The Shatzkin Files


“Citia” apps from Semi-Linear; a whole new way to present high-concept non-fiction


Regular readers of this blog know how seldom you see an admiring post about an Idea Logical consulting client, particularly one with a new and untested proposition. We are often engaged to raise a proposition’s profile with industry powers-that-be. But I make a clear distinction between the blog and our Publishers Launch and Digital Book World conferences on one hand, which are services to the industry, and our consulting work on the other hand, which are services for a client. One of the best outcomes is when you learn doing the latter that letting more people know is, objectively, in everybody’s best interest.

I’ve been working with Linda Holliday and her Semi-Linear project since last September and I’m genuinely in awe of her insights, the ambition of her objectives, and what she’s already accomplished. As her vision, embodied in iPad apps branded “Citia” that are about to hit the market, becomes tangible, it is a sensible time to write about it because it will shortly be available to the world. In fact, I can hardly wait to find out what the world thinks of what she and her team have accomplished.

Linda Holliday is a veteran marketer and digital pioneer with a background in cable TV and health care information. After she sold her third successful business in 2006, she began a career as an angel investor, which included stakes in two publishing-related businesses, ScrollMotion and Comixology. This fed Linda’s already voracious and interrelated interests in books and how people learn. She’s very “left-brain and right-brain” herself, having followed an undergraduate fine arts degree in painting from Michigan with an MBA from Wharton.

Pretty soon, partly goaded by the growing stack of books she wanted to read and couldn’t get to — mostly books around her interests at the intersections of business and technology — she came up with the vision that spawned Semi-Linear and the Citia apps.

Linda saw a challenge based on two resources that reside in different amounts in every person’s life. The resources are time and money. She spelled it out this way, from a book business perspective.

If you have time and money, you are the book business’s best kind of customer. We sell you lots of books.

If you have time but no money, you go to the library.

If you have no time or money, you go to YouTube.

But if you have money and no time, then we in the book business have nothing for you.

And that’s where Linda saw opportunity both to fill a need and to build a business. Her objective is nothing less than to reinvent what I call “high-concept non-fiction”: books of ideas where the concepts are more important than the author’s prose.

Working with a team that includes Will Bourne, an experienced executive editor previously with Fortune and Fast Company, they built out the concept, which is a kind of 21st century Cliff’s Notes on steroids. The Citia team takes the author’s book and deconstructs it, looking for the main and subsidiary themes in the book’s narrative. This is done without regard to the book’s original organizational structure. It doesn’t follow existing chapters per se (or at all); it’s completely rethought. Then the information is further granularized into “cards”, 100-150 words (sometimes borrowing the author’s prose but often rewritten) that summarize a particular point.

Having reorganized the intellectual property, Citia brings it together in an elegant and visually-pleasing way that allows the “reader” (who perhaps might now be thought of as the “concept consumer”) to navigate the book’s information in his or her own way. The cards, sorted into decks, each of which represent a focused idea in the book, keep perspective about where the reader is in relation to the themes (in what I have heard some people refer to as a “mind map”, which must be a term of art I’m not familiar with.)

This turns the original book (which Linda sometimes calls “a brick”), which can only really be satisfactorily navigated by starting at the beginning and reading (linearly), into something far more lightweight and navigable (which Linda calls “permeable”.) Semi-Linear believes that Citia apps can reduce the time it takes for somebody to get most of the concepts out of the book from the 6 to 10 hours that it would take to read it to 45 minutes to 2 hours. And, of course, if what the reader wanted was elucidation of just some of what the book covered, it would be much easier to access the desired content with this new form of organization.

So Citia apps are a boon to the reader. But because Linda Holliday also believes in books and authors and publishing, she’s made sure they are also in service to them.

Each of the virtual “notecards”, the component nuggets of insight the book has been broken into, is shareable, easily e-mailed. They all contain the ability to order either the Citia app or the book itself. So each individual idea inside a book becomes a tool for virality and marketing.

There are many potential commercial models to exploit this idea. Semi-Linear decided to begin by creating what amounts to an “Executive Summary Series” made from already-published and successful books (although developing original content directly into the Citia platform is also on the roadmap and products with that genesis will appear shortly too.) That meant getting around to publishers and licensing rights.

Responses from agents, publishing executives, editors, and rights directors were overwhelmingly positive, but the ask for rights was very complicated. A few players were concerned that Citia apps would cannibalize more sales of the book than they would generate. Some others had the concern that authors wouldn’t want to see their work changed in this way and, indeed, author acceptance — if not enthusiasm — was quickly seen as important by Semi-Linear, even though the Citia team really does all the considerable work required to create their version. (The author of their first title, Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly, pronounced himself “gobsmacked” and “proud” of the work they’d done.)

And then there is the complication of doing a license for a deal the likes of which has never been done before. Publishers like to model new contracts on old contracts. It takes a while to get them comfortable with an entirely new product form and an entirely new business model. It just doesn’t come up very often. When was the last time somebody came forward to spend tens of thousands of dollars on development, deconstructing and delivering a new presentation of a backlist book? How would the author approval work? What really is the fair royalty? And what is the fair compensation back to SL for the additional sales their marketing of the title brand would create?

With the enthusiasm of internal champions like Molly Barton at Penguin, Rick Joyce at Perseus, and Laurie Petrycki at O’Reilly, Semi-Linear has secured rights and is building products. Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” debuted yesterday with a demo done by Linda at the “All Things D” conference. It is expected to be on sale at the App Store tomorrow (Friday, June 1) for $9.99.

The initial Citia offerings — two more titles will follow in June and again in July — will be available only for iPad (and only for iPad 2 and newer devices.) Obviously, apps for other platforms and devices will roll out in time, leveraging their creative use of HTML5.

This is an extraordinarily ambitious attempt here, literally reinventing the nonfiction book. If the public likes this presentation, it could create a whole new way for us to communicate and learn complex material. It will be extremely interesting to see what develops as the product hits the market.

We persuaded Linda Holliday to moderate our new “Publishers Launchpad” sessions at Digital Book World in January. She’s reprising that role at the June 4 PLC BEA event which will introduce two new content creation capabilities, PressBooks and AerBook, to our audience. Before those sessions, Michael Cader will host Holliday for her own LaunchPad session and she will show our audience what might be the new future for high-concept nonfiction.

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  • http://twitter.com/ecw0647 Eric Welch

    I wish her well, but it seems this idea surfaces every few years starting with Reader’s Digest Condensed books,  or SkillSoft’s Books24x7® Soundview Executive Book Summaries®  or the subscription blog, getAbstract Book Summaries ( available for the Kindle: “Every day, our blog serves up the top 10 take-aways of a fresh, must-read title.”) The idea of skimming the most important concepts seems like a Holy Grail of publishing.  It would seem the hurdles you listed, licensing, royalties, etc. may prove very high indeed.) Is it safe to assume the new condensed version of the book will be considerably more expensive than the original?  And what if several “summarizers” want to do the same book?  

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      The Citia treatment is far more sophisticated than a summary or an abstract. And it is based on a lot of thought about how information is presented and absorbed. In addition, granularizing what is in a book down to its core ideas (claims and evidence, as Linda says) will ultimately enable connecting the ideas from different books, allowing a reader to see what different writer/thinkers are saying about the same subject in a concise and connected way.

      None of that means Citia will necessarily succeed commercially, but this is really something that has not been attempted before or even really conceived of before. As Linda says, the challenge was to make something “shorter but not stupider”.

      The final question — about whether more than one “summarizer” can do the same book — will only really be relevant if somebody comes up with some sort of comparable system to what Semi-Linear has developed.

      The starting-out price for the app is $9.99. Cheaper than the book.

      Mike

  • http://www.alecbreton.blogspot.com/ Alec Breton

    Integrating Mind Maps & Text Apps

    The author of the article says he isn’t well-versed with mind maps.

    Perhaps Citia will do a summary of a primer about mind mapping? This class of useful tools (a part of visual thinking in general) deserves to be more accessible.

    Visual thinking can benefit not just artists, businessmen, scientists, and entrepreneurs, but also those writing a novel.

    An author’s story world will include characters, groups, locations, “props,” and various actions/activities. Keeping track of those can be daunting. A mind map showing how each part of a novel relates can be valuable in multiple ways. [This is a book's worth of topics in and of itself.]

    Mind maps are simply nodes — a blob of information, possibly limited to one word, such as a name — linked by lines. The lines also can be  arrows, whether single-ended or double-ended.

    Think of index cards connected by strings. Or, short pages of information in a website or document which are hyperlinked together — except splayed out all at once to see at the same time.

    The most familiar mind map is an organization chart, but mind maps also can cover more ground than stale org charts or a family genealogy.

    These are referred to as “tree charts” by some. The analogy to a tree is apt. Think of the trunk and then move either to the branches or the roots. Each branch or root, no matter how thin of a wisp it is at the fringe, ultimately it can be traced back to the trunk.

    One ehnanced version of a mind map is called a concept map. This is a mind map plus the ability to label the lines connecting the nodes.

    [Node 1] — line label —> [Node 2]

    The line label refers to relationship, dependence, cause, effect, or whatever elucidates the context of the two nodes.

    Thus:
    [Herbivores] — consume —> [Herbaceous Plants]

    … is one branch of a concept map. The parent branch could be “Animals,” which could be a child branch of “Lifeforms” … and so on up to the top (main trunk) of the hierarchy: Universe … or actually the Maker of the Universe?

    There are a number of apps which combine mind maps (symbol-based hierarchal tree-form chart) and notebooks (traditional linear or nested outline text), but mostly the products of these apps end up being limited to the consumption of the user who assembled them. The reason is the data often doesn’t tend to “travel well to others” when shared with others. In part this is because of different file formats, but also because people visualize things in their own idiosyncratic ways.

    What Citia and a few others apparently are trying to do is to enhance the “travels well to others” part.

    Perhaps, one screen’s worth of data in the Citia app is equivalent to an index card. The app then has invisible digital strings to tie the cards together.

    Anything to improve the sharing of strong concepts, which otherwise are lost in a tangle of less “impactful” thoughts, is welcome in my book.

    Alec Breton

    AlecBreton.Blogspot.com
    @AlecBreton

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Thanks for the explanation, Alec.

      Mike

  • http://www.stephaniegolden.net/ Stephanie Golden

    This reminds me of a symposium I went to way back in the dawn of the internet, where two enterprising representatives of two new companies touted the virtues of hyperlinks and how they would create an entirely new form of writing (and thinking). They urged us writers to learn this new mode since it was the wave of the future. But I can’t recall their names because it didn’t happen and the companies disappeared. And though we use hyperlinks in web writing (and more bullets), we still write linearly.

    What you describe seems equally conceptually exciting, though rather different, especially since it uses work that was already written in standard form. As the author of a couple of books of “high-concept” nonfiction, I worry a bit about what happens to complex ideas developed progressively through a book. I like to use images to anchor my books, which accure layers of meaning as the reader goes on. Seems like this system would destroy them. Though if there were a choice between someone with no time never reading my books or reading them like this, maybe….

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Stephanie, I actually think that most authors of high-concept non-fiction will find the Semi-Linear system one they will want to *create in*. It is actually kind of backwards to do the book first and then derive the Citia app. It would make much more sense if it worked the other way around and I suspect that it will for some books before very long.

      Mike

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  • Graham Storrs

    This all sounds very like some research that was done in Logica in the UK in the 1980s. Knowledge was distilled into cards, cards were grouped into “hands” and the whole deck formed a subject to be learned. It was done in the context of intelligent computer-based learning at the time and knowledge-based descriptions of each card, hand, etc., were available to be manipulated by the machine which could overlay things like a model of the learner’s progress and a curriculum (which could identify prerequisite knowledge for the student as well as administer tests). There were working systems at the time and a couple of papers were published in the academic press and at conferences. What we didn’t have back then was an iPad…

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  • http://www.citycomforts.com David Sucher

    Is the App available?
    I only see a book by Kevin Kelly which I gather was produced with the Citia technology.
    Right?

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Yes, you got it.

      I think it is available today: Monday, June 4.

      Mike

      • http://www.citycomforts.com David Sucher

        Too bad no sample available.
        I suggest that the “book” (or whatever it is) be made available as a free sample to give readers a flavor.
        Ten dollars is too much for me to see if the book is anything more than a stack of HyperCards.

      • http://www.citycomforts.com David Sucher

        Also, Kelly’s book is available in hard binding for 9 cents (plus $3.99 shipping!) at Amazon.

        If I am interested in the title, might I not prefer to buy the whole book and then scan it? And if I like, read it in more detail?

        I can visualize building a book from scratch using the authoring tools — an outlining program of sorts?– but I am wondering. Of course I am also intrigued as I am wondering what the edited version (the “App”) is like — what is the value added?

        Anyway, curious to see how this effort rolls out.

      • /blog Mike Shatzkin

        It isn’t just a summary. Lots of value added. Lots of money spent developing this particular iteration of the IP.

        Mike

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