All posts tagged e-books

Digital lit: How new ways to read mean new ways to write

Globe and Mail
Last updated Monday, Jul. 11, 2011


The Next Day is a graphic novel about people who have attempted suicide. Once it is posted online in September, you’ll be able to click your way through it according to your own preferences about how it should unfold. CityFish is a Web-based short story, about a Nova Scotia girl visiting relatives in New York. Unfurling horizontally, like a scroll, it looks like a scrapbook, full of photographs and short videos of the places it describes. Inanimate Alice is an episodic, interactive, multimedia novel for children that offers text, videos and puzzles as it recounts the adventures of a heroine who becomes a video-game designer.


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The e-book is changing the publishing business, but will digital technology actually change the way we tell stories, the way writers write – for better or for worse?

Some speculate that the move to reading off electronic tablets will force writers into shorter and more direct narratives. Others worry that the rush to add video will turn writers into screenwriters on creative teams that produce novels as a branch of filmmaking, and they wonder if the nifty interactivity of video games can ever be applied to serious writing to create a new digital literature. As for us faithful readers, will we be hard-pressed to ever find a writer who can still produce a good old-fashioned novel?

“There is a kind of reading people do on screens that is different from the reading they do on the page,” Lev Grossman, the American novelist and technology writer for Time magazine, recently told the Book Summit, an annual industry conference in Toronto. “It is powerfully linear, which can be really intoxicating … [On an e-reader] I sometimes find my finger is clicking faster than my eyes are going. I have to keep up with my madly clicking finger. It’s a … very powerful narrative, very plot-y feeling to the reading and, as it happens, I am a plot-y writer.”

The e-book format doesn’t encourage lingering on particular images or phrases, referring back, skimming forward or comparing passages; so Grossman predicts the emergence of hybrid novels that combine literary fiction with plot-driven genre writing. For example, his 2009 book The Magicians – an adult science-fiction/fantasy novel about a youth who enrolls in a university of witchcraft but finds it unsatisfying – operates both as genre fiction and as a critique of genre fiction.

Not everyone agrees, however, that the e-book will make much difference to writers’ style. Some observers point out that its goal is to reproduce the traditional reading experience as closely as possible, and many argue the video components that can be added to an e-book are no more revolutionary than the interviews with a movie’s director and stars that appear as extra features on a DVD. Real experimentation may lie elsewhere.

“E-books as we know them are electronic replicas of books, it’s paper under glass,” says Kate Pullinger, author of the children’s novel Inanimate Alice – which can be viewed free online. (She also won the 2009 Governor-General’s Award for her conventional novel The Mistress of Nothing.) “If you are going to put a work of fiction on a computer, why would you not use the multimedia components a computer has to offer you – image and sound and interactive games?”

Montreal electronic writer J.R. Carpenter, creator of CityFish, agrees: “I have been using the Internet as a medium since 1993. …There is fantastic multimedia, non-linear storytelling that has been going on since the beginning of the Web, and e-book publishers are not interested in that.” She says that a work such as CityFish, which explores odd corners of New York through the eyes of a displaced teen, is another way of reflecting the imagination, adding the visual images and sounds that are associated with places in the author’s mind.

These multimedia experiments often use short texts because readers seem unlikely to tolerate long passages of type in a video or interactive environment. “Maybe the chunk is not the chapter; maybe the chunk is the paragraph, and one paragraph can lead to more, different paragraphs,” says Caitlin Fisher, Canada Research Chair in digital culture at York University, who used that approach in her 2001 multimedia novella These Waves of Girls. “People have been figuring out how to get their message onto a single screen. It makes some writing better and some writing worse.”

Another tricky decision is how much power to give to the reader. Since the 1990s, fiction writers have experimented with hypertext, letting the reader follow secondary or subsequent passages out of the main text (perhaps never to return). Seminal works – such as These Waves of Girls, a hypertext short story about a car accident, created in 1987; or Shelly Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, a feminist retelling of the Frankenstein story, published in 1995 – established the new field of electronic fiction, and the issue of authorial control has been hotly debated ever since.

“You get these interactive projects – it’s such a novelty, the first 20 minutes the person is just learning the interface,” says Alex Jansen, the owner of Pop Sandbox, a small digital publisher that produced The Next Day and will turn to fiction with a forthcoming photo novella based on a short story by Toronto writer and Globe and Mail columnist Russell Smith. “By the time they are done clicking, they have taken the narrative into the middle of nowhere. You do still need a storyteller.”

The Next Day team discussed how much interactivity they should really include in the online version of the project, which will be hosted by the National Film Board’s and TV Ontario’s websites, and finally decided to limit it. You can chart your own path through these four stories of attempted suicides and their emotional aftermath, but the site is programmed so that you can’t limit yourself to a single story but will hear at least part of all four.

Prof. Fisher agrees that the issue is how to draw the reader through the text. “It’s interesting to say maybe people would navigate your novel like a game environment,” she says. “People find a game environment compelling. [But] does it always have to be a puzzle or maze? Could great writing draw you through it? … We don’t have serious writers experimenting with it.”

Fisher also notes how seductive video is, hoping books will not simply be replaced by some version of interactive film or augmented reality. “We have this push that all literature can become movies. Everyone can cheaply make and edit moving pictures. It is pushing out interesting experiments in writing.”

In that regard, e-books augmented with video interviews or apps that add video content to classic texts – for under $20, you can watch Fiona Shaw recite T.S. Eliot’s poem on The Waste Land app, or chart Jack Kerouac’s progress on the maps provided in the On the Road app – seem counterintuitive to those who think the whole purpose of reading a book is to engage in an act of the imagination that makes it a less passive experience than watching a movie or TV.

“It is such a terrible idea,” novelist Grossman said of video-enhanced e-books, at the Book Summit. “It is not a more-is-more situation.”

E-book videos and fancy apps also require production budgets usually only available to big publishers working with bestselling titles. Although few literary writers would claim that “monetize” is an elegant word, the issue of how to make money from digital work that is usually published free online is emerging as key to future experimentation. The early hypertext novels remained rarefied projects, not because of their content – it was generally accessible – but because they were often available only on discs, and were never distributed by major publishers. (Both afternoon: a story and Patchwork Girl are available as $24.95 CDs from the American hypertext publisher Eastgate). Today’s experimentation is openly available online, but, Fisher points out, it is often being created in universities by salaried scholars.

Independent creators do get some grants to make digital texts – Carpenter, who got some Canada Council funding for CityFish, lives like a visual artist on grants and fees, while Jansen puts together budgets much like a film producer and got a NFB/TVO grant for emerging documentary makers for The Next Day. But unless writers who earn their living directly from their writing can take up the digital call, the new forms are unlikely to go truly mainstream.

“I’d be happy to purchase an $80 electronic novel that promised to take me places I hadn’t been before, but it’s a hard sell,” says Fisher, who wants to see writers making technology work for them rather than technology shaping the form. “It is crucial writers be there asking what kind of tools might be useful … and not just accept what computer science hands them.”



I thought this article was really interesting because it didn’t just describe e-books and new technologies as a concept, but also provided interesting examples as well as the differing viewpoints on this debate.

How do you feel about the changes being made in book publishing? Are you eager to use “multimedia” books, or will your “traditional” hardcover or paperback do you just fine?  Should we avoid giving more “power” to the reader?


E-books outselling print at

Since April 1, has sold 105 e-books, not including free e-books, for every 100 print books.

Since April 1, has sold 105 e-books, not including free e-books, for every 100 print books. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Online bookstore now sells more e-books than all hardcover and paperback print books combined.

“We had high hopes that this would happen eventually, but we never imagined it would happen this quickly,” said Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of in a statement Thursday announcing the milestone.

Since April 1, has sold 105 e-books, not including free e-books, for every 100 print books.

Bezos noted that the Seattle, Wash.-based company has been selling print books for 15 years and e-books for less than four. Amazon introduced its Kindle e-book reader in 2007.

Kindle e-book sales overtook hardcover sales in July 2010 and paperback sales this past January.

Amazon’s e-books can be read on Amazon’s Kindle e-readers as well as on desktop and laptop computers and a variety of mobile devices, such as the Apple, Windows, Android and BlackBerry smartphones and tablets.

Amazon also announced Thursday that a new Kindle e-reader with ads is outselling other Kindle models in the U.S.

The Kindle with Special Offers, introduced in April, costs $114 — $25 less than the next lowest-priced Kindle.



Reference books to e-books

Local companies benefit from innovation centre

Tech Now: April 10, 2011

Updated: Sun Apr. 10 2011 4:40:30 PM

Tech companies live and die by the quality of their innovation and new ideas.

Translating ideas into new companies needs support, and a Gatineau firm is on the receiving end of some help from a newly expanded centre that does just that.

CogniLore CEO André Dubé said he believes he can take e-books out of the consumer space and apply it to the huge market that involves medical, legal and similar reference books.

It’s large in size and a market where the content needs to be constantly updated.

What it offers is that capability, plus a sophisticated search process to allow someone to electronically search a book in seconds.

“What we are doing is taking something that is archaic and giving it an update,” said Dubé. “Giving people the information they need to do their job and put it right at their fingertips, be in a tablet or a Smartphone.”

Dubé has been working with the people at the Regional Innovation Centre, getting free advice and direction and putting him in touch with people at Algonquin College where they are refining his software.

“I think the support that I have received is critical,” he said. “When you are running a company you can’t know everything about all aspects and so this way I can get a wide range of help.”

The centre’s managing director Michelle Scarborough said it’s important to have a place where those with very small companies can come together and talk to those with experience in running firms.

The provincial government recently boosted its support to over $2 million to allow for more resources and to extend its reach over Eastern Ontario.

Over the three years of operation Scarborough said they have likely worked with 400 companies.

“Probably half of those companies still exist today,” she said. “Some are growing organically and some are poised that with the right product and the right economic conditions we think they will be ready to take off.”

Dubé’s e-book publishing company is just one of 60 firms now working with the Innovation Centre. He said they’ve helped him in every facet of his company and will be a key part of any success he has later this year when he launches his software upgrades.

Do you work in the legal or medical field?  What do you think of the possible transition to e-books?


No e-books without authors, Atwood reminds us


Globe and Mail Update


When Margaret Atwood opened the annual Tools of Change for Publishing conference in New York last month, it felt like something of a coup for us publishers. At a moment when our business is being infiltrated by digital “experts” and “innovators,” whose interest in (and knowledge of) regular old book publishing can be rather patchy and slightly suspicious, here was a real writer giving the keynote.

Putting aside her reputation as one of Canada’s most celebrated authors, Ms. Atwood’s interest in technology and the ways in which it shapes civil society has featured in many of her novels, most recently, The Year of the Flood. She has embraced blogging and tweeting and, lest we forget, is the inventor of the LongPen. And in her characteristically direct way, she reminded the audience at Tools of Change that authors matter – that without the words they produce, day in, day out, there would be no e-books or enhanced apps.

As publishers, editors and writers continue to brace themselves for the great unknown, I followed up with her on the so-called digital revolution that continues to ruffle the publishing industry’s feathers.

History has shown us that societies and cultures develop as the means of transmitting and receiving knowledge change and increase. Here we are now, at another “watershed moment” with the onset of e-books.

The intention is the same: that is, to get stuff from here to there, and from then to now. The author communicates with the book; the book communicates with the reader, and e-books are another connection between them. Whether the technology is printing a text on a Xerox machine or reading it in a book or writing it on a wall, there is always a triangle: writer, text, reader.

You and I have talked before about how we don’t yet know if the act of reading in e-form is neurologically distinct from the act of reading on the page – but we do know that e-books promote different methods of reading: reading enhanced by video and sound, and apps that invite readers to skip and skim through books. Do you worry that technologies that encourage non-linear reading will affect the way you are trying to communicate with your readers?

Do you know what the very oldest non-linear reading experience is?

I know it can’t be Choose Your Own Adventure

The annotated Bible. When you open your King James, or any other Bible, you’ll find a whole bunch of cross-references. No one has ever read the Bible “linearly.” They’ve always been skipping back and forth from one mention of something to an earlier mention of it, or ahead to a later mention of it.

But in the same way that a musician carefully curates an album only to find that a thousand people have downloaded just the penultimate track, presumably a writer does not want the reader to poke about in Chapter 8 before reading Chapter 1?

You don’t want that, but many people do read that way, and I have to say that I sometimes do it myself. It’s very bad! Paper books facilitate it as well, though; that, and folding down page corners, which I also do sometimes, or scribbling in the margins. I inherited my brother’s Pride and Prejudice and it was illustrated with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, and my brother had drawn voice balloons over them. In the famous proposal scene, he’s got Mr. Darcy saying, ‘Grr’ and Elizabeth is saying, ‘Eak!’ That impulse to scribble on pages and pictures and walls is pretty ancient. I think anything you find in new technologies is likely to be an expansion of things we do anyway.

Is there a danger, though, that reading will be replaced by – or, even worse, confused with – ‘viewing’?

I know you disapprove of e-books.

I actually don’t disapprove of them, but I do predict that they will only ever occupy a small percentage of the market, in the same way that audio books, airport or large-print editions do. They will become one more – not the only – platform, and I’m hugely impatient for them to be normalized so that we can get back to talking about what’s in the books, rather than the formats themselves.

Every time there is a new medium, people get hypnotized by it: the printing press, radio, television, the Internet. It’s certainly a change in the world, which then somehow adapts. A whole section of society was very upset when zippers came in because they made it easier to seduce people in automobiles. You know, I think we’ve kind of adjusted to zippers by now. Just because you have a zipper doesn’t mean somebody has to unzip it … But you’re talking about e-books and e-readers and text in electronic form and the reading experience. When we consider “viewing,” and look back at it, we find, for instance, the, Bayeaux Tapestry which is sometimes called the first comic book. It’s a series of panels with text here and there, and a frieze along the bottom which consists basically of people getting their heads chopped off and their clothes pulled off. It’s very non-linear, but also quite linear because you read the panels in sequence; but you also read them back and forth and up and down.

There is a lot of hoo haa, at the moment, about the economic implications of digital books for writers. Is a lower royalty for an e-book fair?

Fair pricing is a work in progress. With a paper book the author gets a percentage of the list price. With an e-book it’s a percentage of the price received by the publisher. When a paper book is remaindered, you get nothing. But there is no such thing as ‘remaindered’ e-books – so, how is it all going to work out? Suppose I sell 1,000 copies of a paper book and they’ve printed 5,000 and remainder the other 4,000: 4,000 people get the book; I get nothing; the publisher gets cost. Is that better or worse than 4,000 copies of an e-book for which I receive a smaller amount for each one sold? We simply don’t know yet. It’s like asking in the early days of motorcars, “Do you agree with eight-lane speedways?” Well, no one had even thought of them. They couldn’t imagine them, or visualize them in any way.

Yet publishers and booksellers are allowing themselves to imagine a nightmarish world in which they are irrelevant – where technology companies which distribute e-books, such as Amazon, Sony, Google and Apple, also take over the choosing and the selling of books. Gail Rebuck, the chief executive of Random House in the U.K., recently described her “idea of hell” as a website ‘with 80,000 self-published works on it’ – a world where publishers and bookshops are replaced by a sort of online, super slush pile. Despite these fears, many smaller, independent publishers have had a few very profitable years, perhaps as a result of concentrating their focus on the books themselves and allowing the hyperbole of the yet-to-come iPod moment for books to simply see itself out.

Well, it’s the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Everybody moves round a place. So the Book of the Month Club disappears and something else takes its share of the market. And then big publishers get in trouble and cut back, and that creates space for other publishers to acquire books they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to get.

As publishing’s obsession with the digital revolution grows, do you think there is a forgetfulness that it’s actually the writer who keeps this business going?

Sure, people sit there putting words on the page, and some of them make a lot of money for their publishers and others create huge losses because the publishers placed their bets wrong. When people say publishing is a business – actually it’s not quite a business. It’s part gambling and part arts and crafts, with a business component. It’s not like any other business, and that’s why when standard businessmen go into publishing and think, “Right, I’m going to clean this up, rationalize it and make it work like a real business,” two years later you find they’re bald because they’ve torn out all their hair. And then you say to them, “It’s not like selling beer. It’s not like selling a case of this and a case of that and doing a campaign that works for all of the beer.” You’re selling one book – not even one author any more. Those days are gone, when you sold, let’s say, “Graham Greene” almost like a brand. You’re selling one book, and each copy of that book has to be bought by one reader and each reading of that book is by one unique individual. It’s very specific.

What are your thoughts on paywalls and the decision that many newspapers have taken to make their content free?

This is a big topic, but let’s just say that in nature there’s no free lunch so somebody’s paying for it somewhere and the question is, ‘Who?’ If I do some writing and I put it on the Net and everybody else reads it for nothing, then I have actually paid for it, because it’s my time, my crappy little lunch that I’ve eaten to keep myself alive, my Internet communication – I’ve paid for that. It’s actually not free. How the primary creators are going to get remunerated – that’s the issue, and music has already hit that wall. I think people are more inclined to pay for a book, though, because they’re more likely to think it represents work – work by them, because it takes longer to read a book than it does to listen to an MP3.

Much of the discussion surrounding ebooks tends to revolve around emotive issues, such as not being able to read them in the bath, get them signed, or showcase them on your bookshelf, and the cosmetics of electronic versus paper text, but a lot what you’ve said about them has to do with their wider, social implications and you’ve speculated that the availability of e-books is actually increasing reading.

Well, you can’t do much on the Net without being literate. One of the good things about e-readers is that kids are more likely to think they are “cool” and may actually find it easier to isolate pieces of text and read them, especially if they have learning disabilities of certain kinds.

One very interesting – and refreshingly unsentimental – argument that you’ve made for paper books is that they make it more difficult for people to track what you’ve been reading.

Security agencies worry about libraries. They tried to target U.S. libraries – make them hand over the list of who had borrowed what at the library. But the thing about online stuff is that it is very spyable. It is extremely spyable, despite all the security precautions and whatnot. Where there’s a lock, there’s a key.

And reading has always been an inherently political act. Do you think e-books will make certain texts more available to readers in places where those books are perhaps censored? Or banned?

Maybe temporarily, but what I mean by “censored” is that you cannot buy the book anywhere in the country, or it has to go past a censor who removes or changes material, and that was the case in many countries for a very long time. Or, they burn all your books, or they put you in jail, or they shoot you or hang you or exile you. Does total freedom of expression mean that you can say and do anything you like? The law limits that, so it’s just a question of where those legal bars are set and how permeable they are.

Yes, the flip side is that just as technology may facilitate the movement of otherwise unmovable text, so too can it wipe it – the permeability factor – and presumably it is easier to put blocks on people’s e-readers than it is to go around and raid everyone’s house searching for blacklisted books.

It certainly is. E-texts can easily be hacked and wiped. We users are not in total control of our own electronic media: Somebody somewhere may be pouring in code or fooling around with stuff that we have no idea about.

What social and artistic change – if any – would you predict from a society of people who no longer read paper books?

I can’t even speculate about that. It depends very much on what kinds of e-books and online newspapers they might read. It’s not the e-function that is going to determine that – the e-readers only make things more readily available. We’ll be “thinking” in relation to what we take in over these media. Newspapers, of the kind that do analytical pieces, and things like the London Review of Books – you can see thought at work in those, and if e-readers are spreading the reading of London-Review-of-Books-type articles, then you are making space for thought, and if people are reading such things on their e-readers – people who wouldn’t have read them otherwise – you’re actually increasing thought.

Will the world be worse off if e-books fail?

Well, first let us picture what kind of event might lead to that: 1. Solar flares, which melt all the e-communication services. 2. Widespread plague, which is going to kill anyone running the companies that make them. So that being the case, I would say yes! That the world will be considerably worse off if, the next morning, you wake up and nobody’s reading anything on e-readers because the event that will have caused that is horrific!

Rosalind Porter is the co-author of Four-Letter Word (Knopf). She and Alex Clark, her former colleague at Granta magazine, are just about to launch a new, literary imprint in Britain.

Special to The Globe and Mail