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Electronic reading devices are transforming the concept of a book

Digital tools advance beyond screens that talk and play videos, connecting readers to authors and online fan communities.

July 18, 2010|By Alex Pham and David Sarno | Los Angeles Times
  • Emma Teitgen downloaded "The Elements: A Visual Exploration" on her iPad. The seventh-grader, who lives in Pittsford, N.Y., calls Theodore Gray's e-book a "breath of fresh air" compared to her chemistry textbook.
Emma Teitgen downloaded "The Elements: A Visual Exploration"… (Doug Benz / For The Times )

Emma Teitgen, 12, thought the chemistry book her teacher recommended would make perfect bedside reading. Perfect because it might help her fall asleep.

Then she downloaded "The Elements: A Visual Exploration" to her iPad. Instead of making her drowsy, it blossomed in her hands. The 118 chemical elements, from hydrogen to ununoctium, came alive in vivid images that could be rotated with a swipe of the finger.

Tapping on link after link, Teitgen was soon engrossed in a world of atomic weights and crystal structures. Three hours later, the seventh-grader looked up to see that it was 11 p.m., way past her bedtime.

"It was like a breath of fresh air compared to my textbook," said Teitgen, who lives in Pittsford, N.Y. "I was really amazed by all the things it could do. I just kept clicking so I could read more."

More than 550 years after Johannes Gutenberg printed 180 copies of the Bible on paper and vellum, new technologies as revolutionary as the printing press are changing the concept of a book and what it means to be literate. Sound, animation and the ability to connect to the Internet have created the notion of a living book that can establish an entirely new kind of relationship with readers.

As electronic reading devices evolve and proliferate, books are increasingly able to talk to readers, quiz them on their grasp of the material, play videos to illustrate a point or connect them with a community of fellow readers. The same technology allows readers to reach out to authors, provide instant reaction and even become creative collaborators, influencing plot developments and the writer's use of dramatic devices.

Digital tools are also making it possible for independent authors to publish and promote their books, causing an outpouring of written work on every topic imaginable.

If the upheaval in the music industry over the last decade is any guide, the closing of more bookstores and a decreasing demand for physical books will force authors and their publishers to find new ways to profit from their work.

"There is not a single aspect of book publishing that digital won't touch," said Carolyn Kroll Reidy, chief executive of Simon & Schuster. "It is transformational."

"The Master of Rampling Gate," a novella by Anne Rice published in 1991 as a paperback, illustrates some of the possibilities. The work tells the story of a brother and sister who inherit a remote mansion occupied by the undead.

The out-of-print title was given new life in March, when it was reissued in digital form by Vook, an Alameda, Calif., start-up that sells titles for the iPad and iPhone. As a $4.99 application sold through Apple's iTunes store, "The Master of Rampling Gate" comes with video interviews with Rice and others. Rice speaks about her inspiration for her works and about the Gothic genre in which she writes.

Within the text are links to Web pages that elaborate on events and places in the story -- a description of the Mayfair neighborhood in London where the protagonists live or a history of the Black Death plague, which plays a key role in the fourth chapter.

"For me, this is a way to communicate with my readers, establish a connection with them and build a community around them," Rice said in an interview.

Vook (the name is a mash-up of "video" and "book") has published more than two dozen titles, including "Reckless Road," which describes the early days of heavy metal band Guns N' Roses. "Reckless Road" weaves in dozens of videos of the L.A. band's early performances and interviews with band members and groupies.

The videos and other digital features are designed to "project the emotion of the book without getting in the way of the story," said Brad Inman, Vook's chief executive and a former real estate columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. "We want to revive the passion for traditional narrative. Multimedia could be a catalyst for spawning more reading."

Vook does not disclose information about its finances or its payments to authors. Its biggest cost, Inman said, is the production of the videos.

Tim O'Reilly, whose O'Reilly Media in Sebastopol, Calif., is at the forefront of designing and distributing digital books over the Internet and on mobile devices, said technology has the power to "broaden our thinking about what a book does."

Owners of "iBird Explorer," a digital book produced for the iPhone by field guide publisher Mitch Waite Group, can play the songs of more than 900 bird species. Using microphones, it can also capture the chirps and warbles of wild birds and match them against a database of bird sounds to help the "reader" identify the species.

In addition to displaying pages from a book, digital e-readers can read them aloud, opening up a literary trove for the blind and the visually impaired who have long had only a thin selection of audio and Braille books to choose from. Devices made by Inc. and Intel Corp. are able to convert text into speech.

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