At a whopping 976 pages, Ken Follett's historical fiction epic The Pillars of the Earth was certainly good value for money. At first, that seemed its only virtue: this was, after all, a book about masons who built a cathedral in the middle of the 12th century. Nevertheless, slowly but surely, it became more than a cult book for people with an obsession with, as Follett admits on his website, "gorgeous church architecture". Nearly 20 years after it was first published in 1989, The Pillars of the Earth made it on to the most influential book list of all: Oprah's Book Club.
There have been three separate spin-off board games. Translations of Follett's books are so popular in Spain there is a statue of him in Vitoria-Gasteiz. And now, this spectacularly popular book is causing a stir again: The Pillars of the Earth is available as of this week as an "amplified" version. Sadly, amplified doesn't mean that Follett will shout important lines to his fans. But his publisher Penguin is offering something quite special with this e-release, available on the iPad, iPhone and iPod.
Timed to coincide with a new television adaptation of the novel, which boasts involvement from Ridley Scott and stars the likes of Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell and Matthew Macfadyen, the package includes the full text of the book and excerpts from the adaptation. There are also interviews with Follett, songs from the soundtrack, videos of the actors talking about their roles and various other titbits, such as family trees for his characters and sketches.
In fact, all the kinds of extras you'd expect from a quality film released on DVD these days, and there's certainly the sense that publishers everywhere are finally harnessing technology's potential. Gone are the days when there would be, perhaps, an author interview in a book's final few pages, or even more unimaginatively, a link to the website. When JK Rowling finally writes a successor to her Harry Potter series, the buzz will almost certainly be bolstered by a whole host of people (and, truth be told, her publishers) asking: "Is there an app for that?"
And, if the experience of Iain Banks, author ofThe Wasp Factory and Crow Road, is anything to go by, there almost certainly will be. Download the writer's new application (for free), and it turns the iPhone into a scanner which, when pointed at the barcode on his new book, Transition, downloads all sorts of interesting content. There are documents written by Banks when he was researching the book and video of the author discussing it in a fashion similar to a director's commentary on a DVD, even unpublished chapters.
Banks' response on his website, "my own app ? how deeply cool. This pleases as much as seeing my first novel in print", might have been slightly tongue-in-cheek. But the chance to explain a character's back story as part of the optional extras, rather than bog the book down in pages of exposition, does open up a whole new opportunity for authors. It could well free them to concentrate on what, in the end, we all read books for: narrative. Even if that narrative is 1,000 pages long.
So explanatory, added-value apps for sprawling worlds such as Follett's not only make perfect sense: they're an incredibly positive development. In a way, the announcement of this amplified edition is much more exciting than the other news in the book world this week: that Amazon is now selling more digital books than hardbacks. Digital books are essentially just another format to read novels, but the app associated with Nick Cave's latest book, The Death Of Bunny Monroe, actually changes a reader's relationship with the story. Cave not only read his new novel in its entirety, synched to the book as the pages turned, but the soundtrack from this multitalented musician-turned-writer also played in the background. It was a genuine leap forward from a plain audiobook or paper novel. It felt like the future.
So Follett's "amplified" version of The Pillars of the Earth will certainly be interesting, if only because it's from a master storyteller who, in the UK, is on the board of the National Academy of Writing, a body that aims to promote the stylish use of English and prevent the decline of the printed word. Let's hope, then, the e-version doesn't reveal deficient grammar in the sketches of his first drafts.