Writers, Interactivity and Kindles

If you follow the online chatter about Book Apps, you soon notice that it comes largely from tech companies and conference organisers. The voice of publishers can also be heard, occassionally, but writers (and to be specific, writers of non-childrens fiction) are noticeably quiet.
Kindles at The Unquiet Library
Writers, by and large, and not slow to spot opportunities, so I’ve been talking to a lot of them to understand their relative lack of interest in experimenting with this emerging form. What follows is not a representative sample of authors, of course, and I’m about to generalise wildly when I merge all those different conversations into the following statement. That said, the general concern was this:

If they can’t sell what they write on Kindle, then it’s not worth their time writing it.

Or in other words, iPads and Kindle Fires and forthcoming Windows tablets are all well and good, but the Kindle doesn’t support .epub3 so there’s no point playing around with the potential that offers. There was more to it than that, of course –  there was the expected creative concern about the nature of interactive fiction, if not the desire to engage with the problem. There was interest in the idea that some developers may actually have some money which they have yet to burn through. But more prominently, there was a desire for readers, and in particular the hardcore readers who read, buy, and talk about books a lot.

One claim that published and self-published writers alike make is that publishers currently have zero interest in building the careers of writers (which is odd, as this is exactly how publishers will succeed in the future). As a result, even established authors see indie and self publishing forming at least a part of their future. There ia a growing understanding that, despite iPads and Kobo and the like, the only ebooks which actually sell are Kindle. So, if they couldn’t put it out on Kindle and reach the existing, installed base of Kindle ereaders, then it wasn’t for them.

All of which begs the question of what interactivity you can currently bring to a Kindle, and the answer is very little. You can link through to different parts of the text, but you can’t use tracking variables or make decisions about where to go based on the reader’s past choices. Hacking your way around such limitations can allow you to be quite creative, however (and indeed the writer Richard Blandford and myself have worked out a very cunning way to publish his random short story collection The Shuffle on Kindle.)

Another writer who has engaged with these limitations is Caroline Smailes. Her eBook 99 Reasons Why tells the story of troubled 22 year old in the North East (one of those literary characters that stick in your head long after you finish the book). It also offers 11 different endings. When the story reaches its conclusion it presents the reader with a quiz to select the ending that they’ll receive. The quiz aspect is faked on the Kindle by repeating a few pages with different links, giving varying routes through what appears to the reader to just be three simple questions.

The different endings are not just different because of the events that they describe, but they also differ by revealing new facts about the characters, meaning that the whole of the story is changed by the ending that the reader makes – it’s as if some film goers saw a film that reveals Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s dad, whereas others see a film that says Obi Wan is his father. This works thematically because Smailes’ main character is defined by her ignorance about the truth of her life and of her family situation.

The differing endings of 99 Reasons Why is an interesting experiment which I’d highly recommend (it’s well worth the £2.99 price), and one that gained the author a lot of publicity (always a good thing), but it is not something that would necessarily work with other stories.

Why can’t Kindle do anything more advanced? Here’s the thing – it can, but not in the UK. A development kit called Kindle Active Content will allow your Kindle to all the clever stuff you need to produce interactive fictions similar to Frankenstein on the iPad. More importantly, it is back compatible to all but the very first Kindle model, meaning that you could sell these things to the existing installed base of eReaders – the one thing that seemed to be the deal-breaker for all the writers I spoke to.

It’s sounds great, it sounds ideal – but for some reason it is US only. US readers can read/play involved Choose Your Own Adventure-type books, such as Warlock Of Firetop Mountain (ah, that takes me back…)And if it can run something like that, then the possibilities for more narrative-based experiments are pretty huge.

There does not appear to be any announced date or even a commitment to bring Kindle Active Content out to the rest of the world, however. It may well prove to be one of those baffling Amazon decisions, such as their refusal to release the Kindle Fire over here. All of which is a shame, because it is exactly the thing that writers I’ve spoken to are asking for. It is easy to see how something like the Inklewriter system would then be able to work for Kindle.

If Amazon get their act together, then we could see some really groundbeaking stuff start to appear. As seems to be the norm these days, however, the ball’s in Amazon’s court.

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Writing Interactive Fiction

In my last post I looked at inklewriter, one of a number of interactive or branching fiction writing systems that are starting to emerge. I concluded that the only way to really get to grips with it would be to knuckle down and actually write something with it. Well, I’ve done that now, so I think I’m qualified to report that inklewriter is a pretty wonderful thing.

Fork in the Road Literal

First thing to note is that it’s surprisingly easy and intuitive. The programme very quickly disappears from your mind as you write in the same way that your word processor (should) disappear. Having assumed that a more top-down, flow chart based system would have made more sense, I can now see why they have gone for this ‘here’s a blank page, get on with it’ approach. You quickly fall into a similar ‘flow’ to writing linear fiction.

This is not to say that writing interactive fiction itself is easy, of course, just that the challenges are creative rather than technical. And there are more creative challenges in interactive than non-interactive, as I’ll discuss. It’s like a chess player being presented with a bigger board that has more pieces – more or less the same game, but there’s more to think about. However the whole point of writing, as far as I can tell, is because creative problems are a real buzz, so this is clearly a good thing.

Basically, I loved it.

So, given this new tool and time to write a short story, what did I do?

Firstly, I had no interest in writing something where the reader can affect the plot or steer the story. You may recall when I wrote about the interactive Frankenstein app I admired how the reader’s role had shifted from that of an observer to something more akin to the narrator’s conscience. I wanted to experiment with this (although other options, such as a recounted narrative like Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner, or a trial/judgement/murder mystery format also seem promising.)

Starting to write such a story, however, quickly made it apparent that the ‘narrator’s conscience’ model wasn’t quite right, because a conscience doesn’t constantly need to be informed of back story or motive. The reader, then, is still the observer of before but they have somehow become more involved. It is like the veil of paper that separates the reader from the story is just a little thinner now.

So, my choice of story attempted to capitalise on that. The story I wrote, First Against The Floor, came from the idea that with terrorism or revolution, it’s not who you kill that’s important, but how you kill them. It’s morally dubious as all hell, in other words, but it does thrust the poor reader into an unacceptable situation and force them to think and react. I was trying to use the interactive format to help me ‘drag the reader in’ to an absurd situation, as the saying goes.

I’m not saying I succeeded, of course. Only that that was the intention.

The other major factor that I was exploring was pacing. In particular, I was thinking about the almost hypnotic rhythm you got from old turn-based games such as Civ II – that ‘decide, act, observe, decide, act, observe…’ rhythm that is hard to break and makes it almost impossible to stop playing. I’d noticed a similar rhythm when reading graphic stuff a panel at a time in the Comixology app: ‘move to next panel, absorb image, read text, move to next panel, absorb image, read text…’ My thinking here was that if you could get a rhythm like that going in interactive fiction, combined with the more involved observer described above, then people would really get absorbed in these things and they would have a qualitative difference over regular fiction. As a result I found myself using lots of tricks like adding ‘fake interaction’ in order to keep that rhythm.

With hindsight, however, I may have made it too pacey. Aiming for this rhythm changed my writing style quite noticeably. I would recommend reading a couple of pages of my novel from here – you can download a free sample – and comparing it to this interactive short. In particular, I found myself being far less descriptive, in order to keep these bite size little chunks of plot small and self-contained. I suspect that despite everything I said about the format drawing the reader in, this lack of description may have had an opposite effect and cancelled that out a bit.

Another surprise was the tone completely shifted. When I started, the intention was for it to be a bit of a farce. With the reader suddenly added to the mix, however, the protaganist was put on their back foot and had had to justify himself. He had to believe in all the extreme politics that was originally going to be glibby sketched over. Jokes were then cut because they no longer fitted the tone, and the amount of suspense kept growing. I was aiming for Chris Morris but ended up with Jack Bauer. Short stories rarely turn out like you planned of course, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the finished result.

Still, you live and learn, and that’s what’s experiments are for. I also recall I had some obsession with the amount of text that fits nicely on a smartphone screen when I was writing, although with hindsight that’s a fairly dumb thing to focus on.

So, have a read of my effort and if you sense the potential in the format then consider writing something yourself. Reading the tutorials on the site will set you up nicely. The software is still in beta so there will be options that you will find yourself missing, such as a word count (writers do love their word counts) and the ability to save locally and export. I’d suggest using Chrome instead of Firefox as this has a built-in spellcheck, which inklewriter currently lacks. It’s early days – I think tracking variable are currently being introduced – but if you want to see how you write in a different landscape you will have a lot of fun.

I’m also curious as to how such a system could be used for non-fiction.

Click here to read my first interactive short, First Against The Floor (Warning: bad language and unacceptable politics, but hey.)

Inklewriter launches

A few weeks back I got excited by the Dave Morris‘ interactive take on Frankenstein. What struck me as significant was that, while I had been expecting something similar to a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, what he had done was far more subtle. You can read my thoughts on this here, but overall I was struck with a new sense of potential about branching fiction.

And guess what? A writer-facing version of the tech has been placed online by inklestudios of Cambridge. It’s still in beta, but it allows anyone to write and share similar interactive fiction. You can find it here: http://writer.inklestudios.com/

So what’s it like? Well, first impressions are very good. There’s a bunch of tutorials which take you through how the system works and constantly challenges you to experiment with it. These tutorials make it seem pretty simple and useable. There’s no conditional logic or tracking variables – yet – and there’s no way to export your story as a stand alone .epub3 file, but all in all it’s a pretty unexpected and wonderful little gift from the Internets.

Of course, putting this online makes complete sense. If branching fiction is to move away from the quest-based ‘adventure’ model to the more interesting things that Frankenstein hinted at, then giving writers the ability to play around with the form and see what they come up with is a necessary step.

What surprised me most was more what it wasn’t. I expected something with a top-down, flow chart structure, rather than the ‘here’s a blank page, start at the top’ approach. This may be more a quirk of my approach to writing, or a side-effect of having a background in computers. For my own fiction I tend to write in Scrivener, which matches my way of thinking – I think in structure and I tend to ‘build’ stories rather than let them flow out. For most writers, however, I suspect this would be a far more comfortable approach.

But the big question is, what’s it like to actually write branching fiction in? And the only way to find that out is to roll up your sleeves and write something. So, that is what I will do.

*checks schedule*

I’m not entirely sure when I’ll do that, admittedly, but do it I shall. Wish me luck!

Interaction and Narrative: A First Rule

We’ve been looking at the blossoming relationship between narrative and interaction for some time now, but have precious little to show for it. But things are slowly becoming clearer and I think we’re finally in a position to declare our first hard and fast rule.

That rule is this: Interaction must go with the flow of the narrative, rather than against it.

Or in other words, interaction works at the key points and beats of a story in a way that is more important and powerful than interactions between them. There is a reason for this. It is about working with the flow of the user’s attention. It’s a bit abstract, but stick with it.

A lot is made of how a TV audience is in a mentally passive mode, letting the show wash over them, while gamers are in an active mental mode, sitting forward and engaged. Well, neither of these models really apply to interactive narratives, and it is big mistake to assume that they do. The more useful starting model is still that of reading books or especially comic books, where the reader is in control of the speed of story, and able to flick back and forward at will – which is distinctly different than watching a film and being powerless in front of it – but they are still being controlled, manipulated and pulled along by the writer’s narrative.

Now – with that mental state in mind – you have to keep track of where the narrative is focusing the user’s attention, and interactivity must go with this flow rather than block it. If your protagonist has just been told that a witch has kidnapped the princess (for example), the flow is to find the witch and rescue the princess. If they are then presented with an interactive activity about tidying up the room they are in, that breaks the narrative flow. That doesn’t work. But if they had also been told that they needed a golden apple to defeat the witch, and were then presented with an interactive activity about finding that apple in the room, then that goes with the narrative flow. That works.

Image

There’s a good example of making interactivity work in The Gift from Persian Cat (you may recall I interviewed this book app’s creator back in January). The protaganist in The Gift is a small boy who finds a baby that is washed up on the beach from the sea. The baby is asleep so the boy goes on a quest to discover how to wake her, by asking advice from a series of groteque monsters. It’s nice little story, assuming of course that you don’t think, “shit, the baby’s dead” at the start, in which case it becomes increasingly unbearable as each attempt to wake the baby fails. If you don’t think that, however, it is lovely. (Only adults would think that, of course, so here’s a nice – and sadly rare – example of a children’s story written to appeal to children, rather than to appeal to parents.)

Anyway – at the climax of the story the boy succeeds in waking the baby. At this point the artwork goes into a point-of-view shot of the baby, seen from the boy’s perspective – syncing the reader’s focus completely with the reader-identification-character of the boy, in other words. The reader then has to reach out and touch the baby in order for her to wake up. This simple interaction is perfectly synched to the key beat of the narrative, making it far more effective and rewarding than other, far more technically complicated interactive activities. It leaves the reader completely absorbed in this, the key moment of the story, which in turn makes the story a success.

And that’s the sort of effect you can only achieve with the merging of narrative and interactivity. True, it’s not an effect that is achieved by most applications of interactivity to narative, which is why it is worth declaring our first golden rule. But it is the sort of effect that makes developing this new media worthwhile.

Frankenstein

I nearly didn’t take a look at the new interactive Frankenstein novel, despite the good press it has been getting. It was described as short chunks of text followed by branching choices that change the story, so I assumed that it was another ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.

There’s nothing wrong with a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, of course. I used to love them as a kid. But their basic model has the reader making decisions for the protaganist, who essentially becomes an avatar for the reader during some form of quest, and that is a model which can be done better in videogames than in prose. It’s not the future of the novel.

What Frankenstein does is much cleverer, however. Here’s the promo vid:

Dave Morris’ retelling of Mary Shelley’s story is great. It moves the story a few decades earlier in order to use our hindsight about the French Revolution, which is ripe with the themes of horror and rebirth. The Hollywood imagery of castles and lightning are stepped over, and it is thankfully much less interested than Mary Shelley in long, long digressions about just how fantastic mountains are. Frankenstein is a story where it easy to go horribly wrong with the tone – just ask Kenneth Branagh – but there are no misteps here.  That’s not our primary interest here, though.  What’s interesting is how this is different to a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.

In a linear 1st person novel, the book’s narrator talks at the reader and the reader’s role is that of an observer or an audience. That’s also the case here, but instead of being an observer, the reader’s choices create a conversation with the narrator. The conversation is well done, flowing naturally and somehow avoiding skipping over key backstory or plot points.

So what is your role, as the reader, in this? You are not physically present, and you converse only with the narrator. You only have a minor impact on the events. What you have become, in actuality, is best described as the narrator’s conscience. Your role is to react to the narrator’s actions, and to challenge them to justify themselves. And this is why the Frankenstein app is so significant – it’s a first person prose narrative which has shifted the reader’s role from ‘observer’ to ‘conscience’.

And this new role is a hell of a perspective to experience the story of Frankenstein from. Being the conscience of Victor Frankenstein as his mind cracks under the realiastion of what he has done is quite an experience, as is being the conscience of the monster itself after the narrator changes, and you escape the laboratory and discover the streets of Paris.

True, when the book switches to using the monster as a narrator, it switches back to the 2nd person (“you can see a house”, etc) and becomes more of a traditional Choose Your Own Adventure, with your choices ‘controlling’ the monster more than arguing with it. This does make some sense in context, however, with the newly-hatched creature not initially having the mental faculties to justify itself to you.

When I started this blog, I was looking to see if the experimental melding of narrative and interactivity would produce something that was more than the sum of its parts. There’s been many examples that have been interesting or promising, but overall it was not looking good. I had originally described these emerging book apps as an ‘unwanted Frankenstein media,’ so it is a pleasing coincidence that it is the Frankenstein book app where the potential of this new form finally comes to life.

I think what they’ve done here is, in the future, going to be remembered as very significant. I’d recommend that all writers of fiction have a good look at the monster Dave Morris has created.

Frankenstein was written by Dave Morris, developed by inkle and published by Profile Books. It (currently) costs £2.99 from the App Store. (Long-term followers of this blog will note that it is another example of a book app appearing in the App Store rather than the iBooks Store, and another example of a developer hoovering up a classic, out of copyright character rather than creating something new.)

Using iBooks Author

I’ve had my head down recently, preparing a series of enhanced ebooks using Apple’s iBooks Author. So, what’s it like?

The key point is that it is very, very easy to use.

‘Very easy’ as in, non-techy publishing people (especially anyone who’s ever done any layout) should be able to pick it up in an afternoon, without any training.

This, ultimately, is both a good and bad thing.

In terms of stability and options, the criticisms that I’m about to make seem harsh in light of this being version 1.0 of a piece of free software. But that said, a few issues are worth mentioning. When a preview sent to the iPad crashes, it does so by closing down in a way that Apple finds elegant – blinking off without any error messages. This leaves you with no clue about where the problem is and no choice but to roll back to an earlier, working saved version and start over.

The software is also designed for reference works – and it shows. Other templates are becoming available, but in general if you’re trying to use it for a non-textbook work (such as the video-heavy pre-school picture books I was making) then you’ve got a fight on your hands. Fortunately though, while the standard widgets can be inflexible, you are free to code your own in Javascript.

This lack of flexibility takes some getting used to. Having planned to spend a day experimenting with different video codecs in order to make the final video as good as possible, it was a shock to discover that there are no options *at all* – there is one export setting in Quicktime that you simply have to use. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on how well you like the performance you are given. The video was actually really good, but some standard image compression (on the tablet itself) was more of a problem – it didn’t suit our style of animation, and there was basically nothing that could be done about it.

Still, all in all it’s a solid piece of software that gives you a temptingly easy and cheap route through production to market. So what’s the problem? It’s more of an idealogical one. The ideal scenario, in which enhanced ebooks need to be developed only once (in the universal epub3 standard) and sold on multiple platforms is getting further and further away. Apple and Amazon are focused on drawing you in to their walled gardens, and iBooks Author is a clear part of that. And ultimately, in the long run, proprietary systems suck big logs.

But what’s the alternative? The standards for making enhanced ebooks are not in question – epub3 is essentially a book-specific wrapping of HTML5, and so coding interactive motion graphics in HTML5 should prove a future-proof way forward. There’s a few HTML5 authoring tools emerging, but the one that I’ve been looking at is Adobe Edge. It’s still in development but I like it a lot. It’s hard, though. It takes some mastering. I speak as someone who uses a lot of Adobe’s CS suite (Premiere, After Effects, Photoshop and Encore in particular) so I’m familiar with their layout and how they like to do things. I’m also someone with *some* knowledge of HTML, CSS and Javascript. Nevertheless, I’m finding mastering something like Edge to be an effort.

It’s worth having a look at a demo video now, in order to get a sense of the thing.

http://tv.adobe.com/embed/763/12336/

It’s quite an eye-opener to go from that to the simplicity of iBooks Author, which ignores HTML5 animation and simply assumes that you wouldn’t want to do anything that fiddly. You can see how, from Apple’s point of view, iBooks Author is a great piece of software. As it makes creating enhanced books so much easier – leaving you with much cheaper development costs – it becomes increasingly tempting to crawl into that walled garden. No matter how less interesting the final results may be, or much you might kick yourself for doing so.

The Numberlys – app review

The Amazing Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, the debut release from Moonbot Studios, was a milestone in book app development. It won numerous ‘Best App of 2011’ awards, and the animation that the short film it was based on received an Oscar nomination yesterday. (You can currently download this for free, BTW).

So what did I do when I wrote about it previously? I moaned. I said it wasn’t actually aimed at children. It was aimed at animation lecturers. What a miserable sod I am! But now Moonbot have released their next app, so I have another chance to marvel at their visuals without being a total Grinch.

This is the Numberlys, a story about how the alphabet was invented by some frustrated number-things:

And the Numberlys is a wonderful app, beautifully created and full of original touches. It’s not wonderful for the audience you would think it is aimed at, admittedly. But for a completely different audience? For them, it is wonderful.

Because you’d think it was aimed at 4-6 year olds, wouldn’t you? Being an ‘alphabet app’ and everything, listed as suitable for ‘4+’? But if you were making something for that audience, you probably wouldn’t do so in black or white. Or, indeed, include no visual imagery that four-year-olds can relate to, or even understand. 1920s German expressionist cinema, modernist architecture, the dehumanising impact of mass production – these are not part of a four-year-old’s life. There is a truly lovely sequence, repeated a number of times, of cogs, pistons and steam funnels. This will be utterly incomprehensible to this audience. They simply won’t understand anything about what they are looking at.

As a tool for teaching the alphabet, it goes against all the educational guidelines you can imagine. All text is shown IN BLOCK CAPITALS THROUGHOUT, for a start. It’s in a lovely art-deco font so it works for visual impact, but this is not how children learn to read. There are no lower case letters in the app at all. When letters are referred to audibly it is always by their names (‘ay’) and not their sounds (‘ah’). Each letter of the alphabet is revealed in order over the course of 20 minutes or so, so it is not trying to teach the order of the letters by repetition.

At one point in the app, it has an intermission. It displays a grey screen and the word INTERMISSION, and plays background music at you until you click past. I was reminded of how Monty Python put an intermission in (I think) the video release of The Holy Grail back in the ’80s, which was very funny in context. The context being, of course, that the audience was old enough to remember a time when intermissions were common in cinemas, and so would recognise it as being out of place in the VHS medium. Four-to-six year olds, however, do not have knowledge of out-of-date cinema practices. Nor can they even read the word INTERMISSION, which is displayed in caps and not spoken aloud.

So, for alphabet-learning children, it’s a total non-starter. But go a bit older than that, say 7-12? Then it’s terrific. The character design and animation are first class, and the characters are totally engaging. The music is even better – there’s an award-worthy musical score if ever I heard one. The imagination on show, the craft, the humour – all wonderful. More importantly, the pacing and the variety of the interactive elements is really well done (there is an interactive element for the creation of each letter in the alphabet. They are too tricky for 4 year olds but perfect for older kids). The ‘comedy German’ voice over – think Borat-style almost-racist – really appeals to this age group. They are also, of course, more comfortable with fantasy worlds that have no elements of their own world to relate to, and so the homage to 1920s German expressionist cinema should not trouble them.

In fact, the app is so perfectly suited to this age group that they will probably overlook the fact that it’s about the alphabet.

Still, you have to wonder. The “who is this for?” conversation – do they not have those at Moonbot?

What would a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ mean for mainstream publishers?

Rumours abound this morning that Apple will announce a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ at their media event on Thursday. These are, of course, just rumours, but they have a certain, inevitable ring to them so let’s run with them for a moment.

Such an announcement seems likely to be couched in terms of the academic textbook market, if only to avoid worrying mainstream publishers who are in dire need of pills for their nerves as it is. “First they came for the academic publishers, but I did not speak out because I’m not an academic publisher…”, etc.  But a simple way for anyone to make epub3 rich-content books? How exactly would that impact on mainstream publishing?

To get some perspective on that, think about this:  Are book apps viewed more as ‘apps’ than ‘books’?

Not so long ago, the Kindle was dismissed as a non-starter because physical books had some qualitative aspect that readers needed – the smell of the paper, the sound of the spine cracking on first opening, the visual impact on a bookshelf and so forth. People simply didn’t want e-readers, it was argued, in much the same way that vinyl was inherently special and so would never be replaced by CD or download.

Sony eBook ReaderBut that was then. Now readers buy more ebooks than physical books (from Amazon, at least). It turns out that readers didn’t love books because of their physical properties, but because of what they contained. And with their entire library now smaller and lighter than a paperback, and with books suddenly cheaper, readers suddenly began to love their Kindles in the same way they had previously loved physical books (something I can readily understand – there is a slight pearlescent sheen to the Sony ereader screen that I find most pleasing.) Serious readers now do much, if not most, of their reading on e-ink devices.

But not on the iPad. It’s not as good for reading as the Kindle. The main argument is that reading a computer screen for long periods will hurt your eyes (I held this view for a while, until I realised that I did actually read a computer screen all day, I just hadn’t noticed.) It is also too heavy and it keeps blacking the screen (both due to battery matters), and it’s hard to read in sunlight. Then there is the constant mental nag to check Twitter or some other distraction while you are reading, and the fact that you can never find the damn thing because your kids have been at it. And why put up with that when the Kindle is so good?

So despite (or maybe because of?) the extra things you can do with a backlit LED or LCD screen, a divide has opened up. E-ink readers are the hardware of choice for lengthy reading and tablets and smartphones are more associated with web browsing and apps. Those book apps that do appear, usually confusingly in the app store rather than iBooks, are either enhanced versions of established classics or short form fiction predominantly aimed at children. Book apps are more ‘apps’ than ‘books’. And by and large publishers seem pretty comfortable about this.

But will mainstream fiction remain apart from the social and visual tricks that epub3 offers? Consider, for example, the iPad version of The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman (disclaimer: this is published by the same imprint that published by Tim Leary biography). (Other disclaimer: it is also extremely short, at 14,000 words, which slightly ruins my argument a little… But ignore the length and lets focus on it as a piece of new contemporary fiction, okay?)

The book itself is fabulous. Here’s a promo vid:

The iBooks version and the Kindle version are the same price, but unlike most contemporary fiction the iBooks version actually makes use of the iPad’s screen. It doesn’t do much. But it does something. And that something is just enough to make the iBooks version a better buy than the Kindle version.

You can see what it does if you download the free sample. There’s an animated title page and animated reveals of the first letter of each chapter. And… well that’s it. As I say, it’s not much, but it is nice and it does give the impression that someone has made an effort, that the book is a little bit special. A little visual flourish between chapters works well because it doesn’t interfere with reading but instead acts as a little reward and gives you a sense of progress, much like a cut-scene in a game. And of course, it’s not hard to do – the lovely line drawings were done for the physical edition, and it doesn’t take that much more effort to play about with them in After Effects.

Here, then, is a simple, effective little addition that makes a piece of contemporary fiction more appealing on a backlit screen than an e-ink screen. If more modern novels do this and do it well, then we would see a shift from the novel being viewed as a static string of text, like a .pdf, into something that takes advantage of epub3 or HTML5. The book app could become more ‘book’ than ‘app’.

But we aren’t seeing that – yet. The Tiny Wife aside, traditional publishers are showing little interest in digital beyond kindle ebooks. The companies that are making book apps, meanwhile, behave and think far more like app companies than book companies, both in their culture (they are far more open than publishers) and their products (which are focused on short experiences).

Yet with a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ available, and assuming Apple are reasonable about distribution (a long shot, I know), it’s easy to imagine epub3 versions of contemporary fiction becoming established on the iPad and Kindle Fire (and normal Kindles, if e-ink develops in the way predicted.)

The question is, then, will these enhanced novels come from the regular publishers, or from elsewhere? That, I think, is a question that only publishers can answer.

Interview with Jos Carlyle, Creative Director of Persian Cat Press

Jos Carlyle is the Creative Director of Persian Cat Press, whose first interactive children’s book The Gift will be arriving in the iTunes store in the very near future.  It looks like this:

I’ve been keeping half an eye on this project for a while, ever since I saw Persian Cat making comments on Twitter about merging interactivity and narrative on Twitter that struck me as pretty astute. I also like the way they have been reviewing and promoting other companies book apps. So I was delighted to get a chance to ask Jos a few questions as she came to the end of the development process to see how she set about creating in this new medium.

What is The Gift about?
The Gift tells the tale of a baby girl who washes ashore at the feet of a boy, and the wise creatures that the boy takes her to in order to work out what it is that she needs.

It’s about how, as parents, we work hard to build a world of protection and stimulation around our children; but that, first and foremost, our children need our love and affection in order to ensure they get the best out of that world.

Did it start life as an existing story which you then made interactive, or was it written specifically to be an interactive story?
The Gift was written specifically for interactive touch screen technology. It was written as a script, with directions for the illustrations and interactions as an integral component throughout.

The interactions I wrote into two categories: those essential to the story’s full realisation, for example you have to touch the rainbow to make it rain so that the baby has water; and those which are non-essential but which help add character to the world in which the story is set.

It’s been very interesting for me to watch people experiencing The Gift on screen for the first time, and to see them following the words of the story almost as if they are instructions as to which touch points they should be looking for. I feel that’s a direct result of The Gift having been written specifically as an interactive story.

Did you have any rules or insights into melding narrative and interactivity? Was the interactivity there to emphasis, punctuate, pace or for exposition, for example?
I’ve been writing stories for a while, including picture books and graphic novels. With these kinds of stories, alongside the actual text, you also have to think about which parts of the story will be told by the illustrations, and how to then convey that to the illustrator so that in the end the story is told completely via the two mediums.

I think this gave me a hugely useful insight into writing interactively. Being already used to working out how to split a story’s telling into words and pictures, it was quite a natural progression to split it further into interactions, movements and sound.

It took me around a year to work out how to write an interactive script before we started work on The Gift – and it’s a skill I’m still honing. I wouldn’t like Persian Cat Press to stand or fall by my writing alone, however, so we’re actively seeking and developing interactive writers all the time.

Are writing skills enough to creatively lead a production like this? Is knowledge of motion graphics/javascript/HTML5 etc important?
I think to creatively lead a high-level iStory production, you really just need to have the kind of mind that can see the overall picture.

Your core individual skill might be anything (writing, operations or design, for example), but ultimately you’re going to need all of those skills and more to realise the project, and that means you’re going to need a team.

So as the lead, you wouldn’t necessarily have to be the writer, you’d just have to be able to understand the writer’s vision and then see an overall picture of how it might be achieved.

What was the budget?
We were lucky with The Gift in being able to call upon the skills of a number of very talented and enthusiastic technical and creative people, locally from the north-west and beyond.

They shared our vision of a beautifully immersive, integrally interactive picture book app, and consequently were prepared to work with us on a cost basis, allowing us to create a high quality product at a very competitive price.

The combined cost of the services we bought in from outside suppliers for The Gift (illustration, narration, score and so on) was just over £30,000 – although that figure doesn’t include overheads such as permanent staff costs.

That we’ve produced an app of the quality of The Gift for such a relatively low price speaks volumes about the skills of our creative and technical network, the focus and commitment of the in-house team, and the strength of the story itself.

The Gift is arriving in the App Store a year after the first draft of the script was finished. What aspect of the production was the most time consuming?
We always knew that the script for The Gift would evolve and change as our knowledge and understanding of the sector and technology grew and matured. In all there were 16 drafts of the script, each one approached with the same attitude as we approached all other aspects of the production – careful, methodical, painstaking and adaptable.

An interactive script has to talk to a lot of people, and probably the most time consuming part of The Gift’s production was the planning and coordination of the several teams and individuals who worked on different aspects of the project simultaneously, many of which were dependent on several other elements of the production being ready in time.

Quality control also. This took up an enormous amount of time. When you’re producing a picture-book app for the age group The Gift is designed for, getting the fine detail right is crucially important. Parents who are prepared to pay for quality expect the very best – and we don’t aim to disappoint.

What are your thoughts on price points?
It’s clear that quality book apps tend to be underpriced when compared to their physical counterparts – especially given the resources involved in the creation of a detailed immersive environment such as The Gift – but we believe the quality of our product will stand us in good stead in the months to come.

We’ve thought long and hard about the price to put on The Gift and believe that we’ve managed to hit the right note with our opening price. We’re offering great value for money, with a beautiful and absorbing interactive experience unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere.

If there was one lesson that you learnt during production that you wish you’d known at the start, what would that be?
The lesson of stages and phasing.

When you’re commissioning high-level original artwork, typography, music and such, you can’t always wait until those elements are complete before you begin to build the framework into which they are to sit. But neither can you deliver bit-parts to your development team and expect the title’s vision to remain true.

The answer is clear stages and phasing. We thought we had a fairly good idea of all the stages there would be in producing a high-level app like The Gift – but there were still more than we anticipated. That lack of knowledge at the start of The Gift cost us time at the end. We have certainly achieved the vision, but its delivery is a little later than planned.

It’s a learning process, however. As a result of making The Gift we’ve worked hard to build stages and phasing processes into the production of our second picture book Owls Don’t Growl, and so far that seems to be working well.

The Gift will be in available in the iTunes store ‘next week’ (no news on pricing yet).

10 Things We’ve Learnt About Book Apps in 2011

New Year is nearly upon us and it’s time to take stock of what we’ve discovered so far. Here’s 10 things I didn’t know about book apps at the start of the year.
iPad Season

1. They are called ‘book apps’.
There have been a lot of differing terms being thrown around to label these strange new forms: iStories, Enhanced ebooks, vooks, animated books, interactive books and so forth. I went for the neutral ‘tablet books’. These clever and considered names fought each other for the hearts and minds of publishers and readers, but while all that was going on people needed something to call them and, like it or not, the term ‘book apps’ was the one that rolled off the tongue.

2. Most lose money.
Blame Angry Birds if you like, but apps are still linked in people’s minds with coining it in. They are like the lottery, in that the hopeful thought ‘I could be rich‘ rings louder than the more honest ‘I am throwing away a lot of my money’. This is useful when getting funding for a startup, but problematic nine months later.

The amount of book apps – particularly children’s book apps – is extraordinary. The problem, however, is that no-one knows they exist. They disappear into the App Store and are never seen again. In terms of which ones do well, quality helps but it is not enough. Marketing and hype currently seem to be more important. Which is no fun.

3. No-one knows what the budget for a book app should be.
Or no-one I’ve spoken to, anyway.

4. No-one knows what they should cost.
The general assumption is that book apps will only sell at low price points – after all, low barriers to entry tends to create a low price, low quality market. Yet the few book apps that apparently make money are often more expensive, such as those from Faber & Faber. So, who knows? Nobody knows anything, as William Goldman concluded about screenwriting, but if a market for £5+ book apps doesn’t emerge, then it could all get a bit grim.

5. Epub3 could make things much better…
…but Apple and Amazon probably won’t allow that. Epub3, finally released a month or so ago, brings a lot more multimedia clout to the .epub format and would lead to book apps coming in from the app store cold and being sold alongside normal ebooks. This would be a very good thing. Unfortunately, Apple and Amazon… are Apple and Amazon. So expect ugly proprietary systems, production workflows for multiple versions and the horror that is iTunes for some time to come.

6. Fiction apps are terrific.
Who would have thought it? Straight fiction seemed the least suitable candidate for a digital makeover and yet the subtle addition of atmosphere through audio and visual design, plus the potential for readings by authors or performers, have been tried and they work really well.

See, for example, Papercut or Dracula.

7. There is a thin line between ‘interactive book’ and ‘crap game’.
On the other hand, despite the assumption that it would be interactivity that would enhance books, it is much harder to find examples where interactivity actually works well – in that it improves the experience. More frequently, it is a distraction, a novelty or a pain in the arse.

This is complicated a little by the huge amount of book apps that are aimed at children, because children just love playing on iPads. It is difficult, in other words, to tell when they are enjoying the content itself, not the act of using the tablet. This is a whole can of worms and should probably be a more detailed post sometime. But for now, the meeting of reading and interactivity is not yet a proven winner.

8. File size could be an issue.
When a 434-line poem becomes a 1GB app, to be stored on a 16GB machine, then you can see file size becoming a barrier. Of course, we’ll eventually move to 4G and cloud storage and so on, so this should sort itself out. But it is worth keeping an eye on in the short to medium term.

9. Non-fiction can work well but…
…it often feels like it should be a website – constantly updating, encyclopedic and allowing comments – and that it only exists as a standalone book app because you can’t really charge money for websites.

10. It’s going to get less experimental from here on in.
Call this more of a hunch, if you like, but I think we’ve reaching that point where it becomes more about refining than inventing. This isn’t a bad thing, for that best stuff is yet to come. But it will be less about being adventurous for the hell of it and more about finding practical, working models.

So, that’s what 2011 had to teach us. 2012 should be interesting, shouldn’t it? All being well, the Kindle Fire will greatly increase the market, and an app-specific work by a major author will grab the attention of the mainstream. So until then – happy new year!

*blows party blower*

SINGAPORE 2011 New Year Countdown :: VECTORAMA Firework ::