A draft of a chapter of some thoughts on things.

The following is a very early draft of a chapter from a book I’m writing with Tom Abba. Think of it as a couple of academics/creators trying to help other creators avoid all of the dumb mistakes they’ve made. It’s very early stages still but all feedback welcome (send them to baldur.bjarnason@gmail.com or to Tom, if you can dig up his contact details somewhere. Probably on his twitter. Or his home page. Maybe just shout it in our general direction).

Choose your structural grammar

My dad has regularly been going to the theatre for decades. He and a few of his friends have a subscription at Þjóðleikhúsið and, come rain, come shine, every few weeks they go to see whatever it is that they're staging. It doesn't matter if it's getting awful review, whether it's a farce or a tragedy, they go, watch, and then talk about it over wine. This tradition has survived two divorces and several major career changes.

Theatre has that effect on people (especially if you fancy yourself as a cultured middle-class citizen of the world). People get hooked on watching it. People get hooked on working in it. Theatre isn't a mainstream hobby activity but it's here to stay.

It is, arguably, the oldest form of storytelling that we still practice. (The other contender being music, although given how intertwined drama and music have been, the distinction is moot.)

Speak to any historian of cinema (especially the amateur ones) and you'll get a yarn about how early cinema consisted just of a camera pointing at a stage: recorded plays that didn't use the medium to any sensible degree and that film didn’t begin to advance until filmmakers began to break away from the conventions of the stage.

This narrative—even though it's demonstrably, completely, and utterly untrue1—has become a standard trope in media commentary.

Even though this story is a complete fiction, its message is a useful one: different media have varying qualities which means that each medium lends itself more to doing some things over others. It’s a McLuhanite parable—his pithy ‘the medium is the message’ aphorism writ large.

Which is all good. My only problem is that there’s a better yarn we can use for this: the story of an earlier media evolution that has much stronger parallels to our current new media predicament.

The novel has a longer history than people expect. How long, exactly, is a bit more complicated to answer because then you have to start defining exactly what a novel is in terms of length, style, and structure.

We’ve clearly been telling stories in prose for millennia but even if we restrict ourselves to something more specifically novelistic in terms of structure and style then we’re still talking about more than a thousand years2.

This is something we’ve clearly been doing for a while.

Despite this extended history, prose never really took off as a method for telling long stories. It dominated non-fiction, philosophy, and theological studies, sure, and it was the primary form of telling really short stories like fairy tales, fables, and ghost stories.

But when it came to telling longer interconnected stories poetry was what most storytellers reached for: Gilgamesh; Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Virgil’s Aeneid; Beowulf; Poetic Edda; Dante’s Divine Comedy; Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso; Milton’s Paradise Lost; Byron’s Don Juan; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Prose stories and novels existed but they have been in the storytelling minority for most of their history—even many of the exceptions relied heavily on poetry. Most of The Canterbury Tales are in verse. Even the Prose Edda was written and presented as a textbook for poets—it isn’t strictly speaking intended to be a prose retelling of the Norse myths. It was a Christian-era explanation of norse myths so that contemporary poets could read and use the metaphors, idioms, and similes that were based on those old myths. Drama and poetry ruled the storytelling roost.

(On a tangental note: what the Prose Edda omits, elides, and adds is just as interesting as the retelling itself. If you compare the Poetic to the Prose Edda, it seems clear that Snorri Sturluson adjusted the myths a bit to suit the more Christian culture of his day. For example, you can read the Poetic Edda as saying that Freyja ruled over the armies of Valhalla with Odin—that she, as the viking feminine ideal, was a lot more warlike than the Christian retellings made her out to be. Make love AND war, instead of make love, not war. The idea that the viking goddess of love would be a passionate general appeals to me.)

It wasn’t until moveable type became the norm that the novel began to make headway and even then poets like Byron and Pushkin dominated the scene with what were essentially novels in verse.

It isn’t that printed poetry doesn’t work. It does. It’s that poetry isn’t reliant on print, as a form it works just as well orally3 as it does printed.

Novels needed print to thrive as a medium.

Print distribution put novel distribution and dissemination on an even level with poetry. But even with a more even playing field it took the novel many years to reach parity and then surpass poetry as the western world’s primary form of written storytelling.

Back when I was a kid in gagnfræðaskóli (the Icelandic equivalent of high school, literally ‘school for useful studies’) a friend of mine, pressed for time, wrote a book review essay for school pretending that a AD&D roleplaying session of his was a fantasy novel.

His teacher had given the class the assignment to review a book of their own choice. He’d been too lazy to read something so he just gave the session a title and wrote a literary ‘review’ of it for the class. The teacher couldn’t tell the difference and none of the kids blabbed.

Much ink (and pixels) has been spilled on the issue of the role of storytelling in games. There’s always been a narrative element to games but the use and importance of stories in games exploded in the late 20th century. Even without computer games, roleplaying games, board games with an explicit and important setting and back story, and choose-your-own-adventure books make the issue complicated enough on their own.

That a medium like games can accommodate and use narrative elements but not be dependent on them seems to break the brains of a lot of academics, despite the fact that this is the role that stories tend to play in at least two other historically important art forms:

  • Poetry? Can use stories and story-like elements but doesn’t need them as a form.
  • Music? Ditto.

Of course, this complicates all attempts to define a theory of games. Is it a good game when you’re just using the mechanics of the form to deliver a story? Is it a good game if the story is rubbish but does an excellent job of serving the gameplay? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Asking if something is a good game or novel is only a useful question if you’re an academic or an annoying snob. You can take that question and its siblings (such as did this conform to the rules of its form as academics define them?), put them in a box, and throw them in a particularly indigestive volcano. They don’t help you create. They don’t help you create.

The questions to ask are more along these lines:

  • How did this affect me?
  • Was the experience consistent?
  • Did it play with or too my expectations in an interesting way?
  • Would I do this again?

Anybody who has spent any time researching readers and players knows that these four qualities—effect, consistency, expectations, and repeatability—are what is important to them about works of art.

When it comes to deciding on a medium or genre as a creator, how those four qualities play out and support or don’t support our goals and intentions is the single most important factor to consider.

My great grandfather was a journalist, translator, politician, academic, poet, playwright, and a priest.

Not all at the same time but he multitasked more than you’d expect.

He was an interesting fellow—founding member of staff of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service and in charge of their newsroom during the start of World War Two—but what’s relevant to us today is that the list of the media he worked in roughly corresponds to the list of subjects and fields he worked in.

He didn’t do journalism or news reportage as poetry or drama. He didn’t deliver academic essays on Byron’s work from the pulpit.

He did mix up some things. His poems were very political. His drama had religious overtones. But for the most part the various media were treating like sorting boxes: something from this field went into that box, a different field went into another.

He realised what a lot of creators today don’t: some things only fit in some boxes.

Most of what’s in people’s head about writing and creating is romantic nonsense dominated by psychobabble (‘the creative personality’, ’artists have an irresistible urge to create’) or mysticism (‘the creative spirit’). Most of those bullshit notions about art and creativity aren’t compatible with thoughtful consideration of your actions. Beginning writers don’t choose novel writing because it’s the right choice for what they have to say. They don’t even think about what it is they have to say in the first place.

I know because I’ve made all of those mistakes myself.

Despite the label, creative acts—storytelling in particular—tend begin with the creator just going with the defaults.

If you can write, the default is to write a novel. If you can draw, the default is to draw a comic book. If you have money and gullible friends, you make video.

Major upheavals in media, such as the shift from poetry to prose, or the current introduction of digital media, only happen because somebody began to choose something other than the default. It happened because, at some point, an storyteller looked at the stories they had to tell, then at the qualities of the various media at hand, and decided on using something less tried, less developed, and unexplored.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman includes a story called A Game of You. It's usually remarked as one of the least popular of the series. It's difficult, awkward where its predecessors (especially the piece that comes before; Season of Mists) are sly and clever. At its heart is a narrative about dreams, and the power of an internal fantasy life that might tell us things about the external world. It is also an echo of a Jonathan Carroll novel; Bones of the Moon. Gaiman initially abandoned the story after reading Carroll's novel, finding the similarities too close to ignore. Carroll told him:

Go to it, man. Ezra Pound said that every story has already been written. The purpose of a good writer is to write it new.

A Game of You is a cousin to Bones of the Moon. They share genetic material, a DNA of story, but each tells its tale in ways that only their chosen form can deal in. The grammar of a 24 page comic book, with monthly instalments, words and pictures in concert on a page, re-reading and visual connections, is markedly different to that of a novel. The two works are, as Gaiman suggests, born from 'two radio sets tuned to the same goofy channel', but what arises from that transmission is native to their form, each using the grammar of their medium with subtlety and grace.

This place. This point where you are looking around and poking your way through digital media. You don’t get here without an essential curiosity—a compulsion to chip away at the unexplored and to wander into the dimly lit unknown.

And the first step in that wandering is a decision to choose. Once you’ve made that decision, whether you end up going with the default or not doesn’t matter, because you will have considered and weighed your options, instead of just being pulled along with the crowd.

One of the biggest mistakes you can do is simply lump all digital media into one and pretend that it’s all the same thing. That’s like pretending that all print books are alike and that the distinction between novels, short stories, journalism, poetry, and comics isn’t meaningful.

Digital storytelling, once you’ve let it settle after shaking it up like a snow globe, tends to settle into two broad piles, each which can be subdivided into countless mini-piles.

The first pile, on your imaginary left, is games.

The second pile, on your imaginary right, is hypermedia.

There’s a bit of indistinct sludge in between the two where you can’t quite tell which pile it’s in. That’s okay. Crisp, paper-like boundaries are for print anyway.

Games are the more easily recognisable of the two. Not because there’s more of them (in fact, there’s less) but because they have a much clearer boundary. When you can’t figure out whether a piece of storytelling is a game or hypermedia, that’s because it isn’t fitting the definitions coming out of the games field. Hypermedia doesn’t care. Hypermedia loves everything and everybody. Possibly a little bit too much.

Games design is much too big a concept to be covered here. Like poetry and mechanised print, games predate digital by several millennia. Their principles, while benefiting enormously from digital, aren’t dependent on it.

The ‘hypermedia’ that predates computers, on the other hand, works in ways that are fundamentally different from actual hypermedia. To pull that off in print, you’d need to be able to perform instantaneous transformation of matter.

Because it isn’t the link, per se, that puts the ‘hyper’ in hypertext. It’s the instantaneous and dynamic transformation of one text into another when you press the link that gives hypertext the oomph we associate with hyper media.

Think ‘hyperspace’ and you’re on the right track.

The hypertext that you read and enjoy vastly outnumbers the games you play because hypertext is how the web and apps tell stories.

And almost everything we do on the web and in apps is storytelling.

Facebook’s a story. Twitter’s a story. Blogs are stories. Every website, every app, every chat platform, they’re all hypertext and they are all stories.

That most of these are also conversations doesn’t make them any less hypertextual because hypertext is fundamentally conversational. That’s what linking and dynamically including texts in a variety of context does. It makes conversations. That’s hypertext.

Even in a plain old web page, links are conversational. Unlike references, which are formal even at best of times, links can be witty, tragic, satirical, tongue-in-cheek, and laugh out loud funny, even when neither the linking or the linked text are any of these things. Simple things like linking from a person’s name to the page in a medical dictionary for restless leg syndrome can be hilarious in the right context, even when the tone of both texts is serious and deadpan. That’s hypertext.

Hilarious juxtapositions of tweets or Tumblr posts are a common enough phenomenon for it to become a regular trope on Twitter and Tumblr. That’s hypertext.

Even ebooks are hypertext, if only by virtue of their reading context. Some of them are only accidental hypertexts, sticking to print conventions and ideas even as they have lost all meaning and sense in digital. Others, like this book, are written as hypertexts first, where links are used as one of the primary punctuation marks—more common than the m-dash, less pretentious than the semicolon.

This isn’t a book; this is hypertext.

Because this text was written with digital first in mind—unlike those print books which have been skinned and then re-coated with a digital gloss—this is a loose, conversational, and sprawling hypertext that might well eventually be bundled up and stuffed into print form like a set of clothes stomped into a suitcase while the taxi to the airport is waiting outside.

Which is fine. If I don’t want you to criticise my preference for reading print books lifeless, skinned, and flattened into ebook form, I don’t get to criticise you for preferring to read the ebook as a bleeding, severed appendage cut off from its network.

Games design is huge. Lucky for us, there are a lot of books and websites covering the subject so we really don’t have to do the form an injustice by covering it badly.

My personal favourites are:

  • A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster.
  • Lost Garden by Daniel Cook. A website that is a treasure trove of notes, ideas, theories, experiments, and examples on games design theory and practice.

There are more and I’ll add them as I think of them.

Digital media of all kinds is built on a series of action feedback loops. You do something and the device gives you feedback on that action. It’s the foundation of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design and the basis of everything we do in the field.

The core difference between the structural grammars of games and hypermedia is that in games the centre of meaning is in the action feedback loop but in hypermedia it is in the feedback loop’s context.

This difference in grammars expresses itself as different kinds of structures. Games are a tightly interwoven structure of feedback loops: one loop leads directly into another and they build on each other like Lego™ blocks. Sometimes that structure is hierarchical, i.e. levels of increasing difficulty and requiring increasingly complex actions: finish one to get to the next). Sometimes it is networked: e.g. a large space that you can explore where difficulty and complexity is distributed spatially.

In hypermedia, no matter whether it’s Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, A Story, Kottke’s weblog, or Twitter in its entirety the centre of meaning is in the context: where you get to after you take the action. The action only has meaning insofar that it affects the context. The page or tweet you see is what says something, the link and following it only modifies it.

The popularity of game mechanics in user interface design complicates things but mostly because they are usually badly thought out and not that unique to games.

Some of the things labelled as game mechanics are merely good UX design practices, like having clear, dynamic, and immediate feedback loops throughout your app. Others, like using leaderboards and the like to foster competition and manipulate your users into dehumanising their fellow people and thinking of them as things to be beaten is a tactic long used by the managers of sales teams. It, and a lot of other ‘game mechanics’ are only really competition mechanics and aren’t specific to games.

In the end, the ‘is it a game or not?’ question doesn’t matter to us. While the distinction between the two is important when it comes to understanding the strengths of each, it’s important also to understand that digital media (as well as a lot of non-digital media) can be more than one thing at the same time.

You can make a game that works just as well as just a story with all of the game’s feedback loops dialled down to ‘So Easy a Drooling Infant Could Do it’. You can make hypermedia, apps, and websites that can be played like games.

Absolutism doesn’t work for digital. Often the answer to the questions you ask yourself as a creator will be ‘both’.

I don’t remember the first time I told a story. None of us do. It doesn’t matter whether its genetic or learned, nature or nurture, storytelling is a basic human activity.

We only have two ways of teaching:

  • A show-do loop. The teacher demonstrates. The student tries to do. Gets feedback from the teacher who my or may not show again. The student tries again. Repeat as necessary.
  • Storytelling. The teacher encapsulates the showing, the doing, and the information needed to do, in a story.

Every teaching method or form is just a variation of one of those two, usually replacing the teacher or the storyteller with a technological proxy.

Games are strong on the former method: a feedback loop between showing and doing. Hypermedia is strong on the latter: even incomprehensible non-sequiturs are filled with narrative logic once you post them online, on the web, on Twitter, or on Facebook. The very context coopts everything that appears into telling a story.

In real life, how you teach isn’t limited to just one method but usually a mix of the two depending on the subject, strengths of the teacher, and the abilities of the student. The blurry line in digital media between games and hypertext is just a reflection of common practice.

What you teach isn’t limited to skills or knowledge, although that’s what we usually associate with teaching.

Sometimes what you teach is emotion. Feel the sting of murderous jealousy. Experience humbling shame. Understand the fear of death. Fall in, feel, and lose love.

This is what it feels like.

As teachers storytellers cannot just pour information into the heads of the listeners. They have to lead them to an understanding. It doesn’t have to be exactly the way you understand it—we all start in different places—but it needs to be of a kind with your understanding. Emotions need the same build-up, practice, demonstration, and experience as any other thing you teach.

And to be able to do that you need to understand your medium. You need to have at least made a conscious note about what you’re doing. Choose your medium. You need to know how that medium is and has been used. It doesn’t matter if your colleagues in that form aren’t doing what you’re doing, their techniques are relevant. Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Will Eisner’s Contract With God are, respectively, journalism, autobiography, and fiction but they share a form of storytelling. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a comic on cute cats, their methods are relevant to your work. Copy the way they do things. Try them for yourself. See what works for you and what doesn’t.

The same applies to games designers and hypermedia authors. Don’t limit yourself to the games or hypertext that are covering exactly the same subject as you are. The form is where the methods and the structure comes from. Copy ideas from apps, websites, and games.

Choose your structural grammar. Study it. Practice it. Repeat as necessary.

  1. Right out of the gate, early cinema focused on spectacle, fantasy, and documentary works. Most of the stage adaptations come after the special effects and documentary films. The crude and stage-bound nature of early film has more to do with the limitations and immobility of the cameras than an over-bearing influence of drama on the filmmakers.
  2. Who’s with me on holding a party in 2021 celebrating the thousand year old birthday of the published novel?
  3. Oral transmission coupled with the mnemonic aids of verse makes poetry less dependent on print for distribution and authorship.

Intermission: sorting through the banal

Everybody who knows what I do assumes that I’ve given up on print books.

You make ebooks? Haha, you don’t need any bookcases then, do you? Must be nice.

Not that I haven’t used it as an excuse once in a while. As a rejection, it’s a little bit nicer than telling somebody that I don’t want their book because it isn’t good enough to put on my shelf—oh, and the cover’s ugly to boot.

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Changing your readership mix

(This is the seventh post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

The mix of reader types in your readership isn’t an unchangeable fact, a curse bound in iron by the gods of old, a universal constant for all eternity. It can be changed.

Actually, that isn’t really true. The readership mix for most titles and genres is probably set in stone, one of those big blocks of ‘fixed, can’t change’ that you just have to work around.

What you can do is create a new readership with a new product in a new product category, but one that uses the text, images, and other materials from the old product. A new product that appeals to a market that is different from your print edition.

Most of those new product categories are just rebadged interactive media, and to create those you need people who know how to create interactive media (interactivity designers, app developers, or whatever you want to call them).

Most publishers give the digital edition of a title thought only after the fact—after the book has been written, edited, proofread, line-edited, typeset, and on its way to the printers—preferring to see what they can accomplish by tweaking whatever piece of digital rubbish their print workflow automatically craps out, wipe the InDesign shit-stains off it, and call it an ebook.

If you want to do something interesting with the digital edition of the title, you need to plan this right at the start, before any work is done on the title. And please do involve a professional developer right at the beginning. Think of them as co-authors of the digital edition and not as carpenters putting up a shelf you’ve specced out.

Once you start, once you’ve planned the print version of the title, your options for the digital edition go down dramatically. At that point, the easiest thing to do is to gloss up the title with idiotic ‘enhancements’ or other interactive doohickeys. Anything else is too expensive because you are, in effect, reinventing your production workflow on the fly.

Don’t do that. That’s crazy.

If all else fails and you’ve been given the task of adapting a pre-existing title into digital, you have a simple set of options:

  • If the title is likely to have an ebook-friendly readership and the title is structurally an easy match for ebooks, just do a basic ebook.
  • If the title doesn’t have an ebook-friendly readership but is easy to adapt into an ebook, do one and hope you get lucky.
  • If the title won’t sell as an ebook and won’t be easy to turn into an ebook, don’t do an ebook. Do something radically different.

Avoiding wild dogs/ebook fanatics

One reason to do a totally unviable ebook that’ll just lose you money and only sell three copies is to avoid PR backlash. You see, people who want ebooks really want ebooks. They get very angry when there isn’t an ebook version and will complain loudly. It’s better to do what they—.

Hah! Had you going there for a moment. Don’t do that. That’s crazy. Here’s a simple rule for you:

Ignore crazy people who haven’t already given you money.

Which problem would you rather have?

  1. A few nutters complain on Twitter and on Amazon that there isn’t an ebook version available. Most people ignore them.
  2. A few dissatisfied nutters keep sending you support emails because the ebook edition you released is much worse than the print edition because it was a money-losing low-budget production.

I’d choose the first problem every time. The last thing you want to do is piss people off who’ve already given you money.

What does ‘radically different’ mean?

So, you’ve backed yourself into a corner. You have a title that probably has to be something other than an ebook.

At this point your only real options are:

Either do nothing (a perfectly valid choice, since nobody runs a business specifically to lose money, doing nothing is always an option)…

Or, you take the title and everything related to it, give it to an accomplished app developer, and tell them to make something out of it. Don’t tell them what to make because, if you work in publishing, you are almost inevitably clueless and incompetent when it comes to the web and apps. Give them a target audience they should serve. Any involvement by you beyond instigating the project will decrease its chances of success. Or, judging by some of you, it would massively decrease its chances.

Tell them to figure out a new product with a new title (the old title’s readership isn’t interested in digital, remember) using your materials. Set up whatever rules, goals, and benchmarks you need to feel comfortable. Set up whatever licensing agreement you both think will make you both some money. Then get out of the way because, honestly, if you’re in publishing, you probably don’t know what you’re doing.

(In digital media, I mean. Oh, you thought I meant in general? So, sorry.)

Best part? You can do this again with another developer. You can give another developer a brief to create another product from the title, for another target audience, with another name. Once you are playing at this level you are creating completely new products with new titles that just happen to be based on your stuff. Why limit yourself to one go at the roulette table? Especially if you can convince the developer to do the project without paying them up front payment while sharing the profits.

Even better, there’s a way for you to get almost unlimited tries at the table at little cost to yourself—all upside: just create a standardised licensing kit for a selection of your non-fiction titles. You don’t even have to do an API, just what you might call a ‘content developer kit’ or CDK: a zip package of the title’s content in a structured format that developers can license on whatever payment basis you want. Bonus points if you set up a self-serve ecommerce site where developers can buy CDKs at whatever price you set (preferably royalty-free; there’s room here for flexibility). Just lay down a few branding, contract, and promotional guidelines and you’re good to go.

You probably have to require your licensees to use something like “this app is based on X, published by Y” in their app or web descriptions, for the consumer’s sake, though.

Building up in-house digital product development is risky and expensive, especially at the start when you have to build up the necessary expertise and tools to do the job and change your organisations implicit value network.

The problem is that changing an organisation’s value network is next to impossible without firing everybody (yourself included) and replacing them with different people. Adding individuals who have different values from those prevalent in your organisation won’t change the value network. It’ll just make your new hires miserable before they quit or get fired. Which means that building a top notch, in-house digital product development team is going to be difficult for most publishers.

So, either partner up or build the team that is isolated and sandboxed from the rest of the company’s incompatible values. For most publishers, anything else is unlikely to work.

Ergodic literature

(This is the third post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

Ergodic literature is a fancy term for being intentionally over-wrought and difficult. Sometimes this can be an effective tool, much like when a psychotic gym teacher forces you to run several times around the Reykjavík Pond the exercise makes you appreciate a coke and a hot dog (with ketchup and crispy fried onions) that much more. Or, you know, the effort makes arriving at the destination that much more blah blah blah.

(Actually, the only thing the psychotic gym teacher accomplished was to teach us how to sneak off and get hot dogs when we should have been jogging around the pond.)

The app Fish, for example, plays with being deliberately difficult and not allowing you to tap back and revisit earlier chapters. Reading it is a one way trip. You go from the beginning, to the end, and then you can start over. You cannot flip back. You cannot browse forward. You read it, in order, or you don’t read it at all.

Author control over the reading process also used to be a feature of many early hypertexts. What? That wasn’t just because they were a UI mess? Well, yes, that as well. They were an UI mess compounded by a severe case of ‘intentionally difficult’. Arseholes!. Lesson learned: only let yourself be deliberately difficult in a feature when the others are easy peasy.

The non-psychotic rationale behind this approach is often (mistakenly, in my view) conflated with a school of thought pioneered by John Dewey. You may know that school of thought by the more commonly known facile formulation by pseudo-intellectual bildungsphilister catchphrase artist Marshal McLuhan:

“The Medium is the Message.”

So, making something difficult, making it require some sort of effort, skill, foreknowledge, or time, changes the meaning of that something, because the medium with its difficulties has an inherent meaning. A piece of text that is only visible when you’re constantly drawing circles on your phone while hopping on one foot means something different than the same text on an otherwise straightforward website. Text that can only be read while standing in a bus stop in Croydon means something different from the same text in an ebook.

Academics love this line of thinking.

—Let’s wrap barbed wire around the reader’s iPad while I stomp on their toes and you threaten to defenestrate their pet Chihuahua.

—Ooh, what if we attach a GPS to the Chihuahua so the reader can see on the iPad where it lands? Locative media!

People obsessed with ‘innovation’ and doing ‘edgy’ things also like this approach. Computers are already a difficult pain in the arse. Making things difficult is easy and—bonus!—turns out it adds arty meaning to shit you don’t care about enough to do properly.


(Err, no. Most of the time readers will astutely observe that interactive ergodic literature is hostile to the reader. It also alienates every sensible person on the planet.)

It’s conceivable that this approach might be appropriate under some circumstances. Such as when the source material really does benefit from being closely tied to a location, or when the effort involved demonstrates something meaningful for the text. But even then the benefit is undercut by the fact that it’s fucking annoying.

Does my antipathy towards ergodic literature make me a populist. Yes. Fuck off.

This trend is particularly tragic because Dewey’s ideas (and McLuhan’s by virtue of being derivative as hell), as far as the artist and author are concerned, have more in common with wabi-sabi than ergodic literature. It’s about embracing the imperfect means by which you tell a story or create art, acknowledging the means, their flaws, their strengths as a fundamental part of your creation. It’s not about pissing off the reader.

The mistake of ‘enhancing’ novels

(This is the second post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

A novel does not benefit from a host of videos of talking heads, interactive maps, or the kind of gunk that clutters up most DVD extras. A novel is not a movie. The film production and marketing process lends itself towards the whole DVD extras phenomenon. You have dozens of unused scenes, a special effects team, the filming crew, and an army of people performing various roles. The stars are loved by millions. The movie’s launch and its production are events. Even a bog-standard TV series has buy-in from society at large and a wealth of collateral material that is rare in publishing.

A novel is just one person sitting in a room for what is sometimes years, occasionally talking to a couple of other people, with an itty-bitty burst of social activity towards the end. Some of them may launch with a bang but the revenue curve for most novels bears no resemblance to that of either a successful or unsuccessful movie.

Moreover, the interactive content most publishers have bundled with their ‘enhanced’ novels is hideously misplaced. They are marketing assets locked in a sealed, unseen, container.

All those talking head videos? Put them on the website. That interactive map of the fantasy world? Website. Unused scenes? Website. Those commentary bits on the author’s manuscript?

You guessed it. Put it on the website.

The core value of a movie is spectacle. (Obviously, I’m talking here about the US-oriented movie industry, not the form. The cinematic medium is capable of considerable nuance and subtlety. Hollywood, however, isn’t.)

Extras feed into and complement the spectacle. The selling point of a novel—even the cheap-o, sleazy, low-brow ones—is to disappear into a new world for hours on end. Marketing assets help readers discover novels to step into—explore the feel of it before they commit to reading. They don’t add any value when fused into the body of the novel like a malignant tumour. There they become a distraction.

Book apps, where you take a linear novel or piece of narrative writing and pin interactivity on it like a tail on a cartoon donkey, don’t make sense. They make slightly more sense for non-fiction titles (hence iBooks Author’s focus on textbooks and the like) but even there the costs often outweigh the benefits.

If we are looking for publishing titles—or even new ideas that have no print history—that would benefit the most from being digital—the most logical ones to look at are titles that are confined and limited by print.

A book that works great in print, that is adapted perfectly to its form, is exactly the worst candidate for digital. It’d suffer from high expectations on the part of the readers (because the print version was great) but it would also see little improvement in digital. Because it was already good.

This is the quintessential lose-lose double whammy. Like an author whose skills have managed to attract an audience that consists mostly of expert readers, you’ve navigated yourself into a scenario where you’re surrounded by passionate people with high expectations and both the capacity and motivation to outline, in public, your every single fault. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, your audience will find reasons hate you.

Instead of enhancing novels, what we should be looking at are titles and types of books that are a little bit awkward in print, ones that are useful and loved because of their subject matter, but have never had a chance to bloom due to the limitations of the printed form.

Those are the ones worth ‘enhancing’.

The publishing industry’s new product categories

(This is the first post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

A while back it was popular at many of the bigger publishers out there to release apps that they called ‘enhanced ebooks’. Some of them were branded as ‘book apps’, but that name too suffers from the same basic idiocy.

Enhanced ebooks is quite possibly the worst possible name that anybody could have thought of for a piece of media. It misses out on the one thing that is that particular genre’s greatest strength: it isn’t a book, not in any way shape or form. It’s an app.

And by virtue of being an app, it can have a structure and form that is entirely unlike the book, gaining in the process the business model flexibility that ebooks don’t have.

The state of play

The publishing industry has a set of standard bling that they use in place of interactivity whenever they implement something ‘enhanced’ or app-like. (Video, maps, slideshows, 3D widget crap, etc..)

Some of these approaches are confusing to say the least. Others are just plain dumb.

Commercial interactive textual content is a genre without direction. Everybody seems to be throwing stuff randomly against the wall to see what sticks.

Which would be fine if they didn’t keep picking up the spaghetti strands that didn’t stick just to try them again.

—Maybe I didn’t throw it hard enough?

Or, you just picked the wrong thing to throw.

—No, really. Jack over there is doing the same thing. I can’t let him get a lead in case this turns out to be a big market. I just need to throw harder.

No, you really don’t. Jack is making a mistake.

—Are you absolutely certain he’s making a mistake?

No, of course not. It’s impossible to be certain here, there are too many unknowns.

—Ah, so he could be right! Okay. I’ll try my best to throw harder next time. [Bends to pick up a cluster of spaghetti strands that hadn’t stuck to the wall and pitches it at the wall again.]

Nobody wants to be left behind so they all run as fast as they can in the wrong direction.

What to do, what to do?

Before you run, you first need a direction. Before you start an interactive project, you need to decide on what sort of project, and don’t just jump on whatever bandwagon you think others in the industry are on.

I don’t really care what your ‘why create’ reason is. As far as I’m concerned you don’t need a reason to create. But, if you want to create and if you want to do it on a regular basis, you need two prerequisites:

  1. You need projects you can figure out how to make.
  2. You need to have a sensible idea for how to fund project after project.

Costs and revenue. Two things that, at the very least, need to balance out.

If the projects are simple enough, then you can make them yourself and funding won’t be much of a problem. This lets you experiment and iterate your way towards discovering a genre, form, or medium you like.

But, a lot of the time you can’t do that. Especially not if the ‘you’ in that previous sentence is a corporation whose owners need it to stay relevant in a changing world.

There are three ways to slice the problem of deciding what to do.

  1. Look at the genres of interactive content (all of them, not just the crap publishers release). See if you find a few that inspire ideas.
  2. Look at the individual bits and features that make up the genres, go more granular than just looking at apps as a whole. Sometimes the approach and style is more important and inspiring than the whole.
  3. Look at your means and capabilities. It’s not a question of staying within your comfort zone but of making sure you don’t stray into mediocrity. If your ambitions vastly exceed your own capabilities, then you need a plan for how to grow them yourself, without outsourcing them to somebody who doesn’t give a damn and is just out for a buck.

(Yes, this is a lot of work even before you start planning the project. What did you expect?)

Finally, once you have a set of ideas and aspirational projects, you need to whittle them down, or at least prioritise them. That means you need to look at the cost-revenue balance for each one. And to do that you need to figure out the business model, often from scratch because, unlike print, interactive media doesn’t come with a business model attached.