Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Journey to the Exoplanets takes the digital book to a new level, and shows the advantages of apps versus e-books

The magazine Scientific American and the book publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux have teamed up to launch an interesting and groundbreaking new iPad book app called Journey to the Exoplanets. The new title is created to Edward Bell (texts) and Ron Miller (illustrations), but this is really the work of the editors, developers, programmers and publisher, as well as Bell and Miller – truly the result of intense collaboration.
The app, developed with the UK digital agency Brandwidth, made its debut in the App Store this morning and costs $9.99. To be found in the Books category, Journey is a hands-on introduction to newly discovered distant planets as well as an educational experience.

"Our knowledge of what's beyond our own solar system is expanding every day," said Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina in the publisher's announcement. "With Journey to the Exoplanets, you can take an interactive journey to visit new, fascinating worlds right on your iPad."

Journey to the Exoplanets provides science buffs, space art enthusiasts, backyard astronomers, and young adults with an extraordinarily rich experience,” said Thomas LeBien, Publisher of the Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint. LeBien is also the publisher of the Hill & Wang imprint at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), as well. The project overseen by FSG senior editor Amanda Moon.

To give you a feeling for Journey to the Exoplanets here is the promotional video which can also be found on the application's supporting website:

So what then is an exoplanet? An exoplanet is any discovered planet outside our own solar system. According to Wikipedia, there have been 685 extra-solar planets in 563 systems so far identified.

This book app then is an attempt to both educate and entertain readers on the subject by explaining basic concepts such as "What is a planet?", while also entertaining readers through such features as Planet Builder where the reader discovers the variables that influences a planet's ability to sustain life (the reader can vary the distance the planet is from the star, the star's size, and the planet's size and age.

Left: Mariette DiChristina, editor in chief of Scientific American appears in the introductory video; Right: One of the many illustrations by Ron Miller.

To say that there is a lot of content here would be an understatement. So the fact that Journey to the Exoplanets is selling for $9.99 is more about the dynamics of app pricing and user expectations than a reflection of this app's true value. If the publisher had released Journey as a hardbound book, contain all these illustrations, but without the interactivity (obviously) it would most like be priced at two, three or four times this price. But with all this programming isn't this product worth at least what a printed version would be worth?

But in an age of free and one dollar apps, who knows what the market ultimately will bear? On the other hand, by selling the product through the App Store, one is now exposing the product to potentially a new audience.

In a preview of the app that appeared on the Publisher's Weekly website in July, the FSG's Moon said they they were still trying to price the app, comparing their product to the successful book app The Elements: A Visual Exploration, which is priced at $13.99 saying “it’s got great content, basic scientific experiments, it’s not an impulse purchase.”

These are certainly interesting times in book, magazine and newspaper publisher, no?

An app like Journey to the Exoplanets, for me, continues to explore the issue of e-editions versus applications. An e-edition is, of course, any digital reproduction of a print product, whether that product appears in the iBookstore or is a Kindle Edition. Very little of what one sees here is possible in an e-edition, or building an application is the only choice. So is Journey really a book? I suppose the description is meaningless unless to simply say that a book is what is the product produced by a book publisher (easy way out).

My guess would be, though, that as e-readers become more like tablets the two publishing forms will slowly merge as publishers add more interactivity to their digital editions as the new e-readers allow.


Top-Left: What Is A Planet? which explains the term exoplanet; Top-Right: The Planet Picker with its gallery thumbs; Bottom-Left: Little Scientist Experiments, "please be sure to have an adult supervising you when you them out" the text warns; Bottom-Right: The Exoplanet Timeline.