Bring on the browser books

Bring on the browser books

I'd like to start this month's editor's musings with a personal rising-from-the-ashes anecdote.

One of the other jobs I juggle alongside my role at FutureBook involves being Digital Editor for PHOENIX, a six-year-old fashion and culture magazine. At the core of PHOENIX is a bi-annual print magazine: 200-odd pages of long-form journalism on high quality paper with really nice smelling ink.

It's essentially a mini book.

Ever since PHOENIX began, we've continually questioned what - if any - sort of digital presence the mag should have. How could we use digital to enhance, but not replicate, our physical hero product? How could we use digital to pull in new readers, whilst ensuring they converted to print sales? How could we create digital content of the same quality we're known for in print - but with a tiny team on an even smaller budget?

Yep - essentially the same questions that preoccupy the big-book trade.

Two years ago, we thought we'd come up with the answer. We launched PHOENIX’s monthly counterpart, The Manual: a digital-only, custom-created magazine cradled within a bespoke app. It was interactive. It was beautiful. It was timely.

It was a huge mistake.

Why? It seemed like such a brilliant idea at the time. But we soon came to realise that, while apps are great for functional services such as Uber or banks, they’re pretty useless when it comes to publishing.

From a reader’s point of view, downloading an app is a surprisingly big barrier to entry. Not only do you have to wait a few seconds to install the app and another few seconds every time you want to download each new issue, you have to reproduce the whole process every time you want to read on a different device. And, if you want to launch an external link, its’a clumsy process that takes you outside the app - and out of your closed story-garden into a wilderness of distractions.

From a publisher’s point of view, producing and distributing content via an app is a total pain - from creating complex InDesign files to working with frustrating external shopfronts such as the Apple Store. And it’s useless for SEO.

Needless to say, The Manual eventually died a necessary death. This year, we had a rethink, and decided to relaunch PHOENIX’s digital counterpart as a free, browser-based monthly mag.

In other words, our innovative new solution was.... a website.

OK, so it's a little more than that. It's a series of nested pages off our main website, strung together with some smart but not particularly complicated code. It enables us to have a front cover and keep that bundled monthly issue feel - while also retaining total SEO, facilitating easy social sharing, and enabling effortless embedding and interactivity, all without taking the reader out of their flow. Obviously, because it’s online, it’s automatically compatible across all devices and browsers. And because it runs off a simple Wordpress back-end, it’s utterly easy to use. Oh, and it appears to be working for our readers too, because we now have record viewing figures and an excellent dwell time.

The clincher for us in moving from app to browser was the evolution of web design that better caters for long-form storytelling. Ever since the New York Times’ online news story Snowfall won the Pulitzer Prize and attracted a host of new readers in 2012, developers have been experimenting with ways to create stunning, multimedia story templates for websites.

You may have seen them pop up at the Telegraph, with its Great Fire of London special, or the BBC, with its Body on the Moor story. Both of these were created by Shorthand, a freemium platform offering beautiful interactive story design. But there are now also simple Wordpress plugins such as Aesop Story Engine, which allows you to easily and cheaply incorporate such templates into your website. And if you want to charge for them - why, just add a paywall.

So - are any of you drawing parallels with e-books? Those clunky, unattractive, digital-but-not-native things that run within low-grade apps? Those things that have been crying out for a rethink for at least a decade?

Contrast the last e-book you read with Resilient Web Design by Jeremy Keith, a simple, beautiful, free online book which can be read with or without an internet connection. Or A Universe Explodes, the latest experiment from Google’s Editions At Play, a ‘blockchain’ book which is basically a series of personalised, mobile-optimised websites. 

Last week, Simon Rowberry wrote us a very popular - and polarising - piece called 'Is the e-book a dead format?' In it, he explained the growing interest around Portable Web Publications (PWP), "a self-described vision for the future of digital publishing based on a fully native representation of documents within the Open Web Platform.” His cautionary note - " how will books cope in the complex attention economy of web browsing?" - is worth listening to. As are his reservations that, "given the scope of the format, digital books will become just another type of publication to use PWP and as a consequence, the standard will not just serve the needs of publishers, a core design element of EPUB despite its limitations."

But the direction of travel is interesting. And truly native browser books, redesigned fresh each time, offer exciting possibilites to authors and publishers in terms of design, interactive extras, data gathering and SEO. Mainstream imprints have started to sniff around the idea - see Harlequin's Online Reads - but in a way that barely begins to scratch the surface. 

So: books that are websites. Worth a thought.