Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
A little while ago, I came across this Salon article about enhanced ebooks, and how they’re all jazz hands and glitter without any useful enhancement. I don’t know about you, but consigning enhanced ebook apps to the scrap heap strikes me as both an exclusionary point of view and very premature. If we care to take a retrospective gander at the fifties, most people thought those newfangled picture boxes weren’t going to catch on. And let’s not even get into more recent developments that were just as easily dismissed, like, say, MP3s.
Who exactly are these gun-jumping trash talkers? Bloomsbury’s Evan Schnittman, for one, who at this year’s London Book Fair announced that enhanced ebook apps were dead. According to this Futurebook article, his exact quote was, “Enhanced will have an incredibly big future in education, but the idea of innovating in the narrative reading process is just a non-starter, I’ve been smug, and now I’m even smugger.”
No one’s arguing, sir. You are undeniably both smug and smugger. And while I agree that enhanced ebooks dovetail most naturally with education, I think there’s considerable potential for effective and beautiful enhancement in other genres as well. For example, Chasing Fireflies: A Haiku Collection, is a new poetry app recently released by Honeybee Labs, consisting of 150 haiku presented against a strikingly lovely, interactive background. Ryan Modjeski, CEO of Honeybee Labs, is quoted in this Publishers Weekly article as saying:
Our job here was to enhance some of the best poetry ever written. I remembered learning about the concept that haiku had embedded keywords, called ‘kigo,’ in each poem that inform the time of year the poem is meant to evoke. We took that idea and ran with it. I tracked down some phenomenal public domain haiku translations, and went about selecting the poems that really resonated with me, had a universal appeal, and covered a full range of emotions. We then matched the poems and their ‘kigo’ to the appropriate seasonal landscape.
According to the same article, the app has a minimalist design and soundtrack meant to enhance rather than overshadow the poetry that lies at the center. Readers can shake rustling leaves out of trees or turn on lights in houses, and the app’s table of contents is a wheel, meant to symbolize the book’s cyclical nature as the haiku traverse the seasons.
I don’t know, Evan Schnittman. That doesn’t sound like a non-starter to me. That sounds beautiful.
The same article goes on to cite Al Gore’s Our Choice, the recently released app of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and the Penguin amplified ebook series that includes Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, as examples of the higher-minded, more literary enhanced book apps that are beginning to appear on the market.
As I see it, there are two essential problems with ebook apps: production cost and discoverability. Much of the time, designing an effective and attractive enhanced ebook proves prohibitively expensive for traditional publishers, which is probably why a Forrester Research survey recently revealed that only 15% of publishers think of apps as a significant revenue source.
But, as Publishing Perspectives’ Edward Nawotka states, of course this would be the case; traditional publishers are publishers, not production companies. Their budgets are tight. Yet as an increasing amount of exciting start-ups like Push Pop Press, Moonbot Studios, and Touch Press draw together groups of professionals with publishing, designing, and programming skill sets—and app production becomes less about tinkering with a new medium and more about refining an emerging art form—we’re going to see more and more apps like Chasing Fireflies. Maybe the savvier of publishing houses will even create new departments dedicated to the production of such apps.
The second problem with ebooks apps is discoverability. An app isn’t going to be profitable unless users can find it and download it—and that’s easier said than done in the immensely cluttered ecosystems of the Android Market and the Apple iTunes App Store. Unless an app is on some sort of top fifty list, it’s very likely to languish among the multitudes and fail to cover the expenses generated by its creation, much less turn a profit.
But this falls into the category of growing pains rather than fatal conditions. As ReadWriteWeb points out, there are already apps to help users deal with too many apps. And as start-ups like Honeybee Labs, along with the more enterprising of publishing houses, learn how to more effectively market and publicize their creations, enhanced ebook apps are going to become much more discoverable and therefore profitable.
What does this all mean? As far as I’m concerned, it means that Evan Schnittman will one day feast on humble pie. And you may be sure that it will be tangy.