Looking to the Future

I was surprised to see the article The Future of the Future of Books by Lincoln Michel pop-up on a listserv this past week. There is usually snow on the ground and the New Year is usually right around the corner before we start seeing predictions about the future of books and digital publishing. And while much of it is pointed at the idea that print is not dead (yep, we all know and embrace that) and that comparing the advent of digital publishing cannot be compared to the advent of MP3s and iPods (many nice points), it is interesting that the predictions are partly distribution predictions (consumer bundling) and partly content focused, many of which museums are already grappling with such as adding more content to an ebook.  At one point, though, he states, “Art forms survive by figuring out what makes them unique, not by trying to emulate other mediums.” The sentence falls after dismissing enhanced digital publications as not “going anywhere” besides kids’ books and textbooks. Regardless of the content that surrounds it, this sentence has really made me think about digital publishing for art books.

Printed art books are set apart for their design, rich illustrations, and print quality.  And as a result, we tend to talk a lot about the challenges of producing digital art books which can have a hard time capturing those elements. Formats are restrictive. How do you create a publication to fit across all platforms ? Image rights are hard to obtain and are expensive. (I could keep going…) Part of producing digital books focused on art, though, is perhaps learning to let go of some of the traditional hallmarks of printed art books and embracing the uniqueness of the digital format and learning how to push the boundaries of whatever digital platform you are using in order to create a singular experience.

Empathy in Art Book Publishing

Empathy as a concept has made increasing inroads into the content field. Dana Mitroff Silvers wrote an excellent piece on “design thinking,” a particular take on visitor experience that her firm spearheaded in their work for the SFMoMA relaunch and have taken it on the road, as it were. (The article has links to several other interesting articles on empathy as part of museum visitor experience, targeting the needs of visitors as individuals.)

Empathy as a general idea was the subject of a back and forth about its usefulness in the New Yorker with a response in the Huffington Post. Museums struggling to increase membership and audience engagement are asking questions and trying to find personas in their audiences (the Met’s head of merchandising Jo Prosser has made the excellent point that one museum visitor can adopt many personas, even in a single visit).

Self-publishers have long been advised to understand their audiences—who is your reader? What do they read? What do they think? (The exercises in creating idealized readers can run close to serial-killer profiles, though.) In the digital era, publishers are advised to test their findings by changing links, updating prices, seeing reaction to particular social feeds, etc. That’s a lot of work on top of creating product.

For art museum publishers used to working in print, the need to work for both the institutional and the curatorial vision can create an audience dilemma—how to do you reach scholarly and general audiences with the same publication at the same time? This smacks of the old print versus digital dichotomy, never mind the timeworn museum loyal-old-versus-hot-new-audience dichotomy, from which follows the assumption that print is meant for traditional audiences while digital meant for millennials. The ensuing danger is confirmation bias, where research validates what you already believe. The result is silofication, as print publishers assume that digital will handle new audiences exclusively (while digital publishers probably aren’t losing sleep about print).

The added wild card is audience behavior. New devices and apps affect market trends (have tablets already lost their mojo?) and vice versa. The Met’s new app (shameless plug, and I didn’t even work on it) isn’t a whiz-bang tablet experience but a handy guide that works perfectly on the iPhone. Audience behavior affects print in more ways than just general preferences—remember how airlines’ charging for any checked baggage added a punitive tax to the purchase of heavy art books while on vacation?

This is where the idea of multiple personas can help. Who says that the person visiting the museum and using their phone as an audioguide (the Met app does audio stops) isn’t also an ideal customer for the beautiful print book? What about some of the content of the book? Can a mix of print and digital (and the latter as a mix of ebook and online, maybe even PDF) meet the individual needs of some museum visitors?

The answer starts with research. No one wants to drown our visitors in surveys, but the experience of self-publishers who have been told to build communities of their readers is worth examining. Publishers, both print and digital, need to create those kinds of communities and be ready to reach many audiences with many formats. Like empathy and visitor experience, publishing has to be more than just audience research; it has to take the individual user/reader/visitor into account. We’ve heard about hacking the museum, but perhaps we museum publishers need to hack our audiences back. After all, empathy is acknowledging the experience of the other and learning to experience it ourselves from their point of view.

How do you open an e-book?


Photo by philografy. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sometimes the simplest questions are the most vexing. 

The things we call “e-books” come in a variety of file formats. PDF, EPUB, MOBI, IBA, and FOLIO are among the most common, but aside from PDF, most people (including even avid readers of e-books and a surprising number of publications folks) have no idea what these files are, how they work, or what the differences are between them. Thanks to the current e-book ecosystem, they don’t need to. In the current system, most e-books are sold directly from vendor to reader within a specific app or device. A reader simply opens their e-reader, finds the book they want, clicks “buy”, and the file downloads and opens for reading. They never see the file itself (like we see a JPG or DOC file) and never have to give a thought as to how to open it.

This seamlessness seems like a good thing. It is, in fact, this convenient, direct app/device-to-file connection that made e-books take off the way they did starting in 2007 with the first Kindle. The trouble is though, that this is also a form of lock-in for readers. Because the file format and access process is obfuscated behind the interface of a single company’s device or app, individual readers are far less likely to leave that company to buy other e-books. Encryption issues aside, most wouldn’t know what files to look for, or what to do with the files once they bought them.

Likewise for publishers. While the conveniences Amazon, Apple and others have created have in turn created a viable market within which to sell our e-books, we are as locked-in as readers. We are now dependent on just a few companies to distribute our digital publications, and we are limited to the formats those companies choose to support. This should not be acceptable to us as publishers. We must actively move toward a dynamic, universal and open publishing ecosystem. This will require us going out on our own, and on finding ways to connect our readers to our books outside the walled gardens of Seattle and Silicon Valley. However, in doing so we must realize that our readers will in turn run head on into that most basic question: How do you open an e-book?

Give Kindle owners a MOBI file, and most are going to have no idea that by plugging their reader into their computer, they can move the file onto it as easily as copying a picture onto a flash drive.

Email iPad readers an EPUB, and few will know that by simply opening that email on their iPad, they can move the EPUB file directly into an e-reading app. Or that there are dozens of free and low-cost EPUB reading apps available for every kind of tablet, smartphone, laptop and desktop computer, and that it’s the native file format for almost every dedicated e-reader device in the world.

Sell someone an HPUB file and, well, good luck with that.

Bridging this gap is going to require a level of education (readers and publishers alike), and while difficult, I believe it’s also necessary. We can teach people how to do these things, and we also need to give them a reason to make the effort by offering them benefits that outweigh the conveniences established by the bigger, trade vendors. Benefits perhaps like encryption-free files they own rather than lease, illustrated and interactive formats and publications they can’t otherwise get, competitive pricing, curated and authoritative selections of amazing digital art books.

Along with this process, there’s another approach to the problem that I’m also intrigued with. While we can educate readers to help themselves, what can we do on a technology end to make it so they don’t need to? Ideally, every digital device sold, should have a default application that will open our chosen e-book file format. Take for example the ubiquitous, universal PDF. It works for people in large part because they don’t have to give a moment’s thought to how to open it. No matter what device they have, no matter how they receive the file, people just need to double-click and it opens. Easy. Seamless.

What if, like Apple is now doing, every new computer and device came pre-loaded with an EPUB reader? What if every internet browser came to natively support HPUB or other HTML-based digital book formats? What if we could deliver individual e-books like software, bundled with their own common e-reading application? What if opening an e-book was as easy as opening a print book?

Sometimes the simplest questions are the most important.

Summer Reading

The Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative reached an important milestone this past year for many of the museums who participated in it: completion! (For more information about OSCI, see the Getty Foundation’s OSCI page.) And while I’ve personally been steeped in the Art Institute of Chicago’s OSCI production for the past 3 years, it’s been refreshing this past month to take a step back and to survey the breadth—both in subject matter and presentation—of the scholarly collection catalogues that are now available from this group of museums.  Going through each collection catalogue—from the Walker’s on performance art and SAM’s on Chinese painting—it’s interesting to start taking stock of how different online scholarly collection catalogues can be addressed and then realized. These differences range from the philosophical questions of what is a page, to the practical of how does a digital publication fit within a museum’s online collections presence, to the design of how immersive, book-like or database-like the material is presented as well as to the more technical questions of how to actually make it all come together.  To finish the summer off, I’d encourage readers to “flip through” the catalogues that have been produced from this endeavor thus far…

Art Institute of Chicago, Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago and Renoir Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Southeast Asian Art at LACMA

National Gallery of Art, Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Rauschenberg Research Project

Seattle Art Museum, Chinese Painting and Calligraphy

Tate Museum, The Camden Town Group in Context

Walker Art Center, On Performativity

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.