Multimedia Does Not A Book Make

The release today of the stunning Alice for iPad video on YouTube (above) has made me wonder, yet again, whether these ‘enhanced’ ebooks that are beginning to pop up (mostly on the iPhone’s App Store) are anything other than a gimmick. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, an enhanced ebook is an ebook with bells and whistles. They range from the no frills, DVD extras kind of thing – perhaps a written interview with the author, at best – to the sort of multimedia extravaganza that was put together for the release of The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. This iPhone enhanced ebook contains the full audiobook (read by Nick Cave) with backing music composed by the author (helpful that in this case the author is a musician), interspersed with video of the author in all his moustachioed glory.

For a long while, I’ve held the view that enhanced ebooks done properly (like Bunny Munro) are for people who don’t really like reading – and, in fact, aren’t even really books – and when done badly (I won’t name names), are just an excuse to charge $25 for something that is only worth $12. But I have changed my mind (at least about the former).

The new Bunny cover. Now with              less conspicuous female genitalia.

The argument is that by sticking audio or video into a book, it stops being a book (some would argue that this makes it a vook – those people are ridiculous; there is no such thing as a vook). Rather than ponder the metaphysical question of what really makes a book (I fear the answer may be full of smell-of-books style nostalgic silliness), I think it’s more worthwhile to think about how we – and by ‘we’, I mean me – consume books.

Nowadays, the way I read a book – ebook or not – is often peppered with mental interruptions, whether it’s wondering what a word means, questioning what the author is referring to or just following a trail of logic to its illogical conclusion. For me a book is not just the words on the page, but a series of associations I have made along the way. I’m not sure if this is a product of the internet age – where in order to understand what’s happening on Lost it’s necessary to have your laptop open and twelve tabs open in Google Chrome and be constantly flicking between each one before your attention runs out – but this is genuinely how I like reading. I suspect I’m not alone*.

The traditional paper book is, perhaps, the last great bastion of undivided attention and pure concentration. And that is lovely, for those times that you have great swathes of time and attention to spare. But the daily lives of many people sometimes don’t allow for that kind of reading experience. Should that mean that books get left behind other kinds of easy-to-consume media? I don’t think so. When I get off the train and want to keep reading, why not have Nick Cave continue reading me the story? And when the full brain freeze of reading is just too much for me, why shouldn’t I be able to check the news and reviews on an author simultaneously?

What do you think? Have you ever tried an enhanced ebook? Would you? How many books do you read a year? Do you think you might read more if they were a bit more accessible?

*Yes, I’m talking about you. You know who you are. You’re the one who looks up the name of every movie mentioned in a casual conversation on IMDB on your iPhone.

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

13 thoughts on “Multimedia Does Not A Book Make”

  1. You have an interesting point – I don’t seem to be able to watch a movie or tv show without my laptop open constantly checking which actors feature in which other movies/shows etc.

    I also probably “read” more than double the amount of audio books than I do “actual” books – in my car. I find people’s differing opinions as to whether listening to an audiobook actually counts as reading quite interesting. People seem to err on the side of not for some reason!

    I think it is just efficient use of my time, when else do I have time to read with all the above mentioned tv/movie watching going on…..

    I don’t think I have any sentimental attachment to physical books – I’d read in whichever way was most convenient for me.

    1. Me too! I always feel slightly embarrassed telling someone that I didn’t actually ‘read’ a book – I listened to it. Like it makes the experience somehow less enlightening. Like you, I just see it as an efficient use of my time.

  2. How many books do I read a year? I’ve often considered keeping a log but as another moustachioed man often reminds me – I start books and if they aren’t any good I put them down. So I’d say I read (and finish) at least one but sometimes as many as three books a week (not including work). Would I read more books if they were more accessible? If I could be bothered downloading audio books onto my ipod then yes I would listen to more. But I am techno-lazy and I am an old-fogey who enjoys the concentration and focus of reading a book without interruption by other media. I’m not saying that my way is the only way. I know I am a dinosaur but I find the lack of interraction so enjoyable. I like fully immersing in the world of the books and surfacing only when I can tear myself away.

    Just to make another comment – I found the Alice ad really irritating. And at the risk of sounding like David Stratton of the Movie Show, the steady cam moving about was really distracting! I felt like I couldn’t really see what was happening on the screen!

    1. I really liked the video, but I do think the actual book (or app) would be significantly less exciting and fun than it looks. It seems more like something you might flick through, or show other people for a few minutes rather than sit down and read. Having said that, I can see how it would have tremendous appeal for reading to kids (or kids reading themselves).

  3. Having just read ‘the death of bunny munro’ i have to admit that i would love to follow up the experience by hearing Nick Cave read it with a Warren Ellis soundtrack!!! But this would be the first time i have considered having a book read to me by multi media. As a high school teacher, though, i have to admit that these multimedia texts are a interesting idea. Anything that exposes people to texts has to be a positive… Alot of kids are really struggling to see how a book can be something that is relevant and worth their time. The ‘Twilight’ series were the first book that some kids i know had read of their own free will in years! It was good to see them re-discover the idea of ‘reading’. Anyway, i think that anything that sparks interest in a book or an author has to be a good thing – even if its not always going to be my type of thing…

    1. Well said! It may well be that stubborn insistence on a cover-to-cover reading experience is what is turning off the iGeneration from reading. Anything we can do to get kids interested in reading early (even if it’s highly multimedia augmented) has got to be a good thing. Once you get people hooked on stories, they’ll keep coming back for more.

  4. Whether I read an augmented ebook or not depends on what kind of augmentations the ebook has. My concern would be it may diminish the creative aspect of reading, the creative part being the perception of the story in my mind, including images, sounds, etc. Augmented ebooks may become a bit like the adult version of picture books for children, where we are explicitly assisted in our perception of the story. I think the personal creations are part of what makes reading great. I don’t like to imagine Tom Hanks’ face when reading The Green Mile, for example. Likewise if Nick Cave added tacky cinematic jolts of music to punctuate frightening parts of his story, I would feel it takes over my creative process a bit too much. It also comes fairly close to just listening to a movie, with the script taking the place of the book being read.

  5. I guess I feel like the definition for a ‘book’ can be expanded a little to include extras. The thing I like about enhanced ebooks (like the Bunny Munro one) is that you can have a normal reading experience, but if you’re in the mood for something more, it’s there. I like to have the choice.

  6. The enhanced audio book is an interesting thing. Augusten Burroughs brought out an iTunes only edition of his recent Wolf at the Table which he read himself but also included music composed for the publication by Patti Smith , Tegan & Sarah and other indie musicians. It was an interesting exercise but didn’t do as well as publishers would have liked.
    The cult of Cave would move more copies of this title but will it make the enhanced audio book a viable thing for non-musicians?

    1. Probably not. But it’s not just enhanced audio that enhanced ebooks provide. On the enhanced ebook that I mentioned, the audiobook is synced with the text so that either one can be read, there are news & reviews tied in to the book, videos interviewing the author about the book and the ability to interactively share quotes and discuss the book through social media websites. It’s certainly not for everyone, but that’s something that might interest readers even when the author is not also a musician.

  7. I think we shouldn’t worry about how people interact with books. Read, listen, watch – It’s all part of being able to enjoy the medium. It’s a fantastic evolution of how we interact with literature, and anything that can take a person on that journey is worthwhile. Once they have experienced and enjoyed one of the mediums, they will undoubtedly try the others. It doesn’t matter how they get there…. it’s about the experience and the enjoyment they get out of it.

  8. This is fascinating. Is this perhaps mainly argued about fiction? I’m thinking about those who watch a documentary (say about our flexible brain) and then read the book or in some cases vice versa. It is expected that the book will give more detail but generally one doesn’t complain about the tv show nor denigrate the habits of those who have seen the show. One can say the same about an audiobook: it usually offers less detail than the printed novel, but still contains the essentials of plot. Why then denigrate it? Even more fascinating the idea that an enhanced novel is a lesser offering. I bought the cd of the music An Unequal Music & I wasn’t the sole purchaser. Is this not a limited and long-winded way of reader enhancing the novel after the first event? Some books I would prefer unaugmented, others would be a joy. Let’s vote for both and broaden the definition of ‘book’ just in case it turns out to be even better than before. Might be the only way you get me to read War and Peace!

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