Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Is the Rare Book World Ready For a Fully Interactive Catalog on CD? Part Two

Yesterday, I discussed the severe limitations of digital catalogs as PDF files integrating Flash animation. What might a fully interactive digital rare book catalog look like?

Insert a new model digital catalog CD into your lap or desktop machine, click on the icon and open it. First thing you’ll notice is that it is full-screen with no wasted real estate surrounding it, content sized to a screen, not shoe-horned to fit onto a standard-sized 8 x 11 leaf of paper. You can read the text without need to zoom in.

Click the mouse to move pages forward or backward. Click fast or slow and the pages turn accordingly, at the same pace as you click; hold the mouse down and the pages flip fast forward or backward as you might with a print edition but without unwieldy and silly animated page turns that only remind that you are not reading a print edition. This will remain true even if touch-screen tech is used.

Hyperlinks are embedded within brief descriptions taking you deeper into the catalog to supplemental or ancillary info, perhaps the book’s auction records, a fully detailed condition report, additional images of the book, a reference essay, biographical and bibliographical detail, you name it. Multi-layered, hyperlinks embedded within hyperlinked text take the reader deeper and deeper into content and back to the main page, smooth sailing with clear skies for easy navigation. Video presentations can be included, allowing, perhaps, personal salesmanship by the dealer. In short, you can throw in a whole kitchen sink of interesting features without cluttering up the individual book’s main page.

The layout? Whatever imagination dictates; you are no longer constrained by print traditions, only by the need to not get too far ahead of readers’ expectations and disorient.

The aim is a catalog that is no longer chained to and constrained by the print model, and - of no little significance - freed from the escalating and crippling costs associated with printing and postage; no matter how big the catalog its printing cost is zero and it weighs no more than a DVD and its mailer-envelope, two ounces, tops. Or a no-cost email to clients heralding the catalog on your website.

Presuming that a software writer has come up with a program to easily facilitate the creation of a truly interactive digital catalog - and someone no doubt will - the outstanding question is how much the design would cost.

Assume that the software application is too costly to buy outright when you’ll only use it two-three times a year to create a catalog. On its website, the software developer’s business model might be fee-for-use, perhaps $99-$199 each time you need to put a catalog together. Everything you need is on the developer’s website; you can design and produce the catalog yourself through easy and intuitive templates and tools. Text from other applications can be cut and pasted in without inter-app mash-ups, uploading images/videos is a snap and placement a breeze. You can wrap text around images in any manner you wish

The technology to do this is available now, and/or very soon; HTML5 promises to iron out a lot of kinks now gumming up progress; Flash is yesterday's technology soon to become last week's.

At this point, all that is necessary is a software designer-engineer with vision and a rare book dealer with foresight and imagination, and willing to assume the risk of being the first and failing. Or reap the benefits of being first and successful.

Whether dealer or collector, hard-core traditionalists will likely view a world without print catalogs with horror. I love a great print catalog - no matter what the product or item. Yet I recognize that economics will drive the need for increased use of a digital format and likely replacement of print catalogs. Most significant is the fact that a new generation weaned on computers and completely at ease with technology are the future of the book collecting world. They need to be impressed; full digital will be their standard, not print, and in the digital world infinite wow is the standard for attracting and maintaining attention.

One day, I will pop a DVD into the machine, sit back in bed and enjoy a digital rare book catalog on my 32” TV, the entire screen the landscape of an individual book and within that landscape all the details of topography, ecological place, biology, etc. available - everything of possible interest about or associated with the book and the particular copy being offered just a click away.

Moving completely from print catalogs to a fully interactive digital formats will involve loss, to be sure, to the print-lover. But so much will be gained, small and large.

If I want to buy the book through this new model for digital catalogs, all I'll need to do is click on a button and be taken out of the catalog’s disk and directly to the transaction page on the dealer’s website to make the purchase right now, thereby closing the gap between desire, action and sale.

For dealers and collectors, that’s a major advantage over print.

The simple, PDF-based and Flash animated digital catalog is a step into the future but in the wrong direction. It’s time to give up trying to digitally capture the experience of reading a print catalog and never, ever successfully replicating it. The gap between virtual and actual is too great.

A catalog does not have to look and behave like a book or magazine to do its job: To engage and maintain attention, provide relevant information, and persuade to sales.

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