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Digital doorway

It was late in 2010, and I had just gotten bad news about my manuscript for The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery. My publisher had asked two people to review it. One, a photographer, admired the images but wanted no words from the artist. The other, a scholar of visual culture, thought the insights “rich” and “provocative” but recommended a more academic text. Perplexed by this mixed response and daunted by the high cost of printing the book’s color photographs, the publisher deemed its market too uncertain and rejected it.

The publisher had been encouraging at first, but even then, the terms were daunting. To offset printing costs, they would demand a $20,000 subsidy from the author (a common requirement for richly illustrated books), yet the book would still cost $60 in hardcover. At that price, it would not reach the readership my previous books had enjoyed.

A few weeks later, I attended “Why Books?” a symposium at the Radcliffe Institute that examined the fate of the print book in a digital age. Listening to the speakers, I was struck by their focus on words — and neglect of visual images — as a medium of thought. The printed book was an extraordinary invention, which advanced the sharing of knowledge, but the economics of print publishing has stifled the dissemination of the visual argument, where ideas are embodied in, and expressed through, images.

Could the e-book hold a solution to this conundrum? The technology was there. The first iPad had been released earlier that year. Color on its high-resolution screen was gorgeous, nothing like the dull black and white screen of the Kindle. The iPad, and the tablets that soon followed, greatly expanded the audience for the illustrated e-book. I left the symposium determined to explore the potential of this medium and decided to publish The Eye Is a Door as an original e-book, setting the price at $4.99, a cost that even a struggling student could afford.

The Eye Is a Door is about seeing as a way of knowing, and photography as a way of thinking. I see most acutely through the frame of the camera’s viewfinder and think most fluently through images. The book invites the reader to join in this process of seeing, thinking, and discovery; designing The Eye Is a Door as an e-book permitted a fluid relationship between image and text, where neither dominates the other. The reader encounters the same image within the context of both visual and verbal essays, and a single image may appear in the text at several different points. Rather than paging back and forth, the reader can simply touch an icon at the end of a sentence, and the associated image fills the screen. The eye rests on the image, undistracted. Touch again and return to the text. A new kind of reading.

There are additional advantages to the e-book. To search for a word or phrase, just type it in the search box. Move directly from text or image, through embedded links, to referenced websites. Customize font type and size in books with “reflowable” text. Read the e-book across platforms from computer to tablet to smartphone. Since The Eye Is a Door has reflowable text rather than a fixed format, it works well on a mobile phone, easily carried as a reference in the field.

Despite its advantages, the electronic format imposes constraints. Especially infuriating are those imposed by Amazon’s inferior e-book platforms, known as MOBI and KF8, which are far less flexible (especially in handling graphics) than EPUB, an open-source platform used by iBooks and other online retailers. Many authors and publishers of illustrated e-books avoid Amazon and release their works solely on iBooks. But Amazon sells more than half of all e-books, so this isn’t an option for the author who wants to reach the widest possible audience.

Amazon may ultimately catch up or lose market share, and other limitations may soon disappear. In the meantime, constraints can provoke a rethinking. The Eye Is a Door’s original design called for images referenced within the text to appear when called up, then to vanish. EPUB permits this, but MOBI and KF8 do not. Our solution is to treat these images as footnotes, which means that they all must appear at the back of the book in the order in which they were cited: not ideal, since some images appear more than once, and the sequence seems haphazard; and yet appropriate, for those images are, in fact, citations, footnotes of images rather than words.

This solution inspired the design for new e-editions of my books now in production: The Language of Landscape and The Granite Garden. These new e-books will consist of two parts, where the parts can be read both separately and interactively. In the first part, the reading experience will be similar to the text portion of The Eye Is a Door. The second part will consist of all those images cited in the text, composed deliberately as sequenced essays of images and captions, where each image links back to associated text. The reader may then choose whether to start by reading essays of text (with links to the images) or by reading essays of images (with links to the text): a new kind of book that serves both visual and verbal thinkers.

We are in the midst of a Gutenberg moment, with e-publishing comparable to the invention of the printing press. The technology is in its infancy. Design, production, marketing, and distribution — all are being reinvented. For designer-authors, the e-book offers new frontiers: from the publication of visual ideas and arguments to outreach to a wide new audience for those ideas to the design of the reading experience itself. Those who embrace the e-book may open the eye to new visual worlds.  ■