Friday, November 29, 2013

The Future of the Book?

Still spinning off my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Carol Strickland, I decided this week to chat about a point that came up near the end of our conversation: the future of the book.

As those who follow me know, I love printed books. Even so, I am an avid reader of novels on my iPad. In fact, I was an early adopter who treasured my Franklin Rocket e-reader until it died in my hands. I did read other people’s books on the Rocket—mostly classics, as I objected to paying for a format that might not (and in the end did not) survive. But I used it even more to relieve my guilt as a budding writer: instead of wasting “a lot of trees before I wrote anything good” (J.K. Rowling), I worked out my abysmal beginner’s efforts through stylus and e-ink.

I still read my own work on my iPad, both as e-books and, more effectively, as Storyist documents that I can edit. These e-books are not too different from the ones on my old Rocket—plain text on screen—although the backlit, full-color iPad screen makes the books much prettier than the Rocket ever could. The Eagle and the Swan, too, so far appears in the plain-text format. But the author and her publisher, Erudition Digital, are planning an enhanced version with images, history, links, perhaps video clips, and more. Is this, as they suggest, the future of the book? And if it is, should it be?

Don’t get me wrong. For The Eagle and the Swan, set in the barely known recesses of sixth-century Byzantine history, I think this is a fabulous idea. I’ve toyed with producing something similar—perhaps as a companion volume—for my Legends of the Five Directions series. At the moment, I’m using Pinterest to post images of sixteenth-century Russia and the peoples to its east and south, all of them as unfamiliar to most Westerners as Justinian and Theodora. But I have also produced the first version of a multimedia compilation with iBooks Author, which is easy to use (although you either have to sell the books exclusively through Apple or give them away for free—if I ever finish it, I’ll probably give away free copies to build interest in the series). There’s so much unfiltered information available that in cases like these, multimedia enhanced e-books are the perfect match.

But for any novel? There I’m not so sure. I bought Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as an enhanced e-book to get a glimpse of the concept. It was interesting. I admired it. But I found the links and the bells and the whistles so distracting that in the end I didn’t read the book. I was too busy clicking on this and that to get caught up in the novel’s world. It would drive me half-crazy if, in the middle of the mystery story I’m enjoying at this moment (J.J. Marsh’s Behind Closed Doors), the book offered to show me maps of Z├╝rich or images of what the characters were eating or a quick-and-dirty guide to DNA analysis. With Facebook, Google, and GoodReads a few taps away, achieving the sense of total immersion in an e-book is already more difficult than with paperback in hand.

So while I welcome enhanced e-books as an addition to plain text, I also hope that there will be ways to turn off the extra features or keep them apart from the story—as add-ons supplied in a separate file as part of the book purchase, maybe. At that moment when I realize the story has ended but I’m not yet ready to let go of the characters and move on, I would love to explore their world in more depth, guided by a knowledgeable author. But first I need a reason to care, which means that I need the author to pull me into the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Whether the form is electronic or print, the traditional craft of fiction writing offers the best means to do that.

What do you think? Am I just behind the times?

Images purchased from
Swan © Bas Meelker/ #125559331
Russian Hut in Snow © BagginsE/ #154036143


  1. I agree that the links and digital extras shouldn't distract from the plot and immersion in the character's lives. Early enhanced eBooks had this flaw, so when we release the enhanced version of The Eagle and the Swan we're taking pains to ensure that the add-ons really do enhance rather than distract or subvert. They're for readers who want to know more about the period and background, who want more breadth and depth, more like education than entertainment although the info has to be presented in an engaging way. For example, in The Eagle and the Swan readers may not have the foggiest idea who the Ostrogoths were. With a click, you can see a map, another click and find out about King Theodoric, who dispatched his rival by slicing him in half with one blow of his sword, causing Theodoric to remark, "I swear, the knave must have no bones in his body"

    1. Carol, thanks for reading and commenting. I agree that your book is exceptionally well suited to the enhanced format—and it sounds as if you and your publisher have a good grasp of the issues involved.


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