I want to make clear at the outset that this post is not about “enhanced ebooks”, making something multiple-media out of a book that started as straight text. That’s a “want to do” problem that I’ve always been skeptical about and which I believe many, if not most, publishers are abandoning as “not commercially viable at this time”. Today’s ruminations are about moving illustrated books from print to digital, which many of today’s book publishers will find a “must solve” problem as the channels to reach consumers effectively with illustrated books — the bookstores — are diminished in number and power by digital change.
Amazon and Barnes & Noble are trading boasts about whose iPad-lite is better than the other guy’s. Kobo’s Vox is joining the party with Kobo now owned by Rakuten, a massive Japanese company that gives the former upstart the means to really compete with all the other players. We can be pretty sure that tablets that can deliver color-illustrated book pages will be in many hands very soon. (That’s in addition to the tens of millions of iPads and many millions of Nook Color devices that have been sold already.)
This is presenting publishers with illustrated books on their list with what seems like an enormous opportunity. But it also presents some equally enormous challenges.
It has been estimated by many that 25% of the print books sold are illustrated books. (I last saw this number in a slide from Michael Tamblyn of Kobo at our eBooks for Everyone Else conference in San Francisco on November 2d.) I am not sure what that means. Trade books only?
And even if I did know what it means, I wouldn’t know enough. Books that are primarily pretty pictures, which don’t require much integration of the pictures and text (the minority of the 25%, one would assume) are a considerably simpler proposition to port to digital than a book with pictures and captions that have to stay with them or text that needs to be on the same page with a picture or a chart.
A lot of work is being done to create new standards called HTML5 and Epub3 that will permit more faithful rendering of a publisher’s intentions through a web browser or an ebook than our current capabilities do. But there are two very big flies in the ointment that persist regardless of the technology.
One: illustrated books are considerably more complex and expensive to deliver to digital devices than straight text books. (Even if HTML5 and Epub3 accomplish everything their creators want and they’re fed by XML-workflows, converting the backlists will cost a multiple on a per-title basis of what straight text costs. And I suspect we’re many years away from relieving publishers of the need to make the decisions necessary to execute multiple versions of each book, new or backlist, as will be made clear further on in this post.)
Two: we really don’t know whether consumers with tablets or tablet-lites will choose to consume illustrated books on those devices. (I’d say we do know that people will happily read straight text on devices; what seems to be true in my experience these days is that most of the people who say they “prefer printed books” have not tried an ereader yet.)