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What is a "book-plus" and who are tomorrow's readers?

Amy July 2014Some people think the book is dead, much as Joe referred to obsolete single-use devices like the GPS while discussing the potential for peer-to-peer content distribution. The truth is, we're living in a world that's going to want and need not necessarily more books in general, but more great books. These books won't be plain-text as so many are today. They'll be book-plus, not book-minus.

One of the biggest lessons of self-publishing and the e-book explosion is that form and function are inextricably intertwined. What goes between the covers of a book (or on an e-reader or tablet) matters. We have tools and technology right now (EPUB3) to make books that are visually exciting, and which present imagery, type design and interactive elements in ways that work together to delight readers.

Form is one aspect of innovation. Content, i.e. writing, art, and design: these things also need to be made better in order to meet the expectations and needs of readers.

Let's take writing itself, for example. For some reason, even among publishing veterans, many people think that writing a good book that delivers value to the reader is some sort of accident – or they think it's something that is best-done under extreme adverse conditions (such as working in a hostile environment for free for years). Writing is may also be assumed to be a simple skill anyone can learn quickly from reading a couple of books or taking a $99 "Masterclass" provided by video instruction.

Of the over 2 million books published each year, fewer than 20 sell more than 250,000 copies – and of those, some are multiple editions of the same book/author (i.e. paperback and movie tie-in versions). Those same crazy big numbers also tell us that a lot of people desire to communicate with others via the written word.  We have more books than ever before, but we don't have better ones. We also don't have books that meet the needs of all of today's potential readers, much less the readers of tomorrow.

Book innovation isn't about quantity of product or "discoverability." It's not about devices or technology. Today's innovators in other industries aren't making new tools, they're inventing new ways to use the tools we already have. Take Slack for example. Slack is taking the working world by storm, revolutionizing how teams work together. The company took marketing and development inspiration from Michael Schrage's 2012 book (yes, book – published by the Harvard Business Review) Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?

According to Schrage, "innovation is an investment in your customer’s future — a human capital investment in who your customers really want or need to become."

Currently, about 20 percent of North Americans regularly buy and read books (about 70 million people). This percentage hasn't shifted much in recent years. Although book quantity has increased exponentially, book quality in physical and objective content measures hasn't. Almost 80 percent of North Americans have read at least one book in the prior year, far more than have listened to all genres of music, used Facebook, bought a movie ticket or watched the Super Bowl. The highest rate of readership is found among a group that media sometimes portrays as non-readers: African-Americans. Media also portrays millennials as online consumers, not readers. The truth is, young people ages 18 to 30 read more, and more often than any other age group. They prefer paper books to e-books for reasons of quality, user experience, and personal benefit from reading. You can see these facts reflected in the 2014 PW sales figures.

These facts are all opportunities for innovation.

Despite the technology that has enabled a large number of people to self-publish books – the publishing industry and nearly all of its elements and operational systems hasn't changed much since Jack London's day. The only difference is that now, self-published writers can directly reach readers. They still have to perform all the other tasks that go into making, publishing and selling a book in any format.

Books are still made and sold with the same attitude and approach as they were during a time in which a much smaller number of "elites" were literate and had time and money to buy and read books. In those days, Henry Ford famously said, "If I'd have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse."

Ford inspired Apple's Steve Jobs (who equally famously - and wrongly - declared "No one reads any longer" – ironically, the iPad is the best delivery system for enhanced e-books today, far superior to the Amazon Kindle, a product that Jobs was criticizing at the time).

"We build products that really turn us on," Jobs told Fortune in 2008. "It's not about pop culture and it's not about fooling people, and it's not about convincing people that they want something they don't. We figure out what they want."

We can feel what today's young readers want in their aspirations, hopes and idealism. We can see their openness to change, their embracing of diversity. Our young people are encouraged to participate equally in school, learn as part of collaborative teams, and express their thoughts openly. They graduate to a world of one-sentence pitches, arrogant agents, elitism, aggression, "fan communities," social media "platforms," and false market-driven conformity that assumes they are stupid herd beasts.

As one young reader recently said at San Diego's Comic-Con: "I like paper books because they're not like my tech. Their batteries don't run out." He said he enjoyed reading something that made his heart beat faster and put his mind in a better place. He spent about an hour reading Is SHE Available? "It's not like other books," he said. "It's a lot more. I have to go slow. It's overwhelming."

Is SHE Available? has blown everyone involved in making it away, and everyone who's bought and read it. Making it managed to bring the best out of everyone involved, from the author to the book designer to each of the 26 artists involved, the animators, and the musical artist/recording director.

The current sub-set of regular e-book readers are fine with e-book text dumped on a screen, but the majority of people don't just want text dumped on a screen and aren't interested in the same stories re-told with slight variations. This is one of the reasons why younger readers prefer paper books. If art, video, and music are included, it should serve the book well, not be tacked on as an afterthought. The writer has to be involved at all steps, not left behind at the production gate. Books, ideally, should be designed with readers in mind, not dumped into flat, HTML-based formats or crammed onto the smallest number of printed pages possible to save a few nickels.

Is SHE Available? is Chameleon's showpiece and first major publication. It won't be our last.

Thank you to Joe for giving us this opportunity to present our vision. It's about product, process, and value to the reader. Henry Ford loved cars and manufacturing and money: he created drivers. Steve Jobs loved tech and user interfaces, accessing data and other people and communicating and working: he created users.

We love words, ideas and books. Not for yesterday and not even for today. We want to create readers and writers for our world of 8 billion, not 70 million.

This article was written by Amy Sterling Casil. Amy is Founder and President of Chameleon Publishing, Inc., the visionary publishers of "Is SHE Available?". 


Igor Goldkind

Writing as the author of IS SHE AVAILABLE? (published by Amy Sterling Casil at Chameleon), I can only concur with her article above. Not because she's my publisher but because she's right: IS SHE? is a bold attempt not only to reintroduce literature to a screen audience (poetry is the second least popular art form in America today); but to pull the curtain away from the traditional publishing model and expose what it takes to be a successful publisher and an author in today's publishing market.

As a publisher, the task is not just to publish books that sell, but to publish books that are worth buying. There's a distinction there that is not mutually exclusive, but paramount and largely over looked by the big players.

As an author, the task is not just to make a living from writing or accumulating Facebook 'likes' and retweets to publicize a book, but to generate a work of value that speaks for itself; that markets itself because it has an innate value that begs to be shared.

Enhancing a work with multimedia or even just pouring text into an Adobe template is not the best use of the tools. Technology merely offers new forms, new formats for content. It is not a substitute for the content. Chameleon's approach (and as demonstrated in IS SHE AVAILABLE?), is to start with the core vision of the work; the intention behind the words and then achieve the best channels to convey that vision.

Reading is a highly subjective, intimate experience. I take a book to bed more often than any other companion. The intimacy of reading often feels dispersed on the screen, less personal, less relevant to me within the moment I read the words. What I read on the screen often feels more ephemeral, more public and less direct a transmission from the author to my mind.

But that's not the fault of the screen. It is the fault of authors and publishers who preemptively 'adapt' the natural intimacy of their work for the screen, for the mysteriously intimidating 'digital realm'. This is the mistake Chameleon avoided in producing the IS SHE AVAILABLE? eBook. By consistently returning to the intention of the work; by me and the typographic design maestro Rian Hughes. In pushing the limits of the tools (and in some instances, reshaping them) to conform to the requirements of the work, Chameleon delivered the integrity of the work on both the electronic and print platforms.

If this goes against the grain of electronic publishing conventions then the conventions are mistaken and need be corrected by better example. I hope that IS SHE? at least, serves as one such example.

These days it takes more than just the author to produce a visionary work.
The vision the ability to see, must be shared.

Eden Sharp

As someone who worked as a product manager on CD Plus - audio CDs enhanced with interactive content - I'm not convinced that enhanced ebooks will fly.

Lucia De Cecco

Many thanks for the great article. I'm a very young publisher from Paris.
My team and I started with a new format thought for readers ( we created 3 different style of ebook) It's a interactif guide made by photos, with pages about "how-to-do" the frame of a photo, the pro-photographer shared his experience going around Paris and South Portugal, and soon Tuscany.
GPS coordinates allow to find the shooting point, and some cultural info allow to enter deeper in a town or a country. Video tutoriels and (about Portugal) a song of Fado make ebooks more rich.
But we don't sell them. Photos are great, the pages very interesting, our website is really nice... we took ell the summer to think how to make us more known with a little budget ( we're a start-up) and involve people in our vision. Is it just a matter of advertising, or are wee too early on the market?
Any suggestion? Many thanks in advance.

Amy Sterling Casil

Igor is the author of Is SHE Available? Thank you Igor!

Hello Eden - thank you for mentioning enhanced CDs. Igor's book is our "showpiece" - we are also doing conventional print books (the book also has a traditional hardcover version which is selling about the same as the ePUB at present). I think people are not used to different media, and they are not used to storytelling (or even non-fiction books) that go outside the traditional or accepted formats.

So yes - and thank you also Lucia, this sounds like a beautiful approach to interactive travel guides, with the most beautiful locations! -

It's a brutally hard sell. We are hand-selling into specialty bookstores. We are working with distributors. We continue to ask for and sometimes meet with ebook sellers.

Everything we read about sales and marketing (and what people do in the industry) is based on "what has sold in the past." There isn't the kind of money in the publishing industry (overall, it is a very big, important industry, but any specific segment or part just isn't) to do the kind of customer relationship management that could help to discover audiences for new products. In industries that do this type of market development, it isn't certain and there are plenty of misfires. Even what we're doing is guesswork. At least we talk to people (we are committed to talking to as many as possible in person - that's why we do things like ComicCon and similar events).

So it's a vicious cycle. I have a business and high-level nonprofit development background. I feel like quitting fairly often. But I don't think we will. What we're talking about isn't just the answer to making money with innovative books using current and emerging technology, it's about what goes into those books and how to make it best. It solves all the issues of diversity and will help to bring better books to the public.

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