Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
Was last week’s announcement of the closure of multi-platform book publisher Atavist Books the beginning of the final death knell for enhanced books? Hardly. This is a death rattle that’s apparently been dragging out for twenty years.
At least that’s if you believe, as I do, that the enhanced ebook finds its roots in the wonderfully experimental (but famously short-lived) hypertext fiction of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Hypertext Fiction: A Brief Tangent
Interactive and hypertext fiction was so short-lived for several reasons, the key one being that the technology changed (particularly with the popular rise of the Internet).
The lifespan of digital content remains a key consideration for authors today. How do you access the seminal work of hypertext fiction, Afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce, today? The answer is you don’t, unless you are still operating on OSX 10.6 (Snow Leopard) or Windows 7. Originally distributed on floppy disc, the work was reproduced up until quite recently on CD. But it hasn’t been updated in a number of years, and its availability for future generations will rely on continued efforts of digital preservation.
These days we’re all used to the rapid speed with which technology advances, but the long-term view is worth considering for writers of enhanced ebooks. How will our titles be passed on, distributed and survive future technological iterations? Not all interactive fiction must go the way of the dinosaur when technology changes (one of the earliest branching narratives, The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges , is available online as a PDF), but survival is never guaranteed.
The Challenge of Writing for Print and Digital
One of the reasons Atavist Books cited for its closure is that “the market for innovative, full-length e-books still relies heavily on a print component”. This is of particular interest to those of us producing digitally native fiction. But while it probably represents sage advice as to the means of production and distribution of our books, it also presents a challenge.
Writing a digitally native book requires a particular mindset, and the work does not always translate well back into print. Keeping the door open for potential print publication affects decisions about plot and can have major implications for the shaping of the overall work. It’s not impossible, of course; one case in point is the successful Choose Your Own Adventure books, which have translated beautifully from print to digital.
One of the reasons I kept the branching narrative so simple in my own series was so that it could convert easily to print if I ever wanted to produce a print version. But there was another reason, too, and that’s reader receptivity. I’m not sure a lot of readers want too much interactivity at this stage; I think they’re still adjusting to it. In my own experience, anecdotal feedback suggests approximately 30% of my readers are enjoying the interactive elements (which are quite minimal in the first few books and increase in the last two), but the rest are just reading straight through without engaging with them at all.
Takeaways for Authors
So what does this mean for authors? Should we give up on interactive fiction? No, I don’t think so, but I do think we need to be aware from the outset it that it may have to be limber enough to straddle several mediums and formats.
For example, web browsers are currently rising in popularity as a potentially preferred reading tool to e-reading devices. This is not a threat to enhanced ebooks as such. In fact, most of them would easily translate to a web browser. It’s just the additional cost involved in reproducing them for the another format that authors and publishers must consider–notwithstanding the fact that the cost of creating enhanced ebooks remains one of the stumbling blocks to their success in the first place.
And as authors we also need to try and think of ways to make our work interactive without relying on expensive elements such as multimedia. Maybe some authors will think this is more trouble than it’s worth, especially given that readers are proving slow to respond enthusiastically to interactive fiction, but I don’t believe this will always be the case. As interactive content spanning movie tie-ins to children’s and nonfiction genres become more widely accepted, they will surely pave the way for more interactive fiction.
So I don’t believe that the folding of one promising current producer of interactive fiction sounds a gong for the whole industry. Exploring these new mediums is an exciting challenge to our craft and our ability as writers. It’s not for all authors, to be sure, but for many of us it’s an adventure that’s still well worth taking.