What can we learn in higher ed from the new TEDBooks initiative? I have no idea, but I do have some questions:
1. Why Aren't We Innovating So Quickly or Publicly?
Quibble about TED's subscription model, complain the the catalog of books is too small, but give TED huge credit for creating a new channel to spread ideas. All around us the digital book revolution is lowering fixed publication and distributions costs, while we in higher ed seem to have enormous difficulties in changing our incentive structures to award digital publication.
What size investment would be necessary for individual universities or consortiums to set-up a TEDBook like editorial and publishing platform for our faculty? Can we take advantage of the growing ecosystem of digital publishing platforms, such as Atavist that TEDBooks uses, as well as low-cost distribution channels such as Amazon, B&N, iTunes, and the iOS and and Android app stores?
TED has both some Fellows and a great brand to leverage in starting the TEDBooks program, but what TED really has is an appetite for risk. We have the researchers and educators who are creating new knowledge, but we have been slow to experiment with new models of information diffusion that leverage the digital ecosystem.
2. Can We Adapt Promotion and Tenure Guidelines to the New E-Book Opportunities?
One of the big lessons of TEDBooks and Kindle Singles (amongst many new digital publishing initiatives) is that there is a sweet spot for cheap, concise and digital only publications. But would publishing a TEDBook or Kindle Single help your effort for tenure or promotion? Would a concise digital book be counted as a journal article (not peer reviewed), or a book (not a "real publisher)?
Your concise, cheap, and digital e-book would probably reach a much larger audience than your journal article or university press monograph, but will it count? Change the incentives and we could have a flood of high quality, university affiliated, concise e-books competing in the marketplace of ideas. Do nothing and watch the thought leaders and intellectual debates migrate away from our campuses and towards the TED's of the world.
3. How Will We Balance the Promise of Multimedia with Its Costs?
This past week I read the TEDBook Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization by Ayesha and Parag Khanna.
The first thing I did was turn off all the multimedia features. Why? Because when I'm reading I want to focus on the experience of the text. Because multimedia slows down the reading experience, and the longer it takes to finish one book the less time I have to read another. Because I buy books because my brain craves a narrative structure, and embedded web links have the danger of taking me out of that narrative (surfing vs. reading). This is not to say that TED, or higher ed if we figure things out, should never take advantage of the multimedia possibilities afforded by digital publishing platforms. We should, however, be aware that the most important element of the e-book is the text - and that the text needs to be able to stand on its own.
Quality multimedia can be very expensive to produce. Video tends to have a much shorter shelf life than text (as fashion styles and haircuts are very period specific), meaning that narratives that rely too heavily on multimedia seldom age well. The expense and time required to create and integrate multimedia elements with text may crowd out additional text-centric e-books, mitigating one of the key advantages of moving from paper to digital publishing (the potential for long tail publication due to decreased marketing and distribution costs).
In higher ed, we will need to balance the risks of multimedia e-book development with the opportunities that multimedia can bring. These opportunities are mostly around creating immersive narratives that will excite new readers, as well as opportunities to deepen the storytelling by adding a depth of visual information that cannot be conveyed effectively by text alone.
What questions does TEDBooks inspire you to ask?