See You in London

David Durand and Anne Orens will be at the Online Information 2007 conference in London next week, giving demos and answering questions about Agile PDF, which is on track for its first public release in a matter of weeks.

Drop a note to info@tizra.com to schedule an appointment.

Kindle's Cool, but Remember the Web?

If anyone can obsolete the printed book, Amazon can, and they're clearly taking a formidable whack at it with their handheld Kindle reader.

We can't help wondering, though, how many consumers will really pay $400 for a single-purpose reading device, when alternatives from a riotously competitive hardware market combine reading with phone, messaging, music and other capabilities.

For example, the iPhone pictured here, with a tasty looking page delivered via Tizra's Agile PDF. We wish we could say it's the result of some special technology we came up with for delivering books to mobile devices, but really it's just a byproduct of the fact that Agile PDF makes books work like the web. So as the web finds its way into more mobile devices, so will books published with Agile PDF. Meanwhile, of course, there are already a billion or so eager readers accessing the web through more traditional means.

By the way, the sesame crusted tuna's from Montreal's Aix Cuisine du Terroir, one of hundreds of restaurants reviewed by the eat.shop guides, which you'll be hearing more about soon.

Keeping Local Talent Local

Rhode Island's small, but it's got talent. I'd put the community of designers and software engineers surrounding Brown and RISD up against any I've worked with in New York or Boston. Yet technology startups haven't flourished here as you might expect, and much of Rhode Island's talent gets lured to the brighter lights of bigger cities.

Yesterday, we got more evidence that the state is working to correct that when the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation approved our application for a $100,000 Innovation Tax Credit.  The credit will provide one more reason for investors to bet their capital on Tizra, and will mean Tizra can put more of those great engineers and designers to work close to home.

New Providence Business Nexus

There's a new business development and networking site starting up for Rhode Island, the RI Nexus. I think they are still in soft launch mode to get the last bugs out, but if you follow the link you can get a peek now! It's a project of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, who are working with Jack Templin of Providence Geeks fame to make it all happen. Of course we're happy that our recent news is timed with their preparations for launch, as they've written some nice things about Tizra.
Rhode Island's size is often perceived as something that gets in the way of new businesses, but it is also be a real advantage in keeping companies and people well connected. The RI Nexus is a new, more formalized way to facilitate and capitalize on this, which is a good thing. Right now it might help us a little, but I'm sure it will help the state as it continues to develop. Way to go EDC!

Context is King!

John Blossom's post on traditional portal strategies resonated with my recent thinking about aggregation sites (Shorelines: portals Passe). I made his post into a silly slogan for my subject line, but he is making a good case that even in the "piling things up" business, there are potential problems with actually piling them up.
Reading it, for a minute, I had a pang about Tizra. You might be able to read it as saying that it's not worth building your own content collection at all, but I don't think that is the practical point for publishers. I think that the notion of stressing context and tuning product offerings to user groups is exactly what we enable with our product and content management tools. You need to have a branded presentation of your content to all your different audiences, and make every audience an offer that they want to buy. That takes a lot of flexibility, which is what we've concentrated on. That flexibility should be on tap, not the endpoint of a 6-figure software development project, and control should be with publisher, not the vendor, so that you can make lots of offers and keep software development out of the picture.
Any branding, content organization, or product definition change that you have to rely on someone else to make is a potential lost opportunity, especially in a world where context is king.
... Of course this doesn't mean you shouldn't hire a designer, just that all of your communication loops should be as short and non-technical as possible.

Duke University Press signs an agreement with Tizra

A brief moment for a minor bit of boosterism. Duke University Press has come on board with Tizra as a charter customer, something we’re excited about for a couple of reasons.

We're seeing how the emergence of long tail sales strategies is beginning to transform book publishers’ business models. The Duke books program, with its combination of long-lived scholarly and trade content, is particularly well-suited to a long tail sales strategy.

We are also really delighted at the prospect of working with such a smart and forward-looking publisher.

Aggregations are dead! Long live the one true aggregation

This is a bit of a hormone-supplemented blog post, but I hope the length is worth it.
We spend a lot of time pitching to potential investors. You need faith in your idea, and an ego of steel, because they're usually critical. I find it helps to think about all the great companies that barely got funded, were rejected by everyone, etc. That's nice for confidence, but you also need to think hard about every objection; they've dealt with a lot more business plans (certainly than I have, probably than you have, too).
So once I've cheered myself up, I try to follow up on my "they just don't get it" boosterism and look to see if it's me that just doesn't get it.
This note is inspired by some criticism that I don't believe, even after thinking about it. One prospect didn't like Tizra's business model of helping publishers sell their own stuff; he prefers to create or license large aggregations of data. "Aggregations mean real value and real exits."
Now, I can't say that building good content silos isn't still a viable business model, because it is. Aggregations gain real value from being a primary destination and search starting point, if they offer a uniquely valuable searchable collection. And that used to be terribly important. I can't count the number of times I talked about the need for a "critical mass of content" in the 90s, especially when consulting on custom web site projects for publishers with puny or unbalanced content collections that they intended to turn into magnet portals. But if you want to be a destination site you have to have an amazing quantity of stuff (for a value of amazing that keeps growing over time).
The web is already an aggregation with a critical mass of information about almost anything, and the search is in the hands of Google and the other search vendors.
To be a big destination site, you still need a critical mass that makes your site the best place to start some kind of specialized search. But why do you need to be a destination site? The search engines are the biggest destination sites and everyone uses them.
Even the big journal aggregators were able to double traffic to their publishers once they could they let Google index full-text content. That means if you can get an item (that people want) in Google, it'll get the traffic that you would have gotten from building a critical mass of items and investing a decade on advertising, library deals, and hard work.
That doesn't mean that grouping and packaging content isn't useful, but it means that everyone with unique, valuable content is already on the starting line if they just start running. The editors at good publishers already create valuable content silos, but driving repeat visits is secondary to getting customers in as cost-effectively as possible.
If you're a publisher, let the search engines concentrate on piling stuff up. Concentrate on finding the best content and getting it indexed widely. If you try to build an exclusive aggregation, either the search sites will mirror your content while you get going, or you'll have to lock them out and lose your easiest single source of customers and prospects.
Instead, concentrate on converting searchers to customers once they find your stuff, with rates, packages and special offers to entice every kind of visitor. Within your site, play the research and aggregation game by organizing your content for browsing and search so that customers can find more things that they want once they are there. Make sure your brand is prominent, so they associate you with the value of your content.
Such a site may eventually become a destination, but it doesn't need to be. The most important thing is to get stuff online, as quickly as possible, and make sure that there are ways to buy. Linking, keywording and organizing the content remain important, but just getting indexed is worth 8 years of aggregating and selling.
So, yes, in this case, the potential investor is missing an opportunity. Tizra's our infrastructure play -- integrated content management and access control -- is a great way to take advantage of a shift in how people are using the net. 
It's pretty rare that I actually believe in large-scale shifts -- they're exciting to speculate about, but usually don't pan out in actual effect.
My academic brain thinks that this can't be a one-time shift, I think there may be a large-scale cycle in play here, but I'll talk about that in another post.

Adobe's epub format and reader

The Adobe announcements last week were very interesting, but not for the reasons most people seem to think.

Here's the real story: The most important producer of print publishing tools is backing an XML-based format for electronic delivery, by making it a (relatively) painless option after preparing something for print. This means the new electronic format can come out the kind of editorial process publishers are already using. With all the limitations that this XML format has, it's much more in reach of publishers who can't afford to change all their editorial processes in a single go.

There's been a lot of concentration on the idea that a standard format will speed ebook reader adoption. This is something that vendors like Sony are realizing is important. Is this their first open format use in electronic media?. And indeed for the long-term future, I think that this is an important issue for vendors. For publishers and businesses right now, though, the focus on new reading platforms is insignificant outside of niche markets.

The Web is the platform that matters, especially for non-fiction content. At Tizra we've concentrated on PDF as the format that most publishers have in quantity, and on making it as close to a first-class web citizen as possible: that means we don't re-implement features (like bookmarks and emailing links) that web browsers already have, but instead we create a site where those features work as usual. That also means delivering pages as embedded content in HTML (with file download as an option, where it makes sense).

With our deep XML experience, we are going to be looking closely at how to take what is still designed as a monolithic file format for delivery and "Warehousing", and really get web marketing and product oomph out of it. Disaggregating .epub files will be as important as it is for PDF, but the results will be a little more precise and considerably more flexible.

And when we do it, PDF backfile or primary content will be delivered and managed the same way as .epub documents are managed.

The importance of XML is real, but practicality of PDF gets short shrift

Publisher's weekly seems to have missed a key part of my message during Rebecca's and my backlist tutorial, which is that the long-term term payoff of XML is sufficiently expensive and disruptive that it can't happen quickly for publishers with significantly smaller resources than Thomson's, and that image based solutions like PDF can meet a lot of needs very quickly, for publishers that don't want to postpone full entry into online markets another 2-5 years.
The Adobe announcements (especially integration of new e-book formats into print-oriented production tools) seems to present a more practical way for smaller publishers to change their workflows than the "big-bang" conversion project. But that kind of incremental strategy leaves existing PDF and image backlists just the way they are, and means that PDF will be a key part of all solutions for online marketing and product definition for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes the future's so bright that it can blind you to the present, or tomorrow.
I'll have more to say about Adobe's news, but I can say that I don't think the reader is the interesting part, even if it is a very Flash-ey demo

Pure Coolness

I have seen far from all the talks here, but from what I've seen and the buzz that I've heard the winner of the "coolest presentation award" was Manolis Kelaidis. He showed a paper e-book device that he's been prototyping. By means of conductive ink traces, a person touching a button on the page can trigger an action by an embedded processor.  He had a book where pads on the page triggered actions on his laptop: going to web pages, playing songs on iTunes, and so forth. 

It  was a hand-bound Bluetooth book!

There's clearly a huge expense still involved in platform building and so on, but everything he did is compatible with contemporary printing technology, using inks that are commercially available (not experimental). Other developments in printable circuitry play into this as well: printable batteries, printable electronic components,  printable speakers.

Of course this is a technology, not a solution, and there's a huge chain of associated requirements -- protocols for books to notify other devices; security regimes to define so that your new books won't hack your computer.  Based on experience in other media, conventions for authoring and use of the new technology are likely to be the most dificult adaptation.

But the great thing about paper is that you can write on it!

I immediately started thinking that this would be a great addition to a notebook. I'd buy a book with 10 generic buttons to a page, and any of them could be mapped to a function on my machine easily. So  I could take notes on something I was recording as audio or video and whack a button on the page to make a link. Or to record the page that I'm browsing right at this moment. 100 pages is 1,000 special buttons to memorize some data!

The other interesting thing is that you can make conductive traces by using a silver ink marking pen, so you could just draw buttons onto a page anywhere you want, connecting them to traces on the edge.

If the notebook shell had a slot for a memory and the processor, and a unique ID build in, you might be able to bring the hardware costs way down because you'd just have to clip the brain onto the book, and the brain would know what book it was connected to, so you could have fewer chunks of electronics.

Links to follow soon

Start of two waves?

The first wave is a wave of posts. I've arrived at the TOC conference, and gave my tutorial yesterday. I expect that the conference will give me ideas for several blog posts over the course of the conference. I've also got some stored up ideas that came from preparing the tutorial that should come out in a while...

I have hope that the second wave will be a wave of action. I was gratified to hear that Digitizing Your Backfile was the tutorial with the highest registration. I'm sure there's selection bias at a conference like this, but it said to me that perhaps people are getting ready to act on projects. I hope that the good tutorial attendance means people are ready to act, not just test the waters. The water is great, and it's time to swim!

I do have the sense that after a pause for a deep preparatory breath, online publishing is now heating up rapidly, and this time it's heading for action, not just interest. As people act, I'd like to be sure that they act carefully, and think about all the options (including ours, of course).

I sometimes worry that our no-development self-managed model is confusingly different to people who have been conditioned by years in which expensive custom builds were the only way to get stuff online without being bundled into someone else's aggregated product.

Slater Invests in Tizra

This is a big one for us. Rhode Island's Slater Technology Fund is betting $500,000 that Tizra will "really open the floodgates for book-based content from thousands of publishers." Their investment caps a year in which we've gone from four people, two dogs and an idea to a company that someone besides us and our friends and families believe will set online publishing on its ear. We even have our very own Forbes article. Thanks to the folks at Slater for being great advisors as well as investors, and to the many friends and family members who preceded them!

The XML Paradox

I have been working on my tutorial for the O'Reilly Tools of Change conference. I'm presenting PDF as a cost-effective option to create revenue from the the backlist as an alternative to XML. As a dedicated markup advocate from the days of SGML, and someone who helped simplify SGML down to XML, I still find it odd to be talking about other kinds of solutions, but I think I learned something from my custom web site customers... The XML Paradox is that XML is a high-quality archival medium, and obviously then, books and scholarly content would make the jump first. It just makes sense that everyone would use the high-value format for the longest-lived, highest value content. Wrong! The economics of publishing have played out the opposite way. The more ephemeral the content, the faster production methods can change. So newspapers were doing full-text databases from very early on. In the scholarly markets, journals are now almost all electronic. Books, however, are only starting to move fitfully in the XML direction, and are mostly not digital at all. So the least archivable stuff, moves to the best archival format fastest — because serial content does not have a legacy that needs conversion to make a new channel profitable, so the payoff from a production change can be pretty fast. A publisher with a rich backfile has items that can earn for 20 years or more — as long as costs can be controlled. So any change to the book production process has to pay off immediately on new books. And for any large-scale change across a publisher's line to be successful, it must be very cheap for old books. And that's where e-books stand, revenue unearned because there's not a clear path to get it. XML is great, and enables the production of an optimized presentation for a new media format, but it's not cheap at all. It's an expensive and tricky management challenge to change editorial production processes for new content, and data-conversion costs for old content are very high. Once the data is in hand, the development cost to create a new output format (print, web, handheld, or whatever) is not cheap either. Problems like typesetting, layout and display all have to be solved anew for each output format. It takes work to optimize presentation, especially from the level of abstraction gives good XML that power. So page images (and especially PDF) get a big boost from the XML paradox because they capture a lot of the production value of the existing process and they're the cheapest searchable format to produce from paper. So here I am, a guy who courted his wife over conversations about markup, working with page images. We are managing them with very rich metadata at a fine level, to capture much of the commercial benefit of XML, but still, I'm enabling something I used to rail against. And it's not easy to make page images work over the web, let publishers control the presentation, and still be good to readers. In this discussion I am leaving out the small number of crown-jewel properties that earn large amounts quickly in a new channel, and thus merit technology investment — Projects like that are important, but don't shift the business as a whole. And their emphasis on frequent updates makes them similar to serials in the need for continuous editorial management. Coming soon: I used to think that page scanning projects were a waste of money in terms of long-term investment, and I hope to post soon about why I no longer believe that either.

You can't take sides!

We spend a lot of time explaining ourselves to funders and prospects. In one of our first "real" presentations we were describing why readers will get better value from the improved reading experience of Tizra sites, and publishers will be attracted by that superior usability combined with really flexible and sophisticated selling and management tools. Someone jumped right in at that point and asked "whose side are you on, publishers or readers?" I tried to "unask the question" and say that we were on both sides, but was greeted by a flat contradiction -- "You can't be on both sides you have to pick who's more important." This dichotomy of sides seems to contaminate a lot of thinking in the "content industries", and it's fundamentally flawed. Simple economics gives the answer: Publishers and customers are fundamentally on the same side. The publishing industry generates value for readers, who pay for that value via the market. Of course there is tension: Publishers want to optimize their income and cost. Readers want find the lowest price that gives them the value they require. But almost by definition, a publisher's best interest is aligned with the needs of their customers, the readers. That means that user interaction is critical as is selling the most useful information package and helping people find stuff easily. More flexible marketing tools don't just improve publisher returns, but create user value by letting publishers make better products. The biggest place this goes wrong is in the area of DRM and piracy. Not every potential reader will be become a customer. Unethical potential readers may even become pirates. The thing to remember is that pirates are not customers, and many may not even be potential customers. I don't have unrealistic ideas about fraud, piracy, and value delivered. In over a decade of web site building and hosting, I've seen my share of piracy problems that have had to be solved. But almost every guard against piracy inconveniences readers, and reduces the value delivered. Detecting piracy is also usually pretty easy, because serious piracy has to steal a lot of data, and that's something that can be detected by a computer. I'm happy knowing that our selling tools are helping readers to buy information at the granularity that best meets their needs. I'm also happy that by encouraging publishers to think first of customers, and only secondly about potential pirates, I know we are representing the interests of both groups, and that trying to make the reader experience better is a great way to help publishers find customers.