Tuesday, November 22, 2011

PressBooks eBook publishing service opens its doors to the public

PressBooks, a Montreal-based startup, took its eponymous online eBook production service public today. There are lots of services and software for creating eBooks, but PressBooks has some interesting features for self-publishing authors (and even for established publishers--more on that in a minute.) PressBooks is an online service built on top of WordPress. If you're familiar with the WordPress dashboard, you can jump into PressBooks right away. The service creates fully-formatted EPUBs and PDF files, as well as HTML online eBooks and XML documents. It's primarily designed for text-intensive trade-style eBooks; if you're planning to create picture books or heavily-formatted multi-column text titles, there are better tools than PressBooks. However, you can import book covers and images into a built-in media library.

PressBooks uses a simple WYSIWYG editor for creating and editing text; text can also be edited offline and then uploaded. A small variety of templates are available for automatically formatting eBooks; PressBooks is working on more designs. Multiple authors and users can be defined, and the site can be public (anyone can read the eBook) or private (only specified users can access the site). Users can enter metadata in the Book Information section, including title and subtitle, descriptions, names of editors and translators, print and eBook ISBNs, and prices.

PressBooks has already been used for creating two commercially-published eBooks: "Book: A Futurist's Manifesto", which was edited and published by the PressBooks team for O'Reilly Media while the software was under development, and "Nine Things Successful People Do Differently" by Heidi Grant Halvorson, published by the Harvard Business Review Press.

At the present time, PressBooks is a free service, but that's likely to change once it exits beta. Here's a presentation that demonstrates most of the service's features:
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Monday, November 21, 2011

A few quick presenting tips

I spent a couple of hours at an event last night where the main presenter spent about 40 minutes talking about himself and 15 minutes about the topic we were there to hear about. The information that he presented in those 15 minutes could have been reduced down to a two-paragraph blog post.

Most people who are asked to make presentations don't have a clue what they're doing. I used to believe that it was rude for audience members to check their email or browse the web during a presentation, but after sitting through years of crappy presentations, I now think that it's rude for poor, unprepared presenters to waste their audiences' time. So, in the spirit of making everyone's life easier, here are a few presenting tips from someone who's made every mistake in the book:
  • If you only had five minutes to speak, what are the points you'd want to make? Those points should become the core of your presentation.
  • It's better to focus on a few key points than it is to try to pack everything but the kitchen sink into the presentation.
  • Use PowerPoint sparingly, and put one item on each slide. Keep them simple.
  • If your presentation isn't well-organized, your audience won't understand it.
  • Keep the presentation focused on the audience, not on you.
  • Unless you're specifically doing a sales presentation, use your presentation to inform.
  • Rehearse. The first time you give the presentation should never be in front of the intended audience.
  • Arrive at the venue early enough to check out everything--make sure your laptop works with the venue's projector, your microphone works and, if you need it, you've got a network connection. Assume that nothing will work, and prepare backups.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

The publisher bypass operation

I just read an article in the latest issue of Wired about the new breed of subscription music services--companies like Spotify, MOG and turntable.fm. The problem with these services (and for that matter, conventional purchase services like iTunes) is that artists get a very small share of the revenue. Most artists are now getting the majority of their income from live performances, not music sales. Where concerts once served to promote album sales, now digital music promotes live performances.

Online video distribution has had a similar impact on movies, television and original video. Most of the revenues from movies and television shows sold or rented by Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, etc., goes to the studios and distributors, not to the original producers. Original video produced for YouTube and other services is incredibly hard to monetize; only a few series, like "The Guild" and "Easy to Assemble", have sponsorship or distribution deals that directly compensate the producers. Most original video has to make do with a trickle of advertising revenue, modest sales from iTunes, or nothing at all.

That brings us to books, where the situation for independent authors is very different. Amazon will pay as much as 70% of the revenue from sales of eBooks to self-publishing authors, and other resellers will typically pay 35%. Compare that with the typical 10% to 12% royalty on wholesale price paid by publishers, and self-publishing starts to look very appealing. Yes, the self-publisher has to pay upfront for editing and design, but many publishers recoup those costs before they start paying royalties. In addition, unless you're a top author, publishers will do little or nothing to promote your title, so you'll have to hire a publicist or do the work yourself.

It's true that print still represents the majority of book sales, but the market is quickly shifting to eBooks. Some of the most popular titles are already selling almost as many copies of eBooks as print, and heavy book readers are adopting eBooks faster than any other group. The majority of book sales are likely to come from eBooks by the middle of this decade.

So, where does that leave publishers? Penguin, for one, is getting into the self-publishing business through its Book Country online service. In addition to charging upfront fees for formatting and designing eBooks, Book Country demands a hefty fee for distributing self-published eBooks to online bookstores--which self-publishers can do themselves. Other publishers are experimenting with "augmented" eBooks--containing audio, video and animations--which they believe are beyond the ability of self-publishers to create. There are two problems with that approach:
  1. Companies such as Vook are launching eBook creation tools that will allow self-publishers to make augmented eBooks, and
  2. Sales figures to date suggest that there's not a big market for augmented eBooks. For example, Vook's original strategy was to publish augmented eBooks itself, but the company couldn't sell enough to sustain its business, so it's now focusing on licensing its platform to others.
To be sure, publishers still provide valuable services, especially for top-tier authors--but book publishing is the first industry where creators (writers) can compete effectively with distributors (publishers). In the near future, the big publishers will likely find themselves focusing on two categories:
  1. New releases from "A-list" authors that can command high prices and sell tens of thousands of copies in print, and
  2. Milking their existing backlist for eBook reissues, bundles, and other ways of delivering "old wine in new bottles".
Some mid-tier authors may find a home with smaller specialty publishers, but almost everyone below the "A-list" will have to self-publish. We're likely to see some self-publishing authors join together in "United Artists"-like organizations to create "quasi-publishers" that perform some of the functions of existing publishers, such as design, publicity and promotion. The participating authors could serve as editors for each other.

By mid-decade, we're going to have far fewer and smaller "old-style" publishers. On the other hand, we'll have far more self-publishers and quasi-publishers that are performing most of the tasks previously done by publishers themselves. The industry power will reside with resellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., and their equivalents in other countries around the world.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Be careful when you partner with startups

There are so many startups launching new products and services every day that it's incredibly tempting to work with them. In many cases, they offer their services for free or at a very low cost in order to get customer feedback and build a user base. In the past, the big problem with startups has been the risk of their going out of business, but that was usually visible long before the companies actually failed--for example, they couldn't find financing, their reference accounts were weak, or they were asking for investments at the same time they were trying to make the sale. Today, however, there's a new trend that magnifies the risk that successful startups will go under, and if you're not careful, they could take your business with them.

In the last two days, "talent acquisitions" have resulted in the closure of two well-regarded web startups. Talent acquisitions happen when startups are acquired, not for their products but for their people. The acquirers tend to be industry giants, such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft or Apple. On Tuesday, Facebook acquired the talent running Strobe, a startup that had built a cross-platform app development system based on HTML5. Facebook didn't acquire the Strobe platform itself, and Strobe (or what was left of it) said that its service would remain available indefinitely in beta. However, with no one working on it, bugs aren't going to be fixed and new features won't be added. In other words, that parrot is definitely dead. There's still a possibility that the Strobe team may sell the software to someone else, but it's very unlikely given that the entire development team is gone. If you were developing your apps using Strobe, you're now faced with finding another development platform, and likely, rewriting your apps to work with that platform.

Today, Google acquired Apture, which offered a plug-in for browsers that enabled pop-up searches for almost every word on webpages, and a JavaScript add-on that allowed multimedia content from many sites, including Wikipedia, Google and YouTube, to be integrated into pop-up windows on blogs. Apture had customers using its service including The Economist, the Financial Times, Reuters, Scientific American and Scribd. Unlike the Facebook-Strobe deal, Google acquired all of Apture, but Google has decided to discontinue the Apture services within the next month, according to TechCrunch. The Apture development team with join the Chrome browser project.

The lesson is that you can no longer use the funding or success of a startup as an indicator that the startup will remain in business. A "successful" startup can be acquired and its services can be shut down or left in limbo by the acquirer. So, what can you do to protect yourself?
  • Be very cautious about building your product or service on top of an API offered by a startup. If anything happens to the startup or API, you may have to go into crisis mode to replace it.
  • Make sure that you have a way to export any data that you don't already have copies of, and keep a local backup.
  • Closely review the terms of service for any startup that you work with. If necessary, you should propose a revision or addendum that gives your company non-exclusive rights to continue using the service or software if the startup, or its acquirer or investors, decide to discontinue it. That may require you to host the service yourself or take possession of the software and source code from an escrow account.
  • If the startup is providing hardware that's essential for your business, you should buy sufficient additional units and/or replacement parts to meet your needs long enough to transition to other hardware.
I'm not suggesting that you shouldn't do business with startups, but you should exercise caution. A good "Plan B" is an essential insurance policy.

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Saturday, November 05, 2011

"My name is Bond...Teradek Bond."

Video "uplink in a backpack" systems, pioneered by LiveU, have become very popular for use at major-market television stations for live remotes. These systems use multiple 3G/4G broadband wireless connections, as well as Wi-Fi, to send HD-quality broadcast video live from the field for streaming to the Internet, or for live broadcast. LiveU typically rents its systems for $2,500/month or leases them on an annual basis for $1,500/month; comparable systems from TVU and Streambox sell for $25,000 to $40,000 (U.S.).

Teradek, whose Cube was the first device that made live broadcast-quality Wi-Fi streaming from camcorders feasible and inexpensive, has launched a new device called Bond that shrinks the "uplink in a backpack" down to a size that fits on top of a camcorder, and a price that almost any producer can afford. The Bond is designed to be connected to a Cube, and accepts up to five 3G or 4G USB cellular modems. The Cube provides the HD/SD-SDI or HDMI video input for the Bond; some models also provide Wi-Fi output. At the station or streaming end, Sputnik, a Linux-based application reconstructs the bonded video into a single MPEG-TS stream that can be processed with most H.264 decoders.

That's interesting, but not revolutionary: The LiveU, TVU and Streambox systems do essentially the same thing. What makes Teradek's system revolutionary is the price: The Bond's list price is $2,490 (U.S.). A Cube 250 with a HDMI interface and USB output (needed for the Bond) lists for $1,590. Sputnik is free. If you want to use an end-to-end Teradek solution, a Cube 400 decoder outputs to a HDMI interface as well as wired Ethernet, for $1,190. That's a complete, broadcast-quality broadband ENG uplink/downlnk system for $5,270. Depending on whether you rent monthly or annually, that's about two or four month's rental of a LiveU system, and about 20% of the purchase price of a TVU system. You're going to see a lot more live webcasts and broadcasts, thanks to Teradek and its Bond.

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More thoughts on the new Canon and Red cameras

Now that the dust has cleared a bit from Thursday's announcements by Canon and Red, I've had some time to consider the new cameras, and the compromises that both companies made when developing them.

First, the Canon C300. Physically, it's a gorgeous camera--it reminds me of classic 16mm film camera designs. What I'm less impressed with are some of the compromises in the Canon design. For example, the C300 has automatic nothing--no autofocus, auto-aperture, or white balance. The lack of automatic controls may be good for teaching cinematography, just as when learning how to drive, it's better to start by learning how to use a manual transmission. However, in the real world, cinematographers often use autofocus, especially for documentaries and sports. And why no auto white balance, when just about every other digital cinema camera has it? Another big "miss" is the lack of a dual-link HD-SDI output and no 4:4:4 mode. Yet another questionable decision is support for 60 fps only at 720p resolution, together with a sensor that, while it's technically 4K, only outputs 1920 x 1080. The result is a weird mix: Many features of the C300 are oriented toward movie use, while the output of the camera screams "broadcast" and the C300 is missing some key broadcast features.

The reason why the C300 turned out this way can be found in an interview that Larry Thorpe, Canon U.S.A.'s Senior Director, Professional Engineering and Solutions, Imaging Technologies and Communications Group, gave to Digital Photography Review. According to the interview, the C300 was a "fast-track" project inside Canon--two years from inception to product release. In order to meet the tight schedule, Canon couldn't develop new electronics for the C300, so it adapted the processor and electronics from the XF 305 camcorder for the C300. The XF 305 is a very nice camcorder, but it's not a digital cinema camera, and it's most certainly not a $20,000 camera. Most of the missing features in the C300 are due to using the XF 305's electronics.

From what Thorpe said in the interview, it's clear that the C300 is a placeholder for a broader, more functional line of digital cinema cameras coming from Canon. A few years from now, we'll probably look back at the C300 and wonder why anyone bought it, given how powerful the Canon models will be by then. For now, however, the C300 is a strange bundle--a great design, undermined by inadequate electronics.

The new Red Scarlet-X is different--it's plenty powerful enough, but it's not a Scarlet. It uses the same imager as the EPIC, except it uses it at a lower resolution and can thus utilize imagers that failed quality testing for the EPIC. It uses all the same accessories and software as the EPIC. It's the same form-factor as the EPIC. As Philip Bloom points out, it's not the Scarlet that Red's been talking about for three years, the one that was supposed to be light and cheap but still high-resolution. Perhaps the Scarlet-X should have been called the EPIC Light, and Red should have scrapped the Scarlet name. It's a niggling point--Red is going to sell lots of Scarlet-Xs--but the Scarlet-X doesn't fit into the niche that Red created for the Scarlet. Instead, it's an entry-level EPIC--perfect as a B camera to the EPIC, but not competitive in any way with the Panasonic AF101 or the Sony FS100. Speaking of which, the Canon and Red announcements have made the FS100 and AF101 look even more appealing.
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Thursday, November 03, 2011

Canon, Red and Sony: It's War, I tell you! War!

First, Sony released the F3, a Super 35mm digital cinema camera for about $17,000 U.S. list price--$14,000 street price. The F3 has a 2K sensor, uses Sony's 35Mbps XDCAM EX codec, and comes with a dual-link HD-SDI interface. For an additional $4,000, it can be upgraded to 4:4:4 output and 3G-SDI.

Next, in a theater on the Paramount Pictures lot this afternoon, Canon announced its new EOS C300 digital cinema camera, based on the EOS DSLR platform, but with a new form factor and sensor. The sensor has 4K resolution, but it uses all the pixels in the sensor instead of line-skipping, and outputs a native 1920 x 1080 image. It uses Canon's 50Mbps XF codec at 4:2:2 and delivers 12 stops of dynamic range. Unlike the F3, it doesn't have options for dual-link HD-SDI, 3G-SDI or 4:4:4, but it does have Canon's Log format built-in. Two lens mounts are available: Canon's EF and Arri's industry-standard PL mount.

Unlike the Sony and most other cinema cameras and camcorders, the C300 doesn't have any automatic settings at all: No autofocus, automatic aperture, or automatic white balance. Everything is manual. That works for digital cinematography, but it's useless for "run & gun" situations, such as sports and documentaries, where the shot changes faster than most cinematographers can keep up.

The Canon, like the F3, comes with most of the essential accessories bundled, including the viewfinder, XLR audio interface, side grip, top handle, battery and charger. The list price of the C300 will be $20,000 (U.S.), and will ship in January 2012.

No sooner would the ink about the C300 have dried on the page if we were still printing ink on pages, than Jim Jannard of Red was standing in front of another group in another theater in Los Angeles, introducing the Scarlet. Yep, THAT Scarlet, the one that's been announced more times than Harold Camping has predicted the Rapture. However, it's not really THAT Scarlet, the model that was supposed to cost $3,000 with a 3K 2/3" sensor and a fixed lens. The Scarlet-X that Jannard introduced has the same Mysterium-X imager as the Red EPIC, uses all the same accessories at the EPIC, and can be purchased with either a EF or PL mount.

The Scarlet-X's sensor has 5K resolution for still images, 4K at 1-25 fps, 2K at 60 fps, and 1K at 120 fps. The sensor's dynamic range is 13.5 stops, and up to 18 stops with HDRx enabled. It records REDCODE RAW at 440Mbps--almost nine times more data per second than Canon's C300. The basic Scarlet-X sells for $9,750, including the imager, an EF mount, Brain (central processor) and side mount for a Solid State Drive. Add $1,500 for a Titanium PL mount; a full configuration with viewfinder and HD-SDI output is $14,000. The Scarlet-X with the PL mount will start shipping this month, and with the EF mount will begin shipping on December 1st. Red estimates that it will take until February to fill all the existing back orders.

The Canon C300 has been seeded to a handful of cinematographers; it's not clear if anyone outside Red has used the Scarlet-X. In any case, reviews of both cameras should start showing up in a few weeks. There are now three digital cinema cameras in the $14,000 to $20,000 range, all of which can do things that required cameras of two or three times their price a year ago.
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