The Digital Novel? (Preliminary Thoughts)

First, a status update: the last couple of weeks for me have been a matter of tossing resumes at every inbox that I care to even entertain the thought of accepting it, poking around at various roleplaying groups online, writing a bit of fanfiction (shut up I do okay), poking at the cooling carcass of my novel (original Thoughtscream readers – hi Chris – might still remember it), replaying Persona 4, and jogging a lot.

Also, relistening to Umineko’s story climax themes. Because, holy shit, the art might be terribad, but the music’s definitively epic. Here, have a Youtube link. No, for those of you that haven’t read/played/watched Umineko, that’s not representative art – that’s fanart. Never mind, just enjoy the damned theme already!

Speaking of Umineko, though. Ryukishi07’s work has been sitting like a heavy weight on my subconscious for the last year or so. It’s not the usual sort of visual novel – in fact, it’s far more novel than visual. User interactivity is drastically limited compared to the norm – you’re reading it straight through with no decisions to make. There’s a pretty concrete argument to make that Umineko isn’t a game at all – rather, it would be better to consider it as a light novel on a disc, one given a soundtrack to cue based on where the reader’s currently at.

This is me we’re talking about. If you’ve read my earlier stuff at all, I think you have an idea where my next thought is going:

“…I wonder if you can build a model out of this…”

There’s an ongoing problem with the publishing world, and it is that fewer and fewer people are buying books. Or comics. Or magazines. Or newspapers. I’ve expounded upon this issue extensively in the past. The reasons for this are fairly numerous – oddly though, in comparison to other forms of traditional media meting their own declines, piracy isn’t as large a problem here. Which is not to say that book piracy doesn’t happen – but the “market” for it is a lot smaller than that of music or movies.

To start with, let’s work out some of the reasons for this, and the reasons for the rare exceptions:

1. For most content, especially with nonfiction, self-help, news and review materials, blogs do it faster and for free. It’s hard to beat that – very hard, in fact, given that “free” is often a psychological counterbalance to any considerations of “quality.”

1a. Note that this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to beat blogs as a publisher. Food Network’s cadre of magazines are purportedly still profitable, even in the face of a hundred thousand food blogs of whatever orientation or specialization. In fact, they can be said to be profitable specifically because of these blogs. Namely, Food Network has successfully built up a brand, culture and mainstream presence that 99.99% of blogs can only dream of. One or two blogs might be noteworthy amongst the specialized intelligensia of the cuisine and culinary world – EVERYBODY has heard of Food Network, and everybody wants to cook like Emeril Lagasse.

(foodie’s note: the Emeril on television doesn’t freaking cook like Emeril Lagasse the chef. Raw fuckin’ herbs? Talk to me about “BAM” after you roast that shit – DON’T FUCKING BURN IT EITHER. And ferget about 9/10s of the rest of the lineup.)

1b. You can forget about applying 1a to the future of publishing. It requires a steep, multimillion dollar initial investment and a strong, cutthroat and mercenary team of marketing whizzes. Not that they don’t have their place, but all of my ruminations have been geared towards producing a functional model without violating content integrity.

2. Nobody’s subscribing to story magazines either, even if the content isn’t replicable elsewhere. Often, the content is ONLY available on that specific magazine, in that specific issue. The chances of republication and renewed exposure is damn near zero. Warren Ellis’s been keeping tabs on the industry for the last few years or so, and EVERY new report has been of another handful of percents of subscribers lost.

2a. This may have changed recently with the advent of ebooks – especially, if as rumored, the ebook subscription payoff is pretty big. One wonders if the numbers will stay for this… but note that it’s far less of a hassle to maintain an online subscription.

2b. Based off this, I wonder if it is acceptable to conclude that it isn’t that short stories are no longer culturally relevant, but that it is the medium that’s no longer so? Yes, I know – blasphemous to the extreme to suggest that dead tree pulp is an outmoded medium and paradigm. Hold on, I’m not done.

3. Prior attempts at digital text publishing have had mixed results. Stephen King’s tried it. Gods knows how many newbies’ve tried it. I know there are a few webcomics that are predominately text – I dunno how well they do. Generally, though, I suspect the answer is “…nnnot that great.”

3a. My other suspicion is that the natural platform for ebooks in general have only recently come about. The era of smartphones and commercially viable tablet computers has gone some great lengths to producing a culture of ubiquitous computing, where the nearest internet terminal isn’t at home, isn’t in your laptop bag, isn’t at the net cafe… but in your pocket. Handheld. With a camera and phone capabilities. Or simply a screen you tossed onto the side of the couch.

3b. The key factors here are: multimedia-enabled high-definition screen that’s easily accessed and utilized. We’re not talking major computing power here – merely the ready access of a screen, and a simple and intuitive user interface. It’s far more important that the media is easily accessed than it is to have any level of technical virtuoso.

4. The most fundamental failing of prior attempts at ebooks, however, is in attempting to treat it as if it doesn’t need to be reoriented and structured for digital distribution. Straight up text documents released online are entirely vulnerable to piracy efforts, especially in the form of complete novels. Furthermore, ~100k words are not particularly friendly to the digital reader – most ereaders, for example, have no way to bookmark specific sequences, flip back and forth between sections, or skim. They only don’t sound like vital functions if you’re not much of a reader. Or read much at all. Or both.

5. Slightly less fundamental is the lack of creativity in presentation. Umineko’s “sound novel” method utilizes what is basically a complete novel, arguably unreliant upon but well-supported by its background soundtrack and art (…well, arguable, in case of the art). If you’re going to utilize a digital platform, why not exploit the ease of multimedia additions when you can? You’ll need to be careful to figure out the proper balance of the various medias… but that’s part of why you can’t have a computer write a novel for you.

6. Even more importantly, why should we treat novels as a distinct, single entity? They weren’t always so, and they AREN’T always so. Charles Stross’s Accelerando was originally released as a series of short stories, later stitched together and polished into a novel format. It works pretty darn well – some of it has already aged (go figure), but it remains an entertaining read, whether or not you treat it as a single entity or a series of episodes. Same with Umineko, which is seven “chapters” examining seven facets of one story.

6a. An episodic approach returns us to the days of pulp novels, but perhaps to the industry’s benefit. Time lapse between releases is vastly diminished, audience response is a lot more immediate, and you even have a slight piracy deterrent in developing a reader base eager to get the next sequence as soon as possible. Editorial work is, perversely, unaffected – you end up doing about as much work, just more evenly spread out over time. Unlike strict novels, however, you’re not bound by the paradigms and restrictions of the Borders/B&N/Amazon pseudomonopoly. In fact, the sequential/subscription format is perhaps less risky…

I don’t know if it’s because the idea’s actually any good, or because I have Umineko’s “Rahu Goldenslaughterer” running on Youtube, but I’m feeling that spark of excitement again. That spark that tells me I’ve stumbled upon something Interesting… interesting enough for me to get myself in trouble over. Just outlining my thoughts’ve run me past the 1.4k mark in wordcount – and it’s only an outline.

I will necessarily have to go in-depth on my analysis. As with Dawn of the Golden Witch, I’ll need to make sure I don’t trigger a logic fault with this…

~ by Gonzo Mehum on August 14, 2010.

3 Responses to “The Digital Novel? (Preliminary Thoughts)”

  1. “hi Chris”

    He said my name, now I’m e-famous!

  2. The entire arena of electronic books is an interesting one – one somewhat close to my heart, considering that part of my job actually involves research and development of technologies and pedagogical theories related to interactive, media-rich electronic training books (something I’ve been doing now for 10 years).

    While these certainly aren’t novels – graphic or otherwise – it is something that gives me an interest in the whole electronic publishing of prose from at least a tech perspective, as there are so many ways to do things wrong, and doing it right is very, very hard. This is mostly related to your points 4 and 5, where entirely different thought processes are needed than those used in conventional dead-tree publishing, processes that are able to take advantage of the different technology without, simply put, over-doing it. The features need to be unobtrusive, natural, and intuitive (and many (if not all) of the ideas I’ve seen in the area, including some of the things done in systems like Mag+m have violated one or more of these to some extent) while also utilising the features inherently available in the new platform.

    It is a very deep and complicated subject, as it connects very deeply into the ways that people people thing, behave, and feel when reading, and the experience they want from it.

    But, I look forward to your analysis…

  3. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes. You’ve highlighted some of the significant problems with reading on screens as opposed to books.

    To throw one more thing into your hat, even though I’m sure you’ve considered it already – when talking about e-reading, we frame it terms of the print world – books, magazines, comics, blogs. Do we need a terminology shift, too, so that we get past thinking about discrete, bindable codexes and out into something more fluid, much like RSS feeds allow us to automatically keep tabs on the people and things we like?

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