Computer ArtsOpinion

It’s a book… or is it?

Books are changing, and the publishing world itself is taking on a new form where designers, animators and technologists will be essential, says Sophie Rochester

“It’s a book!” shout my kids, as we read one of our favourite bedtime stories – a beautifully illustrated tale by Lane Smith where a book-loving ape has to tell an IT-savvy donkey exactly what a book is, patiently explaining to the donkey that it can’t pinch and scroll the pages. Our understanding of what a ‘book’ is, however, is changing rapidly in the digital era – especially for the next generation.

The transition from book to eBook has been relatively easy to grasp. eBook readers offer a literal translation of turning the pages on a simple digital device. When the iPad launched in 2009, however, a plethora of publishers and developers began experimenting with book content in the app space. These so-called ‘coffee table’ apps re-imagine the book in new multimedia formats, but they’re only one part of the story.

Touch Press and Faber’s early collaboration on the Solar System iPad app saw best-selling author Marcus Chown taking the user, or reader, on a tour of our cosmic backyard, with more than 150 pages made of beautiful interactive scenes, 3D objects and videos. Many asked if this was a multimedia project with book content, or a digital book with multimedia content. The same collaborators later released TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ for iPad, which might be more comfortably described as a ‘book’. Even with a wealth of interactive features, the text, and its various interpretations, is so central to the app. Interestingly, Touch Press has always described its projects as ‘books’.

This summer, Heuristic’s award-winning London: A City Through Time iPad app challenged our interpretation of ‘book’, taking Pan Macmillan’s The London Encyclopedia as its base and throwing in a three-tiered timeline, panoramas of the city, audio tours, rare photographs and amazing video documentaries. The challenge for the designers and developers involved in the project was ensuring readers could easily find their way through all the content.

In the children’s market particularly, the lines between ‘book’ and ‘game’ are blurring. New publishers like Nosy Crow and Me Books have worked hard to create digital books that get children to simultaneously read, play and learn. A new range of ‘storyworlds’ is being created for kids with publishers trying hard to adopt a Moshi Monster approach to try to engage children with the story.

Debate over the future of the book was raised again in the summer with the Fifty Shades phenomenon, but in fact the discussion has been going on for decades. In 1993, author Douglas Adams (the first person to buy a Macintosh in the UK), said prophetically: “All the things anybody liked about previous types of books – pictures, text, scrolling, page turning – could be modelled in software and you could take as many books as you wanted, anywhere you liked.”

New book formats have become part of our reading lives, and are simultaneously creating opportunities and challenges to the publishing industry. Publishers are faced with the choice of bringing the skillset of developers, interactive designers and animators in-house, or outsourcing this expertise. How readers find these new book products creates another set of complications. With so many apps in the App Store, how can publishers ensure their wares stand out? And, when you’re marketing a multimedia app at £9.99, how do you justify the price to consumers when so many other apps are only 69p? There is so much competition that outstanding design and thoughtful user experience are more essential than ever.

So, what can we expect to see in 2013? It’s likely that the continued convergence of media will see a new breed of publishers and publishing emerging.

The merger between Penguin and Random House will no doubt create a superpower publisher, but innovative publishing models are certain to challenge the traditional ones. Companies like And Other Stories and Unbound are already using technology to form democratic and crowd-sourced input into the publishing process.

In 2013 we’re likely to see much more experimental participation from the writers themselves, and we expect to see many more teaming up directly with technologists to create new kinds of work. With highbrow, prize-winning literary authors like Margaret Atwood experimenting on fan-fiction writing platforms like Wattpad, the floodgate of writers looking to explore this new digital world is opening.

Authors will want to collaborate directly with designers, animators and technologists, and vice versa. And we’ll see many projects initiated by designers, animators and technologists bringing their creative instincts and experience to the storytelling arena. These innovative approaches to content are what we’ll be looking to cover with the most interest through 2013.
 

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