From Madonna to Al Gore, how one publisher reimagines books for the digital age
Charlie Melcher is, in his own words, a man of eclectic tastes. With a hand in some of pop culture's most influential phenomena, from "South Park: A Sticky Forms Adventure" to Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," Melcher has been redefining the publishing industry since graduating from Yale University in 1988. Conceptualizing projects like Madonna's controversial "Sex" book is practically old hat to Melcher, who spearheaded the tome when he was with Calloway Editions. The progressive publisher explains the choice was obvious, "Madonna was going to get naked in an amazing book of erotica. What was not to like?"
Melcher worked his way up the ranks after college, re-launching what he'd called Melcher Press as Melcher Media in '94, where he patented the technology behind DuraBooks. Waterproof, synthetic paper made of nontoxic resins and inorganic materials instead of wood pulp, the infinitely recyclable pages make for ideal beach reads or field guides. The technology also came into play for William McDonough and Michael Braungart's environmentalist design manifesto, "Cradle to Cradle." Like Melcher, the game-changing book preaches a new kind of industrial sustainability—one that incorporates eco-consciousness from the ground up.
From the ground up is exactly how Melcher Media approaches all of its projects, shepherding a new publication from its inception through various print and digital incarnations. Working on "An Inconvenient Truth," Melcher took Al Gore's next project one step further, developing iPhone and iPad apps called "Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis." The richly-colored pages, filled with interactive infographics, animations, maps and documentary footage, are all accessible with a swipe of a finger.
"For the last 20 years, I've labored to break out of the confines of the two- dimensional Flatland of the printed page and redefine books as multi-sensory interactive experiences," Melcher said. The phrase that he uses, "deep marketing," is a type of marketing that creates a unique, immersive experience that a reader will seek out on his own, which can range from reading a DuraBook in a bubble bath to flipping through maps of Africa on the iPad while on the train to work.
If working on Gore's books wasn't enough of an indication, Melcher also exercises his strong interest in sustainability with his position on the advisory committee for Green Press Initiative and FSC certification for Melcher Media. Clients like HBO and MTV may seem off-brand, but Melcher insists, "The projects that we do are all things that I, or my staff, are personally passionate about. We love high culture and low culture. If it is [a book on] a serious subject, we try to find approaches that will make it as impactful and appealing to as large an audience as possible, and if it's a pop culture project we try to find the angles that will make the most high-quality and innovative version available."
As Melcher Media's website points out, books have basically remained the same since the invention of the Gutenberg Press. If phones and other communication devices have to keep updating themselves, there's no reason why this venerable technology should have to stay the same. "Pop-up books for adults, books with sound chips and 3-D glasses and now interactive media-rich apps are all examples of an effort to reinvent the book in the digital age."
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