Papercut

Papercut is a really interesting book app from ustwo that arrived last week in a nice little burst of publicity.

Have a watch of this:

Okay, elephant in the room first. There is a man in that video called Chief Wonka who sports a handsome beard/yellow glasses/string of pearls ensemble.

How you react to this says a lot about the background you bring to book apps. For traditional publishers, the sight of Chief Wonka creates a strange, unpleasant reaction that incorporates elements of both despair and anger. For digital media professionals there is also a strong reaction, but one that includes a jealous tinge associated with an understanding of personal brand projection.

These differing reactions stake out an unmapped no-man’s-land, and this is the land where the culture of book apps will grow.

But back to Papercut. If you need to, watch the video again and don’t be distracted by Chief Wonka. Because what they are saying is really interesting, even though what they are saying does seem to be completely contradicted by the shots of the app itself. They talk very astutely about focusing on the experience of reading, with the extra sound and visual elements being registered almost subconsciously.  Yet at the same time, they show screens with the tiny text shoved in the corner WHILE THE REST OF THE SCREEN FRANTICALLY SHOUTS AT YOU AND DEMANDS ATTENTION. Anyone who has ever attempted to read a book with small children in the room will know this isn’t a winner.

There are three short stories in the app, all with a very different visual presentation. The text is reduced to around 20% of the screen size, which needs constant manual scrolling. This can give the impression that the product was designed by people who either don’t like the sight of the written word, or fear that a modern audience won’t like it. It’s more likely, I suspect, that this was done in an effort to control the triggering of motion graphics more precisely. The smaller text window narrows down the area where the reader’s attention is focused significantly.

The visual effects unfurl alongside the text and so are controlled by the speed you move the text. Sometimes it can be very effective, as when the words ‘The Fall’ slowly form across the top of the screen as the narrative heads towards a turning point. There are times when it seems to go against the aims of the author, however, as when text painting life in an inner-city London community is accompanied by the slow appearance of what appears to be a white picket fence.

Each story has another odd feature, in that whilst most of the story is presented as text, certain sections are not shown on screen but read aloud by the author. The sound of the author’s voice is definitely a strength of book apps, but the way it is implemented here means that you are dumped into a passive, listening moment during an otherwise active experience of scrolling and reading. Those familiar with unexpected game cutscenes will know how this jars.

So – what is the overall effect of this ‘enhanced reading experience’ like? Well, this is where it gets interesting. There are three short stories here. I found one to be wonderful and complete, and the other two interesting but ultimately a little aimless. It doesn’t matter which was which, for you would no doubt think otherwise. But what is interesting is that when a story grabs you, the enhanced extras become really effective and do work on this near-subconscious level, drawing you deeper into it. It is only when the story hasn’t got you  truly absorbed that the extras become distracting and throw you further from the text.

Or more simply, an ‘enhanced reading experience’ such as this improves fiction you like, but worsens fiction that you don’t.

Which is an interesting result, and not one that I was expecting. Ultimately it should help good writers build a more engaged audience, whilst helping the good writers stand out from the also-rans. And that has to be a good thing for writers, publishers and readers, does it not?

There are number of other good things about this app that are worth mentioning.  The sound design is good, and in places very good.  The decision to team up with short story specialists Shortfire Press makes a lot of sense. The app is sensibly priced and plans to license the system to traditional publishers looks promising.  Perhaps more importantly, there’s the fact that it exists. It’s bold and clearly experimental, and we can all learn a lot from looking at it.  So, if you haven’t tried it out, I would recommend you do so soon.

For those who still haven’t got over Chief Wonka, however, you may be interested in this other promotional video, the start of which is happy to suggest, with a straight face, that Papercut is the culmination of over 10,000 years of human cultural progress.

Dracula

Dracula: The Official Stoker Family Edition is the book app which makes a convincing case for book apps having a significant role in the future of fiction.

Why is this?  Well, what it adds to the text doesn’t detract from the experience of reading the novel. You become absorbed by the book without being distracted by novelty interaction or the sense of wrestling with software.

Instead, it adds atmosphere.

Here’s a video to give you a sense of the thing:

The novel, of course, is told through a series of letters, journal entries, newspaper clippings and so forth. These have been recreated visually in a period style which immediately sets the scene nicely (the text is abridged, but sensibly so). Then there ambient audio effects – howling wolves, creaking ships timbers, fluttering bat wings, gothic music and so forth.

Sometimes it is just the little things that have the most impact. A personal favourite was early in the book, when a shadow passed across the page. Make no mistake, when you are absorbed in the text, things like this can be very effective.

The choice of book lends itself well to little tricks like this. The atmosphere of Dracula is so vivid that the app can evoke it precisely, especially in the early Transylvanian section. If you’ve ever had to write the story for a videogame, you’ll know that you’re stuck with a limited emotional pallet – ‘fear’ and ‘excitement’ are the only emotions that videogames seem able to create with any regularity. It may be that gothic horror is a genre that works particularly well for long-form book apps, but my hunch is that the approach Padworx take here will work for other genres.

There is at least one full-page piece of artwork in each chapter, and the balance of art to pages of text worked well. Visually, the art is in a comic book style that reminds me of 16-bit computers like the Atari ST or the Amiga. This has a certain nostalgic appeal for me, but I can see that it might not be to all tastes and that something a bit more photoreal might have been a better way to go.

There are occasions where the illustrations contradict the text, and this does break the spell a little.  The Count, for example, is described in text as having a white mustache and then illustrated clean-shaven.

Importantly, working the thing is completely intuitive. There’s consistent back and forth arrows to turn each page, plus an icon that calls up the menu. There’s just one extra thing to remember, whenever something is blood-red you can tap it to trigger some visual event.  This is all nice and clear and you are never in the position of worrying if there’s something you’re supposed to be doing, instead of being focused on the text. This might seem so obvious that it’s hardly worth mentioning, but there are many book apps that have yet to master it.

The app seems to be coded using a game engine of some kind. Some objects, such as a lantern that swings when you tilt the pad, are 3D models casting real-time shadows. Letters can be moved around, matches held to read letters, leaves brushed off gravestones and so on. I’m not sure if this is an off-the-shelf engine or some proprietary system, but it seems well suited to book apps like this. The whole ‘less is more’ thing is still blasphemous to many developers.

There are a bunch of extra features – hidden easter eggs to find (including the entire 1922 Nosferatu movie), forums, songs between each chapter and so forth.  These are nice to have and give the impression of a quality product for your £2.99. But it isn’t these that make Dracula such a success.  It is the reading experience itself.

And that, I think, has to bode well for tablet books in general.  And maybe even for fiction itself.

Animated Picture Books and Low Barriers to Entry

There are an awful lot of tablet books for children out there.

You don’t notice at first, with the layout of the App store being what it is, but the more you dig the more you find. And this is early days. Of all the problems that we’ll face in the 21st Century, a shortage of interactive picture book apps is not going to be one. There are tonnes of the buggers.

Why is this?  Well, picture books are well suited to the woozy and undefined form of tablet books.  They are short, for one thing, and have a strong visual element, so on those levels this flood of production makes sense.

But there are other reasons why they are so common. There is a common misperception that writing children’s books is easy – or, at the very least, easier than writing a proper adult book with a formidable word count. Traditionally, the job of filtering all the crud has fallen on the shoulders of children’s publishers. This is a highly specialised skill. It takes many years of experience to gain enough insight to understand why one particular story about a lost bear, for example, is qualitatively better than the previous forty stories about lost bears.

If you can forgive me generalising for a moment – and gereralising is useful, generally speaking – writers of young children’s books seldom have this strange insight.  They often take the view that all the publishers who rejected their creations are damned fools who are throwing away a fortune.

Those of a determined frame of mind then experiment with self-publishing or try to sell their ideas to animation companies. As someone at an animation company who reads their letters, I feel I can say with some authority that there is a lot of half-arsed guff around.  As a general rule, the worst ideas feature a group of five household objects – buckets, for example, or clothes pegs – that have had faces drawn on them and will somehow get into hilarious adventures. It is also striking how many different people push exactly the same idea. How many people have dreamt up a school for superheroes? It is impossible to count. It is even more, if that is possible, than those who came up with a team of vegetable-based characters who promote healthy eating by battling fatty foods.

With tablet book apps though, there are no gatekeepers who will prevent all these picture books from reaching the market. As an economist would put it, the barriers to entry are low, which leads to low profit margins and lower-quality products.  There will be a lot of crap out there, in other words, and this will dilute the market and make it harder to sell anything.  And the barriers to entry will only get lower, as off-the-peg software emerges to make creating apps get easier.

What are the implications of this? Well, it means that tablet books shouldn’t be seen as a brave new frontier, where the old rules don’t apply and the new rules have yet to be written. Tablet books suffer from all the same problems that are terrorising all the existing forms of media.  They are competing on a global stage, attempting to attract an audience who are so time-poor and bombarded with choice that they increasingly retreat to the safety of old, established brands and characters.

This is not really a context that you can safely ignore, so I’ll be keeping it in mind when I look at a few examples of these picture book apps soon.

(Creative Commons image by Wayan Vota)

First thoughts on the Kindle Tablet.

The first concrete reports about the long-rumoured Amazon Kindle Tablet have surfaced – MG Siegler’s post on Techcrunch is particularly informative, and there’s another good Techcrunch post that I’ve nicked this mockup from.  But in short, its smaller and lighter than an iPad, doesn’t have a camera, and is half the price at $250. It will be available before Christmas (in the US at least) and it will, I think, be a very big deal.

Initial comments are focusing on the relatively low specs compared to other tablets, and the decision to branch Android so completely that it’s almost like a different OS. There’ll be no access to Google’s Android marketplace at all.  Everything, including the app market, will be Amazon.

This, though, is why I think it will be massive.  Amazon’s strengths are the trust they have with their customers and their understanding of the importance of pricing. As much as I wish that the standard for ebooks had become non-DRM epubs that could be produced and sold by anyone, the sad fact is that Amazon won that battle. The only ebooks that sell in significant quantities are Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format, and they can only be sold by Amazon.

Now – if this different Android OS does mean creating different apps for different Android tablets, I think those who make tablet book apps will code for Amazon first. A ‘Google marketplace flavour’ conversion will be viewed as optional, and dependent on cost. (Apple will still do everything it can, I think it is safe to say, to make the production of separate Android and iOS apps as awkward as possible.)

Why do I think this?  Well, it’s Amazon.  Amazon are very easy to underestimate, as those who dismissed the Kindle will know. Amazon started a war with the publishing industry, and it won.  True, the publishing industry failed to turn up, or even notice, but that doesn’t change what happened.  And what happened is very instructive.

Once upon a time, publishers were the gate keepers between readers and authors, and all was well with the world.  All authors had to do was write.  The publishers took care of selection, distribution, marketing, editing, proofing, design and production, and this justified their position and their long lunches.  Publishing had a high barrier to entry, so things looked secure.  In time, publishers gradually pushed much of the marketing responsibility onto authors, meaning that they had to both write and establish themselves as some form of ‘brand’, but things still looked secure for publishers.

Then came Amazon, undercutting the high street and giving the reader all the ‘long tail’ titles they couldn’t find in shops. This initially seemed great for publishers, but the cost was the collapse of much of their distribution chain when the high street book shops started to disappear. And then came Kindle, which removed the problem of production and let the market handle the tricky ‘selection’ part of publishing.  What, then, had publishers to offer in order to justify their role as middle men and gatekeepers?  All that remained of that original list was proofing and design, and those could easily be outsourced to independent illustrators and editors.  Suddenly, all publishers had to offer was credibility, and not all writers needed that. Then, and only then, Amazon began relationships with authors and stated to publish themselves.

Publishers are now adapting like crazy. They still have a future, of course, but even the most optimistic will admit that their future will be very different to their past.

And how did Amazon win this silent war?  Because of their relationship with the customers, and their understanding of the importance of price. Time and time again they gave us punters what we wanted, cheaper than anywhere else, quickly and without fuss. They earnt our trust, to the extent that ‘looking on Amazon’ is something that now automatically follows the emergence of the thought in our heads that we’d quite like to buy a book.

How will the market for tablet books change now that Amazon are joining in? It is easy to imagine examples where Amazon would behave differently to Apple.  Consider Apple’s announcement that they’d be taking 30% of the price of in-app purchases, for example.  We don’t know what Amazon will do here, but if they don’t help themselves to such a chunk, or if they take significantly less, then all the extra magazines, comics and other content sold in-app will be noticeably cheaper on Amazon than on Apple.

Consider also the messy way that most (but not all) Apple tablet books are sold as apps rather than iBooks. Will Amazon find a more elegant way to organise everything, and help us find them in its store?  We’re just guessing at this stage, but past performance suggests that they’ll do better than the mess that is iTunes.  Amazon know how to help us shop.

Apple, of course, have a powerful glamour – in both the modern and the occult meanings of that world.  It did look like they had the tablet book market sewn up, and that all tablet books would need to be coded for iOS.  But given a Kindle tablet at $250, we now have a genuine competitor.  With Apple and Amazon being the type of companies that they are, is that a good thing?  Only time will tell, but until then, I for one welcome our new Amazonian overlords.

The Waste Land App

The Waste Land app is really good.

This app is Faber & Faber’s love letter to T.S. Elliot’s bewildering death-soaked modernist poem. What, you might wonder, could they do to convince people to pay £9.99 for a 400+ line poem you can easily read for free online?

The answer is pretty much everything. There’s the text, of course, and scans of the original manuscripts. There’s 6 different readings from the likes of Alec Guiness, Ted Hughes and Elliot himself. There’s extensive notes, photographs, and video interviews with wise folk including Seamus Heaney and Jeanette Winterson. Best of all, there’s video of a terrific performance of the poem by Fiona Shaw.  It’s an impressive haul, even if much of it is plundered from a 2009 BBC Arena documentary. Here’s a video from the developers Touch Press to explain it all

(warning: goes on a bit.)

What we have, essentially, is the ‘DVD extras’ model of a tablet book – there’s the central piece of work plus a variety of added extras that aim to shed light on the work itself. It’s an approach that seems ideal for wilfully obscure modernist poems.

But what works really well here, and what justifies the price tag, is how well those extras are integrated with the text itself. Tapping on individual lines snaps the reading or performance to those words. Highlighting an explanatory note on the poem highlights the text concerned.  The overriding experience of engaging with The Waste Land is the challenge of getting to grips with it, and these extra features are perfectly aligned with that. The result is an app that seems more than the sum of its parts.  It understands that you are wrestling with the text, and it is basically designed to help you in any way it can.

I first read this poem about two years ago. I have no real education in English literature, but I am engaged in a doomed ongoing attempt to make sense of the early 20th Century.  Occasionally I expose myself to modernist works and try to understand that insane leap from the Victorian mind to that of the ‘Modern’. When I first read the text I was intrigued, but I didn’t understand it.  Having explored the app at length, I still don’t understand it. But I feel that I fail to understand it at a far deeper level than before.  This is, as I’m sure you’ll agree, a significant step.

What, though, does this app tell us about the emerging world of tablet books?

Well, the amount of video mounts up.  This app is nearly 1GB in size and, whilst I appreciate Moore’s Law, in a world of 16GB iPads that is an issue.  You’re not going to have a whole library of these things.  And most of the video, in the ‘Perspectives’ section, is at a tiny resolution in a little box – it’s only Fiona Shaw’s performance that is full screen quality.

There are a few niggles with the developers getting carried away with rotating the iPad as a form of function selection – something that is never intuitive. Should you be watching the ‘Perspective’ videos and turn the screen to see what happens, you’ll lose the video and turning the tablet won’t bring it back – you’ll need to return to the main menu and select it again.  But as I say, these are niggles rather than serious problems.

It’s another app based on a short, pre-existing ‘classic’ text – we’ll see this cropping up quite a lot as we talk about other tablet books.

Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of this app is Fiona Shaw’s performance of the poem. It’s really good.  Where Viggo Mortensen’s reading, for example, suggests that he understands the poem about as well as I do, Fiona Shaw is clearly in a different league. She gets it, and watching her convinces you that the poem is worth the effort.

This raises the idea of author performance as part of tablet books. In a world where literary festivals and author readings are growing in popularity as publishers decline, it’s easy to imagine how video performances of author readings, integrated with the text in this manner, could be a big draw.

It will be interesting to see if any authors explore this route – or if the filesizes needed for lengthy video will prove to be a real problem.