Interactive and Other Books

I’ve been a book collector since the age of six.  To my delight/dismay I own somewhere north of 8,000 books.  Many are what one might call “rare;” others are long out of print; some are in large collections, such as the 300+ books on Japanese woodblock prints.  The obvious problem with so many books is that I have no place to keep them.  My apartment can’t hold even one more (well, maybe one more.)  My storage room in the basement is full of book boxes. Eighty cartons are in a storage facility in New York.  Clearly, this is too many books.

I bought a Kindle.  Except for a few business books that  date quickly and require only one reading, the experience is less than satisfactory.  I miss the physicality of a real book.  I love paper, and type, and book design–even with a paperback.  Vintage Penguin paperbacks are treasures.  The presentation on a Kindle is just another way to give the reader a page, albeit an electronic one.  It’s economical and saves space, but for me it’s a poor substitute.  My Kindle lives in a desk drawer.

I’ve recently been introduced to Inkling– –the interactive text books for iPad publishers.  What I like about Inkling, and interactive books in general, is that they aren’t books.  Interactive books don’t try to be books.  There are no pages.  You don’t have to follow a linear format.  They are experiential, defined by the reader, not the publisher.  While they are not the bound book I love as well, they are a new and different way to “read” content.  It’s like going from a slide show to a movie.

Does this spell the end of books?  I don’t think so, at least no more so than the decline in reading, the proliferation of books not worth reading or the reduction of literature in high school English classes (which I guarantee will soon be renamed something like “Content Consumption,” certainly not “Literacy Skills.” When was grammar last taught?)

Interactive books might save many traditional books from disappearing.  Inkling’s text book publishing, available for download on an iPad, may be just such an example.  Everyone knows that textbooks are a kind of scam, a way for teachers and professors to earn more money by annually revising their work and then requiring students to buy the latest high-priced editions.  One can’t blame the authors, who need to supplement their meager teaching incomes in more legitimate ways than becoming house painters for the summer–a solution to which one Ivy League professor I know resorts to support his family.  Students, and parents of students, already bulk at this scheme which accounts for the rise of textbook rentals, used textbooks (usually earlier editions, which rarely make any difference in most fields) and the abandonment of textbooks all together in favor of free online source material.

Interactive books provide a different, often more compelling, learning experience.  Inkling’s textbooks are one approach.  Others are children’s “books” that open to a world of wonder; art and design books; instructional manuals.  Imagine what interactivity could do for manga?  Of how it could open up new possibilities for  dyslexic readers.

I’m working this week in Boston out of the offices of my friend Bruce Shaw’s Harvard Common Press, one of the country’s leading cook book and childcare publishing companies.  Bruce and his associate publisher Adam Salomone are constantly exploring the future of book publishing, specifically HCP’s specialties.  Where are cookbooks going?  Who will want another traditional cookbook?   Many are purchased; few are used.  Bruce and Adam are heavily involved in the food blogging world; they experiment with Kindle editions; they attend digital conferences.  They are involved with a Silicon Valley recipe start-up called Yummly, now the 5th most frequently clicked food site on the web.  Interactive cookbooks are the next evolution.  It would be like bringing the Iron Chef’s actual studio–not the flat TV screen–into your kitchen.  The last thing cookbooks need are sequential pages. The social features Inkling offers–the opportunity to communicate in real time with friends–would be a marvel in the kitchen.  Interactivity will revolutionize cookbook publishing.  It may also save it.

Taking this one step further, what if Yummly had its own iPad app that instead of serving its subscribers weekly recipes based on their individual taste preferences, it took those same subscribers into a virtual kitchen experience where via an interactive platform the cook and the screen became one seamless experience.  No more trips to a Tuscan cooking school. It would be in your kitchen.

Interactivity in the publishing world is at its beginning.  It’s future is bright–even dazzling.

Leave a comment


  1. It will be an interesting journey indeed, especially when we begin to analyse the feedback provided by users. Combine this with augmented reality, and the potential to explode the barriers between the digital and physical worlds will be all but complete. Books will become communities. Textbooks will be updated automatically the moment a new piece of research has been peer reviewed and published, and rather than purchase entire new copies, and tear down trees, you will simply upgrade. As to children’s books, imagine holding up your mobile device to see the Gruffalo walking around your room!

  2. Love that idea for Yummly…..and I totally agree, interactive may well save cookbook publishing!

  3. The ability to add interactive functionality to books of all kinds can add a layer of depth and social sharing to books that hasn’t been experienced before. Over the past many years, this social functionality was done by proxy via sites such as Good Reads and Shelfari, and now most recently, Copia. But to my mind, those sorts of “one-step removed” experiences, where discussion was not taking place around content chunks, but around the books as a whole. This made for less effective sharing and commentary on the whole.

    Now, with social commentary attached directly within books, the opportunity is now present for reader interaction (and for authors to interact with their audience around that content). Imagine the possibility of a “virtual” cookbook club, where everyone opens up their new cookbook, turns to page 258 (even though there are no “pages,” per se, in the digital world) and follows along step by step as they cook. For some, that may seem like too much of a nuisance, for others, a godsend, as they can ask questions, follow-along with the author and feel like they are part of a cooking community. Amazing.

    One thing I will say is that the parallels between textbook publishing functionality and cookbooks will have to be watched, as I’m not sure how closely the two markets intersect. By that I mean, textbooks (for the most part) are a necessity, and while used textbooks have always been a market, digital can offer a welcome reprieve from the dread of lugging expensive books back and forth to class. Adding the interactivity there makes this even more appealing. But for cookbooks, there’s no inherent need to buy an interactive cookbook vs go online and get the recipe, with videos, shopping lists, etc. So it’s a bit of a tricky balance publishers will have to strike to justify the investment.

    A great write-up, really enjoyed reading it and thinking about it!


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