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4 posts from February 2014

The sorry state of ebook search results

Why is Google so popular and how does it quickly help you find what you’re looking for? It’s all about their algorithm. Google uses a variety of metrics, including how many inbound links a site has, to determine what’s in their search results and how those results are presented.

Imagine Google without their algorithm. Rather than using all these metrics to figure out which site is most relevant, they just give you a list of sites that happen to contain your search phrase. Pretty worthless, right? So why do we accept that same, lame functionality in ebooks today?

Let’s look at an example. I remember reading Jean Edward Smith’s terrific FDR biography awhile back and wanting to go back to re-read the details about Hyde Park. The author provided information about the location earlier and I wanted to find that specific part of the book. Here’s what I got in the Kindle in-book search results:

Hyde park

What an awful user experience. I get every instance of the phrase, listed in the order of appearance in the book. There’s absolutely no indication of how in-depth the coverage of Hyde Park is in any section; I’m left to figure that out on my own.

Now take a look at these search results:

Olive results

There I searched for the phrase “BeagleBone” in a technology book and each of the results has a score associated with them; the results with higher scores offer more in-depth coverage of the topic.

How did I produce those results? They came from an ebook reading platform that does much more than simply reproduce “print under glass.” The content comes into the system as a simple, text-embedded PDF. It’s then analyzed and converted to render in a browser-based reading engine. No third-party apps or plug-ins are required.

The magic is in the content ingestion process. This platform knows when a phrase appears in a first-level heading vs. a second-level heading as well as how many times it appears on that page or in that section. In short, it applies technology to produce a far superior set of search results. 

When will we see this type of functionality in any of the popular ebook reading apps? I’m not holding my breath. The leading vendors apparently don’t see a need to bring their search capabilities out of the dark ages.

If you’d like to learn more about this platform you’ll find summary information here. You’ll also notice it’s the ebook platform solution offered by my employer, Olive Software, Inc. I may not be a book publisher anymore but I’m thrilled to be part of an organization that’s helping lead the industry forward. Relevance-ranked search is just one of the cool innovations that sets us apart. Let me know if you’d like to learn more.

The birth of the Social Media Serial

Jade_Maitre_750pxA few weeks ago, Joe discussed the importance of placing content "where the eyes already are", and creating an experience for readers that is "fully integrated" – or at least, as close to that as possible.

His article struck a chord with me, because I am about to embark upon a reading experiment that is, to my knowledge, the first of its kind. On April 1st 2014, I am releasing my prize-listed novel, A Short Death, for free on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr. Called a “Social Media Serial”, the book will be serialized into chronological social-media-friendly chunks, allowing readers to receive the latest installments simultaneously, in the convenience of their newsfeeds.

In this experiment I am teasing out the extent to which social media can enthrall us across a more sustained narrative. More importantly, I am seeking to discover new ways that writers can connect with readers in a shared experience.

Where did my inspiration come from?

I’m a photographer as well as a writer. In the world before social media, when I used to send photos to my friends by email, few people opened the attachments. But when I put my photos on Facebook, my images suddenly had a more engaged audience.

I looked at Farmville. And poking. And all those other useless things that people were doing and telling me about in regular newsfeed updates. The more I mused on these quaintly absurd and wasteful uses of our time, the more I realized why people were looking at my photos. When you are in the Facebook universe, you look for reasons to stay there. The inexorable pull of social media makes you want to be there in case something happens, even if nothing does. You form relationships with your news feed. On one level, you begin to live there.

Then I wrote a book

A Short Death was an experimental fiction. It told the story of Se, a sweet and hapless nineteen year old teenage boy who was killed on the beach in broad daylight in Rio de Janeiro. Inspired by a real murder that I witnessed in Brazil in 2005, the fictional account that I later created sought to unnerve the reader; to invoke the same kind of confusion and emptiness I felt the day it happened. The story I wrote was set in an absurd universe that emulated Brazil in its places, its language and symbols, but remained removed from the country Brazilians would recognize as their own. Its use of the second person heightened the sense of discomfort; of being a foreigner in Brazil, or indeed anywhere, regardless of literal home.

It was short-listed for Australia’s largest prize for an unpublished manuscript. It went through a few cycles of feedback and editing with a commercial publishing house. In the end this process stopped because the commercial and artistic concerns of the project failed to align. To be specific, the reader’s report requested that Se be rewritten like Holden Caulfield. I felt that was at odds with its genre as absurd fiction. I put the book away in the proverbial bottom drawer and decided to think before I decided what to do with it.

What are books?

Books are of course products: mysterious products that may or may not resonate with readers, subject to the whimsies of timing and trends. The way in which all these soap bubbles seek to rise to the top is via exclusion: more than music or art, the worth of a book rides upon its authority. Authors and publishers define themselves by referring, specifically or implicitly, to a supposed objective quality that makes the book worth reading. This is our idea of a good book. There is a sense that it is something objectively inherent in the work.

Yet inspiring a reader in this way can ignore the nature of a book as a two-way process. It mistakes publishing for a presentation rather than a relationship. In truth, it’s a communication. And while we often think of solitary writers plunking away at their keyboard, and lone readers thumbing a paperback on a hammock in the sun, in doing so we can mistake the form for the substance. A story is a shared experience; never private. The writer and readers share the world of the book.

Accordingly, I felt that offering A Short Death to its readers should invoke something more than objective qualities. Better understood as a shared moment between reader and author, I turned my mind to how the reader could feel the story of Se’s death on a beach in Brazil in their private lives, viscerally, as they read.

How is the Social Media Serial different from an e-book?

I decided that a Social Media Serial could accentuate the shared experience of a book. To communicate with readers where they were, merging the world of the book with their own private worlds, and in a forum where they might easily communicate their synchronized momentary experiences with others sharing the journey.

A Short Death will therefore take place where readers are already congregating, and create an integrated experience that will allow them to enjoy the content without having to go elsewhere to find it. In seeing the book appear on their news feeds, it has the opportunity to become integrated with their usual daily activities; to merge with their real social lives.

I also sought out other artists to see if we could collectively invoke sensations that would stimulate this idea of an experience more intensely while reading the book. In this fashion, A Short Death is also an artistic collective that offers extra-sensory stimulation complementary to the story.

Aurally, from April 1, musician Oliver Grimball’s album Anodyne Holiday will set the soundtrack for the ten week journey into the life of Se. It is complementary to the style of the story, and very much sets the scene for reading. As an independent album, Anodyne Holiday is a turntablist, music and lyric driven project where Oliver blends classic hip hop with spoken word. As a compliment to the novel, it similarly explores new territories. Described in the press as "…visionary in a way that hip hop nowadays seldom dares to be,” the album was said to have wordplay that is “origami like - microcosmic with hyperlinks throughout; smooth from the heart to hit the cardiac dead center."

For people seeking physical and visual overlaps between the story and life, readers will also be able to purchase fashion inspired by the plot, designed by the talented Paris-based underground street artist, Spizz.

In terms of temporality, there is a sense that the main character, Se, will be 'born' at the launch of the book on the 1st of April. When the book finishes on the 12th of June, the book will be removed from all social media channels, emulating his death once more.

Following the story as it unfolds on social media will ask readers to enter into the experience of the book with a spirit of openness; preparing them to feel provoked and unsettled, and offering them a participatory role in a shared momentary experience.

These are the aspirations of the Social Media Serial.

What do I hope to gain from releasing a book like this?

That you experience a new way of reading. You can read A Short Death by following on FacebookTwitter, Pinterest or Tumblr.

This article was written by contributor Jade Maitre. Jade is a writer and photographer who is passionate about creativity and media. She has worked as an editor for human rights publications at UNESCO, a communications consultant for NGOs, was the director of two artistic projects in Brazil, and wrote online news, interviews and gossip for MTV Australia. She has also been published as a travel writer and a journalist. She currently photographs for Getty Images and is the co-founder of the premium site for European vacation photographers, TripShooter. Jade is currently based in France.

Individual vs. all-you-can-read subscriptions

As we move forward into the ever-changing digital content world, publishers have to ask themselves what type of subscription model will dominate in the future. Publishers are used to the simple individual model, where a consumer buys access for a single title (e.g., newspaper or magazine).

All-you-can-read models have become quite popular recently. These are the ones where a consumer pays one monthly fee and gets access to a number of different titles. One of the more popular services is Next Issue, which provides dozens of magazines for one monthly fee.

All-you-can-read models aren’t limited to newspapers and magazines. Services like Books24x7 and Safari Books Online have provided consumers with unlimited access to books on technology and business for many years now. Startups like Oyster are also getting attention.

Having been affiliated with Safari earlier in my career I can tell you that publishers have been, and are still, nervous about participating in these all-you-can-read models. They worry they won’t make much money and that the services devalue their content. Many authors share that point of view.

There’s some merit to these concerns, but publishers need to think about the added reach they enable for their content. Subscribers who might not otherwise discover or read this content now have access to it and publishers earn a fee that’s prorated based on how much of it is consumed.

It seems inevitable that we’ll see more and more of the all-you-can-read models in the future. It’s what consumers are starting to demand, so publishers who decide not to opt in do so at their own risk.

And while all-you-can-read models are going to gain momentum, there’s no reason for publishers to assume the individual subscription model will go away; the future of the individual subscription depends on the value proposition.

Publishers need to ask themselves, “what value can I add to an individual subscription that’s not part of the all-you-can-read model?” They need to think about what additional content they can offer consumers to get them to stick with an individual product subscription. For book, newspaper or magazine publishers, that might mean more rich content (video). It might mean more updated content. It might also mean more bonus content (e.g., material that didn’t make it into the book/newspaper/magazine).

I think publishers should participate in both models. The risk of not being part of the all-you-can-read model is irrelevance; your content no longer matters to the consumer who pays for the all-you-can-read model.

I can say from first-hand experience that this is exactly what’s happening with me. I’m a Next Issue subscriber and I can’t keep up with all the magazines they provide. I don’t have time to even consider magazines that aren’t in the Next Edition catalog, and that can’t be a good for situation non-participating publishers to find themselves in.

How I would fix the paywall model

The digital content industry is infatuated with a paywall pendulum that keeps swinging back and forth, from one extreme to the other. Remember when paywalls were considered a roadblock to achieving the broadest reach possible and all the revenue problems could be solved with advertising?

That didn’t work, so now a lot of newspaper publishers and pundits are saying paywalls are the future (again). Paywalls are rapidly going up around content that used to be freely accessible with no limits. On the one hand, I think this makes sense. After all, how can newspapers expect consumers to pay a monthly subscription when the exact same content is available for free on the publisher’s website?