The delights of digital-only featuring Cranium Universe by Reg Mombassa

Recently I have been writing about new Australian digital first publishers and the opportunities they create for writers. Today I want to feature an Australian digital-only production by the team at Harper Collins Australia. While creating ebooks are now almost moving to ‘business as usual’ in Australian publishing (especially the larger international houses) creating a digital-only product is still rare. Clearly many of the digital first publishers I have been posting about ARE creating digital-first-and-only but this post is about a product that once would have been produced as an illustrated book.

At this stage creating a digital first-and-only product is more easily done with:

  • A forward-thinking author who is interested and willing to work outside the book. It helps if the author comes with their own large following to reduce the risk with trying something new;
  • The right content that justifies the experimentation and interaction;
  • A publisher (or self-publisher) willing to invest the time in learning new skills to produce a product.

The team at Harper Collins Australia met all those criteria and more when creating the wonderfully zany Cranium Universe by Reg Mombassa. Chris O’Doherty (also known as Reg Mombassa) formed rock band Mental as Anything with four of his fellow art students in 1976. He was with the group until 2000 when he decided to focus more fully on his art. Known for his distinctive designs for Mambo, he now plays in Dog Trumpet with his brother Peter O’Doherty. You can read more about Reg on his site.

• Author: Reg Mombassa  • Publisher: Fiona Henderson  • Digital Business Manager: Gemene Heffernan-Smith  • Designer: Matt Stanton  • Created using iBooks Author  • Published August 2012  • RRP: A$14.99

I spoke with Fiona Henderson, Publisher at HarperCollins Australian office to find out more about developing a digital-only title for the first time.

Digireado: Was Cranium Universe the first digital only title that HarperCollins Australia produced from the ground up in-house?

Henderson: At HarperCollins Australia this was the first we designed from the ground up to be a digital-only title. And Reg was such a perfect fit because he offered so many talents to show off at once and in so many dimensions – poetry, lyrics, music and his own commentary about his art, writing and life in general. Reg calls them ‘rants’ but as you can hear, very entertaining and thought-provoking rants!. We had already done a fabulous illustrated biography about him in print form, The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa. Now he was keen to do another book that featured a collection of his favourite poems, song lyrics, and paintings, on the theme of Cranium Universe.

” Illustrated books were becoming harder and harder to get across the line because shrinking print runs across the board were making it impossible to get the financials to work. So this was the ideal project to try breaking away from the traditional publishing model.” Fiona Henderson, Publisher, HarperCollins Australia

When we started talking about the idea in acquisitions meeting, our Publishing Director, Shona Martyn, suggested that this could be the perfect project to see if we could do as a direct to digital book. Illustrated books were becoming harder and harder to get across the line because shrinking print runs across the board were making it impossible to get the financials to work. So this was the ideal project to try breaking away from the traditional publishing model.

However, when we started talking about this several years ago there simply wasn’t the technology to do this ourselves. We had to explore ways of trying to do it with someone else and/or our US company

We had worked with Warren Fahey to produce three enhanced ebooks a while ago. Australian Folk Songs and Bush Ballads. We had produced these Enhanced E-book Parts one, two and three in Australia but we needed to work very closely with the HarperCollins US offices as they had already created material like this. At that stage they had the know-how and technology while we didn’t.

The launch of iBooks Author changed all that and we decided that Cranium Universe was the right project to experiment with.

Digireado: Apple iBooks Author is meant to be quite ‘friendly’ to use – did the in-house design team find it so?

Henderson: Very ‘friendly’ – our design team was one person, the brilliant and multi-talented Matt Stanton, who taught himself to use it in next to no time. Matt had worked with Reg and me on the design of The Mind and Times so had the shorthand down pat with Reg and knew what he liked and didn’t like and how. We had all learned to work together with Reg on that book – Matt and I had learned for example from Reg that should be no ‘inappropriate touching’ of colour up against the edges of his paintings. It should always be white. And fair enough too – his paintings are so superb and rich in colour and detail that you don’t need another colour to set them off or distract from them.

Digireado: What was the biggest joy in working in this format?

Henderson: The freedom in every sense. The freedom to play, experiment and do things we could never do with a p-book. Essentially to throw away the rule book. You could have colour on every page –in fact I made it a rule that something other than text HAD to be going on every page. Because why on earth not – we had the power! And the colour was awesome. It was a revelation to see the quality of the reproduction and that instead of having to wait for samples from the printer to see if the colour matched the originals we could see it straight away and it was spectacular, down to, as Reg pointed out, seeing the brush hairs that had got stuck in the paint! We also loved the way you could push right into the detail of the painting – even in a gallery you couldn’t get that close to an artist’s work without being arrested!

Digireado: And the biggest challenge?

Henderson: Constantly reminding ourselves that we didn’t have to working the same way as we would on a p-book, in terms of having to play by the rules. So many years of thinking we can’t do that or can’t do this is harder to break out of that you would think. Reminding ourselves that this could be viewed like a sort of long and winding cave painting instead of the old page by page, and there was no excuse not to have something colourful and exciting happening on every page. About halfway through Matt pointed out that we could even do without page numbers! The other challenge was resisting the temptation to keep adding and changing because suddenly we could do that right up until the day before release. Very heady stuff after years of having to send off an illustrated book months before you would see it again ….

Digireado: Have HarperCollins found it restrictive that it is only able to be sold through Apple?

Henderson: At present this is the only platform this book can be viewed and enjoyed on so no. When we started talking about the book several years ago there simply wasn’t the technology to do this ourselves. While we were going back and forth exploring how we would pull this off, Apple suddenly came up with the perfect solution to do it ourselves!

While currently no other retailer has the file format capabilities to display this kind of ebook, we are working closely with them all so that as soon as their technology catches up we can look to release Cranium Universe into their stores too.

Digireado: Now that the team has experimented with this format do they intend to do further titles this way?

Henderson: Absolutely. This is just the beginning of a whole new exciting world.

Digireado: Having produced so many beautiful illustrated books over the years has this impacted your view about the future of illustrated publishing?

Henderson: Personally it has. For the right project this is absolutely the way to go. These bring a whole new dimension to art and literature. But then you don’t have that many authors who can sing, paint and write poetry as well as prose AND who are well known and beloved like Reg. There will always be demand, and should be, for beautiful illustrated traditional print books. In fact these days the right ones will be in even more demand as beautiful objects to enjoy and keep.

I’d like to offer my thanks to Fiona Henderson who has just left left HarperCollins Australia and yet made time in her manic last week so talk to me about this project! 

What I loved about Cranium Universe

I admit I had no idea about the range of talents that Reg Mombassa possessed although he has been part of the Australian art and music scene for a long time. I was a fan ‘back in the day’ of Mental as Anything, a fan of his Mambo art, and I love to read, watch and listen to people with with a multitude of talents and passions.

I really enjoyed the video (and text) of his introduction, there are some wonderful quotes in there.

“As a form of distilled prose, poetry is a rich and disorientating substance that may be toxic to humans if ingested in large quantities  Too much of a good thing is a bad thing, so there are only a dozen or so poems included here plus a similar number of song lyrics.” Reg Mombassa, Introduction of Cranium Universe

Who could NOT love his seven descriptors of what an artist is? I don’t want to spoil them for you, they alone are worth the price of the product.

I really enjoyed the surprise of finding yet more images on some pages where I could swipe through – ie on Telegraph Poles. A lovely touch.

I loved listening to his songs and poems and the video of him creating his art was – to someone who lacks the ability to draw the simplest form – mind-blowing.

I enjoyed discovering more about this Australian icon and finding layers I didn’t even know existed.

What I found restrictive about the format

I suspect I’m merely nit-picking and I admit I’m more used to apps where there is greater flexibility afforded in terms of the interactivity of the content. The reality is the cost of creating custom apps of this content would have meant the product wasn’t financially viable to produce. As Fiona Henderson said in the interview – iBooks Author allowed them to do this title.

However for a user spoilt by apps I found it fairly disconcerting to listen to a song and be reading the lyrics and then swipe to the next page to continue reading and lose the song (or video). This occurred on four occasions and each time I found it jarring. If there was a way to have the lyrics all on the same page so this wouldn’t happen I would prefer it. I admit this is difficult from a design viewpoint.

Two other little things that bothered me that were not related to the program?

  • The introduction uses the word ‘e-book’. Now I was recently reading an email discussion from publishing people worldwide and it was clear there are NO firm rules about this. However, e-hyphen-books reminds me of the old days when we used to say e-mail. This is clearly a style issue and I’m not an editor but I sincerely hope that this practice is dropped. It’s ebooks. In my opinion anyway 🙂
  • On the HarperCollins Australia website Cranium Universe book results page they have links to their four standard retailers: Amazon, Kobo, Google Ebooks and iBookstore. It IS only available on the iBookstore and the other links turn up errors. I have no doubt this is a complex technical issue as all titles would have these retailers enabled however for the average user it may be helpful to have text in the first line of the book description reminding them of this fact.

Readers of this blog know how passionate I am about ‘go local’ so I hope you will support Australian publishing endeavours by exploring Cranium Universe. We need more experimentation to discover the new and varied future of Australian illustrated content in the digital age.

You can read more about Reg Mombassa on his website and Reg will be appearing at the Apple Sydney store on 21st November 2012 at 5.30pm.

If there are other Australian digital-first titles you would like to see featured on Digireado please let me know in the comments.


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