In the case of interactivity, we're still at the phase of irrational enthusiasm

Theodore Gray on employing — or not employing — interactive elements in books.

When it comes to including interactive features in books, “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” may be your best rule of thumb. Wolfram Research, Inc., co-founder and author of “The Elements” Theodore Gray will address the finer points of interactive features in his keynote address, “Meaningful Interactivity In A Mobile World,” at the upcoming Tools of Change for Publishing conference.

In the following interview, Gray offers some insight into the interactivity issue. He says, “Interactivity for its own sake is a bad thing: It should always be serving communication.” Gray also says that static ebooks haven’t fundamentally changed the dynamics of publishing, but that super-enhanced ebooks are staking out new territory.

Where do you draw the line between meaningful and gimmicky interactivity?

Theodore_Gray_Mug.jpgTheodore Gray: It’s all about communication. If an interactive feature helps communicate an idea, helps the reader understand a complicated concept, or in some way makes the material easier to navigate, search, organize, or visualize, then it’s probably a good feature. If it’s just cool but tends to distract from the material, then maybe it’s a good idea for a game but not as an interactive element in a book.

Very much the same principle applies to film editing, where one must always be willing to throw out one’s favorite scene because, however cool it is, it does not contribute to the story. In fact, the more cool and amazing a scene or feature is, the more on guard you have to be that perhaps the only reason you like it is because it’s cool, not because it has earned a proper place in the film or book you’re working on.

It’s hard to be more specific because every situation is so different, but in general, I believe in the principles of minimalism expounded by the likes of Edward Tufte and Apple. If you’ve got pixels on the screen occupied by something that is not directly contributing to communication, then they had better be prepared to justify their existence in front of a skeptical committee. Not that you can never have pure adornment, you’d just better have a really good reason for it.

Are there times when interactivity is detrimental and should be avoided?

Theodore Gray: There are certainly some kinds of activity on the screen that are purely bad — for example, animated images that keep playing while you’re trying to read. On the web, people learned years ago how incredibly annoying this is, but the allure to designers is so strong that it seems we need to learn the lesson all over again. A quick movement as an image comes on screen is fine, but if there is body text meant to be read on a page, then the images had better stop moving within a second or less. I think continuous animation is fine on a menu or title page where the focus should actually be on the moving images, but not on a body text page where it is a pure distraction.

I don’t want to name names out of deference to the well-intended atrocities committed by some ebooks, but there are a number of examples out there where people obviously felt that their book would benefit from some kind of interactivity, but they didn’t have any good ideas for interactivity that would communicate new information or clarify important ideas. So, they just threw in gratuitous things that flip when you touch them and the like. This might be okay in something meant for very small children, but even there I think it’s a cop out. Doing good interactivity is very hard, and it’s even harder to admit when you don’t have a good enough idea and should just stick with plain text.

How have mobile platforms changed the publishing landscape?

Theodore Gray: The large-scale switch to conventional, static ebooks for trade books and scholarly monographs is clearly under full steam, and while print books are here for a very long time, the center of gravity is clearly shifting to ebooks. But this hasn’t really fundamentally changed the dynamics of publishing. Yes, there are power struggles between publishers and retailers over price points, margins, etc., but that’s nothing new. Publishers have been fighting with retailers for a generation, and I think the introduction of static ebooks is part of a continuous evolution in these power relationships, not, at this point, a fundamentally new thing.

Super-enhanced ebooks like Touch Press publishes are a bit further out of bounds, in that they stake out a new territory somewhere between book publishing, game development, and movie/television production. If they turn out to be an important segment of the book market, then they change the kinds of talent and skills publishers need to be competitive. Whether they will also stake out new territory in distribution models or power relationships between authors, agents, publishers, and retailers/distributors remains to be seen.

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What kinds of tools do authors need to create interactive content, and what new skills might they need to develop?

Theodore Gray: Good interactivity is hard. Fundamentally, it’s the same skill set needed for any kind of software development, which means hard-core programming talent, interactive/game design skill, and visual design skill. There are some tools that can make interactivity much easier within limited domains, but most of these result in shallow — which is to say bad — interactivity.

For highly technical kinds of interactivity, Wolfram|Alpha and Wolfram’s Computational Document Format are attractive tools, in that they allow very deep computation and data-based interactivity with minimal software development. But for more visual/graphical or game-like interactivity, there are no shortcuts.

What are some guidelines authors should follow when considering interactive features for content?

Theodore Gray: You have to be ruthless in assessing what kinds of interactivity, if any, are appropriate. Back when computers were first able to print with a range of different fonts, people started producing documents littered with dozens of different fonts and faces. It’s a natural response, but it’s also a passing phase. Today, it’s not so important to have rules like “no more than three fonts on a page” because people are no longer excited about this capability, and they naturally tend toward more reasonable font choices.

In the case of interactivity, we’re still at the phase of irrational enthusiasm for littering every page with six different interactive things, whether they make any sense or not. Interactivity for its own sake is a bad thing: It should always be serving communication.

How should one decide between building an ebook and building an app? Is there a tipping point?

Theodore Gray: The tipping point is when there is important, meaningful, useful interactivity you want to have in your book, but it isn’t supported by the ebook format you have available. This is a shifting ground, as ebook formats continue to evolve to support more kinds of interactivity. For Touch Press, what we do is so far beyond what anything like EPUB can do that there’s no question about it — we have to make apps. For a mystery novel, it might be equally obvious that it should be a static ebook.

The important point that some people seem to miss is that the only difference between an “ebook” and an “ebook app” is technical. An ebook app should still be a book and have all the same characteristics of readability — good writing, user-driven pacing, calm presentation, etc. — as a static ebook does.

I think it’s a failing of the current distribution models that there is such a hard line between ebooks and apps. The fact that there is a “Books” category in the Apple App Store as well as an iBooks store is very un-Apple-like in the confusion it creates. There should just be a bookstore that contains books. Some of those books might be EPUB-format static ebooks with limited interactivity, some of them might be more highly interactive books that are implemented with their own custom C-code (i.e. they are apps), but either way, they are books in a bookstore.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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