Enhanced eBooks

June 21, 2013

Much is being made of the fact that Stephen King has—for the time being—decided to forego an eBook of his latest novel, Joyland. Several articles imply that he is no longer a fan of the digital format. Others argue that he shouldn’t get to decide how people experience a book, ignoring the fact that digital rights are separate from print rights and that authors get to choose how to exploit them.

As illustrated in my first essay here at FEARnet, King has long been a champion of eBooks—an innovator, even. There was a digital version of The Wind Through the Keyhole last year and there will be one of Doctor Sleep later on this year. King isn’t challenging the format. He simply wants readers to have the retro feeling of holding a paperback in this one case. That’s what Hard Case Crime is all about, after all, as publisher Charles Ardai explained in an essay called Why Cling to the Past?

HardListeningTwo other June releases negate the assumption that King doesn’t like eBooks. The first, released on June 3, is an enhanced eBook of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, the musical he co-wrote with John Mellencamp. Then, on June 18, Coliloquy will issue Hard Listening, an interactive eBook by members of the Rock Bottom Remainders that includes an essay and a short story by King.

Interactive eBooks are continuing to evolve. The enhanced version of 11/22/63 had a video of King discussing his research and an extract from the audiobook tacked onto the end. These two new releases take the concept to the next level.

After years of escorting writers to signings and hearing how many of them were amateur musicians, Kathi Kamen Goldmark decided to form a group to perform at the 1992 American Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim. The Rock Bottom Remainders had such a good time that they decided to take the show on the road, as chronicled in Mid-Life Confidential. Since then, they’ve reunited from time to time to raise money for literacy campaigns.

When Goldmark was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the group got together last year for one final concert. However, Goldmark passed away before the performance. The profits from Hard Listening are being used to defray her medical bills. The book contains essays by King, Scott Turow, Mitch Albom, Amy Tan, Matt Groening, Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jr., James McBride, Ridley Pearson, Greg Iles, Sam Barry, and Roger McGuinn, as well as amusing e-mail exchanges among the band members. Who knew that Dave Barry had a brother (who was married to Goldmark) who is just as funny as he is?

There is no print edition of the book, and the iBooks version for iPad is the most fully interactive. The photographs that illustrate it can be “popped out” for closer inspection and some pages contain embedded videos of on-stage and back-stage shenanigans. The clips are hilarious: King falling to the floor laughing at Albom’s Elvis costume, or him and Greg Iles being wheeled from the green room to the stage on a hotel luggage trolley. The audio clip of McGuinn performing “Sloop John B.” with some of the band members should put to rest any question about their musical chops. Not all, though. Bruce Springsteen once told the Remainders not to get any better; otherwise, they’d just be another lousy band.

The book contains interactive quizzes where readers choose who made certain statements or whether or not Scott Turow still has his spleen. After guessing, readers see the correct answers along with graphs showing how other readers and members of the Rock Bottom Remainders answered the questions. The final quiz involves picking which of four writers challenged to create a story in the style of Stephen King is the real deal.

The interactive nature of the book makes for an entertaining reading experience. One comes away appreciating just how much this quirky little band meant to its members and the camaraderie they developed over the years.

Ghost BrothersLast year, I wrote about the long road that Ghost Brothers of Darkland County took to production and reviewed the premiere. The all-star-cast recording, first announced in 2009, is now available in several versions, from a digital download that includes snippets of dialog to a hardcover libretto (script) that comes with two CDs (one omits the dialog) and a DVD with a behind-the-scenes video featuring King, Mellencamp, producer T-Bone Burnett and director Susan V. Booth.

The illustrated digital libretto designed especially for iBooks has animation, sound effects, video and graphics. Click on the sketch of the bunk beds from the cabin in Belle Reve and it squeaks. Click on the icons next to the lyrics and the songs play. Dialog snippets are accompanied by cartoons. Other sections feature Mellencamp’s hand-written lyrics, profiles of the contributors, a music video for the song “Truth” and the 8-minute behind-the-scenes video. The libretto contains a significantly different version of the text than what was performed in Atlanta. Scenes were shuffled and trimmed, and significant cuts were made late in the second act, presumably to tighten up the pacing.

The album has strong vocal performances by the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Roseanne Cash, Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow. Burnett’s production emphasizes the story’s foggy, murky atmosphere. Some songs on the album (“Wrong, Wrong, Wrong About Me” and “So Goddam Good”) didn’t appear in the 2012 musical and others, like Costello’s “That’s Me,” were abridged. “You Don’t Know Me,” sung by Cash, was replaced in the musical with “What’s Going On Here?” Conversely, a few tracks from the musical are not on this recording, including “Lounging Around in Heaven,” “On Belle Reve Time” and “A Rose for Poor Anna.”

One thing the album lacks compared to the musical production is the ensemble’s rich harmonies on songs like Kristofferson’s “How Many Days.” However, the haunting vocals provided by teenage newcomers Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz on “Truth” are perfect for the mournful and introspective finale. In the months leading up to the soundtrack’s release, Concord Music has been premiering tracks online via a variety of media outlets. You can find them collected on the Ghost Brothers of Darkland County website.

It was announced recently that the musical will tour 20 cities throughout the Midwest and Southeast this October and November. At least some of the original cast members will be back, including Jake La Botz, who will reprise his role as “The Shape,” which is good news indeed.

No one knows what the future holds for enhanced eBooks, but King continues to demonstrate that he isn’t afraid of the digital format. He might just use it to frighten you.

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