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Inkling takes on Amazon, Apple with new e-book publishing tool

The startup, founded by a former Apple executive, also has allowed users to search via Google within titles made using its technology.

Inkling CEO Matt MacInnis discusses the publishing industry during the company's event at New York's Lincoln Center.
Shara Tibken/CNET
The launch of Amazon's first Kindle e-reader in 2007 upended the publishing industry. Now a San Francisco startup founded by a former Apple executive wants to shake things up again.

Inkling, which counts Sequoia Capital and publishers McGraw-Hill and Pearson among its investors, yesterday at an event in New York City unveiled a new digital book publishing tool for professionals, dubbed Habitat. It also launched the "Inkling Content Delivery Platform" to allow people to comb through books using search engines like Google and read limited amounts of content for free.

With its new products, Inkling aims to become the most-used platform for delivering "content you can use." And it hopes to put pressure on Amazon (and Apple, to a lesser extent) during the process.

"Amazon is killing the publishing industry," Matt MacInnis, Inkling CEO and founder, told CNET in a recent interview. "It has amassed too much market power, and every single entity in the industry is interested in overthrowing the [near] monopoly. ... If we're distributing content more efficiently than Amazon is, or even if we're only a fraction as successful as Amazon is, publishers still have a new revenue stream outside Amazon, and that's good for them."

Apple declined to comment, while Amazon didn't respond to requests for comment.

The digital book industry has become a big focus for many technology companies. So far, most e-books have been the text-heavy novels found in Amazon's Kindle store and other online bookstores. That has allowed Amazon to dominate the industry with about 60 percent market share, according to Forrester, and has forced some traditional bookstore owners, like Borders, to close. It also has forced publishers to merge and determine their strategies for a digital world -- something that has proved difficult for many.

A new push has emerged over the past couple years to create content that's not just digital but is also interactive and immersive. This has become particularly popular for textbooks, with startups and giants like Apple targeting the market.

MBS Direct Digital believes sales of such content will reach 10 percent of the total education textbook market this year, up from 6 percent last year and 3 percent in 2011, according to Rob Reynolds, director of the textbook distributor. Digital textbook sales are expected to rise to more than 50 percent by 2020, he added.

Apple unveiled its digital textbook strategy and self-publishing book software during an event last year at New York's Guggenheim Museum, saying at the time that it would revolutionize education. The electronics maker vowed that eventually, there would be digital textbooks for almost every subject and grade level and that individuals and publishers would use Apple's iBooks Author software to create those books.

Over the past year, Apple's textbook store has grown to about 200 titles from a handful at launch, and thousands of books have been published using iBooks Author.

But even as the market grows, a problem remains that publishers often don't have the tools to make truly interactive books. Publishers have traditionally used Adobe's InDesign to format their titles, but the technology hasn't adapted quite as well to a digital book model. And Apple's iBooks Author doesn't scale well for a large publishing company seeking to overhaul its content.

Inkling hopes Habitat changes all of that.

Inkling's Habitat digital book publishing tool allows multiple people to work on a title at the same time. Inkling

Already, the company has about 450 titles available in its store, and it expects to add "thousands" more this year. Habitat has been available in beta for awhile, but this week marks the start of its general availability.

Perhaps the biggest selling point for Habitat (beside the fact that it's free) is each book-in-progress is located in the cloud, allowing multiple people to work on the same title at the same time. In addition, the tools allow publishers to integrate multimedia and enhanced content such as images, audio, and video.

And users can publish to multiple platforms with one click. So far, Habitat publishes items for iOS apps, Web browsers, and the Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble digital bookstores. It will also include Android later this year, MacInnis said.

In addition, allowing titles to be searched via Google creates a whole new storefront for the books and attracts new potential buyers.

"Generally if you want to get traction, it's not only the creation of the book, it's the distribution of the book [that matters]," Gartner analyst Allen Weiner said. "Amazon and Apple both have self publishing platform that allow you to create a book and then sell it within their environment. ... But do I want to limit my audience?"

Jon Feldman, CEO of New York-based digital book maker Open Air Publishing, has used Inkling's Habitat technology to create several digital books, including "Wine Simplified," "Speakeasy Cocktails," and "Master Your DSLR Camera."

The company's newest title, "Ready, Set, Baby!," incorporates more than 80 HD videos, links to sites for information and to buy products, and interactive text, among other features enabled by Habitat. The digital book will launch next month across multiple platforms, including iOS and the various online bookstores.

Feldman noted that Habitat has allowed his team to create an entire book in as little as a few months.

"All of our books from start to finish take about 12 weeks to 12 months," Feldman told CNET. "That's several multiples faster than traditional publishing."

"Wine Simplified" was created using Inkling's Habitat technology. Inkling

Of course, the program isn't completely free, aside from schools and other non-profits using the technology. If a publisher decides to sell the books it creates using Habitat, it's required to also list those titles in Inkling's store, and Inkling will take a 30 percent cut on those sales. And Inkling offers a premium, enterprise version of Habitat that provides more Inkling assistance and allows publishers to make a self-branded outlet for their content.

MacInnis also admits there's a learning curve with the technology. Habitat is not for the casual user but is geared at publishing professionals.

Along with smaller publishing houses like Open Air, Inkling is also working with giants such as McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Wolters Kluwer, Wiley, and Dorling Kindersley, as well as popular brands like Frommer's, Kaplan, and Lonely Planet.

Inkling wants to change the publishing industry, but Amazon likely isn't sitting still when it comes to new digital book formats. And Apple will continue pushing its textbook initiative and iBooks offerings. In addition, because the completed books can be accessed via Amazon and Apple services, the two companies likely aren't that worried right now about Inkling eating into their market.

But Inkling thinks they should be.

"We're on a mission to become the No. 1 platform for content that you use," MacInnis said. "I see a day coming very quickly where people who want good, factual, curated knowledge -- whether personal or professional -- will Google it and tag it 'Inkling' and find what they're looking for."