E- for Enhanced?

(1993 audio clip from Douglas Adams, “Getting the Book Invented Properly)

     A friend recently sent me a link to the Forbes article, “Are Apps the Future of Book Publishing?,” and asked me to take a look and give him my thoughts on it.  Basically, the author of the article, Alex Knapp, posits the titular question and asks a few writers their thoughts on the subject without ever really weighing in himself.  He is consistent with the point of view presented though, namely that enhanced book apps are okay if they are done right.  A sentiment with which I completely agree and will reiterate for you now.

     As you know, I’ve struggled with the emergence of ebooks, particularly fretting over the impact they’d have on publishers and booksellers, but I can’t hate something that ultimately encourages people to read.  This, is a major step for me.  If, then, things are trending towards digital, it makes sense that there would be a component to the e-product that set it apart from its paper counterpart other than mere portability, because inherently technology can do more than paper and is constantly evolving.  Enhanced books/book apps, therefore, have the potential to stimulate the book industry and give it an exciting currency. However, I feel there are many points where this could go awry, and that’s where my worries lie.
     First and foremost, the enhancements should never get in the way of the reading experience or the author’s wishes and intent.  I completely agree with Jay Bell in the article when he says,
[W]hat other medium requires us to use our imagination to paint our own pictures and hear our own sounds? I’m not against a better way of displaying a fantasy map or a recorded message from the author at the end of a book, but I hope that the actual stories will be left to shine on their own in the future.
Integrity and nuance must be retained, but unfortunately these qualities are some of the first to go when priorities shift to profit.  It can’t just be bells and whistles so that a publisher can play the “app game;” these extras must truthfully give readers some extra insight or experience. I think giving readers more options but leaving them in control of the ones they apply, like turning on bonus features on a DVD, is the way to go because everyone will have different preferences.  For example, I think the generated book soundtrack is silly but maybe this is because I’ve never experienced it.  I often love movie soundtracks; but on the flip side of the coin, poorly done scores have also ruined films for me because they jar with what’s on the screen rather than support it, and I would very much like to have been able to put them on mute.
     Another concern I have in this rising technological climate, is the diminishment of active imagination. T.V., movies, and now books are leaving less and less to the imagination, and I’m afraid that might manifest itself as a real loss to future generations.  I hope apps can be done in a way that still allow for a unique and engaging experience rather than turning the act of reading into passive consumption.
     When it comes down to it, I think apps are a future of book publishing and probably the future of ebook publishing.  Ebooks are still only one facet of publishing, albeit a growing one. Paper books will still be around for a long time and have a committed following.  Maybe paper copies will gradually shift to print-on-demand availability, but the near future will still be full of people who prefer paper.  For those who are happiest operating in a digital realm, I think publishers should take advantage of the opportunity to grow this interest into the most satisfying and stimulating experience possible, while respecting the author and the reader.  Personally, I continue to hate the idea of reading on a tablet or similar device, but to ignore digital trends is to ignore a growing population of readers, and what’s the sense in that? As John Scalzi is quoted as saying in the article,
I think as long as there’s an opportunity to read book the way you want to read it, with enhancements to complement reading experience, I don’t see a problem. From an economic perspective, if they make it more valuable or useful to readers and they’re willing to pay for it, let’s have those in there.
I just hope that the point of stories and reading don’t get lost along the way.
     In an industry increasingly unregulated due to the ease of self- and e-publishing, it is critical to have app standards in place.  I think this responsibility will fall to established publishing houses and if taken up early on, can be managed in a healthy and positive way.
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