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Open Air Publishing evolves the self-help genre on the iPad

by Chuck Lenatti

February 26 2012

Books that help people learn how to do everything from coding in HTML5 to carving ham are evolving with technology.

In 1991, Dan Gookin, a would-be programmer who couldn't find a simple book that would help him learn to code for DOS, wrote DOS for Dummies. The book's popularity launched the massively popular For Dummies series, which now comprises 1,800 topics with 250 million books in print.

Open Air Publishing hopes to cash in on the next iteration of how-to books with apps designed specifically for the iPad.

“We think of books in a non-print way and think about how interactive and video elements can add to the user experience,” said Jon Feldman, CEO of Open Air. 

One of Open Air's iPad apps, Master Your DSLR Camera: A Better Way to Learn Digital Photography, is designed for aspiring photographers who purchased a DSLR because they want to take better pictures than they can with their smartphone, but can't take advantage of their camera's manual settings.

“The 'Dummies' books in the printed form make a promise that you'll become a great photographer, but they have trouble delivering,” said Feldman, who founded the company in 2011.

“With a black-and-white paperback book trying to make you a great photographer, there's a real disconnect between the promise and the results. Plus, a 200- or 300-page book can get really boring and intimidating,” he said. “We thought we could do this better.

"The other failed promise of the paperback how-to book is that you probably won't have it with you when you need it. With e-books in general, you'll always have your complete library with you.”

Like a traditional how-to photography book, “Master Your DSLR” takes you through the basics of how a digital camera works, photographic techniques and camera settings. But because it's an interactive app, you can see for yourself the difference various settings make to a photo.

By sliding your fingertip across ISO settings from ISO 100 to ISO 6,400, for example, you can observe how adjusting the camera's light sensitivity affects a picture of a dark room, for instance.

Each of Open Air's three books takes an approach that matches the content. “We think about the best way to teach each concept in a how-to book. In some cases that's writing, but in many cases it's a mix of writing, photographs, illustrations, interactivity and video. It's a product that's a better way to learn, built from the ground up for this medium,” said Feldman.

Another app, Speakeasy Cocktails, begins with some history about the failed social experiment, Prohibition, that gave rise to the illegal parlors where alcohol was sold—and is the app's namesake. The opening chapter, which describes speakeasies in the 1920s, is accompanied by a rollicking recording of Cole Porter's “Anything Goes.”

The app continues with a description of the tools of the bartending trade, such as the Boston Shaker, Cobbler Shaker and Parisian Shaker, which you can purchase with a couple of taps on the iPad. Also included, of course, are “old school” and “new school” cocktail recipes, categorized under the predominant spirit.

The real stars, however, are the two bartenders whose videos demonstrate techniques such as shaking, stirring and rolling, as well as measuring, swizzling, muddling and garnishing, among others. Bartenders Jim Meehan and Joseph Schwartz also demonstrate how to make mixed drinks, from a martini to a mojito.

Not all recipes have videos—that would be redundant—but they all include links to the videos of the techniques they call for.

The personalities of the bartenders, as well as the two cooks in the third book, Holiday Recipe and Survival Guide, jump off the screen in a way that isn't possible with printed books.

“Besides being an expert on their topic, we look for people who can connect with the audience. It's hard to know until you see it, but people like Martha Stewart and Oprah are fantastic at connecting with the audience, and that's what you look for in our camera talent,” Feldman said.

Open Air's next book, "The Better Bacon Book," will be about how to make, cook and appreciate high-quality bacon at home.

So how's it working for OpenAir? The company didn't want to get into specific unit sales with TabTimes, but a quick look at the App Store revealed that, while the volume of user reviews isn't particularly high, each of the three books mentioned above have an average rating of 4.5 stars. 
   
“For us, what's been successful is to focus on very high-quality talent, both the writers and the people who appear  in the videos, and to focus on a very beautiful design aesthetic that is easy to follow with high-definition photos and videos that take advantage of the beautiful iPad screen,” Feldman said.

“On the iPad, people are looking for high quality, and we strive to outdo ourselves with every book.”

Chuck Lenatti writes about digital media, marketing, and advertising. He lives in Pacifica, California.
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