An Earthquake in the Petrified Forest, Part 2

How digital publishing is evolving in the book industry

By Dan Franklin

Part 2 of the talk give at the RCA on 23rd November. Part 1 can be found here.


I’ve taken a particular interest in where publishers now sit in the cultural ecosystem — if digital collapses boundaries with audiences, it also blurs the lines between art forms.

What does this mean for ‘ergodic’ literature, from the Greek ergon meaning work and hodos meaning path, coined by Espen J Aarseth in his book Cybertext? What future for literature which transcends what media theorist Friedrich Kittler meant when he said ‘reading functions as hallucinating a meaning between letters and lines’? What is the status of overtly interactive forms of storytelling?

It’s funny, because whenever we start to get onto interactive storytelling, everyone refers to the million-selling Fighting Fantasy novels that Peter Jackson and Ian Livingstone wrote in the 1980s. Will Self has explained that he has no interest in this frontier: ‘I’ve no intention of writing fictions in the form of tweets or text messages — nor do I see my future in computer-games design.’

Actually that last part of his statement is important here, because interactive literature might be a misdirection. Naomi Alderman, a games writer who also happens to be a literary author and the co-creator of the massively successful fitness-horror app, ZOMBIES, RUN! is very good on this. She recently called out ‘the forums, summits, breakout sessions and seminars on “digital literature” run by exceedingly well-meaning arts people who can talk for hours about what the future might be for storytelling in this new technological age — whether we might produce hyperlinked or interactive or multi-stranded novels and poems — without apparently noticing that video games exist.’ Guilty as charged. She concludes that statement: ‘And they don’t just exist! They’re the most lucrative, fastest-growing medium of our age.’

Books are creative and cultural drivers: sites of cultural exchange. Digital doesn’t diminish this, it enhances it. That is why new product categories that are hard to define are still so important. My colleague at Canelo and previously Profile Books digital lead Michael Bhaskar recently cited this on Twitter as the ‘sleeping giant’ of publishing’s digital transformation. I agree with him, and I also sympathise with Naomi’s irritation. But working at a publisher like Penguin Random House, a company that was radically innovative in its approach to spreading literacy in the form of affordable paperbacks, I do think a publisher of our size and abilities is obliged to explore this new frontier and attempt to rouse that sleeping giant.

I think the book industry was full of gusto for this project with the advent of new technologies when the iPad launched in 2010. Perhaps the most lauded example of the new possibilities was Touch Press and Faber’s reimagining of TS Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ as a multimedia app. I would imagine Eliot, as William Golding’s publisher, and not one to shrink from the innovations of modernity, would have been delighted with the rendering of his poem’s commentary embedded in the text, and different audio readings of it through rare archive recordings of him, Fiona Shaw and even Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen. But in 2015 I note with sadness that Touch Press are selling this property as one of a catalogue of what they call their ‘educational apps’, to be separated from their new strategy around classical music and sponsored work which they will make freely available. Remember that they successfully made it so that users were parting ways with £9.99 on their products. I did wonder as I read this release in the wake of a visit to their HQ of Tim Cook, CEO of Apple himself, whether this is a false distinction of supposedly different types of marketplace.

‘The Wasteland’ found an audience beyond academia, as did their landmark THE ELEMENTS app, used by Apple to showcase the iPad at launch. Touch Press themselves called these ‘coffee table apps’ designed to surprise, delight and be explored. I remember their erstwhile creative director Max Whitby proudly showing me their SKULLS app, written by Simon Winchester, an exploration of collector Alan Dudley’s extraordinary array of animal skulls in 3D photography and Winchester’s prose with a beautiful parallax interface, which they were publishing for Christmas. Aside from the risk they were taking blending their stock-in-trade interactive imagery with long-form narrative non-fiction, I worried whether it might be a touch morbid for the time of year they were launching, and it didn’t do particularly well from what I saw. But it remains their lost masterpiece — and like all publishers, they found that selling premium work and experiences in the era of branded content and every MAD MEN wannabe marketing person co-opting the notion of ‘storytelling’ for their nefarious means, that failure is the bedfellow of success. Publishing often tastes bittersweet — few made more efforts to explore its event horizon than Max and Touch Press.

How then do we design reading experiences, and more broadly communicate the stories and ideas that matter, going forward? The ebook has been the prime change-maker in the digital transformation of the industry — really the stripped back unit of content that transmutes print to digital, especially if that matter is predominantly text. It gets harder when you add pictures, never mind moving images, audio and more gestural interactivity. The ebook does what it does incredibly effectively — its main weapon is convenience and it uses it to devastating effect.

I remember seeing a hardback copy of Walter Isaacson’s 600 page biography of Steve Jobs in the WH Smith in terminal 5 on the way to Frankfurt Book Fair three years ago. It looked as unwieldy as a stone tool in the age of the iPhone burdening that shelf — who in their right mind would take it onto a plane?! In the same way, ereaders themselves have always appeared strangely anachronistic: the first generation of ereaders looked positively retro-futuristic, like something a Stormtrooper might sit back with in the breaks between filming Star Wars in the seventies.

There’s a wonderful passage in The Inheritors where the Neanderthal Lok has a spear thrown at him by one of the new men. It beautifully conveys the future shock of comprehending a new, deadly technology: ‘His ears twitched and he turned to the tree. By his face there had grown a twig: a twig that smelt of other, and of gorse, and of the bitter berries that Lok’s stomach told him he must not eat. This twig had a white bone at the end. There were hooks in the bone and sticky brown stuff hung in the crooks. His nose examined this stuff and did not like it.’

The truth is we need to think about how we move beyond the ebook. What the current ebook landscape points to is that we have preserved the print means of producing and distributing books as singular units of content by replicating it perfectly. This leads me to wonder more and more whether this all feels like a missed opportunity. The storm has passed, we get on with things. But actually I think greater upheavals are ahead and where a lot of publishers stormed into the promise of the new — different types of digital products, and particularly apps — we now see more of a retrenchment where it has proved that the AppStore as a shop window is a small space with hundreds of thousands of products. It is almost as difficult as publishing, marketing and selling . . . a book!

As print book fetishists actually openly declare that they’re glad ‘digital is over’ we risk a serious digital creativity gap in publishing. I don’t want us to be innovated against by external forces, at least not in a way we can’t collaborate with.

Social reading, shared highlights and annotations, like experiments in hypertext, have been around for years with little mainstream adoption and indicate that we must think first of user need. For an industry that thrives off giving people what they don’t know they want, where every book is an incubator of a new cultural experience, this can feel counter-intuitive.

We’ve seen a host of start-ups shore their fragments against publishing’s ruins and break up in the tide because they underestimated an industry underpinned by a very complex system of rights. The two best examples of new thinking — Oyster (in subscription) and Readmill (in social reading) — giving up the ghost perhaps speaks more to their naivety than any inherent resistance to change in publishing. Let me gloss over the fact that these start-ups were sold for parts to Google and Dropbox — adding to an already transcendent and growing digital sphere. My view is if you’re starting a company up in the digital books space you have to be licensing copyrights or need to expect life might get tough. Base not your happiness on the beneficence of other players, because what is given can be taken away.

So where is the new frontier? It’s right in front of us. It’s the web. Ebooks are really web pages in a wrapper anyway — so what happens when you take the wrapper off? Designing excellent web-based reading experiences is a critical new frontier for publishers. The reason being that the mobile phone is fast becoming the primary way people are accessing the world and interfacing with it, particularly in developing countries. Look at the success of Medium, a platform from one of the founders of Twitter which is a repository for all manner of pieces of written text, long and short [this is a nicely self-reflexive sentence now this talk is on that very platform].

We have been looking at this space as well. A development team in our Penguin Press division designed as a new means of transmitting this legendary list of subject primers with its iconic blue book jackets. Our central digital team partnered with TFL on to deliver stories, extracts and interviews to users on the London Underground and make them aware of its WiFi service. Other experiments in HTML5 see multimedia becoming embedded — outstanding examples are the Guardian’s NSA exposé and Pitchfork’s album previews. The online serialisation of the biggest publishing event this year, Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, showcased a light touch reading experience with subtle animation and ambient audio effects.

Digital development at a publisher often pits user-first thinking about digital design against the exigencies of authorial creative needs. Head and heart must work in tandem — the creative needs to yield somewhat to what’s actually going to work based on research, insight and user testing. What do our audiences want, and how do we know them better? How can we truly go forward without being an essential destination on the web?

The ultimate point I’m driving at here is that publishers, as specialists in the crafting and dissemination of the mobile physical technology known as the book, need to transfer those skills to an increasingly mobile and digital world. Then they need to get their authors paid in doing so, but that’s another talk entirely.

In the third and final part tomorrow: how publishers and authors must evolve together.