Publishers are turning to a new generation of multimedia authoring tools, like iBooks Author, Vook, and Atavist Create, to enhance e-books with audio, video, and animated content. As the popularity of tablet computing devices continues to grow—Apple has sold more than 120 million iPads and iPad minis—so too does speculation about the future of the e-book, or more specifically, the development of e-books and mobile apps that offer a wide range of interactivity and full multimedia content.
As described to PW by 10 companies offering a variety of platforms for producing multimedia-enhanced e-books of all kinds, digital publishing is about creating “enriched” e-books and mobile applications that, in the most basic terms, integrate text into a content ecosystem of audio, video, image, animation, 3-D models, and the like. Of most importance is the fact that these companies are making it easier and more cost-effective for publishers to produce multimedia book projects and distribute them quickly across the full range of digital retail marketplaces, including Apple’s iBookstore and App Store, Google Play, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.
To make sense of where the e-book industry is heading, PW checked in with a range of firms, including Apple, Aquafadas, Atavist, Bibliolabs, Gutenberg Technology, Hurix Systems, Inkling, The Shadow Gang, Skyreader Media, Vook, and YUDU. While these aren’t the only firms offering multimedia authoring tools, their technologies are among those driving the production of many of the interactive e-books and mobile applications in the digital marketplace.
Biting the Apple
In January 2012, Apple put the e-book industry on notice when it released iBooks Author, a new application that allowed publishers small and large—even self-publishers—to create “multitouch” interactive textbooks with a full range of multimedia content exclusively for the iPad. Originally targeting the textbook market, iBooks Author has gone beyond textbooks to offer trade book producers a new platform with which to create original multimedia-enhanced titles or to digitize their backlists. The free app has been downloaded well over 600,000 times, and the company advertises that it has yielded over 10,000 iBooks Author–created books, including textbooks, children’s books, and others. These are available in the iBookstore.
Simply put, iBooks Author offers a better and less costly way to produce interactive e-books. In an interview with PW in November, SourceBooks CEO Dominique Raccah described the conventional manner of creating interactive apps as “slow and expensive.” On the other hand, iBooks Author “simplifies the methodology of developing an interface and makes it much simpler to produce than it would be as a conventional app.”
Other platforms were quick to follow. Stephen Davis, CEO of Skyreader Media, which has developed the Skyreader Studio authoring platform, said, “We realized that there was demand for that type of tool. When we talked with publishers about what they were doing with interactive children’s books, the majority of them were doing one-offs and custom work, using a template and spending $30,000 to $40,000 on a book”
“The iPad is what set off enhanced reading,” said Matthew Cavnar, Vook’s v-p of business development. “Its success and its rich complicated experiences... are where all of these things have come from.”
Publishing Anyone, Anywhere
Vook is based in New York and operates with a full-time team of 15, supported by freelance engineers and designers, or “VookMakers.” The company wasn’t a response to the iPad or iBooks Author, to be sure. In fact, in 2009, it was producing enhanced e-books complete with video, audio, and features for Twitter and other social media Web sites. Its notable publishing clients include HarperCollins, FranklinCovey, and the New York Times, to name a few.
At a client’s request, Vook, which uses a cloud-based platform, can translate Word documents, as well as PDF and InDesign files, into rich multimedia works, or Vooks, then prep those for digital marketplaces and the company’s Web reader. “Most clients contact us to build a text e-book or a fixed layout or a styled, reflowable e-book,” Cavnar says. “We are a turnkey e-publishing solution and content strategy for any kind of content holder, from individual authors to major media companies.”
“In some cases, we will license the platform directly to a client to create e-books themselves—we determine this based on the client’s needs and experience with e-book creation,” Cavnar said.
Aquafadas is another company that was engaged in pre-iPad digital books; it was creating digital comics for smartphones as early as 2006. Today the French company has 60 people staffing offices in Montpellier, Paris, and New York. Its Digital Publishing System is said to streamline authoring and distribution processes for books, magazines, comics, and so forth. In 2012, the company was acquired by international e-book retailer Kobo. Unlike Vook, Aquafadas offers free downloadable tools for rendering content into enriched e-books, in the form of single books as apps, and “bookshelf” apps that essentially provide a branded container or virtual bookshelf that holds consumers’ e-books and offers the ability to purchase content via the app. A client can download the company’s plug-ins for Adobe InDesign and create ePub files fit for iOS-based, Nook, and Kobo devices; it can also create app files that are finalized in the company’s AVE App Factory, an application containing app templates. Aquafadas-powered apps are also viewable through its web reader. As the company’s general manager Rainer Heckmann notes, “The most important part is that you can publish into apps, to our Web reader, and into an ePub file from a single source file [InDesign].”
Aquafadas’s fees come into play when a client is ready to publish, Heckmann said. Aquafadas charges a “publication license” fee of $150 per e-book, but volume discounts are available, he adds. The pricing is different for apps: a single reader app is $150, and a bookshelf app is $750. In addition, each book available via the bookshelf feature requires a publication license fee of $350 or lower, depending on the amount purchases. If a publisher wants training on Aquafadas’s tools, the daily rate is $1,400, excluding travel expenses.
Textbooks: A Key Battleground
Whereas Vook and Aquafadas are looking to commercial book markets, magazines, and newspapers, companies such as Hurix Systems, Gutenberg Technologies, and YUDU are competing for major textbook publishers. They offer Web-based authoring tools, as well as robust systems that track—and claim to enhance—student learning. They’re champions of “software as a service,” or SAAS. The challenge for publishers is navigating these companies’ sales pitches, processes, and pricing.
“If you want to get the student at a particular efficiency level in a certain subject, the e-book experience, for each student, has to take the shortest and most efficient path,” said Hurix Systems’ Srikanth Subramanian. The transatlantic company has two development centers in India, in Mumbai and Chennai, and sales offices in Mumbai, Texas, and Arizona. McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), among other major leaguers, have worked with Hurix Systems.
In 2009, the company launched Kitaboo, a cloud-based platform that helps publishers render legacy book content—PDFs, Word documents, InDesign files, and so forth—into enriched e-books with multimedia content and assessment activities, such as multiple choice and fill in the blank. Clients seeking “their own branded e-book solution,” Subramanian said, can purchase Kitaboo’s eBook Desktop Reader to offer content and assess student learning. In other words, while the reader has the guts of Kitaboo, it’s customized to the client’s brand.
“We aim to provide publishers and their teacher clients a cutting-edge reader that allows them to impact student learning outcomes,” Subramanian said.
Hurix Systems’ Dictera platform, also Web-based, allows clients to author “digital-first” learning content that functions on modern Web browsers, tablet devices, and learning-management systems. Clients can use it in conjunction with Kitaboo. It contains more than 40 templates that allow for text and interactive content, and it supports large collaborative efforts. “Let’s say you’re a [systems] admin from McGraw-Hill,” Subramanian says, “and you create 50 users. You can give them roles: ‘This one is an author, this one is an asset producer, this one is a project manager.’”
Gutenberg Technology takes a different approach with its MyEbookFactory. The platform’s main selling point is that it can convert more than 1,000 textbooks a month to apps for smartphones, tablets, and desktop operating systems like Apple’s OS X and Microsoft Windows 8. It can also store that content into cloud-based databases. MyEbookFactory, too, has authoring tools and malleable templates, and it can sync apps with a publisher’s information systems. Pearson, for example, used MyBookFactory for its ActiveLearn Go vocational courses; those are now available through apps on iOS, Android, PC, and Mac. The applications display multimedia lessons and adapt to the user’s learning as he or she engages with quizzes and the like.
A typical book takes about six to eight weeks to produce, according to Gutenberg CEO Francois-Xavier Hussherr, because the company takes care in designing each book differently to suit its discipline. He contends that some e-book-creating companies use the same design across the board, whether the book deals with medicine or economics. “There can’t be one design for all books.”
Gutenberg Technology launched MyBookFactory in November 2012, after three years of testing the platform. It has offices in New York and Paris and operates with 40 full-time employees; it plans to expand to 60 by August 2013. “Our system aims at industrializing the production of digital textbooks,” says Hussherr. “In 3 months, we will be able to bring 1 500 textbooks per month to digital devices.”
London-based YUDU expects to announce agreements with U.S. textbook publishers in the coming weeks, according to CEO Richard Stephenson. With a team of 35 employees and 10 additional full-time contractors, the company has worked with such publishers as Wiley and D.C. Thomson, and it worked with HarperCollins on a series of iBooks Author–enriched titles tied to the film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
While it does a significant amount of work with Apple’s platform, the company is promoting its own digital textbook publishing platform, YUDU Education, as well. Each publisher can upload a PDF and begin enriching that content in minutes; it can also track a range of student data, from page visits to sales. “Everything these days is about data and building community and direct relationships with your users; if you want to maintain control of your market, [you] shouldn’t surrender those.”
What does it cost to use these systems? The annual fee for Hurix’s Kitaboo platform can vary from $50,000 to $100,000, depending on the client’s volume of books and its needs, Subramanian said. The company’s Dictera platform varies between $49 and $129 per user per month, depending on the number of the users. For 50 titles processed with Gutenberg, Hussher says, a publisher will pay $50,000 per month. YUDU’s Stephenson declined to specify pricing, but the company notes that YUDU Education fees are based on the number of pages published
Taking on Amazon
While Hurix, Gutenberg Technology, and YUDU are focused on the textbook market, competition only continues to grow. Inkling, a tech startup based in San Francisco, originally focused on turning print textbooks into multimedia-enriched digital textbooks for the iPad. Inkling has 100 employees, including founder and CEO Matt McInnis, a former Apple education executive who focused on technology in schools. He started Inkling in 2009, and under his direction the company has raised over $30 million and created two initiatives that are gaining buzz: the digital publishing platform Inkling Habitat, and the Inkling Content Discovery Platform. “The print book is a diminished one,” McInnis says, “and an ever-present one,” but he sees print as a medium better suited for fiction and nonfiction.
In fact, McInnis is marketing Habitat as a scalable platform for publishers that want to create digital-first “content that you can use”—including a wide variety of nonfiction guides, as well as D.I.Y. and how-to material of immediate utility. He wants publishers thinking about innovative ways to build content from the digital ground up, rather than simply repurposing legacy books for digital marketplaces. Some are already following that lead. John Wiley & Sons reimagined the books in its For Dummies series as interactive digital texts, and Open Air Publishing’s Wine Simplified, authored by Marie Old, wowed the technorati with its seamless mix of video, audio, photos, and written tips on vino.
Finished projects are exported to Inkling’s iOS applications and the Inkling Content Discovery Platform (ICDP), a new combination book-discovery service and non-Amazon retail option for publishers, launched at the recent Digital Book World conference in New York. As McInnis notes, the platform is designed in such a way that Google and other search engines can link to the content in Inking-developed titles and make Inkling content more readily available via Google search results. Most importantly, McInnis said, the ICDP essentially turns Google search results for books into a Web store front, and an Inkling title found via search can be browsed online, including its multimedia content, and can be purchased as a downloadable enhanced e-book, either in its entirety, or by chapters. It’s a direct challenge to Amazon’s walled-off retail garden and its continuing dominance in e-book and print book retail.
“You have to end up in their closed storefront,” McInnis says, speaking of Amazon, and “you have to use their rules to see inside a limited excerpt of the book. What we’re saying is that we can stick a result under the nose of the user before they ever even get to Amazon.”
Companies like Atavist and The Shadow Gang are rethinking how narratives are told in the digital arena. A company of 12 based in Brooklyn, Atavist focuses on long-form journalism and creative nonfiction stories, releasing multimedia originals crafted by accomplished journalists and storytellers. The company’s platform, Atavist Create, makes this content available via Atavist’s Web site and iOS-based devices, and text versions of the content are distributed through the iBookstore and Google Play, as well as through the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo marketplaces.
Atavist Create is still in a closed beta-testing phase, to which thousands have requested invites, according Atavist’s head of strategy and business development, Stefanie Syman. She said Atavist Create will open to the public in early spring and the company will select projects that best utilize the company’s platform. “I think it will be really exciting to see the range of projects. We won’t prescreen the stories created, but we will be looking for the best projects to put on our front pages.”
Publishers use Atavist for Enterprise, marketed as a solution to releasing content across digital devices. TED Books and the Paris Review’s iOS applications were constructed with Atavist for Enterprise, and the Wall Street Journal used it to create an interactive narrative about prescription drug overdoses. Speaking generally, Syman said the Atavist charges an annual service fee instead of charging per book and taking cuts of revenues.
The Shadow Gang is just as general about its service fees, but the company’s CEO Alex LeMay is very explicit about the multiplatform distribution engine the company has developed and how it will power transmedia storytelling in the future. Galahad, as the authoring tool is called, will allow publishers to create narratives that are pieced together through words, Web sites, gaming, film, and social media applications, all the while giving virtual currency—be it points or prizes or purchasing coupons— to those who interact with the system. The company expects to roll out Galahad in its entirety by the end of March.
“We don’t live in a time where things are laid out to us in a linear environment,” LeMay told PW. “We live in a time where everything is cracked up, and that includes narrative. The book is a great way to tell a story, but Galahad basically allows the publisher to create an [interactive] amusement park out of that narrative.”
Galahad was developed after The Shadow Gang began working with Michael Grant’s thriler series, BZRK, to create multiplatform transmedia events, which can include Facebook and Twitter accounts for fictional characters, YouTube videos, blogs, and other online media, all tied to aspects of the narrative. centered on Michael Grant’s thriller book series Bzrk. (Check out the case study on The Shadow Gang’s Web site.) “There are so many characters and narrative threads running through [the transmedia event] that audiences want to explore them,” LeMay says. “The books, movies, and the games are overall points in the narrative’s timeline.”
Children and Public-Domain Content
Based in Canada, Skyreader Media is also rolling out a free self-publishing platform, Skyreader Studio, aimed at publishers looking to create interactive children’s books at low costs and for the major e-book devices. The company has offices in Toronto and Ottawa, as well as 15 employees who focus on sales and development. Last year, it made what Chief Technology Officer Stephen Davis calls a pivot toward Skyreader Studio. Before that the company was developing children’s e-books in the form of apps and such.
Skyreader Studio is currently in beta testing. In the first quarter of 2013, Davis said, it will release Skyreader Studio to the public. “We’ve demonstrated in-house that you can turn around a full interactive children’s book—20 pages of narrated and interactive animations—in about two or three weeks.”
Davis says Skyreader won’t charge annual fees or seat license fees to publishers for using Skyreader Studio. Fees are factored in when books are published to digital marketplaces. “If a self-publisher comes to us and engages with the tool, and publishes a book, it gets 50% of the retail price of that book; Apple, Amazon, etc. takes their fees, and we take a small aggregation fee. Our goal is to be successful if the authors are successful.”
Charleston, S.C.-based Bibliolabs isn’t so much interested in textbooks, journalism, or Hollywood. Its platform, Biblioboard Creator, is enticing libraries, museums, and professors who want a stronger digital presence. The platform allows a publisher/creator to upload collections—including art, public-domain books, and historical documents—to a database. It then creates customized anthologies, according to Chief Business Officer Mitchell Davis, one of 25 full-timers at Bibliolabs. He said clients must own the copyright to the work, unless it’s available in the public domain or under a Creative Commons license, which is common in the museum world.
Biblioboard Core is housing approximately 200 anthologies; Davis wants 400 by the end of the year. Anthologies are available on Biblioboard’s Web and iPad applications. The British Library, for instance, has anthologized 65,000 books from its 19th-century collection. Its iOS application has been downloaded more than 250,000 times. If a creator charges a fee for its anthologies, there is a revenue share—typically 25%—on all consumer and institutional sales, Davis said. Pricing is different for every institution, he added. A library might pay $1,000 for Biblioboard Core, but “the product is priced based on the number of students or population served. So there is a range, but the top range is still well below any competitive product in the market. That is going to make it affordable for many more libraries that typically cannot afford these type products.”
Looking at the Future
The future of e-book publishing appears strong for a variety of authors and publishers. But it’s also clear that the aforementioned companies are still learning how that variety will engage their platforms and navigate digital marketplaces. “It doesn’t surprise me that we have all of these different options,” said Atavist’s Syman. “It’s not a standardized field yet, and it’s not obvious what the best way of contributing content is.”
YUDU’s Stephenson said, “We have to be aware that we are in a landscape that is constantly changing. If we imagine, ‘That’s it,’ we are probably history. We have to imagine that we’re sitting in a very powerful four-wheel-drive [vehicle] that can traverse this landscape.”