Hybrid Book Packagers

Hybrid Book Packagers image

Hybrid book publishers appear to be becoming more and more popular and successful, with the likes of Booktrope and Entangled Publishing making their mark in the publishing world. So what about hybrid book packagers?

That would be us! And like hybrid book publishers, we don’t work on a ‘salary’ basis. We are a team of virtual employees – commissioning editor, designer, copy-editor, author, illlustrator, photographer – who come together to work on a project-by-project basis. This low-cost structure and entrepreneurial mind-set gives us an important advantage over the ‘bricks and mortar’ book packagers: we are more flexible, much faster and don’t get stuck in the book development cycle, where spreads end up buried on the boss’s desk for weeks waiting approval, or don’t arrive from the proof-reader at all, having got lost in the snail-mail.

With more people opting to leave the big corporations behind and create their own small businesses, which will allow them to have a life as well as work at what they love, it’s wonderful that this option really can work. Not only that, but we can choose with whom we want to work: old colleagues are getting together, having all ‘seen the light’. We know we already make a great team and, with each person already having a bunch of different contacts from various careers in publishing, we just put it all together and what have we got? A bunch of cool people with brilliant skills who know what they’re doing and can create great things. At speed!

Not only have we created this buzzing human package, but we are able to offer the ‘whole book package solution’ to publishers at a fraction of the price of the big guys. Sure, we work like trojans and generally don’t do the ‘9 to 5’ thing where we turn our computer off and buzz off back home (think midnight madness or dawn doodling), but doesn’t that make us all the more desirable? We’re not locked into office hours, we are our own bosses and we’re used to thinking creatively to solve problems, money and time.

Thank you Internet, Skype, laptops, smartphones, tablets and all the other magical things that make our working lives possible. Oh and thanks to coffee roasters, chocolate makers and the Candy Crush developers too.

Posted by alice@editorsonline.org
www.editorsonline.org

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Hybrid Publishers

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A new class of publishers has emerged in the last two or three years, and its star performers are beginning to give the Big 5 publishers a real run for their money. These businesses combine traits of traditional publishers and small, author-led indies with a hefty splash of high-tech know-how. 

They don’t look or sound like tradition publishers, and they operate differently in every way. There are no ‘office staff’ – no one works for a salary and there is no office! These firms consist of small teams – comprising an editor, designer and marketing manager – who work really closely with the author. They genuinely collaborate with the author (imagine!) to forge the best book possible, in every respect, from the textual content and cover design to the social media campaigns. Some of these companies, like Booktrope, will create an imprint and put together a ‘critical mass’ of similar books just to make sure they have enough ground for the launching. You’ve written a great zombie book but the company doesn’t have any zombies in their catalogue? If your book is good enough, they’ll find some more good zombie books and set up an imprint. Now you’re part of a brand. Brands grab more virtual space and ruffle more digital feathers. Your book just became visible.

The hybrid publishers don’t tend to offer advances, but unlike the self-publishing firms, they won’t charge authors for their input either. This means that an author gets the benefit of input from hugely experienced, professional teams for nothing up front. Unpublished authors may not see the benefit of that, and begrudge that team its stake in the book – commonly a fairly high percentage, which is taken off book sales. But that’s actually where the real benefit kicks in. If no one on the team gets a salary, and their only income stems from what they make on their books, they’re going to make damn sure that those books sell. That they’re as good as they can possibly be, and are marketed in the most finely tuned, effective way. 

As Katherine Sears, CEO of Booktrope points out:

Everyone [the editor, designer, marketing manager and Booktrope itself] is paid via a percentage of profits. Nobody makes a dime unless the book sells. An author has a team of people who know what they’re doing but also has skin in the game.

That ‘skin in the game’ means that the publishing team are as hungry for success as the author. Not hungry generally, as in ‘for the company to do well’. They’re hungry for your individual book to do well, and they’ll put everything behind it.

This includes very savvy social media networking and high-tech delivery of marketing and books. Like every publisher, Hybrid publisher Entangled realises it needs the author to publicise the book, but it doesn’t assume that new authors have the skills they need to spread the word or build their own brand. Liz Pelletier of Entangled explains:

We bring in branding and social media experts to train our authors. Bestselling authors are great storytellers. 80% of books are still sold by word of mouth. We did market research on “The Marriage Bargain” and more than 85% of respondents said that they bought the book because someone recommended it personally. 

Find a great author, help shape the book into its best possible form, create a buzz around it, then watch it fly. Isn’t this how publishing used to work? 

Posted by sarah@editorsonline.org
www.editorsonline.org

Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

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I want to include some book reviews in this blog to try and help fabulous new authors get their work out there. This book, Elizabeth is Missing, is a refreshing example of how choosing your subject can be as important as being able to write in the first place.

Emma Healey has very cleverly written from the point of view of an old lady suffering from dementia – an awful disease that, for many, is incomprehensible. Getting inside the head of Maud, who lives alone with the help of her daughter, Helen, and carers who do home visits, is a truly empathetic experience. Healey develops her characters beautifully, really bringing them to life. The irritation that Maud’s daughter, Helen, often shows her mother provokes enormous sympathy for Maud and a sense of injustice having been committed. But this is only because Healey has so successfully transported us into Maud’s world. If the book were written from Helen’s point of view, we would get more than just an inkling of the thankless, frustrating and incredibly difficult job that being the carer of someone with dementia must be.

As the book takes us on a winding, twisting journey, dipping in and out of reality and back and forth between the past and present, we become more and more immersed in Maud’s world, where she is convinced that her close friend, Elizabeth, is missing. We soon learn that, as she slips between her present world and that of her childhood, a 70 year-old mystery – that of her missing sister, Sukey – is beginning to surface and become entwined with present events. Healey’s attention to detail and descriptive prose is such that we soon find ourselves drawn into the mystery that is plaguing Maud’s mind and, at times, find ourselves echoing Maud’s confusion, wondering if her mind is in the present day or back during post-world-war II.

As the book draws to a close, Healey gathers the details together and the mystery comes to its conclusion, though sadly for Maud, we’re never quite sure if she has the same closure.

Overall, a gripping and beautiful read…..

Posted by alice@editorsonline.org
www.editorsonline.org

Digital Sucks-ess?

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I can’t help but ask myself whether ebooks have brought about a demise of the editorial standard of the written word. It’s not that I can’t see the fabulous advantages of moving script into the digital age – it’s so much easier to read my Kindle in bed turning pages at the slightest movement of my thumb, or to take hundreds, hell, thousands, of books on holiday with me, all fitting nicely in my handbag – it’s just that I can’t help getting slightly niggled by the numerous typos and bad formatting that peppers each little digital marvel. But perhaps that’s just me, being an editor and all that…

Still, it certainly is something to worry about as more and more people type the words, upload to Amazon and call themselves writers. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great that the advent of the ebook has given endless opportunities to everyone who has a story in their head that is simply desperate to get out – I just think it’s a little sad that the English language appears to be taking a nose dive, innit.

But all this talk of the world of ebooks being swamped by amateur writers would appear to intone that traditional publishers publish nothing but ‘la crème de la crème’, and let’s face it, that just simply isn’t true. After all, Dan Brown is hardly an example of literary genius, yet his fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code, went straight to the top of the New York Times best-seller list during its first week of release. But whilst his stories are repetitive and his writing style clumsy, at least the manuscripts are edited and at least print books don’t suffer from words squashed together and inexplicable line returns creating a mass of white space on the page. And although of course typos and grammatical errors will always slip through any net, they are far fewer in a manuscript born from a publisher, having gone through the usual editorial channels, than from its self-published digital neighbour – it’s easy to see which ebooks have been edited and which ones haven’t.

Past suggestions for the problem of multiple errors in ebooks include the idea of being able to continually revise the content, something that just wouldn’t be possible for a print book. But realistically, who is going to give a terrible book a second chance when there is so much choice out there? Not many. I suppose it depends on what you deem more important as a reader: a great story-line, even if it might have irritating errors and bad formatting, or an irritating-error-free read…although that’s not to say that the story-line is guaranteed to be any good.

Perhaps the best way forward would be for traditional and self-publishing to work together: if an ebook takes a bite, then the traditional publishers are in the great position of having a success on their hands that has already tested the readership. And for the self-publisher, it’s a good way for good writers to get noticed by the traditional publishing houses. Although this doesn’t solve the problem of an ebook appearing error-ridden in the first place.

Who cares? you might ask. They’re cheaper, more easily accessible, easier to store and easier to publish. So what if there are a few words misspelled, some clumsy grammar and a few words squashed and thrown apart here and there. Does anyone really care? Well, yes, there are plenty of readers out there who do give a damn about quality and with whom you only have one shot to impress. If you fail to get it right the first time it’ll show in reviews and returns, so make sure you get your book properly edited and proofread before uploading to your potential audience. Come on, ship shape, pull your socks up and don’t let the side down!

Posted by alice@editorsonline.org
www.editorsonline.org

Five top tips for ebook success in the Christmas period

So you’ve been meaning to write that ebook all year in time for Christmas – after all, isn’t that when everyone goes ‘shopping crazy’? So surely it’s the best time to self-publish? But (damn, it’s that annoying little word again that keeps creeping in every time you have a great idea), you just didn’t quite get round to it, and now you only have a matter of weeks left…

All is not lost.

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WHO NEEDS A NOVEL WHEN YOU CAN HAVE A NOVELLA?

Not only is it less daunting to write something short and sweet, but there are plenty of Christmas themes that fit perfectly into this category and that would have everyone yawning if they were any longer anyway. Let’s face it, Christmas has become more and more gimmicky over the years, which, while rather sad, does leave plenty of space (and potential customers) for topics such as “the Christmas Survival Guide”, “Quick and Easy Christmas Recipes” or, if you’re feeling a little nostalgic which I hope some of you are, “A Guide to Reviving Christmas Traditions”. There are endless possibilities for a topic that needn’t take long to write and that could prove popular to many!

GIVE THEM A TASTER AND LEAVING THEM HANGING…

Leading on from the tip above, why not write a short prequel or a teaser for a project that you want to work on in the New Year? Make it short and exciting and introduce the characters leaving the reader hanging on to find out what happens next. We all love a cliff-hanger!

PEOPLE DO JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER

Although our parents, and their parents before them, tell us it’s what inside that counts, if you write an ebook and the cover is rubbish, you’ll put a lot of people off before they’ve had a chance to read anything – even the blurb. Choose something eye-catching and festive for the cover, and if style isn’t your thing, find a friend who can help – everyone knows someone who’s got an eye for design.

TARGET AFTER-CHRISTMAS SALES

More and more people are buying e-readers and Christmas is understandably most e-reader retailers’ biggest sales period, so why not target those ‘newbies’ who are just dying to download tons of ebooks to fill up their new device? Hmmm, so how do you get them to buy YOUR book? What the heck… just give it away! If you want to get your name out there, what better way than by offering a free ebook? If you’ve followed the tips above and written something short that wasn’t too time-consuming, then its no great shakes to get into the festive spirit (and wheedle your way into people’s devices) by offering your book for free. Everybody loves a freebie and once everyone knows what a fabulous writer you are, they may just look out for your name next time round.

BUT DO I REALLY STILL HAVE TIME?

If you want to get an ebook out there, there’s no time like the present! For a little help check out Copyblogger’s How to Write a High Quality eBook in 30 Days.

Posted by alice@editorsonline.org

www.editorsonline.org

Choosing a Format for Your eBook

So, you’ve finished your manuscript and you’re ready to become a successful author. Now all you have to do is work out where to go from here. Publishing an eBook certainly seems like a simpler way to get your book out there than going down the paper route. After all, turning your manuscript into a PDF and then selling it from your own website can’t be that hard, can it?

Well, that’s certainly the way that eBooks first got off the ground. But then the big guys jumped on the bandwagon and technology advanced just that little bit further. And now, if you want to be taken seriously as an independent author, you’re going to have to get your book onto one of those big guys’ sites.

Where to sell your eBook

Mainstream sellers of eBooks like the Amazon Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble Nook Books, Apple iBooks, and Sony Reader Store are the ones to target. They all have a portal for publishers (that’s you by the way – with eBooks, you become your own publisher) and you can either publish directly with each store or you can go through a distributor.

Distributors, or aggregators as they are sometimes known, are responsible for the conversion of your manuscript into one or more formats and for distributing your eBook to mainstream sellers. Now this brings us to the question of what format you should choose.

eBook formats

AZW, EPUB, PDF, MOBI, PRC…eBook formats may look like a series of Enigma codes, but could choosing the wrong one for your eBook affect how widespread the distribution of your eBook becomes?

There has been much discussion over which is the format of choice and which ones will rapidly become obsolete. And while there is a multitude of different eBook formats out there, there are four main ones that are being used by all the major retailers:

  • Portable Document Format (PDF)
  • Kindle Format (AZW)
  • Mobipocket Format (MOBI, PRC)
  • Epub Format (EPUB)

PDF

One of the most widely used formats for document exchange (and one that most people will have heard of), the PDF can be read by most computing devices. However, with the advance of technology, devices have become smaller and smaller and, while PDFs are still compatible, they ran into difficulties when devices such as Blackberrys and Palm Pilots required documents to be reflowed to fit their tiny screens.

It is a test for even the most patient of people to scroll horizontally as well as vertically to read a single page, let alone a whole book!

While in recent years, PDF technology has advanced, most non-Adobe readers cannot reflow documents. That’s not to say that PDFs are doomed to frustrate. There are some programs that allow reflow by generating temporary tags. Adobe has released a portable version of Adobe Digital Editions (ADE), which does just this. Many eBook readers now support ADE but the downside is that they do depend on zooming and panning the document. And zooming out to make the page fit is likely to make the text too small to read easily. So, not much of a temptation for your future readers.

AZW

Amazon’s Kindle Format is based on the Mobipocket format (which was purchased by Amazon in 2005). While the Kindle appears to be the current eReader of choice – it’s faster, lighter and eBooks can be downloaded in 60 seconds – you are of course restricted to selling your eBooks in this format from the Kindle Store. But as Amazon is probably the biggest seller of books and eBooks on the internet, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

MOBI, PRC

The Mobipocket format uses XHTML and is based on the Open eBook Standard (the predecessor to Epub). EBooks in this format can be read on the Kindle and on several other devices that support MOBI and PRC. They can also be read on devices running Mobipocket Reader, which is a free application from Mobipocket.

EPUB

The Epub (electronic publication) format is an open standard format, which means that it is free. Successor to the Open eBook Standard, it is the eBook format recommended and maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum, which has a long list of respected members, including both book publishers and technology companies.

All in all, it is considered to be the industry standard file format for eBooks by the majority of the publishing industry, and is currently used by most eBook stores (with the exception of Amazon), including Google, whose entire library is formatted using Epub.

Epub: free formatting for ebooks

Although the four main formats covered here all have their advantages and disadvantages – PDFs perhaps have more disadvantages than the others – you can’t go far wrong in choosing one of these.

Amazon is perhaps the most popular store for buying books and eBooks alike and the Kindle eBook reader has many advantages in terms of technological advancement and user-friendly popularity. In this respect, you can always be assured of a large audience for your eBook. As Mobipocket can fairly easily be converted into the kindle format, the same applies here too.

However, with Epub: it’s free (always an incentive for someone publishing for the first time), it is considered the industry standard which lends it a lot of credibility, and most eBook stores use this format, giving you a wider choice of where to sell your eBook. While some may argue that the Kindle format is superior in its technology, Epub is most definitely catching up. Epub provides reflowable text and a page layout that can adjust itself to a device’s screen-size. You can style text and fonts and you can also embed multimedia files like colour images, interactive elements and full video! So it’s not so terribly behind.

So, go on…choose your format (or formats – throw caution to the wind!) and get your eBook out there. With the advent of eBook technology, there’s never been more of an opportunity for aspiring authors.

Next time we’ll be looking at how to go about formatting your manuscript for e-publication…

Posted by alice@editorsonline.org

http://www.editorsonline.org

Can book publishers survive?

 

The digitization of the book is occurring in many forms, but the two formats that are grabbing all the attention are fully-authored e-books and e-books compiled from “chunks” of other books. With non-fiction works, the market is increasingly moving towards the chunking of information. Going to Morocco? Why not access 10 different books and magazines to compile the perfect travel book for your interests? Pull together sections on history, culture, language, local restaurants, shopping opportunities, hotels (complete with offers) and so on? Download it to your PC, smartphone, or iPod. Access what you want, when you want, wherever you are. Information on the run – can book publishers be a part of this revolution?

Build-your-own Books

The ability to access limited sections or “chunks” of books for use in multi-media applications calls many established publishing concepts and traditions into question. As customers increasingly build their own “books”, who is the “author”? This avid compiler, or the many original writers? Who would hold the copyright in such a work? Do terms such as “original” and “copies” still mean anything? Do the recognized geographical territories for rights hold good? Is the “original” the final, user-customized book – or its sources? Should such one-copy print runs be eligible to unique identifiers such as unique ISBN’s? And does any of this matter?

Restructuring the Market

With authored e-books and self-built e-books, the questions seem never-ending. What can and should be protected? Who will aggregate the information, and handle the convergence across multi-platform devices? Even after reassigning rights, redistributing revenues, reconsidering contractual relationships, and solving all the logistical questions, of hardware, software and retailing, the question is: is it worth it? Is there money to be made?

The answer of course, is yes. But how?

Books Are Like Baked Beans After All

The answer lies in partnerships. A business model that has long been successful in other industries, but largely shunned by book publishers beyond magazine or newspaper serialization rights. Books have always been glorious, stand-alone products, seemingly representing the opposite of commercialism. The business side of publishing is largely untold, while the books themselves – those small islands of culture – are endlessly discussed. But the great potential of e-books lies with their interactivity – to other books, other readers, other products related to the content, other markets and more. In order to enter the next phase of publishing, book publishers will need to be seen as very much part of the commericial world, not standing apart from it.

In his essay, “The Processed Book”, Joseph Esposito notes five important capabilities of e-books: as portals or front ends to other sources of information (pointers); as self-referencing texts; as platforms being “fingered” by other resources; as input processed by machines; and as nodes in networks.

E-books offer endless repackaging opportunities and the opportunity for strategic, lucrative partnerships. Consider their potential:

  • multimedia capabilities
  • hyperlinks within the e-book to Web content and reference tools (yours and others)
  • automatically or periodically updated content (the book need never become out of date)
  • automatic and embedded audio conversion and translation capabilities (you no longer have to sell foreign rights – you can “publish” straight to any market)
  • embedded instant shopping and ordering (of further information or products)
  • divergent, user-interactive, decision-driven plotlines
  • community-built non-fiction books, with reader-contributed projects
  • interaction with other e-books using Bluetooth or the cloud
  • collaborative authoring and community activities
  • market information: databases of bookmarks, records of reading habits and shopping habits.

Potential Pitfalls
What are the drawbacks? E-texts are device-dependent (e-book readers or computer drives). They are format-specific; changes in technology – both in hardware and software – may initially render many e-books unreadable after a short space of time. Tagging and all forms of digital management are critical. Portability is hampered by battery life, lighting conditions, or the availability of appropriate infrastructure (such as electricity). But do they constitute the future of publishing? Only as the printing press defeated the hand-written manuscript.

Publishing 2010

By the end of 2010, the pundits are predicting that e-book sales for fiction will constitute at least 20% of the units moved for midlist and the lower tier of bestsellers, and at least 10% of the units for the really big bestsellers (illustrated books and children’s picture books will be slower to build). The recent experiment with “windowing” e-books — withholding them from release until several months after hardcover publication — will end, as publishers and agents realise that e-book sales (at any price) will spur print book sales (at any price), not cannibalize or discourage them. All business = more business.

Joining the Party
Book publishers simply cannot afford to do nothing – because the merchandising challenge for e-books will be met by websites, building them page by page, and offering the kind of value – both in original content and add-on services – that customers expect. These non-book publishers will cobble together products that would look absurdly amateurish in comparison with those produced by traditional publishers, who are the experts in structuring useable information.
But where are they?

Posted by sarah@editorsonline.org

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From print to ebook

Transforming books into ebooks isn’t as just a question of scanning printed books and turning the OCR book copy into text files. The huge number of errors resulting from this process is leading publishers to despair that ebooks are all about “formatting”; while in fact they’re about well-structured text with styles attached. For everything.

Read more here: http://www.alistapart.com/articles/ebookstandards/

Posted by sarah@editorsonline.org

Can Print Editors Do Digital?

Editors have always loved to cut. It’s our favourite pastime. Sure, we fiddle around with the author’s words, rewriting here and there, but when it’s time to get the text on the page, we do what we love to do. Cut, cut, cut. 
Luckily, this trait turns out to be perfect for the web. Because while non-fiction print editing requires some pretty nifty cutting to fit, the web demands a ruthless amount of cutting. Everything has to be immediately obvious, both typographically and semantically. Readers have to be able to spot what they want on the page immediately, seeing and identifying what they want within milliseconds. If you make them pause to think, they’re gone.

Readers Vs Users
Why the impatience? It seems that the big difference between print and web readers is that web readers aren’t really ‘readers’ at all. They’re users. This is the absolutely key thing to keep in mind. They don’t want to browse around, losing themselves for a few minutes or hours in some delightful other world like print readers do. They want answers, fast. They’ve usually got a problem to solve, whether they’re looking to buy something or get information. And they’ve got a tool available that works in a flash – we’re all Googlers now – so if they visit your site and don’t immediately see what they’re looking for, you’re history.

Managing Content
You may have the most comprehensive, expert and inspiring content in the world – but if the content hasn’t been managed correctly (book editors: think spreads, chapters and indexing), the website (think a multi-layered, linked network of pages) won’t get the readership/traffic it deserves.

This obsession with speed holds good even for social networking sites. Users don’t want to spend time navigating to the right place. They want to get there, super fast, and get chatting. They want you, and your website, to effectively get out of the way – even while you’re providing the service.

If book/magazine/news editing is low-key, web editing has to be invisible. The structure has to be so transparent as to literally disappear, leaving only what the user is actively looking for. This holds good for every page, every heading, every navigation tool. This is text pared to the limit.

Cutting Out The Questions
But all this is basically clarity and cutting – everyday meat to traditional editors. So far, so good. Another key task is to eliminate any questions, which can damage the speed of access. This is essentially a new version of ‘the idiot test’ that editors always run in their heads – i.e. is there anything in the text that makes me hesitate, re-read, or think ‘huh?’ Is there a pausing point? If so, it has to be changed, whether you’re working in print or online. The big difference is the amount of time the reader/user will allow you to clarify what you mean. A print reader is in a musing frame of mind, and is relatively forgiving. But if a web user has to wonder “where am I?”, “what should I click on first?”, “where did they put…” or “have they got a…?”, in all likelihood they’ll give you the benefit of – at most – two of these questions, before they give up and dive off to a different site. And on the web a “question” can arise from virtually any word on the page – even the navigational headings. If the company wants to flag up a tab for ‘Jobs’, don’t call it ‘Employment Opportunities’ or ‘Positions Vacant’. Don’t make them think, or they’re gone.

So Can Editors Do Digital?
Scary? Slightly. Just think of it as a challenge. But can print editors do digital? Hell yes. They’re the masters of content structure and clarity. They’ve long understood what readers want; they just need to adjust their sense of reader slightly (to that fast, intolerant user) and they’re still streets ahead of anyone else handling web content.

So why aren’t more print editors working on digital products? Perhaps because most websites belong to companies, who haven’t necessarily grasped the fact that they’re publishing. That web designers aren’t interested in words, and that staff members aren’t writers. Some companies haven’t yet realised that their websites are not just shop windows, but corporate messaging, and a major point of interaction with their customers. That every web page says something about the company – its values, its care (of customers, products, and own image) and its attention to detail. Every website has a voice – and that voice needs to be right. The words on the page are speaking to the user, and they have to reflect the right character for the company. A large corporate requires a wholly different set of language and tone to a youth-focused independent. Who’s going to bring in that consistency of message, if not an editor? Certainly not a web designer, or even the marketing department of a company.

With more and more websites fighting to get to the top of the search engines, it’s not just about keywords and tags any more; and even frantic work on the social networking sites won’t save a carelessly-worded website. Speaking naturally in the right way to a particular audience about what they want to hear is now the most effective way to automatically pare down the words for both the core audience and the google spiders.

So if there are any print editors out there wondering whether to take the leap into digital – go for it. Your skills have never been more sorely needed.

Posted by sarah@editorsonline.org

http://www.editorsonline.org

What is user-centred design – and why do editors need to know about it?

Book and magazine editors are used to mapping out design basics with designers, in terms of agreeing the basic template or structure for each spread. Once they’ve agreed the number of levels of heading, the number and type of feature boxes, pull quotes and everything else that lies beyond the main body of the text, they brief the author to write to these guidelines. At least, that’s how it works in theory. (Unfortunately the design process often begins after the author’s been commissioned, in which case the editor has the unhappy task of unpicking the text before pulling it back into its new shape, which is the equivalent of unpicking a Victorian costume and using the material to fashion a pair of jeans. Always interesting, but slightly nerve-wracking.)

Editors remodel the text to make it easier for the reader to find and read the information they want. And it works, to a certain extent, but in truth it’s only a nod towards true user-centred design, because print products work largely on assumptions about readers, while websites offer hard data and instant feedback. And print readers are generous with their time, so the model only needs to be fairly user-friendly, while web users are always in a hurry, so if they can’t grab and run, they just run. There’s so much to look at, and so little time!

So what’s the deal with user-centred design?
Outside of blogs and story-sites, web users scan and grab. They come to web sites to satisfy goals, do tasks, and get answers to questions. The web is such a fast-moving environment that the user – and his or her very particular needs and habits – dictates not only what kind of content a website will include, but also what it looks like, how it’s organised, the tone of voice and even the kind of words that are used. Strike that – a successful website uses the exact vocabulary of its users.

This is essentially what “user-centred design” means – it means having an extremely clear idea of your users and their habits before you even begin to think about design or textual content, and then mirroring those demands. It means that it’s not even worth starting to put together a website before you know:
• all your major audiences
• their main characteristics
• their questions and tasks
• their stories (where have they been and where are they going? Where are they sitting and what were they doing just before they accessed your site? Improvise scenarios for your users, and imagine them as you would in a narrative.)

Once the site is in process, constant usability testing will keep it on track, and when it’s up and running, there’s a plethora of analytical tools that will keep it focused. Think of the web as a long conversation with your user. Talk to them – and only them.

Can’t I just guess what they want?
Setting up a website is like creating business on a busy city street. It takes time, money, imagination and nerve. It’s a company’s public face, worldwide. It’s a place where anyone can wander in and see what the company is up to. In this sense, it’s the retail arm of any business, and the whole world is window-shopping.

Imagine setting up a cafe for your users – you wouldn’t be thinking only about the menu and the kind of food you want to cook, but also about everything else that would make your customers feel comfortable. First of all you’d make sure your cafe was in the right location and type of building for the kind of cooking you produce (design theme), with decent parking (accessibility). You’d think hard about the shop front and your window space (home page), where you’ll work hard to tempt them in. You want them to feel at home when they enter, so they find exactly the kind of furniture, flooring and colours they feel at home with (design), and you’d make sure the first thing they’d receive is a greeting, followed by swift and efficient service. Which is why you hand them a menu (home page textual content) – listing what types of product you can offer. Once the dishes start flowing (the other levels of your website), you can relax slightly, while making sure you’re still serving up what’s been ordered. No more and no less. Don’t cram too much food on the table, or ask them too many questions. You’re looking to provide efficient, unobtrusive service, where the customer never has to wait, and you have pre-empted their every need.

User-centred website design is Michelin-starred service. It’s that simple, and that hard to achieve.

Posted by Sarah@editorsonline.org

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