Digital Reading: To Do Digital Books Right, Writers Will Learn to Talk Tech
By Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND
The way forward in digital book development is collaborative, rule breaking, and cribs a lot of ideas from CD-ROM development. In the future, some writers will be scribbling away by themselves in unheated garrets, but many others will be working with a development team that includes programmers and designers—possibly in unheated garrets, unless they add a budget-minded producer to the team. This is how writer and digital book producer Peter Meyers sees the next phase of digital books unfolding for writers.
Meyers, whose blog, A New Kind of Book, investigates how writing can be transformed when it moves from print to digital, experienced this evolution in his own career. While a graduate student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Meyers availed himself of the university’s computer science department. Writing code “captured my attention in a way hard-to-finish short stories did not.” From there Meyers went on to co-found Digital Learning Interactive, one of the first companies to publish web-based multimedia textbooks. It was great training, he says, in creating engaging learning experiences that students consume on a screen.
And it is as both a writer and a software developer that Meyers critiques the first-generation, emerging transmedia and digital reading efforts. His presentation at last winter’s Book Camp NY—“iPad Books and the Reader’s Experience”—was meant to “spark a discussion on that elusive, almost trancelike state we enter when devouring a (typically) print book. Do these app books deliver the same kind of immersive feeling among readers as print books? If not, why not?”
Changing the Way Writers Work
Although the current crop of devices and programs interests Meyers, it’s the evolution of the writer’s job, as well as the writer’s need to think harder about the reading experience, that draws his attention today. With the arrival of the iPad, he says,
Writers who want to do more than simply present plain text really need to learn how the various parts fit together: the design of the reading presentation that they’re making; the programming; the user interface; the reader’s experience. These are projects where you need to have a writer at the table, as well as a producer who brings together all the parties: writer, developer, designer, project manager—not to mention a business model!
Here’s the point of change: Right now we don’t need a lot of advice about how to write and publish a novel using paper and ink. “But once you as a writer or publisher want to create something for these touch-screen devices, what are your options? How can you design your content to entertain or inform your audience in a way that can’t be done in print and how can you do that in a way that respects the reader’s experience?”
“The first job of any writer in any genre,” says Meyers, “is to craft and publish great prose. That doesn’t change. But a writer today faces a different challenge: information overload, on the part of writers and readers alike. There are too many free and paid options for readers; they have so much to choose from. Even if your work is great, if it’s bundled in a reading environment that is sluggish or makes it difficult to digest, then no matter how hard you’ve worked, the reader will lose patience and go somewhere else.”
Creating Books Together with Technologists
Writers by themselves can help their work by applying some principles of good web writing to everything they do: creating titles and subtitles that attract readers; delivering important or main points at or near the beginning of the work; making it clear to which category, genre, or area the work belongs.
One thing writers don’t need to know how to do, Meyers points out, is program apps. But they do need to at least understand the difference in the reading experience between devices and platforms in order to be active participants when talking to agents or publishers. And they need to learn how to talk to and collaborate with digital experts. After all, says Meyers, the answers to the challenges of multimedia books often don’t come from the traditional publishing world. In many cases they come from software, web, and game developers who deal with UX issues all the time and are particularly well equipped to think through digital book creation.
Meyers’s forthcoming book, Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience, will show through example the ways writers and others can create digital works that engage readers as thoroughly as the printed book.
“My goal is to inspire people to see all the different things that can be done on a touch-screen canvas; to start thinking about the books they’re creating in new kinds of ways. There’s such an explosion of creativity today in all ways, but so much is happening that is not from traditional book publishers. I want to share with the world a catalog of really fun and engaging ideas so creative people can know what the possibilities are; showing them how and why to do things they’re not even aware of.”
NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group for editors and others working in trade publishing to discuss standards, workflow, best practices, and the general Qs that most print people feel when confronted with terms like “workflow.” The Forum is moderated by Anne Kostick and David B. Schlosser. Anne’s weekly column, Digital Reading, discusses the field of User Experience and explores what it offers to trade publishers.
Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the editor in chief of Dulcinea Media, an online publisher in the educational market, and is the current president of Women’s Media Group.