Publishers are going beyond ebooks, writes Shane Richmond, and experimenting with books as apps.
by: Shane Richmond
Everyone who knows someone who said they would never get a mobile phone or couldn’t give up film photography for digital or hated the quality of music on MP3 and stuck stubbornly with their old vinyl.
Chances are those people now have a mobile phone that they use for making calls, taking photos and listening to music. Those who have stuck to their original position are in an ever decreasing minority. The digitisation of our lives continues.
Today sees the start of The Telegraph Hay Festival, the annual book fair. While Hay’s many bookshops are full to bursting with second hand printed books, the digital revolution is already well established in publishing.
Last week Amazon announced that sales of Kindle ebooks had overtaken hardback sales in the UK. The online bookseller reached that milestone after just nine months. It took two and a half years for Kindle ebook sales in the US to reach the same milestone - a measure of how far ebooks have come. In the US, Amazon now sells 105 ebooks for every 100 printed books.
As with digital music and photography, the transformation of books is being driven by convenience. Downloading new titles to an ereader or tablet computer takes seconds and can be done at any time. Kobo, an ebook seller, says that late evening is one of its peak times for sales, as people get ready to go to bed and realise that they have nothing to read.
Add to that the fact that an ereader can store hundreds of books and you have a gadget that can leave even the pickiest commuter or holidaymaker spoiled for choice.
With ebooks now growing in popularity, publishers are beginning to think about enhancing ebooks and even recreating books as apps for tablet computers.
Gareth Malone will be speaking at Hay about his new book, Music for the People: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Classical Music. In print it’s an enthusiastic guide to classical music but buy it from Apple’s iBookstore and you can get a version that’s enhanced with clips from the music being described, which makes it much easier to understand the point being made.
Enhanced ebooks, says Malone, provide “the opportunity to bring all this stuff to life in a way that you could previously only do on TV”.
Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, recently released in paperback, is also available as an iPad app. The app combines the text of the novel with the audiobook, allowing you to switch between listening and reading, and plays on the book’s fractured narrative to allow you to reorder the chapters as you choose.
“We felt that it’s such a unique book that takes a look at the state of writing and it deserved to be immortalised in this way,” says Alex Spears of publishers Constable and Robinson.
He says that an app allows the publisher to “customise the reading experience and atmosphere” in a way that isn’t always possible in a standard ebook. We’re still waiting for the first “digitally native” ebook, he adds - one that could only exist as an app.
Faber and Faber has worked with app developers Touch Press to create an app-first book: Solar System For iPad. It uses the touchscreen and multimedia capabilities of the iPad to re-imagine the coffee table book.
Interacting with a planet by pinching and zooming on the screen provides a truly immersive experience - something that developers Touch Press has also done with the periodic table of the elements and, more recently, with Gems and Jewels for iPad. Next month Faber and Touch Press will release an app version of TS Eliot’s poem The Waste Land.
Henry Volans, head of Faber Digital, says that the move from non-fiction to poetry isn’t that strange. “None of my projects have been about novels. Long immersive narractive is very hard to pull off in an app,” says Henry Volans, head of Faber Digital.
“Poetry is much more structured. The Waste Land is relatively short so it’s much more manageable on a screen,” he adds.
If all of that has made you worry about how you will stock your library with printed tomes in future, fear not. Even those publishers who are re-thinking books for the digital world don’t believe that ebooks will kill printed books.
The most likely outcome appears to be that ebooks will largely replace the mainstream paperback market while printed books are likely to focus more on quality special editions. Meanwhile, ebooks, enhanced ebooks and books as apps will become increasingly indistinguishable.
Spears says: “Once you have a marketplace with lots of options then that can only be good."