Category Archives: Publishing

The Troubling Dual Nature of Books and Websites

Baldur Bjarnason wrote a really long essay two days ago on interactivity and ebooks, one that I think is worth reading in its entirety. While not entirely related to his central thesis, I’d like to point to a specific section near the end and talk about that instead:

I’m beginning to worry that ebooks won’t have any place in the future of interactive media. Interactive non-fiction will grow to encompass the markets that today are served by print non-fiction and it won’t look anything like a book.

In a way this has already happened. Reference books and cookbooks are being pushed out by reference websites and recipe blogs (emphasis mine). In a few years, non-fiction as a genre will be dominated by apps and websites, the exceptions being the fields that legitimately require long-form text to deliver their message properly.

I can’t think what those fields might be, but I’m sure they exist.
One exception might be textbooks and other fields that are bound by archaic institutional requirements.

Publishing is on a crossroads. It’s not just a question of how the form will develop but also who we want as an audience. As books lose their real-world presence, do we really want to just cater to a minority of voracious expert readers? A casual reader is never going to buy a bespoke reading device, but will buy an iPhone or iPad, where ebooks are competing with games, apps, websites, and comics.

Pretending you aren’t competing with other media on price, accessibility, and value, is a surefire way to kill off long-form reading.

At Books in Browsers 2011, Joseph Pearson of Booki.sh made the rather controversial remark that ebooks are simply ‘websites that are better paginated’. Everything else was better off remaining as a website.

Like many present at the time, I reacted rather negatively to his view. Then I stopped, thought for a bit, and realized that there was nothing I could think of that could be used as a counter example.

Pearson and Bjarnason have a valid point: dictionaries, recipe books and encyclopedias are not better paginated; they have little reason for existing as ebooks. Better that they remain as websites, where they are linkable, searchable, and editable. It is no coincidence that Wikipedia lives on as Encyclopedia Britannica dies.

Pearson’s remark makes more sense when you understand how ebooks work: the prevailing ebook formats are essentially bastardized HTML. And HTML, as we should know by now, is the stuff that websites are made of. If ebooks are but one conversion step away from websites, and the form of the website offers more benefits than the form of the book, why should anyone still publish such books?

(Let’s be clear, though: we’re not talking about fiction here. Fiction is — rather ironically — protected from this change, because the benefits of presenting fiction on a website aren’t as numerous as the benefits of presenting the contents of a cookbook as a searchable recipe site.)

Monday, 26 March, 2012

Word Needs To Die

I was working on a eBook conversion workflow for a small publishing house last week, as a favour to the owners. I thought I could get away with a couple hours of work: maybe write a few scripts, chain a couple of existing libraries together, and then email them my code. I was dead wrong. I gave up after two days of work.

The problem was with Word. Word’s doc and docx formats are proprietary, clunky to work with, and incredibly hard to convert to ePub and mobi without weird artifacts and edge cases. It doesn’t help that the standard publishing workflow is in Word — many writers, editors, and publishers use Word source files in their daily lives.

The challenges of working with Word are not new. Smashword’s MeatGrinder engine requires authors to tediously format their doc files; other guides warn authors against using Word to ebook conversions. The Outsell-Gilbane report on Publishing Transformation advises publishers to switch to XML-first workflows ‘as soon as possible.’

There are two likely solutions for this:

1) Write a perfect converter from Word to X, where X is any other text-based markup format. This is a technological problem, and is incredibly hard.

2) Get writers to write in non-Word formats. This is a social problem, and is incredibly hard.

The comparison between the two solutions above is, of course, a little unfair. The truth is that the second problem is easier than the first … but only in the sense that nobody has really tried taking a crack at it. There have been many attempts at writing a good Word conversion library, but all attempts have failed for various edge cases. There have not been strong attempts at creating a beautiful writer-focused tool, save perhaps Scrivener. But Scrivener isn’t popular the way Word is – ideally, you’d want something so pervasive writers would be crazy not to use it.

(I could, by the way, be wrong on the first issue – if you know of a good library to use, please hit me up in the comments).

I’m very tempted to take a stab at both problems over the Summer. No promises, but these are huge problems I wish someone would solve. The alternative to a Word-first workflow is a greatly simplified publishing process, one that is accessible to both writers and publishers alike.

Here’s a taste of that alternative world: Matt Neuburg wrote an essay on his book publishing process for O’Reilly Books. It is, admittedly, very technical, and it demands some programming knowledge. But his process is this: he writes chapters in a text-based format; generates HTML for quick previewing (ebook formats are HTML-based, after all) and then, when he’s ready, types a single command to send his source files directly to the O’Reilly server.

Here’s the really cool bit: because he writes all his chapters in a conversion-friendly format, O’Reilly is able to instantly generate a PDF – all properly type-set with fonts and layout as in an actual O’Reilly book. Neuburg then gets a copy of this PDF to preview, walking around his house with the book loaded up on his iPad. If he so wishes, Neuburg may run another one-line command, and all the readers who have subscribed to O’Reilly’s Early Release program for his book gets a copy of the updated book – in PDF, EPUB, or web form (at Safari Books Online). Naturally, his editor is able to plug into this process from the O’Reilly side of things, and every change is backed up in a Subversion repository.

In Neuburg’s own words:

  • I’m working in plain text, lightly formatted; so my writing and editing and revising are easy and nimble.
  • I’m using TextMate, a text editor that makes my use of lightly formatted text easy.
  • I can preview my work as HTML, which makes me a better proofreader.
  • I can “chunk” my book into nice-looking HTML chapter files for public consumption, so the rest of the world can watch me work.
  • Thanks to the O’Reilly commit hook, I automatically get a PDF version of my work. This is fun and encouraging as the book grows, and makes me an even better proofreader.
  • We’re using Subversion, so my editor and I have an easy time communicating changes back and forth to each other.
  • Without any trees being killed, readers can purchase an electronic Early Release edition of my book, and they are kept up-to-date as I continue to write and revise.

My point: moving away from Word enables writers and publishers saner publishing workflows. It doesn’t make sense for the writing/editing process to be done in a format separate from the ones used in the publishing process.

Word is a curse on digital publishing workflows. The sooner we move away from it, the better.

Wednesday, 21 December, 2011

What We Have To Learn From Fashion’s Free Culture

This is a rather old video (mid-2010 according to ted.com’s timestamp) but it’s made me think rather hard about copyright, books, and the publishing industry:

The gist of the talk is in this graph:

Gross Sales Of Goods IP

(Point: that whole industries do just fine without Intellectual Property protection.)

Now, I do question one of the assumptions behind this: while it is true that fashion, food and furniture cannot be copyrighted, and that these industries are still highly innovative, we should also remember that they are more necessary than music, films, and books. Gross sales is an oversimplification of the effects of copyright: certainly more people would buy clothes than they would books!

But, that said, her primary example holds true. High fashion is indeed still very lucrative (and creative!) without IP protection. Would publishing be in a similar environment if books were not copyrightable? It doesn’t take much to imagine a world in which fan-fiction is sanctioned, where riffing on the books you love is a norm.

So here’s a thought experiment: if for one year all copyright were to be revoked (or demoted to a Creative Commons-like attribution-only license) would innovation increase worldwide, or would the opposite happen? Would this be good for society?

Writers like Nicholas Carr have argued that our digital culture values mashups over source material. I disagree with that (I believe both are equally valued, and equally valuable, though we should perhaps leave that argument for another day); I suspect that the world would benefit as the rate of innovation increases in response to these freedoms.

What I’m not certain about is how this would affect the creators. Would they benefit, if at all? Or would the benefits only show themselves after the industry has had to make do without copyright, like how the fashion industry has had to do?

I will admit, though: a future where Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can then be combined with Twilight and Buffy The Vampire Slayer sounds like a very fun world indeed.

Sunday, 9 October, 2011

Music, Books, and Formats

Here’s a thought I had a couple months back: the music industry has gone to hell (and by hell I mean the chaos of digital) a lot faster than the publishing industry has. What was different? And how have things changed? In this essay, I’d like to explore the difference in degree of change in these two industries, and hopefully discover a few things about the current change we’re seeing in publishing.

Devices

The first reason for publishing’s comparatively slow change is obvious: there were no good reading devices before Amazon got into the hardware business. It won’t be much of an exaggeration to say that the Kindle singlehandedly jumpstarted the ebook industry — it showed, amongst other things, what was possible given E Ink technology and a persistent link to a rich ebook store. In the meantime, the music industry had a bunch of companies building mp3 players, long before Apple entered that market with the iPod. Innovation was certainly not lacking in music.

(There’s a remarkable story here, if you’re interested in such things. Amazon really struggled to build the first Kindle. Businessweek reports:

The effort to develop the first Kindle ended up taking more than three years. Nearly everything went wrong. The black-and-white displays from E Ink, an offshoot of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab that makes screens resembling the printed page and requiring very little power, would look good for one month and then degrade alarmingly. Qualcomm, which was set to provide the wireless chips, was sued by a competitor, Broadcom, and for months was enjoined by a judge from selling its wares in the U.S. The Lab126 team repeatedly urged Bezos to make their project easier by considering a Wi-Fi-only connection for the Kindle. He rejected the idea, constantly suggesting new ones for complicated features, like the notion that customers’ annotations of books should be backed up on Amazon’s servers.

Looking back, it’s remarkable that Amazon — a retail company — even considered making the leap into hardware. Writers have a lot to thank Amazon for.)

Industry attraction

The lack of innovation in E-Reading devices is symptomatic of a larger fact: that music, as an industry, is more attractive than publishing. Dalton Caldwell of music startup imeem has said that people keep trying to do music startups because they love music. In comparison, publishing startups are few and far between.

Now I’m not saying that it’s easy to innovate in the music industry today. In fact, Caldwell’s speech is an argument against doing music startups, given the industry’s love of lawsuits. What I am saying is that the lawsuits are a result of the early innovations that so quickly changed the music industry.

We don’t know if publishers would turn to lawsuits in response to increasing levels of ebook piracy. I’m inclined to think not: a good side-effect of publishing’s comparatively slow change is that publishers have more time to cope with the disruption.

Sunday, 4 September, 2011

Be the Future?

Be the Monkey: Ebooks and Self-Publishing, a Conversation Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath, by Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. Reviewed by John Patrick Tormey.

No question: there’s a revolution going on here.—Barry Eisler

Best-selling spy novelist Barry Eisler and successful thriller novelist and self-publishing advocate Joe Konrath’s ebook Be the Monkey is a sprawling discussion as recorded on GoogleDocs; a loud cheer for what they call “indie-publishing”, and an autopsy of the publishing industry as it transitions from a paper-based model to one dominated by digital texts.

Indie-publishing is an umbrella title for everything from self-publishing to new publishing companies working outside the model established by the “Big 6/Legacy” institutions that have dominated the industry for decades, and how that may be coming to an end.

In the part one, the authors pivot off Eisler’s announcement that he passed on a half-a-million dollar advance from a big name publisher in favor of self publishing, claiming he made the decision for monetary as well as creative reasons, and was inspired in part by Konrath’s move away the world of legacy publishing and his proselytizing to other writers to make the same choice.

Konrath and Eisler argue that the paper book is now on the road to becoming a “niche market,” and writers and readers will be better off in the new world of the ebook. It is a convincing theory, one reinforced by Amazon’s announcement that in 2010 the company sold more books for the Kindle ereader than paper copies, along with the popularity of the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad, a point Eisler highlights early on. This means that writers will make more money while readers will pay less and enjoy access to a wider range of content. The numbers used to support the claim are pretty convincing:

Joe: …the 25% royalty on ebooks [legacy publishers] offer is actually 14.9% after everyone gets their cut. 14.9% on a price the publisher sets.

Barry: …a 25% royalty on the net revenue produced by an ebook equals 17.5% of the retail price after Amazon takes its 30% cut, and 14.9% after the agents takes 15% of the 17.5%.

Think of it this way: by publishing a novel or story collection as an ebook on Smashwords or B&N or Amazon, the author retains 70% of the profit from the sales of his or her work. That is a margin too wide to ignore, or as Konrath puts it, “…in the long run a 70% royalty wins.”

The benefits of circumventing the legacy publishers don’t stop there. From the shortened time between when a book is finished to when it reaches the market, to the unprecedented level of creative control, plus a healthy—and growing—list of the indie-published authors enjoying healthy sales, Be the Monkey does, at times, make a very convincing case for going it alone.

Or as alone as possible. In some of the most informative and forward-thinking sections of the discussion, Konrath and Eisler muse on what the digital revolution in book-making will mean for the industry at large, beyond the realm of writers and readers.  They refuse to glorify or gloss over the substantial workload an author is shouldering by avoiding legacy route. The self-published author assumes the role of writer, editor, and copyeditor. They become responsible for cover art, front and back cover copy, the writer’s biography, formatting text, marketing and promotion…the list goes on.  Konrath believes this space may be filled by what he calls “E-stributors…a combination of publisher and manager…” that will take over these tasks for a one-time fee or a percentage of the book’s profits, leaving the author to concentrate on what is his most important job: writing.

When I used the word “sprawling” to describe Be the Monkey, understand that what Eisler and Konrath have written isn’t an actual book; it is a series of conversations recorded over a long stretch of time that covered a wide swath of subjects.

Saturday, 23 April, 2011

Writers Are The New Publishers

In my last post I talked about $0.99 eBooks in the context of industry disruption. Today, I want to talk about what looks like a corollary to that trend: the writer-as-publisher.

Tim O’Reilly said recently that he believed a small group of successful indie writers will soon create their own publishing outfits. He has some authority on the matter: O’Reilly, after all, started out as a self-publisher, before he began doing it for other people. Today, O’Reilly Media, Inc is a multi-million dollar publishing outfit, one of the few successfully adapting to a digital shift.

I think this makes sense, and I’m not going to spend too much time on the obvious advantages:

1) Successful independent writers have ‘been there and done that’. If you were a writer you would probably be attracted to the idea of having an accomplished indie writer (say, J.A. Konrath?) help you with your ebook. Think: is it a good trade to give away the difficulties of designing, marketing, and selling your ebook to indie-writers who are well-experienced in the matter? They get to take a small cut of your ebook sales, you get to focus on writing. I think it’s a good trade.

2) The margins for a small, writer-as-publisher startup makes a lot of sense. You’re not likely to make much per book, but thanks to the economics of the digital bookstore, you are likely to make a sizable amount — so long as you gather a small team of editors and designers, and focus on releasing as many ebooks as possible. The long tail of digital economics would ensure that you’ll make money for about as long as your ebooks are online (which can be forever, if they’re on the Kindle store).

We’re already seeing several web fiction writers turn to publishing. Last week I linked to Alexandra Erin’s new outfit, LitSnacks. This week I spent some time browsing through web fiction author MCM’s catalog, over at his 1889.ca website. He’s lent his ebook and design expertise to a small (but growing!) number of authors, under the 1889 Labs label.

We’ll soon see more of these publishers, I bet. And — yes — these outfits will still be in the margins of the publishing industry. But they will be profitable, and they will grow as the market grows.

Writing this article has made me realize that there are really two barriers to publishing at the moment: one bit of it is technological, which we’re trying to solve with the software we’re writing at Pandamian; the other bit is process — the very human effort of taking a book from manuscript to market. These small publishing outfits are likely to be the solution to the process problem, and I look forward to seeing how they solve the intricacies of editing, design, and ebook production in a low-margin, high-output context.

Note: I’d love to hear from you, if you are (or you know of) a writer-turned-publisher. Just leave a link to your outfit in the comments, and I’ll include you in a roundup post next week.

Wednesday, 16 March, 2011

I Was Wrong About The Kindle

It’s been a year since Apple first released the iPad. Back then, I declared the Kindle dead, and argued that the iPad was going to be the reading device of the future.

I was wrong, of course.

The lesson I learnt here is that one technology very rarely replaces another – or, as David Pogue calls it: “things don’t replace things, they just splinter”. Even if cannibalization happens, it takes years before you see no more of one technology: television didn’t kill radio, and mp3s didn’t kill CDs (or at least, not yet) – and so the iPad won’t kill the Kindle.

But I was wrong about another thing: the iPad is a different device altogether. See, for instance, this Kindle ad:

The value proposition is clear: the Kindle is cheap, readable under sunlight, and light enough to hold in one hand. None of which describes the iPad.

Now, I’m not saying that people won’t read on the iPad. I spent my last holiday reading five books and two web fiction serials on one, taking notes on the reading experience as I went along. The iPad is great on a sofa – and is even better when you’re using it to read what you would otherwise read on a computer screen. But it’s no paperback – and you can’t use it on trains or in parks or on beaches the same way you would a Kindle.

Yipeng's Kindle

Yipeng, one of the co-founders at Pandamian, is known to call his Kindle ‘shitty’. (He’s in charge of .mobi conversion, if you’re wondering, because he owns one: see above). And yet he’s read a ton of books on it, and downloads still more to load onto the device. The reason? The Kindle is meant for reading, and reading alone. No distractions. No web surfing. No addictive pig-killing games.

With speculation of a free Kindle to be released later this year, it’s now rather clear as to why the Kindle is built the way it is – cheap and plasticky, with a user interface that kind-of sucks. It doesn’t need to be amazing. It just needs to be good enough for book nerds – like me – who’re sick of lugging heavy paperbacks around.

(Incidentally, I find it interesting as to what the Kindle gets right – typography on the Kindle screen is gorgeous, and the fact that it’s got battery life of close to a month helps when you’re bringing it with you on a long-haul flight. Plus – and this is obvious – the Kindle store has all the might of Amazon behind it).

I’m not sure what the future of ebook reading is, but – seeing as Apple appears to be relatively disinterested in eBooks – I’m fairly confident that the Kindle, the Nook (and other devices like them, no matter how horrendously constructed) would be a big part of it.

Sunday, 6 March, 2011

Margaret Atwood On Publishing

Margaret Atwood delivered this funny, insightful keynote at the O’Reilly TOC conference that just wrapped up a few weeks ago. Normally I post links to videos like this, but Atwood’s delivery (and her humour) make this worth watching in its entirety.

Atwood offers no answers to the problems of publishing. But she does paint a clear picture of the tensions that many authors face in today’s publishing industry (traditionally published or otherwise). My favourite part is this bit (at 8:32) about a dead moose and a dead author:

… helpful industry hint: never eliminate your primary source. This is an example from biology. It is a dead moose. Every dead moose maintains the food chain for at least thirty other life-forms. I’ve drawn here only a few of them.

This is a dead author.

The author is a primary source. Everything else in the world of publishing depends on authors. They don’t have to be dead, but dead ones are particularly lucrative.

It gets better. Go watch it.

Friday, 4 March, 2011

Good Enough Is How Disruption Happens

I’m surprised by the number of people who – after getting used to the idea that Amanda Hocking is making a bucketload of money via the Kindle store – come around to complain that her writing is lousy. Or that she needs an editor. Or that she needs ‘more work’.

These people then extrapolate that complaint to the quality of indie books in general, and how the future of publishing is doomed if we – as publishers, or authors – cannot maintain proper quality control. It’s an old argument, and I’ve heard it countless times before.

Now, it may be true that Hocking is a so-so writer. I’m not going to go there – the writers who read this blog are likely to be better qualified to make that call. But even if we say that her quality of writing is average, we have to accept that that is exactly the point – Hocking’s work is good enough, and good enough is how disruption happens.

Record labels in the music industry weren’t displaced by better technology – they was displaced by lower quality, relatively low-res mp3s. As were the video-rental industry, and the newspaper industry. Youtube videos – while entertaining, cannot possibly compare to a properly produced movie. And yet millions of people tune in every day to short videos and low quality movie torrents uploaded to the Internet.

It’s tempting to see this and conclude that people don’t care about quality – or that they don’t mind stealing work for private consumption. But that isn’t necessarily true. People do care about quality. And, given the right context, people can and will pay for digital content.

All we’re seeing here is the net effect of new technology being used to give people something they want but couldn’t previously get. People live with low quality mp3s because we want a painless way to own individual songs. And they live with low-quality Youtube videos because they’re short, sweet, and painless to procure. (Indeed, the main value proposition of the Internet seems to be that it makes things painless, to the point where consumption becomes casual).

But there are two sides to that equation. Where one part is the Internet giving people things that they wanted but couldn’t previously get, the other part is that it’s new technology that we’re talking about. The fact that it’s new technology being used almost always means that the early adopters would be lower in quality when compared to the incumbents. It took television a couple of years before it became the polished industry that it is today; so it will be a number of years before digital-only record labels and newspapers and publishers reorient their operations to reflect the new dynamics of the web.

People are buying Amanda Hocking ebooks because they’re cheap, they’re easy, and they’re good enough to read. And that’s the metric that matters, really, because that’s how disruption works: it almost always begins with ‘good enough.

Sunday, 27 February, 2011

The Very Rich Indie Writer

Meet Amanda Hocking. She’s been in the news for quite a bit now, and I’ve been meaning to write about her since January (or really, to write about the phenomenon she represents – and what it means for web fiction). But if you don’t already know of her, allow me:

Amanda Hocking is 26* years old. She has 9 self-published books to her name, and sells 100,000+ copies of those ebooks per month. She has never been traditionally published. This is her blog. And it’s no stretch to say – at $3 per book1/70% per sale for the Kindle store – that she makes a lot of money from her monthly book sales. (Perhaps more importantly: a publisher on the private Reading2.0 mailing list has said, to effect: there is no traditional publisher in the world right now that can offer Amanda Hocking terms that are better than what she’s currently getting, right now on the Kindle store, all on her own.)

And that is stunning news.

Kindle Store Economics

Why this is happening, and how it can happen, is a question that’s been explored by other indie writers experimenting with sales on the Kindle store. J.A.Konrath is arguably the best authority on this, and the logic goes roughly as follows:

If you’re an indie writer, you get to sell books at a price way, way lower than what a Traditional Publisher can sell at. And yet you make more money, because your only costs are to an ebook and cover art designer (whereas the traditional publisher has to support a legacy system, plus the traditionally published author gets a 30% cut, while you get 70%).

In the meantime, readers are more inclined to buy your stories, even if you’re an unknown author, simply because your book prices are cheaper. So you get high sales, low ebook prices, but high revenue once you’ve hit sufficient scale. And the best thing is that it’s infinitely scalable: your ebooks are out there, getting sales every single day. No shelf-space, no print runs to worry about.

You’re making a killing, and are able to compete with traditional publishers at their own game.

Well, in the context of an ebook store, that is.

The oft-repeated argument that people use w/r/t Konrath is that he was a traditionally published author before moving to the Kindle store. But Hocking and her peers, who have never been published the traditional route before (who were inspired by Konrath’s exploits, and who are now selling way more than Konrath ever has) are together invalidating that argument. You don’t have to be traditionally published to sell a lot of ebooks, and you don’t have to be A-List famous, either. Take this monthly sales list of top Kindle indie authors, for instance:

Thursday, 24 February, 2011

The Apps Will Not Set Them Free

IsaKft is a writer and entrepreneur who runs fluffy-seme, a web-publishing platform (formerly a digital publishing house: see this guest post for her experiences as a digital publisher). Today she talks about her experiences at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change (aka TOC2011) conference, which concluded last week.

I have never seen so many iPads in one room before in my life.

It was like walking into an Apple store, except the business casual gurus at the podium were not Steve Jobs but representatives from the various factions of digital publishing. I don’t know if tech can save publishing, but looking around the room as the speaker blathers on about ePub3 I can guess what the professionals think.

O’Reilly’s annual Tools of Change conference is all about pushing the boundaries of publishing and applying innovation to tired paradigms and business models. It sounds exciting and certainly many aspects of it were exciting. The Startup Showcase was a room full of interesting ideas (including mine!) for every facet of publishing: community lead storytelling, ultimate dictionaries, digital ‘DVD extras’ for books … there was no shortage of innovation on hand.

But other aspects of the conference were more telling. For example, I arrived at Data-driven Marketing and Product Development eager to pick up some new tricks only to find myself sitting in Design Process 101. I sat through a ten minute explanation of iterative design basics that have been around since the 80ties, while a fascinated audience of publishers took careful notes on their iPads, before I left.

Seriously? Are the leaders of publishing so far behind that methodology that was ground breaking when cellphones were the size of tissue boxes is news?

Moving down the hall I slipped into Can You Afford Not to Consider Accessible Publishing Practices? That I misunderstood what was meant by ‘accessible publishing’ was a happy accident, because this was probably the best lecture I saw. Dave Gunn broke down the technology that is making access to publications for the disabled cheaper and easy to pull off, but what stood out for me was the point he made about how the futuristic tech of today is built on tools originally designed for the disabled. Computers can analyze movies because of Closed Captioning, cars can respond to voice commands because of recognition software, inventions that track eye movement are bringing us closer to machines that we can control with our minds. This was what I came here for. This was really interesting stuff.

This was also the least attended of all the panels and workshops I saw. There were maybe forty of us in a room arranged to hold two hundred.

There’s an old joke about the first web bubble and the death of the business method patent. Once a relatively obscure legal structure, business method patents surged when entrepreneurs found they could use them to patent completely normal transactions simply by adding ‘on the internet’ to the description.

Sunday, 24 October, 2010

Pandamian: A Publishing Support Layer

This is the full text of a speech I gave at Books in Browsers, a technical meeting for people currently changing the future of books. The meeting was between the 21st and the 22nd of October, and was organized and held at the Internet Archive.

Hi, my name is Eli and I’m here to talk to you about what we’re doing at Pandamian. More importantly, I want to give you an idea – or some intuition, perhaps, about the problem space in which Pandamian exists.

But before that, two things:

First, there was quite a bit of talk at BiB yesterday about how young people don’t care about their privacy. Well, I am a young person – possibly the youngest person in this room – and I care so much about my privacy that I’m speaking to you under a pseudonym. So … make of that what you will!

Second, I promised my folks back home that I’d thank the people who made it possible for me to be here. I am a second year Computer Science student at the National University of Singapore, and that means that I am on a student budget. The only reason I can be here is because of the kindness of a couple of people. So I’d like to thank Brewster Kahle, who kindly subsidized part of my flight. And my school, the School of Computing. And last, but not least, the awesome, awesome people over at the Singaporean Hackerspace, who donated to my trip – you can see their logo behind me – I promised that I’d wear their shirt and do this before my talk.

Anyway, back to what I want to speak to you about. I don’t have much time to do this, so I’m going to split my talk into three bits. First, I want to talk about the problem space to which Pandamian is a solution. Then I’ll spend 2-3 minutes on Pandamian – just a little while; I promise you that it won’t be a plug. Last, I want to talk about why I think it’s important to do what Pandamian is currently doing. And why I think more people should do it.

Web Fiction

So here’s the context: I’m coming from this place called web fiction. What web fiction is is that it’s this simple idea – not a particularly new idea, because I know a group of writers who’ve been doing this since 1997. Also not a particularly original idea. But it is a simple idea, and that idea is that you take some fiction – a novel, for instance, and you put that online. You post one chapter a week, there are reader comments, and all this happens on a blog-like website, or a blog-powered website, or – if the writer is not a particularly good programmer or designer, which is very often – sometimes on an actual blog. Which can be bad.

Where I come from in this space is that I wrote a web fiction thing 5 years ago. And at the end of that year I realized that I really didn’t know what I was doing. Nobody knew what they were doing. There were no ‘best practices’.

And there are several interesting problems there. For instance: what’s the best way to design fiction in the browser, when the browser is an inherently distractive container? Also: where do you find readers? How should you talk to readers? How long should your chapters be? How many times a week should you update your story? These are all interesting questions, and nobody knew how to answer them.

So what I did was I started this blog called Novelr, and what Novelr does is that it collates and kind of collects the best ideas as solutions to these problems. And we’ve got four years worth of experience now on how to do this – we know, more or less, what works or doesn’t work when you’re presenting fiction on a webpage, in this interactive web format.

And it’s not just me. I sometimes do experiments myself, but these ideas aren’t just from me. Sometime over the last four years of Novelr’s existence a community of writers condensed around the blog. So now I approach these writers whenever they discover a new technique, or hack, or trick to write better web fiction, and I ask them to share it with the rest of the community. Or they come to me and say: ‘I’ve discovered this, I want to share it with everyone, may I do a guest post?’ Which is cool.

But now we come to an interesting question we must ask, don’t we? Why do these people do web fiction?