The Prospero blog at The Economist takes off from a review of Iain Pears’ Arcadia, a novel which was first published as an app by Faber & Faber, who also do the hardback. Prospero quotes Tom Abba, “a scholar of digital narrative at the University of the West of England. ‘We’re trying to nudge the reader into a new kind of relationship with the story’.” I wonder if “the reader” wants to be nudged. Surely the reader is happily reading in this golden age of plenty. Isn’t it the non-reader that we might want to tempt?
This commentary usually comes with a knee-jerk side-swipe at the publishing industry, and Prospero obliges: “Arcadia is all the more noteworthy for the fact that large publishers have largely given up experimenting in this realm. Most have turned away from costly innovations that have not paid off, like enhanced e-books, focusing instead on using digital tools to support the broader reading ecosystem.” Maybe the large (trade*) publishers’ error was ever to have taken up experimentation — in so far as they did. We supply what our customers want. We are a conservative business, not for ideological reasons, but because we just have to keep on serving up what our customs demand, and that’s more “more of the same thing” than it is “something different”. It’s the content that we deliver, not the medium in which the content is consumed. If an author writes a book which needs an app, so be it. But it’s up to the authors to drive innovation, not the publishers whose job is merely to link those authors with readers. Sure in the past we did deliver the physical package, but that was because no individual could afford to go to a printer and get them to print a single copy of a book for them. Technology has freed us from that burden (partly anyway) and we can now see the essence of what we do with greater clarity. And what we do does not include inventing different media interfaces.
James Patterson’s initiative, writing short works, under 150 pages, seems a better way to try and woo the reluctant reader.
* As usual in general media commentary on publishing this of course elides the bulk of the industry into the Big 5. Where it’s appropriate book publishers have of course vigorously embraced the new technology. Reference publishing and textbook publishing are two resounding counter examples. We’re not stupid. Where it’s appropriate we use digital technology; where it isn’t we don’t.
See also Digital writing.