If this were a book I could start at page one. If this were a book there would be print and maybe pictures on paper pages. I could pick it up, carry it to an armchair, flip through it and absently read my way through the beginning, middle and end. But take the book into the electronic realm and things change. At its simplest an e-book layout mimics that of the book, but at its most complex an enhanced e-book includes animations, film, sound, interactive elements, games and links. Plus the reading devices are vastly different (book, e-book reader and tablet).
Yet we still use the word ‘book’ to describe all of these things.
‘We haven’t got the words to talk about [interactive e-books] yet,’ says John Weldon, novelist and lecturer at Victoria University. ‘When the car was invented we called it the horseless carriage. It wasn’t until we came up with the idea of a motor car that we could see it for what it was.’
Weldon has researched ‘the intersection of the digital, the interactive and narrative’ as part of his soon-to-be-complete PhD. He recalls end-of-the-book declarations fuelled by the release of Kindle in 2007 and iPad in 2010. More recently he says those declarations have tapered off. ‘We realised that with these new tools (the e-reader and the tablet) we’ve gone back to a real paginated form,’ says Weldon. While websites have changed substantially over the past 15 years, e-books have not. ‘The page format has proven to be very resilient.’
Publishers have tried to engage readers in interactive reading formats. Enhanced Editions created feature-focused e-books with ‘hours of multimedia extras’. Their writers included Nick Cave and Hilary Mantel. Their publications included video interviews, exclusive author content, audio and sound tracks as well as ‘in app’ newsfeeds. The website still exists (and you can still buy the books) but Enhanced Editions are no longer publishing due to poor sales. Their co-founder, Peter Collingridge attributes this to a flaw in strategy. ‘We were solving a problem that didn’t exist,’ he told the Wall Street Journal. In other words, even though readers can have interactive books, for now at least, they don’t particularly want them.
Spurred on by readers, magazine publishers are also abandoning interactivity. As David Carey, President of Hearst Magazines said (at Mashable’s 2012 Media summit), ‘Most people just want the product itself.’ In the previous year Jim Meigs, Editor-in-Chief of Popular Mechanics said, ‘Despite all of the interactivity, readers were still saying, “We love the articles, we love to read.” Good pictures and text, great storytelling – those are at the heart of the magazine.’
Weldon’s novel Spincycle (2012) is accompanied by two blogs (notetoelf.blogspot.com and hotseat2000.blogspot.com). Readers can visit, comment and email the main character. Weldon says that while some readers have engaged in this interactivity a larger proportion has not. ‘What’s being demonstrated now is that people don’t really want to interact. People are quite happy to read a good story and leave the story on the page rather than chase it somewhere else,’ he says. Even reader comment sections on magazine and news websites have failed to reach their predicted peaks. ‘There’s none of this collaborative writing that people thought would be the cornerstone of the digital book and digital magazine,’ says Weldon. ‘Readers are still responding as if they are readers rather than co contributors. And they’re still treated as readers too.’
Part of our resistance to interactivity in our reading lives is our centuries-old familiarity with books says Weldon. ‘There’s a schema for reading a book and these things become internalised.’ We don’t recognise that we have this schema (i.e. that we open a book, read from left to right, top to bottom etc.) but it enables immersion in the books we read. E-reading requires different schemas (to turn a page we have to click a button, to see our progress we have to look at a percentage bar, to highlight something we have to move a cursor etc.). ‘We’re still learning these [e-book] schemas,’ says Weldon.
I sense that I’m not fully engaged in the e-books I read on my Kindle. I’m not retaining their words as I do print books. Weldon says my lack of schema has caused this, ‘You’re aware that you’re reading on a particular device. You’re aware that you have to keep thinking about what you’re doing. So your brain’s doing that rather than being immersed.’
Immersion can be achieved with e-books, but it requires a familiar schema, and there’s a challenge in maintaining a consistent form for that schema to develop. ‘The book’s been fairly steady in terms of form for 400 years now. Whereas every couple of years our technology becomes obsolete. Plus all the e-book platforms are wedded to proprietary technology,’ says Weldon. As far as e-books go, ‘we haven’t got a singular form and we may never have a singular form. This makes it harder to breed out our resistance to it. There’s a new resistance every time the form changes.’
‘We gave readers all this interactivity and they stopped coming. Now we’ll just give them the story again,’ says Weldon.
For now at least, it seems that most of us are still curled up with the book.
Pepi Ronalds is a Killings columnist. She has been published in Meanjin, Open Manifesto, A List Apart and more. Her blog, Future of Long Form, was an Emerging Blog for the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival. She’s on Twitter and Facebook, and has a website.
Her essay A Public Engagement: The Art of Controversy appears in Issue 15 of Kill Your Darlings.