Opening a closed book

Closed book / open book.

Everyone knows what those idioms mean – information that’s hard (or even impossible) to get at; information that’s easy to get at.

Book publishers are in the business of getting information to readers. It’s what we do. Consequently it’s a problem that a book sitting on a shelf in a bookshop (or an ebook occupying some screen real estate) is by default – literally and metaphorically – a closed book.

It’s not a problem that has gone unnoticed. Covers, jacket blurbs, Amazon’s Search Inside function, reviews, sample chapters in the back of books, magazine features… time, money and careers are poured into the practice of teasing the essence out of books. Of prying open their covers.

I work at Guardian Books, where I publish the <a href="" target="_blank">Guardian Shorts</a> series of ebooks. In this piece I’m referring in particular to the Guardian Shorts Originals.

Guardian Books is part of the Guardian newspaper. That newspaper’s philosophy is “open journalism”. (Until recently we had a poster on the wall of the office declaring “the future is open”. It’s now been replaced with one saying “open to ideas”… you get the picture.)

Open is much more than just being free of charge (which is what a lot of people immediately associate with the Guardian’s content). It is about removing the restrictions that prevent content taking advantage of the enormous power of the internet to connect people to new ideas, to new stories.

In a publishing context, the advantages of being open rather than closed are dramatic. The Guardian enjoys 80 million unique browsers a month coming to its content. Open content brings phenomenal global reach. And because it’s content can readily get there, people find the Guardian’s stories in volumes from social recommendation – via the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Flipboard et al.

The new Guardian Shorts website launched last week is a part of a strategy to shift our book content from being closed to open.

We have done this, whilst bearing two things in mind: 1) we still need to sell copies of our ebooks; there is no interest for us in giving everything away for free, and 2) book content – even short-form content (10k–20k words; 1–2 hours reading time) – doesn’t really suit online reading (at least, not at present). In their natural form, books just simply don’t fit the structures of the internet.

So we’re publishing edited extracts of every ebook in the series, now and in the future, to the website. These are not simply the first 10% of a book, they are short feature articles that can be read on their own. And that are tagged up with plenty of links through to purchase the full-length work.

Being in control of our content in this manner brings all sorts of advantages. I plan to expand upon some of these in future blog posts, but for now I’ll return to the one particular opportunity in the aforementioned social channels.

Take Twitter and Flipboard. Publishers are great at Twitter. But Twitter ain’t great at books. It’s not realistically possible to get across a book’s depth in 140 charcters (although I accept the authors of Twitterature may beg to differ). 

Flipboard on the other hand is specifically designed for article length content. It has a “Books” channel. And yet there are no publishers listed on it (Apple’s iBookstore is well represented though). By Flipboard’s own numbers, its users generate 10 million shares within the app each month. This, in other words, is word of mouth in action.

Flipboard is one platform and isn’t going to revolutionise the number of copies sold. But getting content on there can be as simple as an optimised RSS feed. By producing edited extracts from Guardian Shorts (with buy links), we are opening our books up, making the information they hold easy to get at, spreading it around as widely as we can, flushing it out into the communication channels of the internet … and, to start with, using that to drive sales.




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