I work in digital (and love it), read relentlessly (and love it) and I am generally a huge tech-and-book geek. So why have I found it so hard to get excited about digital publishing products? What makes a good one? It's a question I've been mulling over at Somethin' Else while working with publishers over the last couple of years on projects such as the My CriBaby iPhone app for Transworld and 60 Years in 60 Poems with Faber and Faber, and one I personally feel very passionate about cracking.
It is, I think, largely because digital publishing products ultimately compete not only with output from other book publishers, but with digital work from ALL industries, whether film, TV, music, arts, brands, journalism, games, etc. Everyone everywhere is competing for our attention with slick, beautiful products, and my attention, just like yours, is both valuable and in-demand. Any product needs to be pretty incredible to cut through. It's not good enough to have the best enhanced e-book if, within the wider media industry, you're behind the curve of audience expectations and appetite.
That's why (to pick one example), last year when we were evaluating different technical and software options to author a beautiful reading experience for Richard Dawkins' book The Magic of Reality we ended up building our own bespoke enhanced e-book engine for iPad. All of the existing platforms we looked at just didn't seem quite 'there' yet, lacking that bit of polish or creative flexibility that we felt we needed to make something distinctive, of a high enough quality to stand out. Our partners at Transworld agreed, and the extra investment more than paid itself back with a critically and commercially successful app.
Recently I've been finding a lot more to get excited about, with many publishers now pushing to make not just great digital publishing work, but great digital work, full stop. The common thread seems to be a publisher in partnership with a digital company, such as Penguin with Activision, Moshi etc, the incredible Profile Books/Dave Morris/Inkle Frankenstein app and of course Faber/Touch Press to name a few.
Partnering creatively is a great starting point and, for certain kinds of project, doing so commercially with both parties having a stake in the success of the product is even better. True collaboration requires identifying and then making the most of the unique skills and knowledge each party brings to the table: Where do publishers excel? Where do digital content and design companies excel?
If you're making a digital book, the 'book' bit will always be the most important and that's where publishers' skills are transferrable and vital. For the 'digital' bit, you want to find user experience experts and creative technologists to provide new perspectives, business models and approaches.
To make it work you need honest, transparent production processes (we usually run Agile projects, backed up by Basecamp, but there are many alternatives), and you need to support your product with proper, targeted marketing and PR, on and offline. There are no guarantees, but in all our digital work, publishing or otherwise, we've gone further and done better in partnership with complementary experts - no company is an island.
From where we're standing the future is massively bright for publishers who embrace digital and who embrace collaboration.