Looking Ahead to Digital Storytelling

Strategic Design for Digital & Print

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Looking Ahead to Digital Storytelling

Illustration concept: reading on tablet

At the start of every year we like to think about what the next 12 months will bring in publishing and technology, especially given the incredible pace of change. This year our reading may go beyond enhanced e-books to exciting new forms created specifically for the digital space.

Enhanced e-books supplement their narratives with multimedia features like video and audio. As more people do their reading on Internet-connected tablets like the iPad and Kindle Fire, enhanced e-books will become a familiar format. And soon readers will be ready to experience e-literature—digital-born works that combine written language, performance, sound and video, games and motion—to create a new kind of storytelling.

People are getting used to reading in the same space they watch movies and play games. According to recent studies, tablets are up by 25 percent as the first choice among e-book readers, while sales of dedicated e-readers like the Kindle and Nook are down.

The reading experience is obviously changing, and publishers, writers and designers are following readers to multimedia platforms. Recent digital “deluxe editions” that incorporate video and audio have included bestselling fiction by Stephen King and Hilary Mantel; non-fiction titles like Katherine Boo’s National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers; and memoirs by entertainers and public figures including Neil Young, Joan Rivers and Donald Rumsfeld. Enhanced e-books present an exciting opportunity, but the cost of producing extra features can be prohibitive—$100,000 or more, closer to production of an independent film than the design of a book—and publishers are still trying to figure out how to make the editions profitable. (In this regard, non-fiction titles may have it easier, as they can incorporate existing elements.)

Screens of Chopsticks novel (app)

Of course, if not smartly integrated with the content, the enhancements of these deluxe digital editions can fall somewhere between the footnotes of a book and the bonus features on a DVD. The best enhanced e-books move in the direction of a new kind of storytelling that is native to the digital form. One fantastic example is Chopsticks, co-created by the writer Jessica Anthony and the book designer Rodrigo Corral. Available both in print and as a digital app for iPad and iPhone, the book is a visual novel for young adults that tells a love story in photos, documents, and other ephemera—everything except text. The print book offers an uncommon reading experience, using images as language. The digital version expands the scope to include videos, songs and instant messages, and readers can shuffle pages to create their own edit of the story. The interactivity and dreamy tone perfectly capture the obsessive nature of youthful romance.

Screens of Silent History app

Another recent e-book uses the uniquely digital format of serial downloads and geo-location as tools of storytelling. Created by Eli Horowitz, the former publisher of McSweeney’s, The Silent History is delivered in daily installments and gradually relates a story about a group of children who cannot speak but possess other powers. The app is synched to a reader’s location; when they’re in the right spot, they can access “Field Reports,” special updates that contribute to the storyline.

Chopsticks and The Silent History come close to e-literature, using multiple media to create an immersive experience. This kind of interactive fiction is not exactly new; its modern history dates back to Will Crowther’s 1976 “Colossal Cave Adventure,” a text-based computer game that built an environment with words. (Other examples can be found in the fascinating Electronic Literature Collection, sponsored by M.I.T.) In a series of articles currently appearing on the Huffington Post, Illya Szilak, author of the multimedia novels Reconstructing Mayakovsky and Queerskins, is looking at the evolution and future possibilities of e-literature, from its roots in computer gaming, experimental film and interactive websites to its potential as a collaborative form created by multiple artists or that incorporates crowdsourced content from readers and writers.

Design’s role in producing these “books” is much the same as it has always been, though obviously a little more complex. Good design helps tell the story, creating a look and feel that guides the reader and lets the writer’s imagination and message come through. We’re currently collaborating with Szilak on an online crowd-authored version of Queerskins, to be launched later this year. Our experience in designing both print and e-books is coming into play as we explore the possibilities of this innovative new art form.

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