Editorial by Kirk Bowe, CTO, TradeMobile
LONDON: The e-book is dead. Let’s be clear: with the transition from paper to electronic screens, which are increasingly more often on our bedside tables or with us on the tube, the e-book will quickly attain a bright new name: the book. It is not innovation but inevitability and convenience that lead us to attempt to read from a screen rather than a page. And unless we discover how to transform the long-form reading experience from the page to the screen, we may inadvertently harm the nascent market for it.
The features of an e-book are not revolutionary but rather to be expected. The traditional index is now largely replaced by natural digital alternatives such as search and links. Plate photographs can be pinched and zoomed to reveal levels of detail, and are occasionally usurped by video and audio. A magnifying glass is replaced by the facility to increase the size of the words to the point of horror on the face of the book’s designer.
These are quickly becoming the absolute norm and, importantly, not points of differentiation for authors or their publishers in an increasingly crowded market. When opening a pure electronic representation of a book, readers will demand these features.
The newer devices (such as the iPad) are highly-capable computers and clearly, during the transition, there will be gimmicky abuses of the underlying technology which do little more than provide publishers with some, rather unjustified, comfort that they are at least on, if not ahead of, “the curve.”
We see how many new readers are delighted by a page turning effect, or the ability to turn Alice upside down. But where is the new electronic stage for the author? Are we to see a slew of what amounts to interactive PowerPoint presentations for the lack of anything better? What is the evolution of the long-form reading experience? Should the publisher’s response to technology simply be to transfer the printed page, unaltered, to the screen?
As a teenage schoolboy in the late 1980s I, like scores of others, had a passion for the works of JRR Tolkien. His vast yet meticulous brush strokes painted foreign lands and high adventure with the fervor needed to satisfy an adolescent’s imagination. But Tolkien’s creation never seemed satisfactorily contained within the books themselves. As readers we felt that there was something beyond the page and a sense, which we now know to be the case through biographies and the publication of his letters, that the wider story was not just grander but also unfinished. This was made clear by the wealth of supplementary material curated by his son and literary executor, Christopher, and yet more commissioned by publishers appreciating the thirst in the years after Tolkien’s passing. It was at this time as a teenager that another passion, for computing, lead me to think about how technology could be used to create the ultimate compendium or reference of all Tolkien-related material, to augment the fan’s enjoyment.
Thus, before publishers began signing up with the large electronic book stores on the book stores’ terms — as music publishers did before them in their industry — I was already thinking about taking the enjoyment of reading further. And today TradeMobile is, through the BeyondTheStory platform, considering what the new relationship between the author and reader could be, and how this might best be achieved.
It begins with the special qualities of what an author really is, and ends with the fan who wants to use technology to absorb the author’s work. Of course in some cases the book represents the totality of the author’s energy for the subject: the creativity and ingenuity have been well contained in the manuscript. Yet many authors are so much more than a locked set of words on a page. They are often polymaths, excellent communicators or navigators who can draw on diverse skills to weave their stories in vastly different ways. For these authors the book has seemed, until now, the least frustrating way to condense the story for mass consumption. These authors are bursting with more, and some of this spills out in to lecture series, television, and letters to readers.
Fans of great writers always want more. These authors command great followings because of their ability to unlock story. But the latent potential of the new digital battlefield demands greater rigor from the publisher in order to succeed. Words were the principal weapons on the page, but are our best writers being poorly served by relying solely on this armory on the device, and does the war require a different strategy altogether?
With TradeMobile’s BeyondTheStory platform my goal, as I had wished as a teenager, is to map the different ways in which an author is valuable to the reader — the words, the personality, the background materials, the life — and then give the author’s fans the keys to this new kingdom.
It’s not about distilling high concepts or using interactive gimmickry at the expense of depth or truth. Rather it is about taking the author’s work, indeed taking the author him or herself, and creating a transformation that fits not only the technology but also the fans’ expectations of the technology.
At the technical and spiritual heart of a BeyondTheStory app is always the text. Whether a single historical narrative as in Kings and Queens with renowned historian David Starkey, or an entire novel series spanning many years of publication, as with novelist Ian Rankin. The platform enables the publisher to identify every reference to the people, places, and events of the story, and cross-references these to other features appropriate to the app, such as maps, timelines, or family trees.
The result, then, is a real revolution in the reading “event”, one with significant semantic depth. The reader learns that the book is still an essential aspect of the experience, but that it now acquires additional vitality with meaningful links to background detail and other contexts.
And, while the printed book may be a largely linear experience for the reader, the semantic profile of the BeyondTheStory app can bring the reader closer to the manner in which the author conceived the work. For example, Dr. Starkey approached the Crown and Country subject matter (on which the Kings and Queens app is based) by creating layers of detail, starting with the broad concepts and painting in progressively more detail with successive layers. Kings and Queens reflects this across the top of the screen with the “trails” feature, which introduces the encompassing themes that pervade the whole history of the monarchy.
In to the BeyondTheStory platform goes not only the text but also supplementary materials such as video of the author, hand-drawn maps, early drafts, and photographs. However this is not simply a DVD with “extras”. People, places, time, pictures, video, and maps are all linked together in a way which supports self-directed discovery. A user may be looking at one thing and then be offered related material in other parts of the app. For example, I may be browsing a timeline in Kings and Queens, tap on an event, watch David Starkey explain to me what happened there, and then be whisked off to the location on a map or to the main protagonist’s place on his or her family tree. And, incredibly, I may be taken directly to the paragraph in the book where I can jump straight in to the account of the event within its context. As a user I can choose to dip in to the app at any starting point and then create my own path through David’s now three-dimensional narrative.
The net effect of 20 or 30 minutes interaction with Kings and Queens is perhaps akin to having a personal tutorial with Dr Starkey himself. As you select the areas you wish to focus on, the author supports your choices with explanation, insight, context, and further discovery directions. The key, beyond the unnoticed electronic integration of elements that goes on behind the scenes, is the personal nature of the interaction.
Perhaps my only directorial suggestion, when filming David for the Kings and Queens app, was to have him deliver to camera with a new purpose in mind. David’s acclaimed television series and public lectures are delivered to traditionally understood audiences. But a tablet application is highly personal. A paying customer has invited you in to his or her hands, and has taken time away from something else just to give focus to you for an unspecified but probably limited amount of time. This user is prepared to interact, to swipe and tap fingers, in the hope that he or she may gain something of value. Therefore it is vital that the author does not present at, but rather converses with, the user, speaking directly as though it were a one-to-one meeting.
Bringing the reader closer to the author, defining an experience which best exposes the author’s style and content, and surrounding both with valuable supplementary materials that come in to the frame only when necessary to support the context, is one way in which publishers can bring differentiation. This is because the process serves to augment the reasons why readers choose authors in the first place, and does it for the digital age.
It is vital that publishers adapt to the new landscape that sweeps before them. The technical revolution needs to be met with an equally bold publishing revolution, to avoid the threat of being sidelined by digital natives who may be waiting to take readers in other directions, away from the long-form reading experience entirely.
Kirk Bowe is CTO and a director of TradeMobile Limited. He was the principal architect and researcher for one of London’s first new media agencies in the mid 1990s, where among many other things he designed the first web-based consumer relationship management system for the Bertelsmann Group. Then he co-founded an award-winning consumer analysis software company which was subsequently acquired by Universal Music in 2006. He joined TradeMobile in 2009 and has directed the creation of several key projects in the publishing and charitable sectors. He is a member of the British Computer Society and the British Psychological Society. You can visit TradeMobile on the Internet at www.trademobile.co.uk.