The Breakdown: To kick off our third year of the SXSW Q&A series, we caught up with Peter Meyers (@petermeyers) about his talk, “Making eBooks Smarter: Responsive Page Design” and the future of eBooks.
S/G: Interest in eBooks has been growing like crazy since the eReader/tablet explosion, and a lot of people are talking about what to do and what not to do. What can people expect to hear at your talk that they won’t hear anywhere else?
Peter: “Making eBooks Smarter” is the session’s title, but what it’s really about is making ebooks that make people smarter. I’ll look at the two big tasks everyone engages in when they read—memory and interpretation—and ask: how can digital publications improve reading comprehension? I think of it as customer service meets instructional design meets publishing.
S/G: We love books, and we love digital, but for very different reasons. What makes you feel that ‘the book’ is still a useful metaphor for digital?
Peter: The question makes me think about the music industry and how terms like “album” and “record”, while still common, seem antiquated in a digital world where singles dominate. But the book, whether delivered digitally or in print, feels to me like a much more durable format. Namely, as a vehicle for the extended, considered thinking of an author.
That said, I do tend to think of the “app” as the book’s successor. In the same way that TV didn’t replace radio, I think apps, for certain kinds of content and certain kinds of subject matter, will prove to be a better form for an author to entertain and inform her audience. (Heck, I could probably write a whole ’nother answer on why we should probably start thinking about authors as collectives, rather than working-in-a-garret solo operators.)
S/G: Who’s doing eBooks right? What are some great examples you’ve seen?
Peter: My list of current faves goes like this:
- Wreck This App. A creative sketchbook app loaded up with prompts to get your creative juices flowing (“Pretend you’re doodling on the back of an envelope while on the phone”) and a built-in palette of painting tools. The author’s spirit is encouraging and the digital canvas accommodates the kind of mistake-friendly experimentation that I don’t think you get with print.
- Welcome to Pine Point. A web-based scrapbook which tells the history of a Canadian mining town that thrived for a few years and then was shut down and abandoned. Wonderful example of how to integrate, and not just add, lotsa media elements (audio, slideshows, animations, video). Immersive and linear too, even as all the various multimedia doodads play out onscreen.
- The Magic of Reality. Lovely, innovative design ideas in this iPad app, including figures that remain on the canvas as readers scroll multiple panes of text past horizontally (enabling them to appreciate a visual that’s relevant to more than just one page of text). The book also has a very useful, three-tier bookwide-navigation system. Page layout and typography are efficient and unobtrusive. Interactive graphics like Newton’s Canon simulator are powerful examples of how onscreen teaching can be both illuminating and fun to play with.
- Amazon. I have to include these guys on any “best of” list. They’re a bugaboo to many in the publishing world, but for my money their Kindle apps demonstrate an attention to the reading experience that many others neglect. Administrative chrome is hidden and little details like doing without the faux-book edges that until recently gunked up the iBooks app are signs that someone over there gets the importance of immersiveness.
S/G: We noticed that Modernist Cuisine (@ModernCuisine) is following you on Twitter. That’s a stunning set of 5 huge books with mind-blowing photography. How do you take a unique experience like flipping through those gorgeous pages and transform it into a digital experience?
Peter: I cashed in all of my last year’s gift-getting chits (birthday, Hanukah, anniversary) and corralled a consortium of gift-givers to band together and get me this thing. Stunning, indeed! I’ve erected a shrine for (to?) it in our dining room. At BookExpo America 2011 I spent some time talking to the MC folks about their thoughts on a digital edition. They were pretty adamantly against it. And while I don’t think anyone can argue with the breathtaking results of their print production, I do think they’re missing an opportunity by sticking with pulp only. The short version of my advice to them would be: don’t publish a digital edition of the whole multi-volume set. Instead, distill out an app that’s highly focused on handling some of the in-the-kitchen reference chores and computational wonkery that any modernist chef has to perform.
S/G: You’ve got a book on this topic coming out later this year – Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience. Who’s the target audience for this book and what do you hope they’ll get out of it?
Peter: Early on–2012, say–I think writers, editors, book designers, and publishers will be its core audience. Everyone, in other words, trying to grapple with books in a touchscreen era. But beyond that timeframe I think the touchscreen publishing revolution is going mainstream. So, in addition to professional publishing types, anyone who needs to create documents bound for a tablet or smartphone is going to be interested in thinking about how to do things like integrate video alongside text or incorporate gestures like the pinch and tap as part of the reading experience. That includes a pretty long list of folks who currently still compose for print: students, teachers, financial analysts, menu designers, newsletter publishers….the list is endless. Breaking the Page is my attempt to catalog all the various content designs that are available and help people new to this stuff decide what to use and, just as important, what to avoid.
S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW?
Peter: So many good sessions, it’s hard to pick! Here are four that are on my must-get-to list:
- Creating The Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary – A behind-the-scenes look at building a transmedia production, centered on the story of a professor’s search for a “mysterious code that governs our world through numbers, shapes and patterns.” How can that not be a fun session? BBC teamed up with “next generation” storytelling firm Six to Start on this project. I just know this one’s gonna be entertaining and informative.
- The Present of Print: Paper’s Persistence – An ode to what oftentimes is still my favorite medium: print. This panel “celebrates the present of print, and focuses on emerging print-digital hybrids”. Reminds me of a neat-o example I saw the other day, GameChanger, an iPad app where the user situates the device on top of a cardboard game (think: Monopoly) and then bops back and forth between the app and the board game. Here’s a video demo.
- Rise of Analytics: Impacting the Editorial Process? – A look at how to use behavioral analytics to “guide the editor on how to deliver digital and mobile content but also offer new insights on how to deliver traditional, offline content to improve the readers’ overall experience with the brand.” Sounds geeky, which sounds great to me.
- Storytelling Beyond Words: New Forms of Journalism – This panel is about using digital tools like interactive graphics to help journalists tell better stories. The teaser that really caught my eye: “Instead of sending users to a separate link for a video, why not embed video into the story at strategic points?” Yes!
Explore the rest of the SXSW 2012 Q&A Series.