Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Guest Post: The Vast And Untapped Potential of Digital Narrative Delivery Is Kinda Stupid

Today's guest post was written by Stefan Gagne, also known as "Twoflower." He's a much better writer than I am, and I'm thrilled that he agreed to write something for the blog. 

"eBooks" are, by and large, exactly what it says on the tin. They're electronic versions of books. Paragraph after paragraph, poured out onto a digital device rather than a printed page, but otherwise completely identical. Linear narrative with largely textual content. Traditional. Classic. Boring.

The most popular form of the "book" has been largely unchanged for a hundred years, even with the introduction of the Kindle and all other e-reading devices. While we stand on the precipice of a digital revolution in writing, we're sticking to the standard style that better suits dead tree productions. There's so much MORE we could be doing with eBooks. Multimedia! Nonlinear narrative! Interactive elements! New presentation styles! An entirely unique experience in every book, suited to its tone, amplifying the entire feeling of the text! Why aren't we doing anything more with this? Why aren't we reaching for those limits and exploring them?

Answer: Because it's kinda stupid.

Hello, my name is Stefan Gagne. I've been writing novels and posting them online since the nineties. I'm responsible for Sailor Nothing, Unreal Estate, anachronauts, and City of Angles. I've been linked to in TVTropes dozens of times, my stuff's popped up on Reddit a few times. I'm now self-published with a number of eBooks and print books readily available alongside the free web versions. I also hold a bachelor's degree in Computers and Interactive Media, obtained in 1998, as the digital revolution was fully underway. I say all this so that you know where I come from when I say "super fancy pants eBooks are stupid."

Actually, I made a super fancy pants eBook. It's called Sailor Nothing and it embraces HTML as a delivery mechanism for narrative as far as I could take it back in the nineties. Font changes, depending on narrator and perspective. Color changes. A chapter split four ways, which could be read in any order. And, the crowning achievement, a fully implemented Japanese datesim style chapter with a video game interface. Fun stuff! And I stand behind the actual story I wrote, what lurks behind all those bells and whistles. But the bells and whistles were quite stupid.

In my old age, I'm forced to look at the practical side of things. Thanks to these teenage indulgences, Sailor Nothing cannot be published in any other format thanks to these decisions. Sadly, it's an artifact in time and has little place in the here and now. It's completely impractical to realize as a paper document, because it was intentionally crafted to defy the conventions of paper documents at the time. But it's ALSO completely impractical to make into an actual, honest to goodness portable and modern eBook because it's way too far outside those lines as well.

Nonlinear chapters? An embedded video game? You can't load this up on an iPad and read it like you would any other eBook in your library; the wackier elements simply won't work. You could load a  browser and read it there, eschewing "owning" a copy in your library for reading it from the original cloud service (aka the web), but even then the nineties web technology is holding it back, and some parts simply won't work properly.

Could I make it an app, perhaps? Maybe, but that'd make it into a standalone experience, something which cannot be incorporated alongside your other eBooks. It'd be this weird outlier because it insists on breaking every convention we have for what a "book" is, more of a game than a book. Would it FEEL like reading a book, at that point? But beyond nebulous concepts like feel, would the raw technology even work, moving forward? Say Apple goes down the drain and Android bites the big one. You can't launch the app anymore because it's an unsupported relic, so how could you read your book after that point? You have to take the long view here, and the technology right now is designed for the short view.

So, no. Running hog wild into the vast universe of eBook potential is probably unwise. We learned that lesson in related media; you don't see many of those crazy nineties CD-ROM multimedia experiences around anymore, do you. All of them beautiful and unique snowflakes, art for art's sake, exploring the possibilities. All of them left behind in a wake of standardizing technologies and shifting hardware limitations.

Now. Where does this leave us? What's the way forward?

The path, I see it, is in compromise and standardization. I do believe that eBooks can be more than a pile of paragraphs -- media elements can be a factor, alternative formatting can be a factor. But it has to scale and it has to be implemented in a way that moves forward. Future platforms we can't even imagine yet need to be able to read these eBooks and deliver the intended experience... as well as more limited platforms, downscaling the experience so it's still readable without losing too much. Solidified document standards which include alternative elements but support upscaling and downscaling of content are key.

Right now, eBooks are tied into specific platforms, usually locked by Digital Rights Management. It's very much like the DRM-loaded digital music scene of the early 2000s, back when iTunes was still locking their files. But eventually, everybody standardized on DRM-free MP3, and now many shopfronts sell files that can be played on many devices. eBooks can follow a similar path, using open standards and open platforms, some of which may be able to deliver these extra elements, some of which may not... but all of which can compile together a complete library of all the books you own, side by side, available as a consistent experience.

We're almost there. We can have our cake and eat it too. eBooks can stride the line between the stupid excesses of wildly overdone extra elements, and the traditional but boring presentation of a paper book. They can do it without leaving anything behind, with solid thinking behind the technology. Authors can choose how far they want to take their work into experimental territory without risking becoming an abandoned work. I believe that the future holds all of this.

Myself, I'm taking it step by step. My current books are a mixture of tradition and change. I use the font shifts and images of Sailor Nothing in modern works like City of Angles... but I keep in mind that I want my books to be experienced however the reader wishes, on any device, including dead tree published formats. I've scaled back the excesses but kept the spirit alive through manipulation of the text and the presentation. I sell through Amazon's Kindle store, but I don't include DRM on any of my works, and I have the source files so I can convert them to whatever format may come in the days ahead. In the end, it's a stronger work, and future-proofed.

With clear thinking, solid technology, and the ability to compromise your approach without compromising your artistic integrity... I see eBooks as having vast, untapped potential that we will be able to tap, one day. As long as we're not stupid about it, of course.


  1. Thinking aloud here.... So essentially some smoothly-degrading responsive design approach, as has become more and more of a focus for the web, then?

    But then to me, it seems like future e-book developments should sort of converge with web-type standards. After all, all these smart phone, tablet, "phablet" and so on devices already have a primary focus on browser capability and dealing with their own screen size effectively.

    So in that case, what sets an e-book aside is that it's content you can sell digitally. And rather than locking it in some DRM-infested vault of "click this app icon to access all your e-books collected together" -- people are doing this already. Selling PDFs, selling access to password-protected web sections, and so on.

    I've seen that much more for online e-courses than for novels, but it is going to be a concept that readers get increasingly familiar and comfortable with.

    And speaking of e-courses, they already use multimedia elements with alternate versions... so let's say there's a video offered, you could listen to the audio only. Or read a transcript. Or just look at the pictures (slides.) That seems like it could be adapted over into a more creative presentation too. And if you want to make the "choose your media" aspect more immersive so it doesn't interrupt the reader's flow, they could set a choice preference ahead of time, or have the choice options presented more subtly.

    1. All of which sounds reasonable. I think though that there's tremendous value in a "vault" style library app -- having each book that you buy cataloged and readily available alongside each other book you buy. That's why I dislike standalone apps or DRM-soaked closed vault platforms. I'd like all my "books" to be on the same shelf, all accessible from one location when it's time to pick something to read.

      I'm not sure we're there yet; Kindle has come closest, but it's a bit limited in its capabilities, and is pretty heavily banking on DRM. 95% of the books you buy there are going to be deadlocked to Kindle-only library systems, which may end up obsolete in the years to come. (I always sell my books DRM-free, even through Kindle, though.)