The Digital Reading Experience: Enhanced Ebooks, Apps and Multimedia

Publishers must surely be focussing on the predictions coming out of the US that 25-50% of market share will be digital by 2015. Or a survey of a number of industry leaders last year at The Frankfurt Book Fair that said Digital will overtake print by 2018. That’s a huge shift in your output to manage in a 5 year period and not having a strong digital strategy is no longer an option.

For Publishers this means a whole new set of skills to build up in-house OR a new set of suppliers to develop the skills in dealing with. It’s not just straight conversions – it’s all the multi-media content now being experimented with. When we look at the creation of something like ‘Alice on the iPad’, futurist Mike Walsh said:

“(Alice).. was more than just a book on a tablet – it was an entirely new form of content that tapped into the inherent strengths of a new medium.”

“…creating a book in the future will be closer to producing a movie or a video game. You will need a team handling visual production, application development, mobile distribution, and social awareness. The simple days of a writer, an editor and a royalty contract are almost at an end. “

Perhaps for the larger conglomerates they have the ability to work with others within their group internationally and source those skills. For instance Random House being part of the Bertelsmann media empire has the ability access information and work together on cross-media projects.

Books, Movies, Games and all the rest…

Random House US and Focus Features announced a partnership called Random House Films in 2005 to make books into movies. Although Reservation Road wasn’t a hit, it was a start… The most recent project I’ve heard about is The Tiger from John Vaillant’s upcoming nonfiction book The Tiger: A True Story Of Vengeance And Survival.

Interestingly enough they also are  “currently developing a division responsible for creating story content for media including video games, social networks on the web, mobile platforms, in print and on film” as mentioned in Wikipedia. LOTS of fingers in LOTS of pies! They are certainly gaining a range of skills to manage any media project across any medium.

In setting up a team to work on stories for this market they are obviously watching the success of the video games business and the increasing need for good storylines to support the fantastic graphics and intricate gaming. Working with software developer Stardock Corp. on the launch of their strategy game “Elemental: War of Magic” they enabled both the development of the game, and the publishing of a novel.

 The President & CEO of Stardock Brad Wardell had been working on a planned trilogy of books for over a decade but decided it was perfect for a fantasy strategy game – and then got the bonus of Random House also publishing a book based on the Elemental Universe! In a nice mix of digital marketing and publishing focus, those people who bought the book also got an extra campaign to play. As a good publicity tool, when you are in the game, especially when in the multiplayer mode you can invite your Facebook friends to join in.

(With full disclosure I must admit that I DO NOT GAME! Therefore my understanding of fantasy strategy games is zero so please forgive any obvious mistakes when describing the game! A lot of the information I gleaned was from this interview with Brad Wardell. )

14/09/10: Random House Children’s Books Inks Digital Pact with Smashing Ideas

Just read this post about Random House working with Smashing Ideas to create apps for mobiles based on their childrens titles. Hats off to them, they really are watching the market and setting the lead.

Enhanced eBooks and Apps

The reason that gaining skills in a multitude of media areas will become more important is watching the development of enhanced ebooks. Publishers are experimenting with a variety of media added to books to ‘enhance’ the reader experience. These may be videos, connecting to social networking to share experience with other readers, music and author interviews or author narrating. Penguin has done this – and it was interesting to read a debate at Publishers Weekly about if these extras actually add or detract from the reading experience!

Of course a number of others have all leapt into this space before and after Penguin. Before I’d actually experienced an ‘enhanced ebook’ I was wildly enthusiastic, thinking of it as the difference between a video and the DVD – with the DVD having outtakes or bloopers, the director or actors talking, behind the scenes information. I thought THIS is what we want! Something more than just the straight text presented in a digital format! The reality is that in fact if I’m reading fiction I just want to read fiction. And I mainly read fiction and don’t want to be diverted as a general rule but then again, there are always exceptions!

When I read about Vook  pre-launch I was really excited… but on purchasing a fiction title found that the videos presented to immerse me in the story really didn’t work. I just wanted to read. But I fully accept that if I’d purchased a non-fiction title on health, fitness of cookery then the videos would be a perfect richer experience that assisted me in my desired outcome. It’s been fiery debated about reading as an immersive experience and generally I’d support that.

I don’t want to ignite the whole discussion about what is an app (application) and what is an ebook. This is a fair debate  as the experiences are so varied it’s very hard to compare them. For this post I’ve lumped them into thoughts about ‘the digital reading experience’ and I’m hoping that allows me to dodge the issue that way!

When it comes to a few examples of what I DO think works, here are some of my favourites I’ve come across and why. And yes, I have an iPad and iPhone so these will be very biased towards what I can enjoy on these devices as that is how I consume about 80% of my digital media.

  1. The Sleepers Almanac iPhone App

 Sleepers iphone appI’m encouraged for the future of Australian literature on a digital basis when I heard that an Australian  small independent publishing house has embraced new technology. Sleepers Publishing have just published their 6th annual Almanac and founders Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn also launched this brand new app  containing all the short stories from the previous Almanacs as well – 200 in total. Founded in 2003 to showcase Australian and International short fiction, the founders realised that the mobile phone and the short story were perfect for each other, enabling sharing in a global environment.

This has got great user interface, brilliant images, fantastic fiction and this app also links to community with Facebook and Twitter. And it’s local!

2.    Nick Cave’s Bunny Munro iPhone app

Death of Bunny Munro  Whether or not you are a Nick Cave fan I think you’ll agree he’s a great author to try something different with. This app  created by his publisher Canongate was to my mind quite groundbreaking at the time it was released (2009).

Not only do you get the whole ebook, but you also get the book synched to the text (which scrolls) read by Nick Cave with his wonderful deep descriptive voice. You also get an original soundtrack and 11 videos of Nick reading from the title amongst other features.

For the Australian angle it was developed with Text Publishing  as well as Faber and Faber in the US, HarperCollins in Canada.

What really jumped out when I read about this was hearing what his publisher said at the time.

Penguin’s digital publisher, Jeremy Ettinghausen says the latest mobiles have opened up a new world of possibilities. “We believe people want to read our books on whichever platform they’re using, and we’re working hard to make that happen.“

Ettinghausen, who quotes Woody Allen’s dictum that 90% of success is turning up. “There will be lots of false trails and false starts,” he said, “but this is just the beginning.”

Canongate were smart enough to see that Nick Cave fans would follow him across various media outputs, and thus they are not just his publisher, but also his producer and promoter.  By producing different versions (Hardcover, paperback, limited edition, audio, app), each slightly different, I’m sure they picked up new readers and fans with each version.

3.     William Styron Enhanced Ebooks

WilliamStyronImageWhile these days I sometimes struggle to truly understand the value of enhanced ebooks, when I read about  the release of William Styron’s titles through Open Road and viewed the video that was showing I totally understood the value.

When you purchase the ebook you not only get the text but also an intimate glimpse into the authors life with family photos. To me the most personal and interesting side was reading the correspondence between the author and his father, narrated by the authors’ daughter.

I found these lines very touching from the letter addressed to “Dear Pops”:

“I’ve thought of you every day. I’m working so steadily on the book and time passes that I’ve found I’m quite neglectful of almost everything, including correspondence. Forgive me. The book is both a chore and a delight. A chore because it seems a weight that I can never get off my shoulders, after having written on it so long.  A delight because now, having written almost all of it I can truthfully feel that I’ve not only written a novel, but a good novel, perhaps even a really fine novel and I hope it gives some people a pleasure in inverse proportion to the pain it’s caused me in the writing.”

You see, I found that insight so very very endearing, illustrating the obvious intimacy and respect shared between father and son. To me these insights along with the family photos made this worthwhile. Sadly though because I purchased the title from Amazon I haven’t received the multi-media content I’d heard so much about. Perhaps territorial restrictions along with the fact that the iBookstore isn’t available in Australia and therefore I only got the family photos to my great disappointment.

4.   Jungle Drums by Greame Base

JungleDrums iPhone AppIn a complete departure from the rest this is a personal favourite of mine – and the toddlers!

Graeme Base is the author of Animalia and The Waterhole and this latest title is as delightful and engrossing as you would expect as he tells the tale of Little Ngiri, the smallest Warthog in Africa.

His publisher Penguin Australia and developer InyerPocket Software have worked together to develop this iPhone and iPod Touch application. There are a multitude of children’s books available through the app store, but this one not only has Graeme narrating, but words to read along with, great audio (and drums!) and the ability to zoom in on all images amongst other features.

I can’t tell you the amount of times this app has diverted the little ones while waiting somewhere and needing them to sit still. They are still far too young to be self sufficient with the app, but love the pictures and sounds. And I’m proud it’s an Australian publisher, Australian developer and (I assume) worldwide audience.


And in news that I’ve just heard we can now purchase Animalia for the iPad! A version for the iPhone and iPod touch coming very soon!

4. The Elements: A Visual Exploration

Elements A Visual ExplorationThis appuntil recently was only available for the iPad but as Stephen Fry said when he reviewed it this title alone was worth the cost of the iPad – and I have to agree. I purchased this not because I have such a big interest in the subject matter, but I had a huge interest in seeing how the iPad would allow an enriched experience for non-fiction books. And I love it.

It’s now available for iPhone 4, and I’m pleased to see this getting a wider audience – it deserves it.

Adapted from the hardback title The Periodic Table by Theodore Gray each element will spin so you can view from EVERY angle, and the visuals on the iPad make you think you can pick it up it is just so beautifully photographed. The interactivity is a great example of how the iPad version gives you more than the print version could deliver.

Well worth viewing the video on YouTube this is far better in real life with the iPad in front of you and in control of the spinning elements. Of great interest to me is the fact that for the first time in MY experience the fact that the app has the current commodities value means I had to do a major mind shift. This means that an ebook (or app) is no longer a static object that you purchase and download. It’s updateable with current information. That allows for so many future uses that the mind boggles.

A Meeting of Needs and Skills?

One of the examples – Sleepers – comes from a small publisher. But many small publishers struggle with resources and time as it is and now they need to embrace new technology as it’s a fact of publishing life. Perhaps the future may bring some publishing companies merging with entertainment or media companies – a heady and wonderful mix of content and cinematic skills? In our short-lived tech-boom in Australia in the late 90’s some internet companies did exactly that to find sources of content but the inevitable crash put an end to that. A more considered approach could see successful merging in these areas and for others some successful partnerships.

“What is this?” American Booksellers Association’s Chief Operating Officer Len Vlahos asked  Australian Booksellers at an ebook seminar last week The Future is Now. “It’s a bookshop in your pocket.” Indeed. This is why so many bookseller apps are available on the iPhone and other smart phones and why experimentation in iPhone and iPad applications have boomed.

Most people have heard the term of DIGITAL NATIVES  versus DIGITAL IMMIGRANTS. Those born to this technology, those who cannot even imagine what life was like when you arranged to meet someone and DIDN’T HAVE A MOBILE PHONE to tell them you were running late (the ‘old days!’), they are growing up and will be as comfortable reading online, on a phone, on a device or on the printed page.  The shift to digital is inevitable, and we are really at a period of change.

I’m all for it – as long as it fits with the reading experience it is trying to deliver and doesn’t distract from it. I’m excited to see new developments and applaud Australian innovation in this area.

5 thoughts on “The Digital Reading Experience: Enhanced Ebooks, Apps and Multimedia

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Digital Reading Experience: Enhanced Ebooks, Apps and Multimedia « Digireado --

  2. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon. Thanks!

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