Gimmicks Vs Evolution: the future of books and storytelling

March 7th, 2012 · 1 Comment »

There are always exciting and interesting trends and experiments in the world of publishing. Some are successful like the creative blends of words and pictures (think Shaun Tan, Brian Selznick, graphic novels); others are downright annoying like the choose-your-own-adventure books published in the 90s.

Choose your own adventure? Why don’t I just write the book myself while I’m at it?

So as we hurtle into the digital era of books, the question asked by many is what is in store? Well, books won’t be, so we’re told.

Ebooks are most certainly not a gimmick – they are here to stay. On the other hand I hope 3D movies are a gimmick; they fool us into paying extra for something that is cool for the first ten minutes and then we forget about it, even in films like Avatar and Hugo, where the 3D is supposed to be amazing – you know what is really amazing? Better scripts!

I think the idea of ebooks scares children’s writers more than anyone else and part of that is a fear of how the book might evolve, particularly in the area of cross media (or transmedia as some people are calling it). Some publishers embraced this concept early on such as The 39 Clues (published by Scholastic) where there were a series of books by multiple writers, an interactive website with special passwords required to activate different things. For a young reader this type of thing is exciting, for a writer with limited computer skills it is daunting.

A writer embracing the changes afoot is Jeni Mawter who recently published the Young Adult novel Kiss Kill and now identifies herself as a ‘digital storyteller’. This book is published by Really Blue Books and is available only as an ebook, which is quite fitting when you see how it is structured – the book consists of prose, poems, song lyrics, SMS messages, letters, transcripts … all the bits and bobs that can document a relationship. The effect is that of receiving all these bits of a puzzle to piece together. It doesn’t feature a regular narrative structure. Where things get interesting is what is happening outside of the ebook. The main character, Mat, has his own blogsite (Why I Don’t Get Girls), where he posts funny things, cool links, favourite songs etc – much like your average teenager would post on Facebook. On top of that readers have already responded in an interactive way by writing the music to and recording one of the songs featured in the book.

Another book I’ve picked up recently is Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) & Maira Kalman, where people are invited to submit their own breakup stories to the website.

The potential for interaction over the internet is exciting. When you as a reader fall for a character, the idea of conversing with them one on one is an intriguing one.  Jasper Fforde’s website is a great example where the worlds he creates continue in a virtual space.

The whole experience of reading Kiss Kill did make me lament the fact that ereaders don’t have a uniform approach to ebooks. Take DVDs for example – there are regions but apart from that you can watch any DVD in any part of the word on any player. With ereaders, they all have the different formats they support and it just makes things messy. It especially makes things messy when it comes to interactive content. Now, using Kiss Kill as an example, on a technologically sexy machine, like the iPad, you could imagine actually receiving texts on a little pop up phone whilst reading the story – you’d be able to listen to the song written by the character, not just read the lyrics, and you could click on hyperlinks to be taken to relevant sites. But of course on the ereaders that go more with a book feel (such as the original Kindle) this would be much harder. It makes the question what is a book? that much harder.

The reason I don’t think people should be so worried is because no matter what happens it will all come back to story and stories being told well. All these additions are just that, additions to complement and enhance the story and this will never change. At the heart of The 39 Clues is a story in book form with a beginning, a middle and an end, as is the same with Kiss Kill. From there, it is up to the reader how much more they wish to engage. Some cross media stuff is gimmicky but I also believe digital storytelling across many mediums is also the future for the book. Check out Jeni’s blog as she has posted a lot of information about the world of digital storytelling there.

I applaud the writers who are trying new things  and it excites me what is now possible … perhaps I should get rid of this typewriter and upgrade? Well, that’s a question for another day – for now I will pass these typed notes onto my personal assistant and he can do whatever it is he does to get them online (whatever the devil that means).

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One Response to “Gimmicks Vs Evolution: the future of books and storytelling”

  • Thanks, Nathan. Kiss Kill is pioneering in storytelling but it barely scratches the surface of possibility. Exciting times ahead!

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