Books that leap off the page

Fiona Henderson (left) and Matt Stanton (right) work with Reg Mombassa on <i>Cranium Universe</i>.
Fiona Henderson (left) and Matt Stanton (right) work with Reg Mombassa on Cranium Universe.

EVERYONE, they say, has a book in them. That is not to say the world is overflowing with unrequited rivals of J.K. Rowling - for which you might be grateful. But you never know until you try and never has it been easier to create and publish a book, with software packages such as Apple's iBooks Author. With it you can produce a real book, in digital form, well printed, illustrated and even with videos and audio embedded in the text, save it as a PDF or bung it on the internet for all to admire.

iBooks Author can be downloaded from the Mac App Store and is free, which, given its power, is a bargain. Released in January, it was originally intended by Apple for teachers and students to produce in-house textbooks in schools and universities, and, indeed, thousands have been produced in the past few months.

The application, which runs on a Macintosh but produces books to be read on iPads, iPhones and iPod Touches, includes some elegant templates but it's easy to create your own designs. From then on, it's almost ridiculously simple to drop in text, images and videos, then publish your masterpiece.

But now one of the world's great publishing houses is getting with the trend. The Australian arm of publisher HarperCollins has produced what may be the first multi-touch digital book, Cranium Universe, created by their designer Matt Stanton and author Reg Mombassa using iBooks Author.

Mombassa, a poet, writer, musician and, perhaps mostly, an artist, wasn't always a Mombassa or even a Reg. His mum, Mrs O'Doherty, called him Christopher when he was born in New Zealand but he moved to Australia and became Mombassa when he founded the band Mental As Anything. He kept the name and also won global fame for his now collectable designs for surfwear company Mambo. Author Patrick White was a fan, buying many of Mombassa's landscapes and portraits.

Mombassa can be seen and heard in Cranium Universe reading his poems, drawing and talking about his art. The digital form of the book provides a much wider canvas than can print. Mombassa spreads his story in paintings, drawings and videos, in which he talks about his many works and music. Perhaps most of all, it carves a deep new groove in the world of books. It is available now in Apple's iBooks online bookstore for $11.99.

HarperCollins has digitised many, if not most, of its printed titles and the head of digital development for the publisher in Australia, Mark Higginson, says: ''We are now pushing the bounds of publishing in terms of the type of content we can offer.

''With Cranium Universe, we have created a book natively in digital format to fit that landscape, not a conversion from the print. This is just the start for us. We want to create content that naturally suits people who read on tablets all the time and provide stuff people might not yet have thought of - interactivity, for instance.

''We're now thinking about the spatial architecture of digital books. Reg's book is almost like a scroll; you're scrolling through a journey rather than turning pages.''

Mombassa says it's exciting for him, too. ''It took us about six months to do Cranium Universe, whereas the previous [printed] picture book biography took two years, and the quality of the images is amazing.''

Cranium Universe is HarperCollins' first native digital book and is unlikely to appear in printed form.

HarperCollins publisher Fiona Henderson says it is ''wonderful that suddenly we have a platform that can show all the things Reg can do in music, art and poetry, in a live way that is not restricted by the rigidity of print.

''You can watch every stroke of his art as he creates it; really quite wonderful, something you just can't do in print.''

She says the book breaks new ground and she predicts that other books in similar formats and styles will follow.

This story Books that leap off the page first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.