The recent official launch for The City We Build, the amplified ebook made between if:book and the Queensland Poetry Festival, has highlighted some of the challenges faced by authors, publishers, and readers when designing digital books that take advantage of their capabilities. Regardless of how well designed or how beautiful its content, The City We Build is unlikely to ever reach some readers. This is because it has been designed for one digital platform alone.
Writers and publishers alike want their content accessible and available to as many readers as possible, but in the digital world this means taking into account a wide variety of devices. Some have high colour screens that can handle video and other content. Some have more simple 'eink' black and white screens that are simply not fast enough to handle anything other than page turns (and even those are too slow for some readers). Some devices are connected to the internet and handle much more than just reading; others are largely unaware of anything on the web other than their own bookstore. Some devices use highly response touch-sensitive surfaces, others opt for physical buttons.
Some devices are available in Australia, others are not.
It's entirely appropriate there should be no one-size-fits-all reading device. But, for creators of content, this incredible diversity of devices presents a challenge of first principle.
What kind of book are we making here?
To suit as many readers as possible, books must be designed for the simplest of devices. To a large extent, this means text only. The simplest ereaders replicate the basic book experience as closely as possible. This means no colour, no video, no hyperlinking. Of course, for many books, this presents no problem at all.
The original poems from The City We Build were written for a Choose Your Own locative project. To read the poems, you had to stand there, on the corner of Brunswick and Ann, smartphone or tablet in hand. Your phone connected you to the poem via the web. You read or listened along, while juggling your phone, searching for references, and looking strange to passers by. That was part of the fun.
The purpose of The City We Build was to adapt the locative project into book form, without losing its sense of place or its multimedia origins. We wanted you to feel as though you were still wandering the Valley streets, maybe minus the heat and the legwork. This meant incorporating images and audio. Most of all, to replicate the reader's choice of experience, jumping from poem to poem, we needed hyperlinks.
In Australia, right now, the platform that meets all those needs is Apple's iPad.
So who has iPads anyway? There's some debate over exactly what market share the iPad enjoys globally, but the most recent (and apparently dourest) estimates still hit more than 40%. In Australia, without competition from the Kindle Fire or the Nook, the share would almost certainly be higher. In real numbers, apparently 22.9 million of the things were sold in the last quarter alone (if you have specific figures for Australia, let me know). Man, that's a lot of tablets. And, although Android tablets (most of the remaining 60%) make perfectly fine reading devices, the platform is yet to emphasise the kind of extra features needed for this project.
Although that's the picture today, don't forget this is likely to change at any time. Already we're seeing some projects that could revolutionise the way digital art books are made in the near future, but for the moment (and with our resources), The City We Build is a project with but one destination.
It's a trade off publishers and writers face all the time. Do you make a work suitable for a range of devices or do you exploit the features of a single device to make as rich an experience as possible? The direction you choose will depend on a myriad of factors, but the guiding principle should always be to serve the work itself first.