Sunday, 22 July 2012

The e-books of the future

When will e-books become more than turning fake pages of Shakespeare?

E-books are increasingly taken for granted as a normal part of the reading landscape.  But what will happen when publishers and authors begin to take full advantage of the technology?

One of the consistently emphasised strengths of the Kindle is that it ‘reads like paper’; the latest model even boasts ‘10% faster page turns’.  Obviously other features differentiate the newer technology (and justify its price tag), but it’s clear that a fundamental part of its appeal is that it closely replicates the reading experience of a physical book.  This makes sense from a marketing perspective – one of the most common objections to purchasing an e-reader is the loss of the ‘feel’ of a nice new paperback.

On the other hand though, this striving for similarity might just be missing the point, almost as if the only conceivable use for television was to add images to existing radio shows.  Sci-fi author David Gerrold used a very similar analogy last year, predicting “just as movies, radio, and television evolved into new forms over time, the ebook will also become something more than just a way to read books.  It will become its own specific and unique way of creating and sharing experience.”

Predicting what form such an experience will take is obviously the key challenge; Gerrold himself ‘won’t even try to predict the specifics’.  The more obvious innovations are being tried already, notably by Touch Press, whose ambitious vision is ‘to publish new kinds of books’ featuring ‘intelligent interaction that truly adds value for the reader delivering enlightenment’.  The results thus far are certainly impressive – their new apps for The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s sonnets feature video and audio recordings of the poems, scans of the relevant manuscripts, easily accessed notes and more.

Brilliant as this is, it equally falls short of producing a genuinely new medium: Touch Press have taken existing literature and supplemented it with video and audio additions.  There is certainly value in this, as in other suggestions, such as mystery novels which include audio-visual clues, but they all fall into the pattern of being ‘a book plus…’, rather than something wholly original.

Another company which provides a clue as to the future is children’s publisher Nosy Crow, a pioneering developer of apps for young children.  As far back as 2010 their managing director Kate Wilson blogged ‘we shouldn’t be trying to squash the books that already exist onto a phone. We should, I think, be creating reading experiences for touch-screen devices … us[ing] those capacities to tell stories in a new and engaging way.’

The results are certainly very exciting.  Their flagship ‘3D Fairy Tales’ series in particular engages with the new technology in a range of ways: dialogue is different each time depending on which characters are touched, the reader (if that’s now the right word) builds the three little pigs’ houses for them, and changes the music at Cinderella’s ball if they judge a slow-dance to be too much too soon for their young heroine.

What sets these apart from what Touch Press are doing is the production of the story based around the technology – obviously the plot of Cinderella has been around for a while, but the dance scenes are clearly designed specifically for the iPad.  It begins to become a question as to whether the category conscious Apple App Store ought to categorise these works as books or games – elements of both have been blended in a way that makes either category insufficient.  For now it obviously makes sense to use a popular fairy-tale as the backdrop for this innovation, but it opens up the possibilities of what kind of stories might be told in the future.

So if we shift back to adult fiction, what is the equivalent of the Nosy Crow experience?  Some minor things can be predicted by the nature of the medium – the initial success of Fifty Shades of Grey was widely attributed to the lack of an incriminating book cover on an e-reader; the possibility of reading first chapters for free places even more pressure on authors to get into their stride quickly; the avoidance of printing costs means it is far more financially viable to publish cheaper shorter stories, particularly when follow-ups can be downloaded at the touch of a button.

However the precise nature of the e-books of the future is probably as alien to us as the concept of Big Brother (the TV show) was to a 1940s audience.  A lot will depend on the progression of technology - there is already so much more that can be done on a tablet than on a simple e-reader.  Still more will be determined by the creativity of authors and programmers in adapting to these opportunities.  Let’s just hope it isn’t too long before ‘reads like paper’ is no longer the cornerstone of the Kindle’s appeal.

Do you agree?  Where do you think e-books are going?  Let us know in the comments!  Also check out our other comment and analysis here; or follow us on Facebook or Twitter for the latest book news and views!

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