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Book apps: A reading revolution, or the end of reading?

Screen grab from the book app for Al Gore, Our Choice.

To understand the new big thing in publishing, the magic that promises to move put-upon paper pushers from the back of the digital bandwagon into the driver's seat, you do what the lady said: Just put your lips together and … blow.

Specifically, you do that to your Apple iPad in the middle of chapter four of Our Choice, an app built from the bones of a recent book on global warming by former U.S. vice-president Al Gore. Then watch as the little windmill pictured on the screen starts spinning.

The audience at the trendy TED conference in California burst into delighted applause when software developer Mike Matas of Push Pop Press spun the windmill while introducing the app to the public recently. With that, according to the digital cognoscenti – gathered there to discuss trends in technology, education and design – Matas and Gore were breathing new life into a dying industry.

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Backed by a top team of Silicon Valley software engineers and New York media mavens, the man who invented the Internet is now promising to "change the way we read books." And few of the many enthusiasts who have had the chance to "read" the Our Choice app will disagree. With its dancing graphics, sumptuous photographs and embedded videos, Gore's latest attempt to save the planet is dazzling critics both with its polish and the bright promise it holds for the future of book publishing.

Along with a handful of other titles currently selling well at the Apple store, including new digital editions of Jack Kerouac's On The Road and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, Our Choice takes a giant step beyond the "enhanced" e-books that have become common in the past few years. Where such earlier editions might have included textual annotations and monochrome illustrations, apps designed primarily for new tablet computers, specifically the iPad, burst with colour and energy, seeming to replicate the experience of the Internet in a single handsome package. The big difference is that they are scarcely definable as books.

While buyers of Our Choice energize windmills, those who download The Waste Land can watch as British actress Fiona Shaw recites the entire poem in a filmed performance, read along with the voice of Alec Guinness or Eliot himself, or watch videos in which such figures as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney offer their views on the poem.

On The Road includes touch-screen maps that chart and annotate all the routes Kerouac took in his fabled journey, combined with photographs and biographies of the Beats he immortalized, audio recordings of the author reading the work, and archival material related to its publication, including highlights of manuscript passages redacted as obscene.

Both literary works are now among the top "book apps" available for the iPad – an impressive performance for titles that were first published the better part of a century ago. So is Our Choice, the conventional edition of which was well-reviewed but made little impression when originally published two years ago.

Creating an attention-getting app is an expensive way to reanimate backlist titles – those previously published and still in print – says Stephen Morrison, editor-in-chief of Penguin Books in New York, which publishes On The Road. "The reception is gratifying because a team of four of us spent the past six months working on the project," he says.

The obvious hope is that such efforts can add sufficient value to make backlist titles attractive to readers who are now able to acquire straight e-book versions for next to nothing – and precisely nothing in the case of public-domain titles, to which no one owns the rights – thus preserving a source of revenue crucial to traditional publishers.

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The On The Road app sells for $16.99, compared to $10.88 for a paperback on Amazon and $9.99 for an electronic copy of an earlier "deluxe" edition. "The app itself has all the text of the book and then it's got five times more material," Morrison notes.

But the economics of book apps are still a matter of guesswork. "We're in this experimental stage," Morrison says. "We'll see how this one does, figure out how much it costs us and, if we were going to do more, how many we would have to sell to make it worthwhile." It will be a very long time before the last of the 1,500 titles on the Penguin Classic backlist get apped, he added. "At this point, they are very time-consuming, so we have to pick our shots."

Quickly converted comics and children's books are by far the most popular titles described as book apps by Apple. Among the minority aimed at adults, however, apps that are developed as original products – often by companies rooted entirely in the digital realm – outsell those with textual precursors. They include such titles as Warplanes: A History of Aerial Combat from game-maker Gameloft; and Solar System for iPad from Touch Press, which also developed The Waste Land app for Faber of London.

Other grown-up apps arriving this summer include Wreck This App from Penguin, a souped-up version of artist Keri Smith's bestselling Wreck This Journal, which encouraged artists to seek inspiration through creative destruction. "Guided by more than 50 prompts and using a spectrum of drawing tools, you can tap 'holes' through the screen, 'drip' different inks, and then smear them all together, deface your least favourite picture of yourself, scribble furiously, colour outside of the lines!" the publisher promises.

It's questionable whether the impending swarm of book apps will match the game-changing quality of the debutantes, however. "I think this will result in a few excellent digital books and a lot of glorified power points," one person commented on the TED site, no doubt learning from the quality curve of once-exciting DVD "special features" and 3-D movies.

The bestselling Canadian book app David Suzuki: The Legacy, published by Vancouver's Greystone Books, falls somewhere in the middle, comprising a reissued version of a conventional e-book first published last fall and video clips taken from a recent National Film Board documentary. What's missing are the interactive features that make more expensively produced apps so appealing.

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Even if high-quality apps do manage to change the way we read, though, it's unclear how many current readers will respond. The mere fact that something is possible does not automatically make it desirable.

"I think the notion we can entice people into reading by having soundtracks or little animations is a category error," British fantasy novelist Chine Miéville said in a recent interview. "I just don't think that's why people who want to read want to read. You're not going to persuade them on that basis."

That may explain why relatively simple, black-and-white e-readers remain so popular despite competition from glitzier tablets. Like books themselves – and manifestly unlike the Internet-inflected apps – they promise long periods of undisturbed immersion in fully realized other worlds. Rather than changing books by adding more stuff to them, they optimize books by stripping out everything but the essential shapes of black letters on a white background.

Book apps are already so different that the modifier does little to distinguish them from any of the other entertainments available for the iPad. They really aren't books at all, which accounts for much of their appeal to a beleaguered trade contemplating the death of print.

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