Presidential Politics Neglecting Science: Seeing a Silver Lining

14 10 2012

As the presidential candidates and their surrogates pound away at each other in the final weeks of the campaign, science is almost never mentioned. The candidates only rarely cover such critical issues as global warming and biomedical research funding, aside from the highly commendable effort by Science Debate 2012 to elicit answers from the candidates to key science-related questions (must reading for any voter).  This Science article contains a good analysis of the candidates’ positions (subscription required).

While many see this neglect as something of a dark cloud looming over science—a view with which I certainly agree—I also see a silver lining that should be taken into account, and in fact taken advantage of.

Obviously, the candidates don’t spend much time talking about science and technology because there’s more vote-getting mileage in haranguing each other about the economy, health care and slips-of-their-silver-tongues.

But another major reason for their relative silence on science is that science and technology constitute Mom-and-apple-pie issues. The public likes and respects science and scientists. As NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators has consistently shown, the public strongly supports scientific research and has confidence in the scientific leadership. And public polls, such as this Harris Poll and this one consistently rank scientists as among the most prestigious and trusted professionals. So, scientists and science supporters shouldn’t worry so much about the paucity of science discussion by the candidates during the election.

But we should worry very very deeply about what happens to science budgets and science-related issues after the election. For example, this report from the AAAS highlights the damage that sequestration could do to R&D budgets.

After the election is the time to take advantage of the silver lining—the public’s support and respect  for science and scientists—to launch a concerted campaign not only to support science and technology budgets, but to advocate for rational science policy on such critical issues as global warming.

Fortunately, there is a legion of science advocacy groups that can help any scientist willing to invest in such a communication effort. (See this list from the Explaining Research references and resources.)

Scientists can also educate themselves about the history and nature of the political neglect of science by reading Shawn Lawrence Otto’s articulate and compelling book Fool me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America (Rodale, 2011). Otto is co-founder and CEO of Science Debate.

Otto argues persuasively that scientists must see themselves as a force for political good:

Wishing to sidestep the painful moral and ethical parsing that their discoveries sometimes compel, many scientists today see their role to be the creation of knowledge and believe they should leave the moral, ethical, and political implications to others to sort out. But the practice of science itself cannot possibly be apolitical because it takes nothing on faith.

Otto declares that because of science’s relentless reliance on experiment and data, “science is inherently antiauthoritarian and a great equalizer of political power.”

Certainly, scientists would prefer to spend their time doing research, which is more fun than testifying before congressional committees or buttonholing legislators. But choosing not to invest time in advocacy means yielding the political arena to what New York Times reporter Timothy Egan has dubbed The Crackpot Caucus. As Egan so pithily puts it

On matters of basic science and peer-reviewed knowledge, from evolution to climate change to elementary fiscal math, many Republicans in power cling to a level of ignorance that would get their ears boxed even in a medieval classroom. Congress incubates and insulates these knuckle-draggers.

And this ignorance is not just evident in a general sampling of  legislators, but in the members of the House Science Committee itself, as detailed in this Wired Science article by Brandon Keim, “Todd Akin and the Anti-Science House Science Committee.” Writes Keim of Akin,

. . . a man who, to put it gently, ignores what science tells us about how babies are made, helps shape the future of science in America. It would be shocking, but for the fact that many of the committee’s GOP members have spent the last several years displaying comparable contempt for climate science.

Ironically, scientists have a far greater level of public support and respect than does  the Congress that decides the fate of their research budget. Not to use that “silver lining” to its fullest extent risks damaging not only scientific careers and scientific research, but the very economic health and intellectual vitality of the nation.

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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.





“Marketing for Scientists” Charts a Path to Success

1 04 2012

The new book Marketing for Scientists belongs, not on every scientist’s bookshelf, but on their desk! It’s a useful, savvy guide for scientists on how to market their work and themselves, to the benefit of their career, their field, and science in general.

As author Marc Kuchner points out, scientists certainly need to learn marketing, given the uphill battle they face in publishing papers, winning grants, and getting jobs. And society needs scientists to market science, given such adversaries as climate change and evolution deniers, and those who cling to the dangerous myth that vaccines cause autism.

Wisely, Kuchner begins the book by correcting the misconception that “marketing” is a dubious business of selling snake oil. That’s an outdated definition of the word, he points out, offering a new definition that any scientist would be comfortable with:

Marketing is the craft of seeing things from other people’s perspectives, understanding their wants and needs, and finding ways to meet them.

Few scientists realize it, but they are already “marketing” each time they talk to a colleague, publish a paper, deliver a talk, or do just about any other communication. However, in my opinion, the vast majority are abysmally poor at these communications, because they do not heed Kuchner’s definition and consider the needs of their “customers.”

For example, he points out that the very basic concept of giving good customer service is an invaluable marketing tool. This service can be as basic as answering emails and phone calls promptly, and arriving at meetings on time.

However, Kuchner’s techniques extend far beyond etiquette coaching. He explains strategies for turning people who have never heard of your work into advocates. And again, it’s not snake-oil-selling he advocates, but clear honest communications and building relationships. He points out that “There are walls between universities, walls between research groups, walls between one scientist and another.” He asserts that “Each wall between scientific subcultures can only be penetrated by a real, organic human relationship.”

He also offers sound advice on “branding”—another word that might give scientists pause. But he uses the modern definition of branding as “the set of all expectations consumers have about a company or product.” And his strategies aim at helping scientists build their brand; achieving a reputation for creativity and quality. What scientist could possibly object to that!

In his book, Kuchner parses “customers” whom scientists are trying to reach—e.g. students, junior scientists, senior scientists, funding agency staff, and press officers—and details their concerns and how to meet them.

Kuchner also offers practical marketing techniques for getting job offers, writing proposals, producing papers, benefiting from conferences, giving talks, and using email and the internet effectively. And again, these techniques are based on communication skills, not on the old concept of marketing as crass salesmanship.

He also offers excellent insight into communicating science to the public and to legislators, and to marketing science itself to a public that all-too-often harbors wrongheaded myths about science and scientists.

As a final summary “cheat sheet,” he offers a list of marketing tips for scientists. Here are a few choice ones:

  • When you communicate with people, use their names.
  • Carry a prop; tell a story.
  • Everyone is wondering What’s In It For Me? (WIIFM)
  • Creating new research questions is as good for your career as answering old ones.
  • Promote your Signature Research Idea and it will promote you; promote the idea, not yourself.
  • Focus your research; become the go-to person in your subfield.
  • Make videos about your work and put them online.




“A Bee in a Cathedral” Offers a Trove of Science Analogies

14 02 2012

Tired of writing clichéd science analogies like “…the size of a pinhead,” or “…the distance from the earth to the moon”? The new book A Bee in a Cathedral and 99 Other Scientific Analogies, by Joel Levy, can rescue you from the slough of triteness. How about these?

  • A human being consists of as much energy as is found in the matter of 30 very large H-bombs.
  • Every cell in your body, except red blood cells, contains roughly two meters of stringlike DNA molecules.
  • The energy released by a single hurricane could power the entire U.S. for six months.
  • Even a normal thunderstorm generates power equivalent to the energy consumption of the entire U.S. for four days.
  • A chunk of neutron star the size of a sugar cube weighs more than the human race.
  • All the hominid bones ever discovered could fit in the back of a pickup truck.
  • Every day the heart expends enough energy to drive a truck 20 miles. Over a lifetime, it could power a truck to the moon and back.
  • To see what it’s like to be your own heart, try using a teacup to empty a bathtub in 15 minutes—then do it again and again, without stopping, for the rest of your life.
  • The sun burns through matter at a rate equivalent to a million elephants every second.

And finally, of course, the title analogy: “If an atom were blown up to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be no larger than a bee buzzing about in the center, while the electrons would be ‘orbiting’ near the outermost edge.”

But A Bee in a Cathedral is more than a collection of neat analogies. It also explores the power of analogies, and it uses its analogies to explain some of the major concepts in science. Writes Levy

…analogy is so powerful that it is central not only to the communication of science but also the process of scientific advancement itself. Analogy is a key element of the mysterious phenomena of scientific inspiration and creativity, and the history of science is filled with examples of breakthroughs achieved by analogous reasoning.

He cites, for example, how Robert Boyle was inspired to develop his theories of gases by imagining gas particles as coiled springs; and how August Kekulé came up with the ring structure of benzene when he dreamed of a snake biting its own tail.

Levy’s writing exemplifies the use of analogies to explain dozens of concepts in physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, earth science, the human body and technology. So as a reference, the book is a great cheat sheet for science writers trying to explain phenomena as diverse as entropy, gene function, supernovae and volcanoes.

Levy also champions analogies as a means to make science more accessible and fun, declaring “science is like a houseplant—it needs to be taken out of its dingy corner and put in the sunlight once in a while if it’s to flourish.”

And that, of course, is a delightful simile to explain why compelling science writing is so important!





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.





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.