By Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee
Dan Franklin made a name for himself as digital editor at Canongate when he collaborated with author Nick Cave and developer Enhanced Editions to create THE DEATH OF BUNNY MUNRO iPhone app, one of the first to show the full potential of this new form of book publishing.
He’s back now with another project that pushes the limits of today’s app technology.
WHY THE NET MATTERS: How the Internet Will Save Civilization is a fully featured book-like object from David Eagleman, created especially for the iPad, and existing – for now at least – only in digital form. Drawing on game design, the structure and reading experience of WHY THE NET MATTERS were born interactive and free from the conventions of print.
(The Literary Platform has an in-depth look at the development process.)
The Right Book at the Right Time
Franklin is irrepressible in his enthusiasm for the cool possibilities technology opens up for publishing. “When the iPad came out in the spring, immediately that was exciting for me as a publisher,” he says. “You just think, god what can we do with this device? The bigger screen, the enhanced level of interactivity. That was coupled with a more general feeling of trying to do something different from what we’ve done – the DVD model, where you get the audio thrown in and videos, media extras. I thought, let’s try to move to more of a game-y space on this, in which the content is tailor-made for the device. So when David came and said, ‘I’ve got this talk, I’ve got this idea about the internet’s potential to save civilization and I want to do it on the iPad,’ I thought, wow, this is a project we can run away with.”
For Canongate, both BUNNY MUNRO and WHY THE NET MATTERS were instances of the right author coming up with the right project at the right time.
“With Nick Cave,” says Franklin, “it’s a case of having an author who dabbles in loads of different media – film and music and writing – and then trying to do justice knowing there was technology available to do something interesting and different with books as we know it. Enhanced Editions were launching their company, so that was just a confluence of different people for the right sort of project for a high profile author. And it happened to be around the same time there was a lot of uptake on the iPhone and the app store was exploding.”
Getting all the pieces right is important, because developing an app – especially an innovative app that pushes the limits of the form – requires a serious investment of time and money. “It is quite labor intensive,” Franklin admits, “and the big, sexy, attention-grabbing projects need to be labor intensive. You have to step into the dark a bit, otherwise it’s not worth doing. You have to try these things and be seen to be innovative because it gets people excited about digital reading.”
Possibly the most important piece of all is the author, Franklin notes. “This all has to be author-led, or author-involved.”
In the case of WHY THE NET MATTERS, “David is the most proactive author and got it from the beginning, because he can code, he can do all of this stuff, he was really into it from the start.”
E-Reading Comes to the UK
Franklin saw Eagleman’s skills and subject as an ideal match for iPad readers. “At the moment people who own iPads are the enthusiasts and were the early adopters,” he explains.
“They’re going to come from a much more technology-conversant demographic than the people who are now starting to read on e-readers (which, from what the research is saying, is looking more and more like your average reader). This project felt good to us because it is about technology and the internet, and the people who are most likely to buy it are exactly those people who it would appeal to, who it’s about – those people who are really conversant with the internet and how it works and why it’s important. It’s a much more targeted market.”
The prospect of getting WHY THE NET MATTERS published in time for what is expected to be a huge holiday boom in digital reading inspired Franklin to see just how agile a small publisher like Canongate can be, teaming up with game developers PopLeaf over the summer and pushing for an end of November release. (They came close. The app was approved and on sale by the second week in December.)
The release is worldwide, and Franklin is eager to see how the project takes off both in his home market and the heavyweight US market across the Atlantic. “What’s happening in the US is phenomenal,” he says. “The market for digital readers is really big. I’ll be looking with interest to see how [WHY THE NET MATTERS] gets adopted in the US because digital reading is much more entrenched there. That’s because I think Amazon laid down foundations very early on and got that standard $9.99 price point going on, whereas they say in the UK the market is a lot lumpier and a lot more fragmented, there are more options here so it hasn’t taken root as much.”
The UK is growing fast though. In the year since BUNNY MUNRO launched, Franklin has seen huge changes. “When we released BUNNY, Amazon hadn’t even launched the Kindle in Europe,” he remembers. “It was only a few months ago that Amazon launched Kindle on .co.uk and we’ve seen our sales take off from there. Then Apple coming into the fray earlier in the year and with them the iPad, and now Google launching their ebook store.
“What’s happened since BUNNY is [the ebook market] is a whole lot less fragmented, and you’re starting to see the big players are coming into place and the outlets are becoming more solid. The market’s growing as well, it’s still relatively small. Everything’s become a lot more systematized and standardized. You’re starting to see Kindles out in the wild, you’re seeing Amazon advertise on television and in the tube. You’re starting to see awareness grow. I think it’s been building up, and this Christmas [digital reading] will really break in a big way. We’ve had a really good year, it outstripped our expectations of what we thought we would do – in terms of all our digital publishing, audio downloads included. We’re really pleased. It’s on.”
Can You Still Be Agile at a Big Company?
When Franklin says “we” he means Canongate…but he left Canongate the week after the release of WHY THE NET MATTERS and will start a new job in January as digital editor at Random House UK. When we talked, he was happy he had the chance to launch the project before he left and was looking ahead to starting his new post.
Though the title remains the same, his role at Random House is likely to be substantially different. The biggest difference, of course, will be size. At Random House, Franklin says, “I’m working across a really really big company in the UK, there are loads of imprints. I think the idea was that they wanted someone who had an editorial background, who’s used to being hands-on with editing itself, and can then go to editors there and guide them or suggest things they could do, potential for their books.”
“It’s a very different animal. Canongate can be really mobile and dynamic when it needs to be. I’ll be interested to see if a bigger company can be as fleet of foot – I don’t see any reason why not, actually, and I think it’s what we have to do.”
Big companies can have a lot of layers to navigate, but Franklin also sees great potential. “I’m excited because they have a lot of authors who are big brands,” he says. “Where you have a critical mass of authors that they have, there are lots of interesting opportunities you can take across their lists. Someone like James Patterson has a massive audience, masses of people who will follow him wherever he goes. You look at different ways you can reach those people, or reach new people. Or take Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, hugely popular among a certain community of people who use technology and aren’t afraid of trying new things. There are just massive opportunities. It’s about making ebooks mass market, and bringing the mass market to ebooks, so more and more people become aware of what you can do.”
It’s not only about the mass market, however. “One of the things I look forward to trying to do,” says Franklin, “is projects like this where you just have a digital edition and it just exists as a digital edition. Because I think it’s important to get paper and digital editions to talk to each other, but it’s also important to push the definition of what a book can be. Something we want to do with this iPad app is to let David update it when the information changes within it, to issue an update so it’s an evolving work.”
“I think when you can do that, you can evolve a work and have that direct contact with your audience as well. I’m not so sure to what extent people want to get involved and actually write wikinovels or something like that, but I’ll be looking at Random to see how far you can push things and how far people want to go with it.”
Which is, in the end, what it all comes down to: “Experimenting, really. Having fun!”
Dan Franklin is the recently named Digital Editor for Random House Group UK. He previously held the same title at indie publisher Canongate, where he worked on projects such as Nick Cave’s Bunny Munro app and Simon’s Cat for the PlayStation Portable.
Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.