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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prospero

Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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