This is an unusually brief post today, but some worthy observations don’t require long explanations.
I wrote nearly 18 months ago about my concern that publishers’ interest in enhanced ebooks would bring on a repeat of the commercially disastrous CD-Rom era of the mid-1990s. Of course, since the CD-Rom era, a lot has changed.
* The opportunities in linking and multiple media have been explored every conceivable way through the web.
* The number of devices on which people can readily consume enhanced content has exploded.
* A number of tools have been announced that can enable one person working alone, even without much technical expertise, to put an enhanced product together, if they have the digital assets and the rights to use them.
The tools are really in the news lately. Vook, the start-up that has been pioneering video integration into ebooks, has a tool kit being trialed called Mother Vook. Packager Charlie Melcher has a new initiative called Push Pop which promises transmedia authoring tools for Apple’s iOS. And I see on the web a new company called Yapper, for “your app maker”, that looks like Smashwords on steroids.
There are also tool sets operating at a more sophisticated level, but still making development more efficient. Touch Press has just applied its capabilities — which, among other things, enable them to make objects “spin” to be viewed from all sides — to a third iPad app called “Gems and Jewels”. (They had previously done “The Elements” and “The Solar System”.) We’re working with a developer in New York on some sports encyclopedia apps that make use of their proprietary system development to convert large databases to app presentations very efficiently.
A question that will probably rise in importance is whether the system that enables you to make an app for the iOS operating system will also get you to epub or HTML5. That’s one the “do-it-yourself” system developers will also have to answer.
(It might be worth observing parenthetically — which is why I’m doing it that way — that we see Apple developing the huge monopoly position on apps that Amazon has selling independently-published ebooks through the Kindle platform. While it almost always makes sense to distribute content as broadly as you can to amortize the investment in intellectual creativity, Kindle gets you so much of the ebook market and Apple so much of the app market that the effort-reward ratio to doing the rest can only make sense if there’s very little effort required.
(A companion parenthetical observation is that iPad apps with no iPhone-size counterpart are another sign that the creation tools aren’t powerful enough. I know you can’t recreate “The Elements” as it is done for the iPad on an iPhone screen, but you certainly have, within what was done, the makings of a terrific alternative fitted to the form.)
I don’t know how good the enhanced ebook and app creation tools are…yet. (Other people will judge that and tell me.) There have been announcements like what we’re hearing from Vook and Push Pop before that didn’t deliver or haven’t yet, going back to the beginning of ebook time in the early 1990s. There was fairly recent buzz that disappeared about Zinio Fusion. There was a Google App Inventor for Android ballyhooed last year, but that hasn’t been heard from lately. In fact, robust tools were part of the early promise of Blio, which got us very excited 18 months ago, but they have failed to gain traction along with the rest of the Blio platform. The “so easy anybody can do it” promise hasn’t been really fulfilled yet.
But I know the tools will get great eventually. And that might be soon.
When they do it will mean that anybody can make a media- and link-rich ebook; just add intellect.
That’s a trend I’m not sure works in favor of big publishers who are looking for opportunities to apply scale. These tools, if they work, undermine scale by reducing the need for tech wizardry in product creation. Of course, editorial wizardry is still required.
There’s one more trend I expect to see over the next couple of years: a marked increase in the number of ebooks created from what was originally illustrated book content. Some of those books integrated visual images for practical purposes, to illustrate how to tie a tie or cut a piece of wood, or as the images do in the print version of “The Elements”. For some books, “coffee table books”, the illustrations are the featured content.
In either case, the ebooks of 2007-2011 weren’t really suitable for them; in the next couple of years, publishers will be learning how to make appealing digital products with intellectual property like that.
This will be a process of trial, feedback, and improvement on an industry-wide level as we all learn what people actually like, do, and value. But there will be skill development on a highly individualized basis as people develop and express their editorial “touch” for integrating the elements, managing them through Mother Vook, Push Pop, Yapper, Blio, or one of the next dozen competitors that arise.
Will small entrepreneurial publishers develop and relate to these resources best, or big ones? In the next couple of years, I think we’ll find out.
We have one segment of our “eBooks Go Global” show at BEA that will explore the strategy and approach to investing in enhancement, another that looks at what skill sets publishers need to find or get, and yet another featuring publishers managing their digital publishing without much in the way of internal tech resources. And we’ve just added a short demo from Charlie Melcher to show us the tools he’s about to deliver. Here’s the registration link.
On this Thursday, May 5, we’ll be taking part in BISG’s annual Making Information Pay conference. We worked closely with BISG’s Scott Lubeck in putting together this year’s show, which is called “Constructing the 21st Century Publishing Enterprise.” There will be a keynote by Hachette COO Ken Michaels and important presentations on discovery within the context of the semantic web. We’re delivering a presentation jointly with Heather Reid of CCC and David Marlin of Metacomet about what we’ve learned from talking to publishers and service providers about rights databases. Rights databases, like the other topics at MIP and like the topics discussed in the body of this post, will be moving from a peripheral position to center stage in the very near future.