It was bound to happen. The record industry was forced to adapt when iTunes came along. Reluctant film studios made the jump to Netflix and other streaming services. And now, with tablets selling at mind-boggling rates, book publishers are scrambling to figure out how to bring their ancient medium into the digital realm.
All the usual fears about moving into the 21st century spook the book companies, just as they did when younger industries made the leap.
“The conversation a year ago was, ‘Oh my god you’re going to kill my book sales’ and ‘You can’t release e-books simultaneously’ and ‘Don’t do an app, no one will buy my book if the app is $2.99!’” said Lorena Jones, the publishing director behind Chronicle Books‘ digital initiatives, in an interview with Wired at the company’s San Francisco office.
“The comfort zone is increasing. The conversation a year ago was ‘Oh my god you’re going to kill my book sales.’”
Now book publishers know they must evolve: 21 percent of Americans say they’ve read an e-book, according to a Pew Internet study released last week, and the Association of American Publishers says 114 million e-books were sold in 2010(the most recent year for which numbers are available). Some 48.3 million iPads, Android tablets and e-readers were sold to U.S. consumers in 2011, and about half that many were sold the year before, according to NPD Group. With so many tablets flooding the market, demand for e-books is only going to grow.
Though the rewards promise to be great, the adaptation book publishers must make is far more complicated than that faced by the music and movie industries, which essentially needed to digitize their current products. Bookmakers must become multimedia companies — creating audio, video and interactive components for their immersive, built-for-tablets offerings.
They also face a dizzying array of decisions brought on by evolving standards and platforms: Should a certain book come to life as a dedicated app, an approach that, until iBooks 2 was released, offered more flexibility in terms of features like video and audio on the iPad? Or should it be turned into an “enhanced e-book,” which will work on Apple’s tablet as well as Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Barnes and Noble’s Nook and other devices, but must be re-created several times over to meet each device’s specs?
As an independent publisher, Chronicle, which recently released an iPad app for artist Stephan Pastis’ comics series Pearls Before Swine, can be more nimble than larger businesses. Even so, Jones notes, e-books and apps require large investments — some Chronicle projects run upward of $100,000 — and because of the multitude of devices and platforms out there, it’s hard to determine where the audience is or what the shelf life of any particular format or device will be. It’s a guessing game that can require big gambles from publishers.
Regardless, booksellers must adapt, and so must authors of all stripes. Pastis notes that as a comic strip creator working in newspapers, it’s imperative that he find new ways to reach an audience. “There’s a generation of people that are coming up that just don’t know you’re alive,” he said.
Independent Publishers Leading the Way
“Our tagline is ‘reinventing storytelling’ and it’s the idea that we’re at this place where that’s really what we’re capable of doing.”
Even as publishers are growing more adventurous about the time and effort they put into enhanced e-book and app offerings — a recent Wall Street Journal story reported that Penguin plans to release 50 enhanced e-books this year (up from 35 in 2011) while Simon & Schuster has 60 coming — independent publishers generally find themselves in a much better position to take the risks needed to find out what works for enhanced e-books.
A few years ago, author Amanda Havard wasn’t able to find a publisher that could bring her book The Survivors to electronic life the way she wanted. So she and her father, L.C. Havard, a former executive for a company that developed technologies for the health insurance industry, formed a company called Chafie Pressto publish her books and create digital offerings. The app version of The Survivors, the first in a series of five books, integrates audio files of the music her characters are listening to (some of it produced by Chafie), pictures of the designer clothes they’re wearing, links to the characters’ Twitter accounts (Havard mostly runs them herself) and Google Maps of the places they visit.
“Our tagline is ‘reinventing storytelling’ and it’s the idea that we’re at this place where that’s really what we’re capable of doing,” the author said in an interview with Wired. “If you use the technology in the right way — so that it isn’t doing it just because you can — and it’s thoughtful and it’s high-quality content and it’s an approach that’s truly about creating a better story experience, then that’s totally what we should do.”
At the time Havard was working on her book series, though, nobody in the entrenched publishing world wanted to hear about her techno-creative storytelling. When shopping her book to agents in 2009, the author would explain that she thought there might be a day when Kindles were more interactive and that she wanted to do more than just write her books — she wanted to create multimedia experiences. Havard was met with blank stares and a general consensus that that’s not really what we do in publishing.
“The feedback would go like this,” Havard said. “‘That’s a really cool story you have here and it sounds like a really marketable product, if you could just stop talking about all that other stuff, let it go and realize that you’re not going to have that, sit down, shut up and listen to what they tell you, then you’re going to be fine.’”
Publishers Playing Catch Up
That kind of reluctance to adapt and adopt new ideas in e-books is unfortunate, but it’s somewhat understandable. Tablet devices evolve at the speed of light compared to the book industry, in which a single title can take well over a year to produce. Heretofore publishers have been dependent on device makers to support any new ideas they want to execute, said Ana Maria Allessi, vice president and publisher of HarperMedia.
“We’re all working as fast as we can, but our imaginations are well ahead of what we can execute at scale at this point,” Allessi said in an interview with Wired.
“We’re all working as fast as we can, but our imaginations are well ahead of what we can execute at scale at this point.”
One of the biggest hurdles, Allessi said, is creating something that will work across all devices and platforms. Currently, each enhanced e-book her company wants to put out must be altered to adhere to the specs of the Kindle Fire, the Nook Tablet and the iPad. (Nearly all tablets, however, support the stripped-down “.epub” files used in basic e-books.)
Publishers are getting more flexibility thanks to new features in Apple’s iBooks 2 software, but previously many turned to making individual apps to incorporate certain features (the recently released Chopsticks — which offers photo albums, videos and songs — is an app). HarperCollins took that approach with last year’s app for The Art of the Adventures of Tintin, as did Penguin Books’ much-lauded app of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. And an immersive retelling of Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein is also being released as an iPad and iPhone app on April 26.
Integrating E-Books With Storytelling in Television and Film
What could end up being a game changer in the e-book world is the ever-blossoming world of young-adult fiction like Havard’s. It’s a market that practically incubates early adopters, and with the rate YA literature is crossing over into mediums like film, the genre provides interesting opportunities for multimedia storytelling. In fact, new publisher Backlit Fiction seems to have been created almost entirely for that purpose. Backlit releases books, largely penned by television and film writers, as episodic apps and e-books. For Backlit co-founder and publisher Panio Gianopoulos, using digital books as a way to engage teenagers seems obvious since, as he notes, young adults spend tons of time reading — they’re just devouring text messages, Facebook updates and blogs.
“The challenge that we are tackling is how to engage teenagers — both through story and format — in a way that competes with things like Twitter and Hulu,” Gianopoulos said in an e-mail to Wired.
“The challenge that we are tackling is how to engage teenagers — both through story and format — in a way that competes with things like Twitter and Hulu.”
Gianopoulos, like Havard, envisions future e-books as far more social experiences, incorporating what he calls “literary Farmville” aspects. For instance, secret chapters could be unlocked as a person’s friends read a book. He foresees readers using a reddit-like model to up-vote characters or storylines they enjoy, or publishers forming partnerships with Foursquare that could reveal clues to readers who check in at certain locations. Naturally, he’d like to see his electronic books evolve into television shows or movies, and to that end Backlit forged a first-look movie and TV deal with Hollywood producer Jack Giarraputo.
“Multimedia is more than a tie-in — done right it becomes a new kind of product entirely, a hybrid of book and film, or Facebook page and TV show, or something no one else has even thought of yet,” Giarraputo said in an e-mail to Wired.
Others are just looking for ways to build on the abilities created by e-books in order to change how the actual story is put in front of readers. Last fall, for example, indie publisher Folded Word released authorMel Bosworth’s Freight as an e-book that electronically built on the choose-your-own-adventure format, creating a narrative that could be told in more than one way (Chopsticks incorporates a similar feature). Even though the book itself was only available in the basic .mobi and .epub file formats, it still made a simple thing cooler by utilizing reading devices.
If You Build It, They Will Read
HarperMedia’s Allessi is trying to make the medium as exciting as what Havard imagined by pushing online shops to allow more multimedia features in the e-books they sell. She also sees the potential of creating assets out of films based on books — adding trailers for upcoming movie adaptations right into the app or e-book, for example. And as more and more books get optioned quickly for films, there could be opportunities for publishers and studios to work together on e-books that incorporate both print and screen versions.
There was a bit of that with the Art of the Adventures of Tintin app, but it’s easy to imagine more progressive apps or e-books for tomes like The Hunger Games trilogy and other book-series-to-film-series adaptations. An e-book or app for any of those titles could include not only the novel, but movie trailers and links to social networking sites about the franchise, with updates pushed to the various devices as they happen.
“We are still sort of creating radio for TV, I’ll admit that.”
So, how long will it take publishers to fully catch up? Chronicle’s Jones estimates it will be anywhere from two to five years before publishers will really have an idea which devices their readers are gravitating toward — and thus which platforms the publishers should create for — but she hopes the revelation comes sooner rather than later.
As publishers and authors become accustomed to creating with e-books in mind, the immersive offerings should become more vital. It’s a scary and exciting time for book publishers, as the ink-and-paper industry reinvents itself to take advantage of new opportunities blossoming in the digital era.
“We are still sort of creating radio for TV, I’ll admit that,” said Allessi. “But I don’t know how you’d avoid that in year one.”