Ebooks Still Lack a Category Defining Storytelling Experience

In Guest Contributors & Editorial by Kathleen Sweeney

This is Not a Telephone

Adeena Karasick’s multimedia project Ceci n’est pas un Téléphone or Hooked on Telephonics: A Pata-philophonemic Investigation of the Telephone may exist as a text, live performance and YouTube video.

By Kathleen Sweeney

Ebook growth has not plateaued, as previously inferred from sales data in the US and UK, but is expanding, provided you include self-published authors in your official data. Ebook sales have hit the one billion mark and an entire category of self-published authors have been redefining e-entrepreneurialism, with how-to webinars, webchats, tools and industry meetups — a butterfly effect of the emerging publishing eco-systems.

Business-wise, many publishers, notably Open Road Integrated Media, are making ample use of the back catalogue for e-versions and actively collaborating with Kobo to promote ebook sales through independent book stores. And Scholastic Books continues to break ground with children’s and YA in multi-platform audience engagements with combine print books with gaming and social media interactivity, most recently with their forthcoming Spirit Animals series.

And yet. And yet. Many ebooks still reference print books to such a degree that linear type-driven design and PDFs continue to proliferate. Ebook production often remains an afterthought of adaptive experience after a print book is written.

Nevertheless, it is clear that we have entered an exciting, fluid, open era of possibilities, though many of current ebook titles will one day look like silent movies: awe-inspiring in their day but clearly fully referencing a previous artform; in that case, live theatre. Early cinema showed glimpses of unique vocabulary with breathrough artworks like Murnau’s Nosferatu or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and the luminous Garbo, but it wasn’t until the advent of sound that movies became Filmic.

In short, ebooks have yet to become their own category of breakthrough storytelling experience.

So why the delay in evolution? With so many varieties of e-readers on the market, there clearly is no dearth of technical know-how. At last week’s BookExpo America held at the Javitz Center in New York, many keynote speakers, panelists and technologists hovered over the crystal ball: where are ebooks headed?

Ebook Ecosystem is Still Working out the Kinks

Burning the Page

Merkoski, who helped launch Amazon’s Kindle, sees digital reading having revived and expanded the audience for books.

At Thursday’s panel, on May 30th, “The Future of Ebook and Ereading,” moderated by Dominique Raccah, publisher of Sourcebooks, gathered some dynamic views on ebook ecosystems, though much of the discourse emphasized the bottom line over creative innovation.

Much of the discussion pinpointed litigation rights and pay-out gate-keeping as key obstacles to creative fluency and speeding innovation, with Andrew Savikas, CEO Safari Books Online, concluding “something’s going to have to give.” Jason Merkoski, former Amazon Kindle-category manager and author of Burning the Page: the eBook Revolution and The Future of Reading, sees this era as an expanded moment for reading across so many devices, with libraries huge beneficiaries of reader exploration, but a “hybrid era of transition” that has yet to glean a new form of transmedia storytelling across e-platforms.

Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace, still amazed that ereaders took so little consumer convincing, notes that in this speed delivery system, with 24/7 access to bookstores online, the importance of a compelling story has been elevated, with readers more likely to give up and move on if they are not hooked from the start.

Buzz for books has moved to social recommendations and this aspect of the ecosystem will only continue to expand, with Merkoski calling for publishers to heighten the collaborative potential for storytelling using crowdsourced conversations that merge biography and artificial intelligence.

While the general consensus is that ereading will continue to evolve, all agree that print books will continue to have a place, though likening books to “candles and horse-drawn carriages” in an era when vinyl records have made such a decided resurgence, understates the persistent issue of device readability over time, and the retro crush for turning paper pages readers continue to exert over the publishing world. Since the wizardry of devices continue to eclipse their precessors so rapidly, questions emerge over the durability of ebook files. While Michael Tamblyn, CCO of Kobo of suggests that given rapid migration to mobile devices, ebooks will be “truly ubiquitous–everywhere, all the time,” the challenge of how to reach readers with the right book at the right time with stories that engage at a sustained level continues to expand as well.

There Really is a Future for Multimedia Books

Inkling continues to offer very slick demos, though its traction in the marketplace remains a mystery.

Inkling continues to offer very slick demos, though its traction in the marketplace remains something of a mystery.

Continuing this thread on Friday, May 31st, “Where Goeth The Book—the Multimedia Future of Books,” a panel moderated by Robert J. Kasher, Director of Sales and Marketing at Imagineering Arts, touched on new forms of storytelling currently underway, though again, the dialogue was driven with an emphasis on book marketing and advertising over truly innovative breakthroughs in the art form.

While Dan Jost of Inkling demo-ed seamless, pristine interplays of high resolution photography, maps, video, audio clips, museum offerings and realtime weather in their newly minted travel guides, the shining technology interface leads back to the Inkling catalogue’s preference for how-tos and educational books such as their medical series collaboration with Pearson. There, the presence of 3D photography has enhanced possibilities for scientific learning environments that combine stunning visuals with detailed anatomical accuracy and interactive annotations and multi-leveled dialogues between faculty and students that clearly trump traditional textbooks.

Devon Harris, CEO of Ochre, which licenses “choose your own adventure gaming technology,” explored possibilities for a gaming approach to multiple outcome advertising and films, with viewer choice word clicks ripe for data mining. The lushness of the interactivity, which results in different storylines based on prompts suggets vast possibilities for interactive collaborative storytelling in book world, but this type of film/story/gaming is still evolving and very much connected to expanding the very definition of a book.

Adeena Karasick, Professor of Media and Communication, Fordham University presented new ways of academic ideas dialogue through video, GIF and photoshop remix mash-ups that combine pop cultural references with Marshall McLuhan-esque critique. Her piece, Ceci n’est pas un Téléphone or Hooked on Telephonics: A Pata-philophonemic Investigation of the Telephone, exists as a text, a live performance and a YouTube offering, an example of trans-textual forms of conceptual exploration. Is it a poem? Is it a video? Is it a remix? Is it a book? Then answer may be yes to all of the above, which is where the multimedia future of the book is heading, breaking boundaries, challenging the gatekeepers and redefining the art of storytelling.

Kathleen Sweeney a multimedia storyteller, was recently awarded a NEA residency in Social Media arts at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and a Civic Engagement grant from the New School for Public Engagement, where she is an Adjunct Professor of Media Studies and Film. Her most recent article for Publishing Perspectives was “Storytelling in the GIF Economy.”

About the Author

Kathleen Sweeney

Kathleen Sweeney, a multimedia writer, artist and activist, explores the intersections of creativity, video, social media and social change. Founder/Director of The Viral Media Lab, and author of Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age, she blogs and publishes articles on media, pop culture, and technology, with creative nonfiction at Cowbird.