Overhauling Digital Publishing: EPUB Updates and a Change of Industry Attitude

Publishers, reading system developers, eBook designers, and even end-users/readers need to see the limitations of EPUB 3 fixed layout (FXL) formatting, which is the basis for most e-readers on the market today. Alberto Pettarin, software developer and CEO of ReadBeyond research lab, argues that the industry as a whole needs to recognize the overall harm of this format to the publishing industry in terms of production inefficiency, high production costs, end-user reading limitations, poor code conversion, low accessibility, and long-term incompatibility, among other problems. Nate Hoffelder, editor of The Digital Reader, and Baldur Bjarnason, industry expert in web development, design and marketing, both agree with Pettarin that FXL has limitations in all of these areas and more, and they emphasize that the way in which the publishing industry (publishers, reading system developers, eBook designers, and end-users) fails to use the technology for its original purpose, is the ultimate reason for lack of successful digital development in the industry. This, mixed with non-aligning corporate agendas between publishers and reading system developers, has, as Hoffelder suggests, essentially driven “the digital publishing industry… fifteen years behind the cutting edge of web design.” In this sense, it is not only a matter of updating current technology to EPUB-WEB that eBook designers and software developers envision; an overhaul of digital publishing requires a change of attitude from many of the key players in the eBook game to adopt formatting technology in its fullest capacity.

FXL as it was intended

Pettarin reminds us that FXL was originally developed from web technologies like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, with the intention of allowing “the author/publisher to semantically tag the contents, [and] in turn allow the user to personalize the “reading” experience according to her needs.” However, he goes on to say that “almost all the FXL files currently on the market are not really fulfilling that vision” (Pettarin). Publishers market FXL as an “enhanced eBook,” a buzzword used to describe perceived value to a customer. In effect, Pettarin argues, this is a false claim. Almost always, an enhanced eBook is simply a basic FXL overlayed with additional (but limited) Javascript and EPUB 3 features, allowing them to claim enhancement, rather than just selling “properly displaying reflowable contents” (Pettarin). What’s worse, Pettarin says, in doing so “they are limiting the user freedom, rather than augmenting it. Sometimes [FXL eBooks] are even inferior to their PDF version.”

Format limitations caused by reading system developers

Reading system developers also place huge format limitations on publishers and eBook designers: “Amazon’s fixed layout can’t be used in the same eBook as embedded audio and video. Also, Apple’s iBooks format can’t be read on the iPhone, meaning that all those pretty [books] don’t even work across Apple’s entire platform” (Hoffelder). Among reading system developers, like Amazon and Apple, there is competition for market share through proprietary software development, which ties up workflow for publishers who are producing multiple types of eBooks for various platforms. This ultimately pushes production costs back on the publisher rather than on the reading system developers, or even the readers themselves who sometimes have a preference in reading systems. Pettarin also emphasizes the vast ineffectiveness of the digital format converters that publishers might use to distribute their files to multiple reading platforms. The XHTML code is transformed into a digital soup, barely readable to the human eye (see example), and the searchability of the document is sometimes rendered useless to the reader where fixed line breaks don’t allow them to search for hyphenated words that are split over two lines. In this case, Pettarin reluctantly concedes that the PDF—effectively, technology from two decades ago—is more useful, “not to mention that PDF readers are available on almost anything with a CPU, while FXL…” (Pettarin). And yet, he states, “very few important stores sell PDF files: either they force you to upload FXL files, or they let you upload PDFs and convert them for you” (Pettarin). Therefore, the reading systems are disallowing the semantic manipulations that FXL was originally intended for. Ultimately, publishers and end-users/readers are losing product value in this situation. As Bjarnason reminds us, “why would publishers [or readers for that matter] want to use a technology that doesn’t recognize mobile phones, for example. Given the long-term trends of the industry, the strategic risks of eschewing mobile phones are much too great for any publisher” (Bjarnason). I would argue further that ignoring or limiting web-based reading habits, such as basic searchability, layout support, or interactivity is detrimental to the publishing industry going forward.

Publishers’ fetish for fixity

This competitive and, therefore, unproductive attitude in reading system developers against each other and against publishers, is partly perpetuated by publishers’ false sense of security in fixed layout formats. Pettarin argues that the use of EPUB FXL further narrows a publisher’s field of vision amongst the myriad reading platforms currently on the market (including the web). Why would publishers limit their digital products to this type of fixity, especially within a market whose digital reading habits require all the flexibility of a web-based system? Within a recent heated Twitter discussion on the topic of fixed layout, industry experts like Bjarnason, Hoffelder, Laura Brady, and Ron Martinez, debated the abolishment of FXL and fully converting to EPUB 3 reflowability, interactivity, accessibility, typography, and—overall—a very clean navigation (McCoy). Hoffelder argued that e-reader layout should be no different than modern-day webpage layout:

It struck me as rather odd that digital publishing was using the latest web technologies to support a concept which most web developers no longer accept as valid.

At one point the standard for website design was to build websites with fixed width (this is similar in concept to FXL ebooks). But that started going away about 4 years ago as the idea of responsive design, or building websites that work with any screen size, became the standard.

It’s now 2015, and almost no web developer will make a fixed width website if they can avoid it… The new standard is for websites to support visitors no matter the size of the screen they use.

And yet in 2015, FXL ebooks are one of the accepted ways to make an ebook.

He goes on to argue that even cookbooks, textbooks, and graphic novels should be no different than webpages in their layout: that’s what digital readers expect.

Time for changes in attitude

In contrast, popularized in the media is the belief that, either publishers don’t have the power to effect change, as Martinez states (“Publishers don’t have control over the technology. They either have to play or sit out”), or that reading comprehension increases in fixed formats, rather than a reflowable, web formats (Rosenwald). Unfortunately, each of these arguments disparages any kind of digital development on the part of the publisher. It is time for all parties in the publishing industry to recognize that an attempt to validate fixed format in digital reading is similar to Western Union justifying their telegraph service in 2006 (Wiki). After all, IDPF and W3C development of EPUB-WEB is expected to take shape a year from now. It should be evident now more than ever that open web publishing is the next step in the digital reading evolution.

Works Cited

Baron, Naomi S. Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. 1 edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Print.

Brady, Laura. “Fixed-Layout Ebooks (with Images, Tweets).” Blog. Storify. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. https://storify.com/LauraB7/fixed-layout-ebooks.

“Ebook Conversion and Design: Best Practices.” Page Two. 20 Feb. 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. http://www.pagetwostrategies.com/ebook-conversion-design-best-practices-innovations/.

Gylling, Markus, and Ivan Herman. “Advancing Portable Documents for the Open Web Platform: EPUB-WEB.” 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. https://w3c.github.io/epubweb/.

Hoffelder, Nate. “The Problem with Fixed Layout eBooks.” Ink, Bits, & Pixels. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. http://the-digital-reader.com/2015/02/22/the-problem-with-fixed-layout-ebooks/.

McCoy, Bill. “Why Publishers Are Making a Push for EPUB3 Now.” Digital Book World.  25 July 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/why-publishers-are-making-a-push-for-epub3-now/.

Pettarin, Alberto. “(Current) Fixed Layout eBooks Considered Harmful.” Blog. Alberto Pettarin. 21 Feb. 2015. Web. http://www.albertopettarin.it/blog/2015/02/21/current-fixed-layout-ebooks-considered-harmful.html.

Rosenwald, Michael S. “Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print. Yes, You Read That Right.” The Washington Post. 22 Feb. 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/why-digital-natives-prefer-reading-in-print-yes-you-read-that-right/2015/02/22/8596ca86-b871-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html.

“Western Union.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 19 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Western_Union&oldid=643244368. 


What can fiction publishers learn from altmetrics?


Gone are the days of red ink-stained editors straining their eyes over a slush pile, a pack of Marlboros and a glass of cheap scotch their only company in the dim, slatted light of their tiny office. Today, editorial acquisitions are increasingly driven by sales data. Editors look at the number of books the author has previously sold, as well as sales of comparable titles, before making the decision to acquire a book. But are these numbers telling the whole story? Trade fiction publishers can learn from scholarly presses, who are developing far more nuanced metrics to rank article, author, and journal impact. This paper will examine these metrics, then explore the challenges and opportunities for trade publishers in building similar rankings for themselves.

Altmetrics defined

Scholars receive funding from different sources, so there is a strong need to measure and evaluate the impact of their research. Bibliometrics, “the statistical analysis of books, articles, or other publications,”1 is one way of evaluating impact. The most common metric used is citation count, in which often-cited articles are ranked more highly than those with lower citation counts. Different indices, such as the  h-index2 and the Journal Impact Factor3 have been developed to measure impact through citations. These metrics, however, present several problems. The first is that they’re slow: citations can take years to accrue, making it difficult to accurately measure recent work 4. Secondly, measures like JIF are proprietary5 and easily manipulated,6 making them difficult to rely on.7 Thirdly, these measures don’t take into account other ways in which academic work can be shared or engaged with. Not all work is published in article form, and articles can generate conversations in other ways besides citation.

To counter this, organizations such as Altmetric.com have developed altmetrics, or article-level metrics. These nuanced measurements take into account a variety of different article features, including blog, Wikipedia, Twitter and Facebook mentions, article downloads, mainstream media citations, StackExchange and other forum posts, and more. What characterizes different altmetrics is that they draw on disparate sources created by a wide user base to evaluate articles.

And it works. Studies have shown that altmetrics can predict citation rates, but at a more rapid speed.9 10 11 Of course, these studies still privilege traditional citation metrics by using them as benchmarks of success. In fact, the real power of altmetrics is in their ability to identify different ways of measuring the impact of a text. “Altmetrics are fast, using public APIs to gather data in days or weeks. They’re open–not just the data, but the scripts and algorithms that collect and interpret it,” Jason Priem writes in “Altmetrics: A Manifesto.”12  But more importantly, he adds, their diversity makes them better able to navigate an academic landscape which now includes raw data sets, tweets, blogs, and other items in addition to traditional articles.13 In addition, altmetrics have the ability to emphasize other forms of impact: the ability of a work to provoke discussion, to cross over between disciplines, or to inform students and non-academic readers.

Fiction publishers and acquisition assessment

Fiction publishers invest in their authors in much the same way universities invest in academics. Publishers take on the financial risk of printing a book and paying an author advance. Only too often, they have no idea whether their risk will pay off. Trade publishers live in what Tom Davenport calls a “disadvantaged” industry: a B2B2C industry in which retailers, such as Amazon and Indigo, hold all the data about the end customers. 14. In the past, acquisitions were made blindly, based on gut instinct or an editor’s sense of the market. “It was difficult to discern sales patterns to see how well or poorly a book was doing until much later—sometimes months later—when the publishers receive returns,” Amanda Regan writes in her report on sales data. 15 Publishers were taking huge financial risks on authors without knowing if they would be successful. Even when a publisher’s instinct paid off, the process was still problematic:  when acquisitions editors say that books select themselves, what they are actually saying is that they choose books within a framework of values they see no need to question.’ 16 By ignoring data, publishers were potentially ignoring larger cultural trends about what people wanted to read, acting on the assumption that the public was just like them.

In 2005, BookNet Canada launched its SalesData service,17 which provides subscribers with week-to-week aggregated sales data for any ISBN. Since then, publishers have shifted to acquiring books based, at least in part, on sales data: that of an author’s past works, or of comparable titles But these metrics come with their own set of problems. First of all, they are overly simplistic: publishers often use a single data point, total sales, as a predictor of future success. Secondly, they are subjective: comparable titles are still picked entirely according to editorial discretion. Finally, they favour mass-market bestsellers, since higher sales figures simply indicate broad appeal. For most books, however, a more successful strategy is to market directly to a niche audience who will engage with the content. To compete for attention with data-rich companies such as Facebook and Google, Davenport argues, “editing and editorial decision-making will have to become data-driven. Social media will have to be mined for sentiment along with content clickstream data. Publishers will have to compile insights on what really works, combining data analytics with knowledge management.”18 Acquisitions editors need more sophisticated metrics if they are to properly assess a work’s impact.

Altmetrics for fiction publishers

Fiction publishers can develop more nuanced metrics, similar to altmetrics used by academic publishers. One of the major components of altmetrics is online engagement, and this feature translates well to trade book publishers. Publishers should track mentions of a book or author on every social media platform, including Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and more. They should also quantify mentions in blogs, articles, and other media. There have been a few attempts to measure social media sentiment towards academic articles.19 Trade publishers may wish to expand upon these attempts and track sentiment across social media, since readers will be unlikely to pick up a book that has received overwhelmingly negative reviews.

Publishers could also track fan fiction online as a measure of strong engagement: “Within publishing, these writers represent the kind of ‘prosumer’ audience that has broadened the market for things like digital cameras, home theater and more. Online, there is a ‘flood of amateur collaboration’ we can embrace and benefit from,” Brian O’Leary writes.20 This includes not only text-based fan fiction but videos, photos, songs and art posted online that reference the work. A more ambitious project for publishers may be to track searches for keywords which appear in a book. If many people look up, in order, an obscure word used in Chapter 1, a song reference in Chapter 2, and a movie referenced in Chapter 3, they are engaging with the text across media in a way that is valuable to the publisher.

As well as measuring transmedia engagement, publishers can measure intertextual influence. Although by convention fiction books don’t cite each other, they do exist in a network of influence. Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James owes a debt to Stephenie Meyer, and most Western fiction owes a debt to Shakespeare. Is it possible to trace this influence across fiction? In the most traditional sense, publishers could count quotations from their books in other works, but this would likely only impact a very few well-known books. So far only a few studies have attempted to track an author’s influence on other texts. One, conducted by the Stanford Literary Lab, mapped David Foster Wallace’s works within a network of texts by extracting mentions of other books and authors from Amazon and mass media reviews. “In recommendation networks, the more times a text is recommended ‘by’ another text, the higher its prestige value. In review networks, where the links (based on co-occurrences) have no directionality, it is even simpler: nodes with the most links are the most prestigious,” Ed Finn explains.21 The study found that Amazon reviewers situated Wallace in a richer and more diverse network of texts than mass media reviewers did. While his method needs some work (both “Wallace is the next Shakespeare” and “Shakespeare, he ain’t” connect the author to Shakespeare), his approach is interesting. Publishers could use similar techniques to map texts in a  network using Amazon reviews, Goodreads bookshelves and other user-generated data. This would help them not only to better measure impact, but also to better position and market books.

The above metrics assess the impact of a book after it hits the market to measure author influence. But is there a way to measure the future influence of first-time authors? In his 2012 study, Rui Yan found 11 features of articles and mapped them against citation counts. Three of these features were based solely on the content of the article The first, novelty, measured the novelty of the statements in the article. Yan found that citation count increased with novelty up to a point, and began to decrease after a certain threshold. This showed, he argued, that works which strayed too far from the norm were less likely to be widely cited. The second feature, topic rank, measured the popularity  of the subject, and correlated with citation count. The third, diversity, measured the amount of topics in the article and found that in general, citation count increased with diversity. 22 Trade publishers could develop similar factors for text novelty, genre, and subject, and test them accordingly, to help them assess incoming manuscripts.

Future applications

Some may argue against evaluating authors’ and books’ impacts at all. They may point to the difficulty of quantifying artistic merit, or the problem of identifying talent which may only be recognized years down the line. These concerns are valid, and I am not suggesting that impact metrics should be the only consideration editors use to drive decisions. The purpose of these measures, as with academic altmetrics, is not solely to inform acquisitions. Instead, they fill two other necessary functions.

First, they filter existing published content to help it get into the hands of the right readers.  In her book Planned Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick develops a framework for how reviews can help filter academic articles after publication. She talks about establishing a “trust metric” that will rank authors based on their reputation and authority within the community.23 The same concept applies to trade publishing, where the marketing department works hard to establish an author’s authority through jacket copy, interviews, and more. With an impact metric for both the book and the author, readers can find titles they trust within an over-saturated market. These metrics could be customized to each user’s tastes, like the Amazon “Recommended for you” feature. They could even be tweakable by the user, allowing them to emphasize different features of the model (i.e. choosing to rank social media mentions more highly than mass media mentions or vice versa).24

Second, metrics provide authors with an assessment of their own impact which can translate  into other, indirect benefits. In his book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson writes about “The Reputation Economy: “Down in the tail, where distribution and production costs are low (thanks to the digital technologies), business considerations are often secondary. Instead, people create for a variety of other reasons — expression, fun, experimentation, and so on. The reason one might call it an economy at all is that there is a coin of the realm that can be every bit as motivating as money: reputation. Measured by the amount of attention a product attracts, reputation can be converted into other things of value: tenure, audiences, and lucrative offers of all sorts.” 25. Most small- and mid-list authors currently reside in the long tail. They often do not earn enough from advances or royalties to support themselves, but choose to write for other reasons. However, with trusted, recognized measures of their impact, they could turn their book into a better job, a speaking engagement, or a more profitable contract, just as an academic leverages high metrics into tenure, promotion, or increased funding.


I have tried to limit my analysis to forms of data that are already accessible to publishers: social media, reviews, and the manuscript itself. However,  publishers need to demand access to data from retailers such as Amazon and Kobo.  This data should include reader engagement with purchased books (such as time spent reading and completion rate); references to their own titles in works published by other presses (including indirect mentions and quotations), and data about consumer buying habits (including networks of books bought by readers of their book). With this information publishers could develop even better author metrics, and compensate for the fact that far fewer trade books are accessible online for free or through subscription services as compared to academic books and articles.

As trade publishers reevaluate their metrics, though, this lack of accessibility may change. Trade publishers who adopt an altmetric-like model will need to be aware that their own impact as a press is measureable too. This provides an opportunity for them to define their brand in their reader’s eyes. But it also leads to increased competition, not for buyers, but  for attention. To succeed, publishers will need to learn to value reader’s engagement on its own terms, rather than as a direct lead-in to sales. They will have to make sure their texts are easily shareable and clippable, and use the data they gather to inform marketing and production as well as acquisitions.


1. “Bibliometrics Definition.” OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms. Accessed February 27, 2015. http://stats.oecd.org/glossary/detail.asp?ID=198.
2. Hirsch, J. E. “An Index to Quantify an Individual’s Scientific Research Output.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102, no. 46 (November 15, 2005): 16569–72.  doi:10.1073/pnas.0507655102.
3. “Journal Impact Factor.” Journal Impact Factor. Accessed February 27, 2015. http://jifactor.com/.
4 Thelwall, Mike, Stefanie Haustein, Vincent Larivière, and Cassidy R. Sugimoto. “Do Altmetrics Work? Twitter and Ten Other Social Web Services.” Edited by Lutz Bornmann. PLoS ONE 8, no. 5 (May 28, 2013): e64841. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064841.
5. Rossner, M., H. Van Epps, and E. Hill. “Show Me the Data.” The Journal of Cell Biology 179, no. 6 (December 17, 2007): 1091–92. doi:10.1083/jcb.200711140.
6. The PLoS Medicine Editors. “The Impact Factor Game.” PLoS Medicine 3, no. 6 (2006): e291. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0030291.
7. Priem, Jason, Dario Taraborelli, Paul Groth, and Cameron Neylon. “Altmetrics: A Manifesto,” 2010. http://altmetrics.org/manifesto/.
8. “What Does Altmetric Do?” Altmetric. Accessed February 27, 2015. http://www.altmetric.com/whatwedo.php.
9. Eysenbach, Gunther. “Can Tweets Predict Citations? Metrics of Social Impact Based on Twitter and Correlation with Traditional Metrics of Scientific Impact.” Edited by Anne Federer. Journal of Medical Internet Research 13, no. 4 (2011): e123. doi:10.2196/jmir.2012.
10. Thelwall, “Do Altmetrics Work?”
11. >Yan, Rui, Congrui Huang, Jie Tang, Yan Zhang, and Xiaoming Li. “To Better Stand on the Shoulder of Giants.” In Proceedings of the 12th ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, 51–60. ACM, 2012. doi:10.1145/2232817.2232831.
12. Priem, “Altmetrics: A Manifesto.”
13. Priem, “Altmetrics: A Manifesto.”
14. Davenport, Tom. “Book Publishing ’s Big Data Future.” Harvard Business Review, March 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/03/book-publishings-big-data-future/.
15. >Regan, Amanda Jia’en. Data-Driven Publishing: Using Sell-through Data as a Tool for Editorial Strategy and Developing Long-Term Bestsellers. MPub Project Report. Vancouver, BC: Simon Fraser University, Spring 2012. http://publishing.sfu.ca/?p=1915&preview=true
16. Curran, J., qtd. in C. Clayton Childress. “Decision-Making, Market Logic and the Rating Mindset: Negotiating BookScan in the Field of US Trade Publishing.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 15, no. 5 (2012): 604–20. http://ecs.sagepub.com/content/15/5/604
17. “About SalesData.” BookNet Canada. Accessed February 27, 2015. http://www.booknetcanada.ca/salesdata/.
18. Davenport, “Book Publishing’s Big Data Future.”
19. Thelwall, Mike, Andrew Tsou, Scott Weingart, Kim Holmberg, and Stefanie Haustein. “Tweeting Links to Academic Articles.” Cybermetrics: International Journal of Scientometrics, Informetrics and Bibliometrics, no. 17 (2013): 1–8. http://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/revista?codigo=5578
20. O’Leary, Brian. From Competitors to Collaborators : 12 Steps for Publishers in the Digital Age, 2014. http://www.magellanmediapartners.com/publishing-innovation/12-steps-for-publishers-in-the-digital-age/.
21. Finn, Ed. “Becoming Yourself: The Afterlife of Reception,” 2011. Stanford Literary Lab Pamphletslitlab.stanford.edu/LiteraryLabPamphlet3.pdf.
22. Yan, “To Better Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.”
23. Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. NYU Press, 2011. http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/about/.
24. Davis, Phil. “Visualizing Article Performance-Altmetric Searches for Appropriate Display.” The Scholarly Kitchen, September 30, 2013. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/09/30/visualizing-article-performance-altmetrics-searches-for-appropriate-display/.
25. Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Hyperion, 2006. http://www.thelongtail.com/about.html

Transmedia storytelling and publishing

Publishers have for  long  announced dwindling revenue for their print products such as books and magazines, laying the blame squarely on the Web and new technology. It’s a tune we know all too well.

For some, they have adapted and given way to the e-book as a format to extend their content on a different platform reaching new audiences at the same time. “In 2012, the Ontario Media Development Corporation estimated 15 percent of book sales in Canada were in digital formats, a number expected to at least double by 2018,” it was reported in the Metro (p 16).

Several publishers, as we know, have folded, not seeing any other means of overcoming the knock they have suffered. Others have dusted off their traditional business models and made way for a fresh perspective, incorporating and even embracing the new opportunities of the electronic age.

There is hope.

In fact, there is opportunity, and this opportunity is presented through transmedia storytelling.

Transmedia storytelling as a movement has been around since the early 1960s, and in some cases 1920s.

Science Fiction, has probably been the most prevalent genre adopting transmedia methods between the publisher, author, book and its readers, with blockbusters such as The Matrix being a notable example of transmedia storytelling in the Science Fiction genre.

What is transmedia?

Essentially, transmedia is a new form of storytelling. For the purposes of this paper, I shall be referring to it as transmedia storytelling, which comprises telling independent yet connected stories across multiple media platforms as a collective experience of the narrative. By doing so, this method of storytelling explores new creative possibilities that opens up new revenue streams for publishers and promotes brand loyalty and audience engagement.

Until recently, the concept of transmedia storytelling has been associated with Henry Jenkins through his book, Convergence Culture, whereby he describes transmedia storytelling as a process whereby important parts of a story, fiction or non-fiction, gets dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. “Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story,” says Jenkins, who speaks of today’s culture, and the future, as an era where spectatory culture is being replaced by participatory culture.

For publishers, transmedia should be a shifting and evolving definition. They cannot work with a fixed notion of what transmedia storytelling means, because they would only limit themselves to the possibilities of what they can do with their brands and products across several platforms.

Transmedia storytelling and publishing should be one connected idea. One should not be able to speak of one without the other. Publishers should no longer have to think of just printing a book, or converting it to an e-pub format, but they should keep in mind the non-conventional extensions of the book/magazine as a whole. Particularly, when it comes to capturing their audience’s attention, and involving them in the storytelling process through other platforms such as digi-novels, games, and even apps.

Transmedia as convergence

“Storytelling is going through and evolution. The impact of new technologies combined with audience that has more control over its media is challenging from revenue models to authorship”, according Lance Weiler, a story architect and co-founder of Transmedia Next.

A distinctive factor about transmedia is that “all plot lines and media presentations are designed to flow within a single, integrated story world, often with an emphasis on audience participation across platforms.” In the case of Conspiracy for Good (2010), audience participation plays a crucial role to the unfolding of the storyline fictionally and in reality. This is a good example to disprove critics who are of the opinion that transmedia might bring about greater apathy among digital audiences who might be too immersed in the content across several platforms.

Instead, the infiltration of transmedia storytelling through popular culture, and its permanence as well as flexibility in culture, showcases the difficulty researchers have had attempting to pin down an exact hypothesis or concept of the transmedia narrative experience.

Transmedia storytelling is also known as pervasive storytelling or persistent narrative that lends the idea that a narrative is no longer confined to a single book, or screen. Other ideas of transmedia is that it is a marketing tool, a means of engaging and enticing new audiences to buy your product, or become loyal members to your brand. Other purposes of transmedia storytelling is accessing alternative revenue streams for new business models, and thereby creating new value through stories and their experiences.

Transmedia and fandom

Fandom, would mean the joining of the two words, fan to denote a follower, or admirer of a celebrity, brand or product, and dom would be derived from kingdom, to illustrate a container or gathering of a community of people with similar interests. Fandom would therefore imply some sort of cult. A fandom would in this instance, interact and participate in creative works and discussions surrounding these works, online and off-line.

Transmedia, as this paper will explain, is a narrative and social practice emerging as an integral part of popular culture as we know it today.

Looking at historical examples, this paper will maintain that the term transmedia itself renders an evolutionary process whereby publishers should create innovative means of creating, marketing, and distributing their brands (and products, ie. books and magazines) in such a way that continues to challenge the expectations of traditional media making and its audiences across these platforms.

Books as an old-age product, can be incorporated into a strategy and architecture that raises curiosity among audiences to click, scroll, and connect with other devices and platforms (even embedded within the book itself) warranting the longevity and relevance of the book in print.

Penguin Book’s Dutton Publishing has been on the forefront of the transmedia storytelling, publishing the digital first novel, Level 26.

Transmedia as an evolving definition also brings publishers to incorporate their audiences in the storytelling process whereby a participatory practice is exercised. Readers not only become reviewers, but also extended creators of content (prose/poetry/music/film/games) that extends the narrative of the book/magazine. Here are a few case studies for demonstration and impact.

In my opinion, Transmedia storytelling in publishing is a slow starter. Many first have to evaluate or observe whether other publishers have incorporated transmedia storytelling into their business plans, or whether it is product specific. Also, many publishers consider transmedia to be the task of marketers, and often find themselves not too involved in the process. Judging by the amount of money marketing gets from the budget, one can assume that transmedia is not often a viable option to consider with their books or magazines.

Books as an age-old product,  can be incorporated as part of a bigger narrative architecture which would aim to spark enough curiosity in readers to click, scroll on other devices and to recognize fragments in their daily social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, newsletters, games, movies, music, and so forth, to generate their own content, and attend live events adding more value to the story as a whole.

One cannot speak about transmedia storytelling without speaking about platforms, devices, and technology.  Publishers now and in the future, need to explore how different platforms can be used to distribute content. Different media platforms can be categorized as literature (the manuscript, book or magazine in print and e-book format), films, television, radio, games, social media, and guerilla marketing skits (or street theatre). Besides the latter, audience consume content from these platforms on multiple devices.

Transmedia storytelling examples: 

By these examples a common thread that often exists in transmedia storytelling is virality. The tendency for a media form such as an image, video or song to gain prominence online through various views, and interaction (through personal blogs, sharing or retweeting) with it. The aspect of virality does lend a brand, or book title its susceptibility in becoming transmedia.

The examples below show how books have evolved into other media forms vis a vis transmedia storytelling. Other exceptions will show that movies, or digi-novels have evolved into books and other transmedia platforms.

The Lord of the Rings. Most likely the most popular and well-known uses of transmedia storytelling is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. This trilogy stems from the 1950s  in book (print) format before it expanded into various other genres and platforms, such as games (board, card, mobile), cartoons, films, songs, merchandise and collectibles, and even internet memes, such as “You shall not pass”, a classic during finals. Audience who have often read the book will end up watching the films, or collecting merchandise or buy the board game. The very serious fans often attend comic festivals and dress up for Halloween.

Sherlock Holmes. This fictional character is perhaps one of the most famous names out there. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has featured in several written works by the same author and has moved on to becoming a franchise across media platforms such as film, TV shows, radio, and games.

Cinderella 2.0. By the name, we can see that an age-old narrative of a girl mistreated by her stepfamily finds true love with a rich handsome monarch, when he discovers her glass slipper, is being re-told through transmedia, as audiences assuming the role of the prince on his search for the girl who got onto a stage and sings. She stuns the audience. As she gets removed by security, she looses her shoe. Upon discovery of the shoe, a huge virality takes off where audiences engage in several platforms to find the “Cinderella”. Her song goes viral on iTunes,  and the list goes on. Transmedia showcases the reality of audiences and how they adapt to information. In order to stay relevant to a hyper connected generation being present in their minds and lives, we need “Liquid content” adaptable in order to distribute it on all available mediums, vis a vis Cinderella 2.0 illustration. 

Level 26. This horror digi-novel written by Anthony E Zuiker who is also the creator of CSI, began as  a book online at www.level26.com and was an interactive extension of the book series. This transmedia idea lets the reader move from the book to visual content online on the website. The success of this digi-novel has captured the likes of Dutton Publishing for print.

Dejobaan GamesA video game developer who has combined both literature and gaming into one. The art game, Elegy, where the player writes diary entries visible to other players, explores three worlds inspired by British romantic poets  like Shelley, Byron, and Keats. This game has received good reviews for alternative and new introduction to how literature and gaming have formed a new experience whereby narrative storytelling took prominence over action. The software company, Steam received an honourable mention at the 2014 Independent Games Festival for their participation in this new art form. Transmedia, therefore, brings several genres, and professions (technology, art, and literature) together to create a collective narrative experience.

Transmedia as semiotic

According to Scolari from the University of Vic in Catalunya, Spain, “many concepts have been developed to describe the convergence of media, languages, and formats in contemporary media systems” (Scolari, 2009: 586).

His article proposes a theoretical approach to transmedia storytelling (TS) that combines semiotics and narratology – a combination that should be explained before these “complex textures” are analysed.

Furthermore, the definition of semiotics is outlined by the author as being, “concerned with sense production and interpretation processes.” Semiotics, Scolari contends, is very useful in describing sense production devices such as transmedia narratives.

I am in agreement with Scolari that transmedia storytelling proposes a new narrative model based on different media and languages, and it invokes sense production and interpretation processes. The excitement around transmedia storytelling is definitely the visual and technological appeal. User-friendly technology of creating code to form websites, and interact with other users in a Second Life, appeals to audiences across the world. Publishers need to cash in on this movement to stay in the game, and ahead of it.

YouTube user Alyiswriting, describes transmedia storytelling  as the idea of telling a story through multiple platforms with each platform making its own unique contribution to the content of the story. Pottermore. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (comic books). Beatgirl

Transmedia as new media  

i) New media in scholarly publishing:

“The difference between traditional and new media excellence lie in both form and content” (Ioppolita et al 2009).

“New media research spans numerous genres, from critical essays to political activism to community-building to software design.” Furthermore, there exists a handful of journals that concern new media. “The Leonardo journal (MIT Press) is of this writing the only print journal with a longstanding track record as a peer-reviewed journal about new media” (Ioppolita et al 2009). This discussion is, however, particular to academic journals and their approach to new media. There are others, such as Fibreculture in Sydney, First Monday in Chicago, Vectors in Los Angeles, and Digital Creativity in Copenhagen.

In terms of citations, Ioppolita et al (2009) states that they are a valuable and versatile measure of peer influence because they may originate from various platforms such as websites, databases and books in print and e-format[3].

Downloads and visitor counts, is another tool to measure transmedia interaction in the scholarly field. Downloads and web traffic statistics show a measure of influence that has gained the attention of an online community. An Open Access study by Brody and Harnad (2005) found that “the significance of citation impact is well established, access of research literature via the Web provides a new metric for measuring the impact of articles—Web download impact[4].”

Ioppolita’s paper, although it speaks to academic publishing, points out that practitioners across several disciplines have fallen behind in making their works available in new ways online and across several other platforms, such as Second Life[5] communities and other online conference venues and archives.

Transmedia as convergence, cross-media and franchising

Jenkins (2003), when he speaks of transmedia, has referred to it as convergence culture. To a larger degree, the notion of transmedia as a franchising is another definition to consider. “Industry professionals and media consumers, may see transmedia storytelling to bring greater institutional coordination, added narrative integrality, and deeper engagement to the various pieces of contemporary media franchises,” says Johnson (2014). Transmedia storytelling, as the various explanations have pointed out, is indeed a means for publishers to turn their works into franchises.

And why not?

Despite the negative notions that surround the word franchise, transmedia incorporates all forms of creativity across various platforms, lending acknowledgement to various authors. The evolving concept of transmedia as new media, convergence, semiotics, and franchising, is only just the beginning coming to understand the vast possibilities there exists with this movement that enables audience participation, and publishers being able to engage their content by adding more value for itself and its stakeholders.



Ioppolito, J., Blais, J., Smith, O., Evans, S.m and Stormer, N., “New Criteria for New Media” in Leonardo, Vol. 42, No.1 (2009), pp 71-75. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. url: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20532592

Simcole, L.  Feb 26, 2015. “Writers see e-ink on the wall” in MetroVancouver. (p.16).

Jenkins, H. 2003. Confessions of Aca-fan. The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins.

[3] Ioppolita et al (2009) New Criteria for New Media (p.72).

[4] Brody and Harnad  (2005)“Earlier Web Usage Statistics as Predictors of Later Citation Impact”.

Will it blend? Lean publishing meets subcompact publishing

What would happen if you put Peter Armstrong’s Lean Publishing Manifesto in a blender with Craig Mod’s Subcompact Publishing Manifesto? Nothing until you pressed the necessary switch to bring its purposely arranged dangers to life. But then what?

The blades would slice and dice the essentials of the book world, the magazine world, and the digital world. There would be no oil-and-water separation. No nasty kale gobs.

You would be left with a concoction that could provide all new digital indigenous publications with the essential vitamins needed to create a valuable, compelling space for their ideas and content to shine.

Central to Mod’s subcompact manifesto is the idea that publishing platforms can be built without excess. He likens subcompact publishing to Honda’s 1967 N360, envisioning that Honda engineers dumped out all the parts they used to make cars on a table, went over these parts with a fine comb, and then selected only the absolutely essential parts to create the N360. He underpins his manifesto with seven characteristics for subcompact publications:

  • small issue sizes (3–7 articles per issue)
  • small file sizes
  • digital-aware publishing schedules
  • scroll as opposed to pagination
  • clear navigation
  • HTML(ish) based
  • engaged in the open web.

Central to Armstrong’s Lean Publishing Manifesto is his mantra that a book is a startup. He identifies four parallels between books and startups:

  • Risk: Both have slim chances of succeeding and are at risk to the market.
  • Creative: Both rely on the creative process of an individual or a small group of people.
  • Stealth: Both are traditionally developed behind a veil of secrecy, although crowd-funding platforms are changing this.
  • Funding: Venture capitalists and publishers play very similar roles, and both rely on the occasional blockbusters to continue with their business.

Blending these two manifestos will give new digital indigenous publications a framework to reduce financial risk, build and leverage community, and reach readers across the open web.

Financial Risk
Both manifestos focus on mitigating financial risk. Armstrong relies on startup logic to mitigate financial risk by stressing that publishers create a product people will actually want. Reader feedback has always been an important part of the publishing process, but it usually comes from a development editor as opposed to actual readers. With lean publishing, Armstrong opens the door for feedback direct from the audience.

Mod reduces financial risk by cutting luxury—Rob Ford’s supposed Gravy Train if you please. By stripping back robust design and interactive features that take time, special tools, and know-how to build out, subcompact publishing limits its expense. Compare subcompact with epic publishing, a term used by Jon Lax to describe everything that subcompact publishing isn’t: think McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and then think the New York Times’s Snow Fall piece. Snow Fall took 11 people six months to make. McSweeney’s asks writers not to submit pieces that require unique formatting. Why? Because they’re “just not that smart.” But perhaps McSweeney’s is the smart publisher here: I would hazard a guess that the budget for Snow Fall—just one of the tens of thousands of pieces that the Times publishes annually—could financially fuel McSweeney’s several years over.

For new publications in the digital world, taking all measures to reduce financial risk when advertising value and reader support remain low is an imperative.

Build and Leverage Community
“Imagine if a group of writers for top magazines decided to write for you instead?”

That’s the question Deca poses in a video introducing the idea behind the publishing platform. More than providing readers with the opportunity to receive their stories unmediated from a traditional publisher, Deca asks its readers to become involved in the editorial process by submitting story ideas they’d like the collective of writers to explore. To borrow language from Clayton Christensen’s work cited by Craig Mod, readers are hiring Deca to help them with the problem they’ve encountered: a lack of investigative journalism. This hiring process resonates with lean publishing’s ideals of creating something that readers have expressed interest in since the beginning, but Deca’s idea of involving readers in the editorial planning process isn’t novel. Newspapers rely heavily on a much more informal system of story leads from members of the community it serves, but editorial planning in magazines, especially with the larger mainstream magazines, happens behind closed doors.

This democratic opening of the editorial process is a space for startups to pander to the market principles that drive lean publishing while capitalizing on the turnaround time afforded by the lightweight publishing tools Mod and Armstrong support. By starting from the groundswell of involvement in community, publishers can create what their readers want to read and leverage that community to continue a cycle of positive reinforcement.

For new digital indigenous publications, community is an important aspect to consider when launching, as the quality of this community will dictate future revenue models.

Reaching The Open Web
By embracing the open web, Mod and Armstrong ensure that our blended concoction of lean pub and subcompact publishing is based on HTML 5 even if the product is destined for iOS and Android ecosystems.

On September 5, 2013 Esquire UK turned heads in the magazine world by launching a weekly edition for the cost of 99p through their app on Apple’s Newsstand. The move was the first of its kind and marked a stab at subcompact publishing from a larger publisher. Behind the decision, editor Alex Bilmes told the Guardian, “We still have a loyal readership but there is a whole world of men out there who didn’t grow up in the time of men’s magazines.” He continued, “We need to be where they are. We have the content, now we have to deliver it.”

Sixteen months later, Esquire UK discovered that maybe this segment of readership wasn’t frequenting Newsstand. On December 25, 2014 the magazine released their last issue of the weekly, and on January 15, 2015, they announced that the weekly has morphed into a newsletter to be delivered on the same schedule.

As a consolation prize, the weekly’s failing shouldn’t be attributed to print anachronisms. It lived in the digital world and had covers and content unique to it. “You couldn’t print it,” says Bilmes.

Esquire was on the right track, but they missed the open web. Perhaps they would have found more success if they looked at the weekly as a combination of lean publishing and subcompact publishing, and went more subcompact than they did. This blended concoction isn’t synonymous with free. Big publishers have proven averse to giving any digital editions away, but the blend of subcompact and lean publishing can be monetized.  But of equal, if not more importance to monetization, blending subcompact and lean publishing means that these publications can be found—found like Deca, which sits behind a paywall, or found like The Long + Short, which doesn’t.

Potential readers need to know that you exist in order for you to be successful. New digital indigenous publications don’t need any help to fail, and hiding exclusively in Newsstand is an example of the help these publishers don’t need.

In combining the ideals of lean publishing and subcompact publishing, new digital native publications, regardless of whether they are published by Esquire or a recent university graduate, can succeed. If they keep their costs down, build and leverage their community early, and live at least in part on the open web, they’ll have made the best of subcompact and lean publishing. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll stick around for the long haul.

Works Cited

Armstrong, P. (2013, February 17). Lean Publishing. Retrieved February 28, 2015, from https://leanpub.com/lean/read

Deca. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://www.decastories.com

Introducing The New-Look Esquire Weekly – Esquire. (2015, January 15). Retrieved February 28, 2015, from http://www.esquire.co.uk/magazine/article/7646/esquire-weekly-welcome-to-the-new-look/

Lax, J. (2012, December 2) Subcompact Publishing Meet Epic Publishing. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from https://medium.com/i-m-h-o/subcompact-publishing-meet-epic-storytelling-3c5aa3d6375f

Mod, C. (2012, November 10). Subcompact Publishing. Retrieved February 24, 2015, from http://craigmod.com/journal/subcompact_publishing/

Sweney, M. (2013, September 2). Esquire To Launch Weekly Tablet Edition. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/sep/02/esquire-launch-weekly-tablet-edition

Designing Ebooks Smartphone-First

Currently, ebook designers and developers tend to aim for tablets and ereaders as the main focus of their digital book designs. With smartphones reaching a tremendous market worldwide that is only growing, we need to design ebooks starting with the mobile phone instead of with the tablet or dedicated ereader. According to Booknet Canada, ebook sales have flattened to around 17 percent of all book sales.1 Designing for the mobile phone, which most people already carry everywhere, means revitalizing the market by reaching a largely untapped audience. Responsive design is important, but designers and developers need to go further and think of the smartphone first to make the most of its advantages, such as portability, small screen size, and multipurpose use. Designing for the phone also means helping readers and designers think more about what it means to read books digitally, as opposed to designing for the ereader or tablet, which are similar in size to the book.

Smartphone usage is growing quickly around the world. In developing nations, many people now own a cell phone instead of a landline because of a lack of infrastructure needed to have landlines. Although the majority of cell phones in developing nations are not smartphones, the percentage of smartphones in use keeps getting higher.2 Worldreader is a non-profit organization that aims to put books into the hands of children and families who lack the necessary income to make the purchase.3 At first, Worldreader focused on distributing Kindles, but now, they are also offering a reading app that can be used on inexpensive smartphones, such as Android’s budget smartphone, Android One.4 Because budget smartphones are a growing market in developing nations, initiatives like Worldreader are increasingly looking at the mobile phone for ebook distribution.5 The accessability of mobile phones is not just an advantage in spreading knowledge to those who don’t currently have access. It is also a way for ebook marketers to reach an untapped market that owns a phone but not a tablet or ereader, and in turn, designers and developers need to start thinking about that market when creating ebooks.

In developed countries, mobile phones are ubiquitous. Throughout the world, smartphones make up 55 percent of mobile phones at over one billion units.6 In Canada, the number of people who own a smartphone is much higher than the number of tablet or ereader owners, at 63 percent versus 34-42 percent and 29 percent respectively.7 We already bring our phone wherever we go; we’re never without them. For many people, the tablet is an extra thing to carry, like a book. A significant percentage of smartphone owners, estimated at around 25 percent, do not own any other type of computer. And that’s because they don’t need anything else.8

Mobile phones now include the same features as an iPod, a camera, a GPS system, a photo album, a dictionary, a gaming device, a newspaper, and much more. Like we’ve become accustomed to using our phones for everything else, so will smartphone reading become the norm.9 The small screen size provides about one third of the text of a print book, which fits with today’s fast-paced, snack-like reading and browsing that is often done on the bus, while waiting in line for coffee, or while filling up any idle moments in the day, such as has become our habit.10

Furthermore, smartphones already have high resolution screens with many features that lend themselves to beautiful, full-feature digital design while allowing designers and developers to rethink what a digital book should look like. Tablets and ereaders are about the same size as a print book and seduce the designer into skeuomorphism, with features such as information separated into “pages” and page-turning animations.11 Unlike tablets and ereaders, smartphones, which are smaller, allow designers and ebook developers to drop skeuomorphism and think about the advantages of a multipurpose device whose main purpose is not reading books. They allow for creativity in how books are designed because they force designers to “hack the book” and rethink ways to display information such as book “covers” in ways that make sense for a small device, especially since the device has already been developed in a way that makes sense on the user’s perspective.12 For example, when browsing a website on a phone, it is common to scroll downward instead of flipping pages. It is common to have links to more information, to easily communicate with others, and to keep personal notes. All these features should be seen as advantages when designing books for the mobile phone.13

Also, ebook are generally designed for responsiveness, but this is not enough. Responsive design should happen from the smallest screen size out for the same reason that is true for websites: it allows the designer to think from the simplest display of information (phone) to the most complicated (desktop). We already know, largely, what consumers want from digital reading. Now, ebooks need to be designed based on customer wants instead of based on the history of the print book.14 Fundamental changes need to happen to make the most of the device’s features. For example, users want to be connected to and share their experiences with other people, as is evidenced by the popularity of social networks, but ebooks are usually individual “objects” that don’t allow for sharing or communication with others. Ebooks and ebook apps need to be designed for connectivity with others to create a sense of community. Whether we like to admit it or not, sharing or “showing off” the books we read is a huge part of the life of the book, which is why people keep books on their bookshelf long after they’ve been read.

Overall, designing for the phone first means revitalizing the ebook market by rethinking digital reading, dropping skeuomorphism, designing for a device that is already with us at all times, and reaching a wider audience. This can happen through aiming for the phones current advantages, designing smartphone-first, and allowing readers to share and connect their reading experiences with others.

Works Cited

  1. Smith, Kayla. “Ebook Sales and Pricing Trends.” BNC Blog: BookNet Canada. March 27, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  2. “Emerging Nations Embrace Internet, Mobile Technology.” Pew Research Center Global Attitudes & Trends. February 13, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  3. Worldreader: E-books on Cell Phones and Kindles in Schools. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  4. Hoffelder, Nate. “Google’s Android One Budget Smartphone Designs Could Mean More EReading in the 3rd World.” Ink, Bits, & Pixels. June 26, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  5. Mod, Craig. “Ebooks for All.” @craigmod. June 1, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  6. “Worldwide Smartphone Shipments Top One Billion Units for the First Time, According to IDC.” IDC: Analyze the Future. January 27, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  7. Woodcock, Linda. “Not Slowing down Quite Yet: EBooks in Public Libraries.” BCLA Browser: Linking the Library Landscape 6, no. 2 (2014). Accessed February 27, 2015.
  8. Friedlander, Joel. “Smartphones: The Next Home of the Ebook?” The Book Designer. February 28, 2011. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Mod, Craig. “Subcompact Publishing.” @craigmod. November 1, 2012. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  11. Esposito, Joseph. “The Elephant in the Room Is a Phone.” The Scholarly Kitchen. February 12, 2015. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  12. Mod, Craig. “Hack the Cover.” @craigmod. May 1, 2012. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  13. Mod, Craig. “Subcompact Publishing.”
  14. Kostick, Anne. “Ebook UX: Bringing User Experience Design into the Picture.” BookNet Canada. March 5, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.


“Smartphone: Mass Adoption.” Wikipedia. Accessed February 27, 2015.

Hsiao, Kuo‐Lun. “Android Smartphone Adoption and Intention to Pay for Mobile Internet: Perspectives from Software, Hardware, Design, and Value.” Emerald 31, no. 2 (2013). Accessed February 27, 2015.

Too Fast Too Facile: The Rise Of Online Annotations

In 2014, technocrats and open source crusaders from around the world gathered at an annual conference in California to ruminate over the possibilities of palliating an information-saturated internet with the use of online annotations. Conspicuous among the attendees were representatives from Genius, formerly Rap Genius, which has been provisioned with millions of dollars of VC funding since its inception in 2009. The thrust of the conference was the creation of a universal online annotation system that would not only critique and question the veracity of online content but also network it by hyperlinking and minimizing the degrees of separation between reams of webpages which might otherwise be insulated from each other.

At the conference, Nick Stenning, a developer with hypothes.is, made the most compelling case for online annotation. “…the web will be a vast, varied assembly of sources of information. Annotation provides us with the way of navigating that information…without requiring that the publishers provide it themselves.” The crux of his argument lies in the phrase without requiring that the publishers provide it themselves. As it happens, it is often the web publisher—by having sole discretion over inserting hyperlinks to sources, related webpages—that lays down the route a seeker of information must take in navigating the web. Discounting his comments, which are— besides being at the end of the page and hence inconspicuous and relatively decontextualized—vulnerable to deletion, the user has no recourse to link a webpage to another. Conversely, annotations, by virtue of being inline, function as an incisive, line-specific commentary that let users paste hyperlinks to related webpages without requiring the publisher’s imprimatur.

And indeed that is how Genius, with its melioristic mandate—Annotate The World, could affect a change. Of all the emergent annotation platforms, Genius seems poised to break new ground not least because it is buoyant with venture capital but also because it is being shepherded by Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of the now defunct Mosaic, one of the earliest web browsers which also introduced online annotations to the nascent internet community of the early 90s. Having failed in creating an annotatable web on first attempt, Andreessen, with Genius, hopes to reinvigorate online annotation and this time for good. But the concept of online annotations predates Mosaic. Even though it can be argued that the idea harks all the way back to Vannevar Bush’s Memex Machine, it was Ted Nelson, who, with his seminal Project Xanadu, first began to think critically of the possibilities of creating an annotatable web.

Despite having similar intentions, Nelson’s and Andreessen’s visions were fundamentally dissimilar. Much before Hypertext, which would link countless blogs and primitive webpages that hitherto existed in isolation, Nelson, who actually coined the term, was busy ideating a radically different but vastly superior version of the internet as we know it today. An exposition of how Project Xanadu differs from the contemporary World Wide Web would require another paper but a brief excursus into its fundaments is crucial to drawing lessons for online annotations.

To Nelson, the World Wide Web is an aborted and slipshod version of what he had in mind for Xanadu. “[Xanadu] has always been much more ambitious…where documents may be closely compared side by side and closely annotated; where it is possible to see the origins of every quotation; The Web trivialized this original Xanadu model, vastly but incorrectly simplifying these problems…Fonts and glitz, rather than content connective structure, prevail.”

It is Nelson’s emphasis on connective structure that makes WWW pale in comparison to Xanadu; two-way links, as he labels them, allow the user to view a document that either borrows, references or derives content in simultaneity with the source document from which it borrows, references or derives. In fact, by using beams to connect content to its source document, it visualizes not just connections between documents but between lines and paragraphs scattered across documents.

A screen shot of Xanadu’s working deliverable, courtesy: www.kottke.org

Stated laconically, Xanadu traces not just the genealogy of documents but functions as a kind of an omniscient library system, mapping the web of interconnections in the accumulation of human knowledge.

But one could argue that the web, as it exists today, allows for comparing a source document and a derivative document by displaying them in different tabs or windows; but, it does not provide for two-way links. For example, a news report about discrepancies in a company’s financial statement would hyperlink itself to the said financial statement released on the company’s website. But, despite the availability of myriad backlink softwares that notify a webmaster every time another webpage links to their website, it is unlikely that the website would reciprocate the action by linking its financial statement to the news report. As mentioned earlier, this is because hyperlinking to another webpage is at the discretion of the web publisher. Xanadu’s provision for two-way linking ensures that no document can exist in isolation which effectively means that it displays not just links (or beams, as illustrated above) to a source document but links from a source document to all documents that source from it.

In the ground-breaking Death Of The Author, literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote:
“The text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture”

Arguably, Barthes’ aphorism is a more elegant summary of the more banal dictum: All Knowledge Is Derivative. With two-way links, Xanadu imitates it by tracing every quotation or idea to its very source such that there is no document or text that exists without being foregrounded in the scholarship that precedes and influences it and that which proceeds and is influenced by it.

But how does this inform annotations?

Although Xanadu never got off its feat and is considered more or less vaporware, online annotations can be an effective tool in mitigating some of the damage that the shoddy implementation of hypertext has wrought on the web. And this is where Genius can be of service.

Any user, after signing up for a free Genius account, can annotate the web. Genius is different from other annotation platforms which tend to be browser plugins; rather, it looms over the web which is to say that it precedes the URL—for example, past Genius annotations on the LA Times website can be viewed by Genius users and new annotations can be made by going to http://genius.com/www.latimes.com. If a Genius user finds a story on Seattle Times that is related to another story on LA Times, he can make an annotation on http://genius.com/www.seattletimes.com and insert a hyperlink to http://genius.com/www.latimes.com. This is, however, still a one-way link. But, with the right backlink software, Genius will be notified that a user has linked to http://genius.com/www.latimes.com and can use bots to display the in-bound link to Seattle Times (http://genius.com/www.seattletimes.com) on LA Times (http://genius.com/www.latimes.com)

What makes this prospect of two-way linking irresistible is that Genius can do this without needing the permission of either newspaper. The whole mechanism may seem tedious even undoable. But, with the weight of influential investors and millions of dollars behind them, Genius is perfectly positioned to delve into two-way linking and channelizing funds into conceiving new ways of accomplishing it.

Two-way linking is essential not only for more transparency and navigability of information as the two examples illustrated but also for creating a highly interlinked web. More connections and reciprocal connections would create an infinitely networked and heuristic World Wide Web where information would be more accessible and one where users can amble from one website to another without solely relying on search engines and a list of favored websites as their gateways to the web. It would pave the way for a more equitable internet—one where information would be scattered across multitudes of websites—and where a few media organizations would not hold a monopoly over privileged information and take editorial calls over the publishing of sensitive content.

Nelson’s Project Xanadu was a spectacular failure; but it prognosticated problems that have only come to the surface since big internet companies started implementing Hypertext with little foresight and content began pullulating the internet in the last two decades.

Online annotation, which is yet to come to fruition, can, to some degree, bring us closer to a Xanadu-like internet. But, Genius, with its emphasis on the ‘Worse Is Better’ model of business, seems to be prioritizing scaling up over and above other imperatives. In fact, the founders of Rap Genius are taking comfort in the fact that the introduction of Hypertext was met with similar consternation which eventually fizzled out. In doing so, it is evincing the same haste and impatience that the internet behemoths demonstrated in their road to El Dorado.

Nelson wouldn’t be surprised.


RapGenius Rebrands With $40M, Aims to ‘Annotate the World’, Lora Kolodny, Wall Street Journal
Perpectives on Annotation, W3 TPAC Conference, Oct 2014
Why Andreessen Horowitz Is Investing in Rap Genius
Toward an ecology of hypertext notation, Catherine C Marshall, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center
Pioneering hypertext project Xanadu released after 54 years, kottke.org
The Death Of The Author, Roland Barthes
Xanalogical Structure, Needed Now More than Ever:
Parallel Documents, Deep Links to Content, Deep Versioning and Deep Re-Use, Project Xanadu

The curse of Xanadu, Gary Wolf, Wired
Genius Idea, Reeves Wiedeman, New York Magazine

Social Media: An Online Tool for Authors, Editors and Publishers


The emergence of digital technologies has had a dramatic impact on the communication industry. In the publishing sector, the adoption of these technologies, which include computers, the internet and software, has transformed the process of production, packaging, distribution and marketing of content, resulting in significant efficiency gains while expanding the size of audience and increasing sale volumes. One relatively new type of digital technologies that has gained much popularity in the world of communication is social media, which are internet-based applications that enable people to create content, edit, organize, share or exchange information, ideas, pictures and videos in virtual communities(IGI). Despite the ‘social’ and less formal nature of these platforms, its application in the publishing field is gaining much currency. This essay seeks to shed some insights on this media and how key stakeholders in the publishing world–authors, editors and publishers–can use the tools offered by social media to enhance their work.


Although a relatively new technology, the birth of social media has revolutionized modern communication. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines social media as “forms of electronic communication (as well as sites for social networking and micro-blogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages and other content (as video)” (Merriam-Webster). Common types of social media include internet forums, social network services, weblogs, social blogs, wikis, micro-blogging, podcast, video and social bookmarking. Some of the popular technologies or tools used in social media-based communication include blogging, photo/music-sharing, vlogs, wall-posting, crowd-sourcing, and voice over IP.

Social media differs from traditional or industrial media such as newspapers, television and film, not least in three ways. First, compared to traditional media, where contents are mediated by professional publishers who often have to maintain some kind of back-and forth interaction with the generators of content before publishing the revised content after meeting certain standards, in social media, content generation is easier, less or unrestricted, and less or unmediated, resulting in high variance in terms of the quality of material produced–that is, from very high to very low quality materials. Second, and relatedly, unlike traditional media, where the time lag between content generation and publication is usually long, social media has immediate effect in the sense that content production and publishing are instantaneous. Lastly, content produced on social media have little or no permanence compared to traditional media, where content cannot be altered once they are published.

 The emergence of social media has brought many benefits to users. For example, it has facilitated global exchange of information and ideas, promoting greater, instant and perhaps more intimate social interaction. In addition, many users are using social media for economic reasons. For example, many job searchers and freelancers are increasingly relying on social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter to market themselves and find employment opportunities or contracts, while employers are also turning to such platforms to find and recruit qualified job seekers. Similarly, many companies and institutions are exploiting the advantages offered by social media to market themselves or their products with the view to expanding their reach, while building rewarding relationships with their clients or customers.

 However, in spite of these and several other advantages offered by social media, there are limitations that have led to several criticisms against the use of social media. Some of these counter arguments include its shortfalls in privacy; its ability to cause distractions, facilitating laziness as well as its ability to decrease people’s face-to-face communication skills.

 Despite these drawbacks, however, social media offers several unique and strategic advantages over traditional media that could be capitalized upon by stakeholders in the publishing industry to enhance their work. In exploring the benefits the use of social media could offer to the publishing industry, this essay examines how the major stakeholders in the publishing field can use social media as a tool to enhance their work. For the purpose of this essay, the definition of social media is limited to social media sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook; Blogs and micro-blogs such as WordPress, Bloggers and Twitter; and content communities like YouTube.

 Potential Contributions of Social Media to the Publishing Industry

In examining the potential role social media could play in the publishing industry, this essay will focus on three important stakeholders in the publishing chain, namely, authors, editors and publishers, to improve their work. These stakeholders are of interest because they form the core human elements in the industry.


Authorship is considered very important, and is seen to have some social, academic, and financial implications on a published work (ICMJE). Whilst authorship, particularly book authorship, remains a challenging enterprise that only the already-successful authors appear to excel in, the growth of social media has provided new possibilities that can be leveraged by potential and existing authors to optimize the quality and reach of their content in the following ways.

 First, social media can serve as an important research tool for authors and writers. For example, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, through their news feed, could provide authors and writers such as journalists, columnists and book authors unfettered access to vital information, including (developing or breaking) news, personal stories and other happenings that could lead to content generation and dissemination. Writers such as journalists, columnists and reporters, by way of gathering information for their piece of writing, could be assisted by news and information provided through the various social media sites. Despite the fact that the reliability of these sites as an authentic information source is low or risky, they can provide vital leads on important or interesting topics that authors can further investigate into, with the potential of publishing substantial content such as articles and books from them. In addition, discussions that take place on various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc., can give authors an idea of topics and subjects that are (or could be) of interest to their potential or existing audience, serving as basis for generating and publishing contents that can be of great value or appeal to their target audience.

 Second, social media platforms allow several authors to connect and interact with each other (Media). One important element authors might need at one point in their writing profession is inspiration from other authors for their writing and blog posts. One way of getting this inspiration is by visiting other authors’ blogs (Leo Babauta). These interactions do not only serve as a source of inspiration for authors, but a knowledge acquisition process to improve their writing skills through the ideas, personal stories, materials and experiences that are shared.

 Authors, through their blogs, can also open up for readers’ reviews on their subject, articles, book, etc. Through these discussions with readers and visitors to their blogs, they can revise their publications based on the reviews and suggestions from readers, or consider them for future publications. For instance, some revisions made in The Chicago manual of style, are based on readers’ commentaries, questions and reviews on their blog (CMOS).

 Also, authors can assist publishers in book marketing by increasing their visibility and awareness through social media. Through their interaction with followers and friends on sites like Twitter and Facebook respectively, a discussion on a book that is about to be published or has already been published can draw the attention of many potential readers to buy the book.  To enhance author’s popularity and visibility on the web, it has been  revealed that social media impacts the overall search engine optimization (SEO) strategies (Chandler, 2013). It shows that every blog post that receives a lot of attention is said to be an important factor in Google ranking algorithm, and is more likely to increase its ranking as a result of its popularity on the various social media platforms. Popularity here would mean a number of likes on their Facebook pages and posts, several re-tweets to their posts, etc. With a well-established audience, authors will undoubtedly increase sales when their books are published.

 Finally, these social media sites can open employment opportunities for freelance writers. Sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., is a good platform for freelance authors and writers to announce their presence, by way of informing potential employers of their skills and abilities. The search tab in Twitter serves as a great tool for freelance authors in their job search. This search is simply done by typing “freelance_writer_wanted” in the search tab (Hines, 2013). The pop ups after this search could serve as a source of employment for freelance authors.  Still, on job opportunities, a freelance author’s profile shared on LinkedIn and Twitter can also be a way of informing other professionals and potential employers about their qualities and experiences.


While we look at the benefit of social media to authors and publishers who are mostly seen at the beginning and end stages of the publishing process, there is the need to also look at its benefits to editors, whose work is to filter, condense and improve upon manuscripts from authors. In this digital world, a critical look at social media for editors would be of great benefit to the digital publishing workflow (Mrva-Montoya, 2012).  This workflow is said to be a means of promoting “higher editorial accuracy,  higher production standards and greater cost and time efficiencies” (Mrva-Montoya, 2012).

 First of all, editors who participate in conversations on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook could inform them on important and interesting topics that would help modify their manuscripts (Elsevier). This could also serve as a good source of reference for them, in their editorial advice to authors, by way of  providing interesting information and stories that people would like to know.

 Moreover, social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, etc. could serve as discussion platforms for some arguable editorial rules on spelling, punctuation and grammar, among others. Editor’s online engagement regarding the appropriate use of  language, tenses, grammar etc, can help their numerous views, followers and readers to assess their professionalism and also enhance their social media presence which will enable them to build their brands through their posts and constant interaction with potential audience on the various social media platforms.

As editors build their brand through these sites, employment opportunities for freelance editors could be opened. As mentioned in the case of authors, social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, etc, would be a good platform for freelance editors to announce their presence as a means of informing people of their skills and abilities.


The trend of online purchases have facilitated the need for publishers to market and sell their products through the use of various social media platforms. It has, therefore, become paramount for publishers to go beyond company websites and reach potential readers on sites where they spend much of their time: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, YouTube, and other social sites. Despite the fact that social media has its downsides, it is a great tool for book and magazine publishers to promote their publications and authors.

 Also, publishers are able to engage readers in ways that many traditional avenues of sales and marketing cannot offer. For publishers who sell their products online, social media allows them to respond quickly to comments and complaints from their blogs, Twitter, and Facebook page.

 In addition, these social media sites also serve as an online interaction platform with customers, with the purpose of promoting a publisher’s brand.  Publishers’ sites like blogs, videos uploaded on their YouTube pages,  etc., will  enable them to have much time of interaction with their intended audience and already existing users.

 To sum it up, Penny Sansevieri, founder and CEO of Author Marketing Experts, Inc., an online book marketing and publicity firm, in his presentation at Digital Book World 2014 on the most and effective social media and marketing tools publishers actually use, said “It used to be that you have to be everywhere, but now you just want to be everywhere that matters to you and your audience because the tools take so much bandwidth” (DBW, 2014). This virtual community social media build for publishers and their readers is a platform that is capable of promoting their publications, which will undoubtedly increase their sales.


The use of social media serves as a great potential in enhancing the publishing process of authorship, editing, marketing and sales of magazine and book titles. Although social media has its drawbacks as mentioned earlier on in the essay, the above discussion has outlined the numerous ways through which authors, editors and publishers can benefit highly from this networking media. Thus, curating ideas for authorship, building online presence, easing the editorial process, marketing and selling of publications to a wider audience and engaging audience on a frequent basis. These are a few but important benefits social media will enhance and add up to the publishing process. Exploring into this media is one means of advancing the publishing industry, to increase productivity as well as meet the growing expectations of audience.


Christensen M. (2015) How Book Publishers Can Use Social Media http://smallbusiness.chron.com/book-publishers-can-use-social-media-39384.html retieved on 2/23/2015

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Defining the role of authors and contributors http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html#two ICMJE retrieved on 2/24/2015

DBW (2014) Which Social Media and Marketing Tools Are Publishers Actually Using Successfully http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/which-social-media-and-marketing-tools-are-publishers-actually-using-successfully/ retrieved on 2/25/2015

Elsevier http://www.elsevier.com/editors/journal-marketing/social-media retrieved on 2/22/2015

Grosvenor C. Reasons Why Social Networking Is Bad http://socialnetworking.lovetoknow.com/Reasons_Why_Social_Networking_Is_Bad retrieved on 2/25/2015

Harrison, L. (2014) 25 years of the Internet: How it has changed the way we Interact   http://www.socialnomics.net/2014/07/28/25-years-of-the-internet-how-it-has-changed-the-way-we-interact/ retrieved on 2/23/2015\

Hines, K. (2013) 9 ways to find freelance jobs, http://www.freshbooks.com/blog/9-great-ways-to-find-freelance-jobs retrieved on 2/25/2015

Kasia Mikduk (2013)  Advantages and Disadvantages of Social Networking: should you spend more time connecting online? https://blog.udemy.com/advantages-and-disadvantages-of-social-networking/ retrieved on 2/21/2105

Montoya- Miva (2012) Social Media: New Editing Tools or weapons of Mass Distraction http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jep/3336451.0015.103/–social-media-new-editing-tools-or-weapons-of-mass?rgn=main;view=fulltext retrieved on 2/21/2015

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31 ways to find inspiration for your writing. http://writetodone.com/31-ways-to-find-inspiration-for-your-writing/  retrieved on 2/21/2015

Accessing big data: The key to publishers taking back the power

Publishing and the priceless tool of big data

Over the last decade, the rise in digital reading has brought with it an unparalleled opportunity for publishers to collect and use reader data; information that extends from the time, frequency and duration at which consumers are reading, down to detailed records of whether or not a reader completes a book, and if not, on which page they gave up. All of this data, if harnessed, has the potential to impact traditional publishing’s business models, and at the very least to equip publishers with solid fact on which they may base their decisions. At present; however, traditional publishers (specifically the Big Five) find themselves with extremely limited access to this priceless tool. Instead of taking swift action to remedy this situation in a way that will empower publishers and allow them to self-sufficiently explore alternative business models, traditional publishers have sat by idly, opening up opportunities for tech startups and e-book retailers to drive innovation within the industry. What little action has been observes is taking extensive amounts of time to come to fruition and is being executed through partnerships with retailers and tech companies. This is worrisome, not only because of the history of issues publishers have faced after relying heavily on retailers such as Indigo and Amazon in the past, but also because it is doing nothing to increase the self-sufficiency of publishers and return them to the position of power within the industry. If publishers hope to regain control over their industry and see traditional publishing move forward as a profitable endeavor, they will need to take swift and innovative action to gain access to and apply big data to their business models and decisions through in-house innovation.

Facing “a locked-up data pipeline”

One of the largest barriers to the success of traditional publishers in utilizing big data–which should be considered prior to making recommendations on the ways in which the data should be used–is the lack of tools publishers have in place to collect and/or access reader data. Although publishers create the content, their interaction with and connection to the platforms through which it is consumed is nonexistent. Apart from a miniscule portion of direct sales, the work of traditional publishers reaches consumers via the platforms and products of external retailers and companies. This division between the content and its consumption means that publishers have no access to data beyond “the blunt instrument of units sold.” [1]

According to Kristen McLean, Miami-based founder and CEO of Bookigee, a publishing-focused data, analytics, and consumer research company, publishers are facing “a locked-up data pipeline in which [they] don’t have access to complete data”–a fact that has caused the publishing industry to “lag behind most major consumer industries, including the music, TV, and film.” [2]

Currently, of the five major e-book retailers/platforms–Amazon (Kindle), Apple (iBooks), Barnes & Noble (Nook), Google, and Kobo–all admit to collecting reader data, though most are tight-lipped about how exactly they are analyzing and using it. [3] Further, most seem to be fairly explicit about keeping this information to themselves. At one point, it appeared as though U.S.-based book retailer, Barnes & Noble, which holds roughly a quarter of the American e-book market, would help open that “locked-up data pipeline”. In a statement made by Jim Hilt, the company’s then vice president of e-books, at the January 2012 Digital Book World Conference B&N mentioned plans to share this information and the insights they have gleaned from it with publishers, and stated that the company was already doing so informally. [4] By March 2012; however, the company’s tune had changed with Hilt stating that B&N “has no imminent plans to share more information with publishers about readers’ habits in a systemic way.” [5]

The white knight in all of this has been Toronto-based Kobo, which openly shares its reader data with publishers, going so far as to release an overview of their aggregated findings in fact sheets and whitepapers publicly available on their company website. In a January 2015 presentation delivered to the Simon Fraser University Masters of Publishing program, Kobo President & Chief Content Officer, Michael Tamblyn confirmed that the lines of communication between Kobo and publishers are open, and that the priceless reader data being collected is already being relayed back to publishers. [6] In addition, Tamblyn offered insight into Kobo’s decision to partner with publishers, noting that the company believes that reader data will help publishers put out better content, and better content means more sales–a win-win for publishers and the e-book retailer. [7]

While one can only hope that Kobo will inspire other e-book retailers to form similar data-sharing relationships with publishers, as a platform that has more than eight million users worldwide and stocks more than 2.5 million books from hundreds of publishers and imprints including the Big Five, [8] Kobo’s generosity in sharing its reader data is a solid starting point for publishers looking to apply big data insights to their business models and decisions.

Making the most out of what is available

Offering some hope and hinting that publishers may be utilising the data they do have access to, limited though it may be, are the 2014/2015 partnerships of HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan with e-book subscription services Oyster and Scribd. [9]

While the three publishers have not explicitly come forward saying their decisions were rooted in big data insights, the move aligns perfectly with findings reported in Kobo’s fall 2013 whitepaper entitled The Evolution of the eReading Customer which identified 19% of the e-reading population as “Book-Loving Borrowers”–individuals who read approximately 31 books each year but prefer to borrow rather than buy. [10]

This is an exciting move on the publishers’ parts–a first step toward a data-driven business model, and promising news for an industry that has seemingly run on intuition and anecdotal evidence for hundreds of years. [11] But it is still one of the only examples of traditional publishers applying big data, and it presents two large issues: publisher’s lack of expedience and their ever-present dependence on external partners.

Slow and steady doesn’t win the race

However out-of-character and noteworthy this move may be on the part of traditional publishers, the path by which they came to make this innovation is cause for concern. Firstly, and perhaps the most glaring of issues with this progress and exploration of alternative business models, is how long it took for this to happen. Kobo has been sharing reader data since at least 2013, and subscription services such as Scribd and Oyster have existed since 2007 [12] and 2012 [13] respectively. This means that it took three of the world’s largest, oldest, and most powerful publishing houses years to recognize and act on the substantial segment of readers who prefer to borrow books rather than buy. And still, the remaining two of the Big Five are showing no signs of taking action to capture this audience’s attention or business. Nearly two years ago, at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair, Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle responded to questions about the company’s plans to use big data, saying, “We’re doing our homework, our research and development with different business models and we are doing it cautiously. We will take our time, we want quality over speed and there is no rush. We are building a company for the next 100 years and not for 100 days.” [14] Although the sentiment of quality over speed may have its merits, one would hope that Random House would also recognize that speed is important when you’re in a competitive and struggling market. While publishing magnates have been doing its research, Amazon has had time to build and launch its own subscription service, Kindle Unlimited, which first became available in the U.S. in July 2014. [15]

Dependence as publishing’s downfall

The second concern surrounding traditional publishing’s early forays into new business models is the fact that they are not experimenting with industry innovation for themselves, and instead are relying on other retailers and companies to actually implement or execute the innovations–a trend that has been historically pervasive within the industry and has placed traditional publishers at a disadvantage.

Proof positive of the ubiquitous dependence of publishers on external partners can be found in the aforementioned partnerships of HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan with e-book subscription services Oyster and Scribd; particularly when it contrasted with Amazon’s development of Kindle Unlimited. Instead of doing something for themselves, publishers turned to others to capitalize on the limited big data insights they had.

And it looks as though the pattern of dependence will continue. While traditional publishers have been contemplating big data, a plethora of tech startups have appeared, offering ebook analytics to self-published authors and small or independent publishers–and doing so successfully. An example is San Francisco company App Annie that expanded its services to include e-book analytics in 2013. [16]

With these companies cornering the market on big data for publishers and building successful tools and infrastructure as traditional publishers stand by idly, it raises concern that, as a struggling industry, while seeking the most “cost efficient way” [17] to access reader data, publishers will be left to rely on experts and services outside their own company–a situation similar to what happened when traditional publishers left book e-commerce in the hands of Amazon, and one that would leave publishers yet again in the submissive position.

Changing the conversation around partnerships

Although this concern does not appear to have spurred traditional publishers to take swift action within their own walls, conversations around the subject of future partnerships indicate that traditional publishers have at least learned from their past decisions to rely on others. In a 2014 interview with Fast Company, HarperCollins’ Chief Digital Officer, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, responded to a question about data-driven projects the company will be taking on by saying, “Where we are making the first inroads is really allowing ourselves to acquire more consumer data.” [18]

At the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair’s CONTEC conference, Sebastian Posth, CEO of Berlin-based Publishing Data Networks, a company offering analytics to the German publishing industry, summarized nicely the changing mindset and necessary caution of publishers looking at partnerships that would allow them to experiment with data-driven models:

“Data analysis is a business requirement and a necessary means to deal with the digital change…The publishing industry needs to learn this lesson if it wants to survive. Publishers need to make sure that they work with partners (retailers, intermediaries, distributors), that in general support the idea of exchanging, at best, real-time information between people and organizations in a distributed supply chain…Data is not a giveaway or supplement to a business deal, it is a prerequisite.” [19]

Taking the bull by the horns

While the awareness and caution being exercised by traditional publishers is heartening, the still-pervasive reliance on external partners to creative innovation is worrisome, and it seems reasonable to question how publishers will attempt to gain the upper hand if not at least equity in these partnerships. The safer, though perhaps less economical, route would be for publishers to take matters into their own hands and develop their own tools for collecting and analyzing big data, then apply the insights they gain. Until publishers do that they will be, in the words of marketing guru Seth Godin, “playing a different game than people who have been winning on the internet for a very long time.” [20]

One such way for traditional publishers to do so is by generating all e-books using EPUB 3, which, being built on HTML 5, would allow them to build JavaScript into the books that could then be used to track reader behaviour. [21]  While this move would require traditional publishers to expand their teams to include data analysts, the unmitigated access to reader data would place publishers into a position of power and control, and most importantly would allow them to create data-driven innovation self-sufficiently.

At the very least, if traditional publishers did not find it economically feasible to analyze the data themselves, having access to it would allow them to build partnerships more akin to outsourcing, whereby publishers could hire or contract an external company to perform these services for them. In this scenario, publishers would be in the position of power, as they would only be paying for the analysis, and not for access to the data.

Similarly, with access to the data no longer a bartering chip, the idea of partnerships with retailers could be revisited. If the data being held hostage by retailers such as Amazon, Apple, and B&N was suddenly available to publishers through alternative means, the value of the data, monetarily speaking, would depreciate and publishers and retailers would move to a more equal level on which they could strike deals.

Shifting the industry norm

The key in all of this is access to big data. Without it, publishers will remain powerless, unable to affect change and innovation within their own industry, and at the mercy of retailers such as Amazon and Apple. Though it may be a difficult and likely expensive path, traditional publishers, and within that the Big Five specifically, need to take swift action to gain access to reader data. Through the example and generosity of Kobo, publishers can see the possible applications of this data, and understand that partnerships based in equity are possible between publishers and retailers, but if they want that to become to industry norm, they need to step up and do something. And fast.



[1] “Publishing in the Era of Big Data Whitepaper – Fall 2014.” Kobo Café. 2014. Accessed February 20, 2015. https://cafe.kobo.com/press/facts.

[2] Anderson, Porter. “Publishing Is Now a “Data Game” – Publishing Perspectives.” Publishing Perspectives. September 17, 2013. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://publishingperspectives.com/2013/09/publishing-is-now-a-data-game/.

[3] Kaste, Martin. “Is Your E-Book Reading Up On You?” NPR. December 10, 2010. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2010/12/15/132058735/is-your-e-book-reading-up-on-you).

[4] Greenfield, Jeremy. “Barnes & Noble to Share More Reader Data with Publishers.” Digital Book World. January 24, 2012. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/barnes-noble-to-share-more-reader-data-with-publishers/.

[5] Greenfield, Jeremy. “Barnes & Noble Has No Imminent Plans to Share More Data With Publishers.” Digital Book World. March 16, 2012. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/barnes-noble-has-no-imminent-plans-to-share-more-data-with-publishers/.

[6] Tamblyn, Michael. “Kobo.” Lecture, from Simon Fraser University Masters of Publishing Program guest speaker series, Vancouver

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alter, Alexandra. “Your E-Book Is Reading You.” WSJ. July 19, 2012. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304870304577490950051438

[9] Plaugic, Lizzie. “Ebook Subscription Services Get a Boost with Help from Macmillan.” The Verge. January 13, 2015. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://www.theverge.com/2015/1/13/7539379/e-book-subscription-oyster-scribd-macmillan.

[10] “The Evolution of the eReading Customer – Fall 2013.” Kobo Café. 2014. Accessed February 20, 2015. https://cafe.kobo.com/press/facts.

[11] “Publishing in the Era of Big Data Whitepaper – Fall 2014.” Kobo Café. 2014. Accessed February 20, 2015. https://cafe.kobo.com/press/facts.

[12] “Oyster (company).” Wikipedia. February 20, 2015. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oyster_(company).

[13] “Scribd.” Wikipedia. February 20, 2015. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scribd.

[14] Knolle, Kirsti. “Publishers Need to Know Their Readers to Survive in Digital Era.” Reuters. October 21, 2013. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/21/net-us-publishing-data-idUSBRE99G0LD20131021.

[15] “Amazon Officially Launches Ebook Subscription Service, Kindle Unlimited.” Digital Book World. July 18, 2014. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/amazon-officially-launches-ebook-subscription-service-kindle-unlimited/.

[16] Owen, Laura. “App Data Company App Annie Expands into Ebook Analytics for Publishers and Authors.” Gigaom. October 8, 2013. Accessed February 20, 2015. https://gigaom.com/2013/10/08/app-data-company-app-annie-expands-into-ebook-analytics/.

[17] Greenfield, Rebecca. “How HarperCollins’s Chief Digital Officer Uses Big Data To Make Publishing More Profitable.” Fast Company. January 23, 2014. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://www.fastcompany.com/3025254/most-creative-people/how-harpercollinss-chief-digital-officer-uses-big-data-to-make-publishi.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Anderson, Porter. “Publishing Is Now a “Data Game” – Publishing Perspectives.” Publishing Perspectives. September 17, 2013. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://publishingperspectives.com/2013/09/publishing-is-now-a-data-game/.

[20] Friedman, Jane. “How E-Books Have Changed the Print Marketplace: Digital Book World, Day 3.” Jane Friedman. January 16, 2015. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://janefriedman.com/2015/01/16/ebooks-print-market/.

[21] Greenfield, Jeremy. “How Publishers Should Prepare for EPUB 3.” Digital Book World. January 18, 2012. Accessed February 20, 2015. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/how-publishers-should-prepare-for-epub-3/.

The Importance of Tech for Juvenile Publishers

It’s common to see children on a bus or a plane, completely absorbed in their parents’ iPad. As the presence of tablets increases, publishers and readers alike have speculated about the future of juvenile books in regard to digital content. Recent studies show that ownership of ereading devices for children is still increasing, due to both new devices being purchased and used devices being handed down to children. Further, parents are showing an increased willingness to give ebooks and other digital goods as gifts (DBW Nov 2014). How should publishers evolve with technology while maintaining the value of the print text? This paper will examine the beneficial impact of subscription models such as Epic! and Storia School Edition, cross-media content such as that created by Scholastic and Ruckus Media Group, and social reading network Wattpad on the sales and profits of children’s publishers. In this new digital space, with increasingly tech-savvy customers, children’s publishers need to maintain sales in print while diversifying both their editorial efforts and their revenue streams by adopting several different technologies to continue to reach their target demographic, and profit in the digital space.

The subscription model is seen by many as the next wave in ebook publishing. As children’s service Epic! continues to acquire titles, Big Five publishers are slowly being wooed, with Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins already signed on. “For us, working with HarperCollins symbolizes a change in the marketplace wherein leading publishers recognize the value of a subscription model and recognize how well it works for the children’s space,” says Epic! co-founder Kevin Donahue (DBW May 2014). Children’s book bigwig National Geographic has also signed on (Taylor). Epic!, which has dubbed itself the “future of reading” was founded in 2013 to “create a unique and fun experience to get kids excited about reading” (DBW Jan 2014). Epic! aims to bridge the gap between kid-friendly bookshelves and ereading technologies (Taylor). The app offers personal accounts which offer a child reading options that are curated for his or her age group and interests, chosen by Epic!’s board of experts which includes children’s book industry experts. The main reason Epic! works so well for the children’s space? Instant access to content, without need of parental permission or involvement to purchase reading material (DBW Jan 2014). Another major benefit of the platform is the gaming element. Readers read to earn badges and awards, accomplish goals and reach achievement levels, which creates a more enticing reading environment (DBW Jan 2014). All of these advantages of Epic! offer an opportunity to publishers to mimic or improve upon.

“It has seemed to me for some time that all of the Big Five houses could peddle a subscription service for kids ebooks that would be a reliable generator of cash flow and customer acquisition as well. Many parents would love to be able to let their young kids take the iPad in hand and “buy” books, as long as they weren’t actually spending any money. The big houses all have extensive juvie publishing programs. Each one could offer a subscription service that would keep many kids amused for months. It could be a “totally cool” 6th (or 5th or 8th) birthday present. While it is true that there are others competing for the kids’ market, any of the Big Five could pull something like this together very inexpensively and, over time, build a customer base that would be both proprietary and lucrative.” – (Shatzkin Nov 2014).

For Big Five publishers, starting their own backlist kids subscription app seem obvious to Shatzkin. It would be easy to market, through the print books they already publish. It would be low cost to start, with the popularity of subscription services in publishing and in other multi-media industries. He also notes a major advantage to publishers, should any of them choose to embark on their own children’s ereading app – lead generation. In the case of picture books, many are read to children multiple times. “A subscriber who looked at a picture book 27 times might be enticed to buy a print copy, so the subscription activity could be lead-generating” (Shatzkin Jan 2015). Plus, publishers have the opportunity to hold back certain titles, perhaps only including select titles from series in order to entice users to purchase additional titles in print form sooner than they are available for streaming on the subscription app. This lends itself well to the children’s space due to the prominence of series and branded books.

Scholastic recently closed its children’s ebook platform app, Storia, to focus on Storia School Edition, a subscription model. Storia School Edition smartly focuses on annual subscriptions from schools to allow access to students at school and at home. A family plan is expected to launch in 2015 (Dilworth). Other children’s ereading subscription services seem to be aware of the value of school in the digital space (Shatzkin Jan 2015). Increased control over reading achievement and progress is appealing to both teachers and parents. With Storia School Edition, teachers can track their students’ progress with assigned readings, and parents can monitor time spent reading. In a world where parents can monitor their children’s whereabouts through tracking apps on their iPhones, offering more visibility into reading habits will entice parents to subscribe.

Extending content onto new media is nothing new for Scholastic. The Magic School Bus expanded across multiple platforms, starting with the television series in 1994. At the time, it was argued that educational content couldn’t succeed in a cartoon, which was quickly disproved with the show’s huge success (Evans). When asked about the subscription service model, Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Media, says, “We regard ourselves as a company that helps children learn and love to read and we do that in a variety of ways; one of which is by publishing great books. We look at screen-based media as an extension of that relationship, not a substitute,” (Evans). The argument from publishers in regard to media expansion has commonly been that they are in the book business, not the technology business (Shatkzin Nov 2014). However, in the ever-increasing digital space, the two industries are becoming the same – both create content and provide entertainment. Missed opportunities in the digital space will hinder the ability of publishers to keep up with the evolution with technology. Scholastic’s ongoing success is credited to “the development of a complementary media strategy across a variety of mediums, without losing focus on the company’s mission.” Forte says, “We have developed our brand so that it’s relative and meaningful to children when they want to read, when they want to watch and when they want to play,” (Evans). Publishers need to follow Scholastic’s example and expand their front list titles and brands into other mediums – rather than selling subsidiary rights and losing control of the brand.

The children’s book market has been a hot topic during the Digital Book World Conference in New York City in 2013 and 2014. This is likely due to tablets and ereading devices coming down in price, which is transitioning the market from niche, where few parents were willing to “let their kids loose with expensive devices”, to mass (Pilkington). Since it’s release in 2010, iPads have been sold in mass around the world, with over 21 million selling in Q1 of 2015 alone (Statista). Previously, tablets were most commonly used by wealthy individuals over the age of 45, but recent studies show that of the teenagers and children who have a tablet in the house, 41 percent use it at least one a day (Jackson). Rick Richter, previous CEO of Ruckus Media Group, who previously partnered with Scholastic on extending digital experiences, says of digital reading, “Kids will read everywhere they can, and if we can make that a very engaging experience, why, that’s even better,” (Pilkington). Although enhanced adult ereading content has been met with skeptical response, Shatzkin stated in 2011 that it makes complete sense in the children’s space. “We’ve been delivering “enhanced” children’s books for years. Die-cuts, pop-ups, and computer chips to make the books talk, sing, squeal, and be responsive to touch commands have been implemented for a long time,” (Shatzkin Sept 2011). For Ruckus, and its new owner, Kiwitech, and other digital children’s publishers, “digital content packages could rapidly overtake the appeal of books for these younger audiences and their gatekeepers” (Shatzkin Sept 2011). After all, digital natives want “digital-only solutions from publishers and… require new ways of packaging [and] marketing,” (Wilkinson). For customers who fear their children aren’t interested in reader and want to build up that interest, publishers can promote enhanced e-books as a good tool to “prompt less motivated young readers toward engagement when they might otherwise avoid text altogether” (Hazard Owen).

Marketing is an important consideration in the juvenile market. There are dual target demographics – the parents who purchase the content, and the children and teenagers who consume it. Digital natives expect content in digital formats. Social media is a main competitor for young readers’ time, but it’s also a key way for them to find media to consume. Digital natives expect to discover content socially (Jackson). This is where social authoring platform Wattpad comes into play for publishers. As Katie Shamash hypothesizes, Wattpad could serve publishers in the same way that YouTube has served for music and movies. On YouTube, music and movie rightsholders have three options to choose from when fans violate copyright to remix and remake content into their own version. They can choose to “earn a percentage of ad revenue from the video; to track its viewing statistics; or to remove the video from YouTube. The vast majority choose to make money,” (Shamash). With Wattpad’s user demographics skewing sharply to teenagers, publishers have an opportunity to foster an engaged and passionate fan base of readers and writers of fan-fiction. According to Jackson, young people “show a far greater willingness to adopt digital media products before developing a passion or interest in traditional media”, in which case discovery of content on Wattpad will lead to print sales.

There is no denying that print books still hold a strong position in the juvenile book industry. As Kara Liebeskind stated in an article on Digital Book World’s website, “there seems to be a time and place for both platforms, and families are perhaps just in the process of figuring out when and where each one works best,” (Bellis). Also at DBW, publishing consultant Joseph Esposito stressed that the book industry needs to innovate to beat forward thinkers like Amazon, and keep hold of their market share (Reid Jan 2014). Research into the children’s market by Scholastic shows that 51% of children aged 6-17 read for fun 5-7 days a week. In comparison to the adult market, the juvenile market is a valuable segment that publishers need to keep up with. Subscription models, multi-media platforms, and social networks are key to publisher success. In the juvenile market, publishers need to cover a variety of digital platforms so that customers can consume the content in the format of their choice.

Works Cited

Bellis, Rich. “Ebooks finding their place among young readers.” Digital Book World. 9 Jan 2015. Web. 26 Feb 2015.

DBW. “Epic! Wants to be Netflix for Ebooks for Kids.” Digital Book World. 28 Jan 2014. Web. 24 February 2015.

DBW. “Children’s Ebook Subscription Service Epic! Signs HarperCollins.” Digital Book World. 22 May 2014. Web. 24 February 2015.

DBW. “Ebooks, E-Reading Devices to Top Children’s Holiday Gifts.” Digital Book World. 26 Nov 2014. Web. 24 February 2015.

Dilworth, Dianna. “Scholastic to Shutter Storia.” Ad Week. 28 July 2014. Web. 24 February 2015.

Evans, Lisa. “How Scholastic Kept Its Relevance in a Digital World.” Fast Company. 14 May 2014. Web. 24 February 2015.

Greenfield, Jeremy. “Why Netflix Or Spotify For Ebooks Will Work.” Forbes. 29 Oct 2013. Web. 24 February 2015.

Hazard Owen, Laura. “Are enhanced e-books bad for kids’ reading skills?” Gigaom. 29 May 2012. Web. 24 Feb 2015.

Jackson, Jasper. “Know your audience: How the digital native generation consume media.” The Media Briefing. 30 Aug 2013.

Pilkington, Mercy. “Ruckus Media on Wider Emphasis on Children’s Digital Reading.” GoodeReader. 16 Jan 2013. Web. 26 Feb 2015.

Publishers Weekly. “Kiwitech Acquires Ruckus Media Group.” 28 Oct 2013. Web. 26 Feb 2015.

Reid, Calvin. “Epic! Debits Kids’ Subscription E-book Venture.” Publishers Weekly. 28 Jan 2014. Web. 27 Feb 2015.

Reid, Calvin. “Digital Book World 2014: An Industry Transformed.” Publishers Weekly. 17 Jan 2014. Web. 24 Feb 2015.

Shamash, Katie. “The hybrid model and copyright: could Wattpad do for publishers what YouTube did for music and movies?” PUB 802. 30 Jan 2015. Web. 27 Feb 2015.

Shatzkin, Mike. “Children’s books: the new value chain is a work-in-progress.” The Shatzkin Files. 11 Sept 2011. Web. 24 February 2015.

Shatzkin, Mike. “Kids books publishers need to massage their data to understand where their books are really going.” The Shatzkin Files. 20 Jan 2015. Web. 24 February 2015.

Shatzkin, Mike. “Penguin Random House does its competitors a favour by walking away from subscription.” The Shatzkin Files. 19 Nov 2014. Web. 24 February 2015.

Shatzkin, Mike. “Will juvie publishing remain a book business as tablets take over?” The Shatzkin Files. 1 Nov 2010. Web. 24 February 2015.

Statista. “Global Apple iPad sales from 3rd quarter 2010 to 1st quarter.” 2015. 2015. Web. 27 Feb 2015.

Taylor, Colleen. “The Epic App Brings Kids’ Books to the iPad – and Makes them More Fun, Too”. Tech Crunch. 24 Feb 2014. Web. 24 Feb 2015.

Wilkinson, Earl. “How Publishers Can Embrace Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.” The Earl Blog. 10 Feb 2014. Web. 27 Feb 2015.

Enhanced eBook are detrimental to reading comprehension and attitudes in children

The book as an object has been taken apart and put back together in an electronic form as long as the technology to do so has been available. Books have appeared as floppy disks, CD-ROM’s, cassette audiobooks, as applications on tablet devices, e-readers, online and more. These changes trickle their way down the publishing stream and find themselves in the exciting and colourful world of children’s publishing. Regardless of how unique and intuitive these new book forms appear, even tech-savvy adults continue to struggle with whether or not they should introduce ebooks to their young children, and parents continue to value print books more (Zickuhr, Pew). Many fears surround purchasing eBooks for children, mostly due to “negative perceptions of screen time”, even though research shows children prefer reading ebooks more (Greenfield, Digital Publishing News). Pew’s survey on reading habits found 9 out of 10 parents with minor children think it is important that children read print books, with a whopping 81% believing print books are better than online books (Zickuhr, Pew). Without any concrete research presented to them, parents feel this way mostly because they want their children to have the “same pleasant book-reading experience they remember from when they themselves were children”, and also because they want to preserve the sensory experience of flipping pages of paper (Zickuhr, Pew).

Even with parents not entirely sold on e-technology for their children, publishers have gone ahead and adapted the basic ebook even more creating “enhanced ebooks”. In childrens publishing books aimed at younger ages (4-6) contain little text and high graphics already, so the enhancement is focused on added multimedia. Enhanced ebooks do in some cases, cross the line between book and game, and are harmful to the young child’s reading comprehension by setting the text aside and focusing their attention on moving images and interactive gaming. There are many reasons publishers are moving this way and while many researchers support basic ebooks, they are more wary of the impacts of enhanced ebooks; “some e-books appear to overdo these features, perhaps in an effort to make the reading experience more entertaining or simply to make the product more marketable” (Zucker et al. 53).

Studies suggest now that young children who are exposed to enhanced ebooks in place of print books during an age in which they are beginning to read have not only lower comprehension but also lack positive reading attitudes compared to children that read print, or standard ebooks (Flood, Guardian). With research against them, parents not entirely sold, and high costs associated with making these enhancements, publishers might want to refocus their enhancements into ebooks for children of an older age where they have been found more beneficial.

Enhanced ebooks come from a long line of attempts to merge the book with the online world. One such attempt, the CD-ROM book, was quite successful and mimics the enhanced ebooks implementation of multimedia to text. In Kathryn Matthew’s 1993 study on CD-ROM storybooks she explains that these storybooks “spring to life with sound effects, narration, music, movies, animation, built-in dictionaries, and translations in other languages… this mixture of visual, tactile, and listening modalities enables students to learn through their preferred modality” (Matthew 1). In her research on the effect of children’s reading using the CD-ROM book versus the print book Matthew’s concludes that the multisensory environment was beneficial to the students, but in order to benefit from CD-ROM books the students must have pre-existing literacy skills, as the CD-ROM did cause children to divert attention away from the text (Matthew 12).

The enhanced ebook shares many similarities to the CD-ROM, and is defined by a study on the relationship between electronic books and children by Tricia Zucker, Amelia Moody, and Michael McKenna.

“we characterize e-books as a form of electronic text that contains key features of traditional print books, such as a central topic or theme and pages that ‘turn,’ but e-books may also contain digital enhancements that make the reading experience qualitatively different, and perhaps more supportive… an e-book requires a text presented on a computer with an oral reading option (also known as text-to-speech) and some form of hypermedia (i.e., embedded images, sound, video, animation, and so on). E-books typically contain a combination of enhance-ments, such as animations or video that dramatizes the text, music, and cinematic effects that create mood, organizing elements such as overview screens or a table of contents, interactive activities or games, and “hotspots” (i.e., animations that are activated with a mouse click)” (Zucker et al. 49-50).

New enhanced ebooks from the publisher “Chronicle Books” include books like Chloe, Instead where children are encouraged to interact with the text and hunt for “easter eggs”, or features implemented into the book that you need to look for (Chronicle Blog). Marketing manager Alison Presley shares her favourite feature of the book saying,

“My favorite Easter egg is hidden near the beginning of the book. On this page, Molly is trying to explain exactly why her baby sister Chloe is so exasperating—Chloe’s always pressing random keys when Molly is trying to play the piano. Inquisitive readers who tap the keyboard like Chloe will be treated to surprise: an audio recording of someone banging on a piano. After you realize that some of the illustrations can be double-tapped to unveil surprises, the book becomes a fun game with little fingers tapping and poking at the screen.” (Presley, Chronicle Blog)

In books like Chloe, Instead, the studies suggest that rather than read along to the story, the young children once learning that illustrations can be double tapped to unveil surprises, will pay much less attention to the text, and most of their attention on double tapping every part of the illustration to see if it comes to life. This is especially harmful at ages when children are first beginning to read.

The two important strands of skills needed to develop literacy are “the ability to rapidly decode printed words, and the ability to understand and construct meaning from the language of a text” (Zucker et al. 50). Enhanced ebooks do not challenge the young reader as much as print versions do, and children who lack comprehension skills in reading will compensate with “context clues or picture supports” (Zucker et al. 52). Context and picture exist in print as well, but the enhanced ebook offers more than just context and pictures; including mood setting music, interactive elements, and moving scenes. If text appeared in print saying “The scary dog barks”, children would be encouraged to learn reading comprehension as the accompanying image of a large scary dog with an open mouth will not be enough context for the child to guess the text. In an enhanced ebook, this same sentence might be accompanied with a scary background tune, and a running dog, who when tapped, will bark out loud. Not only can the child easily identify the sentence without reading the text, the child has a chance to break from narrative entirely and continue to be entertained tapping the dog.

In a 2002 study on print versus enhanced ebook, Maria de Jong and Adriana Bus examined a control group of children with a mean age of 4 ½ years who were in kindergarten, the first year of school and also many children’s first time learning how to read (de Jong et al 145).   They found many negative effects associated with reading enhanced ebooks to children. The children who used the ebook version of a book spent 43% of their time playing games, and clicked on animation buttons more than the buttons that read aloud to them (de Jong et al 149-150). Zucker et al. also references this study, and both researches conclude that there are still greater benefits to print or basic ebooks versus enhanced digital for most children.

Studies have also been done on children older and further along in their reading ability.  Research done by Luca Colombo and Monica Landoni found that in the age group of 7-12, enhanced ebooks provided a better reading experience than basic ebooks (Colombo et al. 135). The basic ebook did not meet the students expectations, and the students who used the enhanced ebook used its features to “find meaningful contribution to the storyline” (Colombo et al. 143). Children at this age have already developed some literacy skills, and when these skills are used in conjunction with the interactive elements of an enhanced ebook, children are able to garner the full benefits the enhancements provide rather than be distracted by them.

Another important part of early reading development in children is the interaction of reading with parents or teachers. A study conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center worked with children 3-6 years old and their parents, finding that the enhanced ebook was far less effective when compared to print or basic ebook. The enhanced ebook “prompted more non-content related interactions”, and the children, “recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story” (Flood, Guardian). However, parents were surprised to find the engagement and interaction their children had with the package as a whole, with the study concluding that “‘print books were more advantageous for literacy building co-reading’, ebooks, and particularly enhanced ebooks, were better ‘for engaging children and prompting physical interaction’” (Flood, Guardian). While enhanced ebooks did not help the child with reading ability, it was a fun, and educational bonding opportunity for children and their parents.

The Cooney study does not dismiss enhanced ebooks all together, children love them and the potential to convert disinterested readers is important (Flood, Guardian). However in order to improve literacy, adjustments need to be made specifically in regards to multimedia elements. The Cooney study adds that “only adding features which are directly related to the story, while prioritizing literacy building over elements there ‘just for fun’ is a great start” (Flood, Guardian), while Colombo suggests ebooks that encourage focused concentration (Colombo 273). The common findings from all the researchers is that enhanced ebook have their benefits, and when used in moderation can be a great supplement to reading, but are no replacement for a young child’s print books. Enhanced ebooks should be used in moderation, much like a video games, or television. At a young age these ebooks provide entertainment, not help with literacy.


Colombo, Luca, et al. “Understanding reading experience to inform the design of ebooks for children” Proceedings of the 11th International Conference On Interaction Design And Children. ACM New York, 12 June 2012.

de Jong, Maria, and Adriana G. Bus. “Quality of Book-Reading Matters for Emergent Readers: An Experiment With the Same Book in a Regular or Electronic Format” Journal of Educational Psychology. 94.1 (2002): 145-155

Flood, Alison. “Enhanced ebooks are bad for children finds American study” The Guardian: Publishing. The Guardian, 12 June 2012.

Greenfield, Jeremy. “Parents Prefer Reading Print Books With Their Children, Survey Says” dbw. Digital Publishing News for the 21st Century, 28 May 2012.

Matthew, Kathryn I. “The Impact of CD-ROM Storybooks on Children’s Reading Comprehension and Reading Attitude” Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia. 5.3 (1996): 379-394

Presley, Alison. “Nook Kids: Enhanced ebooks that kids will love” Chronical Books Blog: News. Chronicle Books, 19 June 2012.

Zickuhr, Kathryn. “In a digital age, parents value printed books for their kids” Pew Research Centre: Fact Tank. Pew Research Center, 28 May 2013.

Zucker, Tricia A, et al. “The effects of electronic books on pre-kindergarden to grade 5 students’ literacy and language outcomes: A research synthesis” Journal of Educational Computing Research. 40.1 (2009): 47-87

The Authors Guild Went too Far to Eradicate Amazon’s read-aloud Feature

E-readers like Kindle should be allowed to have a read-aloud feature for their e-books in a text-to-speech (TTS) format. The Authors Guild was wrong and petty in asking them to remove it. Read-aloud TTS features do not violate any copyright laws, and are an aid to the visually impaired and useful to commuters. By asking Amazon to disable the TTS function on its Kindle 2, which was released in 2009, they stifled innovation and made themselves laughable by incorrectly interpreting copyright laws. The Authors Guild took things too far to prove a point. They also claimed that it infringed on audio book rights.

Traditionally, audio rights are a subsidiary right, which “refers to licensing agreement provisions for copyrighted material published in derivative formats, where licensed publishers are granted legal authorization to publish or produce copyrighted media.” Amazon’s Kindle 2 had a function called “read-aloud” in a TTS format, but almost immediately the Author’s Guild accused them of violating copyright and wanted to take Amazon to court. “The Authors Guild objected to the text-to-speech function, saying Amazon doesn’t have the right to essentially turn e-books into audio books.” ““They created a hybrid product,”” Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, said when reached by phone late Friday. “It was being used in a way they had not been given permission for.”

Amazon quietly capitulated without any legal proceedings because they didn’t want to deal with the hassle and legal fees. It isn’t hard to see why as “with Google, the Authors Guild managed to score a $125 million settlement and arguably interfered with fair use rights under copyright law.” But had they gone to court, Amazon would have won.

For Amazon to be violating copyright, they would have to create a derivative work of an original work, or create a reproduction, or unlawfully distribute copyrighted materials. A derivative work is “a work based upon one or more preexisting works . . . which, as a whole, represent[s] an original work of authorship. A book being read aloud by a machine is neither creative nor is it independent of the original work. To create a reproduction, said reproduction must be in a fixed format. Since the Kindle TTS application is not being recorded, there is no fixed format for which to reproduce the work. This is like saying that if I read a book out loud I am violating the right of creating a reproduction. Many journalists, scholars, and even authors have jumped on this point. “Lawrence Lessig, founding board member of Creative Commons, points out that by allowing the Authors Guild to prevail, ““publishers get to control a right which Congress hasn’t given them—the right to control whether I can read my book to my kid, or my Kindle can read a book to me.” Amazon was also not unlawfully distributing materials. They have a licence to sell their Kindle e-readers, and they are not distributing audio copies as those are made up on the spot.

There is also the question of TTS itself. “There shouldn’t be anything controversial about TTS: it’s been available on personal computers since the 1970s. It’s important to people who have impaired or no vision, but little used by anyone else. However, the Authors Guild argues that the audio rights for a book are different from the reading rights, even if the audio is provided by a software robot.” Some may argue that photocopiers have been around just as long, but in truth that is an entirely different beast. A photocopier always makes a copy in a tangible, permanent form, whereas as TTS does no such thing.

Many lawyers have upheld the fact that Amazon did not violate any copyright laws. “Ben Sheffner, a Los Angeles copyright attorney and author of the blog Copyrights & Campaigns, said Amazon probably reversed course to maintain good relationships with authors, not because of legal concerns. Sheffner said that Amazon probably wouldn’t need different rights to sell an e-book with the text-to-speech function enabled.” It is sad that Amazon did not fight for TTS on their Kindles as even though no legal precedent was set, a recognizable precedent was set nonetheless.

On March 2nd, 2009 the Author’s Guild website announced that “at the end of the business day on Friday, Amazon announced that it would allow publishers (and thereby many authors) to block text-to-speech audio functionality on a title-by-title basis for its Kindle 2 reading device.” They lauded it as a great victory for authors everywhere.  But was it really? What did they actually achieve? As author John Scalzi noted: “Has it escaped the general notice of folks that the same company that is putting out the Kindle is also the same company that owns Audible.com? Yes, Amazon owns both, and I don’t really see the company trying to put one section of itself out of business with the other.” Why would Amazon undercut their own audio book sales, for which author are compensated.

The Authors Guild also claim that the read-aloud function violated audio book rights. By their argument audio books are a feature of an e-book as well as they a separate product. They cannot be one and the same. An audio book, as defined by Macmillandictionary.com, is “a book that is read out loud, usually by an actor, and recorded as an MP3 file or on a CD etc.” This definition clearly excludes TTS. Not to mention that a real audio book is far superior to a TTS “audio book” (Stephen Fry read all seven Harry Potter books aloud for Audible with a masterful skill at giving all the voices different voices). A machine cannot read with proper pauses or intonation.

Lastly, not only did the Authors Guild wrongfully ask Amazon to disable their TTS feature, they also stifled innovation, which is a worrying trend. As Lawrence Lessig points out “the bigger trend here is much more troubling: Innovative technology company (Amazon (Kindle 2), Google (Google Books)) releases new innovative way to access or use content; so-called “representatives” of rights owners, Corleone-like, baselessly insist on a cut; innovative technology company settles with baseless demanders, and we’re all arguably worse off.”

E-readers like Kindle should be aloud to have a read-aloud TTS function. The Authors Guild was wrong to want to take Amazon to court over this innovation because Amazon did not violate any copyright laws, or any audio book rights. This reversal on Amazon’s part sets a precedent, and makes consuming books harder for the visually impaired and commuters. The Authors Guild took things too far to prove a point.
























The Book Debate: Context or Container

As technology becomes increasingly prevalent in the publishing industry, the definition of a book and the qualities it requires are made unclear. At the most basic level of this change is the medium of the novel. Digital book formats and web publishing are moving the book industry into unknown territory, effectively calling into question the role of the book and sparking the context over container debate. The rise of the Internet has created an overwhelming movement towards contextualization, with an online hierarchy of links and connections coming to designate value and worth. This in turn has led to conflicting ideologies regarding the isolation of the book in its traditional form. The idea of pushing context into book formats and modernizing them through external links is gaining ground in the publishing world, with many arguing that contextualization is necessary to maintaining relevancy. And yet, despite the growing popularity of this trend among professionals, there is little evidence to support claims of the public’s desire for increased context. Rather, what readers demand are convenience and the ability to create and participate in an online community. Through this essay I will thus argue that not only is contextualization of books not vital to their survival, it may in fact prove detrimental. If misused, adding context to books in a world already teeming with distractions could signal the death toll of the classic novel. To ensure this does not happen, publishers must move beyond the idea of metadata as savior and begin to focus on a greater plan of discoverability that includes links, the author, and most importantly, community.

In the Internet age, context informs every thought and action, with searches and links creating an intricate and somewhat inescapable web of interconnectivity. In the publishing sector, this has led to the belief that books should be linked and contextualized, effectively complicating their form as an isolated vessel. Many in the industry have begun to see the anomalous nature of the book as a set back and lost opportunity, arguing that publishing is being “unduly governed by the [same] physical containers” (O’Leary) that have been used to transmit information for centuries. By being a stand alone artifact the book is condemned as old fashioned and culturally irrelevant. Instead of grasping at relations, as is the norm, the traditional book blatantly ignores all contexts, including “tagged content, footnoted links, sources, and audio and video background, as well as title-level metadata” (O’Leary). Current workflow hierarchies demote context to an afterthought in publishing, with often vague or irrelevant metadata being thrown in at the end of production. According to this camp, this must be reversed, with book creation beginning and focusing on context for the sake of both experience and discoverability. More and more people in the publishing world are coming to the conclusion that the future of eBooks lies in the reimagining of the book as an “immersive experience [and] connected community of discovery” (Abel). Context has become a messiah figure for book publishers, with followers of this movement claiming that these links alone are the answer to the high competition and saturation of the market. It has come to the point of frenzy, a conviction that unless books are twisted to parallel the web, they will soon face extinction.

As a consequence of this belief, several start-ups have dedicated themselves to developing an “API to make context available” (von Veh) and inherent to the book. Future press, an open source java script reader, is one such start-up, and like many others, is attempting to convert the eBook “to open web standards like HTML5” (Chasen). If successful, such programs would allow movement between related sites, generating connections and increasing discovery. With a history of ignoring and under utilizing technological advancements, it is clear that publishers are desperate to be on the cusp of any perceived revolution.

The enthusiasm of the industry to propagate this movement, however, is arguably misplaced. Reading has always been a singularly different experience than browsing web pages or social media, and to try and conform the book to such standards could have severe ramifications. There’s “still no substitute for the experience of close reading as we’ve come to understand and appreciate it- the capacity to imagine entire worlds from parsing a few lines of text; the ability to achieve deep and meditative levels of absorption in others’ psyche” (Self). By linking books, publishers risk complicating these experiences and distracting readers, a fact that is not lost on Will Self in his article, “The Novel is Dead (this time it’s for real).” In his piece, Self argues that adding context and connections to the book format will inescapably result in reader distraction as they flit from link to link like searching the web. Readers will be unable to “voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity” (Self) and the book as an experience and art form will suffer as attention wanes.

Linking books to the web also runs the risk of ruining the suspension of disbelief necessary to most works of fiction. Most literary fiction requires imagination to engage the reader, and the web above all else is a network of fact and theory. It is “there to provide instant realism” (Self), reducing fancy to fact with a few small strokes. Despite the good intentions surrounding the contextualization of books, it becomes clear then that such technology would ultimately be a hindrance, rather than a support to the novel.

On top of this, there is also very little evidence suggesting that readers even want increased context in their reading experiences. The “fast pace of change in the publishing industry makes it difficult to make good, well-informed decisions” (DBW) since publishers are often working off of confused or incomplete data. I would argue that linking books is one such example of blind decision making. Not only did my research fail to turn up statistical evidence supporting a demand for context, it also showed a significant lack of successful real world prototypes. Take for example, Small Demons, an LA start-up designed on the premise of book contextualization. Small Demons hosted a database of “people, places, songs, books, films, food, drink, and gadgets mentioned in books, allowing users to make connections between texts, and buy related goods” (Jones). Given the industry’s enthusiasm regarding the creation of connectivity between and within books, this start-up should, theoretically, have been a great success. It even had the backing (and business connections) of some major industry players, including Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Penguin. And yet, in November of 2013, just one year after its launch, Small Demons was facing closure, with low numbers and little interest to intrigue buyers. Now in 2015, little information can be found about this start-up, and the smalldemon.com website boasts only an old promotional video.

While Small Demons may in fact return one day, its quick demise and the overwhelming support of major publishing houses right off the bat are extremely telling. Though Brian O’Leary argues that we can no longer sell “content alone,” neither can we sell context over the essence of the book. The failure of Small Demons should have signaled to publishers that not enough market research has gone into understanding consumer needs, and that context and connection just may not be the key to the industry’s progression.

If we remove the contextualization of eBooks as the answer to modernizing the reading experience and maintaining relevancy, it leaves what publishers have already known. In most cases, what readers demand is not increased gadgets or features, but rather convenience and community. When it comes to the reader’s needs and wants, often times it’s not about hardware, but rather “[c]ontent availability and pricing” (Brunner). Book publishing must be able to deliver that instant gratification and ease of purchase in order to compete in the digital age. According to the article “Context, not Container,” readers also want “convenience, specificity, ease of access, and connection” (O’Leary). Though O’Leary is referring to the type of connections promoted via web browsing and links, I would alter this statement for a more human slant. What readers want is not to be connected needlessly to external data, facts, or related products. Rather, what they seek are connections amongst themselves and the participation within an online community that the Internet allows.

More than ever readers “want to share their experiences in networked, highly social environments” (Sadokierski), and the rise of the Internet and subsequent book forums have made this possible. This, however, is not a new fact. It is well known amongst publishers that they must always take into consideration “how their readers will interact with and expand […] content” (Sadokierski). This realization is evident in the use of these blogs and sites as key components of both marketing and research within the industry.

Moving beyond this, I would argue that these technology enabled communities are in fact more vital to the survival and continued relevance of book publishing than any new API or database. Instead of depending upon context to save the book from death, we need to build upon these communities and cater to them. In a large sense this means making books not only readily available, but easily discoverable as well. The market for books, both print and digital, is obscenely oversaturated, making discoverability one of the greatest issues facing the industry. Although links and context cannot single handedly revive the book, they can, however, help fight obscurity when used as a tool to supplement metadata and serve online networks of readers. Since people “are reading only books that their communities make important” (Piersanti), the primary goal for publishers must become making their books known to these online groups.

To accomplish this, I believe publishers must look to web browser search engine optimization systems as an example. These systems rely on numerous criteria to rank pages and content, including amongst others, links, metadata, domain name, word count and page count, and update frequency. Though not necessarily directly applicable to search optimization for books, these categories highlight a vital point: context alone is not enough to combat obscurity. Publishers must therefore develop a new system to ensure discovery and relevance; one in which context, author, and digital resources work together to boost and propagate the online communities necessary for their survival.

Though a topic of continued debate, the ideas of the book as either context or container need not be directly opposed. Rather, in order to maintain relevancy and discoverability, the book must become both; a mix of connections and content singularly devoted to the expansion and servicing of the online reading world.

Works Cited
Brunner, Grant. “How technology is creating a reading revolution.” Oct 31, 2012. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

DBW. “Biggest Problems Facing Publishing: Disappearing Shelf Space, Discovery, Pace of Change.” Jan 14, 2014. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

Future press. http://futurepress.org/

Jones, Philip. “Small Demons faces closure.” Nov 6, 2013. Web. Feb 23, 2015. 

O’Leary, Brian. “Context, not Container.” Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. O’Reilly Media. 2012. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

Piersanti, Steven. “The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing.” Aug 7, 2011. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

Sadokierski, Zoe. “The Future of Independent Book Publishing- notes from the 2014 Ind Pub Conference.” Nov 18, 2014. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

Self, Will. “The Novel is Dead (This time it’s for real).” May 2, 2014. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

Von Veh, Anna. “Books in Browsers 2013- Reflections.” Nov 1, 2013. Web. Feb 23, 2015.