Lydia Syson, ‘Catching them Young’

I was deep in the final edits of my first novel for teenagers and young adults when Apple launched its iBooks Author app in January 2012, writes Lydia Syson. Googling press reports now, I see it was billed as a ‘content creation platform’ for the iPad.  At the time, I was far too preoccupied to notice, busy with cover design, publicity and the novelty of finding myself on the launch list of an exciting new publisher.  I didn’t own an iPad.  I confess I was also slightly bewildered by Hot Key Books’ excitement about A World Between Us, which tells the story of three young British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War – a nurse, a journalist and an International Brigader. Although the market for YA was humming, paranormal romances and dystopia still reigned (just) and persuading children’s publishers to take historical fiction wasn’t easy.  Any period not squarely on the national curriculum was harder still to sell.  And over two-thirds of young readers were dropping school history lessons at the age of 14.  So at this point my creative ambitions didn’t go beyond the possibility of using fiction rooted in historical sources to introduce the Spanish Civil War to a generation who – for the most part – had never even heard of it.

Fortunately my publisher had other ideas. By that summer, we were planning how to use iBooks Author to make an all-singing, all-dancing electronic version of the novel, with story and background resources seamlessly integrated, for less than the price of a paperback.

I’d approached A World Between Us with all the rigour I’d bring to any adult book, plotting the novel against the narrative of the war itself – Cable Street, the siege of Madrid, Jarama, Guernica, Brunete, Ebro, and back to London’s East End  – so that my readers would have a good sense of the broader sweep of events.  Given their age, it was vital my research didn’t shout about itself.  Story was everything. On discovering we had a few pages to play with, my editor suggested a brief chronology of the war could follow the Historical Afterword. I’d planned to use my website to list and link to sources.

Now the iBooks Author platform potentially offered a whole new approach to creative history.

Turn the iPad one way, and you simply get a digital text. Turn it the other, and there are images and video to see, links to follow, notes can be made and, theoretically, you can even communicate directly with the author.  When a character is swept away by a song, readers of the ‘interactive edition’ can choose to hear it too.  Maps are interactively annotated, anarchism and other key terms defined in context, posters illustrated.  Archivists and individuals in the UK and US were exceptionally generous with time, advice and material, offering photographs, publicity leaflets, postcards, letters, film footage, music. The last surviving International Brigader in the UK, David Lomon, agreed to be interviewed (sadly, he died a few months later) and so did leading Spanish Civil War historians Paul Preston and Richard Baxell.  I talked about the inspiration for the novel, and the history of radicalism within my own family.  We were able to flesh out the reality behind one of the main themes and plot points of the novel, the use of donor blood by the medical services. Nurses working in Spain during the war described themselves as behaving like vampires, tapping lorry drivers and local villagers for blood, and when necessary, sitting Dracula-style at their exsanguinated patients’ bedsides to perform direct arm-to-arm transfusions.  A World Between Us turned out to have more in common with Twilight than I’d ever anticipated.

Here’s a Thanksgiving tribute to all who helped from Amy Orringer, then Hot Key’s Digital Co-ordinator:


As you can see, this was a collaborative project to which I merely contributed, so I can say without blushing that the end result seemed to me a thing of beauty, full of possibility.

Then began the difficulties of getting it into readers’ hands.

The first problem, in those early days of digital publishing, was simply explaining exactly what it was.  Ebook? iBook? Even publishing professionals were still getting their heads round ePubs and Apps, Kindles and Kobos, Tablets and Nooks. Meanwhile, school and public libraries were in crisis due to cuts. As for the much-anticipated iPad revolution in education, it hasn’t materialised.

So where is the book now? Not history, yet. You can still buy this version of it on iTunes,  though I notice (with gritted teeth) that it’s listed as romance rather than history.  On the positive side, books produced with iBooks Author can now be read (experienced?) on iPhones and Macs as well as iPads.  But despite its print success, the interactive digital edition of A World Between Us languishes pretty much invisible and unfindable.  Apple executives have given up on ebooks: always a nightmare to navigate, the iBooks Store is forgotten and unloved. Teenagers haven’t really embraced e-fiction, let alone enhanced editions, and iPads are still the most expensive tablets available.  It hasn’t helped that there’s nobody left at Hot Key Books involved in the original project, keeping an eye on things.

But I’m proud of what we tried to do and I still think it was an experiment well worth undertaking.  Catch it before it’s obsolete, and decide for yourself.

I’d love to hear what you think.

Lydia Syson is an RLF Writing Fellow at The Courtauld Institute of Art and the author of Liberty’s Fire (2015), That Burning Summer (2013), A World Between Us (2012) and Doctor of Love: Dr James Graham and His Celestial Bed (2008).  Her adult historical fiction debut, Mr Peacock’s Possessions, will be published by BonnierZaffre in May 2018.

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