Coffee Table eBooks?

Cute KittenI’ve read many articles this last month about the iPad and what it’s going to do, what it’s not going to do and what it’s going to kill. But one thing I haven’t seen is any mention of its impact on picture books. And by picture book I mean any book where pictures are vital to the enjoyment of the book. Art books, cookery books, comics, graphic novels, glossy animal books, travel, craft books, gardening, photography etc. Books that come in that awkward size that never fits your bookshelf.

Has their time come for an electronic makeover?

Until recently eBook readers have either been unable to display colour pictures at all or unable to display anything bigger than a large thumbnail. Not a problem for the average novel where it’s far more important that the text be easy to read and strain-free on the eyes. But for coffee table books – it’s a killer. Who wants to pay money to look at greyscale pictures of vibrant colour paintings? Or page through a comic, one tiny frame at a time, on a mobile phone?

But with the iPad and all the other colour tablets about to appear, suddenly you have colour and a large screen. Not quite coffee table book size but close.

There are still some drawbacks. A picture heavy eBook is going to be far larger than a standard novel. Twenty, maybe a hundred times larger. But every year data storage devices get larger and cheaper and an 8-20Mb file is no longer considered that large. Even the smallest iPad has a 16Gb capacity and broadband will make transmission of the files faster and easier.

And it’s not as though the print versions are cheap to produce. Glossy paper, colour print, large page size.

It’s certainly got me thinking. So the last three weeks I’ve been working on a picture book – taking my Kittens’ Guide series of blog posts and rewriting them, making them into a single, themed book. The theme? A secret organisation of kittens brought together to save the world. The International Kittens of Mystery. Cute kitten pictures, funny kitten pictures and an even funnier story woven around them.

Will it sell? I don’t know. You could argue that its fate is tied to the iPad. Which is why I’ve looked into producing a PDF version for people who won’t have an iPad. But the file size is considerably larger – 22Mb as opposed to the 2Mb size of my first draft epub. I’m now thinking of producing an HTML version so that anyone with a browser could view the book. It won’t be as slick as the epub version but the pictures will be full size and in colour.

What do you think?

Would you read a coffee table book on an iPad or a PC? Or do you think digital displays have a long way to go before they match the quality and feel of the physical product?


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his  BVC bookshelf .

Just released from Book View Press:  Magical Crimes – a fun CSI with Magic and … ‘a little something else’ story. Also available from Amazon and Smashwords.

Coming soon: International Kittens of Mystery.

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Coffee Table eBooks? — 10 Comments

  1. The true coffee table book — as I type I’m looking a couple of collections of Annie Leibovitz’s photographs — is best designed for print. It’s usually very large, to show off the pictures to best advantage. I see books designed as works of art as the natural future of print — something to be displayed and handled, as well as read. A collectible item.

    Though photograph and art books could be designed for the web, perhaps to be shown on large television screens. That, too, would be beautiful, and much better than looking at them on my laptop screen, much less an iPhone.

    But illustrated books — ones where the pictures don’t have to be so large to be appreciated — are a different matter. I think the book you’re describing (and I’m dying to read it, btw) would work nicely on an iPad, just as it would work nicely as a regular hardcover or trade paper book. But I also suspect it will never work well for the iPhone, just as most mass market paperbacks of illustrated books don’t give you the full flavor of the story. Judging by your great pictures of cats on the blogs (why weren’t my cats ever that photogenic), those pictures would work beautifully on the iPad screen. Yeah, they take up a lot of room, comparatively, but digital capacity keeps growing by leaps and bounds.

    Of course, when we get phones that can project a screen on the wall (now I can’t remember if I saw something about that somewhere or if it’s just something I made up for the story I’m writing), we can probably come up with a whole new concept for the coffee table book.

  2. I’ve been compiling a dictionary of Victorian masquerade costumes, but I set it aside when I realized that it would probably need to be a coffee table book. It didn’t seem worth the trouble to take around 1,000 photos of the illustrations (and manipulate them into a useable size) for a book that would cost well over $100 — What would be the market? I got excited at the thought of putting it out as an ebook, but my micropublisher friend says getting pictures into an ebook is a royal pain. *She* wouldn’t touch it.

    I’ll watch the new technologies – I’ll start taking photos when there is a reasonably easy way to add pictures (or I find a traditional publisher 🙂

  3. Well, for colour pictures and eBook readers I see another path. I would expect to see devices soon which integrate those pico projectors. Don’t need a big colour screen – just project them to a wall. Some mobile phones already have these. It just needs some more time to get more lumen out of them.

  4. The coffee-table books I favor tend not to be just large photos with minimal commentary. Some are of old comic strips (Jules Feifer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes comes to mind). Some are theatrical memorabilia (At This Theatre, a huge compilation of Playbill’s history columns), some are music related (we have soooo many huge books about The Beatles we could start a specialty library), and some are just…wow (that would be The Pythons autobiography…a huge book with photos, text, scribbles, drawings, and a rather…explosive design sense). What all of these have in common is that they have little annotations, drawings, commentary (particularly in the case of the Python book) that would not be well served by reading on a Kindle or Nook or reader. If they were retrofitted with hypertext (mouse over an illo and get a popup which contains the commentary) it might work, but that would, in some cases, defeat the amiable chaos of the design, which is its own art. Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine books could be jiggered to work for ebooks in that fashion, but I think they’d lose a good deal of their impact as objets d’art.

    On the other hand, one of the sites I follow is a cooking site called “Smitten Kitchen,” with not only some wonderful recipes, but quite gorgeous photos to go with (I don’t know if it’s the woman who cooks/writes the site who takes the photos, but they’re fully professional calibre, and food photography is a serious technical challenge). The whole thing works beautifully in a web-based format (which I suspect means that it would work on an e-reader) because it’s been designed for the purpose.

    Which is just my long-winded way of saying, “I think an e-book that is purpose-built to be read that way could work on an e-reader, but that many coffee table books that would need to be retrofitted for the purpose would not.”

    I also hate to think of kids’ picture books being put in that format, partly because I think the tactile pleasure of interacting with a book is important on a lot of levels to a child who’s learning to read (“Look! I turned the page myself!”) but also because a lot of really detailed illustrations would suffer for being reduced to a size small enough to fit on an ebook screen–unless they start selling e-readers sized for picture books…

  5. There’s one comic book version that eReaders even now can easily replace: black and white manga.

    Actually that’s one of the reasons I bought an eReader in the first place, to read my collection on it instead of having to hassle with getting the volumes in and out of the bookcase (I cheat by reading the scanlation volumes and just buying the books and putting them on the shelves – scanning is too much hassle).

    My eReader has SD-Card slots so it’s no problem to keep my collection available. the Calibre ebook software converts the scanlation files into the correct size for my eReader and hey presto.

    Jan at Dear Author made me aware of that feature. She even added a screenshot as evidence:
    http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/2009/01/18/portrait-of-a-noob-ereader/

  6. Deb,
    Getting pictures into eBooks isn’t that difficult. I’ve done it using Mobipocket Creator and Calibre. Getting the pictures to float so the text wraps around them *is* problematic but if you have large pictures you don’t need text appearing to the right or left of the photos.

    1,000 pictures would push the file size though.

  7. Nancy,

    My first coffee table book was the Art of Roger Dean, whose fantasy landscapes graced so many LP covers of the 70s – Yes, Osibisa etc.

    And I like the idea of a projector.

    As for photogenic cats – we found most of ours dumped on the roadside by the rubbish bins. Xena we actually found inside a rubbish bin and the five ginger tribbles we found in a pile of logs.

  8. Mad,

    I think the switch will come when eBooks begin to have good video capability. The iPad is going to allow 640×480 video which isn’t bad but I think it needs to be better to allow the eBook to really capitalise on adding value to the book, providing something the physical book doesn’t have – sound and moving pictures. I think this will work best for things like cookery books – where you can show the dish being made – travel books – where you can get a much better feel for a place with a video than a set of stills – and sports and craft books. Art and photography maybe not so much.

  9. Not just a possibility, but a necessity. Long overdue. The cost of printing any coated-paper books (read: photo books) has gone through the roof. Even print-on-demand books either cannot produce coated-paper books or they are so expensive, the cost is prohibitive. I have produced one coffee-table sized book of 200 pages, which had to sell for over $100 on Blurb. CreateSpace.com, Amazon’s print-on-demand service, does not offer coated papers, and a 200-page photo book on uncoated paper (looks poor) costs around $50 a copy. This is nuts. I have two photo books of this type out there.

    Meanwhile, an e-book version you could charge nothing for, or a low price, even if printed in PDF format. I have two photo books out in 8×10 format as ebooks and that has been a great way to allow folks to see some nice color.

    The screen resolution on Apple’s new iPad is 1024×768, which is still less than I would wish, but large enough to show off photos well. We can also make any size ebook we want and make it available.

    Aside from trying to make money, I see coffee-table sized color ebooks as a huge coming trend, and the whole idea of having to have a printed book (when it comes to color and many photos) will go away. We will learn to love color ebooks, not because we choose them over the printed versions, but because they will be available inexpensively.

    PDF books, when made available for reading on the web from a download site, open instantaneously and you can read as little or as much as you care to or download the whole book.

    I sent my Kindle back, but have the larges iPad on order right now. Anyone interested in discussing this can reach me at [email protected]