Are Artists Really Best Equipped to Blaze Trails in the Enhanced E-Book Market? Are Publishers?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Publishers have been too slow to enter the enhanced book market, according to Harold Moss, Creative Director at FlickerLab,* an animation studio and enhanced e-book production house. He was speaking at the New York Foundation for the Arts last week about digital publishing.

As technological innovation speeds along at a dizzying pace, he suggested filmmakers and artists are the ones best equipped to develop innovative new models for making enhanced e-books. Up for grabs is the opportunity to revolutionize enhanced e-books themselves, but not just in terms of content and in scope. “Hack into existing expectations and marketplaces,” he said.

E-books today fall short of exploiting the exciting and (relatively) new graphical and animated capabilities as well as the storage and computing capacities of servers that we access from our tablets. E-book creators really can and should be doing a lot more to expand e-book structure – the reader is capable of doing more than flipping the page. What Moss calls for is artists to experiment, to invent something new.

Enhanced e-book text and information need not be fixed to “pages” or even static – computers are capable of accommodating far more interesting and smarter texts. So while there will always be a place for singular stories in fiction and poetry, Moss argued, children’s books, textbooks, historical texts and nonfiction, which are often created and read for educational purposes and to tell multifaceted stories, can help us learn better with more dynamic information.

Notable exceptions to these assertions include Penguin’s success with its “Amplified & Enhanced” imprint, especially Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Touch Press’s enhanced edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (for iPad), both titles that incorporate a variety of media into their respective environments, and contextualize their central, seminal works (which, Moss emphasizes, ensure success in the enhanced e-book marketplace).

But most exciting are new types of enhanced e-books and apps being developed by filmmakers and programmers. He cited Theodore Gray, founder of “computational knowledge engine” Wolfram Alpha, who created the early iPad tour-de-force The Elements. But the app/Oscar-winning short film/book The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore also comes rather immediately to mind.

Hesitation on the part of publishers is understandable. Innovation will necessitate a variety of risks, especially financial ones: Enhanced e-books require (costly) teams of developers who can script, write, design, animate, and code collaboratively; or hiring a vendor that can do all those things. This form of change can be distressing too – Moss suggests nothing short of a re-imagining of how book publishing works and what it does.

But this, the second presentation of Moss’s talk, titled “Enhanced E-Books: A New Art Form,” was sold out. And the audience of filmmakers, artists, designers, editors, writers, composers, librarians, small press publishers and technologists, each of whom seemed to have an urgent question about how to get started, attests to the diverse nature and range of skill sets of those invested in looking forward.

What I think Moss really gets right here when he suggests we’re on the verge of reinventing the book (and therefore publishing) is that he isn’t just talking about a unilateral transference of power from old publishing houses to individual writers, Kindle Singles or iBooks Author – he’s suggesting a collective and collaborative future for publishing, one we’ll have to come up with together.

The takeaway? Experimentation and leaps of faith are expensive, especially to those who support heavy infrastructures. But they will only get pricier as competition grows.

*tag line: “Animating the World Since 1999”

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Barbara Galletly

About Barbara Galletly

Barbara Galletly is pursuing a master’s degree in information studies at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Information. She is studying archives, libraries, and other forms of collections. Previously, she was an associate agent and associate director of foreign rights at New York literary agency Georges Borchardt, Inc., until she left New York to explore the wider world of books. She also writes, usually about books, for This Recording. Follow her at her website and on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “Are Artists Really Best Equipped to Blaze Trails in the Enhanced E-Book Market? Are Publishers?

  1. Manish

    I would agree that artists can really benefit from enhanced ebooks. I am a former semi-pro artist (music, digital art) and I recently completed an enhanced ebook app http://www.nov8rix.com/the-app-publisher-ebook/ which includes video and audio and more. As an artist that’s familiar with a variety of mediums, it was a very interesting project. I like the ability to create a diverse and rich experience for the user.

    Reply
  2. David Bricker

    Both traditional and indie publishers tend to be reactive instead of innovative. For example, when books became big business and distributing new titles required print runs in the tens of thousands, margins, type size and leading (line spacing) shrank to minimize costs and risks. Now that even big publishers are beginning to leverage print on demand (POD) to produce one book at a time, the cramped design conventions are accepted as the de facto standard. Why not go back to a better design? Nobody’s innovating. Because of others’ lack of vision, my books look better than those of the big publishing houses. What an easy opportunity for an indie publisher.

    In the same way, publishers don’t appear to be rushing to enhance the simple, aesthetic readability of eBooks. Even Apple is positioning all the new multimedia features as best-suited to textbooks.

    Certainly, ePub3’s capabilities inspire valid questions: just how do you integrate audio, video, imagery and interactivity into a form that’s been \flat\ for centuries? I personally feel you should start off with a well-crated, well-edited book and then relegate all the media to a supporting role, but that’s my philosophy. There’s an endless frontier of answers to that question. Some will fly and some will flop, but publishers lose a huge opportunity by not making the attempt.

    I’ve been working for the past two years to develop ePub3 design standards through which to present my next book. It combines an 1880s hot metal type aesthetic with supporting video, photo galleries and interactivity. I figure we’ll see ePub3 readers for the holiday shopping season. I’m a tiny indie publisher, but in 6 months, I’ll have something to offer that the big players won’t.

    We know the world is changing rapidly. Why not innovate? Really. Why not? The only alternative is mediocrity.

    Reply
  3. Will

    Just because there is a new technology, it does not translate into anything but a novelty. When digital photography hit the scene, lot of galleries and media outlets feature the new digital artists. Ultimately the work was forgettable. It was new, different, but that is not enough to be good. Today, digital photography really follows the evolution of the media; it was not a revolution. I am sure someone will figure out how to apply the technology in meaningful ways.

    Unfortunately, we have come to worship the cover over the content. A gimmick can’t hide bad content. 3-D does not make a movie better. And in the movie industry, technical innovation has been the road to mediocrity.

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