Times’ Nick Bilton Takes a Byte Out of Books

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A couple of weeks ago, Nick Bilton went on leave as the New York Times’ user interface specialist and design integration editor to start writing his book, Byte. Snack. Meal: The New Business of Storytelling, due out from Crown in June 2010.

“It was a touchy subject,” he said. “The Times is having a tough time and for me to go off and do this book, it took some convincing, but I think they saw the importance in a project like this. It’s relevant to the whole industry,” he told the Observer last week. “And when I go back, I’ll have much broader knowledge about where the industry is going to be.” 

Mr. Bilton is one of the Times‘ lead research and development thinkers. He tinkers with mobile e-readers, new software and even sensors to envision how we’re all going to be reading the “paper” a decade from now. He’s behind all kinds of futuristic projects–like Times Reader, a digital, e-reader friendly format of the news, and a project called CustomTimes, an intuitive program that seamlessly juggles content between phones, computers and even the living room. “It’s this idea that your content follows you around between your devices,” Mr. Bilton explained. “You could start reading something on your mobile phone and finish reading it on your computer when you get home, and later on the day, you can watch the videos that are associated with it on your television,” is how he described it. 

For his book, Mr. Bilton will examine how the Web has rewired our brains and made users, which he calls “consumivores,” crave different forms of content. “We used to go and we’d only have one option of how we could read an article,” he told the Observer, referring to hefty blocks of text. But now we get “bite-sized” previews on blogs or from a friend sending us a link with their own commentary. Reading the actual article is the “snack experience,” Mr. Bilton explained. “If we’re really interested, we go off and we look for more content [on sites like Wikipedia or Google] which is the meal.”

Mr. Bilton aims to satisfy this new breed of readers by offering a “platform agnostic” buffet of content. He’s shooting videos of all of his interviews, which include brain researchers, porn industry mavens and new media icons including Clay Shirky and Arianna Huffington. 

“I look like a raving lunatic when I go into interviews,” said Mr. Bilton, who shows up with video cameras, a digital photo camera, an iPhone, a laptop, as well as a notepad and voice recorder. “I’m like Edward Scissorhands with buttons,” he said.

Snippets of those videos will be teased out on his Web site. He also wants to include a summary before each chapter, so readers can choose whether or not to read on or flip ahead. And at the end of chapters, he’ll include a number, which they can text message to view a video interview on their mobile phone while they’re reading the book. He’s also thinking about offering full transcripts of his interviews, research papers and notes online so they can consume the raw “data” of his book-writing process.

Unlike (we assume!) most authors, Mr. Bilton would also like to look at analytics to see when people get bored and stop reading his book. “I was recently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, and I got three chapters in and I lost interest,” he said. “I asked some other people if they finished it and they were like, ‘Eh, chapter three or four, I kind of lost interest a little bit.’ It would be great if we put the book out there before the printed version and we could see if people were finishing it or falling off at certain chapters and then maybe rework it and do real time changes to the structure of the book as analytics come in.”

Mr. Bilton said book publishers are going to have to think beyond paper, and even the Kindle, if they are going to survive in the digital future. “They have to adapt to what consumers will expect,” he said. “They’re going to expect a much more immersive reading experience with full, interactive content and communication and commentary and things like that… They should be living and breathing and changing, like the story does.”