The Reading Revolution

Books: facing the biggest revolution since Gutenberg invented the printing press. Illustration by ~vladstudio/deviantart


For most people writer’s block means an inhibition that prevents them from putting pen to paper.

But for prolific writer, painter, Mambo illustrator, Mental As Anything and Dog Trumpet musician Christopher O′Doherty (better known as Reg Mombassa) it was a technological roadblock that lead to a two-year delay in unleashing his electronic book Cranium Universe.

“Previously the software was too prehistoric to support the format that I wanted,” explains the softly-spoken Reg over coffee in the two storey empty nest he shares with wife Martina and rag doll cat Puss in the leafy Inner West of Sydney.

Critics, reviewers and his publisher HarperCollins are all keen to point out that Reg’s eBook, which follows his coffee table biography The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa, has been worth the wait.

From the very first Reg’s book leaps off the ‘page’ as he personally introduces the work and invites readers to explore 15 audio-visual clips that showcase his song writing, poems and paintings with three interactive galleries.

“You can touch the picture and get a dozen more images than those specifically for the text,” enthuses Reg, who is dressed in his uniform white shirt, black beanie, peeling black jumper and black trousers.

“Enlarging the image gives you that gallery experience of being able to see individual brushstrokes and pencil marks.

“Unlike a print book, which may have lost the colour and lustre in the printing process or choice of paper stock, with an eBook the screen resolution is as good as watching an art show on TV.

“You can also see me ranting about things, explaining the songs, doing some quick drawings on the spot,” grins Reg, admitting that he is ‘technologically challenged’ and doesn’t own as much as an iPad.

“The whole digital world is slightly mysterious to me. Obviously all my stuff goes through a computer but my wife, who’s my assistant, does all that. Or my children, comedian Claudia, painter Lucy or hip-hop artist Darcy who designed my website. I guess if I didn’t have them I would have to engage with computers a little more.”

As Reg talks Martina taps away at the computer in her office-cum-lounge room next door surrounded by her crime fiction novels and Reg’s books on art, space, monsters, history and astro- and quantum physics.

“I like books and I will be sad if they ceased to exist,” says Reg. ”But I think it’s like vinyl records there will always be a niche market for them. My previous book was $75 but for something like this with a complete CD of music the documentary aspects, hundreds of pictures and words well it would be about $400 not $11.99 which is very good value.

“It’s definitely better than a printed book it’s got a lot going on that enhances the reader’s experience which is why I think Cranium Universe breaks the eBook mould. Currently people are reading old style books on an eReader, but what my book offers is a mixture of documentary, a music CD, a video and old style text book with print and pictures – it is the future.”

Sitting at his round mosaic kitchen table surrounded by an old amplifier, silver guitar, today’s newspapers and a stack of CD’s while flicking through a hard copy manuscript of Cranium Universe it’s obvious that Reg’s book could never have existed or been done justice in print – but is it truly an eBook?

Once upon a time it was easy to tell. The eBook traces its current manifestation back to 1970s prototypes, with the portable PARC Dyanbook the first specifically designed to display books. In 1992 Sony launched its Data Discman eReader, which uploaded specialised books designed for specific audiences from CDs.

Moving on to wider genres and audiences, eBooks were still limited by being in essence a .PDF version of pBooks (paper books) and even with the incarnation of a digitised format allowing charts and pictures, the eBook remained fairly static when read on a Kindle, Sony Reader, iPad or smartphone until recently.

In the 2010 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of English an eBook is defined as ‘an electronic version of a printed book’. Now, thanks to books like Reg’s, eBooks offer an array of interactive features such as videos, music CDs, games, animation, interactive games, and learning software. It’s possible now to hover over a word for a dictionary definition or a pronunciation lesson, and to bookmark a spot so the book falls open at the right page without having to crumple a corner.

Writing eBooks has never been easier either, thanks to software such as Apple’s free iBooks Author which opens the gateway for artists, animators, game designers, photographers, videographers and educators as well as traditional wordsmiths.

Storytelling now invites the reader to interact with a story on a level beyond the pleasure of reading, too, largely thanks to new software. In a bold move earlier this month, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling launched her Pottermore Web store, where shoppers can find encryption-free eBooks no longer tied to one eReader.

Australia, India, the UK and the US lead the global eBook early adoption rates, according to a research report released in March 2012. Almost half of all adults with Internet access in Australia have experimented with eBooks, according to a Bookseller and Publisher report earlier this year (July 2012 issue).

In the UK, Kindle customers are now buying more eBooks than all hardcovers and paperbacks combined. The Australian Multi-Screen Report (May 2012) figures illustrating the fast adoption of smartphones and tablets in Australia (by 50 per cent and 15 per cent respectively) we could see the same surge of eBooks here. Research conducted by OzTam and Nielsen forecast that tablet use among online Australians will more than double this year to 39 per cent, while smartphone ownership is expected to reach 64 per cent.

Editor Carol George, who launched Penguin’s Digital Imprint Destiny Romance in August this year, says books are facing the biggest revolution since Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-1400s.

“It happened earlier than most people thought it would, but Australians have adapted really quickly to this new format and eBooks are proving a perfect match for romance readers,” Carol says. “Not because eBooks suit one genre over another, but because romance readers are singly the most voracious readers of any type of reader. So it’s hardly surprising that they’ve been the early adaptors of eBooks, often buying ten eBooks a week.

“Of course it helps that eBooks are a quick and convenient way to purchase, read and keep the books you want,” she adds. “They can be downloaded in a matter of seconds and you can store thousands of eBooks on a single device without having to lug physical books around. It’s also meant that rural communities have a wider range and choice now that they can access the biggest library in the world as everything is online.

“Or for people whose eyes are failing libraries don’t always offer a large array of large print size of books so being able to increase the font size and use backlighting is a huge advantage making reading so much easier.”

From a trade perspective there are several advantages to eBooks. Because production costs are lower,  books are cheaper, which may help shore up the losses made by pBooks that have caused bookstore chains such as Borders to close their doors.

With eBooks there is no need to print a physical hard copy. Errors can be quickly and inexpensively remedied rather than destroying a print run, and there are none of the headaches associated with warehousing, distribution routes, territory releases or a physical inventory, or with potentially unsold books to be dealt with.

“It’s a truly exiting time to be in publishing,” says Carol. “Thanks to eBooks the possibilities are endless and we are just at the beginning. Several publishing companies are already experimenting with different formats selling a chapter a week, publishing a 500-word short story linked to an episodic in its own way.

“EBooks have opened up publishing in many ways. Writers who may not previously have landed a book deal can now be published because we now have lower overheads. With a print book you have to work out your print run budget, if there’s a market, distribution etc. with eBooks you can just get them out there.

“I’m not saying publishing standards don’t apply – they do. But we can take risks with authors and publish faster. Here at Destiny Romance we publish two eBooks a month and we’re looking at a couple of those titles lending themselves to a print version early next year.

“It’s a really exciting time for publishers, authors and readers to connect,” says Carol, who believes that the real joy of reading lies within the book itself, not its medium.

In Carol’s opinion reports of the pBook’s death are greatly exaggerated and should be given the same amount of credibility as the belief in a paperless office, or claims that TV would kill off radio and DVDs would close down cinemas.

“EBooks and pBooks can healthily coexist and compliment one another. People will just begin to discriminate between the books they want to read on their Kindle and the books they want to keep on their shelves. For me my library will never go.”

While Carol, who’s just finished reading Regency Romance writer Eloisa James’ Paris in Love and The Ugly Duchess, still prefers to luxuriate in the bath with her pBook she says her choice of format comes down to the experience she wants.

“In terms of reading something fairly quickly, or absorbing a manuscript fast, or looking at 50 submissions at the moment that have to be read I would go to an eBook.

“But if it’s a book that I want to spend time with, born from personal desire rather than reading for work, then I am more likely to read the physical book because I still like the whole tactile experience the design turning pages smell of the paper.

“That’s why print book will never ever die,” Carol says emphatically. “Because even though a child can interact with an eBook or iPad they cannot replicate the adventure excitement and thrill of turning over physical pages. There is something in that tactile physical experience of the sensual feel of paper, the excitement of opening a book, cracking open the spine that eReaders cannot offer.”

Avid reader James Schwier, 34, a sub-editor at The Sydney Morning Herald with a penchant for crime detective novels agrees.

“I like owning the book and I would never get rid of my library. My mum and dad at home in the UK still have boxes of my books stacked away in their home because there is something intangibly better and more aesthetically pleasing about a paperback or hardback with its well-designed cover and the smell and weight of the book itself.

“PBooks may have the same stark black and white pages of an eBook but there is something a bit cold and impersonal about my Kindle.

“Having said that my Kindle’s broken at the moment and even with a stack of physical books by my bed I am having withdrawals and resorting to reading through the Kindle reader on my phone,” says James, who ‘owns’ 150 eBooks “all located in the Cloud somewhere”.

James’ collection includes Ian Rankin’s Wire in the Blood series and classics such as Dracula and the Count of Monte Cristo which being out of copyright were free to download.

“Having always been a big reader what this technology offers me is greater access to a broader range of books and authors that I wouldn’t necessarily have heard of that I can purchase at the touch of a button.

“I just wish eBooks had been around when I was at uni having to wait until another student had returned the text book that our whole class needed for to write an essay.

“These days though eBooks haven’t impacted on my reading pattern. I do a combination of eBooks and pBooks based mainly on convenience and will choose to read a title for the mood I am in rather than what type of book it is.

“Although when my wife Melissa and I went away on holiday I stored my books on the Kindle rather than lugging them around in a separate backpack.

“The convenience and relatively low cost of eBooks, compared to pBooks, certainly gives people the potential to read more but if they actually do or not I don’t know.

“I’d like to say that there will always be a certain market for hard copy books but then that’s because I grew up reading pBooks. For children like my four-year-old niece flicking through her iPad, reading on their Kindle will be the natural thing for them,” says James.

“While the future of books will be electronic,” says Reg Mombassa, “ironically if the human race ceases to exist because of some disaster the only books to remain will be those from 3-4,000 years ago on stone or clay tablets because eBooks can’t exist outside a digital world.”

Read more about Reg Mombassa’s Cranium Universe here.

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