Will Immersive Reading Save Publishing and Kill the Traditional Novel?

In the digital book world these days most of the talk is about whether the big publishers will survive, and what the relative merits (or demerits) of self-publishing are. But simmering in the background is another issue, one that could affect all fiction writers forever. And that is whether the simple reading experience itself is on the way out.
I’m talking about “immersive reading.” Recently PW reported on Apple’s iBooks Author development initiative. This is a program intended to produce multi-media and interactive reading experiences, primarily for tablet users and the educational market. But its reach is potentially far greater than that. As the story reports:
Since iBooks Author was released, hundreds of books created with the authoring tool are being sold through the iBookstore in a variety of categories, including travel, children’s, cooking, music instruction, gaming strategy, biography, entertainment and other categories. The books are coming from a variety of sources, including big six publishers, self-published authors, small publishers, app developers and TV networks.
Thus, publishers are using iBooks Author to create “an impressive selection of enhanced e-books with everything from photographs, sound, and animation to video footage.”
Meanwhile, Hachette announced it is committing to the EPUB3 format, which allows “greater flexibility in representing enhanced content, including interactive covers, embedded multimedia and interactivity, pop-up screens for end-notes, and melded audio and text, as well as improved navigation of reference content, creating a high-quality digital reading experience.”
A few thoughts here. First, this may be the salvation of the big publishing corporations. Why? Because they are the ones who have the resources to do immersive to the max. They will become like mini-studios, putting together multi-media experiences of all types. Or becoming a content partner with other media companies.
Second, this will be an increasing challenge for indie authors, who may have to become what Hollywood calls “hyphenates,” that is, producers who do more than one thing. Which requires skill sets most writers don’t have and don’t care to learn. They want to tell stories. They don’t want to have to shell out big bucks to get a hyper-enhanced “book” out there. But will they have a choice if they want to make new readers?
The cost of producing a book that can compete in an immersive world is daunting. A new start-up specializing in enhanced books, Orson & Co., is spending 20k on its first app! How can an indie author afford to do anything like that?
Which brings up the third, and perhaps most disquieting issue: what about the future of the plain old novel? As kids grow up fully immersed, will they have the patience for a simple black-on-white book anymore (Joe Hartlaub’s wonderful granddaughter notwithstanding)? Will future generations expect some kind of multi-layered sensory experience?
I was in Best Buy the other day and saw a four-year-old pounding away at an iPad, his little gaming soul oblivious to his mother telling him they had to go. Is this our future audience?
Think about it: how many live, black-and-white TV shows do you watch? We moved from B&W to color, from live to tape, from scripted to reality, from 2-D to 3-D. 
Once immersive reading becomes the norm, at home and in schools, will the very notion of what a book is be changed forever? Will the simple reading of ordinary text go to the elephants’ graveyard?
It’s like when I try to tell young people about great films of the past, and they say they just don’t like black-and-white movies that move so slow. Ahhhh!!!
The buggy whip industry did not disappear overnight. But certainly many a tanner looked at the sputtering fruit of Henry Ford’s assembly line and began to lament the passing of the old ways.
So, novelist and reading friends, I ask you: Will there be any such thing as the simple, traditional novel in fifty years? And if so, who besides the monthly book group at Leisure Village in Boca Raton will read it? 

33 thoughts on “Will Immersive Reading Save Publishing and Kill the Traditional Novel?

  1. To be honest, I’m happy about this development because I hold the (crazy?) notion that books are meant to be enjoyed by readers and give them experiences they could not have in their day-to-day life, not primarily to boost their author’s career. That’s a side-effect, not the purpose.

    If immersive reading blurs the line between fiction and perceived reality even more than the old paper-eye interface, to the effect that stories are perceived almost as own experiences, interactive and perspective-enlarging, then any upsetting effects this may have on the industry are transitory and less relevant.

    That’s my opinion, that we do it for the readers, not for ourselves and to get patted on the back by our peers. If immersive technology reduces the number of second and third rate books in favor of fewer but more extensive experiences of fiction, then I welcome it. It’s a challenge and provocation for writers to exceed their limits in creativity, to work together, or to outshine their competition in getting a contract with a publisher, and I believe without such challenges and hardships, the works of fiction of our generation will not withstand the tests of time.

  2. The first question that enters my mind isn’t whether the traditional novel will be around, but why no one is alarmed at the rapid rate we are becoming inattentive little robots.

    Yet instead of trying to put the brakes on it, we find ways to enhance the problem.

    Maybe it bothers no one else, but it freaks me out.

    BK Jackson

  3. Thanks for the comment, Veronica. The main thing I’m thinking out loud about is the cost factor. Novel writing would no longer be the simplest and cheapest of the arts to produce, which has implications for the indies.

    BK, it’s certainly a question worth contemplating. How will this kind of experience change the way we process information? When the part of our brain used for imagining atrophies because of non-use, what sort of brains will we have?

  4. When I was a teenager, I used to contemplate the change my grandfather, born just before the turn of the century, had witnessed in his lifetime –cars, planes, space travel, food options, media developments. I used to think, as an egocentric youth, we were living at the apex of progress. That was back when computers in my highschool took up an entire room with bulky equipment.

    My point is–deep breath –will the vehicle of reading change? Yes. Already magazines on my Kindle are interactive and print newspapers are almost obsolete. Will we adapt? Sure. Anticipating the “what ifs” are usually way more anxiety producing than the gradual implementation.

  5. What we perceive as reality is a simulation our brains run with a fragment of the total volume of information that hits our senses. Our imagination is such a simulation based on fragments of memory and the possibilities we can derive out of what we already know. I don’t see how changing the medium of delivering these bits our brain uses to create stories and a representation of reality can change the fact that we will—however much our social and biological environment changes—always create simulations, always create and crave fiction.

    This is a very positive thing, IMO. Nothing to run away screaming from.

    As to the cost of self-publishing interactive fiction — indeed, the indies will not match what the big publishers can afford, but the indies will find other ways to transmit their stories, just like they found self-publishing ebooks. This high cost immersive fiction will be the edge for traditional publishing; indies must find a different edge, be creative, not just do whatever traditional publishing does.

  6. Thank you very much for bringing subjects like these up for discussion, Jim. I think it’s terrific to see everyone’s wheels spinning — it’s why we survive and thrive, adaptation.

    I’m not squeamish about changes, I always take them as challenges.
    Things will never be as they were. This is true every day, for every aspect of our lives, and no amount of worrying and fighting against it will change that.

  7. Vero, you bring up a good point about how our brain processes information, but I still feel like we would lose something if all books were multi-media. It’s not just a matter of the vehicle that gives us things to imagine changing, but the amount of information that comes pre-supplied.

    To be clear, I think multi-media books are a wonderful idea and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for books. Options are always a good thing.

    But if that’s the only option available, I am concerned about how we would use our imaginations.

    For example, look at the difference between a movie and a book. Both tell a story, with all the trappings thereof. A movie, however, fills in a lot of information that you personally supply when you read a book. What the characters look like, the weather, what the setting looks like etc. This is neither good or bad, imo, it’s just the differences between the two mediums.

    While the idea of having a book illustrated with characters and a built in soundtrack is appealing, and an experience I would like to have, I don’t want that to become the only option available to me.

    As the reader, I want to fill in the blanks myself. IMO, the author should provide enough description that I get the seed of imagination, and then I fill in the rest.

    Stephan King has an excellent article that describes this process perfectly: Imagery and the Third Eye

    As always, I think it would be best if we can choose the path we think is best for each story. Some books would support the sort of multi-media experience publishers are thinking about. Other stories would be better off if it remained an intimate affair between the words on the page and the reader’s imagination.

  8. Ah, so, if the big 6 will spend–what was it $20K on something that will dazzle and amaze (forget the frigging story, or how good it is), then how much is it for the consumer? Uh, really. If I were to have the choice of a really good e-book at $3/$4, to something around $10. I still prefer the paperback to anything electronic. I’m one of those mule-skinners, I guess.

  9. Have we become such a nation of children that even our novels must have pictures?

    Now, multimedia in a non-fiction book might be an interesting novelty. You always want pictures in those, and possibly links to other relevant places, and a video. But I have several books with links in them, and because the books are 10 years old, the links no longer work. Publishers aren’t thinking about this long term.

    Sure, there can be multimedia books that might as well be blogs. But for longevity, I think the old, paper unfettered story will outlive the rest. As for whether people will read them–well, when books are banned, everyone will read them on the sly.

  10. I had an immediate response on reading this article – which I found fascinating – but my response was pre-empted by Elizabeth Poole, and to an extent Kessie. I can however see how immersive books would lend themselves to biography or non fiction. I am, at the moment, sending out a manuscript on the interwar crime writer, Peter Cheyney, and with it I have contemporary photos and fashion pics – which he was big on. And YES, I would love something more, relevant B movie footage, music fashion etc that the reader could tap into and in this respec enhance the word, not replace it. In fiction however, I fear the Studio would pre-empt, not enhance the imagination.

  11. There will always be change. God knows what reading will look like in fifty years. I hope there will always be books as we know them today as well as what the future might cook up. If I think too much about what might be I’ll freak myself out.

    Jim, you said: “The cost of producing a book that can compete in an immersive world is daunting. A new start-up specializing in enhanced books, Orson & Co., is spending 20k on its first app! How can an indie author afford to do anything like that?”

    That would put most of us out of business but I hope it doesn’t come to that. But if it does I hope that it will be just one choice among many.

  12. I love this discussion! 🙂

    @Elizabeth Pool – great points.

    What I’d add is this:
    When movies were first brought to the public, people thought they’d kill books too. Then computers and games and the internet came along, and people thought they’d forever alter the way we tell stories to the detriment of the book. None of these two things happened. Yes, the way we tell stories has changed (style and structure, etc.), but every single time a new way to deliver a story was invented, it was added to the written word of old, it did not wipe it out and replace it. And it will be the same with multimedia books. As we and our communication technologies continue to evolve, and our audiences change and widen, our means will multiply, not narrow down. There is room for all ways to tell a story, they are not necessarily competing with each other for each and every reader.

  13. The times, they are still a-changin’. This development doesn’t surprise me in the least, nor does it concern me all that much. Several reasons:

    1. Cost: OK, so the cost to produce such a book is high now. If the first ones prove popular, watch for tools to proliferate and costs to come down, some all the way to zero.

    2. The end of the traditional book: not! History shows us too many powerful counter-examples. We can now enjoy recorded music in all sorts of ways on all sorts of media, but the live performance is anything but dead. We can still watch plays and opera in person, despite the advent of movies and television. Print books still comprise 78% of the market, despite the advent of the e-book. (And while buggy-whip-making is now a limited-market craft, tanners now provide their product to luxury car makers!)

    3. Shortening attention spans: I wonder. Gamers will spend hours playing a single game. People still go to live arts and sports performances where they may or may not be able to channel-surf. If an immersive book holds its reader’s attention, is that a bad thing? Is it different from a plain-text book doing so? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just similar to the difference between a special-effects extravaganza and a chick-flick: different stories told different ways. This seems to be generational argument–outsiders vs. insiders, old vs. young–more than anything else.

    Yeah, I get the argument that some aspects of this take away from a reader’s ability to imagine characters, for example, for himself or herself. And yes, it’s true, some current authors won’t have the ability to add those “immersive” plug-ins–or want to. That’s life.

    My bottom lines: No one knows yet whether this new kind of novel will succeed or thrive. Whether it does or not, the traditional novel will die only if we writers hold its funeral.

  14. Fabulous discussion, covering many points that didn’t rise above my knee-jerk reaction of “Noooooooo! Print books forever!”

    The long-term value of a “simple, traditional novel” will make it hard to replace, as Kessie noted. Also, what about experiencing something outside of our noisy world? I read to escape the noise of technology, to step out of my everyday world.

    How can an immersive book deliver that avenue of quiet peace, those moments where the action happens inside our imaginations, unfettered by beeps and blings, visuals and tunes that expose our personal experience to anyone within hearing distance?

    Imagine 50 Shades of Grey as an immersive novel. (Pause for cringing.) Or a deeply moving personal memoir or tightly woven mystery enhanced with multi-media. Surely not every story fits into this model of the future?

  15. Excellent, cutting-edge, thought-provoking post, Jim! Thanks for opening my eyes (and lots of other readers’, I’m sure) to all these innovations on the way.

    I can see great advantages to readers when it comes to nonfiction topics like cooking, gardening, home-improvement, art appreciation, music, etc., but as a fiction reader, I think I’d be annoyed at someone else imposing their imagery on my imagination, just as I almost never like the movie after I’ve read the book – it just doesn’t live up to the richness of my personal experience in that fictive world.

    Great eye-opening, thought-provoking discussions here!

  16. Thank you for a timely post, and a fun discussion.

    As Roseannadanna used to say on Saturday Night Life “It just goes to show you, it’s always something–if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”

    Ironically, I was reading My Life with Mozart today (in a foreign language.) An audio disc with Mozart’s music referred to in the text, accompanied the book. While the music was beautiful, having to play the movements when instructed distracted me from fully engaging in the wonderful writing. Finally, I just read the book without the music. Maybe my aging brain cells need interactive multi-media training.

    Since most of these interactive apps are free, I could write a short story, accompanied by 3D images, music and special effects, skip the written imagery and liberate the reader from having to employ his imagination. However, is it not called making a movie?

  17. If my books were fully interactive, especially if they had special effects people may end up suing me for PTSD after.

    Maybe not a good idea I think.

  18. This may be a hard line to take but with the advent of the e-Reader and self publishing, I’ve read some sketchy writing lately. If the writer no longer has to work as hard at his craft, will he take the easy road – use visual shortcuts?

    And does this make for a lazy reader?

    I for one will be interested in how this pans out. I saw examples of audio in books many years back but that was low-tech and didn’t take well.


  19. Yes, this is a wonderful discussion!

    At Vero:

    Yes, I agree. Multi-media will add to our options as a writer, which can only add to the ways we can tell stories. I’ve mentioned before, now that self publishing is easier to do with better quality, it opens up new ways to tell a story. We can publish short story collections, serial novellas, books that don’t fit the current market guidelines.

    Suddenly the way we can tell a story has increased, and I think multi-media is just another option.

    Personally, I don’t think black and white print books are going away. The market is just expanding.

  20. Elizabeth – exactly. As long as there is demand, there will always be a supply, and hard-copy books will always exist, along with every other means to tell a story that stands the test of time.

    And let’s not forget that a single massive EMP can delete all electronic endeavors of humanity. I trust people’s inherent paranoia about the durability of technology in this respect, to make sure we’ll have hard copies of things to withstand cyber warfare. 😉

  21. I hope and believe there will always be people who read just want to enjoy the written word without distractions.
    Great post and had me thinking on possibilities and the need to keep learning.

  22. I don’t think immersion will kill novels. If it is adopted by the public, it will be more like graphic novels, specialty item or a passion for a portion of the public.

    But if I’m wrong, I’m sure we writers will adapt in surprising ways.

  23. When I was a kid, we called immersion “movies” and “theater.”

    The 4-D (or whatever) “immersion” experience versus the text-only book is a false dichotomy. This is all just playing with technology and marketing rather than actually challenging the reading experience, which is already totally immersive if you’re reading a good book.

  24. I disagree with the premise, “Once immersive reading becomes the norm…”

    I don’t think it will ever be the norm. It will be another option, maybe have a significant portion of the reading pie, but I don’t think it will every replace reading as we know it because if anyone wants to write something with extra stuff then they can create a video instead. Books with extras will always appear inferior to full-blow video, especially to the current generation.

  25. Books will last until people no longer possess the desire, literacy, or imagination to comprehend the written word and visualize the worlds within it.

    When that happens, the demise of the novel will be the least of our worries.

  26. Self-publishing is a menace. It is flooding the world with mediocre writing. My only gauge of quality, all else being equal, or in the absence of other data, is to see who the publisher is. I specifically filter out Amazon or obscure presses I’ve never heard of.

    The next hazard is the pruning of editors. Good writers need editors so they can be better writers. The public needs editors so as to be spared from reading books by mediocre writers who never should have been published. Or the tedium of verbose, meandering content from the good writers, who no longer had the benefit of an editor’s guidance.

    On topic: Immersive reading seems like a distraction to me (Google’s spell checker doesn’t even consider it a bona fide word! “Immersive” is red-lined). I can’t read and listen to music at the same time. If the content of what I’m reading is high quality, I block out the music.

    Another view of immersive reading: Good books allow me to block out train whistles, jet engines and everything else. Reading printed matter is the ultimate immersive experience. The pleasure derived from reading aloud to another person, or vice-versa, is not to be under-estimated either.

  27. As an actor I am troubled by the request I just received from a Producer regarding my tendency to get into character and ad lib a few words to make the conversation less wooden and to keep from drifing to quickly from the dialogues to the inevitable breaks of “she said”. Could this be the tail wagging the dog syndrome? These damn robots are supposed to work for us not tell us what to do. Something is getting out of hand here.

Comments are closed.