A Black Balloon Publication ©
December 19, 2012

FutureText/LoveSounds: My Year in Evolving (e-)Books

By Manjula Martin
"But does it need to run on iOS-5?"

"But does it need to run on iOS-5?"

I’m a book person, not a tech person, but I love hybrid books. Or at least I love the idea of them; the possibilities in combining print, narrative, and tech are surprisingly as-yet untapped. Since evolving books are basically what Black Balloon Publishing specializes in, I'm taking a look at the year's most interesting e-book experiments, presented here in ascending order of awesomeness.

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Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
e-book available across platforms; online video game archived online
Angle: There were only two rules in my childhood household: no video games, and no horror movies. (No curfew either, but really, what’s the point without access to shock media?) Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One wouldn’t make it past my mom's carport. The book, available as a regular print or e-book, is a video-game geek’s dream in which characters must use the power of 80s pop culture trivia to find a hidden fortune and gain control of the dystopian future. To bump it up to true fantasy level, Cline commissioned a video game treasure hunt that mirrors the plot of the book, with a grand prize for the winner: a real Dolorean.
Access: The video game tie-in has ended. So … while cool, this one strikes me more as marketing gimmick than lasting literary e-event. Any true gamer geeks want to make an argument otherwise?

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The Silent History, by Ying Horowitz & Quinn LLC
App for iPhone and iPad
Angle: I reviewed The Silent History last week but didn’t talk much about the geo-locked field reports. There are a few in my neighborhood, which I’ve enjoyed for the new perspective they offer on everyday localia. But digital publishing expert Jane Friedman has an objection: the reports are mostly in big coastal cities, which leaves a lot of readers out. Check out Friedman's Q&A at VQR, and the continued debate on her Tumblr (now with a response from the creators). 
Access: Field reports are part of the app, well-integrated and functional and only available to Mac people. But due to the aforementioned geo-snobbery … sorry, folks in far-flung provinces like Oakland or Atlanta: you’re out of luck!

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Between Page and Screen, by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse 
Print book with super secret code reader (need web cam and Flash)
Angle: Okay, this thing is totally cool, if a bit insane. Basically, you hold the book, which consists only of images, up to your computer’s web cam and it translates those images into POEMS. Which you’re IN, visually. Points for true interactivity on this one. Peep the video for a clearer picture, and try the free sample.

Access: Oh, but the interface only works with Flash, so … no iPad for you, experimental visual poetry awesomeness! Regular print book + Flash-having, web-cam-enabled device only.

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How Music Works, by David Byrne
“Enhanced” e-book, available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iTunes, etc.
Angle: What are hybrid books made for, if not music? The e-book version of How Music Works has “snippets” of songs, which play when you click links. Photos and footnotes are also linked and enlargeable, leading to an experience that feels like the best-curated Wikipedia hole ever.
Access: The clips are only 6 seconds long and the interactivity, especially the photo layouts, feels a bit basic. (And I can't help but miss the print book's beautiful, semi-squishy hardcover design). But as an i-Experience, the book was above par for ease of access. I searched, I clicked, I read, I felt my stuff

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Symbolia Magazine
iPad iOS5 and up; PDF available
Angle: The concept is terrific: an illustrated journalism monthly. The result is beyond gorgeous. Symbolia looks like a graphic novel and reads like This American Life (before it was annoying). As a Californian, I particularly appreciated the depth and clarity of Susie Cagle’s piece on the Salton Sea. I think I’m in love with this magazine.
Access: I’m not infatuated enough to not be annoyed: like many other e-volved books, Symbolia only works with iOS5, which my borrowed more-than-a-year-old iPad doesn’t have (or want). I was able to subscribe via the pdf version, which for $11.99 does the trick without requiring you to swoop your dirty fingers all over it.

And the Most Evolved Book of the Year is…
I’m no Gruber, but I do know how to use the Internet. Despite this, I almost spent more time figuring out how to access these titles than I did reading them. iOS 5, Flash, iTunes, App store, Amazon … it felt like I had to use a different service for every book. I mean, I get it, I’m sure there are technical and market reasons why these apps can’t run on earlier or the same systems, but dudes. Can’t different platforms and systems all get along? Until the computer and book industries learn to play nice with other kids, I’m going with simplicity FTW.  My picks for most “evolved” books of the year are: How Music Works (for best pairing of content and form, plus universal accessibility) and Symbolia (for overall best in show despite some access issues).

Bonus Track! Keep an eye out for 29th Street Publishing. They just released V as in Victor and an Awl weekender special. Next up are individualized apps for Emily Books and Maura Magazine, by brilliant music journalist Maura Johnston.