s also the case that you will soon learn that customers
    would rather read this type of book on-screen instead of
    on-paper, but they will resent it if you charge them the
    type of prices that you would charge for a printed book.
    and they will resent paying that high p-book price when
    they realize they’ve purchased a powerpoint presentation.

    i believe this will be a good lesson for publishers to learn,
    but they might not be particularly happy to experience it.
    they’re already chafing at the new pressure that customers
    are now exerting in the form of agitation for lower prices…


  20. I recently read Tropic of Cancer on my Kindle. As I was reading it, as well as afterward, I was dying for basically commentary and Cliff Notes style analysis that I could read at the end of each section. I searched around the web as well as on the Amazon bookstore but couldn’t really find much that was integrated well. When you are reading more challenging works like Tropic of Cancer, its great to have that commentary and analysis so you can really grok the work, mimicking being in a college class. I’d love to see electronic books have things more like Ted Nelson’s idea of Stretch Text (see http://www.natematias.com/stretchtext/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StretchText ).

  21. @Tim – Do you have any doubt that ebooks will become a big enough new market (to overtake and dominate non-digital print)? You say “if” like it’s not a foregone conclusion (wink)…I’m curious which players in book publishing are swimming hard like a surfer NOW so that they can be in the right place to stand up and ride the next wave…Know anyone who’s making a stink about innovating now? (other than O’Reilly).

  22. I have found that I have more trouble remembering things I read on-screen. I’m not sure why. I have no trouble reading them, in fact I tend to read slightly faster from the screen, mostly because scrolling is faster than turning the page and re-acquiring the text.

  23. Your blog post is too long to read. Can you split it up into sections please? Thanks.

  24. “My point was that publishers need to think more broadly about what constitutes a book, and what constitutes reading, in the age of the web.”

    Publishers are straddling two mediums: print and electricity and two modes of sensing: seeing and reading; scanning vs. absorption. we read/absorb books while we see/scan the Web/Twitter.

    Perhaps publishers need to re-read Marshall McLuhan’s Extensions of Man, he told us all about the Web before it existed to the general public.

    “The New Electric Medium…At the speed of light all information is instantaneous movement of information… At the speed of light you have no body and no identity. The New Electric man is a communal man..the literate man is all about absorbing, the electric man doesn’t want to absorb things…at electric speeds we are all in the crowd and we are all nobody’s….the enormous speed up of our time is thanks to electricity, not print…”

  25. Old fashioned I am…

    I have a reasonably well organised set of wik and bookmarks for reference material, but I use this for things like looking up the syntax for how restart this particular database.

    When I need to learn something new, I find the constant availability, the ability to flip back and forth, with my own notes in the margin (and post-its for larger notes), to be much usefull than an “online methodology”.

    In this sense, I’m making the book my own learning experience…. Converting this to an online experience seems to have two issues;
    1) Managing the workflow of getting a r/w copy of the information (which may be spread across the net),
    2) which leads to … What rights would I have to disseminate my modifcations ?

  26. Remember the old saying that “Whoever discovered water, you can be sure it wasn’t a fish”. Without film it was hard to think outside of theater. Online reading is helping us see different ways of organizing the written word. But that doesn’t mean we need to make everything the “new” way, any more than we shouldn’t have any more plays. Choose the appropriate medium for what you want to express. For Twitter help, a long narrative would be out of place, like a 1,400 word Tweet.

    I wrote up my challenge to go the other way — from blog to print. Reading Tim’s essay here, I see that it’s sort of like making a theatrical adaption of a movie. I like that analogy. (Is that like Disney had to do with Lion King? That worked well — I hope I’m half as successful.) See http://www.bricklin.com/bontech/blog-to-book.html — I show that some of the techniques are really hundreds of years old.


  27. Books, as a form, have the danger of promoting intellectual consumerism. It’s more pronounced in math and sciences, where there is a whole class of “spectators” consuming entertaining books and never producing any conjectures, problems, proofs, definitions or other artifacts of the field.

    I am working on math materials that can promote co-production with their target audience. The point I am trying to make is that every kid should constantly develop, create, remix, modify and otherwise author in mathematics. Traditional narrative is incredibly clumsy for the purpose, because it assumes a clear reader/author dichotomy and thus contradicts my message. Yet books are still very much accepted as social objects, so you can’t very easily escape the book format while forming communities of practice.

  28. We’re betting the world wants to get more of its information in visual narrative concepts. Something like “Cliff notes” in pictures. This is a way to scan info but at a very high level of comprehension.

    A lot of this is based on the popularity of graphic novels (OK, grown up comics) and MRI research on the brain during reading and knowledge acqusition.

    Here are 3 examples on http://www.vizipress.com

    1. Serious, Complex info “Cigarette Seduction”
    2. Racy amusement “Broad on Wall”
    3. Youthful drama “White Shaka Boy”

    Oh, and music is a key ingredient in this mix….

  29. Stop for a second and compare The Twitter Book with, say, Pride and Prejudice, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and Learning Python. Yes, they’re all books, but what do they actually have in common beyond being printed on paper? They’re not even all primarily textual – If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and, to a lesser degree, The Twitter Book have graphics that are at least equal in importance to the textual content. Two are purely narrative in nature, while the other two combine narrative elements with informational, instructive, and reference elements.

    We keep asking variations on “how will ebooks change books?” But asking the question the way I’ve usually seen it asked seems to presuppose that there’s such a thing as a “book”. I don’t think there ever was. Maybe it was merely an umbrella concept over a variety of different content forms grouped together only because they were once convenient to deliver in similar-looking physical artifacts. Maybe what we should be doing is trying to pick out these different content forms and find ways to adapt each to the online, digital world. Different tools for authoring (like Powerpoint), different interfaces for reading, different modes of interaction…

    • What Nick Pilon said! Yes! I categorize books by the job they do, not by the fact that they are all ink on paper (or pixels on screen). We publish reference, teaching materials, entertainment, opinion. Each has different requirements, and adapts differently to new media.

  30. I think we are discussing two different things: the evolution of books and evolution of narrative.

    The books [including pbooks] will still be around for some time. Any kind of narrative [fiction and non fiction] on paper will be influenced by the web and the dynamics that we already observe in the technical books [such as those from O’Reilly].

    But the evolution of the narrative is somewhat different.

    Currently, I perform an experiment on Twitter in which, based on the concept of ‘status updates’ I tell a story [a novel] from the point of view of 8 profiles.

    They interact and are impacted by events of the moment. The original novel, ‘Santos Dumont Number 8: The Book of Superstitions’ was published as pbook in 2006, and tried to simulate the hypertext [it could be read in 2 or more ways].

    Now, I have 2 models for the story. The reader chooses the most appropriate for him/her.

    I believe that in the future author will write alive, interacting with their readers, and readers will read together, on social networks. It’s something strange for us that were born in the pbook age, but perhaps it’s not an absurd for the digital natives, generation Y and Z.

    Taking Twitter as an example, I think the story [in @sd8 it’s a ficcion, but it could be also a non fiction] will acquire new contours that weren’t previewed in the original story, what is an interesting experience I think we are discussing two different things: the evolution of books and evolution of narrative.

    The books [incluiding pbooks] will still be around for some time. Any kind of narrative on paper will be influenced by the web and the dynamics that we already observe in the technical books [such as those from O’Reilly].

    But the evolution of the narrative is somewhat different. Currently, for example, I perform an experiment on Twitter in which, based on the concept of ‘status updates’ I tell a story [a novel] from the point of view of 8 profiles.

    They interact and are impacted by events of the moment. The original novel, ‘Santos Dumont Number 8: The Book of Superstitions’ was published as pbook in 2006, and tried to simulate the hypertext [it could be read in 2 ways].

    Now, I have 2 models for the story. The reader chooses the most appropriate for him/her.

    However, the Twitter, for example [there is also a version based on CommentPress] I think the story will acquire new contours that weren’t in the original story, what is [always] an interesting experience, even for the author.


  31. Format and style are something I think about a lot as an editor with an ezine. Obviously there are a lot of directions to take in fiction–particularly with graphic novels.

    But clearly, ebooks sell pbooks too. I just read two of a thriller writer’s novels online for free. His style scoffs some of the standard punctuation, such as using quotes. Usually I hate that, but it made online reading snappier. I doubt I would have accepted it as well in paper form, but online I tend to take whatever the author/web designer throws at me and deal with it.

    Anyway, the upshot is that I subsequently bought ALL his books in hard copy, even the ones I’d already read.

  32. “[…] adapts differently to new media.”

    Newspapers tried to adapt to new media, and look what’s happening to them.

    Think “reinvent” instead. It’s not a different word, it’s a whole different mindset that you need – new team, fresh ideas. As far away from printing presses as you can get.

  33. Luca, what you say makes all sense. The model for operation of that “aircraft” definitely will not be “beating its wings”. We need to think different about books, or, more specifically, the content inside them.

  34. RT @timorelly “We publish reference, teaching materials, entertainment, opinion […]” yes, Tim, and I’ll say that even in Brazil your work is a reference. Best regards,

  35. Have you looked at Sophie? It was originally written in Smalltalk (Squeak), but appears to be rewritten in JAva.

  36. Tim, this is really interesting. I’m a librarian who’s interested in new technologies and keeping libraries relevant in the digital age. I have seen several examples of rare book digitization, where institutions have used page turning software so that the digital offering looks as realistic as possible. The model that you put forward is an interesting one for possible use in libraries.

    In many ways, libraries and print publishers are in the same boat when it comes to adapting to new media.


  37. The idea of your Twitter book is fascinating and it´s obvious to layout it with Power Point. There is a chance to actualize the book as quick as affordable. That´s an unbeatably advantage against printed books.

    On the other hand novels, poems etc. are not really concerned with e-books. I can´t stand reading a long text without sitting on a comfortable sofa and having a bounded book in hand. I think, there´s a long way till machines make reading as cosy as »real« books do.

  38. Thought provoking post here Tim, and an important topic. Looking at the future of content authoring, I think we’re heading towards a future where the mediums and devices are smart enough to tap into whichever productivity tool best maps to the type of content being inserted into an “application community” interface. Do you think all this automation will make us smarter by freeing up more time not worrying about tools & devices? Curious.

  39. “The web has changed the nature of how we read and learn. Most books still use the old model of a sustained narrative as their organizational principle,” Tim O’Reilly writes. I am a book publisher, and a not very particularly tech savvy one at that. What I have been thinking about lately, and more since the geezers vs. digerati brouhaha at SxSW, is that books are books and new models are new models. It is not a bad thing that books have a front cover, a back cover, and some–well many different depending on the genre and the title–types of sustained narrative between those covers. Then there are other ways of disseminating content electronically. They need new names maybe. We need new ways of talking about this delivered to the reader in the best way it can be used content. But they are not books and books are not going away any time soon. For inspiration I look at my three-year-old grandson. He loves his computer games, and he’s practically reading on the computer. I think that will be his first experience of reading. But he also loves his books and points out letters and words in them as well.

  40. Jack Gutenberg

    What a breakthrough. A bunch of PowerPoint presentations glopped together with a binding. Call the patent office now.

  41. The latest Python documentation tool gaining steam makes it rather easy to kick out PDF’s, which lends itself nicely to a POD edition of the latest docs for a project. If you’re looking at the future of documentation, I’d highly recommend checking it out, it has a lot of interesting features and is used for the latest online reference docs for Pylons, Django, SQLAlchemy, and many other projects.

    Of course, with a little bit of funding/clean-up, these docs can be polished into full fledged books should a publisher wish to publish them (though a POD edition works just great too).


  42. HI Tim,
    I haven’t read the book – I found it odd on principle.

    Your enthusiasm and excitement is inspirational and you encourage all those who you take time to interact with.

    In terms of the twitter book – I was expecting something more radical – it still seems like a “stage play” – modular, standalone page style books have existed for ages and certainly predate the web – I remember some as a kid.

    I was expecting something more like a loose page “ring binder” format – less of a book than a collection of pages (reminds me of filofax in fact) – a better analogy to the web and a better format for book – e-book – web cross media publishing.

    This format would have a minimal set of basic pages then be customisable with additional pages. For the paper book pages could be bought, posted or printed from web and updated as required without buying a whole new book. Different versions of additional pages could be available and could be crowdsourced.

    The same principle would apply to e-books – download additional pages and update pages as required. Indeed, modularity could be extended down into micro-modularity such that references could be expended with increasing amounts of information as required.

  43. Martin King —

    We’ve actually done some loose-leaf books such as you suggest. They haven’t sold well. I don’t think that there’s really demand for it.

    What we plan to do is to update the book each time we go back to reprint (how often will depend on how well the book sells.) To be able to do this, we needed a format that we could update without having to reflow the whole book.

    And why would you want to download additional pages? Why not just have an up-to-date copy? Or have it either way. (Obviously, you need to say what’s different.)

  44. Tim, and if we tried to see books like software? For exemple a standard version + plugins? Books are software.

  45. Tim,

    What struck me as odd about your Twitter book was the principle that there was a book.

    Apart from the business case and consideration for those who like the traditional form. I was expecting something more radical for a “twitter book”.

    I was wondering if you had considered delivering this fully on-line as some form of O’Reilly Web 2 product or involving twitter itself.

    What if “readers” follow your twitter book and the “book” (as twitter application & associated site) tweets content, references, answers questions via tweets – you could mix automated content with guest human operators

  46. Martin, I agree with you. Since April,1st I’m rewriting my 2006 novel on Twitter [@sd8], creating an enviroment, linking tweets with other social networks. I believe that social networks are another space for the creation of narratives. 8 profiles tells the story of “Santos Dumont Number 8: The book of superstition” and interact with themselves [and soon, with the public]. A narrative on web should incorporate its features. A book is a book. A narrative on the web is sth different. If you click on my name above you’ll be able to read an article [in English] on Teleread about my experiment on Twitter. Appreciate any comments and/or suggestions. Best regards.

  47. Tim,

    I’m thinking of the title – “Reinventing the Book in the age of Twitter” but the book is perhaps too rigid to be re-invented in the age of the twitter. A better title is perhaps “Breaking the Book in the Age of Twitter”.

    Twitter has more immediacy than the web – the Twitter subject changes so fast that the act of writing a book on the subject is symbolic – “The Twitter Book” could be a symbol of the watershed moment when we realise the inadequacies of the medium, at least for certain subjects.

    The problems of distributing information through 20th century industrial processes in the 21st century information age could pose a bigger dilemma and for O’Reilly publishing than for many as your subjects are relatively fast moving and the company is so connected with innovators and innovation.

    “The twitter book” could have other symbolic loadings – in a subject that changes so fast there is the opportunity for older publishing models to increase profits and pollution through the faster turnover of re-prints, their manufacture and distribution along with the disposal of the out of date versions.

  48. Martin: There’s more progress on this front than you might think. Quietly, a few trade and reference publishers are making some interesting inroads. I’m thinking of Peterson’s Guides, http://bit.ly/bl1tj where they’ve parsed info from their print offerings into a searchable user experience, then apparently adopted a sponsorship model with colleges and universities. You can see e.g. Lonely Planet http://bit.ly/HBhTW exploring the beginnings of distributed offerings.

    It’s clear that the creation of a reference book, (computer, travel, almanac, et al) must now begin with the spec’ing of a database, and building from there, rather than simply typesetting a manuscript, or trying to emulate the reading experience online, a la pdf, Kindle or ppt.

    Marry a clean, well-executed parse with the new capabilities of semantic search, and voila! An entirely new ballgame for trade & reference publishers, who are now in precisely the same boiling kettle the music industry found itself four years ago.

    While the printed word is far from dead, new delivery and revenue models are now mandatory for trade publishers. Exciting times.

  49. Gutenberg-e and the ACLS Humanities E-Book projects, both funded by the Mellon Foundation, were genuine experiments in taking full advantage of the new electronic medium to produce “books” that could have no exact counterpart in print. These were constructed as multilayered documents, each layer addressing a different potential audience, with links to many archival and other sources extending the reach of the basic “book” well beyond what normal appendices and footnotes can provide in a printed book. Audiovisual elements were included in many of these e-books, too. While successful at a conceptual level, though, the projects foundered on the sheer economic expense of creating such complex works and could not be sustained over time (though Gutenberg-e has been folded into the ACLS project, which itself proved sustainable only because of the digitization of hundreds of related books from publishers’ backlists which, with when added to the less than one hundred new e-books, proved licensable to libraries. E-book platforms like the Kindle do nothing like what these Mellow projects attempted and will do little to carry us into a future of a new kind of book.

  50. just read through the presentation, after having
    merely clicked through to see the slides earlier…

    i’d suggest you rearrange the pages, so that each
    explanation comes first, and then the examples…

    in the book, where people see the page-spread,
    it works to have the explanation on the right…
    but in slideshare, where we see only one page
    at a time, it doesn’t…


  51. Tim,

    Mr Mochio Umeda, a Japanese IT consultant residing in Silicon Valley, made it possible for anyone to translate his latest book ‘Watching Shogi (the Japanese chess) from Silicon Valley’ into any language without a permission from him or the publisher.

    4 days after the book was published, a 20-year old Japanese college student started an English translation project and many people immediately joined (a French version simultaneously started). The project was closedly proceeding so that core members can build a foundation on which ‘the Wisdom of Crowds’ can participate. Within a week, the book was translated into English and made public. Now anyone has the authority to edit and make corrections in this open source project (the author himself has not yet seen the translated version).


    The Japanese cultures are hard to be delivered to outside Japan because of the difficulty for them to learn English, and I don’t believe it only applies to Japan –many cultures stay within the country not because there’s a lack of passion to spread those cultures but because there’s no way to do so. This open source project, I hope, will become a role model which many authors, artists, musicians etc from all over the world, can follow.

    Takuya Homma


  52. Dear Tim,

    The project is explained in more detail in the following article. Please have a read.



  53. I really enjoyed this post.

    I have also written a couple of books using PowerPoint and I do think that, although it has many disadvantages, PowerPoint also has many advantages over traditional publishing platforms.

    – Almost everybody knows how to use it, and has access to it.
    – It’s a piece of software that seems very close to a blank sheet of paper. It will accept anything with no assumptions or preconceptions: images, text, charts, etc. For authors who want a lot of flexibility to closely integrate text and images that’s a plus.
    – It’s very easy to update as time goes by. For authors who want to work with modular chunks of information, and to be able to rearrange them easily and at will, that’s a godsend.

    Some problems that could be easily fixed:
    – Better fonts, kerning, type control
    – Need to be able to see facing pages
    – Need to be able to flow text between pages

    What I see Tim doing here is very similar to Agile software development, only applied to the book, with the potential of daily or weekly builds, multiple authors, rapid prototyping etc.

    PowerPoint has long been used to rapidly prototype websites and software interfaces. Why not books as well?

    I hope it doesn’t take Microsoft too long to figure out that PowerPoint has a lot of potential as a tool for authors, editors and publishers.


    (or, a young lady’s digital primer revisited):

    Tim, et al –

    This is the ‘droid you’ve been looking for…



    JW –