Book Drum featured in The Author

 

 

More than Words Can Say

Books that incorporate videos, music and newsfeeds are already with us

HECTOR MACDONALD

 

Whatever doubts we may have had a year ago, the ebook has well and truly arrived. With a phalanx of shiny new devices to read them on, thousands of digital titles are now on offer from all major publishers.  Within three years, some observers estimate, ebooks will represent 25% of book sales.  But there remains one nagging question not yet answered to many people’s satisfaction: what exactly is the point of an ebook?  Do people really prefer to read text on a screen, be it Kindle grey or iPad liquid crystal?  How many of us honestly need to carry more than a couple of books around?  Technophile mathematician Marcus de Sautoy recently admitted, “the thrill of turning the page by clicking a button quickly pales”. 

Rather than going to great expense to replicate on screen the perfection of the printed book – the chief digital endeavour amongst publishers to date – we might do better to ask ourselves what new forms of expression ereaders make possible.  Apple’s iPad has a touch-sensitive colour display, wireless internet, speakers and an accelerometer that senses motion and orientation; how might we, as creative authors, exploit these bounteous features?

“Enhanced books” pre-date Gutenberg by centuries.  Medieval illuminations and the cartoon strip of the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus (1980 BCE) enriched the core texts long before Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman brought in illustrators to complete their tales. But the added extras were generally limited by cost to a few colour plates, and by technological constraint to the still image.  What the new generation of ereaders means for authors is the wholesale removal of all such limitations. Now, anything expressible in binary code can be part of a book.

Many authors will quite reasonably recoil from this brave new world in which their carefully crafted words play second fiddle to other media.  But consider the possibilities: travel writing accompanied by scalable maps; biographies incorporating the subjects’ TV appearances and entire online family archives; political or economic works instantly updated whenever the author wishes; animated children’s books that speak the tricky words; polemics that display readers’ responses.  And in fiction, imagine Captain Corelli’s Mandolin with the relevant music playing; The Quiet American with original footage of the French Indochina War; English Passengers with maps to follow the long sea journey.

Publishers have not rushed to embrace these possibilities, but a handful of interesting ventures are starting to emerge.  Random House made an early move with bookandbeyond.com, offering “premium ebooks” incorporating maps, audio files and video interviews, to be read on a computer.  But the first to catch the headlines was Enhanced Editions (enhanced-editions.com) with Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro (Canongate).  The iPhone “app” (programme for smartphones) includes original music and an audio book that cleverly keeps pace with the scrolling text.  Chapters are interspersed by videos of the charismatic Cave.  Enhanced Editions has now published similar apps for titles including Wolf Hall.

Co-founder Peter Collingridge is bullish about the potential market: “In two to three years time, the enhanced book will be standard for frontlist titles,” he predicts.  In fact he sees enhancement as the industry’s best hope of reversing an inevitable downward trend in book pricing: only by offering something more than text can we convince readers a book is worth more than Asda’s £3.86.  However he acknowledges that even if most books end up labelled enhanced, “some will be more enhanced than others”.  Any number of books might have a basic reading guide and a couple of generic pictures appended, but only the lucky few will get custom-shot video and all those other bells and whistles.

Bells and whistles come to mind when viewing the Alice in Wonderland app from atomicantelope.com. By tilting the iPad one can twirl the rabbit’s pocket watch around the screen or stretch out John Tenniel’s Alice to her full extended height.  Pop-up books were never this satisfying.  Hachette has published an enhanced version of David Baldacci’s Deliver Us From Evil, offering research photographs, deleted passages and a video tour of the author’s office.  And Hachette’s new edition of Infinite Jest embeds David Foster Wallace’s infinite footnotes directly into the text.  Maja Thomas, Senior VP of Hachette Digital, believes enhanced books should sell at a premium to a standard ebook: “If it’s done right, it should be a more vibrant product,” she says.   “Some books cry out for enhancements.”  She envisages interactive maps and alternate endings being important components of future books.  “But the ideas are going to come from authors, not publishers – we’re the midwife who must work out what’s possible.”

Vook, a Californian digital publisher that specialises in building video into books (vook.com), has found a particular niche in “inspiration and instruction” books.  Video complements text well when the author needs to demonstrate something, as Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson have shown with their latest publications.  But Vook is also experimenting with “video annotation” of fiction – short clips that illustrate a passage, or even bridge a narrative gap between two chapters – and they have recently published a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets complete with polished contemporary recitals.

“We’re in the first five seconds of the game,” says founder Bradley Inman, who is quick to recognize how little any of us can know about the future evolution of enhanced books.  “The pie will get bigger for publishers if they innovate, but at the moment they’re hiring too many lawyers and not enough engineers.”  That’s a reference to one of the biggest headaches faced by enhanced book publishers: clearing the worldwide digital (and possibly audio) rights.  Dan Franklin, digital editor at Canongate and a fan of software engineers, echoes the uncertainty: “We’re all experimenting at the moment.  It’s incumbent on publishers to find out what works and what readers respond to.”

Some authors may prefer the approach taken by TradeMobile, the developer behind a “companion” app for Iain Banks’ latest book, Transition (Little, Brown). As you read the paperback, you can summon up character sketches and background information on your smartphone, or browse Banks’ research notes.  TradeMobile founder Jen Porter (jen@trade-mobile.com) has no plans to put books themselves on mobiles – in her view they don’t yet offer a good reading experience – but she says the app allows people to “go beyond the story”.  “This could revolutionise the way authors write books,” she predicts. 

TradeMobile’s platform also allows readers to interact with author and publisher.  This social networking dimension could become a particularly valuable marketing tool, where enhanced books enable authors to update readers via a newsfeed and let fans share favourite passages or make comments.  “This is the book club gone global,” enthuses Porter.  Literary agent Ali Gunn, who works with TradeMobile, says, “This is an amazing way to talk directly to consumers.  If an author enjoys interacting with fans, they’ll love this technology.”  Charlie King, marketing director at Little, Brown, sees the app primarily as a marketing tool.  “Authors should be excited about this,” he says.  In three years, he predicts, most consumers will have smartphones.  “We’ll potentially reach many more people”.

Book Drum (bookdrum.com) has also adopted the companion model, providing page-by-page commentaries of images, videos, maps, music and background information to complement a wide range of classic and contemporary titles.  The website (of which I am one of the founders) enables authors, experts and fans to upload any amount of multimedia material relating to a particular book, creating profiles that illustrate and explore the text in potentially infinite depth.  For The Catcher in the Rye, Book Drum offers jazz numbers, video of the Rockettes and photography from Central Park; for The Odyssey, there are maps of the Aegean, paintings and pottery inspired by the legend, and a wealth of historical context; for In Patagonia, stunning South American photography sits alongside 1970s Argentinean TV footage. 

Authors like John Banville, Khaled Hosseini, Anne Rice and Salley Vickers have been delighted by the immersive Book Drum profiles created by admirers of their books.  But authors can also use the website themselves to enhance a manuscript as they write it, linking images, sound and maps to particular lines in their text.  Alternatively, they can update or illustrate older books, giving them a new lease of life among younger readers. 

There are many more ideas in play.  Two enterprising authors are co-writing a vampire novel online, recruiting volunteers to act it out on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter (My Darklyng, published at Slate.com). Penguin has created an “Amplified Edition” of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, incorporating video and music from an upcoming TV series.  Marcus du Sautoy’s companion app allows readers of The Num8er My5teries (Fourth Estate) to play mathematical games that illuminate the text. 

Philip Pullman, whose book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was given the enhanced treatment by Enhanced Editions, recently said that the pace of change in publishing makes him feel like he’s “tied to the front of a runaway train with a driver who has just had a heart attack”.  And yet this really is a story of opportunity.  Whether you’re excited by the idea of creating a complete artwork that seamlessly combines words, pictures and sound, or you just want to make the most of a new marketing opportunity, enhanced books deserve serious attention. 

There are simple ways to prepare.  Fionnuala Duggan, digital director at Random House, recommends saving all research notes and taking lots of photographs – they could be invaluable to your future enhanced books.  If you’re drawing on archives, get permission to use the original material in digital form.  Consider alternative ways to structure your next book that play to an ereader’s strengths; Canongate’s Dan Franklin envisages non-linear structures, particularly in non-fiction, reflecting the way we use the Web.  And if you have the stomach for social networking, invest time in your online presence now.  Any interactive element built into future publications will be all the stronger for it.  “You can’t fake it if the author isn’t online properly,” says Duggan.

But just as most books don’t merit a significant marketing budget in their publishers’ eyes, so only a few are likely to justify the cost of professional enhancement.  “You’ve really got to cherry-pick the project,” says Franklin.  “We’re not making big money from apps.”  Maja Thomas admits Hachette’s new Infinite Jest edition has not recouped its investment, perhaps unsurprising given her estimate that enhancing a book can cost anywhere up to $100,000.  Fionnuala Duggan warns that an app like Random House’s Nigella Quick Collection costs tens of thousands of pounds.  Enhanced Editions charges £7-15,000 per title, while for TradeMobile £15,000 is the minimum. 

Costs are likely to come down over time, and the good news is there are plenty of app developers around, most of whom aren’t bothered whether they work with a publisher or directly with an author.  For Vook, the suitability of the project is what matters, and in fact Bradley Inman reckons they can now build a simple vook, using stock video or footage you create yourself, for as little as $1,000.  That puts enhanced books well within the reach of most authors.  And of course Book Drum is free to use: you can add any amount of publicly available music, pictures, video or information to complement your books, and you can update it as often as you like.

Our world is changing frighteningly fast, but that means real opportunity for those willing to ride that runaway train. In Dan Franklin’s view, “Often the authors who play well in digital are not those who succeed best with physical books.”  What is the point of an ebook?  Authors who use these digital platforms to create imaginative, immersive works for a generation hooked on interactive experiences will provide the answer.

“In three years time,” predicts Bradley Inman, “a bunch of new companies you’ve never heard of will be major publishers because they took the innovative steps now.”  Surely the same game-changing possibilities are open to the adventurous author.

 

Hector Macdonald is the author of The Mind Game and editor of Book Drum (editor@bookdrum.com).