Less slicing and dicing

Last month, The New Yorker published a post by Betsy Morais in which she described “The book of the future, sliced and diced”. Her coverage focused on two firms, Semi-Linear (creator of Citia) and Inkling.

In her narrative, Morais seems less than thrilled with the products that the two companies are promoting. Early on, she captures Linda Holliday, who founded Semi-Linear, talking about books in a way that is guaranteed to make a book lover cringe:

“A book is an amount of knowledge that I feel good about finishing,” she told me. “A book is a clump of knowledge that goes together.”

Morais is equally unsparing in documenting a perspective offered by Inkling’s Matt McInnis:

“Look at a book as a bag of words,” suggested Matt MacInnis … For a reader searching the Internet for information, he explained, “the word rank is going to be terrible for a bag of words of book length.” But a book that is broken up into component parts would show up higher in an online search result, because each discrete section coheres around a single idea, which can be tagged, indexed, and referenced by other sites. This is known in the business as “link juice.”

The conversation between web-savvy technologists and traditional book publishing is not an easy one. Just ask Laura Dawson, whose Tools of Change (TOC) presentation, “The Open Book”, was reportedly met with outright derision by some of those attending.

This year, TOC featured a concurrent program hosted by the W3C, the folks who help manage standards for the internet. That’s not a coincidence. TOC community manager Kat Meyer planned a conference that offered complementary programs for authors, technologists and publishers, some of whom were seen actually talking to one another in the halls between sessions.

In full disclosure, I’m not a big fan of Inkling. I think its product focuses on solving problems that only the biggest publishers may have. But Citia could be a tool that helps make “Context first” a reality. Returning to Morais, now near the end of her piece:

Often, in this bright future of the book, what you get is something more like a book in its nascent stages. Cards with disparate facts, details, ideas—they are, essentially, notes. Holliday told me that when she pitches Citia to writers, they say, “This is how I work.” Each stack of digital files—tagged with search terms, scattered across the Web—can be redistributed as fragments from a book-as-mothership, to which a reader might never return.

I’ve never been a fan of using keywords as a proxy for context; they are really just the best we can do after the fact. I am a big fan of using context as a way to inform, intrigue and delight readers, something I amplified for OCLC in a talk I gave in 2011:

What’s exciting, now, is our ability to use available tools to capture and market with more than just the title-level context.

Imagine you’ve just finished Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains.  You’re struck by the book’s allusions to Haiti’s cultural history, and you want to learn more.  Title-level data, the kind that says “people who bought Mountains Beyond Mountains also bought”, might steer you to a book like Paul Farmer’s The Uses of Haiti.

But a world full of contextually rich manuscripts could open a new era of discovery.  Imagine the delight of a reader who could find (and even buy) a chapter of John Szwed’s biography of Alan Lomax, in which the author describes in vivid terms a 1930s trip that Lomax, accompanied by Zora Neale Hurston, takes to Haiti in search of the roots of American music.

In this era of abundance, delight can be the new hand-selling.

Conceived and pitched as an authoring platform, Citia offers that potential. If we could talk less about slicing and dicing and talk more about bringing the author’s vision to an interested community of readers, I think even The New Yorker might come on board.

An additional note: At the start of TOC, Nate Hoffelder posted a detailed critique of Inkling, its products and recent marketing efforts. It’s a very direct read.


About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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