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7 posts from June 2013

The content concierge: Curation and personalization, not discovery

I'm convinced "the discovery issue" is an imaginary problem that only exists in the minds of publishers. Consumers generally don't care. When was the last time you worried about finding the next thing to read? That's rarely a concern because we're all drowning in content options. The same is true for most consumers.

Consumers don't fret about finding something new; I believe they're more concerned with staying ahead of the content onslaught and making sure they're reading the best content. That's a problem discovery doesn't solve.

At some point we'll experience a completely new content consumption model. Sure, you'll still be able to buy a magazine, a newspaper, an ebook, read a blog post, etc. But rather than sinking in the ever rising sea of content, we'll have the equivalent of a content concierge to help us navigate.

Computers are supposed to make our lives simpler, not more complicated, right? That's what some have led us to believe, but it's definitely not the case with content. The web, self-publishing and countless other innovations have only made it more challenging to focus our limited time on the content that's most valuable.

This is one of the reasons I love the magazine called The Week. You could spend seven straight days under a rock with no access to any type of media, but if you read the latest edition of The Week when you resurface you'll quickly catch up. The Week provides the highlights from the news sources their editors feel are most important. It doesn't lean left or right, pro or con on an issue; it generally provides both sides. We need more services like The Week.

You could argue services like this already exist. I don't think they're as complete and extensive as they'll be in the future though. Think about the topic of sports. ESPN does a phenomenal job providing news and opinions on all sports. They provide that content in articles, video, podcasts, emails, etc. What they don't offer though, are all the great opinions and content found in Sports Illustrated.

As broad as the ESPN franchise is, it focuses on ESPN content. Consumers don't want "either/or", they want "and". In this case, I want ESPN and Sports Illustrated. But I don't want everything simply dumped on me. I want it delivered like The Week does it; I want a content concierge who spends all their time reading everything and making suggestions, just like the hotel concierge does with local restaurants and attractions.

What we have today are the "print under glass", quick-and-dirty, p-to-e conversions we call ebooks. Similarly, we have digital reproductions of newspapers and magazines. It's the low-hanging fruit of the digital content world. We're even proud of the fact that the digital user interface is so similar to the print interface, as if anything different would be too hard for consumers to figure out. (Yes, I'm talking about you, curling digital page corners.)

If today's publishing industry had invented the automobile I'm quite certain we'd have reigns and stirrups, not a steering wheel and gas/brake pedals. (Here's a Tumblr page waiting to be created by someone: Call it, "If the publishing industry invented X", where "X" is any modern appliance, service, etc., that we can't live without. All the posts would show how the publishing industry applied yesterday's thinking to tomorrow's invention.) :-)

Rather than solving the imaginary discovery problem I think it's time to invest resources in how content will be consumed in the future. The content concierge doesn't have to be a person, btw. Some of this can be automated, or "computerized", as a former boss of mine used to say. It's not just about content selection though. The model of how the content is distributed and paid for needs to radically change as well.

That may not sit well with some publishers. Then again, I'm sure there were quite a few blacksmiths in the early 1900's who weren't too keen on the emergence of the combustion engine.

Expedited Morning Delivery: A solution in search of a problem

BusinessWeek is all hyped up about a new service they're offering print subscribers. It's called "expedited morning delivery." I first heard about it a couple of issues ago and didn't think much about it. Then when I went out to grab the morning paper late last week I found my next issue of BusinessWeek in with the paper. Here's what the BusinessWeek cover says:

We are pleased to announce that your magazine will now be hand delivered to your residence in the morning 1-2 days prior to when you previously received it.

My bubble thought: "how much money are they wasting on this meaningless initiative?" After all, if I'm really that anxious to get my hands on the next issue I'll simply go to the free digital version they include with my print subscription. The simple truth is I generally don't read BusinessWeek (or any other print magazine, for that matter) till a few days or so after it's arrived. I wonder how many other subscribers are like me and this does absolutely nothing for them.

Ironically, BusinessWeek's expedited delivery service comes in the same month that my print subscription expires...and I have no plans to renew. I love the magazine so why am I letting my subscription lapse? Two words: Next Issue. If you're not familiar with it, Next Issue is an all-you-can-read digital magazine subscription service that can't be beat. I've been a subscriber for a few months now and they're always adding new magazines to the list. BusinessWeek was recently added, so I see no reason to pay for a separate print subscription when I can access the same content via Next Issue. It's not cheap ($14.99/month) but it's well worth it, particularly since it allows me to cancel a few print magazine subscriptions.

There are two other great features of Next Issue that really appeal to me. First, I can share my subscription with my wife. We both like different magazines but we're covered under one subscription. She's got an iPad mini and I use an Android tablet; the user experience is the same across both platforms. Second, Next Issue promotes discovery. I'm reading a couple of magazines I never would have bothered to buy on their own. But since they're part of my existing subscription I'm reading them from time to time and extending their advertising reach.

So now I listen to most of my music via streaming services (primarily Spotify) and I get most of my magazine content from Next Issue. It won't be long before we'll see the same phenomenon with ebooks. For now, though, I'm still buying individual ebooks and waiting for a Next Issue-like service that meets my needs for longer-form content.

P.S. -- This BusinessWeek initiative reminds me of the famous Henry Ford quote:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

It seems BusinessWeek is actually trying to create faster horses. Silly idea.

My new job

I spent the last six weeks taking on some consulting projects and exploring full-time job opportunities. I've had the luxury of being very selective on both, but especially on the latter. My primary goal has been to find a role where I can have a significant impact on the organization's future. Culture is critical as well, of course; I've been looking for a team that's passionate about the business and where everyone is rallying around a common goal. Lastly, I made it clear I need to stay in Indiana, even if that means I'm on the road a lot.

I'm delighted to let you know that I've found the ideal solution that addresses all these objectives. On June 20th I'm officially joining the team at Olive Software. If you're not familiar with Olive it's probably because they only recently started expanding into the book publishing and eLearning space. Olive specializes in creating a digital presence for publishers and content owners. And although the organization is currently thriving, that's not where the Olive opportunity ends.

I spent time in Olive's Aurora office last week and came away thoroughly energized. I wanted to dive in and become a contributor to this team right then and there. I met several Olive employees throughout the day and each one of them left me with the same impression: they all love what they're doing, they deeply respect what their colleagues bring to the table and they're all enthusiastic about the future of the organization. What more could I ask for? :-)

I've got a few days to decompress a bit before I fully immerse myself in my new role at Olive next week. I can't tell you the last time I was this excited about a new job. Part of it has to do with the fact I'm stepping outside of the book publishing industry for the first time in many years. But as Kat Meyer and I realized long ago, the challenges that exist in book publishing are similar to the ones faced in other content creation and distribution industries; the length of the work and the frequency of publication doesn't really distinguish content as much in the digital model as it did in the print model.

Thanks to everyone who brought me on board for consulting work and to discuss full-time opportunities. These past six weeks have been a new experience for me and I've learned at least one very important lesson: Even though the traditional publishing industry is rapidly shrinking and the job openings are limited, there are plenty of interesting opportunities in adjacent businesses, particlarly with organizations that truly understand digital and aren't paralyzed by The Innovator's Dilemma.

Coming soon: A universal ereading app

Last May I decided to stop buying Kindle ebooks. I had already amassed a nice Kindle library but I felt it was time to move on, particularly since B&N was about to release the industry's first eInk device with built-in lighting. I bought their Nook with Glowlight on day one and proceeded to buy my ebooks from them. Over the past year I've occasionally bought ebooks from Google Play as well.

About six months ago I ditched that Nook eInk device and decided to do all my reading on my Nexus 7 tablet. I've been using the Nook app for Android since then and have grown increasingly frustrated with how long it takes to load longer books. Then I opened the latest version of the Kindle app on my Nexus and was blown away. It's so much nicer than the Nook app.

Since I'm no longer employed by a book publisher I also decided it's OK to start acting like all those other consumers who have flocked to Amazon for the best prices. I figure if most publishers aren't going to stand up and call a predator a predator, why should I? :-) The simple truth is the industry needs to change and that's exactly what's happening. The rate of change is just much faster (and painful for publishers) because Amazon is able to dictate so many of the new rules. As an outsider I'm starting to think maybe that won't be such a bad thing in the end. (Quite a change of opinion, don't you think?)

The result is I now have an ebook library that spans the platforms of Amazon, B&N and Google. I could use a tool like Calibre to break all the DRM and convert the files so they can be read on any platform. That's a hassle though. What I'd rather do is simply read any book in one reader app without breaking the law or going through a conversion process.

That concept might become more than a dream before too long. I'm told by ReDigi CEO John Ossenmacher that his team is working on a universal ereading app. You might have heard of ReDigi. It's the platform that lets you resell your digital music today and is planning to offer the same service for your ebooks tomorrow. John tells me that the ReDigi ereader app won't break any DRM and it will allow consumers to read all their ebooks from multiple retailers in one place. So no longer will you have to remember whether you bought that last ebook from Amazon or Google. You'll have your entire library in the ReDigi bookshelf and will be able to read them on a tablet without switching apps.

Sounds too good to be true, right? I would tend to agree, but John's team is pretty impressive and I wouldn't bet against them.

Let's assume for a moment that this universal ereading app is something consumers would opt into. You'd download it, tell it to scan your computer/tablet/phone/whatever and let it determine which of your ebooks were legitimately purchased from a major retailer or publisher. It would then move all those books into the ReDigi bookshelf where you could both read them and resell them. Kindle books would be on the same virtual shelf as Nook books, just like they should be.

Would consumers warm up to this platform? Would publishers? And is it possible that the downward pricing pressure would ease up a bit when consumers realize their ebooks will have finally have some resale value? 

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.