Inkling makes its Google-friendly digital publishing tools free to everyone

Inkling has spent three years and $30 million to build Inkling Habitat, a cloud-based set of digital publishing tools that let users create and collaborate on high-quality, interactive ebooks. Last year, the San Francisco-based startup opened the platform up to a few publishers. Starting Tuesday, it is available to anybody for free and includes the Google search integration that Inkling launched in January.

ProChef InklingIn Inkling Habitat, the company’s founder and CEO, Matt MacInnis, sees an opportunity to take the digital reading revolution beyond Amazon (s AMZN) and Kindle. He believes Amazon is totally reliant on text-based titles that make up only a fraction of the total book publishing market, and calls Apple’s iBooks Author — free software that’s supposed to let anyone create interactive ebooks for the iBookstore — a flop. “Our message to the industry is that the first bit of digital publishing was great,” he told me, “but the real stuff is just beginning.” It’s early days for Inkling, which has only 400 titles in its store so far compared to Amazon’s millions of Kindle titles. But MacInnis is convinced that the next step is illustrated: Textbooks, travel guides, cookbooks, how-to books, and so on. And it’s this area, he believes, where Inkling — not Amazon — will dominate.

As I reported last year, 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 now the iPhone] and the Web in HTML5, with updates pushed to both platforms at once…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.” Starting Tuesday, publishers using the platform can also export their books as EPUB files, so that they can sell them through Apple’s iBookstore (s AAPL) and other platforms. And each book created on the platform is fully indexable by Google.

Eight months ago, MacInnis told me, the cost of taking content from a print-destined file and turning it into structured content that can be crawled by Google or easily navigated on an iPad was $30 to $60 per page. “We’ve gotten that down to $3 a page,” he said. The tool is free for publishers and consumers, though Inkling will take a 30 percent cut of each sale through the Inkling store. Beta clients included O’Reilly, Frommer’s, Workman, and Wiley; new publishing partners announced Tuesday include HarperCollins, DK, Lonely Planet, Rick Steves Kaplan and Time Inc.

Inkling is also launching a subscription enterprise product, intended to compete with Adobe (s ADBE), that allows clients to build products under their own brands on top of Inkling’s APIs. Clients at launch include Pearson, the world’s largest book publisher; Elsevier; and Wolters Kluwer. Presumably, the enterprise clients’ subscription fees help keep Habitat free.

Finally, Inkling is rolling out an academic model of Inkling Habitat, which is completely free and doesn’t take a cut of sales. The company is partnering with the 20 Million Minds Foundation, which is backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and will distribute 50 free, open-source textbooks to community colleges in California.