Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

The publishing singularity


The Numberlys iPad App


Gone are the days when magazines, books, and the web ran on parallel tracks, never to meet or intersect. Spurred on by the emergence of tablets and increasingly polished enhanced ebooks, the publishing industry is barreling towards a future in which books, blogs, magazines, video games, and websites create hybrid or even tribrid progeny, no longer discernibly one or the other. I think of this impending moment as the publishing singularity—and as far as I can tell, we’re rapidly closing in on the Schwarzschild radius, the point of no return.

Dramatic turns of phrase aside, the lines really are blurring. Anyone who’s seen the sleek, fluid Esquire app for the iPad, which has more in common with websites than print magazines, knows what I’m talking about here.

Or take Just World Books, an American venture by British-born journalist, writer, and editor, Helena Cobban. With a non-exclusive focus on the Middle East, Cobban “curates” other people’s blogs on current international affairs, transforming them into books using print-on-demand publishing—preserving the bloggy immediacy that traditionally published books often lose during the lengthy process of their birth, and avoiding the financial commitments. Even more miraculously, most writers she approaches are so thrilled to see their blogs reborn as books that they actually forego an advance.

So far, Just World has published seven nonfiction titles, including former United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas W. Freeman Jr.’s America’s Misadventures in the Middle East, for which Cobban has sold the rights to China.

Okay, you say. That’s not all that radical. Blogs are already kind of like episodic, off-the-cuff novellas, so retooling them into books isn’t likely to send even the most dedicated purist into a tailspin.

The Numberlys' World


But then there are ebook apps like Moonbot Studio’s The Numberlys, which tells the story of five characters’ quest to create the alphabet in a world ruled by numbers. According to ReadWriteWeb, “the story plays out as a hybrid of a film, a book and an interactive game. Kids can just watch it unfold the first time, skip around with the page arrows, or crank a mighty gear to jump to their favorite parts.” Readers can help the characters transform numbers into letters by jumping on them, spinning them, or smashing and pulling them apart using an array of tools.

I know; apparently forging the alphabet is violent business. Check out an interview with Brandon Oldenburg and Lampton Enochs, two of the three Moonbot Studios partners, here.

For adult readers, the innovative Endworlds series by Nic Read relies on reader interactivity in the real world. “Two components that I discovered were missing from ebooks are an audience involvement level and a movie-quality soundtrack to go with each chapter, so I set about to develop this series,” explained Read in an interview with GoodEReader. “The idea was that the writer had taken the news reports and journals of a fictional band of people and that real-world objects that are meant to be ancient artifacts are hidden all around the world. At the end of the first book the audience is let in on the story and they get the chance as audience members to participate. Those who go out and record videos of themselves finding these treasures will actually be written into the real book. Each book ends with a treasure hunt which will drive the next book in the series.”


Read’s “reality literature” depends on accomplished writers, such as sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster of the Star Trek and Star Wars novelizations, and a soundtrack recorded by the Czech Philharmonic. Only four weeks after its launch, the series already has over 40,000 Facebook followers.

The conclusion is inescapable: reading is undergoing a revolution, and like it or not, all us bibliophiles are along for the ride. According to The Economist, tablets and ereaders are ushering in a return of “lean-back” reading, after the “lean-forward” era brought on by the Internet. But this time, we’re talking lean-back digital, with a focus on tablets and ereaders rather than print. Surprisingly, this is actually good news for lovers of the written word. The same article indicates that tablet users are three times more likely to read an article than watch a news video.

So maybe it’s okay that our kids are going to be playreading magablooks. After all, we’ve been reading pretty much the same way for millennia. Maybe it’s time for something new.


This entry was posted on January 18, 2012 by in Culture, News, Opinion and tagged , , .

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