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Q&A: Ben Wolstenholme, CEO of Madefire, discusses books for a digital age

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Everyone said e-readers would revolutionize books, but they mostly present static words on a screen. Here's how motion books are already transforming the age-old tome.

Tablets and smartphones bring spectacle to static stories. Video, audio, interactivity greatly enhance printed pages, and so publishers are rushing to cash in on the potential profit from the creation of a new storyform. The challenge is how to create the most engaging and innovative form. It might be too easy to just flood the digital reading experience with video, so where is the line?

This is something that the startup Madefire, based in Berkeley, CA, plans to conquer with its platform for what it calls "motion books." The company publishes comics and graphic novels, but its platform and tools to create motion books can extend out to all kinds of book genres.

Madefire's motion books take on a traditional comic book sequence and narrative form, but include slight animation. For instance, in each scene the characters might slide from left to right or a background might fade in, all the while descriptive prose and dialogue play out the narrative in classic thought bubble form. Audio only provides an atmospheric background. Of course, to get a real sense of motion books they must be experienced, and can be sampled here.

SmartPlanet spoke with CEO Ben Wolstenholme about motion books and why it's important, in the digital age, to preserve the control of the reader and perhaps most importantly, preserve the reader's imagination. Madefire's platform does not produce static stories, but nor is it Pixar. Wolstenholme says just turning comics into video and animation may rob the reader of their imagination and so also robs the key ingredient that makes books so magical.

SmartPlanet: What are motion books?

Ben Wolstenholme: They're books made for digital rather than for print. Increasingly people are reading on devices like the iPad, smartphones, and there’s an opportunity to take reading that’s been developed for print, and bring it to life in an onscreen-centric way. Motion books are optimized for screen reading.

You coined the term “motion books” and it appears to be catching on.

I was trying to think what would be a term that my mom would understand. You hear so many buzz words and phrases, but really they’re just books.

Where does the motion part of it come in?

These are books with the axis of time running through them. Rather than looking at pages we build small sequences.

Some might think of motion books as animated books. I know you’ve thought a lot about the difference between reading and watching.

It’s a really hot subject, where the right path is to all this opportunity. We wanted to be reading not watching, and therefore we want a book rather than a video.

There are some really amazing one-offs from ex-Pixar guys -– they’re like short films, beautiful animations of books. But they are one-off. They’re not something that can be repeated. They’re very specific and bespoke executions of a book.

And you wanted to create something that was easier to create? To repeat?

Yes. We’re funded by the team behind Wordpress (and now, shockingly, 18% of the internet is built within Wordpress). When we were seeking funding from True Ventures [an early-stage funder] we said this is about publishing visual books that are optimized for screen reading. And we want those tools to be widely available and very easy to use so we can make many, many motion books.

We wanted to create a system that was replicable to scale.

Many people talk about how e-readers are revolutionizing books. Do you think Madefire can transform this age-old idea of a comic or book?

I guess I wouldn’t be trying this if I didn’t think there was an opportunity to reset what a book is in a different way for digital.

People have always wanted storytelling, from cave painting to the original tablets (the stone ones), to film and television. Every time the technology has evolved, the way you tell story in each of those mediums has evolved. Right now it’s like we’ve moved to digital reading and pretty much just scanned in print.

So you are changing the reading experience, yet keeping reading a priority –- as opposed to just watching. I understand you want the reader to have control.

Yes. You swipe through the digital book and you’re in control of the pace as everything unfolds. I think so many people say how magical books are. I think it's because the reader has a role in creating the story. The reader imagines the voice of the characters, imagines their movement, whereas in a film everything is already there for the reader. The reader becomes a watcher. So I think what’s really magical about reading and what we’ve maintained in motion books is that we’ll indicate a movement, we’ll provide sound in an atmospheric sense, but we don’t do voiceover.

I was surprised to see that you don’t do complete animation, but rather just small movement -– a character might slide from left to right or objects move slightly but it’s definitely not a video.

We wanted always a role for the reader to imagine how scenes come into play. It’s really important.

I imagine the line between reading and watching is a tough one to keep.

The line between reading and watching is something we talk and think about all the time. And we’ve got to be within reading. And I think it keeps the magic as you’re co-creating that story with the reader. And I think that makes it easier to make lower cost so you can get more stories made.

So that’s for us, we’re not casual about that line, we live by that line.

I know you started with comics and graphic novels. But you've also done original series and now most recently taken well-known titles that are not necessarily known as "comics" and are turning those into motion books.

Right. We started out with just eight books all within the genre of comics and graphic novels. This included Dave Gibbons who did Watchmen which is the best-selling graphic novel of all time.

But we think of ourselves a platform [that other authors can use] and we have a small publishing arm, which helps us do R&D for the author’s tools. We had this amazing response. I think now we have the best-rated app in the books area of iOS. A lot of people say: I would never read a comic but I’m loving this, or I read comics and I love this, which is even harder because the comic core are pretty passionate about not messing with their comics.

So it’s been walking an interesting line of finding new readers but also actually bringing in existing comic books lovers on the journey into digital.

So you built the tools for authors to create their own books. Can you talk about the business?

We've just started making the tools available for everyday creators and we’ve done a big partnership with DeviantArt, which is the largest artist community in the world. The reason I mention them is we built our motion book tools to publish to iOS for the Apple devices. Our next step has been to move for web as well. So we teamed up with this amazingly huge community, to encourage creators [to produce motion books].

And we’ve recently brought on four publishers, to create motion books with properties like Star Trek, and Transformers and My Little Pony, which will be interesting.

What is your business model?

We’re providing the tools for free. And if anyone charges for a book we take a revenue share. And we take a slice of that.

I can’t help but think that My Little Pony is going to be huge, right?

How long have you got?

It’s going to be that big, huh.

I am amazed, all the amazing people we speak to and all anybody wants to talk about at the end of the day is My Little Pony. Literally you’ve got scientists, grown men, grown women, everybody, saying: So what’s happening with My Little Pony?

Ha.

The publishers that publish My Little Pony are called IDW, and are a brilliant gang of people. I said to Liam, who’s my cofounder and knows a lot more about this than me, Really? And he said: You wouldn’t believe it, it’s so cool.

I went on the journey of learning about My Little Pony, and it’s got multilayering of the story that appeals to all ages. It’s got some tension in there that’s key, and then we have a more ironic layer as well.

I think My Little Pony is one of, if not the, best-selling comic of the moment. It’s huge.

It’s not just comic books that you’re looking to publish though, right? I mean you are doing a Sherlock Holmes series?

Right. We are looking for titles that do not automatically say: Oh it’s comics. We have a core understanding of comics and graphic novels, so will stay within that genre as our publishing arm.

But as a platform we could pave the way for all kind of books. So we’re trying to keep a healthy mix of comic book material as well as things you wouldn’t necessarily assume were just comics.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure