Iain_Pears_2015A couple of months back, I wrote a piece looking at a number of “interactive” narratives, including Ian Pears’s Arcadia, that were intended to try to evolve literature into something new and digital. Now The Economist has an article looking at Arcadia in its 600-page hardcover print edition and the interactive multi-threaded app. The app features three intertwining narratives and allows readers to experience them in whichever order they like.

There’s not a lot of new information in the Economist piece that wasn’t in the earlier articles I covered. It does round up a batch of other interactive fiction projects and games and discuss them briefly, and suggests that “this is the real future of electronic literature.”

“Arcadia” is all the more noteworthy for the fact that large publishers have largely given up experimenting in this realm. Most have turned away from costly innovations that have not paid off, like enhanced e-books, focusing instead on using digital tools to support the broader reading ecosystem. The Kindle, for its part, has stopped evolving, as the book theorist Craig Mod recently glumly noted. The market for e-readers is so saturated that Waterstones no longer stocks the devices. Publishers prefer to explore new ways to marry print and digital. Melville House has a line of “illuminated” novels with QR codes that lead to extra digital content; Picador published “The Kills” in 2013, a “digital-first” thriller that links to online films from characters’ points of view. FSG’s “The Silent History“, a multi-author 2012 serial story in an app, is marketed now as a print novel. Random House, meanwhile, offers a straightforward series of classic stories for mobile phones called “Storycuts“.

Sometimes it seems as though every where I look, I see authors and publishers complaining that the current state of e-book devices “has stopped evolving,” or words to that effect. They compare it to the early days of movie-making, when people just filmed plays instead of using editing to create narratives. They clamor for some new form of books to move e-books into the twenty-first century.

But do you know who I don’t see clamoring for futuristic interactive digital narratives? Readers. You know, the people who should ideally, theoretically, be buying and consuming whatever the new form of this medium turns out to be? It seems as though readers are perfectly happy with their archaic, staid collections of stationary words on pages, whether those words are ink on paper or liquid crystal under glass. At least, that’s the form of literature that Amazon and other bookstores sell, and they don’t seem to be in any danger of going out of business.

But at least some publishers are in danger of going out of business. So they’re trying all these new things, even augmented reality, in a fit of “if you build it, they will come” enthusiasm. After all, doing something is better than doing nothing, even it’s the wrong thing. It even seems to have affected some of the wrangling around the new EPUB 3 format.

Five and a half years ago, I wrote:

As far as I know, there are not any book-like needs out there that the present form factor does not fulfill. Nobody that I know of looks up from a gripping book, shakes his head sorrowfully, and sighs, “If only this book had a movie embedded in it.”

And it’s still true. Interactive books might be interesting curiosities, but they’re not what readers want. At least, if they do want such things, I’ve never heard about it. And all the writers and publishers in the world talking about how great interactive literature is won’t mean a thing if they can’t convince readers that it’s something they need, too.

Credit for Pearson photo: Here.


  1. I’ve read both the novel (Arcadia) and the app storylines and the novel is better and more interesting because it is highly non-linear, while the app offers a linear path however you want to go about it – another way to put it, when a novel (like Arcadia) follows a few storylines in a few universes interacting in a few places, a large part of the skill of the author is in the way they are intertwined at a given moment, so only enough is revealed about each; in the app you follow a path but lose the simultaneity, so I highly recommend reading the actual novel first (published as an ebook if you so wish) and then use the app for the extra material and/or clarifications if needed.

  2. “If only this book had a movie embedded in it.”

    I’m with you, Chris. Books already have movies embedded in them via the tried and true page-to-brain interface. And lest I come off like some kind of literary Luddite, I’ve been involved with creating ebooks since the late, unlamented Sony Reader of the early 1990s. The more an ebook resembles a book, the more readers adopt it. I love movies, but books are their own medium, and I’m happy to let them be.

  3. We already have interactive digital novels. They’re called games. A CRPG like Mass Effect or Dragon Age; or the Witcher is an immersive interactive experience. It is also a huge project similar to making a movie, if not even more complex.

  4. Absolutely! To publishers: stop trying to push what you want to sell, and start providing what we want to buy. You could begin by digitising your back catalogues, and freeing up all those books that have been in copyright limbo since the 30s. Get that done, then we’ll talk about where to go next.

  5. Chris, you’re exactly right. Readers don’t want interactive ebooks. They want authors to decide how various scenes and narratives are presented to them. It’s a writer’s job to make that interesting.

    This is also a good illustration of how the past can be a good guide to the future. At a time that must have been the early 1960s, when I was in high school, I seem to recall a fad among some for print books that were interactive. That wasn’t hard. Instead of having an app do that, you’d just be prompted to go to different pages to get different flows.

    It bombed horribly, which is why this will bomb too. As another poster noted, when people want interactivity, they go to the infinitely greater interactivity of games.


    Recently, I’ve been getting more and more ticked off at organizations like the International Digital Publishing Forum. It illustrates the adage I heard in engineering school, “Them that know, do. Them that don’t become teachers.” Except that in this case them that know nothing about what digital publishing needs seemed to have joined the committees of the IDPF. The result has been a lot of effort toward something few readers want, multi-media books.

    I do see that the IDPF is (finally) focusing on something that long overdue, better abilities to publish digital books that are as useful as print ones:


    But why has that taken until EPUB 3.0.1 and these many years—even more before these extensions become part of ereaders? Excellent indexes, endnotes, and bibliographic features should already be common. To give but one useful feature. Endnotes should indicate whether they either contain supplemental information worth reading or merely a reference to the source. And why can’t those doing layout specify that between A and B in the text, which is about a Civil War battle, a small icon in the upper right will display a map of the battle. Print books can’t do that. Ebook could be don’t.


    Gutenberg got it right. His first movable-type book, the Gutenberg Bible, displayed all the marvelous beauty of the hand-lettered books. He started movable type with the best of the old technology. We’re 15 years into digital books and most still look like what you’d see on a DOS computer in the mid-1980s—ugly text on an ugly screen Ebook readers lack even the sense to fix windows and orphans or intelligently display graphics.

    — Mike Perry, Inkling Books

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