Multimedia E-books: Immersive or Subversive?

15 04 2012

It’s a troubling, even agonizing, question: How will authors who are crafters of text cope with the new era of multimedia e-books? For me, three recent articles brought that question into greater focus:

Knapp’s and Wattercutter’s articles cover how publishers are aggressively launching e-books as multimedia apps. Knapp cites three as exemplars of the features of multimedia e-books:

  • NAL’s “amplified” edition of Atlas Shrugged, which besides text Atlas Shrugged screenshotcontains video and audio of Rand, personal letters, original manuscript pages and notes, an illustrated timeline of author’s life and works, and an interactive quiz. The e-book also allows readers to share passages with others.
  • The narrated and interactive children’s book The Gift
  • The “novel” Chopsticks, which is the most non-linear of the three. It’s not a narrative story, but a collection of newspaper clippings, songs, and other paraphernalia that together paint a picture of a teenaged pianist and the boy next door.

A fourth example, The World of Richelle Mead, is not even a book, but a “free community powered, enhanced e-reading experience.” It’s more of a social media platform by which readers can buy the author’s books and interact with the author and each other.

Knapp quotes producers and authors both pro and con on the value of such e-books. For example, he quotes multimedia e-book producer Ian Karr as saying “Just as there can be stream of consciousness in writing, there can be a ‘stream of literacy’ in reading, where reading one thing lights the fire to start something new. The bottom line is just providing that richer experience.”

On the other hand, author Jay Bell declares “The more I think about it though, the more these ‘enhancements’ are probably too intrusive and will potentially get in the way of the story.”

And multimedia e-book author Andrea J. Buchanan declares in Knapp’s article “First and foremost, I’m a reader . . . So I want an immersive experience. As a writer, I was really conscious of respecting that. I didn’t want to put stuff in there because I could—I wanted to support and enhance the story.”

ChopsticksIn the most radical view of e-books, Wattercutter quotes e-book publisher Panio Gianopoulos as envisioning a far more social experience. Writes Wattercutter,

For instance, secret chapters could be unlocked as a person’s friends read a book. [Gianopoulos] foresees readers using a reddit-like model to up-vote characters or storylines they enjoy, or publishers forming partnerships with Foursquare that could reveal clues to readers who check in at certain locations. “Multimedia is more than a tie-in—done right it becomes a new kind of product entirely, a hybrid of book and film, or Facebook page and TV show, or something no one else has even thought of yet. . .

However, in a powerful argument for the preeminent value of text, Paul’s New York Times article reveals why unadorned prose is such a powerful medium. She reports studies of the effects of reading on brain activity, as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of readers’ brains. The researchers found that reading a text narrative activates not only the language regions of the brain. It also activates sensory-processing regions associated with the description being read. For example, reading descriptions of odors activates the olfactory cortex; and descriptions of textures activates the region that processes touch sensation. Similarly, descriptions of motion or activity stimulate the motor cortex that processes movements such as grasping and running.

Paul also cites fMRI studies showing that the “reading brain” treats scenes of characters interacting as if the reader was experiencing those interactions.

To me, these findings strongly suggest that integrating video, audio and interaction into e-books may not be immersive—keeping the reader engaged in a story. Rather, they might be subversive—distracting readers from the rich internal world that prose can construct within the reader’s mind.

I contend that prose has an “idea density” that video and audio do not. I also believe that prose has an “emotional density” that can be more deeply affecting than that of visual media. My ten-year-old granddaughter’s deep love of reading offers an excellent example of the lure of prose. She becomes so engrossed in text that she reads books while walking and must be guided to avoid lampposts and fellow pedestrians. When I watch her read, I see a young mind totally immersed in the realm of the written word. E-books’ interactivity, sound tracks, and video, it seems to me, would distract from that engagement.

I also worry that interactive children’s books such as The Gift will compromise teaching The Giftchildren to love reading. The interactive process might distract from the warm, intimate environment created when a parent (or grandparent!) reads to a child—an environment that will form a deep-seated enjoyment of reading.

I’m not arguing that multimedia e-books have no place in publishing. The added features of the amplified Atlas Shrugged do not intrude on the prose and offer new pathways for exploring the book’s history. And clearly, video and animation could enhance how-to books and textbooks.

But to repeat the question raised at the beginning of this post, how should authors cope with the issue, some would say specter, of multimedia e-books?

It’s an immediate issue for me, because I’m involved with both fiction and non-fiction projects. One of my science fiction novels is now under consideration by a commercial publisher. And I’m co-authoring a non-fiction book—tentatively titled Mysterious Baby—with my daughter, emergency room pediatrician Dr. Wendy Hunter, on the exotic physiology of infants.

So as a fiction author, should I offer publishers music and sound effects to accompany my book, as produced by the Booktrack service? Should I develop links to videos or background about my characters, the novel’s setting, or the technology it depicts? My current position is that I will ignore creating such content. I will concentrate solely on making the written story as compelling and rich as possible. If the publisher wants multimedia for the e-book version, a rather intense negotiation will ensue.

On the other hand, the Mysterious Baby nonfiction book might represent a stronger case for such multimedia. For example, parents might be greatly relieved by seeing video of a newborn in the throes of  harmless-but-scary involuntary jitters called benign myoclonus. It’s no more dangerous than hiccups, and seeing such a video might make it less likely that parents will rush their jittery baby to the emergency room.

But in writing this nonfiction book, I will also ignore the eventuality that it may become a multimedia e-book. Given the cost of such productions, the doubtful profitability of multimedia e-books, and the turmoil of constantly evolving e-book formats and readers, for now I’ll concentrate on writing, thank you very much.





Use QR Codes to “Amplify” Your Work

3 04 2012

Explaining Research web site

QR codes have become ubiquitous enough that they’re now a useful way to “amplify” your work. These two-dimensional bar codes—looking like crossword puzzles for masochists—enable audiences to scan the code with their smartphone or camera-equipped tablet to gain access to information or trigger actions. For example, scanning the QR code on this post will link you to the Explaining Research web site.

QR codes, short for “Quick Response codes,” were developed in 1994 by a Toyota subsidiary to allow data to be decoded at high speed. But the company decided not to enforce its patent, so the codes have come to be used around the world.

As detailed below, producing the codes is both free and easy, and when scanned by a smartphone, the code can open a text document, web site, video, e-mail address,  phone number, digital business card (e.g. a vCard), map page, WiFi connection, or event announcement. For a full list of examples see the code generator on the Kerem Erkan QR generator. Just click on the “Select a Code Action” dropdown list.

A generated code is basically an image file that can be printed or displayed on a screen. It can have a multitude of uses, including being displayed

  • on a research poster to offer a paper download or web site access
  • on a scientific paper to give access to raw data or background
  • on a brochure, magazine article, or business card to giver readers more information
  • on an office or lab door to give visitors information on research by the occupants, or even a video welcome
  • as a series of codes throughout a lab or other facility to create a virtual text or video  tour
  • attached to lab instruments or other machines to give instant access to operating manuals or other information
  • printed on t-shirts to introduce the wearer’s work to fellow conference attendees or the public (Both Cafe Press and Zazzle offer such shirts. QR codes can even be printed on chocolates!)
  • on an event poster to enable potential attendees to download details of the event
  • as the final slide in a presentation to offer access to the slides or more information

For educators, here’s another creative collection of 46 Interesting Ways to Use QR Codes to Support Learning.

Generating a QR code only requires entering the web URL or other text into one of the code generators listed below and right-clicking to save the resulting graphic image to your computer. There are, however, some issues to consider: For example, if you want to change the web site that the same QR code accesses, you’ll want a generator such as Delivr or Snap,vu that enable such editing. You might also want to track how many times the QR code was used, so you might want to use more feature-rich generators like Delivr, Snap.vu, or Qreate & Track.

Also, the URL or other text entered into a code generator needs to be relatively short. The longer the text string, the smaller the squares in the code, and the more likely are errors when users attempt to scan it. So, you might want to use a URL shortener such as bitly or goo.gl to shorten your URL (instructions below). However, such services have a downside in that they might be “glitchy.” So, try to use URLs hosted on your own domain. Some other tips:

  • Surround your code with plenty of white space when printing or displaying.
  • Label the code’s content by putting your name or other information above or below the code.
  • Color codes are possible, but make sure the colors contrast with one another.

Dawn Wentzell of the AuthorityLabs blog has a good set of  tips on using QR codes in her post Using QR Codes? You’re Probably doing it Wrong. Perhaps the most important was to understand that people are scanning your code using mobile devices that may not display a full-fledged web site properly. So, consider developing a fast-loading mobile-friendly site for them. Other tips include not using glossy paper for codes and not using Flash, Javascript or HTML5, which some smartphones can’t handle.

Here’s a list of code generators:

  • Bitly To produce QR code, first shorten the URL with bitly, then add .qr to the end of the shortened URL and use the link. The image of the QR code will appear on the screen.
  • Delivr
  • Goo.gl To produce code, enter URL to shorten, then click on “details” when the shortened URL appears to see the QR code.
  • GoQR.me. Associated with Zazzle. Offers an easy way to apply codes to t-shirts,coffee cups, etc.
  • Jumpscan enables creation of personal profile pages, for example for business cards.
  • Kaywa
  • myQR.co
  • Qreate & Track
  • QRstuff generates color codes, as well as wide variety of code types
  • Quikqr
  • SnapMaze
  • Snap.vu
  • TagMyDoc adds QR codes to documents to enable sharing
  • Zxing

QR Codes need not be simple patterns. For a fee, QRCodes Index will create a code that incorporates your logo or other graphic. Here’s a gallery of their examples.

Finally, as easy as QR codes are to use, they might not be the last word in information-sharing. Newly introduced Touchcode doesn’t need a camera or a special code to distribute information. It’s an invisible electronic code printed on paper, cardboard, film or labels. Touch a smartphone or other touch screen to the print, and it reads the data.





E-book Guide Update: Keeping Up with a Bullet Train

2 02 2012

Even though I posted a guide to publishing e-books and e-articles only months ago, the field is moving so fast, it’s already time for an update. While e-books can be read on any platform, the heavy sales of tablets and e-readers is a major force driving the e-book rise. For example, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that over the holidays, the share of adults who own a tablet or e-reader nearly doubled, from 10 percent to 19 percent. As the price of those devices continues to drop, that percentage will almost certainly continue its rapid rise. And thus, so will e-book sales.  Amazon reported last May that their e-book sales had passed print books, and in December, Publishers Weekly reported that e-book sales rose 81.2 percent in October, even before the Christmas season and the debut of the new Amazon Kindle Fire tablet and Kindle e-readers.

What’s more, libraries are moving rapidly to offer e-book lending, according to OverDrive, a leading source of e-book services for libraries. Library lending is progressing despite attempts by with publishers to put up roadblocks, as reported in this New York Times article. Amazon was not one of those publishers, already launching its own lending library for Kindle e-books through OverDrive.

E-book vendors have reacted to this explosion of sales by offering new marketing schemes and e-book development software. For example, Amazon launched its new Kindle Select program, by which self-publishers could offer their books for lending. Depending on how many people borrow their books, they could be eligible for royalties from a Kindle fund. Some publishers have complained about Amazon’s demand for 90-day exclusivity for Kindle Select books. But others, including suspense author Cheryl Kay Tardif, report that making some titles available for free significantly sparked sales of other books.

In my September post, I wrote that the future might see more multimedia e-books.  That prediction was too timid. New design and formatting tools are making e-book layout more sophisticated and multimedia e-books significantly easier to produce.

For example, Kindle has launched its new Kindle Format 8 e-book format that includes tools for creating more visual-rich layouts. For almost all other e-readers, there is EPUB 3, the new version of the widely used e-book format. It allows for embedded audio and video files, besides enabling more elaborate layouts and navigation.

Also, to enable easier creation of multimedia e-books, Apple has launched its free iBooks Author, to enable multi-touch interactive e-books for the iPad. The system has gotten good reviews, such as this one from Wired.com. The catch is that, although books created using the software can be given away for free, any sales must be done through Apple’s iBookstore. Apple’s restrictive contract has generated considerable criticism among publishers and intellectual property lawyers.

Apple is not the only new player in e-books though. Self-publishers are developing their own software, including open-source software such as FLOW, described in this Wired.com post, for creating basic multimedia e-books.  Duke University scientists led by marine biologist David Johnston developed the system to publish their interactive marine science textbook, Catchalot (French for sperm whale). Importantly, they decided to develop the software when their book idea was turned down by publishers as being to expensive for a limited market. Although FLOW is currently Apple-specific, the scientists plan to develop a version for Android, and  to make FLOW widely available for inexpensive creation of other multimedia e-books.

The multimedia e-book arena has also seen the entry of new commercial ventures, such as Cathedral Rock Publishing and Inkling, which aim to simplify the creation process. Here are demos of a Cathedral Rock e-book and a more elaborate Inkling multimedia e-book

Finally, here are some excellent sources of information on e-book publishing. Smashwords founder Mark Coker has published The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, which is free for download. And here’s a  a useful interview with e-book publishers on their experience. Also, the premier science communication conference ScienceOnline 2012 featured a session on e-books that included this extensive list of articles and sources about e-books.

Certainly, the e-book train has not only left the station, but is accelerating down the track. Stay tuned for reports on more milestones.





Should You Publish an E-book or E-article? Here’s a Guide

17 09 2011

With the explosive growth of the market for e-books and e-readers, writers find themselves considering whether they should publish an e-book or e-article. While e-books represent a potentially liberating and profitable outlet, they have their complexities and pitfalls. This guide aims to help you make the best decisions and navigate the rapidly shifting terrain of e-books. (Note: I recently added an update to this article.)

First the good news: e-books are very inexpensive to publish, often even free. They are distributed instantly worldwide and give buyers immediate gratification. There are also a multitude of outlets, including your own web site, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes & Noble Pubit!, Apple iBookstore and Google eBooks. Such outlets also include independent sites such as Kobo and Smashwords, which not only offer sales from their sites, but distribution to major outlets such as Kindle. While Smashwords is a very popular distribution service, many authors prefer to publish separately to Kindle because of better royalty rates.

Importantly, none of these sites is exclusive, so you don’t have to pick one place to publish and sell. You can do it everywhere!

Another piece of good news is that e-book royalties are considerably higher than for print books produced by traditional publishers. For example, Kindle offers a royalty of 70 percent; and Smashwords offers a royalty of 85 percent for sales on its site, and 70.5 percent for sales on affiliates such as Apple and Barnes & Noble.

For other discussions of e-books, see Wikipedia’s comprehensive overview of e-books and their pros and cons and this article from The Science Fiction Writers of America.

Still a minor market

Now the bad news: Although sales of e-books are growing rapidly, they are still not a major percentage of the overall book market. That mass market still belongs largely to print books, although Amazon reports that its Kindle e-book Kindlesales now surpass all its print book sales. However, given that the cost of e-readers will continue to drop, most forecasters believe e-books will ultimately become the major publishing medium overall.

If you write nonfiction, there is the bad news that less than 20 percent of e-book sales are for nonfiction; but that’s good news for fiction writers, who garner about 80 percent of the e-book market.

E-books are also not yet part of the publishing mainstream. Don’t expect your e-book to be reviewed by The New York Times or any other major media outlet. Such lack of reviews is not necessarily terrible news, however, because fewer media outlets are reviewing books, anyway. Readers are relying far more heavily on reviews by fellow readers on Amazon and other sites. And you can solicit those reviews yourself, rather than submitting your book to the traditional media reviewers.

Perhaps the most cautionary news, however, is that the low cost of producing e-books has resulted in mountains of “e-dreck”—badly written and badly edited books that clog the marketplace and turn readers off.

So, before you make a decision to e-publish, you should develop a comprehensive, targeted marketing plan to determine how or whether you can distinguish your work from e-dreck. If that marketing plan really doesn’t reveal a significant market for your work, reconsider whether you should publish at all. Of course, if your e-book is a freebie to advertise your business, you wouldn’t expect to earn income from it, anyway.

Also, consider whether you should publish only an e-book, or make it an adjunct to a self-published print version. A very popular self-publishing model is to use Lightning Source to produce print-on-demand (POD) books, and to create e-book versions for the many outlets. For example, I used Lightning Lightning Source logoSource to print my booklet Working with Public Information Officers as a supplement to Explaining Research. I also posted the text of Working with Public Information Officers online.

While Lightning Source does offer an e-book publishing option, it does not distribute to the major outlets. Among the best sources of advice on POD are Aaron Shepard’s book POD for Profit and this article by book designer Pete Masterson on the business model for POD.

For a good overview of best practices for e-book production and sales, see this article from the independent publishing group SPAN and this Kindle e-book by James Matthews, How to Make, Market and Sell Ebooks – All for Free. And for a view of the future, see book marketer Penny Sansevieri’s article The Next 10 Ebook Trends to Watch For.

Publishing e-articles

Besides publishing book-length manuscripts, you can also publish and sell e-articles. Major e-article outlets include Kindle Singles, Apple Quick Reads, and Smashwords Shorts. Kindle is perhaps the largest such e-article outlet. Helpful resources for publishing Kindle Singles include Larry Dignan’s review My Amazon Kindle Single publishing experiment, Megan Garber’s article 1,900 copies: How a top-selling Kindle Single is generating new audiences for ProPublica and the Kindle book How to Publish and Sell Your Article on the Kindle: 12 Tips for Short Documents.

Rather than publishing your article on one of the e-book sites, you might also consider e-article web sites. Popular e-article sites include The Atavist, Byliner, Longform.org, Scribd and the “e-reading community,” Wattpad.  Each of these Wattpad logohas a different publishing model: The Atavist charges readers for articles, Byliner links to articles from other sources, and Longform.org and Scribd offer free articles. Wattpad hosts free e-books and e-articles by untried authors, who can receive coaching and criticism from readers. Once an author feels his/her work is ready for commercial distribution, it can be published on Smashwords, a Wattpad partner.

Besides article publishing sites, there are also article syndicates that provide articles free to other web sites and blogs. Such syndicated articles are mainly how-to pieces aimed at promoting a web site, service or business. Syndication sites include Articlecity.com, Ezinearticles and Goarticles. John Kremer, author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Books offers a listing of free article directories and online article sites. This site also includes fee-based services and software that claims to enable writers to produce and syndicate free articles.

Avoiding layout pitfalls

If you are seeking to create an e-book, the first challenge is figuring out the confusing welter of e-book formats. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, as outlined in this Wikipedia article and this listing on ePublication Marketing Associates. The safest bet is to produce your book in the formats preferred by the outlets you want to use—for example the .mobi format used by Kindle. Also, you can use such distributors such as Smashwords to convert your book into multiple formats that will serve a range of outlets.

Another complexity is that laying out any e-book is quite different from laying out a print book. Unlike a print layout, an e-book layout allows text to “flow,” according to the screen size. Also, readers can customize font size, font style and line spacing. So, page numbers are meaningless in e-books, and it is difficult—sometimes impossible—to control the placement of images, footnotes, endnotes, columns, tables, superscripts, subscripts, and other design elements. And given the low resolution of e-book screens, images will not be as crisp as in print.

If you do your own layout, some sites, offer authors substantial formatting help. These sources include the Kindle Direct Publishing site, the Amazon Smashwords logoKindle Publishing Guidelines, the Barnes & Noble ePub Formatting Guide and the Smashwords Style Guide. The software Jutoh has also received good reviews as an e-book formatter.

There are also many excellent books on formatting and publishing e-books, mainly for Kindle, which represents about 70 percent of the e-book market:

However, if your book has complex design elements such as images and tables, and if you’re not up to tackling a sometimes a technically difficult conversion process, you might find it wiser to pay an expert to format your book for you. Good sources for formatters are this Bookmarket list of e-book producers and distributors and this list from self-publishing guru Dan Poynter. To hire a Smashwords designer, you can obtain a list of authors who can format e-books and create e-book cover designs by emailing list@smashwords.com. Other e-book sites, such as AuthorLink, Bookbaby and eBookIt! offer formatting services as part of their fee-paid publishing package.

While Apple offers only minimal help in posting e-books to its iBookstore, it does offer a list of recommended “aggregators” that can provide layout and other services. A word of caution: while the list includes free aggregators such as Smashwords, and commercial services such as Ingram, it also includes the subsidy publisher Lulu. While Lulu offers a free e-book publishing service, such subsidy (aka “vanity”) publishers also promote paid publishing packages that are of doubtful value. See Masterson’s article on vanity publishers for a good summary of the drawbacks of such publishers. BookLocker is another subsidy publisher that offers conversion and distribution services for e-books.

Many e-book distribution sites, however, do not offer layout services, although they are still worthy outlets. These include eBooks.com , eBookMall, ePublication Marketing Associates, Fictionwise, and Scribd. Two other sites, Payloadz and E-junkie, sell all digital goods. Another, Overdrive, distributes e-books and other media to libraries, schools and universities.

The future of e-books may well extend beyond text to include sophisticated multimedia. Such enhancements may involve only adding a soundtrack to an e-book, a service offered by Booktrack. See this New York Times article on the uses for Booktrack. Or, multimedia may take the form of elaborate apps for the iPad and other tablet computers, as discussed in this New York Times article and in my blog post How the iPad is Inspiring New Publication Formats. Already, early pioneers such as Push Pop Press and Vook are creating extraordinary multimedia e-books. However, such multimedia apps are expensive and complicated to produce, and unless there is a mass market for an app, authors are perhaps wisest in sticking to simple, traditional text.





Sharing Presentations on the Web

6 05 2011

So, you give that brilliant slide presentation, and there’s thundering applause, and the enthralled audience asks if they can get your slides. You can do much more than that. You can actually give them the whole presentation as an online, narrated presentation . . . and for free!

I’ve long been an advocate of using online services to post narrated “slidecasts” of presentations, because the result can be an enormous increase in the audiences for your presentations. For example, when I gave a talk at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the attending audiences was about 200. But when I posted that presentation on SlideShare, the online audience grew to about 3,500.

The value of online posting was emphasized for me when I gave a talk at the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Symposium. By posting the narrated slide show on Slideboom, I was able to offer AAAS a much more effective “handout” that if I’d given them text or my PowerPoint slides. And it’s easy for people to pass the presentation URL along to others.

The references and resources section of Explaining Research lists many sites for sharing not only slide presentations but other content. The sites include Slideboom, Slideserve, Slideshare, and myBrainshark.

Even though Slideshare is the largest such service, I’ve settled on Slideboom because it has a much easier uploading and audio synchronizing capability than Slideshare, which I used previously.  With Slideshare, you upload your slides and audio separately, and then go through a laborious process of synching your audio with your slides. In contrast, with Slideboom, you use the audio recording feature of PowerPoint to record your narration right in the slide show. So, when you upload the presentation, it’s set to go.

Also, Slideboom enables you to embed video and PowerPoint animations in your show, which Slideshare does not—although Slideshare does enable you to embed YouTube videos. To include video in a Slideboom presentation, you use the free add-on, iSpring, which converts your presentation to Flash—including narration and videos—and uploads it to Slideboom.The result is a much smaller file size. For example, my AAAS slideboom presentation was 240 megabytes.

However, if you don’t need Slideboom’s video embedding capabilities, one advantage of Slideshare, is that you can embed links in your presentations, so users can explore other Web sites that you reference.

I have by no means explored all the presentation-sharing sites, and all the features of Slideshare and Slideboom, so there may be features I’ve missed. But I’ll keep exploring. For example, the services enable you to embed presentations in your WordPress blog, but I’ve not figured out how to install the plugin yet.





Two Free Books Teach About Social Media and Virtual Events

4 03 2011

Two free books, Social Media: A Guide for Researchers and Virtual Events for Dummies offer to fill a gap in knowledge about new media for both Virtual Events for Dummies coverresearchers and communicators. Also importantly, they help to increase the comfort level with this unfamiliar realm, given that researchers may be reticent about plunging into blogging, tweeting, and virtual eventing.

Particularly germane for scientists is that Social Media: A Guide for Researchers emphasizes the practical uses of social media in aiding both research and career advancement. And, the book presents a realistic picture of social media. Thus, wrote the authors, “We are not trying to present social media as the answer to every problem a researcher might experience; rather, we want to give a ‘warts and all’ picture. Social media have downsides as well as upsides, but on balance we hope that you will agree with us that there is real value for researchers.”

The book is extensive, covering how to use the full gamut of social media, including blogging, microblogging (e.g. Twitter), social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn), wikis, social bookmarking (Delicious), social documents (Google Docs), project management (Bamboo), and multimedia (Flicker, YouTube, SlideShare, SecondLife). It draws on extensive interviews with researchers who use these tools, offering examples of their specific applications.

The book is refreshingly realistic about the time required to productively develop a social media network: “The process of building, curating and filtering useful networks is a skill which needs to be practised,” wrote the authors. “Most tools offer you ways to find people who might share your interests however, and once you have started building a network it becomes useful very quickly.”

And, the book emphasizes that swimming in the social media pool need not be a marathon, but perhaps only a comfortable dog paddle. Scientists could choose to be major bloggers or Facebookers, or merely comment on others’ blogs or “like” Facebook posts.

The book’s realistic assessment of social media includes a full account of criticisms, including the concerns about encroachment of technology, invasion of privacy, and information and workday overload.

And usefully, the book illustrates how social media can enhance the “academic research cycle” of knowledge identification, creation, peer review and dissemination.

Virtual Events for Dummies, while narrower in scope, is nevertheless a good introduction to the topic. While it is published by the commercial webcasting company On24—and while it emphasizes business events—the advice it offers is helpful to researchers and research communicators. For example, the section on using webcasts and webinars for “training” could be applied to using them for research seminars.

The book’s major point that virtual events are far cheaper than real events will resonate with university researchers whose budgets are tight. And the points that virtual events are global and can be archived for long-term access emphasize important advantages over a one-time live seminar.

The book explains the spectrum of virtual events, including audio streaming with slides, video streaming, text-based chat, and discussion forums. It also helps readers better understand the role of virtual events by comparing them with physical events, and by comparing types of virtual events—for example, webcasts versus web conferences.

The book’s chapter on best practices offers practical advice for attracting participants, targeting and engaging audiences, and interacting with them.

Besides these books, more extensive resources on social media are available on the references and resources page for the chapter on social media on the Explaining Research Web site.





Cool Tools for Communication

8 09 2010

The Web is bringing a constant cascade of tools for communicating. Here’s a roundup of new—or at least new to me—tools for designing  and sharing PowerPoint presentations, making snazzy charts and videos, collaborating over the Web, and creating interactive Web pages.

Links to these sites and many more are also listed in the Explaining Research References & Resources for the chapter on presentations.

In creating PowerPoint presentations, you can escape the stodgy world of standard templates by downloading more dynamic video backgrounds and animated and 3D templates from sites like a Luna Blue, 123PPT.comAnimation Factory, CrystalGraphics, and PoweredTemplates. While most of these wouldn’t be appropriate for professional or technical presentations, they could be very effective for grabbing lay audiences.

For sharing narrated “slidecasts” of PowerPoint presentations, I’ve previously been a fan of Slideshare. However, I’ve since switched to Slideboom because of its greater flexibility and capability. The problem in creating a slidecast with Slideshare is that it requires you to upload a separate audio file and go through a laborious synchronization process. In contrast, Slideboom uses PowerPoint’s built-in capability of adding narration to each slide. Thus, you can tweak your narration of each slide, without having to read through an entire script at once. And synchronization of audio and slides is automatic. Slideboom also allows integration of video and animation into slidecasts. Here’s an example of a Slideboom slidecast I produced that includes video and animation.

Another intriguing presentation tool is 280Slides, which enables creation and sharing of presentations online. Presentations can also be downloaded to PowerPoint to be delivered live.

For creating videos,the flashy music videos that the Animoto service can generate might not be appropriate for a scientific symposium. But they could prove compelling for exhibit displays and for lay audiences ranging from school groups to donors. Using one of Animoto’s many themes, you can create videos automatically from your photos, video clips, and music. Check out the Animoto showcase of education videos for examples.

Lovely Charts could prove a godsend for those who struggle with creating charts and diagrams. The Web-based application uses a simple drag-and-drop drawing mechanism to design and organize flowcharts, sitemaps, organization charts, wireframes, and other such visuals. Check out the Lovely Charts gallery for ideas.

I’ve long been a fan of Snagit for capturing and editing Web pages, images, and video. Now, Snagit has a new version that I also recommend. My favorite feature is the updated magnifier that makes captures more precise, but there are many other new features.

For sharing files across the Web, many people are fans of Google Docs, but it has limitations. For one thing, you’re limited to Google’s software. A more convenient file-sharing service is DropBox, which creates DropBox logovirtual folders on your computer that you can access anywhere and share with anyone you designate. These folders can hold any kind of file, and folders on each computer are automatically synched with one another. You can store 2 gigabytes of files for free, and pay a modest monthly fee for larger capacities.

For capturing, organizing, and sharing Web sites, video, audio, images, and documents, I have found Evernote to be a highly useful system. Such materials can be loaded onto Evernote, tagged with custom labels, and shared with others on the Web. Here’s a video demo of the system.

I’ve saved the most important new communication tool—the new hypertext markup language HTML5—for last. It’s a major revision of HTML, enabling creation of interactive Web pages that will offer important new communication capabilities. One simple example is this interactive YouTube advertisement for Tipp-Ex text eraser (warning: some rough language). It lets the viewer enter instructions for what a comical hunter does to a marauding bear. A more mind-blowing demonstration is this interactive film The Wilderness Downtown. To start the film, the viewer first enters his/her childhood address, and HTML5 enables the film to create a custom video showing Google Street View images from the neighborhood. The video creates a variety of popups during its run, and the viewer is even asked to write a letter to his/her childhood self. While HTML5 is certainly not amenable to programming by the novice, it’s interactive capabilities offer a powerful new Web communication tool.





Publishing online flip books: useful tool or gimmick?

25 06 2010

Well-designed Web sites seem to me marvelously functional for conveying information online. And I find viewing pdf files on Adobe’s reader perfectly serviceable for sharing designed print documents. But there’s another format out there—so-called “flip books”—that can prove useful in some circumstances for disseminating documents. So, here’s a roundup of the available flip book publishing systems, including those for the iPad and other tablet computers.

The simplest such systems are those such as Youblisher that do nothing more than convert an existing pdf file into an online flip book with a page-turning feature. I gave Youblisher a try by uploading my booklet Working with Public Information Officers. While the flip book format doesn’t seem much more convenient than a pdf file, sharing is far simpler. You don’t have to actually transmit what is often a large document, but only provide a URL for users to view  it. And, you can embed the link in your Web site.

A more elaborate publishing system is Issuu, which advertises itself as not just an online flip book conversion service. Issuu also seeks to become a social networking site for documents, in which users can create an individualized library of  magazines and other publications and share them with others, such as colleagues. Here’s a review of Isuu that discusses its features. And here’s what Working with Public Information Officers looks like on Issuu. It’s a more accessible flip book format than Youblisher’s; for example, including thumbnails that let the reader find a specific page more easily.

More elaborate still are the systems for creating digital magazines. Many of these go beyond text, to allow embedding video, animations, and audio in the document. However, these are not free. Here’s a list of those systems, with links to demos, where available.

Besides such flip book systems, there are also those, such as PicaBoo that are specific for publishing photo books. Here’s a video overview of Picaboo. And there are many digital scrapbooking software programs for creating online scrapbooks.

Then there’s the Big Dog of publishing platforms, the Apple iPad. Unlike many of the flip book systems, Apple iPad publications need professional design and programming, and Apple offers guidance in developing such apps. Samir Kakar, of the content publisher Aptara offers this helpful article on “Publishers Considerations for iPad”

Another distributor of magazines for the iPad is Zinio, and it’s useful to take a look at their publications. Also, there’s the Sideways magazine publisher for tablet computers.

And for those who still like the feel of paper, there’s always the option of publishing a print magazine through a traditional printer or the boutique service  MagCloud and then adapting it to the Web as a flip book.

In an entirely different category of online publishing is KeeBoo, more than a flip book, but an authoring system for collecting, organizing and annotating all kinds of media—text, photos, illustrations, animations, videos, and Web sites—into multimedia e-books. These can be posted on a web site or distributed via e-mail. Here’s a flash demo of the system.





Webinar: Explaining Research: New Tricks for New Media

11 06 2010

Physics World bannerHere is a link to the webinar  “Explaining Research: New Tricks for New Media,” which I  gave on June 9, 2010, as part of the Physics World webinar series.Margaret Harris

The moderator was Margaret Harris, Reviews and Careers Editor for Physics World, and who I’m very proud to say is a (highly talented!) former science writing student of mine. Margaret studied physics at Duke and then did a PhD in atomic physics at Durham University in the UK.

The webinar description:

Your career success depends not only on doing good work. You must also explain that work to important audiences: your colleagues, funding officers, donors, your institution’s leaders, students, your own family and friends, journalists, and the public. Dennis Meredith will offer invaluable tips on using new media technologies to engage those audiences in a clear and compelling way.





Making Pretty Good Videos Pretty Cheap

4 06 2010
Dennis Meredith in SciVee video

Click on image to view video

As video cameras decrease in cost, and video editing software becomes easier to use, video is rapidly becoming an integral part of research communication. To help researchers make better videos, my wife Joni and I created this instructional video for SciVee, which is the leading service for syndicating research videos.

Besides the shooting tips the video itself offers, our experience in producing the video can be useful for researchers and communicators.

First of all, we “aimed low” in our production budget. We strictly limited ourselves to the equipment that an average postdoc or student could afford, and tried to wring the most production value out of it.

The camera was a Kodak Zi8 pocket camera, chosen because it has received excellent reviews, costs only about $140 and is the only pocket camera with an external microphone jack. I learned the importance of having good sound in videos when I took the Izzy Video series of how-to videos. This and other tutorials make the point that viewers will tolerate poor-quality video if the sound is good; and even the best  video will lose viewers if the sound is poor. The microphone in the camera  invariably produces hollow, echoing audio more likely to include room noise and random mumblings of the camera operator. To capture audio via the microphone jack, I bought an inexpensive wired lavaliere mike for about $30.

The Zi8 does lack many features of higher-end camera, including selective focusing, digital image stabilization, and adjustment of white balance, but it worked fine for the Web-quality videos I would be shooting.

If you use a Zi8 or other pocket camera, here are some shooting tips from Izzy Video:

  • Since the camera is very light, it is easily jiggled when handheld, so if you’re operating without a tripod, brace yourself against something and concentrate on holding the camera still.
  • Similarly, the camera’s lightness tends to encourage quick panning, so if you must pan, concentrate on panning slowly.
  • Since the camera has only an autoexposure, you can’t adjust to properly light a particular subject in the frame, so arrange your shot so make sure your primary subject is adequately lit.

The Zi8′s lack of white balance adjustment limited lighting possibilities. I couldn’t use the inexpensive tungsten work light I had bought at a hardware store, since it made the scene look yellowish. So, we ended up shooting in natural light on our screened porch, and coping with the changing lighting as clouds passed in front of the sun. The need to depend on natural light meant that the resulting video shows lighting  variation within scenes and my image is a bit overexposed because of the camera’s autoexposure feature.

A stable image is another key requirement for good videography, so we mounted the camera on an old camera tripod. If you don’t already have a tripod, a cheap alternative is the small tabletop tripod that is available for pocket cameras.

Background is also important. The main background for our shoot was a dark blue blanket, chosen because it was  non-reflective and highlighted the “talent” (me). To add interest to the background, we hung an image of the book cover on the blanket. To make the image, we printed out the Explaining Research book cover jpeg file on 11×17 paper at a office supply store and pasted it on gray cardboard with a 1/2-inch border to frame it against the backdrop.

When we shot outdoors to demonstrate how to include background, I found a place where the woods in the background were in shade, but I could be in sun. With a more expensive camera, I could have used selective focus to  make the subject stand out from a background; that  is, creating a shallow depth of focus so the subject is in focus, but the background is blurred out.

To make the video more visually interesting, I shot additional footage at the Duke Lemur Center, which I used to demonstrate a cutaway. Similarly, when you’re doing a video, think about cutaway shots that will relieve the viewer from having to look at you the whole time. The cutaway shots can be of experiments or relevant subjects in your lab; but they can also be still images or video footage from outside sources. The Explaining Research reference section includes a long list of repositories of both free and commercial still images and video footage.

The need to read from the script presented another production challenge. I wanted to use a script to make the narration as tight as possible, but when I tried reading it from a page holder positioned to the side of the camera, it did not allow me to look into the camera when talking. The solution was to print out the script in a large type font and mount the pages on poster board set on an easel directly behind the camera. Since the large-font script took up many pages, Joni had to shift the poster board as I talked to keep the text in my eyeline, while looking at the camera.

In editing the video, I opted for the high-end package Pinnacle Studio 14, rather than the free editing software that comes with Windows and Mac computers. Those are perfectly good for most purposes, but I wanted to have the capability of more advanced abilities such as special effects, multiple sound tracks and still-image choreography. Learning Studio 14 was certainly more onerous than learning the PC or Mac editing software, but it was worth it for the additional editing features.

Overall, the whole shoot—camera equipment and all—cost about $300. And we plan to use the same basic equipment for other instructional videos. However, although we could continue to use the Kodak pocket camera, I plan to use a high-end video camera we own for its more advanced capabilities.

Certainly, the result is not broadcast-quality, and with experience I can likely do better, but it’s a pretty good Web video, made pretty cheap.








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