Apps for Art’s Sake

Neil Ayres, Author and Web Director for Creative Review

It may have escaped your notice that in March 2010 Anne Rice announced the launch of her inaugural ‘vook’, that’s a book with video; prose chapters interspersed with dramatisations. As a serious reader, I can’t help but think this sounds a bit rubbish. It puts me in mind of nothing more than the poorly-filmed video on the old Sega Mega CD games. Remember the pre-Scream sleepover girlies in peril? I think ‘vooks’ are a stupid idea. I’ve also little doubt they’ll probably prove hugely successful for bestselling commercial fiction.

But fortunately I think there’s more to Apple’s entry into the books market than ‘vooks’, eyestrain and competition for Amazon.

E-readers like the Kindle offer an immersive experience in the written word that is surprisingly comparable to that of a printed book. If it weren’t they wouldn’t be selling in their millions. But for anyone who considers that a physical book—and not just the words between its covers—can be a work of art, there’s something a little dry and disappointing about them.

Despite the early sales, I doubt the iPad, without the benefit of e-ink, will earn the favour of the serious reader looking to supplement print with digital, but what Apple has in its touchscreen

products is a possible alternative to bland e-readers for anyone who appreciates the craftsmanship that goes into a beautiful book.

The market for such a product has barely begun to be explored, and certainly the iPad, with its reasonable entry level pricing, will open up opportunities that have been limited by the diminutive screen-size of the Smartphone. Even with its current limitations, designers, publishers and developers have already made good use of the medium. Last year Enhanced Editions released a well-conceived version of Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro in association with Canongate Books, which featured a text-synched audio book, along with an exclusive score by Cave’s long-time collaborator Warren Ellis and footage of the charismatic but slightly sleazy author reading from the book.

Larger publishers are putting some effort in, but it’s all a bit wanting at the moment. Penguin seems content to produce more generic ‘enhanced’ versions (there are extra pictures) of some of its Classics series, and Faber is beginning to experiment too.

Save the recent impressive Alice app for the iPad by Atomic Antelope, perhaps the biggest literary app success to date has been Russell Quinn’s Small Chair for McSweeney’s (TIME named it one of its Top 10 apps of 2009). Quinn intelligently blended the spirit of McSweeney’s printed product and the furnishings (excuse the pun) of its popular website with a healthy respect for the ‘user language’ (i.e. the familiar functionality) of the iPhone itself.

Although they are few in number, such projects, added to impressive sales for the Stanza and Kindle apps, have proven that, given a sensible treatment, literature and digital can combine and produce something for us to savour. I should probably make clear that Quinn is also developing an app for me, so I’ll be putting my money* where my mouth is this May.

We should be encouraged. Despite the ‘vook’ concept beginning to take hold in America, digital doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing down. For proof of that beyond the examples I’ve already mentioned, just take a look at the V&A’s recent and highly successful Decode exhibition.

Whether book publishing is able to see the iPad as an opportunity in the same way that newspapers and magazines do is unlikely. Publishers may be able to play Amazon off against Apple for a while, but it’s doubtful whether Amazon and Apple will be willing to bow to publishers rather than the demands of their customers if new sources of quality fiction begin to materialise. Now that entry costs have been slashed and potential royalties increased, smaller, successful publishing ventures are likely to emerge from the indie presses where hobbyist publishers and frustrated authors have been treading water since the earliest days of the web.

A firm sense of direction seems to be eluding mainstream publishing and progress towards a consensus on how ebooks and printed books can co-exist is frustratingly slow, despite it being a hot topic of conversation.

Cue far-from-rocket-science prediction: I don’t necessarily think that book publishers’ reluctance to embrace ebooks is going to lead to a wave of self-publishing successes, but the major publishers who are resistant to digital may be outplayed by smaller companies during these early stages. No doubt many artistic trailblazers will be swallowed up by the bigger houses in time but, for now, well, book publishing lives in interesting times.

The recession has meant a lot of good, creative authors—many with several books already on the shelves—aren’t being published at the moment. I’m going to be so bold as to count myself among their number. But I for one am not going to hang around waiting for mainstream publishers to regain their sense of adventure and their long-term responsibility to authors. If they don’t want me, I’m going to beat them at their own game.

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