Saturday, 23 February 2013

Interactive book covers

In November last year I posted about the possibility of designing digital book covers using animated gifs, as a way to address issues associated with thumbnail-size covers on Amazon and other online book sellers, where consumers increasingly browse books. This morning, a post on Design Week describes an 'interactive book cover' for A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Published by Canongate, art director Rafi Romaya collaborated with creative agency Big Active. The book is being released simultaneously as an ebook, audio download, hardback and paperback. The 'interactive' aspect of the physical book cover involves Blippar technology (augmented reality) – using the camera on a smart phone/tablet, you can link to audio/visual material, via the Blippar app. Canongate and Blippar are touting this as the first time the technology has been used for a "fully interactive book cover". View a demonstration of how to 'blip' the interactive jacket here and find out more about Blippar here. My first and admittedly pedantic reaction is that the book cover is not "fully interactive". The smart device is the interactive bit, the book is just a book. There is a sticker you can peel off, which is technically an interactive element. The interactivity you reach, via smart device or the website, is a very short animation (around 15 seconds) – it's slickly produced and rich in imagery, but resembles a Adobe tutorial exercise in layering – and  links to additional material (paratexts) – author interviews, and social media conversations (this appears to be a Facebook page where members will be part of a virtual book group). It feels to me like smoother version of a QR code-reader (Wikipedia definition, if this is foreign to you). Although I find this fascinating as a case study for future publishing models, it also leaves me uneasy.

The Design Week article quotes Cate Cannon, head of marketing at Canongate, describing this publishing model as an exercise in branding:
‘The animation and design translates across our digital outdoor advertising, our website and all our editions, creating a brand identity for this novel that is enriching, engaging and progressive.’
Screen grab from Canongate website.

 Above is the suite of formats the book comes in. I got to this page by clicking the FREE EBOOK button. You can get a free ebook, as long as you buy the physical book. The copy reads:
Do you ever think that you'd love to just buy a book once, but be able to read it in paperback in the bath, or put the hardback lovingly onto your bookcase, or pick up where you left off on your Kindle on the tube? This bundle is a tiny step in that direction. The hardback is a thing of much beauty – a spineless wonder that lies flat whilst you read it, with a peelable red sticker on the front and stunningly designed end papers that reveal more of the hidden front artwork. The eBook means you don't have to lug it away from home. Our offer gives a free eBook plus £5 off the original hardback RRP, at a special bundle price of £15.00.
Yes, I do love to buy a book once, but I also just want one book. This many options seems unnecessary for a novel. If this was a reference book, or a publication with audio-visual content, or a stack of extra images/material accessible in the digital format, I can see the value of multiple versions. Romaya (art director) is quoted by Design Week: ‘The multiple format release model recalled the experimentation which has taken place in the music industry in recent years, while publishing is working through equivalent changes.’ For me, the difference between having music accessible in different places is different to having a book accessible in different places. I can do other things while I listen to music. When I read, especially a novel or other long form work, I have to focus. If I was engrossed reading the physical book but had to rush to work, would I continue reading on a tablet on my commute to work, then return to the physical book when I came home? Would jumping between the print edition and a tablet edition affect my experience of the story? It obviously affects my physical experience of reading – tangible sensations of handling the page/screen, the way light is reflected into my eye, the weight of the object, the bulk of the object. But would it affect the way I engage with the work, in the same way I engage with a film differently when I see it in the cinema or at home on a dvd?

But the unease I feel is more than my resistance to reading long texts on screen, or mild anxiety that there is already so much STUFF in my life, do I want to receive five versions of everything I buy? It also has to do with the 'brandification' of books. I'm aware that this seems hypocritical, coming from a book designer. Obviously, I think covers are an important marketing tool. When a cover is effective, it attracts readers by communicating something of the context of a book – what kind of book it is, where it sits in the market, but an effective cover also reflects the world of the book – it evokes a sense of the narrative and writing style. To me, a book cover is about more than creating a brand for a book, it's about being respectful of the content. You can't judge a book by it's cover, but you also can't judge a cover unless you know something of the book. So without having read A Tale For the Time Being, I can't pass judgement on the cover or animation in relation to how well they evoke the world of the book, or position it in the market. There is no element of the design I object to. But there is something, that I am struggling terribly to articulate, that leaves me uneasy about this. And it comes back to the problem at the center of my doctoral thesis: this feels like a gimmick. If I had bought this book, followed the process of 'blipping' the cover (which for me, would include downloading the app) and ended up at the website with a 15 second animation, an interview with the author, and a link to a Facebook page, I would be disappointed, and possibly angry. There is an awful lot of fanfare, for very little payoff.

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