Om Malik: How would you describe yourself and what your company does?
Matt MacInnis: I think the word “book” is the tricky word. We are a publishing platform, and sometimes the thing that people create with Inkling Habitat and Inkling is a book, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s much more flexible in new categories like learning platforms, where people take assessment and get re-mediated using Inkling content. I don’t think we call that a book, but I don’t know what we do call it. That’s the problem of the people who are creating those things using our technology.
OM: We always look at the formats of the past and try to apply them to new mediums. For example, we put the old radio show format on television and taught that it was —
MM: That was TV.
OM: So are we seeing something like that in the idea of what the book is?
MM: I think we are seeing that, for good reasons and bad reasons. One of the good reasons that we’re seeing books mimicked on digital devices is that the world’s most valuable content today lives in books. You don’t start from scratch and have the world’s knowledge recreated from the ground up overnight. You have to start from somewhere, and so you start with books. That’s a good reason for there to be this middle ground, this transition period.
Then there are bad reasons like a lack of imagination. With publishers, the most difficult thing that we deal with is that they are so trained to work within the constraints of that old medium. They’re so used to the page, so used to not having the ability to reorder things or use media beyond text and images. Those are bad reasons that a book is mimicked on these digital devices.
But this is a transitionary period. It’s remarkable that the iPad has only been here for about 3 years. I think this is a 10-year transition.
OM: So when you think about books, how do you think about them?
MM: I think about the book as a hardware device, just like I think about the iPad as a hardware device. It’s a much more mature technology than what we’re working with in the digital era. It’s a hardware device that by itself is useless unless you put some software into it. And the software you put into a book is the content.
When we map this transition, we don’t think about the book as mapping to e-books. We think about the book as coming unbound and being put into all these different use cases.
What do you use a book for today? You use a book to read a novel to entertain yourself. You use a book to learn how to be a better gardener. If you’re having your first kid and you want to learn how to swaddle a newborn, you go to a book. If you’re a physician and you want to look up some information on how to diagnose a patient, you use a book as reference content. You can go down a long list that even includes things like pornography. That’s what lived in books for the longest time.
Now all those different use cases — entertaining yourself, educating yourself, giving yourself a reference manual — are going to come apart and go into different kinds of products, some of which are going to be e-books. I think Kindle and the novel are e-books, and I think that format is going to stick around for a long time. I don’t think that the idea that you take a medical reference book and dump it into an e-book reader is — that’s not sustainable, for lots of different reasons.
[topic]Has Connectedness Changed Us as People?[/topic]
OM: I often think about how we as people have changed because of connectedness. I remember growing up in India and not having any network: no television, maybe some radio. As a result, I read a lot. I would beg, borrow, do whatever it took to read, whether it was magazines or books. That brought me different experiences. I learned about different places. It also stoked some kind of imagination. Today we don’t have that constraint in terms of access to information. Do you think this modifies the role of the book in society?
MM: There are a whole bunch of different axes that you can look at this through. One of them is — you think about growing up in India and not having access to a network, which is another way of saying not having as many connections to other people. Not as many channels to communicate with people.
Radio is fascinating. I love radio as a medium. It is instantaneous, but it’s unidirectional: Radio puts one person in front of a huge audience, and everything goes from that person or that CD player to a lot of people at once. The internet has given us bidirectional connectivity.
The telephone gave us what the radio gave us but in two directions and one-to-one. The telephone and radio are virtually latency-free, which means that the minute somebody says something, you hear it; literally at the speed of light, you hear it. Books are like radio in that they are unidirectional, but they’re unlike radio in that the latency is really long. You can write a book and then someone can read it a hundred years later and have exactly what you wrote in that book a hundred years prior. That’s the other thing about radio and books. Radio is ephemeral. You can record it, but typically the radio broadcast goes away the minute it’s broadcast. Whereas the book is permanent, and it’s a record that survives generations of people. All of these different media have all of these different characteristics in terms of latency and permanence.
It’s fascinating when you study those different axes to look at what this new medium gives us. It gives us that same degree of permanence, but now it gives us something we’ve never had before: mutability. When a book was published you couldn’t change it; if there were errors in that book, they were propagated indefinitely, and they were never changed.
Now you can actually update a book after it’s been published, which is pretty remarkable, because a book becomes a living document. The latency is now shortened to zero, if you want it to be. The minute you hit “publish,” everybody everywhere can see it. But it also has the characteristic of permanence, because someone a hundred years from now can, at least in theory, look at the stuff that you’ve created today. I know that’s abstract or maybe philosophical, but what we’ve got on our hands is in fact a new medium, because we’ve changed a bunch of these parameters around the kind of content that we’ve created.
That’s where these use cases differ, like, a doctor who wants to reference something versus somebody who wants to read a copy of Great Expectations. If you read Great Expectations, you do not want it changed; you want to read the classic. But there’s nothing useful about a medical reference text that’s out of date. You want the latest version, and so the demands that are placed on technology to accommodate those expectations are vastly different from — going back to my point about publishers — operating within the constraints of the printed book. Changing their mindset to adapt their work flows for these new capabilities is the big barrier facing forward motion in the new medium.
[topic]Book Experience & Publishing Industry[/topic]
OM: You said a lot of things there. The biggest barrier I feel is not from the publishers. It is from the creators, the imagination required to think about a non-book experience. What is the book experience? I look at things like Snapguide, which is essentially the how-to version of those reference points. Medical books can be completely reinvented, but we haven’t seen textbooks being reinvented per se. It’s still in a lot of the old way of thinking. So who pushes the envelope, the creators or the publishers? The publishers, it seems like, have less interest in changing the status quo, because they already have so much invested in the current way of doing things.
MM: I could talk for two hours about the textbook world, and I won’t. I would bore you. But I’ve had some interesting insights. I’ve gone super deep, and I spend time with individual contributors, editors and authors at textbook publishers. I spend time with the senior management, the executives, the CEOs. I even spend time with the private equity firms that now seem to own most of the textbook publishers. I don’t know — Apollo owns McGraw-Hill, and Providence owns Jones & Bartlett. You know there’s a big transition coming in an industry when the private-equity guys have gone through and bought all these companies. They’re expecting these big transformations and a little bit of blood and some sort of economic boom afterward.
The problem is not a lack of vision. If you go into any of these publishers and you talk to anybody in the executive ranks, everybody has a common vision for what replaces the textbook. It’s not an e-textbook. It’s idiotic to think we’re going to take a textbook, which is a static compendium of some knowledge framed a certain way, and dump it on a digital device. That’s a classic radio-on-television mistake. They don’t want to make that mistake.
The problem is not vision; the problem is execution. And there are so many different things in these organizations that get in the way of execution. When you run a mature business, the way that these guys have been running a mature business for the last 20 years, the finance guys get out in front. They build a model, and they understand it, that if they invest in this product for this many dollars, they’re going to get that many dollars out the other end. They have a spreadsheet. You propose a project, and that project goes into the spreadsheet. If it looks like it’s going to be profitable, you can do it, and if it doesn’t, you can’t. That’s it. That’s how you build a textbook business.
Any mature business operates that way. Car manufacturers that have been doing combustion engines for 75 years didn’t know how to do electric, because their models all broke. Tesla had to come along and do something different. It’s the same thing in the textbook industry.
So what do you do? How do you propose a project that doesn’t fit neatly inside that spreadsheet? Because the finance guys won’t give you any money to experiment. That’s one of the huge issues that people on the outside don’t recognize: The protection of the income, business and the inability of the finance guys to get out of the way is one huge barrier to these companies doing new things.
The second barrier is that the people who create this content don’t understand the underlying technology. They totally understand books: They understand the design, they understand page layout, they understand all the technologies that go into building a book. But they have no understanding of software and the constraints. The idea that you ship a minimum viable product and you iterate from there — it’s just not what they’ve done.
I blame a lot of that on how the system is built. “Blame” is probably a hard word. Maybe we just need to re-teach people about the process. The current systems don’t let you imagine what the technology and process look like. You need to understand so many things to create a new kind of media format: design, video, words, how people are going to interact with it. You can’t be one guy sitting in your bedroom writing a great story. Instead it’s one guy collaborating with 50 other people, trying to create something more collaborative. And that’s what the web is built for, a more-collaborative experience. That may be a bigger problem than just the tools and the finance guys.
If I were to boil down my view on this to just a few words, I’d say the problem is not vision; the problem is execution. Your point about no longer dealing with a simple set of media but having to now incorporate video and interactives is yet another layer of complexity.
It’s fun to think about what is going to replace the textbook. I think that’s actually pretty clear, or at least clear enough for us to try and execute on it. You don’t want a student to sit down in front of a device to consume information. That’s not modern learning. Modern learning is synthesis; modern learning is the idea that somebody sits and thinks about something, demonstrates mastery of a concept and in the process of demonstrating mastery further understands that concept.
So how do you do that in software? Well, first you have to have the student take assessments like a quiz to demonstrate their stronger points and their weaker points. Then they consume some knowledge: They watch a video, they interact with an experiment, they read some text. And then they do it over again: They take another set of questions. There’s a ton of data there. You can see how much time they’re spending with it, and you can identify specific areas of knowledge deficit and understanding deficit. You can target those deficits with specific pieces of content. The instructor, whether it is a K–12 teacher or a university professor, can get that data and use it to help that individual human being rather than thinking about a class of 200 students in a lecture as some sort of average. That’s powerful. That’s actually going to change the way people learn.
But the amount of stuff that needs to be built to make that happen? We’re just beginning to build it. And in the meantime, what do we do? Nobody’s going to invest in some middling technology like a bunch of dumb e-books. So we have people still buying physical textbooks until more products come on the market that treat students as individuals and use software to better help them learn.
OM: I agree with you on that. I was a chemistry major, and trying to remember all the elements on the periodic table [chuckle] was always an interesting challenge. Now there’s an app, the periodic table app on the iPad. It is so much more fun. If my professors taught me like that, I’d probably be working in some lab [laughter]. That’s definitely powerful. I cannot imagine how fun it would be to learn from this interactive environment. I think there is a role for a traditional book in this world; there is some information that we need constantly, and a traditional book may make sense from that perspective. But from a learning perspective, interactivity is going to be more fun, especially, say, for math.
MM: The issue with math is that most of the concepts in math are abstract. If you use language to describe those concepts, then you’re using abstractions to describe abstractions. How do you expect a 15-year-old to take two layers of abstraction in understanding the notion of polynomial equations?
The more specific you can make it, the better. And that means letting them tinker. Lets somebody come in and literally put their hands on it and start manipulating, because for thousands of years people learned by doing. You grabbed a stick, you hit a squirrel over the head with it and you ate it. Somebody else watched you do that and they said, “I can do that too,” and they took a stick and killed something and ate it. That’s how the human brain acquires knowledge. They didn’t read some funny set of letters on paper to acquire the skill of killing something to eat it. We’re not wired for that abstraction, and the written human language is a terrible way for someone to learn a complex concept. It’s so much easier to pattern-match and manipulate it directly.
But think about the challenge here. Inside one heading — organic chemistry, history, physics, economics — are thousands of other topics. Where are we going to get the resources and time to build interactive elements and software to target each of those use cases? We need thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars to go in and rebuild all of that content and all of this software. There is commonality across these things, but you’d be surprised at how hard it is to repurpose an engine targeting at someone learning the supply and demand curve for someone learning what happened during the Civil War. I’m optimistic about this software that’s going to replace the textbook, and I’m also pragmatic about the degree of work that still needs to happen to make it better than what we have today.
[topic]Who becomes Tesla of book industry?[/topic]
OM: You brought up the example of Tesla. It was a pretty different way of approaching the problem, and they got it done. I think something like that needs to happen. Who becomes the Tesla of the book industry?
MM: There’s an arms race right now. There aren’t many companies that do this today. In the higher-education world in the U.S., you’ve got McGraw-Hill, Pearson and Cengage Learning as the top three. Pearson is still a publicly trading company going through an insane reorganization as a corporation right now. They sold off Penguin to Random House; they’re probably going to ditch the Financial Times, which is also owned by Pearson; and they’re going to focus entirely on education. You’ve got McGraw-Hill, which was just acquired by a private equity firm. You’ve got Cengage, which has been owned by a private equity firm for seven years and just went bankrupt after acquiring seven billion dollars in debt in pursuit of this stuff.
You can go on and on down the list, and you can see that there is a horrible transformation taking place within these companies. Nonetheless, I think they’re the guys who are going to pull this off. I actually think a few of these guys are going to pull out in front. When I say there’s an arms race, what’s happening is they are either acquiring or partnering with startups that have interesting pieces of the puzzle solved. These guys are pulling together those different pieces.
I’ll give you a specific example. MacMillan, which has a whole higher-ed group, just partnered with Newton. Newton is a company that has been around for about five years. They have an interesting learning-analytics platform that does some of this stuff that can help a student assess where they stand. Pearson did a deal with Newton, and they also did a deal with Inkling to start building the little modular components of content that they want to put into these platforms. They also have a big engineering team that’s trying to plug all these pieces into a common solution. No idea if it’s going to be a “Mr. Potato Head” or whether it’s going to be super elegant. It could go either way. But everyone is placing bets on technology right now to try to make this happen.
OM: I wrote a blog post about this website that I came across called Forty Days of Dating. When I was reading it, I thought, “Wait, this is like reality TV meets magazine writing meets e-book.” I was like, “I’m going there every day to read about these two people and their dating life.” And I would happily pay for it [chuckle], because on day 27 — there is no update on day 27, and I’m freaking the hell out. It’s like, Why isn’t there an update?!
MM: It’s called “Forty Days of Dating”? And it’s a diary of two people dating?
OM: Yes, they’re two friends who were dating other people but couldn’t find people they really wanted. They did an experiment, that they will date each other and write about it on the web. There’s a video, there’s some pictures, there’s some nice graphics. It’s a pretty intense experience, but I’m hooked. It’s like an internet addiction of the worse kind and the best kind at the same time.
I was thinking about that, and I said, “This is exactly what we need for this tablet age. It’s a new way of thinking about what a magazine story should look like, or what a book should look like. Why does it all have to come out at the same time?” It would be great to have deeply reported, daily reports of the Tour De France, for example. Like, all the historical background of where the tour went, told through graphics and all of those things. Like the town, the stories of that specific leg of racing. And yet it’s based on the news of the day. The news of the day just becomes what you and I talk about, the notification for the real experience. News is what brings you in, but you get this enriched data behind it.
MM: You’re describing the mixture of — I look at content through another axis, which is its longevity. If you look at the scale of how long something lasts, a Tweet can have a shelf life of minutes. There are exceptions, but in general a blog post might have a shelf life of a few weeks, sometimes months. If you look at news articles, they tend to have a shelf life of a day. Nobody wants to pick up the New York Times from a week ago and read it for the news. Monthly magazines with long-form feature pieces are interesting on the span of months. And then you get into things like nonfiction and textbooks, which have shelf lives of years. Travel guides have the shelf life of about a year.
You’re talking about taking content that has a long shelf life, things like facts that don’t change, data about the history of something that informs the present, and using it to inform the news article that has a shelf life of a few days. You watch the Tour De France and you want to know who won yesterday. That information that was reported about who got where in the interim period is useless to you once somebody wins the Tour De France. You don’t care much, unless you’re a statistician, about the interim steps that got someone to the win. But throughout the whole experience, the data about the history of the event or the terrain through which they’re biking or the history of the place where the event is taking place — that’s relevant through the event and afterward.
That hasn’t been done before, because you almost always tailor the product to the shelf life of the content. If you start mixing those two different things, you actually have, in my opinion, a new thing. It hasn’t been done much before.
The other layer is the economic reality. If we wanted to have flying cars tomorrow, we could have flying cars. We could! The economics would be ludicrous. We settled on private jets for the ultra rich, and even there the economics are nonetheless ludicrous. What is possible in the world of publishing, and what is possible for what can replace the book? The sky is the limit, and the technology is there to do it today. The problem is, there is no economic story to be told around some of these crazy ideas.
OM: I disagree with you. I think the economic reality is that if somebody doesn’t tinker and experiment with new things, they don’t have a business going forward. We’re all trying to do one thing. All media, whether it is my company, your company, big publishers, small publishers. We are all in the business of attention, 100 percent. There are only 24 hours in a day. Those 24 hours are getting sliced thinner and thinner, and people don’t seem to understand that’s the reality. That’s the economic reality. The more books lose to —
MM: Something else.
OM: The less opportunity there is to sell the people. From that standpoint, all the companies — including mine — have to experiment with these new formats. And the rest of the time we need to constantly look at where is the attention going. Right now BuzzFeed has all the attention, more so than Huffington Post. Good or bad, they have the attention. Medium has the attention, and LinkedIn has the attention. It’s good that we’re thinking about it, but we’re essentially repurposing the old style of attention to a new style, a new container. That’s about it. Unless someone experiments with this new way of thinking about information content and attention, we don’t really go anywhere in this connected reality.
MM: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t experiment or that we shouldn’t take risk in that we shouldn’t spend capital failing. Of course I think we should do that; I’m a fan of any entrepreneurial endeavor. My point is more that consumers have expectations of flying cars at times, and we need to walk people back into the economic realities of what we can actually do within the constraint of money.
That being said, I do think these holy grails of, for example, the travel guide that is always updated or the textbook that responds to your individual learning needs — those are possible, and we’ll get there. It just takes time.
The travel guide is another interesting thing that we sometimes don’t— you can turn this around and say, “Why do we need books when we have user-generated content? Why do I need travel guides? If I can just use TripAdvisor, why do I need Zagat? Why do I need Zagat if I have Yelp?”
The reality is that people crave a point of view. This is why they listen to your podcast or why they read blog posts from individuals. Human beings want the world told through the lens of a story, through a single human being.
With a travel guide, people love going through Europe and listening to Rick Steve’s perspective, for example, because they happen to also be nerdy and they love the history and they want his point of view on the world. You can’t get that from user-generated content, because what you get in user-generated content is the average of a lot of people. And sometimes the average sucks. Sometimes the average is as boring as hell. Or it’s useless. Take the Four Seasons Hotel: One person thinks it’s a rip-off, one person thinks it’s divine and one person thinks that it’s completely down-market because last month he stayed at his own private villa. If you know of someone, as a brand, that speaks to you, then you want that information. And that belongs in a book, not on a platform like TripAdvisor.
OM: Why do you know so much about books?
MM: I don’t think I know much about books. I don’t think about books. I think about how human beings are connected with one another in the context of expertise. A textbook, a reference book, a travel book, a parenting book: All of those things have in common the connection between a consumer of expertise and knowledge or a consumer of a point of view and the provider of that expertise, knowledge or point of view. And that’s done through the book.
It’s been done through the book for hundreds of years, and now it’s being done through something else. In many cases it’s being done through Inkling, but there are lots of different ways that people connect with one another. And to your point at the beginning of the conversation about connectedness, I think more about how we connect people than I do about the book, because the book is just one kind of highway for that connection.
OM: You were talking a few minutes ago about how in the past a mistake in a book was permanent, that it would get replicated.
MM: Well, there are different kinds of replication. Different types of propagation of error.
[topic]Trust in media[/topic]
OM: Now we have a different kind of problem. Today we make a mistake and it gets amplified so fast that the perception becomes reality.
MM: Yes [chuckle]. This comes back to the trustworthiness of the source. Publishers have been selling products on the basis of their authoritative and trustworthy nature, and we need that. We have to have somebody defending the truth, and the truth doesn’t get defended well in the comments on a blog post. In the comments, whoever’s loudest becomes the rightest. That’s silly, because there’s probably no correlation — probably negative correlation — between how loud you are and how right you are. The idea of error propagation is fascinating to me. I learned this from Nate Silver, the guy who did the FiveThirtyEight political blog. He must be a boring guy to have dinner with to a degree, because he is so dry. But he’s usually right, which is great.
We used to have scrolls and manuscripts that were hand-copied. You had the Chinese-whispers problem, where every subsequent copy of a document had additional errors introduced. If you were to look at the first and the one-hundredth copy of what was ostensibly supposed to be the same document, you’d have something radically different at the end of the one-hundredth replication. That was a certain kind of error process. It’s like analog tapes being copied over and over again. At the end of the hundredth copy, it sounds like crap.
Then we had the printing press, which was able to propagate infinitely, perfectly. But if there was an error in that original copy, that same error was propagated perfectly everywhere. That introduced a different kind of problem in society.
The problem we have now is that you propagate an error instantly. However, you can fix that error instantly, if you discover it. But then you’ve lost a record of the original error. You have to start asking the question, How do we manage versions and track the errata that were introduced over time? So that you can go back and say, “Well, if my primary source a year ago was X and now the primary source has changed, how do I go back and reference what this author was saying in the original version?” This is a problem on the web, but it’s an evermore troublesome problem in publishing, as real vetted, trustworthy content is now editable ex post facto.
[I grimace.] It seems like it bothers you a lot. I see this as, “OK, there is a mistake. It can be fixed fast.”
OM: That’s the good side, and 90 percent of it is good. But I also think about other content. Today I ended up on a website called Dark Rye or something like that. It’s like a site for Detroit, it’s a magazine online. I was reading it: beautiful publication, high-end graphics, just beautiful, just lovely. Then I realized it was published by Whole Foods. I suddenly felt cheated.
MM: This is the question. Do you trust Whole Foods’ point of view on Detroit?
OM: I don’t trust anybody’s point of view on Detroit. I just read everybody’s point of view and make my own judgement. But I am an outlier like that, because this is my business. Not everybody would notice that this was put out by Whole Foods. One thing that starts to bug me is that the lines are blurring between what is marketing and advertising and content. In the past, with magazines, at least we had the veneer that editorials were separate from marketing and advertising, even though we all knew that one helped the other.
MM: I’m not sure I buy that, because everything looks rosier in the lens of history. I was in Brooks Brothers yesterday, and on the wall they had this print from a newspaper from the 1940s, 1950s, maybe even in the 1960s. It was a picture of a woman asleep on a bed wearing a Brooks Brothers’ shirt. It was about how as women are getting more rights, they are stealing the shirts off the backs of men. It was a pun, because she was wearing the man’s shirt as a nightgown. It looked just like a magazine piece, almost like a Playboy article, but it was an advertisement. Nowhere in that piece did it say that it was an advertisement, even though it was clearly a Brooks Brothers ad. This idea of advertorial, the mixture of commercial interest with some sort of objective third-party point of view is — they certainly had no scruples about it in the 1960s, and that was a long time ago. It’s been there from the beginning.
OM: You make a fair point. But the point I’m making is that in a print publication, you could tell the difference between what was an advertorial and what wasn’t. At least when I was working for magazines, in the 1990s, you could tell the difference. Now there is some good stuff being put out by people like Whole Foods and American Express, and they have their own magazine. But it’s not clear as to who is behind the content. If that was a little bit more clear, at least you could make your own judgment call.
MM: Sure. I think about that stuff less than anyone else, because I deal so little in the world of advertising and entertainment in my work. You ask me why I think so much about the book. Again, I think less about the book and more about how people consume knowledge. Luckily for me, advertising and that problem don’t crop up as much.
OM: When did you come up with the idea of starting Inkling?
MM: I had known about this thing that was coming from Apple [the iPad] in advance, and I knew it was going to change the way knowledge was published. My general thesis is that where there is change, there is opportunity. If you can jump into the deep end of a market that’s about to be blown up, jump in. Because if you have a little bit of foresight, the odds that you are going to survive and thrive are better than the odds you’re going to fail.
The idea came from the frustration of dealing with schools. I had been deploying laptops in K–12 schools and watching them fail because there was no good content. I was really excited about the idea of changing how people learned. Not just in a classroom but generally how we make the world a smarter place.
We started it with that notion. We then came across so many technical challenges and so many obstacles in the market and so many barriers to success that we swam around in that knowledge and found our way to a strategy that worked for our company, for our business. But it was always with the end game of improving the way people consume knowledge.