E-book chapter mashups?

image The good folks at Feedbooks are improving their publishing application programming interface (API).

Writers can now “switch to the Table of Contents (ToC) of your book while editing, to drag & drop parts/chapters/sections and re-order them the way that you want.”

Sounds very user-friendly---another online publishing option for potential authors.

But quickly reading the post the first time, I mistakenly thought Feedbooks was going to let the reader perform these in-book mashups.  It got me to thinking: why not?

When a mashup will work

For novels that rely on straightforward linear progression, a mashup probably wouldn’t work.  But not all novels do. The Sound and the Fury, for instance, or David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (available as DRMed Kindlebook). Or imagine a novel written around a cluster of characters.  You, the reader, follow the characters along as they intrigue you, reading the book in an order of your own choosing.  (Note: I’m working on a manuscript along these lines.)

Hard to fathom the amount of technical work that would be required to create such a beast, both in terms of actual writing and e-book API.  It would have to be done very, very well.  The “hypernovels” of the 90s that I’ve seen are dismal failures, no improvement on the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, which at least had the virtue of being entertaining. 

In Pale Fire, a protype for e-book mash-ups?

image The only really good book I can think of written in this way is Nabokov’s masterwork Pale Fire, conceived as a commentary on a 999-line poem. The poet himself has been killed by a man who may or may not have been sent to assassinate the commentator, who may or may not be the mad exiled king of a conquered principality, which may or may not exist. 

You can’t just read this book chapter by chapter.  You have to page back and forth between poem and commentary and index.  The prototype for e-book mash-ups? 

Undoubtedly there are more.  Italo Calvino?  Maybe the original “postmodern” novel, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy?

Possibly this would be a more effective technique for nonfiction.  For instance, allowing a reader to order the chapters in a how-to book as they find them relevant.  Or history books.  For instance, allowing me to get to the good stuff connecting 12th-century Heian-era Kyoto to modern-day Tokyo while skipping over the hackneyed samurai derring-do in between.  Bringing the sort of hop-scotching link-jumping we associate on the internet to e-books, while maintaining a semblance of chapter order. 

Certainly this would be a break from reading tradition, but that’s already happening on the Internet.  (How many hyperlinks have you clicked on so far?)  I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a bad thing to follow your clicks down the rabbit-hole, as long as it doesn’t involve too much time watching skateboarding rabbits. 

I think e-books can be a lot more than just a convenient offshoots of paper books.  E-books with this sort of functionality built in would allow you to zero in on what fascinates you most.  Sort of a hybrid between website and paper book.  The sort of thing that could send e-books in a really radical new direction.

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15 Comments on E-book chapter mashups?

  1. Through the current API writers could already do such mashups. Unlike other platforms, we don’t treat a book as a single document: a book at Feedbooks is a collection of feeds, and each content in the book has its own URI (Unique Resource Identifier).

    This could easily be extended to the reader too: currently, to access the contents of a book you need to be the author. If we allowed anyone to access to these contents as long as the book is published, then through exactly the same API, readers could do such a mash-up.

    Since we have a way to identify each resource in the book, we could support hypertext books in the future, and since we can support other media aside from text in our API, we could also extend our technology to support multimedia/interactive e-books too.

  2. This is a fantastic idea. But how will the authors feel if you start messing around with their time lines? I think the better ones will embrace it, especially those who write character-driven novels. I’d love to reread Rules of Attraction out of sync.

  3. Hadrien, well that sounds fantastic. Are there plans at Feedbooks to begin such mashup possibilities? It sounds like it wouldn’t be nearly as technically difficult to do as I thought. Would this require permission from the author, perhaps a Creative Commons license?

  4. Don’t forget the classic Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar, ingeniously written so the chapters can be read in any order, with two possible reading orders suggested by the author producing two completely different experiences of the novel.

  5. Why won’t reader mashups work?

    Have you read any of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that you linked?

    (OK, so I might be biased because I seemed to die in everyone I read… 😉 )

    Or fan-fiction for that matter.

    I just don’t think you’d end up with something worth reading, unless the reader is a good writer themselves. In which case, why not write their own book.

    The idea is fine, it’s just that looking back on similar ideas from the past, they never seem to work as well in practice as in theory.

  6. I should clarify here: I love the idea that the author has this kind of freedom while editing the book at Feedbooks before publishing.

    So far, Feedbooks really is the best ePub creator I’ve yet found. (aside from hand editing. You can get everything just the way you want it by hand…it’s just a royal pain in the behind and takes forever….)

  7. Nic, I agree: the better authors would likely embrace such readings. Provided their books were set up to handle it, i.e., didn’t rely solely on a linear narrative. But maybe even some of those …

    Yoda47, Oh, man, I read every Choose Your Own Adventure the library had. Loved ’em all. Of course, I was about 10. Never read any fan-fiction. You’re right that it would have to be very well done. And likely it would have to be guided in some manner, as in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. A pure mashup likely wouldn’t work with text. And given the dreary results experimentation has revealed so far, the standard is very high. That’s as it should be.

    Pelirroja, thanks for the suggestion. I’ll look it up.

  8. Court: implementing full support for Creative Commons is on our list of things to do. We could open the access through our API to books where derivative works are allowed.

    Mashing up chapters with our API is a fairly simple process:
    GET the contents of the book (Atom feed)
    GET the chapter (Atom entry)
    POST the chapter to a new book (AtomPub)

    This could be implemented by any third party developer (very quickly, maybe in a day or two). The goal of this API is to allow anyone to create new ways to interact with our service. Right now, we’re working on a script to upload HTML files to our service: http://github.com/zetaben/Html2Feedbooks/tree/master

  9. Dear Court,

    I also wrote an hypertextual novel in 2006, ‘Santos Dumont Número 8’ [SD8]. Although published in paper, it can be read in different ways because it is a fragmented novel [ Maybe some influence of Rayuela, Memorial de Aires [the last novel written by Machado de Assis, the great Brazilian writer], and ‘Pale Fire’ [Brian Boyd has kindly recommended my novel at NABOKV-L].

    Since April, I’m rewriting its story in Twitter: well, it would be better say ‘stories’ because I created 8 profiles and they ‘tell’ the story through their points of view. I’m also integrating these 8 streams with other social networks.

    I was very glad when I read here in Teleread [my daily reading] an article about my project: http://newteleread.com/wordpress/2009/04/08/the-twitterization-of-santos-dumont-numero-8/

    I believe, Court, that social networks are emerging as a new space for the creation of narratives.

    Best regards.

  10. Hadrien, then it’s definitely a simpler technical process than I thought. With full CC licensing, I see a whole range of possibilities … particularly if a book were written with the idea of being mashed-up in mind. Or, written so that there would be a “master” or “original” version, and a whole lot of readable derivatives.

    That’s the key, though. They’d have to be readable, and they’d have to make sense. The onus, it appears, would be on the author to come up with a framework that makes sense.

    Got any ideas on books that might make a good test run with thus, Hadrien?

  11. Hello Claudio, you are certainly right that social networks are one possibility for new narratives. I’ll be very curious to see how your experiement works out, and then the final e-book when it goes up at Smashwords. Particularly I’m interested in the interaction between characters and readers. I see you’ve got around 1300 followers, so it looks like there’s definite potential there. Keep us posted.

  12. Dear Court,

    Since April, @sd8 is ‘alive’ on Twitter, so, I could already answer some of my initial questions.

    First of all, the software used to perform the projet is very important. In my case, I’m using Hootsuite to manage the story flow of 8 profiles [characteres].

    Second, it is very important to exchange ideas with readers and other authors: for example, I have exchanged some ideas with some authors, including Roger Morris (@ rnmorris) who is also publishing his novel ‘The Gentle Axe’ on Twitter.

    Based on the feedback of readers, I also decided to start using Storytlr to arrange the tweets.

    My theoretical base, mainly, comes from the concept of ‘Notatio’ explained by Roland Barthes in La Préparation du roman. This concept has an intersection with the concept of status updates [so, yes, Twitter, Facebook etc can be used for literature].

    But Court, I imagine that the ‘twitterized’ version will be only one of the possible versions of a story.

    I think that a novel, increasingly, may be distributed in various forms and formats, suited to the tastes of the reader. So I also think that online books should be seen as web services, distributed, processable.

    In 2006, I tried to implement on ‘SD8’, the same concept I hear now from Random House that announced Books and Beyond [enhanced ebooks] a few weeks ago.

    ‘Santos Dumont Número 8’ took 3 years to be written. I gathered a lot of interesting research material, more than it was published in the paper book. So, I decided to put this material online.

    I also created two videos: one with the book trailer and the other with the song [Chapter 77 of the original book].

    The book [the story, the narrative] on the Internet, certainly, is more than the text. And the writer is no longer alone.

    Best Regards.

  13. This is interesting, but only in a theoretical sense. Most novelists sequence their chapters tightly and carefully; rearranging them is unlikely to produce a better result…unless another person were able to insert new chapters or scenes…(which would be fun).

    Reordering might work with story collections and episodes. But then again, the author probably has a better sense of which order is optimal.

    Milan Kundera’s books are probably the only ones where rearranging chapters could conceivably be interesting. Even so, I don’t see much value in doing so.

    (That said, I’m currently working on a story project with a loose time structure which conceivably could be read through in several different ways).

    The main benefit from allowing “alternate paths” comes not from creating a new story (narratives are far too brittle for that), but in allowing readers to prepare a subset of the work which edits out the boring/bad/pornographic/religious parts. (And yes, I believe that doing so would be considered a “derivative work.” )I’m not trying to suggest insidious intent here. It would be like: “Don’t read the first three stories; read the fourth and fifth story first and then the war stories at the end. Then if you want to, you can read the other stories, but only for background.” Or “If you just want to read the sexy parts, you can skip the next three chapters”.

    Rearranging shared universe narratives could be interesting. Maybe we could follow the entire Star Wars saga from the point of view of Darth Vader (and his timeline as well). Note that I assume the existence of several texts written by several people. A Rashomon approach (where several people narrated the same events from different perspectives) could work as well.

    Remixing is not really important to me as a writer. Borrowing excepts or settings or characters is much more important. See “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

    One story I wrote at a workshop took a Kafka story and removed one sentence at a time (in a way to give the story a different emphasis). But that only worked because I took an external story and reworked it.

    One thing to keep in mind about books vs. websites is that the Table of Contents is not that important to book readers. You glance at it, then forget about it during your solitary march to the novel’s end. But with hypertext, the table of contents becomes the focal point of the reader’s experience. You are always returning to it.

  14. This is interesting, but only in a theoretical sense. Most novelists sequence their chapters tightly and carefully; rearranging them is unlikely to produce a better result…unless another person were able to insert new chapters or scenes…(which would be fun).

    Reordering might work with story collections and episodes. But then again, the author probably has a better sense of which order is optimal.

    Agreed. Imagine watching the TV show LOST in its actual chronological order… or from the viewpoint of the co-pilot. You are simply going to lose the impact of dramatic reveals and the most effective viewpoints, if you can choose them at random.

  15. Really, there is a better way to look at this. Most Japanese computer games are visual novels, a mix of game, anime, and text. They are a form of choose your own adventure.

    More recently, I played a game called Lone Wolf from Project Aon which is a mix of computer game and choose your own adventure. I think it worked better than the choose your own adventure paperbacks because you couldn’t cheat easily and flip around the book.

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