The future of publishing: The war for attention
Written by Li Shiyu and voiced by Yang Yong, this is a small segment from the weekly literary program Ink&Quill.
Click the audio above and listen to the first fifteen seconds.
Does it sound like a short clip that comes from a movie or a video game?
In fact, this is a part of a comic book titled "Masters of the Sun: The Zombie Chronicles," an awe-inspiring project that wraps a graphic novel, hip hop music and augmented reality elements all into one.
So whenever you open the book, you can read every page through a specific app installed on your digital device. On the screen, all images come alive whereas speech bubbles and special effects pop up accompanied by catchy rhymes and flow.
Gerald Cai, business partner and co-founder of MXRi, a Singaporean company that provides augmented reality and visual reality services, explains:"You see, to a great extent, these technologies make reading fun. As the brainchild of Marvel Comics and the American hip hop group The Black Eyed Peas, this comic book overlays animated images over static backgrounds, which delivers a wonderful experience for readers."
According to a survey on national reading habits, released in April by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publishing, Chinese adults read an average of 7.78 books last year, a slight decline compared with the average 7.86 books in 2016.The survey also found that among some 14 thousand adult readers the researchers interviewed, almost forty per cent of them were not satisfied with the amount of books they consume. Many admit that their time for reading has been shrinking due to other attention-grabbing addictions, like social media, video game apps or online shopping sites. [Photo: VCG]
During his speech at the recently-concluded 'StoryDrive,' an annual international forum held in Beijing that enables content owners to innovate and grow their business, this tech visionary claimed that though some traditional publishers are still sceptical about the prospect of these new technologies, AR and VR have the potential to redefine the book trade like Kindle once did.
"Whenever a new technology comes out, the entertainment industry is usually the first to react before the gaming sector lay their hands on it. The publishing industry is always reluctant to make the move. If you have ever heard about Gartner, you would recognize it as one of the world's leading advisory companies that provide annual reports on emerging technologies. According to their latest analysis, AR and VR technologies have already become democratized. As a result I reckon that, in the next two to three years, you will witness an increasing number of apps and digital solutions that introduce AR to printed books." Cai says.
Much like the once sensational augmented reality mobile game Pokémon Go, many other applications that apply AR solutions allow animated images overlay over static backgrounds.[Photo: VCG]
From a textbook that teaches children to play football by showcasing the movements of 3D avatars, to iDinosaur, a non-fiction that brings those long-gone creatures rolling back to life, it seems that those magical, moving pictures as depicted in the Harry Potter franchise are no longer just a fantasy.
According to Gerald Cai, so far, his company has cooperated with nearly 140 Chinese publishing houses.
"Why do all those publishers want a piece of the action? First of all, the technologies increase engagement and interaction. Secondly, AR books can generate excitement, improve understanding and enhance storytelling. Frankly speaking, AR technology wasn't born yesterday. The reason why it didn't prevail years ago is due to the high cost of building 3D models and maintaining them. But now, things are finally looking up."
Yes, the future of AR books looks peachy and promising.
But there are also some inconveniences about AR books that Cai failed to mention in his speech. For example, to get the whole package of experience, readers have to equip themselves with a printed book as well as a smartphone or a digital tablet with cameras. As some readers complain, it can be a rather tricky thing to do when trying to prop a thick book open with just one hand while holding a tablet in an appropriate position with the other. Moreover, people can easily grow weary of using certain apps to read every single page of a book. Adults can easily get tired of these AR books, let alone children.
The photo displays a tiger coming out of the mobile phone screen. [Photo: VCG]
Regardless, innovators are trying other means to encourage readers to stick around.
Ren Hui is the founder and CEO of Ellabook, an e-book reading platform for children aged 3 to 12. For years, the firm has tried to develop a new form of reading medium that could bridge traditional books with cartoons.
"There are two types of digital children's books. One is the kind of e-book that kids read on Kindle. As you know, as an e-reader, Kindle reserves the traditional reading experience to the greatest extent. It is cheap, portable, and has vast storage. The only downside is that the limitation of electronic ink makes all the books on Kindle, even the illustrated ones, dull in colour. Another type of digital children's book is what we call the gaming model books in which developers use games and animations to draw children's attention. No need to ask, they are far more interesting. But charging customers for 8 to 16 US dollars each, they are just way too expensive and the cost of developing these books can jump to hundreds of thousands of US dollars. Both types of digital books are not good enough to cultivate young children's reading habits. So we have tried to find a solution to tackle these problems. " Ren elaborates.
Just like Kindle, the Ellabook app allows readers to purchase and download e-books from their online store. But unlike Kindle that might appear to be too clunky and untrendy, the animated books this new app provides have almost every hip element that today's touch-screen generation loves, including voiceovers, animations, and interactive games. Moreover, as young readers glide their fingers across the screen, the app will let out a turning page sound effect, imitating the experience of flicking through an actual book.
Compared with their seniors, today's touch-screen generation is more likely to be attracted to multi-functioned digital books rather than traditional paperback readings. [Photo: VCG]
As Ren further explains, the purpose of the app is not to showcase the dazzling technical advancements, but to draw attention and help young readers to digest the content:"All the technologies and special effects are merely tools. The design of them should correspond to the content of each book. One of our key principles is to not change the original manuscripts. We have no desire in transforming a digital book into a cartoon or game. Our animation book is still a book, but a book with more up-to-date functions. Why did we design that sound of turning pages in our app? Because we realized that the simple act of flipping pages gives children time to think."
Well, if both the AR and animation books are still considered novices in the war for attention, then audiobooks are no doubt the veteran on the battlefield.
Michael Treutler is the Senior Vice President in international content and publishing division at Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon and the world's largest producer of digital audiobooks. In his eyes, audiobooks, audio dramas, and podcasts are gaining new audiences around the globe every year; since these spoken word formats can free people's mind when their hands and eyes are busy.
According to a survey on national reading habits, released in April by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publishing, audiobooks have enjoyed an increasingly popularity among Chinese people. [Photo: VCG]
A recent survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publishing also finds audiobooks increasingly popular in the country. An important substitute for old-fashioned reading, audiobooks enjoy a higher than average appeal among teenagers, with almost 30 percent of 14 to 17 year-olds listening to at least one audio book a year compared to 22 percent of adults who admit they have the habit of doing so.
Yet unlike their western counterparts who could insouciantly listen to an audio book that lasts for ten hours or even longer, Chinese listeners are squeezing their time for a shortcut.
Director of the literary editing office of Shanghai Translation Publishing House, Huang Yuning is also a staff writer for a pay-for-play mobile application called Dedao.
Her task? - Breaking down classical foreign literature and then re-constructing an audio that may present the profoundness of the original texts in simple, easily absorbable forms.
"If we use the gaming world as the metaphor, I tend to think what I am doing is similar. Gamers share strategies and tips for free but for me? I charge for offering tips in reading. Personally I think subscribers who pay for this kind of service are those enthusiastic about learning while paying great attention to the practicality of knowledge."
However, as paying for knowledge has become a cultural norm and an increasing number of people feed on digestible, fragmented audio productions, does this kind of paid subscription encourage inertia and make people unlikely to hoover up the information that they are supposed to mine from reading an actual book?
Huang begs to disagree:
"Classical literature and stories are like some time-honoured, lofty museums. They can be rather complicated and obscure. So our interpretation paves way for readers. We draw maps for them. But they still need to read the original books to truly grasp the essence."
But as many publishers and content providers are drawing support from innovative techniques and ideas to compete in today's attention economy, some go back to the golden rule of publishing, that good content holds the real power of pulling people in.
In recent years, companies such as Jianshu, Douban, and Yuewen group have provided online communities and platforms for Chinese writers-wannabes to publish and share their stories. [Photo: IC]
Huang Yikun is the President of Jianshu Copyright Center, a Chinese equivalent of Wattpad. Just like many other story-sharing apps, Jianshu acts an online self-publishing literary platform that allows writers-wannabes to publish their stories.
"So far, Jianshu is still a small startup. But the scale of our users' writing enthusiasm is quite stunning. The statistics shows that we have 2.2 million daily active users and 42 million monthly active users. Every two seconds, a new original story is published. More than 50 thousand new articles are uploaded on a daily basis.”
As Huang explains, on one hand, the platform allows users to interact, comment, and send kudos to each other like usual online literary platforms do; on the other hand, Jianshu provides professional, effective, and flexible services to writers and help them to discover their potential. So talents who are neglected by book scouters of traditional publishing houses could be found.
Though some industry insiders bemoan that reading has been going down in the digital era and the death of the book is inevitable, the sentiment seems to be greatly exaggerating the apocalyptical future of reading. Afterall, as a medium, a book will never lose its power of luring all of us, but traditional publishers might.