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.

Budgets and Pricing of Book Apps

The economic realities of making and selling tablet book apps are currently as vague as Hell. In the absence of any hard figures, though, we have anecdotes, and they tend to be pretty grim.

Ustwo have rather wonderfully been very upfront about their experience with their Nursery Rhymes With Storytime app. It cost £60,000 to develop, they say, sold over 37,000 copies and rose to be the top grossing app in the App Store’s books category. All very impressive, but unfortunately it returned only £24,048 in revenue.

(Of course, as anyone familiar with the UK Children’s market will tell you, Nursery Rhymes don’t work overseas. Sure, there is some overlap with American ‘Mother Goose’ tales and a few of the rhymes are known in a few Commonwealth countries, but they are essentially British, an unusual Victorian invention that romanticises the pre-Victorian era. This is the reason why nobody makes, say, a Humpty Dumpty cartoon series these days. With this in mind, gaining the top spot in the Book App charts is pretty impressive, although of course they may have been referring to a UK-only chart)

But anyway – such anecdotes are backed up by the gist of the talk at MIPJuniour in Cannes last week, where there was much scepticism from publishers about Apps.  Egmont’s Emma Cairns-Smith sums it all up neatly:

With an e-book you can sell it at pretty much the same price as the book, but as soon as you put that on an app you have to sell it at 99p. There are real commercial issues around it. It is far more expensive for us to make an app than an e-book, and yet we can charge far less for it. That’s the conundrum.

What should we make of all this?  It’s true that the user base for tablets is still young and that another good Christmas, plus the arrival of the Kindle Fire, should see a much larger market to sell to.  Of course, as we noted when we discussed the low barriers to entry in this market, that will be matched with far greater competition.

Then there’s the cost of producing these things. They should get cheaper, as off-the-shelf development software arrives.  And yet, and yet… there is a natural tendency to budget-bloat in the creative industries. People resist lower budget productions, as if they believe it negates the value of their work. They are professionals, and big budgets are a sign of status. It’s almost as if creative people judge their own sense of self-worth by the size of the budgets they work with.

I’ve been around a while now, and I’ve seen how this all plays out. In the independent TV boom of the early 90s, the rule was that any company that made one programme but still hired a receptionist would not last the year. Whereas in the first dot com boom of the late 90s, the rule was that any company that had receptionists with Apple Macs would be gone in six months. With all that in mind, take a look at Moonbot Studios, who did the Morris Lessmore app we looked at a while back:

MOONBOT studios Office Tour from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

Damn, there’s a nice place to work, don’t you think? And I’m sure they’ll do brilliant things and have patient backers with very deep pockets. But while it doesn’t bode well for a company to have both a vague business model and a GIANT LAMPSHADE!!!, there doesn’t seem to be a rush to very low budgets happening, especially when you have to compete with such high-profile money-burners as this. Cheap and small, in a global marketplace, will equal invisible. At least, that’s the current thinking.

So what does that leave us with? Well there is the quasi-blasphemous idea of trying to sell apps for a lot more money. Evidence for this comes from Faber’s Waste Land App, which sells for £9.99 and reportedly made its development costs back in six weeks. We should be slightly cautious here; much of the video content for this app came from an old BBC documentary and, given the links between Faber and the Elliot estate, you have to question how much of its research and development costs were hidden.  But even so, it’s still an impressive achievement and supports Faber & Faber’s argument that good stuff is worth the money.

Of course, in this era of 99p ebooks, there’s a lot of disagreement about pricing digital content and the Waste Land example does go against the prevailing tide. To give my own example, I wrote a book called I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary five years ago, and while it does not sell a massive amount, it sells enough to remain in print – a sturdy ol’ backlist title. The ebook was initially priced at £2.99, where it steadily sold a few copies.  Occasionally, however, it goes down to 99p, and the sales figures shoot up like crazy.  Then it goes back to £2.99 and remains steady and unspectacular again. For that reason, it’s just gone back down to 99p.

I’ve tried to work out why this is. As far as I can see, it’s a good book and a total bargain at £2.99.  How can price be that sensitive?  My best guess is this: It’s not how good the book is, it’s how much the book is needed. People do enjoy reading about the life of Timothy Leary, it’s quite a yarn, but they don’t really need to do so. They don’t think that it’s going to affect their Twenty First Century lives a huge amount.

But when a book offers something that people feel they need, then the price point stops being so important. Then they are prepared to pay a tenner for it. The Waste Land app, I would suggest, sells to academics and poetry lovers who feel that they need to understand the poem better, and that if it costs a tenner to do so then so be it.

So for those developing apps, the question isn’t “How can I make this cheaply enough to get my money back?” Instead, the key question should become, “What would make this app sell at a Waste Land price point?” Because all the signs are that the book apps that sell are going to have large budgets, and they will need to be recouped.

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.

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.

Writers, Animators and Morris Lessmore

One of the few certainties in life is that, when an animator is left alone to do their own thing, they will immediately set to work on a dialogue-free short about a lonely man in a room.

It’s not easy to say why this is. Animators have a reputation as solitary creatures, but the ones I know are social butterflies compared to writers and programmers. It may well be that animation is hard, so melancholic pathos seems more appealing when all that is needed is a second of stillness followed by a droop of the eyes.  Whatever the reason, a dialogue-free animation about loneliness can still be a perfectly valid thing.  The opening sections of Up and Wall-E are both variations on this theme, and for me they are my favourite part of those films.

Yet the fact remains that animators’ fondness for this form is noticeably greater than that of audiences. If in doubt, ask a commissiong editor how they react when they hear the phrase “animator’s passion project”.

Which brings us back to The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. As I mentioned in this post here, this animated storybook is let down by a story which I believe I described as “hokey old arse”. It goes like this: Morris Lessmore is a young man who likes order.  Some vague unnamed event happens which turns his life upside down, so he finds solace in reading a book about Humpty Dumpty. He then moves into a library, spends his entire life with books, grows old and dies. The twist at the end is that he had been writing a book himself, about his life, which a little girl finds at the end.  All this is smothered in the message “books are magic” and “everyone is special”, but as each entry in Morris’ book presumably reads “sat alone and read books again today”, it’s possible that the whole thing is essentially sarcastic.

It’s not a story that seems aimed at picture book-age children. There is no antagonist, other than the process of ageing, and the main character is an entirely reactive protagonist that it is hard to care about. There are no jokes. The emotional core, a bitter-sweet meditation on ageing and death, is not something that five-year olds will relate to. The sections about caring and repairing books will reinforce, to a young mind, the idea that books are hard work. There is something to be said for stressing the value of books to that age group, but that is best done by exposing children to good stories rather than bad ones.

So, why was so much work put into bringing that particular story to fruition?  It’s entirely possible that developers Moonbot were being very clever, and that the target audience was never intended to be children. It’s possible that the book exists to make as big a splash for the studio as possible, and that the target audience was always animation lecturers, Apple early-adopters and excitable journalists.

Then again, they may have made the fatal mistake of showing the story to their 5 year old children, asking them what they think, and hence genuinely believe that it’s a story children love.  Children at this age always give the answer that adults want to hear, and it is to the childs great credit how accurately they can deduce what this is. (Rather awkwardly, the only real way you can tell whether a children’s story is a success is to wait thirty years and ask the now-grown reader if they remember it, then watch to see if their face lights up.)

But while Morris Lessmore claims to be a celebration of the magic of stories, it is a celebration of the magic of images. And that is no bad thing. It is an “animator’s narrative”, where a string of lovely, striking, memorable images are strung together and called a story. Look at the care and craftsmanship that has gone into the visual side of Morris Lessmore:

The Making Of Morris: Part 2 (Animation We Cherish) from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

Now – all this raises an interesting point about the current state of tablet books.

If you look at who is working in the medium of tablet books, then you’ll see that illustrators and animators are doing themselves proud.  Also present and correct are coders, digital developers and eager start-up businessmen. All these people have stepped up, experiemented and are trying new things.  What you won’t find are that many established writers. Indeed, looking at most of the tablet books I’ll be talking about over the next few weeks, the majority are adaptations of existing printed text.

Why is this? Writers are usually quick to sniff out a chance of an audience.  They have been quick to embrace Kindle self publishing and experiment with Twitter novels, but there is a noticeable lack of writers writing specifically for tablet books.  In part, this may be due to a lack of contacts or programming skills. Digital developers tend to work more closely with illustrators than writers.

But it may also be because writers do not yet see any potential in the format, or see how a tablet book could be a better narrative than a normal one. And if this is the case, then it could be a serious issue.

Because if tablet books are to prosper, they will need writers to take the lead.

Pricing, iBooks and Chaos: The Enhanced Edition

I’m currently reading the ‘enhanced edition’ of James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of a New Science.  This is version of the popular science classic that, basically, has had some videos stuck in it.  This is the first, which serves as an introduction:

As you can see, it’s very nicely done.  I’ll talk about it properly once I’ve finished reading it, but for now I’ll just say that its a great book and one that lends itself well to added video content.

But if the product is sound, how commercially successful has it been? Chaos: The Enhanced Edition is only available through Apple’s iBookstore (as opposed to the App Store, where most books mentioned on this blog come from). It was released back in March, and I can remember a lot of coverage on blogs like Boing Boing at the time, so it was promoted reasonably well. I do not have access to any sales figures, but looking at the iBooks it still hasn’t been rated by anyone, let alone reviewed, which doesn’t imply the sort of success that it deserves. The non-enhanced version – the regular ebook – does have a review, and there are many, many reviews of the (non-enhanced) Kindle version over at Amazon.

Gaining any non-agenda data about iBookstore sales is a bit of challenge. There is the suspicion, though, that a sizeable proportion of those who read on iPads read Kindle books rather than buy iBooks. The reading experience of iBooks is good, but ultimately the smaller range and higher prices of the iBookstore has sent people to Kindle – along with, I suspect, a sense that Kindle books are more future proof and will remain accessible from more devices. Apple are ultimately more of a “you must do it our way” company than Amazon. It may well be that there is – and there will remain – noticeable less ‘footfall’ in the iBookstore than the App store.

That said, there is a noticeable pricing issue here.  The enhanced version, with the video, is £11.99.  Next to it in the iBookstore is the non-enhanced version at £6.99. Meanwhile, Amazon will sell it to you in Kindle format for £6.50 and in paperback for £6.84. The video enhancements, then, nearly double the cost.

So The Enhanced Edition has been priced – relative to the non-enhanced version – as a premium product. Looking at the high prices of audiobooks implies that there is an audience of book-lovers who will pay premium prices – the audiobook for the last Harry Potter, for example, cost 75 quid. But tablet books are not a nicely-packaged physical product. They are digital. And all implications are that there is a psychological issue about paying premium prices for digital content. It may well be that the price of Chaos: The Enhanced Edition is a real problem.

The thing is though, £12.99 isn’t that much for a book. Most readers will have spent that for a physical book, and thought nothing of it. For a good book that gives 40+ hours of pleasure, it’s a bargain.

But if £12.99 does prove too much for a tablet book, or if iBooks-only availabilty does prove to be limiting, then the budget for producing them is going to be a real issue.