A year ago in March, Penguin Group CEO John Makinson gave a speech in London where he outlined his vision for how the company would take advantage of the new tablet Apple soon would be launching.
“We will be embedding and streaming audio, video and gaming in to everything we do. This will present us, and the platform owners with technology challenges," Makinson said.
"The ePub format, which is the standard for ebooks at the present, is designed to support traditional narrative text, but not this cool stuff that we’re now talking about. So for the time being, at least, we’ll be creating a lot of our digital content as applications, for sale on app stores and HTML, rather than as ebooks."
The CEO of the book publishing concluded: "The definition of the book itself is up for grabs."
One year later a look inside the App Store reveals that Penguin has been extremely slow to fulfill its promise. It's first book, The Pillars of the Earth, was released long ago and since then its app efforts have been modest to say the least.
Last week Penguin released its first real effort at book app building with its Jack Kerouac's On the Road app. Regularly priced at $16.99, the app is available now for $12.99 through July 5th.
The book app has gotten only a small amount of press, probably due to the fact that those most interested in the app are not on the company's list of reviewers, while those who are on that list probably are in no position to properly review the effort. In the year since Makinson made his speech, the wheels at Penguin appear not to be grinding on but rusty and stuck.
I have not downloaded the Kerouac book myself – how many copies of On the Road do I really need – but the initial reviews have been somewhat positive, if lacking in real detail. One can tell that some of the articles were written by people, like me, who were not looking at the actual app but at the screenshots provided by Penguin.
When you look at Penguin's effort at book apps one is reminded of the first CDs that were released. At first they were straight conversion of LPs, then some efforts were made to accomodate the new format.
Blue Note Records, for instance, started putting alternative takes on its CDs. But one annoying thing they would inevitably do, was to put the alternative take of a song right up against the original, the idea being that one could compare the two side by side. But to avoid hearing two nearly identical songs in a row one would have to "program" the CD. But that is a bother, and how many people choose to do that?
Then there were the liner notes and photos that could and should be included with a CD release. Eventually the record producers got the hang of it and their CD packages got better and more imaginative. But the best releases only came after the record producers starting thinking about their CD releases from day one, rather than converting them from the LP.
The same is true right now for book publishing: the very best book apps being released are from publishers who are thinking about the app from the beginning, and often are not planning a print issue at all.
"Books" like NYPL Biblion: World's Fair, or Above & Beyond: George Steinmetz are way ahead of what many print publishers are doing right now. A great example of this is the fact the Joe Zeff Design, the producer of Above & Beyond, recently updated the book, adding more photographs and enhancing the audio. Print books, once published, are considered finished products.
An app, on the other hand, is an evolving product, meant to be updated to fix bugs, add content, and most importantly, respond to the input from readers. Are print publishers creating a culture internally that will be able to think like an app developer and constantly innovated and improve its products?