Lots of people have said that the arrival of digital books should free us from the design constraints established over the centuries for printed books. Unsurprisingly action in this regard has been a while coming. Here are some early signs of development. The New World by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz is described in this Gizmodo post. I think the techy enthusiasm is a bit overstated. The New World is a fine book, but its technical “breakthroughs” are neat but not utterly amazing. You read it on the Atavist app which is available fee of charge. There are no page breaks: each chapter is one “page”. You scroll down till you get to the end. That’s logical. The text is unjustified, with a regular word space, an arrangement which (to me) is superior to say Kindle’s fixation with justification. When you get to the end of the chapter you swipe right to left to move to the next chapter. About half way through it reaches another title page labelled Cycle Two and at that point an arrow indicates that you start swiping left to right to navigate back as it were to the new chapters. In each chapter the text is enclosed in a colored box, maroon for Jane’s point-of-view and blue for Jim’s. When the viewpoint is shared the colors mingle, turning gradually to a deep purple. The final chapter is in its own Cycle, Three, and has no color border.
This zigzag navigation is picked up in the chapter heading design. Illustrated at the left is the start of the final chapter, in Cycle Three. When you start to work through the book you only see the top box above the text, which as you progress gets more and more zigs and zags; one for each chapter. When you make the turn to Cycle Two the second row appears and fills from right to left with zigs as you progress from chapter to chapter. The final Cycle contains only the one chapter and, as symbolized by the design, is in effect endless, finishing up with a repetition over and over of some phrases from Jane and Jim’s wedding vows. I am not 100% sure of this, but it appears that the narrative action has reached its furthest forward point at the switch over from Cycle One to Cycle Two, neatly mirrored in the reverse direction of your swiping from chapter to chapter. Cycle Two is flashback and Cycle Three a sort of beyond-the-grave kind of communication, I think. The chapter heading design does echo this rather well. The little box at the top left takes you to the front matter at any time, with the option of going to any of the Cycles — a sort of contents list.
Atavist has recently been recipient of an injection of funds Capital New York tells us (via Publishing Executive Insight). Here’s a story from NiemanLab, via Ink, Bits, & Pixels, describing some improvements they are making. We wish them luck and look forward to yet more innovation. I do think that their approach is better than the enhanced e-book route (see this Publishing Perspectives story). I believe a book is a book, and a movie is a movie. If I decide to read the book, I doubt if I’m going to want impulsively to switch over in medias res to a movie clip, or a suggestive photo, or whatever bell or whistle is on offer. We’ll see.
Is it amusing that these born-digital books like The New World and The Silent History are being picked up by traditional publishers for regular print publication? Probably inevitable, and after all why not?