The 75-year-old publishing house is dusting itself off and showing that it can compete with nontraditional companies in the digital space


Over the past few years, we've watched as brick-and-mortar bookstores have packed their shelves and moved out of town; as ebook sales have shot up in Amazon's digital storefront, now eclipsing paperbacks and hardcovers three to one; and as digital publishing startups, like Byliner Originals, have challenged the medium in exciting new ways. Traditional publishers, it seemed, were on the way out.

But Penguin Books is fighting back. The company's decision to release Jack Kerouac's 1957 classic, On the Road, as a digitally "amplified" iPad application, complete with never-before-seen materials, is an admirable step in the right direction. When I first saw the screenshots for this new edition, which went on sale in the App Store this past Saturday, I immediately thought that Penguin had modeled its new project on the Atavist.

A boutique publishing house that releases original nonfiction on digital devices -- the iPad, Kindle, iPhone, Nook -- the Atavist was founded by Evan Ratliff, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Outside, National Geographic, Wired and others, and Nicholas Thompson, a senior editor at the New Yorker. The Atavist works because it recognizes the power of the mini-computers we now carry around with us at all times. Where traditional publishers are reluctant to even offer digital copies of their books at reasonable prices, the Atavist uses audio, video, slideshows and more to enhance its copy. This is about telling a story in whatever way makes the most sense. Ratliff has talked frequently about his decision to begin his own Atavist contribution, Lifted, with a video clip, for example. This was "better than any lede I could've written for the story," he told ReadWriteWeb.

Story continues after the gallery.

That said, Penguin still has a few things to learn from the Atavist and others playing in this space. Digital copies of On the Road are priced too high at $16.99 (available at an introductory price of $12.99 through July 5), there's still too much emphasis placed on the original text (I know the story; give me a new way in) and the marketing strategy is stodgy.

The promotional video is terribly boring, complete with slow muzak playing in the background and a dry voiceover from some unnamed Penguin hire. Though it's only about 90 seconds long, I had to remind myself that I was watching as someone who intended to write about this project and not just a casual browser -- I would never purchase this product based on the video. But the 75-year-old publishing house is new to this territory; give it some time and see if it can stretch its legs. At least the narrator isn't lying when he says that this new edition is an encyclopedic take on Kerouac and the Beats.

"With the complete text of the original 1957 novel at its heart, this digital edition draws on input from the Kerouac estate and Beat scholars and includes rare and never-before-seen material: Kerouac family photos, many published for the first time; exclusive audio clips of Kerouac himself," we're told. The app features "fully interactive maps of the legendary trips from 1947, 1949 and 1950 taken by Dean and Sal in the book, with historical photographs and notes, pages from the journals Kerouac kept while on the road and previously unreleased documents from the original publishers, Viking, including letters between Kerouac and the editors," and much more."

On the Road is the first app that was developed and released for the iPad by Penguin Books, according to Stephen Morrison, the company's editor in chief and associate publisher. But it won't be the last. "There are other apps in development in the Penguin Group and we can let you know more when we get close to the 'go live' date for them," he teased. Previously, Penguin released an amplified ebook edition of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, "which included all sorts of interesting curated material, with a development emphasis for the academic and teachers' market," Morrison added. But it was nothing like On the Road.

Images: Penguin Books.

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