Wolfram Research co-founder Theodore Gray said next-generation book publishers will need multiple disciplines---programming, writing and video---to be successful. Gray's ideas---not to mention his company Touch Press---foreshadow the future of publishing.
Speaking at the O'Reilly Media Tools of Change for Publishing conference Gray talked e-books and what they need to thrive, how textbooks will have to be free and proposed a new document format for educational enrichment and scientific texts.
Gray, a delightfully geeky guy who actually built a periodic table of real wood, had interesting insights given he's intertwined with next-generation publishing via Touch Press, software via Wolfram Research's Mathematica and answer tools like Wolfram/Alpha.
While many publishers in attendance at TOC were talking about digital change and adapting models, Gray may be among those most in touch with what needs to happen to publishing. Here are his three key ingredients next-gen interactive e-books:
- "You need an author that's not a technical writer, but can tell a real story with depth and authority," said Gray. "You would read this author even if the book wasn't interactive. Traditional publishers understand this." However, multimedia companies don't.
- "You need real programmers," said Gray. "You need people that turn hardware into magic." Gray's definition of programmers goes beyond "Flash hackers." These programmers can use software to tell a story and give hardware purpose.
- And the final ingredient is "a television producer's eye for moving visuals." These producers deliver high quality video on budget and on schedule. "If this were TV you would watch it even if it weren't in an interactive app," said Gray.
To see Gray's vision, look no farther than Touch Press' Elements iPad app. Another educational tool is Solar System. In addition, Touch Press is partnering with publisher Faber and Faber to bring T.S. Eliot to the iPad in an app called The Waste Land.
What's notable here is that Gray is a bit of a polymath. He's grounded in science, but you need the expertise of software, storytelling and programming to make these next-gen books work. However, traditional publishers need the programming talent---something these firms know little about. Software companies lack the storytelling chops. And video people usually can't write. Will new companies emerge or will traditional players in e-book production evolve? I'd bet on new companies like Touch Press.
"We're not a textbook company. What we produce is enrichment products that kids will actually check out," said Gray. "I don't think there's a future in paying for ordinary textbooks. No one will pay for simple textbooks. People will pay for interactivity."
To that end, Gray's Wolfram/Touch Press trio has proposed a Computable Document Format that will make scientific papers and textbooks interactive. "It's a complete suite of content creation tools for runtime development," said Gray.