Monday, February 16, 2009

Post-TOC Thoughts

Last week I attended the Tools of Change for Publishing conference (TOC), during which I gave a talk discussing some of the authoring challenges I've written about in this blog. I came away more convinced than ever that writing primarily for electronic publication (while keeping print publication in mind) is best for everyone: authors, publishers, and readers. I also came away further convinced that authors should think about audio distribution as they write, a conclusion reinforced by Amazon's inclusion of automatic text-to-speech (TTS) capability in the Kindle 2. (This feature has caused a bit of a rights-related stir among some in the publishing industry, but I believe it's in everybody's interest to work this issue out, so I'm confident that it won't take long for most content to be available in this form. Contracts for future books will address this issue directly, and in a couple of years, no one will think twice about this.)

One of the things I got from the conference is that authors would be well-advised to assume that as time goes on, more and more people will consume content on small devices. Currently we call such devices "mobile phones," but in reality, they're truly personal, truly portable computers -- the general-purpose devices people will have with them almost all the time. As such, electronic books in whatever format will be increasingly viewed on small screens.

Think of what that means for content that normally features complex diagrams, large tables, etc. In the past, I've written my books knowing that the content would fit on physical pages of about 9 x 7 inches. After taking margins into account, I had pages of about 7.25 x 4.75 inches to tell my story, and I designed things to fit within those constraints. An iPhone screen is about 3 x 2 inches, meaning that if I want my content to work well on that device, I have to make sure it will (1) fit and (2) be comprehensible when it's displayed there. Prose is not a problem, but other things could be: source code listings, diagrams, tables, graphs, etc.

It seems unlikely that people will want to read lengthy ("long-form") content on a tiny screen, and usage data suggest that people generally read using such devices during "between times," i.e., while commuting, while waiting for a meeting to start, etc. -- generally no more than about 20 minutes a pop. The best content for such reading is "short form," and this suggests that authors who want to make their content small-screen-friendly need to find a way to break their presentations into comparatively small chunks that are naturally consumable more or less independently.

Interestingly, this is one of the characteristics that my "Effective" books tend to have, because the material is generally broken down into Items of 4-6 pages that pretty much stand on their own. This is a popular feature of these books, something I didn't realize until I wrote some much longer Items in my second book (More Effective C++), and people complained about it. This suggests that a naturally chunkable presentation not only makes things more small-screen-friendly, it can also be a benefit in print form.

won't be broken down into Items, because I don't think that's the best way to cover the material I want to discuss, but I'll definitely be thinking of ways to structure the material so that it can be easily consumed in relatively small, self-contained chunks.

On small screens.

Or as audio.

In addition to ink-on-paper form :-)


gvwilson said...

OK, you've convinced me to use LaTeX for my next book: but Goossens et al's "LaTeX Web Companion" is now ten years old ( --- any suggestions where to turn instead?

Scott Meyers said...

The LaTeX reference I have here is even older (Leslie Lamport's 1986 "LaTeX"), so I'm afraid I don't have any advice for you. There are very active LaTeX newsgroups, however, so I'm sure you'll have no trouble getting recommendations from current LaTeXies.

What convinced you to use LaTeX?

gvwilson said...

1. Plain text plays nicely with version control, Word/OpenOffice doesn't.
2. LaTeX compiles cross-references for me.
3. (Big one that I hadn't thought through before your postings) Multiple output formats from a single source. I don't know what future e-books will want, but I can be confident that someone will teach LaTeX to produce it :-)