June 11, 2012
These are tough times for storytelling.
While they’ve proven that brevity is not always the soul of wit, Twitter and Facebook have transformed what it means to communicate. We now write in quick bursts, sometimes completing thoughts, often not, with the goal always of cutting to the chase. No need for nuance or complexity. No reason for meandering twists to add flavor and depth or slow builds that unfold a story rather than eject it.
What hope in this world is there for the great long narrative, such as Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” or even more so, John Hersey’s 31,000-word epic, “Hiroshima,” which sold out the August 31, 1946 New Yorker within hours after the issue hit the street?
Actually, there’s a glimmer of hope, maybe even a glow.
Two relatively new companies actually are trying to make a business of saving long-form non-fiction, a quest that might seem to make as much sense as attempting to apply the rules of grammar to texting. Yet both are convinced that a lot of people still like to settle in for a long read of real-life stories.
Have I got a story for you
One, called Byliner, is taking a more traditional approach, albeit with a touch of social networking and personalized recommendations thrown in. The other, The Atavist, is experimenting with multimedia enhancements, adding video, music and other extras, without, hopefully, distracting the reader from the tale being told.
Byliner launched in San Francisco less than two years ago with a goal of collecting in one place, the best literary non-fiction and narrative journalism out there. It links out to articles on other magazine sites, but also publishes what it calls Byliner Originals–pieces such as author William Vollman’s “Into the Forbidden Zone,” a 20,000-word narrative about life after last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan and Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” which focuses on the myths and deceptions at the heart of Three Cups of Tea, the best-seller by Greg Mortenson. If a story takes off–they sell for $2.99 for download on iPads, Kindles and Nooks–a writer can earn considerably more than he or she could make selling the piece to a magazine.
Because their stories are online, writers can be much more current than in a book, and they can add updates, something rarely done in magazines. Byliner also provides recommendations to visitors based on other stories they’re read and liked–it’s been dubbed “the Pandora of non-fiction writing.” A few months ago, for “making literary nonfiction and journalism hip,” Byliner made it into the Top Ten of Fast Company’s list of most innovative media companies.
Mixing in maps and timelines
But it’s The Atavist, based in Brooklyn, that’s working closer to the cutting edge. It too champions longer nonfiction, but its iPad and iPhone app also invites readers to veer outside the text if it feels the story can be clarified or strengthened by adding video–a story, for instance, titled “Lifted” about a bank heist gone bad in Sweden, starts with security video of the robbers in action–or music or sound effects. Timelines, maps, and background info on the characters are also available, although they’re flagged through subtle gray arrows, the goal being to allow the narrative to flow, with minimal disruptions.
The Atavist publishes one major piece a month and each includes a feature through which you can easily toggle between the text and an audio version read by the author. A story for an iPad costs $2.99 and comes with the bells and whistles. Versions for Kindle and Nook, which are only text, cost $1.99.
But the real revenue engine at The Atavist is a custom-designed content management system that makes it fairly simple to not just create and publish multimedia stories, but also automatically adapts their format to the platforms on which they’re appearing. So the content for an iPhone will be optimized for a smart phone. The same goes for an iPad. And for a Kindle.
That’s potentially a game-changer in the storytelling business and it’s no surprise that the bulk of the Atavist’s revenue comes from licensing its software to other publishers. Later this summer it plans to release a free version to the public that will enable people to start self-publishing their own multimedia books.
And that shiny tool is what makes The Atavist much more than another digital publisher. It undoubtedly was a a big reason the company was able to raise $1.5 million in seed money a few weeks ago. And if you still have doubts about the potential of this venture, consider some of its new investors: Eric Schmidt (Google’s executive chairman), Marc Andreesen (one of Netscape’s founders) and a group called the Founders Fund, which is led by the likes of Peter Thiel (a founder of PayPal) and Sean Parker (co-founder of Napster and the first president of Facebook).
Not bad company to be in. Not bad at all.
Here are other recent takes on how and why we tell stories:
- Your life is a lie, actually many lies: A recent book by Jonathan Gotschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, elaborates on the reasons we tell stories, not the least of which is to bring meaning and order to the chaos of life. Also, as Maura Kelly pointed out in a recent review in The Atlantic, we tend to lie a lot to ourselves as we fine-tune the narratives of our lives.
- Here’s my brain’s story and it’s sticking to it: Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga talks about how research has found that a part of the left brain always wants to explain actions we’ve taken after they’ve occurred, the purpose of which is to turn behavior into a story that makes everything feel coherent.
- A wag of tales: In a fast-paced TED talk, storyteller Joe Sabia uses an iPad to trace the history of storytelling from the first interactive element–the pop-up book–to the re-versioning of Shakespeare on Facebook.
Video bonus: Here’s a little tutorial on how The Atavist tries to wrap extras through the thread of a narrative.
April 12, 2012
In two weeks Frankenstein returns…and this time it’s personal.
At least for you it could be. Mary Shelley’s tale of monstrous obsession and an obsessive monster is being revived as an interactive book, specifically an app for iPads and iPhones. What that means isn’t absolutely clear. But one of the people responsible for reconstituting the novel in digital form, author Dave Morris, says it’s not simply a matter of a reader making choices that change the story. It’s more nuanced than that, he insists.
While a reader of the interactive Frankenstein will make decisions that affect the story, they’re “part of the interaction with the main characters,” says Morris, and not just shifts in the narrative. Explains Morris: “As the plot unfolds, you will develop a personal relationship with the main characters. That’s why we’re describing it as interactive literature–it’s truly a new kind of novel for the digital age.”
That may sound like a lofty description of bells and whistles, but the London publisher, Profile Books, and inkle, the U.K.-based design firm that worked with Morris to interactivate Frankenstein, truly believe this will be a watershed moment in literature, the point at which readers will no longer be satisfied in going along for the ride with a book, but will start to want to brake and steer and maybe look under the hood.
Instant messages as dialogue
Now I’m sure many of you are asking, “Why would I want to work so hard?” Why reconstruct when so much joy can be had reading and imagining? A lot of people in the publishing business would agree with you. But they feel they have no choice. A recent Pew Internet study found that about one out of five Americans now say they’ve read an e-book. Last year U.S. consumers bought more than 48 million iPads, Android tablets or e-readers, twice as many as in 2010.
And even if the large majority of readers are still taking their e-books straight, publishers worry about falling behind the curve, particularly with a generation that embraces storytelling in tweets and IMs and expects lives to come with a mix tape. So Simon & Schuster plans to bring out 60 “enhanced” e-books this year; Penguin says it will release 50.
But “enhanced,” it seems, can cover a lot of ground. With the digital version of Chopsticks a young adult novel published by Penguin in February, “readers” can flip through a photo album, watch video clips, listen to the favorite songs of the book’s characters, see their instant messages. You even can consume the book in shuffle mode–that’s right, you’re able to change the order of content.
Why stop there? Other publishers are looking at ways to make book-reading more social than solitary. For instance, Panio Gianopoulos, co-founder of Backlit Fiction, speaks of a “literary Farmville.” (Now there’s a phrase I thought I’d never see.) That could mean readers voting to flesh out characters and storylines they like or they getting access to secret chapters if they encourage friends to read the book.
“Multimedia is more than a tie-in,” Gianopoulos told Wired in a recent interview. “Done right, it becomes a new type of product entirely, a hybrid of book and film, or Facebook page and TV show, or something no one has even thought of yet.”
Whatever it becomes, it’s likely to feel less and less like a book. Truth is, no one knows how long it will take–if ever–for hybrid storytelling to go mainstream. Many enhanced e-books do have a heavy scent of CD-ROMs, and we know how they turned out.
Writer Laura Miller got to the heart of the matter in a recent piece for Salon.com when she raised the question of whether we can immerse ourselves in a narrative and be interactive at the same time.
“Narrative constructs this alternate reality in your imagination and narrative sustains it,” she wrote. “What matters is not the story on the page–or the screen–but the story in your head. Interactive baubles pull a reader’s attention back to the screen, serving as a reminder of the thing you want to go on forgetting: the fact that all of this is just made up, words on a page.”
Miller, however, does see great potential in reinventing non-fiction books. There our aim is to understand more than imagine and so animations or videos that clarify concepts or illustrate a process really do enhance the experience. Who wouldn’t want a step-by-step video with a cookbook?
Yet no one in the publishing business is sure where all this is headed. They do know that it’s heading there fast and they’re still trying to figure out what works where and how. Or as Ana Maria Allessi, vice president and publisher of HarperMedia puts it: “We’re all still sort of creating radio for TV.”
Video bonus: Here’s the promotional video for the aforementioned Chopsticks. There’s a book in there somewhere.
August 31, 2011
Curl up with your iPad and start reading Gone with the Wind—go with me on this for a minute—and as you visualize Scarlett O’ Hara gliding across the room, you actually can hear the swish of her petticoats.
Or you’re plowing through The Da Vinci Code and suddenly you’re jolted by the two-note whine of Paris police sirens.
As disorienting as it may seem, the experience of reading to a soundtrack took a big leap forward last week with the launch of a new software application called Booktrack. The company, with a U.S. office in New York City, is about to start rolling out versions of e-books that come not only with music but also sound effects synched to the story line—a ticking clock here, a gunshot there and just like that, you’re multi-sensing. Booktrack files currently work on Apple devices and should be available on Android devices soon.
How does the book know when to fire the gun? It reads your mind. Almost. By calculating your reading speed from when you turn the page, it gauges when you’ll reach the word or group of words that trips a sound effect. For slow readers, the background music plays on a loop, idling euphoniously, until you get to one of the trigger words.
To show this isn’t some forever-in-beta bagatelle, Salman Rushdie, the Pulitzer Prize winner himself, was at the Booktrack launch party in New York. His short story “In the South” will be available with a soundtrack this fall. So will Jay McInerney’s “Solace.”
Plenty of classics will be getting the Booktrack treatment, perhaps with the notion that people will give the golden oldies another go if this time they come with music. Coming soon are sound-spiced versions of Huckleberry Finn, Peter Pan, The Three Musketeers, Pride and Prejudice, even Romeo and Juliet. (Hear those swords clanging? )
Let’s face it, though—this is not a product for those for whom a book is an experience in quiet immersion. Most likely Booktrack ultimately will be popular with the generation of people who can read/listen to a book while texting friends, watching “The Office” on Hulu and hacking into the Pentagon.
It’s no accident the first title available on Booktrack is a young adult, science fiction novel, The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore (aka James Frey). iTunes sells the Booktrack version for $12.99 and the ordinary e-book for $9.99.
Actually, a lot of innovative things are happening with sound these days. Here are a few of the latest:
- Pump up the volume: Orange, the French telecom company, has created a T-shirt that builds up enough energy through ambient sound to charge a smart phone. The shirt has sheets of piezoelectric film—the same thing you find in speakers—which can convert sound waves to enough current to charge a phone. The downside: Right now, you’d have to stand along a noisy city street to generate enough juice.
- You again: Apple has applied for a patent for software that would allow your iPhone to recognize your voice.
- Noises off: Researchers in Spain have developed a prototype of an “acoustic cloak” that eliminates noise.
- Talk to the pants: MIT scientists have created plastic fibers that can detect and produce sounds. They can be used to make clothes that act as a microphone.
Video bonus: A little old-school sound show featuring the lyrebird, which not only can mimic other birds, but also new sounds in the jungle, including a camera with a motor drive and strangely enough, a chainsaw.
What book do you think would be better with Booktrack treatment? Personally, I think the pitter-patter of hobbit feet would add a little something to Lord of the Rings.