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Blowing Out the Digital Book as We Know It

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"There is no future of the digital book -- not the way we envision it today," said Matt MacInnis, the founder and CEO of Inkling, the San Francisco startup that's re-conceptualizing books for the digital realm.

He's right. Tablets and e-readers are unraveling the publishing industry as it's existed until now. More than 12 percent of American adults owned an e-reader as of May, according to a Pew study, and 8 percent owned tablets.

But the books being read on those devices were conceived originally for print. Words and ideas have been designed to fit on the physical page. Even for those books that do include videos or audio recordings, they've typically been added as afterthoughts, or as ancillary pieces to the primary content.

"It's not even close to maximizing the potential of the tablet," said MacInnis said.

While tablets and e-readers duke it out for the market share, Inkling is working on blowing out the digital book as we know it. Though the company started by digitally rendering existing print textbooks only for the iPad -- currently, there are about 100 book titles -- it's poised to become a major player in the publishing industry. But rather than creating content, the tech company will provide the platform that can transcend any device, whether that's an iPad, a Kindle -- or even a laptop.



Currently, all of Inkling's titles are in education, but it's starting to dabble beyond that market.

Inkling engineering is being used to create digital books out of blogs. With licensing from Inkling, Open Air Publishing just released a new cookbook, Food52 Holiday Recipe & Survival Guide, derived from a blog written by former New York Times writers Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, and another called Speakeasy Cocktails. Both titles have received rave reviews for their luscious images, explanatory videos, and ease of use. "The multimedia features elevate it from a how-to guide to something rivaling a small group class," writes Mashable.

Inkling also produced the epic The Professional Chef by the Culinary Institute of America. The book in its entirety costs $50, but you can also purchase individual chapters for $3 a piece. The new model makes book buying much like buying music -- choose only the pieces you like best.  MacInnis fluidly demonstrates how to float from one chapter to the next, launch videos, close in on images, tap on sidebars and recipe instructions. It's like watching a magician performing sleight-of-hand tricks.

But the books Inkling has created thus far are what MacInnis calls a "means to an end."

"It’s all a way for us to illustrate for the world what’s possible. Simple things like rendering images into 3D, we can scale pretty well. But when you get to thinking about the hierarchy of knowledge you have to traverse in order to be an expert in a specific topic, you start to build the book very differently than you would have done in print," he said. "We can take a textbook to an Inkling title in six weeks, but we can't create a pure Inkling experience in six weeks, because there’s no shortcut."


Inkling is in the midst of producing multiple projects that will take years to create because they're building native digital content. "You'll see stuff that will be much more beautiful and much more interesting in structure," he said, though he would not elaborate further.


"Everything we’ve done is platform agnostic,"  MacInnis said. The underlying information allowing the iPad to render, for example, the 3D molecule in its science books is not specific to the iPad. "It’s a piece of software for the iPad, but there’s another piece of software that will be able to render that in a Web browser or in a different device."

MacInnis is keeping a close eye on the tablet and e-reader market, but he points out one very obvious extension: "We’re constantly looking at the world of digital readers, the Nook color, Kindle Fire, some of the Google devices. It’s all super interesting to us," he said. "But there’s one device that everyone has, which is a laptop."

That means when Inkling launches books for other platforms (though the timing has yet to be determined), all the content it's produced until now -- everything from Erik Foner's history book Give Me Liberty! to the just released Living With Art -- will instantly be available in these other platforms, too.


Though most of the titles under Inkling's belt are geared for higher education, MacInnis sees the K-12 market as ripe for the medium. "We fully expect that Inkling will be in the K-12 world," he said. "It’s already in use in that space, and we plan to make ourselves known to that audience more aggressively."

Inkling currently works with Pearson, McGraw Hill, and WW Norton, all of which have titles in K-12 space. And private prep schools use Inkling titles for their advanced placement courses. "They’re deploying the technology already, making substantial investments in devices, so we’re being very opportunistic about it," he said.

But what happens in the K-12 realm depends on what publishers decide to do. "What features the Inkling platform supports -- monitoring and reporting, the sorts of things you need in a controlled K-12 environment -- we may or may not choose to do depending on where the market pulls us," he said.


As lovely as they are to behold and consume, the million-dollar question is whether Inkling books provide more value to the learning process than print books. The company addresses this in different ways, allowing for easy searching, for social-networked note-taking and highlighting to allow for robust group discussions online, and quizzes and self-assessment tools so learners know when they're ready to move on to the next chapter.

But is there any evidence showing students actually perform better using Inkling books? "We want to get better at understanding the real measurable educational outcomes that occurs as a result of using inkling," MacInnis said. To that end, the Virginia Department of Education recently conducted a program that showed students using Inkling books improved their A.P. scores over the course of an entire year faster than those that didn't, according to MacInnis. "Anecdotally, it shows that there’s some positive correlation," he said. "But that's if higher SAT outcomes is what you’re going after."

What's the secret sauce? Any number of factors: It could be because it's easier to carry around one device rather than a stack of books, easier to access lessons on-the-go, and of course, what MacInnis refers to as "just straight-up engagement."

"We're using media that's more familiar to this generation," he said.