Walrus: A Pioneering E-book Start-up in Paris

In Europe by Olivia Snaije

Start-ups have to remain nimble, even more so in France, where suspicion about e-books is yet to be overcome.

By Olivia Snaije

PARIS: In this early era of enhanced e-books, start-ups in the business have to remain nimble. Consider Julien Simon who runs Walrus, a French enhanced e-book publisher and creative studio. Simon and his three partners work with EPUB 3, the newest format for e-books that offers, among other things, scripted interactivity and embedded multimedia. Until last month Walrus’ enhanced books were uniquely readable as iBooks on Apple devices because of the platform’s ability to read videos. Then, in mid October, Apple introduced a new operating system for the iPad and numerous updates, including one for iBooks. The Walrus partners woke up to a very unpleasant surprise: the iBook update seemed to have done away with local storage, which enabled iBooks’ memory to recall choices readers made or points earned while reading one of Walrus’s game books.

“We are very annoyed and are waiting for information from Apple,” said Simon, who three weeks later has still not received an explanation from his contacts at Apple.

“Luckily this does not, theoretically, have an effect on all our books but it may change many things for interactivity in EPUB, especially for our Kadath [book] project which we might have to create as an application.”

Inspired by iPad

It was the release of the iPad a year and a half ago that galvanized Simon and his partners to create Walrus (named after the Beatles song). They spent six months testing on the iPad before launching the company, which recently celebrated its first birthday while Simon turned 30. The four associates have known each other since they were 18 when they met at film school. “No one really stayed in film,” said Simon. “One went on to radio, another into graphic design and I went towards publishing and worked in a bookshop; books have been my passion since I was a child.”

Walrus was a way to “put together music, film and books.” Walrus has published several books in French as well as a manual in English on how to self-publish. Simon has, in particular, contacted children’s book publishers as well as magazines and record companies in both France and abroad and publishers or companies in Anglophone countries often contact him.

“In the Anglo-Saxon world people are more comfortable with e-books so they can imagine their books in another form. In France, for the moment, e-books remain linked to texts and essays,” said Simon. “But why wouldn’t an Ikea catalogue, for example, be an interactive book?”

Inspired by America

Simon, who has a touch of geek culture about him — he readily professes his love for H.P. Lovecraft, the American author who invented the concept of “cosmic horror” and spawned countless fans of his Cthulhu Mythos stories — said he and his partners gravitate towards books that are not so well known in France: “a slightly alternative culture that is, above all, American.”

His reading list includes The Book with no Name by Anonymous, as well as works by Neil Gaiman and Japer Fforde.

Simon believes that technology should be at the service of creativity. “Ideally, authors from this generation would write for e-books, integrating enhancement specifically for their books. They would not be adaptations of print books. If tomorrow Stephen King decided that he would write an e-specific book then everyone would wake up.”

Last summer Simon had said that Walrus was not wed to Apple, it was just that iBooks could read their books. In light of the recent glitch with Apple, Walrus has been in touch with Amazon technicians in California and just met with Kobo, which is now partnered with French bookstore chain FNAC. “We will do what it takes so that our books function with Kindle Fire as well as on Kobo Vox, which we have high hopes for. We’re starting tests with Kobo to see what stuff the reader is made of, to see if we can go beyond the iPad. We are off in a new direction in terms of research and development with Amazon and Kobo.”

Creating interactive books is still in the pioneering stage and working from a still traditional France in terms of e-books adds to the challenge. But Simon, who in the fall partnered with the online magazine ActuaLitté to create a website to promote e-books remains upbeat and said he doesn’t have a lot of needs. He works between Paris and Berlin and “My office is my computer, my iPad and the internet.”

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About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.