Authors! The future of the book is you

Authors! The future of the book is you

This is a piece that James McConnachie, editor of The Author, commissioned me to write for the Spring 2014 issue of the magazine. I agreed, not least because the magazine is only available in print. But James agreed I could publish it online. I wrote this at the end of last year, but apart from my role recently changing at Penguin Random House and adjusting the title for Futurebook, it’s still as accurate (or not!) as at the time of writing.

‘The writer leads, he doesn't follow. The dynamic lives in the writer's mind, not in the size of the audience.’

From a letter by Don DeLillo that appeared in the April 1996 issue of Harper’s, in Jonathan Franzen’s article ‘Perchance to Dream’

I’ve been avoiding writing a piece like this for a while now. As digital publisher at Random House I occasionally get asked to comment on ‘the future of the book’ as if that future is singular, and that somehow it can be described now. In my professional capacity the answer is simple: I don’t really know. I can make educated guesses based on the new technological possibilities, and how I see readers behaving and the industry transforming (or not). If I flatter myself I think I can shape this future myself as a facilitator – someone who understands the options, a translator who can parse techno-babble into publishing jargon.

But the answer is simple: the future of the book is authors. Or rather, the future of the book is whatever authors want it to be: ‘The writer leads, [s]he doesn’t follow’.

And yet at the moment, we – publishers and writers – have been criticized for not taking the lead in the opportunities presented by rapidly changing technology. The narrative of digital trade publishing in the UK (I’m not going to engage with the academic sector in this piece, to keep it focused) is one of growth. Five years ago pretty much none of our revenue came through digital sales and now it’s more like a quarter. Handheld ereaders and portable multimedia devices − smartphones and tablets, mainly − account for this growth, and they have largely replicated the physical process, by which books are sold as individual units of content through third-party booksellers.

The digital format options for an author now fall into three main categories: the ebook, which is the simplest proposition for straight-text books; the app, which is sexiest but also most expensive and riskiest (though it has large income potential if the project is right and the appstore proprietor cares to promote it); and the web, which offers endless creative possibilities but is perhaps the least straightforward to monetize.

Publishers have reaped rewards from the growth of ebooks, but they became excited by the more radical possibilities when they started to see internet-ready devices being adopted in a large-scale way. The essence of publishing is to introduce people to something new to them, in the form of books. So It was natural for publishers to look at these devices and think, ‘how can we create book − and ‘book-like’ − experiences that take advantage of the capabilities of these handheld portals?’ As a publisher it’s tempting to push on into realms of interactive digital literature and textbooks – the dreaded enhanced ebooks (by which I mean ebooks containing multimedia elements, ‘dreaded’ since the marketplace is still limited and audience nascent for what is a complex, time-consuming format). It’s tempting exactly because the possibilities are now mainstream.

Publishers have grappled (sometimes with difficulty) with the more new-fangled types of multimedia experiences, however. Three types have proved particularly intriguing, but also particularly difficult to execute. The first is location-based storytelling, which often requires a reader to get up and go somewhere to unlock some kind of story. One successful example has been The Silent History app, which Jonathan Cape is going to publish in novel form. Secondly, there is augmented reality, where a device is held up to an image in a book and it comes ‘alive’. There have been numerous experiments with augmented reality covers and an author photo that becomes a video when a smartphone is held up to it, one being Sophie Kinsella’s I’ve Got Your Number (produced by Transworld). Thirdly, there’s ‘gamified’ reading experiences – which are more complicated but tend to reward progress, and socialize the reading experience.  Ebury published a series of choose-your-own business advice ebooks by the young entrepreneur Jamal Edwards, called Self Belief: The Vision; these books let readers make their own judgement calls and encouraged them to share their experiences, explaining if and when one avenue was preferable to another.

I’m a proponent of not giving up on an infant that’s learning to walk, but I must now acknowledge that we can’t crowbar extra stuff into an ebook for the sake of it. The media theorist Friedrich Kittler wrote that reading functions as hallucinating a meaning between letters and lines.’ The act of sitting in isolation and reading is in itself a transportative act. Why would we spoil it by laying it on too thick with digital interactivity? Neither can we forcefully transmute an ebook into what it’s inherently designed not to be. Authors need to be there along the way; preferably they need to be driving things themselves.

The big challenges concern interactivity, and the notion of ‘ergodic’ literature (which forces the reader to make an effort in order to traverse the text – an effort beyond merely moving the eyes or turning the page). It may seem alluring to publishers, but do authors want to cede narrative control to their readership? Roland Barthes posited the death of the author in 1967, but the extraction of authors from their own authority is anathema to many.

A lot of gamers and games writers look at this debate in book publishing and shake their heads in amusement. Gaming is the highest-earning media industry and many games are predicated on a story that is inherently interactive. The independent gaming community is growing fast, and barriers to entry are being lowered – both in terms of cost of development and the ease of digital distribution through marketplaces like Steam (which lets developers create and share games by downloading them straight to a computer desktop). As this growth occurs, what I’ve also found is that games are evolving into progressively sophisticated and surprising narratives, which are as far away from combat-based shoot-’em ups as these are from Pong. But even in the more involved and involving narratives of games, such as Dear Esther and Papers Please, the writing could be better, the story editing could be better. What tends to happen is that the exigencies of compelling gameplay trump more plausible narrative development, so the game architects might want a player to solve a puzzle even if this disrupts another more logical way to progress through the story, such as a novelist might develop.

It’s great that games writers work in tandem with developers, but this often takes place under non-disclosure agreements, when development of big-budget games is kept secret to avoid leaks, and the writer is usually subordinated to the bigger project. The last Tomb Raider was an exception in that the writer, Rhianna Pratchett, was front and centre in the PR campaign. I’ve seen how the gaming community responds to our industry’s foray into the text-gaming space with projects like Black Crown (www.blackcrownproject.com). This is a narrative game by debut author Rob Sherman, where the reader enlists as a clerk at a bizarre institute to uncover the history of a long-dead anthropologist (of sorts) called the Miasma Eremite, and promotions are given through the application of bespoke diseases: the higher up the ladder you climb the more physically repulsive you become.

I write this in the dog days of 2013 at the end of a five-year cycle that began in 2008, when Sony and Waterstones partnered up to supply content to the Sony ereader: that was when I moved from being an assistant editor to a ‘digital editor’, the dual identity of a technology role and an editorial brief that I continue to have now. Now things have matured, there is a sense that the major period of transition has moved into another phase. I might imagine the death of the digital publisher, because Barthes’ theory works here too: if authors seek to cede ultimate realization of their work to readers, then I must cede all authority to those creators in turn.

In reality, I see a space continuing to open up in which publishers can play an important part – and the best part is I don’t know exactly what it will be. I do know that the future of the book is authors, however. And the key question is: where do you want to go, and what experiences do you want to create? And I’m compelled to follow up with another:  Can I come with you, to help you get there?


Dan Franklin is digital publisher at Penguin Random House UK, working across the Vintage, Penguin Press, Cornerstone and Penguin General divisions. He can often be found on Twitter: @digitaldanhouse