New Tech Takes Print Books Into New Directions
By Richard Romano on January 13th, 2014
For the second year in a row, a critical mass of friends and colleagues reported that they received a Kindle or the like for Christmas. (My policy for the past couple of years has been to only give people print books as gifts.) Still, recent trends in ebook sales show a slowdown, which is actually being greeted as somewhat good news by an industry that never was all that enthused by ebooks to begin with. And Forbes tells us that last year hardcover sales rebounded and outpaced ebook sales.
So it doesn’t appear that books need anything in particular to breathe new life into them. Still, new printing technologies—or creative approaches to printing—can make books exciting in new ways. Two recent titles show that you don’t really need electronic media to make books interactive. One was a bestseller last fall, a novel conceived by J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost, Fringe, and the Star Trek reboots (don’t get me started…), among many other projects for screens both large and small, and written by Doug Dorst. The result of their collaboration, S., is an elaborate “story within a story” that masquerades as a well-thumbed old library book, a surreal literary novel called Ship of Theseus, ostensibly authored by the fictional V.M. Straka and purportedly published in 1949. The plot of Ship of Theseus is somewhat beside the point, as the real story of S. is told in the margins—literally—as two avid Straka readers meet within the pages of the book and strike up a relationship that starts off intellectual and soon becomes romantic. The colors of the ink they use become an important means of following their timeline. A seemingly low-tech effect, but not that long ago having color throughout a book for such a “prosaic” (pun intended) purpose would have been prohibitively expensive and impractical.
In addition to the marginal notes, the two characters also pass other items back and forth to each other—maps, letters, postcards, photographs, a kind of code wheel, even a page from their school newspaper—that are physically inserted at relevant points in the book. As a result, the book has become loathed by librarians: it’s easy for these items to fall out of the book and get lost or damaged. (Actually, at times reading S. brought back memories of reading magazines and having blow-in cards fall out in my lap. Annoying at the time but rather quaint these days.)
Another recent title is what is said to have the first 3D-printed book cover—or, more correctly, slipcover. Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, published by Riverhead Books, is available in two print editions: the everyday hardcover, which retails for $27.95, and one featuring the 3D-printed slipcase, which is a steal at $150.
The idea is to turn books into “art objects”—or objets d’art, if you want to sound pretentious about it—which is not a new concept; actually it predates the printed book; remember all those illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages? Admittedly, both these strategies seem like gimmicks, and they are, but the gimmick used in S. functions as part of the narrative itself, offering a unique way to tell a story. The 3D cover is really just plumage. Plumage is fine, of course; after all, book covers have long boasted spot varnishes, embossing, foil stamping and other effects to stand out on a crowded bookshelf. Even a hardcover itself (vs. a paperback) is more art than necessity. But these days maybe we could all use a bit more art in our lives.
I contrast these titles with an elaborate graphic novel that the publisher sent a while ago called Anomaly, which implemented the latest in augmented reality (AR) to bring some of the pages alive. I was more impressed with the print edition—it’s an all-full-color, hardcover, coffee-table-esque book—than the AR components, which required downloading an iPhone app, going to a Web page to find out what pages had AR content, and adjusting the ambient lighting and camera angle meticulously to get the AR to work. I like the idea but, like QR codes, I await a more elegant, seamless solution (which already exists).
Intermingling print with electronic content can enhance the reading experience, and it really doesn’t need to be anything especially exotic. As a Christopher Moore fan, I found the author’s blog posts (delivered via a smartphone app) that complemented his last novel, Sacre Bleu, provided interesting behind-the-scenes info and added content that would have bogged down the book’s narrative, but functioned rather like those “deleted scenes” or “making of” features on movie DVDs.
Still, I find the best “bonus features” of books to be those that are self-contained within the book itself. And that means “print.” And it means unleashing the imaginations of authors, designers, publishers, and printers—and even equipment manufacturers. And that’s always a good thing.