Just say no - but not always

It's hard saying no. And also possibly counter-intuitive. But if I had a pound for every time I've said something along the lines of, "actually, I don't think your book, An Illustrated History of Central Uzbekistani Cookery will be a very commercial eBook/ePub/iBook/App", then I'd be more profitable than your average illustrated publisher.

After all, if a best-selling illustrated book (with average print runs that still keep parts of China very happy and busy) is going to cost the equivalent of those print runs just to turn it into a 7 units-a-week selling App – then the money-pit is obvious.

I don't doubt that books of pure text lend themselves to the world of digital. Indeed, having to pay my son's school an eye-watering amount of money for a couple of text books that he'd lost during his last year, made me curse the fact that he goes to a ‘traditional' school.  But I'm an illustrated publisher – and I remain unconvinced by digital illustrated books.

Take children's books. Give your child an iPhone and they seek out games and ways to share. And whilst the content for those interactions often derives from stories, those stories were seldom written with electronic devices in mind. And they should be.

Indeed, as I write this, another supplier has just emailed me offering to turn books into Apps. Which is great if you want to turn your beautiful world of exploration into a digital jigsaw puzzle and colouring book. Or make another shopping list from your cookery collection. I've told them no, too.
So rather than just say no, maybe we need to look at the book differently.

This is what iBiblios has been doing for the past few months, and it's generating unanticipated levels of interest. Not metaphorically looking at books, but literally.

We've developed a technology that allows your smartphone to ‘read' the page – to recognise what's there and to do whatever it is the publisher wants. Look at a painting with your digital device, and the catalogue comes to you. Look at a music score and the music starts to play. Read words from a phrasebook to hear how they're spoken, or point at a map and see what's actually there. Whatever the eye can recognise, we can too, and it's all augmented by the publisher's own content.

Last month, we activated a fashion magazine in the Guardian, bringing videos, audio, information and special offers to otherwise static pages. And even we were taken aback by how successful it was – 180,000 copies were distributed, and the free App download led to over a quarter of a million videos being viewed within a week. It's not surprising that advertisers are beating a path to our door.
So instead of trying to turn a book into a digital book, we need to look at things differently. We need to take the content to the user – and to use the technology in ways that even the visionaries who brought us these devices hadn't envisaged.

Let's not try and force the square peg of our beloved 15th century technology into this digital Zeitgeist. The products that we will be buying for our tablets and phones might share their original content with books, but books they are not. As with our Visual Recognition technology, the best digital products will be designed from the outset for our iDevices and the book, in whatever diminished sales quantities the markets finally settle upon, will remain, gloriously, just that. A book.

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