In search of a new kind of reading

Let’s think about ‘readers’, not the types who work in publishing necessarily, but the occasional reader, the reluctant reader and the avid reader. For these readers, books will continue to compete for leisure time well into the future, against video games, television and film. The future of reading, in many respects, will be determined by how we navigate this environment of increasingly instantly accessible entertainment, whilst maintaining the essence of what distinguishes it: Being able to enjoy a really good story using the written word.

Painting with a broad brush for a moment, it’s uncontroversial to state that over the past five years, with e-reading and tablet devices coming to the fore changes to reading have been largely led by hardware with innovative ways of reading such as Spritz time-lagging in tow behind these fast-paced developments.

The next five years, by contrast, will see books, reading and content consumption increasingly defined by a merging of the written word and software development. This unlikely union will give birth to new ways of telling stories that maintain the basic premise of the prose-driven narrative, but incorporate the digital in ways that add value and enrich the storytelling experience.

Whilst the concept of the interactive book has indeed germinated and grown and there’s nothing new about readers using digital models, digital books that establish themselves as more than just the original text with added value features have been slow to follow. There have been, with commendable exceptions such as the excellent Frankenstein app from Profile Books, few instances of digital novels that break down the barrier between the written word and digital interactivity to create something truly coherent and new.

Which is why Device 6, a game-slash-novel made by Swedish developers Simogo is such an exciting development. Unlike most other interactive books on the marketplace today, interactivity and rich media were always meant to be a fundamental part of the experience. By the simple act of not following a standard workflow of content being written and then being digitized, Simogo have inadvertently revolutionized the digital book space and reverberating an experience that will be felt by tens of millions of readers a decade from now.

Everything about the experience of reading Device 6 feels fluid; from the way you physically move through the prose, to the crisp ambient noise and evocative photography. Most importantly, it avoids the pitfalls of having its interactivity seen more as a novelty value feature, than a fundamental part of the book itself.

There is no rich media oversaturation here either. The text itself, with the reinforced sense of place from this ambience, becomes a tangible environment you move through and solve puzzles within. It’s a radically different approach to digitizing the written word than we’re used to, as it puts development and writer alongside each other, and perhaps mostly important of all, it’s a runaway commercial success, with 200,000 copies sold.

As of yet, there has been little reverberation to this paradigm-shaping success from traditional publishers. Some inertia is to be expected, given that full-scale development projects of this kind would involve a radical departure from ordinary business models and workflows. However, book publishers are in fact ideally situated to become content-creators in their own right and could become stables for similar companies to Simogo, with writers and developers working alongside each other. As we know, Random House has wisely pre-empted this to some extent by establishing their own free content from internal development studios.

All of this raises the question of what exactly the finished products of this marriage between software development and prose will look like. Seamlessness is the watchword again here, book publishers will have to diversify and become developers in their own right so that they can build digital, narrative-rich content ex nihilo, rather than merely extrapolating this from static prose already in existence.

When these ideas finally take off and new types of business models are established and have provable worth, this new type of media will redefine the publishing landscape: Readers will be able to read genre fiction where the lore sits alongside the text as a continual reference, mystery novels where the foreshadowing for the ‘big reveal’ is built into hidden, interactive content, helping to add value to the concept of multiple re-reads.

Alongside this directly interactive content, we’ll see increasingly impressive and appropriately placed ambience and other passive rich-media embedded content as developers and writers experiment and become increasingly acquainted with what works and what doesn’t, helping lend a sense of atmosphere and place. Assisting in the vivid world building many fantasy authors aspire to.

The past decade has seen interactive entertainment become progressively more narrative-rich. The next decade will see digital books increasingly embrace interactivity as part and parcel of what they are.

Readers will, of course, be using e-reading devices that are thinner, more tactile and possibly possessing functional haptic interfaces. All of this will help grow digital books, but it won’t define how readers read to the same extent this merger of software development and publishing will. Readers will therefore be reading a new type of media entirely, a ‘digital book’ which is designed with a digital platform and digital audience in mind from the beginning, rather than as a complementary product.

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