Nowadays, incredibly sophisticated digital technology permeates almost every area of our lives, from the way we listen to music to the way we hire a plumber. So it seems barely credible that the e-book remains the default 'digital' reading experience. A basic imitation of the printed page, at best pepped with cursory visual or audio enhancements, the e-book is about as far from a native digital product as you can get. It's unsurprising that sales have plateaued, the Kindle has stopped evolving and the market for e-readers is so saturated that booksellers no longer stock them.
You'd have thought that this was the perfect time for new digital book forms to finally enter the spotlight. Yet with sales of physical books rallying, many publishers seem to have given up experimenting in this realm. Spooked by costly innovations that have not paid off in the past, they're clinging onto the idea that their core competency - print - will continue to save them. Yes, they continue to add digital bells and whistles to their print hero products. But they're failing to learn the crucial lesson that e-books have taught us: that being experts in literary (and print) culture in no way prepares publishers to create outstanding digital books.
It is only when we renounce the structures, aesthetics and ideologies of print, and look at cultures and traditions beyond the literary, that we will find what's truly 'next' for books. Future books will be born from digital thinking, drenched in a passion for creative culture in all its forms, and play seamlessly with a variety of technologies. This means that now more than ever, publishers need to stop relegating 'digital' to departments and become true digital polymaths.
Of course, outside the mainstream, writers, artists and creatives are already telling stories in bold new ways. From Judd Morrissey’s The Jew’s Daughter, which sees letters change and disappear to give the reader a sense of interaction and a feel for the stream-of-consciousness text, to Naomi Alderman's Zombies Run!, an augmented reality adventure where the reader becomes the protagonist, there is plenty of experimentation out there.
But what unites these projects is the fact that, while they naturally include many elements of the literary tradition, they also draw widely from the traditions and aesthetics of a number of other art forms: visual art, conceptual art, gaming, music, theatre, performance art. The computational interplay between words, sound, code, images and even the body have become am essential part of the construct of electronic fiction. These are not neutral devices but designed practices that enter deeply into the work's structures and are created by specialist practitioners from the tech industry whom have previously been excluded from the business of producing books. Creative producers at Dreaming Methods, The Circumstance Art Collective and Young-hae Chang Heavy are at the forefront of developing these components for literature. They use the computer to function as a partner in producing and creating material for the medium in ways that the physical book cannot. As a result they are producing digital literature that is rich in content, and so diverse, that we cannot refer to it as one specific product.
There are a lot of conventional assumptions tied to literary experience. For generations it’s been seen as a contemplative, reflective, meditative, linear, even solitary pursuit, created by the author and then printed by a publisher. When you get into digital environments, these values change and gravitate toward an open, collaborative and cross-disciplinary, user-driven environment. Instead of mimicking the page, work that is digitally born is increasingly pulling away from traditional print-centric assumptions that a literary work is merely an abstract verbal construction. Instead, it concentrates instead on the materiality of the medium and what that can offer. By exploiting these new conditions as a resources for artistic expression we are inextricably linking the process of production with the process of creation. This is a potentially revolutionary space, capable of transforming and redefining the very art of fiction.
To ensure they thrive as a creative industry, publishers need to vigorously re-engage with the digital beyond the e-book. They need to let go of deeply entrenched presuppositions of print-based conceptions and follow the experimental writers and creative start-ups deeper into the machine, to evaluate a work's quality from an integrated perspective and learn as they go the new idioms that emerge when we collaborate with machines.
Physical books have wonderful and irreplaceable qualities. But digital is only going to conquer ever more of our lives, imaginations and entertainment time. To be part of the next wave of electronic literature, publishers must become far more ambitious in their thinking - and far more integrated in their execution.