I decided two years ago to stop printing books and pursue the e-alternative.
With 50,000 unsold books collecting dust in a Toronto warehouse and the market for them shrinking weekly, it wasn’t a difficult decision.
In the 1990s, Bungalo Books used to sell between 100,000 and 200,000 books a year — goofy kids picture books that John Bianchi and I produced at a time when the term “self-publishing” was used with derision. By 2010, self-publishing was suddenly in vogue but annual sales of our once profitable backlist had slipped to less than 2,000. Printing books was a money-losing proposition and publishing had lost its pleasure.
My initial e-steps were tentative and the early projects — a series of interactive book apps for kids — failed for a variety of reasons. I didn’t have the technical skills to create “book apps” myself, nor the money to outright hire the people who did. A couple of joint ventures failed in mid-production and I refused to sell rights to my books to app developers who lacked editorial sensibilities (and advance money).
Finally, I decided to take a year off work to study epublishing at college. Although I earned top marks by wrestling with computer code 60 to 70 hours a week, the main lesson I learned was that HTML code was not my forte. My web projects sucked. Visual elements wandered across computer screens at will regardless of my coding efforts and my 23-year-old classmates were constantly bailing me out as deadlines loomed.
Yet, no matter how miserable my coding efforts, my instructors always liked my editorial projects. Raphael, an Israeli history-teacher-turned-computer-instructor, used to joke that he spent more time reading my content than my code. Obviously good photos and good text still had value.
Midway through the school year, Apple released its free iBook Author (iBA) software and I contemplated ditching the course. The new program buried the code beneath a friendly user interface reminiscent of the design programs I understood. Suddenly, I could concentrate on the reader experience instead of cascading style sheets. (In the end, I decided to stay in school to enjoy life as a straight-A student for the first time in my life.)
iBA is a publishing dream. In the wrong hands, of course, it is capable of producing horrific confused editorial messes cluttered with typos, hyperlinks and bad graphics. But used with style, iBA can set a new standard in the world of ebooks and lead to the rebirth of illustrated books. That excites me because my publishing roots are in illustrated books.
In the 1980s, my staff at Camden House Books produced some of Canada’s most beautiful coffee table books — titles that delved into astronomy, natural history and adventure as well as gardening, cooking and DIY. With the failure of bookstores and rising production costs, however, such printed books have gone into decline, as have affordable kids picture books. I believe, though, that the iPad will allow them to come back.
Everest: High Expectations is my first stab at an illustrated “coffee tablet book” and I’m excited by the result. It is more book than app, and with its gripping stories and rich photography, reflects my deep editorial roots. There are a few audio and video clips that add veracity to the authors’ weeks on Everest but readers will never forget that it is a book they are holding.
So far, no other tablet allows publishers or readers such a traditional book experience. If publishers can recognize the opportunity to create beautiful books again, then maybe Apple can bring more of the 100 million iPad owners to its iBookstore.
I’m sure there are many other small publishers like me anxious to reclaim our craft. I have not been this hopeful for the business of publishing in many years.