'Smart layers' and resistance: Joe Wikert on the 'Dynamic Book'

'Smart layers' and resistance: Joe Wikert on the 'Dynamic Book'

Allowing publishers to 'webbify' the book

At Books in Browsers, the annual conference produced by Peter Brantley, you hear the phrase "networked book" quite a bit. In its most reachy potential, the "networked book" is an exhilarating concept of information existing in its most connected state — whatever that state might be. No longer a thing but an experience. No longer a page-turner but a data driver.

Joe Wikert, formerly with O'Reilly Media, Wiley, and Macmillan, is watching his second anniversary arrive as director of strategy and business development with Olive Software. Founded 15 years ago, the Denver-based Olive is known best for its online evocations of newspapers. Media corporations in 19 countries, from the Miami Herald Tribune and USA Today to The Financial Times (Global) and Le Temps, use its technology to create their Internet editions. If you have a minute, Olive's Time Traveler feature will show you a 50-years-ago-today look at the Lake Charles American Press which, on its editorial page, has its own 50-year look-back. ("Mrs. Charles Hall has issued invitations to a sewing party Saturday afternoon for Mrs. O.C. Hall of Delevan, Illinois.")

A half-century whiplash later, Wikert and his associates at Olive have gone beyond newspapers with their "SmartLayers" technology to generate a form of "enriched" evocation of books in the online space.

"Publishers want to preserve the work and investment they've made from the print-book point-of-view as well as the ebook point-of-view," Wikert says. And the Olive team started with that firmly in mind, he says, when they explored how their Net-borne iteration of a book might function. 

When you look at a book enriched with the Olive Dynamic Book SmartLayers process, you can view it on a screen strictly in its print-quality standard and all usual nuances are in place. But using a toggle switch causes the book to "come alive," as Wikert puts it, with offerings that can include pop-up information, videos, images, interactive maps, even whole online reference pages — a Wikipedia page, for example — that not only open right in your reading field but also retreat easily, returning you to the book's text. 

The explanatory video below is aimed at buyers of Richard J. Sommers' Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg (Savas Beatie, 2014), and provides an interesting look at details of the Olive Dynamic functionality.



To avoid 'totally disrupting workflow'

Wikert, who started in print, himself, after all, points out the high level of respect he and Olive have for the original book.

"What we call our SmartLayers technology," he says, "allows a publisher to keep their existing editorial-production workflow and add a new 'layer' of digital content to it. And the reason we went in this direction is that as a publisher, I spent a lot of money creating native apps for iOS and Android and it totally disrupted our production and editorial workflow. Even things like iBooks Author or Inkling tend to require you to throw what you've done out the window and reconstitute it on your own.

"We felt that, having talked with other publishers from my Tools of Change days, publishers don't want to have to do that. So we have developed this capability so they can preserve what they've done" and build on it with the "layering" approach that Olive is using in online newspaper settings.

As Wikert works his way through a demonstration of the Dynamic Book edition of Sommers' Richmond Redeemed, he switches over to the enriched view of the book and a reader then is shown chances to view videos, even to see Web pages for special background information — all of which vanishes again with a single click. There's seemingly no friction between reading and interacting with the visual and contextual elements hidden on those "smart layers" in the enriched view. 

What's more, the functionality enables interaction. The reader can highlight text, add comments and even insert links to Web sites inside his or her own copy of the book, creating a personalized edition of the work that carries and holds important associations just for him or her.

Olive Dynamic Book is at a dynamic point in its own development. "We're still technically in beta," Wikert says. "We've done a soft rollout to this point, gathering visibility. We want to have a formal launch of the new application -- which will be in beta this summer -- probably in the third quarter."

But will publishers even look?

Wikert likes to mention one industry observer's description of the Dynamic Book as a "webbification" of a book. Even that, it seems, might be better than saying "enhanced." So badly burned, apparently, have been many publishing companies that tried one form or another of "enhanced ebook" development in the past, that you can clear a room in a hurry by just uttering the phrase.

Olive Software is encountering the same resistance, for that matter, that Sherisse Hawkins of Beneath the Ink knows a lot about. In her interview with us for The FutureBook, Hawkins said, "We probably wasted four or five months" in trying to get major players to give the technology a serious look. The answer, she found, was to engage, instead, with independent publishers and authors.

And Wikert, knowing the issues from both the publisher's and developer's side, is clear in a recent webinar in which he discusses the question Is the eBook Revolution Over?: Driving eBook Growth as Sales Plateau

There, he registers some of the hard questions at hand, including, "Do customers really even want more" than a replication of their print books?

None of this means that publishers don't like what they see when Wikert shows them the SmartLayers at work. For example, there might be implications for cookbook publishers, whose titles might use the Dynamic Book treatment to make new recipes appear in a book. Perhaps children's book publishers could use Olive's SmartLayers to offer educational drill-down resources to young readers. 

Wikert naturally sees this new development through the eyes of the newspaper publishers with whom Olive works on a regular basis. "A newspaper publisher," he points out, "can provide links in the dynamic edition of their digital subscription every day. If you're a Chicago Tribune subscriber, you might see the paper drop little buttons on the coverage when you open it to say, 'Hey, there's an update'...and that will take you to the latest version of the story." 

A similar concept of a newspaper's uipdate may be a clue to the Dynamic Book's potential.

Readers can see any number of changing, progressive resources in the "smart layers" of a Dynamic Book. "And one publisher who saw this," Wikert says, suggested that "it could help him go from selling a one-time edition of a book to a subscription to a title. The book could evolve over time with additional content that's placed in it" and the publisher, in this scenario, would charge a repeat payment, a subscription, to a buyer who wants to see these updates.

"You can also use it as a publisher for different promotional campaigns, as well," Wikert says. "You might say, 'Be sure to check your book every so often, because on Page 3, we'll be giving you a temporary code" for a discount or another offer.

Paging past present misgivings

My Bookseller colleague Philip Jones this week here at The FutureBook takes an incisive look at Rüdiger Wischenbart's new 2015 edition of the Global eBook Report, and its analysis of vastly differing performance patterns by digital books in international markets. Jones writes:

While both the US and UK have seen robust ebook growth for a numbers of years, leading to digital as a proportion of overall trade sales at about 30%; in mature book markets in non-English speaking countries the rate of progress has been much slower, and in some cases non-existent. As the report notes, in these non-English speaking countries (including Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden), the market share of ebooks within the trade segment of the book market is below 10%, ranging from as little as 1 or 2%, to 4.3% in Germany. More alarmingly, even at such low levels of penetration, the report adds that growth is showing signs of flattening out.

Some observers wonder whether another stage in ebook development may not be required to make it possible for the ebook sector finally to pull away and gather its own growth -- beyond its current life as a largely electronic replication of print. In its site commentary on the development of the Dynamic Book, Olive's statement reads:

The ebook market is currently stuck in neutral. Ebooks are nothing more than “print under glass” and rarely leverage the powerful capabilities of the devices they’re read on. Many publishers tried to address this with native app experiments; those publishers were forced to abandon their existing production workflow models and expenses often exceeded revenue.

How long the publishing establishment may steer clear of efforts to "enrich" or "enhance" ebooks might depend, in part, on the sorts of pressures that Jones and Wischenbart are delineating in a seriously uneven global setting. Jones:

Five years ago pundits were talking about how Amazon, Apple, Google and Kobo would roll out globally to meet the worldwide demand for e-books: an eco-system built largely in America for a global audience. But something got lost in translation. Like the print-book market, the global e-book market has become complex—pulled in different directions by local nuances.

If there is to be a comprehensive potential in digital reading — a broadly understood distinction in the potential of these new media to converge in a reading format with its own identity and staying power — it might still depend on re-imagining the book as something networked, something connected, responsive, vibrant and adjusting, something predicted in the kind of work that Wikert and his associates are doing at Olive and Hawkins and her staff have worked on at Beneath the Ink. Wikert will be presenting the Olive Dynamic Book at the International Digital Publishing Forum's (IDPF) Digital Book Conference, May 27 and 28, as BookExpo America opens. He, like Hawkins — also speaking at #DigiBook15 — will, as he knows, find his work cut out for him. 

But in essence, the pivotal element here is that Wikert is talking about the book as something that does not get away from the publisher once it's been bought by a reader.

A "networked" book remains responsive to the publisher and author. It can be accessed, updated, changed. And in the kind of unsettled and uneven markets Wischenbart and Jones are talking about, surely a format that can adjust and respond is worth considering by those looking to influence and contribute to digital publishing.


Images: From Olive Software