Handheld Technology

Part 2, eBooks: Multiple Tiers of Half-Hearted Luddites

In the second part of our series we look at the factors holding back eBooks’ true potential...

In 1953 a school teacher wrapped up his first novel and sent it off, in the hope of publication. This was a former child bully who in his youth had “enjoyed hurting people”. He had seen first-hand the atrocities of warfare from serving in the Navy during World War II… then he had returned to the school room to teach. His novel, a dark, fantastical dystopia about the more unpleasant end of childhood and human nature in general, was promptly rejected by about 20 publishers. One even stated it was “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”

Lord of the Flies, of course, went on to become a bestseller and William Golding himself would win the Novel Prize for Literature in 1983, yet looking at the bare facts maybe his lack of initial success is little wonder? The ability to spot something genuinely new and good is a notoriously difficult problem for publishers - after all these ideas haven’t been tested. And so instead, scores of rip-off versions of Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey edge their way up through the slush pile to the dusty of light of publication… whilst anything a bit difficult to smell the money on receives considerably sharper shrift.

The problem has remained the same since time immemorial, except now eBooks complicate things further by throwing format as well as content into the mix.  The potential for new interactive ways of showcasing information is absolutely incredible. This could be additional ways to put the reader into the story, or it could be multimedia to bring the text to life through songs, graphics and spoken word. Today cutting edge technology could deliver the full scope of what Tolkien committed to paper in his mammoth fictional universe ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Alice Frances, Editor of the New London Writers Press, an organisation which is all about “the promotion of writers” and which she describes as a “labour of love”, says: “Publishers, especially large mainstream publishers, are frightened of innovation for the usual monetary reasons. Formula publishers do acknowledge that there is no such thing as a guarantee of the next big best-selling novel. [But] if your pitch is convincing enough some will accept a proposal for ‘something new’ but interactive books may have more defences to crack.”

The problems appear to be two-fold. Firstly, getting publishers to buy into writers who tell stories in new engaging ways is bound to be a tricky sell. Secondly, ensuring that these experimental stories really work in practice will never be as easy as printing a book. In truth, the production of these works could become a logistical nightmare as it would probably require some kind of collaboration between writers, developers, animators, illustrators and actors to produce really cutting edge virtual theatre.

Not surprisingly then, interactive eBooks are still not very common. Yet conversely, the slew of reading apps which are now flooding the marketplace are all emphasising the more interactive element.  It seems like there is definitely a disconnect somewhere.

An interview with Henrik Berggren, CEO of fast growing reading app, Readmill conducted by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company, for example, highlighted the socially interactive nature of the future reading audience (Headline: eBooks Could Be The Future Of Social Media). Whilst when we spoke to the founders of Ether Books - an app which gives writers a platform, readers a community and publishers a new mobile distribution model - last year they were very keen to stress how ‘on trend’ they were by promoting engagement through gamification.

Freelance South African editor Alice de Wit believes “[the] added features and the interactivity of eBooks might actually help grow the reading market, as young adults and children are often easily bored while reading. They have been taught to interact with everything around them and having to interact with their imaginations has become difficult.”

Alessandro Cassa, Canadian author who writes French language children’s stories says: “Interactive eBooks are very interesting, and offer a lot of opportunities. They are a great way to transit from paper to virtual, and [can be] used together, side by side, one, being the complement of the other. Like a game, or a puzzle, with animations and sounds (some are just beautiful). Those interactive eBooks are close to the vision I have of the potential of experimentation of eBooks.”

He continues, these should allow us to “be able to go ‘between the pages’ of a formal book. [These should provide] a way to define a subject or a point of interest in the text, for example [to] discover a new chapter, or a part of the story than you can found only on the interactive device. [We have] a young technology, that sometimes, seems to be near ‘websites’ or ‘interactive games’… interactive eBooks could be a perfect way to stimulate the love of books to children.”

Children might be the most obvious recipient for these new interactive ways of telling stories. But children of today are the adults of the future… and perhaps the most interesting element in all this is the potential for eBooks to fundamentally change reading habits? This is happening already in numerous different ways, but looks set to continue.  A survey conducted last year by Survey Monkey to 265 readers showed that when directly asked whether they “preferred” eBooks or printed books, nearly 40% voted for “both”; a statistic which is bound to increase over the coming years.

“I will say that the eBook market takeover is inevitable,” says Frances. “I myself rarely read printed books nowadays. As for interactive books will they become much more important in the overall book market? My guess is yes, but they will fight to compete with the more user friendly text.”

“eBooks are here to stay,” agrees Apurva Ashar, founder of e-shabda.  “I see these [future eBooks] as fusion. [Tomorrow’s] books [will not be] just pure books, that is what I see. All these [different features such as visuals and spoken word are] coming together as one.”

Frances however is cautious about the time scale. “[I think] it will take very much longer than expected for people to shift their habits of reading. Words, that is to say pure text are still very powerful, very persuasive, and won't easily be replaced by multimedia,” she says. “I envision a future whereby the varying book platforms operate side-by-side and pure text, whether electronic or paper-based will become something of an elite occupation, for the better educated perhaps.”

“At present, the sheer technical difficulties involved in creating multimedia platforms for eBooks are a disadvantage, but these will be overcome and they [eBooks] may [well] end up taking a huge share of the market. Obviously, the scope for creativity and reader engagement is tremendous,” she concludes.

There will clearly always be millions of readers who prefer real, physical books. The pleasure of browsing round an old higgledy-piggledy second hand bookshop will remain unmatched for many people. Nothing will replace that smell of the paper, or feel of worn pages to a true bibliophile. And if we’re strictly honest, anyone who wants escape to long dead worlds in their minds, are, on some level at least, a half-hearted luddite. Yet the promise of interactive eBooks is a completely different reading experience… which in no way tampers with the original one. 

The lure of interactive eBooks is the potential to create a whole new collaborative way of producing work… an opportunity which brings all those stores from around the world to life.  It is an amazing chance, but the whole idea will take a bit of time to come together.

Read Part 1, eBooks: Education, Larger Print & Society here.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect



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