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Bookcamp: the story of the future @ MWF2011

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By Kaye Blum

Retired content delivery devices find a new purpose.

Retired content delivery devices find a new purpose.

Describing itself as an ‘unconference’ with a mission to explore the future of new book technologies, this day-long session on Friday 2nd September was the highlight of the MWF program for me in terms of e-writing and e-books. Presented in partnership with if:book Australia, speakers included Kate Pullinger (author and co-creator of Inanimate Alice) from the UK, Kassia Krozser (booksquare.com) from the US, and Hugh McGuire (LibriVox, PressBooks) from Canada.

Facilitated by if:book’s Simon Groth, the ‘unconference’ format enabled participants to help decide the topics for discussion and set the agenda for the day. With three rooms available at the Wheeler Centre, sessions were divided by topics and designated a room.

For the first session, I decided to attend non-linear narratives, a topic set by participant Jeni Mawter, a writer and teacher. It was a lively discussion with participants providing some interesting examples of existing interactive and non-linear narratives. I’ve since connected with Jeni on Digital Book World’s forum via LinkedIn, where I found a robust discussion from a range of writers interested in this field, whether it be transmedia, multimedia, or interactive.

There was a 15 minute break allowing participants to choose their next session and make their way across three levels to the appropriate room. I chose a session hosted by Hugh McGuire, titled Why the internet and books will merge. McGuire has been researching and working in publishing and digital media for many years. He’d had a profound epiphany and once tweeted “the distinction between books and the internet is going to disappear” which created a tweeting backlash. He informed us that around 20% of the book market in the US is now e-books; in Australia it’s still only about 4%. While he acknowledged there is a different perceived value between a printed book and an e-book, “e-books are just html shrunk-wrapped into a different format,” he said.

An interesting statement, but I’m not sure I agree with it. I again mentioned the concept of ‘lean back’ and ‘lean forward’ technologies, which I believe is a major point of differentiation between e-books on tablets, compared to the web as viewed on a static desktop computer. Like smartphones, tablets have mobility and portability. They also have the ability to utilise GPS – locative media. This is one of the core aspects of the creative project for my Masters/PhD candidature. But more about that in upcoming blog posts.

The next session was titled Why do we read and what do new technologies offer stories, hosted by Kate Pullinger, co-creator of Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths. As an author of several printed books, she has been looking at new forms of narratives online for some time. Researching new technology has motivated her to ask: why do I read?

“I want a good story, good writing, to be taken away from myself – to be connected to the writing in a personal way,” she said. “It is something intangible, profound… This is the space I want to take you as a writer and where I want to go as a reader.”

She described a p-book (printed) as a content delivery system. I think that’s an entirely appropriate term for the printed book format; but I consider an e-book to be content and the e-reader or tablet as the delivery device. (Incidentally, I find it a little absurd that there isn’t yet a consistent way of spelling ebook, Ebook or e-book.)

Pullinger suggested asking: “When you move beyond the p-book, what are the elements that make it work?”

The discussion opened up to questions, with various threads on multimedia, non-linear narratives and aspects of gaming being raised.

“I am not a gamer,” Pullinger said. “I don’t want to make choices when reading, I want to be told a story.” This seems to be a significant point of differentiation between adult readers and the children’s book market. Children love the gaming element of interactive. Many adult readers want the immersive experience of reading a book without any distractions.

She explained that Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths were both collaborative processes. As she’s also an author of several p-book novels (her last one took her 12 years to write), she likes the contrast of collaboration when working on digital projects. But the creative process is different: “you have to get the script right first before you start making it,” she said.

Pullinger stresses the most important issues to consider are:

  1. How do you connect with your readers?
  2. How do you find your readers?

In retrospect (and because I’m writing this up over a week after the event and my hand-written notes are sometimes crap), I’m assuming this applies to writers, self-publishers, and publishers grappling with the new digital realms.

I found this session to be the most insightful, with valuable knowledge generously shared by a writer who has a wealth of experience both in print and digital media.

It was difficult to choose which room to venture into for the fourth session. Out of sheer complacency I stayed on in the same room for The value of interactive/ personalisation of stories. It was a reasonably interesting discussion which digressed in many directions, but my notes are sparse. I think I did more talking than writing in this one.

The final session for the day re-united all participants to discuss their findings. A valuable point was raised about education institutions and creative writing programs lagging behind in terms of new media. Actually I think the description was “they’ve got their heads stuck in the sand”. Given that I’m researching in this field at a university that’s supposedly pro-technology, my opinion of this is, well, varied. While it’s certainly not the case for journalism and communication courses, I think in terms of creative writing, it’s probably not far off the mark.

Another issue raised was the lack of enthusiasm or interest in digital/new media from mainstream publishers. There were no representatives from the majors at this conference. No surprises there.

IfBook is doing a great job of facilitating further conversations on the future of storytelling. They did a great job of organizing the day’s ‘unconference’, too. While I am still left with some of my core questions unanswered, I’ve realized over the past week that I’m not the only one. On that note, I’ll finish with a quote from another conference participant: “Every person in this room is the future of digital publishing.”

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

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A newbie’s quick road-test of The Age newspaper’s iPad app

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By Kaye Blum

Attending yesterday’s Cool New Toys session at MWF2011 has provoked further reflection on some of the comments that were made by the audience, including myself, regarding Fairfax Media’s newspaper apps for tablets.

I only recently bought an iPad2 and have barely had the chance to give it a thorough road-test. I did, however, download the free app for The Age from iTunes. I didn’t really know what to expect but I was very pleasantly surprised. With sponsorship from Telstra, they’re offering a free trial (for a limited time) of the daily plus weekend editions and most of the supplements. There’s no indication of how long the free trial lasts or when users will be asked to subscribe, so I’m making the most of it and am thoroughly enjoying the experience as an iPad newbie.

I’ve never been a daily newspaper reader – too time-poor, broadsheets too big and difficult to read on a packed peak-hour train – but I do love browsing the weekend editions. When I’m living in Melbourne, I also buy The Age on Thursday for the Green Guide, an excellent supplement with a critical guide to the week’s television programs; and the EG (Entertainment Guide) in Friday’s paper which provides a comprehensive listing of all the live music gigs and other interesting happenings in Melbourne for the week.

I was impressed to find both supplements provided in the iPad app. However, the Green Guide doesn’t provide the full TV guide that comes in the printed version, which is disappointing. Yet the EG provides a full gig guide listing as per the print version. As a live music fan, this really got me in.

I’ve used The Age app the most often out of the 20-odd apps I downloaded in my first week with an iPad. The interface is reasonably intuitive; I love the scroll and swipe format and that I don’t need my glasses to read the text. I appreciate the occasional video content added to a story which is relevant and enhancing rather than superfluous and unnecessary. I also like that I don’t have to go to the shop to buy the paper and that I don’t have to deal with a broadsheet blowing in the wind or taking up too much space on the coffee table. And no more inky fingers. The advertising is minimal and unobtrusive (so far). Then there’s the whole environmental can of worms of not using paper; although I’ve raised the issue of energy consumption for the production of e-books at previous conferences and there doesn’t seem to be a cut-and-dry comparison of the environmental impacts of e-publishing that I’m aware of – I guess it’s still early days.

So, at yesterday’s Cool New Toys session, I expressed my enthusiasm for The Age app and asked Stephen Hutcheon, tablet editor of the Sydney Morning Herald (sister publication of The Age), how they managed the formatting process from print to app on a daily basis. He said they’d retrained some of their print designers and they work from 6pm until 2am re-formatting the print content into the interactive version for the app.

Another audience member completely disagreed with my enthusiasm, stating that the app didn’t seem to have all the content of the paper version and was not updated as quickly as the website. So in his view, as a news source, it was disappointing and he was not interested in subscribing. In my view, the app isn’t meant to be the kind of instant news source that the web delivers. Tablets are a ‘lean-back’ device (as opposed to leaning forward to view and interact with a computer). This term was used by a panelist yesterday, but I first heard interactive media specialist Jennifer Wilson use it several years ago at a new media conference in Byron Bay.

I’m using my tablet on the couch and in bed. I don’t use it for writing – the keys are too sensitive; the return key is where the colon key should be which I keep hitting by mistake. I can’t type fast enough on it. I was hoping it would replace my notebook in lectures but I’m not sure I can master touch-typing on it, so for now I use it mainly for reading. And I love it for just that. Any serious research or work can be done much quicker on my laptop, with two hands. For now, my iPad is a ‘one-hand’ device: tap, touch, swipe. My other hand is free to sip my cup of tea. As William Powers said yesterday, it’s difficult to multi-task on the tablet and that actually allows us to focus more on the material we’re reading. I see that as a real plus for my easily distracted attention-span.

Today I’ve revisited The Age iPad app with a more critical eye. I’ve chosen an article from the Daily Edition, Editor’s Choice. Two taps and I’m there. The article is from the Good Weekend supplement and is titled The Old Spice man cometh. Written by Bernard Lagan, it’s a feature article and interview with the video director of last year’s viral marketing sensation for Old Spice, Tom Kuntz. At the top of the article is video footage – a snappy show-reel of Kuntz’s most prolific commercials, including the Old Spice man ad; another award-winner, the Cadbury Eyebrows ad; and a few I haven’t seen before. Excellent – I get to watch these entertaining clips in crisp digital quality without having to leave the app.

There are four photographs accompanying the article. Three are stills from some of the video clips, the other is a shot of Kuntz on set filming his latest ad. They’re reasonably small (about 3x4cm) and I want to see a larger version of the Kuntz image, which is quite an interesting but busy location shot. I tap the screen hoping it will enlarge. It doesn’t. Disappointing. Tablets provide a stunning platform for good photography so it’s a shame it isn’t enhanced in this format. But I guess there’s only so much a small team of designers can do to turn a daily paper into an app overnight.

In the article, Kuntz’s website is mentioned but there’s no hyperlink. I’m assuming this is an editorial decision to prevent readers from leaving the app. If I want to check out his website I’ll have to jot down the URL (or copy and paste it into a memo) and check it out later. It’s probably a good thing – I’m not distracted from the article, I keep my focus.

At the end of the article there’s no ability for readers to leave a comment. This was a point raised at the panel session yesterday by an audience member. But it seems this is another feature that newspapers are choosing to leave to the web. The iPad app enables me to share the article via email, on Twitter or Facebook and I can even add it to a list of my saved articles which is easily accessible back on the main menu. Is this enough? It is for me.

Do I think it’s worth a subscription fee? Absolutely. The reading experience is enhanced and I will actually consume more content in this format than if I had to go out and buy the printed edition.  So now I’m going back to bed to enjoy reading the weekend papers on my iPad, without the inky fingers.

Have you road-tested any newspaper apps on a tablet device? Let me know what you think.

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

Written by Kaye Blum

August 27, 2011 at 7:01 am

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