Is a book just a physical rendition of the creativity it contains, or is it more than that? Is an ebook the same as a physical copy, or can it be more? Traditional publishers have grappled with such questions ever since the digital became personal, but a few pioneering, out-of-the-box ideas have raised some more interesting questions.
The Apple Watch was undoubtedly one of the biggest tech products in 2015; the idea of a personal, interactive watch has been a staple of sci-fi, and when an app called ‘Wear Reader ’ let users read on it, it posed the question: Would you read a 100-word news story on your watch? Or, what if thousand-word stories were delivered to your device every morning, like a newspaper subscription? How short could the short story go?
French publishers Short Édition believe they have an answer: a short story vending machine! Eight such machines in the French town of Grenoble, where readers can choose between one minute-, three minutes- or five minutes-long fiction, sold more than 10,000 stories in just two weeks.
A vending machine is still a physical object, and one can argue it doesn’t solve the question of interactivity digital allows for. This is where the mobile goes one-up. The mobile is an entire digital ecosystem beyond the desktop computer, and perhaps this is what creators of the Mysterious Mr Quin app were thinking: if you have a successful franchise like the Agatha Christie stories, which readers keep going back to, you can create a digital space on your mobile device to go further.
The app, based on Christie’s short tales about the supernatural, has billed itself as the first ‘digital drama’. Users click through characters’ social media walls, feeds and albums to solve a murder, and viewers can comment and take part in the story. Can interaction be the missing link to taking such franchises to an even larger audience?
Traditional publishing has been forced to rethink the way it does business, evident through the new ways publishers are doing business: giving away subway tickets embedded in book covers; a German mobile publisher wants to bring out the ‘YouTube of storytelling’; even one of the holy grails in academic publishing, Cambridge University Press, now has a digital imprint called ‘Elements’, which will publish academic pieces for a ‘digital environment’.
At the same time, Amazon, surprisingly, opened its first physical bookstore in Seattle in 2015. Reviews of the store suggest the store is a physical extension of the site itself, with selections reflecting what’s selling online, and aggregating reader reviews from the site. It remains to be seen whether the digital has also begun going physical, at least in publishing, but Amazon’s move will certainly be watched keenly.
More innovations are surely on their way, changing how we perceive the act of reading. As readers continue to consume more and more data on their personal devices, traditional publishing will have to redefine its outlook to create content that appeals to the digital form factor – across devices, wearables, anywhere that humans can interact with software.