Michael’s has long been a hangout for the publishing crowd, with plenty of book editors and agents striking their next big deal over Cobb salads. These days, everyone talks a good game (or tries to) about how traditional publishing can coexist in the digital world without becoming obsolete. I was excited to sit down with my lunch date this week because Metabook publisher Ken Siman is a true innovator in the field, with a concept that is poised to change the experience for both authors and readers, revolutionizing the business.
After two decades in publishing, having toiled as publisher of Virgin Books US and as a vice president/editor at the Penguin Group, Ken was inspired to co-found Metabook with business partners Benjamin Alfonsi, the company’s creative director, and CEO Christian Alfonsi, when he envisioned how the iPad could transform reading books into an interactive experience by delivering enhanced content in exciting new ways.
The self-described “old-school editor” told me he never warmed to the Kindle or other reading tablets, but felt he and his partners could create something “for people not instinctively tech-oriented” that wouldn’t alienate die hard fans of print. “If I could figure out how to use it, anyone can.” The objective here is to enhance a printed book, not detract from it. “The book itself is the soul of every Metabook.” Ken found a fan in John Berendt, author of the worldwide best seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. “John didn’t want to do [an app] at first, but after he saw the prototype, he saw all the things we were able to add to the book.”
The app for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil launched last month at a swanky party here in town, attended by the author. Ken brought along an iPad mini to today’s lunch to give me a firsthand look at the app ,which is available on Apple’s App Store. I was amazed to see how it brings the book to life in so many different ways. In addition to the book’s text, there’s a 3-D rendering of the iconic Bird Girl statue, an extensive author biography with photographs, as well as ones on the book’s characters and a panoramic view of Bonaventure Cemetery. There are also crime scene photos with John Berendt’s commentary and six different audio recordings of the book’s central figure, Jim Williams, on a number of topics, including his recollections of when Jackie Kennedy Onassis came to Savannah. There’s an “audio drama” voiced by an ensemble of actors, including Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, who plays Lady Chablis, maps to locations noted in the book and previously unreleased recordings with characters. “Some people are concerned that technology is all flash,” explains Ken. “The Metabook apps only make the book more powerful.”
The next book app, The Face Phantom and Other Tales Inspired by the Mutter Museum by Kathleen R. Sands, will be released this fall. In addition to publishing contemporary works, Ken envisions future Metabook apps for the classics. “My goal is to do The Scarlet Letter. It could make the experience of reading a great book less of a chore to a lot of people and a lot more engaging.”
With the company’s motto being “authors first,” Ken says any author who publishes through Metabook can expect to receive the royal treatment, usually reserved for the biggest names in traditional publishing. “Our number one goal is to make authors happy. Your book isn’t going to be handled by a 21-year-old publicist. There’s no such thing as a mid-list title. There will be an all-out effort in advertising, public relations and marketing for every title. We can’t afford to do anything half-assed.” There’s more good news for Metabook authors: additional licensing opportunities with the apps soundtracks, films and new creative content means new revenue streams.
Ken saved his really big news for dessert. Over coffee, he told me that next month, Metabook will announce the acquisition of an original book from a “number one New York Times best-selling author.” The decision of this “marquee name novelist” to publish a book digitally before coming out in print is sure to make the industry sit up and take notice. “Publishers have tried to do book apps, but we’re the first to get behind it, stay behind it and say confidently this is the future of publishing.”
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. HollywoodLife.com’s Bonnie Fuller, presiding over her monthly schmooze fest. In attendance: WNBC’s Michael Gargiulo, Coty’s Jill Scalamandre, Jack Myers of MyersBizNet, ABC’s senior publicity director Cathy Rehl, Baked by Melissa co-founder Ben Zion and Fairchild Fashion Media’s vice chairman Stephanie George.
2. Yahoo Global News anchor Katie Couric and Lisa Caputo
3. Steven Rubenstein
4. Jay Springer and Iris Love
5. Herb Siegel
6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jeff Greenfield, Jerry Della Femina and Michael Kramer
7. UTA’s Jay Sures
8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia and an elegant blonde gal
11. Andrew Stein
12. Estée Lauder’s Alexandra Trower looking fabulous as usual — Long time no see!
14. Catie Marron
16. GPX Enterprise’s Michael A. Peterson
17. New York Magazine publisher Larry Burstein
18. Vartan Gregorian
20. Pamela Hanson
21. Quest Media’s Chris Meigher
23. Ted Hathaway
24. Nick E. Rubinstein
26. Sara Beth Shrager — Happy Birthday!
27. Ken Siman and yours truly
81. DailyMail North America CEO Jon Steinberg
Faces in the crowd: Baseball legend Reggie Jackson. Mr. October showed up without a reservation and was promptly seated at the center of the action … Bill McCuddy making the rounds in the dining room. We’ll be on vacation next week. See you back at Michael’s on April 22.
Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.