Penguin & the iPad: Taking Books to the Next Level, or Leaving Them in the Dust?

Apple’s latest gadget, the iPad, hits shelves this weekend. There’s been a lot of chatter on the interwebs and in the publishing world about how the shiny new tech may change the way we think of books. Earlier this year, Penguin CEO John Makinson debuted a concept video demonstrating some of the ways the house is planning on tapping the potential of Apple’s new iPad. With interfaces less like a book and more like an iPhone app, it’s clear the company is taking this new platform seriously.

John Makinson, from PaidContentUK:

We will be embedding audio, video and streaming in to everything we do. The .epub format, which is the standard for ebooks at the present, is designed to support traditional narrative text, but not this cool stuff that we’re now talking about.

So for the time being at least we’ll be creating a lot of our content as applications, for sale on app stores and HTML, rather than in ebooks. The definition of the book itself is up for grabs. We don’t know whether a video introduction will be valuable to a consumer. We will only find answers to these questions by trial and error.

Directly Targeting Younger Readers

Several of Penguin’s innovations directly target younger readers. An e-version of Eric Hill’s Spot series takes lift-the-flap books to the next level. Soon, kids will be able to customize Spot’s look, help him tidy his room, and, of course, follow along with Spot’s mom as she looks in trunks, closets, and under the bed to find the mischievous little puppy. Page turns are easy, too, with a simple finger swipe making the books accessible to even the youngest readers.

Compared to the Kindle experience — text on one screen, grainy monochrome illustrations on the next — choosing the iPad as a kid-friendly reader is a no-brainer. But the $500 price tag is a lot for Baby’s First E-reader (unless you’re one of the glitterati, in which case the iPad probably costs less than Baby’s First Blanket). Fortunately, Penguin’s app-like offerings include interactive YA titles (Richelle’s Mead’s Vampire Academy features an in-text chat option), DK textbooks (with zoom, 3D view, and video), and DK travel guides (the screen switches to map view when placed on a table, then back to book view when help). DK’s Starfinder, once a go-to for learning to navigate the night sky, will navigate for users — use the compass function to help the iPad get its bearings, then point it at a section of sky and voila! detailed information about visible constellations appears onscreen.

As I’ve pointed out before, the iPad is a great halfway tool, offering teens the functionality of a laptop (and possibly more) for a fraction of the price. But will Penguin’s app model make books more accessible to kids and teens, or less?

Changing the Way Kids Read? Or Changing the Nature of a Book?

As any pediatrician will tell you, reading is a vital part of a child’s development. Reading helps form important neural connections, helps with language development and cognitive skills, and generally improves a child’s life. But the studies that support this revolve around a paper and ink model. If Penguin style app-books take off, some children could soon think Spot has always lived in Mummy’s iPad. But does this matter?

I’m not sure. I’ve always loved books — I’ve spent countless hours curled up among library shelves reading, enjoying the scent and press of musty old pages around me. My baby also loves reading — several times a day, he catches my eye, picks up a book (and yes, we have Spot books), holds it out, and waits. When I finish a page, he turns to the next one. When I finish a book, he reaches for another. Would he love books less if he swiped a finger across a screen instead of turning a page?

The iPad and Penguin’s new concept models still use the standard words on a page — they just include some interactivity. Chatting about a book while reading it is not a novel idea — school kids do it all the time (when I was in year nine, the rest of the class hated War of the Worlds so much the teacher had us each read a chapter and fill each other in). Being able to chat within a book is, as far as I can see, akin to reading Cliff notes, encouraging teens to dig deeper into a text, and think about whys and hows of the story in much the same way as a good book review. This sort of functionality could even be adapted to school work, with teens reading, say, Macbeth, discussing it with their project group as they read, or leaving notes for one another on a shared meta-copy/open wiki.

Not all kids like to read. Some find books boring, some are dyslexic, some just haven’t found the right book. The interactivity Penguins app-books offer (particularly the chat feature) may be the boost some teens need — where they once hung out on IM swapping thoughts about the day, they could soon hang out within a book, Jasper Fforde style. And Penguin’s app-books may be just the first of many. According to Makinson, Apple’s 30% take on app-revenue “is better than the equivalent print agency model, in which publishers let retailers keep 50 percent“.

The Essence of a Book

What makes a book a book? Much like the printing press, romances, and early novels, the iPad is forcing readers to think about what a book actually is. Although the Kindle, the Nook, and other e-readers have had their share of “you’re destroying my beloved books” rage, they’ve remained true to standard book format: words inked on a page. This is the way humans have read for thousands of years. Plato read words inked on a page the same way Baby reads words inked on a page.

But books are really just a delivery system, aren’t they? Before books, we still had information. Before books, we still had stories. Homer told stories from memory, using verbal cues to remind him of the next section, much as the original tellers of Beowulf probably did. Books simply gave us an easier way to remember what comes next, and a more efficient way to share it around. Once upon a time, if the guy who knew how to keep the wheat field alive died without passing on his knowledge, the rest of the village would starve. Nowadays, you need to grow wheat, you run down to the library, hop on the Internet, or call up your Ag. Sci best friend Jack.

When it comes down to it, I love the print reading experience, but it’s not why I read. Books are about information: getting it, sharing it, thinking about it. Although they’re a necessary tool, we’ve moved beyond books as a means to survival. And while we take books for pleasure for granted, it wasn’t an easy transition — fiction and the novel were looked down upon by the wealthy and the intelligentsia as recently as the 20th century.

The thing books — e-books, print books, any books — really do, though, is help us create experiences within our own minds. Watching a movie shows us someone else’s experience. Words help us create our own. My version of Katniss Everdeen will be different to my friend Amitha’s version, and her version will be different to Suzanne Collins’ version. They may all have the same colored hair, the same colored eyes, the same height, but they’ll still look different, sound different. Books tie into our experiences, our memories, to paint a picture all our own. How the words are delivered doesn’t matter.

There’s a reason the Folio Society does old classics instead of new ones: kids and teens are interested in the story, not the cover. Sure, covers sell, but, just like we tell our kids, it’s what’s inside that counts. While the latest Vampire Academy book may not help teens learn how to catch rabbits the next time they’re lost in the woods or dropped into an arena to fight 23 of their peers to the death, it will give them things to think about. And while thinking about vampires may seem a waste of time, remember, the blood-suckers are people too. They think, they reason, they’re self-aware, and they face, at their core, many of the same issues as teens today. Whether they’re reading a print copy, an e-copy, or an app-book, teens will still get to the same place: a world in their heads. Would it be so terrible if the iPad let them share it?

Would you read an app-book? Do you ever chat while reading? Or are you a die-hard print only reader?