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The Publisher’s Anxiety at the Electronic Book

When it comes to the issue of ebooks, we’re focusing in all of the wrong places.

By Jeff Gomez

In Wim Wenders’ 1972 film The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, itself based on Peter Handke’s novel, a young goalie suspended by his team for losing a game goes on a murderous spree in a small town which no one except his victims seem to notice. At the end of the film, he goes to watch a soccer match by another team. While there he asks a fellow spectator to try and concentrate on the goalie — at that moment doing nothing much — rather than the forwards and wings chasing, kicking, and passing the ball. The film’s protagonist points out that it’s a difficult thing to do; our eyes—and our attention — always want to travel to where the action is.

I take the film, and its last scene, to be an indictment of society’s obsession with glamorous topics over others that are more important, but perhaps mundane. In politics, for example, you rarely hear about the necessity of infrastructure funding. Keeping our roads and bridges repaired and safe always loses out to the more incendiary social or financial issues that garner miles of headlines and hours of news coverage.

“The screen was supposed to be limitless, a portal to another dimension…yet novels have merely traded one container for another”

I think of this in terms of publishing because, when it comes to the issue of ebooks, we’re focusing in all of the wrong places. To go back to Wenders’ film, we’re too impatient to focus on the goalie; all we want to follow is the ball. Huge amounts of attention are therefore being given to more or less superficial parts of the debate: pricing, formats, business models, the latest gadget. What are being sidelined are the most important aspects of literature’s digital future. Namely, how can we use digital devices to change the way we tell stories? How will the ebook change the novel? And how will writers respond to a world where they can think beyond the boundaries of text, print, and covers?

The novel has helped foster publishing’s success since it was invented by Cervantes over 400 years ago, and yet readers—more than a decade into the arrival of ebooks—are experiencing stories on a screen in much the same way they do on the page. In fact, Apple recently filed a patent for an “animated graphical user interface,” which is basically digital page-turning. Where we could be innovating, we’re just creating another skeuomorph.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The screen was supposed to be limitless, a portal to another dimension. A magical mirror in which truly anything could appear: words, pictures, movies, sound. And yet novels have merely traded one container for another, with stories trapped inside. Because of this, the future has so far proved to be an illusion, if not a setback.

My own contribution to this discussion is the recently released iPad app, Beside Myself. Beside Myself is an interactive novel that allows the reader to choose their own order, shuffle the novel’s contents, arrange them like an iTunes playlist, or follow one narrator around at a time (and, if they do, they receive an ending specific to that narrator). There are also live links in the novel to fake websites, fully functioning email addresses to the characters (and to me), along with interactive menus, original photographs and music, integration with Facebook and Twitter, and more.

Beside Myself builds upon the print-based promises of B.S. Johnson and Julio Cortázar, and seamlessly translates their experiments to the digital realm by allowing readers to actively participate in how they experience the story. In an age where consumers of content are increasingly becoming changers of that content — whether it’s mashing up songs, creating video parodies, or chopping up their favorite tunes into ringtones — some aspect of literature has to follow suit.

“consumers of content are increasingly becoming changers of that content”

Other recent projects have also pointed the way toward a combining of technology and storytelling. The Silent History, a visually arresting “literary product” using real locations and crowd-sourced passages, and Mark Z. Danielewski’s animated ebook of his novel The Fifty Year Sword, also push the limits and boundaries of the writing and reading experience. This is, I think, the novel’s future: combining the storytelling of the past with the technological feats of the present and future.

It’s not that publishers aren’t trying; there have been numerous examples of enhanced ebooks and apps. (Disclosure: In the past ten years I’ve worked for two of the Big Six publishers in New York, and continue to do so.) The problem is that almost all of the “extras” are being added after the fact; the digital enhancements are trying to turbo charge what is otherwise a standard story. This is why the enhancements sometimes feel perfunctory. The situation is akin to colorizing a digital movie; there’s nothing inherently wrong with the original black and white film. Instead, what needs to happen is that writers should think digitally from the very beginning, envisioning the novel as something with technology as part of its DNA and not as a distant cousin.

I also think the literary establishment needs to embrace digital storytelling. It’s gotten so used to, and comfortable with, the old touchstones and references that it seems unwilling to look elsewhere for inspiration. An article in the New York Times praised several recent novels for being influenced by James Joyce’s 1922 book Ulysses. And while these are fine novels — each worthy of the attention of the Times — and Joyce is an important and lasting touchstone, I think we need to expand our literary horizons. Past is prologue, but if we spend too much time recycling the literature of yesterday we’ll turn into nothing more than an ink-stained ouroboros.

Another article, from this past December in The Atlantic entitled “How Do Millennials Like to Read the News? Very Much Like Their Grandparents,” cited a Pew report stating that “young mobile readers don’t want apps and mobile browsers that look like the future. They want apps that look like the past.” And I can see why this is: all they’re reading are books from the past. Millennials want a “print-like experience” because most of what they’re reading, when it comes to ebooks, is merely an electronic facsimile of a printed product. When it comes to The Great Gatsby, I’d want it in paper too. But I also want a new experience.

Stories began before the invention of the book: as oral tales, recited poetry, knots in a rope or even just sound and rhythm. And stories will continue to evolve. But we can’t let the fact that these are new iterations of something we hold dear deter us from embracing them. As Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall says to Diane Keaton about photography, “It’s interesting because it’s a new form, and a set of aesthetic criteria have not emerged yet.”

We don’t have the tools to judge, let alone name, these new “literary products” that currently exist. And no one seems willing to take the time to try and figure out new language to identify, quantify, and criticize what is hopefully the next metamorphosis in the novel’s long line of innovations and transformations. Because it’s really very simple. As Keaton responded to Allen’s comment on photography, “You mean, whether it’s a good photo or not?” In the end, that’s all we really need to know.

Author Jeff Gomez is also Vice President, Online Consumer Sales and Marketing at Penguin Group USA.

DISCUSS: How Should Authors Envision the “Digital Novel”?

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14 Comments

  1. Posted January 28, 2013 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    Hi Jeff,

    I just bought this app, beginning looks nice. However, every time I try to shake the iPad to rearrange the content it immediately crashes. I’m on an iPad 2. Have you got an update in the works?

  2. Posted January 28, 2013 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    You make a valid point: ‘digital first’ books are still a rarity. I think the digital revolution won’t truly have been embedded until creators start to creatively engage with the new digital medium and have genuine collaborations with publishers and their design departments (or freelancers), rather than merely waving their book off to be digitised and then turning back to their word processor. I do have a concern that we may lose as much as we gain by such advances, but ‘progress’ was ever thus.

  3. Posted January 28, 2013 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    Or it could be that like the bicycle, the novel has achieved its best and final form. Though authors will continue to experiment, as you have, novels aren’t going to evolve or change much.

    Readers already ‘actively participate in how they experience the story’ – each reader imagines the flat my heroine lives in slightly differently, according to his/her experience. Some readers write fanfiction, thus becoming what you call ‘changers of the content’.

    I’ve watched the Beside Myself video. I’m not sure many readers would want to put that effort into a novel; I think they’d prefer the author to make the decisions. And the technical problems of avoiding repetition while keeping the reader up to speed as he/she dodges about the text must have been considerable.

  4. Nick bangO
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Quite paradoxically, I agree with both the point of view expressed in the article and Lexi’s in the comments.

    It seems to me what enhanced ebook is meaning there is more of a fork than an evolution. It other words, it’s like a new media, the son of the book in a browser. Now, it looks like he must be a rebel and find its own way as his parents’ life, (human) interactions and patterns can’t really apply.

    First things first, quite a lot of people who despise those enhanced experiments are actually despising them because it is an app, a.k.a. “This proprietary stuff I can’t access if i don’t own such or such device and which jeopardize the universality of the paper book we all know” – technically speaking, universality there means interoperability. It is a matter of concern today, especially as there is a huge pro media push in favor of EPUB 3 (in this particular domain). I know this is a barrier for the vast majority of readers I have spoken with, especially the ones open to such experiences. Going the app is like calling their viscerability out and they just will refuse to try out of disgust. That was the first point, and I’ve discovered that it was quite important after all, even if not obvious.

    Next, there is a lot of research to do. And today, there is very few research. Take enhanced child’s books for example. In a lot of cases, it’s just developers putting bells and whistles in a classic. No more, no less. I can see why this is one of the least popular genre in digital, because nobody is actually trying to embark specialists who can help them try to make child’s books targeting children and the way they interact with their surrounding world. Those developers are simply wrong and that is why that doesn’t work. Their goal is to show their skills for the sake of pseudo-innovation instead of what has been done in the paper book industry for centuries: facilitating for the reader. This has severe consequences. Those ones are killing the market for the very few who are trying to do it properly.

    Then, more generally, it looks like there is little conception of what the enhanced book can or may be. Sure, some conceptualize pretty well, but look at what is often awarded (books with superficial bells and whistles). Awarding those books only by taking their technical level into account is sending the worst possible message to people who love books. It is like telling them “look, this useless animation is more important than the story”. In other words, flagships picked by professionals of the industry itself are killing the global market for enhanced books.

    Your experiment seems interesting, but I must say there is one major flaw I could see by only watching the video: scrolling. Scrolling on a tablet is not like scrolling on a desktop. And It is not like turning a page. While you are scrolling on a tablet, a great part of people can’t actually focus as expected on the story itself, because there is one element compromising their experience: their thumb is becoming their point of focus for a few seconds, especially as they have to search for the word where they stopped reading. In other words, their thumb is a parasite. Now, book designers’ work is so eradicate most of -if not all- parasites compromising the reading experience. That is what we have not yet understood in the digital book. Turning a page works differently as the point of focus is predictable (top left). When scrolling, it is not predictable, it is a chore.

    Hope that helps.

  5. Posted January 28, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Great piece and fun novel!

    Given the ongoing failure of the industry to eBook fiction even discoverable on any level in any place in the universe (except in a bookstore, where you might knock a novel off a shelf and pick it up, hence discover it!), I think the embrace of cross-media fiction will come from video-game companies (to whom these kind of editing options are mandatory parts of games like “Assassin”) and the tablet manufacturers. I’d also keep an eye on eBook houses like Open Road, whose roots are in Hollywood.

  6. Posted January 28, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Chris,

    Thanks for the comment; sorry to hear that. The only time you “shake” the iPad is when you’re initially choosing the order of the chapters. Otherwise, you can turn the iPad on its side clockwise to get the three narrations side by side. But I’ll look into this. Thanks.

    –Jeff

  7. Posted January 28, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Nick,

    The scrolling is actually a screen-by-screen experience, meaning it’s not a free-form scroll that keeps going and going. Instead, when you scroll up or down, you advance through the text screen by screen. The reason for this is, as you said, people can often lose their place is longer texts when scrolling through.

    –Jeff

  8. Posted January 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Lexi,

    The reader is only asked for participation at the beginning of the novel because, I agree, it would be tedious for the author to have to constantly make choices about what chapter to read next.

    –Jeff

  9. thorn
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    i’ve been attracted to this idea since the first time i played a cd-rom adventure game, which i view as in many ways similar, if not analogous. conversely, i also enjoy reading traditional prose texts on my kindle (i only have iphone — no ipad), because the e-ink kindle is a great equalizer among texts. i love that nothing about the experience is in any way dazzling. just me and the words of the author. i am in suspense about the future of storytelling, and look forward to experimenting as a reader.

  10. William Ockham
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    I think this article is fundamentally wrong. Collaborative storytelling has been around forever. It’s a different activity from listening/reading/viewing. The interesting things that are happening to the written story have nothing to do with interactivity in reading the story. Those things are great fun, but it is a category error to confuse them with “passive” enjoyment.

    Here’s what’s really changing as we free the written narrative from the print container:

    1. Each story can be its ideal length, rather than fitted to the short story/novel container.
    2. A written story can evolve the way oral stories have because publish can be a button.
    3. Stories meant to be read alone can be created collaboratively more easily.
    4. Episodic stories will overtake stand alone works as cultural touchstones.

  11. Posted January 29, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I’m less than happy with “the writer should” imperative. Literary writing is about the only realm where the writer – and the creative reader – are free to enjoy their sovereignty.
    Quite a different “game”.

  12. Paul Cameron
    Posted January 29, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Well said Jeff :
    “it wasn’t supposed to be like this. The screen was supposed to be limitless, a portal to another dimension. A magical mirror in which truly anything could appear: words, pictures, movies, sound. And yet novels have merely traded one container for another, with stories trapped inside. Because of this, the future has so far proved to be an illusion, if not a setback.”

    Publishing is intent on maintaining the past to protect the future – that did not work out so well for the record labels. The future of story telling should be exciting and leveraged off the new technology opportunities and not tied to standards or ideas that are intent on reflecting and replicating the past.

  13. Posted January 29, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Jeff, I presented twice at the 2000 MLA Convention about Gilman’s famous story “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” where a big crowd of academics were debating the virtues of hypertexts. I went on to publish a print-book approximation of the hyper-critical edition in 2005 (building on an article I placed in “Studies in Bibliography” in 1998.)

    I’m glad the enthusiasm persists a decade and more later, but hard economics continue to intrude. The traditional publishing establishment is far too conservative to throw much weight behind experimentation; hell, they purposely and knowingly overlook scores of great new authors annually. Couple this with the expense of software development/support, the diversity of platforms–see where I’m going.

    Meanwhile, the talented indie author is busy learning her craft, imitating, trying to keep writing discipline while keeping body and soul together, and so on.

    Above, William made an excellent point RE: freedom from the codex form enables ideal length of narrative. Look at movies–ever wonder why each genre has a similar “packaged” length? That one freedom is worth an essay of its own: my 200,000+ word novel is indistinguishable on a Kindle from a novella–and believe me, knowing that, I jerked my readers up short, at the end, very much on purpose.

    I know it’s easy to praise the unlimited potential the computers promise us, but it may get us farther, faster to explore the simple pushing of the envelope in a measured way, walking before we run. Otherwise, the mighty dollar sign has always had a way of tripping up writers.

  14. Bonnie Jean Feldkamp
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I don’t think we can pigeon-hold storytelling into this or that box. I think there is room and a need for paths. I can see the digital novel having great potential for those who want to actively be a part of the process and I also think it will open up the market to those who struggle with a sit down word-only packed book only to fall asleep on page three because they’re still reading the description of a staircase. Give me links and show me scenery and help me read in a visually enjoyable way.

    But also give me the opportunity to read that traditional page turner as just that… a page turner. Different readers have always required diverse options. That’s why we have graphic novels, comic books, mom porn, and coffee table books.

    Adding a digital novel option extends the field to include one more area of diversity for the reader and marketability for the writer. It’s exciting to be part of the evolution!

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