Vook App: Reckless Road Guns N' Roses

Picture 1 I've mentioned before that I'm skeptical the road to rich content is as simple as integrating video with the written word.  So when I was approached to review a Vook app called Reckless Road (Guns N' Roses and the Making of Appetite for Destruction) I said I'd be happy to review it but I also explained my bias up front.  The fellow who requested the review was pretty convinced he's got a terrific product and still wanted my feedback, good or bad.  Now that I've had some time to read through Reckless Road and watch many of the videos included in it I can see the value of the Vook approach. It lends itself well to a product like this. Earlier Vook samples I looked at last year felt forced, as though there had to be a certain number of videos for every written piece; the result wasn't all that interesting to me.

With Reckless Road, however, I became more curious as I went along. This is probably due to the fact that I'm always fascinated by behind-the-scenes looks at things, especially rock bands.  It also helps that the author, Marc Canter, is a close friend of the band and collected all sorts of great photos and other memorabilia over the years.  That said, I was never much of a fan of Guns N' Roses, but reviewing this app makes me wish similar ones were available for the bands I followed back in the 70's. Remember that old VH1 series, Behind the Music (the original ones, back when they covered great bands like Thin Lizzy)? Canter's Vook app feels like a modern version of that approach, with the added benefit that you can hop around the story to your heart's content, without having to remember to record it on a VCR!

For $4.99 this is an app any Guns N' Roses fan would greatly appreciate.  I'm hoping the Vook folks can get insiders to create similar ones for Led Leppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and some of the other timeless bands from the greatest era in rock.

The Uber-Index

Infinity The Rich Content post I wrote back on March 29th keeps popping into my head.  I think our industry has spent way too much time trying to force-fit video and other types of content in with the written word.  Meanwhile, the real solution to rich content has probably been right here under our noses the whole time: the index.  Actually, what I'm talking about should be called an "index on steroids" or an uber-index.

For years publishers have generated those backmatter elements we've grown to know, love and rely on...the index.  Index specialists are charged with finding all the critical terms, synonyms and other entries then compiling them into one of the most important elements of the book.  Up to now those indexes have been static and almost exclusively focus on providing pointers within the book the where index appears.  In tomorrow's ebook, the uber-index should grow as more related content is available on websites, blogs, other books, apps, etc.

Liza Daly expressed a similar vision in this excerpt from an iPad-related interview she did with The New York Times about a week after my "Rich Content" blog post:

I see the consummate iPad reading experience to be one that is, on the surface, traditional: heavily textual, quiet, hand-held. But lurking beneath the words is the whole Internet, ready to be questioned — “Find other works that quoted this,” “Where was the Marshalsea prison?”, “Which of my friends is also reading this?”, “What is that attractive person across from me reading?”

None of that requires a publisher to “enhance” the e-book prior to publication. A truly modern e-reader is one that is intimately connected to the Web and allows a user to make queries as a series of asides, while reading or after immersive reading has ended.

So what this all means is that authors and publishers could continue to build books they way they've done for hundreds of years, but a new effort needs to be dedicated to the index itself.  Not the print index, of course, but the uber one that works within the e-reader.

Imagine an e-reader/app that lets you read a book in the traditional way but below the surface it offers smart links to all the related content and resources you could hope for.  As I mentioned in the 3/29 post, some of this could be automated but then it's little more than a set of algorithm-based search results.  I want something more and I'll bet you do too.

How about applying the wisdom of the masses to the problem?  Just as the Wikipedia provides encyclopedia-length entries on subjects far and wide, what if there were a community-based service that created nothing but the most relevant pointers to all the best content?

You're an expert in 70's music and you spend all your waking hours looking for the best sites, videos, interviews, etc., on the subject  Why not share your discoveries about Thin Lizzy and Mott The Hoople by adding to and helping curate the uber-index on these topics?  The uber-index would then be made available to e-reader apps so that when someone clicks on Glen Frey's name in Don Felder's (terrific!) book about The Eagles, Heaven & Hell, they'll immediately have access to a growing list of outside resources that confirm Felder's point that Frey was a complete jerk!

All of this functionality would be included, btw, with little to no work required by the publisher.  A utility would run the book's contents against the uber-index and generate all the relevant links.  You could do this when you buy the book or periodically as you're reading it, to make sure it's always up-to-date.

How about that?  An infinitely deep index, the uber-index, that dramatically enhances and extends the reading experience while preserving it at the same time.  Isn't that what we're all after?

P.S. -- Now take it a step further.  Are you familiar with the "Sponsored Links" area of the Google search results?  These are the links someone has paid to have included in your search results  Why not introduce a sponsored link section to this as well, where monetization can occur?  So when you pull up the menu for Glen Frey mentioned earlier it also includes a paid link from Amazon where you can buy his latest CD, if you're so inclined.  Click that link and the publisher/author get a cut of the sponsored link payment.  If a substantial enough AdSense-like ecosystem builds up around this it creates an additional revenue stream that could be shared by all parties.

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.

Jon Fine on Web Video

BusinessweekI remembered just how much I missed BusinessWeek when the first issue of my new subscription arrived last weekend.  I let my print subscription lapse several months ago, but after giving up on the hope that Amazon would offer it for the Kindle, I recently gave in to an offer (one year for $30) and I read this first issue cover to cover on a recent flight.

I'm mentioning it here because I also missed Jon Fine's excellent Media Centric columns.  The one in the current issue is well worth reading as it talks about making money on web video.  He raises one particularly important point:

If video on the Internet merely meant "television," as CBS Interactive CEO Quincy Smith puts it, then that network's top show, "CSI," would be its most popular online.  (It isn't.  Reality series "Survivor" is.)

and asks an equally intriguing question:

"What is the fantasy football for entertainment?"

The two are deeply intertwined.  It's easy for us book publishers to think that our greatest hits in print should become our greatest hits online, but that logic misses the point.  You've got to rank each title's ability to drive an community online.  Some books have loads of potential while others have almost none.

Fantasy football is the perfect analogy.  Twenty years ago, who would have thought there would be an entirely new industry like this built around the NFL?  Heck, my own son is now a fantasy addict and he never cared about the NFL till a couple of years ago!

The question we have to ask ourselves is, "What sorts of titles, authors and other publishing properties most lend themselves to a fantasy football-like enthusiasm?"  The answer may have no correlation to your best-selling print products.

Text vs. Video

TV Remember that post I wrote a few days ago about how video killed the radio star and publishing is next?  Steve Rubel uncovers some valid reasons why text still rules in this Micro Persuasion blog post.

I can totally relate to Steve's first point about how text is scannable and video is not.  I can't tell you how many short videos I didn't watch, simply because that initial frame that's frozen in the YouTube box didn't grab me.  That's worse than judging a book by its cover, right?!

As much as I believe in the future Steve's post highlights some challenges that exist today.  Some of these issues might get resolved down the road (e.g., SEO) while others could be trickier to address (e.g., the slacker perception at work).

Video Killed the Radio Star...Is Publishing Next?

Wired_logo The latest (very small) issue of Wired magazine features an article from Clive Thompson called This is Your Brain on Video.  It's a good read for anyone but particularly important for those of us in the publishing world.  Here's my favorite excerpt:

In a sense, you could argue that even after 100 years of moving pictures, we still don't know what video is for.  The sheer cost of creating it meant we used it for a stiflingly narrow set of purposes: news, documentaries, instructional presentations.

Those limits are rapidly changing, of course, thanks to sites like YouTube.  They're having dramatic effects on publishers as more and more Googlers are finding excellent short how-to videos to solve their problems.

I was a perfect example of this a few months ago as I embarked on a project to replace some carpeting in our house with hardwood flooring.  I had zero flooring experience prior to this project but a quick Google search turned up several short (5-7 minute) how-to videos.  I watched a couple of them, tore up the carpets and never looked back.  A few years ago I would have bought a flooring guide at Lowe's or Home Depot.  There's no need for that now with all the great free videos right at your fingertips.

Looking back, I wonder if the publishers of all those home improvement how-to guides are even aware of the free videos that are chipping away at their revenue base.  If you're in the publishing industry have you done much research to see how video is affecting your business?  If it isn't already it will be soon.

Enhancing Print Content

Barcode Does anyone remember the ill-fated CueCat barcode scanners that supposedly were going to change how we interact with print content?  You'd see a code in a magazine, scan it with the CueCat connected to your computer and your browser would automatically go to related content.  The idea didn't work, mostly (I believe) because we rarely read magazines, newspapers, books, etc., when we're right next to our computer.  It wasn't a portable solution.

The iPhone, on the other hand, is a portable solution and the built-in camera offers the ability to read barcodes...at least in theory.  I played around a bit this morning with an iPhone barcode reader app called NeoReader and got mixed results at best.  Even if the technology is currently far from perfect, the concept is interesting and the capabilities will improve over time.

Wouldn't it be cool to embed small barcodes throughout magazines, newspapers and books so that when a reader snaps a picture of them with their iPhone it loads a video showing more information about that topic?  You're making a recipe from a cookbook and you're not quite sure which ingredients get mixed together first.  Grab your iPhone, take a picture of the barcode next to the recipe and watch a short video of how the dish is made.

Better yet, how many times have you pulled your hair out trying to assemble a child's toy, a piece of furniture or any one of a zillion other products with lousy documentation?  What if all these vendors were to create short videos of each step and make them accessible via barcode scans right in the doc?  If you're not a visual learner you can continue using the awful written instructions; the rest of us will gladly reach for our iPhones to see how it's done!

You've undoubtedly noticed that I'm biased towards one particular platform, mostly because in less than two weeks I too have become one of those annoying iPhone snobs.  In reality though, what I'm describing could work for any phone with a camera and video playback capabilities.

The difference between this and the CueCat is that I almost always have my iPhone handy and I can easily make sure it's next to whatever project I'm currently working on.  It's an interesting model because it doesn't cost any more from a printing perspective.  And while there's a cost associated with creating and hosting the videos, this opens the door for new sponsorships and/or advertising revenue streams, not to mention a much richer reader/user experience.  (I'm not sure how it's paying off for them but the Pandora iPhone app interface is a nice model for sponsorship income, at least from a user point of view.)

Adobe Media Player: Nice Features, No Content

AmpCliff Edwards recently wrote this insightful BusinessWeek article about the Adobe Media Player.  I'm a sucker for the latest online video service so I thought I'd give it a try.

The verdict?  Sure, it's yet another nice, slick utility that shows a lot of promise, but where's the content?  The product's home page features a video of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show (one of my favorites), but the service currently offers zero Comedy Central videos (these are listed as "coming soon").  There's a fair amount of content that you're likely to find on a variety of other services, but nothing special to lure you in to the Adobe platform.

On the plus side, if you're a fan of The Twilight Zone, as I am, you'll find a great archive of the Rod Serling classics.  Commercials are included, but hey, we didn't even have remote controls or color TV's (let alone DVRs) when these things originally aired!

What Does the Technology Add?

We_tell_stories_2As a publisher focusing on the professional IT sector, I ask myself this question a lot: What does the technology add?  Is this new tool or release measurably different from the others?  Will it enable users to create products faster, less expensively, with more useful features...or all of the above?

I found myself asking the same question when I recently read about this project, The 21 Steps, by Charles Cumming, which is part of Penguin's We Tell Stories initiative.  In The 21 Steps, Cumming uses Google's satellite imagery to help tell the story.  Different?  Yes.  Functional use of the technology to enhance the reading experience?  I'm not so sure.

To be fair, I only got through the first three chapters before I lost interest.  Perhaps it's because I'm not into fiction, but I found the text and imagery integration lacking as well.  I didn't see the benefit to having the animated movements on the satellite images.  I also got pretty tired of clicking again and again, just to read the next sentence or two.  In short, if technology is added to the formula for something like this, I feel it should improve the overall experience; in this case, it seemed to weigh it down.

I'm also not the sort of person who thinks in terms of satellite views.  I'm more of a street level guy and I suspect I'm not alone.  After all, we see and experience things from a street-view view, not an overhead one, so it forces you to constantly adjust your perspective as you're reading through the screens.

Before anyone jumps down my throat on this, please realize that I absolutely love the fact that Penguin is experimenting with technology on this project.  If I published into the fiction area I'd be jealous that I didn't think of this approach.  The lessons that can be learned from the pioneers like Penguin will help benefit everyone in the long run.

For example, as I ran through those chapters of The 21 Steps, I started to think about other applications for a narrative-map mashup.  Think about travel guides for a moment.  A walking tour of a city with travel guide content spliced into satellite map displays would be cool.  Switching to street-level view instead of satellite probably makes it better.  Offering the capability to flip between both is better yet.

I'd also like to see more content goodies sprinkled throughout, and perhaps this is where community content could come into play.  Maybe the tour features great pictures from previous visitors or recommendations they have for future visitors.  Let them be ranked by the community itself so that only the top show up as push-pins on the screen.

The device has to be considered here as well.  If I'm doing the tourist thing it's unlikely that I'm carrying around something larger than a cell phone or Blackberry.  You can't design this for a computer when it's being used on a display that's much smaller.  This is where the Kindle might evolve into something highly useful.  Imagine a next-generation Kindle with a color display.  The Kindle's Whispernet technology would enable cellphone-like connectivity with a larger, but still portable display.

So again, I applaud Penguin's efforts here and although I'm not convinced this is anything more than technology for technology's sake, there's much to be learned from the experiment itself.

Bookwrap Central

Bookwrap_2Here's a cool little service I stumbled upon this evening (thanks to the Big Bad Book Blog).  Bookwrap Central features video clips of authors talking about their book, what's unique about it, what inspired them, etc.

I like the idea but I have a hard time envisioning success as a standalone service.  If I'm looking to buy a book online I go right to the vendor (e.g., Amazon, B&N, etc.)  No matter how compelling the video content might be I'd almost never think to visit Bookwrap first.  And while you can buy directly off the Bookwrap site, they'll probably never have the breadth and depth of Amazon, for example.

Wouldn't this be a cool new feature for the online bookseller sites though?  I'd almost always click on a video or two as I'm making a purchase decision on an Amazon page, for example.  If you're annoyed by that sort of thing you would simply avoid clicking on the play button, but I'd get a lot of use out of it.

Widgets represent another excellent opportunity for this service.  I use the LibraryThing widget on my blog but the covers are fairly static objects on the screen.  I'd love to see LibraryThing integrate a video feature like this so that you could click on one of those covers and a small video screen would pop up with the author telling the story behind the book.