For a little over a year now Google has been working with London-based print book designers Visual Editions to develop new experimental concepts for the future of the book. Dubbed Editions at Play, the goal is to make books which "are actually digital. i.e. when the ‘book’ could not exist without the internet:"
What about stories where the ubiquity of digital information is not incidental but integral to the narrative? Books where, without the internet, there is no book.
The project has not succeeded in that goal off the bat, but it is early days yet.
Much has been written about this elsewhere, so let me boil this idea down to the simplest form. Each "ebook" is actually a website (with a URL and everything) which has been artificially constrained by labeling it a book rather than a story, website, etc.
Here is what the "ebooks" may look like on your phone:
You can buy access to one of these websites through Google Play Books, where the ebooks cost $4.25 (or the equivalent in local currencies). The first two launched this week, with more to follow.
One book, The Truth about Cats and Dogs, is a simple short story told from two points of view. Oh, it gilds the lily with a few fripperies made possible by HTML5 and other web tech, but when stripped down to the core idea there's nothing in this book which could not be done with Epub (and probably already has).
It hardly justifies the price tag, but the other book might.
Entrances and Exits is a short story that integrates clippings from Google Maps into the story. E&E tells the tale of a broken relationship and how a husband tries to avoid the pain of his wife leaving him by going on trips.
It starts at the main character's home, before going to a train station, Bath, and then (after he finds a magic book) elsewhere in the world. The clips from Google Maps are used to convey location as well as the character's bewilderment when he walks through the wrong door and ends up in a different city on the other side of the world.
It is an intriguing story idea, albeit one which has been done before (set piece videos in video games). Also, it doesn't actually require the internet. All you would need is 3d video (and a lot of local storage). If you integrated chunks of text into Google Spotlight stories, for example, you could write a story similar to E&E.
Speaking of which, if you haven't tried Spotlight stories, you should make the time. It's a platform for interactive 3d video which enables new types of stories which are a lot of fun to view/read/experience. The platform is available on both iOS and Android and requires a lot of storage space, but it's worth it.
And so is E&E - if you can get it to work on your device.
Google's "future of the book" comes with a major caveat; it won't work on all devices. I read E&E just fine on my iPad Air, but a friend says he had trouble reading it on his iPad 2, and I couldn't read this "ebook" on my $50 Fire tablet or the generic RCA tablet I am using right now.
And that is a problem, because if this is the future of books then books have no future. Google has just doomed books to the scrapheap of history.
O O O
Jokes about technical issues aside, the first two releases suggest a fundamental flaw in the whole idea behind Editions at Play, one which will limit its success.
Rather than being viewed as a new way to tell stories, this project is described as a reinvention of the book. In addition to pissing off book people, the two "ebooks" we've seen so far suggest that that description has acted as a set of blinkers on the minds at Visual Editions.
The folks behind this project have artificially limited themselves to choosing to make new types of books (as opposed to inventing new ways to tell stories), and in doing so they've cut themselves off from radical story-telling ideas like Google Spotlight stories.
If they had instead started with the idea that Editions at Play wants to tell stories on websites then it opens up the conceptual possibilities. They don't just have to focus on text and create a book; a story could incorporate elements from games, videos, and other story-telling mediums.
It's regrettable that Visual Editions didn't figure that out before spending a year on this project, but on the upside they can still expand their focus.
And maybe they already have. More books are coming, so we'll have to wait and see.