The news, released today, that the San Francisco-based Inkling has decided to give away for free its “collaborative digital publishing environment” known as Inkling Habitat was probably the e-publishing community’s most eyebrow-raising story of the week thus far.

As Laura Hazard Owen wrote today for Paid Content, the company “has spent three years and $30 million to build Habitat, a cloud-based set of digital publishing tools that let users create and collaborate on high-quality, interactive ebooks.”

That sounds like fairly exciting stuff. Although if Inking Habitat actually manages to get itself off the proverbial ground over the next few months with any sort of serious momentum, it’s not much of a stretch to assume that digitally published content as we know it today might soon undertake a transformation into something very, very different.

Here’s Inkling founder and CEO Matt MacInnis, attempting to explain why the Habitat service is necessary in the first place:

“For the last five years, the digital book market has been dominated by a single player. Products have been limited to $10 text files, but there is another massive market for illustrated books, from textbooks to travel books, cooking, hobbies, medicine, and more, that demands the media-rich, interactive experience that mobile devices were built for. Today we’re announcing a powerful new way for publishers to create beautiful, media-rich books, while also making it easier for customers to find and buy them.”

“In Inkling Habitat,” writes Owen, in the aforementioned Paid Content piece, “MacInnis sees an opportunity to take the digital reading revolution beyond Amazon and Kindle.”

Indeed, the fully cloud-based Habitat allows publishers to collaborate in real-time from anywhere in the world. It allows publishers to integrate multimedia and enhanced content, including images, audio and video, into both existing and digital-first books. It allows publication to multiple platforms with just one click. And although Inkling will be taking the industry-standard cut of 30 percent from each book sold in its online store, the fact that such an unusually powerful tool is now free to use has the potential to be a serious game changer for publishers both large and small.

Inkling today also announced four new publishers that will bring bringing books to its Habitat platform. Interestingly enough, three of them (including Lonely Planet, a former freelance client of mine) are publishers of travel guidebooks. The other new publishers are HarperCollins, DK Publishing, and Rick Steves—which isn’t actually a publisher at all. Rather, Rick Steves’ popular European guidebooks are published by Avalon Travel, a subsidiary of the Perseus Books Group.

During my time at Lonely Planet, we talked quite a lot about the possibilities of digitally-enhanced travel guides. And although guidebooks have indeed been available in e-form for quite some time, very few have ever been anything other than reproduced digital text (and often very poorly formatted at that). With a powerful tool like Inkling Habitat, I can’t even imagine the sort of multimedia wonders we might be enjoying in 12 or 18 months time.

This’ll definitely be a fun product to watch.


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