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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

TECHNOLOGY

Tokyo-based Mod forges a path for DIY publishing


Staff writer

The arrival of Apple's iPad at the end of last month sent shock waves through Japan's publishing industry. In the ensuing 2 1/2 weeks, dozens of publishers have announced plans to digitize magazine and other content, while others have set up think tanks to ponder their changed marketplace. Even the National Diet Library succumbed to iPad-mania: Its director announced last week that he wanted to start collecting digital books from 2011.

News photo
Tweet life: In his self-publishing quest, Craig Mod found a way to monetize his online social networks. EDAN CORKILL PHOTO

Of course, the revolution in the publishing industry is about much more than Apple's sleek new device. It's about rethinking the way that we fund, produce and consume digital content. It's about sharing content across multiple platforms, about Twitter and blogs. And, most importantly, it's about social networks and how they can be monetized.

Which is to say, of course, that the revolution is about everything that has long been discussed by bright, young, tech-savvy designers and software developers in international publishing hubs such as San Francisco and New York. What's surprising is that one of the more respected voices in that ongoing debate emanates from this side of the Pacific. It's the voice of a 29-year-old Tokyo-based American expatriate named Craig Mod.

Imagine you're an author or a graphic designer. Imagine you want to make a book about something slightly obscure, such as venues for contemporary art in Tokyo. In the past — say, two years ago — you would have approached a book publisher and, well, done your best to turn them into local art enthusiasts.

Now, imagine that your pitch worked, your book is published, and it's a success: its 1,500-copy print run is quick to sell out. But suppose it's not quite quick enough to convince the publisher that the book's worth the risk of a reprint.

What do you do? Well, that is more or less the situation Mod found himself in, and his do-it-yourself solution appears to offer some important lessons not only for budding self-publishers, but conventional publishing companies, too.

Mod's book, which he designed (it was written by occasional Japan Times contributor Ashley Rawlings), was called "Art Space Tokyo." He had worked as a book designer in Tokyo for six years since graduating with an unusual double degree in computer science and fine arts from the University of Pennsylvania. "Art Space Tokyo" was his magnum opus, the "superbook" in which he distilled his knowledge to date.

Faced with the possibility of it not being reprinted, or being reprinted but in a reduced form, Mod decided to buy back the distribution rights from the publisher and tap a variety of social-networking tools to raise the funds to do the reprint himself.

A key tool was the U.S.-based Web site Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com), which allows anyone to solicit funding for pet projects. In March this year, among a bunch of funding calls for rock albums, documentary films and more, one appeared for "Art Space Tokyo: iPad Edition + Hardcover Reprint."

"The trick with Kickstarter is that you are able to tell prospective backers that they will only have to pay committed funds if the project reaches its predetermined goal," Mod said.

Mod's goal was $15,000. He offered a menu of pledge options: $65 got you a copy of the reprinted book; $100 got you the book and your name in the credits as a backer; and there were several others topping out at $2,500, which got you a guided tour of Tokyo by Mr. Mod himself.

No one forked out for the tour, but it didn't matter. In the space of six weeks, the site had attracted 265 backers and generated a total of $23,790.

Importantly, the average pledge was around $90 — almost twice what the book would have sold for in shops. "By creating this community, by letting people play a role in the process and putting their names in the book, then all of a sudden I had increased the book's value significantly," Mod said.

Need to publish a book on an obscure topic? There might not be an app for that, but there's a Web site, and Mod's experience suggests that Kickstarter can work wonders.

News photo
Kick-start your new career: An Apple iPad displays the ad for Craig Mod's book "Art Space Tokyo" on fundraising Web site Kickstarter. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Of course, to achieve that success, Mod had to draw on a very different skill-set from the publishers of yore ("yore" meaning two years ago). As Mod describes it, the project was an exercise in "determining the monetary value of my online social network."

Like many of us these days, Mod has Twitter and Facebook accounts. He also has a blog (or "journal," as he likes to call it). In the months prior to launching his Kickstarter project, Mod had all but devoted himself to nurturing a community of people who were interested in his work. When it came time to generate funds for his publication, hundreds were ready to throw cash at him.

It is this ability to create a monetizable community that Mod sees as the future role of publishing houses. "Authors will choose a certain publisher because they will know that if that publisher tweets to their followers, they will be able to generate thousands of sales," Mod said.

Did Mod care to share any insights on how to create a monetizable social network?

"That is the trick," he said.

L ast year Mod wrote a review of a new Panasonic camera. More than a review, it was what he grandly termed a "field test" — in the Himalayas. He started writing it while he was still in the mountains and, by the time he had finished and uploaded it to his "journal," it was 4,000 words long, richly illustrated with photos, and so well constructed that Mod needed to specify that he had no backing from Panasonic (he did, however, make a handy profit from Amazon referrals).

Several months later, Mod wrote a similarly detailed journal entry on the iPad. Another followed on digital books in general.

With each entry, Mod saw his Twitter followers increase by orders of magnitude. His advice for building an online social network? "Write really long blog posts on obscure topics." That, after all, is what he did.

Everyone who signed up for a copy of the reprinted version of "Art Space Tokyo" was promised something in addition: access to a digital copy of the book, which Mod would produce immediately after the print one.

Mod has described the book's digital version as his opportunity to test the digital-book design theories about which he had journalized so successfully.

His theories, in short, have two components. The first is that a lot of the knowledge built up through centuries of design-for-print could be applied in digital-book design, but is not. Typography, column widths and other design elements that improve the reading experience have been neglected in the rush to create interactive content for e-readers, Mod says.

Reinstating that knowledge in the digital age is made all the more difficult by the second component of Mod's theories: transferability. He believes digital books need to be flexible and robust enough to offer equally enjoyable reading experiences on devices of any size.

The answer, he says, is HTML: the bricks-and-mortar format for standard Web sites that, in its latest (fifth) version is able to cater to the same bells and whistles that other more specifically visual formats, such as Flash, have tried for so long to monopolize.

The difference between HTML and other formats generally used with e-readers — such as Amazon's Kindle or Apple's iPad — is that it can be read in conventional Web browsers, that is, on pretty much any computer you can lay your hands on.

Mod thinks that in the future it will be essential that each individual book will have to have its own online presence. "You will need to let people search and refer to each work," he says. Locking content up in e-reader-only formats will simply limit the growth of a book's audience — or in other words, its all-important online community.

That is not to say that all e-books should be made entirely free. "Some publishers will opt just to make portions free," Mod says. But, personally, he sees shareable digital versions of books as the key to selling profitable high-end print editions.

And this is what he has shown with "Art Space Tokyo" — albeit in reverse: He has sold just 265 print copies of the book, but in the process covered his costs and funded a digital edition (or parts of it). That digital edition, he hopes, will spread like electronic wildfire, dazzling e-readers with its careful e-layout and some of those readers — just some is enough, as there are no corporate publishers sticking their fingers in the profit pie — will be tempted to fork out for the premium print edition.

Mod published his journal entry on "Books in the Age of the iPad" in March, and a second entry on "Embracing the Digital Book" a month later.

The comments section of the iPad piece has attracted 355 entries — a veritable "town hall meeting" on the future of publishing, with participants chiming in from as far away as Norway and Israel. Nevertheless, the obvious truth is that the center of gravity in this debate is the United States. (It was the New York Times' tech blog that ended up featuring Mod's iPad musings, on March 5.)

Does the Tokyo-based Mod not feel isolated from the publishing vanguard?

"Oh, totally," he said. "Tokyo isn't exactly the most innovative publishing city in the world. You go to San Francisco and everyone around you is talking about the future of media and the future of the book."

Mod says he's not sure how long he'll remain in Japan. But one thing's for sure: As long as he's here, his advice should be sought at those local think tanks that are only just getting off the ground.



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