How Google Is Reimagining Books

Editions At Play sees designers and authors working simultaneously to build a new type of e-book from the ground up.

The first sign that Reif Larsen’s Entrances & Exits is not a typical e-book comes at the table of contents, which is just a list of chapters titled “Location Unknown.” Click on one of them, and you’ll be transported to a location (unknown) inside Google Street View, facing a door. Choose to enter the house and that’s where the narrative, a sort of choose-your-own-adventure string of vignettes, begins. As the book’s description reads, it’s a “Borgeian love story” that “seamlessly spans the globe” and it represents a fresh approach to the book publishing industry.


Larsen’s book is one of the inaugural titles from Editions at Play, a joint e-books publishing venture between Google Creative Lab Sydney and the design-driven publishing house Visual Editions, which launched this week. With the mission of reimagining what an e-book can be, Editions at Play brings together the author, developers, and designers to work simultaneously on building a story from the ground up. They are the opposite of the usual physical-turned-digital-books; rather, they’re books that “cannot be printed.”

So far, the imprint has just two books: besides Entrances & Exits, there’s also The Truth About Cats and Dogs by Sam Riviere and Joe Dunthorne, a story told through two different diary accounts. The books do not follow a linear narrative, nor do they dictate the order in which you should read the story; two people reading the same story could be having completely different experiences.

The goal was to maintain a balance between prose and interactivity, with the latter adding to, rather than distracting from, the former, says Tom Uglow, the creative director of Google Creative Lab Sydney. “The most important thing was maintaining a sense of what the book meant to readers,” Uglow says. “We wanted to try to capture the essence of the narrative. It had to remind us of the reason we love reading.”

Ultimately, that meant everyone–the designers and developers at Google, the editor, and the author–had to work in conjunction. “We’ve been working in this very novel form of listening to each other as the process moves forward,” says Uglow. “It’s always simultaneous. It sounds like it should be one or the other, but both of those processes feed into the experience.”

In the case of Entrances & Exits, author,Reif Larsen and Uglow’s team originally came up with the concept as a literal interpretation of the transportive quality of literature. The real locations in Google Street View set the scene, and the fictitious narratives were built around it. Larson sketched out the stories and concepts, then took them back to the developers to see what was possible; each side pushed the other to new places. A publishing process that generally takes a publishing house two to four years–from a book being acquired to it sitting on bookstore shelves–was reduced to four to six months.

Of course, comparing it to a typical publishing process is kind of futile. Entrances & Exits is not going to be the next Moby Dick or To Kill a Mockingbird or even Girl on the Train–but it’s also not trying to be. From the beginning, Editions at Play set out to build something separate from the conventional print book all together. Now, they’re working on two more books–“a book that unfolds” and “a book that loses its memory”–that will come out September 2016.


Uglow refers to the books as experiments, and says they’re willing to try out something new with each title and see how it’s received. And who knows, maybe it will result in a new medium for storytelling or a new type of software (though the latter seems more likely, and more profitable). Between the publisher, author, and Google, it’s the multibillion dollar company that has the most to gain and the least to lose. But with books by the likes of McSweeney’s Eli Horowitz, design writer Alice Rawsthorn, and designer Adrian Shaughnessy coming down the pipeline, it’s hard not to be curious about what they’ll come up with next.

You can find Entrances and Exits ($4.25) and The Truth About Cats and Dogs ($4.25) here.

All Images: courtesy Google

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.