It’s a troubling, even agonizing, question: How will authors who are crafters of text cope with the new era of multimedia e-books? For me, three recent articles brought that question into greater focus:
- Alex Knapp’s Forbes magazine article, Are Apps the Future of Book Publishing?
- Angela Wattercutter’s article on Wired.com, Publishers Hustle to Make E-Books More Immersive
- Anne Murphy Paul’s New York Times article, Your Brain on Fiction
Knapp’s and Wattercutter’s articles cover how publishers are aggressively launching e-books as multimedia apps. Knapp cites three as exemplars of the features of multimedia e-books:
- NAL’s “amplified” edition of Atlas Shrugged, which besides text contains video and audio of Rand, personal letters, original manuscript pages and notes, an illustrated timeline of author’s life and works, and an interactive quiz. The e-book also allows readers to share passages with others.
- The narrated and interactive children’s book The Gift
- The “novel” Chopsticks, which is the most non-linear of the three. It’s not a narrative story, but a collection of newspaper clippings, songs, and other paraphernalia that together paint a picture of a teenaged pianist and the boy next door.
A fourth example, The World of Richelle Mead, is not even a book, but a “free community powered, enhanced e-reading experience.” It’s more of a social media platform by which readers can buy the author’s books and interact with the author and each other.
Knapp quotes producers and authors both pro and con on the value of such e-books. For example, he quotes multimedia e-book producer Ian Karr as saying “Just as there can be stream of consciousness in writing, there can be a ‘stream of literacy’ in reading, where reading one thing lights the fire to start something new. The bottom line is just providing that richer experience.”
On the other hand, author Jay Bell declares “The more I think about it though, the more these ‘enhancements’ are probably too intrusive and will potentially get in the way of the story.”
And multimedia e-book author Andrea J. Buchanan declares in Knapp’s article “First and foremost, I’m a reader . . . So I want an immersive experience. As a writer, I was really conscious of respecting that. I didn’t want to put stuff in there because I could—I wanted to support and enhance the story.”
For instance, secret chapters could be unlocked as a person’s friends read a book. [Gianopoulos] foresees readers using a reddit-like model to up-vote characters or storylines they enjoy, or publishers forming partnerships with Foursquare that could reveal clues to readers who check in at certain locations. “Multimedia is more than a tie-in—done right it becomes a new kind of product entirely, a hybrid of book and film, or Facebook page and TV show, or something no one else has even thought of yet. . .
However, in a powerful argument for the preeminent value of text, Paul’s New York Times article reveals why unadorned prose is such a powerful medium. She reports studies of the effects of reading on brain activity, as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of readers’ brains. The researchers found that reading a text narrative activates not only the language regions of the brain. It also activates sensory-processing regions associated with the description being read. For example, reading descriptions of odors activates the olfactory cortex; and descriptions of textures activates the region that processes touch sensation. Similarly, descriptions of motion or activity stimulate the motor cortex that processes movements such as grasping and running.
Paul also cites fMRI studies showing that the “reading brain” treats scenes of characters interacting as if the reader was experiencing those interactions.
To me, these findings strongly suggest that integrating video, audio and interaction into e-books may not be immersive—keeping the reader engaged in a story. Rather, they might be subversive—distracting readers from the rich internal world that prose can construct within the reader’s mind.
I contend that prose has an “idea density” that video and audio do not. I also believe that prose has an “emotional density” that can be more deeply affecting than that of visual media. My ten-year-old granddaughter’s deep love of reading offers an excellent example of the lure of prose. She becomes so engrossed in text that she reads books while walking and must be guided to avoid lampposts and fellow pedestrians. When I watch her read, I see a young mind totally immersed in the realm of the written word. E-books’ interactivity, sound tracks, and video, it seems to me, would distract from that engagement.
I also worry that interactive children’s books such as The Gift will compromise teaching children to love reading. The interactive process might distract from the warm, intimate environment created when a parent (or grandparent!) reads to a child—an environment that will form a deep-seated enjoyment of reading.
I’m not arguing that multimedia e-books have no place in publishing. The added features of the amplified Atlas Shrugged do not intrude on the prose and offer new pathways for exploring the book’s history. And clearly, video and animation could enhance how-to books and textbooks.
But to repeat the question raised at the beginning of this post, how should authors cope with the issue, some would say specter, of multimedia e-books?
It’s an immediate issue for me, because I’m involved with both fiction and non-fiction projects. One of my science fiction novels is now under consideration by a commercial publisher. And I’m co-authoring a non-fiction book—tentatively titled Mysterious Baby—with my daughter, emergency room pediatrician Dr. Wendy Hunter, on the exotic physiology of infants.
So as a fiction author, should I offer publishers music and sound effects to accompany my book, as produced by the Booktrack service? Should I develop links to videos or background about my characters, the novel’s setting, or the technology it depicts? My current position is that I will ignore creating such content. I will concentrate solely on making the written story as compelling and rich as possible. If the publisher wants multimedia for the e-book version, a rather intense negotiation will ensue.
On the other hand, the Mysterious Baby nonfiction book might represent a stronger case for such multimedia. For example, parents might be greatly relieved by seeing video of a newborn in the throes of harmless-but-scary involuntary jitters called benign myoclonus. It’s no more dangerous than hiccups, and seeing such a video might make it less likely that parents will rush their jittery baby to the emergency room.
But in writing this nonfiction book, I will also ignore the eventuality that it may become a multimedia e-book. Given the cost of such productions, the doubtful profitability of multimedia e-books, and the turmoil of constantly evolving e-book formats and readers, for now I’ll concentrate on writing, thank you very much.