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Why Does Everyone Keep Trying to Reinvent the Book?

If you liked the discussion over a new effort to rename ebooks as codeXes then you’ll love this story.

A reader has brought my attention back to MadeFire.  This is a 2 year old digital comics startup that has been getting a lot of attention lately, and according to FasctCo they plan to reinvent the comic book:

They’re hoping their new touch-publishing platform Motion Books will help artists and creative types fully embrace the power of mobile devices to create immersive reading experiences.

According to Madefire CEO Ben Wolstenholme, it’s not about throwing technology at digital publishing for technology’s sake—it’s still all about storytelling and the user experience. “Everything should serve the story. With traditional print, readers are pretty much limited to turning a page for a surprise or unexpected reveal. But with mobile devices and e-readers, it’s possible to do so much more” said Wolstenholme. “You can create a specific mood and atmosphere. You can use movement, sound, and visuals to enhance a story without taking away from it” he added.

MadeFire was launched in 2011, but they’ve been getting a lot of buzz lately. Earlier this month they picked up $5.2 million in financing, and at that time VentureBeat described them as:

Madefire produces a storytelling platform that incorporates the full range of a mobile device’s hardware to create a new form of digital storytelling that isn’t limited to turning pages — which is the universal method for advancing a story with books. Unlike the majority of digital comic books that were simply converted from print, motion books provide for artwork on a single page to move and interact with the reader (like swiping or tapping a touchscreen or moving the device to have artwork on a page shuffle around). A motion book’s story unfolds through layers of art, word balloons, and captions that unfold in sequence, which is sort of like reading a book that slowly fills a blank page with text as you read.

I have been aware of MadeFire since some time last year, but I hadn’t used their app in quite some time. I installed it again today and spent some time paging through several of the comics.

Frankly, I don’t understand the appeal.

It’s not just the repeated tapping on the screen that annoyed me and kept pulling me out of the story, but also the soundtrack which distracted me and the pacing which I was not allowed to control. It was almost as if I was being "booked" at (to coin a term) in the MadeFire app. I certainly don’t think I was reading.

But you don’t have to take my word for it; MadeFire posted this demo:

I don’t see how adding "movement, sound, and visuals" creates an immersive reading experience. Speaking as someone who has walked into trees, cars, people, and traffic (once) while being immersed in a book, I don’t see how anything else is necessary beyond words on a page/screen.

Am I missing something?

My opinion, in short, is that if I want moving images I will watch a movie. If I want a soundtrack I will load an mp3. And if I want interactivity in my novel I will play a computer game. But if I want to read I will open an ebook.

A book is not any of those other types of content, and trying to make a text into something resembling a game or movie misses the point of what a book is supposed to be.

What do you think?

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Marcelo October 19, 2013 um 6:04 pm

All those dynamic features look annoying to me, but then I am not into comics, so I think my opinion doesn’t count much. I don’t want to prevent people from enjoying time the way they like; if Madefire can attract fans, great for them! I can sincerely see comic readers enjoying this stuff. My disagreement was with FastCompany’s article, which hinted at some application on “traditional books”. Its conclusion made me cringe: “our stories are only going to become more visual, shorter, and a lot more interactive”. If it is true that “people don’t read anymore” (to remind the much maligned Steve Job’s pre-iPad quip), I don’t believe the few readers among us will give up centuries of high-quality literature, in order to adhere to such storytelling technique any time soon.

BruceMcF October 19, 2013 um 6:42 pm

There’s a niche here, but IMO they are taking a swing and a miss.

This is LESS immersive than a book, less immersive than an animation, less immersive than a live action video. I mean, with a book ~ paper or ebook ~ turning the page is a simple, routine action of the kind that fades into the background. From my experience with different slide and zoom ways of reading a manga volume on a 7in tablet screen, adding "stuff to do" doesn’t make it more immersive. It makes it less immersive.

For me, the least distracting way to fit a manga volume into a 7in screen were the panel-by-panel guided view … which is, after all, as close as possible for a pan and zoom view of a graphic novel to be "turn the page" like a regular ebook.

The people who may be hitting the niche are the ~ graphic novels that are turned into inanimations with voice bubbles replaced by voice tracks (and, if the voice track is in a foreign language, subtitles). But they are not "upgraded books" … they are, rather, videos that are massively cheaper to produce videos than full animation.

Where that market niche takes off is if they can be made available free with streaming ads, since they are the kind of click and play content that could be delivered with streaming ads, but their bandwidth costs would be substantially lower than full streaming video, leaving a much better margin on streaming ad revenue than full video, and their much lower production costs opens up the prospect for the ad-streaming to cover a much larger share of production costs than is possible with a full animation of a graphic novel.

But none of that is an "e-Graphic-Novel-plus" … its re-purposing a graphic novel to place it into a different market, just as the Japanese have traditionally done with anime and with radio dramas.

Felix October 20, 2013 um 3:13 am

"You can use movement, sound, and visuals to enhance a story without taking away from it” he added."

That video isn’t working for me, but judging purely from the above description, that sounds like those cheap anime where there’s no real animation for the most part, just panning over static images. Which can be fine… but that’s no longer a comic, it’s an animated film.

The medium is the message, folks. An interactive book is no longer a book, it’s *something else*.

Destination Infinity October 20, 2013 um 4:01 am

I wonder why people don’t admit that the monopoly held by the books market is long gone. It is falsely reassuring to think that books are still in demand (some of them, are) but the faster we admit that people have many forms of entertainment/infotainment options that are far better, the faster we’ll see books evolve into something meaningful.

Since I work part-time now, I have time to read books. When I was working full-time earlier, there was absolutely no time (or energy) to read books. That is the case with many people today.

People don’t have time. Let’s admit that a thick book doesn’t make people go, 'Wow, there is so much to read'. They would rather feel, 'Oh no, there is so much to read?'. With our improving lifestyles, we have ensured that no one has any time any longer. Work has finally reached the home, thanks to technology.

One company is trying to do something different to cater to this (majority) segment, who are starved off quality entertainment, and we need to appreciate that. Irrespective of whether they succeed or not, something in these lines, will.

Felix October 20, 2013 um 4:45 am

I dunno… long working hours have never stopped me from reading. I think people who complain about lack of time and energy simply don’t like to read all that much. Which is fine. But let’s not blame books… or real life for that matter. It’s us.

Johnny Pearseed October 20, 2013 um 11:28 am

You sound like the Devil.

Dlbroox October 20, 2013 um 1:03 pm

"…the faster we’ll see books evolve into something meaningful."

Seriously? You don’t think they’re already meaningful?! I’m dumbfounded.

Steve Vernon October 20, 2013 um 5:33 am

As far as I can see it this product isn’t specifically aimed at us readers. It is aimed at folks who would rather play a video game or watch television instead of reading a book. Folks who prefer more visual stimulation.

It isn’t a step forward, in my opinion.

I’ve always seen reading as "push-ups for the brain". The difference between reading a book and watching television – (and I have read a LOT of books and I have watched a LOT of television) – is the difference between chewing your food and sucking it through a straw.

(And – having my jaw broken and wired shut for a sleep apnea operation – I can tell you an awful lot about THAT difference as well).

Lastly, I have been an oral tradition storyteller for most of my life – and I have presented to a lot of children – performing to crowds ranging from 5 kids to 5000. I can cast a spell with my words and my actions and I can hold the attention of a crowd of kids like nobody else can – but even my storytelling is NOT reading – which is why I make it a point to not only entertain children but to hopefully inspire them to get into their library and go and read a book.

My final word on this so-called "improvement" of the reading experience is this is nothing more than reading-dumbed-down. Big flashy shiny Soylent Green for kids – no thank you!

yours in storytelling,

Steve Vernon

Bill Smith October 20, 2013 um 7:50 am

These aren’t books. They are multi-media projects, basically self-contained apps, like a lot of early software was (remember encyclopedias on CDs?). It’s not a step forward so much as a lateral step to create a new art form. Maybe it will work, but it doesn’t need to replace traditional books.

I don’t see people trying to "improve" music with big huge text blocks. Or trying to "improve" movies with big huge blocks of text or things you have to interact with. We are always seeing new media come along. Comics were new at one time…and games came along and they were interactive and they too were a new form of storytelling.

So many of these companies come along and they are *just terrified* of the simple written word on a page. It’s as if they are afraid their actual words *aren’t any good* and they need to rely on other crutches to keep people engaged.

Most of these companies exist solely to sell other people (content creators) their proprietary tools and technologies. So they have to pretend that their not-so-new idea is the most amazing thing ever and by the way, they *own* the idea, so you have to do business with them…so here, hire us, buy our expensive tools and toys to create these new products that will probably languish unloved on a server somewhere. They promote this "amazing new tool" while trying to avoid discussing the fact that these products are VASTLY more expensive to produce than traditional books. They try to pretend that in the future, all stories will be required to have animation and music and sound and no one will read simple, plain words.

Like you are right now.

(Because honestly, plain text is pretty hard to screw up. Unlike their video, which won’t load on my browser.)

So while all these projects wave to us and entice us with their pretty doodads, the simple written word and the well-told story endures, just as it has for thousands of years.

— Bill Smith

Felix October 20, 2013 um 9:01 am

Hee hee, well said, Bill. By the way, are you familiar with the novel Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge?

Tracy Hickman October 20, 2013 um 10:46 am

The reader is an active participant in creating the experience of the book. The book is the script but it is the reader that interprets that script into a performance. The experience takes place in the white space between the words … where the reader creates the sites, sounds and event. 'Improving' the written word with sound, lights and animated graphics changes the reader’s role from participant to observer … from performer to audience. It is a step down. It removes the reader from their central place as creator of the experience. The reader is a performer. These so-called improvements demotes them to audience.

Igor Borski October 20, 2013 um 4:02 pm

Inventing some frankenbook is rather stupid I think.
And to agree with some folks there it will be better as a video game / interactive movie / diaries and papers clippings mix (compare to Heavy Rain or Deus Ex (a DOS one)).

It will be immersive and it will tell you a story.
I remember reading all the notes in D.X, it made a grand picture so more real.

Thomas October 20, 2013 um 8:17 pm

This doesn’t appeal to me, and probably doesn’t to the majority of people who read this site. We’re reading books already. But, only a small percentage of the population reads for pleasure. All of these attempts at "enhancing" ebooks are not for us, they’re to try to draw in new customers.

Anthony October 20, 2013 um 10:08 pm

I agree with many of you that ebook could not and should not replace print books. Book was created for easy knowledge transmission in the old days about history. There are so many different types of books nowadays. Looks like Madefire is trying to add special effects to books which are mainly fictions or novels. Whatever special effects that ebook creator is trying to add to a book, they should never distract the attention of the readers away from the content of the book itself. The text should still be the center of the book and any multimedia enhancements should only be accessories to keep the attention of the readers to the storyline through the text. Otherwise they are just distractions.

Rich Fahle October 21, 2013 um 8:56 am

"Frankly, I don’t understand the appeal." When it comes to multimedia and text with books, we’ve been hearing this type of statement for years. The simple perfection of text has sufficed for centuries, without need for tinkering or technology. And in fact, many of the examples and efforts to fuse text and other forms of media have indeed felt ham-fisted and forced, which reinforces the notion of text shining best as a standalone media form. But then, along comes a story like "Snowfall", the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times story incorporating interactive graphics and maps, video interviews, and text — providing a deeper, richer, indeed more compelling presentation of the text. The story caused a reading sensation because of its popularity among tablet users, and in fact spawned a flurry of requests within the newsroom to give their text-only stories the "Snowfall" treatment. Why? Because the media was mixed well, and thoughtfully, and not forced. The Times, emboldened by the success and demand of Snowfall, have announced the launch of a digital magazine. That said, many of the followup multimedia-driven NYT stories have lacked the cohesion of Snowfall. The point: we are still in the development days, despite what someone said above about us being 20 years in. Tablets continue to change habits, and more importantly, we continue to experiment and improve our media fusing sensibilities. Why is it so hard to imagine a time when real artists will begin to fully grasp the capabilities of mixed media, presenting us with many more immersive reading experiences as good or better than "Snowfall"? To me, this is not only likely, it’s inevitable–and does not signal the death knell of text or a challenge to text-only books, but rather it’s exciting partner for a new generation of readers open to this still untapped combination.

Nate Hoffelder October 21, 2013 um 9:20 am

" Why is it so hard to imagine a time when real artists will begin to fully grasp the capabilities of mixed media, presenting us with many more immersive reading experiences as good or better than “Snowfall”? "

Creating a mixed media work that rises to the level of art requires actual artistic skill in a number of different areas, including text, imagery, technical, audio, and more. Most people aren’t that skilled. Heck, most artists aren’t that skilled; that’s why producing a movie requires so many different people doing different jobs.

And artists already are creating content as rich as Snowfall; they have been doing so for years. It’s just that they have not done it on any large commercial scale because of the work and skill required.

And I personally have no problem with creating new art forms; my issue is with the belief that an existing form needs to be improved or replaced.

Ben October 21, 2013 um 12:56 pm

"And I personally have no problem with creating new art forms; my issue is with the belief that an existing form needs to be improved or replaced."

Here lies the problem, you. By your narrow definition, cars don’t need to be improve or re-invented (aka EV or hydrogen cars or flying cars!). Apply that to most things, then the world is perfect as is? Sure you want to read ebook at all? Appstore rating of 5-stars with 997 rated…they found an audience, just not you Nate.

Nate Hoffelder October 21, 2013 um 2:46 pm

It’s funny you should mention cars; when it comes to cars the closest analogue to MadeFire IMO are the various flying car projects. They’re not refinements or improvements to the basic car; they are attempts to reinvent it with a bunch of extra stuff.

But for some reason none of the flying car projects ever made it off the ground.

Publerati October 21, 2013 um 2:55 pm

Is it meant to be read? Or is it meant to be watched? That is the question.

No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink November 4, 2013 um 12:01 pm

[…] Why Does Everyone Keep Trying to Reinvent the Book? […]

George Farkas November 18, 2013 um 10:51 am

I disagree completely. A book is not a genre or a type of content. A book is not necessary written on paper or parchment. It is not necessarily hard-cover or paperback. It can be all these but can also be an ebook to be read on ereaders or tablets. It can be a file on a computer or on the cloud. It usually include words, but sometimes includes pictures (illustrations) or even is mainly illustrations (a picture book). It can be published on material as some books for children. It can include music, in the form of a CD inserted in a book or in the form of a web hyperlink. It can have the characters in the book move like in a movie. It can be interractive like a Choose Your Own Adventure book or a game. It can be a comic book or a graphic novel. It can be one long poem (e.g., Paradise Lost), a series of poems, or disconnected poems. It can be a story or explicative text. It can be imaginary or not. Or any combination of all these and more. What we consider to be a book may change with time and/or place.

The point is that a book is not supposed to be anything in particular. It depends entirely on you. Because most books use words, albeit in different languages, our language refers to readers of books and reading. But even that is not fixed. And that is good, leading to more creativity.

Qué es un libro electrónico o ebook – techleo April 16, 2014 um 11:58 am

[…] unos aparatos concretos. Unos creen que los libros enriquecidos (enhanced ebooks) son el futuro, otros consideran que se trata de un absurdo intento de emular otros productos, tal que el videojuego o […]

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