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Research and restraint: Two more things to add to your digital publishing toolkit

"Breaking the Page" author Peter Meyers on the tools, tech and future of digital publishing.

Since 2009, author and digital book producer Peter Meyers (@petermeyers) has been researching and documenting the digital publishing revolution in his project “Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience.” His investigation into digital books has uncovered a host of tools and use cases. The project has also shown that when it comes to digital book enhancements, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

A free preview edition of Meyers’ project is now available — in ebook format, of course — and he’ll discuss “Breaking the Page” in depth at his TOC New York 2012 session, “Breaking The Page: Content Design For An Infinite Canvas.”

In the following interview, Meyers talks about how and why the project got started and what’s surprised him thus far. He also reveals the unfortunate connection between today’s enhanced ebooks and the font-filled newsletters of the mid-1980s.

What is “Breaking the Page”? What was the inspiration?

Peter MeyersPeter Meyers: I was an early adopter of everything that was happening around the world of the Kindle and ebooks. It struck me that it was still the very beginning of the digital publishing revolution, and all that was really happening in the world of Kindle was that publishers were taking these digital snapshots of print books and stuffing them onto the Kindle. As much as I love my Kindle and I love reading Kindle books on platforms like the iPhone, I felt like we weren’t yet seeing authors and publishers deliver new kinds of reading experiences.

So, back in 2009 or so when it became clear that the industry overall was undergoing these significant changes and when it also became clear that some kind of tablet device was on the horizon from Apple, I felt that we were on the cusp of a sea change. Publishers and authors and readers alike weren’t yet getting their heads around how books were going to change, and I wanted to take a systematic look at what these new kinds of books were going to look like. How are they going to change the things that authors create? How are they going to change the reading experience? What parts of the reading experience can and should stay the same? And I wanted to do so in a way that put the needs of the reader up front. “Breaking the Page,” for me, was a way of taking a considered look at all of the innovation that was going on but trying to think through some of the best practices.

How are ebooks missing the point?

Peter Meyers: I’m not sure that I would say plain EPUB ebooks are missing the point. In fact, the sales figures show they’re doing an incredibly good job of satisfying maybe everyone except for the bean counters at the big publishing firms, who, at this point, are understandably afraid of how things are looking for the future. But from a reader’s perspective, I think traditional plain-vanilla ebooks are doing a great job — you get mystery readers and romance readers and serious literary fans, and they just can’t get enough and they’re buying more books. If I’m any sort of measure to judge by, I’m buying many more books on all my digital devices.

I think where things were less successful was in that first wave of enhancements, where the entire industry kind of decided collectively, “Hey, we need enhancements. We need enhanced ebooks.” And I will raise my hand and say, “Guilty.” I was complicit, and I participated in a number of enhancement projects.

The collective reaction on the part of readers was pretty much a big giant yawn of disinterest. Publishers spent a fair amount of money experimenting on that front. Now they’re starting to conclude that the time and resources required to create these enhanced books are probably not worth the effort. In some cases, enhancements are a quick way to turn off people who are interested in reading books in the first place.

Which publishers and platforms are “breaking the page” well?

Peter Meyers: I certainly see a lot of experimenting happening out there. At the risk of sounding like a total company shill, I will say that O’Reilly does an admirable job in terms of not thinking of itself as a company that is in the business of selling print books, but staying true to its motto of changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. There are places in which a company, be it O’Reilly or any other publisher, is so centered on books as the unit of delivery that it’s hard to respond to a disruption like StackOverflow, for example, where people pose and field questions having to do with technical challenges. StackOverflow is a great and constant reminder that the competitive threats to publishers often don’t come from other publishers, but from different approaches.

In the world of textbook publishing, there’s a firm called Inkling that specializes in textbooks for the iPad. A lot of what Inkling has done has been successful because rather than taking a PDF replica of a traditional print textbook and cramming it onto the iPad, Inkling has “XML-ified” everything — it’s ditched, more or less, the print page. Inkling has a nice little trick in there for teachers who have classrooms that are split between students who have the print version and those who have the iPad version, and the company has really rethought how to design content and reading experiences for the iPad.

Screenshot from Inkling promotional video
Inkling integrates a music textbook and the scores that go along with it. Students can listen to what the music sounds like and follow along as the music is progressing.

What are the most important digital publishing tools?

Peter Meyers: It’s funny. On the one hand, the list is pretty easy — it goes something like: Objective-C, HTML5, XML, and anything that will help your development team use those tools in conjunction with an author to create compelling stories or informative teaching material. But on the other hand, this has nothing at all to do with tools. And as crazy as this might sound, I think market research should be part of everyone’s toolkit. The reason I say market research is because in this digital publishing world, a lot of times what publishers and authors must do is think through the consumer’s need for their products.

For example, if you’re a publisher and you’ve got an amazing coffee table book about great travel destinations for coffee lovers, the market research question might be, “Does that print book do the best job of satisfying people’s need to learn about coffee-centric vacations, or will an app do a better job?” In many cases, the answer is going to be, “Print actually does an amazing job when it comes to coffee table books that have to do with travel.” So, researching the market before we embark on these digital publishing initiatives is a way of determining where a product fits into the landscape.

Has there been something in your work thus far that has surprised you?

Peter Meyers: The biggest surprise was when I got started, roughly around the time of the arrival of the iPad. I had this hypothesis that storytelling and narrative nonfiction were going to be changed significantly as we entered the world of touchscreen publishing. I’ve more or less come 180-degrees around on that and come to the conclusion that the bound codex, be it a digital collection of pages or a printed collection of pages, is actually the perfect form for telling a story of about 100,000 words — and it probably just needs words, especially in the hands of the right author.

As so often happens when new technologies arrive on the scene, the new technologies don’t eliminate the old technologies. Rather, they add to the kinds of stories that can be told. My revelation was that plain prose stories didn’t go away and probably won’t go away. They certainly will occupy a smaller portion of most people’s media consumption in the years and the decades ahead, but they do a wonderful job in telling a 100,000-word love story or biography or what have you.

The other thing I have found extremely surprising and kind of eye-opening is the way that books, in an age and a time of information overload, provide a source of refuge for people. At the risk of getting too touchy-feely, we’re assaulted by so many micro bits of content from status updates and Twitter and Facebook and RSS feeds that books of the 200- to 400-page variety give people a reason to focus and to follow a story. The books actually acquire an even greater value in a digital world because they give people continuity and a thread to follow while the rest of their days are fractured by so many different kinds of information sources.

TOC NY 2012 — O’Reilly’s TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they’ve learned and join together to navigate publishing’s ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012

What will the publishing landscape look like in 10 years?

Peter Meyers: I do spend time thinking about that — ten years from now, is it going to be Steve Jobs’ youngest daughter taking over Apple and announcing the iHolograph while graciously ushering out Tim Cook? Who knows, that may be a possibility. What I am a little bit more confident about predicting is that the tools authors and publishers will have at their disposal will be a lot better and a lot easier to use. I really think that we’re at a point in time that’s analogous to web publishing in the mid-’90s, where most of the good stuff that you could do required hand coding and a certain amount of expertise.

Just looking at the companies I’m following in the world of authoring software and authoring solutions, there’s so much activity on that front that’s targeted at designing tools that let creative people tell their stories without having to master Objective-C or JavaScript. It’s uncommon, I think, to find people who have creative dispositions who are also skilled in these kinds of programming-style tools.

The other thing I see happening in the next decade is more authors emerging who are multi-mode threats. My favorite example these days is David Pogue. He’s a great speaker, he’s a great writer, and he’s also very nimble in the world of putting together fun and entertaining iMovie productions. As the next generation of authors grows up — hopefully somewhat capable in the world of writing — they’ll also be adept in other media forums, like audio and video. [Disclosure: David Pogue is the creator of the Missing Manual series.]

Also, the urge to binge on multimedia will subside. It’ll be less of a thrill to put every single thing that you can do as an author into your latest production. It’s similar to how we all learned in the mid-1980s that putting 28 different fonts in the church newsletter just made it look awful. The instinct to put video and audio in an ebook — and, yeah, we can have a bird fly down as the cover opens — it’s just too much. As authors get more skilled with these tools, they’ll develop a restraint and a respect for the audience. Authors will know that not everything needs to be included.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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