“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.