Why Museum Publishers Should Care about the Amazon-Hachette Battle

It’s not for the reason you think.

(I know it’s social-media boilerplate, but these REALLY are my thoughts and don’t represent my colleagues at the Met Museum or the institution itself. Or any sentient being for that matter.) 

I won’t get into an entire retelling of the battle between Amazon and Hachette other than to say it boils down to ebook prices: Amazon wants ebook prices to be low, for various reasons we have to take their word on (i.e., that they’re not doing it to create more loss leaders to eliminate competition). Hachette and other major publishers want ebook prices to be high, closer to the price of the print book, for various reasons we have to take their word on (i.e., that they’re not doing it to claw back margins and profits from authors when Amazon has already eaten away at print book margins).

Got your hands ready? Good.

  • On the one hand, we hear from Amazon that lower ebook prices make for more readers.
  • On the other hand, we hear from the traditional publishers that higher ebook prices places a real value on books as opposed to, say, widgets. And shouldn’t producers of cheap ebooks like that some publishers are keeping their prices high?
  • On the other hand, books are competing with all forms of entertainment, so ebooks need to be cheaper to win the device-screen war against Angry Birds. So lower ebook prices.
  • On the other hand, cheap ebooks are often of such lousy quality that it actually degrades the entire practice of reading, and readers have taken to viewing cheap prices as a sign to stay away.
  • On the other hand, many expensive ebooks (and print books) even from large publishers seem to be of lower quality as publishers have cut back on or freelanced out editing, proofreading, development, publicity and marketing. And while ebooks still reflect editorial development costs, and production isn’t free, certain costs are lower and publishers are keeping those profits, not passing them along to authors. So lower ebook prices!

On the other hand, and so on and so on, until ∞ …

Got enough hands?

Got enough hands?

The debate over lowering ebook prices has gone from an amusing tussle to something nasty, with increasingly alarming rhetoric from both sides. Readers of the New York Times are likely to have seen the pro-Hachette/anti-Amazon argument; those who’ve attended tech and content conferences like Tools of Change know that indie- and self-publishing is seen as a way to take on the so-called gatekeepers, especially because Amazon offers various routes for self-publishing without agents or New York publishers.

A few noteworthy takes on the battle have been contributed by Digital Book World’s Jeremy Greenfield, self-publishing deity Hugh Howey, mainstream publishing columnist Mike Shatzkin, and indie-pusher Barry Eisler (also here).

So why should we in the art-book realm care? After all, we were fighting these kinds of battles when giant Barnes and Noble superstores began landing on streets and in malls like alien motherships obliterating Terran cities. And we know all too well the challenge that cultural institutions, never mind their publishing arms, have in reaching increasingly-attention-starved audiences. What does the fight over the prices of digital novels have to do with us?

I think there are two issues here that go beyond price. If you view the proponents of traditional big publishing (and their right to price ebooks high) as being in the right, then you might be more likely to believe that extensive (and expensive) editorial development is important and that prices deserve to reflect that. You might be more likely to view large museums and their attendant bureaucracies as a necessary part of protecting our art and the authority of our curators and conservators from the leveling of the marketplace of ideas and attention. (Or perhaps, viewing Amazon as the big corporate kahuna here, you might feel that large museums can afford to be loss leaders on content if it gets visitors into the museum’s building or website. Quick, order more hands!)

Pro-Amazonians, on the other hand, may be more comfortable with the view that in this day and age we’re all businesspeople—any content creator has to expect to be an independent agent, ready to write, illustrate, code, market, social-media-ize, and so on, by themselves or with a small, tightly-held, often freelance team. They’re the people who see publishing on Twitter as an opportunity, not a sign of the apocalypse. The more nimble art-book publishers can thrive, if they’re not too busy worrying about starving.

Seem like a familiar debate? Seen it in your organization?

Some parties are missing from the fight. I’ve read opinions from mainstream authors who hate Amazon’s tactics, and indie authors who hate Hachette’s tactics (and those who hate Amazon for prompting said hate.). I’ve read about plenty of self-published authors who’ve gone back to traditional to get done all those pesky business things which publishers supposedly suck at (even at the potential loss of the independence to set one’s own prices, etc.). I haven’t read many satisfied mid-level traditionally published authors weigh in. Authors who’ve criticized Amazon have been tarred as counter-revolutionaries, which as we know from history is a really, really bad thing to get called by self-professed revolutionaries.

It’s the tone that has me worried. To quote Helen Mirren in The Queen, “Something’s changed.”

Any time digital and print get mixed up, there are jobs on the line. This chart-a-palooza article in the Times said it well:

Bookstores, printers and publishers of newspapers and magazines have lost a combined 400,000 jobs since the recession began. Internet publishers — including web-search firms — offset only a fraction of the losses, adding 76,000 jobs. Electronic shopping and auctions made up the fastest-growing industry, tripling in employment in 10 years.

The new economy may be democratizing culture and content but it isn’t creating new full-time jobs doing so (though there are a zillion opinions about what might happen in the future).

Of course we should be moving into digital. But we should see what the rest of the world is doing as well. As the creation of content becomes potentially decentralized in our museums, we need to pay attention to what’s going on in the mainstream content marketplace. At least we can borrow extra hands from our statues.

10 Reasons Why You Should be Thinking About HTML for Digital Publications and How to Get Started

Justin Putney is a partner at Ajar Productions and the creator of in5, an InDesign to HTML5 export tool that supports folio overlays and animations. With the open source Baker Framework or similar tools, in5 can also be used to create Adobe DPS-like apps. This article presents an overview of the advantages to using HTML for digital publications and then focuses on how HTML can be delivered to desktop and mobile devices.

* * *

Advantages of Using HTML
in Digital Publishing

HTML has many advantages over other publishing options currently available. Here are 10 reasons your should be thinking about HTML:

  1. Universal – HTML is by far the most universally readable content format available (more so than even PDF). HTML is the language of the web, it is supported on all devices, and it’s not going away. This advantage is so important that I’ve expanded on it below.
  2. Inexpensive – HTML is relatively inexpensive to produce and in many cases the cost of distribution is ZERO. 
  3. Multimedia and Interactivity – The sky is the limit when it comes to content. Anything that a web developer can create can go into a publication. in5 already supports for the audio, video, interactivity, animation, and Folio Overlays available in Adobe InDesign without a lick of coding required.
  4. Design-driven Workflow – The tools are still young, but a beautiful layout can be rendered in HTML from a visual tool.
  5. Simplicity – Exporting HTML content is closer to a PDF export (i.e., a single-step process) than building a Folio. Once the content is HTML, it can be edited directly.
  6. Content Ownership – A decent HTML workflow allows you to keep your content, rather than storing it in someone else’s pipeline. If you need to make an edit (e.g., update a copyright year), you can simply open the HTML file in a text editor.
  7. Easy to Extend – Since the web is built on HTML, it’s easy to find new bits of functionality that can be included in a publication: YouTube videos, Google Analytics, ads, etc.
  8. Smaller File Size – A format like the Folio used in DPS takes screen captures of every page, in addition to creating images for overlays, which creates a very large download. Conversely, HTML is a more direct translation of the digital assets.
  9. Progressive Loading – HTML makes it easy to load content as it is viewed, rather than waiting to download everything upfront.
  10. Selectable Text and Accessibility – HTML allows for selectable text, and even when text is rendered as image, alternate text can be provided for screen readers.
html5 publication

A digital publication with live text and interactivity that is rendered with HTML.

What is HTML?

HTML is a tagged-text file format. An HTML file typically  contains only text, but it has the ability to reference images and multimedia, as well as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for layout and JavaScript for interactive functionality. The newest version of this format is HTML5.

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot of hype surrounding HTML5, which is not actually a radical departure from HTML4. If you’ve used HTML at any point in the past, much of what you’ll see under the hood will be familiar. There are still the same old familiar <body>, <p>, and <span> tags.

HTML5 introduces support for a few new tags, several of which are useful for digital publications.

HTML5 Features for Publishers

Among the improvements in HTML5, the following are of particular use for publications:

  • Native Multimedia – the new <audio> and <video> tags allow for more multimedia possibilities in native HTML (this was once only possible with plugins).
  • Font Embedding – while HTML text is not nearly as sophisticated as PDF text, the ability to embed fonts and control more aspects of text rendering has made HTML a viable format for beautiful type.
  • Offline Storage – content from a web site or Web App can now be cached so that it can be viewed on a mobile device which is no longer connected to the internet.
  • Viewport and Zoom Controlcontent can be scaled to the size of the reader’s screen. The user can also adjust the zoom of the content, if desired.

These new features help to build publications that are truly digital, rather than pixel-based copies of print editions.

Universal Format: 3 Layers of Delivery

This is where HTML is currently more complex than some other commercially available publishing options. There are (at least) 3 different ways to get HTML-based content to your readers.

3 layers of HTML publishing: naked HTML, Web App, Encapsulated

However, that complexity is not strictly a disadvantage, since it stems from having more choices.

1. Naked HTML

Naked HTML

Bare-naked HTML can be viewed on any device’s web browser.

Content can be delivered to a reader by posting it directly to the web and sharing it via URL.

In some cases, it’s as simple as putting your files on Dropbox and sharing the URL.

Pros: Quick and easy. Viewable on desktop computers as well as mobile devices.

Cons: Can be more difficult to monetize. Doesn’t have the branded experience of an app with a home screen icon.

2. Web Apps

Web App

The Web App is HTML disguised as a native app on the device.

A Web App (capital “W,” capital “A”) is technically a web site, but it can be saved to the home screen and subsequently opened as if it were a native app. When the app is launched, it opens the site in a “headless” browser (i.e., it doesn’t have the address bar or other user interface elements).

The Web App allows a publisher to bypass the app store submission and approval process, as well as avoid the recurring developer account fee (Apple’s start at $99/year). This is great for publications that are rushed (and can’t wait for approval), and don’t comply with app store guidelines (such as internal documents or marketing materials).

The Web App isn’t just for small publishers and internal communications. When Apple removed Google Maps as the default map search on iOS devices, Google famously made Maps available as a Web App.

Pros: Easy to create and deliver. Offers the branded experience of an app with a home screen icon, but without the headache or cost of an app store.

Cons: Difficult to monetize.

3. Encased Apps

Encapsulated HTML App

HTML can be encapsulated in a native app “wrapper.”

In addition to HTML’s utility within the browser and as a Web App, HTML can also be encased within a native desktop or mobile app.

HTML can be included as a piece of an app. For example, Yelp wrote an article on how they’re using the iOS WebView object to quickly integrate web features into their native app.

Alternatively, a native “wrapper” can be placed around the HTML and it can become the entire app. Here are a few ways to easily create a native app from HTML:

Pros: Branded experience. Easier to sell in an app store.

Cons: Higher level of effort in some cases.

Where else can HTML Live?

HTML can also live within DPS (as a Web Content Overlay) as well as within EPUB (which is really just a special instance of HTML under the hood). Moreover, HTML can live within HTML as an iframe.

The bottom line is that if you familiarize yourself with HTML and what you can do with it, your time will be well spent.

Challenges with HTML

While HTML is a ubiquitous and versatile format, it’s far from perfect. Some elements, like having fine control of text that is also selectable, are not yet at the level of a format like PDF. Additionally, the distribution of HTML as an app currently requires at least one extra step, but the tools for creating HTML-based digital publications are only in their infancy and I expect they will evolve quickly.

One other shortcoming of HTML (versus PDF or SWF) is that it generally requires multiple files: the HTML, plus the images, media, CSS, and JavaScript files. In most cases, this is only a minor inconvenience.

How do I create HTML as a non-coder?

You don’t have to know how to code HTML or CSS to benefit from the advantages listed in this article.

Adobe has multiple tools that create HTML: Dreamweaver, Muse, Animate, and Reflow.

Two years ago, in recognition of HTML’s potential as a publication format, my wife and I launched a Kickstarter project to create a tool that exported HTML5 layouts from Adobe InDesign. That tool has evolved significantly and is now known as in5. in5 supports all of the features listed in this article, including audio and video, viewport scaling, font embedding, offline storage, Web App export, and even a Baker Framework export. All of the content can be created visually using InDesign’s native capabilities. A free trial version of in5 is available on our website.

Found Horizons?

America’s quadrennial pretend-affair with soccer/fútbol came to a close this summer with the final of the World Cup. Now I’m about as close to the idealized American fan of soccer as you can be, but even I admit that America’s World Cup fascination is a bit like dating someone in the fourth grade, with passed notes and whispering classmates taking the place of ESPN: everyone gossips like you’re having a relationship with that girl/boy two rows away, but after it’s all over you realize that you never actually spoke to them.

Now we can go back to our general ignorance of American soccer and our greater level of interest in Champions League, the annual do-they-ever-stop-playing-it tournament going on every second in Europe. No sooner does one of the same handful of super-rich teams win the final, around Memorial Day, then the whole thing starts up again among the who-are-they? minnows from Cyprus and Estonia, teams with no chance.

I thought of CL when I read the New Media Consortium‘s fourth annual report on museums released in late 2013, around the time of the Museum Computer Network conference in Montréal.  The NMC has been around for twenty years and seems to have the market cornered on studying the effect of digital technologies on education-related fields and institutions. The advisory board is a who’s who of Museum Computer Network players (including a couple from the Met), and NMC editor Alex Freeman presented the latest report‘s findings in Montréal. (Alex and a couple of NMC advisory board members graciously answered a bunch of questions I had about the preparation of the report.)

I won’t quibble with or dissect the report’s findings: reports are reports, and even the best and best-intentioned ones are as much horoscope as crystal ball, providing food for thought along with entertainment. What I find interesting is the section of the report that examines two upcoming trends in each of three time frames–one year or less, two or three years, and four or five years.

Even beyond the fact that the first group will be here (and hopefully not gone) before the next report is issued, it’s a tweener set of time scales. I would have loved to see ten or twenty years out; assuming we’re not all be sucked into Ray Kurzweil’s singularity or upload ourselves into software consciousness, what will the museum a decade or two out look like? (Hint: I see lots and lots of Google Glass.)

The findings, arrived at in an MVP-award-style balloting process (no elimination tournament? not even a group stage before a knockout round?), aren’t controversial: Bring Your Own Device (now understood as “BYOD”) and Crowdsourcing are already here, Electronic Publishing and Location-based Services are just outside the door, and Natural User Interfaces and Preservation and Conservation Technologies are just starting college and will be here in four years. The term ”Electronic Publishing” itself can be controversial, a topic I’ve addressed here on the blog and continue to discuss every day in my job at the Met.

My question, therefore, is how do these topics make it out of the technology conversation and into the lifeblood of our museums? For many institutions, they already are, as museum directors are increasingly concerned by visitor experience, which is impacted by all of these items (you can think of at least four of them as relating to mobile and social media, with digital publishing closely related; only preservation and conservation can be considered mostly internal to the museum and its staff).

So then it appears that the usefulness of the Horizon report is to provide an agenda, not just for conferences, but for conversation. An appendix to the report provides a bevy of examples of the cited technologies. In all its areas of focus, the NMC sets the baseline for discussing technology. Our challenge is to get it into the hands of those outside of the museum technology realm.

The Bootstrapped Book; or, Making the Most of Your Exhibition Ephemera

In the spring of 2013, before I came to the Getty, I did a special e-book publication for the Phoenix Art Museum and their latest photography exhibition, From Above: Aerial Photography from the Center for Creative Photography. Like with museum exhibitions anywhere, in the course of creating the show an amazing trove of often disparately held materials were created: Exhibition checklists with digital images and information on each work in the show; object wall labels; introductory wall text; brochure and website text; reading lists; artist bios; and on and on. In something of a publishing experiment, I worked with curator Rebecca Senf to compile all these materials into an exhibition e-book. Because all the materials had already been created and approved, creating the e-book was more a matter of simple compilation and formatting, than of all the unique work and development that goes into a full exhibition catalogue. The whole thing took about 30 hours of work to create.

Though we certainly could have done more, keeping to our bootstrap methodology we did little in the way of additional work to market or distribute the publication. This was more about answering the question of what a super-minimal digital exhibition publication process could look like, and what use it might serve. At the least we thought it would serve as a nice, contained archive of all those ephemeral materials that usually disappear with the closing of a show like this, even in larger shows that have their own printed exhibition catalogues.

The show ran from May 4 to September 22, 2013, and the e-book was available to anyone for free download online. There was a scannable link to it in the exhibition gallery, as well as on the exhibition website; and the curator also sent a link to her growing list of the museum and area photo supporters.

By the end of the exhibition, about 800 people downloaded the e-book. That seems like a quite respectable number to me, especially given the small amount of investment—in time or money—made in making the publication happen. And given our minimal approach, there is certainly room for growth here. More download links and signage could have been placed in other areas of the museum like the shop and information desk. A brief workshop on the e-book download and usage could have been done to educate and empower the museum’s staff and docents. Promotion of the e-book could have been further integrated into and elaborated upon in the exhibition press materials. There are many more ways I think we could have gotten that download number higher, and most are super easy and low cost.

The e-book is still available for download, and below are the rest of the download stats, unvarnished and without further analysis. Enjoy!

  • 661 downloads of the regular EPUB format
  • 295 downloads of an EPUB with larger images
  • 109 downloads of the regular MOBI (Amazon Kindle) format

Of those, about 25% were duplicates of people downloading more than one format or downloading multiple copies of the same format.

  • 1233 unique views of the download page
  • 1064 total downloads of the e-book in all formats combined
  • 798 approximate total unique downloads

From the link in the gallery:

  • 436 total hits
  • 47% iOS devices, 39% Android devices
  • Most downloads occurred on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, between the hours of 2-4pm

From the link used on the exhibition website and other scattered marketing and promotion materials:

  • 337 total hits
  • 72% direct from the exhibition website
  • 40% Windows users, 36% Apple device users

From the link used by the curator:

  • 605 total hits
  • 459 direct, primarily email
  • 83 from an article on the daily journal, Lenscratch

I  also spoke about the project at the 2013 American Alliance of Museums annual meeting in Baltimore, in a talk on Agile Publishing, which you can read more about and download here.

There’s something in the air, and it smells like open publishing

Pie In The Sky, by Luis Prado (CC BY 3.0)

Pie In The Sky designed by Luis Prado from the Noun Project (CC BY 3.0)

A number of disparate things that may be adding up:

At the IDPF’s Digital Book program at BEA at the end of May, Sanders Kleifeld, the director of publishing technology at O’Reilly Media, gave a talk on Open Source for Publishing.

The call for proposals for Books in Browsers V is now open, and the theme for this year’s conference is Advancing Open Web Standards and Digital Publishing.

Over the last couple months I’ve come across a couple open, web-based art and museum publishing projects that I hope you’ll be able to read more about here soon: The online art books of the Art Canada Institute; and a free digital magazine called Curious Quarterly from the Royal BC Museum.

And of course there’s the Off the Press conference and Digital Publishing Toolkit project I posted about here previously.

For my part, I spoke at the National Museum Publishing Seminar in June on web books and open publishing as part of a panel that looked at digital publishing from EPUB to App. I’ll also be moderating and speaking on a panel at the Museum Computer Network conference this fall in a session called The Future of Digital Publishing is GitHub.

If anyone else has been coming across other interesting open, digital publishing projects or tools lately—O’Reilly Atlas, HPUB—I’d love to hear about them. Drop me a line @geealbers, or post a comment below.