Reviewed by Carl Zimmer
Yesterday my daughters--Charlotte, 10, and Veronica, 8--were playing some inscrutable game involving two beach balls and running in and out of the house. As they roared through my office, I called out.
"Veronica," I said. "Do you want to read something?"
She stopped. "What?" she asked. There was no eagerness in her voice.
Veronica is always a bit suspicious when I ask her this question, which I often do. She doesn't like to have good-for-you things foisted on her. But she also knows that from time to time, I may have something for her that's actually worth reading. Something involving Egyptian mummies, usually, or the sinking of the Titanic.
"I want to find out what you think about this. It's a book you read on an iPad."
Veronica looked at my iPad as I flipped open the cover and switch on the power.
"Is it a book or an app?" she asked.
Good Lord, I thought. When did this kid become a new media maven?
Just a couple days earlier, I had been reading an interesting article by Adam Penenberg in Fast Company that raised this question. Honestly--the first line of the article is, "When is a book an app and an app a book?"
Penenberg's piece describes the frustrations experienced by a company called Bookerella. They publish interactive children's books, including a new one entitled Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night. Kirkus calls Bats! "a winner: beautifully illustrated," a "seamless blend of realistic graphics, high-resolution photography, and well-chosen interactive features."
Now here's the odd thing. If you go to the iBookstore, you can't find Bats!. It's not allowed there, because it was designed with software usually used to make games. These programs allow Bookerella to make their books interactive. But Apple has decreed that this choice renders them apps. So you have to hunt for Bats! in the app store, which has no category for books.
Confusing enough for you? It gets worse if you're an author or a publisher. If you write a book using Apple's free iBook Author software, unveiled in Janaury, you can get your book into the iBookstore. The results can be dazzling--here's John Hawks's review of a new biology textbook that's a showcase for what the software can do--but the rule keeping out other interactive ebooks seems like pure corporate spite. (Note: a commenter points out that it's not pure spite, but a matter of the software involve.)
Penenberg spoke to Bookerella's Ellen Jacob and Kirk Cheyfitz about this confusing situation.
"Apple's approach doesn't allow many interactions in e-books," Jacob says. "You can put in an entire movie but you can't put in something that makes kids read deeper. What's the sense in that?" Cheyfitz adds: "Start with the classic notion of a book as being, in its most basic form, ink on paper, words, and pictures. We began with a book, and now Apple has informed us that is not a book, it is an app."
Not only is this decision confusing, it's bad for the ebook business.
Consumers are willing to pay more for an e-book than they are for an app that contains all the text of an e-book but also offers much more. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense, of course. E-books are simple to make since they're comprised mostly of text that's relatively easy to format for different platforms. But people compare the price of the e-book to the price of a book in a bookstore, and because it looks like a book and reads like a book, they think nothing of paying more for it.
In contrast, the ceiling for most apps is about $4.99, while e-books generally go for twice that but it costs eight times as much to build an innovative book. Naturally there are exceptions. Some apps go for more but they're also vast numbers of free apps (that charge for greater capability once you're hooked) and while publishers generally hold the line on e-books by pricing them at a minimum of $9.99 there are plenty of self-published works for $1.99 or less.
Penenberg thinks everyone would benefit if Apple put all the products he calls "enhanced ebooks" in one place, so that people could find them and perhaps publishers could find a sustainable pricing policy.
I'm sympathetic to this idea. Indeed, the confusing fog that swaddles science ebooks was the inspiration that drove my colleagues and I to set up Download the Universe in the first place. We wanted to do our small part to make it easier for people to find out about new titles. Bats! is a case in point. It got a great review in Kirkus, but who, aside from publishers and booksellers, reads it? The only reason that I even heard about Bats! was that I follow Penenberg, a journalism professor at New York University, on Twitter, and I happened to notice a tweet about his article--which he wrote not for an ebook review, but for a technology magazine. The serendipity was so extreme that I might well have missed Bats altogether.
My curiosity piqued, I downloaded it and looked around for someone whose opinion on kids books I respect. She was hurling a beachball at her sister.
Veronica was born in 2003, two years after the iPod was unveiled. She expects that any question she asks can be answered by typing it into Google, even if it's about something that hasn't happened yet.She was six when my wife and I got iPhones and she learned how to sweep her finger across a touch-sensitive screen. Today, her iPhone game of choice is Temple Run. I recently found an iPhone version of my first video game, Pong. When I showed it off to Veronica, she gazed at me with a mix of incomprehension and pity.
My point is that Veronica, like many kids in her cohort, is marinating in today's digital stew. And yet, to the relief of her English-major parents, she reads books. At some point last year, things really took off. I think it was discovering that Roald Dahl shared her view of the world's overall injustice. Bang--gone. She's plowed through almost the entire Dahl oeuvre (who ever heard of the The Twits?) and she's halfway through the Harry Potter series. She howls when we tell her to turn out the lights and get some sleep. And she reads on paper. Veronica often sees me reading on my iPad, and yet she's never had the slightest interest in following my example. (Could the fact that I'm usually reading papers from The Journal of Parasitology and such have something to do with it? Perhaps.)
I loaded Bats! for Veronica. A lovely painting of a bat swooping towards the reader came on the screen. The sound of crickets could be heard. Chapter 1 launched itself, with the text, "It's nearly night. The sky is darkening." The scene is a dim forest, and it feels as if you're a bat, gliding smoothly through a small clearing.
I showed Veronica how to advance the story, by swiping upward. A flock of bats raced across the screen. "Look up! What's flying ahead?" (The text can be accompanied by a spoken narration; it's easy to toggle this feature on and off.) Veronica wordlessly took the iPad out of my hands and sat down on a nearby couch. Charlotte, who is proud to be a far more mature ten-year old, couldn't help but sit down next to her.
For a while, they were silent, making their way through the book. Anything that can stop a beach ball war gets some credit in my book. The girls got a quick lesson bat biology--how bats fly with membranes rather than feathered wings, how they hunt for insects. The book explained all the evidence showing that bats are mammals. Every point was amply illustrated. The pictures of the bats themselves come with explanations of the individual species. Special features include a sketch of a human skeleton with its hands stretched out to bat proportions. Touch it, and it flaps. The pages are arranged not as pages per se, but as stages in a panorama. Swiping the screen, the girls moved from place to place in the night forest.
Bats! reaches some impressive levels of elegance. The chapter on echolocation does a great job of explaining how bats see with their ears, using spare language and animations that give a sense of how a tree sounds different from a mosquito. While Bats! may be intended for children, I would urge all ebook designers to take a look at it to see the many ways to combine text, sound, and video in an intuitive interface. You don't need a manual to figure out how to read this ebook.
Unfortunately, I must report that my girls were less impressed with the ebook than I was. They don't care about the ebook business, or the aesthetics of visualization. They ripped through Bats! and shrugged.
Veronica explained to me their lukewarm response. "Well," she said, "I think it isn't really like a book, because they have voices and moving pictures to it. But I think it would be good for little kids who can't read yet. I think that books let you use your imagination and the App books give you pictures so you can't use your imagination."
I blinked at that and got lost in thought. We adults are fixated on using ebooks to fill in all the gaps we see in print books. But we risk ending up with good-looking catalogs, rather than works that light up the imagination, that get the brains of readers to crackle with new corrections. And learning how to do that is much more important than working through Talmudic distinctions between books and apps.
Veronica didn't have time for my reflections. Having dispensed her pearl of new media wisdom, she picked up her beach ball and ran off to unleash another volley at her sister.
Carl Zimmer writes frequently about science for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including A Planet of Viruses