E-Book Recreates a Monster

Frankenstein is back, but this time his story is interactive, as publishers scramble to “enhance” novels

Frankenstein is the same. It’s his story that changes.
Frankenstein is the same. It’s his story that changes. Feedloader (Clickability)

In two weeks Frankenstein returns…and this time it’s personal.

At least for you it could be. Mary Shelley’s tale of monstrous obsession and an obsessive monster is being revived as an interactive book, specifically an app for iPads and iPhones. What that means isn’t absolutely clear. But one of the people responsible for reconstituting the novel in digital form, author Dave Morris, says it’s not simply a matter of a reader making choices that change the story. It’s more nuanced than that, he insists.

While a reader of the interactive Frankenstein will make decisions that affect the story, they’re “part of the interaction with the main characters,” says Morris, and not just shifts in the narrative. Explains Morris: “As the plot unfolds, you will develop a personal relationship with the main characters. That’s why we’re describing it as interactive literature–it’s truly a new kind of novel for the digital age.”

That may sound like a lofty description of bells and whistles, but the London publisher, Profile Books, and inkle, the U.K.-based design firm that worked with Morris to interactivate Frankenstein, truly believe this will be a watershed moment in literature, the point at which readers will no longer be satisfied in going along for the ride with a book, but will start to want to brake and steer and maybe look under the hood.

Instant messages as dialogue

Now I’m sure many of you are asking, “Why would I want to work so hard?” Why reconstruct when so much joy can be had reading and imagining? A lot of people in the publishing business would agree with you. But they feel they have no choice. A recent Pew Internet study found that about one out of five Americans now say they’ve read an e-book. Last year U.S. consumers bought more than 48 million iPads, Android tablets or e-readers, twice as many as in 2010.

And even if the large majority of readers are still taking their e-books straight, publishers worry about falling behind the curve, particularly with a generation that embraces storytelling in tweets and IMs and expects lives to come with a mix tape. So Simon & Schuster plans to bring out 60 “enhanced” e-books this year; Penguin says it will release 50.

But “enhanced,” it seems, can cover a lot of ground. With the digital version of Chopsticks a young adult novel published by Penguin in February, “readers” can flip through a photo album, watch video clips, listen to the favorite songs of the book’s characters, see their instant messages. You even can consume the book in shuffle mode–that’s right, you’re able to change the order of content.

Why stop there? Other publishers are looking at ways to make book-reading more social than solitary. For instance, Panio Gianopoulos, co-founder of Backlit Fiction, speaks of a “literary Farmville.” (Now there’s a phrase I thought I’d never see.) That could mean readers voting to flesh out characters and storylines they like or they getting access to secret chapters if they encourage friends to read the book.

“Multimedia is more than a tie-in,” Gianopoulos told Wired in a recent interview. “Done right, it becomes a new type of product entirely, a hybrid of book and film, or Facebook page and TV show, or something no one has even thought of yet.”

Whatever it becomes, it’s likely to feel less and less like a book. Truth is, no one knows how long it will take–if ever–for hybrid storytelling to go mainstream. Many enhanced e-books do have a heavy scent of CD-ROMs, and we know how they turned out.

Writer Laura Miller got to the heart of the matter in a recent piece for Salon.com when she raised the question of whether we can immerse ourselves in a narrative and be interactive at the same time.

“Narrative constructs this alternate reality in your imagination and narrative sustains it,” she wrote. “What matters is not the story on the page–or the screen–but the story in your head. Interactive baubles pull a reader’s attention back to the screen, serving as a reminder of the thing you want to go on forgetting: the fact that all of this is just made up, words on a page.”

Miller, however, does see great potential in reinventing non-fiction books. There our aim is to understand more than imagine and so animations or videos that clarify concepts or illustrate a process really do enhance the experience. Who wouldn’t want a step-by-step video with a cookbook?

Yet no one in the publishing business is sure where all this is headed. They do know that it’s heading there fast and they’re still trying to figure out what works where and how. Or as Ana Maria Allessi, vice president and publisher of HarperMedia puts it: “We’re all still sort of creating radio for TV.”

Video bonus: Here’s the promotional video for the aforementioned Chopsticks. There’s a book in there somewhere.

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