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David Womack: Can UX Save the Book?

Faculty member David Womack interviews information architect Louis Rosenfeld of Rosenfeld Media for his take on launching a new publishing house “in the midst of a collapsing publishing industry.” Below is an excerpt.

Screenshot of Rosenfeld Media website showing some design books they publish. Used for blog post about Louis Rosenfeld's talk about UX saving the publishing industry.

David Womack: How does Rosenfeld Media differ from a traditional publishing house?

Louis Rosenfeld: We’re focused on building a nimble, useful publishing infrastructure that sits in the sweet spot between two existing extremes: the almost industrial approach that traditional publishing houses use, and the do-it-yourself self-publishing approach that many authors ultimately find to be way more trouble than they’d expected. We’re trying to provide just enough infrastructure to help authors concentrate on their Big Ideas while not getting dragged down by “it’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

DW: What got you interested in the book business?

LR: In a past career, I was a librarian, so it shouldn’t be at all surprising. We reputedly like books.

But Rosenfeld Media isn’t just producing books on paper. Our digital publishing strategy – a moving target if there ever was – now calls for three digital formats. Each format – print included – has its time and place. You don’t have to apply expensive user research methods to learn that; just talking with our target audience on a regular basis does wonders to learn about contexts for using our books.

So we know that our customers rely on the paperback to read and orient themselves with the material initially, and they use digital copies for quick look-ups and other kinds of reference applications. The jury’s out regarding handheld devices, but we do see some demand for the EPUB format, an open standard supported by such devices as the iPhone, Sony Reader, and eventually, I’m guessing, the Kindle.

DW: Do you think other publisher’s should adopt UX practices?

LR: Really, if traditional publishers applied UX methods to their development and design processes, they’d produce much better books and save a lot of money. I can’t claim to have achieved some sort of publishing nirvana, but with some pocket change and a few chips to call in, I’ve been able to publish books that compare quite respectably with Rosenfeld Media’s competitors in terms of quality and, yes, sales.

It costs very little to learn something about which contexts your books will be used in, and what design features will benefit users most. It costs very little to involve industry experts in your decisions on which proposals to accept and how to improve upon them. It costs very little to engage your potential readers and others in a book’s development. And it costs next to nothing to sit down, talk with, and learn from your customers on a regular basis; in fact, I’m not sure how it wouldn’t be a requirement for a publisher. But I doubt that many publishers do it, which is a pity.

Maybe they should buy my books? After all, they’re all about user experience research.

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