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Notes from the ebooks panel at Digital Hollywood

October 21, 2010 | 10:33 am

The lobby of the Santa Monica hotel hosting Digital Hollywood was quieter than I expected on Wednesday -- maybe because I expected James Cameron-level bombast. Instead, well-groomed men (mostly men) sat in small groups, talking and tapping on laptops and Blackberries. I headed to a room in the back for the ebooks panel.

The panel had an interesting lineup: Charles Stack, chief executive of Sideways, a company that builds software tools for making interactive ebooks; Paras Maniar, chief strategy officer of EQAL, the interactive entertainment company behind lonelygirl15; Paca Thomas, cofounder of VidLit, which makes book trailers and more; and Lisa Napoli, former NPR radio reporter who will become a first-time author in February. (Full disclosure: I know Napoli from when we both worked at Marketplace).

Maniar focused on the multimedia approach his company created for Anthony Zuiker's Level 26, a dark crime "digi-novel" trilogy that combines print, online video bridges and social networking. Zuiker, the creator of "CSI," signed a three-book deal but wanted a greater marketing push than his publisher could offer. Maniar noted that publishing traditionally has big advances and small marketing budgets, leaving room for companies like his. "The publisher didn't jump in," Maniar said. Instead, EQAL did.

EQAL's 350-degree approach is enviable: it is fully thought out, multiplatform and executed with a high degree of professionalism. But it may work best for those who can, as I'm guessing Zuiker could, bring their own resources to spend on marketing, and as brand-leveraging for those who happen to have a book in their portfolio of offerings. Chef Paula Deen and activist actress Alicia Silverstone are two other clients.

Napoli provided another perspective, that of the novice author just trying to figure out how to promote her book. She's doing the legwork: she's printed up postcards and flyers for "Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth." She's also shared her media contacts with her publisher, created a website, shot video in Bhutan and is prepping for a blog tour, but wonders what more she could do. "I'm here to learn," she said.

What's interesting is that some of the online components EQAL and Napoli are putting into marketing could, in the future, go into the books themselves, using the tools provided by Sideways. Founded in May, the company builds software that can create interactive ebooks, including music, maps and visual effects, including a zoom-and-slideshow tool they call the Anigraphic Engine (demos here).

Stack, who talked to me after the panel, explained that the company is focused on selling the service to publishers, who would provide the materials and let Sideways create the finished ebooks. In the future, they could be more like Blurb, which allows consumers to use the tools, pay a fee and then deliver finished books -- the difference being that Blurb's books are printed, while Sideways' would be ebooks.

Sideways has created an i-Pad only magazine -- called Sideways -- which acts as a living laboratory for the company, which is trying out in-app purchases and following reader behavior in addition to its creative efforts. Those are on display in a recent issue, which featured a story by poet and professor Dinty Moore about his run-ins with George Plimpton built around its mapping tools.

Where Stack is coming at publishing fresh, VidLit's Thomas seemed to lean on old publishing tropes, such as saying that young people don't read (one NEA report said they didn't, while a later one said they did). He's been at it for a while -- his company's online video promotions for books pre-date YouTube. It had early successes -- such as its popular video for Little, Brown's "Yiddish with Dick and Jane" -- for major publishers, but lately has faced a more competitve marketplace. Today, he's warming to the self-publishing market. "Will it be bad if the whole thing topples?" he asked of mainstream publishers. "Frankly, I don't think it will be bad."

What the panel was missing was someone with a deep understanding of the economics of publishing. The conversation equated the challenges publishing faces with those the music industry confronted about a decade ago, a parallel that breaks down in the details.

The panel was useful, though, for opening up possibilities and ideas. I wasn't overly impressed with the image manipulation Stack showed me -- it felt slideshowy, not as impressive as the zoom and sweep of the Marvel app -- but I'd still subscribe to the Sideways iPad magazine, just to see the techniques and tools in action. That is, I will when I own an iPad.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: Screenshot from the Sideways Anigraphic Engine demo. Credit: Sideways LLC