More than the written word

On: March 3, 2013
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About Myrthe Bösensell


As a former literature student, one might expect me to be on top of all the new, digital developments in the book business that are happening as we speak. Unfortunately I am not. My technical knowledge is quite limited; however I do know something about the literary world, among others that publishers have to catch up with the new technologies in order to stay in the game.

We know the book business is in the midst of a revolution, and it has been for years.  Readers seem to want more flexibility, or should I say that it is the market of e-readers and tablets that push for a digital playfield in which the users, the writers and responders are in control.  Web 2.0 as Jonathan Zittran calls it, where companies who produce software are in control over our behaviour on the internet. Social media, self-publishing or even browsing the web is always within the limits of the software we use.

When companies are in control of the product (or in some cases appliances) they create, their developments might work against the creation of new innovations and opportunities for readers and publishers, as they are closed to adaptations. That said, some authors and web developers see this as a challenge in what the new media forms and discoveries can do for the author and  reader, and so applications are developed that give readers the illusion that they have a certain amount of freedom.

In the article Is Google Making us Stupid the author Nicholas Carr states that digital texts create distraction, people who read nowadays read in a different way than they used to. And this (at least for the author) gives him a feeling of being powerless and having no control over his own brain and the process of reading. Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter discuss in Seriality for All. The Role of Protocols and Standards in Critical Theory who is in charge: form or content when we think about the internet? When reading a book we think about the content and perhaps about the author but not so much about the publisher or the developers of the medium behind the words. For some reason we do not notice underlying structures. An example of a clever invention that aligns with these concepts of freedom, control and content is Beside Myself, an interactive novel for the iPad.

Beside Myself breaks up the traditional linear narrative and places the focus on interactivity, the reader controls the way in which the story is presented. In short, the interactive part of the book starts before the book commences. As a reader you can flip through the pre-selected photos and titles offered to combine what you consider a suitable cover. After deciding on the cover you can select the order of the narrative. The story is told from three different perspectives, and you can decide which you want to read first, or all at the same time. After this you select the order of the chapters that you want to read, creating your own reading experience. You could say that your reading behaviour is still limited to the three offered storylines but within the narrative  a certain flexibility is possible. More hybrid features are the atmospheric pictures and suggested reading music that the novel offers.

It seems to be a new reading format, which on the one hand by creating your own storyline commits you to reading the entire story, but there are always more options to choose from which keeps the story dynamic. The reader becomes part-creator and the book becomes unbound. The company who powered this application is ScrollMotion. A company who has seen the changes tablets have made for consumers and tries to be a part of the digital revolution. In their own words they provide ‘powerful apps that engage readers like PC’s and paper never could.’ ScrollMotion is a mobile SaaS platform: software as a service. This, billion dollar business, means that software is hosted on the cloud and users can access it via their browser and companies outsource their soft and hardware maintenance systems. A company like ScrollMotion transforms content with the use of software, deciding on the possible ways of reading a story by moulding the form of the novel.

Many publishers may not have the skills, the mindset or financial space to create this type of innovations themselves, resulting in them falling behind in the technical developments, which might result in authors publishing more of their own work themselves. Beyond Myself could therefore, in my opinion, be a preview of the way in which the user, or reader, will be more involved in helping to construct a narrative in the future, with the use of software, but without the publisher. In order to stay in the game publishers have to merge literature with technology.

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