Don’t look now, but there’s a second e-book revolution going on. The first one, which arrived back in 2007 with Amazon’s first Kindle, was all about words. This one is about pictures — and video and audio. Many of this year’s best e-books aren’t just good reads; they’re multimedia extravaganzas.
Monochrome e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle Touch and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Simple Touch still excel at plain text, and their E Ink displays won’t bleach out on even the sunniest of summer days. But the richest experiences are on color-screen tablets and e-readers, including the Kindle Fire, the Nook Tablet and — above all — Apple’s iPad. With quadruple the pixels of the original version and a relatively expansive 9.7-in. color display, the latest iPad is the first electronic reading gizmo that can truly rival the crisp text and splendiferous images of good old ink on paper. Publishers of reference works, art books, kids’ books and mass-market best sellers are exploring the possibilities.
Take, for instance, the ambitious new iPad edition of American Grown, Michelle Obama’s tribute to the White House garden. The $14.99 e-book not only has more photos than the profusely illustrated $30 hardcover, but it also has videos, zoomable maps and interactive infographics as well as a quiz and a puzzle.
In other words, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t the only reason U.S. publishers netted more sales revenue from e-books than from hardcovers last quarter. This was a first for the industry and doesn’t include booklike apps like the $13.99 Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy, which was launched in May and features 268 of the master’s drawings, which you can tap to see translations of his annotations. The engaging text is one ultralong column that you scroll through at your own pace; as you do, drawings and video commentaries glide elegantly into place. And if the Leonardo app feels like a museum exhibit you can hold in your hands, that’s because it is the digital companion to an exhibit on display at Buckingham Palace through Oct. 7.
Even standard novels are getting loaded up with DVD-style extras. The Nook’s $14.99 enhanced version of The Song of Achilles supplements the historical-nonfiction best seller with clips from the audiobook, a video interview with author Madeline Miller, an illustrated map and a pop-up gallery with dozens of images of the characters, armor and ships mentioned in the text.
But it’s hard for the Nook and the Kindle — both of which sport low-resolution 6-in. screens — to compete with the iPad. The photos and text look cramped in the Kindle Fire edition of American Grown, which is missing the video and interactive features you get on the iPad.
As for poolside reading, the color screens on all these devices are hard to see in bright sunlight. Antiglare screens don’t help much, and polarized sunglasses actually compound the problem. So park it under an umbrella if you can. And before you put an e-reader or tablet in your beach bag, protect it. At the very least, stow it in a Ziploc. Gadgets, unlike people, don’t benefit from exposure to sand and water.