When I was growing up, my friend’s dad told him that the best part of having kids was naming them: it was all downhill from there.

I didn’t take many parenting lessons from that guy, but I’ll give him credit on this one. Naming stuff is a blast. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

How We Named Eleven Learning

We get asked this all the time. To everyone’s surprise, we spent much more time worrying about the second word than the first. We like ‘Learning’ a lot more than ‘Publishing’, ‘Education’, and the other words that legacy publishers use to brand themselves. Learning is something you do, not something that happens to you.

As for ‘Eleven’, that was easy. It’s one louder:

The new name for our short-form textbooks is…

When announced our intention to publish shorter, focused textbooks, we knew we’d need a quick way to describe them. That led us to set up a poll, and the feedback you gave us was fantastic. One educator pointed out that ‘razorbook’ was a very masculine name that might alienate half the planet’s population. That hadn’t crossed my mind: we were thinking of Occam’s Razor. ‘Razorbook’, for what it’s worth, came in dead last.

The winner-by-a-landslide is Picobooks. In the SI scale, the prefix pico- means something that’s 10-12 of a whole. (This is either one billionth or one trillionth, depending on whether or not you’re a native English speaker.) We’re saving ‘zeptobook’ and ‘yoctobook’ for our next project.

The prefix pico- is derived from piccolo, the Italian word for small

One thing we haven’t finalized is how to pronounce the name: is it “pie-ko” or “pea-ko”? (Off-topic: to my surprise, orange pekoe tea is pronounced “peck-o”.) This is a subject of much internal debate on our team—it’s me against everyone else—and the internet does not speak with one voice on this matter, either.

The Latest Naming Project

A few days ago I was speaking with someone who loved what we were doing but questioned why were still calling them ‘textbooks’. To her, textbooks are giant, static, linear, and print-only. And that’s not what picobooks are about at all. We just haven’t thought of something better: “Contextualized curriculum-driven learning objects” doesn’t roll off the tongue.

Anybody have any suggestions?

As my colleague Stephen mentioned a few weeks back, we’re launching a new series of short-form textbooks. Feel free to read his post to see the full description—or if you’re interested in writing a book for us—but the short version is that we want books that are very focused on specific topics. Our authors get to write the interesting parts and don’t have to give equal weight to the boring stuff. Our books are not attempting to be all things to all people; instead, they’re exactly what some people want.

We need your help

Part of what makes Eleven Learning different is crowdsourcing. It’s how we peer review our books, and as you might recall, it’s also how we selected our slogan. So now it’s time to name our new line of books. Here are our options. Vote early and often. If you have a better suggestion, please add it to the comments below.

One more thing: we decided against artsy, clever names that required explanation. We’re looking for a name that a potential author will see and think, “Ah, I know exactly what they mean!”

I’ll finish off by sharing how we ended our previous poll: everything still holds true:

As you no doubt expect, we don’t cross-my-heart-hope-to-die swear to follow the results of this poll. If somebody suggests something that’s absolutely brilliant, we might use that instead. So consider this fair warning that we reserve the right to claim ownership to any slogans people suggest in the comments below. (That’s Eleven Learning-style legalese for you, folks.) And if we notice themes in what people like that aren’t reflected in the final outcome, we might pick something else. Or we might just pull rank.

Happy voting.

Please join us in welcoming the newest addition to the Eleven Learning family:  ISBN 0-978-9834557-9-0, registered with the Library of Congress for the forthcoming book Developmental Linear Algebra:  The Path to Mathematical Maturity by James Hefferon of St. Michael’s College.

With that number, we have moved one step closer to publishing the first completely new, commercially viable, open source linear algebra textbook.  You can count on one hand the number of new linear algebra textbooks launched by Big Publishing during the past decade. The number of viable independently-published titles over that same period is zero.

Together with Jim and the team of volunteer peersoucing editors, we’re on the verge of doing something remarkable with this project.  While getting an ISBN is a simple exercise, it’s still exciting and invigorating to us, and it’s a wake-up call to everyone who didn’t think this was the real deal.

Some of you may wonder why we aren’t doing away with legacy concepts like ISBNs. We debated that ourselves. In the end, we decided that ISBNs weren’t part of the Textbook Problem: they make it easier to locate, adopt, and order our textbooks. So we’re keeping the baby as we throw away the bathwater.

In this case, the baby’s name is 0-978-9834557-9-0.

As regular readers will know, we participated in the Startup Showcase at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference a couple of weeks ago. It was pretty overwhelming: we picked up some great information, met a lot of interesting people, renewed old acquaintances, and received tons of positive feedback. Some observations (warning, may include significant randomness):

  • Starting conversations with “We’re an open source college textbook publisher” is a great way to grab people’s attention these days. More on our OER effort coming soon.
  • Said the CEO of another textbook publisher: “I know you…you’re the guys who quit math.” Thanks for reading our blog!
  • The mix of companies at the Startup Showcase was interesting. Some were disruptive, but most were enabling technologies. Overall, it was the right combination for an event such as this one. The audience was fantastic: we were pleased to learn that there were a couple potential authors in the crowd, too.
  • Our favorite bit of advice came from media entrepreneur and investor Linda Holliday, who said “Your mix of free and revenue-generating content is a dance you do with your customers.”
  • If you weren’t able to make the conference and want to check out some of the presentations, here they are. This conference really is the bleeding edge of the industry. We’re smarter just for having been in the building.

Finally, we were presenting opposite the Westminster Dog Show. Fluffy dogs are hard to compete with. As we headed back to Boston, we saw a bunch of them outside of Penn Station…

One of our neighbors here in Cambridge is HubSpot, and in the book Inbound Marketing they advise their readers to not redesign their websites.

Your visitors […] think your web site looks just fine and are not particularly interested in your site’s colors or the type of menus used. Your visitors are looking for something interesting they can read and learn about […]

Perhaps they’re not as strident as Joel Spolsky was in his seminal work Things You Should Never Do, Part I, but they’re getting there. Redesigning your website is like having a money bonfire.

So Yeah, We Redesigned Our Website

Our business has changed substantially in the year since we launched: we’ve grown from providing a web-based textbook reader to offering a suite of tools for authors and educators. Our old website wasn’t just outdated: it was deceptive. People would introduce themselves to me and say, “I read your homepage. So you do X?” And I would respond, “While I understand why you have that impression, no, that’s not our business.” I felt like I was a marketer on the Douglas Adams account, promoting Mostly Harmless as the “The fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Trilogy.”

What Has Changed

New Homepage

If you haven’t done so, please check it out for yourself. Here’s what you’ll see.

  • Emphasis on peersourcing and community. We’ve given author services equal weight with reader tools.
  • Focus on what’s important. We have twelve months of data on what our users care about. Links to our catalog of available textbooks: interesting. Links to a definition of beta test: not so interesting.
  • A new tagline. Thanks again to all who voted in our poll of a few weeks back. “Community-powered textbooks” does a great job of capturing what we’re about.
  • Simpler registration. It was too complicated before. Now it isn’t.
  • Aesthetics. Guilty as charged: while this wasn’t the reason for the redesign, we did some fiddling while we were in there. So you’ll see bigger, prettier pictures. And we picked a new display typeface, too; it’s the gorgeous slab-serif-with-humanist-influences Chaparral by Carol Twombly.

Comments? Please let us know what you think.

This week saw the President deliver his State of the Union address. Now it’s our turn to update you, Kind Reader, on the state of our peersourcing efforts. (You may remember that this is the word we invented to describe our community-powered review process.)

I’m pleased to announce that we recently wrapped up our first peersourced project: Linear Algebra by Jim Hefferon. You’ll be hearing much more about this text in the upcoming weeks and months. In the meantime, however, I thought I’d share two of the more interesting things we learned.

  • Peersourcing is a Great Leap Forward. I’ve done the textbook editorial thing for quite a long time and thus am jaded by the traditional peer-review process. I had high expectations for our real-time, collaborative, online review process. It’s safe to say those expectations were exceeded: it dramatically improved the level of engagement and quality of feedback from the reviewers. On balance, it was much more rewarding and fruitful for the author, for the reviewers, and for us. Even in this fledgling iteration, we’re clearly on to something big and transformative.
  • Bernard Baruch“If All You Have Is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail.” The online toolset we used for this first round was easy to use, but also bare-bones. From this we discovered that the reviewers tended to work at the level of the tools. Reviewers’ edits and comments, while plentiful and helpful, tended to be boxed in by the limited functionality we gave them. (The quote above is from FDR confidant and dapper dresser Bernard Baruch.) Since we’re in the design stages of dramatically improving our peersourcing toolkit, this is great feedback for us.

We’re launching three more books into the peersourcing process: Introduction to Computing, Introduction to MIS, and Abnormal Psychology. (If you’d like to be a peer reviewer for any of the books mentioned above, please contact me.) As we experiment with more powerful tools, I’m sure we’ll learn a lot from these books, too.

Help Us Pick a New Slogan

December 21, 2010

We’re revamping the marketing content on our home page, and that means we’re selecting a new tagline that better matches our business. (Here’s a quick summary of what makes us unique: we ask textbook authors to work directly with potential adopters to get their books into fighting shape. This lowers costs for students and increases options for professors. Click here for more information–and to read about the new word we invented to describe our model.) Since we rely on the community for making our textbooks, we figured it was only in character to ask for help on this project, too.

As you no doubt expect, we don’t cross-my-heart-hope-to-die swear to follow the results of this poll. If somebody suggests something that’s absolutely brilliant, we might use that instead. So consider this fair warning that we reserve the right to claim ownership to any slogans people suggest in the comments below. (That’s Eleven Learning-style legalese for you, folks.) And if we notice themes in what people like that aren’t reflected in the final outcome, we might pick something else. Or we might just pull rank.

Happy voting.

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