Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Paint it Black (and Yellow); The reader experience of Randall by Jonathan Gibbs

I have absolutely no recollection of what led me to put Randall by Jonathan Gibbs on my Christmas list. So when I got round to reading it, come Easter, it was with no preconceptions whatsoever bar "at some point I must have liked the idea of this one ..."

I'm preoccupied with "reader experience" at the moment; how we live with and use a book, what our relationship with it is like as an artifact, not just a text.

The text in this case is fantastic, by the way, but this isn't a review. Instead, here goes with my reader experience of Randall:

Black cover, austere, bold type, a tiny splash of colour but no pictures. That all says to me "this is a sharp, clever book". Not exactly inviting, but definitely cool.

An extract from the book on the cover: "People were sobbing and cowering. A man's voice, plummy and shrill, was repeating 'It's just paint! It's just paint!' over and over." You physically can't avoid seeing that several times as you read the book. It influences your expectations. I knew that there was a moment of crisis in the book and that it was of pivotal importance. I was anticipating it until it happened and I had an awareness of its centrality as I was reading it.

The endpapers (and that little splash of colour on the cover) aren't randomly selected. The book is about an artist who at one point invents his own colour - Randall Yellow - and uses it as a personal brand. From that point onwards, the endpapers are promoted from just a nice design touch to being an integral and witty part of the book.

The author biog is another feature you naturally look at a lot when reading this book. It's on the back flap so you naturally use it as a bookmark (at least I did). It's pretty sparse. Literary authors often have this minimal sort of bio. Seems a shame, if you ask me.

In place of a conventional author photo we have an abstract (yellow) paint splash. God knows what it signifies*. Our visual acquaintanceship with the author is deliberately denied. That pissed me off a bit too. Perhaps it should be irrelevant, but I always want to know what the author looks like. In this case perhaps it was decided that it would be a distraction or something.

Overall, though, the fact that this distinctive and clever book was published in a distinctive and clever way definitely strengthened my attachment to it as I was reading it - I was fascinated by the thing as well as the words - and made me want to champion it widely. Which I have.

Reader experience in action.

*postscript: I have just had it explained to me what it signifies and I now feel verrrrry dense not to have clocked it.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Who Are All These People? The Reader Experience of Bring Up the Bodies on Kindle

Having adored Wolf Hall like any other right-thinking reader, I started reading Bring Up the Bodies with real excitement. A curious thing happened, though, due to the fact that this time I was reading a Kindle edition.
After a few chapters (or a few %) I began to feel frustrated that I wasn’t able to refer to a list of characters - an invaluable help to a sieve-head like me - as I had when I read the hardback of Wolf Hall. I emailed customer services at HarperCollins to ask them if they’d kindly email me the cast list. They sweetly emailed back saying “the cast list IS in the Kindle edition, but it (the ebook) defaults to starting you at page one of chapter one - you need to find it via the main menu of the book”. I blush at the memory. I felt so stupid for not having checked. But then ... why the hell would I? Or anyone?
That’s a poor Reader Experience (or RX if we’re being pretentious, which I am).
For all their convenience and speed, there are some things that don’t automatically work well in ebook format. Some are set by the ebook retailer - a whole can of worms in itself. Some are unavoidable – reference books are barely worth the bother because navigation is so much slower than a physical edition, or the internet. But some can be solved with care and attention. Is there a picture section stuck at the end? (which, in a physical book, would be an immediately obvious plate section) If so, why not say so at the beginning so at least we know we can take a look before we finish reading, when those pictures might be more relevant? Are there maps? If so, where? Please tell us in good time. And please let those maps render legibly on all reasonable devices.
Who wrote this long introduction or preface that I’m wading through? It’s useful to know yet requires a fair bit of thumb-work on an electronic device to find out, unless it says "introduction by X " at the start. It’s quicker to find out in a physical book because we’ve been practicing flicking through them all our lives, so we do it almost subconsciously.
These are tiny refinements to the Reader Experience, but ask yourself if you’re content to leave them undone. After all, what is a publisher for if not perfecting and providing the things that readers read? What readers are actually buying is subtly different from simply “a text” as anyone who’s read a £1 classic and wished they’d splashed out on the Penguin will know.
I suspect part of the problem is that, as publishers, we’ve got quite a lot on. By the time the finished text has gone to your ebook conversion house, or your xml system has spat it out, the editors responsible will have moved on to the next title and the next deadline. So perhaps don’t just leave it to editors. Have a group of people in your company, of whatever department, to be "mystery shoppers". Ask them to buy some of your key backlist books in ebook form and read them … or just start reading them, as if they were civilians. See what happens. If you can improve on the experience they have - the RX - you’ll improve sales.

Maybe you won’t improve sales much, but since online recommendation is such a vital driver of backlist sales now, don’t you think half a percent’s improvement over your whole backlist, over the next few years … is worth trying for?