I asked Lucas Dietrich, Thames & Hudson's design editor, tasked with developing eBooks, about this new platform in general and Cycledia's unique challenges.
"Cyclepedia for the iPad seemed an ideal convergence of subject enjoying great popular resurgence with a design-oriented presentation aimed a target market we believed would be among the most likely to own an iPad," Dietrich said. "The nature of the subject—which is also fun—allowed us to explore a variety of interactive modes that could apply to other aspects of our program, from art and sculpture to fashion, design, architecture and landscape."
The subject is, in fact, fun and alluring. But did Thames & Hudson produce the app content as the book was being done, or was it necessary to go back and develop costly assets for the digital product? "The book was produced first and assets for the app added to the original content and animated through software design," he said. "But my ambition is to acquire projects that are conceived for both print and digital from the outset. Ultimately, this offers illustrated publishers like Thames & Hudson exciting new prospects, [and] we must retrain ourselves in order to do this effectively. The best apps are those not that take existing content augmented with new audio or visual or interactivity, but those [that] present a subject with an understanding that software is the medium, not the device."
For the average (or technologically backward) author, this prospect of thinking in terms of added interactivity can be daunting. I asked Dietrich to outline some of the distinct features that could not be possible in the printed form. Without hesitation, he rattled them off as if on a spec sheet. "Rather than having a contents page ordered by page, the bicycles are presented in one of several ways: alphabetically, chronologically, by country, by weight and by type (race, mountain, collapsible). Extreme zoom capability: Users can zoom up to 20x into each bike, giving phenomenal detail. User-defined animations, particularly the folding and unfolding of collapsible bikes. And, of course, video."
This impressive array of value-add-ons must, however, take a financial bite, especially since apps cannot sell for more than a dollar or so. How much cost does this add to the Thames & Hudson bottom line? "I would answer this obliquely," Dietrich said. "To develop a content-rich, highly interactive app requires practically the same amount of investment in out-of-house costs as it does to produce a beautiful, four-color hardcover book. The difference is that there are no printing costs and no warehousing, sales, and distribution, so fewer people are involved, which is no small saving for a medium-size publisher like Thames & Hudson."
Therein lays the paradox. For those who love the physical book, warehousing and resource depletion are increasingly critical concerns. I asked Dietrich if he found that Thames & Hudson's electronic book was a magic bullet. "Given the economics of apps in the context of iTunes/App Store, I'm reasonably certain that we, like most publishers, will choose to develop apps selectively," he said. "Even if software design costs begin to diminish, it will always be expensive to include original content, for any medium, or sophisticated programming, so unless the climate for free downloads changes radically, it's hard to see how large-scale production of content-rich apps will be commercially viable in the short term. I hardly need to say, however, this is a highly dynamic area."