Savas Beatie offers a sneak peek at SmartLayers premium editions

Savas Beatie is an innovative publisher of military history books. In fact, they have the distinction of being the first publisher to release an ebook featuring the SmartLayers technology we've developed here at Olive Software.

If you'd like to get a sense of what SmartLayers looks like, watch the video embedded below. If you'd like to see how easy it is for a publisher to leverage SmartLayers, as well as learn why Savas Beatie chose SmartLayers for their premium ebook solution, be sure to join us for a free webinar tomorrow, September 30, at 1ET -- click here to register now.

P.S. -- This initial SmartLayers premium ebook, Richmond Redeemed, is available exclusively on the Savas Beatie website (cllick here for the book's catalog page).

In the future, all content will be layered

Once upon a time the broadcast model was the only viable option for content distribution. The newspapers, magazines and books we read were the same regardless of our personal interests or where we lived.

The web and other digital models offer more personalization, of course. That’s why your Google News feed looks considerably different than mine, for example.

In the not-too-distant future I believe we’ll see a radically new level of personalization beyond the keywords and other techniques used today. That new model will feature layers of content, with each layer customized for a different user experience.

An example helps illustrate this vision…

Apple likes to update their Mac OS X operating system from time to time with plenty of new features. The best way to communicate what’s new in the next release depends on whether you’re educating a long-time Mac user or a complete novice. I’ve been on the Mac platform for several years now so I don’t need guidance on the basics. A newbie needs that information though, so how can Apple (or a third-party publisher) create content that addresses the diverse needs of expert and novice as well as everyone else in between?

One option is where the application presenting the content offers different views depending on the reader’s knowledge level. For example, there would be user level buttons where the reader can tell the ebook app how knowledgeable they are so that the content is customized for their level.

It’s important to note that the base of content remains the same for all users. But by providing a bit of information to the app, the user gets an experience that’s more in line with their needs. Layering the content enables publishers to offer multiple lenses through with the material can be viewed and each lens is optimized for a different type of user.

Content layering is something I’ve been writing about for several years now. That vision is starting to become a reality thanks to work being done at Olive Software where I serve as director of strategy and business development.

I invite you to get a glimpse of what I’m describing by attending a free webinar we’re hosting later this month. The event takes place at 1:00ET on September 30. Click here to register and reserve your spot.

Why Amazon Firefly is important

At any given point in time it’s easy to assume that search engines have evolved as much as they’re ever going to. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid falling into the logic that was allegedly uttered long ago by Charles Duell: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Putting the gimmicky eye candy called “Dynamic Perspective” aside for a moment, there’s another element to Amazon’s recently-announced Fire phone that everyone in the content industry needs to focus on: Firefly.

On the surface, Firefly also feels like a Fire phone gimmick. In reality, it’s a next generation search platform and likely to be the first significant Google challenger. I’m not suggesting Google will disappear or feel the pain anytime soon, but Firefly will force them to evolve.

Firefly lets you snap pictures of objects so you can buy them from Amazon. It’s the next step in showrooming, the process brick-and-mortar retailers loathe. Publishers need to look beyond Firefly’s ability to enable one-click purchase of a physical book sitting on a table. Rather, publishers need to consider how Firefly will eventually enable the discovery and consumption of all types of digital content as well.

Let’s say you’re at the ballpark watching the Pittsburgh Pirates play. You snap a picture of the beautiful city skyline, looking out from behind home plate in PNC Park. You’re curious to learn more about the park, the team or maybe even the city itself.

Instead of clicking the camera button, click the Firefly button on your Fire phone. Rather than just getting a photo you might not ever look at again, your screen is filled with search results. These aren’t just the website links you get from Google though. You’re looking at all sorts of free and paid content you can consume now or later.

All the usual suspects are included here. You’ll see links to books about the team, park and city. But you’ll also have an opportunity to buy the program, print or digital, from today’s game. And maybe there’s a link to purchase a digital edition of today’s local paper or just portions of it (e.g., the sports section, just those articles covering today’s game, etc.) The results could also include articles about the team/park/city, accessible via either a trial subscription or maybe they’ll ultimately be free thanks to the ever-expanding reach of Amazon Prime. 

Don’t forget that all these results won’t just appear in random order. Amazon will develop a search algorithm as sophisticated as Google’s, but with the benefit of all Amazon’s “customers who viewed x also viewed y” data and capabilities.

Most importantly, don’t forget the power of paid placement in these results. Amazon has generated plenty of revenue from publishers for placement and promotional campaigns. Firefly will open the door to an enormous number of new ways Amazon can charge publishers for premium placement in those Firefly search results.

I haven’t forgotten that you’re sitting at a baseball game and the last thing you want to do is flip through search results and spend time reading content on your phone. That leads me to another model I suspect we’ll see from the Firefly search platform: save for later.

Web searches today focus exclusively on the here and now. You search, find what you need and you move on. Firefly opens the door to a lengthier relationship between user and search results.  You can’t be bothered with all the Firefly details when you’re trying to watch the baseball game. That’s why you’ve configured Firefly to save those results for later retrieval. They could sit in a holding area in your Amazon account, similar to your Amazon Wish List, or maybe they’ll be delivered to you via email. The more likely scenario is that Amazon will do both, of course. Amazon knows the value of data and reminding customers of what they like, so expect to see plenty of notifications about these potential one-click purchase opportunities.

None of this functionality exists today, of course. And most of it won’t be available when the Fire phone ships in July. But rest assured that these and plenty of other innovations will eventually be available through the Firefly feature. Amazon’s #1 goal is to get consumers to buy things and Firefly is a huge step forward in making those transactions happen more frequently and conveniently.  

Your personal index of everything

Google is terrific but it doesn’t help me answer the question, “where did I read about that?”. I’m running into that question more frequently these days, partly because I’m reading so many short bursts of content from so many sources.

It’s not just website content. I’m talking about emails, e-magazines, e-newspapers, ebooks, etc. In short, I need help indexing all the digital content streams I’m consuming every day.

Over the past few years I used a service called Findings that did some of this, but it was an approach that required me to actively curate the articles and excerpts I wanted to preserve and share. I need something that automatically ingests and indexes everything I see, not just what I’ve highlighted. And it has to happen with no clicks, copying or curation required by me. Just index everything I see.

I want a tool that watches all the emails I read every day, keeps track of the content of the webpages I visit, has access to the magazines I read in Next Issue, sees all the content I consume in the Kindle app, the Byliner app, etc. When privacy advocates read that sentence their heads will explode. That’s OK. They can choose to live without this service but I’ll be more efficient because of it.

It’s obviously a concept that requires opt-in from the user. It also requires the ability to tap into content streams from proprietary apps, not just browsers. And it needs to follow me across all my devices. Whoever develops it will help solve a problem that’s only going to get worse in the years ahead. I hope they do so soon because I’d love to start using it today to build my index of everything for tomorrow.

Chromecast needs a killer app

Judging by the ongoing out-of-stock situations it's safe to say demand for Google's Chromecast device remains strong. One of my local Best Buy stores finally had them in stock so I grabbed one. My one-word review: Meh. I don't regret buying Chromecast but I can't find a killer app for it.

If you're not familiar with Chromecast all you need to know is that it allows you to wirelessly stream content from your computer or mobile device to your TV. It's an indirect method, as the content on your tablet/laptop gets sent to your router and then over to the Chromecast device in your TV. On the surface, that's nice. After all, projecting video from your computer to your living room screen without a bunch of cables is handy. On the other hand, the apps that support Chromecast are limited. Anything in the Chrome browser works but few mobile apps are supported. That means I can stream games from my NHL Gamecenter subscription but I have to do so within the browser, not through the Gamecenter app on my iPad.

I'd love to see Chromecast work with PowerPoint. Most conference rooms have HD TVs but sometimes the right connection dongle isn't handy. It would be great if I could just plug Chromecast into the TV and project the deck wirelessly but that's not an option yet.

YouTube, Hulu and NetFlix all work fine as well, but what's the point? My Samsung LED TV has apps built in to let me watch streaming movies anyway. All I have to do is plug a USB WiFi stick into the TV and I have full web access. Granted, managing it with my TV's remote is a hassle, so Chromecast has that advantage since you control it with your tablet or laptop.

The only use-case I can think of that really lends itself to Chromecast is video-based training. Even though you can obviously do this on one screen or a computer with a second monitor, I see the benefit of having the instructor on a much larger TV, especially if there's a whiteboard or other region to focus on besides the talking head. Learning to code, for example, would really lend itself to the instructor, their source code and whiteboard on your TV and the programming environment on your computer.

I'm also surprised there aren't any great Chromecast hacks yet. If you search for hacks or novel applications you'll be disappointed. Chromecast seems like the type of device that hackers would love to enhance, and you'd think Google would fully support their efforts.

I'll still use my Chromecast, probably a few times a week. I also plan to take it on the road since at some point I'd like to think PowerPoint access will be supported. And since most hotels have complementary WiFi I should be able to watch NHL games at night via my Gamecast subscription on the TV rather than on my smaller computer/tablet screen.

So for $35 Chromecast is a fairly small investment but its limited functionality holds it back from being worth so much more.

Let Chromecast spark your imagination

Everyone is gaga over Chromecast, the new device from Google that connects your mobile device to your TV. I agree that it's cool but I think today's excitement is overlooking tomorrow's possibilities.

Yes, Chromecast lets you wirelessly stream video from your phone or tablet onto your TV. By doing so, it also turns your mobile device into your TV's remote control. The most interesting aspect of Chromecast though, IMHO, is the fact that it opens the door for more interctive, engaging activities on the bigger screen.

Today we generally sit back and watch as our TV entertains us through network broadcasts, movies, DVR playbacks and services like Netflix. But it's definitely a lean-back model. Our smaller devices are where more of the lean-forward activities take place, such as browsing the web, reading articles and creating content. There's been talk for years now about a hybrid model on the big screen, where both lean-forward and lean-back activities will take place but we haven't seen that materialize yet.

Take a look at this side-by-side feature comparison of Google's Chromecast to Apple's Airplay. What's the most important line on that comparison table? Some would argue the battle is won by whoever supports the most third-party apps (e.g., Netflix, Hulu, etc.) If that's true, Apple has the advantage.

I think that's short-term thinking. To me, the long-term winner is determined by the "third-party API" element. As you can see, both of these services support third-party APIs. The difference is that Apple's is all about their closed ecosystem, so forget about using Android devices, for example. Google's, on the other hand, supports all popular platforms, including Apple devices. Apple still has a phenomenal platform and they sell a lot of devices. But at $35 Google Chromecast is pretty much irresistible.

So what happens when developers see huge sales of Chromecast devices? They become more interested in writing apps for the platform. In fact, they start coming up with apps that leverage the platform in ways Google probably never imagined, and that's where the real game-changing ideas are hatched.

Here are the critical questions you need to ask: How can your content be enhanced on the big screen? What features, services and elements could be added to your products that don't make sense on the smaller screen?

Chromecast is red hot and currently on backorder. I'm not convinced it, or Google's platform, is predestined to be the ultimate winner. Someone could easily come along with an even better mousetrap.

What Chromecast is teaching us though, is that we need to put aside all our biases and open our minds to imagining (and inventing!) all the new ways content will be consumed in the future.

Structured documents for science: JATS XML as canonical content format

MollyIt’s only my 7th day on the job here at PLOS as a product manager for content management. So it’s early days, but I’m starting to think about the role of JATS XML in the journal publishing process.

I come from the book-publishing world, so my immediate challenge is to get up to speed on journal publishing. And that includes learning the NISO standard JATS (Journal Archiving and Interchange Tag Suite). You may know JATS by its older name, NLM. As journal publishing folks know, JATS is used for delivering metadata, and sometimes full text, to the various journal archives.

But here’s where journal and book publishing share the same dilemma: just because XML is a critically important exchange format, is it the best authoring format these days? Should it be the canonical storage format for full text content? And how far upstream should XML be incorporated into the workflow?

Let’s look at books for a minute. The book-publishing world has standardized on an electronic delivery format of EPUB (and its cousin, MOBI). This standardization has helped publishers drill down to a shorter list of viable options for canonical source format. Even if most publishers haven’t yet jumped to adopt end-to-end HTML workflows, it’s clear to me that HTML makes a lot of sense for book publishing. Forward-thinking book publishers like O’Reilly are starting to replace their XML workflow with an HTML5/CSS3 workflow. HTML/CSS can provide a great authoring and editing experience, and then it also gets you to print and electronic delivery with a minimum of processing, handling, or conversion. (O’Reilly’s Nellie McKesson gave a presentation about this at TOC 2013.) And which technology will get the most traction and advance the most in the next few years, XML or HTML? I know which one I’m betting on.

In terms of canonical file format, journal publishing may have one less worry than book publishing, because many journals are moving away from print to focus exclusively on electronic delivery whereas most books still have a print component. Electronic journal reading—or at least article discovery—happens in a browser; therefore, HTML is the de facto principal delivery format. And as much as I’d like to think HTML is the only format that matters, I know that many readers still like to download and read articles in PDF format. But as I mentioned, spinning off attractive, readable PDF from HTML is pretty easy to automate these days. So I ask:

If XML is being used as an interchange format only, what do we gain from moving the XML piece of the workflow any further upstream from final delivery?

Well, why does anyone adopt an XML workflow? The key benefits are: platform/software independence (which HTML also provides), managing and remixing content to the node level (which is not terribly useful for journal articles), and transforming the content to a number of different output formats such as PDF, HTML, and XML (HTML5/CSS3 can be used for this transformation as well, with a bit of toolchain development work).

But XML workflows come with a hefty price tag. The obvious one is conversion, which is not just expensive, but costly in terms of the time it takes. Another downside is the learning curve for the people actually interacting with the XML—how many people should that be? In the real world, will you ever get authors, editors, and reviewers to agree to interact with their content as XML? So more likely than not, you’re either going to need to hide the fact that the underlying format is XML through a WYSIWYG-ish editor that you either buy or build (both are expensive), or you’re doing your XML conversion towards the end of the process. On a similar note, how easy is it to hire experienced XSL-FO toolchain developers? But developers who work in the world of HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript are plentiful.

So building an entire content management system and workflow for journal publishing around XML—specifically JATS XML, which is just one delivery format, that isn’t needed until basically the end of the process—doesn’t seem like a slam-dunk to me. I should clarify that using JATS XML for defining metadata does seem like the obvious way to go. But I’m not so sure it’s a good fit to serve as the canonical storage format for the full text. One idea is to separate article metadata from the article body text, to leverage the ease-of-editing of HTML for the text itself.

What about moving HTML upstream, and focusing efforts on delivering better, more readable HTML in the browser? What about shifting focus away from old print models and toward leveraging modern browser functionality, maybe by adding inline video or interactive models, or by making math, figures, and tables easier to read and work with?

Just to throw a curve ball into the discussion, I attended Markdown for Science last weekend, where Martin Fenner and Stian Håklev led the conversation about whether it makes sense to use markdown plus Git for academic authoring and collaboration. I want to hear from as many sides of the content format conversation as possible.

So, what do YOU think?

This article was written by contributor Molly Sharp, appeared earlier on the PLOS site and has been presented here with permission of the author. Molly has worked in various content management-related roles since the late 90′s, when she led the implementation of an XML editing and production system for Sybex, a tech book publisher. Most recently, Molly was the Director of Content Management at Safari Books Online, an electronic reference library of 30,000 tech & business titles, where she created and managed a Content Team to ensure the quality of incoming content; designed and maintained content-related processes and workflows; and managed a publishing partner community of more than 100 organizations.

Current state of formats and platforms

Remember the old days when PDF was pretty much the only way to distribute content and those PDFs were read on computer screens? PDF still lives, of course, but now we're also faced with offering content in mobi and EPUB formats for consumption on a variety of platforms and devices.

SPi Global released a free whitepaper this week that covers the current state of formats and platforms. It's called Demystifying the King: Making Content Available to All and you can download it here.

I like the quote on page 2 from Sara Domville about how we live in a "content explosion model" where "content has broken free of constraints and can be used in multiple ways." Many publishers are still struggling with converting print to digital and probably haven't fully thought through the opportunities in repurposing their content as Sara suggests. They're also asking themselves the important question posed on page 3 of the whitepaper: What is the most efficient way to bring content to market?

The legacy of PDF is evident later in the document where we read that 73% of publishers responding to an SPi Global survey say they're distributing in Adobe's format while only 60-64% are distributing in mobi or EPUB formats. So there are still a number of publishers who are in the ebook marketplace with PDFs only, obviously missing out on the largest retail opportunities at Amazon, Google, B&N, Kobo, etc.

On page 8 we read, "publishers want more readers supporting EPUB 3 functionalities so more adoption and budget can be put into developing EPUB 3 files." And I'll bet if reader app vendors were polled they'd say they're waiting for publishers to produce more content that takes full advantage of EPUB 3 features before investing their development resources to support it. The classic chicken-and-egg scenario.

If you're looking for a quick overview on what's going on in the world of formats and platforms you should download this whitepaper. It also has several other interesting stats on where the market is today as well as where we might be heading.

A Nate Silver book recommendation engine

It's NCAA tournament time here in the U.S. and plenty of bracketologists are turning to Nate Silver for his statistical expertise. Silver, of course, is known for his book, The Signal and the Noise, as well as predicting presidential elections and Major League Baseball player performance. I'm not aware of any statistical analysis he's done in the book recommendation space but I know someone who has applied Silver's thinking to help us figure out what book we should read next.

I'm talking about Stephanie Sun and a terrific article she wrote called Nate Silverizing Book Recommendations. I encourage you to read the entire piece, even if it's been awhile since your last statistics class.

As you read Stephanie's article, think about how book recommendation engines are likely to get better and better down the road. As she also points out, it's not just about helping consumers discover their next great read. This same analysis can also be used to help editors prioritize their time when faced with a stack of manuscripts to review.

Many will cringe when told that this sort of curation and serendipity can be reduced to an algorithm. That's not what anyone is suggesting though; the algorithm can simply be one of many tools to help improve discovery. And although it will never be perfect, look at how search engines have evolved since the early days of the web. Today we're often limited to the very simplistic "people who bought X also bought Y" type of recommendation. We're still in the early days of solving the discovery and recommendation problem in our industry and we need smart people like Stephanie Sun to drive improvement in our search and recommendation results.

High-quality PDF-to-EPUB conversion

How many times have you opened an ebook and noticed awkward hyphenations or other conversion errors? I still see this in the majority of the ebooks I buy and it’s clear these are the result of someone not paying attention during the conversion process. They may be minor annoyances but they reflect poorly on the publishers who produce them.

I recently had a chance to talk about this problem with Patrick Martinent, the CTO at Newgen KnowledgeWorks. They have a terrific platform called Silk Evolve that helps automate and reduce the errors when going from PDF to EPUB. The following Q&A is a preview to what you can expect to hear in Patrick’s session at next month’s TOC NY conference.