Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Matt Cavnar

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I talk to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  How will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us better understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing, books and reading culture, and how we can ourselves both understand and influence the future of books and reading.

I’ve been thinking alot lately about the evolution of ebook building.  My friends Ron Martinez and Nick Ruffilo at Aerbook and Hugh McGuire at PressBooks, have also built on this kind of concept, in Aerbook’s case a cloud based authoring tool that is highly sophisticated and probably best used by experienced book designers (called Aerbook Maker), and in PressBooks’ model a WordPress based authoring tool that enables writers and editors to collaborate in the cloud to build books from scratch.  Barnes & Noble has created a tool for publishers who want to build fixed page children’s books for their own device, the Nook.  This seems like a growing trend, presaged by what happened years ago in the realm of desktop publishing (which resulted in today’s powerful tools, InDesign and Quark – and InDesign now can even be used to make ebooks), making it possible for book designers to do incredible work with powerful, economical tools.

The received wisdom about ebooks with video and audio features is that they don’t sell all that well, at least compared to straight text or even just books with illustrations.  And since they have had to be built more or less by hand as one off productions, they have had significantly higher costs of production.  With low sales and high cost of production, the ROI for publishers for these sorts of ebooks has been mostly terrible.

That has meant that relatively few such books have been published.  Which of course has meant that there has been relatively little audience development for ebooks that combine text, illustrations, audio and video features, and perhaps also.  By streamlining the process of ebook building and empowering creators, these tools will reduce the cost of deploying ebooks with integrated audio and video elements, improve design, and hopefully increase the level of interest in enhanced ebooks by attracting more creativity on the production side.  One might imagine that a meaningful increase in the number of these kinds of enhanced or “app-like” ebooks in the various e-bookstores, will also increase the interest of readers for them, and thus more sales.  And of course we can also hope for more marketing commitment from the device manufacturers themselves and better software and hardware to enable readers to more readily enjoy this expected increase in creativity on the author and publisher side of the equation (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple, are you listening?)

As a proponent of enhanced ebooks, I’d like to believe that with relatively lower cost of production, and more platform support, we will indeed see an increase in output of these kinds of ebooks, and that a great upsurge of creative, meaningful use of audio and video in books will really “enhance” the usefulness and popularity of these kinds of ebooks for readers.

Matt Cavnar is the VP of Business Development for Vook, a company that is now offering their own sophisticated ebook publishing tool for authors and publishers.  When the company started in 2009, it set out to provide video-enabled ebooks to the reading public.  Over the past three years the company has produced hundreds of ebooks of all different kinds.  During that time, they soon realized that acting simply as a production company, they could never achieve the kind of scale they really hoped for, so over the past year or so, Vook’s staff took everything they had learned about making ebooks, and built a toolset that virtually anyone can use to make great ebooks.

Matt is a passionately committed to books, and especially to ebooks, and to expanding their reach.  In the course of our conversation, we talked first about the Vook platform and the tools it offers to users, and then went on from there to talk broadly about the current and evolving state of digital publishing, informed by Matt’s hands on experience working with ebooks and their creators for the past several years.  This conversation should be valuable to anyone involved in publishing, whether ebooks are your primary interest or not, but especially if you are interested in seeing where the nuts and bolts of ebook creation have gone in mid-2012.

E. Ethelbert Miller: The Fifth Inning

June 21, 2012 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-1604865219 – PM Press – Paperback – $15.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

E. Ethelbert Miller  is a writer and literary activist.  He is currently the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).  Since 1974, he has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University.  Ethelbert is also the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and a former core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College.  He’s published more than ten books, in both poetry and prose, has edited a number of anthologies, and his writing is widely anthologized.  He’s won all sorts of awards and recognition for his writing and for his longstanding work in support of writing as a community and cultural effort.   In addition, for several years he hosted the popular weekly radio program Maiden Voyage on WDCU-FM, as well as Vertigo On The Air on WPFW.

Ethelbert has long been a favorite poet of mine, whom I got to know years ago when I lived in Washington, D.C., where Eth still resides.  We’re of a similar age and share various passions, not the least of which is baseball.

So it is no wonder that I jumped at the chance to read his memoir, The Fifth Inning, and then to talk to him about it on Writerscast.  This is a terrific book, unusual in its shape and structure, which is both poetically charged and carefully built.  Ethelbert allows himself to write honestly and purely about his own life, his insecurities, pain and suffering, but without ever becoming self indulgent or overwrought.  There is always hope, and the sense that something good, or even great, will come from all this “stuff” we go through in life.

Thinking of a baseball game, the fifth inning out of nine is, of course, the turning point.  After the fifth inning, a game can end early but still be considered an official game – a life lived, though abbreviated.  So here he is, in the fifth inning of his imagination, looking back at the beginning of the game, and at the present where it’s about to start the last stretch toward the end and the final score.  It’s a good time to take stock and get ready to see what you can do to get past the hitters coming up to bat.  When you’re pitching you need to pace yourself, remember what worked and didn’t work in the early innings, and use what you have learned to keep the hitters off stride and getting the outs you need to win the game.

Poets’ memoirs are sometimes brittle and too carefully built to sustain a personal story.  Ethelbert is not that kind of poet.  He’s active and alive in every moment, and brings his readers right into his head and heart.  This is a beautifully constructed and written piece of personal writing that I hope will find a audience far beyond the literary community.  What Ethelbert has to say about being human and growing older is important for all of us to hear.

Ethelbert’s website is here, well worth a visit.  And I wanted to mention that this is a Busboys & Poets book published by PM Press, a publisher I hope readers will learn about and support.  Buy the book direct from the publisher to support independent publishing and alternative culture.

Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams: The New Universe and the Human Future

June 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-0300181241 – Yale University Press – paperback – $20 (ebook versions available)

This was an exciting and extraordinary book for me to take on.  At the very moment I discovered Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams’ cool new book The New Universe and the Human Future, I was also discovering Big History and working on a book project that relates exactly to the ideas in this book.  So it was a lucky coincidence for me to find this book and even better to have the chance to speak with the authors.  My first two-author interview also, which was fun, not the least because Joel and Nancy work brilliantly together.

I suspect I learned more about the universe from this book than from anything else I have read in my entire life – and I thought I had been pretty good about keeping up with Big Science over the past thirty years or so.

In The New Universe, Nancy Abrams, a cultural philosopher and Joel Primack, an astrophysicist—combine their knowledge and experience to present the most accurate possible portrayal of our current understanding of the universe in which we live.  It’s pretty stunning to realize that we are indeed time travelers, since we are able to see the history of the universe in light as it reaches us.  And to understand the scale of time in which humans are so small.

But Abrams and Primack are after more than just telling what scientists know and what cosmologists understand about the universe and our place in it.  By showing us the absolute miracle of human life on planet Earth, they infuse a scientifically grounded spirituality into the core of our understanding.  While they quickly dispense with any notions of Biblical literalism that are disproven by the physical facts that science has uncovered about space and time, cosmology and biology, what they want to show us is that it is possible for the world now to finally share a scientifically grounded creation story.  Whereas today we seem to have highly fragmented and differing worldviews that prevent us from living intelligently on our small planet, by understanding how unique our planet and we as a species are in the universe, and how we got here, we may yet be able to unite to save ourselves from extinction.  Knowing that it is likely that this is the the only planet able to foster intelligent life does force us to acknowledge our responsibilities not only to ourselves but to the universe we inhabit.

The book is full of incredible information and insights, brilliantly illustrated, our creation story well told.  I find myself going back to it frequently as the richness of information the authors share calls out to be re-read.  And there’s a great website for the book that I recommend visiting as well.

Nancy Ellen Abrams is an attorney, cultural philosopher, and lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Joel R. Primack, Distinguished Professor of Physics at the UC Santa Cruz, is one of the principal creators of the modern theory of the universe on the grand scale.   Together they have authored several books, including The View From the Center of the Universe. They live in Santa Cruz, California.