8 questions for Charles Catton of Amber Books [Interview]
How do you decide which books should be turned into apps?
Sometimes it’s just an obvious fit for the content and the technology available – for example, using iTunes previews with an update of our Top 100 Bestselling Albums book to create our Top 100 Albums app, or animating our battle maps and adding a voiceover for the Great Battles apps. Amber has built up a great deal of in-house knowledge over the years about which subjects and treatments work for the various international markets, so that information helps guide our decisions. Developers tend to have areas of specialisation and are better suited to creating certain types of app, so we have to pick the right developer for the content.
I think the key approach for publishers is not to think app first, but content first. How can the content be best presented to an audience? It may be an app, it may be an ebook, or even a print book. Trying to shoehorn content into an inappropriate medium is a recipe for failure. However there also has to be room for experimentation – this is a new frontier, after all. For example, we’ve just launched a free new iOS app that is actually a bookshop – it’s called ‘Military Books’ – which we intend to make a portal for all illustrated military history enthusiasts. We’ve already signed up some military publishers such as The History Press to come on board.
It can be difficult to decide what to do next sometimes. We have so much content available at Amber that it’s not realistic for us to develop everything as an app; hence we’re open to external developers working with our content if we feel that their ideas are appropriate and have potential.
Which app are you most happy with and why?
That’s like asking a parent to choose which is their favourite child! I think I’d have to say our Human Body app, the first we produced under our own banner and it’s still pretty much as we’d make it if we created it today. It also became profitable after about 3 months, which helps. But I’m proud of all of our apps, and am constantly looking at ways in which they could be improved. Speaking personally, the Top 100 Albums app is a favourite because the amount of content it contains gives a really rich experience for the reader, and I’ve spent hours browsing through it.
How do you think that apps will develop over the next few years?
I think we’ll see fewer glorious failures, as developers are learning quickly what works and what doesn’t. Android will get a lot more attention, especially Amazon’s version of Android. The Kindle Fire is a gamechanger, although we probably won’t see it here until next Christmas, and it’s not an iPad killer. (Kobo’s recent announcements re the Vox and WHS are both promising and exciting, but the jury’s still out on whether they can seriously dent Amazon’s lead in the UK.) Web apps will also feature more prominently, as the economics of only coding once makes eminent sense, and device proliferation is going to continue to worsen. Games are going to continue to drive development of new app technologies. The other key question is how ebooks develop over the next few years – as the epub spec is enhanced and improved, epubs will have the potential to behave more like today’s apps. This should be good news for publishers, because epubs hold a higher retail price than apps, although again the content has to be suitable for such enhancement.
Why do you like working at Amber Books?
We’re small enough to be nimble, and own the majority of our content outright, which gives us enormous advantages in the app world. In more general terms, as we still offer packaging services to publishers in both print and digital formats, I get to work with a wide variety of content and so I experience an incredibly diverse range of subject areas and audience on a regular basis, which is pretty unusual in publishing.
What’s your biggest achievement?
If it doesn’t sound too pat, I hope it’s still to come, but I’m proud of many things I’ve done in publishing. Much of what we publish would not be considered by many as great literature, but some of our readers only buy one or two books a year. Having one of these reluctant readers (usually boys) buy a book that they enjoy enough to make the effort to write to you afterwards is hugely rewarding.
And your most embarrassing moment?
Ripping my trousers getting into a lower-than-expected car seat before meeting a major client a few years ago. Luckily my long coat and bag hid it, I think – no one said anything, but then would you mention it?
What advice would you give to someone starting out in publishing?
Do your research. Find your role, and find the right type of publisher for you. Small publishers offer a very different experience to the Big Six – not better or worse, just different. Talk to publishing people at events like Book Machine. Follow key figures on Twitter. Blog if you can. Look for opportunities to expand your responsibilities. Volunteer for things and do more than is expected of you, it tends to pay off in the end.
Why do you like BookMachine parties?
You meet enthusiastic and interesting people who remind you why you work in publishing.— You can check out Amber’s iPad apps at itunes.com/amberbooksltd; their latest app, Military Books, can be found here.