Writers, Interactivity and Kindles

If you follow the online chatter about Book Apps, you soon notice that it comes largely from tech companies and conference organisers. The voice of publishers can also be heard, occassionally, but writers (and to be specific, writers of non-childrens fiction) are noticeably quiet.
Kindles at The Unquiet Library
Writers, by and large, and not slow to spot opportunities, so I’ve been talking to a lot of them to understand their relative lack of interest in experimenting with this emerging form. What follows is not a representative sample of authors, of course, and I’m about to generalise wildly when I merge all those different conversations into the following statement. That said, the general concern was this:

If they can’t sell what they write on Kindle, then it’s not worth their time writing it.

Or in other words, iPads and Kindle Fires and forthcoming Windows tablets are all well and good, but the Kindle doesn’t support .epub3 so there’s no point playing around with the potential that offers. There was more to it than that, of course –  there was the expected creative concern about the nature of interactive fiction, if not the desire to engage with the problem. There was interest in the idea that some developers may actually have some money which they have yet to burn through. But more prominently, there was a desire for readers, and in particular the hardcore readers who read, buy, and talk about books a lot.

One claim that published and self-published writers alike make is that publishers currently have zero interest in building the careers of writers (which is odd, as this is exactly how publishers will succeed in the future). As a result, even established authors see indie and self publishing forming at least a part of their future. There ia a growing understanding that, despite iPads and Kobo and the like, the only ebooks which actually sell are Kindle. So, if they couldn’t put it out on Kindle and reach the existing, installed base of Kindle ereaders, then it wasn’t for them.

All of which begs the question of what interactivity you can currently bring to a Kindle, and the answer is very little. You can link through to different parts of the text, but you can’t use tracking variables or make decisions about where to go based on the reader’s past choices. Hacking your way around such limitations can allow you to be quite creative, however (and indeed the writer Richard Blandford and myself have worked out a very cunning way to publish his random short story collection The Shuffle on Kindle.)

Another writer who has engaged with these limitations is Caroline Smailes. Her eBook 99 Reasons Why tells the story of troubled 22 year old in the North East (one of those literary characters that stick in your head long after you finish the book). It also offers 11 different endings. When the story reaches its conclusion it presents the reader with a quiz to select the ending that they’ll receive. The quiz aspect is faked on the Kindle by repeating a few pages with different links, giving varying routes through what appears to the reader to just be three simple questions.

The different endings are not just different because of the events that they describe, but they also differ by revealing new facts about the characters, meaning that the whole of the story is changed by the ending that the reader makes – it’s as if some film goers saw a film that reveals Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s dad, whereas others see a film that says Obi Wan is his father. This works thematically because Smailes’ main character is defined by her ignorance about the truth of her life and of her family situation.

The differing endings of 99 Reasons Why is an interesting experiment which I’d highly recommend (it’s well worth the £2.99 price), and one that gained the author a lot of publicity (always a good thing), but it is not something that would necessarily work with other stories.

Why can’t Kindle do anything more advanced? Here’s the thing – it can, but not in the UK. A development kit called Kindle Active Content will allow your Kindle to all the clever stuff you need to produce interactive fictions similar to Frankenstein on the iPad. More importantly, it is back compatible to all but the very first Kindle model, meaning that you could sell these things to the existing installed base of eReaders – the one thing that seemed to be the deal-breaker for all the writers I spoke to.

It’s sounds great, it sounds ideal – but for some reason it is US only. US readers can read/play involved Choose Your Own Adventure-type books, such as Warlock Of Firetop Mountain (ah, that takes me back…)And if it can run something like that, then the possibilities for more narrative-based experiments are pretty huge.

There does not appear to be any announced date or even a commitment to bring Kindle Active Content out to the rest of the world, however. It may well prove to be one of those baffling Amazon decisions, such as their refusal to release the Kindle Fire over here. All of which is a shame, because it is exactly the thing that writers I’ve spoken to are asking for. It is easy to see how something like the Inklewriter system would then be able to work for Kindle.

If Amazon get their act together, then we could see some really groundbeaking stuff start to appear. As seems to be the norm these days, however, the ball’s in Amazon’s court.

8 comments on “Writers, Interactivity and Kindles

  1. Pingback: The Week in Writing and Publushing 26th August 2012 | A Writer's Quest

  2. Amazon keep promising roll-out of Kindle Active Content to Europe, but we’ll see. (I’m hoping they do soon, as I’m currently working on a Kindle version of Frankenstein.)

    The other option, of course, is to spawn a new copy of the entire flowchart at every point where there’s a state change. This works, but can lead to some dauntingly huge files!

    • Wow, your second option, that’s… that’s hardcore.

      Good luck with Kindle Frankensteinn though – I think that could be something of a game changer. Seeing it on Kindle rather than iPad, I think, would help people understand that it is a book and not a game. I think it would be a real eye opener for a lot of people.

      Well, a lot of Americans anyway, unless Amazon have a nice little announcement on Thursday.

  3. The flow-chart-copy thing can be optimised with a bit of guile – last year I made a short story to demonstrate tracking state variables (www.amazon.co.uk/Flaws-ebook/dp/B004VFO8SA). File sizes can get big, but still nothing compared to image/video downloads.

    The form-factor is more of an issue: for touch-screen Kindles links do work; for button-based Kindles there’s a lot of paging through text to be done and it can get nasty to use.

    We could enable all this for inklewriter without too much trouble, if there was demand. But there’s a lot of people betting on the web replacing ePub & mobi in the near future anyway.

    • Hi Jon, yeah interesting, thanks for that.

      It will be interesting to see how these smaller Apple/Amazon/Windows tablets that are being endlessly rumoured work out. In many ways a move away from .mobi etc makes total sense, and you’re dead right about Touch working better than non-touch Kindles. The thing is though, the heavy readers seem fairly wedded to e-ink Kindles and I’m not yet convinced that they’ll switch to multi-purpose tablets for reading. That’s not based on anything concrete, just a hunch. It would certainly be easier if I’m wrong.

      I’d certainly be curious to hear how a Kindle Active Content Frankenstein does, even if it is US-only.

      Have just bought your Flaws ebook, will have a look at it!

  4. As soon as you put a book into app form, it seems that creates a set of unconsidered expectations based on what the medium can rather than should deliver. Much of the feedback that Leo Hartas and I got for our Mirabilis comics app was along the lines of, “Oh, couldn’t you figure out how to have the pages fold over with a rustling paper sound effect?” In fact, the spec we gave our coder emphasized that we didn’t want that. Saddling a new medium with features that are only there to echo earlier media strikes me as not only bad design but also rather twee. It’s like we can’t trust the reader to get immersed in the content, we have to keep patting their hand to reassure them.

    Likewise, one or two Frankenstein reviewers wondered if we’d forgotten to have crackling sparks, juddering text, and monstrous howls. Would those same reviewers feel their enjoyment of reading a novel in print would be enhanced by such effects? (If so, just try reading at a rave!) To me, that kind of feature in a book app is just BS interactivity – it doesn’t enhance the experience, or draw you deeper into the story; it just serves to keep reminding you of the physical act of reading. Inkle’s design for the iOS version of Frankenstein was beautifully clean, yet because it’s an app some people thought it should be bristling with gimmicks. So it’ll be very interesting to see if the Kindle and Epub3 versions are received differently.

  5. Yeah I think that’s exactly it Dave, I think that on Kindle Frankenstein will be seen differently, that people will get that it’s a book.

    Part of this is because the group of people who regulaly buy from the app store and the people who regulaly buy from the Kindle store are different groups (there’s a lot of crossover, of course) and it’s the Kindle store people which IF has to somehow reach if it’s to grow.

    I think Frankenstein will work on Kindle because of how you used the Interactivity. It’s a lot like 3D for films, the temptation is to go to town with it which means that the audience’s awareness is more “I am watching a 3D film” rather than “I am immersed in this thing”. Much of Interactive Fiction is the same, with the interactivity thrust front and centre rather than being used to support the believability of your yarn. When reading Frankenstein that falls back pretty quickly and you to focus on it as a story.

    Sound effects are similar, I think they can work but only when they are suitable ambient and work on a subconscious level. It’s hard to do though.

    BTW, when you first mentioned multiple copies of the flowchart to track variables I though that just sounded nuts, but having now seen Jon’s ‘Flaws’ it clearly does work and appears invisible to the reader. I’m quite impressed by that, I have to say!

  6. It might have been a different matter if I’d used the multiple-copy approach for Frankenstein, though, John. To fully mirror the choices in the app, the overall flowchart would have run to millions of entries!

    Wrt the question of app or ebook as platform, I think a lot of what we’re seeing in book apps is just the return of multimedia. Publishers are having to fling $100,000 at a book to make it stand out in the App Store (according to Touch Press’s estimates, anyway) which is the same as Dorling Kindersley and others were doing 15 years ago. If publishers were willing to do today’s equivalent of The Seventh Guest, they might earn out. With most “enhanced books”, probably not.

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