Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

The mistake of ‘enhancing’ novels

(This is the second post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

A novel does not benefit from a host of videos of talking heads, interactive maps, or the kind of gunk that clutters up most DVD extras. A novel is not a movie. The film production and marketing process lends itself towards the whole DVD extras phenomenon. You have dozens of unused scenes, a special effects team, the filming crew, and an army of people performing various roles. The stars are loved by millions. The movie’s launch and its production are events. Even a bog-standard TV series has buy-in from society at large and a wealth of collateral material that is rare in publishing.

A novel is just one person sitting in a room for what is sometimes years, occasionally talking to a couple of other people, with an itty-bitty burst of social activity towards the end. Some of them may launch with a bang but the revenue curve for most novels bears no resemblance to that of either a successful or unsuccessful movie.

Moreover, the interactive content most publishers have bundled with their ‘enhanced’ novels is hideously misplaced. They are marketing assets locked in a sealed, unseen, container.

All those talking head videos? Put them on the website. That interactive map of the fantasy world? Website. Unused scenes? Website. Those commentary bits on the author’s manuscript?

You guessed it. Put it on the website.

The core value of a movie is spectacle. (Obviously, I’m talking here about the US-oriented movie industry, not the form. The cinematic medium is capable of considerable nuance and subtlety. Hollywood, however, isn’t.)

Extras feed into and complement the spectacle. The selling point of a novel—even the cheap-o, sleazy, low-brow ones—is to disappear into a new world for hours on end. Marketing assets help readers discover novels to step into—explore the feel of it before they commit to reading. They don’t add any value when fused into the body of the novel like a malignant tumour. There they become a distraction.

Book apps, where you take a linear novel or piece of narrative writing and pin interactivity on it like a tail on a cartoon donkey, don’t make sense. They make slightly more sense for non-fiction titles (hence iBooks Author’s focus on textbooks and the like) but even there the costs often outweigh the benefits.

If we are looking for publishing titles—or even new ideas that have no print history—that would benefit the most from being digital—the most logical ones to look at are titles that are confined and limited by print.

A book that works great in print, that is adapted perfectly to its form, is exactly the worst candidate for digital. It’d suffer from high expectations on the part of the readers (because the print version was great) but it would also see little improvement in digital. Because it was already good.

This is the quintessential lose-lose double whammy. Like an author whose skills have managed to attract an audience that consists mostly of expert readers, you’ve navigated yourself into a scenario where you’re surrounded by passionate people with high expectations and both the capacity and motivation to outline, in public, your every single fault. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, your audience will find reasons hate you.

Instead of enhancing novels, what we should be looking at are titles and types of books that are a little bit awkward in print, ones that are useful and loved because of their subject matter, but have never had a chance to bloom due to the limitations of the printed form.

Those are the ones worth ‘enhancing’.

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