by Graham Burgess
So the question was “When will electronic books replace printed books?”, and it was my turn to speak.
“For chess books, I feel this point will come when these conditions are met:
“1) The screen is as pleasant to look at as paper.
“2) The electronic book has all the conveniences of the paper book as well as ‘chess-intelligent’ features, including at least the ability to see the position at any point.
“3) The layout of the text needs to be as user-friendly as a printed book.
“4) The reader device should be as portable and as replaceable as a printed book.”
Of course, that all sounded like science fiction. I could almost hear the Finance Director thinking, “None of that is going to happen in the next two years, so I don’t need to give it any more thought.” After all, the year was 1995, and this was at an otherwise dull publishing meeting in the otherwise exciting city of London. Around that time and over the next few years, a number of publishers were pouring seven-figure sums into PC/DVD products that barely returned five-figure incomes. Certainly there was a role for electronic information products, but the technology wasn’t sufficiently mature for them to take the place of books. For years to come, chess-players would be using books and databases side by side.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and things look rather different. The four conditions above aren’t quite met, but it is close enough that chess publishers really need to start making the transition. The catalyst for me writing this piece is the launch of the full version of Gambit’s Chess Studio app. But don’t worry; it isn’t an infomercial, more a reflection on where we (as an industry) have come from, and where we are headed. Gambit, in case you weren’t aware, is the chess publishing company that I founded, together with John Nunn and Murray Chandler, in early 1997.
Our app runs on Android and Apple devices large and small, and brings together features that we always felt should be in an electronic chess book product. Most notably, the text is laid out like a printed book; we haven’t had to restructure the text based on the limitations of any data format (such as PGN). If you actually try to make such a restructuring, you quickly realize just how restrictive it is. Instead, we (well, OK, John Nunn, who guided the development of the app) devised a brand new mark-up language. It’s just a small set of codes, but I believe it is sufficient to handle any piece of chess text; the variations can be as jumpy and scrambled as you like, and we can make all the moves replayable without having to change the order of anything or add in lots of brackets or other spurious punctuation.
Does this matter? Well, take a look at your favorite chess books; do the authors always present the chess content in a rigid Kotov-like tree structure? Or are there comparisons, references to other variations, “imagine ifs” – and would the book be as instructive without them, or if they were handled in a clumsy way?
A great deal of thought went into features that are ‘under the hood’, and intended to make the user interface as intuitive as possible; for instance, the algorithm to decide what position is displayed when the reader taps on any particular part of the screen, and how this relates to the hidden codes we have added. While this is all invisible to the reader, that is also the point: there should be minimal barrier between the author’s content and the reader’s comprehension of it.
But OK, I had promised a retrospective. I recently realized that I have been in the chess-publishing industry for a quarter of a century. It seems hard to believe, but undeniable when you ‘do the math’. This spans a period of enormous change. When I started work on my first book, in 1989, most chess information was still only available on paper, and collecting it was a huge part of the author’s work. Analysis was done using just your brain. For my first book (which years later provided the basis for my two-volume King’s Indian work with John Nunn), I assembled a massive lever-arch file filled with hand-written notes and photocopied sheets, with all sorts of markings on them to show which lines they belonged to, and a transposition table, showing which sequence of colored squiggles led to the same position as another sequence of colored squiggles. Other authors may have used different methods of course…
ChessBase did exist at that time, but relatively limited material was available in CB format, and it offered far fewer features than more recent versions. It provided a useful way to organize content that you had collected from printed sources, though entering all that material by hand/mouse took a lot of time, as did creating keys. Chess engines were so rudimentary that they were barely worth using. Whether to use the text output from ChessBase? It was so messy that you could easily take longer unpicking it than simply typing everything in by hand. The only proofing method was to play through the moves on a board and hope you spotted all the errors (unlikely, as even very careful human checking tends to miss a lot).
And what of the publishing process? Until the early 1990s, little had changed for decades. Even though the author would probably use a word processor rather than a typewriter, the publisher would typically want the work delivered on paper. The editor would then mark up this typescript with a variety of arcane symbols; in cases where major restructuring work was needed, this might take the form of a paste-up, with scissors and glue put to extensive use, kindergarten-style. This would then be sent to typesetters (often people with no chess background, but specialists in laying out type), who would create the book letter-by-letter. You can imagine how the errors would breed in this process.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s, with the advent of Desktop Publishing (DTP), that chess specialists became more involved in the technical aspects of laying out chess text. Initially, the books had a less polished look, but the payoff was a great increase in terms of accuracy and flexibility. It was even later that the whole writing/editing/design/printing process became electronic from start to finish. The last bastion to fall was printers preferring to receive Camera Ready Copy (CRC). Thankfully, we now send them PDF files rather than a bundle of printed sheets, which could be dropped on the floor, have coffee split on them, etc.
Computers and the Internet have impacted all aspects of chess publishing. It is now the norm, rather than the exception, for chess publishing companies to be owned and run by chess-players, and not to have costly city-center offices. Less waste means a better deal for authors and fewer bankrupt publishers. There is no need for a physical office, or to be part of a larger publishing group. But when we launched Gambit in 1997, it really was a huge step into the unknown. Centralized buying by the major book chains was a new and novel concept, and most publishers viewed a force of sales reps as an essential part of their operation, not to mention a production department (since editors can’t communicate directly with printers…) and a marketing team to spend large sums on advertising, book launches, etc.
Sure, e-mail meant that we could actually produce the books much more smoothly than would have been possible some years earlier, but could we succeed without all the standard millstones of the publishing industry? It turned out we could, as the industry as a whole was becoming more open to new ways of working. Online ‘word of mouth’ was a substitute for traditional advertising. For some years we used freelance sales reps, but after a while that started to look increasingly pointless, as more and more of our sales were through Amazon (or specialist chess retailers – and I urge everyone to support them, since they matter a lot!), and reps were selling fewer and fewer copies. One sales rep’s report was along the lines of “there just isn’t a market for expensive chess books any more”. But that was in a record month for us overall (not to mention that chess books were about the cheapest, in real terms, that they had been for as long as I remember).
The rise of chess engines has had a huge influence on chess writing methods. At some point in the 1990s, it became clear to most chess writers that it was simply essential to check chess analysis with a computer, if not working interactively with an engine as a matter of course. King Garry was influential in this respect, though it seems his conversion didn’t take place until about 1995; his earlier annotations appear to lack systematic checking. However, as a publisher it wasn’t immediately clear how best to use computerized methods to check incoming work.
When in 1997/8 I had some time to ponder the matter (as my time was no longer being wasted in endless publishing meetings), I came up with an idea. All the moves and diagrams in a book would be forced into ChessBase as text input, and then compared with ChessBase’s text output. ChessBase can only process legal moves, and will output correct and consistent notation. So any discrepancies indicate a problem with the input data. Thus was born Gambit’s semi-automated notation-checking procedure, which I seemed to have spent a good chunk of my life doing since then… But it takes a fraction of the time it would to play through all the moves, and picks up a much greater proportion of errors. Also, as a bonus, it produces a PGN file of the book’s chess content, which can then be put through a computerized blunder-check.
At first, I expected that this would only highlight a few small analytical issues per book, but it turns out that even in very diligently written and checked material, it often leads to some major discoveries. This is because the blunder-check starts at the end of each variation and works backwards, so each assessment ‘stands on the shoulders’ of previous ones (via hash tables), producing extremely deep conclusions, especially when the initial analysis had correctly identified the critical lines. So my tip is, no matter how carefully you have done a piece of analysis, to leave the computer blunder-checking it overnight.
It’s not all forward progress though. While for the 1980s author, the problem was getting hold of raw material, the problem in the twenty-first century is information overload. Some authors still try to include every worthwhile game reference, with the result that we are getting 500+ page books on relatively small opening topics. Seriously, these should be database products. The most valuable thing a modern opening writer can do is reduce a mass of material to what the typical reader actually needs to study, however tough it might be to omit interesting but less important content.
Piracy is another matter. Of course, this is nothing new. Just as home taping was killing music in the 1980s, so there was also piracy of chess books in some third-world countries and eastern Europe. I recall innocently buying a ‘Polish edition’ of Chess in the USSR at a tournament bookstall, only to discover later that it was just a cheap nasty illegal photocopy. (Some were less obvious, such as ‘Russian editions’ of Informator, which you’d sometimes see at a certain major bookstore in London.) Nowadays there is more scope for damaging online piracy.
It’s hard to say precisely how harmful this has been, but it may be a reason why the more specialized books are becoming increasingly marginal from an economic perspective; a few hundred lost sales can be enough to change a book from ‘just about viable’ to loss-making. This hurts the authors a lot, since it forces the publisher to focus more on mass-market books. And while that’s OK for the bottom line, it’s sad for the chess community to have less ‘public service’ publishing. We do what we can to combat piracy, but it is hard to stamp it out.
Year after year, at Gambit meetings we would consider whether the time had come to move into e-book publishing. The unavoidable conclusion was always that the technology wasn’t sufficiently mature and that the market was still too small. But the rise of e-books was inevitable, especially once Amazon threw their weight behind it in the form of their Kindle platform, with its subsidized e-reader devices and software versions that run on a wide variety of other devices. Some of the conditions I listed at the beginning of this article were starting to be met, and we devised ways around Kindle’s many technical limitations, and took the plunge.
Now the Kindle has a ‘dumb’ data format, i.e. there’s no way to add active content or any chess ‘intelligence’ into it. But that doesn’t mean the books need to be created in a ‘dumb’ way. Too many publishers just stick the text of the book into e-book format (or have an agency do so for them) and think nothing more of it (except how high to price it). I believe it is vital always to place yourself in the reader’s position and determine how best to use the advantages of the electronic format to compensate for the accompanying deficiencies. For instance, the small screen size means that often there won’t be a diagram nearby. Solution: add more diagrams – or repeat them – in useful places so that typical screen views are more user-friendly; this doesn’t waste any paper, after all. Also, it is hard to leaf through an e-book, so it is important to use hyperlinks to best effect (though without overloading the book too much). Extra indexes can play a role too.
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the need for constant maintenance, as changes in the Kindle devices and their capabilities mean that there is both the opportunity and the need to adapt the e-book files. For instance, high-resolution screens were causing the diagrams to look rather small, but around the same time it became feasible to include scalable diagrams, using some rather complex code (details worked out by John Nunn). Who knows what next year will bring though…
Around the time we entered Kindle publishing, we also started developing our Chess Studio app. Yes, it has taken that long to complete the initial development plan. Some parts (such as the chess aspects) went very smoothly, whereas others proved unexpectedly troublesome. Who would have thought that simply specifying “It should look just like a page in a book” would require clarification?
I needn’t say much more about the Chess Studio app, since you can try it – for free – for yourself. Go to gambitchessstudio.com for information.
Looking into the future, I have to say my crystal ball is somewhat cloudy. How the app develops will depend on customer reaction and what offers we may receive from third parties. But we have put a lot of resources into it, and will certainly be adding many more Gambit titles, in both English and German.
It seems fair to assume that the distinction between e-readers and tablet computers will vanish, and there will instead be a range of multi-function devices, of a range of costs and capabilities, including very inexpensive ones that fulfil my fourth criterion (see start of article). Where the technology goes from there, who knows. Will we be reading chess books via wearable tech? Or ‘smart contact lenses’?
That ‘death of print books’ question remains stubbornly unanswered. Right now, we are publishing in three formats (print, Kindle, app), and print books are still selling in healthy numbers, especially our books for children. So maybe that day will only come when there is a generation of children that don’t even know what a printed book is. But looking at our sales figures for Chess for Children, it sure ain’t this generation!
Copyright 2014 Graham Burgess and ChessEdu.org. All Rights Reserved.