This morning I read an article on Forbes called “Are Apps The Future of Book Publishing?”
And I got scared.
Author Alex Knapp muses on the recent surge in e-books, e-readers, and tablet apps that supposedly give a more immersive, interactive experience of both older books (Sherlock Holmes with music and sound effects) and new books (Chopsticks, which is literally not written as one text, but “told through newspaper clippings, pictures, songs and more”). He interviews publishers and authors and handily avoids giving his own opinion.
Among publishers, the main issue seems to be that because this medium is so new, there are no standards for anything: no set price, no acceptable limit for how interactive a text should be, and most importantly, no solid numbers showing that these kinds of apps sell well. And each publisher trying this kind of thing is doing something radically different. Some just stick to sound effects; others will jump you to supplementary materials, like DVD extras; some focus on the authors and fans interacting with each other, rather than the actual books, though they include text pages and such.
Jos Carlyle of Persian Cat Press says:
“The interactive features aren’t enhancements to the story as such, but rather intrinsic and essential facets of the story itself. We feel it’s crucial that the interactivity we include in our apps moves the narrative along in a meaningful manner.”
I’d say that’s pretty crucial, yeah!
My problem with this whole thing is that it fundamentally changes reading and writing, and I don’t think it’s for the better. The power of books has always been the power of imagination. Immersion in a novel is the job of your brain, not the latest gadget, and believe me, nothing can do that better than your brain. And nothing should. Because the more we allow our experiences to be defined for us by external sources, the weaker our minds become. I’ve got my soapbox out now, so forgive me; but as readers, it is our choice to engage with these texts, so we’re already prepared to jump into the story. We shouldn’t be letting technology do all the work for us.
I’m even more concerned for the state of writing. Good writers are the ones that give your mind something to work with, the ones that spark your imagination, the ones that draw you in and force you to read Catching Fire in four hours. Frankly, I think this move towards technological immersion/interactivity undermines the writers even more than the reading experience. It’s like saying, “Your writing isn’t good enough. You alone can’t provide the reader with the experience they deserve.”And if we tell writers that it’s okay not to strive for excellent and vivid writing, because technology will pick up the slack, guess what? They won’t. And literature will suffer for it.
Indie author Jay Bell says (emphasis mine):
“One of my thoughts regarding enhanced eBooks was ‘Hey, finally I can make the reader see exactly what I want them to!’ The same with songs, which often put me in a mood and inspire me to write. Now I can let my readers hear those same tunes while reading. The more I think about it though, the more these ‘enhancements’ are probably too intrusive and will potentially get in the way of the story.
“[W]hat other medium requires us to use our imagination to paint our own pictures and hear our own sounds? I’m not against a better way of displaying a fantasy map or a recorded message from the author at the end of a book, but I hope that the actual stories will be left to shine on their own in the future.”
Author John Scalzi, President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (emphasis mine):
“Most people who are writers are used to writing stories, novels, or forms where everything is in the text. So if enhanced books become more widespread, that could be tricky. It could make you become more dependent on the platform to tell story rather than just writing it down. That raises lots of questions.”
As a writer myself, I can spend hours agonizing over the perfect adjective to describe a specific sound, an action, a color. And I love it. I love the triumph I feel when I finally have that word, and I love when people read the passage and say “ooh, that’s a good word.” With other things, I enjoy the ability to hint at what I’m thinking and leave the rest to the reader. Honestly, if I wanted my book to have photos and music attached to it, I’d just write a screenplay instead.
Now, I will allow here that some writers, like whoever wrote Chopsticks, may intend for their books to be “enhanced” from the start–and that’s okay. I just don’t want that to become the standard, because I feel that it will drive the standard of writing even further down the drain. I also feel like it’ll turn the readership into drooling media zombies with pureed brain seeping out their ears, unable to do anything but consume and leaving the formerly perpetual cycle of creativity at a screeching halt.