I, along with a hundred or so of my peers, spent last Thursday and Friday at a conference called Books in Browsers. As one who sat on the sidelines when the first iteration of this conference was held last year, I wasted no time in inviting myself to the event. I am still processing everything I heard and saw.
Much of it aligned with what I think about when I look five years down the road; some it — and this is always the best part of a conference — made me sit back and say “Whoa! I really need to consider that perspective”. I’ll be working out thoughts on both here. Of course, of course.
Let’s get the most stunning thing about Books in Browsers 2010 out of the way first: the dearth of big name publishers. Seriously. Where in the hell were they? Then came the realization that Amazon was in the room, at least for the first day. Finally, and this is actually first, but it flows better this way, Brian O’Leary’s “A Unified Field Theory of Publishing” (words only via the link). It wasn’t enough that he blew open the idea of containers, oh no, he had to accompany this presentation with the type of slideshow that makes the rest of us look like rank amateurs. I may never open Keynote again.
(Aside, I don’t include Bob’s Stein’s Proposing a Taxonomy of Social Reading in the above list because, well, I’m still mulling pieces big and small. Follow the link and read his ideas. Follow the link and participate in the discussion.)
(Second aside, this is the first conference I’ve attended that had German philosophers as running theme on a particular day. You cannot buy this kind of serendipity.)
So, you ask as you sip your coffee, what does that mean, books in browsers? Depends upon who you ask and when. For years, I’ve been ranting about the fact that publishers have ignored the web as a serious publishing platform. One speaker said, based on his conversations with most of the big houses, they see the web as a marketing tool, not a publishing tool. Talked about missing opportunities. I will humbly remind every publishing professional in this universe that the web is our one constant — if you want to reach readers on an international level, you must reach readers in the medium they use.
(Third aside, and this may be a record for asides before I even get to the topic, smart use of the web for publishing content may very well be an effective tool in combatting piracy in developing digital reader territories.)
So that’s my definition, but as the conference progressed, many other viewpoints emerged. Some speakers focused on the publishing platform idea, but coming from the perspective that the content management (CMS) tools we have for web publishing are also ideally suited for publishing bookish content. Plus they’re easy to use. Pay attention to this idea because smart people are making it happen, and it’s going to make things so much easier for publishers of a certain size.
(Fourth aside — and she breaks a record! — if there is one thing I know for certain, it is that there are no off-the-shelf tools for creating a true digital workflow for publishers. Many houses will build their own, and that’s fine, but really smart houses will look at existing tools like content management systems as the starting point for building easy-to-use, standards-based workflow tools.)
Others focused on the critical importance of user experience. Designing for how people really use text, devices, information. I know this will come as a shock to many of you, but real people rarely behave in the manner designers expect. As I look back at the launch of Blio, it is clear to me that the wrong kind of user testing was done. I base this on the fact that no real world tester would ever find downloading .NET components to be an acceptable part of the reading experience (and launching without Mac support? What were they thinking?).
Not to mention the pricing mess that was the actual bookstore.
As I consider the impending launch of Copia, a competitor of Blio (more on this entire world of social reading in a post TK), I realize nobody I know has actually interacted with either the system in a serious way. We’ve all seen the demos, but as Blio’s launch demonstrated there’s a world of difference between a demo and reality. Real people interact with systems in ways system architects never anticipate, despite every use case possible.
My point is not to pick on a project that hasn’t launched. I know people at Copia, and I like them very much. My point is that the number one thing publishers need to consider as they move deeper into digital publishing is user experience. User experience encompasses all areas of consumer interaction with a company and its products or services. Everything from basic quality to the interface must be oriented toward meeting the needs of the consumer, including needs the consumer hasn’t realized are required. User experience incorporates all point of user interaction.
As we talk about rights issues (omigod, if you’re a rights geek, we having year-round Christmas), about platforms, about interfaces, about retail, about windows, about pricing, about the soon-to-be hottest topic in publishing, social reading*…we cannot separate user experience from the discussion. It is the most essential part of everything.
Think, for a moment, about how Amazon is winning the customer service war. Customer service is part of user experience. I do not — cannot! — comprehend how or why Barnes & Noble hasn’t figured out the importance of responding to consumers, but they are not winning customers and influencing readers. Worse, they’ve lost control of the conversation. Kobo, on the other hand, runs circles around B&N when it comes to responsiveness. They get the importance of “tell me what’s going on, let me see how I can help.”
It will be interesting to see how Barnes and Noble handles customer service issues as people buy and interact with the new color screen Nook. I’m guessing the new device will bring new customers into the marketplace, and that’s where B&N needs to step up. I hope they do; it looks like a great device.
It is my firm belief that the ultimate goal of publishing is to have people pay money for content (I could be wrong, but I don’t think so). I’ve chosen big chain bookstores over local independents because I knew I’d find the books I wanted at the former. I’ve chosen local indie bookstores because I know the staff can offer the assistance I need. I shop at Amazon because they (seem to) care about my experience. I shop at my secret hummus supplier for the same reason.
I realized a while back that people are incredibly loyal to their tire stores. I love my tire store in the same way I love my mechanic (and I love my mechanic). In the same way I love Vromans. In the same way I love my local Mexican restaurant and wine store.
They make sure I get what I want, how I want it, even if I have to pay extra for my stupid bigger-than-normal tires. Heck, I will pay extra for great service just about any time. You cannot imagine how easily seduced I am by the perception that I matter to you (oh, should not admit that). I will give you my brand loyalty if you meet my admittedly low standards of customer service (hint: I once tipped a cabbie in Tokyo…after he kicked us out of the cab because he couldn’t find our destination).
So, now. Do you homework. Read Brian O’Leary. Think about that. Read Bob Stein. Think about that. Comment on both. Bring the conversation here (it ties in to the whole thing). Ask me if it’s true I saw Peter Brantley without his hat…
* — I hope I am not being naive in believing the idea of enhanced ebooks has morphed into a less frenetic discussion…mostly because much of the enhanced ebook discussion so far has pointed to the fact that there is very little serious consideration of what people actually want from enhanced books, much less how user experience enters into the conversation.