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.

Bugger on the Inside: the Doctor Who Encyclopedia

Fresh from the BBC and developers Brandwidth comes an iPad version of Gary Russell’s Doctor Who Encyclopedia. ITunes have made it App of the Week and there are lots of delighted Whovians eagerly downloading it. This is what it looks like:

What we have here is, once again, an existing book that has been converted into an app. There’s no question marks over the original book – if you want an encyclopedia dedicated to 21st Century Doctor Who, then you’ll not be disappointed with this huge brick of a book. What concerns us more here is how the book has been converted.

There’s no extra content – no audio or video (bar links to previewing episodes in the iTunes store, and a few sound effects). What you have here is the text and photos of a searchable encyclopedia, plus a few visual tricks to arrange the most popular subjects (Daleks, Cybermen, Amy Pond etc) in little visual galleries. The default navigation of the ‘Doctor’ gallery, for example, requires you to move or tilt the iPad itself left or right to scroll through the characters. I switched it off immediately on the grounds that it’s totally unusable, but my 8 year old son thought it was great fun. Before switching it off a minute or two later on the grounds that it’s totally unusable.

Pricing is… interesting. The App costs £4.99 but only includes the 11th Doctor entries. Should you click on an entry related to earlier series, you get a beg page asking for more money. The entries for the 9th and 10th Doctors cost a further £4.99 each, bringing the total to £14.97, or noticeably more than the weighty physical edition (which is currently £12.50 on Amazon). Presumably this will also allow the app to download future updates about future series, which would be a big plus, but the idea of a virtual edition costing more than a physical one is always a knee-jerk issue – as anyone who has tried to buy ePub ebooks will testify. So does the experience of using the app edition offer anything more than the physical edition, to justify this extra cost?

The answer is yes – but only just.

We’re all familiar with falling into a Wikipedia hole – we start looking something up, follow another link, see something else interesting and get distracted… until suddenly an hour has past and we are far from where we started, and we know far more about the illnesses of dolphins and 18th Century politics than we did before.

This doesn’t happen with a standard encyclopedia. While they have an index and are all in neat alphabetical order (and searchable, in the case of the app), the act of looking something up is sufficiently more complex than just clicking the link in front of us – a link that guarentees that there’s an article on that subject, right there, just click and you’ll see it… Because of this seemingly small detail, we use these reference works in a completely different way.  We don’t follow trains of references but flick through the pages (or scroll down the index) instead, until we see something that takes our interest – something unrelated to the initial search. Which is all well and good, but Wikipedia is noticeably more of timesuck than physical encyclopedias.

So the simple act of adding hyperlinks makes an app reference work qualitatively different than a paper version. And they have been implemented here, but in an odd way.

The text of the entries is always restricted to a small narrow column, even when the app has nothing else to fill the screen with bar the book’s cover. The text is small and strangely devoid of paragraph breaks, and it doesn’t actually have hyperlinks in it.  Instead, you press a ‘connections’ tab at the bottom of the screen to call up a list of linked topics, which have (a little pointlessly) been put into categories. You can’t leave this ‘Connections’ list up permanently, because once you click on an entry that comes with a photograph, it goes away again.

It may seem a small thing, for all the functionality of a hyperlinked reference work is there, but the implementation stops you using it like one. If they had added the hyperlinks to the text – along with a few paragraph breaks – then it would be a lot easier to spend hours getting lost in there. The scrolling parallax galleries are all well and good, but in a reference work like this, getting the presentation of the text right should have been more important.

Still – that gripe aside – ultimately content is king and this encyclopedia is crazily detailed.  And if they release an update for 20th Century Doctor Who as well, I’ll even forgive them about the paragraph breaks.

Chaos: The Enhanced Edition – review

A few weeks ago I mentioned the enhanced edition of Chaos: The Making of a New Science by James Gleick.

Now, I love the original book. I first read it back in 1989, I think. That was a paperback, which I picked up because it had the following quote from Douglas Adams on the front:

“An awe-inpiring book.  Reading Chaos gave me the sensation that someone had just found the light switch”

That sums it up very well.  I’ve no desire to get all stern-faced and pompous here, but that book changed my understanding of how the world works. It still amazes me how many supposed experts – I’m looking at you, economic pundits of the past few years – still don’t understand what this book has to say. I think it’s a terrible thing that chaos is not taught as part of high school maths.  Chaos, in other words, gets the thumbs up from me. It’s a great book.

But how well has it been ‘enhanced’?  You may remember from my previous post that the book begins with this impressive little video:

Pretty nice, huh?  But how much video is there in the rest of the book, and how does it ‘enhance’ the text?

Well, there are just six more videos throughout the remaining 380 pages (paperback equivalent), each on average less than a minute long.

As you’ve paid a fiver extra to get this video (£11.99 versus the £6.99 ‘non-enhanced’ version in the iBookstore), that’s pretty rubbish.

Each of these videos explains a different concept with motion graphics and a voiceover. The script of the voiceover is largely taken from the main text, so it’s either what you’ve just read or what you’re just about to read. The effect of this is to highlight how these 6 videos have just been slapped on top of an existing product, rather than integrated more fully into it.

This is a real shame because this book should really benefit from the relevant speeds of video and text in communicating information. In some (possibly most) circumstances video is the slower medium, hence we expect film adaptations to cut out large chunks of the novels they are based on. In this subject, though, video can get concepts such as the Mandlebrot set across far quicker than prose.  But this benefit is lost, though, when video is just sprinkled on top of the text, and the text is still expected to do the heavy lifting. The text never discusses the videos that the reader has just been shown, or even acknowledges that they exist.

Indeed, in the original paper version there were some colour plates in the middle which contained a series of stills of images taken from a movie of the Mandlebrot set. Bizarrely, those stills are still included here, and they are still in the middle of the book. No effort has been made to move them to a more suitable part of the text or make them relevant to the new format. It’s as clear an indication as any as to how cosmetic the ‘enhancements’ are.

What we learn from this enhanced edition is that, if we’re to add video to non-fiction, then the text needs to be written around the video as much as the video needs to support the text. This will no doubt give publishers a hot flush, for we’re talking about a different version of the text to the non-enhanced version.

But there is an existing model that might be useful to think about here. Consider the tie-in book for a large budget television series. I’m talking about the type of documentary series where Prof. Brian Cox enigmatically stands alone among 1080p mountains whilst the Cosmos explodes above him – you know the sort of thing. Both the series and the book contain the same information (more or less). But the book does not contain the documentary script, nor does Prof Cox stand on his mountain and read out the book. The research that went into that series has been written up twice, and shaped for each of the different media.

Enhanced non-fiction book apps that contain video (and ideally, interactive elements to play with, something that would have been very welcome here) are going to be prestige, big budget productions. They are most likely going to be linked to big names and television exposure. We can imagine how the research and filming of these big BBC or Discovery series could be used to create three separate versions – the TV series, the tie-in book, and the book app. Each would get the same information across according to the strengths of their own media.

In this scenario, enhanced books are going to be very rewarding. It is possible to imagine how the enhanced book app would be the premier version, combining the strengths of both the TV series and the book with interactivity.  That, I think, is going to be where these are heading.

As for Gleick’s Chaos, it’s still as brilliant as it ever was. But the enhanced version is no more brilliant than the non-enhanced version and, unless the price difference is removed, I have to say that the normal version is the better buy.