Are we there yet?

I was in Auckland last week for the Future of the Book conference at the Hyatt. In some ways I was surprised the lack of digital awareness (the intermittent internet access was a suitable metaphor), but then that was the point of the conference: to get publishers thinking beyond the printed book. It’s clear there’s plenty to think so what follows are some of my main impressions from the two days. (Apologies in advance for the length and note-form of much of this.)

Key themes

Flux – the whole situation is in flux and will remain so for at least the foreseeable future; some formats, devices and channels will become established while others perish; ultimately, the sooner publishers start to digitize, engage and experiment the better.

Experiment – there are plenty of options for how books can exist in a digital world so it’s worth experimenting with as many formats as possible. (And let’s not forget that many can and will continue to exist as printed books.)

Digitize – the first step has to be getting books (and more generally content) into re-usable digital formats; publishers can only do so much with content held in proprietary formats so moving to some form of XML soon will be a huge advantage.

Engage – the hardest thing will be thinking beyond simply turning printed books into ebooks; publishers must engage with the content and the potential formats so they can match the content to the best format.

A few oddities

Ebooks – any suggestion of a dichotomy between printed books and ebooks was roundly rejected by conference attendees. Ebooks are only one non-print format and many other models exist or need to be investigated. What’s important is that the reader’s experience is as valuable and immersive as the format allows. Current ebook formats and devices work well enough for the relatively limited types of books available (plain text, typically romance or throwaway pulp fiction) but more complex books (highly illustrated, extensively indexed and referenced, or regularly updated) need a more complex treatment. Further, publishers need to plan for a permanently connected future where books exist in a network of hypertext, images, video and audio content, lookup and reference tools, geo-coding, etc.

Devices – there are currently plenty of dedicated e-reading devices on the market, but unfortunately for New Zealand that market only exists overseas. (Amazon’s Kindle, for example, is only available in the States, while it’s been reported a few times that Sony have no plans to release their e-reader in New Zealand.) Sounds like bad news unless you listen to Sherman Young who argues that, rather than convincing readers to buy a dedicated e-reading device, publishers should instead piggy-back off the success of ubiquitous devices like iPhones and Blackberrys. As phones in general become more sophisticated and uptake grows, the average person will start to take advantage of the phone’s e-reading capabilities. And publishers can take advantage of that.

Readers – not the e-reading devices but those human users of books a.k.a. readers. It’d be unfair to say readers weren’t mentioned at all but then they weren’t exactly front and centre either. Perhaps that’s usual with publishers. They know readers are out there but publishers never really have to deal directly with them – booksellers and librarians tend to do that for them. At one point someone mentioned user-generated content but that was a lone voice and I’m not sure NZ publishers are yet engaged with the thought of readers becoming users and contributors. The thinking is still pretty much push rather than pull. Whether that thinking should change is something publishers need to have a view on.

Things worth keeping an eye on

There was talk of a digital warehouse for selling New Zealand ebooks, which Infogrid Pacific are looking to develop. (Infogrid are also big advocates of using XHTML in preference to bespoke XML – probably worth watching that develop too.)

1000 Great NZ Books – sounds exciting and publishers can submit their books to the list with the form here.

Buzzword, from Adobe – online collaborative authoring tool with native e-pub backend. It’s currently in beta, though you need to sign-up for a proper look.

Two projects from the New Zealand Digital Library at Waikato University:
Wikipedia Miner – analyses Wikipedia content and includes a service, Wikify, that scans text and adds links to relevant Wikipedia articles (and even disambiguates!)
Realistic Books – page turning format; over the top or useful for a high-quality one-off/special project?