Screen test

What is the best way to adapt editorial content for electronic platforms? As publishers assess the likely impact of the Apple iPad on the reading experience, Adrian Shaughnessy listens to the professionals’ views

If early indicators are to be believed, the world of publishing is about to be turned inside out. Apple’s new iPad has just been launched and there’s endless speculation about the impact of Steve Jobs’ latest piece of sexy hardware.

A recent article in The Guardian noted that it is ’variously predicted to transform our experience of reading electronic versions of books, newspapers and magazines’.

Until the iPad is tested, however (it’s worth remembering that not all Apple products are successful/ Apple Cube, anyone?), we don’t know if this latest piece of Cupertino wizardry will do for publishing and reading what the iPod did for the delivery and consumption of music.

What we can say, however, is that there are no publishing moguls who are not wrestling with the problem of how to adapt content for electronic publishing. Too often the solution has been to dump a pdf of the printed content online and call it the electronic version. Yet it is clear that if electronic publishing is going to take off, then at the very least the content must be specially designed for whichever format is selected for publishing.

According to Jeremy Leslie, magazine designer and proprietor of the Mag Culture blog, the quick, low-cost pdf is a non-starter. ’What a waste of time all those pdf page-turners are,’ he says. ’ The trouble is they’re a cheap, easy tick for the digital box (while also lazy and unengaging), but they are loved by digital-sceptic publishers who have had their hands bitten with larger digital attempts.’

Yet Leslie thinks the outlook for digital publishing in the magazine sector is bright. ’The proliferation and take-up of various e-readers have encouraged more progressive magazine publishers to investigate the area,’ he says. He singles out two successful examples of iPhone publishing apps/ Empire’s movie database and Distill issue 3. He also praises The Guardian’s new app as a ’classy example of editorial content being provided in a new medium and adding to the experience, rather than mimicking its source’.

But what about books? Seems to me that the book – that fine specimen of robust and timeless technology – will only be replaced with an electronic alternative if something much better comes along. The vast majority of people I see on the Tube are still reading old-fashioned printed books, and I only ever see the occasional e-book. However, I see lots of people hunched over their phones – and they are not making calls.
Enhanced Editions is a new venture set up by publishing professionals. It believes it has the answer to the print versus electronic conundrum. No clunky pdfs for them. Instead, they offer a slick multi-faceted reading experience for delivery to the iPhone, making full use of the device’s media capabilities. Peter Collingridge, one of the founders, says, ’As lifelong publishers and technologists, we refused to believe that the (final) coming of the e-book looked as dull as a Kindle or Sony Reader. We felt it should be an exciting, converged, multimedia device like the iPhone, and that, accordingly, books should be re-thought from the ground up to make the most of these devices.’

Download one of Collingridge’s book apps and you can choose to listen to a spoken word version, watch a filmed reading by the author, or manipulate the text to create a text-only version that suits you. It doesn’t stop there, either. The Enhanced Editions philosophy extends to ’beautiful type on tilt scrolling pages, embedded video files, a network connection to the Web, context for how the book fits into the world, the ability to e-mail (and send to social media) key quotes, and, of course, the ability to listen or read, or do both, and swap from one to the other without losing your place – plus the ability to update and supplement the book content at any time’.

And it’s here, in the ability to ’update and supplement’, that we find the holy grail of electronic publishing. At a stroke, this exposes the inherent weakness of printed books, namely that they are often quickly out-of-date. But a book that can be augmented with fresh data and additional content might just be the attraction that finally weans readers off words on paper.

Both Leslie and Collingridge are optimistic about the future. ’Innovation has been scarce in publishing,’ notes Collingridge. ’But I draw comfort where others see fear; that the interests of Google, Apple, Amazon, Sony, Microsoft and many others in one of the oldest “gentleman’s” professions signal its future longevity rather than its demise.’

Leslie seems to nail the problem when he rightly dismisses electronic formats that ’mimic’ traditional formats. If electronic publishing is to thrive it will do so by creating new ways of consuming the written word, rather than a slavish aping of the old.

Only then will we sit on the Tube surrounded by people reading The Times or Martin Amis on their smart phones or other electronic devices. l

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