It’s Elemental: Touch Press at the Vanguard of Enhanced E-books

In English Language by Roger Tagholm

By Roger Tagholm

LONDON: Digital books can boost the sales of their physical equivalents, but success in the digital arena will only come to those publishers that form “deep, serious partnerships”, according to Max Whitby, CEO of new, west London-based digital start-up Touch Press.

Max Whitby

Max Whitby

“It’s no good publishers coming along and saying well here’s some technical people who can do all this clever stuff, let’s pay them a bit of money and get them to do something,” says the 52-year-old former TV producer and film maker. “You have to form a deep partnership, such as we have with Faber. They’ve taken digital seriously and created a team some of whom come from Faber, some of whom are their authors and some of whom are ourselves with our experience in software and video”

Whitby is worth listening to because his company, which only started in April this year, is heading for a first year turnover of £2m in the gloomiest of economic climates in the UK. His presentation of their Elements app for the iPad was the highlight of the Bookseller’s recent Futurebook conference in London.

A visit to their first-floor offices in a tucked away mews near Acton, out towards Heathrow Airport, is entertaining. Whitby is a little like a posh version of the professor in Back to the Future. He’s a collector of elements, which turns out to be a kind of scientific version of bird-watching (another passion) since, as he puts it, “you’re always looking for an even better lump of plutonium.” Various shards of metal lie around his “creatively” untidy, open-plan office, which also boasts an upright piano, a flashing elements display case, numerous pairs of 3-D glasses and a BAFTA award from his days making documentaries for the BBC.

Touch Press was founded by the US scientist and author Theodore Gray who is famous for creating the periodic table poster seem in many universities and schools. Whitby, who is CEO, met him in a delightfully eccentric way. “We were both bidding for the same piece of plutonium on eBay. I remember being extremely irritated by this man in the States who was buying up all the best elements, so I sent him an e-mail. The long and short of it is that we met up and decided that there was more to be gained from partnership and collaboration than competition.”

Together with John Cromie, now Touch Press’s Chief Technology Officer, they formed a company called The Element Collection that built most of the element displays seen around the world; gradually, The Element Collection metamorphosed into Touch Press.

The Elements was published as a printed book first, by Black Dog and Leventhal who were skeptical about the iPad version being released. “But what has happened is that initially there were 100,000 copies of the book in print and now, after the iPad app, there are 300,000. Sales of the printed book have greatly increased as a result of the electronic version coming out. I think people buy the electronic book, love what it does, but also want to be able to give the book to people who don’t necessarily have an iPad.”

This touches on an important issue for printed books: gifting. You cannot wrap an e-book. Touch Press’ graphics are stunning, but you cannot wrap an electronic file and put it under a tree.

Whitby sees a future for both. “They’re completely synergistic -– it’s not either/or -– it’s both. I think printed books will always be here and I think there’ll always be high quality sellers of them. I think whenever a new medium has come in, usually the universe is expanded and what was there before has continued. A really good example of that is radio, which you might think would long ago have been replaced by TV, DVDs, the Net. But in fact, radio is probably healthier now than it has been for years and years.”

He hopes that all their books –- he doesn’t like calling them apps “because an app is a cheap and nasty thing that goes on your Android phone if it’s any good” -– will be on available on all platforms. “But at the moment, the iPad is the best game in town.”

His second project, The Solar System, a join venture with Faber –- is due to be released before Christmas. Next comes Jewels and Gemstones, in conjunction with the Field Museum in Chicago which has one of the world’s largest collections of jewels and gems. There will also be a children’s title on a perennial favorite topic (Michael Crichton is a clue), as well as another project with Faber on a “landmark” TS Eliot poem. This is to be released in January. Whitby says it’s a serious poem, so let’s take a guess then -– The Wasteland.

It would be intriguing to see how an e-book could bring that most complex of poems alive. “This is the way the world begins,” one might say. “Not with a bang, but an interactive digital text . . . ”

DISCUSS: Is the UK Ahead of the US in Enhancing E-books?

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).