The way the books industry is interacting with digital media is developing faster than many had foreseen, with the latest example an attempt to offer fans of author Iain M Banks exclusive unseen chapters, his original notes and commentary for his latest novel.
Mobile software company TradeMobile has worked with Banks’s publisher Little, Brown to develop the free application for the iPhone, which launches this Thursday (1 July). Readers who have bought the paperback of Banks’s latest novel, Transition, will be able to scan a unique barcode on their edition with their iPhone, and companion features for the novel will be transmitted to their screen.
A best-selling author, the publishers also hope the new app may entice readers uninitiated into his complicated universe of difference worlds and civilisations. “For something as complicated as Transition it makes sense,” said Banks. “It’s very much like a DVD extras.”
The app also includes character biographies; after a “slightly anguished” email from his German translator, Banks realised that a character called Bisquitine might need her language and cultural references explaining.
“She appears toward the end of the novel and has an important part to play, and a very eccentric way of expressing herself,” says the author. “It took half a day to write and three to explain.”
Kirk Bowe at TradeMobile says: “You’re able to tap in a page number and get back all the characters, scenes and locations which may be relevant to that page.”
Beyond the iPhone
TradeMobile is currently in talks with Little, Brown about extending the application to other handsets as well as the iPhone. “This helps people who aren’t particularly familiar with an author, especially an author like Iain whom they might not have approached before … it will fill in the blanks that may sometimes scare people away.”
In March the number of books available as iPhone apps passed the number of games for the first time. “It was a tipping point,” says digital editor Dan Franklin at rival publisher Canongate. “The plan is now to be creating something you can only experience digitally” — something which, he admits, defies the instincts of a publisher. “It’s our next challenge [but] it’s difficult,” he says.
TradeMobile’s Bowe feels the “companion” approach works particularly well for fiction. “Tolkien for example would be amazing,” he says. “Really for authors with rich, detailed characters and locations it’s great.”
Banks agrees. “It works well for science fiction, especially when you have a universe or place you go back to. These places gradually build up.
“It’s there if you want it – and that’s the beauty of it, it’s an opt-in thing. It’s not being forced down your neck; if you just want the story, you can have it,” says the author. “We’ll see how it does with the science-fiction stuff – if it’s successful it’s the obvious thing to do to extend it to my other novels.”
Little, Brown is part of the UK’s largest publishing conglomerate, Hachette UK, which has already launched a similar app for popular crime novelist Martina Cole, and has apps in development for authors including Stephenie Meyer, Patrick Holford and Ian Rankin.
“Anyone can replicate the experience of reading a physical book in an app. Our feeling is that just isn’t very exciting,” says head of digital George Walkley. “With Iain Banks and Martina Cole we’ve tried to provide added value and extra material for authors who have very passionate followings.”
At Canongate, Franklin is impressed with Little, Brown’s new app. “What is cool is that they’re getting it to directly interact with a print edition,” he says. “It’s very clever and something we’re looking to do.”
Canongate is no slouch in the digital department itself, however, launching a (paid-for) enhanced iPhone app for Nick Cave’s novel The Death of Bunny Munro in September, complete with videos of Cave and an audio version synched to the text of the book, scored by Cave himself. The app won second place in MediaGuardian’s own innovation awards, the Megas, earlier this year. And in May, it brought out an enhanced app for David Eagleman’s short story collection Sum: Tales from the Afterlives, featuring videos of Eagleman discussing the book, and a synched audio version read by the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Stephen Fry and Noel Fielding.
Like Walkley, Eagleman believes it is important for an app to be more than just an electronic version of a book. “An electronic version of a book merely grants portability. But a thoughtful app can open new inroads to explore the material, as well as ways to keep the material updated and fresh,” he says.
“By having the option to explore a book beyond the original text — by dint of videos, living links, and so on — it becomes a living, breathing, updating organism, just like the rest of our technology.”
Banks adds: “Everyone’s feeling around – no one knows what’s going to work. It’s quite a nervous time to be a publisher. They’re trying to do what they can to keep books interesting. We will just see how it goes.”
Eagleman agrees. “We’re at an exploratory period now, and no one knows where it’s going. If you imagine yourself 100 years from now looking back, it’s clear that apps are in their infancy and just learning how to crawl. Once they become adults, they might offer such a different experience of the material that they will speciate into an entirely different storytelling animal — as has happened, for example, with movies.”