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Over the past 25 years, Rick Smolan and his
wife, Jennifer Erwitt (daughter of the Magnum photographer
Elliott Erwitt), have been producing books that combine creative
storytelling with state-of-the-art technology. Their company,
Against All Odds Productions, was the first to design a top New
York Times bestseller on a Macintosh with A Day in the Life
of America. Thanks to Steve Jobs, all the photographers,
editors and writers contributing to the Day in the Life
books were paid with Macs, which, according to Smolan, was how Macs
first entered the art departments at Newsweek, National
Geographic and many other publications that their team worked
for. From Alice to Ocean: Alone Across the Outback was the
first coffee table book to ever come with an interactive CD, and
Apple bundled 500,000 copies of the CD with all their computers.
The CD they produced as part of the incredibly moving Passage to
Vietnam won every major interactive design awarded the year it
was released. The website for 24 Hours in Cyberspace was the
first to be inducted into the Smithsonian archives (by then-Vice
President Al Gore). The Planet Project documented the
world's largest real-time poll, for which the duo sent 3,000
pollsters around the world with Palm Pilots to ask 220 questions in
eight languages about sleep, sex, politics and more, garnering 1.6
million people's participation online. And five years ago they
released America 24/7, the first New York Times
bestseller that was mass customized by the public (21 percent of
all book buyers created personalized covers for the book). Most
recently, Smolan and Erwitt created The Obama Time
Capsule, a customizable documentary book that enables the
user to be part of history. The implications for this project are
profound. Will it transform book publishing? Or is it simply one in
a series of digital novelties? A veteran publisher and packager,
Smolan talks about the impetus for doing this book and the future
as he sees it.
The Obama Time Capsule book.
Heller: President Barack Obama souvenirs are big business. I
realize this is a bit more than that. But what triggered your
interest in The Obama Time Capsule?
Smolan: I was sitting with a group of friends on election
night and was amused to see many of my non-photographer friends
pick up their cellphone cameras and shoot pictures of the TV set at
the moment Obama's victory was announced. I asked why they were all
doing this and everyone laughed and said they knew they were
witnessing history. As the conversation went on, I noticed that
everyone had a story to share about how they personally felt a
connection to the outcome of this election and to Obama.
Many of my photographer friends had been on the campaign trail,
and in speaking with them I kept hearing stories about "the
pictures that never saw the light of day," images they had all shot
that were symbolic or too subtle. I asked them to send me the ones
they were most proud of and received 40,000 images—many of them
amazing and many of them never seen. I also called foreign
photographers who had been sent here and their work was never
Heller: So that's the making of a big conventional book, but
yours is more unique than that. What makes it so special?
Smolan: Well, I wondered if there was a way to create a
book that wove together all these amazing images with each
individual book buyer's own story, photos and even their children's
artwork, so that every single copy was unique. I intentionally
didn't want to do a trade book edition because part of the goal was
to have no books in warehouses, no print run, no books printed that
might have to be later pulped and destroyed, no books shipped over
by container ship from China or Korea (where all the big coffee
table books are printed). The idea was to do the book of the future
10 years ahead of its time.
Interior spread from The Obama Time Capsule book.
Heller: How much of the book can actually be customized? Is
it just another gimmick?
Smolan: There are seven places that can be customized: 1)
Your name appears on the cover as one of the authors. 2) Your
family photo appears on a button on the back cover of the book. 3)
You get to write your own dedication to your family inside the
book. 4) The inaugural invitation is in your name. 5) Your photo
appears next to Oprah Winfrey, Sean Penn, Tiger Woods and other
celebrities on the Key Obama Supporters Page. 6) The email message
from Obama that appears on the BlackBerry screen is addressed to
you. 7) Your children's artwork appears on a page of Obama-related
Heller: What are the limits of technology in terms of
Smolan: The real limits are not technology, but
psychology. We had to be careful about not overwhelming people with
too many choices. We could have customized every single page of the
200-page book, but most people would never get around to doing
Heller: In this era when books are said to be on the verge of
extinction, how will this concept alter the paradigms of book
Smolan: Professionally produced books—great photography,
essays and infographics—merged together with each individual book
buyer's own content is going to be an important differentiator
Interior spread of the inauguration from The Obama Time Capsule
Heller: What does this concept say about traditional
publishing methods and distribution? Are they on the way
Smolan: Many publishing experts believe that the future
of publishing is something like the Kindle, as well as print on
demand books like The Obama Time Capsule. The current model
where publishers print millions of books, 60 percent of which end
up being unsold and destroyed each year, simply cannot continue
Heller: I agree, but I'm concerned that the quality of books
will diminish in this on-demand environment. How does design play a
role in your project? Must you provide a design template that
appeals to a common denominator?
Smolan: No. We designed this book from scratch. The
personalized pages were designed so that if someone wanted to
personalize them, they could—but if they don't, the pages always
have pre-existing content.
Heller: OK, aesthetics aside, what are the financial
implications? What does it cost to produce a copy—physically and in
terms of content—and how much profit can be made?
Smolan: Right now high-end print-on-demand books like
The Obama Time Capsule are extremely expensive—a book like
this would normally cost $65. Because our sponsor HP and paper
company called NewPage donated 25-five tons of paper we are able to
offer the book at an initial price of $34.95 (exactly what an
offset book of this size and quality would cost). We were also
fortunate to have sponsors like Google, Facebook, AOL Platform A,
Glam Media and others who are providing us with over a million
dollars in free advertising because everyone fell in love with the
concept of the book. What's more, I should mention that our
sponsors have no editorial control or even review of the contents
of our books. It's like a PBS special.
Interior spread of Obama and supporters on the campaign trail
from The Obama Time Capsule book.
Heller: How is the project faring at this time?
Smolan: The book is doing great (at this moment it is #48
on Amazon). People absolutely love the personalization.
Heller: So, can and will you apply this concept to other
Smolan: Absolutely! And we plan to.
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