Thursday, April 29, 2010

Oh, The Places You (and Your iPad) Will Go!

Reading an AOL News story today that 13 of the 16 top book applications for the iPad are children's titles, I began getting a little light-headed. That time, "somewhere down the road," when kids will be reading picture books on handheld computers and we'll all be flying jetpacks to work, well, it's here. Mostly.

But I still couldn't wrap my brain around what it all means. So I got in touch with Oceanhouse Media, the publisher of the Dr. Seuss apps that are among the most popular downloads. Surely he could calm me down about the iPad, picture book apps, e-books, and what this all means.

"It's a complete revolution in the way children's books will be published," said Michel Kripalani, president of Oceanhouse.

Okay. Now that we've got that straight.

"A lot of the old skills won't apply anymore in publishing," Michel said. "I won't have to ship from China anymore, I won't have to deal with resellers, or with brick and mortar stores."

That echoes what Stephen Roxburgh said recently when he spoke at 57th Street Books about his new publishing venture, namelos, which prints books in hardback, paperback, and e-formats all on demand. From a publishing standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. No paying to move freight, no gambling on how many books to send out and how many get remaindered, no grinding down unsold books into pulp. The Lorax (another recent Oceanhouse release) would be proud.

I was especially excited to look at Michel's version of Dr. Seuss's ABC since it is the very book that my five-year-old is actually reading to us right now. So for me, after years of reading about Little Lola Lopp and the lazy lion licking a lollipop in the traditional paper and glue format, it was a bit of a rush to hear the narrator's voice in the iPad app. (This is a book that came out in 1960 and probably taught me, my husband, and these app programmers how to read!) Besides hearing the narrator read the text, I could tap on Lola and see her name cross the screen as the narrator read "Little Lola Lopp." I could tap on the lollipop and see that word come up as well, accompanied by the sound of a creature happily licking.

Oceanhouse plans to produce one to two Dr. Seuss books per month until they've gone through the entire Seuss library of 44 books and stories. Michel began to explain that it takes just a couple weeks to produce an app. I missed what he said next because I'd begun choking on my chai and dropped the phone. A couple weeks? Surely I'd misheard the man.

"That's assuming we have the source content -- the original digital art files of Dr. Seuss books," he explained. "We do a recording session for the narration in a professional studio, create a new set of sound effects for each book, pull it all together in our proprietary engine. . ."

Slow down there, Tex. I get what galleys are, F&Gs, and I can tell my ARC from a hole in the ground. But I don't speak this lingo. What's a proprietary engine?

"It's what we call the code, or the technology that everything is sitting on," he explained patiently, clearly aware by this point in our conversation that he was dealing with a 20th century book gal (or is it more like 15th century? How long has this model been around?). "It's the core technology that's under the hood for every book. Because essentially we are a software company more than a book publisher."

And that's a great point. Because for picture books, more so than any other electronically delivered books, the interactive element will require much more equipment under the hood. Michel said Oceanhouse wasn't interested in too many whistles and bells in their books, but there are interactive qualities.

"The fact that we started with Dr. Seuss guided our direction. He was all about teaching kids to read, so we use that as our litmus test. 'Will this feature help a child learn to read better?' If we highlight a word, it will help."

So how long did he say it takes to get the app to market?

"It takes a couple weeks to pull all that together, then we get Seuss approval (from Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which handles the licensing of all things Seuss), then we submit to Apple for approval. From the time we get Seuss approval to the Apple store is less than 100 hours."

And as if that weren't enough to make you want to sing like one of the Whos down in Whoville, he added,
"Then we're immediately available for sale in 70-plus countries."
So what does this mean for authors? Looking at Oceanhouse's model, they're going with a proven winner in the traditional format and adapting it to the new market. There's no editing and revising of the text, no working with an illustrator to bring that text to life. But will other houses take a risk on an unknown author? I think the answer is yes. But it will take time.

"It's hard to say what it means for authors," Michel said. "In general, the author's cut could be higher in this model than the old one. Traditional publishers have a lot of overhead; they have to print all those books just to get them into, say, 100 bookstores.

"But with this model, you have hundreds of thousands of people seeing your book. What iTunes did for music it is doing all over again for books, without a doubt."

So what's next for Oceanhouse? Michel and his wife are looking to have a baby any day now. And beyond that, we can look for One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish in June. And just in time for graduation, they'll be releasing Oh, the Places You'll Go!

And with an iPad, that could be just about anywhere.


  1. Another great post, Kate. I'm going to put a link to it on my FB status.

  2. really interesting. makes me think of what bob stein said in the first part of a 3-part series on bob edwards weekend about "enriched books," i.e. taking something such as moby dick and creating all these interesting enrichments (pictures of ships, information on the whaling industry, etc). but, of course, such a project is different from the dr seuss one in that you don't have the graphics and more -- very exciting! thanks for this post, kate.

  3. Natalie WeinsteinMay 3, 2010 at 9:24 PM

    Does this mean you own an iPad?! I would love to own one. But as a telecommuter I can't justify the need for a high-end mobile device.
    And regarding the future of reading, it's absolutely clear to me that paper books will become a thing of the past in our lifetime--if we live to a ripe old age. It won't happen as quickly as it has with photography. But our kids certainly won't be lugging around books on their college campuses.
    The one element of all this I can't wrap my mind around is what will happen with libraries...

  4. Great post and lots to think about!