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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Jan. 19, 2012, 11:30 a.m.
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The day the bookshelf shook: Four lessons for news orgs from today’s Apple iBooks announcements

When ebook publishing becomes simple and the idea of a “book” gets changed, there’s an opening for news organizations to benefit — if they’re agile enough to take advantage.

Apple’s New York education event — smack in the middle of the book publishing world — has concluded. You can see coverage from The Verge here, but the main takeaways are a new version of iBooks that enables great-looking interactive textbooks; a new Mac app called iBooks Author that promises to make it much easier to assemble and publish ebooks; and a new iTunes U app that makes it easier for universities and schools to create and distribute an entire course’s worth of material, from lecture videos to readings to assignments.

The focus was on education, and Apple faces some significant hurdles in getting their products into actual schools (where textbook and technology purchasing are constricted by forces bureaucratic, fiscal, and otherwise). But in truth much of what Apple announced was squarely aimed at further disruption of the publishing industry — in this case, the book publishing industry, already facing disruption from Amazon and ebooks more broadly.

So what should someone in the news business take away from today’s announcements? Here are four ideas I think are worth keeping in mind.

News organizations: Now’s the time to figure out how to jump on the ebook bandwagon.

As I wrote the other day, ebooks as a platform have been limited by the relatively clunky process for converting a stack of text into an attractive digital product. It’s not impossible, of course — it’s just a pain.

Today’s announcement of iBooks Author promises to make that process a lot easier. (Although just for iBooks, of course — in most cases, of course, you’ll also want to publish to the Kindle.) Particularly for news organizations — which typically have lots of good art to go along with their longer-form content — pulling together an attractive package could now be a matter of minutes instead of hours. (Or, to put it another way, something done routinely in-house instead of farmed out to a contractor.)

How will news organizations react to that newfound ease of publishing? What are the ebooks already lurking inside the heart of the newsroom, just waiting to be unlocked? Is it a compilation of all a newspaper’s restaurant reviews? A popular columnist’s collected works? A compendium of all the paper’s stories about the local high school football team, player profiles and game stories, full of big art? Several years’ worth of gardening columns, filtered to focus on what grows well in the local soil? A local band book/database that includes MP3 samples from each? An expanded version of the 100 Biggest Local Businesses section the biz desk puts out once a year? A detailed guide to the local public schools, aimed at people new to area?

In the print book era, deciding to try one of these ideas would involve estimating the potential audience, deciding whether it’s worth investing the time to design it, guessing at a print run, figuring out how to get it in the hands of local retailers, and a host of other complications. But with ebooks — if publishing those ebooks is uncomplicated, just a few more steps than hitting File -> Save As…, built around common templates — what kinds of value could be unlocked?

“Book” content can be episodic too.

One of the standout new textbooks announced today was E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, the Harvard professor’s attempt to rethink the biology textbook. Aside from what wisdom it will bring about the Mesozoic Era, perhaps its most interesting element is that it is being released chapter by chapter. The first two chapters are available for download now; the remaining ones will be available later at an “aggressive” price.

Think of Charles Dickens, whose books were famously serialized and left crowds hanging out at the New York docks for a new chapter to roll in to find out what happened to little Nell.

News organizations have traditionally thought of books — when they’ve thought of them at all — as something to be assembled after the fact. Maybe it’s a 10-part series that gets massaged into paperback form after the newsprint run is over. Or it’s a recap of the local football team’s championship season.

But news orgs are really good at producing episodic information. And if books like Wilson’s begin to train readers that books can start incomplete and fill in over time, the technology’s already there — in iBooks and on the Kindle. (The tech book world is already ahead of the game here; books about programming languages now regularly appear first in “beta,” for instance, and O’Reilly’s Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto is adding chapters over time — in part in response to reader feedback.

Once books stop being only finished, whole things — when they can also be works in progress, works in development — the possibilities for journalists open up. Imagine a book on the health-care reform debate that could be updated with each twist and turn, adding profiles of the players, daily news updates, legislative summaries, and more as the story developed. Imagine if buying a book was less a purchase of a contained story and more a statement of desire — “I’m interested in this subject and I want to have all the important news and analysis about it delivered to me, in the place I’m used to reading.”

“Publishing” is becoming a convergence of technologies and workflows.

As Apple showed off the process of making ebooks with iBooks Author, what stood out for me is how much it draws on all the disparate workflows that you could lump under “publishing.” There was a bit drawn from word processing, a little from layout design, some from presentation-building, a touch of web-page building, and even a little drawn from app development. (The preview-on-an-attached-iPad comes straight from Xcode, the app you use to build iPhone, iPad, and Mac native apps.) And of course, I haven’t even mentioned all the (important, duh) work that happens before iBooks Author gets launched — namely writing and editing.

It’s a mish-mash of styles. It looks, at very first glance, that iBooks Author does a good job of making it all user friendly, but it’s a reminder that “publishing,” as an act and as a field, pulls together a full liberal-arts curriculum’s worth of skills. Those whose abilities cover a wider range of those skills will do well; those who stick to one part of the process had better be really good at it.

Desktops and laptops are out of style.

There’s no reason, technically, why there couldn’t be a version of iBooks for the Mac. (Or the PC, for that matter.) But Apple has stuck to its guns: Reading iBooks is something you do on your iPhone or your iPad, not a desktop or laptop computer. (And today’s presentation went even narrower, focusing squarely on the iPad. For people who think a tablet would duplicate the kind of work they can already do their MacBook, today should help nail home the differentiation.)

I can’t imagine news organizations need any further evidence that reading is going to keep moving from big screens to smaller ones, from stationary to mobile. But judging by a lot of news sites’ abysmal mobile experiences, maybe they do. So here’s one more data point: Apple’s investing big in a creating a new kind of reading experience for a new kind of content, and they’re completely ignoring every desktop and laptop computer in the universe.

POSTED     Jan. 19, 2012, 11:30 a.m.
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