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September 27 2011

Pictures that propel prose

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)


What's the best way to combine text and pictures? Most designers — print or digital — try to artfully position both on the same page. Brian Selznick, author and illustrator of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" uses a deceptively simple alternative: he devotes an entire spread (that is, two pages side by side) to each of the hundreds of illustrations in this charming and inventive story of a boy living alone in a train station. So, it's a page of text, a page of text, drawing spread, a page of text, and so on.

Now that might sound like a lousy idea, one that could easily impose a page-flipping burden on the reader as she flips between pages to see the drawings or, worse, skips right over them. You see this happen all the time in computer books (sorry, O'Reilly!). The text on one page references the figure on another. All that back and forth between this page with the prose and that page with the picture impedes understanding and futzes with any flow the reader has established.

But Selznick puts his drawings to work, doing more than just illustrating what his prose explains. In "Hugo Cabret," the art takes the storytelling baton from the text and, on its own, advances the plot. It's an elegant device.

For example, at one point, the text describes an episode in which the boy, Hugo, follows a man who's taken a notebook from him. We follow the pair leaving the train station, walking out onto the street, and the man ignoring Hugo's pleas to return his notebook. The last paragraph in this scene, which is found at the bottom of a right-hand page, reads:

"Stop clicking the street with your heels," the old man hissed through his teeth. "And don't make me say it again." He shook his head and adjusted his hat. Then, quietly, he said to himself, "I hope the snow covers everything so all the footsteps are silenced, and the whole city can be at peace."

Next comes five spreads showing the two walking through the city, with Hugo tailing the man. On the final drawing the two enter a cemetery.

illustration from Hugo Cabret showing a cemetery
In "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," the text that follows this illustration assumes the reader has taken note of the pictured graveyard. (Click to enlarge.)

The text picks up again on the next page and begins: "They soon arrived at a decrepit apartment building across from the graveyard."

See what happened there? The illustration is what first signaled the reader that the pair had entered a graveyard; when the text mentions it again ("the graveyard"), the assumption is that the reader already knows of its role in the story. By turning the visuals into part of the plot, Selznick earns his artwork more attention than a typical illustration-enhanced work of fiction. Readers, many of whom have gotten used to regarding art as "just a picture" that they can safely skip, learn that they need to pay attention to find out how the story unfolds.

So what's the digital book takeaway? While I'm not advocating a direct replica of this perfect-for-print solution, I do think it holds one especially valuable lesson. By not cramming loads of different media types onto the same page and by purposefully relegating different items onto their own pages, Selznick gains control of the "reading path": the order in which he's decided the content should be consumed.

But isn't that kind of authoritarian mandate heresy in an era of interactive, pick-your-path productions?

Not necessarily. Especially when it comes to fiction, letting the author control the reading experience is not necessarily a bad thing. By relieving the reader of any choice-making responsibilities — even as subtle as, Should I read this or that? or, Should I play this video or finish the text? — you give the audience something priceless: the ability to focus on the story.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

Join us on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at 10 am PT
Register for this free webcast

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June 24 2011

Radar's top stories: June 20-24, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published on Radar this week.


How is HTML 5 changing web development?
Remy Sharp discusses HTML5's current usage and how it could influence the future of web apps and browsers (hint: in time, we may not notice browsers at all.)
Big data and open source unlock genetic secrets
Genomics scientist Charlie Quinn is combining experimental data with publicly available information to advance the life sciences.


Scale your JavaScript, scale your team
"High Performance JavaScript" author Nicholas Zakas discusses the issues that pop up when you build big JavaScript apps with big teams.

The smart grid data deluge
The smart grid is an information revolution for utilities, and the first line of the information the grid uses will come from smart meters. EMeter's Aaron DeYonker discusses meter use and data applications in this interview.
9 digital book-making tools
As a preview for his upcoming free webcast, Pete Meyers offers a quick overview of digital tools used for app and ebook creation.




OSCON Java 2011, being held July 25-27 in Portland, Ore., is focused on open source technologies that make up the Java ecosystem. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD


May 19 2011

Open Question: Are we at the ebook tipping point?

questionmarkIn a news release today, Amazon announced that Kindle book sales are outpacing sales of hardcover and paperback book sales combined. The release included several interesting statistics:

  • Since April 1, for every 100 print books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 105 Kindle books. This includes sales of hardcover and paperback books by Amazon where there is no Kindle edition. Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the number even higher.
  • Amazon sold more than 3x as many Kindle books so far in 2011 as it did during the same period in 2010.
  • Less than one year after introducing the UK Kindle Store, Amazon.co.uk is now selling more Kindle books than hardcover books, even as hardcover sales continue to grow. Since April 1, Amazon.co.uk customers are purchasing Kindle books over hardcover books at a rate of more than 2 to 1.

These stats beg the question: Are we at the ebook tipping point?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.



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