An unlikely band comes together to achieve a common goal. A writhing sequence of events beset with bloody struggles, magical moments, and difficult obstacles overcome. And, ultimately, an unexpected journey to wondrous victory.
This is, almost, the plot of The Hobbit--and it's also a description of the efforts to produce some new interactive Hobbit-themed e-books. Most excitingly they also offer a shimmering, magical glimpse of the future of publishing.
The group of Hobbit-y books that hit the iBookstore shelves in the U.S. and U.K. last week are the product of an unusual partnership. Publishers Houghton Mifflin in the U.S. and HarperCollins in the U.K. joined forces with digital publishing platform Yudu  to create the texts, adding in a generous sprinkling of content from the Warner Bros. film production.
The results are an unabashedly big marketing push for the first Hobbit film, with five different titles that range from the "Movie Storybook" to the "World of Hobbits." You can be sure these books, coming with the blessing of so many of the parties busily involved in the Peter Jackson film effort, are going to be exciting to read--jammed with interactive maps, puzzles, and other background data that one can imagine Tolkien himself appreciating.
And behind these pages, there's another interesting story--about the creation of the e-books. As Yudu CEO Richard Stephenson explains to Fast Company, the process of producing these digital texts was anything but typical. Here's why.
In creating the texts for the publishers, Stephenson says, Yudu's tried to "reimagine the books using iBooks Author, in a way that's really making the most of that [tech]." He went on to say that, "iBooks Author is relatively strongly templated, you have to do an awful lot of work-arounds to get to the high quality you need for this sort of quality publication."
Using film content and imagery from the film led to "a retelling of the story using the assets and the images in an imaginative way, creating a new element." The interactive text product that comes out at the end, Stephenson emphasized "becomes a sort of hybrid between a book and a richer media experience."
The difficulty with this new breed of book, particularly when it comes to a seminal text like the Hobbit, is overcoming inertia. "There were people there [at the publishers] who've been on the 'Tolkein's design' for the last 20 years," Stephenson says, "and to be fair to them they were extremely good at just letting those strings go, but of course it's not easy."
Stephenson explained that as a traditional book is generated it's "passed around, so somebody does the cover, somebody does the layout, somebody does the actual text and things. And the book in its passage to creation passes through the hands of many different people working separately." This process simply couldn't happen in a Yudu-crafted iBooks edition. For all the interactive elements to work, and for the book to have a coherent look and feel it had to be "created as a holistic element. Everything's got to be created in one go. That's something we could help with--some of our guys have a more game-design background, so there was storyboarding throughout."
In the large part this teamwork is a requirement of the software. Of course when laying out the design of a traditional book, particularly one with illustrations, each adjustment to the layout of one page will have knock-on effects later in the book. But in terms of iBooks Author there are all sorts of interactive elements to be aware of--far more complex than merely reformatting how text flows around a diagram in a printed edition. And each consequence also has to be weighed out in terms of how it affects the interactions in either portrait or landscape orientation of the iPad in the reader's hands. "Once you decide how you're going to design it," Stephenson remarked, "you've got to make sure it works on, say, Chapter 14 the same way, where it'll display in a certain way. Almost the architecture of how you're going to do it has to be thought through before you start building every page, understanding the limitations."
Unlike a traditional book, this meant the Yudu Hobbit e-books were created in a process that's more akin to making a movie or a computer game. Stephenson explained that Yudu solved this issue by having a team of people "from the book publishing industry who've been working on traditional books and they've learned the traditional skills. But also people who've come in from the gaming industry, designing games--storyboarding and creating something like this in [software like] iBooks Author."
Such a complex cross-expertise enterprise wasn't easy. Stephenson explained and there was much wrestling with the content, with the software and with deadlines. Getting the project signed-off also included a thumbs-up from Peter Jackson, approval from the publishers, and also Apple, who, Stephenson pointed out, "was going to feature it heavily."
Yudu's publishing partners (with decades of expertise in traditional publishing and a reputation for resisting the digital revolution) learned a lot from the process, according to Stephenson. "I don't think there's enough appreciation of the importance of getting the [development] iterations right," he says. "Book publishing has you looking at what's happening on the page, whereas in this thing what happens on that page may have profound consequences to what happens on many other pages and other elements in the book."
It's absolutely vital that the publishing industry get to grips with the mechanics of making a rich-media e-book, because Stephenson is certain that readers will expect more and more of this sort of interactivity as we all get more accustomed to reading books on tablet PCs  and smartphones . Future readers will expect a certain sort of behavior when they hold a digital book in their hand, and "If it doesn't happen and a kid thinks it should happen then they think it's broken or something." Non-interactive e-books will feel increasingly mediocre, Stephenson believes, and that's not a good thing--it'll seem disappointing. And among the hoard of books being published all the time, this sort of mediocrity is "akin to invisibility in the digital world."
And no one, in the inevitable future of digital e-books, wants to stand accused of accidentally abusing the terrible power of Bilbo's magic ring.
[Image: Flickr user mendhak ]
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