The cost of developing custom apps for tablets can be daunting, but both Apple and Blurb offer free software that replicates these app’s features for a fraction of the price
The concept of publishing a digital version of a book isn’t new – the first popular eBooks were published in the early 1990s and today, with the advent of Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad, the market for electronic versions of printed publications is booming. But some authors and photographers have tried to push the boundaries further with fully-fledged interactive experiences, especially on the iPad.
For example, in 2011 Kadir van Lohuizen released Via Pan Am, a year-long visual diary with accompanying texts created and updated as he travelled from the tip of South America to the top of northern Canada, focusing on stories about migration. Documentary makers have been at the fore, with Christopher Anderson, Carl de Keyzer and John Vink releasing their own iPad apps, each of which attempted to enrich the experience of work that was – or would have been – traditionally published in print. Ed Kashi also chose the dedicated app route, spending close to $5000 to produce an enhanced version of his book, Photojournalisms.
Few of these apps have made a return on the investment, however, with photographers privately admitting that breaking even is often the best they can hope for. Kashi was willing to go further a few months after launch, stating: “Honestly, the Photojournalisms app has not done as well as we had hoped. We’ve recovered roughly $250 of the money spent so far, and about 100 copies have been sold from June to mid-August.” Knowing what he knows now, he would probably have done things differently. “We would have streamlined the production, for example,” he says. “It took far too long to create this app. We chose to go in a direction that saved us cash, but in hindsight, putting in the hours totalled on the project, we might have been better off hiring a designer and not becoming as involved as we were.”
In the end, Kashi says the whole experience was “another exercise in dancing with the latest opportunity, only to find it brings in no revenue – this course is unsustainable”.
With dedicated apps failing to produce any runaway hits in photography so far, some photographers have turned once again to the eBook format, which – thanks to the latest advancements in programming – can now offer similar levels of interactivity and customisation to fully-fledged apps. Last March, Apple released iBooks Author, for example, an application it claims “allows anyone to create beautiful multi-touch textbooks – and just about any other kind of book – for iPad”. It lets publishers add videos, galleries, interactive diagrams and 3D objects to their books, mimicking, in effect, what a custom-made app can do.
Blurb has also created its own eBook publishing platform, allowing photographers to adapt their photobooks to the digital format or create entirely new interactive experiences. In both cases, the upfront costs are nil – these publishing applications are free to use, and that’s precisely what attracted the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to them.
“Photographer Greg Constantine had been documenting the stateless peoples of Kenya, Burma and the Dominican Republic for the past decade, and he wanted to do something with it,” says Jake Naughton, multimedia projects co-ordinator at the Pulitzer Center. “We really loved his work and felt the story was under-covered, so we were trying to find a way to put the spotlight on it. At the same time, we were trying to get into eBook publishing – we’ve been thinking about it for a number of months because we think the tablet is a great way to reach new audiences.”
The Pulitzer Center first looked at traditional cross-publishing platforms such as Ativist and Adobe, but soon realised they weren’t quite what they were after. “Ativist, for example, focused a lot more on writing, and we were interested in that for a while,” says Naughton. “It offers a backend that you can lease to create your own app. But it wasn’t as multimedia-intensive as we wanted it to be. Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite was also considered, but that meant creating a magazine-type of app and we weren’t really sure that’s what we wanted to do.” The Center also wanted to find a cost-effective solution and admits, “We weren’t quite sure what we would do with our own dedicated app, especially since those are really expensive to develop.” Naughton explains: “We wanted to find a middle ground, where we could benefit from an existing built-in audience. So when iBook Author came along – and the fact that it’s free to download and use – it just made sense to use it.”
Naughton found producing the eBook straightforward, requiring little or no programming knowledge but allowing the Center to create a “very engaging and interactive experience”, thanks to the iPad’s screen quality and multi-touch capabilities. “In the end, what we’re trying to do is get people interested in long-form multimedia and journalism,” he says. “With this, we’re really making a strong and concerted effort to build that audience and become recognised for producing that kind of work.”
Of course, iBook Author comes with Apple’s usual limitations – you can only sell the book on iTunes, and Apple has to approve it, which is a murky process ruled by a series of vague and ambiguous guidelines on what type of content is allowed on its App Store. The procedure can take weeks, if not months, with little or no feedback from the Cupertino-based firm. But with the App Store reaching more than 400 million potential users, “overall it’s a really good way to get our feet wet and enter the world of tablet publishing”, says Naughton.
Blurb released its eBook software three months ago, letting authors adapt their traditional printed books or create new digital productions entirely free of charge. London-based photographer Robert Leslie was one of the first to try it, creating a multimedia version of his project Stormbelt. Leslie has been travelling around the US since 2009, documenting the effects of both the natural and man-made disasters that have plagued the US over the past five years. “Mile after mile of post-hurricane ruin and recession- based hardship provided a glimpse into an America unknown to most outsiders,” he writes.
When it came to publishing the project, Leslie first turned to traditional photobook publishers, before being put off by the current state of the market. “The market is collapsing and fewer people buy photobooks today,” he says. “My goal was to reach a large audience.”
With the help of Chris Boot, executive director of the Aperture Foundation (and who used to run his own book publishing company), Leslie decided to revisit the places he had documented to gather more material and to create a digital publication instead. “My goal was to record sounds to create an audio collage for the book,” he says. He also shot more than 500 videos, a dozen of which will be included in the publication.
To create the eBook, Leslie gained access to Blurb’s dedicated creation software ahead of its official launch, which he says “works by converting an existing print book and allowing you to insert videos and audio files wherever you like”. There are some limitations – the maximum upload size for a video file is 100MB, for example, but Leslie is more than happy with the result. “It was a new experience for me, and the cost of producing an eBook is really low,” he says. “Apart from financing the initial photographic project, a photographer could easily publish an eBook without spending anything.”