Science Fiction: In the Future, Will a Book Be A Book, or an App?

Kindle on a shelf

For an unpublished fiction writer, the world of publishing is sort of like Australia. I’d like to visit some day, but it’ll take years to save the money and time off to get there.

So Ken Auletta’s “Publish or Perish,” in the April 26 New Yorker, about the iPad, the Kindle, and the publishing business, read to me like an investigative report on incremental changes in Australian visa policy. I’m interested, but the world the article talks about doesn’t seem immediately relevant to my writing efforts. It doesn’t really matter to me, today, as a writer, whether an e-book costs $9.99 or $14.99. But maybe one day, if I’m lucky, at least some of my livelihood will depend on the outcome of today’s negotiations between publishers and Amazon and Apple. Relationships between authors and publishers and distributors of their work, as well as attitudes toward self-publishing, are very slowly changing, too, and the result may affect how my work gets to the world.

But since I’m in the “creative phase” of producing my novel, the part of the article that interested me most was a paragraph that describes a coming sea change in the way we see books:

In Grandinetti [of Amazon]’s view, book publishers—like executives in other media—are making the same mistake the railroad companies made more than a century ago: thinking they were in the train business rather than the transportation business. To thrive, he believes, publishers have to reimagine the book as multimedia entertainment. David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, says that his company is racing “to embed audio and video and other value-added features in e-books. It could be an author discussing his book, or a clip from a movie that touches on the book’s topic.” The other major publishers are working on similar projects, experimenting with music, video from news clips, and animation. Publishers hope that consumers will be willing to pay more for the added features. The iPad, Rosenthal says, “has opened up the possibility that we are no longer dealing with a static book. You have tremendous possibilities.”

While the “value-added features” Rosenthal describes sound like the special features you find on DVDs—all added to the movie, rather than an integral part of it—the idea of a non-static book could be more than that. People have been speculating for years about how the Internet could transform fiction. Those speculations haven’t amounted to much—yet. But I think devices like the iPad and Kindle could change that. A revolution may not happen super soon, but I plan to be writing fiction for a long time, and I’m intrigued about what the world of fiction might look like in a decade or two.

Will the “multimedia book” become a literary form in and of itself? What will it look like? And will I want to write one?


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