“I hate the idea of an enhanced ebook. You can’t enhance a work of art,” Richard Mason, the founder of a new Manhattan-based startup called Orson & Co., told me.
Sure, Orson & Co. is publishing ebooks for iOS and they are enhanced with art, music and some videos. But “we are not trying to enhance anything,” Mason said. “I hate pop-out menus that beep and crows that screech. We are trying to take you deeper into the story.” The company uses the illuminated manuscripts of medieval times as its inspiration, so don’t call the final product an ebook: Rather, it’s an “eLume,” and it is classy.
So far, there is only one: Mason’s own History of a Pleasure Seeker, which Random House’s Knopf published in February of this year. It’s for sale as an app in the iTunes Store for $12.99 (there’s also a free excerpt). It includes detailed art (“look at that very sensual page curl,” Mason said), photographs (hidden discretely behind illustrations, which the reader can tap) and music. Users can hear Dan Stevens, the actor who plays Matthew Crawley on the BBC’s Downton Abbey, read the book to them. They can listen to music — including piano played by Mason himself and music sung by famed American tenor Alex Richardson. Or they can do none of those things, and simply read the text.
Random House still sells History of a Pleasure Seeker in both print and digital formats. But Mason retained the multimedia rights, which included a portion of the book’s text, and he licensed the rest of the text back in order to create the History of a Pleasure Seeker app.
Orson & Co. is now working on other books and is both commissioning original works and licensing books that have already been published. One original commission is The Oldest Bedtime Story Ever, a children’s edition of the Old Testament by theologian and artist Benjamin Morse (who is also working as the company’s creative director). Orson & Co. published the book in print this month and will release the eLume version soon. Mason is also working on a sequel to History of a Pleasure Seeker. Next up is Shanghai by Harriet Sergeant, a book that was previously published by British publisher John Murray in 1999. Mason told me that the company has also been approached by “major publishers to work in co-production with them,” but could not share details on other projects in the works.
Orson & Co. has an editorial staff of five so far. The company’s most recent hire is Maura Phelan as sales director; she previously held the same title at Random House. Mason said he is in discussions with “two players from very established companies” and will announce more hires in the new year. The company has raised “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from an angel investor Mason would not name.