Introducing: Subtext!

Subtext from Subtext Video on Vimeo.

When my publisher asked me if I'd like to participate in the launch of a new interactive ebook platform, I jumped at the chance.  It's an interesting time for digital books, to say the least. 

Susan Harris' post this summer raised many interesting questions about digital books in general and digital garden books in particular.  Susan made the point that garden books (and travel books, and cookbooks, and other how-to books) can really benefit from a technological update.  Photo galleries, videos, audio features, links–imagine the possibilities! A cookbook with videos demonstrating key techniques.  A garden book with photographs of every plant, or of the garden at every point in the season.  Imagine travel books that can link to maps and offer reader reviews, more photos, faster updates as hotels open and restaurants change hands.

This is all very exciting, and I'm glad to be a writer at this moment, when so much is possible.  But guess what?  Publishers are really scrambling to figure it all out. They're hiring programmers, contracting with startups, and wondering how much they can invest and what the return on that investment will be.   Authors who want to leap into the digital world are turning to their publishers for the tools–but the tools aren't all there yet.

So–into all this comes Subtext.  The beauty of Subtext is that it requires no extra technical know-how. The author and the publisher just have to create a beautiful book, as they have always done, and anyone who can send an email or post to Facebook has the skills to add extra digital content. No programming required.  Repeat:  No. Programming. Required.

Here's how it works.  Note that they are still in launch mode, and only a select few titles are feature-rich right now.  But overall, this is the idea.

Splash-SubtextGirl_LFirst, you download the free Subtext app to your iPad. ( Yes, it currently only works on the iPad.  It's just getting going, so give it some time and I think we'll see it on other tablet/reader platforms.)

Second, you buy an ebook through the Google eBookstore. This is one of many places that ebooks are sold.  Millions of books are available there, including new releases.  Independent bookstores have a deal where they can sell ebooks to their customers via the Google eBookstore site.   (Yes, you might prefer to buy your ebooks from some other source.  Again, Subtext is just getting going, so who knows where it might go next? I believe it also works with Kobo and a few other sites, but they started with Google.)

Third, you open up Subtext, sign in, and your ebooks are there on your Subtext bookshelf.  You can read your books, comment on them, and discuss them with other readers, sort of like how you might post and comment on Facebook.  Or you can choose not to, and just read.  Up to you. Also, you can invite your friends to join you in a Subtext discussion of a particular book.  Yes, this imagines a world where everybody has an iPad and reads ebooks on them, but again, we've got to start somewhere.

Fourth–and this is what I'm getting at--the author can go in and fully annotate their book.  The author (or, for the JK Rowlings and Stephen Kings of the world, their staff) can add pictures, video, links to relevant websites or news stories, audio commentary, or just written commentary.  Extras.  Of all kinds.  The author can also answer reader's questions.  Maybe host a little discussion, right there in the book.  Keep updating it as time goes on.  All that stuff. 

It an annotated, interactive ebook that requires no special programming.  Anyone can do it.

So–they're only launching with a few books.  The idea is to test it, kick the tires, get a large crowd of people talking about a few books to really test the interactive features.  And one of those books is Wicked Bugs.

Wicked Bugs in Subtext

What I've done in Subtext with Wicked Bugs is to link to sources, experts, videos, and photographs that offer a deeper look into each bug (sometimes literally.)  I'm also linking to relevant news stories and useful references.  And I've added my own personal reactions to some of these bugs, as well as the reactions of other people I've met since the book came out, from drive-time DJs to victims of bug attacks.

I also worked with the artist, Briony Morrow-Cribbs, to help illuminate the process she undertook to create the copperplate etchings that illustrate the book.  We created two videos about the art, and I linked to her full-color illustrations and other bits and pieces about her and her work.

It was great fun to participate in the launch.  In all, I uploaded over 150 comments, links, videos, and other extras that I hope will enhance the book–for those who want their books enhanced, that is.

Now, a couple of caveats for those of you who might want to nit-pick (to use a Wicked Bugs term!)

Caveat #1:  Like I said, at the moment it's only available on the iPad, with the Google eBookstore, and they are starting with a limited "bookshelf" of books that are highly annotated and being discussed.

Caveat #2:  Right now, Subtext can only "read" and allow comments on the "plain text" or "flowing text" version of the book.  eBooks also come in a "scanned pages" version, which is exactly what it sounds like–a PDF-type view of the book exactly as it appears in print–with color, graphics, fancy typefaces, etc.  The plain text or "flowing text" version is fine for novels, where art, layout, and design are not as big a deal. In fact, the "flowing text" version is better with a novel, because you can re-size the type and even choose your own font.   But when it comes to highly designed and illustrated books, you want the "scanned pages" version that looks as beautiful as the real deal. They tell me that's coming, so hang in there. 

Caveat #3:  Right now, all of the author's comments appear as little icons on the side of the page that you click to read.  I would love to someday see a scrollbar type thing along the side or bottom of the screen that previewed those author comments, pictures, video, etc, so that you don't have to click every one to see what's there.  I don't know if they have something like that planned or not, but given the progress I've seen as they've worked on this thing all summer, I imagine more enhancements are in the works.

So.  What do you think?   As an author, do you like the idea of going in and "enhancing" your book, rather than waiting around for your publisher to figure out how to do it?  As a reader, do you like the idea of an enhanced ebook that includes video extras, reader discussions, author commentary, etc etc?