The Great Text-to-Speech Debate
Heading to ETech Conference

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?


John Osborn

Something to consider is whether the content of future books should be exposed through APIs that facilitate reuse of their content in a host of unanticipated ways, including the one you describe. At some level, how to content _is_ the platform, while how it is consumed perhaps is a matter to be opened to a new generation of publishing entrepreneurs. One can imagine a new kind of structured mashup that recognizes your experience, presents you with recommended readings, how-to videos and other instructional material drawn from open online content and then allows you to dive more deeply into topics you want to explore.

April L. Hamilton

Way to not only think outside the box Joe, but throw the box away! This is exactly the kind of thing Brantley, Jarvis and others were talking about at #TOC - rethinking the definition of the word "book", focusing on the content instead of the delivery system. But your idea introduces a new angle on the delivery system as well, and I think it's a good one. Ideal for tech books.

Only downside I can see is for publishers, who would no longer be able to sell books directed toward different levels of expertise on a given topic (i.e., Perl for Dummies, Perl Cookbook, Perl: The Missing Manual, Building Applications With Perl, Perl Theory - I made up all these names, but you get the idea). Instead, there would just be one, big, "smart" book on each topic, which the reader/user customizes to suit his needs and skill level.

Maybe the "smart" book could be sold at a higher price than a single copy of one of the regular books, but I don't think consumers will bite if it costs the same as buying all the regular books separately. Maybe the trick is to get away from calling it a "book" at all, and sell it as an application instead. After all, it would necessarily be digital.


I was looking for a book on Adobe Illustrator the other day. I found only one that was exactly what I was looking for. The others were either too basic or too advanced. So I can see a market for your super-book. The problem, I think, is that it would be inordinately expensive to create the universally applicable "smart" content.

Tim Shaffer

I empathize with Derek. I find I'm always stuck trying to find the books written to the intermediate user. The market is saturated with books for the entry level or the high end user. So I usually read the entry level book, then try to read the high end book and just get stuck. Then spend the next several months scraping up bits of info/tricks from the internet. Very frustrating since I work at one of the big tech publishing houses...

Tim Shaffer

Alastair Sweeny


Sounds like Web 3.0, or maybe 3.5.

You may be interested in my experience while I was writing my forthcoming book on the BlackBerry book. Knowing that I could never put as much as I wanted into the print version, I decided to create a Web support site:
which does far more than a book, in that it contains a wealth of clickable colour images, a glossary, full texts, videos, a glossary, a timeline, and best of all a sample chapter.

I'm using Mediawiki, the same open source software that drives Wikipedia. It is a wonderful Web authoring tool, but I have barely scratched the surface in using Mediawiki extensions. However the thought occurred to me that this kind of software could lead to what you are looking for, and some smart wiki code developers could come up with enough extensions to give you your tailored book. Maybe by adding in a kind of one to one social networking extension, and a form of what your friend Tim O'Reilly calls "personal CRM" - customer relationship management.

Here is a list of all the extensions available for Mediawiki:

You could design templates to automatically deliver customized content (assembling new pages) depending on what you plugged in as your interests. Think your own personal mini Wikipedia, available by subscription. You could of course also tailor your own personal morning newspaper - you can already do this with RSS - so this would be a way of delivering dynamic content to your tailored book to make sure you were up to date.

Alastair Sweeny
V-P Development
Northern Blue Publishing
Skype: northernblue

Bob DuCharme

As a platform, the DITA standard and the extensive software support for it makes this possible, and aerospace, etc. companies use it (often with open source software such as the DITA Open Toolkit) to generate customized publications. If you wanted to start with that, you'd have a huge head start in getting where you want to go. The difficulty is not the existence of the right platform, but this:

>Every piece would have to be rigorously tagged
>to enable this dynamic presentation

Volunteer, user-generated tags won't be rigorous. I think folksonomies are great, but if you want rigor, you need top-down, carefully maintained taxonomies, and applying terms from the taxonomy (among other metadata) well to content chunks in order to enable the automated generation of the kinds of customization you're looking for costs money. With DITA as the platform, companies like Boeing spend the money to have this metadata added to content chunks for aircraft maintenance manuals, but it will be tough to fit those costs into the business model of a crafts or computer book publisher.

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