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Book Apps: Interactive Reading on Tablet Computers

Absorbed, we follow the black chains of signs, feel the paper of the book’s pages and hear them rustle – that’s what reading has been like since the advent of printed books. So what is to become of it?

When Alice for the iPad, one of the first book apps for mobile devices, appeared in 2010, many people reacted with alarm. Nevertheless, Atomic Antelope had great success with their app adaption of Lewis Carroll’s classic: when the screen is shaken, tilted or swiped the app animates John Tenniel’s famous illustrations. Chris Stevens, head of that young British publishing house, simply consigned his critics to the corner reserved for diehards, claiming that no one in the classic book business was willing to accept that a new era had long since dawned with unforeseen technological possibilities waiting to be exploited and not dismissed. Children who would perhaps never get their hands on a printed book could well be inspired with an enthusiasm for literature by means of the technological format of an app.

Seductive Time Thieves

It has been obvious at the latest since the first iPad came on the market that digital technology’s new conception of the book extends far beyond the ebook. Unlike the ebook, a file format for electronic books the readability of which is currently still dependent on the reading device, a book app is programmed for a particular operating system. It can be downloaded from the app stores onto mobile devices using their respective system. Already there are ten times more tablets than e-readers in German households, and more and more people are reading on mobile computers. Today children grow up considering these devices to be perfectly natural. Thanks to the simplicity of their handling and their high entertainment value, they are seductive time thieves and justifiably considered as a threat to the reading of books. At the same time, however, they provide great opportunities to communicate content in a comfortable, attractive and playful way – for example, in the form of book apps.

(c) Daktylos Media
(c) Daktylos Media

In the large online stores, many apps now contain the word “book” in their designation. The term “book app” is not clear. If a media format focussed on storytelling and communicated by an aesthetically professional design is defined as a “book”, then that leaves only a few applications left in the app stores in the category “books”. Many offers for children turn out to be games. Furthermore, their graphic design is often far inferior to that of printed books. But such applications are usually free of charge – unlike the good, well-designed book apps. Products worthy of this designation offer an ambitious design and a story which can be experienced in several additional dimensions: through the physical interaction and through features like voice-over, sound-effects, music, animated illustrations and games. Programme directors, authors, editors, translators and illustrators work in a team with composers, musicians, speakers and designers of the graphics, the sound, the user interface and the user experience, as well as with game designers and computer programmers.

High cost, high risk

And the whole working process does not end with the release of the book app. The app is continually improved through close contact with clients, and often enhanced by new features. Book app projects push at the borders of classical publishing. They are complex and costly. As a result, not classical publishing houses, but companies from the fields of communications and entertainment are involved in their production, implementing commissions and disposing of large marketing budgets. The risk that the production costs, 5-digit figures on average, are not recouped after the release of the book app is great.

Book app Pioneer in Germany

Oetinger Verlag is one of the few publishers in Germany to have dared to develop their own book app. With its Tigerbook format, Oetinger has created an format for children’s book apps with which they are gradually ‘transforming’ their backlist successes, like Der Regenbogenfisch or Der kleine Eisbär, into interactive books. These can be downloaded and read through the Tigerbooks bookshop app. With the planned release of itsTigerCreate software in spring 2014, Oetinger Verlag, in collaboration with Tigerbooks Media GmbH, aims to provide the publishing industry with a much desired solution that will make it possible to export book apps for all relevant mobile operation systems.

For the classical publishing industry, a book app is a relatively new product vision that needs to be tried and tested. For a book to inspire people to read and experience the story in app form as well, it requires creative and original concepts. For readers, however, book apps will presumably not replace classical books but rather complement them. The demand for high quality content and book apps will surely increase in the years to come – at the latest, when a tablet is as common as a mobile phone in every household.


Anna Burck
(C) Goethe-Insittut January 2014
The article was published first on www.goethe.de.


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