Transcript: 2016 Technology News In Review

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  • Michael Greer, Development By Design
  • Jane Friedhoff, Office for Creative Research
  • Kristen McLean, Nielsen Book

For podcast release Monday, January 2, 2017

KENNEALLY: “Progress” is supposed to be a given in modern human society. We expect our technology to advance, year over year, and for maintaining that pace, we rely on Moore’s Law. In other words, last year’s model is always obsolete.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. One way to distinguish 21st century technology over that of other eras is that processing power is personal power. Throughout the 20th century, freedom of the press belonged to those who owned one. In 2016, citizen-journalists and citizen-publishers have ascended. The transformation of communication is hardly complete, though. As I learned over the last twelve months, progress is not a straight line

When students fan out on campus for class, chances are good they aren’t carrying laptops but smartphones instead – and they aren’t alone in looking to the ubiquitous devices to enhance learning. Faculty, too, have high hopes for handhelds .

Educator and editor Michael Greer says if we are ever going to make learning mobile, we must first rethink learning. In a blog post for the Textbook & Academic Authors Association, he argued that “technology should serve learning, not drive it.” Michael Greer teaches online courses in editing and publishing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and is editor for the journal Research in Online Literacy Education. He is also a frequent guest on Beyond the Book.

GREER: Making learning mobile is not simply a matter of breaking text into shorter chunks and making the type re-flowable. While those things are important, the process is far more than a cosmetic makeover.

Making learning mobile is really about a conceptual shift – a move from one learning model to another. In the first model, textbooks and online educational content are primarily vehicles for the delivery of content. In the second, they become experiences, communities, or environments in which meaning and learning are created actively,” says Greer.

In the first model, students are mostly in the role of recipients or consumers of knowledge; in the second, students are active participants in the creation of knowledge.

KENNEALLY: In journalism, digital technology, with its capacity for two-way interaction, is also driving a transformation in the relationship between readers and reporters

Communities and conversations form naturally around digital journalism. Mostly, though, they are confined to comment sections on news sites. Journalists and audience today are only just shouting at each other.

Jane Friedhoff is a game designer, creative researcher, and experimental programmer whose work focuses on experimenting with media forms in order to create new, unusual, and even playful relationships between people. While working as a creative technologist at the New York Times R&D Lab, she developed an interactive journalism model.

FRIEDHOFF: The nature of R&D is that it’s projected into the future, right? You’re able to fail, and you can learn from failure, and that’s valuable on its own. It was definitely like you had to be mindful when you went down to the newsroom to understand that these people are on intense deadlines. Failing publicly is like a very – it seemed like to me a very different beast, and so you have to take all that stuff into account.
And the idea of permeable publishing is this idea of a reading experience, where there is not just like a wall between the author and the reader. Typically, you have some sort of webpage or an article, maybe there’s a comment section, and that comment section is down below or off to the side. It’s not necessarily really linked in a way to the source material, and it’s a very particular kind of interaction. It’s sort of two-way. Maybe the author comes into the comments. But it feels like it’s happening somewhere else. So it still kind of feels walled off.

And what I was interested in – and this was actually very much informed by my game design practice – was how we can create holes in that wall, how we can start to make it more of like a membrane, (laughter) so to speak, and allow things to flow back and forth and kind of have commenters influence writers influence commenters and back and forth.

KENNEALLY: So how did you create that, then? Sort of the vision, the image, is of a tree that branches along as it grows and grows and grows. Tell us how that really works in practice.

FRIEDHOFF: So in practice, the way that it happens is an author writes some sort of article. It can be anything. It’s not really determined. There is no subject matter requirement. Once they write that article, they can think about what kinds of questions they’re open to being asked. Maybe if you’re a reporter, let’s just say you want to do the classic who, what, when, where, and why. If you have a special interest blog or something else – maybe it’s a cooking blog, so you want people to be able to ask, what could I substitute here? Is it Celsius or Fahrenheit? Whatever.

So you sort of say what questions you’re open to answering, and then when your readers arrive at your site, they can as they read through the article highlight any piece of text, any length, doesn’t matter, and choose a question from one of those drop-downs. So for example, if you’ve written an article about a particular war, a reader could highlight a person’s name and ask, who is this? Or highlight a past event that you’ve referenced that maybe you thought everyone had the same background information on and say, what was that?

Then the writer can go on their sort of admin end, they can go see the list of questions that people have asked, and kind of batch reply. So if they happen to notice, wow, 50 people asked who this person was. I should probably give more background on that. They can select all those questions and sort of write one answer to them, which is then embedded on the front end. So any reader who comes after that will see that term or name or phrase highlighted, they can click on it and see the author’s description right in the page. So everything is really centralized. All the questions are really answered right around where they’re asked. It’s just a way that authors and commenters can sort of collaboratively flesh out this piece of writing.

KENNEALLY: Think like a startup, act like a mature business. It’s the trick that publishing houses around the world want to master. Neil De Young is executive director of Hachette Digital, Inc., where he is responsible for managing digital content development and operations, including for interactive ebooks and direct-to-consumer ecommerce. In 2016, “trade” book publishing relies less and less on the trade, and more on developing closer relationship with readers. To get there often requires publishing practices that emulate software development, De Young told me when we met last summer at the Yale Publishing Course, where we both were guest lecturers.

KENNEALLY: Neil De Young, you gave the attendees here today instructions on how to approach publishing – it sounded to me in the back of the room much more like a software developer than what we traditionally think of as a publisher. Do I have that right?

DE YOUNG: Yeah, definitely. Being able to develop in a hyper-release schedule is really difficult when you’re looking at interactive development or digital development at all. So adapting a software development philosophy is really important to be able to release things and iterate content in a way that makes sense and what consumers are looking for.

KENNEALLY: For listeners, hyper-release – it sounds like something on Star Trek. But what you mean, I assume, is that kind of agile software development approach of scrums and revision and retakes and evolution along the way, not trying to get to a perfect result.

DE YOUNG: That’s definitely part of it. What I was actually referring to in hyper- release schedule is that for book publishers, we release content on a weekly basis.We have a single title, multiple titles per week. Our marketing and publicity departments need to concentrate on a title and then also concentrate on the next title that’s releasing the next week. So our time is often spent on managing titles on a weekly basis that we’re releasing all the time, which leaves very little time to work on things that are outside of the box.

KENNEALLY: OK, so that’s really the point, then. You’ve got multiple timelines to manage here, and they’re all sort of stacked on top of each other. That must be quite a feat.

DE YOUNG: Yeah, it’s really difficult, and one of the things that we had to do was be upfront about the schedule, in that in order to do what we need to do, we have to operate on a different timeline. That means addressing our schedule in different ways and the types of titles that we’re going to work on.

Obviously working on frontlist titles, when you’re doing something like that and it requires agile development, is much harder. Working on backlist titles allows us to do that freedom in the schedule that we wouldn’t have in the frontlist. Both approaches have pros and cons, and we weigh each one for each project. But either way, it’s still true that we have a certain period of time where we can do development and then what we call a blackout period. That blackout period is meant to take a look back at what we’ve just done. What do we need to improve on? What tools can we create that can help us scale what we’ve done for future projects? Things like that, you need time to take that pause and evaluate what you’ve done and iterate on what you’ve released so that you’re providing fresh content and features.

KENNEALLY: If I was going to pick the place that’s the most important on the schedule, it sounds like that blackout period may be the most important part.

DE YOUNG: You know, it’s just like my children. I love them all. Not one point on the schedule is more important than the other. You can’t have a successful program without having both periods – a development period and a pause/blackout period. If you don’t have that, your content and your feature set becomes stale. And when you become stale, that’s usually the death of your digital publishing program.

KENNEALLY: From a resplendent summer’s day on the Ivy League campus of Yale in New England, I traveled south in late fall to the Miami Book Fair, the largest event on the national publishing calendar that is open to the general public. For a weekend in November, the campus at Miami Dade College becomes a hive for readers of all ages and in many languages.

At Beyond the Book, we try to explore new territories in writing and reading that make use of technology, the product of human imagination and invention. It’s a remarkable journey that began 8,000 years ago when Sumerians etched the first pictographs in moist clay with a sharpened reed stylus.

Today, digital technology makes possible reading and writing, of course, as well as the sharing of that self-expression to a global audience. We read books – we probably always will – and we read on a smart phone or a laptop, or, an e-reader. The rise of these devices presents a fascinating, perplexing challenge for reading and for books. All at once the books moves from the printed page to a screen, placing it next to each and every other media.

Kristen McLean is Director of New Business Development at Nielsen Book, part of Nielsen Entertainment. She’s a 20-year veteran of the publishing industry, and lectures extensively on issues facing the publishing world, including the effect of technology and culture on books and reading, and the role of book stores and libraries in the lives of 21st century readers. She was eager to dispel for our Miami Book Fair audience the technophile myth that “Print is Dead.”

McLEAN: I’ve always been a big fan of print, and I think to be a futurist right now is to be a fan of print because what we’ve seen is that certainly digital came in around 2007/2008 and really started to disrupt things in the publishing market in 2010/2011, but it didn’t quite have the meteoric growth that everyone was expecting. There was a couple of examples of libraries that very quickly got rid of all their books in favor of digital, have been proven to be a little bit hasty. We’ve seen in the last couple of years that e- book sales are down, generally, and print book sales are up. Right now, e-books are about, overall, 20% of the US book market, but that’s a bit of a tricky number because in certain categories like romance, e-books are up above 50% whereas in categories like kid’s books, they’re down like around 10%, and going down in most categories except for, perhaps, romance and mystery.

KENNEALLY: There are a lot reasons for that, and we’ll talk about that, but it’s important to stress, I think, that among the factors – the business factors, the role that publishers have played in their own decisions, consumers have made a choice here. They’ve returned to print. Would you say that’s true?

McLEAN: I think that’s true. I think there’s a couple of things going on there. The first is that I think the shininess of e-books has worn off a little bit, and people have made some choices for themselves that in a certain number of cases, they want to go back to print because they prefer the experience. I think that, and maybe Andrew’s going to talk about this, there’s some business issues behind that also. I think that the publishing industry has gone through some legal challenges to e-book pricing, where publishers want to keep the prices a little higher, Amazon wanted to keep the prices as low as possible. And then we have self-publishers in there, who are able to set extremely low prices for their self-published e-books. So it’s created a bit of a wild west in the digital space, also, so I don’t know whether or not E is slowing down because now publishers have gone back to setting some higher prices for their e-books. But I do think it’s a combination of all these things.

One of the biggest surprises, initially, with e-books is when they first came out, we assumed that we were going to see, for instance, teens picking up e-books in really great numbers. One of the first indicators that we had that maybe our assumptions about that were wrong was early research that we did that found that actually, in fact, teens did not like e-books, and had a very strong preference for print, and have continued to have a very strong preference for print. What that taught us right way is the fact that, of course, our assumptions about e-books as a technology really ran headlong into teens – that for them books are an identity factor, number one. Number two, they don’t necessarily want to spend the money on e-books.

KENNEALLY: In 2016, we dearly love our gadgets and all the very latest apps, yet there remains room in our hearts for old friends.

Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center. With subsidiaries RightsDirect in the Netherlands and Ixxus in the United Kingdom, CCC is a global leader in content workflow, document delivery, text and data mining and rights licensing technology.

Beyond the Book co-producer and recording engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing.

I’m Christopher Kenneally. Join us again soon on Beyond The Book.

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