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7 posts from March 2009

Three New Books from Our O'Reilly Team

One of the benefits of coming home after a long trip is that there's usually a package (or 2 or 3) waiting for me.  My return last Friday night was no different as I came home to about a dozen of our recent publications.  Three of them really jumped out at me and I wanted to highlight them here.

Twitter API Twitter API: Up and Running is an extremely timely book.  Twitter continues to grow at a torrential rate and more and more developers are trying to figure out how to tie into it.  Our book provides everything you need to know to ride the wave.  And as I mentioned in this tweet yesterday, auto-tweeting and other services are likely to make Twitter an even more important technology in the future.  (Btw, don't miss our next important title on this topic, The Twitter Book, by expert tweeters Tim O'Reilly and Sarah Milstein.)

SEO Flash Next up, Search Engine Optimization for Flash.  SEO remains vitally important but think about all that Flash content out there that's so hard to leverage on this front.  Our book offers one-of-a-kind solutions for applying SEO techniques to your Flash video.  The book is part of our Adobe Developer Library program and is written by Todd Perkins, an Adobe-Certified Flash Instructor.  If you've got a lot of Flash content on your site, make sure your SEO expert is aware of this one.  It's a quick read at only 250 pages but it's loaded with wonderful insights.

Beautiful Teams And finally, a gorgeous book with an equally eye-catching cover.  I'm talking about Beautiful Teams, the latest in our Theory in Practice series.  This book offers more than two dozen "inspiring and cautionary tales from veteran team leaders."  The list of contributors includes Scott Berkun, Grady Booch, Cory Doctorow, Steve McConnell, Scott Ambler, and our own Tim O'Reilly.  And when you buy a copy of this book you'll be doing your good deed for the day as a portion of the proceeds is being donated to PlayPumps International.


Interview with DailyMe's Eduardo Hauser

DailyMeI've been keeping a close eye on the news and newspaper industry, mostly because I think there are a lot of lessons for to be learned from it in the book publishing world.  Although I still subscribe to my local paper, I find I get most of my news online from a variety of sources, including several that didn't even exist as recently as 3 years ago.

With that in mind, when I heard about DailyMe I wanted to learn more.  If you're not familiar with DailyMe, it's a customizable online news service and their tagline is "just the news topics you want to read."  I recently had the opportunity to interview DailyMe's CEO, Eduardo Hauser, and here's what he had to say about his operation:

JW: One of the knocks on news personalization services is that they don't allow for serendipity. You're only likely to read about what you've asked for. Are there ways to address this so that your subscribers are expanding their horizons?

EH: Serendipity is a very important part of the news experience and, as such, we promote it.  We believe personalization is the starting point, not the end point. Personalization must promote exploration of content (including serendipity) and exploitation of content, thus allowing user to dive deep into subjects that matter to him.

The way we have currently implemented serendipity is by making DailyMe's Top News the landing page.  As a result, the user's first taste of DailyMe is completely serendipitous.  The 'personalized' version of DailyMe sits next to Top News. In the next version of DailyMe personalized content will co-exist with editorial content on the same pages.  So the experience will be a combination of serendipity and personalization throughout the site.

JW: Localization seems critical in this space. DailyMe has all the right national and international feeds, but what if I want to keep track of what's happening in my home town, for example?

EH: Local news has been one of the most significant challenges, and still presents some of the best opportunities, for news organizations.  DailyMe's technology is well suited for promoting local content, but we have not yet built a local content product yet.  It is an area of great interest and is definitely in our future.

JW: There's a great deal of concern that online news services will completely kill the newspaper industry. It seems like every week brings news of another paper shutting down. If the papers and other news services aren't able to adapt to the new economy, where will our news come from?

EH: I think the news will continue to come from journalists - whether they work at newspapers or elsewhere.  The question is how will these journalists be compensated for their work?  Some will be able to keep their jobs as employees of existing traditional publishers.  Some others will likely find employment opportunities in new media; and probably a large number will develop direct audiences through Blogs, syndication, contributions, etc. The good news is that there will be many more people reporting and many more people writing.  The bad news is that we will still face a few years where the business models are in flux.

JW: Social networking seems like it should play a major role in the DailyMe model. Sharing and commenting on news stories will only help build buzz Is this an area you're focusing on?

EH: Yes.  We are very interested in social media.  We have introduced a widget called Meme-iT that enables user to share their emotions around stories and in the next few weeks we intend to introduce an exciting product called the DailyWe aimed at promoting a distributed editorial function among our users.  More details to come…

JW: What does the future hold for the news industry? What will things look like in 5-10 years?

EH: I feel very optimistic because technology, connectivity and devices are eliminating some significant funnels in the news dissemination process.  This will obviously create some disarray at first, and then things will settle down.  I think tools like DailyMe, Twitter and otherput tremendous power in the hands of people to generate and share information.  Whether that power finds a home - and an audience - will require focus and skills that are unique to journalists. The ones that hone those skills will make careers out of it and the others will simply go on as amateurs in the new news ecosystem.

In the next years I expect news to surface in many more devices than now. I expect personalization and other discovery techniques will have matured and stabilized.  I trust and hope there will be models that have matured to a point where they create a clear flow of funds between consumers and creators of content.


Interview with Safari's Mark Brokering

SafariBooksOnline One of the many benefits of working at O'Reilly is that I get to spend time with several members of the Safari Books Online team.  If you're not familiar with Safari,  it's a digital library service that provides access to more than 8,000 titles from a variety of publishers.  They also recently launched a mobile device feature that lets me access my Safari subscription on my iPhone.

I recently sat down with Safari's Mark Brokering to discuss the business and he provided the following answers to my questions:

JW: Who's the typical Safari customer?  Is there such a thing or does Safari attract a wide variety of customers?

MB: We have a broad range of subscribers, from developers to network administrators to creative professionals, including digital photographers. Currently, the majority of our customers are technology professionals. The topics with the highest usage include programming languages and web development. But we're seeing more and more creative professionals using our library, thanks, in part, to all of the great content we're getting from Peachpit/New Riders, O'Reilly, and lynda.com. We also have a growing library of business titles that now includes nearly 1,400 books and nearly 300 videos.

JW: I'm sure you do a lot of traffic analysis for the service.  What kind of solutions is Safari providing?  Is it mostly a quick, get-in-get-out model where the customer uses the search feature to find their answer, they read a few pages and then get back to their work?

MB: The average Safari session for our subscribers is 12-18 minutes. Typically, people come looking for an answer to a problem, use our search engine to scan every word of over 3 million book pages, find information that's relevant to their issue, read what they need, and get back to work. It's a great tool for work efficiency. And because all of the information has been vetted by recognized publishers, it's much more reliable than a random search through Google results.

JW: Do you find that customers mostly find their solution in one particular book after a search or do they go to multiple sources in the service before they head back out?

MB: There's no doubt that in most cases, subscribers look at more than one source after they do their search. Most searches will bring up multiple results, showing the search terms in their context.  So most people are going to "open" more than on book to read further and see which pages provide the best answers.

JW: What are the most popular topics and areas of interest Safari customers are looking for?

MB: Topics like Java, C#, Cocoa, C++, Spring, PHP & MySQL, are all extremely popular. So is HTML, CSS, and web design. And anything about iPhone development is very hot right now. That said, our subscribers have wide-ranging interests, including Photoshop, digital photography, project management, presentation design, and various business topics. One very popular book that comes to mind is Berrett-Koehler's Eat That Frog!:  21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. The premise is that you'll be more efficient and successful if you force yourself to do the most distasteful things first. That book shot out of the gate and has been one of our top 100 books since it was introduced. And considering our specialized markets, we were also astonished by the popularity of Islam: The Religion and the People, published by Wharton School Publishing. But publisher Tim Moore wasn't surprised. He  reminded me that author Bernard Lewis "is the leading scholar in the world on one of the most important topics facing citizens and business leaders today." Goes to show that you always need to experiment and push the boundaries.

JW: Readers might think that a highly visual design like our Head First series wouldn't be that popular in Safari.  They might assume customers are looking for simple narratives without graphical elements, but I've seen Safari data on our O’Reilly titles and am very impressed with how popular Head First is in the service.  Can you talk about why you believe it's such a success here?

MB: O'Reilly's Head First books offer a completely different approach to learning. People love these highly visual books, which continually dominate the top of Safari's list of most-used titles. They probably do extremely well in Safari for the same that they do well in retail channels—the authors present material in a playful, visual way that makes tough concepts easier to understand. And Head First books make learning enjoyable. 

JW: How popular is Safari's full-book download feature?

MB: In October 2008, we began to offer customers the option of downloading entire books, for a price set by the publishers. We were already offering chapter downloads, so that people could read excerpts offline—on a plane or subway, for example. But that feature was never heavily used, which says something about how Safari is being used as a just-in-time reference tool. But we saw a huge jump in downloads the week we introduced full-book PDFs, and it hasn't let up. We're accumulating data so that we can analyze what kinds of books are being downloaded the most, and why.

JW: Where do you see services like Safari heading in the future?  Are there likely to be new and innovative ways of discovering, accessing and sharing content through a model like Safari?

MB: The world is quickly embracing the use of mobile devices for getting information anywhere, anytime. So, of course, we’re exploring how we can make a 3-million page library useful on handheld devices—especially mobile phones. Our new m.safaribooksonline.com site launched on February 23, 2009. It's our first major step in building mobile-friendly tools for our readers. The site allows individual and corporate subscribers to access their full library of books and offers a reading experience that's optimized for the phone's browser. I expect to see a dramatic shift in the way our users' view Safari Books Online and consume our content. It's a great advancement that we’re all very excited about.


A Model for the Magazine Industry

Mag stack Once upon a time I subscribed to more than a dozen different magazines.  Keeping up was overwhelming at times, particularly since many of those magazines were a half-inch thick or more.  (Anyone remember the good old days when Wired used to have some serious heft?!)  Now I can count my magazine subscriptions on one hand.  I still crave the content and the writers, but I prefer to read this information sooner than the print model allows.

I use RSS feeds and other techniques to obtain some of this material.  And even when I'm 30K feet in the sky on a flight I have my Kindle 1.0 with the terrific KindleFeeder service to provide my daily dose.  Despite that though, I feel there's a huge hole in the magazine model and I have a suggestion that could go a long way to addressing it.

I'm talking about a service that starts by providing access to all the magazine content on the planet.  It would be delivered wirelessly to my various devices (Kindle, iPhone, MacBook Pro, etc.) and I'd (gladly!) pay a monthly fee for it.  What I'm describing is fairly close to the Safari Books Online model, only applied to magazines, not books.  So rather than getting physical copies of BusinessWeek, FastCompany, etc., in my mailbox from time to time (and several days after the material was written), I'd get it immediately and have access to it anytime, anywhere.  (Btw, there's nothing more frustrating than seeing a full-page ad in a magazine about the great additional content that's available this month on their website...especially when you're on a 4-hour flight and and wifi isn't an option!)

I would gladly give up my print subscriptions for this service.  Yeah, I know that's one of the reasons the magazine industry is so afraid to build such a beast.  They need to learn a thing or two from the music and newspaper industries though.  Magazine publishers: Yes, your revenue base is likely to be smaller in the future.  Deal with it.  Btw, that's going to happen anyway, so why not acknowledge it now and start doing something about it?

So how much would I pay for an all-you-can-eat magazine subscription model like this?  At least $50/month, maybe more.  That's a lot, I know, but I'd expect some additional functionality built into the system to justify that price:

  • I want the full contents of my favorite magazines.  I don't want every magazine delivered to me in this format...I'll never get through it all!  But I absolutely want to pick and choose which magazines automatically show up and include 100% of the regular content.
  • I also want to be able to pick and choose certain columnists and other features/articles from some of the magazines that aren't in that first list.  Again, these should be delivered automatically, without all the other content I don't care about from that particular magazine.
  • Most importantly, I want this system to learn about me and my interests.  If I happen to read a lot about baseball, send me the hottest new baseball article from a magazine that's not part of those first two lists.  Help me discover things I wouldn't other wise find!
  • Include a terrific social networking platform.  Make it super easy for me to send articles, excerpts, etc., to any of my friends, regardless of whether they have a subscription.  After all, exposure to those who don't have a subscription might provide the nudge they need to sign up.  And give me a finder's fee if they do!

You might be wondering how magazines earn their fair share when each customer is paying a flat fee for access to everything.  Simple.  It's all based on page views.  My device keeps track of what articles I read and sends that information back to the service so that my monthly payment can be split into pieces and divvied up to each magazine I've touched.  Maybe one month I only read ESPN The Magazine.  OK, my entire monthly payment goes to them.  Again, this is very similar to models we have in the book industry.

Over the course of a month I'm probably accessing 20, 30 or more different magazines this way.  That means my monthly payment gets sliced up pretty thin, so why would a magazine publisher have any interest in these small payments?  Two words: advertising revenue.

You currently pay an annual subscription price for most of those magazines you get in the mail.  That subscription rate typically covers printing and shipping...and that's about it.  Magazines get the bulk of their revenue from advertisers, of course.  There's no reason advertising can't be part of this model too.  Yeah, I know Amazon's magazine subscription model on the Kindle doesn't include ads.  That's one option but I'm not sure it's the best.  We're all used to seeing ads in magazines, so there's no reason they can't be present in an e-model with the same content.

In fact, I'd argue that the advertising component is where this could really change the industry.  No more static images.  No more wondering whether your target audience actually saw the piece.  And don't forget about that third bullet above.  This needs to be an intelligent system that knows a lot about me.  As a result, every customer becomes part of a much more highly targeted audience.  That generally means a higher CPM rate...or perhaps a completely new model.  (Yes, those same old privacy advocates would choke on this idea...that's OK, they can keep killing trees with their print subscriptions!)

If the Kindle is any example it's clear magazine industry leaders have their heads in the sand.  More than a year after the Kindle was announced there are only 24 magazines available for it.  I'm sure the common magazine publisher complaints are, "we don't like Amazon's terms" or "we don't want Amazon to become the next Apple and control our channels."  Any magazine executive with that point of view should be fired.  Now is the time to be experimenting, not hiding in your foxhole.  The Kindle represents yet another storefront and a chance to learn more about your customer.  As the old saying (sort of) goes, those who don't pay attention to history (e.g., music and newspapers) are doomed to repeat it.


Heading to ETech Conference

Et2009_etech_logoI'm on my way to O'Reilly's ETech conference in San Jose...literally...I'm waiting for a flight connection in Dallas.  I spent some on my first flight looking over the conference schedule.  Wow, what a great lineup!

I plan to Twitter frequently throughout the conference, so be sure to follow me here (or @jwikert if you're already on Twitter).  Loads of other attendees are already Twittering and you can follow them via the #etech hashtag.

I've also been asked to do some very short, one-question follow-up video interviews with some of the speakers.  I thought it would be cool to let my Twitter followers send me questions for the speakers as well. So as you see me tweet about the session I'm in and you've got a question for that speaker, send it my way.  I can't promise your question will be selected, but I will promise that I'll look at every one I receive!


My Ideal How-To/Reference Book of the Future

Binoculars I spent the past week moving from a Thinkpad to a Mac and I used a couple of terrific books as resources along the way.  The thing I quickly discovered during this process was that most how-to or reference books are written for a broad audience, making them appropriate for many but perfect for almost no one.

I suddenly realized that my ideal how-to/reference "book" should have two key characteristics: It's "alive" and it knows who I am.  What do I mean by that?

The "book" I'm describing isn't really a book at all.  It's more of an extensive body of knowledge that's completely malleable.  The version I'd buy would be the same one you could buy, but the content would be tailored for me and would have the following attributes:

  • It would be extremely comprehensive...containing more information than you could possibly bind in a physical book.
  • It knows my history.  I'm a long-time Windows user, a former programmer, an advanced Excel user, etc.  How does it know this about me? By monitoring my reading and note-taking habits. (More on this in a moment.)
  • It's alive.  The book isn't "finished" when the author submits a manuscript.  Content can be added and modified at any time.  Amazon's Whispernet is nice but it should evolve into supporting this sort of living book.  Also, it's important for new content to be set off from the older content so that I'll notice it.

The next Excel book I buy shouldn't make me read about cells and formulas.  It should focus mostly on what's new in this version while still providing all the A-to-Z coverage of the tool, behind the scenes, for me to search if necessary.

I could drill down further on any given topic if I want to, but because this book knows what I already know it focuses on what I don't know, as well as what I've struggled with in the past (again, based on my notes).  How's that for a huge time-saver?!

You can't accomplish this in a printed book.  It's would also be extremely challenging for one author to write something like this.  I think it requires a collaborative effort led by a community manager -- think Wikipedia on steroids.  And because the device you'll read this on allows you to embed your own notes, the more you read the more the book learns about you.

What I'm describing isn't really a book at all.  It's more of a platform, one that requires a completely new perspective.  The authoring model has to change to allow for more chunkified content where each piece can stand on its own or be stitched together as required by that reader.  Every piece would have to be rigorously tagged to enable this dynamic presentation.  The content would be written once but its behavior and rendering would depend on both the customer and the device; this is similar to how website content today can appear differently depending on whether it's being viewed on a computer or a mobile device.

As far as I know, this platform doesn't exist today.  I'm convinced it can be built though and that it would be extremely powerful...a game-changer, in fact.  Do you see a market for such a product?


The Great Text-to-Speech Debate

Dunce cornerRarely do I get so worked up about an issue but few are as strangely controversial as this one.  I'm talking about the text-to-speech feature of Amazon's Kindle 2.  (Again, in the interest of full disclosure, I own a Kindle 1 and I have no plans to buy a Kindle 2. I think Amazon's closed platform is a huge mistake and I hate how they're alienating their Kindle 1 early adopters with no discounted upgrade offer.)

Let me come right out and say it: I strongly believe text-to-speech is a good thing for everyone.

Earlier this week, Roy Blount wrote this misguided article about the feature in The New York Times.  This industry is looking for innovative ways to get people to read more book-length works and this knucklehead takes a swing at one of the few interesting developments that shows promise.  Did Blount just wake up from a 10-year nap at an RIAA meeting?!  Seriously, dude, please don't encourage authors and The Author's Guild to start acting like the music industry!

Let's be clear.  The text-to-speech feature is only going to make Kindle editions more popular and usable.  Will it cause some fence-sitters to make a purchase?  Probably.  Will it really hurt the audio book market?  I seriously doubt it.  And so what if it does?!  How many people really buy both the print/written version of a book and the audio version?  That number has got to be incredibly tiny, a rounding error on a rounding error.  Don't forget though that Amazon owns Audible.com now.  Maybe they want to "eat their young" with this feature, but I'll bet Amazon isn't too concerned about cannibalization of the Audible program.

I tweeted this earlier but if you're not on Twitter you ought to read James Turner's insightful response to Blount's column.  (And if you're not on Twitter, what the heck are you waiting for?!)