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Interactive Publications

by David ReiterDavid Reiter

When people who do not know us hear that our company name is Interactive Publications they often assume that we are exclusively a digital publisher. Not true. The name in fact derives from the consultancy I founded in 1993 at the time I was edging away from being someone else's employee. I was going to make a modest killing working for business and government agencies at an hourly rate public sector workers only dream of during coffee breaks. This, after years of teaching writing and publishing at a variety of universities. And I didn't want to change the name because a designer friend of mind had produced a super logo, which the company still uses today.

Much to the chagrin of my bank account, my creative side won out. IP, as we're known DownUnder, was probably destined to be a literary publisher from the start, though a street-wise one. Most small presses here fail for familiar reasons, such as having no business plan, no grasp of the market, and no vision for how to succeed in a very competitive industry. Art for art's sake seldom does much for the old cash flow. I was determined not to fail. While excited by the lure of the new technologies, instinct told me that a company that put all of its eggs in a digital basket would fail. Reading tastes change slowly, and just publishing brilliant e-books would be no guarantee of success in a market where few people are aware of your product. Now, most people have heard of e-books, and some may have seen them online, but few people go out of their way to actually buy them. Perhaps because they think if it's on the Net it should be free?

My plan was to be commercial from the outset by striking and maintaining a balance between niche print and innovative digital work. People still are suspect of new dot-com enterprises, but having a print side could give us credibility, as well as exposure in the bookshops. It would work like this: people would be drawn to IP for our quality print titles, and then they would be gently persuaded to have a look at our e-books. I knew the print side, having been a practitioner and an author for so many years, and a graduate of the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course for good measure.

The next question was how to set up the digital side. Given our lack of funding– hiring a crew of specialists was out of the question. I looked in the mirror and decided that "multi-tasking" begins at home, generally between dinner and breakfast time.

I started modestly with user-friendly shareware packages and then, as cash flow allowed, moved on to more sophisticated programs like Acrobat and the Macromedia web suite. I was motivated by personal interest as well as a wish to grow the business. Most IP initiatives have started with my own projects, which serve as proof of concepts for projects to come. If they don't work out, I know I am bound to be more understanding than the average ego-driven author.

For example, I decided to take Adobe at their word to see if Acrobat could provide full multimedia functionality for my first work of literary multimedia on CD-ROM, The Gallery. It did – well, sort of. The work was refined and tested at the Banff Centre for the Arts, where I learned all the joys of cross-platform testing. Luckily, I was not on my own for that crucial phase of cyber-publishing. Now I'm in the throes of beta-testing – yes, that is an appropriate term for the pre-natal activities involved in smartening up a literary work – my latest work, Sharpened Knife, a multimedia murder mystery, authored with Macromedia tools.

Our digital section, IP Digital, has just finished a hybrid CD-ROM/audio CD of one of Australia's better-known poets, Chris Mansell, who has a strong background in performance work. On the single CD we offer the full text of her book in .pdf, with linked .mp3 readings for about half of the poems. The audio can be listened to as an anthology either via computer or CD player, and people can also download the anthology onto their .mp3 player. These kinds of projects are what excite me about publishing in a new media environment. Pin a publisher to the wall by her balance sheet and she will admit that the shine has worn off e-books limited to text. The marketplace is telling us that we should be adding value to text with multimedia, not simply repackaging physical books.

In our rush to embrace multimedia, though, we shouldn't forget that writing still requires a strong background in readingand mastering the skills of putting good words and thoughts on a page. The slog, in other words. Audiences are impressed by special effects in the cinema but seldom conned into thinking that that is all a script needs to inspire us. So multimedia that relies on glitz to make up for a lack of pen-and-paper effort will ultimately be like a TV playing to an empty room. It will always take more time to master written expression than to learn how to animate an image.

As a literary publisher I still look for good writing as the key element of any multimedia project. And I look for projects with potential for cross artform presentation because I believe that these kinds of titles will enlarge the audience for literary work. This sets us apart from many publishers who tend to be more conservative about what they take on. On the other hand the work has to have a redeeming commercial value, too. So we walk the tightrope of encouraging hybrid forms while at the same time only taking on work that we think will find a willing market. Publishers should be willing to offer work that creates demand but we cannot get too far ahead of our audiences.

Authors and publishers need to educate their audiences about what these new artforms are. Which is why I spend time on the road at festivals, running workshops and giving demonstrations of our new work. People want to see and hear multimedia work not just read about it. If they can be immersed in it, and the quality is there, they will spread the word and maybe even buy it. The proof is in the balance sheet: The Gallery was our most popular title in 2001, so we must be doing something right.

What does the future hold for IP? We will continue to widen our digital horizons, expanding our range of titles and getting better at producing and promoting multimedia work. But we will continue publishing print titles because we believe in that the printed book still has a future, even for literary titles. That will certainly mean taking advantage of the advances in print technology to produce low-cost work, but there may be an argument for going the other way, with limited editions in high quality productions aimed at people who are willing to pay more for sewn bindings and special paper. As print-on-demand processes are improved, such options will be less pie-in-the-sky, and literary publishing may come full circle, escaping the imperatives of marketing departments to a realizable utopia where we once again produce beautiful books that sell.

On the digital side, switched-on authors will be winners because they will have more options for seeing their work into publication, and then for having a longer shelf life than a few weeks. New publishers will be winners because they will have more time to realize a return on their investment, and, in the case of digital titles, minimal costs in keeping work "in print", whether that be in virtual or physical books. They will also become important players as content providers in the emerging new media marketplace/space. And readers/viewers will be winners because they will have more choice in what they buy and the forms in which to buy it.

I'm predicting a renaissance for literary publishing. And that IP will be there at the cutting edge.

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