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.

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What would a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ mean for mainstream publishers?

Rumours abound this morning that Apple will announce a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ at their media event on Thursday. These are, of course, just rumours, but they have a certain, inevitable ring to them so let’s run with them for a moment.

Such an announcement seems likely to be couched in terms of the academic textbook market, if only to avoid worrying mainstream publishers who are in dire need of pills for their nerves as it is. “First they came for the academic publishers, but I did not speak out because I’m not an academic publisher…”, etc.  But a simple way for anyone to make epub3 rich-content books? How exactly would that impact on mainstream publishing?

To get some perspective on that, think about this:  Are book apps viewed more as ‘apps’ than ‘books’?

Not so long ago, the Kindle was dismissed as a non-starter because physical books had some qualitative aspect that readers needed – the smell of the paper, the sound of the spine cracking on first opening, the visual impact on a bookshelf and so forth. People simply didn’t want e-readers, it was argued, in much the same way that vinyl was inherently special and so would never be replaced by CD or download.

Sony eBook ReaderBut that was then. Now readers buy more ebooks than physical books (from Amazon, at least). It turns out that readers didn’t love books because of their physical properties, but because of what they contained. And with their entire library now smaller and lighter than a paperback, and with books suddenly cheaper, readers suddenly began to love their Kindles in the same way they had previously loved physical books (something I can readily understand – there is a slight pearlescent sheen to the Sony ereader screen that I find most pleasing.) Serious readers now do much, if not most, of their reading on e-ink devices.

But not on the iPad. It’s not as good for reading as the Kindle. The main argument is that reading a computer screen for long periods will hurt your eyes (I held this view for a while, until I realised that I did actually read a computer screen all day, I just hadn’t noticed.) It is also too heavy and it keeps blacking the screen (both due to battery matters), and it’s hard to read in sunlight. Then there is the constant mental nag to check Twitter or some other distraction while you are reading, and the fact that you can never find the damn thing because your kids have been at it. And why put up with that when the Kindle is so good?

So despite (or maybe because of?) the extra things you can do with a backlit LED or LCD screen, a divide has opened up. E-ink readers are the hardware of choice for lengthy reading and tablets and smartphones are more associated with web browsing and apps. Those book apps that do appear, usually confusingly in the app store rather than iBooks, are either enhanced versions of established classics or short form fiction predominantly aimed at children. Book apps are more ‘apps’ than ‘books’. And by and large publishers seem pretty comfortable about this.

But will mainstream fiction remain apart from the social and visual tricks that epub3 offers? Consider, for example, the iPad version of The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman (disclaimer: this is published by the same imprint that published by Tim Leary biography). (Other disclaimer: it is also extremely short, at 14,000 words, which slightly ruins my argument a little… But ignore the length and lets focus on it as a piece of new contemporary fiction, okay?)

The book itself is fabulous. Here’s a promo vid:

The iBooks version and the Kindle version are the same price, but unlike most contemporary fiction the iBooks version actually makes use of the iPad’s screen. It doesn’t do much. But it does something. And that something is just enough to make the iBooks version a better buy than the Kindle version.

You can see what it does if you download the free sample. There’s an animated title page and animated reveals of the first letter of each chapter. And… well that’s it. As I say, it’s not much, but it is nice and it does give the impression that someone has made an effort, that the book is a little bit special. A little visual flourish between chapters works well because it doesn’t interfere with reading but instead acts as a little reward and gives you a sense of progress, much like a cut-scene in a game. And of course, it’s not hard to do – the lovely line drawings were done for the physical edition, and it doesn’t take that much more effort to play about with them in After Effects.

Here, then, is a simple, effective little addition that makes a piece of contemporary fiction more appealing on a backlit screen than an e-ink screen. If more modern novels do this and do it well, then we would see a shift from the novel being viewed as a static string of text, like a .pdf, into something that takes advantage of epub3 or HTML5. The book app could become more ‘book’ than ‘app’.

But we aren’t seeing that – yet. The Tiny Wife aside, traditional publishers are showing little interest in digital beyond kindle ebooks. The companies that are making book apps, meanwhile, behave and think far more like app companies than book companies, both in their culture (they are far more open than publishers) and their products (which are focused on short experiences).

Yet with a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ available, and assuming Apple are reasonable about distribution (a long shot, I know), it’s easy to imagine epub3 versions of contemporary fiction becoming established on the iPad and Kindle Fire (and normal Kindles, if e-ink develops in the way predicted.)

The question is, then, will these enhanced novels come from the regular publishers, or from elsewhere? That, I think, is a question that only publishers can answer.

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.