Expozine 2015 Digital Publishing discussion
LR: We want to talk to one of our exhibitors here who run a hybrid press, both ebooks and printed books. Harley Smart runs Anteism books and I have to ask you, when did you start Bookart?
HS: We started it as a print-on-demand just in the past year. Our publishing house Anteism has been operating since 2003, and in the last few years we’ve been trying to get into eBooks. The main thing driving us is to try to figure out how open is an eBook? And what’s the difference between a website or a Tumblr page and an eBook if you can’t plug in, embed things into your ebook. We’ve gotten into augmented reality, where turning a printed page can make things happen to go along with the content, with the images or story.
HM: So far it seems the place where graphic or comic book material works well in ebooks is for manga. Kindle also has a tool that will make a digital version of children’s books, like a .pdf version, and turn it into an ePub that keeps the graphic design and images but makes it become what’s called reflowable—this means that I can make the font bigger, and the images automatically adjust.
But the problem within the eBook world is that it’s really that Amazon, Kobo and a couple of other companies own the market and they only innovate around the stuff they make money on, which a guy at Kobo told me was that their job was to keep older women readers of romance novels happy (laughter). All their R&D budget is devoted to how to make viable books, and that’s all that drives the eBook market.
LR: I would guess any real innovation is going to come from somewhere else then. Going back to Anteism, one of the books that got the most attention on the Expozine team afterwards was Scorpion Dagger, which turns out to be based on digital rather than the other way around.
HS: Yeah, this artist was mainly online, had a Tumblr page where he sort of remixes Renaissance paintings, had a great following, had all these years of work but never made a book. We were introduced and it end up working really well. We set up an ebook version where short clips of action can run on the page. I’m really excited about what else we can add with augmented reality.
MR: I think the new art form that’s going to emerge with digital books, and then augmented reality, is just not there yet. There have been a couple of tries in really experimental poetry that have been done well. But I think we haven’t seen this true multimedia object that could go mainstream. The augmented reality is just going to take over eventually because everything is getting smaller and smaller, they are working on it. Weird glasses, Google glasses… Microsoft is doing something like that… People aren’t always that into new technologies at first, but it’s going to happen eventually. Right now, we’re just seeing the transposition of paper books into digital, and it still doesn’t work; I find artbooks just don’t work in digital, the formats aren’t adaptable enough. But there will be NEW categories of art, and that’s where something will come together as a new physical – digital object. Oh also another thing that’s going to happen: we will finally be able to make money from it, that’s the other big novelty (laughter).
LR: It’s funny because it’s already been about four years since the Expozine team started planning to do something to explore digital publishing. Then three years ago, we started applying for funding for this, because there was this big excitement about digital publishing. We thought people would be bugging us about their digital zines by the next Expozine. But in the past two years, it’s really levelled off. Now, it’s like, who knows where this is going. And so to sum up our conversation, perhaps we are still just at the very beginning, we’re still taking baby steps, at least in most categories of books and writing, towards a stable model of digital publishing.
HM: I have a comment about that. The Kindle came out in 2008 or 2009, I think, so that makes it about six years since we’ve had an eBook market. But as Maxime said, all that happened so far is that we took the print model and transferred it to digital. But for sure within 10 years, there’ll be a generation of people who do not have the same relationship with books that traditional readers had. That does not mean physical formats will disappear, not at all, but the whole ecosystem has to change. This can be very slow and very difficult when the Amazon ecosystem currently sits at the center. It’s too rigid and structured. But I think we will see something completely different emerge, and it is precisely these people next to us (in the large Expozine small press fair) who will have the vision to do so.
LR: And perhaps at that point we’ll be able to host a “real” Digital Expozine!
MR: We do see a lot of younger artists learning how to use all the old presses, the old equipment, letterpress, risograph, everyone is excited about these 100 year-old machines, but they should learn to code! Coding is not that hard, a lot of people don’t know it and there is a world that you could open up with it. I love letterpress stuff, I’m not saying it’s stupid, but to code, in the world we live in, if you’re a producer of content, if you know how to code you can take care of yourself. If you know how to code, you can do anything. But there’s still that step to do in school, they’re not teaching coding very much. And it’s a language that, when you know how to do it, basically, you can do so much stuff! But I think it’s not in the cultural milieu, and culture is culture. Artists do not code. But once we get a generation of artists that already learned coding in school, they won’t just be using those skills to create video grames, they’re going to create who knows what. And then young programmers might not all want to get into video games, they might see that what the artists are doing is so cool that this is where they’ll want to work. We just haven’t seen something like that happen yet, maybe ever.
LR: Are you more encouraged or discouraged about all this, as a publisher?
PAF: I think the only advantage I have is a bit like for Ta Mère, the fact that we have a modest catalog and that most of it is already in InDesign, it wouldn’t be too hard to convert them all. But at first, during the first 3-4 years, whenever I considered the question, and saw that there was a format war between ePub and other formats, I felt that I was again waiting for the result of the VHS / Beta war, and thought we’d have to wait five years before we find out what format wins.
MR: At this point all of our digital publications are in ePub format.
PA: Ah, but you see, it took four years to make that decision! (Laughs)
HM: On top of that, the great secret of ePub is that it is basically HTML, the same as a website. So it’s not even that the ePub format wins, it’s the Web that wins because HTML is not going to go anywhere.
MR: Ah, the guardians of the temple! (Laughs)
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