Thinking outside the books

In the five years since we have been using iPads, there seems to have been remarkably limited change in the form of published content.

In spite of all the tools, techniques and temptations to blur the distinctions, iBooks remain as bookish as their printed versions, apps are apps, movies are movies, even electronic graphic novels stay true to their mould.

Traditional publishers do now seem less reluctant to release new titles in a range of formats, but when I have looked at printed and electronic versions for review here, they are disappointingly similar.

Take my recent reviews of David Crystal’s The Disappearing Dictionary here, and Julian Barnes’ Keeping an Eye Open here. Purchase either in Kindle or iBook format, and what you get is essentially identical to the physical book on the bookshop shelf.

The Disappearing Dictionary’s companion website is now up and running, but is a teaser rather than enhancement. I like the linked geographical index of electronic versions, although had it been unlinked it would of course have been a waste of bytes. Being zoomable, its two maps are less stressful to the eyes too. But those are the only real differences.

My repeated gripe about Keeping an Eye Open is its woeful lack of illustrations, which does not do justice to Julian Barnes’ masterly and erudite essays. I appreciate that transforming the print version with three or four times the number of colour images would have doubled its price and reduced its market accordingly.

But the only difference in its electronic editions is that the few included images can be zoomed. Where those are details, the whole painting is as absent from the iBook as it is in the print version, and there is not even a link to an online source for the whole.

It is hard to understand why traditional publishers are so recalcitrant in making electronic editions worth their comparatively high prices.

Maybe they are still scared that if they made iBooks so much better, we would stop buying print versions. Perhaps electronic editions are currently produced by cheap-as-chips contractors, constrained by their slim margins. There certainly remains a wide gulf between regular electronic books and the many far more adventurous and exciting content-based apps, a gap into which few wish to tread.

My mental image of a book publisher remains deeply prejudiced. I envision their headquarters like Peake’s Gormenghast Castle, with warrens of offices secreted away amid the dust of the centuries, each populated by quill-wielding scribes straight out of Dickens.

For the moment I see nothing to shatter that fanciful illusion. Do you?