Coming to Your Smartphone: Books That Are Unprintable

printing press

I grew up reading. Comic books, paperbacks, hardcovers (each of the original Hardy Boys series was in hardcover, way back when)…I devoured them all. If you get a great author with a terrific story you really don’t need anything else. I occasionally, however, like something different if it’s nicely done. I’m not sure if anyone remembers the Griffin & Sabine trilogy by Nick Bantock with all of its removable notes and letters and envelopes and the like, but I surely enjoyed that. I also liked a couple of the “choose your ending” books that were published several years ago and still are, even though they are aimed at a somewhat different age group. Then came ebooks, which are great. Nothing, however, seems to beat a traditional book. That isn’t going to stop folks from making modifications, however.

The next big leap appears to already be here, and combines phone applications with original literary works specifically written for the medium, utilizing video, Google Street View, photographs, music and the like. The result is a book which cannot be printed but which can be accessed by an e-reader, smartphone, or laptop.

One of the players in this medium is a company named Editions at Play. The books in question are specifically designed to be read on a tablet or phone, and contain features integral to the story that mitigate against their being printed. They are phone and tablet applications, designed to be used on…well, phones and tablets. Newer phones and tablets, that is. If you have a new smartphone you won’t have a problem, but if you’re still hanging on the that five year old Android you might be limited to your laptop screen in reading these. That aside, you can find samples of two appbooks from Editions at Play — The  Truth About Cats & Dogs by Sam Riviere and Joe Dunthorne, and Entrances & Exits by Reif Larsen — at the link above, and from the looks of things, more are on the way. Editions at Play isn’t the only company investing in this. There are a number of others, including what appears to be an author-collaborative effort from Penguin Random House that will be published (is that still the right word?) later this year.

I of course could not resist. I went to the website link above and looked at the books presently for sale, sampled them, and laid down three bucks and change for each of them. I haven’t gotten to The Truth About Cats & Dogs yet but I did play wi…er, read, Entrances & Exits, which is a bit of a romantic tale, wherein it appears that a man’s wife has run off with their neighbor. The cuckold takes to wandering, going out of his comfort zone a bit further and further with each excursion. The book uses Google Street View quite heavily (the project is heavily tied in with google) and while neither the subject matter nor the writing is especially weighty, the overall experience is entertaining. Call it a couple of steps up from an illustrated novel/short story.

Will the appbook replace the printed book? No. No. And no again. Even the publisher acknowledges that. There is certainly a place for them, however, particularly, I believe, in the tween and young adult market, which has already begun to pick up the concept and run with it. One could incorporate videos, music, alternate endings, open endings, write your own ending, online contests…where would it end? That would be up to the creator(s). And you might be able to do it yourself. My nine year-old granddaughter tells me that hey, it’s really not all that difficult to write programming code.

What do you think of this? As a reader or as an author or both? Does this interest you, or does it look like a gimmick? Not that there’s anything wrong with a gimmick.






23 thoughts on “Coming to Your Smartphone: Books That Are Unprintable

  1. “Books That Are Unprintable” – I thought you were gonna be reviewing my first couple of attempts at getting published…


    That aside, I think this “gimmick” may survive like the graphic novel has~ but may be more susceptible to “easter egg marketing” with Streetview just happening to catch a Lexus dealer in the background, FedEx trucks at every intersection, people drinking only Coke products, music by current or rising stars, blah, blah, blah~

    If that keeps the prices down, well…

    • George, that’s a brilliant observation re: the Easter Egg marketing. And how about a little of that advertising cheddar going to the author as well? Thanks!

  2. I can see the possibility of creating an illustrative version of the book in the background as words flow from page to page, music builiding as the narrative tension heightens and the video rolls. Lots of possibilities especially for the younger generation that tends to be much more visual than those of us that have a few years under our belt. It may have its place. I think I’ll still enjoy a great narrative that lifts my mind to wondrous new worlds and uniqure characters that jump off the page.

    Great information and post! Thanks.


    • Thank you for your kind words, Mark, as well as for you observation re soundtracks, etc. which might also provide licensing opportunities for musicians. I hope to see more of this in the future.

  3. As a reader, there is no substitute for a real honest to goodness book that I can sit out on the porch and flip through with my hands. My wife has a kindle that she loves to read on, but just cannot make the jump to e-reading. Maybe I’m a stuck in the mud old prude, but I like being able to page through a book with my thumb and finger and feel the pages ripple in my hands.

    Also, if the writer is able to visualize something for me, that takes away from visualizing with my own imagination. And isn’t that part of the fun of what reading is all about? I think that’s why so many book turn movies fail on the big screen, because as a reader you have visualized something different. You have created a world that no one else can imagine.

    • Phil. if you’re a stuck in the mud old prude, I’m right there with you, although I do use ereaders under certain circumstances, such as reading in bed when the lights are off. I also find them handy for keeping track of characters — who the heck is that “Jim” guy they just mentioned? — but overall…yeah. It’s tough to beat.
      As far as visualization goes, I never really subscribed to that “one picture is worth a thousand words” thing. I just finished the new Alex Berenson book, which is set primarily in Hong Kong. I looked at a number of photographs of the city and they came in second to Berenson’s descriptions. Photos are two dimensional; words can be more. That said, what I found interesting about the use of Google Streetview is the illusion of walking through the different places where the book was set. If we can get folks — anybody — reading again, even with the use of some parlor tricks, I think that can be a good thing. Thanks for your comments and I’ll see you on the front porch, book in hand.

  4. Joe, great post.

    I’m constantly catching people playing “pacifier” (game) apps on their cell phone. I always ask them, “Why don’t you read a book on there?”

    I like Mark’s ideas of background music and visuals that are context specific. To me all the other diversions are just distractions that would pull the reader out of the story. And I thought that was something we strive to prevent in our writing.

    But, hey, if we can get people to read on their electronic devices, particularly cells and tablets, vs. sucking on a pacifier, then give them whatever diversions you can dream up… I think that came out in the voice of a grumpy old man.

    Great post, Joe. Love the way you keep us up on all that is new.

    • Good afternoon, Steve! Thanks as always for your kind words and your observations. I love your term “pacifier games”…don’t get me started. My daughter’s boyfriend, who is teaching her how to play bass guitar, observed that if she spent as much time practicing bass as she did playing phone games (some game involving cats) she’d be on a par with Jack Bruce. Just so. I find books more exciting that slicing up fruit, if you catch my meaning. Total up fifteen minutes here and twenty minutes there and before you know it you’ve got a short story or a novel read, and are richer for it. Thanks for pointing that out, from one grumpy old man to another!

  5. If I may barge in again with another two cents (or just more non-sense)

    This seems like the dawn of the music video age~ fear it would “…kill the radio star…” – which it didn’t – visuals by someone creative backing the audio~ not always with images the songs brought to the listener’s mind’s eye, of course…

    How that changed, and continues to change, music is yet to be determined~ though the visual content seems to have toned itself down a bit to focusing on the artist(s) and the song’s story as opposed to some “off-beat” creative interpretation…

    Thanks for letting me double dip~


    • George, thanks so much for circling back, you’re always welcome to jump in as often as you wish! Once you’re here, you’re here. As far as music and visuals go, films have had soundtracks for many years, of course (the James Bond Theme is forever wed to the films, and I still can’t pick up one of the books in the series without hearing the guitar line and the brass punching in. What has changed is the use of music in television and commercials. I think their use is aimed more at a mood than as to what the songwriter/artist had in mind. Where this really took off was with Miami Vice, where the producer actually offered musicians a featured part in an episode if they could write a song that was ultimately used by the show. Among those who got parts were Ted Nugent (“Angry Young Man”), Glenn Frey (“Smugglers’ Blues”), and, of course, Phil Collins (“In the Air Tonight.”). Not a whole lot has changed in the intervening time, there’s just more of it.

  6. What ever gets people to read is fine with me. Definitely in favor it, Joe. And some books seem to demand interactive material — maps, photos and illustrations. More work for us writers, but could be rewarding.

    • I’m with you, Elaine. If we can tug people into reading with some high tech flash and mirrors then I say let’s go for it. There are many classics that I never would have discovered for myself or otherwise read if not for Classics Illustrated, which (for you youngsters) presented books such as A Tale of Two Cities and The Iliad in comic book form. I still have those on my bookshelves, right next to the original work. Thanks!

  7. It doesn’t appeal to me but I’m sure there will be people to whom it will appeal. I just like a nice quiet focused read. I don’t want distractions, which is what those features sound like. But a lot of people like that.

    • I get you on the distractions, BK. I find I focus better if I can read (or write) while music but a lot of folks — my wife included — need silence when they read. In case anyone is wondering, btw, I’m listening to the album Scream Dracula Scream by Rocket to the Crypt as I’m typing right now. Thanks for stopping by and contributing, BK.

  8. I’m guessing this will be, as others have noted, an addition-to not a substitute-for in the storytelling business. Much like eBooks are just a different method of story delivery than a paper book. Both will chug along on parallel tracks.

    Maybe these things are a middle ground between the imagination-static world of television/movies (ie it’s all there in front of you; no need for you to fill in the descriptive blanks) and the world of narrative books (ie: each reader fills in the blanks of the fictional world with his singular experience and world view).

    I can see the entertainment value in something like this, especially for the younger folks who are so attuned to the visual. But it doesn’t interest me as a reader or a writer. I wonder what it means for the “writers” of these stories: With their fictional universes literally laid out there via Street Views or Wikipedia, what does the writer have to offer in terms of conjuring magic? It all devolves into plot…yuk.

    Also, doesn’t this prevent privacy problems for Google? Not so sure I want my house or car or face appearing in someone’s download.

    I dunno…maybe publishing — and authors — are just desperate for something fresh to break through the noise. I just keep hearing the stripper in “Gypsy”…

    Once I was a schleppa
    Now I’m Miss Mazzeppa
    With my revolution in dance
    You gotta have a gimmick
    If you wanna have a chance

    • Thanks Kris. I should note that with respect to Entrances & Exits (one of the books I noted above) the author presents a very interesting story that works even without the additional bells and whistles (though I like those too). I just started The Truth About Cats and Dogs and it appears to be a collaborative work about a failed collaboration. I would say, at least so far, that the publisher is making sure that the high tech wizardry is balanced by interesting, well-written text. I hope that continues. Thanks again for stopping by, even if it does divert you from finishing the next Louis Kincaid novel! 🙂

  9. It sounds like much of the visual content is behind links. As we all know, links don’t last forever. What happens when the book describes a ramshackle old mansion and the link displays a new shopping mall, built when the neighborhood underwent gentrification? Or what if the link is simply broken? Seems like this is planned obsolescence at its finest.

    • Excellent question, Kathy, particularly as far as Google Street View is concerned. At the least they’d have to correct/update in subsequent “printings,” if you will. That’s an interesting issue. Thanks for mentioning it.

  10. Kind of reminds me of the old Usborne Puzzle Adventure books. While they’re fun, they’re not high literature. Might be a fun way to do a thriller. Imagine a car chase scene with multiple POVs and a Google map of the street so the reader can see where the ambush is coming from. 🙂

    • Kessie, I think you are on to something. What a way to draw the gaming crowd into thriller novels! Yes! Yes! Anyone out there tied into that community? Talk to Kessie. Thank you!

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