When is a book an app and an app a book?
This isn't simply a philosophical question, a conundrum like: What is the sound of one hand clapping? The answer deeply impacts authors, publishers, programmers, and anyone else stretching the definition of a book and dealing with the constraints of Apple's walled garden—people like Ellen Jacob, a veteran children's book editor and creative director, and her husband, Kirk Cheyfitz, a former journalist who is CEO of digital ad firm Story Worldwide.
Jacob and Cheyfitz have teamed up to produce two interactive children's books through a partnership between Story and Bookerella, a tiny division of Jacob's company Jacob Packaged Goods. Kirkus reviewed the first, Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night, by Mary Kay Carson, calling it "a winner: beautifully illustrated," a "seamless blend of realistic graphics, high-resolution photography, and well-chosen interactive features." The second: Horse Magic, written by Cathy Hapka, comes out March 26th, and it, too, is visually dazzling.
The first chapter is titled "A Rainy Day" and is led off by the quote, "It shouldn't be allowed to rain on the first day of summer vacation." Meanwhile the reader is greeted by the sound of raindrops and drips of water dropping on to the screen, obscuring words. Turn the page, and the story begins, and the sound of rain diminishes until you page forward again—then it's gone. Each page is flanked by illustrations—tall grass, flowers, trees, and at various points in the story leaves fall. There's the sound of a horse galloping away while sentences on the page bounce along. A stream rushes over rocks. Night turns to day. A horse whinnies. Words disintegrate. My eight-year-old daughter loved it.
I don't want to give the impression that Horse Magic is all glitz and no substance. It's not a game, movie, or a cartoon. In the debate over interaction versus distraction Jacob and Cheyfitz come down clearly on the side of interaction. They approach the creation of these 21st-century works from the point of view of people who make books, and are adamant that the reading comes first. "A lot of the apps in the app store have precious little to do with reading while books have precious little to do with technology," Jacob says. "We wanted to create something where the primary experience of reading was enhanced by the technology of the iPad."
Here's the problem, though. If you want to sell your book in Apple's iBookstore, you have to create it on Apple's iAuthor platform, but then you are only allowed to have video and links in your book (unless those links lead to Amazon's store, then fuggedaboutit). If you design it so readers can interact with it and have it do all the things that Jacob and Cheyfitz wanted Bats! and Horse Magic to do—both were created on gaming platforms; Bats! on Unity, Horse Magic on Corona—it goes into the app store. For instance, if you make the bat in an illustration flap its wings then Apple classifies it as an app, not a book. In Horse Magic, effects like letters flying off the screen, fog, water rushing over rocks, a knight's horse galloping—all seen without having to leave the page environment like you would for a video—also disqualify it from being sold in Apple's iBookstore.
"Apple's approach doesn't allow many interactions in e-books," Jacob says. "You can put in an entire movie but you can't put in something that makes kids read deeper. What's the sense in that?" Cheyfitz adds: "Start with the classic notion of a book as being, in its most basic form, ink on paper, words, and pictures. We began with a book, and now Apple has informed us that is not a book, it is an app."
Apple's ham-handed attitude governing apps and e-books is by no means a trivial matter. There's a lot of money at stake for the content creators. Consumers are willing to pay more for an e-book than they are for an app that contains all the text of an e-book but also offers much more. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense, of course. E-books are simple to make since they're comprised mostly of text that's relatively easy to format for different platforms. But people compare the price of the e-book to the price of a book in a bookstore, and because it looks like a book and reads like a book, they think nothing of paying more for it.
In contrast, the ceiling for most apps is about $4.99, while e-books generally go for twice that but it costs eight times as much to build an innovative book. Naturally there are exceptions. Some apps go for more but they're also vast numbers of free apps (that charge for greater capability once you're hooked) and while publishers generally hold the line on e-books by pricing them at a minimum of $9.99 there are plenty of self-published works for $1.99 or less.
"So the least imaginative, least costly to produce, and least technologically sophisticated use of an iPad goes for the most money," Cheyfitz says.
It would make sense, he adds, if Apple would embrace rational retailing: Put all these "enhanced" ebooks in one place so consumers could easily find them, separate from all the other apps. Then book buyers would have one place to go and publishers could sustain reasonable prices for all digital books, especially the more interactive ones.
"This would benefit Apple, authors, publishers, technologists, and the public," he says. "So why doesn't Apple do it?"
Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.
[Image: Flickr user Arturo Martin]