Michael Mack, founder of SteidlMACK and the MACK Books imprint, has published some of the most important photography and art books of the last 20 years. He has also launched a new digital publishing venture called MAPP Editions. He recently spoke with PDN about the market for tablet books.
PDN: What led to the founding of MAPP Editions?
Michael Mack: I saw the reaction to the iPad [when it was launched], and, like a million other people, thought, “This is going to fundamentally change the nature of reading.” I am interested in communication, working with authors, artists and their ideas, and making them available to a wider audience, and it has to be channeled through these new platforms. It is not just the iPad, it’s about the way in which reading is changing, and these new tablet computers facilitate the high quality, image-led content I publish. So I thought it was worth spending some time looking at what was possible in the arena that I operate in: photography and art books and illustrated books [with] challenging intellectual content often combined with texts, illustrations, footnotes, [and other] elements which really haven’t been built into apps on an ongoing basis because people see that content as being too difficult.
PDN: When did you get started?
M.M.: We started last summer, employing a programmer and a designer to produce a prototype of the New Topographics catalogue, to learn the process and see what was possible. We showed the beta version to the Victoria & Albert Museum and they thought that it would make sense to try and do the same for a book that I was designing at the time, a catalogue for their exhibition “Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography.”
PDN: While you were creating the prototype, what appealed to you about the format in terms of design?
M.M.: There are definitely new horizons, new possibilities. I’m still wedded to making physical objects—what Gerhard Steidl refers to as pBooks, meaning physical/paper/proper!—but I do have a frustration with that arena of publishing. Due to rising paper and transportation costs these books have become more and more expensive, and as a consequence the audience is becoming more elite, narrower, marginal. On the digital platform there is the possibility of a new generation not just of knowing readers in the existing markets, but also audiences in emerging markets and even those that might never encounter this content if it were solely in the form of an expensive physical book.
PDN: How do the overhead costs of creating a tablet edition of a publication compare to those required to create a print publication?
M.M.: The process is not dissimilar to making an ordinary book, except for the fact that the people that you work with have different skills. You build up a library of coding which you can then reapply to subsequent projects. One of the frustrations at the moment with apps in general is that there are no accepted norms of navigation. They’re developing fast, but I think the majority of the apps that have been made with photography content are pretty unsubtle. As the particular means of navigating through the content develop and become accepted as the norms, we’ll find that it becomes cheaper to make them. I suppose it’s not that dissimilar to when Web sites were first being developed: People were throwing figures around like $60,000 to build a Web site. Nowadays you can do it for $1,000 in a couple of days.
PDN: So at this point the expenses are high to code and create tablet publications, but they will come down?
M.M.: Exactly. MAPP is a studio of editors, coders and designers, funded by venture capital, with a long-term business plan. We are working on a wide range of projects with [various] institutions—all photography based. We have a program of 12 projects to be ready by February next year. The cost of each project will be less expensive than the last.
PDN: How long do you think it will take to build an audience of people who purchase and read art books on tablet computers?
M.M.: It’s not going to be easy, there’s no question of that at all. Despite the fact that apparently 40 million tablets have been sold worldwide, I wouldn’t suggest that we’re going to be selling tens of thousands of these kinds of apps anytime soon.
PDN: When do you see it becoming a profitable enterprise?
M.M.: Looking purely at digital content as a publisher in terms of sales and income, profitability is projected on having done 50 apps over three years. It has to be a long-term approach, and an interest in being around for a long time and building a backlist of important content. We are building a publishing house in a quite traditional sense, it is just that the content is digital.
PDN: It sounds like the format is going to allow you to create publications exclusively for the tablets that would not be viable in print?
M.M.: Yes, absolutely. There’s the republishing of classics and attempting to take a version of a great book and make it into some sort of a contemporary digital experience [for] a tablet. Then there’s taking a contemporary catalogue-based project, building around that a great deal of content that adds to the experience of what is effectively a temporary installation in a museum, including a video tour of the show, audio guides, etcetera. But at the same time I’ve begun talking to certain artists with the idea of making something which the only platform for it will be digital. It won’t necessarily be printed or ever go on a wall.
PDN: I’m personally quite interested to see what’s going to happen once these things start migrating off of the tablets and onto people’s televisions.
M.M.: I agree. The fact is you can hook tablets up to your TV already, so in effect that’s here. No doubt Amazon, Google, Apple, etcetera, are working on that.
PDN: It will all be a part of people’s catalogues of possible entertainment and learning.
M.M.: Of course at an educational level that’s really where it does start becoming fundamental. I’m working with a museum that has one of the biggest archives of photographic material in the world. The core of the app will literally just be the ability to see a particular album of photographs in beautiful detail. But built into the back of it we can have all of the scholarship and then external links to updatable resources so you’ll be able to see the research that continues to develop around that album of photographs. And that’s an example of an app which should be very inexpensive as an education tool. Those possibilities are incredibly exciting, because getting access to such museum objects in collections is difficult and this is a means of these institutions fulfilling their obligations to make available their collections.