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Video killed the literary star: Penguin, Starz create first “amplified” book.

July 21, 2010

Don't blame Ken Follet -- all he did was write the words.

In what can only be called an attempt to create books for people who don’t like to read, Penguin and Starz, the pay TV channel, have combined to create an “amplified” e-book version of Ken Follett’s best-selling historical novel, Pillars of the Earth, as an app for Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod.

This unholy abomination — or, as I like to call it, “Frankenbook,” — burdens Follett’s text with enhancements like character profiles and videos from the Starz miniseries adaptation of the novel, which begins airing July 23.

“This is the future of books,” says Marc DeBevoise, senior VP of digital media business development for Starz. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he?

To someone who already reads books by choice — actual adult books with lots of words and few if any pictures (and those pictures don’t move), let me say: If this thing finds an audience, it won’t be the future of books, it will be the beginning of the end.

If you prefer to indulge old-fashioned reading pleasures like, say, imaging for yourself, in collaboration with the actual words the author has put on the page, what characters look and sound like, then forget it. Read this version of Follet’s book and Bishop Bigod, the tale’s chief villain, is Ian McShane. Its main hero, Tom, is Rufus Sewell.

Aren’t you glad Penguin and Starz are freeing you from that pesky inconvenience of, you know, thinking?

Starz and Penguin, of course, are touting the daylights out of the thing. Starz has little to lose and lots of synergy and publicity to gain — it’s like a traditional movie-book tie-in on steroids. The real gambit, as Reuters‘ story explains, lies with Penguin, which, like other publishers, is chafing under Amazon’s $9.99 pricing for digital (and many printed) books.

After all, Pillars of the Earth, a best seller when it first came out in 1989, has sold more than 14 million copies worldwide, aided by an Oprah selection in 2007. This cow has already been thoroughly milked. But while Penguin will gladly count whatever additional revenues the Starz tie-in might bring, that’s not the real goal behind Frankenbook.

By loading up a book with superfluous doo-dads and gimcrackery, Penguin hopes to entice “readers” to ante up a higher retail price (the amplified Pillars goes for $12.95). If so, Penguin will have struck a significant blow in the continuing pricing war between publishers and Amazon.

“It’s going to be a very interesting test to see if people want to pay for this,” says Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly tells USA Today.

To which I say, as I’ve said before: The printed book is a perfect, end-state technology. Like the wheel, the umbrella or the pocket knife, it can be elaborated but not improved. But panicking in the new media environment, publishers are making the same mistake newspapers did: They are forgetting what product they’re selling and who their customers are.

People who like books like books. If I want to watch TV, I’ll turn on the idiot box. If I want to learn about history, I’ll pick up (or, okay, boot up) an encyclopedia.

Combining video and other distractions to the printed word can only coarsen and erode the reading experience, and hasten the demise of book culture and the industry that feeds on it.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie permalink
    July 21, 2010 1:34 pm

    I love books. I love movies. I even sometimes love TV shows. When there is crossover – ie, my beloved Stieg Larsson books and the Swedish films based on them – I am perfectly capable of going to a theater or renting a DVD to see them. I do not need video in my books, as my IQ, while not terribly high, is at least above 50.

    But in a time where people line up for days for the latest (and lousy) new Apple iPhone…can we really doubt some idiots will jump on this?!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 21, 2010 4:35 pm

      Yes, of course. I sometimes think digital technology is evolution’s way of identifying some of the more weak-minded, and therefore less fit, among the species. Scientists have tentatively named this subspecies “early adopters.” As I doubt these benighted members of the human family are getting much sex, however, I don’t think they are undermining the genome all that much. They are just irritating the hell out of the rest of us.

      It’s funny, though — while I most assuredly do not want video in my books, I don’t mind text in my movies, especially if the dialogue is in a foreign language, like Scottish.

  2. July 21, 2010 5:02 pm

    Boggles and boogles the mind and what in the world is the point? Well, the point is money, of course. The point is keeping up so you won’t get lost. Video in a book, gadgets and gee-gaws, bells and whistles too numerous to name. All of it jangling in your head. Multi-tasking is a myth, you know. No one can really do it very well and the more one tries, the less one is able to concentrate, focus on a task that desperately needs doing – like your homework for school, like paying attention to a spouse or a professor or your lover who wishes just once you would really listen to her and get off that texting piece of #$%^! in your hand. Great books, great literature and poetry are holy accomplishments. They can help you live a hundred lives and make you spiritually aware of how intensely unique your own life is and everyone else’s life as well. Can the latest technology from Apple do that? Can Video in a book do anything other than wipe the slate clean when it comes to your own imagination? Oh god, this sour grapes could go on and on and on and …

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 23, 2010 10:01 am

      No, please go on, Duff, no one enjoys a good jeremiad more than I do. Gadgetry is a good thing, I suppose, in its place, but this sort of thing is the opposite of the “holy accomplishments” of books and poetry. They are more like evil jinn, malicious spirits living in small repositories, that leach our souls as they seemingly grant our every wish.

      Reading assignment: Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Bottle Imp.”

  3. July 22, 2010 1:44 am

    Chauncey Mabe, we gotta talk. Got email? I am reporter blogger professor danny bloom in Taiwan, via Tufts 1967-1971, and I loved this post above. I had seen the amplified ebook story on google news somewhere earlier today and figured it was another Vook wannabe. But then i was doing some googling for “frankenbooks” — a word I coined three weeks ago for something very different, haha! ask me what! — and I loved how you used the frankenbooks meme. We gotta talk. This word has legs. It doesn’t matter who coined, and I certainly was not the first to use it, as back as 2005 there are blogs using the portmanteau, if it qualifies for that, and the NYTimes used “Franken-products” in a 2009 story by Ashlee Vance. I blogged on this Frankenbook idea last week, but i gave it a different spin that you do, but that’s okay. I love the way you used it and it’s part of my big picture defintion, too. So let’s chat. Wonderful coinage, sir. And yes, it’s a sad day for Mr Paper, our friend. My main work, sir, revolves around my calling for MRI brain scan tests at UCLA and elsewhere to study the differences between paper reading and screen “reading”, which i also have dubbed as “screening”, not reading, not even “screen-reading”, but there is so much going on on the screen that it is certainly NOT reading they are doing. Let’s chat. Got email. I am on Taiwan time 24/7.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 23, 2010 10:13 am

      I’m not sure anyone can lay claim to any coinage these days, what with two billion monkeys banging away at their keyboards at any given time of day or night (Taiwan time or Florida time, take your pick) — several of them will come up with something clever, more or less simultaneously, from time to time. I’ve been saying or writing “Franken-this” and “Franken-that” for, I don’t know, years. Maybe decades. I may have even used “Frankenbook” back when I wrote about the Vook or some earlier mash-up of page and video. Oh God — I hate book “trailers,” too, even the good ones, like the hilarious thing Brad Meltzer did with his last thriller, The Book of Lies. You can see it, if you’re curious, on his website:

      In any case, thanks for the kind words, Danny. I like your idea of brain scans to determine the difference between page reading and “screening.” And as Duff Brenna says above, it’s impossible for most people to multi-task. When we try to do several things at once, most likely we’ll do all of them poorly.

      The best way to reach me is through Facebook.

  4. July 22, 2010 2:47 am

    MRI scan and PET scan studies of reading on paper vs reading on screens: coming soon!
    Followup FYI your eyes only

    First, Dr X said

    Dear Dan
    We are not doing these kinds of MRI or PET scan studies on reading vs screening, and I do not know of others who might be doing them. Sorry not to be of any more help on this. Good luck in your quixotic quest.
    Dr X

    Hello Dr X

    If we commissioned you to do them, would you? Do you think it’s
    important to know this? Would such MRI studies or PET scans be
    with people reading from screens in the machines?

    I am a reporter in Taiwan, Tufts 1971, doing major major pioneering
    can you help?

    IF THE NEW YORK TIMES does the story I am working on, are you willing
    to be quoted for public?



    Dear Dan,

    I think we are quite busy now with other studies. The funding would be expensive to pull our group from other studies. It would take some ingenuity, but I think these MRI or PET scan kinds of studies are feasible.

    Dr X

  5. July 22, 2010 2:48 am

    MRI scan and PET scan research on reading off screens compared to reading on paper: interview
    1. Using MRI’s is going to expensive. How would are the current studies
    being financed?

    BLOOM: Yes, conducting MRI brain scan research on lab volunteers reading on
    paper compared to others
    reading on screens (Kindles or Nooks or iPhones or computer screens)
    will be expensive. But institutions
    like UCLA and Harvard and Princeton and Tufts and other major
    universities in Europe and Japan will be
    able to carry out this research over the next few years. Scholars like
    Anne Mangen in Norway, Maryanne Wolf
    at Tufts, Oliver Sacks at Columbia and Gary Small at UCLA are aware of
    these issues and will likely be at the forefront
    of the research. It might take 5 years, it might ten 10 years, but the
    studies and academic papers will come out. I have no idea what the
    research will say. The MRI studies might show the reading on paper is
    superior to reading on screens, or they might
    say the opposite. Or they might say there is no real difference. But
    we need to find out with neuroscience, not just anecdotal evidence.

    > 2. Why stop at ebook readers. Why not do the same MRI research with
    > computers?

    Yes yes, I am calling for this kind of MRI research with computers, too. From Kindles
    to Nooks to SONY Readers to iPads to iPhones to computer screens, all
    screen- reading must be tested
    to compare it with reading on paper.

    > 3. Even if there are differences shown between reading a book and reading
    > on an electronic device, does that really mean it is harmful or just that
    > its different?

    Good question. Let’s say that huge differences are seen between
    reading a book on paper
    compared to reading the same book on a screen. Will it mean anything?
    If the differences
    are huge, it will mean something, for sure.

    If the differences are very slight, maybe it will not
    mean much. And if there are no differences, then we can all relax. And
    if it turns out that screening reading
    is superior to paper reading, then that’s good to know too.

    We need to ask neuroscientists to tell us what’s
    going on. However, as Gary Small at UCLA recently told a reporter for
    the Los Angeles Times: “People tend to ask whether this is good or
    bad,” Small said. “My response is that the tech train is out of the
    station, and it’s impossible to stop.”

    He was referring to an earlier note that online readers often
    demonstrate what he calls “continuous partial attention” as they click
    from one link to the next. The risk is that we become mindless ants
    following endless crumbs of digital data, Small indicated. But his
    final note that the teech train is already out of the station and
    cannot be stopped is telling.

    > 4. Do you have any idea when papers will be published based on these
    > studies?

    I have no idea what research is being conducted at the current time,
    nor do I know who is conducting the research or where.
    As someone with no Ph.D and no advanced academic credentials, I am
    using my background as a writer and a newspaper reporter to research
    the current state of this kind of research and to call for more of it,
    specifically targetted at paper and screens. So far, there is not one
    academic paper published about MRI brain scan studies on this topic,
    but several top people in the field, who I am in contact with, have
    told me that such research is imperative and that it will happen
    sooner or later.

    Anne Mangen, at the University of Stavanger in Norway, has already
    published a paper about some of this work, but she did not use MRI
    scans as part of her research yet. Still, one can summarize some
    important Mangen’s research on precisely the difference between screen
    and print reading this way:

    “The process of reading on a screen involves so much physical
    manipulation of the computer that it interferes with our ability to
    focus on and appreciate what we are reading;

    “Online text moves up and down the screen and lacks a physical
    dimension, robbing us of a sense of completeness;

    “The visual happenings on a computer screen and our physical
    interaction with the device and its setup can be distracting.

    “All of these things tax human cognition and concentration in a way
    that a book, newspaper or magazine does not.”

    > 5. Are there any preliminary results?

    So far none. Anne Mangen in Norway is leading the way. Maryanne Wolf
    at Tufts is deeply involved in this, too. Gary Small
    at UCLA, and Oliver Sacks in New York, too. But so far there have no
    no MRI studies on this. It’s just beginnging.

    > 6. How likely is it that manufacturers who have heavily invested in ebook
    > technology will pay any attention to the findings if they are negative?

    Very good question. It is highly likely that they will pay no
    attention to whatever findings come out. If the findings
    back the superiority of reading off screens, they will rejoice and
    help to publish the results. If the findings say that reading on paper
    and reading off screens is more or less the same, in terms of brain
    chemistry and reception, then they will also rejoice. But if the
    findings come back that paper reading is superior to screen reading,
    it won’t make a difference to the e-reader industry. As a friend of
    mine in the industry told me recently: “Just as dire warnings about
    cancer and radiation from excessive cellphone use have more
    or less gone unheeded, the same thing will happen with the results of
    the MRI tests on paper reading versus screen reading. It’s too late to
    do anything about it. The reading devices are already out there in the
    marketplace and in the schools. I don’t think a few
    warnings will change a thing. It didn’t stop the cellphone industry.
    It won’t stop the e-reader makers. It’s a billion dollar industry, and
    it’s getting hotter every day.”

    > 7. Who exactly is doing these studies and why?

    Nobody is doing these MRI brain scan studies yet. Nobody. But those
    who will undertake such research will be reading specialists,
    educators and neuroscientists with nothing but academic interest
    involved. The e-reader industry could care less. They’ve already made
    their bed and they’re going to sleep in it, for the long run. The
    profits are huge. So it will be academics who get involved first,
    people like Anne Mangen in Norway and Maryanne Wolf at Tufts, Gary
    Small at UCLA. Maybe even the great Oliver Sacks. I have written to
    all of them and pleaded with them to start on such work.

    > 8. You mentioned that there were studies being conducted in Asia. Are any
    > other countries who are researching this?

    As far as I know, not one academic or medical institution in the world
    is understaking MRI brain scan research on reading on paper versus
    reading on screens yet. It is an unexplored field, and an important
    one. But future work will be done in Japan, for sure,
    and at the great medical universities in Europe and the USA, Canada, too.

    9. There is so much research on brain activity using PET
    scans why would MRIs be better than PET scans?

    BLOOM: Your question is a good one. I am only zeroing in on MRIs as a
    target method
    but using PET scans would also do the trick. So let me rephrase my
    appeal: we need research by
    academics and neurscientists worldwide on how the brain “does” reading
    — both on screens and on
    paper surfaces — to learn more about these phenomena, and both PET
    scans and MRI scans will
    be useful for the studies. Research scientists will know better which
    method fits their mode
    of research. So let the research begin!

    10. Mr, Blom, Y\you do not have a Ph.D, nor any academic background or
    affiliation, and you
    are not connected with any research institution or e-reader
    manufacturer or book publisher, so what
    is in this for you? In other words, Mr Bloom, why are you so concerned
    about these issues and why you?

    BLOOM: It’s true, I have no dog in this fight, and I have no agenda.
    I am not an academic, barely graduated
    from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree in 1971, have no
    professional expertise in anything and am
    basically a semi-retired gadfly living in a cave in southern Taiwan.
    So why I am doing this, calling for this
    research, with so much energy? I just want to know! I am concerned
    that reading on screens might be not
    be as good as reading on paper in terms of brain chemisty, and I want
    to know the truth, from the standpoint of
    neuroscience. With my background as a reporter and public relations
    consultant, I feel these issues need
    to come to the fore of public attention, media attention, too. I am
    worried about the future of civilization, if we
    put all our marbles in one basket called “screen reading” and jettison
    paper reading entirely. I care about the
    future. Many other people share my feelings on this. So I am acting as
    an unpaid, unofficial spokesman for
    those people who care about the differences of reading modes in terms
    of neuroscience. And if I am wrong
    about my hunch that paper reading is superior to screening, then I
    will adjust my thinking accordingly. I want
    to see the facts, presented by experts. Anecdotal evidence no longer
    cuts the cake. We need facts. That’s my
    brief, and I’ve been encouraged to ask these questions — and to keep
    asking them until we get some answers —
    by several top experts in the field.

  6. July 22, 2010 2:50 am

    Frankenbooks: two comments define the term in new ways!

    Funny, when I coined the term FRANKENBOOKS a few weeks ago as [a
    humorous and catchy new term
    for e-books, ibooks, ireaders and e-readers. Part humor, part serious,
    part cautionary tale, part satire, part fun, all in the spirit of give
    and take, since
    ”device readers” and e-books are here to stay, and “frankenbooks”
    will play a big part in our future lives, they already are!] a few
    forum posters
    went at it this way.

    Said one poster: “Think of ‘Frankenfood’ to describe genetically

    modified vegetables. The term is rather more likely to make one think

    of the disastrous consequences of scientists meddling in an eco-system

    they don’t understand, than a technology that might help solve global


    The word is intrinsically packed full of negative connotations, so it

    is not a useful way to refer to a reading device.

    What’s wrong with ‘e-book’, anyway?

    But another poster said: “Well, the concept of frankenbooks is not

    without merit, but in a different way than Danny Bloom intended. Reading

    some book reviews which praise the book saying “it’s like if Novel X,

    Novel Y and Novel Z meet up and make love” makes you think immediately

    of the old monster Frankenstein, made from pieces of other people. So,

    maybe when Novel X, Novel Y and Novel Z meet up and make love, it’s a

    real Frankenbook.”

    Frankenbooks? – is working on the ability to purchase pages or chapters of books

  7. July 22, 2010 2:51 am

    Friday, July 09, 2010
    ”Your next e-book reader might be a Frankenbook” — David Rothman writing for Teleread in 2009…..referring to an Ashlee Vance piece in the NY Times about “Franken-products”….
    Rothamn wrote in 2009: “They’re called “Franken-products” in a New York Times piece, though I like the term “Franken-machines.”

    These new cellphone-computer mixes are far more powerful than the old handhelds and could easily run e-book apps. In some cases they use extra-strength cellphone chips. What’s more, I’m betting that through PixelQi tech or otherwise, many of the Franken-machine screens will be well suited for e-book reading. Maybe these gizmos will even be good enough as e-readers for us to call them Frankenbooks (no hyphen).


    ASHLEE VANCE NYTimes headline: June 7, 2009
    ‘Franken-Products’ Abound at Taiwan Computer Show

  8. July 22, 2010 2:52 am

    FRANKENBOOKS: a new definition for the Digipocalypse, as new term for e-books and e-readers

    FRANKENBOOKS: a new definition for the Digipocalypse, as new term for e-books and e-readers. Part humor, part serious, part cautionary tale, part satire, part fun, all in the spirit of give and take, since device readers and e-books are here to say, like them or not. I just hope “frankenbooks” do not replace paper books completely. If that happens, we’ve lost the game.

  9. July 22, 2010 3:05 am

    another image: we still use candles for some things, right?

    BRAVO ON THIS: “To which I say, as I’ve said before: The printed book is a perfect, end-state technology. Like the wheel, the umbrella or the pocket knife, THE WAX CANDLE, it can be elaborated but not improved. “

  10. July 22, 2010 3:07 am

    I’ve been banned for life for mentioning frankenbooks at

    they are technofacists there. scary

    “Frankenbooks?” – MobileRead Forums – 15 visits – Jul 1915 posts – 12 authors – Last post: 8 Jul
    ”device readers” and e-books are here to stay, and “frankenbooks” will play a big part in our future lives, they already are! …

  11. July 22, 2010 3:17 am

    The pros and cons of reading on screens: MRI scans and PET scans to check which reading mode is superior in terms of brain chemistry
    As digital advances continue to transform the global media world day
    by day, a Taiwanese company, E Ink Holdings. has taken on an important
    role with its development of E Ink, which is able to render text on
    e-reader screens. The original goal of creating e-books, of course,
    was to make the experience of reading on electronic devices as similar
    as possible to that of printed books. In many respects, that goal has
    already been realized.

    With about 90 percent of all e-readers using E Ink, the digital
    reading revolution is going to have a major impact on business and
    education worldwide and it is incumbent upon us all to ponder just
    where we are headed as screens replace paper.

    An important question that academics and researchers need to answer,
    as the digital revolution gathers speed, is this: Do we read
    differently from a computer screen to how we read the printed page?
    And if so, how differently, and in what ways?

    With two new American books about reading and the Internet making
    waves worldwide this summer — William Powers’ Hamlet’s BlackBerry and
    Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows — everyone is talking about the pros and
    cons of reading printed materials versus reading from a screen.

    An education specialist in Norway, Anne Mangen, listed in a 2008
    academic paper a few reasons why these two approaches to reading are
    different. She said that:

    ‧ Reading on a screen is not as rewarding — or effective — as reading
    printed words on paper;

    ‧ The process of reading on a screen involves so much physical
    manipulation of the computer that it interferes with our ability to
    focus on and appreciate what we are reading;

    ‧ Online text moves up and down the screen and lacks a physical
    dimension, robbing us of a sense of completeness;

    ‧ The visual happenings on a computer screen and our physical
    interaction with the device and its setup can be distracting.

    ‧ All of these things tax human cognition and concentration in a way
    that a book, newspaper or magazine does not;

    ‧ The experience of reading a book, newspaper or magazine is both a
    story experience and a tactile one.

    We still do not know just how different reading printed works is from
    reading on a screen, but the public discussions are getting
    interesting — and heated.

    Some pundits believe that future MRI scans of the brain when reading
    will help us to understand the issues better. This work is currently
    being done in a few research labs around the world.

    However, a doctor in Boston told me that he feels “scanning” the brain
    while reading printed materials or a screen, either through MRI or PET
    scans, still won’t determine which is the better or healthier

    “We don’t know enough about the brain to tell which would be better,
    even if different areas of the brain are active,” he said.

    When I asked a noted writer on technology in New York about this, he
    replied: “A good test would be not telling the subjects the real
    purpose of the experiment, letting some read and comment on a text
    displayed in a printed book or on a computer screen or e-reader (e-ink
    or TFT), and then let raters, also unaware of the real purpose, look
    for differences in what people write after different modes.”

    Let the research begin. The results could better spell out the future
    of screen-reading devices and what roles they will play in our
    children’s lives.

    When I asked a top researcher at UCLA if his lab could pioneer this kind of MRI brain scan research, he told me: “At the moment, our group is quite busy with other studies. The funding would
    be expensive to pull our group from other studies. However, while it would take some
    ingenuity, I do think these kinds of studies are feasible. Good luck with your quixotic quest to find a lab willing to go down this route.”

  12. July 22, 2010 3:23 am

    Interspersed within the text of the Amplified eBook are videos culled from the eight-hour Starz TV miniseries of Pillars, which begins Friday. Molly Barton, Penguin’s director of protbusiness undevelopment, says touch-screen technology and advances in digital publishing “are making this thing possible.”

    Barton says she “doesn’t want this to just be an ad for the miniseries.”

    BUT THAT IS ALL IT IS. A CLEVER PR RUSE AND INFO AD FOR THE TV series. and the media fell for it. BRAVO?

  13. Sean permalink
    July 22, 2010 6:31 am


  14. Ghost of Blooms Passed permalink
    July 23, 2010 9:38 pm

    Uh, Chauncey, mate, don’t you ever reply to your comments or emails? Or you a one way streeet SNOT SNOB? What kind of brother are you?

    danbloom AT gmail dot com

  15. Ghost of Blooms Passed permalink
    July 23, 2010 9:39 pm

    are living in the Cloud and enjoying the portable form factor it doesn’t seem to be a big issue that they are only useful for only a few hours at a time.
    Netbooks struck a cord, which is why the *Frankenbook* will still be haunting Mr. Ballmer and Mr. Dell come next Halloween.


    Author Bio
    Joanna Stern is a freelance technology writer.

  16. ELlen Markes permalink
    July 27, 2010 12:49 am

    ‘Frankenbooks’: new term for e-books

    Dear Editor, The New York Times (also appears in Korea Times, today)

    As someone who enjoys reading on paper, whether it be a newspaper or a magazine or a book, I have coined the term “frankenbooks” as a new word for e-books and e-readers.

    I am using the term with humor, but also in a serious manner, and also as part of what we might call a cautionary tale, since device readers and e-books are here to stay, like them or not. I just hope “frankenbooks” do not replace paper books completely. If that happens, we’ve lost the game.

    At the same time, I like reading the news on screens, and using our screen technology to post letters like this one. I am not an anti-Internet Luddite.

    In fact, I like both paper and screens, and we need a balance.

    Hopefully, the term “frankenbooks” will make readers pause and think in which direction we are going. Toward the light, or toward the darkness, I’m still not sure.

    Mary Shelley

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