Tom Abba on the Future of the Book

Last night I went to Bristol to hear my friend Tom Abba talk about the future of the book. Tom is an academic specializing in interactive narratives, and some of you may remember an experiment that he conducted earlier this year that began by mailing a number of prints in very large tubes to selected people in the publishing business.

I was a spectacular failure as regards the experiment. As a critic I get sent way too many stupid marketing gimmicks, and this one woke me up and got me out of bed at stupid o’clock. I really couldn’t be bothered to follow up what I expected to be an attempt to get me interested in someone’s self-published novel (which of course in a very real sense it was). However, other people did get drawn in by the mystery, and last night Tom reported on the experiment.

Along the way I learned quite a few interesting things, including the fact that back in the 1930s Dennis Wheatley published a number of crime novels in which you, the reader, were supposed to play the part of the detective. When you got to the end there was an envelope containing the name of the murderer. John Clute, naturally, owns copies of all of them.

As an investigation of the possibilities of interactive story telling, Tom’s project was very interesting, but whether it has anything to do with the future of the book I’m not at all sure. Neither is Tom, as he actually titled his talk, “This is not the future of the book”. However, we did get to discussing what future books might be like.

Tom’s vision is along the lines of the iPad app for The Wasteland, a rich, multi-media experience that rewards much re-reading and re-viewing. That’s certainly something I’d love to have, but such things inevitably cost a lot of money to produce and are not worth doing unless you expect big sales or you think you can sell it at a very high price.

I’m more interested in what ebooks can mean for the ordinary novel, which at its heart is a very simple thing. There are, of course, all sorts of ways in which some books require more effort to both create and read than others, and many people don’t read books at all, but there is a very big market for good stories, simply told.

If you want ebooks to do interesting things with that market then you can’t ask your readers to do anything too complicated. Even the Fighting Fantasy choose your own adventure books were limited mainly to people with a game-playing mindset, and are now mostly out of fashion. Ebooks may allow them to come back, but maybe we should start with something even more simple, if only because of the technology.

I’m currently reading The Alchemists of Kush by Minister Faust. It contains three separate narratives, and right up the front Faust says:

The Alchemists of Kush is composed of three stories. Each one is ten chapters long: “The Book of Then,” “The Book of Now,” and “The Book of the Golden Falcon.” Certainly, feel free to read the novel in the path it’s printed (Chapter 1: “Then” + “Now,” all the way to Chapter 10: Then + Now, followed by all ten chapters of “The Book of the Golden Falcon”). But you could also read all the “Then”s as a group, followed by all the “Now”s together, ending with “The Book of the Golden Falcon” … or read the first chapters of every “Falcon,” “Then” and “Now,” all the way through to each one’s tenth chapter.

That’s something that current ebook technology would allow you to do fairly easily (and I’d be delighted if Faust let me produce it). But you could go further. Imagine, for example, an ebook edition of the whole of A Song of Ice & Fire that allowed you to follow Tyrion, or Jon Snow, or whoever for as long as you wanted, up to a point where it was necessary to switch to another viewpoint character to find out what was happening elsewhere. There may be serious limitations on what can be done here because George didn’t write the books with a view to anything other than linear consumption, but someone else might write something more complex.

Another possibility is anthologies. I know that people like Jonathan Strahan spend hours agonising over the correct sequence for the stories in a book. What if they could provide several alternative sequences?

Tom wrote the whole of his experimental interactive novel using Scrivener. He told me that a tool of that sort was pretty much essential. I don’t think it would take too much work for Keith to allow the author to specify multiple paths through a novel, and get the software to spit out an epub file that supported all of those possible paths.

The big problem here is reader software. We don’t want to create something that doesn’t work on most reading platforms. I had a long chat in the bar afterwards with Baldur Bjarnason, and was reminded of the a mess standards committees can be. Baldur tells me that the epub committee had furious arguments between factions we might describe as the “experimentalists” who wanted to create new features to see what people would do with them, and the “minimalists” who wanted to kick out any feature that no one was actually using.

Some of the things that interactive narratives need from the reader software are the ability to remember where the reader has been in the book, and to seamlessly allow the reader to page through the book regardless of which path has been chosen. You want page turning to just happen, not have to rely on clicking on links to follow the path you have chosen. It may be necessary for someone to offer additions to the standard to prove that a requirement for such features exists before the features can be widely adopted.

I’m hoping that such experimentation can happen through broswer-based readers such as Ibis, because most reader devices, and all personal computers, have a web broswer, so you’d still be able to serve the majority of readers.

I’m also acutely aware of the post Charlie Stross wrote the other day about Amazon’s domination of the ebook market. (80%, people!). Pretty much the only way that Amazon can be challenged is on technology, and because a new reading device requires massive investment in hardware and marketing, that’s unlikely to happen. Software is much easier, and the Kindle is notorious for how simplistic its software is. (I’ve not seen the Kindle Fire, but I don’t have great expectations.)

I will be interested to see where this goes. It is fun swapping ideas with smart people like Tom and Baldur, and as I have an ebook publishing company and plenty of experience in software I’d like to be part of the experimentation.

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