Three E-Books That Are Making the iPad Sing, Just in Time for Summer Reading Season

7/1/11Follow @wroush

Technology changes quickly, and sometimes, so does my own mind. In January, I wrote a dismissive column about two e-book titles tailored for the Apple iPad, Alice for the iPad and Why the Net Matters. My main beef was that the apps, which had been lauded by the New York Times as “superbooks,” contained more glitz than substance. With its rich multimedia capabilities, the iPad has the potential to transform the experience of reading, but these titles fell so far short of the mark that I feared they’d permanently turn off the growing number of people who would like to read books on this powerful tablet.

In the past few months, however, publishers have introduced at least three new titles that bolster my confidence in the future of iPad e-books. Ironically, only one of the three is by a living author: Al Gore’s Our Choice, a book in which the former vice president urges people to take action to combat climate change. The other two are multimedia reworkings of literary classics from the 20th century: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Together, they provide a great survey of the interactive techniques publishers can use to make a book’s core textual content much more interesting and memorable. In fact, these three titles are so good that I think the publishing industry can look to them for an early set of best practices for building tablet-based books, which I’ll attempt to outline below.

And of course, they’re fun to read. With prices ranging from $4.99 for Our Choice to $13.99 for The Waste Land, these books might seem pricey compared to the typical 99-cent mobile game. But they deserve a place in any serious iPad aficionado’s app collection.

I’m thinking now that my January column was premature. It’s easy to forget that Apple’s remarkable tablet device is only 15 months old. It takes time for designers, developers, and publishers to figure out a new platform’s strengths—and when it comes to books, they’re competing with a medium that’s had half a millennium to mature. So I think it’s natural that we’re only now seeing some real innovation in the category of standalone, “appified” e-books (as distinct from the more conventional static texts that you can easily download and read using Apple’s iBooks app or Amazon’s Kindle app).

For sheer multimedia richness, Our Choice is the standout among these three e-book apps. The book is littered with “wow” moments right from the opening screen, which shows a spinning Earth, complete with the reader’s location as a pulsing blue dot. There are slick videos, arresting full-screen photographs, and extensive narration from Gore himself. One memorable information graphic shows 2,300 years of world population statistics; as you scroll forward through the years by swiping your finger from right to left, the chart’s y axis compresses to dramatize the exponential growth since 1800.

Nearly every image, chart, and graphic in the book includes similar interactive elements, and they’re all tied together by a long, scrolling ribbon of thumbnails along the bottom of the screen that functions in place of a table of contents. It’s a tour de force in interaction design the likes of which I haven’t seen since the golden era of CD-ROM edutainment titles in the mid-1990s.

It would be wrong, of course, to focus on the multimedia bells and whistles to the exclusion of the book’s message. The app’s main text is lifted directly from the print edition of Our Choice, which first appeared in late 2009. It’s a solution-oriented sequel to Gore’s alarming 2006 film/book/lecture An Inconvenient Truth. The main point is to survey the technology and policy steps governments and their citizens must take soon if we’re to have any hope of slowing greenhouse-gas emissions and heading off catastrophic changes in world climate. If the interactive elements actually got in the way of this critical story (as they do in Alice for the iPad and Why the Net Matters) I’d be worried. But in practice, the people who built the app—New York-based Melcher Media and e-book software startup Push Pop Press—made design choices at every point that privileged the message over the medium. There’s nothing gratuitous here; every piece of non-textual content drives home the bigger message.

I would say the same thing about The Waste Land, a multimedia-enhanced version of the landmark 1922 poem by T.S. Eliot, except that I’m still not sure what the message is. This is one of those literary masterpieces that I escaped studying in high school and college—which is just as well, since I probably wouldn’t have understood it then either. But now that I’ve perused this edition’s extensive footnotes, listened to its audio recordings, flipped through its image gallery, watched video interviews with such literary lions as Seamus Heaney, and taken in the amazing performance of the entire poem by Irish actress Fiona Shaw, I feel that I’ve at least risen to the level of informed ignorance. (You might say that the app has helped me to sense what I don’t know, and thereby escape the dreaded Dunning-Kruger effect.)

The Waste Land is quite a departure for Touch Press, the digital publisher best known for its iPad apps The Elements and Solar System. It has little in common with those heavily illustrated, science-oriented apps beyond its clean, soothing design. Touch Press built the app with help from Faber Digital, the multimedia wing of the London publishing house where Eliot himself was once an editor, which means there’s no shortage of interpretive material. Indeed, I can’t really imagine a more thorough treatment of a single 434-line poem. In addition to the full text, there are annotations and references for nearly every line, the aforementioned interviews and performances, readings by Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, and Viggo Mortensen, and even a facsimile of Eliot’s original typewritten manuscript with hand-written edits by Ezra Pound.

You might think that layering on this much supplementary material would shroud the work itself. But as Shaw acknowledges in one of her interviews, The Waste Land is a big, portentous, hard-to-decipher poem; for the most part, the extras have been carefully selected to make it more approachable. I think I’m starting to figure out that it’s about war, urbanization, mental illness, mythology, and disillusionment. As Shaw puts it, “This man has scraped a rake across the 20th century and gathered a sort of leaf-mold heap of what it was about.”

If T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein had moved back to America, toked up on amphetamines, and had a love child, it would surely have been Jack Kerouac. The third e-book app I want to recommend today is the new Penguin Books “amplified edition” of On the Road, the thinly fictionalized 1957 travelogue that crystallized the Beat Generation’s world view and made Kerouac famous.

At the center of this app, designed by Burbank, CA-based 1K Studios, is the book itself, with a minimal and judicious set of notes that, helpfully, identify the characters—Dean Moriarty is Neal Cassady, Carlo Marx is Allen Ginsberg, etc. But that’s nothing you couldn’t get from a cheap paperback edition. What justifies this app’s $12.99 price tag, as with The Waste Land, are the extensive extras. It’s a like a Peter Jackson movie with five DVD bonus discs. The features just keep coming at you in waves: photos from Kerouac’s life, video interviews with Carolyn Cassady and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, profiles of the other Beat writers, letters between Kerouac and his publishers, and annotated maps showing the three cross-country trips by Kerouac in 1947, 1949, and 1950 that form the basis of the novel. Most riveting to me, the e-book contains about half an hour of recordings of Kerouac himself reading from the book.

The effect, again, is to contextualize On the Road in a way that would be almost impossible in a print-only edition. I envy the new generation of high school and college students who are likely to have their first encounters with Kerouac and other authors in this format.

If you ask what makes these three iPad titles so successful, I think a few lessons pop out for future e-book designers:

  • Start with a decent text; it’s hard to make a masterpiece look bad.
  • Respect the text. It’s the digital era, but these are still books, not movies with liner notes.
  • Select extras that reinforce or explain the main message.
  • Use design solely to streamline access to the text and the extras. Avoid decoration and chartjunk.
  • Think about tasteful new ways to utilize the touch-based tablet interface. (For example: you can fast-forward or rewind through the videos in The Waste Land simply by swiping left or right; there’s no fussy time bar.)
  • Don’t be afraid to charge for value. The best 1990s-era CD-ROMs sold for $30 to $50; the new iPad titles are at least as good.

Smarter people than I will no doubt come up with more ways to make tablet-based books fun and interesting. For now, these three titles should keep your summer from turning into a waste land.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • David

    So what, authors have to become programmers too now? What the hell is happening to the world when a person has to hold two degrees to have any measure of success?

    The world is just getting tighter and tighter for people who have creativity, but no lengthy education or social life.

    It’s either that or my view of myself should be far, FAR lower… The only reason I became an author was because of the Kindle allowing me to do it myself without a middle man, or excessive restrictions in the industry.