World famous fantasy author Philip Pullman said it in a way that grabbed my attention immediately, as only a writer can. He was discussing what I will call the ‘e-volution’ taking place in the book industry.
I found him on the internet, talking about the enhanced ebook edition of his work The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
A group called Enhanced Editions had adapted his work as an ebook to read on ipads and iphones. Pullman said he was ‘very interested’ in the book evolution taking place.
‘This change we’re undergoing feels as if I’m tied to the front of a runaway train whose driver has had a heart attack’, Pullman said on a clip at http://www.enhanced-editions.com/.
‘There are some things going on in which the author – this poor, maligned, ignored, starved, patronised, … little creature at the heart of it all, without whom none of this mighty enterprise could happen anyway – there are some little corners of this that the author can have some measure of control over,’ Pullman said.
His comment may have been slightly tongue-in-cheek. Even so, it’s amazing to hear that a writer of Pullman’s stature might feel somehow sidelined in the publishing game.
But of course he is expressing something lurking deep in the heart of all writers. In the traditional publishing cycle, the author – the person creating the stories – is apt to feel somewhat overlooked.
Pullman’s comment taps into a conviction that for writers, runs close to the bone. It seems there are two main issues – return on investment, and creative control.
Like Pullman, many authors feel the book evolution gives them the opportunity to wrest back some influence.
First, there’s return on investment. On the face of it, digital publishing hasn’t changed things much. Publishers are still offering the creators a slim cut of the overall pie (e.g. in the U.K. no more than 25% of net receipts). Some authors are choosing to prepare and upload their own works, bypassing publishers completely. They can therefore take 100% of whatever their work returns.
This goes both for established and previously unpublished authors. In particular, some emerging writers, disgruntled that the major publishing houses don’t want to take a punt on them, or want something different than they are writing, are doing their own digital publishing.
But many would argue that new authors who upload their own work miss out on an important apprenticeship where publishers definitely add value, via the editing process.
Second, consider creative control. Pullman’s collaboration with Enhanced Editions in 2010 was one of its early projects.
The group’s very first ebook adaption was an inspired collaboration with Nick Cave on his novel The Death of Bunny Munro. Cave, a brilliant, versatile, enduring musician, jumped at the chance to compose a soundtrack to accompany his enhanced ebook.
Choosing Cave was pure seduction in marketing terms – he’s a highly creative, charismatic individual. Watching him on screen, hearing his score, listening to him talk, we readers find ourselves wondering how much of Cave’s capacity for being fascinating and subversive is inside his character, Bunny.
Opening an enhanced ebook, seeing the author − Cave or Pullman or perhaps Suzanne Collins − watching them discuss their books, learning about the ideas that inspired them and the things they hoped to achieve, we the audience feel we’re in the privileged position of seeing the artist at work, the puppeteer bringing their creations to life.
We feel we’re getting to know the writer, achieving a rare and exciting glimpse inside their lives and minds.
Then it struck me that perhaps this is what Pullman was getting at, when he spoke of the author taking back some control. In general, authors often seem shy, introverted individuals, who don’t get out much because they are sitting quietly at a desk, getting on with the writing.
But via the medium of an enhanced ebook, the author, the creator, in our minds becomes central to the work. By contributing to the development of the ‘evolved’ product, by discussing the ideas that underpin it, they continue to set the agenda – on how their book is discussed, how it’s promoted and perceived.
It’s as though we hear the forgotten people begin shuffling to centre stage.
But will ebooks, and in particular, enhanced ebooks, survive? Will they bring publishers a decent return on investment? Standard ebooks will probably earn publishers more, as printing costs are avoided. However, digital marketing is a new ballgame that the publishers must learn.
The enhanced ebook is a different proposition. A much discussed project was the YA ebook Penguin commissioned called ‘Chopsticks’, which came out in February 2012. It contains video, photographs, music, and messaging, but almost no conventional text. These embedded features can’t come cheaply, and the pilot project reportedly caused its development team many headaches over issues including copyright.
As the Wall Street Journal said in January 2012: ‘Technology is evolving so quickly that a few months from now, new multimedia books may make current titles look like clunky prototypes’. Sadly, trailblazer Enhanced Editions didn’t survive the evolution − the company reportedly folded in mid 2012.
Though publishing is an industry steeped in tradition and enhanced ebooks are still in their infancy, questions are already being raised about whether text with built-in bells and whistles will encourage or discourage deeper engagement in readers.
A preliminary study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre (which exists to ‘advance children’s learning in a digital age’) suggests not.
The Cooney Centre reported the results of a small-sample ‘QuickStudy’ on 29 May 2012. It studied 32 parent-and-child reading pairs, with the kids aged between three and six. Half the pairs read a standard print book and ebook, while the others read a print book and enhanced ebook.
The study found that:
- the children who read the enhanced ebooks “remembered significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.”
- during the co-reading exercise, the print books were better for building literacy skills, whereas the ebooks (particularly the enhanced ebooks) were better for getting children’s attention and prompting physical interaction.
But the genie is out of the bottle. Though traditional forces in the publishing industry may have delayed the books evolution, Philip Pullman’s runaway train is gathering momentum.
The author’s ongoing involvement in the development of enhanced ebooks will also help ensure that this medium does not interfere too strongly with that vital ingredient − the reader’s own imagination.
In their future collaborations, writers will fight to protect that magical thing that happens to us when reading. American novelist Robert Olen Butler has called it “the cinema of the mind,” and its preservation is vital to readers as well as writers.