In a recent sit-down with TED Curator Chris Anderson, I had the chance to try out the TED Books app, a dedicated platform to hold the company's publishing endeavor. Focused on short books, TED Books hopes to continue TED's method of viral ideation by tailoring to today's attention spans. This addition to the TED family has fascinating implications for the company, which has clearly moved from an annual meeting-of-the-minds to a global media phenomena. As Anderson, a publishing veteran, explains, "TED is a media organization devoted to ideas worth spreading."
"Arguably, a lot of the reason why books are the length they are is because the physical form demands it. If you were to print a short book, it just feels cheap, so things have to be 80,000 words regardless of whether or not the content demands it," says Anderson. "A book that fit the length of the idea that it's trying to express became interesting to us." Long enough to communicate the idea and short enough to feel unimposing, TED settled on 20,000 words—an ideal length for a single sitting.
"In a magazine, the mode of behavior is bit like a playground in that you browse—a page here, a page there. With a book, you're on a train journey. You start and you work your way through, and there's something very satisfying about that," explains Anderson. "So what do you do on an iPad where you have lots of reasons to play and lots of opportunities to play?" After searching through available platforms, they settled on Atavist. The platform gave TED the level of interaction they were seeking, with narrative linearity and optional browsing of multimedia tangents.
Launched last January, TED Books is now moving away from Kindle singles to their dedicated app. The new platform accommodates browsing through in-line items that can link to images, maps, audio and video. Best of all, the interaction is optional—users choose the way in which they read by toggling the additional elements on or off. There is also social element that allows for a kind of user-generated marginalia. While books come in at $2.99 on the free app, TED encourages the subscription model for $14.99, which delivers two monthly books for three months. Founding subscribers (people who sign up in the first 90 days) will also receive free access to the entire back catalog of TED Books. Because users know what to expect from TED, the company can get away with this subscription model.
"I think one of the biggest problems in the book publishing world as it goes online is just the problem of discovery—so what's the equivalent of walking into a bookstore and browsing to find the thing you want? The subscription model is an interesting alternative. You just say 'Look, trust us.'"
Portrait by Josh Rubin