Interactive children’s books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar can be reworked to work as digital titles. I think so, anyway (my pedantic father would point out that it’s already a very digital book – many of us grew up poking our fingers through those holes, after all). I also think cookbooks will mostly be digital within a few years.
The research proposal component of my shortlisted but unsuccessful 2011 Unwin Trust UK-Australian Fellowship application (which you can read in full below) sets out some of my thoughts and questions on these and other issues related to the future of book publishing.
I plan to continue exploring all of this through ebookish.com.au despite missing out on the research grant to travel to London … and I look forward to following the journey of the winner, Joel Naoum, too, because his research project (and blogging along the way at The Smell of Books) will provide some much-needed answers and analysis in this area.
Even The Very Hungry Caterpillar can work as an ebook: The digital future for full-colour and illustrated titles
Reference and educational books have already been usurped by digital products offering like content.
Travel publishers have worked quickly to take advantage of the opportunities new technologies provide in their field – from interactive language coursebooks to personalised, “pick and mix” country guides.
More recently, digital editions of narrative non-fiction titles and novels have become so commonplace that even this year’s Man Booker Prize judges have been given Kindles and ebook editions of the nominated titles.
Cookbooks, children’s titles and coffee table books are next. Publishers have already partnered with technology experts to create a handful of noteworthy ebook apps in these categories. But what form will their digital editions take in the long term, and how will they be produced and marketed?
Will they be created in house by tech-boosted traditional publishers, or outsourced to specialist enhanced edition or app publishers, staffed by IT developers, database programmers, film-makers and digital designers as well as editors, markets and publicists? If the latter, how will the relationships between the old and the new be managed?
Given the high cost of labour involved in producing apps and enhanced ebooks, distribution constraints, and the relatively small existing market, should publishers take a wait-and-see view on these emerging technologies, leaving the inevitable experimentation and mistake-making to others? Some publishers remember with regret their huge investments in CD-ROM technology …
Then of course, there are books that just won’t work in digital formats, aren’t there?
Consider children’s books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Peep-o by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, cookery titles like The Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander and Phaidon’s The Silver Spoon, health and wellbeing books like Up the Duff by Kaz Cooke and coffee table offerings like Susan Southam’s Velvet Pears.
Some of the formatting of these books cannot be reproduced in an iPad app or PDF-based digital replica edition. Or can it?
Might we not see coffee table books replaced by large-format iPad-like devices that offer a slideshow-like tour of the homeowners’ digital coffee table collection, wedding and family albums and latest magazines? Once Apple’s retinal display is available for devices other than the iPhone 4, photographs and highly designed pages will be literally thousands of times more impressive on screen than on the printed page.
What if Apple creates a cheaper, more robust version of the iPad for children. Little fingers may not be able to poke their way through the screen as they do the pages of the Carle and Ahlberg favourites, but the interactive opportunities offered up by the latest touchscreen and audio-visual technologies might just make up for that one failing.
As for cookbooks, despite the protests of foodies and specialist cookery publishers, these must surely be set to become collectors’ items. Digital editions already offer video demonstrations, the ability to search by ingredient, dish name, meal type and season among other categories, and the ease of checking a recipe from the supermarket aisle. In time, photography reproduction will be better than in print, and cooks will be able to pick and choose their favourite recipes from each of their digital cookbooks to compile – and perhaps even share – their own ultimate recipe collection.
This project would examine these issues in details, through research into existing digital titles and their publishers and interviews with major book industry players everywhere – but particularly in Australia and the United Kingdom
In addition to points raised above, the project would examine:
• Digital production processes, distribution channels and technology platforms and promotional paths available to creators and publishers of apps or enhanced digital editions based on or replacing physical titles.
• Apps/enhanced editions vs straight PDF-like conversions.
• How these colour/illustrated options fit into publishers’ overall digital strategies/publishing programs, and the state of play for these in Australia and the UK.
• How rights for such titles are managed, and how this may change and impact on rights issues for straight text ebooks, and even print books. Rights for creative contributors not usually considered in book publishing contracts, from animators, programmers, film-makers and musicians to interactivity experts.
• Territorial rights for digital editions of colour/illustrated/enhanced ebooks – how these are restricting and/or protecting book industry players, why we need them (or don’t), and whether they’re likely to survive.
• The timing of publication – presumably simultaneous globally and with print edition would be the aim, but how often will this be possible? Should it become a priority?
• Issues for authors, illustrators, editors, publishers, photographers, designers, marketers, publicists and agents around these developments.
• What booksellers can do to ensure they play a role in offering these works among the mix for their customers – is partnering with technology companies the answer? If not, then what? Should they stock tablets and ereaders? Is heavy investment in their own website critical? Is specialisation the only way to survive? Will the rise of ebook/apps lead to a move away from supermarket and chain book sales and back to independents?
• Will the rise of enhanced editions/apps mean the end for e-ink devices like the Kobo, Kindle and Sony Reader?
• Alternative publishing models for digital books eg pick and mix/buy by poem or short story or recipe.
• The role of specialist audio book publishers in the new order.
• Other ebook futures publishers, technology companies and retailers are contemplating.
• The need for curating – how to ensure good apps/enhanced ebooks reach their target audience and are not lost among the thousands of options out there. Who will “curate” for consumers? Digital booksellers? Mainstream media? Bloggers/Twits? How will marketers and publicists make use of emerging technologies and forums to boost sales?
• A comparison of where we’re at with apps/ebooks now and the state of play for CD-ROMs and subscription websites for books a few years back. How are these new media different, and will they survive and thrive where their predecessors didn’t?
• What education and training options are currently available in this field? What further training opportunities would be welcomed/are needed now and in the future, the UK and Australia?
• What does all of this mean for second-hand booksellers, for libraries, for administrators, for printers, for book distributors?
No doubt each interview in the lead-up to, during and after the UK component, would inspire still more questions and answers on this fast-moving topic.
A critical part of this project would therefore be its interactive nature. The ebookish.com.au blog, Facebook page and @ebookish Twitter profile would remain focused from day one until publication of the final report on related research, interviews, and findings. Blog comments and Twitter and Facebook responses and conversations would play a vital role in ensuring the project remained up to date and pertinent. Where possible, video, photographs, audio, slideshows would be incorporated.
The resulting blog posts, Twitterstream and final report would provide publishers, booksellers, agents, authors and other creatives, administrators, technology companies, librarians and consumers with a broad overview of the state of the industry at what is surely a tipping point for colour and illustrated books and all involved with them.
It would offer insights into new directions for the industry, and ideas for us all to consider as we make decisions about production methods, distribution networks, hiring and training, financial outlays, business partnerships, and the digital future of beloved backlist titles and acquisitions and commissions to come.
The report would never lose sight of the reasons all of this matters. The people who work with books and those who consume them with voracity have one thing in common: a consuming passion for the intellectual property contained within the pages (or bits and bytes) of books, and for the great literary culture that has grown up around these.
There will be those who argue that without the tactile experience of interacting with a physical book, much of that magic is lost. The impact of this yearning for the printed page will be felt for generations to come.
Its impact on the digital revolution will no doubt feature heavily in this report – which will itself be published digitally and on paper …
… The 2011 Unwin Trust UK-Australian Fellowship Report App, coming to the iTunes AppStore and Android Market early in 2012 [well, it would've been, we'll see what we can do about an ebookish app at some point].