Deep thinking about deep reading

•June 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It is not without a sense of appreciated irony that I write this post. I am using an iPad that doesn’t belong to me, but which I have borrowed (in principal for the weekend, but I forgot to take it with me this morning, hence having it tonight). It’s nice, but I’m not in love with it yet.

There are a couple of events that I attended in the past week that I want to comment on. In reverse order these are the lunchtime seminar at work today, with guest speaker Bill Thompson (@billt), and the other was the ePub user group held at the Publishers’ Association last week. I will write up today first, since the User Group was minuted and so I’ll be able to recap that more succinctly once the minutes are circulated.

I was really interested to hear Bill speak having read his BBC column for a while now. I don’t want to type up everything talked about, but the most interesting part was the discussion on the changing role of publishing. The digitization of the world is such that most of the information we consume has, in some way, been represented or manipulated digitally. The context of publishing has changed. Consumers don’t rely on a single source for their information any more, no longer do the newspapers bring us the news, instead they comment on it. And we rely on the social networks in which we are embedded to let us know what stories to read and people to listen to.

And so we come to the iPad. Bill told us what he has learned in the six weeks since getting one. The ipad reveals the failings of the Kindle and the Sony Reader: they have buttons. Unlike reading a book, you have the sensation of a machine between you and the words. On an iPad you don’t have anything in the way. The sensation of reading returns to a simple relationship between the reader and the book. This isn’t to say the device is perfect, one criticism is that tracking where you are in a file is not the same as tracking where you are in a book. The iPad can show you the former but not the latter.

We were told about three challenges to publishing – economic, technological and intellectual. Far and away, the most interesting for me is the intellectual. We have a cultural relationship with the book. Reading is not instinctual, it is a learned skill. In particular the skill of deep reading a linear text creates associated memory, and reading texts full of hyperlinks and other distractions from a young age will mean that the audience will lose that skill. Now, I do agree that the skill, and pleasure, of connecting with a book shouldn’t be lost, but having spent time in post-graduate academia I would suggest there’s room for a more disconnected form of reading too. I know that while studying for my MA I would often jump from article to article making connections.* The only problem with hyperlinks being in text is that it is the writer creating those links, rather than the reader. The reader is told what connections to make, which does hamper discovery of ideas in some way. I would suggest that much richer connections will be made if you aren’t provided with them by the author, if you have to think for yourself (probably having done some deep reading and remembering what you read) and that it’s a shame this skill could be threatened. I could have spent an hour discussing this, and would happily spend more time on the subject. Somebody remind me to get a copy of Nicholas Carr’s book.

Of course, you don’t have to allow yourself to be distracted. Useful tools such as Instapaper (which I was introduced to by @adrianhon recently) let you save things easily to read later. Adrian’s recent post about reading on the ipad, mentioning Instapaper can be found here. Of course, even as I type this post, adding in useful links where necessary, I’m adding to the distractions.

Sadly, with only an hour to cover such a rich topic, I can’t report that any conclusions were reached. However, this is definitely a topic that I will be thinking about in the future. I’m coming across different ideas for digital publication every day, with books being enriched and enhanced in a huge variety of ways, but I do think there’s an argument for keeping the plain, simple, printed page. It’s taken a few centuries to develop the skill of deep reading and it would be a shame to lose it within a few generations.

*I will say for the record that I may be old fashioned in this regard, but even for online access journals I would print out the article I wanted purely for the ability to highlight and scribble on the page. And there’s nothing quite so satisfying as that moment of inspiration when an argument forms and you know what you are going to say in your essay, after hours of reading and cross-referencing articles on a single topic.


The great ISBN quandry (#isbnhour)

•June 9, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Last week I spent an hour chatting to other ebook users on twitter under the hashtag #isbnhour.  The question revolved around what the best policy for assigning ISBNs. Should you have an ISBN for each device?  ISBNs have taken up a lot of my time in the past month.  Our catalogue here has not been clear and so I’ve devoted many hours to looking for duplicate ebooks on the system and making sure that each book only has one epub ISBN and one pdf ISBN, and then matching those ISBNs up to the print book. It’s a thankless task, but once it’s done, my life will be much easier.

Our policy at ACB is that we assign an ISBN per tradeable format.  Tradeable formats, thus far, include ePub, PDF and XML, in the same way that a print book has a different ISBN for the hardback and paperback editions.  The drawback is that you end up with one book having three different electronic ISBNs, however I think it’s madness to allocate an ISBN per device because you will end up with far more than three!  So we supply Sony and Amazon and Kobo and (and all the others) with one ePub labelled with one eISBN, which can be linked in the metadata to the print ISBN. They are then free to assign their own reference number (such as Amazon’s ASIN), however their report back to us includes our eISBN so we can track our sales.

Of course, Google are going to throw a spanner in the works later this year (? – possibly, who knows exactly when…).  They have told us that we have to assign books supplied to them an ISBN just for them (a ‘Google ISBN’ as we refer to it). If we don’t, they will. So our epubs will end up having two ISBNs. One for everyone else, and one for Google. Thanks Google.

Library aggregators who take PDFs get the same book with a different ISBN. I can’t see it making sense any other way. The two formats are not the same, so they deserve to be distinguished.  Again, some aggregators then choose to assign their own reference number, but this is of little consequence to my tracking. As long as I know what has been distributed. To be honest, I can match on title just as easily as I can match on ISBN (in the tracking spreadsheet that I have created for my own purposes, not for any official reporting).  The only issue I have with libraries is where titles have been licensed without having any electronic ISBN, instead they’re out their, online, under their print ISBN. There are few, but there are some.

I have it easy, I can commission an ISBN where there is one missing. I have the backing of an established publishers. Out there in the world for those publishing on their own, its not so easy.

Thrown in at the deep end

•May 25, 2010 • 2 Comments

My first month here has been quite the baptism of fire, culminating yesterday when I ran the first of two 90 minute training sessions for editorial staff about ebooks.  One month ago, I had no first-hand knowledge of the book industry.  Yesterday I was explaining to experienced editors and editorial assistants what they had to do to correctly commission and produce an ebook.  Life is never dull.

I focused on outlining the basic formats in which ebooks are released, and talking about the process I want to establish.  My manager had suggested to work from the assumption that my audience know nothing at all, and afterwards commented that I had perhaps even presumed too much knowledge. Part of the problem, I think, is that I don’t want to appear to be patronizing, but at the same time I want to be clear.

Incorporating the production of an ebook along with the hard copy publication of a frontlist title shouldn’t be too complicated, in principal.  Once we have a final pdf, the ebook process kicks off.  This pdf is supplied to a conversion house, who turns it into a reflowable epub file, and we then do a Quality Assurance (QA) check. If there are any amendments needed, we send a list of these, and the back and forth continues until we are happy.  In practice, I’ve not really had a chance to complete this process yet.  Of course, the process is complicated due to the nature of many of the books we publish here, which are more complex than a typical novel.  There’s a much greater level of formatting needed e.g. for dictionaries, or plays.  Questions come up such as the placement of footnotes – do you turn them into endnotes so as not to interrupt the flow of the text? – and appearance of tables.  These aren’t questions I can answer, which is why we want to involve the editorial teams to a greater extent.  In order to produce the best ebooks we can, we need to make the right choices with regard to format and layout.

I’m also finding a lot of my time taken up by kick-starting the production of smartphone apps (naming no particular brands). We seem to be juggling lots of different ideas and possible developers, with no central person co-ordinating.  I’ve started out by outlining the fact that we need to write a ‘comprehensive’ design brief for each app we want to produce, which can be supplied to developers in order to request a quote.  It’ll be interesting to see where this goes in the coming months, and I’m looking forward to buying my iphone when I get the chance!

Outlining the challenge

•May 18, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Part of the challenge I’m facing here is that up until now there has been no central person at ACB to deal with the ebooks. A couple of hundred titles have been released with the big names you would expect (Sony/Amazon), but there’s been no consistency, no records kept, no quality checks done, and no rights checked. I’ve spent my first month here merely trying to pull together the information that exists and create some sort of coherent tracking system. I’m still not there, but I am much closer than I used to be. However, at the moment I’m pulling more titles from release than I am releasing. Every week I seem to come across another batch of books that have been distributed, that we don’t have the electronic rights. It really has been a case of getting it all out there and dealing with it later.

I deal with various different collections of books. Primarily there are three basic groups:

  1. Backlist titles which have been released as ebooks – for these titles I have to make sure that we are allowed to have released them, and slowly make my way through them (approx. 500) and do a QA check.
  2. Backlist titles which haven’t been released as ebooks – the plan is that eventually these will be released. However many of our titles have colour illustrations which are currently no good for the epub format. So right now they can only go out as alternative forms (e.g. pdf). Naturally this limits the people we can supply to.
  3. Frontlist titles – these have to be converted and released alongside the print copy. Can’t say I’ve been doing much on these so far, but I have managed to get one up and out there (Me And My Web Shadow, for Kindle).  I was strangely proud and pleased when this went up.  The first evidence that I am at least doing something.

Fair enough, you might think. But that’s just the beginning.

And so is this. To balls up a metaphor, I don’t want to put all my eggs into my first blog post. I’ll talk about the issues with have with conversion and distribution another time, as well as perhaps reviewing some of the problems that have cropped up in the past month.


•May 17, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Welcome to Digital Transference. One month ago I joined A & C Black as the Digital Controller and I wanted to document my time as I learn about both publishing in general, and digital publishing specifically.

I’m not good at names, but a massive part of my role is getting our titles out there, into the digital world.  Transferring them from simply being in print, to being published in a whole new variety of digital formats. Hence, ‘Digital Transference’.

I’m going on a journey of learning new skills, a new business and facing new challenges. The whole of the publishing industry is facing the arrival of ebooks, much as the music industry has faced the digital revolution and it should be an interesting time.