Reinventing the Book for the Digital Age

Good books allow the imagination to powerfully experience a story. Books in the digital age have an opportunity to capitalize on these experiences.

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Bridging Book consists of a printed book and a digital device, placed side-by-side, with synchronized content. Thumbing through the book's pages triggers the device to display the complementary digital content.

Not long after the iPad came out, I was invited to speak at many different publishing companies to explain the impact of the tablet form factor and what it means to publishers.

At this time, many publishers had a very simple digital strategy to turn their existing printed books into e-books. There is nothing wrong with this strategy, but I pointed out that it missed an opportunity. The point I made was that I believed the tablet form factor presented an opportunity to reinvent the book experience.

To do that, I felt we needed to start with a fundamental question: What is a book?

For many, books are more than just words on a page. They are experiences. Good books allow the imagination to powerfully experience a story. Books in the digital age have an opportunity to capitalize on these experiences — experiences that have in the past been limited to words on a page due to printing being an analog medium. With the advent of tablets, an opportunity exists to evolve the book experience by taking advantage of new technologies.

Innovation for Kids and Learning

Several areas where we are seeing exciting progress with innovation of the book experience is with learning books and books for kids.

Textbooks are slowly being reinvented for the digital media age by adding new interactive media to supplement text-based content. This is providing more rich and immersive learning experiences by combining two great things: multimedia and reading. The learning experience is much more powerful when the mind is engaged with more than just static text and images. Being able to read about history, then seeing and engaging with that history through interactive multimedia enhances the learning process. Nearly every learning category where text is used will be enhanced in the digital age to include a blend of text and interactive media.

Children’s books are another area where we are seeing experimentation and innovation. There are increasing amounts of new book experiences for kids that include images, animations, sound effects, games and puzzles. These books are helping children engage in reading, learning and many other kinds of important aspects of development.

An interesting example I came across recently is a project called Bridging Book from engageLab. This is a solution that pairs a physical book with a companion digital experience. The book can be synchronized with an iPad, using the iPad to show additional digital content to go along with the page the child is on within the physical book. Exciting examples like this get the imagination going, dreaming up ways to blend physical reading experiences with digital ones.

An area of personal interest to me is cooking. I have been pleased with the increasing number of interactive cookbooks showing up, but I wish there were more. This is one area where advancing the physical media is a no-brainer. For those who love to cook, being able to see not just the ingredients but also to have access to interactive tutorials, demonstrations and techniques through video and audio is extremely valuable.

Those are just a few examples of where I see the book being reinvented, but we still have a long way to go. Interactive or enhanced book experiences are still a small part of the overall percentage of books being developed, but it is foundational to the future of the publishing industry.

Book or App?

What is interesting to observe is how more of the experiences I outlined above are showing up on tablets in the form of apps rather than through traditional digital book stores from the likes of Amazon and Apple. This leads to an interesting question about the future of the book and whether it simply becomes an app in the digital age. Creating an app or distributing an enhanced book or a hybrid of both is a key question strategically for many publishers — one that depends on the vision of the authors about which is the best way for people to consume their content.

These are exciting times. I think of how a series like Harry Potter could have taken advantage of the tablet medium in fresh ways. Or if Tolkien was writing Lord of the Rings today, what he could have done to blend words with interactive media.

Tablets are still relatively new to content publishers and authors. But I am convinced that as authors gain the tools and a fresh vision of how to enhance their words to create new kinds of content experiences, they will engage readers in new ways and reinvent the way stories are told.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week on TIME Tech.