Transcript: Recipes For Successful E-Books

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Interview with Liisa McCloy-Kelley, Random House
Recorded at the Yale Publishing Course 2013

For podcast release Monday, August 19, 2013

KENNEALLY: We’re in New Haven at the Yale Publishing Course for the summer of 2013, and joining me now is Liisa McCloy-Kelley. She’s vice president and director of e-book development and innovation at Random House. And, Liisa, welcome to Beyond the Book.

MCCLOY-KELLEY: Thanks, Chris. It’s great to be here.

KENNEALLY: We’re happy to have a chance to chat with you, and in particular want to talk about what e-book development and innovation, an interesting pairing, really mean, because of course with e-book development, it’s all innovation, really. But the challenge that seems to be something you’re facing with a catalogue like Random House is the breadth of the challenge. So you’ve got cookbooks and you’ve got poetry books. And I wonder if you could tell us a bit about the kinds of questions you have to ask when you’re developing a cookbook that are different from the kinds of questions you ask yourself when you’re working on poetry.

MCCLOY-KELLEY: So the questions that we ask when we’re looking at a cookbook are not just about how do you make this book look great, but also about how do you make a better digital experience that keeps the fabric of the story, that ties these recipes together, and makes this very usable in the kitchen. So we’re trying to create a book that’s easy to read, that is gorgeous, that is interactive, and that is also easy to prop up on your kitchen counter and cook from.

And we’re trying to give you all of those things that maybe you were missing in print. Give you a shopping list generator so that you can pick which recipes you want to make and e-mail yourself a list. Make it easy for you to find the recipes you want, so that we’d use visual indexes or other kinds of navigational tools that we’re adding to give you a different experience than what we’re doing in print.

When we’re looking at something like a poetry title, we’re thinking about what is going to make this a good experience for someone reading this book across many different kinds of devices. And the most important thing in poetry is to maintain the formatting that the author originally intended for the text to make sure that that is easily readable in a variety of sizes, and to make sure it’s going to display well on all of the variety of screens that we have.

KENNEALLY: Well, the reading experience digitally is, of course, always an important part of what you’re thinking about, I’m sure. And I was thinking as you were saying about the difference between cookbooks and poetry is, on the one hand, a cookbook really is the definition of interactive. Whether it’s print or digital, you’re moving around the kitchen, grabbing something from the refrigerator, putting something on the stove. Poetry is much more immersive, again, regardless of the form that you’re reading it in. How does that make a difference? Are you thinking about the environment, if you will, that the reader is in?

MCCLOY-KELLEY: Absolutely. We’re always thinking about who the audience for these books are, who’s reading them, where are they reading them, and how are they using them. What kinds of devices are they using? Are they in bed? Are they at home? Are they jumping around in the text? We’ve put information on pages bound to spines for hundreds of years, and this is an opportunity sometimes to pull that apart and give you other ways to experience the book.

KENNEALLY: Well, you’ve been working in book development, book design for a number of years. You started, I believe, as an art director or art designer. I wonder whether you think we should go back to those days, because while you’re right, there’s a great freedom and a great opportunity for experimenting, 20 years ago, you knew what a book was. You were working with color and design, and you could really stretch boundaries, but there was still a control factor. Today, there’s no control. It’s really open season. And that must be, I don’t know, an unnerving experience.

MCCLOY-KELLEY: It’s unnerving for many of my colleagues, but this is something that I actually really love. I think that there is this huge opportunity that we’re all facing right now to change the way that people read. And at Random House, we are doing that one book at a time, one experiment at a time, trying to find what is the future of each of these kinds of content.

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s a pretty expensive experiment if you’re doing it one at a time. What have you learned? Can you point us to a particular example or two that’s really been successful or that just otherwise surprised you with what digital can do?

MCCLOY-KELLEY: So a good example of an experiment that I think we’ve found pretty successful is we did Mark Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword last fall. And this is a book that, in print, is a beautiful object. And it is the kind of thing that his fan base really wanted a physical copy of. And for the print book, we printed in multiple colors. It has a very subtle coloration of the text on pages to pull certain words forward. It has beautiful stitching to mirror the art that was created for this title. And the jacket itself has pinpricks throughout the jacket, because that was essential to the story and the sword.

For the e-book version of that, we animated the jacket so that those pinpricks were happening as the cover comes onto the screen. We animated the text of the book so that the text flows onto the pages. It animates to tell you the story. There’s a smoky feel to what is otherwise a ghost story. And it was an amazing way to bring this book to life. We added a soundtrack part of the way through the development of this project. And it ended up where this is an amazing product to have in either physical or digital form, and we were able to really make Mark’s audience and his fan base understand that digital books weren’t just flat texts.

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s fascinating, because there’s a great effort putting all of those pieces together, and it’s beyond the text. It’s the design. It’s the sound, as you say, the video that goes with it. Do you feel that the readers do appreciate that?

MCCLOY-KELLEY: I think we’re in a bit of a chicken and egg right now, that a lot of people don’t know to expect it, and so they’re surprised when they see it. There are not a huge number of books out there, and one of the things that we’re trying to do in our organization is find ways to do this development to hold the costs at a point where we can really effectively make more of these titles, because as there start to be a lot of books available, people will start to realize that this is actually what they want. It kind of goes back to one of those things that you don’t think about, is people don’t know what they want until they see it.

KENNEALLY: That’s what innovation is all about. I think Steve Jobs would have said, well, they’ll know it when I give it to them, right?

MCCLOY-KELLEY: Exactly.

KENNEALLY: We are chatting here at the Yale Publishing Course in New Haven with Liisa McCloy-Kelley. She’s the vice president and director of e-book development and innovation. And, Liisa, I want to pivot to talk about the Yale Publishing Course and what brings you here. You’ve been back for a number of times. This is the week that they focus on book publishing. They have another week they focus on newspaper and magazine publishing.

Who attends Yale Publishing Course? I looked out at the audience just a few minutes ago, and it’s a pretty broad spectrum. It’s an international group. And these are not junior people. These are people who are really experienced, many of them directing houses. Why are they coming?

MCCLOY-KELLEY: This program is very unique in that it is a one week intensive, and it is a broad view of print and digital and every facet of what happens in publishing. And it’s a great opportunity for people to see what other houses are doing, to learn from lessons and successes and mistakes that other people have made.

Also, it changes year to year. Last year was perhaps a few more junior people than there are this year. This year is more senior people, more international people. So we’re seeing where the program itself is changing and growing as the industry is changing. And it’s always exciting to me that this is such a mix of people from the tiniest houses to people from the biggest houses, and every person, whether they’re teaching or a student, is learning from the connections that they’re making here and the fabric of this course.

KENNEALLY: Well, you do a lot of teaching yourself. You teach at NYU as well as here at the Yale Publishing Course, and give speeches and presentations around the country as a member of the board of IDPF and so forth. If you could give somebody a message that they would take back to their house at the end of this week that would really be valuable to them and they could put to practice when they get back to work, what would that be? It’s such a broad issue right now to develop books for the digital world. Is there just one key? Tell me, and we promise not to tell anybody else.

MCCLOY-KELLEY: I think a lot of it comes back to one of the mantras that Tina has for this course.

KENNEALLY: Tina Weiner, who is the director of the Yale Publishing Course, and the former director the Yale University Press.

MCCLOY-KELLEY: Tina always says, why not? So she’s hoping that somebody in this course will get some sense of something that they hadn’t thought about. Maybe it comes from a children’s publisher when you’re a religious publisher, or maybe it comes from somebody who’s talking about marketing when you’re in content development. But you get this spark of an idea and think, why not? Why not go test that? Why not try something? Let me get out there and think about how I’m going to expand my books, my program, my audience.

KENNEALLY: Has that happened for you?

MCCLOY-KELLEY: Absolutely. I always learn something from this program and I’m always taking that back to my organization and finding ways that we can use that as we develop more books.

KENNEALLY: And the honesty here is pretty striking. There was a presentation just a few minutes ago, and someone put up sales figures and said how much they made from a particular app project. You go to plenty of conferences around the country out in publishing and you never get that kind of real detail, that sort of honesty.

MCCLOY-KELLEY: That’s very true. There has always been a fair amount of openness and some discussion about how much we tweet. But it’s a good place for people to really get to the heart of what has worked, what has not, what have the lessons been, and a great way for you to see that from other peers in the industry.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’ve been chatting just now with Liisa McCloy-Kelley, vice president and director of e-book development and innovation at Random House. We are attending today the Yale Publishing Course, the week for the book publishing industry. We want to thank Liisa McCloy for joining us today on Beyond the Book.

MCCLOY-KELLEY: Thank you, Chris, it’s been fabulous.