Free Interactive E-Book Publishing Platform From Inkling, Not Apple

Startup iPad publisher Inkling is launching a free, cloud-based, interactive e-book publishing platform, Inkling Habitat. That may sounds a bit like iBooks Author, but a preview of the program suggests that it is indeed as Inkling describes it—a program for professional publishers producing e-books at scale, and a way to make a very expensive process more affordable.

“Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) spent a year and a half to build eight textbooks,” Inkling CEO Matt MacInnis said. “In two years, weve built 200.” Inkling Habitat is available immediately to a “select group of publishers” in an early adopter program, and will be available to everyone later this year.

Inkling Habitat lets publishers create interactive e-books with HD video, interactive features and 3D content in a free, cloud-based program. E-books can immediately be published to iPad and the Web in HTML5, with updates pushed to both platforms at once. (Well, iPad is available now and Web publishing will be added later this year.) Multiple groups can collaborate on the content simultaneously, so a production editor in New York City can look at the same project as a designer in India, simultaneously. Every version of a product is saved, so changes can always be rolled back.

O’Reilly is a partner at launch. iPad publisher Open Air has already released three titles using Inkling Habitat technology, though the program has not been formally announced until today.

The program is free, but in order to use it publishers must agree to make the books they create with it available through Inkling’s store (in its iPad app and on its website). Inkling takes a cut of the revenues from those books. Unlike with iBooks Author, publishers can also sell the books they create through other channels (their own websites or as individual apps, for instance) and Inkling does not take a cut of those sales.

McInnis demoed the product for me and it looks very easy to use. It’s key for not just publishers but laso the digital content producers they work with—often, teams in India—to know how to use the platform. Inkling has already partnered with the two largest digital content producers, Aptara and Innodata, to train them and they are now ready to use it.

My first job out of college was at an independent publisher, and one of my tasks was to FedEx gigantic stacks of printed book files, marked up with red pencil notes and Post-Its, to a design team in India. (This was in 2006, not that long ago!) It was incredibly nervewracking, from my point of view—the packages got lost or sidetracked somewhere in India more than once, which I swear was not my fault—and just the process of sending them back and forth took forever, even though both our team in New York and the producers in India were working quickly.

Being able to log onto a cloud-based program, manipulate files directly, send notes to designers, publish immediately and always roll back if you make mistake is a total lifesaver—and may be regarded that way by publishers who have been wary to publish interactive e-books because it is so expensive. Also, because Inkling Habitat doesn’t charge for the platform but relies on a revenue share of the finished product, the company has an incentive to work with publishers throughout the proces. “Their win is our win,” said MacInnis, “and their failure is our failure.”

Inkling is based in San Francisco and has raised $17 million in funding.