Making digital books beautiful
How reading looks matters to me. There are a lot of ugly words in digital publishing: enhanced ebook, multimedia edition, immersive experience and interactive features, to name a few. The promise of a whole new way of reading usually translates into gamey sound effects and cartoon graphics.
So when I was asked to design a touchscreen version of Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker, my impulse was to run for the hills. I loved the novel, but I prefer to read in print.
It was the author’s passion, narration by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, and the opportunity to do digital with style that persuaded me.
When a cover is a work of art, it magnifies your reception of the words inside.
Don’t get me started on the homogeneity of book jackets that have been focus-grouped to death. (Years after the marketing department of a major US publisher complained that my children’s Old Testament “doesn’t look like anything else”, I remain convinced the world is ending.) Who among us does not buy a book because its cover stood out and captivated us?
My background in biblical studies taught me the power of drop-caps and ornament to illuminate texts. With the Orson, my mission is to restore beauty to reading and to provide a hand-crafted digital format that’s as awe-inspiring as a printed book.
History of a Pleasure Seeker (for iOS devices) opens with a gold-leafed cover, a page curl, and a fully synced audio book. To bring the Belle Époque to life, I sourced the manuscript’s decorative border and tappable illustrations from nine volumes of a 19th-century French architectural catalogue.
The floating paintings and photographs one sees behind the windows into the story are to me the most significant feature of the Orson. They are framed to open and move from a particular point. They don’t pulse or beep at you. They are pure poetry.
The pulldown menu, formed of bare-breasted sculptural plaques, reveals short films on the author’s inspiration, essays on the novel’s historical setting, and portals to discuss the book with others. Social media and community chat, we love you, but I didn’t want to spoil the integrity of the story pages with live Twitter feeds and pre-underlined sentences telling you 13 others commented on a particular phrase.
There’s magic in the music, recorded specifically for the Orson. So when the main character plays the piano in the rich family’s drawing room, you hear Richard on his 1892 Bechstein, not a professional in a concert hall. And when the child he tutors overcomes his phobias and breaks into Chopin, well … our quick-click culture may have little patience for this, but something profound happens here. Something about the ineffability of human existence that I never thought could be communicated by an iPad or an iPhone.
Call me non-reflective, but I’m uninterested in unpacking my negative attachment to digital culture. I find the classification of books and music as “content” vulgar, and I still dream of those hills every time I open Google Calendar.
Our new Orsons include a New Orleans jazz memoir with footage of second liners dancing in the streets and a version of Zola’s The Belly of Paris illustrated by Cocteau’s heir apparent. We’ve also got an exposé on British gangs read by Joanna Lumley (Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous), a début novel about Gen X set in Berkeley, and a World War II love story that proves old age can be more romantic than one’s youth.
The entrepreneurial community will shun me for saying this, but I’m not here to “disrupt” publishing. I’d rather make literary experiences that celebrate and feed the imagination. Each Orson is a work of art, because reading matters and because words should be made beautiful.
Benjamin Morse, PhD, is the CEO of Orson & Co and the award-winning author and illustrator of The Oldest Bedtime Story Ever. Learn more at www.orsonandco.com.