What can a publisher do with a tablet that can't be done with a book? In the case of Brian Cox's Wonders of the Universe, the answer is, "Everything."
An electronic application built as a supporting medium for the BBC television series of the same name, the combination of text, video, and on-screen graphics makes for a rich experience that has interesting implications for groups ranging from parents to textbook publishers.
I had a chance to talk with Alex Gatrell, digital publisher with Collins, the UK-based trade book division of HarperCollins Publishers. We discussed the nature of the application, why it's an application rather than a book, and what its success might mean for the publishing industry.
When I asked Gatrell about the decision to create an application based on the series, he was effusive in his praise of tablets as a publishing medium. "I think tablets themselves are wonderful because you can bring all this content together, and for publishers our skill is to bring information together. It uses some old-school publishing traits and skills, but it's totally new."
Once Collins had taken the decision to put the content on a tablet, the question was whether it should be in one of the electronic book formats, or as a separate application. Gatrell says:
I think we'd like to make immersive educational experiences. As a publisher we do beautiful illustrated books, and we want to take that into beautiful immersive applications. Ebooks don't really give us enough control, so apps are very attractive in allowing a broader palette of resources.
Looking forward, Gatrell says that the experience of Wonders of the Universe is encouraging for Collins. "We recouped costs within three days, we're very pleased, and we'd like to continue, but it's going to be fewer, bigger, better for apps. I think other publishers are of similar view."
Among the differences between an application (sold through Apple's App Store) and a traditional book is the global scope of the app's reach. Gatrell says that a global reach has significant legal and financial ramifications for publishers:
It does change it to a global market. Our sales are roughly split between the US and UK. We used to do deals with publishers in territories where we didn't have distribution, but the App Store really subverts the traditional rights deals because it changes the territories available.
That reach isn't without issues, though.
The only problem is that Apple doesn't take tax on delivery in every jurisdiction and we have to deal with those separately. Right now we're not selling in places where the tax deals aren't in place, but we're looking at ways to deal with it. It's one of the only drawbacks to being able to sell so broadly.
Gatrell is careful to call Wonders of the Universe a mainstream application that could complement a textbook, rather than a textbook application that stands alone. For parents, libraries, or school systems looking for "enrichment," it's a model that seems almost certain to expand into other topics with time.
For educators and textbook publishers, though, it could well be considered the practical definition of "disruptive technology," though it's a disruption wrapped in a visually stunning and beautifully interactive cover.