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February 27 2012

Story first, interactivity second

This post is part of the TOC podcast series. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.

Children's book apps are among the most popular products in the iTunes app store. Persian Cat Press recently released one called "The Gift," and it's turning a lot of heads. "The Gift" was written specifically for the iPad, so it's not a repurposed product that originated in print. In this interview with Jos Carlyle, Persian Cat Press creative director, we learn more about what goes into the creation of a successful children's book app.

Key points from the full video interview (below) include:

  • Exciting times for multi-sensory content — The new opportunities touch screens like the iPad offer content producers are seemingly endless. [Discussed at the 1:00 mark.]
  • Story first, interactivity second — The story is written first, of course, but the app's interactivity can't be treated as a last-minute add-on. The reader's interaction must be carefully woven into the story so the two are seamless. [Discussed at 8:14.]
  • Multiple reading scenarios have to be considered — The app might be read by a parent to a child, or it might just be used by a child on his or her own. Various features are included to allow either option, but they have to be implemented in a manner that doesn't feel awkward or obtrusive. [Discussed at 9:00.]
  • Addressing the discoverability problem — Persian Cat Press has taken matters into their own hands. Besides networking with popular bloggers and reviewers, they've created a free app called Cat-Nav that reviews apps and helps make them more visible. [Discussed at 15:20.]
  • What's the "right" price? — It's unfortunate, but important, to realize that book apps are competing with other types of apps, and customers have been conditioned to expect cheaper pricing across the board. The result is a richer, more dynamic product than something similar in print but at a lower price than print ... at least for now. [Discussed at 16:50.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

Jos Carlyle will be speaking at TOC Bologna on March 18th . Registration is currently open, but the event is likely to sell out, so be sure to buy your ticket soon.


January 25 2012

In the case of interactivity, we're still at the phase of irrational enthusiasm

When it comes to including interactive features in books, "just because you can doesn't mean you should" may be your best rule of thumb. Wolfram Research, Inc., co-founder and author of "The Elements" Theodore Gray will address the finer points of interactive features in his keynote address, "Meaningful Interactivity In A Mobile World," at the upcoming Tools of Change for Publishing conference.

In the following interview, Gray offers some insight into the interactivity issue. He says, "Interactivity for its own sake is a bad thing: It should always be serving communication." Gray also says that static ebooks haven't fundamentally changed the dynamics of publishing, but that super-enhanced ebooks are staking out new territory.

Where do you draw the line between meaningful and gimmicky interactivity?

Theodore_Gray_Mug.jpgTheodore Gray: It's all about communication. If an interactive feature helps communicate an idea, helps the reader understand a complicated concept, or in some way makes the material easier to navigate, search, organize, or visualize, then it's probably a good feature. If it's just cool but tends to distract from the material, then maybe it's a good idea for a game but not as an interactive element in a book.

Very much the same principle applies to film editing, where one must always be willing to throw out one's favorite scene because, however cool it is, it does not contribute to the story. In fact, the more cool and amazing a scene or feature is, the more on guard you have to be that perhaps the only reason you like it is because it's cool, not because it has earned a proper place in the film or book you're working on.

It's hard to be more specific because every situation is so different, but in general, I believe in the principles of minimalism expounded by the likes of Edward Tufte and Apple. If you've got pixels on the screen occupied by something that is not directly contributing to communication, then they had better be prepared to justify their existence in front of a skeptical committee. Not that you can never have pure adornment, you'd just better have a really good reason for it.

Are there times when interactivity is detrimental and should be avoided?

Theodore Gray: There are certainly some kinds of activity on the screen that are purely bad — for example, animated images that keep playing while you're trying to read. On the web, people learned years ago how incredibly annoying this is, but the allure to designers is so strong that it seems we need to learn the lesson all over again. A quick movement as an image comes on screen is fine, but if there is body text meant to be read on a page, then the images had better stop moving within a second or less. I think continuous animation is fine on a menu or title page where the focus should actually be on the moving images, but not on a body text page where it is a pure distraction.

I don't want to name names out of deference to the well-intended atrocities committed by some ebooks, but there are a number of examples out there where people obviously felt that their book would benefit from some kind of interactivity, but they didn't have any good ideas for interactivity that would communicate new information or clarify important ideas. So, they just threw in gratuitous things that flip when you touch them and the like. This might be okay in something meant for very small children, but even there I think it's a cop out. Doing good interactivity is very hard, and it's even harder to admit when you don't have a good enough idea and should just stick with plain text.

How have mobile platforms changed the publishing landscape?

Theodore Gray: The large-scale switch to conventional, static ebooks for trade books and scholarly monographs is clearly under full steam, and while print books are here for a very long time, the center of gravity is clearly shifting to ebooks. But this hasn't really fundamentally changed the dynamics of publishing. Yes, there are power struggles between publishers and retailers over price points, margins, etc., but that's nothing new. Publishers have been fighting with retailers for a generation, and I think the introduction of static ebooks is part of a continuous evolution in these power relationships, not, at this point, a fundamentally new thing.

Super-enhanced ebooks like Touch Press publishes are a bit further out of bounds, in that they stake out a new territory somewhere between book publishing, game development, and movie/television production. If they turn out to be an important segment of the book market, then they change the kinds of talent and skills publishers need to be competitive. Whether they will also stake out new territory in distribution models or power relationships between authors, agents, publishers, and retailers/distributors remains to be seen.

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What kinds of tools do authors need to create interactive content, and what new skills might they need to develop?

Theodore Gray: Good interactivity is hard. Fundamentally, it's the same skill set needed for any kind of software development, which means hard-core programming talent, interactive/game design skill, and visual design skill. There are some tools that can make interactivity much easier within limited domains, but most of these result in shallow — which is to say bad — interactivity.

For highly technical kinds of interactivity, Wolfram|Alpha and Wolfram's Computational Document Format are attractive tools, in that they allow very deep computation and data-based interactivity with minimal software development. But for more visual/graphical or game-like interactivity, there are no shortcuts.

What are some guidelines authors should follow when considering interactive features for content?

Theodore Gray: You have to be ruthless in assessing what kinds of interactivity, if any, are appropriate. Back when computers were first able to print with a range of different fonts, people started producing documents littered with dozens of different fonts and faces. It's a natural response, but it's also a passing phase. Today, it's not so important to have rules like "no more than three fonts on a page" because people are no longer excited about this capability, and they naturally tend toward more reasonable font choices.

In the case of interactivity, we're still at the phase of irrational enthusiasm for littering every page with six different interactive things, whether they make any sense or not. Interactivity for its own sake is a bad thing: It should always be serving communication.

How should one decide between building an ebook and building an app? Is there a tipping point?

Theodore Gray: The tipping point is when there is important, meaningful, useful interactivity you want to have in your book, but it isn't supported by the ebook format you have available. This is a shifting ground, as ebook formats continue to evolve to support more kinds of interactivity. For Touch Press, what we do is so far beyond what anything like EPUB can do that there's no question about it — we have to make apps. For a mystery novel, it might be equally obvious that it should be a static ebook.

The important point that some people seem to miss is that the only difference between an "ebook" and an "ebook app" is technical. An ebook app should still be a book and have all the same characteristics of readability — good writing, user-driven pacing, calm presentation, etc. — as a static ebook does.

I think it's a failing of the current distribution models that there is such a hard line between ebooks and apps. The fact that there is a "Books" category in the Apple App Store as well as an iBooks store is very un-Apple-like in the confusion it creates. There should just be a bookstore that contains books. Some of those books might be EPUB-format static ebooks with limited interactivity, some of them might be more highly interactive books that are implemented with their own custom C-code (i.e. they are apps), but either way, they are books in a bookstore.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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June 03 2011

10 innovative digital books you should know about

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." 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.)

A year ago I was knee-deep in iPad apps, sifting for gold among sludge as I combed for Best iPad Apps-worthy entries. My next book has me back in waders, this time looking for innovative, user-friendly digital books. Seems like a shame to wait for the pub date to share my findings.

What follows, then, is an early snapshot of some of the best of what I've seen. You'll no doubt notice a heavy bias towards iPad apps. Partly that's because of my previous research, partly it's because of where developer dollars are flowing. Still, not everyone has the same taste in fruit. Please, please dear reader: help me make this a less Apple-centric list by sending me your suggestions (my contact info is at the end of this post). PR overtures are welcome but, hey, channel the spirit of Twitter: keep the pitches brief and send them in English-major-friendly English, okay?

Cathy's Book

An iPhone app implementation of a print book that, impressively, does loads that can't be done in print: animated renderings of the narrator's sketchbook drawings; voicemail phone clues that contribute to the story; and audio/text mashups that are more than simply a recorded version of what you can read onscreen. The designers have even done a great job of moving between regular text and brief animations. That one's tough to pull off in a way that maintains the "reading line": the storytelling momentum that pulls a reader along from start to finish.

Cathy's Book

Operation Ajax

A "motion comics" version of the CIA's involvement in the 1950s Iranian revolution. Much more than a digital replica of a graphic novel; the action moves within and between panels. Plus, research dossiers are available for all key characters (rotate the iPad from portrait to landscape to see these) for when you want to learn more about the main players.

Operation Ajax iPad book app

Music: An Appreciation (an Inkling textbook)

Some very cool annotated musical scores here let students read captions, listen to the recording, and see what parts of the score are being commented on as the music plays.

Music: An Appreciation (an Inkling textbook)

iBirdPro HD

A digital version of the traditional field guide. Great search feature lets you select one of a half dozen characteristics you're interested in (Size, Habitat, Color, etc.) and then input particular values (big, Hawaii, red, etc.). Very neat way to search through 1,000 or so bird profiles and winnow down the list to match the ones that meet your criteria. Another to-be-expected but quite well done feature: recordings of all the various birds.

The Civil War Today

A history of the Civil War presented as a collection of "you are there" archives (diary entries, newspaper articles, photos). Each day over a 500ish day timeframe, a new day's worth of archival material is released. Your relationship to the book therefore plays out across the same time span as the war itself did. Layout is also innovative: the whole thing is done up as a 19th century style newspaper rather than a book's traditional table of contents.

The Civil War Today

NYPL Biblion

Interesting effort from the NY Public Library to present a collection of everything they've got on the 1939 World's Fair. At heart it's simply browsable articles, photos, and other source material from the library's archives. But there's a couple of innovative (and, for my money, slightly overdone) navigation and presentation features. For example, rather than a text-only table of contents they've identified a half dozen or so themes and constructed a 3D-ish wall of icons you can browse through to explore each of these groups.

NYPL Biblion

Glo Bible

Bible reading app with some nifty features, including a zoomable book view that lets you go from a high-level view of all the books in the Old/New testament, down one magnification level to a view of one book (say, Exodus) and all its chapters, and, finally, down to page-view level. In other words: it's a great way to switch quickly from birdseye- to page-view level.

Glo Bible iPad app


Another Bible reading app. Filled with some powerful reader aids: lots of links within the text between different books; pop-up definitions of archaic terms; text comparisons (so you can see how the text varies between different translations); cross-reference previews (brief glimpse of the referenced text so you can see what the link is pointing towards before clicking it); and a dual-pane reading view so you can have multiple texts onscreen at the same time (e.g. the Bible and some commentary).

Logos Bible Software iPad app

Virtual History ROMA

A collection of historical essays, photos, and illustrations that offer a multimedia history of Rome. Particularly innovative features include: Overlays (move a slider and watch how a marsh in Rome changed from, say, 10 A.D. to the Colosseum in 72 A.D.) and virtual reality views (called "Bubble" views) that you can explore by moving your iPad around to pan across the scene.

Virtual History ROMA iPad app

Welcome to Pine Point

Okay, here's proof that the best action isn't happening only on the iPad. A digital book released earlier this spring, this one's web-based (and Flash-based, to boot). It combines video, text, and audio to tell the story of what happened to a town abandoned by the Canadian government. All in all, it's a really powerful tale and incredibly thoughtful integration of all the different media elements.

Welcome to Pine Point

What's crossed your radar? I'd love to hear; email me at peter dot meyers at gmail dot com.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup — Pete Meyers looks at the growing number of digital book tools: what's best, what's easiest to use, and what's worth putting in your book-building toolkit.

Join us on Thursday, June 30, 2011, at 10 am PT
Register for this free webcast


May 26 2011

Part book, part film, part website

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." 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.)

I've been writing about and helping create digital books for about 15 years now and I don't think I've seen anything as innovative, as well executed, and as plain lovely to look at as "Welcome to Pine Point." No disrespect to the great work done by teams at Push Pop (Our Choice), Touch Press (The Elements), or Potion (NYPL Biblion), but all those projects take the print page as the starting point and ask: how can we best recreate that reading experience onscreen?

"Pine Point," instead, is an example of something that couldn't exist in any other medium. Its creators describe it as "part book, part film, part website," which sounds about right; it mixes audio, video, still photos, prose, and movable images to tell the story of a Canadian town that was abandoned, and then demolished, in the late 1980s. But as most people reading this blog know: that multimedia stew's been cooked before.

Title page for Welcome to Pine Point
Title page for Welcome to Pine Point. Click to enlarge

So why is "Pine Point" such a success?

Quality, for starters. The team behind this project — Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, aka The Goggles — have sweated the details on how to integrate all those various media elements in a viewer-friendly way, one that immerses the audience in the story. A story that, not incidentally, touches on themes (abandonment, aging, environmentalism) moving enough to reward the time it takes — about 30 minutes — to watch it.

I'll highlight below some features that make the work especially noteworthy, but I urge you to have a look for yourself. It's Flash, so no go for Apple's mobile gadgets. But, please, don't let that scare you off. And, hey, one other suggestion: don't try gulping this one down between meetings or while on a conference call. Wake up early one of these days or watch after the kids have gone to bed. Like any great book, it rewards attention and suffers from skimming.

Creator-led reading path

The impulse to hand over navigational control to readers in a digital book is considerable. After all, the web gave us the thrill of wandering across its endless terrain ...and who hasn't delighted in that? But books are different. Part of their appeal — especially those that tell stories — is how they offer a "sit-back" experience for readers. We follow, entranced, the author's tale; our only job as audience is turning the page. Tarting up a story with links to Wikipedia, "enhancements" that launch other apps, and anything else that requires the reader to decide what to explore — none of these things are in and of themselves bad; they just don't induce that magical feeling of losing yourself in a book.

And what you get when viewing "Pine Point" is exactly that. Thanks to the authors' decisions on what not to include, on how to arrange this picture next to that bit of prose, on how to compose a tightly scripted narrative ... they've betrayed every 21st century notion of reader-as-director and in exchange given us something precious: a polished vision that only happens when an artist labors and creates.

Now, that doesn't mean there are no bells, whistles and clickable lures in this work (more on those baubles in a moment); but the viewer is only invited to explore in ways that, to me, matched how my eye might linger on a rich and complexly designed print page.

Reader-controlled pacing

Movies proceed at whatever pace the director decides. A book, by contrast, puts the reader in charge of pacing. You can pause at any point to digest some surprising revelation, or re-read a passage that didn't quite register or moved you deeply. "Pine Point," it's true, is a kind of book/film/website hybrid. But where it feels most "book-like" to me is the way it's been designed to let the reader determine the speed at which he moves through the material.

Minimal interactivity

Everything, in other words, is not clickable — only the stuff that benefits from reader inspection (e.g. playing a video, click-turning a platter of buttons to explore what's on their backside). For everything else, the designers have made the great choice to minimize distraction and user anxiety by not littering the screen with "Hey!, Yo! Click me!" options.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup — Pete Meyers looks at the growing number of digital book tools: what's best, what's easiest to use, and what's worth putting in your book-building toolkit.

Join us on Thursday, June 30, 2011, at 10 am PT
Register for this free webcast


You know how, in a great movie, the score becomes part of the film in a way that's practically inseparable from the visuals and whatever the actors are saying? You don't notice the music because it's blended with all those other elements. Meanwhile the quality (even if you know nothing about sound design) matches the rest of what's onscreen. That's what you get in "Pine Point": a serious, contemplative, mood-setting score (courtesy of The Besnard Lakes). It's mesmerizing.

Video headshots

So maybe The Goggles guys didn't come up with this one on their own. I've seen it done elsewhere on the web and football fans will recognize it from the player/stat profiles in most big time games: the headshot that's not a still, but rather uses video. The effect is as instructive as it is unsettling: you watch the person and it's not exactly that they're squirming, but their face moves — an eye twitches or wanders; a finger comes up to scratch the face; lips get wetted. All told, you learn something more, something different, in these video portraits than you do in a normal headshot.

Custom-drawn UI

There's a definite visual theme — call it something like Nostalgic Scrapbook — throughout this work. And by spending the extra time to hand craft control elements ("page next" and "Go" buttons, menu trees, and so on), the designers have made sure that no visual intrusions occur, as would be the case if the stock Adobe controls were visible.

Graceful integration of text and images

This one rarely get done well, in my opinion. And you don't have to be a typography geek to notice what's easy to botch: as prose, pictures, and video mingle in digital books there's a certain amateur quality to things like font selection and positioning. What the "Pine Point" designers have done right is settled on a thematically consistent font, crafted a nice background for each phrase (to ensure visibility on the widely ranging videos and pix upon which the text is superimposed), and laid each block down with line breaks and alignment that's suggestive of the poetry that this writing aspires to. It's wonderful to read, it's lovely to look at, and it meshes perfectly with the visuals that accompany it.

Text and images integrated harmoniously
Text and images integrated harmoniously. Click to enlarge

Looping videos

If a page appears with a video queued up and waiting, readers need to lean forward and press play. That leads to the problem I touched on earlier: audiences like authors to "drive"; they're used to not having to make any decisions beyond turning the page. But then there's the flipside risk: if you present a viewer with a video on auto-start: a) if it's annoying you're gonna alienate the viewer, and b) what do you do when the video stops?

There's a kind of fluid continuity — a momentum — to books that can easily get disrupted if you reach the end of, say, a one-minute video and it just shuts off. So the "Pine Point" creators make the risky but ultimately successful decision to play their videos in an endless loop. What you'll notice, though, if you look closely at the start/restart seams, is the care they've taken to choose these points for maximum continuity. The effect of these video loops is that they contribute to the work's overall mesmerizing quality ... you can linger on a page and even forget you're seeing the same thing over and over.

Beautiful writing

From start to finish: it's spare, finely crafted, and consistent with the elegiac visual tone. Lovely.

Exploration encouraged ... within limits

I know, I know: I just got finished writing about how reader-controlled exploration is poison to the book-reading experience. But we're talking about a web-based book here for pete's sake, so maybe a teensy bit of well-crafted, carefully selected, and browsing-within-close-boundaries is ok? Okay. One of the best instances can be found in the Shelf Life section. It's a grid of looping videos, each of which you can click to play.

Grid of continuously looping videos
Grid of continuously looping videos. Click to enlarge

You'll see how smoothly the play action is when you switch between videos: no lag, no jarring audio break ... the sound of one gently gives way to the sound of the next. No pop-up window or different media player launches to break the spell of the book that you're within. It's all perfectly immersive.

Side-by-side videos

For example: the opening frame of the What's Weird section. It's a comparison between 1987 (left) and 2009 (right).

Grid of continuously looping videos
Side-by-side videos showing before-and-after scenes of Pine Point. Click to enlarge

It's a powerful way of depicting before and after, with the left video underscoring the point that life was teeming back then and the right side showing how, today, it's a desolate and abandoned site.

Source document integration

This one's also in the What's Weird section, about four screens in. (Okay, I've done enough gushing to lodge one complaint: they need to come up with a better way to cite individual pages.) Here we see memos from the government announcing the town's closing. Without any annotations these documents contain too much text to focus on what's important. The solution? Highlight the key points in yellow so the viewer can home in on the key points.

Grid of continuously looping videos
Key passages highlighted in yellow. Click to enlarge

Enough telling. Go, watch it yourself. See what digital books can do that can't be done in print and still satisfy that reading experience that all of us book fans crave.

P.S.: Just learned a bit more about The Goggles' production partners in this effort: the interactive division of the National Film Board of Canada. Looks like they've got a bunch of neat projects on their site.


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