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Inkling Builds a Better (and Pricier) E-Book

The Inkling e-publishing iPad app

Image by Businessweek

The Inkling e-publishing iPad app

(An earlier version of this story ran online.)

In rock climbing, there’s a maneuver called a “dyno”: When climbers are too far from the nearest hold above, they plant their feet, let go of the rock, and leap upward. It sounds straightforward, but when developers at publisher Globe Pequot Press created a digital version of the book How to Rock Climb!, they struggled to improve on the static illustration of the dyno. Last May, however, using tools made by software developer and e-book seller Inkling, they were able to make the move come to life with an animated sequence of still photos.

Most magazines and newspapers have created tablet apps with slideshows and videos. But book publishers haven’t been able to capitalize on interactive capabilities because software made by (AMZN) and Apple (AAPL) doesn’t support much embedded multimedia and can be complicated for developers to use. Many heavily illustrated—and expensive—books are put on devices with little thought to enhancing or animating graphics, illustrations, or instructions.

Inkling, started by Matt MacInnis, a former marketing manager at Apple, gives publishers a way to digitize and upgrade some of their highest-margin books without creating an app for each title. The San Francisco-based startup’s new Habitat software platform, released on Feb. 12 after a private beta test, allows publishers to add high-resolution photos, audible pronunciations of wine varietals, or videos that show how to cut an avocado. “Inkling is going at a unique, high-end interactive experience that you won’t find on many of those other platforms,” says Jerome Grant, chief learning officer for the education division at Pearson, an Inkling investor.

The company has teamed up with publishers including Pearson, McGraw-Hill (MHP), and Wolters Kluwer to try to gain ground in the U.S. e-book market, which Forrester Research (FORR) projects will reach $13.6 billion by 2017. Inkling will take a royalty of at least 30 percent from every sale.

Inkling is focused on textbooks, how-to guides, and cookbooks rather than novels. “We’re not interested in pumping a bunch of text files into our platform,” MacInnis says. Consumers can buy Inkling books on the Google search results page (through Inkling’s payment platform), from Inkling’s website, or from another publisher’s online store. The books are readable through the Inkling app on the iPad, iPhone, and computers. On Android devices, users have to access the books through the Web browser.

Starting on Feb. 12, the company made excerpts of books searchable on Google (GOOG). When someone searches for treatments for asthma, a chapter from Pharmacotherapy: A Pathophysiologic Approach could come up. Readers have five clicks of interactive features within a chapter before they have to purchase the chapter or the book. “Publishers will have direct access to consumers, they’ll have access to data about how their content is performing, and they’ll be able to monetize through the world’s largest storefront, which we think is Google,’’ says MacInnis, “as opposed to Amazon’s walled garden or Apple’s walled garden.” A Google spokesman says: “Our goal with search is to make information accessible to people and help them get the answers they’re looking for. It’s always a good thing when there’s more information out there.” Amazon and Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

Because of the interactive features, many of the books, whose prices are set by the publishers, are more expensive than the Kindle and iPad versions. How to Rock Climb! costs $18.99 on Inkling, compared with $9.99 on Amazon. Other booksellers have set prices closer to Amazon’s, such as the cookbook Put ’em Up!, from Storey Publishing, which is $12.99 on Inkling and $9.99 on Kindle. MacInnis says he supports publishers being able to choose their prices, something they can’t do on Amazon.

Inkling is for now an addition to, not a replacement for, booksellers like Amazon. “We work with almost every distributor out there and find our business solutions with them,” Pearson’s Grant says. But MacInnis is looking forward to a day when his company, which began developing e-books in 2009, can match up with the giants of the e-book world. “Publishers can build content on our system, and they can sell that content directly to consumers before it ever gets to Amazon,” he says. “They’ve all these years been a passenger in the airplane, and now we’ve handed them the flight manual. That’s a big deal.”

Kucera is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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