Arcadia's vision for a new way of reading

Arcadia's vision for a new way of reading

In September Faber will publish Iain Pears’ Arcadia, a book that it first announced in 2012. The story behind the publication will be as interesting as the product itself.

The title first broke cover at Frankfurt 2012, described then as a digital-first “multi-layered story of history and time”. It was written for digital with the intention then to publish it as an app six months ahead of print publication. It was planned for digital launch in autumn 2013, with a revised print and e-book edition in spring 2014.

Back in 2012 the idea seemed entirely in tune with how the digital market was developing. Fifty Shades had shown that novels conceived in a digital environment (in El James’ case on a fan-fiction website) could successfully re-write print publishing’s rules, while the iPad had become the device of choice to further explore what access to multimedia content could do for books. Faber already had an established track-record as an innovator: most notably with The Waste Land. Henry Volans, Faber’s head of digital, described Pears' book as the “natively digital novel in how it is written, edited and read” that Faber had long been seeking. He added: “Iain’s project does not seek to be digital for the sake of it, instead it enables Iain to tell stories as he has always wished to do.”

Arcadia, written by an established and bestselling writer, and published with both a literary and digital specialist, looked a dead cert—at least critically and maybe also commercially. The Guardian wrote in 2013 that Pears was in the vanguard of a movement to colonise territory occupied until now by fantasy authors and amateur fan-fiction writers: online fiction. Pears told the newspaper: "There is no reason to think the printed book will be the defining literary format. I don't want to be cautious any more. This is about changing the fundamentals. The worst that can happen is that it won't work."

Three years on from the original announcement and two years on from the hype, Arcadia arrives into a slightly more circumspect environment. It was only when I spotted the 600-page proof copy on a colleague’s desk at The Bookseller that I realised the book was finally coming. The irony here is wonderful, of course. With a beautiful and arresting front cover (pictured), and the heft of an ambitious literary masterwork, Arcadia has the look and feel of many of the other traditionally-published novels arriving into a packed September. But though late, the app remains central to the novel’s publication. The novel is published on 3rd September, with the digital version arriving in August—still ahead of the book, but only just. Nevertheless, Faber says it hopes to open a “debate of how fiction will be read in the future”.

I have not seen the app, but the publisher provides a hint about how it will work: "The app, presents all of the possible ways Iain Pears could have told the story, and lets anyone become the master of their own journey through the book. Readers can approach it as a series of traditional linear stories; or they can switch rapidly between tales and worlds. They can read, or leave out, sections as they choose. In the app, the entire story is mapped visually, and each reader’s map will become unique as it records their journey." It will be free to download, with in-app purchases.

Theodore Gray, chief creative officer of Touchpress (with whom Faber has partnered on the app), comments: “Some stories are meant to be read from start to finish, which is good, because ordinary books or even ebooks really only lend themselves well to that kind of reading. But what about stories that are inherently folded in on themselves, with branches and threads that defy linear presentation? Iain Pears has written such a story in Arcadia, and we have created for it a uniquely beautiful reading device, an app that allows you to explore the text up and down and in directions that have no names.”

The app re-ignites that successful partnership between Touchpress and Faber that brought us The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets for iPad; but can it do the same for re-imagined digital story-telling? The received wisdom now is that while such projects can be well-met critically within the media, they do not attract enough interest from readers to be commercially viable or scaleable—notable exceptions being Naomi Alderman’s Zombies, Run! and Profile's 80 Days.

As a result publishers have largely vacated this market. It is telling, for example, that the Guardian described Pears as in the vanguard in 2013, and two years on—despite nothing having been released—he still is. In 2014, the Telegraph’s then head of books Gaby Wood accused publishers of neglecting their responsibilities. “Most publishers,” she wrote, “especially large ones such as Penguin Random House – are playing it far too safe, lazily pouring pdfs into e-pub files and assuming people will just absorb books how they please, as if a publisher’s job were merely to make things in different colours.”

The accusation was slightly unfair — and really only relevant to fiction publishing. And even then, publishers could reasonably argue that they had tried.

Just a year earlier Picador had caused a stir with the publication of The Kills, written by Richard House, re-imagined as a digital book told in four parts. The writer Kate Pullinger (a pioneer in these parts), reviewed it and wrote: “The digital edition is far and away the better way to read this novel; the first two books in particular are augmented by a series of short films embedded on the page, often with text overlaid, as well as animations and audio clips. For example, listening to the phone messages left by one character's mother as she tries to cajole him into contacting her, before she understands that he is in danger, adds an emotional jolt to the text. Throughout, the simple yet elegant enhancements work to take us beyond the page, adding depth and texture to the story. This is the first time I've read a digital edition of a primarily text-based novel where I've thought: yes, this works.”

The novel was long-listed for the Man Booker, and Picador publisher Paul Baggeley recalls the publication as one of the “most exciting and original projects” Picador has been involved with. “I loved the fact that it involved so many people here creatively. We published it as four e-books a month at a time, before publishing the physical edition. But we always planned the physical manifestation as its culmination, so the e-books were both a commercial proposition but also a marketing tool. There was for example a ‘pay with a tweet’ offer for the first e-book. The e-books all contained extra material, mostly film and audio (which was created by Richard – although we made some of it with him and adapted it for the e-books). The material worked because it was always part of Richard’s vision and because he is a film-maker/artist and he sees material in this manner.”

Yet for all of that, there has yet to be a repeat of the experiment. Would Baggeley commission a similar work now? “I would love to do another project like this (especially with Richard House) but it would have to be with the right book and author.”

Random House’s Black Crown project was similarly ground-breaking. Launched also in 2013, the interactive narrative game was a collaboration with Rob Sherman and powered by Failbetter Games' StoryNexus platform. At the time Wired noted that one potential future involves Random House as a facilitator for authors who gravitate towards the format rather than actively seeking out talent. "You might have people saying I've been looking at Black Crown and Fallen London and I've got a new concept sketched out in my head," digital Dan Franklin said at the time. "Rather than going to StoryNexus directly we might have people coming to us saying 'I think I need funding and help and support to do this, would you get behind me?'"

Black Crown was shuttered in 2014 with creator Sherman conceding that "the economics do not stand up”. In its first three months 6,000 people signed up to play the game, with around 5% of those paying money for in-game currency. Sherman, who went on to become the British Library’s interactive fiction writer in residence, commented: “No more money can be spent on something which refuses to produce much in return.” Franklin described it as "experiment”, and added: “That was the first iteration. We have created a lot of stuff there. There are other ways we could render it. We were very happy with the audience it got. It really appealed to a gaming audience that crossed over into the tech space.” [It is worth noting that during this period, Random House merged with Penguin, and priorities shifted]. Nevertheless, Franklin told The Bookseller at the end of 2014 that one key focus for him now is how “to make digital reading itself more beautiful and more enriched, in ways you might not expect”. More on that to come . . .

Outside of traditional publishing, I was also intrigued by what Circumstance and Tom Abba, of the University of the West of England, did with their project These Pages Fall Like Ash, which with authors Nick Harkaway and Neil Gaiman told one story across two books - one a beautiful, crafted physical artefact, the other a digital text on hard drives hidden across a real city and read on mobile devices.

Abba has written extensively about it, with his mission-statement writ large. “I’m an academic who loves the form of the book (and it’s content) and rails against the shorthand parody that eBooks represent, while seeking a form for digital writing that acknowledges the platform it’s being written for – we’ve moved beyond writing film as if it were recorded theatre, for example, but the state of play for digital platforms remains woefully in the doldrums of development”.

In terms of These Pages Fall Like Ash, he has noted: “We set out to invent a future for the book and digital technology. To show by doing, rapidly and iteratively, rather than by turning up at the same industry event and telling ourselves that we’re not doing nothing. We’ve invented businesses, formats and iterated technologies faster than the mainstream. And a year on? Innovation isn’t a negative word, blown in with a whiff of dissatisfaction. It’s exhilarating. If you start with the attitude that we’re here to lose you money for six months then that will remain your attitude for ever so. If you want to be part of the solution, start looking around.”

As the acknowledged proponents in a field that must have at times seemed frustratingly fallow, I asked both Tom and Kate on their perspective on what type of place Arcadia arrives into, and how much it might reshape it.

Abba wrote. “It’s interesting. It seems like an age since the book was announced, and yet, as you suggest, nothing has *really* changed that much in terms of publishing’s approach to digital, and the potential of a new form for telling stories. We’ve seen some really interesting non-fiction work (I’m thinking of what generally gets called future documentary, and how that has implications for the forms for non-fiction work), but little in the way of really innovative fiction. I though Dan Franklin was bold, and deserves a huge pat on the back for Rob Sherman’s Black Crown - and although the piece itself has slipped from view, the profile of that sort of imagining offers potential. Rob has made work with the British Library since then, and I’ve been developing digital/physical prototypes with Circumstance and a number of writers that will come into the world later this year. There’s also Visual Editions’ work with Google, which is exciting, if largely unknown at present.”

Like me, he is intrigued as to how the app will convey the story—often a key flaw when digital texts are re-imagined for non-linear machines.

Pullinger responded: “I do think these types of works will continue to arrive, and continue to generate debate, and that there's a huge range of works that are being produced now that are not coming through traditional publishing avenues but that are finding audiences in different ways, via app stores etc. I'm co-hosting a conference this week - - that looks at new forms and I'm attending a conference in Bergen in August that will do the same. . .” Pullinger added that she was also involved in a new project along these lines, but did not want to give the details away. Nevertheless, she added, “There is a ton of stuff bubbling away!”

Back at the beginning of 2014 in a piece looking ahead to the digital year, Volans told the Guardian: “Equally central to our year will be Iain Pears's Arcadia, most of all because it is among the first in what will be a growing trend for novelists to seek new expressions for their writing."

Might that still be true in 2015? Yes.

But will it interest traditional publishers? I’d like to think Arcadia could change the game again, just as Faber did with The Waste Land. In the meantime, the proof copy is a reminder of what it is up against.