MacGuffin, Short Reads, and Reading Analytics

Question: can data about how books are read in turn influence the way in which books are written? The Guardian (“The new platform luring readers into short fiction“), leads off by observing how short fiction has remained a relatively unpopular e-reading genre while others have taken off. Now, we see more and more self-publishing options such as MacGuffin focusing upon short fiction, poetry, public domain works, and “#fiveminutereads” to try and catch our collective e-reading attention spans. However, the part that caught my attention was MacGuffin’s focus upon reading analytics

Macguffin Analytics Reading“The subtle joke in MacGuffin’s name – tricking busy online readers into spending time with fiction through interaction and ease-of-use – might also point to its most interesting feature. Alongside every story published are its open analytics, visible to both author and readers. Mercilessly, these detail the exact number of people who have opened a story, and the number of people who actually finish it. They even display a chart of exactly when each reader stopped reading: which, while painful, does give writers the chance to test their narrative structure. Whether this will prove a digital innovation too far for more sensitive writers remains to be seen, but if MacGuffin does take off, mining this data for insights into human attention might be one of the smartest things any publisher has done in some time.”

Ok, I might have contributed towards the dropout out rate on a couple of stories while I was poking around their website. The combining of reader analytics and audio soundtracks is kind of a neat experiment (while we’re on the subject, check out this post for more on books and soundtracks).

I’m curious to see if having more data and information about readers’ habits will have an influence upon the way in which books are produced. And another thing to think about, from the authors’ and publishers’ perspective: how much does dropout rate really matter? Are there other metrics that could determine a books’ success? (This reminds me of an earlier post on the Hawking Index, too).

The Bookseller (“Jim Hinks: Reader analytics as a self-editing tool“) has a great interview with useful insights about what MacGuffin is all about. He makes some good observations about how devices might affect our reading consumption habits, now and in the future:

“Literature in audio form is certainly on the ascent. Audiobook sales are rising; 4G coverage is improving and getting cheaper for consumers. I suspect that one of the reasons publishers, at least, are so keen on audio is it seems relatively future-proof. Consumption of digital literature is largely device-led, after all. As Amazon added more functionality to Kindles, transforming them from vanilla readers into tablets, ebook sales started to level off — why read capital-L literature when you have social media, YouTube and Netflix? But whatever wearable devices come on-stream in the next few years, it’s difficult to foresee a time when we won’t want listen to stuff while keeping our eyes free to do other stuff (even in our driverless cars).”

The drop out graphs are pretty rudimentary data at this point, but it’s a pretty cool idea. The future of book reading might be full of these kinds of insights which simply didn’t exist five or ten years ago:

Macguffin Analytics Reading Drop Off“During the beta test, we found that most stories and poems typically have a lot of drop-outs right at the start of the text or audio (sometimes over 50% during the first 10% of a story or poem). It seemed readers were scanning the first few lines of text, or listening to a few seconds of audio, then deciding it wasn’t for them. … It seems this simply reflects the way we browse literature, whether digitally, or picking up a book in a bookstore: scanning the first few lines, then deciding it’s not for us, and moving on to something else. The really useful drop-out stats for authors seem to come after that initial bedding-in phase, where you’ve won the reader’s confidence, only to loose it again with a misstep in plotting or pacing or tone.”

 Check out the MacGuffin website for more of the nuts and bolts of their reader analytics (the parts about writing and reading drop out rate are very interesting!) Also worth a look: a Twitter conversation with MacGuffin on reader analytics from a couple of months ago.

Ebooks and Fonts

3046678-inline-3046678-slide-s-5-the-kindle-finally-gets-some-typography-that-doesnt-suckCo.Design (“The Kindle Finally Gets Typography That Doesn’t Suck“) had an interesting article that caught my attention, which provides a design-focused, nuanced look at one of the more unnoticed aspects of e-reading: fonts.*

So it there any importance, other than cosmetic, that can be attached to Amazon’s newly designed Bookerly font (and improved typesetting layout engine) for Kindle? Maybe:

“No matter what screen you’re on, Bookerly was designed from the ground-up to be even more readable that Caecilia. According to Amazon’s internal tests, that means it’s about 2% easier on the eye. That may seem like a small improvement, but spread that 2% across millions of Kindle users and billions of pages of e-reading, and it all starts to add up.”

google play books literataHey, 2%, over a year’s worth of e-reading is a big deal! I think. Probably. The transition between print and digital is still an ever-ongoing process and this quote from Amazon was on point:

“In e-books, you have this tension, between the purity of a book’s layout as it was envisioned in print, and the flexibility that e-reading brings to a customer, by allowing you to increase font size, read books across multiple devices, and so on … It’s a tension between the beautiful but static nature of print, and the dynamism of digital. We’re trying to strike a balance between those two things.”

Google took a different approach with their Literata font for Google Play Books. If typography porn is your thing, you’ll really want to check out the WSJ article (“E-Books Get a Makeover“) for the font comparisons.

And for a counterpoint, Digital Book World, “Fonts and Nonsense: What Bookerly and Literata Get Wrong” takes a more measured response about the limitations with typesetting limitations inherent in the ebook format:

“But apart from these typographical infelicities borne of shoddy decision-making under hardware constraints, there’s the more broadly problematic idea that one font will work well for every single kind of ebook.

This notion really just throws book design out the window by dispensing with any halfway nuanced appreciation of the content—something that should make any author or publisher recoil as well. Just as all print books are not typeset in the same font, so their digital counterparts should be afforded the same basic considerations.”


*Speaking of fonts, here’s something to file under Fun Trivia, also from Co.Design, “Are Some Fonts More Believable Than Others?

“The results: For every 1,000 respondents, almost five more people agreed with Deutsch’s statement when it was written in Baskerville than they did when it was written in Helvetica. That might not seem terribly impressive, but Dunning assures us that this so-called Baskerville Effect is indeed statistically significant: ‘It’s small, but it’s about a 1% to 2% difference — 1.5% to be exact, which may seem small but to me is rather large … Truth is not typeface dependent, but a typeface can subtly influence us to believe that a sentence is true.'”

There’s even more about Errol Morris’ intriguing truth and typography test here, (“It’s absurd to think that we would be nudged by one typeface over another, into believing something to be true. Something disturbing about it, I’d go so far to say.”)

How Does Book Scanning Work?

Book scanning has interested me for years. I mean, if I had the spare cash and an extra vacuum cleaner*, this is how I might spend my weekends. The Guardian (“If you want to get ahead, get a scanner“) had a quick blurb that got me thinking:

“The most common machines of this kind are simple physical mechanisms: a book is held open in a cradle and pushed upwards against two angled glass plates. The movement triggers a pair of digital cameras, which simultaneously photograph the flattened pages, and the process is repeated, by hand, for each spread. As I pushed down on the lever and the shutters fired, it struck me that this was a kind of reverse press, of the most ancient Gutenberg kind. Instead of a block of ink-stained type being pressed on to a page, the book itself is pressed towards the light and its contents are released into the digital ether, to be republished, retransmitted once again.”

Intrigued, this led me to another article from earlier this year (“Saving Human Knowledge at 800 Pages an Hour“). If you’re interested in the book scanning process, it’s worth the click just to see the cool pictures of the books scanning machines involved. In the giant, seismic cultural shift from print to digital, it’s utterly fascinating to get a glimpse of some of the invisible work that forms the foundation of this transformation:

book scanning machines“On the shelves, they’re checked for scanning suitability. Some really thick tomes won’t work, as the scanner can’t reach right into the “gutter” of the pages, leaving words chopped off—“because they didn’t think about digitizing in the 19th century,” says Booth. Many have a bandage of white ribbon holding their pages together so they don’t crumble apart. Booth tells me some even have uncut pages: After all this time, they’ve never been opened.

The point of the digitization project is to make sure these books do get read, or at least that they’re available to whoever might want to read them.”

google vacuum book scannerThe Internet Archive site has more information on the scanning efforts, library partners involved, and some interesting facts (600 million pages scanned, 1000 books scanned a day).


*If you haven’t seen this article from a few years ago, Wired: “Google Turns Vacuum Cleaner Into Book Scanner

What’s the Deal with Fake Education?

homer simpson computerWhile listening to an old Freakonomics podcast*, I got curious about how big of a problem fake degrees have become with the rise in online education as a whole.

As it turns out, it’s a really big problem. I mean, there’s even a whole Wikipedia List of animals with fraudulent diplomas.

The topic of fake education got a lot of press earlier this year, thanks to the huge exposé from The New York Times: “Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakistani Company Axact Reaps Millions.” It’s a massive, lucrative business, with phony high school diplomas starting at $350, and fraudulent doctoral degrees starting at $4000. From the NYT:

“Yet on closer examination, this picture shimmers like a mirage. The news reports are fabricated. The professors are paid actors. The university campuses exist only as stock photos on computer servers. The degrees have no true accreditation.

In fact, very little in this virtual academic realm, appearing to span at least 370 websites, is real — except for the tens of millions of dollars in estimated revenue it gleans each year from many thousands of people around the world, all paid to a secretive Pakistani software company.”

The reality is really kind of depressing, and it’s scary to think about how many people might be victimized by this without knowing any better: “Axact’s main business has been to take the centuries-old scam of selling fake academic degrees and turn it into an Internet-era scheme on a global scale.”

The whole NYT article is a must-read. The stories about well-intentioned people who were preyed upon is painful and sad:

“often the agents manipulate those seeking a real education, pushing them to enroll for coursework that never materializes, or assuring them that their life experiences are enough to earn them a diploma.

To boost profits, the sales agents often follow up with elaborate ruses, including impersonating American government officials, to persuade customers to buy expensive certifications or authentication documents.”

(The use of the CNN logo by way of fake iReport reviews for scamming purposes is definitely something to be aware of).

fake university website
This fake university website from Pixar isn’t try to sell fake degrees, at least.

The New York Times also published a list, Tracking Axact’s Websites. The troubling part is, some of those websites look better than a lot of legitimate school websites I’ve seen.

Slate (“Will the Real Alice K. Colbert Please Stand Up?“) had some observations about the “faculty” from those school websites that shamefully used nothing more than easy-to-find stock photography, while also relying on deceptive practices that the NYT noted as snake oil formula of fake social media presences, aggressive online marketing and “calculatedly familiar-sounding names, like BarkleyColumbiana and Mount Lincoln.”

While there are lots of credible online education options, I don’t know even know where to start to fix the rampant education fraud. The FTC (“These online high schools didn’t make the grade“) published some information and guidelines, but it’s safe to assume that public awareness is far, far too low about the risks.


You can listen to the Freakonomics podcast (“Freakonomics Goes to College“) here. It’s very good; the opening segment with the former FBI agent on degree mills can be quite an eye-opener:

What Will Open eBooks, The Free E-Books For Students Project, Look Like?

obama reading booksIt’s been a few months since the announcement of the ambitious White House-led initiative aiming to create a free ebook collection for low income students. From what we know thus far, The Guardian (“App could turn America’s poor into lifelong readers“) notes how the free ebooks will consist of “public domain titles, spruced up with new art and typography, accessible for students from all backgrounds.” But simply providing free ebooks might be the easy part —

The app will have to be pretty enticing to lure teenagers off Snapchat, but it’s certainly a laudable scheme … The low cost of distribution can make digital-based literacy schemes seem deceptively easy to implement. For something to be more than a showy gesture, communities need to be receptive.

Will the app be good? Will the books themselves be interesting enough, of good enough quality, and useful enough to get buy-in from students and teachers? Details remain scant for the time being, but it will be extremely interesting to watch as the project develops — and hopefully succeeds. Free ebooks won’t solve all of the problems of digital education access, but the Open eBooks project would be a huge step in the right direction if it works.

For a recap, Bustle: “The Open eBooks App Will Allow Children From Low-Income Homes To Access Thousands Of Books For Free” has a quick rundown —

“First Book, a new nonprofit, White House-led initiative, has joined forces with publishers, other nonprofits, and the New York Public Library to create an app called Open eBooks that will bring free literature to students across the country. The app is currently being developed by a team of tech leaders working with the New York Public Library, the Digital Public Library of America, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and will provide readers aged 4 to 18 years old, from low-income homes, with thousands of free e-books.

… Once completed, the app will be made available to nonprofits, community organizations, and schools that serve low-income youth.”

Booktrack and Should We Listen to Music While Reading?

booktrackBooktrack, which creates movie soundtrack-like playlists to listen to while reading ebooks, made recent news for raising a sizable $5 million in funding (via Digital Book World, “Booktrack Gets Another $5 Million to Add Soundtracks to Books“). With 15,000 tracks and a couple of million users, it’s one of the bigger book startups I’d heard about recently.

The more interesting part to me was Booktrack Classroom, which has gained quite a great deal of traction. From TechCrunch (“Booktrack Pulls In Another $5 Million To Put Audio To E-Books“):

The real value of Booktrack, which seems a bit intrusive and unnecessary to readers who prefer to use their imagination, may be in the classroom. Cameron says that students reading with bookracks read for 30 percent longer, on average, and score 17 percent higher on reading comprehension tests.

Currently, over 12,000 schools worldwide subscribe to Booktrack Classroom, which lets students access existing booktracks, as well as create their own.”

Opinions seem decidedly mixed on the effect of music listening and learning. The late and great Clifford Nass opined that it probably doesn’t help, while at least one article from Johns Hopkins University School of Education suggests that it might, in the right contexts. Anyone that has been in a college library in the past ten years probably knows how ubiquitous earphones have become — everybody does it. Hey, I do it. Although, I probably prefer no lyrics if I’m trying to really concentrate. The Guardian (“Drowned in sound: can reading and music ever go together?“) is pretty close to my philosophy on this topic.

Anyway, back to Booktrack:TechCrunch (“Booktrack: Just A Horrible Idea. Really Horrible“) wrote about this one awhile ago, but gosh, it’s hard to tell how they feel about the whole thing:

“It, hopefully, goes without saying (not least because so many people have already said it) that Booktrack is a laughably stupid idea. The whole point of reading fiction is to remove the reader from reality — for the physical book to drop away and the sights, sounds and smells of the story to play out in the mind. As such, soundtracks and animated arrows urging you to read at a fixed (“it’s adjustable!” the PR will be yelling at this point) pace are an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction.”

Can’t fault TechCrunch for not taking a strong stance at least. The key point, however is the awkward-fitting situation between innovation, books, tech companies, and publishing:

“But the key to all of these innovations is that they were made by people who understand books, and how people read them.

reading and music listeningIt’s no coincidence that the Kindle was developed by a bookseller rather than a technology company. The Kindle is a reader’s device — for all the bells and whistles, the reason why it has blown competitors out of the water is that it goes as near to replicating the traditional feel of reading as is currently possible on an electronic device. Interactive books on the iPad are fun and all that, but we shouldn’t pretend that they’re books, any more than CDROM encyclopedias were books. The companies who enjoy the most success in revolutionizing the book industry (as opposed to simply creating a totally new medium) will be those that disrupt the publishing process, the writing process, the distribution process — but leave the actual reading process the hell alone.”

I could almost see instances in which a page-turning thriller could benefit from some music (not as sold on the whole sound effects thing) — but is this a good thing, or a bad thing for the experience of reading?

For those of us that read in public places with enough noise already, ebooks with synced music could hold some amount of appeal. I’m not 100% sold on the entire concept, but it’s nevertheless one of the more interesting and different ideas for enhanced ebooks in the past few years.

Is The $10 Digital Textbook for Real?

Affordable digital textbooks are a hugely important part of the future of education. Campus and Technology (“Developing a $10 Digital Textbook”) had an attention-grabbing story about a fantastic project at Purdue University with Skyepack to move away from the standard $160-per-textbook-per-semester pattern:

“Upon hearing about Faris’s concerns, the university approached her about writing a custom e-text for the course through its digital textbook development pilot program. The book, A Concise Guide to Interviewing, would cost only $10; students would have unlimited access to it after the end of the semester; and they would continue to receive any updates she made to the book.”

SkyepackI’d honestly not heard of Skyepack before – but they seem to be doing a lot of things right. The part that I am an especially big fan of is their approach to a digital textbook solution that is not tied to a specific closed ecosystem:

“According to Bowen, many of the digital publishing tools available on the market today — most notably iBooks Author — are focused on very specific ecosystems. ‘Now iBooks Author is a tool that allows people to simply craft material in a number of different ways, but to get the most out of it everybody has to have an iPad,’ said Bowen. ‘Plus you have to have OSX machines or Macs to craft the content or craft the iBook in the first place.’

The Skyepack development team wanted to support multiple platforms using common standards such as HTML5, so authors could develop their content in other tools and Skyepack could import that content and format it for distribution on multiple device platforms.”

Not only that, I think Skyepack is really on to something in how to think about disaggregating the traditional notion of the textbook:

“The ‘pack’ part of Skyepack is the platform’s name for topical collections of material, similar to a chapter of a book. ‘Think of it as a collection of content interactions that surround a particular topic,’ said Bowen. ‘Rather than crafting the entire book, the instructor creates packs, so they can craft the e-text in an iterative or progressive fashion over time.'”

Purdue’s pilot digital textbook program (check out their website: Affordable Textbooks at Purdue) is extremely interesting and worth keeping an eye on. If it continues to succeed, this could be a model that we see more and more at higher education institutions soon.

The $10 Textbook idea has been kicking around for awhile (see also, Gigaom: “Scribd and the new era of the $10 textbook”) but it is still far from a reality. The law professor perspective on the self-publishing revenue model is worth a read, too:

digital textbooks vs. print textbooks
Infographic from The Denver Post: digital textbooks vs. print textbooks

“Compared to 99 cent or free eBooks, a $10 downloadable book may sound expensive. But, compared to the typical law school dead-trees casebook, $10 is a ridiculous bargain. Many print casebooks of comparable size cost $150 or more. … While we could easily justify a higher price than $10, we’re not exactly philanthropists. Here’s how I see the math: a $150 casebook may have a $110 price wholesale (or less). At 10% royalties to the authors, Rebecca and I would share $11. At the $10 download price, Scribd takes $2.25 a download, leaving us author royalties of $7.75. So discounting the retail price 93% perhaps reduces our royalties by less than 30%. Let’s hear it for disintermediation! Plus, just like any demand curve, the lower price point should lead to higher sales, which may, in fact, make our approach profit-maximizing.” 

I’ve been long intrigued by the concept of the open digital textbook. And while there have been some promising forays (see also, The Atlantic: “California Takes a Big Step Forward: Free, Digital, Open-Source Textbooks“), the future of digital textbooks itself continues to be something of an open book.

Oxford University Press Launches New Digital Education Platforms

oxford university pressThis summer, Oxford University Press launched three new digital education platforms for schools in India: Oxford EducateOxford Achiever, and My Maths.

NDTV (“Oxford University Press to Launch 3 Digital Platform Programmes in India“) shares some details on the new projects —

“Oxford Educate Premium is a digital aid that integrates an e-book with interactive tools and learning materials. It incorporates a variety of resources: interactive animations, videos, poem and prose animations and audios for different courses, instructional slide shows, lesson plans, answer keys, additional worksheets, image references and much more.

Oxford Achievers is a Web-based assessment programme that will help in measuring the impact of a teaching-and-learning process.”

The news caught my attention because I haven’t seen many university publishers going the route of content creation, and I think it’s an intriguing strategy. Web-based online learning and the kinds of insights it might provide about student learning habits will be worth keeping an eye on to see what happens with all of this.

Also worth noting: The Times of India (“City schools lag on digital content: Publisher“) reported earlier this year that the shift from print to digital within India schools has been slow to say the least, with less than 10% of the content being used. Further research of the factors contributing to the slow adoption would be very interesting: is it the content itself that doesn’t translate readily to digital format? or perhaps issues with the infrastructure in schools? or simply teacher or student preference?

Thoughts on Kindle Textbook Creator

Kindle textbook creatorEarlier this year, Amazon rolled out a beta version of The Kindle Textbook Creator. It’s still too soon to tell exactly what impact this might have upon the digital textbook world, but it’s hard not to pay attention when Amazon does something new. TechCrunch (“Amazon’s New Kindle Textbook Creator Takes A Different Approach From iBooks Author“) has a useful rundown:

it lets authors prepare electronic textbooks for students, for publication across Fire tablets, Android devices, iPhones and iPads, Mac and PCs. It’s kind of like iBooks Author for Apple and iTunes U, but  it uses PDFs of existing texts as a starting point and offers over-the-top digital features for Kindle-based consumption.”

So far, Kindle Textbook Creator (which is a free app) has a fairly basic feature set — highlighting, notebooks, a rudimentary flashcard feature, and dictionaries — but I wonder about who the intended user base really is. The digital textbook market is obviously dominated by the Big Three, and perhaps the motivation lies in simply being able to provide a tool for the longer tail market of smaller publishing companies and another option for the self publishing education crowd**.

The fact that Kindle Textbook Creator works across multiple platforms is a good thing. And as TechCrunch notes from the above article, perhaps the most important takeaway at the moment is the differentiated approach between Kindle Textbook Creator and iBooks Author: “Apple’s iBooks Author tool tries to convince educators to go digital-first, while Amazon’s says bring whatever you’ve already got to the table to help us expand our education market reach.” Having experienced firsthand how publishers continue to struggle with what to do with their textbooks that exist only in flat PDF format, this seems like another step in the right direction towards making digital textbooks a more relevant option.

The Digital Reader (“Kindle Textbook Creator Now Lets You Embed Audio & Video“) notes that the most recent Kindle Textbook Creator update allows for embedding of video and audio files, and table of contents creation — but in terms of overall user interface and features, it still falls a bit short of Apple’s iBooks Author.*


*Also worth reading for thoughts on Apple’s edtech strategy and marketshare: “About that Impending Amazon-Apple Digital Textbook War,” including this part, which gave me something to think about the different philosophies of hardware vs. content:

ipad vs chromebookSpeaking of ‘war’, exactly whose content would Amazon and Apple be fighting with?

As Flavorwire pointed out, there’s a lot of money in textbooks. But what they missed was that little of that money is spent through retail ebookstores like iBooks and Kindle; in fact, as Kno (bankrupt), Coursesmart (failed), and Inkling (pivoted to serving publishers) have shown us, there’s not enough of a retail digital textbook market to support even small startups.”

** Speaking of Amazon’s self-publishing options, did you know there is even a Kindle Comic Creator? It’s very smart of Amazon to try many different angles for the self-publishing market. Bleeding Cool (“Kindle Your Comics – A Guide To Amazon’s New Comic Creator“) has an excellent writeup of the pros and cons.

The Simpsons on Classroom Technology, and Waldorf Schools

Ok, this one was too good to not mention. The Education Week blog (“Ed-Tech Lessons from ‘The Simpsons’”) has a fun write up the most recent Simpsons season finale:

anti gutenberg 3000“In yet another sign that ed tech has hit the mainstream, classic animated sitcom The Simpsons has skewered the digital-learning push sweeping schools. 

In the recently aired episode “Mathlete’s Feat,” Springfield Elementary receives a sizable donation from successful former students for a 1-to-1 tablet effort and school-wide upgrade to “the latest cloud-based technology.”

…  Principal Skinner sets about digitizing the entire school, bringing in e-books, interactive white boards, 3-D printers, a digital flag, and even a robot vacuum to serve as janitor Willie’s ‘supervisor.'”

Hi Super Nintendo ChalmersThe episode was a pretty nifty tongue-in-cheek treatment on the pitfalls of schools that might be overly reliant on (or overly hasty, see also: LAUSD) adopting ed-tech in the classroom.

The most memorable gag for me was The Anti-Gutenberg 3000 — first thing it reminded me of: NPR’s “Do Libraries Really Destroy Books?“.

The Spring Garden Waldorf School blog (“Waldorf Education Featured on The Simpsons Season Finale“) had a good discussion on the rest of the episode — when Lisa comes up with a low-tech solution to save the day by incorporating a learn-by-doing Waldorf style education at Springfield Elementary.