This blog post is inspired by one on Zynga where the author has identified the “four secrets behind Zynga’s narcotically addictive games”. Anyone who has played games developed by the iconic company, like Farmville for instance, will describe quite passionately how these games can keep you engaged for hours on end. As I read through the article, I could see how these “secrets” could be imbibed by just about any company that wished to develop a position of leadership within its industry. We believe these principles would work well within the book publishing industry too.

Interfaces should spring to life: In the aforementioned blog, where Wright Bagwell, director of design, Mike McCarthy, creative director, and Maureen Fan, general manager, who have all worked on Zynga’s mega-hit FarmVille 2 were asked to identify the qualities that drive Zynga, they start off by attributing Zynga’s success to its commitment to design beautifully animated 3-D spaces. The company believes that “people know what it means to touch something”, having touched all their lives and that any interface provided to people should “beautifully react to a user’s touch”.

Much has been said about the tactile experience that physical books offer its readers, an experience that cannot be duplicated by e-books, not even by enhanced e-books. That claim has been dismissed as an attempt by purists to steadfastly cling to a sinking ship. However it is true that almost every aspect of a book – its cover, frontispiece, choice of fonts, page design, the texture of paper and the ability to flip through its pages – offers the reader a unique experience that remains unmatched by e-books or even e-book readers. As e-book sales keep increasing, only time will tell if readers will choose to let go of this experience forever.

That said, technology does possess the capability to offer 3-dimensional texts and images and these capabilities could be incorporated in an e-book. It remains a fact that many e-book developers haven’t quite exploited the power of available technologies to deliver truly outstanding experiences. Many of today’s ebooks, even the enhanced books, are what somebody called “radio programmes performed on television”. The true power of television, in this case e-Readers, hasn’t yet been fully exploited.

And even before getting there, there is no reason for e-books being clumsy creations devoid of everything we behold in a book. In so many instances of e-book development, one encounters badly chosen fonts, bad page design, even badly reproduced images. A more careful approach should ensure that even e-books are a joy to behold. The folks at Zynga believe that importance of UI (user interface) cannot possibly be underplayed. Book publishers and developers should feel that way too – their UI being the cover and pages they design.

Photo by Julia (ClassroomFree) via Flickr

Balance rewards for casual users and superfans alike: In the context of gaming, this implies making gamers work hard for reward rather than just allowing them to buy rewards. It also means that while the serious gamer will enjoy these challenges and work hard towards attaining those rewards, the experience should be designed so that there is something exciting for the casual gamer too – one who might just want to kick back and enjoy a five-minute break for instance. Both serious and casual gamers should be able to take something from the experience of gaming.

Such a philosophy requires a commitment to take game design as seriously, if not more, as its development. The challenge is to keep casual gamers from being intimidated and yet make the game not so simple so as to bore serious game addicts. As the development of e-books shifts more rapidly towards higher end, enhanced books, developers have the opportunity to engage new readers and serious ones alike. Similarly, the ability of e-books to facilitate social reading means developers can employ tools that will allow readers of all hues to come on board.

Make your experience a place of peace: Unlike most other games which are violent and rejoice in much blood and gore, Zynga’s games pretty much preach the opposite philosophy. They allow users to get away from the mind-numbing grind of everyday life and kick back and relax. “One thing we heard constantly [from gamers they interviewed] was [that] they looked at our game as a place of peace,” McCarthy explains. Zynga’s games are a throwback to the glorious times when life was simpler and all you could hear was “the wind blowing and the birds chirping”.

Photo by Janelle (Heart felt) via Flickr

Books inherently are capable of transporting the reader to another place. Depending on the genre of the book you are reading, you could be in the midst of a pitched battle or sitting in the lawns of a Mughal prince, maybe even running from a giant turtle fast enough to save your life. E-books in particular can enrich that experience by adding to the environment through imaginative sound and graphics. However, the reader must see value in these embellishments and not come to view them as unnecessary nuisances. The latter could spoil the party for the reader and for someone who has yearned all day for a book, another mind-numbing experience could indeed be a deal breaker. Publishers, now more than before, have the responsibility to ensure that the reading experience continues to be a pleasurable experience, especially as e-book developers, most of whom have cut their teeth in the IT sector and believe that louder and faster is better, get accustomed to the nuances of publishing. In publishing, more often than not, less is more.

Respond to user feedback in the context of long term vision: This axiom could not be stated more exquisitely. The customer is always king, still is, and knows best. It will bode publishers and developers well (they still work separately and don’t quite understand each other) to observe how users read and what they want out of a book they are reading. In this age where every behavioral aspect is “statisticized” and numbers are crunched to ensure that every permutation and combination of reader profiles are deciphered, it still makes sense to step back and let the reader decide what he or she wishes to read. Forcing a genre or a book down a reader’s throat because it looks cool on screen or or is easy to develop or even because one segment of readers in another part of the world found it fascinating might not be the way to go.

From a long-term perspective, it is important that new readers take to books, given that so many other media vie for their attention. This desire to attract new readers can sometimes tempt publishers and e-book developers to make books seem like video games, noisy and a riot of colours. Publishers can play an important role in such a situation, bringing their experience and knowledge of reader habits to bear upon the final product. While it is always important to push the envelope and experiment with styles, the prospect of scaring away the reader with too many bells and whistles is a real one. It therefore becomes important for publishers to keep an ear to the ground and understand how readers receive the new technologies that emanate from the developer’s labs ever so often, even it is just a lonely voice of dissent. E-books are still at a nascent stage of their evolution and a misstep could result in a terrific opportunity being lost forever.

Very few publishers offer their readers an honest opportunity to comment on their books, whether on their content on their presentation. Perhaps readers may have an insight or two to offer if they are given a chance to offer some feedback. Incorporating such feedback into the publishing process might actually yield dividends.

The publishing industry often comes across as a tight-knit one, one that often refuses to borrow ideas from other types of crafts. This is slowly changing now as many professionals who started their careers in other sectors are finding upper management jobs within the publishing sector. Perhaps it is time we incorporated best practices from other trades, practices that will help the publishing sector forge ahead.

Yes, we still call it that.

We spent the last weekend in Bombay (or Mumbai to whom the old name doesn’t appeal). The nature of our work there left us with much free time so we decided to do the next best thing – scour for books.

We spent some time at the Strand Book Stall, which, crowded and cramped as it is, still continues to amaze with its sheer selection of books, and at the newly opened Kitab Khana, which is situated near what used to be simply called Fountain and is now called Hutatma Chowk.

Kitab Khana is an amazing place for bibliophiles. Seems like the owners have deliberately chosen not to have the bookstore crammed with shelves, instead allowing visitors to move freely within the store. The books stocked are also of a different variety with more attention being paid to Indian literature. Some books not usually found, like the Paris Review Interviews, are also available here and should delight a bibliophile no end. Unlike the Strand, Kitab Khana offers good discounts to buyers.

Given the time we had to ourselves to just roam around we chanced upon a group of 5-7 hawkers, not too far from KitabKhana itself, selling what seemed an excellent collection of used books. These guys know their books and it seems like the knowledgeable book buyer will get what he/she is looking for. Between there and a similar place in Matunga, we found copies of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and The Autograph Man and four volumes (out of six) of Winston Churchill’s books on the Second World War. All for Rs. 400. Given that these books couldn’t be found at any regular book store, it was a delightful experience finding them. Many such books rarely available at bookstores, or even online, could be found here.

Photo Courtesy: Akshay Mahajan (lecercle - flickr.com)

Which brings me to my point. Bookstores still have a future. The ease of making a purchase online notwithstanding, and the large discounts available there, bookstores allow one the experience of leafing through the pages, the convenience of comparing two texts to find what you are looking for (especially where non-fiction is concerned), the ability to gauge the quality of the pages, the fonts and the readability in general and the comfort of just being able to browse through spines and look for a title that interests you. If bookstores ever triggered an impulse purchase it had to be its brick and mortar variety.

To make the book buyer’s experience more enjoyable though, bookstores will have to be more than just shelves with personnel milling around. Attendants will have to be knowledgeable about books and be able to guide the buyer on that journey called book buying. The store itself will have to allow for lazy reading and comfortable browsing. A hurried environment just won’t do.