It’s time for an illustrated audio-e-book of Don Juan

Is it real­ly time for an illus­trat­ed, audio e-book of Don Juan? You bet! Here are three good rea­sons.

1. Illus­trat­ed ver­sions are out of print

Byron’s epic com­e­dy has nev­er been out of print, but illus­trat­ed ver­sions are hard to come by. My favourites are a 1927 edi­tion illus­trat­ed in fab­u­lous Deco style by John Austen (alas, out of print, but avail­able from rare-book deal­ers), and; The Anno­tat­ed Don Juan by Isaac Asi­mov (yes that Asi­mov) illus­trat­ed by Mil­ton Glaser, one of the icon­ic U.S. illus­tra­tors of the 20th cen­tu­ry (he cre­at­ed the I-heartf-NY logo) and designed by Alex Got­fryd. This too is out of print, although I bought myself a copy in great con­di­tion (inscribed by Glaser to his boss) a year or two back.

Cover of Isaac Asimov'e Annotated Don Juan
The Cov­er of Isaac Asimov’e Anno­tat­ed Don Juan with illus­tra­tions by Mil­ton Glaser

2. E-books are the best medi­um for illus­tra­tion

There is no illus­trat­ed e-pub of Byron: that is, a dig­i­tal book meant for read­ing as a book. That’s a great pity for two rea­sons. First, because Don Juan is — here and there, between Byron­ic digres­sions and some­times inside them — a very visu­al poem. Can­to One, espe­cial­ly, as a clas­sic bed­room-farce has lots of poten­tial. Sec­ond, books these days are rel­a­tive­ly expen­sive to pro­duce and dis­trib­ute, espe­cial­ly when they con­tain high-qual­i­ty colour illus­tra­tions (which adds to the weight, if only because of the paper required). E-books offer a much low­er-cost, eas­i­ly acces­si­ble medi­um that’s almost cost­less to dis­sem­i­nate even more wide­ly than books and weighs noth­ing.

Bet­ter still, with LCD screens head­ed for print-like-res­o­lu­tion — the iPad 3 screen is almost 300 ppi and the Mac­Book lap­top also now sports a “reti­na” screen — high qual­i­ty illus­tra­tion will soon be wide­ly avail­able. The low­est-cost e-read­ers are not there yet: Barnes’ and Noble’s Nook and the Ama­zon Kin­dle Fire offer only 170 pip for the present; about twice the res­o­lu­tion of the typ­i­cal desk­top screen. But the new Google Nexus 7 tablet has a love­ly low-cost LCD at 216 ppi. That’s approach­ing a den­si­ty where screen res­o­lu­tion pix­i­lates only when you “zoom” the dig­i­tal image.

3. E-books can read to you

The com­bi­na­tion of text and it’s per­for­mance in the same pub­li­ca­tion is an intrigu­ing option avail­able only with e-books.

Poet­ry, whose sound is pos­si­bly still more impor­tant than its print­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tion, is a per­fect tar­get for audio+text pub­li­ca­tion. When read­ing poet­ry for our­selves, we want to hear a poem spo­ken — and often ‘sub-vocal­ize’ when we don’t read out loud . But when read-to, we some­times want to see the text, too, to help us fol­low more com­plex pas­sages.

Will read­ers embrace a mixed-medi­um that includes the per­for­mance? That’s hard to say for sure.

(Pure) audio books are los­ing mar­ket share, prob­a­bly because they remained trapped by the phys­i­cal (CD) medi­um for far too long (like music CDs). The more rapid growth in sales of down­loaded audio-books has not been enough to restore their for­mer promi­nence despite the poten­tial demand among e.g. com­muters.

FORMAT 2008 2009 2010 % Chge 2009-10
Audio (Phys­i­cal)
Sales $305 $248.8 $217.9 12.4%
Mar­ket Share 2.3% 1.8% 1.6%
Audio down­loads
Sales $80.8 $100.6 $124.3 23.6%
Mar­ket Share 0.6% 0.7% 0.9%

Also, the aver­age qual­i­ty of nar­ra­tion in audio-books is , appar­ent­ly, a prob­lem. When I look at what’s on offer in com­mer­cial audio-books of Don Juan, I’m inclined to agree.

But the audio-for­mat for per­for­mance art, such as poet­ry, has strong appeal. What we hear pours into our imag­i­na­tion still more direct­ly than what we read. I sus­pect that hear­ing the poem read will make it more fun for peo­ple who would not con­sid­er read­ing it for the first time but who might, on a sec­ond occa­sion, want to read it for them­selves.

The audio e-book is a new con­cept in pub­lish­ing. It became wide­ly avail­able only late last year when Apple’s iBooks first imple­ment a ver­sion of “read-aloud” books, aimed at the children’s book mar­ket. The typ­i­cal read-aloud book has an audio-track that reads the con­tent of the book as the indi­vid­ual words are high­light­ed. Prob­a­bly, the idea was to help new read­ers iden­ti­fy the words and to put words and sounds togeth­er.

Then, ear­ly in 2012, the Inter­na­tion­al Dig­i­tal Pub­lish­ing Forum (IDPF) pub­lished the third indus­try-stan­dard spec­i­fi­ca­tions for e-pub­li­ca­tions that encour­ages all pub­lish­ers and device man­u­fac­tur­ers to imple­ment audio-enabled e-books in the same way (E-Pub 3.0). Now a grow­ing list of device and soft­ware allows simul­ta­ne­ous text and audio includ­ing iBooks (Apple), Kobo (owned by Rakuten), Azar­di (Info­grid Pacif­ic) and Rea­d­i­um (an e-pub read­er cre­at­ed by the IDPF itself for Google’s Chrome web-brows­er).

In every one of these envi­ron­ments you can choose to hear the book read-aloud or choose to turn off the audio and read for your­self. I hope read­ers will try both.

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