The future of the interactive book

Within the broad umbrella term of “electronic fiction”, the interactive book is a particularly curious animal. From its early web inception as pure HTML “hypertext novels”, to the development of page-turning editions and finally the dedicated platform of e-reading devices, it has always deigned to never quite fit into any of these paradigms comfortably, straddling different approaches, often uncomfortably, by catering to niche audiences in the pen and paper realm or attempting to merely add value to existing products in the form of “enhanced editions”.

This is starting to change however. Despite naysayers the industry as a whole is becoming increasingly digital, and the interactive book is a key driver in changing the ordinary landscape of the publishing world.

Perhaps reflecting interactive entertainment’s general move to a more narrative-rich experience, interactive novels are starting to emerge less as an added value product and more as a medium in of their own right.

So what is this emerging medium and what does it constitute? There are already a few examples, Device 6 being perhaps the best illustration of a template that traditional publishers may deign to follow. This merger of development and prose produces an interactive experience that feels airtight in its seamlessly, there are no interactive widgets, as such, both rich media and interactive content, in this case, especially sound are <em>essential</em> to the experience rather than being afterthoughts to a traditionally published work.

The likes of Random House have already taken interest, perhaps because of Device 6’s stellar critical and commercial reception. Dan Franklin, their global head of digital has pioneered a number of projects such as <a href=http://www.blackcrownproject.com/s><em>Black Crown</em></a>, a free to play web-game that reflects the early “hypertext fiction” mentioned in the preamble that defined many of the hopes and dreams of digital publishers in the early internet era, and a Nobel Laureate of poetry, Robert Pinsky, has launched his own text-based digital novel/adventure by the name of <em>Mindwheel</em>.

In November of last year, the CEO of HarperCollins <a href= http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/20/harpercollins-charlie-redmayne-publishers-storytelling-digital>told the publishing industry</a> in no uncertain terms that they needed to <em>”take storytelling back from digital rivals”</em>. The operative word being “storytelling”. This was a recognition that the printed word, while perhaps not losing any of its lustre, has lost commercial ground to competing digital narrative forms as they become more freely available, in instantly accessible “on demand” formats (think Netflix).

It was also a view of the future encapsulated in a few words that is at once both radical and accurate: Publishers will start to have to entertain the concept of “development” alongside traditional ideas about narrative delivery and storytelling if they are to reclaim a market that is used to instant access and instant gratification. In real terms this means not just hiring development teams, but pioneering a way of fusing development and writing working patterns in a way that will be markedly harder. This is where the real test will lie, and it’s where we’ll see the real winners emerge in what is set to become one of the most exciting forms of new media over the next few years.

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