Although the now-defunct Shelfie is the best-known example of paper-and-e-book bundling, it wasn’t the only game in town. Some independent publishers have tried out their own ways of conveying an ebook to people who bought a print edition, and I’m going to look at one of those now.
When I visited BookExpo America in Chicago a couple of years back, one of the freebie Advanced Reader Copy books I picked up was a young-adult book called Sunborn Rising: Beneath the Fall by Aaron Safronoff. It looked interesting, but I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought until I started working at my new job last year. At first I wasn’t sure whether an e-book reader would be okay to use, so I started working my through a number of print books in-between calls. And this was one of them.
Sunborn Rising: Beneath the Fall is a fantasy set in an alien world with no human beings—though some of the creatures resemble humans to a greater or lesser extent. The world, Cerulean, is comprised of an ocean englobing a star, with trees growing outward from the ocean, pointing away from the star. The trees have channels that convey water and light from the roots up to the treetops where live the various different species who are collectively known as Arboreals.
As the story begins, the trees’ channels have been darkening and drying up over the last dozen years or so. Something seems to be choking the light and water off at the roots. In the process of investigating, three young Arboreals fall out of their tree and plummet all the way to the roots. There, they must begin to solve the mystery—and hopefully find a way to get back up to their treetop home.
Beneath the Fall is a young-adult book, and people of all ages who enjoy young-adult books will probably find plenty to like about this one. There’s some decent world-building here; Safronoff has clearly put a lot of thought into how this odd little world works. Though some disbelief might have to be suspended here and there at the idea of a star englobed in an ocean, it’s still intriguingly different from the usual fare. In some respects it puts me in mind of the gas torus “Smoke Ring” from Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring.
The society of different Arboreal species is reasonably well-constructed, and there is an interesting sprinkling of slang and other new words here and there—for example, the word for Arboreal children is “bups”. About the only problem I really have with it is that sometimes it’s hard to keep all the different species straight in my head, or picture what they look like from the descriptions—though that could be part of the reason why the book contains so many illustrations.
Beneath the Fall is a fun, well-written adventure story. The characters’ actions all make sense given their motivations and what they know at the time. I particularly liked the way that, even though the three bups begin the adventure, it’s not entirely left up to them—once the adults learn what’s going on, they take action of their own, and all their efforts contribute to the eventual ending.
Though the book is clearly intended to be the first in a series, the story is reasonably self-contained and a satisfying enough read—though I’ll certainly be checking out any sequels if Safronoff ever gets around to writing them.
The future of the series seems like it might be a little up in the air, though; publisher Neoglyphic Entertainment—an independent company co-founded by Safronoff—seems to have effectively shut down for the last year or so while it “goes through a transition” to “move on to a new, cool adventure.” It’s stopped selling licenses for NeoFur, a utility for creating furry surfaces for use in the Unreal Engine, and the SSL certificate on its website expired over a month ago. Who knows if it’ll ever get around to publishing the next book?
But now let’s compare the formats of the paper and electronic books.
Paper Book and Ebook
In trade paperback form, Beneath the Fall is 385 pages long, with 40 full-color illustrations (many of them presented as full two-page spreads) and over 80 line drawings. The artwork is of remarkably high quality, to the point where I was amazed they were willing to put so much of it in the book—it had to cost a fortune. But it works pretty well.
The text formatting is pretty nice, too, with a clearly legible font, and an alternate font used to represent handwriting, dreams, stories, or other stylized text. It’s all very clear and easy to read—which is good, because there’s a lot of it. All in all, the paper book is handsomely put together.
It’s kind of sad that the Kindle ebook (and, presumably the Nook ebook, Kobo ebook, etc.) can’t quite say the same thing. They run into the fundamental problem common to mass-market fiction ebooks—the dearth of formatting options. For one thing, there aren’t as many good ways to present images—unlike the print book where they could take up whole pages, two whole pages, or only parts of pages.
But what’s worse from my point of view is that the ebook format can only support one font style, which means that sections of the book rendered in the handwriting font in print form just get italics in the Kindle version. It is, at least, readable (and inexpensive, to be sure)—but it doesn’t look anywhere near as pretty as the printed version does.
But fortunately, Neoglyphic Entertainment had another trick up its sleeve.
An “Immersive” Ebook App
In the back of the book, there’s a link to the book’s web site, sunbornrising.com. The site offers a number of resources, including links to character biographies and descriptions of the various areas encountered in the story. (There’s a blog page, too, but when I went there it gave me a database error message—perhaps because of that expired site certificate.) The site also features pages for a mobile game based on the setting—and for a Beneath the Fall “immersive” ebook app—what we used to call “appbooks” back in the early days of ebook-capable handhelds.
Both the game and ebook app claim to be available for both iOS and Android, but following the iOS links in both cases leads to an error message saying that the item is not available in the US store. The Android versions work fine, though. While the game is outside the scope of this review, the ebook app is intriguing.
The ebook app includes the complete first 10 chapters of the 35-chapter book, as a sample for readers to try before they buy. In order to unlock the whole book, readers have the choice of paying $2.99 as an in-app purchase, or else answering a quiz about a particular word from a specific paragraph and chapter to prove that they already own the print or ebook edition.
(If you are going to pay for an electronic edition, I’d tend to recommend buying the Kindle ebook version and answering the quiz from that; it also costs $2.99, and then you’ll have the added flexibility of owning both versions for the same price.)
The app also features an option where you can sign in and create an account, but it didn’t seem to be working when I tried it just now; the app complained that it was unable to reach the server. (Perhaps this is due to that expired SSL certificate?) Fortunately, the login account isn’t needed to register the book, or enjoy the book’s content itself.
Interface and Formatting
As an e-reader, the app offers a relatively simple interface. Touching the bottom of the screen brings up a control menu where you can jump to the table of contents, move a position slider along the book’s progress bar, or adjust screen formatting options like font size, line spacing, and background color. (The book allows parchment, black-on-white, and white-on-black text display.)
You can also enable or disable the book’s ambient music track, which reportedly contains over six hours of instrumental music that can play along with the book as you read it. (I actually find the music reasonably pleasant, and wish there were some way to obtain it separately so I could listen to it outside the ebook app.)
The app isn’t perfect, but it is significantly better formatted than the Kindle ebook. For one thing, it features two different fonts, similar to the ones used in the printed book, instead of the Kindle ebook’s single font. For another, the pictures are integrated better with the text. The Kindle book features the line drawings much larger than they should be, on a parchment-colored background. The Sunborn Rising app has them smaller, in-line with the text, and even changes the background color if you change the background color of the book.
Interestingly enough, some of the color artwork has been reformatted to make it work better on a single portrait page. For example, in this two-page spread, the character on the right has been moved further to the left so they could cut the frame narrower and still keep all three characters in the image. Some of the other art from the book actually gains area in the app, as it can present portrait images in full format that were cut down to fit in a landscape shape in the book. (The Kindle ebook also includes these versions of the color art, of course.)
Overall, the Sunborn Rising: Beneath the Fall app strikes a good balance between a bare-bones but reflowable Kindle ebook, and a fully-but-rigidly-formatted PDF. Actually, I wonder whether the app might simply be a wrapper around one of those reflowable PDFs I’ve heard about. That would explain how it can carry such good font formatting, in any case.
Glitches and Imperfections
The app does have a few odd glitches, though. It doesn’t work terribly well in landscape mode—there’s no way to make it present two facing pages or columns, and the artwork often doesn’t show up in landscape at all. And sometimes, especially on the Fire tablet, the large color pictures would appear zoomed in on one corner. (You can see this on my Fire at the upper left in the picture above.) There didn’t seem to be a way to make it display them correctly.
The method of book ownership verification can be easily fooled, of course; one has only to check a copy of the book out from the library, borrow it from a friend, or even download a pirate copy of it to be able to answer the quiz and gain access to the complete ebook within. But perhaps with the ebook itself only costing $3, the publisher felt that more convenience for paying customers might be worth a few lost sales. And it’s not as if a small independent publisher has the resources to do a Shelfie-style “write on your book and send us a photo” verification method—if that would even work for an ebook owner.
That said, I think it’s remarkable that a small independent company was able to put out an ebook app that brings so much of the print book experience to a phone or tablet screen—and make it so that people who’d already bought or been given the print or other ebook version could get access to the app for free. They certainly deserve praise for that. I hope they get their act back together and can do something similar for the next book—and can get the next book out soon.
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