Indie News Beat: Is this really the future of storytelling?

If we are to believe the forecasts, the future of books and storytelling is inextricably linked to the increasing inter-connectivity of our world. A future beckons in which it will be bad manners to read a book alone, without sharing every character, every plot twist, and every page with your friends, your family, and that odd-looking homeless person on whom you took pity and to whom you gave your small change on the way home from the office. It all sounds perfectly hideous to me, but that’s what the experts say is going to happen.

In the kind of news story that makes me consider a lobotomy to be a prudent, forward-looking lifestyle choice, CBCNews in Canada claims that ‘Social reading is the next phase of e-book revolution’. The article is bookended with misplaced references to Al Jolson and, inevitably, Guttenberg, and after a few figures on the growth of the e-book market in Canada, we are introduced to Bob Stein, who is a ‘digital pioneer’.

Stein heads up the Institute for the Future of the Book, and previously came up with the idea of adding commentary to DVD films. He’s now working on a new app called ‘Socialbook’, which the article explains is like a chat-room discussion thread, but on steroids. Socialbook will “let all your friends in your personal digital network know what you’re reading and invite them into the conversation.” Interesting idea, that: to have a conversation while you’re reading.

But it doesn’t stop there. Socialbook will put participants right in the book, where they’ll be able to pull out quotes, scribble notes in the margins, and even – get this – rearrange the text. I wonder if Stein has any future projects lined up where viewers will be able to edit the film they’re watching, or where the listener will be free to change the notes in a piece of music? Discussing the merits of any work of art with your friends is one thing, but treating the work of art as some kind of flexible play-dough – especially if its creator did not intend that – is quite another.

The article continues with opinions and quotes to support the immodest notion that the structure of reading stories, which has been in place for the last 500 years, is about to be “blown away”. I do realise that the people who come up with these ideas need to hit the hyperbole hard to get attention, but sometimes just the tiniest bit of circumspection really wouldn’t be amiss.

In any case, the CBCNews article avoids the elephant in the room as much as the second article I’ve got for you this week. In a rant by Jani Patokallio, we get no closer to the real issue that is at the root of all this upheaval: whether or not books should be free. Patokallio demolishes the reasons for the EPUB format comprehensively enough, but on the condition that we see all traditional publishers as the most venal sharks, and on the assumption that authors are happy to give their work away for free. This second article goes into more depth on formats and types of code, but also steers clear of the key issue.

If content is free, then of course it doesn’t need to be protected against “unauthorised” copying. But there are different types of content. On websites like Indies Unlimited, you have stacks of quality writing available for free, with no more than an unobtrusive “donate” button. But this is substantially different from an author allowing their book to be downloaded free. For example, most authors using the KDP system do so to build a readership, it’s fair to assume, who may purchase further books in the future. Patokallio’s claim that requiring readers to pay a modest sum for a book is an “inconvenience” misses the point entirely, that content creators should be able to charge money for their work if they wish.

Ultimately, the creator of any work should have the right to decide whether they will give it away for free, without being regarded as a shark if they choose not to. Being forced by technology or by social pressure to reduce the value of thousands of hours of creativity and hard work to a fiscal ‘0’ is not progress.

Author: Chris James

Chris James is an English author who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He has published three full-length science fiction novels and is currently writing a series of short story volumes inspired by characters in songs from the rock band Genesis. For more information, please visit his website or Amazon author page.

21 thoughts on “Indie News Beat: Is this really the future of storytelling?”

  1. Not unlike “click here if you want Agatha to die in the next chapter” or “click here if you want Agatha to live and marry John.” Reader-centric plotting.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Timothy. Thing is, that sort of “reader decides” structure pulls me right of the story. Mind you, I’m over 40 so I’m generally not keen on new things…

  2. Good post, Chris.

    I think one of the most interesting facts to come out of the indie author revolution — for readers who are paying attention — is that the publishing business has been run, for years, the same way the music business used to be run: with the bureaucrats getting the lion’s share of the money and the artists getting a pittance.

    As for Socialbook — how am I supposed to be able to concentrate on reading if somebody’s always interrupting me? Really, people ought to think this stuff through…

    1. Things always evolve to some degree, I suppose. I have 2 teens in the house and a lot of their entertainment has been interactive. Yes, they can (thankfully) sit down and read a book, but I’m not altogether sure their kids will in 15 years’ time.

  3. Chris, really glad you focused on this subject. I am ashamed to admit that I read both those articles myself and couldn’t make heads or tails out of them. 🙁

    Your phrase” treating the work of art as some kind of flexible play-dough” sticks with me (no pun intended). It feels like the written word is continually being given the short shrift: de-valued and neglected to the also ran category.

    Then again, could just be my mood.

    Excellent post, Chris.

    1. I like the pun 🙂

      But yes, I agree with you. People don’t go around changing films or pieces of music – but words that up stories are fair game? I don’t think so!

  4. Social reading sounds hideous to me. How do you get lost in a book if you’re in a crowd of readers? And I can’t believe this whole ‘give content away’ argument is still going on. Sure, yes, it’s great to provide some content for free, but not an entire book that has years of work into it (not to mention the years of work to learn the craft of writing).

  5. I maybeboring and fepetitive here but I agree with the above comments. Reading is a haven of refuge for me. You must not disturb me if I am reading. Hubby learned that a long time ago.
    Top post Chris. Some days I feel like this whole social media thing is getting out of hand.

    1. Thank you, Carol. You’re never boring, because even when you’re repetitive you’re also funny, charming, and an excellent judge of blog posts 🙂

  6. I get the social reading thing. I read on a Kindle and share cool quotes on twiter and facebook while I read. I also get that it can be beneficial to give away some of your writing to help your discoverability.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jen. I totally get that – but how far would you go with it? For example, say you could have a “chat” window open as you and a friend both read the same book at the same time. Maybe people would like that?

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