Monday, October 29, 2012

Some good - but insufficient - ebook publisher suggestions

As an industry with more history than most other forms of media, the pain book publishing is going through in trying to transition to digital is quite fascinating to follow and something we can all learn from.

As we've seen with music, film, and games, publishers are not only trying to assert rights that protect existing business models (e.g. trying to curb piracy) but also are pouncing on opportunities to gain rights that previously they didn't have, or had lost (e.g. rights for end users to resell books; rights for libraries to lend books, etc).

BoingBoing last week linked to an interesting piece by Joanna Cabot, calling for a return to common sense. It's a good piece, and a good starting point for discussion, but insufficient on it's own.

The TL;DR version is that she calls for three things:
- If granting rights that are really more akin to rental/lease than ownership, then say so explicitly and don't call it "buying"
- Understand that books are purchased by households, not neccesarily individuals, and sharing among household members shouldn't be a crime.
- Understand that individuals want and need to move books between devices, so don't make it difficult to do so.

In short, she's calling for e-books to allow for the same things that paper books do. If I rent a book I'm expected to return it, and if I buy it, I can do with it what I want. If I buy it or borrow it, I can share it with other members of my household, etc. She is saying that e-books should not allow us to do LESS than their paper counterparts. I agree.

However, it's not enough to stop there. e-books should allow for far more. They should allow for quoting, sharing, promoting. They should allow for commenting and conversing with authors, critics and other fans. They should allow for augmenting metadata about the book, its settings or its author. Some of this stuff has more to do with the e-book's usage in other services (e.g. imagine virtual book club social network groups), and some about opening the format to others (e.g. metadata).

Some of this is publishers not getting that these things can ultimately sell more books than their piracy-paranoid policies are saving in lost sales. Part of it is them rightly being scared that ultimately their role in the ecosystem may be less needed than before.

I think that if conversations in publisher board rooms are focused around "how do we ensure they pay?" instead of "how do we make the e-version of this book the most engaging and valuable, and how do we make it reach the most people?", those publishers are going to lose. The forward thinking ones asking the latter question, they are at least thinking in the right direction.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Book Review: Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing

Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing is a collection of Neal Stephenson work from various places over the past two decades. Most of it is available elsewhere and much of it for free, but the book gives you a one stop shop for it all.

Those looking for Stephenson's thoughts on real-world technologies and issues will find much of that here. There's less of his short fiction here thought that exists a bit too. I found I'd already read about a quarter of the material elsewhere, but got some value out of the remainder.

Most of it holds up pretty well, despite some being pretty dated. There's a fictional piece about virtual currencies generated around crypto algorithms which is particularly prescient. Basically nailing the whole e-spying thing and envisioning Bitcoin... in 1995!

There's a VERY lengthy piece, though a fascinating one, about how data cables are laid down on the ocean floor between countries and continents. Fascinating but wow is it long. It was written for Wired originally. Did they not have an editor somewhere?

In the end, expect some thought provoking work, but one bloated piece and a few that don't hold up as well.

Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing

Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review: Angelmaker

I loved this book. Angelmaker is steampunk adventure with a noire flavor to it, in which a simple clockmaker, Joe Spork - made very much in the mold of Hitchhiker's Arthur Dent - happens upon an impossibly complicated bit of junk that turns out to be much more than he'd imagined. Its something that many people want and some of those people are not good people, and some of them are very, very bad. He is forced to become more than he imagines he can be to survive it all, let alone figure out what the oddity does.

It would be an imaginative romp at that, but oh, the characters. This is where the book really shines. Ruthless rule-bending policemen, a megalomaniac ruler of an asiatic kingdom, a gruesome serial killer,  a society of undertakers, every color of mobster found in the british underworld, mad scientists, faceless veiled monks, a band of octogenarian grannies turned torturers, and the most libidinous spy ever to come from pen being put to paper... these all come together for a fantastic adventure of the kind that makes you want to grab strangers on the street and tell them they must read this book.

There are some some serious things under all of this that the author is trying to say - about the erosion of civil liberties and granting of unchecked power in the name of anti-terrorism, and about the meaning of truth in dimensions. You can ponder these if you wish, or let them sail by while enjoying the ride.

A bit of trivia: The author, Nick Harkaway, is the son of John Le Carre, and when I learned this, suddenly the book's flashbacks to WWII-era and cold-war spy stuff seemed all the better. In some cases being reminiscent of Le Carre, and in other cases deliberately more fantastical. I've added his other two books to my to-read list.

The book takes a while to get going but it's worth it. The author takes the time to dial up the color and character on all of these pieces, so that he can set them all together into a tightly wound bit of story machine that goes off like clockwork.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

OK it's over, but was it really a "Revolution"?

Here is a Good article by Tadhg Kelly that many others have linked to this weekend. While it's good and nails a few of the key trends at play, there's a couple things in the article that don't sit well with me. I'm not sure I can do much better, but here are a few points to consider.

Tadhg points us to the recent goldrush(es) around Social and Mobile games, specifically naming 5 trends (social customer acquisition, a 'price crash', distribution at scale, game metrics focus, and lower development cost (for mobile and social), and then goes on to knock on why each of those is coming to an end.

While he's correct about all five, it's the way they are lumped together that makes me a bit uncomfortable. In some areas they are trends affecting different areas entirely, in some areas with overlap, but by casting them all as part of this single "revolution", it's somewhat misleading.

In saying Social Stopped Working, he's correct that easy, exploitive viral channels were closed, and that customer acquisition costs went up - but it's unfair to dismiss social-viral potentiality altogether. e.g. Its a bit unfair to say that Words With Friends winning over Lexulous is entirely due to customer acquisition spend. There are design elements involved that make WWF a game with higher potential of distribution (e.g. they were quicker to add push-notification of turns, and have an end-game mechanic that leads to active-games growth)

His points about cost-of-entry going up (in terms of cost of acquisition and the points he makes about production costs) are right on the money, and are typical of any maturing market. We saw this happen in PC Casual, XBLA, heck, I remember a time when people used to say "4 guys in a garage can do it relatively cheaply!" about PC first person shooters. There's nothing new here. However, when lumping together to social vs mobile categories - what I view as two separate gold rushes with overlapping but different timelines and trends - it confuses the discussion somewhat.

In any case. It's a good article. The trends are real and should be considered when thinking about how they'll effect your business. And in the end, any attempt we make to classify them as a single market, or single trend or a single 'revolution' are all just definitions we're artificially placing on these things anyway. I'm reminded of the Richard Feynman quote:

"...although we humans cut nature up in different ways, and we have different courses in different departments, such compartmentalization is really artificial, and we should take our intellectual pleasures where we find them."
So it is here that any distinction we make into different compartments is artificial - models for us to try and understand the changes afoot. We should take lessons where we can find them, be they pleasurable ones or otherwise.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

I've been whittling away for a while at Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and finished it today. I really liked it.

That isn't to say I agreed with everything in it. Like many books with broad theories like this one, I feel he tries too hard to extend it too far. Regardless, it's provocative and made me think a great deal.

The short version is that Johnson examines the different environments in which innovation takes place (think open/liquid networks like educational institutions vs closed networks like corporate labs - or networked collaborative efforts vs 'lone genius inventors', etc) and shows the strengths and weaknesses to each and where they each have a role under different environmental conditions.

He goes to great lengths to make a case that ideas thrive and multiply in the same way that organisms do, taking great pains to make comparisons to darwinian models and the like. At times he stretches it too far, in my opinion, but I'll forgive him as it's provocative.

The book will make you think, as it did for me, about your "idea networks" and how you might improve them, and about what the right approach for your company or organization might be given the current environment. In my opinion, a book that makes you think and gives you a few novel ideas is always worth it, even if there are elements you disagree with.

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

Book Review: Digital Typography

This is an older book - over 20 years old. I knew going in that it would be dated, especially since it deals with tech details of getting type on screen. As such, some pieces no longer apply.

However, I wanted something that got to the fundamental principles of getting typo on screen, and in that sense the book offers some really interesting insights. There is some real gold in here that is timeless, both in terms of the history of type and why certain things are done the way they are as well as some good research cited that actually quantifies things like how reading speed or comprehension vary with, say, margin width or line leading (just to name two examples - there are many).

I also really liked the list of suggested areas for R&D - sort of an unsolved problems list from 20 years ago, many of which still apply.

Digital Typography: An Introduction to Type and Composition for Computer System Design

Book Review: Stories I Only Tell My Friends

My wife picked up Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography by Rob Lowe as an audio book at the library. After recounting some pieces of it to me, I decided to give it a shot.

It was entertaining, and had some really interesting back-stories to the creation of some great (and some not-so-great) movies. The back story on The Outsiders, in particular was pretty interesting, as was that of The West Wing.

It's a little self-indulgent at times, but Lowe is more honest with himself than, say, Keith Richards in his autobio.

As a plus, I recommend the audiobook as Lowe narrates it, and his impersonations of other actors are quite amazing.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review: Bananas

United Fruit was the biggest and most ruthless multi-national corporation that most people have never heard of. Long before Coca Cola, McDonalds, GM, and Starbucks spread across the globe, United Fruit was ruling nations, toppling governments, and exploiting workers all in the name of bringing fresh bananas to first world breakfast tables.

There's an interesting, convoluted history here. It drags a bit at times, but in others is quite exciting. Not many business histories involve boatloads of mercenaries landing ashore and enacting regime change. Their long slow downfall to their current form (no longer a powerful monopoly) is interesting too. Interesting that a company nearly untouchable by presidents, would one day end up with the CEO throwing himself out his office window. Pick it up if you are curious.

Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

More Signs of the (3D Printed) future

These two pieces appeared on BoingBoing this week:

1. First this piece, about a synthesizer manufacturer who, finding it cost-ineffective to produce and ship replacement knobs/buttons/sliders, has opted to release the 3D models for free, to allow people to either 3D print them themselves, order them from places like Shapeways.

2. Secondly this piece, which needs the BoingBoing parargaph copied to make a point:

Defense Distributed is a collective that raised $20,000 in BitCoins to lease a 3D printer and develop and prototype a 3D printed pistol. Stratasys, the manufacturer of the printer, seized it from the home of Defense Distributed's Cody Wilson, after a heated email exchange

Re-read that. A real story involving crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, a digital alternative currency, 3D printing, and the war on general purpose computing, all in one tidy paragraph. Welcome to the future.