Coding in Paradise

About Brad Neuberg

Touch Press: Complexities and Challenges of Creating Rich Digital Books

There are three key metrics that have to come together for digital illustrated, non-fiction titles to truly make the transition online. They are:

The last point is key since publishing can tend to be a hits driven business.

There aren‘t very many organizations doing next generation thinking when it comes to these kinds of titles, IMHO, other than folks like Inkling (my employer), Touch Press, and others. This is why I’ve been fascinated with knowing more about the business and development case behind what Touch Press is doing; I already know they've produced fabulous ebooks/apps, but are they completing the business case for what they are doing with a scalable technical platform?

There's not alot of material on that, but I have found an interesting video from 2011 from the CEO of Touch Press, Max Whitby, going into some of these subjects. Some key quotes.

First, on what their goal is:

What we are trying to do is to go beyond the printed page and do something that you can‘t do in a PDF, something that couples the interactivity with the user’s experience.

How did they do with their first title, The Elements?

First few days after launch, sales of 2000, 3000 units per day. That level of sales was sustained over a long period of time, to date now:

[Slide with the following] 

Print, 14 languages, 300,000 copies sold (in 15 months)

eBook: 5 languages, 185,000 copies sold (in 10 months)

With a price of 14 dollars a book. Very substantial, viable business to publish a title of this kind.

Those are pretty damn healthy numbers. Another interesting note from Max on The Elements:

Something else worth noting, the electronic book has done very well, but so too has the print book. It's not a question of the electronic book replacing the print book, the sales of the Elements as a printed hardback was 70,000 units when the electronic book was published, and today its reached 300,000 copies, and all the publicity and attention surrounding the electronic book has translated into the print book, so that its actually a very good synergy between the two, and one can generate alot of publicity for the other.

Max then talks about the development skills needed for these next generation eBooks; essentially you need to mix together the skills of publishers, authors, software engineers, and media specialists with a background in TV & film:

Need to bring together the skills of publishers, the talents of authors, and an editorial understanding…You also need fantastic software engineers… by combining those talents with the talents of an author you get an amazing mixture. And finally you need media skills (his background is television and film production). That mixture of three different skills is very valuable.

This is a very interesting mixture of television, and print, and interactivity that will allow an audience to explore a subject, both keep true to the beautiful typography and the integrity of the original poem, and bring to it the interpretation and skills the new medium presents.

An interesting note from Max on how digital publishing now allows a small publisher to sell to an international audience:

Japan has been one of the most successful markets for us. We've sold about half a million dollars worth of The Elements in Japan.

So can publishers just shovel out sub-standard eBooks and be successful in this new world? Not according to Max:

The only way this new medium will be sucessful is by producing work of the absolute highest quality, and the reason for that is because we have a fantastic channel now to go from the author and publishers straight to the audience, the channel is being built first by Apple, but of course all the other companies are now racing and soon there will be a marvelous wave of publishers to reach their audience. The bookshops have closed but this new channel has opened. And on that channel, are reviews, the readers post their reviews, and a title will live or die by the quality of what the reader thinks...

The Elements has five hundred 5 star reviews, and thats why we've sold, even today, 100 or 200 copies every day...

To survive you need to produce work of exceptionally good quality, that innovates, and that goes beyond just taking the information and putting it on the computer, you need to give the reader an ability to go into the subject, and to manipulate it and explore it...

If you are successful you will make alot of money.

How about development costs for this new world of content?

Doing six titles right now, The Wasteland, one on gems and jewels. Each one costs between 50,000 euros at the low end, going up to 250,000 for the most expensive ones we are doing. So its alot of money. But, the good news is, at the moment you have to do alot of special software work, and we have developed software that allows you to do any subject and use the same software, and there are many new tools that are coming out in the future, I think, that will.. ePub 3, you heard about that yesterday, that will let you do some of the things that you want, but for the best quality you have to have engineers, authors, and film makers all working together, and thats expensive unfortunately, but the Solar System came out two days before Christmas, and it sells for the same price as The Elements, 14 dollars, so for every copy we get 10 dollars from Apple, we earned back the 250K it cost to make… in 4 weeks, two days.

I agree about the necessity for fundamentally new tools to aid this new world.

So there you go folks, contrary to reports, next generation eBooks can be very lucrative indeed, you just have to care about what you are making, those 5 star reviews don't come easily... but then again books have never been a business for the lazy.

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