IN this electronic era of video entertainment and microwave magic, even the age-old pastime of reading a book isn't what it used to be.
Book publishers are venturing into new techology that allows readers to listen, watch, and participate more in the book-reading experience. Whether it's through compact discs (CDs), computer discs, or creative printing techniques, publishers are gradually changing the way they present books to readers.
"We've got all this great technology, and we can work it in our books in creative ways," says Ellen Archer, director of publicity at Doubleday, which recently published Joan Kennedy's "The Joy of Classical Music." The book comes packaged with a compact disc, one of the newest fads in book publishing.
The marketing of books with CDs is just one way books are moving into multimedia - a term to describe the blending of television, computers, and telecommunications.
As society becomes more technologically sophisticated, book publishers need to keep up with the new ways people receive information, says Charles Melcher, publisher at Callaway Editions, Inc. in New York.
Callaway is working on a line of visual books packaged with CDs that the company calls "Boundsound." So far, Callaway has helped produce or publish three such book/CD combinations including Madonna's "Sex," Danny Ferrington's "Ferrington Guitars," and "Malcolm X Speaks Out." The idea is that music or sound complements a story and the whole book-reading experience.
"This is an attempt to revitalize the medium of books and have it appeal to a younger audience," says Mr. Melcher. "When I was a child, a book was an afternoon of entertainment. These days, an afternoon of entertainment is usually focused around Nintendo or a movie. It is not focused around a book."
Books packaged with CDs intrigue listeners in different ways. "Ferrington Guitars," published by Callaway and HarperCollins, features 51 gorgeously photographed custom-made guitars crafted by Danny Ferrington. The CD, made exclusively to accompany the book, includes guitar music by 20 artists including Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder and others. The book/CD package sells for $50.
On the Malcolm X CD are the African-American leader's most important and powerful speeches, says Melcher. The accompanying book is a compilation of his writings and photographs. The book and CD, which sell for $17.95, hit bookstores the same week as Spike Lee's film, although they are not connected.
"Our interest in this book is to put forward Malcolm X in his own words, his own likeness, and his own voice," says Melcher.
Publishers say books packaged with CDs are marketable because they can be sold in both music and bookstores. But some wonder if the books are too costly.
"It is expensive. It's really hard to do these CD books," says Annie Barrows, managing editor at Chronicle Books. "[But] if publishers get creative and start to think of innovative formats at the price of regular hardcover books, people are going to love it. They're going to eat them up."
Random House president and publisher Harry Evans has reservations about the CD idea.
"I see it as promising but limited.... Out of 100 books [we publish], only one will have a compact disc," he says. Random came out in October with a book and CD package about singer and actress Marlene Dietrich. The book includes intimate photographs of Dietrich by Alexander Liberman, who photographed her for over 50 years.
The disc includes some of Dietrich's most popular songs including "Boys in the Back Room" and "Falling in Love Again."
But some say packaging books with CDs can be problematic.
"There are times when I think it's a high-tech sort of gimmick to sell the book," says Wayne Drugan, executive director of the New England Book Sellers Association.
"There are still always problems with them, like what if the CD is stolen from the book? And how do you package them?... And is it really an intrinsically valid complement to the text?" Mr. Drugan asks.
YET other publishers are trying even bolder packaging ideas. Rick Smolan's "From Alice to Ocean" tells the story of Robyn Davidson's trek on foot across the Australian outback. Published by Addison-Wesley at $50, the beautifully photographed book comes packaged with two compact discs - one produced by Eastman Kodak and the other by Apple Computer. The Apple CD can be played on any color Macintosh computer with a CD ROM drive. The disc combines audio, hundreds of images, and movie segments.
"What we tried to do is to use the technology in a brand new way, to make you feel you were joining Robyn on her trip. It's more like having a conversation with her than having her lecture to you," says Mr. Smolan.
A new line of letter-opening books are also telling stories in a unique way. Chronicle Books in San Francisco has embarked on a new publishing phenomenon with Nick Bantock's "Griffin and Sabine" books.
The first story, "Griffin & Sabine, An Extraordinary Correspondence," published in 1991, is a book of artfully designed and thoughtfully written fictitious postcards and letters that can actually be taken out of their envelopes and read. The letter-writing continues with "Sabine's Notebook," which was published in October and sells for $17.95. No one is telling where or how the books were printed.
"Everyone is intrigued by this. It's a romance, it's a mystery, it's an art book, it's a participatory experience," says Ms. Barrows, at Chronicle Books.
New multimedia approaches to book publishing "has more to do with an audience that is becoming increasingly sophisticated in communications technology. The audience has gotten more sophisticated, more intrigued by possibilities," says Ms. Barrows.