Does the Closure of Atavist Books Signal the End of Enhanced Ebooks?

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 [1941], 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.

Related: Vook Doubles Down on Short-Form Ebooks as Atavist Books Bows Out

7 thoughts on “Does the Closure of Atavist Books Signal the End of Enhanced Ebooks?

  1. Dave Bricker

    It’s early in the game for enhanced eBooks. Dedicated eReader devices still rule, and these offer weak and inconsistent support for ePub3’s enhanced features. This being the case, no large publisher will risk delivering broken or buggy experiences to readers.

    Innovation will come from small publishers developing platforms like Atavist and PubML that rely on the web browser to deliver consistency and functionality. In fact, the most sophisticated eReaders that offer the best support for ePub3 do so within the humble web browser. More than 50% of eBook readers use devices other than dedicated eReaders and the proportion of alt-platform users to eReader users is growing. All these devices (including many eReaders) have web browsers on-board that offer better functionality. Why would publishers NOT leverage the web?

    Another shift is that eBooks were conceived to be read offline. But this is no longer as important as it was. WiFi is available almost everywhere—even on planes and buses. Platforms like PubML integrate Google Maps, Flickr Photo Galleries, and YouTube playlists unobtrusively into the reading experience without adding file size or visual clutter, while providing text that can be read offline when needed. The shift toward always-wired devices suggests a shift toward enhanced eBooks that leverage the capabilities of the web—and a shift away from less consistent platforms.

    For an example, see The book contains 350 video clips, 80 maps, 200 images, and 100 photo footnotes—none of which clutter the text.When I created the eBook, I couldn’t find any format that would allow me to embed commonplace web-based media. Don’t ask a Kindle or a Nook to look or work like this. Strange, as an ePub file is just a bundle of HTML and CSS documents, the same stuff from which websites are built. The PubML eBook format is pure HTML5 and it’s open source—free to the world.

    It may be that the question of the state of \enhanced eBooks\ becomes irrelevant once an eBook becomes just another style of web content display. Why not have blog sites, HTML sites, Flash sites, and eBook sites? EBooks won’t be thought of as \enhanced\ any more than any other website with embedded media. In today’s eBook viewing model, \enhanced\ is only a euphemism for \less crippled.\

  2. Michael W. Perry

    I was doing contract work for Microsoft back in the late 1980s when CDs created a brief fad about multi-media. Nothing came of it, I suspect, because the public simply wasn’t interested. When we read, we want to read. When we watch a movie, we want to watch a movie. Blending the two makes as much sense as pouring chocolate syrup on a pepperoni pizza.

    That isn’t to say that some mixture can occur. Lots of people like graphic novels, aka comic books. I’d love to watch a video interview with a book’s author before reading it and perhaps a different interview afterward. What I don’t want is clumsy re-enactments of book scenes I can easily envision in my head.

    I sometimes watch movies with the dialogue replace by director and producer comments. And I’d love to see pop-notes like those used in iBooks used with mysteries. Read a book the first time with them hidden to attempt to figure out the murderer for yourself. Then read it a second time, studying the author’s notes about how he dropped clues into the story.

    But any blending of media or indeed any new additions brought in by technology needs to fit with what we as humans like. That’s why the pundits, as fascinated as a two-year-old by anything bright and new, end up looking silly. They don’t understand people.

    That’s not even getting into the enormous cost of creating even barely adequate video. Any good novelist could write sweeping historical epic whose only cost would be perhaps a year of his time. Formatted, that could become a book that millions of people could enjoy. But attempting to turn that novel into a merely adequate movie might cost a hundred million dollars. A writer can easily create cast of thousands at some exotic location by simply typing on his keyboard. A film producer must either employ those thousands or use costly computer skills to achieve the same effect.

    Given that most people are as happy with the former as the latter, the demand for the latter will never take over the production of the former.

    And as far as making a book interactive in any context but educational I have my doubts. For fiction and even history and biography, it seems more than a little lazy. The author is dumping on his readers something that is his responsibility—arranging the material into a coherent flow. When I read a biography of Churchill, I don’t want to be continually hit with choices like:

    Do you want to read about the toy soldiers Churchill had as a child?


    Do you want to hear some of his WWII speeches?

    If I’m not interested in some aspect of Churchill’s life, I can skip over that. But I don’t want an author treating me like I was in kindergarten and afflicted with such a pitiful attention span I need to continually be given distractions: \Would you like to play with Legos now or should I read you a story?\ That’s what a lot of interactivity is like. It assumes that what an author would ordinarily be doing is so boring, he has to offer alternatives.

    Write well or don’t write at all, but don’t try to distract me with interactivity.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride (a young adult novel that is not interactive, but it does have pictures)

  3. Theresa M. Moore

    I had an interesting eye-opener the other day when I moved my ebook distribution to Ingram Spark. Apparently, Smashwords has had it all wrong this whole time with regard to the EPUB format. I used to upload DOC files specially prepared, and allowed SW to convert to other formats from that. Now, I convert the DOC file to a filtered HTML document and strip out the Word formatting, which is still there after you filter it. Getting it down to the raw state involves replacing common Word characters with straight HTML coding, which takes time. But so far I have been able to upload EPUBs without errors to IS, and without relying on a conversion service which gives me documents which then don’t pass through ePubCheck. It’s all in the coding, and I believe readers would prefer to see the book as it is, not with extra bells and whistles. They want the ebook to look like the printed one.

    Interactive books are like children’s picture books, and I think adults are smart enough to be annoyed by the distractions. Until ereaders are designed to project 3D or animations like video games they are not going to, so no amount of wishful thinking will change that. That is why tablets are now so popular.

  4. JJ Gadd

    \But I don’t want an author treating me like I was in kindergarten and afflicted with such a pitiful attention span I need to continually be given distractions: Would you like to play with Legos now or should I read you a story? That’s what a lot of interactivity is like. It assumes that what an author would ordinarily be doing is so boring, he has to offer alternatives.\

    Wow, I never thought of interactivity like that! To me it’s about empowering the reader to make their own choices about how they want to receive the information! Which is something I appreciate in a book. I LIKE having the choice.

    \The author is dumping on his readers something that is his responsibility—arranging the material into a coherent flow.\

    Good interactive books still have coherent flow no matter which choice the reader makes, which requires authorial skill to achieve (as opposed to being lazy).

    But yes I agree with a lot of your other points, in particular multimedia like video can be inappropriate and distracting in some enhanced ebooks. It’s all about context and the nature of the book in question – video is entirely appropriate in an instructional book such as a cookbook, for example.

    Interactive fiction is a bit trickier because it can’t rely on images or video as easily (though I like your ideas about the interview with the editor etc) – it requires deft handling in order to be done affordably and in a way that is not gimmicky or distracting.

  5. Debra Diblasi

    Two points:

    1. The mistake most interactive writers make is using media *and the platform on which the media is accessed* as merely illustrative of text, in the former case, and merely functional in the latter case. Each medium — video, still photography, drawings, audio — has its own aesthetic integrity and should address that specificity within a narrative. Likewise, each platform suggests narratives beyond \story\, as each manifests in culture in peculiar ways. Thus, a successful interactive not only explores multimedia, platform and story but also the intersections between them.

    2. This is an interesting project: I met the creators at the last AWP Conference and know how much VC money they received. (A lot.) The question remains whether the ROIs will ever break even or whether investors will continue financing remarkable projects out of philanthropic goodness. I would love it to be so but have little faith.



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