February 5, 2016

Google and Visual Editions launch Editions at Play



“Books that cannot be printed.”

The experimental publisher Visual Editions has teamed up with Google to launch ‘Editions at Play’, a digital bookstore “for books that cannot be printed.”

The first titles, which have been specially commissioned for the platform, include a book by Reif Larson that utilises Google Street View, and a ‘failed’ collaboration between the poet Sam Riviere and the novelist Joe Dunthorne that uses material from the writers’ diaries and poems.

The bookstore’s website describes the idea behind the project:

The goal of Editions At Play is to allow writers to create books which change dynamically on a reader’s phone or tablet using the internet, and to engage the next generation of readers on their phones as well as in print. We want to create books that can’t be printed.

There are a few notable features to the project, which seems to reflect a changing perspective on how books should exist in the digital sphere. First, these are original works that have been created for an online medium. They aren’t ebooks in the traditional sense—which up until now have been digital conversions of physical books. It seems pretty clear that the creators want to leave that thinking behind.

And it makes sense: ebooks have always seemed like an unhappy compromise between publishers and tech companies, and most attempts at innovation have been to the detriment of the original text. Books are perfect forms, but digital also offers interesting possibilities. So far few have attempted to use digital technology to create something that co-exists with the book, without trying—and failing—to make it obsolete.

Which is where e-readers come in, or rather drop out. Editions at Play are not meant to be read on a device designed specifically for reading books. Instead they’re compatible with Android and iOS—they’re for mobiles. As the creators state on the website, “in 2016 mobile phones are set to be the most popular way to read ebooks.”

On e-readers books only compete with other books; on a mobile books compete with apps: email, social media, Candy Crush. So the use of ‘Play’ in the project’s title is significant. There are gamification elements to all of the books, which demand the reader’s attention and interaction as much as a gaming app might.

Anna Gerber at Visual Editions told Katherine Cowdrey at The Bookseller:

We think of it as a response to the world of digital books, e-books, enhanced e-books, and online PDFs. Because quite frankly we believe readers deserve more. So why not make digital books that are more bookish. And more delightful. And even magical.

Next to each book is the ‘Read Time’, given in minutes. Physical books have page numbers, ereaders introduced the (maddening) progress bar, ‘Read Time’ takes us into the territory of visual media. Editions at Play is as much about creating viewers as it is about finding readers.

Tom Uglow from the Sydney Google Creative Lab expanded on this in The Bookseller:

Books can seek to engage the next generation on their phones as well as in print. E-reader use is declining while phones offer countless new ways to construct narrative and read deeply. These are books that can compete for attention on your phone via incredible, dynamic literature.

But whether or not books can, or should, compete for attention with communication and gaming apps remains to be seen. The best apps do one of two things: save time, or waste time. In creating a narrative, a writer asks a reader to suspend time. It’s harder to do on a device that is obsessed with measuring time, through reminders, notifications and instant messaging. Still, if we insist on spending all of our waking hours on our mobiles, maybe it’s time books joined us there.




Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.