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Publishing different: What the tablet brings to the table


Like newspapers before them, traditional book publishers are facing the reality of the new digital world. With Apple's much anticipated tablet expected to debut within the next few months, they're under more pressure than ever before to "Think Different". Moving from print to digital isn't a smooth or easy path, despite the fact that most authors are working digitally in the first place. As early experiences with the Amazon Kindle have shown, digital tablets are not geometric or mental equivalents of the printed page.

"You've got to think beyond the page," says Chuck Toporek, my editor at Addison Wesley/Pearson, "because the page no longer exists -- there is no page number, or page to flip." Book content has to adapt and flow to on-device presentation. Like the HTML revolution of the '90s, publishers will need to rethink how their content can adapt to changes in font size, and "the page" is more driven by screen dimension and resolution than a piece of paper is. "[Interaction styles like] pinch and zoom should not hinder the user," Toporek adds.

Publishers need to expand their ideas about how readers interact with a book. A lot of readers tend to make notes in the margins, highlight text, or dog-ear pages as they're reading. Instead of traditional tools, readers will be using electronic equivalents. But what will the electronic equivalents be?

Adobe's PDF system has long included mark-up features in its Acrobat product line. Acrobat users can embed notes, scribbles, and other visual elements in PDF documents, and share those marked up and edited files with others. Over the last year or two, many of these features have found their way into Mac OS X via Apple's Preview application. For the tablet, Toporek thinks publishers need to take highlights and annotations to the next level. "An ebook doesn't have to be a static thing that just sits on a shelf," Toporek adds. "Imagine a scenario where the highlights and annotations I make to an ebook can be exported and shared with anyone else who has the same ebook/device." He goes on to add, "It would be great if I could overlay your notes on top of my own so I can see what's important to you."

He envisions a social network of connected readers, built around technical titles. "Wikis and wikibooks never panned out [for these kinds of technical texts] because people were looking for information they could share in but often they weren't willing or able to write it all themselves...[Authors take] great care in building content for their books, investing hundreds, or often thousands of hours in building that content." Readers might build on top of that content by annotating and commenting on text, digitally highlighting their favorite portions and creating "reader cuts" of the text.

A tablet could allow a community to build itself around a book, just like communities now build themselves around popular websites. "Reading a book doesn't have to be a solo effort; it can be communal. Think about taking all those highlights and annotations and storing them on a community server, where readers could overlay the text with that feedback, whether its 2 or 20 or 200 other people. You could toggle that information on and off at will. You can build a community around an ebook, and that's something you just can't get with a print book."

Toporek points out that ebooks shouldn't limit themselves to static text and images. "You really have to leverage the capabilities of the device, and exploit the heck out of it," says Toporek. "Think of where audio and video fit into an ebook. You can incorporate screencasts and audio clips from the author, or even include content that doesn't make it into the print version, sort of like a director's cut of a DVD." According to Toporek, tablet-based books might incorporate live examples, demonstrating principles in action, just like web pages currently do. And what if you need an ebook that isn't for the rumored Apple tablet? "Publishers should look to delivering ebooks to WebKit-based browsers so they can leverage HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript (think web-standards), or other frameworks such as SproutCore."

If the tablet does emphasize ebooks the way analysts expect it to, we can only hope that Apple helps show publishers The Way in a future version of the iPhone SDK, similar to Amazon's active content Kindle development kit (KDK) announced yesterday. If the tablet succeeds in its arena, the way the iPhone has before, authors and publishers will be able to Publish Different.

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