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After Bunny Munro – an interview with Peter Collingridge

Peter Collingridge is MD of Apt Studio, a digital consultancy specialising in publishing, and co-founder of Enhanced Editions, a digital publisher to mobile devices. In 2009 Enhanced Editions developed the ground-breaking Nick Cave Bunny Munro iPhone app to critical acclaim. The digital publisher has since produced iPhone apps for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (4th Estate) and most recently The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman (Canongate).

TLP: The Bunny Munro iPhone app was a groundbreaking project partly responsible for waking up the UK publishing industry into looking properly at digital possibilities for literature. Do you think they’re moving fast enough at the moment?

PC: I think they’re moving as fast as they can. Look – I can barely keep up with stuff at the moment! Publishing is turning into a high-speed spectator sport, and the major houses (let alone the small ones) are really poorly resourced to fight fires on all fronts and innovate at the same time. So I don’t think that asking that question is necessarily fair, given that context. What’s more important – contracting with Apple and Amazon, digitising the list, negotiating rights with major authors? Or doing some crazy crystal-ball gazing and investing in the sort of ambitious and risky R&D project (like we’ve done at Enhanced Editions)? People in big publishing houses don’t have enough time to do all of this stuff. 

Do I think publishing has been slow to innovate, and to invest in R&D in tech and people over the past 10 years? Yes, absolutely. Do I think that they risk losing out to bigger investors in R&D such as Google? Yes. But…

We know that we’re doing things that these guys would find hard to do themselves for all sorts of reasons, but it’s also important to say that we can only do it with them, and are doing it with them, and that what we do is a very collaborative process that works for everyone.

TLP: Do you see the enhanced edition format as being the future of publishing?

PC: I think for some bits of publishing (big-ticket, well-established and ambitious launch titles) it points to one kind of publishing approach, yes. Some people at LBF have been saying to us that the enhanced edition is the hardback of the e-publishing world, which makes sense on one level. We set up to provide a “premium” digital reading experience, to reward the readers who really love an author with high-quality, smart, valuable additional material and experiences that they want, there and then. This is what the hardback is. But clearly with the production costs, and small margins in publishing, it’s not for everyone.

TLP: Do you think that ‘normal’ ebooks (i.e. not multimedia format) should be priced at a different price to print versions?

PC: Depends what you mean by a “price” for a print version! I don’t think that concept exists anymore! No book is sold at a consistent (or transparent) price anymore. A book that is RRP £6.99 is sold for half that in some places, full price elsewhere, for exactly the same book. It’s not like some books are fair trade, limited edition, organic or free range or whatever. They’re all the same – exactly. What you pay for in Daunts (who refuse to discount) is for a superior purchasing experience, not a superior product. And more power them. We’re trying out the idea of a superior reading experience, which we acknowledge is a bit of a new idea…

The whole pricing model in publishing has been so comprehensively screwed up over the last ten years – with so many different parties and reasons to blame – that unpicking it is going to take some work. Certainly that’s something we’re trying to experiment with – can ebooks support a premium model? Do customers want to pay more for something better than average? Do readers want to get closer to an author? We just don’t know the answer yet. The main problem is that readers now see books as commodities for which they mentally halve the RRP. “Normal” ebooks tend to make their claim based on convenience, whilst research we’ve seen shows that readers have a disproportionately high perception of the value of a paperback.

With the agency model coming through, it’s going to be really interesting to see how this pans out. People need to be brave and experimental. Personally, I think we’re likely to see parity between discounted print price and ebook price, but that is assuming that publishers want ebooks to be as significant a chunk of the business as print…

TLP: Some commentators believe the digital age will see a proliferation of literary content online, but also a renaissance in quality publishing, special limited print editions, etc. Can you see this as a possible outcome?

PC: Yup. I’ve always felt that way. I wrote a blog post almost five years ago talking about how I buy music on vinyl, but listen to music on the go on an iPod, and how I saw books going the same way. I prefer vinyl, but make do with digital. I think the same is true of books. Personally, my reading habits have changed. I read more digitally now, and in a day, spend more time reading than I ever have, but those moments are in-between moments, on my iPhone. Fifteen minutes here, five minutes there, half an hour there. My preferred reading is often hardback, in a moment of calm (which doesn’t exist), in silence, for hours on end. But that’s not so compatible with the reality of my life.

Publishers who continue to produce beautiful, distinctive, desirable hardbacks – I’m thinking Simon Prosser at Hamish Hamilton above all – understand this and continue to flick our switches – are, I think, doing the right thing. For some titles. But hardback publishing is about much more than immediate sales, and you need to marry that to a number of editions.

Bunny Munro had a number of editions, including the enhanced edition and a limited edition hardback. Canongate gets this, and whilst it doesn’t work for every title, the joy involved in creating something of utter beauty is an end in itself.

It’s a risky, unknown strategy, but I have to say that I feel that if you do something with gusto, rather than cynical commercialism, you’re more likely to end up with a win. Whatever that means.

TLP: Do you think the digital age will change the way people write? So much is being written about narrative options / forked-path literature at the moment.

PC: Ack. It might do but not in a big way. I remember when email came in and we had a few novels written in email. That never really took off, did it – it just became a reference point. One of our principles is that the medium is not the message – you don’t do things because you can in digital – it’s all about the writing. We’ve done lots of experiments, and had a lot of fun (I’m thinking of Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park campaign from 2005) but writers have a need to write, and that’s never really successfully driven by anything apart from that need.

TLP: Enhanced Editions and Apt are known for innovative and beautifully designed projects. What exciting projects are there on horizon?

Thanks – you couldn’t have said nicer things. There’s lots of things going on, many of them at the same time! Follow us on @gunzalis and @enhancededition to keep up to speed…

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