Amazon has never made for the most comfortable bedfellow for publishers, but since launching the Kindle it has fallen yet further from favour with them. Most argue that drastically cut-price ebooks – not to mention giving an equal profile to unfiltered self-published authors – will only harm an industry already hampered by paper-thin margins.
Along with their cousins in magazine and newspaper publishing, many in the books industry imagine that paid apps can provide them with a form of salvation. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what opportunities there are for non-fiction: there are already some fine examples, from TouchPress’ The Elements, through to Wonders of the Universe, HarperCollins’ recent Brian Cox vehicle tied to the BBC series of the same name.
But when it comes to fiction, the solutions aren’t quite so apparent. Back in 2009, Enhanced Editions produced The Death of Bunny Munro for Canongate, and Russell Quinn created the hugely successful Small Chair app for US literary 2 3 magazine, McSweeney’s. Released for the iPhone, these apps seemed to predict the opportunities that the iPad would bring, but progressive examples that build on these foundations have been sporadic and few in number.
A different experience
Clerkenwell-based Visual Editions were initially considered to be more a reaction against the visual homogeny of ebooks than a digital trailblazer, yet they wrong-footed many people with the iPad version of Marc Saporta’s Composition No.1, created in collaboration with digital art and design studio, Universal Everything.
VE co-founders Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen find this perception of them as guardians of print amusing. “It’s funny how much people love to polarise,” says Gerber. “There’s this assumption that you’re either all about the print or all about the digital. But the thing is we live in a world where we very comfortably, naturally even, glide between the two…. And with Composition No.1 we felt there was a reason to explore the book in a digital way.”
“It kind of begged for it,” Iversen adds. “The [physical] book is made up of loose sheets, and the point of it is that it can be read in any order. But when readers open the box something curious happens. There’s a sense of not wanting to disrupt the order of the pages. The app randomises the pages for you and asks the reader to physically hold the page, or screen, down to actually be able to read it. It kind of forces you to embrace the shuffling. It’s a very different experience to how you would read the book, any book in fact, which is just what we were excited to explore. And have fun with. It’s something we think we might just do again, as long as the book calls for it. That’s the thing, there needs to be a reason for the book to live on screen as much as in print.”
From Shakespeare to Eliot
Henry Volans, head of digital publishing at Faber & Faber and responsible for steering some of publishing’s greatest digital successes, agrees. Unlike Visual Editions, print is no longer a primary consideration for him. As well as supporting Faber’s existing list, the publisher’s digital department has a remit to put out its own material.
“As well as requiring a reason to produce something digitally,” he says, “you also need a property that is going to do a lot of the work for you. Creating a good app requires investment. You can’t cut corners. We’ve proven that, given the right idea, the more money you make available to these projects, the more successful they’ll be, but we’re not at the stage to be able to take risks on a new author.”
Volans is lucky to have such a strong list to lean on. TS Eliot’s The Wasteland seemed a pretty safe bet for Faber’s first poetry app. And this followed on from the huge success it enjoyed with the previous year’s iPhone app, Malcolm Tucker: The Missing Phone. The commissioning and creative process behind this is an interesting one. It was conceived as a tie-in with The Thick of It: The Missing DoSAC Files, published by Faber but itself a tie-in with the BBC television series. When the contract for the book was agreed, the writers expressed an interest in seeing an app to support it, but only if this brought about something fresh.
This came from mobile app agency Agant. Owner Dave Addey suggested the app reproduce the experience that some poor soul might have if they’d found The Thick of It’s most foul-mouthed character Malcolm Tucker’s lost iPhone. A more perfect marriage between device and content is hard to imagine. The writers and cast concurred, and produced bags of new, sweary material especially for the app.
“This led to Faber being in the unusual position of receiving a BAFTA nomination,” Volans explains. “And the experience of making these sorts of apps is akin to being a producer. Publishers become investors and project managers, and rather than dealing with literary agents, I’m finding myself negotiating with actors’ agents.”
As well as relying once again on a safe (possibly the safest) pair of literary hands, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Faber’s newest iPad release, demonstrates well this blurring between publishers and other media companies. For Sonnets, Faber has partnered with Illuminations, a TV production company, and hired more than 40 actors, poets and scholars to perform pieces to camera.
The removal of boundaries cuts both ways. Agant’s latest project, WW2, is for Ballista, the production company owned by TV presenter Dan Snow. Ballista have licensed existing history books, along with films from British Pathé, and pulled them together into an iPad app featuring an interactive timeline of the second world war.
And Addey has turned publisher himself. He’s following up Lovelace & Babbage, the app he created with animator and comic book artist Sydney Padua, with User Experience, in which, it is imagined, the novelist George Eliot has been selected to test the new spell-checking feature on computer pioneer Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine – conceived as part of Babbage’s ‘War on Error’ – using the (only) manuscript for her most famous work, Middlemarch.
“This conceit gives us a great excuse to take George deep into the bowels of the Engine that Sydney has created, and to really play with space and composition,” says Addey. “Most comics you’ll see on the iPad are digital conversions of existing print comics. So our approach is to ask the question: what would comics as a medium look like if they had been created for the iPad, rather than for print?” Addey claims the app is a major development from Lovelace & Babbage. “This time round, our focus is on the form itself,” he says, “with Sydney writing and creating a brand new comic specifically for the capabilities of the iPad.”
User Experience takes advantage of multi-directional narrative, audio, spot animation, and in-page interaction with the comic. “It’s proving to be particularly interesting as a collaborative project, as it’s as much about interaction design as comic illustration,” Addey says.
Collaborative storytelling also sits at the heart of Visual Editions’ latest book, and page rotation – ironically one of the features of the iPad people originally got so excited about – plays a key part of this printed book. Kapow!, by Adam Thirwell, started out with the author, Iversen and Gerber just chatting over drinks about what type of book they’d like to work on together.
“I’d had this coincidence of two strands of thinking,” explains Thirwell. “Of writing something that would try to be as comprehensively digressive as possible, and also thinking about the revolutions in the Arab Spring. And then I wondered if the projects were the same – that I wanted to write something that would mimic the attempt to understand something comprehensively, but that as soon as you tried, obviously, you’d be led everywhere.”
“So we started exploring how those digressions could work in a visual way,” Gerber explains of the path the book went on to take. “How could they enhance the reading experience, make it feel different, challenge the reader somehow. We brought Frith [Kerr, of Studio Frith] on board soon after and the conversations started exploding all over the place.”
“The process, from start to finish, was an entirely circular one,” Kerr confirms. “We showed Adam some of our ideas of how we could treat digressions within a traditional printed paper book format and, with this in mind, he went off and wrote the book. When we then read the manuscript it was clear that one particular idea that we had presented and discussed early on would be perfect.”
As Kapow! goes on there are more and more digressions, resulting in the narrator very nearly having a breakdown. “We had all sorts of crazy ideas and what’s made it into the final book is really exciting,” Iversen says. “As the book progresses and gets increasingly more noisy … the visual treatment of the digressions also gets crazier and crazier, acting very much as a reflection of the narrative.” “And that’s the thing,” adds Gerber. “Frith’s approach was never about ‘just’ treating the digressions; her approach was about making sure the book works as a whole: both as a beautiful, crafted object as much as a new book by Adam Thirlwell.”
You can see from this passion for every creative aspect of bookmaking why people were quick to hail Visual Editions as the sentinels of the physical book, but when I ask whether there’ll be a digital version of Kapow!, they look to one another with a twinkle in their eyes. “Yeah. Why not?”
Neil Ayres runs Alien, a digital content consultancy for the design, arts and publishing sectors and is the author of The New Goodbye, a novel originally published as a multimedia iPhone app. See aliencontent.net and booklish.tumblr.com