Frankenstein

I nearly didn’t take a look at the new interactive Frankenstein novel, despite the good press it has been getting. It was described as short chunks of text followed by branching choices that change the story, so I assumed that it was another ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.

There’s nothing wrong with a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, of course. I used to love them as a kid. But their basic model has the reader making decisions for the protaganist, who essentially becomes an avatar for the reader during some form of quest, and that is a model which can be done better in videogames than in prose. It’s not the future of the novel.

What Frankenstein does is much cleverer, however. Here’s the promo vid:

Dave Morris’ retelling of Mary Shelley’s story is great. It moves the story a few decades earlier in order to use our hindsight about the French Revolution, which is ripe with the themes of horror and rebirth. The Hollywood imagery of castles and lightning are stepped over, and it is thankfully much less interested than Mary Shelley in long, long digressions about just how fantastic mountains are. Frankenstein is a story where it easy to go horribly wrong with the tone – just ask Kenneth Branagh – but there are no misteps here.  That’s not our primary interest here, though.  What’s interesting is how this is different to a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.

In a linear 1st person novel, the book’s narrator talks at the reader and the reader’s role is that of an observer or an audience. That’s also the case here, but instead of being an observer, the reader’s choices create a conversation with the narrator. The conversation is well done, flowing naturally and somehow avoiding skipping over key backstory or plot points.

So what is your role, as the reader, in this? You are not physically present, and you converse only with the narrator. You only have a minor impact on the events. What you have become, in actuality, is best described as the narrator’s conscience. Your role is to react to the narrator’s actions, and to challenge them to justify themselves. And this is why the Frankenstein app is so significant – it’s a first person prose narrative which has shifted the reader’s role from ‘observer’ to ‘conscience’.

And this new role is a hell of a perspective to experience the story of Frankenstein from. Being the conscience of Victor Frankenstein as his mind cracks under the realiastion of what he has done is quite an experience, as is being the conscience of the monster itself after the narrator changes, and you escape the laboratory and discover the streets of Paris.

True, when the book switches to using the monster as a narrator, it switches back to the 2nd person (“you can see a house”, etc) and becomes more of a traditional Choose Your Own Adventure, with your choices ‘controlling’ the monster more than arguing with it. This does make some sense in context, however, with the newly-hatched creature not initially having the mental faculties to justify itself to you.

When I started this blog, I was looking to see if the experimental melding of narrative and interactivity would produce something that was more than the sum of its parts. There’s been many examples that have been interesting or promising, but overall it was not looking good. I had originally described these emerging book apps as an ‘unwanted Frankenstein media,’ so it is a pleasing coincidence that it is the Frankenstein book app where the potential of this new form finally comes to life.

I think what they’ve done here is, in the future, going to be remembered as very significant. I’d recommend that all writers of fiction have a good look at the monster Dave Morris has created.

Frankenstein was written by Dave Morris, developed by inkle and published by Profile Books. It (currently) costs £2.99 from the App Store. (Long-term followers of this blog will note that it is another example of a book app appearing in the App Store rather than the iBooks Store, and another example of a developer hoovering up a classic, out of copyright character rather than creating something new.)

First thoughts on the Kindle Tablet.

The first concrete reports about the long-rumoured Amazon Kindle Tablet have surfaced – MG Siegler’s post on Techcrunch is particularly informative, and there’s another good Techcrunch post that I’ve nicked this mockup from.  But in short, its smaller and lighter than an iPad, doesn’t have a camera, and is half the price at $250. It will be available before Christmas (in the US at least) and it will, I think, be a very big deal.

Initial comments are focusing on the relatively low specs compared to other tablets, and the decision to branch Android so completely that it’s almost like a different OS. There’ll be no access to Google’s Android marketplace at all.  Everything, including the app market, will be Amazon.

This, though, is why I think it will be massive.  Amazon’s strengths are the trust they have with their customers and their understanding of the importance of pricing. As much as I wish that the standard for ebooks had become non-DRM epubs that could be produced and sold by anyone, the sad fact is that Amazon won that battle. The only ebooks that sell in significant quantities are Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format, and they can only be sold by Amazon.

Now – if this different Android OS does mean creating different apps for different Android tablets, I think those who make tablet book apps will code for Amazon first. A ‘Google marketplace flavour’ conversion will be viewed as optional, and dependent on cost. (Apple will still do everything it can, I think it is safe to say, to make the production of separate Android and iOS apps as awkward as possible.)

Why do I think this?  Well, it’s Amazon.  Amazon are very easy to underestimate, as those who dismissed the Kindle will know. Amazon started a war with the publishing industry, and it won.  True, the publishing industry failed to turn up, or even notice, but that doesn’t change what happened.  And what happened is very instructive.

Once upon a time, publishers were the gate keepers between readers and authors, and all was well with the world.  All authors had to do was write.  The publishers took care of selection, distribution, marketing, editing, proofing, design and production, and this justified their position and their long lunches.  Publishing had a high barrier to entry, so things looked secure.  In time, publishers gradually pushed much of the marketing responsibility onto authors, meaning that they had to both write and establish themselves as some form of ‘brand’, but things still looked secure for publishers.

Then came Amazon, undercutting the high street and giving the reader all the ‘long tail’ titles they couldn’t find in shops. This initially seemed great for publishers, but the cost was the collapse of much of their distribution chain when the high street book shops started to disappear. And then came Kindle, which removed the problem of production and let the market handle the tricky ‘selection’ part of publishing.  What, then, had publishers to offer in order to justify their role as middle men and gatekeepers?  All that remained of that original list was proofing and design, and those could easily be outsourced to independent illustrators and editors.  Suddenly, all publishers had to offer was credibility, and not all writers needed that. Then, and only then, Amazon began relationships with authors and stated to publish themselves.

Publishers are now adapting like crazy. They still have a future, of course, but even the most optimistic will admit that their future will be very different to their past.

And how did Amazon win this silent war?  Because of their relationship with the customers, and their understanding of the importance of price. Time and time again they gave us punters what we wanted, cheaper than anywhere else, quickly and without fuss. They earnt our trust, to the extent that ‘looking on Amazon’ is something that now automatically follows the emergence of the thought in our heads that we’d quite like to buy a book.

How will the market for tablet books change now that Amazon are joining in? It is easy to imagine examples where Amazon would behave differently to Apple.  Consider Apple’s announcement that they’d be taking 30% of the price of in-app purchases, for example.  We don’t know what Amazon will do here, but if they don’t help themselves to such a chunk, or if they take significantly less, then all the extra magazines, comics and other content sold in-app will be noticeably cheaper on Amazon than on Apple.

Consider also the messy way that most (but not all) Apple tablet books are sold as apps rather than iBooks. Will Amazon find a more elegant way to organise everything, and help us find them in its store?  We’re just guessing at this stage, but past performance suggests that they’ll do better than the mess that is iTunes.  Amazon know how to help us shop.

Apple, of course, have a powerful glamour – in both the modern and the occult meanings of that world.  It did look like they had the tablet book market sewn up, and that all tablet books would need to be coded for iOS.  But given a Kindle tablet at $250, we now have a genuine competitor.  With Apple and Amazon being the type of companies that they are, is that a good thing?  Only time will tell, but until then, I for one welcome our new Amazonian overlords.

What are ‘Tablet Books’?

Lady With iPadOn starting this blog, I suddenly realised that there wasn’t actually a name for what I would be talking about.

Or rather, there were many names.  Enhanced ebooks.  Animated Books.  Interactive Books.  iStories.  Book Apps.  Different examples tended to have different names, ones that worked okay for themselves but didn’t quite stretch to cover all of what I wanted to talk about.

So after a bit of thought I decided on the term ‘Tablet Books’, and this is what I’ll use for the purpose of this blog.  I’ll try and define exactly what I mean by tablet books.

I am not talking about ebooks, such as those that you’d read on a Kindle.  Ebooks are basically books in a more convenient form. The experience of reading an ebook is essentially the same – or at least, it should be – as reading a paper book.  A tablet book, on the other hand, is or should be a different experience, in the same way that a comic is a different experience to prose book because it involves both the literary and visual parts of the brain.

So, the experience is different. But if these things are to have a future, the experience also needs to be better.

But when I say ‘tablet books’, I am talking about a form related to books, to long-form prose narrative, rather than games or toys.  There will be much cross-pollination between books, games and toys, of course, and we’ll probably think a lot about that.  But games and toys are quite happy to remain games and toys; it is books that are having a bit of an identity crisis and that is our focus here.

And finally, when I say ‘tablet’ it is because that is what they will experienced on.  These things are too media-rich for e-ink readers such as the Kindle. They may include video, animation, interactive programmes and Internet links.  They can be read on normal PCs and laptops, sure, but the issues of portability and even the time for booting up make touch tablets like the iPad far more suitable.  They will exist on smartphones as well, but we’ll consider them mini-tablets with tiny screens.

Currently, tablets like the iPad are expensive, luxury items.  Where I live, in Brighton, you sometimes see toddlers playing with them as they are pushed along in buggies.  This, of course, is far from the norm.  However my belief is they will gradually become more and more commonplace, just in the way that mobile phones went from stockbroker status symbols in the 80s to the cheap ubiquitous necessities of today. This belief is based in part on the sheer addictiveness of the buggers, and the difference the touch interface makes to the Internet experience.

The question, I guess, is whether those growing up with these addictive tablets will have the same love of long-form prose narratives, and whether the evolution of tablet books will be sufficient to keep the form healthy and important.

So then – Tablet Books.  Admitedly I’m not aware of anyone else using that term, and Googling for it does tend to take you to the book review section of Catholic newspaper The Tablet. Still, I’ll stick with it – unless you know of a better name?

(Creative Commons image by CEA)