Summary: Safari Flow represents a move to Every Page is Page One navigation for books, but its success is limited when the content is not written in Every Page is Page One style.
At Tom Johnson’s suggestion, I have recently subscribed to Safari Flow. Safari Flow is a new take on the Safari Books Online concept which allows you to rent online access to a large library of technical books. What makes Safari Flow different? Essentially, it takes an Every Page is Page One approach to the navigation of the content it provides.
Whereas earlier services simply provided access to a library of books, pretty much on the model of a physical library, Safari Flow breaks books into pieces, recommending individual chapters based on you interests and reading patterns, and serving up a list of chapters from different books in response to reader searches. To put it simply, it provides a library of topics rather than a library of books.
This fits with the information seeking and consuming patterns that are summed up by the phrase “every page is page one”. That is:
- People do not want to search in one resource at a time. They want to do one search across multiple resources and choose the best result from all resources.
- People do not want large results, big compendiums that might contain the answer they are looking for somewhere, but small results in which the answer they want is easy to locate.
- People want content to be up to date. Owning a shelf full of out-of-date books is not as useful as renting access to a library of current books. (An expression of the general principal that you should own appreciating assets and rent depreciating ones.)
A library of topics
Safari Flow search results and recommendations follow this pattern: searching across the entire library and returning sections and chapters rather than whole books. It is an attempt at the EPPO-fication of books.
Does it work? Sort of. It worked well enough in my 10-day free trial to make me (somewhat reluctantly) shell out money to subscribe. It works because it gives access to content not available for free. But the experience also highlights the problems that arise when you attempt to give EPPO-style access to book-style content.
One of the books I use all the time, and to date have used in paper format (my copy is beginning to disintegrate) is Michael Kay’s XSLT2 Programmer’s Guide. It is available in Safari Flow, and in an updated edition from the one I own. That was part of what sold me on the service. But in practice, I never end up using results from it in Safari Flow searches.
Some books don’t EPPO-fy well
Why not? Because Kay’s book is divided into a very few very long chapters. When Safari Flow attempts to serve its content EPPO-style, it serves one of those very long chapters. There are several other books on XSLT in the collection, some of which happen to be divided into shorter chapters. The results from those books get me much closer to the information I am looking for, and they are much more recognizably relevant results within the list of search results.
Search favors EPPO content
Are those books better than Michael Kay’s book? Perhaps not. Kay is one of the giants of the XSLT space, and an excellent technical writer. But his book is not designed in an Every Page is Page One style, and thus when I have the opportunity to search across multiple works, I end up using those books that work in a more EPPO-fashion. For the most part they are good enough for my immediate purposes. If they ever fail me, and if the need is sufficiently pressing, I might turn to Kay’s book as a last resort. But Safari Flow has turned it from my most consulted to my least consulted work in the blink of an eye.
Indexes and EPPO-fication
You may be asking, why not use full text search or an index to go right to the spot you need in Kay’s book. Safari Flow is not really set up that way. It is about delivering discrete chunks of content, not about narrowing down to individual words. (You can, obviously, search within a chapter once it is open in your browser.) And that’s fine. It is an EPPO-based navigation and as such it is delivering whole topics, not pointers into arbitrary locations in the middle of things. That’s a good thing.
The index itself is an older attempt at the EPPO-fication of books. By delivering you to an arbitrary location within a book, it is attempting to give you the page one you want rather than the page one the author choose. And this is why indexing has always been such a difficult art. If it were just about the occurrence of keywords, then indexing would be simple and mechanical. But good indexing is about the occurrence of substantial mentions of key concepts, and that is difficult to provide in a book that was written to be a consecutive narrative.
Must EPPO-fy the content, not just the navigation
Ultimately, then, indexes and Safari Flow both highlight the same flaw in the project of EPPO-fying books. It is not enough to EPPO-fy the navigation. You also need to EPPO-fy the content. If Michael Kay’s book were written and organized in more of an Every Page is Page One style, it would work much better in Safari Flow, and it would probably still be my go to work for XSLT questions. (Or rather, it would be my go to result within the search results of my go to work — Safari Flow).
And this is the really important point. When a book is used alone, as a paper book is, then the failure to support Every Page is Page One access effectively may be a problem for the reader, but it is not necessarily a fatal problem for the author. Once the reader has bought the book, they will continue to use it unless it is so bad that they are willing to shell out more money for the competition. But put it into an environment where it is competing with many other volumes each and every time the reader searches, and its lack of EPPO structure is going to punish it severely.
The market for technical information is now global. Your content is now competing with content from around the world in the Every Page is Page One arena of the Web. Whether it works as Every Page is Page One for the reader is going to determine how often it gets read, with all the consequences for your career and for the reputation of your company’s product that that implies.
Want to chat about what it takes to get there? Feel free to get in touch.