This post contains a reference to our next conference effort: this year’s Making Information Pay for the Book Industry Study Group. There is a survey associated with this conference about how processes and job descriptions are changing that we really hope everybody employed in a publishing house — particularly those people involved in editorial, production, marketing, and sales — will take. If you’re employed by a publisher, please respond to the survey!
Even though I personally have concerns about the precious money that could be wasted on “enhanced ebooks”, I know that we’re going to see an explosion of interest in them and a huge escalation of investment in them in the next couple of years. That’s why I’m working on a new project called Enhanced Ebook University (EEBU) about which there will be much more to say in the next few weeks.
The idea behind EEBU is, to twist a quote from Mark Twain, “everybody’s talking about enhanced ebooks but nobody is quite sure what they are.” The first task of EEBU will be to survey the possibilities of what can be done and how it can be done. The process of building the outline for the White Paper that will be part of this project has uncovered a lot of great ideas that give me some renewed hope that enhanced ebooks can be more useful, and more supportive of the immersive reading experience, than were the CD-Roms we created 15 years ago.
One thing we’re hearing often enough now so that it is becoming a new cliche is that making enhanced ebooks is “like producing a movie.” The point is that there are many creative efforts that need to be integrated. This all makes me nervous for publishers. This is not their skill set. This is CD-Rom land. This is an invitation to spend enormous sums of money creating products that will never earn back their costs.
Now what I’m wondering is whether the enhanced ebook could lead to the resurgence of a diminishing breed: the (enhanced e)book packager. It may be already happening.
Starting in the 1960s and famously led by Paul Hamlyn, who consecutively created and then sold packagers Hamlyn and then Octopus, the UK-based packagers of heavily-illustrated books intended to be delivered in multiple languages became a critical component of commercial book production worldwide. The “packaged” book had a number of requirements that challenged publishers. They were illustration- and design-intensive; they required large amounts of subject and photo research that then needed to be rendered in a consistent and (for each title) formulaic way; and they required an understanding of design and language requirements so that they could be printed for different language markets with just a black plate change. (Some languages consistently take more characters to express the same thought than others and knowledge of those details was a component of the packagers’ expertise.)
Packaging evolved over the years. Some packagers, like Dorling Kindersley and Octopus, went for the greater margins of being publishers. With the greater margins, of course, also came greater risk as they invested in books, rather than being hired hands creating them on the back of a publisher’s firm order for copies. (One major packager — Quarto — evolved into a bifurcated company that is half-packager and half-publisher.) As the bookstore chains and other large customers like the mass merchants grew, they sometimes went directly to the packagers at Frankfurt, rather than waiting for a publisher to buy the book and offer it to them. That disintermediation reduced cover prices for the packaged books in those outlets which put further pressure on any attempts by publishers to sell the books in the remaining parts of the market.
Packagers existed for a reason: they added value. They organized themselves differently from publishers, focusing on complex project management challenges that publishers didn’t want. They set up important relationships, with Asian printers and with photo stock houses, and developed skill sets, for templated design and efficient assembly of books from multiple component parts, that publishers didn’t have.
So today we have ScrollMotion (which acts, in many ways, like a publisher), Brad Inman’s Vook in the United States and Peter Collingridge’s Enhanced Editions in the UK and, according to Peter Meyers — a veritable font of knowledge on this subject that I just tapped for EEBU — literally hundreds of others that now call themselves “app developers” offering up the equivalent of book packaging services for enhanced ebooks. These entities probably have a bright immediate future; they can do things that publishers will find themselves highly challenged to do for themselves.
In these still early days of developing the EEBU idea, it had already occurred to me that agents were going to be playing in this sandbox. When I first looked at Blio, it seemed immediately to me that authors had a key role to play and Blio’s very intuitive toolkit made it possible for them to do that. I included an agent in my initial round of readers for the EEBU White Paper outline because I believe that before very long big agents will be hiring staff to help their authors execute enhanced ebooks. Meyers, who seems seems to have done more thinking about this subject than anybody else I’ve met (I’m meeting Collingridge next week at Tools of Change), also posited that agents could become the new packagers in the emerging enhanced ebook landscape.
One other point has arisen repeatedly in our early research for EEBU and also touches on another upcoming project of ours: the next BISG Making Information Pay conference that we’re organizing which, this year, is on “Points of No Return.” (That’s the one I want publishing company employees to take the survey on.) PONR is trying to assess how much the workflows and jobs will change in editorial, production, marketing, and sales as the digital revolution takes hold. That project intersects this discussion: when we make ebooks first or enhanced ebooks often, will the required skill sets change so much for editorial and production people that the current incumbents will be unqualified?
At least one expert I’ve talked to thinks they will be. A friend who has worked in trade publishing but who is now oveseeing vast programs that create college textbooks says that the editorial skill sets that work for print alone don’t seem to port to multi-media. I have heard this before. When we were doing research for the BISG conference in 2008, a digital operator at Wiley made a very similar observation.
The use of outside packagers for ebooks might not work as well as it did for illustrated books twenty and thirty years ago. Packaged books, generally, did not have single authors or, if they did, the author was secondary to the idea and to the package. In fact, the author was usually hired by the packager that had the idea rather than the author developing and pitching the idea, which is how the agented-author book usually works with publishers. That argues for the agent-as-packager model.
Or it argues that some kinds of enhanced ebooks — the movie-like ones — won’t be the purview of publishers at all. I saw somebody suggesting an enhanced ebook of Avatar. Good idea. I had the same idea. But the way I’ve been thinking about it is that it will come from the film producer. It would be a lot easier for somebody working for James Cameron to pull five minutes of movie clips and 100 stills and hire somebody to turn the script into a ten thousand word narrative than it would be for somebody working for a book publisher to do this. Why would anybody think a book publisher would be needed for a tie-in of this kind in an app and enhanced ebook world? The publisher was needed for thebook tie-in because the publisher put the product on store shelves. Publishers have no advantage over movie studios for access to the App or Kindle stores.
On the other hand, there are a lot of enhancements to ebooks that aren’t so movie-like and which would be more like what an author or publisher could provide expertise to do better: character description capsules; background material about a person, place or thing; back story narratives that would interrupt the flow for most people; links to sources or further information. It could be that the Baker & Taylor Blio tool, and other things like it that are coming along, will enable an author and editor to accomplish a lot of that. They can even mix in the video. But it wouldn’t make them qualified to shoot it or even curate it, let alone negotiate for any rights.
That’s the kind of thing we’ll be exploring in the EEBU project.