Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ubicuo Studio, publishing e-books as apps to take full advantage of the platform; 'The Afronauts' brings back into circ the surrealistic photobook of Cristina De Middel

Over the first three days of this week TNM will look at three new e-books recently published. The first post concerned the recently released strategy+business collection. Meanwhile, if you don't find this post and the next one more than a little fun you really need to see someone about it.

Just as many print magazine publishers see the new digital platform as merely a way to distribute their print product via a new distribution channel, many book publishers have been slow to see the tablet or mobile phone as anything other than just another channel, as well. Initially, Penguin Group's CEO seemed to believe that the way forward was through e-book apps, loaded with interactivity and new features, but the company has appeared hesitant to rise to the challenge of the new digital platforms.

That, of course, leads the field open to the pioneers, the more adventurous and imaginative publishers. One of those appears to be Ubicuo Studio.

Ubicuo Studio is the creation of Maria Cerezo and Emma Llensa, who were the founders of Atem Books in 2010, as well as the online art publication Carpaccio Magazine. Atem Books bills itself as a non-profit publisher - whether that is by choice, or simply the only way the team could sustain their publishing choices is an open question – certainly the publishing house is not interesting in publishing mass consumer titles.

The publishing team will officially launch a new e-book, The Afronauts, Cristina De Middel, tomorrow in Barcelona, though the app is currently inside the App App Store and the publisher has been kind enough to let me preview (more on the e-book in a second).

Cerezo and Llensa are publishing their digital books as apps, as opposed to either ePub or Kindle Editions, or using a platform such as iBooks Author and placing them in the iBookstore. As a result, the reading experience is only limited by the imagination of the author and the publishing team, and the ability of the publisher to code (this is where I fail).

Ubicuo Studio apps range from free, to low priced to $6.99 for the latest release. No doubt each project is handled in a meticulous manner to ensure the app functions seamlessly.

The Afronauts is the digital version, if that is the right term, of the print book published just last year, but which is already sold out. To understand the book probably the best description is what is listed on Amazon.com for the print edition:

Zambia 1964, the rather eccentric school teacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso single-handedly started a space program to put the first African on the moon, thereby joining the space race between the Sovjet Union and the United States. Due to a lack of funding, both by the Zambian Government and the United Nations, and because one of the astronauts, a teenage girl, became pregnant, the short-lived program came to an early end. It is a lesser known part of the African history which unfortunately mostly has been dominated by wars, violence and hunger. Half a century later Spanish photojournalist Christina de Middel used this story as the basis for her book Afronauts in which she rebuilds the story and adapts it to her personal imagery. De Middel shows us surreal pictures of a space program situated in Africa, containing elephants, colorful spacesuits and beautiful hairdresses. The result of this fictional documentation is funny, striking and even thought provoking. One might want to blame De Middel for mocking Nkoloso and ridiculing the idea of Africans on the moon. But according to De Middel: "The images are beautiful and the story is pleasant at a first level, but it is built on the fact that nobody believes that Africa will ever reach the moon. It hides a very subtle critique to our position towards the whole continent and our prejudices."
The app description goes on to give the reader a clue as to what to expect from The Afronauts: "As a photojournalist I have always been attracted by the excentric lines of story-telling avoiding the same old subjects told in the same old ways," presumably says Cristina De Middel.

"Afronauts is based on the documentation of an impossible dream that only lives in the pictures. I start from a real fact that took place 50 years ago and rebuild the documents adapting them to my personal imagery."

If only Luis Bunuel were alive to make The Afronauts into a film. The images and app are funny, surrealistic, thought-provoking.

In most cases TNM doesn't like to talk much about content, leaving that to other B2B journals, but it is impossible not to equate the content to the digital publishing choices made here.

Often I wonder what the publishers were thinking when they created their app descriptions. The choice of screenshots is using far different from what my own choices would have been. As I always produce screenshots I rarely use what the publisher decides to use – but not in this case. The two screenshots you see above are also included in the App Store, as well. The publisher also chose to include a couple other very important shots, as well – ones that the reader might not find on their own without a little guidance.

For some readers, especially unsuspecting and rather conservative ones, The Afronauts will prove a challenge. There are no instructions included, and navigation within the book is not possible – the reader must go from beginning to end. Once at the end, the only way back is to quit the app and start again.

"Ubicuo Studio has actively participated in the creation process of The Afronauts for iPad and iPhone. As digital publishers, we didn’t understand the digital version of The Afronauts as a digital conversion from printed format into a digital PDF," wrote the publishers on their website.

"We wanted to develop The Afronauts from scratch, that’s the reason that this book is not a PDF or EPUB3. Behind it there’s Objective C (iOS programming language). Our mission was to think the book again taking advantage of all the features iPads and iPhones give us. We don’t want to spoiler you, so we’ll wait a few weeks until we reveal all the App secrets. Stay tuned!"

The official launch for the new e-book will be held tomorrow evening at Meeatings23 in Barcelona. I wish I could be there!

(Update: you can find a landing page for the new e-book here. Also, if you download the app yourself and find yourself a bit lost, just try and find the group of stars move a bit, there is a link there that will get you into the e-book app.)

Below is the usual walk-through video of the new app. I've purposely edited out a lot since I didn't want to reveal too much about the book, though the unique opening appears (I hope they don't mind). There is a lot to discover in The Afronauts, and the process of discovery is part of the enjoyment of the book.