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7 posts from March 2009

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?!)