Will Technology Drive Readers to Demand More?

It rarely happens, but this year, I had the opportunity to go somewhere nice on vacation. Not only was it somewhere nice, but it was on a river cruise, a “cozy” setting where I had a week to get up close and personal with 140 people, pretty much all of whom had disposable income, at least one variety of electronic reading device, and no shyness about whipping out their TBR lists.

Really, authors. Stop salivating. It’s unbecoming. And you’ll short out your electronic reading devices.

Okay, I sold a few books. But during the week, I had a lot of chances to talk to readers. Not like at the usual events, where I’m reading and signing, answering questions, having the briefest of exchanges. But really talk to them about what they read, why, and how technology is changing their experiences.

“I’m disappointed in e-books,” one gentleman told me at dinner.

Yay, I thought, another discussion about formatting issues. Typos. Grammar. Price gouging. Once again I will have to defend the entire indie author movement because a few of us haven’t gotten the memo that when someone is paying for an experience that will last longer than it takes to down an espresso, they’d rather it not be riddled with the most basic of errors.

I waited for him to start.

“I thought they’d be more…advanced than they are now,” he said. “Given the current capabilities of technology.”

This got my attention. He went on. “I want to choose which character tells the story. Say you have an event, and it’s different depending on who’s describing it. I don’t see why we can’t choose the point of view.”

Oh, boy. Okay, I had several options here. One: a long and tiresome defense of the value of experiencing a creative work the way the creator intended it to be experienced. Two: excuse myself to the ladies’ room and never return. Three: consider his request and speculate on how it could be realized.

The ladies’ room was occupied. I hadn’t had enough wine for option one. I signaled the waiter to refill my glass and mentally waded into option three.

Why can’t that be done, really? On a web site, it would be simple. Maybe have a core page where the event is laid out through omniscient narration (although how can that truly be an objective accounting), with links coming off it for subpages in each character’s perspective. But is this reading? Is this truly even a novel anymore? Just because Jennifer Egan created a chapter of A Visit from the Goon Squad as a PowerPoint presentation (which, to my disappointment, wasn’t really a true PowerPoint presentation in the e-book), just because some books allow you to choose your own ending, do we have to follow Alice down this rabbit hole?

Should we give the readers what they want, what technology can bear?

Before you start flaming me about artistic vision and integrity, aren’t we to some extent catering to the reader already? Not too many years ago, graceful, lovely hard-bound editions were crafted, meant to last for generations. This treatment led a sense of seriousness to the work. It was how the book’s creators meant it to be enjoyed: as a full, sensual experience. Then readers tired of giant tomes breaking their noses when they fell asleep reading in bed. Coincidentally, new technology became available that prevented this medical malady. Lo and behold, authors made e-books. Technology (and the opportunity to make more money) drove the creation of more and better e-readers. And we adapted our books to fit them. We gave up the rigid control of the print media and let authors choose their own fonts, their own sizes. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an old-time book designer. Font design and choice were about more than just a pretty face. A novel that takes place in medieval Bavaria does not have the same flavor when set in Courier or Times New Roman. It still does not feel right to me to read War and Peace on my Kindle. Also, like everything in our culture, genres and writing styles cycle in and out of favor. Attention spans shorten; we tighten our writing. Prologues are in. Prologues are out. Happy endings are in. Happy endings are out. (Insert your own happy ending joke here; I’m tired.) Humor sells. Vampires sell. We’re done with vampires. Chick lit is dead. The novel is dead. Whatever. Most of us don’t write to suit a fickle marketplace, but we are influenced somewhat by what people want to read, don’t want to read, or how they want to read it.

Which brings me back to the question I always ask of technology: Just because something can be done, should it? If readers, wanting the next innovation, crave a more interactive experience with a work of fiction, should it be available? Okay. Done well, that could be interesting.

But what if they want to make their own covers, choose the name, sex, ethnicity of the protagonist? My answer: write your own damned book. I’m going to the emergency room. War and Peace just broke my nose. Again.


This post appeared previously on Indies Unlimited.

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