COVER STORY : Inside the Ebook Test Kitchen
A look at what's cooking on the cutting edge of ebook technology.September 2012 By Brian Howard
How Knowing Works
In the secular world, there's nothing more fundamental than the textbook. And for the most part, at least in the minds of millions of current and former schoolchildren, there's little more lackluster. Think of the textbooks from your childhood: stodgy, often out-of-date and oddly subject to the editorial preferences of the largest institutional buyer (such as the Texas Board of Education).
As Apple tried so diligently to impress upon us with their big New York education event in January, there could be a better way. While the results of Apple's big e-textbook push remain to be seen, there are companies pushing to refine the model, and redefine the delivery of knowledge.
"For us, this is definitely about a new medium," says Matt MacInnis, an Apple vet and founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Inkling. "If you zoom way out, what we're doing is we're looking at the world of experts, whether that expertise is in travel, molecular biology or knitting—it doesn't matter. There are people out there who want to consume that expertise."
MacInnis, speaking via cell phone Bluetooth while driving in Northeastern Canada, describes his company's mission succinctly: "We're trying to define the medium that replaces the book."
It's a grand statement that nods to the idea that learning can be a multi-sensory process involving text, audio and video, often in tandem.
"We're beginning to do things that merge media and devices," says MacInnis. When, for example, learning to play the guitar, "there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to look at the TV to get instructions but look at an iPad to see fret placements."
If it sounds like Macinnis has a certain disdain for the traditional textbook, it's because as a member of the Apple education division for almost eight years, he spent hours in classrooms observing how teachers used, misused and even abused technology.
"The textbook has become this crutch, holding everybody back," he says.
His vision for a more interactive approach comes from the business world. "Any time technology can improve productivity, we use it," he says of common practice in corporate America. "Education operates in a fundamentally different way. When you go through mandatory training at work, you sit down, read something, watch a video and take a test. Even that level of sophistication doesn't exist in the classroom. Things that put the student at the fore aren't happening."
Indeed, Inkling's products, which publishers can create using Inkling Habitat, integrate photos, videos, text and a battery of tests meant to gauge and reinforce retention.
"The first thing you have to do is throw out all the assumptions you have when building a book," says MacInnis of the way forward. "The philosophy of pretending a screen is a page is crazy, but that's all [publishers] do today."
At the heart of this new wave of ebook technology is the idea that the ebook is not, actually, a book at all. Rather, it's a program, albeit one built around what we understand to be a book—text and pictures arranged to tell a story or communicate facts. Springing from that, the program theory goes, anything should be possible.
This is the credo of New York's MAZ (an acronym of sorts for the portmanteau MagAppZine), a company founded by another Apple alum, Paul Canetti. As the company's name suggests, MAZ got its start in the magazine world (Canetti is also a former magazine designer) but quickly figured out that its technologies also applied to the book world.
MAZ's app-based platform is inspired by Canetti's experience as a designer—and frustrations he'd experienced having his designs translated by programmers. "The idea was that we needed something where a designer can design a page and make it functional without a programmer," says Canetti.
To that end, MAZ has empowered its clients to do some pretty interesting things with their books. Black Balloon Publishing's "Louise: Amended" is a title in which "every chapter is told through the perspective of a different character," says Canetti. "You can read in the order in which they're published, or you can choose to read in another order, and it changes the unfolding of the story."
Another MAZ client, Sullivan Street Press, has created "living books" for its "Scags" series, which allows interaction with the author and other readers through a social media portal within the book.
And publishers keep finding new applications. MAZ clients have produced cookbooks in which each recipe links to online grocer Fresh Direct—and pre-populates a shopping list based on that recipe's ingredients. "Now, anyone I've talked to who's remotely writing about food is like, 'Oh, my god, you've got to do the Fresh Direct thing,'" says Canetti.
"You control the entire thing from front to end. How can we empower the creative person to make it functional?"
As with a magazine app, MAZ and other book apps can ensure that the most current version of a book is always the one a reader is interacting with. If there's a correction, it's pushed out to devices—think of how the app store updates Angry Birds. And as with a magazine app, MAZ brings a level of creativity to a process that once didn't go far beyond font selection and endpapers.
Choose Your Own Beefcake
Speaking of creative empowerment, Bay Area publisher Coliloquy and its interactive ebooks are doing their part to revolutionize the writing process itself. Building on classic branching novels (aka "Choose Your Own Adventure"), Coliloquy is using ebook technology to allow readers to shape the story in other ways, as well.
"We have an erotica series called 'Great Escapes,' and the preferences that users put into the system can be used to customize the protagonists," says Google alum Waynn Lue, co-founder with Lisa Rutherford of Coliloquy. "The reader has the ability to customize hair color, eye color, amount of chest hair" and a number of other options.
Readers are presented with three levels of customization:
● No customization, in which the text is as it came out of the author's brain;
● Preset customizations, such as Latin Lover, Southern Gentleman, British Lord and the like; and
● Advanced customization, which allows the reader to choose physical attributes like age and hirsutism as well as the level of steaminess of individual scenes.
This does, of course, create challenges for editors and authors. "It's similar to problems that editors have faced for years," says Lue. "Branching narratives can change the storyline in various ways. You don't want to write end-to-end different branches or else you have this content-creating explosion."
Coliloquy helps its authors create narrative maps to "graph out where the storyline should go and help them write toward that. It's not fully fleshed out at that point," says Lue, "but it helps authors avoid writing themselves into corners they can't write themselves out of."
Coliloquy's authors have found inventive uses for the publisher's technology. "We had a feature that was almost like Mad Libs—in-line replacement text technology," says Lue. "Authors saw that and said it would be cool if we could make text appear and disappear at specific points in the book, like Harry Potter's Marauders' Map."
However, Coliloquy eschews the idea that reading should involve more multi-media. "We want to focus on the narrative itself, with our technology in service to the story," says Lue.
One of Coliloquy's authors, Travis Sentell, employs branching technology in his tale of good vs. evil, "Fluid," but he does so with a twist. "In all of our other books, when you make a choice, you can go back and make the other choice," says Lue. "In this book, you can't. You live with the consequences of your choices. Until you finish the book, you can't choose other paths—the multiple endings are determined by the choices you make."
Perhaps the most fertile territory for innovation in ebooks is not one that's consumer-facing: analytics. As publishers get more sophisticated with ebook technology, they're able to learn more about their customers' reading habits than ever.
Impelsys, the New York City company behind iPublishCentral, the publishing platform used to deliver ebook content by a diverse group of clients ranging from Elsevier to Harcourt to Sesame Street to HarperCollins to OUP, has been at the cutting edge of analytics. And, according to founder and CEO Sameer Shariff, the app environment is at the heart of ebook analytics. Which is why Impelsys, widely available on Apple's iOS devices, is making a big push to be on Android, which has notably gained big chunks of the mobile operating system market.
As publishers do more sophisticated things with their apps, Shariff figures that they will be investing in teams to analyze the data they send back.
"We're seeing publishers put teams together for analytics," he says. "That's an area where we're doing more and more reports. … What are people doing as they consume this content? What pages [are they reading]? What are they searching for? What is the trail through the content?"
It's part of what Shariff sees as a trend of "publishers becoming content companies and learning companies." As such, they'll become much more invested in how that content performs, how their customers learn from it, rather than focusing primarily on sales. "How does it connect back to a learning system or a back office?" asks Shariff. "How do you manage a student's learning process throughout a book?"
A book's "back end," the interface where a publisher will collect and analyze reader performance, is a big area of opportunity, says Shariff. "Imagine if you could get the trail of a student reading a book, how they move through the assessments. You could get the trail of the top 10 percent of students and analyze that data and turn it into relevant information for business decisions."
Shariff also sees opportunity in social media integration and analytics. "We do portals and delivery systems for societies, groups like pediatricians," says Shariff. "It's amazing, we've got some books that thousands and tens of thousands of pediatricians are reading, and answering certain questions about their practice. Why don't we connect all of these 10,000 readers and connect them in discussion via ZIP code?"
In this scenario, the book becomes not just a conduit of information, but a tool to organize communities. As technology gets more sophisticated, it's clear that the book's possibilities are endless.
Endless possibility, while great for the consumer, is a challenge for your business. Keeping abreast of a landscape that could, at any moment, morph into something completely different is the stuff of production managers' night terrors.
According to Sol Rosenberg, VP of business development and content acquisition at New York's Copia, it pays to keep an eye not just on publishing, but on media in general.
"The business of what used to be books and printed content is changing rapidly," Rosenberg says rapidly himself. "Ebooks will be a blip on the radar of history. Whether the next step is some sort of an app or a file or a container, those things are in flux and will continue to be in flux. Today it's EPUB, next it's EPUB3, and then someone will come out with something that will revolutionize everything again."
What Rosenberg and Copia see happening is not necessarily homogenous. "What happens in fiction will be one set of x-thousand things, and what happens in cookbooks will be another x-thousand things," he figures. "You'll have an explosion of different audiences."
Which means that cutting-edge technology may differ between segments. It's why Copia views itself as a platform more than a publishing technology company, with a focus on delivering "what is en vogue today, with a mission to keep on top of things as they change." For instance, Copia will be rolling out a cloud music platform to support its publishing platform. "Books, or whatever we call them today, will always keep changing."
Change: A Two-Way Street
As the nature of what a book is evolves, so, too, will society's relationship with the book. It's important to remember, says Ted Striphas, Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at Indiana University, that with every perceived advance there is a tradeoff.
For instance, while society gained enormously with the advent of the printing press, the increased availability of books led to more extensive reading at the sacrifice of intensive reading. "People tended to read more intensively," says Striphas. "They'd read one, two or three books in a lifetime and read them intimately. They became masters of those texts.
"This was not just a shift, it was a loss in some way, a diminishment in the ability and incentive to become masters of texts."
He brings this up as a way of prefacing what might result from books making a move from, as Marshall McLuhan would say, "cool media" to "hot media." Because inherent in a lot of the discussion about what ebooks will become involves a move from text to rich media.
"The question you have to ask," says Striphas, "is what is gained and what is lost in the transition? There is a camp that says this is only going to make learning better. If you watch any iPad or iBook advertising, that's the conversation they're putting out there. Then you hear from the cranky old dusty printed book people who say, 'This is terrible, it's just giving people what they want, you're not making them use their imagination.'"
There is, of course, always a gain, and always a loss, says Striphas, the author of 2009's "The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism To Control," and who is currently at work on his next book, "Algorithmic Culture."
"If you are able to create these visually rich, sensory-rich environments on an ebook app and you can see and experience the world in ways that are qualitatively richer than you would in a traditional book learning environment, that is a gain where I'm concerned," says Striphas. "But to what extent is that keeping you from exercising your imagination? That's the issue with learning: You have to complicate the conversation. It's not going to be better or worse. It's going to be both." BB