A good year for screen readers: notable eBooks of 2013

Serialised eBook chapters force us to make time to read. Ken Lee

I’ve nominated these eBooks as notable publications in 2013 based on three criteria. First, I enjoyed reading them enough to finish the whole text on a digital device. Second, they use the digital format to do something that print cannot. Third, the typographic and interactive elements have enhanced my reading experience, rather than distracted me from the narrative.

As an iPhone and iPad owner, my selections are Apple specific.

1. The Silent History

Co-written by Eli Horowitz, Kevin Moffett, Matthew Derby and Russell Quinn. Published by Ying Horwitz & Quinn

iTunes App Store

Written and designed specifically for iPads and iPhones, The Silent History is notable because it uses its digital format to push the boundaries of what a novel is. Technically, the book was published in 2012, but chapters were released in serialised format – one a day – between October 1, 2012, and April 19, 2013.

The typesetting is classic and highly readable, with strong hierarchy showing which character is speaking and when. App Store

The central narrative describes a phenomenon where a growing number of children born in the early 21st century are silent – they have no capacity for speech, no visible comprehension or social interaction with their parents or other children. The narrative is structured as a series of oral history “testimonials”, written in first person by characters who come in contact with these children: parents, teachers, doctors, government officials and even cult leaders and faith healers. The story spans three decades, looking at the personal, social and cultural impact of this silent phenomenon from multiple perspectives.

To read the book, you first need to download the app, which is A$1.99. It comes comes with Volume One (the first 20 chapters), plus an introduction, prologue and extra audio-visual material that establishes the fictional world, pre-loaded. The remaining five volumes (100 chapters) can be purchased for A$8.49 from within the app.

‘The Condition’ video from the pre-loaded content on The Silent History app, introducing the phenomenon of ‘Emergent Phasic Resistance’ at the heart of the novel.

This format is similar to how magazine subscriptions are being released for digital Readers: an app is downloaded onto the reading device (in this case, only an iPhone or iPad), then new issues are made available as in-app purchases. This means that the app icon on your Reader becomes a portal to collect all future issues or chapters in the one spot, without having to go back to the iTunes store or other shopfront (such as Amazon).

A serialised release also allows readers to try before you buy. In this case, a A$1.99 commitment before paying the full amount, which still comes in under A$12.

I discovered the book in January and after reading the first chapters and watching the video content – which is artfully produced, convincingly setting up the fictional world and demonstrating how to interact with the interface of the novel – I immediately purchased the rest of the book.

The Introduction has two short videos and a written prologue to introduce readers to the world of the novel, and explain how to interact with the interface, in order to navigate through the different sections of the novel. App store

Once I caught up with the serialised releases, waiting for new chapters was as frustrating as watching an engaging television series live. The serialised format also altered my reading practice. I was forced not only to wait, but to reflect on my impatience, and challenged to set aside daily time to keep reading.

Fortunately for other impatient people, now that the entire publication has been released, you can access it all at once.

It’s worth noting that many early novels were first published in serialised form, printed in weekly instalments. This was a format borrowed from non-fiction publishing of the time, but embraced by the likes of Charles Dickens, whose novel The Pickwick Papers was written with this publishing model in mind, between April 1836 and November 1837.

Serialised publishing allowed Dickens and other authors to listen and respond to readers’ responses on their work, and alter the plot developments accordingly. Many authors may baulk at this intrusion on the creative process, but in 2012 Amazon picked up on the idea, releasing a series of serialised short stories for the Kindle.

The map shows how many ‘field reports’ have been lodged in different locations. Zooming into the map reveals pins on specific street locations that readers have to walk to with their GPS enabled device in order to access. app store

Although the authors of The Silent History did not, as far as I know, allow reader response to influence the plot development, they did build in a participatory element.

A selection of several hundred “Field Reports” can also be accessed when a reader physically stands in a location on a map and uses the GPS on the phone/iPad to tap into site specific photographs and written “reports”.

These bonus reports are written by the authors and invited contributors, but also by enthusiastic readers, including several Australian contributions. I didn’t engage with this aspect of the book, but I can see how it would appeal to others.

2. Gimbal

Multiple authors, published by Toru Interactive

Gimbal opening page, and screen showing the interface to select a story. Author's screen shots

Gimbal is a short story anthology designed for commuters that allows readers to choose a short story in several ways: set in a city they’d like to visit; set on a mode of transport; by genre; or, by the duration of their daily journey.

Author's screen shot
Three sizes for text, on the iPhone. Author's screen shots

Alternatively, an audio recording of the story can be downloaded, with an interactive map that points out key locations from the city that appear in the story:

Author's screen shots

Engaging map pins show a building with additional information:

Author's screen shot

The stories contained within the app come from two literary projects. Literature Across Frontiers’ Tramlines project paired writers from different cities, inviting them to explore each others home town via tram travel and write stories based on the experience.

Comma Press’ Reading the City is an ongoing anthology series exploring “new ways for fictional narratives and urban landscapes interact”, with stories from more than 50 cities around the world.

The quality and diversity of the writing, coupled with the option to select stories based on how long I have to read, makes this anthology notable. However, the interactive map and audio elements are less impressive than other apps I’ve seen (in particular, the SoHo stories audio map is incredible, and worthy of a future column post).

3. Interaction of Color

Written and illustrated by Josef Albers, adapted for the iPad by Yale

Teacher, painter and colour theorist Josef Albers published Interaction of Color in 1963. A pioneer of 20th Century modernism, Albers book remains a classic text for art and design students.

Hardback edition with slipcase. Yale University Press

To celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary, Yale University Press released a new paperback and the digital edition, to complement a 2009 hardback edition. The hardback – beautifully produced with a slipcase 145 colour illustrations – retails at A$250. The app costs A$10.99 for the entire text, images and additional audio-visual commentary and interactive material. Santa, please note that I still want both.

Video demo of the iPad app showing the interactive features and diverse content.
Screen shot from yup.org.

The digital edition contains the entire text and the illustrated plates from the original book. The text includes tap-able “hotspots” over key terms that pull up a definition, and thumbnails of images so you can easily toggle between the illustrated plate and text.

There is also video commentary from prominent designers, scholars and artists discussing the importance of colour in the creative process, and archival audio and video of Josef Albers talking through special exercises.

Interactive sections allow users to create, save and share exercises, and even export colour palettes to design software:

Screenshot from yupnet.org

The digital edition is playful, intuitive and no doubt appealing to an audience who grew up tapping screens more than turning pages. It is also a more affordable option for students and educators than the print edition, though obviously having a copy of both would be ideal to demonstrate the differences between colour on page and screen.

Video overview introducing colour as an element of design practice, and the relevance of Albers’ book to a contemporary audience.

There is incredible innovation happening in the digital realm, and I have omitted many excellent publications that I enjoyed this year but I will save discussion of those for future posts in my column.

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