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Monday 20 October 2014

highlight When Annabel Smith embarked on creating her interactive digital ebook The Ark, she realised how wedded we still are to the old-fashioned p-book … and the obstacles (in terms of technology, distribution platforms and publisher attitudes) that lie in the way of writers wanting to harness the possibilities of interactive digital media to tell their stories.

Five years ago I began writing a contemporary iteration of an epistolary novel: a story told through digital documents including blog posts, emails, text messages, news reports and conversation transcripts. From its earliest days, the possibilities of interactive digital media – of a book that was more than just a book – were always at the back of my mind.

In May 2012 I was awarded one of five inaugural Australia Council Creative Australia Fellowships for Emerging Artists to make real what I had imagined: to create an interactive multi-media app to accompany the ebook of The Ark.

As I began the process of developing the enhanced ebook and app, I discovered that though the media loves to create the impression that paper books are a dying breed, and that before long all our reading will be digital and enhanced with audio-visual bells and whistles, the reality is quite different.

A wide range of classics, from Grimms' Fairy Tales to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, are available as ‘apps’. But on closer examination, they are often revealed to be basically ebooks with a few extra options, such as changing the font and background colour. So-called apps for popular contemporary fiction such as the Hunger Games and Twilight series are equally disappointing in their lack of any true interactivity or bonus features.

The Touch Press edition of T.S. Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land is often cited as a great example of what digital books can be, containing notes by Eliot, a video performance of the poem that syncs to the text and an audio reading by the poet himself. Children’s books also seem to lend themselves well to these new forms. Interactive language texts, history books, cookbooks and other works of non-fiction are being enthusiastically received by readers. However, when it comes to adult fiction, publishers seem to be proceeding with caution.

In 2010 publisher Little, Brown released an app to accompany Iain Banks’ novel Transition and Canongate followed suit with an app for David Eagleman’s short-story collection Sum, which contained an audio version of the text, read by celebrities including Emily Blunt, Nick Cave and Stephen Fry, as well as videos of Eagleman discussing the book’s themes, origins and impact.

However, after this initial flurry of activity, publishers seemed to get cold feet when it came to enhanced digital books. Their strategy seemed to lean towards investing heavily and very infrequently in ‘gold-standard’ apps/enhanced ebooks rather than creating more modest options as part of an ongoing engagement with the digital possibilities of literature. Extensive searching throughout 2012 did not yield a single publisher who was producing enhanced ebooks or apps for literary fiction.

This did not deter me, as I was confident that the technology existed to self-publish The Ark as an enhanced ebook/app and distribute it via Amazon and other channels that support self-published books − another assumption that turned out to be wrong.

Each of the document types in The Ark have a unique appearance, featuring logos and layouts developed over months of consultation with graphic designers. At a glance, readers know exactly what type of communication they are viewing. In preparing to convert the ebook for key platforms, I discovered that most of the biggest-selling e-reader formats such as .mobi for Kindle, and .epub for Nook and Kobo do not easily accommodate graphic layouts. I was advised to either strip all the design elements from my novel and present it as plain text, or to publish The Ark as a ‘fixed layout’ book. This second option, which initially sounded promising, turned out to be untenable when I learnt that on Amazon, fixed layout books could only be categorised as graphic novels, or children’s books.

I was not prepared to compromise on what I considered to be a unique and fundamental element of the novel. I therefore elected to bypass Amazon altogether, and publish The Ark as an interactive PDF.

The PDF (which can be read on Kindle or iPad) links to an app which enables readers to dive deeper into the world of the novel by viewing animations of the bunker setting, listening to audio recordings of dialogue from the novel, and accessing deleted scenes and other bonus content. In addition, readers can continue to develop the world of the novel by commenting on blog posts from it, and submitting fan fiction in a wide range of formats.

Reviewer Lisa Hill comments that The Ark is the first interactive novel she has read that ‘offers more than just clicking to see a few pictures or jumping to another chapter’ and blogger Ben Lever praises the app for ‘playing with notions of how we consume books in the 21st century’. Author Jane Rawson describes it as a ‘great concept, delivered ingeniously’ and expresses a desire ‘to see more adventurous books like this published in Australia’.

In a review in The Saturday Paper, The Ark is criticised for failing to deliver ‘meaningful interactivity’. The anonymous reviewer suggests ‘It won’t be long before readers are treated to refreshingly immersive and responsive digital books – The Ark, though, falls short of this aim.’

I suspect that the level of interactivity hoped for by the reviewer in The Saturday Paper might be a long way off. There’s a range of limitations to digital innovation: those imposed by ebook software and distribution channels, publishers’ reluctance to embrace and invest in digital literature, and the prohibitive cost and challenge of authors creating these works independently, as I did.

Though there are now some publishers, such as Atavist, specifically geared to enhanced digital literature, all the notable cutting-edge ebooks released so far have been one-off projects, outside the traditional publishing and distribution model.

My experience with developing The Ark has taught me that digital literacy is still very much in its infancy. Before it can come of age, a number of important industry changes must take place: publishers need to take some risks, investing in the development of high quality, true enhanced ebooks. Distributors need to change their narrow guidelines. And software developers need to make their applications more flexible. Only then will readers be treated to genuinely groundbreaking digital literature.


The Ark is available now.

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