TOC Conference Opening Keynote: Is the World Ready For E-Books?

O’Reilly’s TOC 2011 conference opened this morning to a sellout crowd of over 1,300 attendees.  As mentioned in my previous post, the keynotes are being live streamed, so I am reporting on the conference from my home office.  (Originally, other sessions were on the live streaming schedule, but evidently this was an error, and it was also a disappointment!  A number of viewers voiced their disappointment on the Comments or Twitter streams.)

Theodore Gray

Opening keynoter Theodore Gray, author of The Elements and Mad Science (both of which I highly recommend!), described how he created The Elements, both as a printed book and also an iPad app, and the lessons he learned from the process.  He began by wondering if the world is finally ready for “real” e-books.  He published his first e-book in 1992 but had problems with distribution and with combating the free distribution model of the Internet, and concluded that the world was not ready then.  His printed book has sold 320,000 copies in 11 languages, but he found it unsatisfying to have to resort to print to make any money on the book.   When the iPad appeared, he wanted to create an app for the book  but had no tools to do it.  Working with Wolfram Research (of which he is a co-founder) and its flagship product, Mathematica, Grey developed the necessary tools, created the app, and submitted to the Apple store, which put it on preview copies of the iPad, thereby assuring its success.  All production was completely automated; the code was written using Mathematica and database templates, and it was completed in 60 days.  So far, the app has sold 185,000 copies in 5 languages.

Gray’s publishing company, Touch Press, was created to investigate what books would look like in the future and to develop additional products.  Its second app is The Solar System, which features rotating images and integrated videos.  Touch Press operates like a TV production company, with each product being developed by a team of professionals.  It is not a textbook company even though its materials are educational.  It produces enrichment material–things that children would check out because they are interesting, not because they were assigned in a class.

According to Gray, 3 elements are needed to produce a new title:

  1. A real author (not a technical writer) who can tell a real story and produce something you might want to read even if it were not in electronic form.  Print publishers understand this.
  2. Real programmers who can turn the hardware into magic.  Videogame  companies understand this, but print publishers may not.
  3. TV producers with an eye for visual and moving imagery at very high quality and who can make a video that you would watch even if it was not an e-book.

Gray thinks that in the near future simple static textbooks will be produced as open source projects, and no one will pay for such textbooks, either in print of electronic form.   People will, however, pay for enrichment and especially interactivity, which comes in many forms.  TouchPress, Wolfram Research, and Wolfram Alpha each contribute unqiue aspects of interactivity to a product; for example, in The Elements, one can touch a screen and get current price of gold.  Touch Press is a publishing company, and Wolfram Research is a technology company that creates tools and platforms for licensing to publishers.

Now the world is ready for e-books, and we are here with the technology.  You can to this in your textbooks too!

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

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