Publishing News: Pushing ebooks beyond skeuomorph boundaries

Jeff Gomez on ebook innovation, data journalism projects progress, and Amazon may be losing the ereading revolution.

Screens should be portals, not skeuomorphic containers

Jeff Gomez, VP of online consumer sales and marketing at Penguin Group, took a look this week at the issue of ebooks in the publishing ecosystem and argued that “we’re focusing in all the wrong places.”

Too much attention is being paid to pricing, format, business models and gadgetry, Gomez says, and notes the more important aspects that are being sidelined: “Namely, how can we use digital devices to change the way we tell stories? How will the ebook change the novel? And how will writers respond to a world where they can think beyond the boundaries of text, print, and covers?” He argues that instead of innovating, “we’re just creating another skeuomorph,” where readers are experiencing books on screens the same way they did on print.

Gomez points to a few projects that push the limits of the writing and reading experience and point the way toward a future of combined technology and storytelling, including his own interactive book Beside Myself, The Silent History “literary product,” and Mark Z. Danielewski’s animated ebook edition of his novel The Fifty Year Sword.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Gomez writes. “The screen was supposed to be limitless, a portal to another dimension. … And yet novels have merely traded one container for another, with stories trapped inside.”

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Data journalism gets a data library and a Kickstarter campaign for classes

Sarah Marshall at followed up this week on a Knight News Challenge winner from 2011 who was awarded $150,000 to develop a newsroom data management system called PANDA.

The PANDA project website describes its mission, stating “First and foremost PANDA is a ‘data library’, which means that it stores all the data you work with — voter registration records, police reports, water testing results, etc.” PANDA project leader Brian Boyer expounded on that, telling Marshall, “We would like newsrooms to better collaborate with data, but then above and beyond that we hope that PANDA can help increase newsroom intelligence, make people more efficient reporters.”

Marshall describes how the system works:

“Journalists, perhaps with help from developers, set up screen scrapers, and that data is automatically fed into their PANDA library. They also feed in other data, such as responses to Freedom of Information requests. Once data is in the newsroom’s private data library, it can be searched, much in the same way as Google is used to search for information on the Internet. …
Journalists can also set up email alerts so they can receive a message in their inbox when a news event happens.”

The team developing PANDA also has written screen scrapers and shared them on ScraperWiki, according to Marshall’s report.

Data journalism is a new skill for most journalists, and to address the education factor, Dave Stanton has assembled a team of instructors and launched a Kickstarter project called For Journalism, Data Journalism For All. The project plan is to offer eight initial courses, including instruction in Django, information management, Ruby on Rails, dev-ops, charting and visualization, responsive design, mapping, cybersecurity and online privacy, and data science and statistics.

The project pledge goal is $32,000. At the time of writing, the team has raised $8,785 with 38 days to go. You can read more about the project on its Kickstarter page.

Amazon may be winning the ebook battle, but it hasn’t yet won the revolution

Amazon released its newest quarterly earnings report this week. The Verge’s Tim Carmody highlighted Bezos’ emphasis on — and pleasure about — the fact that Amazon’s physical book sales growth had flattened out, up just 5%, its lowest growth rate in its 17 years in the book business.

Bezos’ point, Carmody notes, was to set up bragging rights on the success Amazon has seen in the ebook market — Amazon’s ebook sales have grown 70% year over year, according to Bezos. “We’re now seeing the transition we’ve been expecting,” Bezos said for the earnings report.

Laura Hazard Owen observes at PaidContent that Amazon’s position may not be quite as secure as it would have everyone believe, noting that “as the ebook transition moves forward, Amazon should worry that Kindle is not going to be the device leading the revolution.”

Hazard Owen argues that as the digital market settles for text-based genres, Amazon is going to have to prove itself in illustrated genres that thus far have lent themselves better to print, such as cookbooks, coffee-table books and textbooks, and as such face a fierce opponent in Apple. “Publishers of heavily illustrated content — both traditional publishers and digital-focused startups — are likely to focus on developing for iPad first,” Hazard Owen writes, “since it’s by far the most popular tablet.”

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