Archives for category: Musings

This week Mashable posted an article “Social Experience is the Future of Online Content

What really stands out is the phrase “Content acquisition alone can’t be the final answer.” This is true, and something you’ll hear us saying frequently at BookGlutton. Don’t get me wrong, we spend quite a lot of time in meetings acquiring content for our readers – it’s important to have the right books. But that will never be a major differentiating factor. Publishers want to sell through multiple channels in order to reach the maximum number of users.

For free books this is already obvious. You can download Winnie the Pooh from almost any online reading system or bookstore (it even comes pre-packaged with Apple’s iBookstore). No one seeks out the store that has this specific book. As time goes on no one will be going to a particular store to get Random House books or Penguin Classics just because that’s the only place to get them. Instead they’ll be available almost anywhere, and you’ll be going for the experience. The user interface, the animation, the ability to connect with others and share your thoughts, will be what really matters.

That said, I have to caution: don’t confuse experience with features. In many reading systems, features can be the equivalent of Photoshop filters, cool to play with but only really used on occasion. Many reviewers like to tally up features, as if the program with the most wins (one only needs to look at the success of Apple’s software to see simplicity and alignment with user needs can win out). After all, the ability to make your font purple is nice, but most users are more about utility and connection than customization. I know there are some that may disagree – I have a friend who would read everything in Adobe Jenson Pro if he could (though I often wonder if he would bother to change every application he installs to do so). But in the end the most successful tools in life are ones that fit in with how you live your life. And that’s something we’ve believed in for some time.

At BookGlutton we spend a lot of time thinking about what the future will look like. We’ve been building the current site for a few years now, and have pretty serious ideas about where that future is going. Like all prognosticators, we can’t take into account every surprise, but we’re sure about a few things.

1. The web is the future.
2. Connections to social networks are a significant, serious piece of our lives. They will continue to be important (Ze Frank had a great presentation at Internet Week New York on this point).
3. Books are an enduring way we transfer big ideas. They may become digital, but they’re not going away.

Last week Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, posted this video about what he’d like to see in the future of reading. For users of BookGlutton, many of the points may sound a little familiar (parts of 2, 3, and 5 are alive and well at BookGlutton). Good to know some great minds are in agreement.

You can use BookGlutton by opening Safari and heading to http://www.bookglutton.com.

The Curator Magazine wrote up a great piece titled An Interstate Book Club. It outlines how two people, one in Illinois, the other in Texas, read together on BookGlutton. This is the kind of interaction we were hoping for – thanks for making our week!

Read it here.

It takes about seven minutes into any conversation with a publisher before the DRM issue comes up. We’ve counted. And we get it – protecting content is important and we don’t take it lightly. But the web is different. It has evolved its own set of controls. To that end we’ve written up a short document on how BookGlutton approaches content protection. Here are a few hightlights. Download the PDF or, even better, Read and comment on Bookglutton.

EXCERPT:

We are headed quickly into a future where almost all intellectual commodities get distributed through the web. Instead of fearing this, we need to face the reality that the web is the one network that empowers people to find exactly what they’re looking for, and enjoy it with others. That’s something people are willing to pay for. The “long tail” of publishing will be on the Web.

The nature of sharing on BookGlutton’s service is linking, not copying. On the web, consumers would much rather have links than files. They would also much rather share a clipping or snippet of text than an entire book. That said, the illegal copying and redistribution of text is still a concern for publishers and authors. Steps taken to address this concern usually involve some combination of the following measures:

  1. Dynamically generating the HTML to display pages, so “viewing source” doesn’t reveal it.
  2. Chunking files into smaller segments to prevent outright copying of an entire file
  3. Chunking text to prevent outright copying of long passages
  4. Disabling right-click mouse actions or key presses such as CTRL-C
  5. Disabling the ability to select text
  6. Using Flash or some other plugin to protect text when it’s displayed in the browser
  7. Creating images of each page

BookGlutton uses  some, but not all of these approaches.

An important point to remember: encrypting files protects them “in the wild,” but it does very little when they are already in a highly secure web system. Using Adobe’s form of EPUB encryption, for example, in a web system would require decrypting book content before sending it to the browser, which would defeat the purpose of the encryption. Besides, the web already offers strong encryption for securing that content in its path from server to browser, and it’s the same encryption used to transmit passwords and credit card numbers: SSL.

New criteria are needed for evaluating the risks of web-based services. Instead of vetting a service based on whether it licenses and uses a particular form of file encryption or DRM, it’s far better to require the following:

  1. Users identify themselves before purchasing, sharing or consuming content
  2. Content is chunked, and the entire file is never available to the consumer
  3. The platform is based on linking, not copying
  4. The service and the content are tied together, so that one without the other represents a significant drop in value for the consumer
  5. The service’s network architecture meets the same stringent requirements for the storing of credit card data and other sensitive information…

Download the full 3 page PDF

Even better: Read on Bookglutton

The team has returned from the Tools of Change conference and we’re now safely back at our desks, mulling over the possibilities. Not only was the conference educational and inspiring, it gave us Gluttons the opportunity to connect with a lot of people: publishers, content warehouses, writers, programmers, and a few philosophers. It gave us a face to conjure up for those of you with book photos as avatars. 🙂

The TOC also gave us a little validation. It was great to see discussions of books-as-a-place, presentations on the importance of community in reading, and (although there were few to say it) a few murmurs about making books beautiful, even online. Thanks, guys. That adds a spring to our step.

We’ve finalized our standing on a few huge issues and we’re pretty excited about the next three months. Stay tuned.

Part of being a Public Beta is assessing how the site is being used and how the internals of the thing are performing. Neither of these are easy, and surprises are the norm. Who knew that users would annotate obscure words for the public? Or that teachers would attach study questions to paragraphs for their students? These are great community contributions that prove the kind of versatility we wanted this to have.

It’s been enlightening to see how some of the initial big decisions we made about the technology almost a year ago have played out. Dojo and the Symfony framework have been invaluable, and our managed hosting provider, Contegix, has proven to be well worth the monthly overhead. The one headache for us has been the issue of digital book formats. As anyone who has ever read an e-book or developed application for them will tell you, the “format” issue has always been thorny. Each major industry player has committed to a different flavor. We decided early on we were going to consider ePub, but somewhere along the way found out that the extra work required for that wasn’t going to pay off. Now it no longer seems necessary for our system to natively use a book format at all. In fact, the more we learn about book formats and their proponents, the more we want to keep our distance. To that end we want to provide a host of tools to liberate books from these formats.

Another big eye-opener has been the importance of opening up as much content and functionality as possible to unregistered users and search engines. We always knew this would be important but for various reasons we weren’t ready for it right away. Now that more things are stable, we’ve had a chance to move forward on this again. One of the most recent additions has been a Twitter feed for group and book activities. We’re also adding a full catalog RSS feed soon, along with MySpace and Facebook pages. And in the near future, we would love to collaborate more with some of the other well-known book communities out there, sharing friendlists, status updates and book lists, not to mention catalogs and content. To that end, we welcome suggestions, proposals, partnership prospects, open source ideas, and any other thoughts you might have. Send them along, or call us!

It’s always exciting to hear what people think about BookGlutton, so imagine how completely stoked we were to see the video from BookGlutton User Barb Forsberg. She put this presentation on BookGlutton together for a group of teachers and was kind enough to send us a copy to post on the blog.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvGyhDpzYUA%5D

Barb gives a good overview of the site and the Reader, talks about how to address any “book glutton” cravings, and talks about how its 2.0 community features can engage reluctant readers. It’s also funny. What a great way to start out the year.

Why are we supporting .epub? Why not, for example, Microsoft’s .lit format, or PDF, or better yet, LaTEX?

The answer is: Web. The ePUB format is the most “webby” of all formats. Not that those .lit files of yours are not just a hop, skip and a breach of the DMCA away from being webbed-up books. After all, .lit is a kind of flatfooted ancestor to ePUB. Some would say it’s better suited to the publishing world because of its DRM attire.

But in evolutionary terms, that will become a mere nub on the anatomy of the ideal book format of the future. No, ePUB looks forward, toward CSS3 and the networked reading populace of the blogosphere. It sees “page” as a limitless concept and not a finite space. Documents in ePUB have reflowable text that can adapt to different screen sizes; like those little mammals that scurried through the brush, it adapts to the space it’s given, doesn’t crash through undergrowth like a big dumb lizard.

Oh, it has its drawbacks. Print purists will cringe at the limitations of CSS and HTML. Publishers will howl at the lack of DRM. Hypertext snobs will sneer at the “bookishness” of its assumptions. But developers will play with it. And apps will grow around it. And it will grow with the web itself, where more and more books are going to live.

Like most of the world, we were disappointed to hear that Amazon isn’t going to commit to the epub standard for its new hardware device. Lack of standards will obviously hinder adoption among users and create strife with publishers.

We were, however, relieved that the new reader, called the Kindle, will have some kind of browser and wireless access, as well as a keyboard. Our information on this is fuzzy, but since BookGlutton is browser-based, it could be possible to read and discuss on the BG site via Amazon’s device. Cool.

Speaking of the epub standard, BookGlutton’s upload feature allows users to save out an epub format of their work. We’re still tweaking it, but we’d like people to be able to upload their work to variety of places, not just our site, so in addition to uploading it at BG you can download a fairly standards-compliant file and share it with others. The more exposure a writer gets, the better the chances of fame and fortune (or at least some decent feedback). Being writers ourselves we wanted to adhere to the standard and see if we could allow our users intermingle with Digital Editions, or anyone else who’s taking a crack at standards compliance.

Over the weekend we were delighted to read David Rothman’s blog. He’s reflecting (and influencing) the rising tide of discussion concerning interactivity and ebooks. More and more, people discuss the possibility of shared annotations and book-based communities, and look to those traits to deliver the next generation of online reading. Just this weekend Rothman’s Teleblog posted:

Instead of just regarding e-books and the Net as marketing mechanisms, writers need to think of them both as settings for conversations—platforms for genuine communities of fans…

One of the reasons that BookGlutton is launching a web-based ebook reader has to do with its firm commitment to community. We think that community discussion, upload capability, and intelligent design are all indispensable pieces of the ebook puzzle. Naturally, building something that handles good-looking, reflowable text and still manages all the technical bells and whistles is a tall order, and probably explains why we had to reevaluate our launch date by a month. 🙂 But we’re undeterred. More than that, actually. We’re terribly excited to get this thing out there and see what people think.

It probably goes without saying that tightly integrating a community and a book is a challenge. There are an infinite number of reader-types and just as many reader-preferences. But we think we’ve come up with a solution that is satisfying to use. It can let the community in or out at any time. It’s pleasant to look at. It’s fun to use. It may not be for everyone, but it is different, and that’s the most exciting part.