Building Better E-books

Yesterday's news that Facebook had acquired Push Pop Press caused a fair amount of consternation (uttered alongside the obligatory congratulations) in the tech blogosphere. GigaOm's Om Malik called it a "bummer," suggesting the startup had "pullled a Patzer" * and sold out too early.

Push Pop Press was widely seen as a promising tech startup, set to challenge the traditional publishing world. But now, as part of Facebook, the company said it will cease work on its e-book apps. "Although Facebook isn't planning to start publishing digital books," the startup explained, "the ideas and technology behind Push Pop Press will be integrated with Facebook, giving people even richer ways to share their stories."

And there you go: a move from Our Choice (Push Pop Press's only publication), an interactive e-book app based on former Vice President Al Gore's book of the same name, to a "richer" Facebook news feed. Awesome.

And as Wired's Tim Carmody wryly observes, "this is why we'll never have innovative e-books": "The ideas are there; the talent is there; the readers are there. But when the three come together, inevitably someone else can figure out a way to use the technology for a different end. The better and more experimental it is, the more likely this is true."

I wish I could strongly refute Tim's "never." After all, Push Pop Press doesn't hold a monopoly on innovation and e-books, and there are quite a number of other startups and publishers in the space. Touch Press, Flat World Knowledge, Moonbot Studios, Inkling, to name (um) four. But while sure, acquisition by Facebook may pretty startling here, Push Pop Press is hardly the only e-book startup to be on the receiving end of major financial interest from a power player. Take Inkling's investment earlier this year from two of the biggest educational content providers in the world -- McGraw Hill and Pearson. (Oh and congrats to Inkling for its announcement today about its latest round of investment: $17 million.)

Of course, Inkling is using its funding to push forward with re-engineering the textbook, and Push Pop Press will cease its work re-engineering the coffee-table book. Maybe it's not such a great comparison.

Form / Content / Technology

But I wonder if we're all a bit too overwrought about Push Pop's acquisition. What made that app so groundbreaking? (I don't mean to be flippant but...) Having TED Talk? The team behind it? The technology? The form? The content?

Yes. I went there. Form and content. I'm sorry. I can't help it. Recovering academic and all that. But it's just a slight hat tip to literary theory, and I'll save you the lecture in Russian Formalism, New Criticism, Semiotics and the like. Quickly then: by "form and content," I mean "how and what." Look at the "Our Choice" app. The content was drawn from Al Gore's book about global warming. A book of history and science and business and politics. In terms of form, it's a book of photographs and diagrams, explanation and argumentation. Textbook-meets-treatise-meets-coffee-table-book, and as such already quite innovative and powerful. But Push Pop Press didn't write the book; it built the app: porting that long, hyphenated string of literary conventions to the iPad. Once there, it's now replete with multimedia and -- well, this is the iPad -- interactive via a variety of gestures (pinches, swipes). And ah, the iPad, with all the blessings and constraints -- technological, financial -- that come with publishing an app (and not an e-book) on it.

As Tim alludes to in his story on the Push Pop Press acquisition, authorship and publishing are complicated now by this technology piece of what it means to build a book/app. We need engineers now too, and their talents are being funneled elsewhere (a la Facebook.) This means when we examine e-books (innovative and/or acquired and/or otherwise), we must consider form and content and technology. The new front end and back end for literature, if you will. We can't simply talk about what an e-book is about or how breathtaking the photography or snazzy the UI.


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