The metaphor is unintentional: A book about a harrowing but triumphant Canadian expedition to Mount Everest begins a new chapter for a tiny Canadian publishing house trying to survive in a brutally changing landscape. With Everest: High Expectations, Bungalo Books marks a total shift away from print in favour of a reading experience created specifically for the iPad.
As publisher Frank Edwards puts it, he's moved from coffee table books to coffee tablet books.
His kind of e-book is more than simply digitized text; it's designed to take advantage of the iPad's features, with high-resolution photographs, maps, illustrations and embedded media – audio, video – allowing the reader to go deeper, or perhaps off on a tangent. He is able to create such a product with iBooks Author, the free software Apple began offering last year.
"This is certainly the future now for small publishers, for those of us who have been caught up in the ruination of the traditional publishing business for the last 20 years," says Edwards, 61, from his rural home in Eastern Ontario. "With this [software], somebody with a good idea and some content and an understanding of how to tell a story and create a book can do that in a very small, manageable scale and still get it out onto the international stage."
His first multi-touch book explores two 1980s expeditions to Everest involving Canadians.
In 1982, photojournalist and mountaineer Pat Morrow was part of the first Canadian team to make it to the summit. But along the way, four members of the team died: Blair Griffiths, a CBC cameraman embedded in the expedition, and three Sherpas – Ang Tsultim, Dawa Dorje and Pasang Sona. Thirty years later, Morrow wanted to mark the anniversary with a new book and to let a new generation experience climbing Everest before it became, as he calls it, "the Grouse Grind of the mountain world" – too accessible, attempted too casually and too often.
He went to Edwards, who has been publishing Morrow's work since the 1970s, initially in magazines. His timing was bang on. Edwards, whose Bungalo Books has existed as a self-publishing – but professional – venture since 1986, had taken a year off to study e-publishing and was looking for a project for his first multi-touch book.
"I started looking at this [Apple] software and I thought this is beautiful – everybody will rush to this," says Edwards, who loved the idea of creating a high-tech version of the coffee table books he worked on in the 1980s. "With this, I realized a guy living in the woods could do it with a photographer who was living in B.C."
The two spent about five months on the project – Morrow (who lives in Invermere, B.C.) part time, Edwards full time. He had to learn the software, and scan and colour correct all of Morrow's slides from 1982. Fellow Canadian Sharon Wood, who in 1986 became the first North American woman to summit Everest – on an expedition that also established a new route – told her story for the book's second part.
The result is a content-rich, visually exciting and reader-friendly experience, which can be consumed in one of two ways. Holding the iPad vertically, it reads like a traditional book, heavy on text, with photographs in the margins. Hold the iPad horizontally, though, and you get all the bells and whistles: photo galleries, maps, audio of on-Everest radio calls, interviews with CBC-Radio's As It Happens, a CBC-TV memorial for Griffiths. There are links to more material available online. In about 140 pages, the book, Edwards figures, has about twice the number of photographs a traditional coffee table book would have allowed.
"It is the first book that has come to my attention that I think really takes advantage of the new digital technology," says Vancouver International Writers Festival artistic director Hal Wake, who bought an iPad so he could experience the book. "The images are stunning in retina display."
The enriched user experience, the ease of publishing in the format, plus the ubiquity of the iPad all seemed to point to this being the next big thing, Edwards figured.
"When I started this, I thought we were climbing onto a bandwagon," he says. "And when Everest … came out … I looked around and said, 'Hey, there's no one else here yet.' Which is always a scary thing."
It was hard to get traction. Reviewers, says Morrow, didn't know what to make of it. Some asked him to print out copies – which he did, on a black-and-white laser printer, sending them off with a note warning that the reviewer was "missing the point" by consuming the book that way.
Then there was the challenge of getting noticed in Apple's iBooks store. By using the software, the author/publisher agrees to only sell the product through the iTunes bookstore (if you're giving it away for free, the condition does not apply). And it is not easy to find. Unless you conduct a search for the specific title, you may not come across it. Sales spiked for the couple of weeks the book was an editor's pick, but otherwise, they've been sluggish since the fall 2012 publication, finally breaking the 1,000-sales mark this month – far below expectations.
Still, Edwards says, it beats the bad old days of five-figure printing costs; moving books from a printer in Manitoba to a distributor's warehouse in Toronto to stores all over Canada and then back again when they don't sell; and possibly finding yourself in deep financial trouble when a bankruptcy has an impact on your business – as it did for Edwards when General Publishing filed for creditor protection in 2002.
As for cost, this book is $9.99 – a fraction of a comparable printed coffee table book. Apple gets 30 per cent of each sale.
"It's not going to completely obliterate the traditional form of print media, but in terms of information dissemination and reaching a global marketplace, this form of e-publishing is where the future lies," believes Morrow, 60, who says he's been waiting for this kind of multimedia experience to explode since the advent of the CD-ROM. "And if people go the extra mile to design a book that has more going for it than just straight digitized text, then the bar is going to be raised. … People are going to have to up the ante in terms of their commitment to the medium and try to offer the most enticing package of text and visuals that they can."
Edwards has now started work on a non-illustrated e-version of Everest suitable for Amazon's Kindle as well as Android and Apple devices, which he hopes will be available by early September, but he says his heart remains with illustrated books for the iPad. He is also pitching organizations on using the multi-touch technology (which he points out allows for text in more than one language) for reports, rather than printing out all those copies. He's also offering some children's books in the format (albeit minus the multimedia diversions).
Despite the absence of instant success with Everest, Edwards's expectations for the new technology, he says, remain high.