August 2007

tumblerThe web is becoming the prominent research domain for authors.  Information abounds, but authors need effective ways to organize and share their information.  Unfortunately many of the available tools come with an inconvenient learning curve.   

Gina Trapani of Lifehacker highlights a new tool, called Tumblr, which provides the ability to aggregate information from around the web,  into one place, called a tumbelog.  The types of data that can be posted includes:

  • Links
  • Regular posts 
  • Quotes
  • Photss
  • Videos
  • Conversations – e.g. IM sessions
  • Multiple RSS streams

You can also capture posts from your mobile device.  Tumblr provides all the formatting and automatically senses what type of entity you are looking at, making it easy to post and go.  As Steve Rubel of Micro Persuasion points out, Tumblr is more like a scrapbook than a blog.  The simplicity of Tumblr may make this an ideal tool for authors doing research. 

The next version of Tumblr is being readied and will includ:

  • An improved and snappier dashboard screen
  • Ability to track firends
  • Reblogging which allows you to share content from other tumblelogs and edit the commentary

haiku.jpgBasic Tumblr functionality is free, though in the future they have indicated the site may include some premium paid features.  Tumblr could serve as a shareable research repository with a more engaging format for authors thinking blog to book.  Tumblr’s simplicity imposes some limits on creativity; but therein lies the challenge and the fun.  Think haiku or (better) pecha kucha for blogs . . .

asleep while readingAnother survey of book reading habits in the US has book publishers wringing their hands.  The poll, condected by Associated Press-Ipsos points to a continuing decline in book reading in the US.  It found that one in four Americans hasn’t read a book during the past year.  And overall, the typical reader had read only four books in the last year.  Women and older individuals tended to be the most avid book readers.  Similar trends are showing up for newspapers, which are struggling to survive because of a simultaneous decline in both circulation and advertising revenues.

The decline in book reading is not just in the US.  A survey quoted in China Daily about a year ago, found a similar result among Chinese.  A nationwide survey there found that 51.8 per cent of Chinese people who can read do not read any books at all. And this percentage has been increasing for the past five years.  For those who do read, the focus is on books as a pragmatic tool for getting ahead in school or career.  This is in contrast with the US where fiction and religious works were the most popular reads.

Pressed for time – We are all busy.  There is less time to devote to reading than in decades past.  Evidence of this is the many executive reading services that have sprung up to give busy managers quick summaries of “must read” books so they can get the gist of the work without the effort requied to read the entire thing.

Competition from other media – Many studies have highlighted the greater proportion of time individuals spend on the Web versus other kinds of media.   As Internet use has become mainstream, other media get a smaller portion of our attention span.

Conditioning – We are getting used to reading in the short form.  Shorter news items, shorter magazine articles, web pages with a minimalist approach to text.  A study conducted 10 years ago which examined effective writing practices for the Web focused on how people read web pages.  They typically scan for items of interest rather than serially reading words and paragraphs.  As the web has consumed more our reading time, we may be translating the same experience to the book.   

nose in a bookDoes all of this spell gloom and doom for book publishers?  I think not.  True, books sales have been relatively flat the last few years.  However, books have always adapted to the changing tastes and habits of the reading population.  And they are in transition again.  We are seeing lots of small experiments:  for example, shorter books and graphic novels.  In the coming years, we will see more significant experiments (for example, see “Turning e-books into Books with e-paeper“, “In Search of the Next Gutenberg” and “The Conversation in the Book“).  

In the meantime, if you want to avoid becoming one of those slackers who never reads a book, check out these tips from Kevin Eikenberry for strengthening your reading habit

author readingFor many authors who are trying to promote their book, budget and time are always pressing issues.  Especially when it comes to book tours.  The traditional book tour is time consuming and expensive.  The author wants to tour, meet fans and sign books., but the cosst and logistics are prohibitive.  The compromise: a press release, maybe a book review or two, some catalog listings, a few radio phone interviews and passive distribution.  Book signings and author readings are usually limited to the author’s locale.

Skype and other voice over IP phone services could lift the financial obstacle to book tours.  Skype, for instance, has introduced its Skypecast service.  Up to 100 people can join a Skypecast.  The online meeting can be a free form discussion or a presentation with Q&A following.  The best news is, it’s free to Skype users.  Authors can share various types of web content with listeners, including video – e.g. their book video posted on YouTube.  There is a technical hurdle, though it is relatively small.  Each Skypecast participant needs to download, install and configure Skype on theier PC or laptop.   This can take 10-15 minutes depending on the user’s Internet connection speed. 

Authors can promote their event in the Skypecast directory or their website with a link to the Skypecast.  Third party software providers have tools available that will let you record your Skypecast.  This allows it to be turned into a podcast that you can then post on your author site or blog. 

book signingThis type of “authorcast” would add the dimension of immediate interactivity which virtual blog tours currently lack.  Hearing the author read an excerpt can be a powerful motivation for listeners to purchase the book.  There is still that pesky issue of the book signing.   Maybe that problem will be solved when we books are made out of e-paper and authors can do personalized signings remotely (see “The Conversation in the Book“). 

blook looks iconSome blog to book deals have come together rapidly, but probably none so quickly as Wife in the North.  Judith O’Reilly created her blog to chrnoicle the adventures and frustrations of her life after having relocated from London to the Northumberland countryside.  Her husband wanted their children to grow in a country setting far from the problems of the big city.  She had previously worked as an educational correspondent.  She began her blog in January 2007 and within 8 weeks she inked a book deal from Viking Penguin valued at about $140,000.  How did this novice blogger do it so quickly?  To find out, you must follow the links. 

The TimesOnline chrnoicled the step-by-step process that led Judith to her book deal. 

  • Judith O’Reilly started her blog in January 2007.  (presumed Technorati authority: 0; current authority: 188)
  • Her blog was mentioned on the website of Tom Watson, an MP and a regular blogger, whom she had contacted to get advice.  (Technorati authority: 187)
  • The next day Iain Dale, the political commentator and another prolific blogger, linked Wife in the North on his site.  (Technorati authority: 1,006)
  • That in turn led Andrew Sullivan, the American writer and Sunday Times columnist, to note its quality.  His US readers soon began visiting the site in large numbers.  (Technorati authority: 4,202)
  • Within days Patrick Walsh, a British literary agent and publisher, had seen the potential and began working on a deal.

She summarized the experience in a post on her blog entitled Blog to Book in 60 Seconds:

I blogged. Someone read it. Someone else read it. Someone else passed it on. The political bloggers linked to me and the world went mad. I blogged some more. Someone read it. Someone liked it. Someone passed it on. A publisher e-mailed me. A book was mentioned.  Money was mentioned. I tucked my skirt into my knickers , said “Ok then” and looked for hidden cameras.

Guiness Book of Records logoThe lesson here, is that it helps to get links from friends with high authority.    If the Guiness Book of Records were to track such things, Judith O’Reilly would no doubt hold title to the world’s fastest blog to book transit.  Would be challengers take note:  The secret to your success may lie in tapping the power laws that shape web geography

Japan would appear to be leading the way when it comes to embracing new ways to write, publish and read books.  According to the November 2006 survey by Technorati, Japan is the number one language for the blogosphere.   Perhaps this is because the Japanese have a history of writing diaries that extends back centuries and blogging simply takes this cultural penchant online. 

Demon WifeBlooks are also popular in Japan.  Two in particular caught the eye of western journalists – Demon Wife and Train Man.  Both of these began life as blogs, turned into books and have been turned into popular television dramas.  Demon Wife has also spun off a video game and a movie.  The wife of Kazuma – the hapless husband who is tortured by his domineering wife – has even become something of a feminist cult heroine. The trend is taking flight in Japan in part because “an estimated 25 million Japanese — more than a fifth of the population — are believed to read blogs and in addition, even those who don’t go online like to read books based on blogs.  All told, more than 300 books based on blogs, personal home pages and bulletin boards have been published in Japan, about three times as many as in English.

Chaco - Japanese authorTeleread recently reported another that another Japanesee phenomenon– cell phone books – are booming.  Cell phone books are essentially e-books delivered toa cellphone.  Non-phone e-book sales increased 70 percent from $41 million to $68 million in 2006, while cell phone sales jumped 331 percent from $14 million to $58 million.  And in 2007, the Digital Content Association of Japan predicts cell phone sales will grow to $99 million and surpass non-phone e-book sales.  Many of the cell phone books in Japan are manga books or titles in short form, adapted for reading on the small screen.  One successful author, who goes by the name of Chaco (see picture at left), was featured earlier this year in Wired.  She has written 5 cell phone novels.  Novels are about 200-500 pages, with a “page” being defined as 500 Japanese characters.  They sell for about $10 apiece. 

scrolls and booksAdoption elsewhere may have to await the widespread use of more capable cell phones with bigger screens, as well as book motifs and reading models (for example, subscription) which make it easy to consume books in bite size chunks on the go.  Think this transition in book formats could be too big a leraning curve for readers?  Imagine the angst and consternation that might have accompanied the change from reading on scrolls to reading paged, bound manuscripts. 

elmer’s glueIn a post entitled In the Cut and Past Era, Traffic Happens Everywhere, Stevve Rubel talked about what he dubbed the”cut and paste web.”  On this slice and dice web, any piece of content can be placed on a user’s desktop, web page or mobile deice.  Content on the web is downsizing – becoming “micro content.”  Micro content takes the form of widgets, video clips, twitter grams.  Its emergence has been driven by our busy schedules and short attention spans.  What is interesting about micro content is that it can travel anywhere, and can be a traffic magnet that links disparate users around a comman purpose.

It occurs to me that publishers could combine three powerful elements of this cut and paste web into a new marketing form:  a widget, a nugget of content and a tag all in one.   Here’s how it might work.

tagsPublishers could provide a widget that parses out the content of a book on a free subscription basis.  Interested readers get the content e-mailed to them, similar to a service like  The widget would also enable readers to tag the content they get.  Tags, could be graphics as well as text.  Subscribers could view others’ tags.  Contributions by readers to the tagging process represent a kind of voting that could be more interactive than the usual 1 tto 5 star rating system.  Marketers could harvest this content and reflect it back to potential audiences – e.g. as book videos.  It could also provide valuable feedback about what readers found significant or compelling in a title. 

Such widgets would make it easy for others to see the developing buzz about a title.   These “buzz widgets” could also be equipped to let users buy the book.  They could link readers to social networks built around the title or genre.  Heidi Cohen provides a good overview of other ways book marketers can use widgets in her post “What’s up with Widgets?” on ClickZ. 

The hardest part for marketers might be having to sit back and let the audience drive. 

SocratesIn his gem “So Many Books,” Gabriel Zaid characterized Socrates’ criticism of writing thus:

Conversation depends on those who take part in it: who they are, what they know, what interests them,  what they’ve just said.  In contrast, books are unfeeling monologues.  They ignore the circumstances in which they’re read.  They repeat the same things over and over, without taking the reader into account.  They pay no heed to his questions or responses.

The printed book seems to offer only the opportunity for that quiet conversation you have with the author in your head/  You might imagine other readers of the book sharing your sentiments, but there is really no easy way to know. 

Of course a book is an object of culture.  For example, if you want to share a reading experience you can join a book club or talk about it with a friend.   Both of these social interactions have proven very effective in determining the popularity of a book.  Yet this type of conversation is constrained by geography, and if no one nearby shares your particular interest in a book, it’s back to that silent dialogue in your mind.   

What Socrates couldn’t have imagined was how the Internet, wireless communication and e-paper could bring true conversation to the written word.  Suddenly, the prospect of printed books that are interactive and connected to the rest of the world opens up a different kind of shared reading experience.  Every page of the book becomes a web page.  Every word, sentence and paragraph can become a link to a community of readers with simlar interests to your own.  Now the book is a mobile platform.  Sharing what you read can transcend the limits of geography and time. 

What would this new experience look like?  Here are some thoughts about two key ingredients.

Layering – Every book would feature multiple layers.  The substrate is the book text, illustrations and photos such as we have today.  Readers can add virtual layers to this substrate.  Floating above the substrate is an embedded application layer for things like search, word lookup, communications and so on.  A third layer might be reserved for the reader’s own annotations, which could be turned on or off (so as not to annoy others who might want to read the book in its pristine form).  Another layer could belong to the author, containing background material similar to the bonus features that come on many DVDs.  Publishers could have a layer to let readers know about book signings, readings and author appearances.  But the most interesting layer could be a social or conversation layer, where the reader could view other individuals’ reactions to various passages in the book and share their own.

shared reading experienceConnection – The book could be connected to social networks to which the reader belonged whose members might share similar interests.  Publishers could even provide a centralized service that helped readers connect with their fellow book travelers.  Readers could use text or visual tagging to express their reactions to various passages in the book and then share theese through widgets.  This could add a dimension of community to the book.  It would be easy to excerpt and share with others virtually.  You could even have a twitter function that would allow readers to follow each others progress through the book.

Technology offers the potential to bring the conversation to the book in a very literal sense.  As Zaid observed:

With few exceptions, the world of the book has no connection to massive and undifferentiated markets; it relies instead on segmented clienteles, specialized niches and members of different clubs of enthusiasts.  But not all publishers, booksellers and librarians see the importance of giving shape to these clubs; of making lists of potential readers; of welcoming and facilitating direct contact; of taking into account the tastes and opinions of the participants; of organizing coherent and lively conversations.  The success that many small and medium size houses have had along these lines confirms the idea that organizing the world of books is like organizing a conversation. 

As the book expands to become a connected, interactive, mobile device, we will need to define a new aesthetic for the medium of the printed word.  We will need to see it not just as a conversation starter, but as the instrument of conversation itself.  Now that’s worth having a conversation about.

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