Monday, October 7, 2013

What should a Enhanced Book [for adults] do?

Note: When I wrote this article I was thinking specifically about enhanced books for adults; not children. I've updated the article to specify "adults" to clarify that. However, I should have also qualified the post to novels in trade publishing as well as some non-fiction titles with the caveat that the features discussed here work well but are not the last word on enhanced books. Thanks to the good folks in the "Ebooks, Ebook Readers, Digital Books and Digital Content Publishing" for helping to clarify my thinking.

What should an Enhanced Digital Book [for adults] do?  This is a question that all enhanced book developers ask themselves, but as an industry we've tended to lean toward a different question: What can we do that people think is cool?  These are very different questions as the first asks how we can readers benefit from an enhanced book and the other question asks how will they be entertained?

In my opinion, nearly every enhanced book for adults to date has focused on the entertainment aspect. As book app developers we spend our time trying to "wow" the reader with neat effects but there is a much more powerful vector for success of the enhanced book. Utility.

What utilities can we add beyond the normal eBook features that would make for a better fiction reading experience.  This is an area I'm interested in but like everyone I am also interested in the "cool" factor of creating entertaining material. Still, if I had to focus on only utility these are the things I would spend my time on in no particular order.

  • Pronunciation Guides
  • Character, Place, and Thing Cards
  • Location Maps
  • Relationship Maps
  • Illustrations

The names for these features are just made up on the spot; there are probably better names but these are what I came up with. Regardless of what you call them I think you'll agree that each of these features are separate and useful.

Pronunciation Guides
One of the things that really irritates me is when I encounter a name or a word that is unfamiliar.  I can look up the definition of most common use words using a built in eReader dictionary (that's expected) but I'm not always sure how unusual words or names are pronounced.  The ability to tap on a word and hear an audio pronunciation would go a long way toward improving the reading experience for any book.

Character, Place and Thing Cards
This is a concept that we are implemented in Steampunk Holmes, the novella my company just published.  The idea is simple.  You can tap any name of a character, place or thing and get a pop-up card that reminds you who that person, place or thing is.  This would have been especially useful when reading A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones)Dune or Lord of the Rings where there are literally dozens of characters (e.g. 13 dwarves that travel with Bilbo) to keep track of not to mention places (the dozen or so planets mentioned in Dune), or things (magical artifacts, or mechanical devices).  The cards would only reveal what we already know about the character, place or thing or what can be revealed without spoiling the rest of the book.

Location Maps
Most fiction stories have the characters traveling about a town, a country, or the world. It's always confusing to me in Lord of the Rings, for example, when they start talking about where the characters are or are going to. Yes there is a map at the beginning of the book but that doesn't always help.  What I would prefer is a map that you can pull  up at any time which shows exactly were the characters are on the map at any given point in the book. It might also highlight areas of interest or places mentioned in that part of the book.  We did this with Steampunk Holmes and it worked beautifully and is often sited as one of coolest features.

Relationship Maps
These are not maps of places but maps of relationships. For example, in Dune it gets confusing keep track of the various Houses and how they are related and who is from what house. This is also a problem with A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones). Relationship maps can also clarify organizations be they Houses of the Landsraad in Dune or the different Kingdoms of Elves in Lord of the Rings or Houses in A Song of Ice and Fire.

Illustrations and Animations
Have you ever read a passage in a book that explains what something looks like or how it works and no matter how many times you read it, it still doesn't make sense?  This is a case where a picture is worth a thousand words.  For example, I've been reading Neal Stephenson Anathem a truly wonderful book.  In the book Neal Stephenson explains what the architecture is like and while I can kind of picture it from the description it would be a lot easier to understand if there was a sketch. The same is true of the complex clock words employed in the book. Neal Stephenson goes to great length to explain how they work, but an illustration along with the description would really allow me to appreciate the engineering.

These five features (Pronunciation Guides, Person-Place-Thing Cards, Location Maps, Relationship Maps, and Illustrations) are pretty essential elements for any good book app be it fiction or non-fication.  

There will always be a market for entertaining interactions, but it is utilitarian features like those describe above combined with an attractive aesthetic that will push book apps into the mainstream because they provide real value beyond an initial "wow" reaction.

Friday, September 27, 2013

How to Handle Kickstarter Distributions of iPad Apps

Apple has not been very helpful when it comes to supporting the distribution of paid apps to Kickstarter supporters.  Usually, if a Kickstarter project for an iPad app offers the app as an award the folks making the offer will end up having to make the app free (temporarily)  to fulfill their obligations.  This just happened with my company's latest release, "Steampunk Holmes: Legacy of the Nautilus".

When we launched the kickstarter project in 2012 we promised certain award levels ($29 and up) that we would give them the iPad app when it became available.  Earlier this year I found out that Apple will not allow you to distribute an app to specific people for free beyond the 50 promotion copies per app. With 1,290 contributors we needed a different solution.

Another Kickstarter campaign mentioned "Gifting" as the mechanism for distribution. When you Gift an app you simply buy it for someone else identified by their Apple ID (email address).  I experimented with this by gifting an app to a couple of people and it worked great.  The nice thing about this method is that it avoids having to drop the price to FREE for any length of time.  You do spend money sending your own app to your contributors but with Apple's agency model you get about 70% of it back as revenue.  A big advantage to Gifting over FREE is that all the activity of downloading the app is applied to the PAID ranking rather than the FREE ranking - Apple keeps these rankings separate.  If you make your app FREE an it goes to the top of the rankings then as soon as you switch back to paid it drops to the bottom of the PAID rankings.  It inconvenient but makes sense to avoid folks gaming the system by switching back and forth between FREE and PAID.

The Gifting solution sounded perfect. We lowered the price from $9.99 to $0.99 to decrease the amount of money we would have to spend on Gifting. The plan was to get about 400 downloads from Kickstarter contributors and then switch to the regular price preserving our newly won higher ranking.  Sadly this didn't work out as planned.

It turns out that you cannot Gift an app across international boundaries so, for example, a US person cannot Gift an app to a person who uses the German App Store and vice versa.  At first I thought this might be the result of really poor IT architecture (the technical in-ability to Gift across App Stores) but after more thought it occurred to me that this policy is probably in place to avoid money laundering.

Whatever the reason, Gifting across countries is not allowed and since 40% of our contributors are from countries other than the United States (our home country) the Gifting solution was an epic fail.  In the end we made the app free for a week (end of September) and have encouraged our contributors to download it during that period.  This has gone pretty well but we did get at least one complaint form a  person who donated to our campaign for exclusive free access only to find out that anyone could get free access whether they contributed or not.

Making the app an award level for a Kickstarter project only to give it away to everyone and anyone is really not going to work moving forward.  Happily, there is a solution.

According to Apple's review guidelines an app can be a media player for content purchased outside the app store provided their are no buy or purchase links to outside points of sale from within the app.  Here is the actual rule:

Apps can read or play approved content (specifically magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video and cloud storage) that is subscribed to or purchased outside of the App, as long as there is no button or external link in the App to purchase the approved content. Apple will only receive a portion of revenues for content purchased inside the App.

This is how Audible, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video does it and this is the method I would like to use for future app books funded through kickstarter.  The plan - as it is now - is to create a general reader that allows users to log in and download content they have purchased through our web site.

kickstarter contributors for future campaigns will be given accounts and credit for the app they helped fund so that they just need to download our reader, log in, and presto they have access to the book we promised.

This also allows us to set up a model where we can sell content from with the app or outside the app for different prices. For example, in-app purchases might be $19.99 while purchase through our web site might be $16.99.  We don't want to offer just outside-app purchases as in-app purchases satisfies the need for immediate gratification and is more convenient for the customers, but as customers become more familiar with our brand they can choose to save by moving their purchasing outside the app to our web site while still enjoying the reading experience on their app on their iPad.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Are Paper Books Buggy Whips or Buttons?

I read an interesting little article on Digital Book World (I really like these guys) that quotes Nicole Valentine in a speech she made at Publishing Business Conference & Expo in New York.  In that speech she (reportedly) compared books to buttons in terms of their longevity.  Basically, the article says that Nicole pointed to the persistence of the button, which was evidently invented in the bronze age, as still in great use today.

It's a smart analogy. The fact that buttons are still in use today despite many alternatives like Velcro and zippers is an example of Paradigm Persistence.  Paradigm persistence is when a paradigm ( a way of doing things ) remains in use and relevant long after its been invented and despite the existence of many newer alternatives.  There are many examples of this and buttons are a good one.  Everyone uses them and its been thousands of years since they were first invented.

A perfect example of a paradigm that didn't persist is the buggy whip.  The legacy of the buggy whip is that it was a great business to be in before the automobile became mainstream but today the demand is so low that its an all but dead industry.  In other words, no one uses buggy whips except buggy riding hobbyists whose population is very small (maybe a million?).

The question regarding the persistence of any paradigm is not if it will persist but to what extend it will persist?  Are paper books more like buggy whips or buttons?  I suspect that Nicole is closer to the truth. Paper books probably will never disappear completely.  But that doesn't mean they will be the primary means of conveying written communications either. Actually, with the World Wide Web paper books have already lost its seat to blogs, tweets, and Facebook postings.  But in terms of books: Will paper continue to dominate?  No. It won't.

Something like 1/4 of all books are read as ebooks today (at least in the United States) a market share that was achieved in less than 4 years (1).  If 1/4 of the books read are read using eReaders today (after only 4 years) e-reading is probably going to continue to grow.  In another four years I suspect that at least half of all books will be read as ebooks and by 2020 probably something like 80%.  By 2025 I would bet that more than 90% of books read will be read using an electronic reader of some kind.

Paper books are never going to go away completely, but they are not going to come close to dominating the world much longer.  How anyone can look at the trends and think differently is mind boggling to me.

1.  "E-Books Now 23% of U.S. Publisher Sales"

My 3 Rules for Designing Great Enhanced Digital Books

Having designed several enhanced digital books and being in my 3rd year in an industry that is basically 3 years old I have learned a few things that I want to share with folks who are interested in Enhanced Digital Book (EDB) design and the industry in general.

It's important to remember that these are all rules that I myself have broken in the past - even recently. I'm not claiming a perfect track record. It's also important to understand that these are my rules; rules that I follow when designing enhanced novels - they are not universal.

3 Rules of Great Enhanced Digital Book Design

  1. Quality over Speed
  2. Reading over Enhancements
  3. Reference over Gimmicks

Quality over Speed

The EDB market is littered with companies and designers who decided to release a product before it was ready when it was subpar.  The result is a lessoning of the industry as a whole in the eyes of the consumer. In general, people don't take enhanced digital books seriously and who can blame them? Always error on the side of quality.

If the book is not as good as you can make it; don't release it. Wait. Keep working on it. You'll produce a better book and sell more copies.  The first rule of marketing is that word-of-mouth is more powerful than any other kind of advertising.  You want your audience to tell all their friends how cool your book is, right? Than create a high quality experience.  Your ranking in the app store and the number of banner ads you buy won't do half as much as one really excited customer.

Reading over Enhancements

We are creating enhanced digital books not games, audiobooks, or animated movies.  Games, animated movies, and audiobooks are great, but they are not reading books.  I personally love audiobooks and have produced two of them myself, but a book that simply reads to you while flipping the pages is not very entertaining. I've designed several of these doorstops so I know what I'm talking about.   People really don't want to stare at the text of a book while some else reads it to them.  If they want to be read to they can buy an audiobook and listen to it while doing something more productive.  Books are meant to be read with your eyes and if your EDB doesn't make reading as easy as it is on a Kindle than you have failed as an EDB designer.  

Enhancements should be hidden while reading and should only be activated as needed by the reader.  If I turn the page of a book the last thing I want to see is a bunch of animations and floating balls managed by a physics engine.  That's not reading.  Illustrations are nice, but they should not move around at all unless activated by the reader.  Other enhancements such as annotations and sound effects should never present themselves unless specifically requested by the reader.

Reference over Gimmicks

This is perhaps the most critical of the three rules but its also the most abused.  If your EDB uses a physics engine and its not about the science of physics than you've just created a gimmick.  If your EDB is narrated while displaying the text you've just created a gimmick.  If your illustrations are animated to make them seem more dynamic - instead of explaining the workings of something - than you've created a gimmick.  Gimmicks are nice and they can be entertaining, but given a choice between implementing a gimmick or providing more reference information, always choose the reference information over the gimmicks.

So what enhancements are not gimmicks?  Any enhancement that provides reference information, exposed only when requested by the user,  is a valid enhancement for EDBs.  For example,  the ability to look up the definitions of words with a built in dictionary, glossary, or the Wikipedia.  Access to character profiles.  Interactive maps.   An audible pronunciation guide. These are excellent enhancements that "enhance" the reading experience; not gimmicks that degrade the reading experience.

A reference should allow you to explore the meaning and context of the book you are reading thereby increasing your understanding and enjoyment of the book.  Gimmicks can be nice but they should always take a back seat to reference enhancements.  

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Smart E-Book Interface Prototype Demo - YouTube

Smart E-Book Interface Prototype Demo - YouTube

This is a problem I worked on about two years ago: How to make it easy for someone to flip through pages and thumb-mark pages in an eBook. I think these researchers have hit the nail on the head and I hope to see these technologies licensed to others.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Chris Stevens on Alice for the iPad, Book Apps, and Toronto: a Q & A | The Toronto Review of Books

Chris Stevens on Alice for the iPad, Book Apps, and Toronto: a Q & A | The Toronto Review of Books
Chris Stevens is kind of a founding father of book apps with his historic and ground breaking Alice for the iPad, which in my opinion, along side TouchPress' Elements launched the book app industry. When Chris speaks I listen and so should you.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Apps: State of the Industry

Believe it or not there is a budding Book App industry but it is so new that you can hardly see it.  The truth is that the vast majority of book apps produced today are crap. They are being developed by people from all over the world, on small budgets, big dreams, and little or no talent.

All Over The World
I look at the new releases in the Books category of the iPad App Store every day to see what new book apps have been released.  There are plenty of new titles every day from developers all over the world. The majority of these are produced by individuals or small companies.  This is good because it demonstrates one aspect of the book app industry I love; there is a low barrier to entry.  As a result we get to see lots of different ideas - but there has a been a far great supply of really shoddy work than anything else.

Small Budgets
Since most of the book apps are being developed by small teams or individuals the budgets are extremely small for most books and that is nearly always reflected in the quality of work.   I'm not saying that quality is directly tied to amount invested, but small budgets determine two things: The quality of the assets and the features provided by the book app.  If you have a small budget you can't afford a great artist, animations, voice overs, or writing.  Even if you get the content right, which is very rare, the enhanced features offered by most book apps are pretty lame.  I'm sorry, but using basic physics is not going to cut it anymore. You can't just take old art work, wrap it in a 2D physics engine, and call it a wrap.  That may have worked in 2010 with the first books but it rarely pays off now.  To do something really interesting you need to innovate and provide a unique experience which means more sophisticated programming and a bigger budget.

Big Dreams
Most of the folks that enter this industry have very big dreams about building a publishing empire and making loads of money.  The reality, even for the most successful book app publishers, is just the opposite.  The truth is the audience for book apps simply doesn't exist yet.  At least not at a level that can sustain a full time studio.  That's going to change over the course of the next five years, but right now most book app publishers have discovered, or are discovering, that there is little or no money to be made in book apps.  There are a few who may be doing well, but they are a very small percentage of the total number of publishers attempting to make money in this new media.

Little or No Talent
This is the other thing about book app publishers: The vast majority of us have no practical experience in either publishing, film making, radio, or anything creative.  I think you really have to have a fundamental understanding of the entertainment industry to do a good job at publishing book apps. Most of the book app publishers have created a couple games - probably unsuccessful games - but few have a background in publishing, film, radio or any of the other high-production entertainment skills needed to make this work.

There is Hope
While the present is rather grim for anyone who wants to make a living at publishing book apps, the future is extremely bright.   When I talk to other book app publishers I often compare the present state of our budding industry to the beginning of the film industry or automobile industry.   At the beginning of the film industry there was far more people interested in making silent films than there were people interest in watching them.  This changed pretty quickly, but at first a lot of movies were made that were (a) really horrible (b) never saw the light of day.  The same is true of the automobile industry. There was an explosion of automobile manufacutures all over the world between 1900 and 1914 but few of them survived to become part of the really huge automobile industry that came into existence after the first World War.  The shortage of consumers was exasperated by the shortage of infrastructure. Finding a decent road to drive on was difficult to say the least not to mention finding a gas station.

The book app industry, currently in its infancy, is suffering just as the film and auto industries did, but conditions are significantly different.  For one, the app stores (in particular Apple's for now) makes it really easy to distribute book apps and to reach a potentially huge audience.  Second, growth in tablet computers and advanced eReaders (the infrastructure of book apps) is growing really quickly. More quickly than anything else I've seen - even the Internet.  In five years I suspect 80% of people in 1st World countries who own computers today will own a tablet or advanced eReader device.  When we reach that level of adoption, the book app industry will explode into a mainstream media.  

The folks who focus on producing great quality works today and on implementing a sustainable business model - one based on growing recognition not revenues - will be the ones best prepared to win in what will become a very big business.  I don't plan to have a huge back list five years from now. Instead, I plan to have several extremely well executed works and a fantastic reputation for creating quality book apps.  When 'Lord of the Rings', 'Dune', and 'Harry Potter' are ready to be adapted into book apps my studio, Noble Beast, will be on the short list for developing those titles.  That's the goal.

Monday, September 26, 2011 The Web Site!

I'm really excited to announce the web site, which is dedicated to the discussing the development of "Steampunk Holmes: Legacy of the Nautilus" and the rest of the Steampunk Holmes series.  I've copied all the blog posts originally posted here about the series to the new web site. In addition, there are pages dedicated to showing the art work including character portraits, device designs, and scenes!

I also want to announce that has its own twitter account @NobleBeastBooks (Noble Beast is the name of the publishing company that is creating Steampunk Holmes).  So if you've been following me to hear news about Steampunk Holmes than please consider following @NobleBeastBooks - if you are following me for general purposes just stick with @rmonson.

In the future this blog will go back to talking about the Book App (App/Book) business in general. My thoughts on the market, technologies, and offerings.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Steampunk Holmes: The Black Widow in Action!

Click to Enlarge
I've spoken a couple times about the Black Widow, Sherlock Holme's super-chopper, in our story Steampunk Holmes: Legend of the Nautilus.

I announced the intent to use Mikky's design and to even manufacture the bike for purchase back in July and then about the addition of the side car and the Gatling Gun in August - the Gatling Gun will not be included in the real bike we are going to manufacture.

 Now I get to show Holmes and Watson riding the Black Widow in a big shoot out toward the end of the story. Holmes is driving and Watson is shooting the Gatling Gun. Daniel has out done himself on this one!

I won't tell you what he is shooting at just yet but I have included a excerpt from earlier in the story about the Black Widow and Watson's apprehension riding in the side car. Here is the excerpt written by P.C. Martin - Enjoy!
“No; a telegram from my sister Mycroft,” replied Holmes, “which promises to be of exceptional interest. Mycroft never sends for me except in cases of the most baffling nature, and I thought you might rather accompany me.” 
“Certainly I would,” cried I, leaping from my pillow and splashing my face from the basin in the corner. 
“Very well, then; have some coffee before we go. I'll get my coat and start up the Widow.”   
I winced at the prospect. Holmes' enormous motorized bicycle, the Black Widow, was his pet hobby, and so enamored was he with its power and terrific capability for speed, he could not keep his enjoyment of the vehicle to himself. As I had shown great unwillingness to ride pillion on the monstrous machine, Holmes had contrived a marvelous side-car in order that I might share in the excitement of the Widow's adventurous sallies in what he called perfect safety. I had been flattered by this excessive kindness on my friend's part, until about ten seconds had elapsed on my first ride in the Widow's side-car. 
In defense of my own courage, I have been shot at, stabbed, and seen my own arm torn from my body upon the hostile battlefields of India and Afghanistan, and yet none of those terrors compare in my estimation with that of driving through London with Holmes at the helm. After that momentous and traumatizing inaugural ride, my mistrust of the vehicle had grown to a positive terror—less for the vehicle's sake than for my friend's tempestuous and unbelievably reckless driving skills.
As you can see P.C. Martin is an excellent writer and we are all working hard to match plot, to story, to art. I'm really excited about the whole project!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Steampunk Holmes: The Nautilus

click image to enlarge
It took two weeks of trial and error but Daniel Cortes and are proud to present the final design of the Nautilus for Steampunk Holmes: Legacy of the Nautilus project. I want to thank Daniel for his patience and for re-conceptulizing the Nautilus many times until we got it just right.

As we work on this project I'm getting a very good idea of what it must be like to produce and direct a movie.  You have an idea that you share with talented people and they work their butt's off to make it tangible.   I imagine that this must require as much give-and-take as Daniel and I have when working on characters, scenes, and gadgets.  The same kind of back-and-forth I have with P.C. Martin about the story.  Truly wonderful things are not built in a vacuum; they must be the result of passionate collaboration among peers.

To the left you see the final design for the Nautilus.  This is a mechanical drawing that will be featured in the book along with Doctor Watson's Arm, the Black Widow, and other gadgets yet to be announced.

The Nautilus design went through many variations as we experimented with one idea after another.  We have, after all, very big shoes to fill.  If you look at the design of the Nautilus by Disney in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", a steampunk masterpiece, or the versions done by other adaptations such as "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" or many of the animated takes on the story, you'll soon agree that the design must rise to meet the merits of the story.  We knew we had to get it right, and I think we did.  Click on the image to above and judge for yourself.

The Nautilus sinks many ships in the original story by harpooning them to create a great hole in the hull that fills and sinks the ship.  We needed a big-ass pointy thing on the front and Daniel gave us one. I also wanted to make the ship look somewhat organic, but not like a fish.  Look at the curves and I think you'll agree that Daniel delivered on that request as well. I wanted the Nautilus to reflect Nemo's Indian heritage - Something Daniel took to heart adding beautiful India-like decorative designs.  Finally, I wanted the Nautilus to be HUGE! Check out the "crew" label next to the ship.

Below are some of the earlier concepts that lead us to the final design.

Concept Drawings of the Nautilus