Monday, 5 December 2011
Many years later I picked up an old edition of Bleak House and read it almost at one sitting. The humour! The plot! The characterisation! The satire! Something for everyone - you can't not like Dickens.
About a year ago, we moved offices to Cleveland Street in central London, an old road marking the ancient boundary between Camden and Westminster. Doing some research I found that Dickens lived at number 22 when he was just 2, and he enters this address again when registering at the British Museum on the 8th February 1830, when he was 18. Number 22 is now, in a truly Dickensian twist, a button shop.
Just up the road, between us and number 22 is the Cleveland Street Workhouse, which would have been fully occupied in Dickens time. It must have influenced his description of the workhouse in Oliver Twist.
When I was last in Boston I stayed at the Parker House, where Dickens lived for two years, and where the first ever reading of "A Christmas Carol" took place on 3rd December 1867, almost exactly 144 years ago.
I think I've turned into an inadvertent Dickens stalker.
So we're delighted to be publishing an incredible facsimile of an illuminated 1916 edition of "A Christmas Carol" through our digital imprint, eBookTreasures. It's available through iTunes, and if you haven't read it in a while, I commend this version to you.
Tuesday, 22 November 2011
When we decided to go for this, it was to answer 2 questions:
- how can we help our clients generate revenue?
- how can we provide access to collections on mobile platforms?
Our client base is possessed of some of the greatest treasures in the world, but not with great amounts of money or the appetite for risk. So the commercial model we developed was one that many app developers in this space have used: revenue share. Put simply, we take care of all development and management, we share marketing responsibilities, and the revenues, after the vendor cut, are split. The exact way revenues are split depends on the kind of titles the institution has, and the number of titles they commit to. The better the titles and the more they want to do, the better deal they get.
This effectively gives the library no downside (other than the management opportunity cost), which makes it an easy decision. Which then compels us to keep the quality bar high. We've had to turn away a number of potential clients as we couldn't see us selling enough of their titles to make it worthwhile. To be honest, we're still not sure what the breakeven number is. We know how much work goes into creating an iBook, but we're just about to launch for Kindle, and looking at building out an app. All these costs have to be amortised over the catalogue we have at that point.
We know we'll never sell tens of thousands of any given title - the market for digital facsimiles just isn't that large, but we hope to build a catalogue of several hundred titles each selling respectably over a long period of time. And then there are the crazy spikes we sometimes see. When the last Alice in Wonderland movie came out, we saw 40,000 downloads a month for an online version we did. Nothing to do with us.
Pricing has been interesting. Kindle wisdom would tell you around £2.99 is a sweet spot. But we're not on Kindle, just iBooks for now, and the pricing seems different - not so many self-pubbed authors for one. Then the only alternative to buying some of our digital facsimiles is a print facsimile, and they can cost thousands. Add in the provenance of our titles, and we decided on a somewhat premium pricing model, but still cheaper than Big Six ebooks of their latest hardbacks. So, £9.99 for a complete large facsimile, less for smaller ones. To hedge our bets somewhat, we did highlights editions of books like the Luttrell Psalter and Leonardo's Codex Arundel. To our surprise though, the complete versions have been outselling the highlights versions 2:1. We're slowly learning more about our audience.
We're three months in, so it's early days, but we're really encouraged. Books are dropping into the system week by week, and we're taking a long view of this. We might just be building the greatest library in the world, and making some money for our clients at the same time.
Monday, 17 October 2011
I haven't used it for years, so it's going to the charity shop. In its day I used to carry vast folders of paper around. Printouts of letters, contracts, checklists and sketches. It's day has passed.
It was in 2005 when I was spending a lot of time with Microsoft in Seattle that I realised paper had died. In meetings, 10 or 15 people lined up either side of a long table would open their laptops almost in unison, tappeting away throughout the meeting, every comment and thought filed away ready for copying and pasting, ready to later justify or judge. Times had changed.
Then the other week I was in another meeting. This time in a coffee shop. All three of us pulled out iPads and silently stabbed at our on-screen keyboards. Times had changed again. No formal meeting rooms and no formal filing system. Coffee and the cloud rather than formality and folders.
Over the last weekend, Apple sold 4m new iPhones with their latest voice recognition system, Siri. Make no mistake, this is the beginning of another big shift, this time not from paper to keyboards, but from keyboards to voice.
This won't define the future of how we relate to computers, but it will surely point the way.
Monday, 10 October 2011
Monday, 3 October 2011
OK, here's the second post about eBookTreasures. In the first we covered the background, today it's technology and UI.
Fixed-width was the starting point. You can embed images, pretty large ones if you want, in regular epubs, but they don't fill the screen. You don't feel like you're reading a book. The device acts as a frame, and then the app acts as a frame within that. There's no suspension of disbelief there. Fixed-width changed all that. Books can butt up against the iPad bezel and suddenly you're leafing through a manuscript, not reading an ebook. And with the iPad's 2m pixel ceiling for image size, you have plenty of headroom to drop in nice high-resolution images. That got us started.
The latter is important, as it swaps the page bitmap for a blank page bitmap (custom-coloured for the book it's placed in) with system text embedded in it. This allows for the text to be searched, taking advantage not only of iBooks rather nice search function, but also it's highlighting and dictionary functionality.
For these generic pages, as well as the introductory pages, we used CSS to allow for easy customisation. Our objective here is to build a template or engine that will give us the chance to build new books very quickly and easily.
This is a key differentiator in what we are doing. We didn't want to build a big "bet the farm" type app model where huge development costs go in to building each book. This is more like a large number of smaller bets, meaning it's easier to get partners on board, easier to scale and easier to fine tune.
The HTML5 capabilities of epub3 are allowing us to easily embed video, which will be a feature of a forthcoming title, and getting to grips with all these capabilities puts us in a good place for working on more complex ebook projects in the future should we want to.
For all of this we had to test against lower-end devices like iPod Touch and iPhone 3G, which operate with much less RAM and an older GPU. We were really concerned about performance on these devices. In the end, Apple advice was to go for quality, so we did (using the high-res files for example) and the low end devices cope OK. An iPad2 gives a snappier experience than an iPad1 for example, but the latter is plenty usable.
Overall I guess we built up to 400 test epubs of various sorts over a 3-4 month period. Different bitmaps, different code, breaking changes as Apple released new iBooks builds, UI tweaks, you name it. Ironically though, the technology set we are using is the lowest we've used in many years. This hasn't been a project with huge technology hurdles, just UX and marketing ones.
One of the things we have our eye on is the Kindle approach to facsimiles. So far we've seen Kindle Print Replica appear out of the ooze, but this primitive life form is nothing but a PDF in a DRM wrapper. Plenty of scope for evolution there.
Next time I'll look at the business model and the barriers to adoption.
Monday, 5 September 2011
Basically it's like Turning the Pages for iPad, but you get to download and own the book. If you're having a hard time visualising this, take a look at a video.
I want the posts to cover the background, the technical approach and the commercial model. I think it's worth doing this as so many things fall out of this project: open vs closed standards, Apple vs Kindle, free vs paid, social media vs traditional marketing.
This post is on the background.
Around summer 2010, the iPad had just launched, and whilst we had been looking at what TTP on mobile devices might be for quite a while, this launch acted as a catalyst to take another look.
Our options were:
- build an iOS app
- build an Android app
- create an iBook
- create a mobi file for Kindle
Building an iOS app condemned us not only to a lifetime of support, but also the need for an Android app at some point. And then maybe a WinPhone 7 app. No chance - we were never going to get Angry Birds style volume so the development costs couldn't be justified. Plus the Android app store was a black hole made of nasty.
We actually made a few mobi files to see what they looked like on a Kindle and the answer was predictably ugly. They looked OK on Kindle apps though, and we really wanted to use Amazon as a channel, but the deal-breaker was Kindle's charging model - 10p per Mb on top of the 30%. One of our books came out at over 200 Mb, so we'd have to give Amazon £20 per download, with resultant ridiculous pricing. Another one crossed off the list for now.
So we looked at iBooks. The iPad was great, but in summer/autumn 2010 iBooks was like Kindle - no support for graphical books.
This felt good to us. The iBook platform uses the open epub standard, so the books should have a life outside of Apple when epub3 is supported by other vendors, we can offer a great user experience, and a slick delivery mechanism.
The strategic technical decision was to let someone else build the app. So Apple do the heavy lifting in building, testing and updating iBooks, and we develop a model to cost-effectively populate the app with our content.
This allows us to focus on our customers, not the technology.
The approach is also the one we plan to use for all other platforms - to use the Kindle platform and apps to reach into Android/Windows/WinPhone 7 and Kindle devices, rather than build our own platform.
The only thing we knew we were missing was the volume that the Amazon channel could offer, but we figured we could make up for that given the impressive nature of out launch partners (the British Library, Natural History Museum etc).
We soft-launched in August and have spent the last few weeks ironing out some wrinkles in the metadata, so now would be a great time to tell us what you think.
Wednesday, 6 July 2011
Thursday, 12 May 2011
Tuesday, 10 May 2011
When the Royal Couple got married, the bit my son was most interested in was (predictably) the flypast. Wanting to know what a Lancaster bomber looked like, I dug out my old Big Book of Aircraft and found a picture. But interleaved next to the picture of a Lancaster was a piece of tracing paper that I had used 30 years ago to trace a wobbly outline of the plane that I never got to transfer to a nice clean sheet. Maybe teatime or homework interrupted me, and the tracing paper lay sealed up in this book since the late 1970's.
What efforts we used to go to to reproduce pictures and maps.
Secure the tracing paper to the picture with paper clips. Pick a soft pencil (HB or B) and carefully trace the outline. Remove the tracing paper and affix over a clean sheet of paper. Pick a harder pencil (H) and retrace the outline you just made, pressing hard enough to leave an impression on the paper underneath. Don't press too hard or you rip the tracing paper and you have to start again (a problem if you're tracing a map of the world). Having removed the tracing paper pick any pencil or pen and follow the indents along the page, twisting and turning, until you have a representation of a bomber (or the coast of Norway) appear on your page with surprising fidelity.
Fast forward to today. Type "Lancaster bomber" into Google, narrowing the search to Images. 99,400 results. Hmmm. Colour or black and white, cockpit or whole aircraft, flying or stationary…Right click, copy, paste and the image (copyright permitting) is ours to do with what we want. Information wants to be free and now this collection of bytes has been let loose to appear whenever and wherever we like.
As we fill our repositories with digital images, we're allowing for a myriad of unexpected, unpredictable and unknowable future uses, with entirely unforseeable results. A chaos theory of image dissemination.
And a long way from tracing paper.
Monday, 21 March 2011
Tuesday, 8 March 2011
Monday, 7 March 2011
Tuesday, 8 February 2011
Monday, 7 February 2011
Tuesday, 1 February 2011
Thursday, 27 January 2011
For Christmas this year I got a great book called Lost London, published by English Heritage. It documents in photographs London in the years 1870 to 1940. The London that the combined might of planners, developers and the Luftwaffe swept away.
I have also spent quite a lot of time, for one reason or another in Streetview, looking around various locations. I even invented a game at home for my kids. I dump them somewhere in Streetview and they have to work out where they are (the best was the Isle of Mull - "Balamory!", the easiest "Grandma's house!")
So what technology has brought us is perfect recall. The tantalising and fragmentary glimpses we see of London 100 years ago or more give us an elliptical glance at the way life was, but the record is incomplete. Streetview allows us to stroll around towns cities and the countryside at will, observing every detail of architecture, town planning, fashion, advertising, automotive design, agriculture and even economic activity.
Which presents posterity with an amazing opportunity. If Google's slightly creepy Streetview vans take a snapshot of our country every 5 years, the legacy for future historians will be immense.
And it doesn't stop there. Mix in the petabytes of social media data generated around people and places that has all ben time-stamped, and future historians will have a field day. Imagine the young Charles Darwin was on Facebook while at Cambridge, or tweeting away his early cogitations. What insight we would have into his world and the way he came to think the way he did, and who might have influenced him. Stepping back into Streeview, Cambridge 1829, we'd be able to walk the streets as he saw them.
Which means, I guess, be careful what you write, wherever you write it. You never know how you might get entangled in future history.