Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The future of eBooks - writing as well as reading them

There's a big debate going on about eBooks and whether they will ever replace the paper kind. Personally, I hope not. I believe both have their place, but for me, nothing can ever match the feel, smell and taste (yes, I chew their corners sometimes...) of a new book.

But that's not my subject for today. I'm a writer as well as a reader, and the writer in me leaps with excitement at the opportunities that eBooks afford. For example - there's no reason I can't write a book that works a bit like one of those computer games where the player decides which path to go down next. The book could change depending on what choices the reader makes. Or not... it could stay exactly the same, but be designed so that the reader will have a different experience depending on which route she takes through it. Now this doesn't have to be restricted to children's books or even 'fun' books for adults - it could apply to serious works of literature and even - let me just pause to bate my breath - to literary fiction.

There's a precedent for this. Back in the 1960s, a British author called B. S. Johnson - a respected writer of his day - experimented with a novel, The Unfortunates, that was published as a bundle of chapters in a box. Chapter 1 was to be read first, but after that it was entirely up to the reader which order to take. In at least one of Johnson's other novels, holes were placed in the pages to allow later bits of text to show through. At the time, he was regarded as somewhat eccentric and his ideas didn't really take off. He was in some ways, I suppose, ahead of his time. It's a pity, because his writing is exceptionally good and he deserves to be better known today.

But perhaps his day has come. If Bryan Johnson were writing now, I'd like to think he'd be excited by this new technology that would allow him to experiment with literary form (though perhaps he'd be way ahead of us again, despising anything that others are already doing?)

I'm not trying to compare myself to B. S. Johnson (I wish!), but I'm currently working on my first science fiction novel for adults. Without talking away the story, I'll just say that it has two strands, one in 2031 and one in 2222, and my aim is for the two strands to intertwine in any way the reader wishes. To some extent this captures the themes of the book, which touches on the nature of time, consciousness and the nature of reality (I know, a bit ambitious, but these are pet obsessions of mine...). The challenge now is to write it so that it makes sense whatever way the strands are interwined - a different sense in each case.

Will I succeed? Who knows, but it's exciting to try, and what joy to live in an age where eReaders make such things possible. New technology is opening up possibilities for authors that were undreamed of 40 years ago. And if a conventional publisher isn't interested, I can always go ahead and produce my own eBooks.

I haven't touched on all the other opportunities, such as apps, web-based enhancements in various media such as music, video and pictures, and interaction with the reader. The obvious application is for kids, but one day perhaps the Martin Amises of this world (or their descendants) will be working this way, too. After all, Martin Amis wrote a book, Time's Arrow, that happened backwards, and so he in his way is another pioneer of the kind of thing I'm suggesting.

No one has to do things this way, of course. There will always be a place, I believe, for the conventional novel - traditional in both content and form. And perhaps we will try the new stuff, reject it and return to the way of telling stories that has been ours for millennia. Who knows?

Writers and readers - what do you think?

(For more information and a fascinating biography of B. S. Johnson, see Jonathan Coe's Like a Fiery Elephant, 2004, Picador.)