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.

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