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The future of the book shouldn’t be skeuomorphic

We should replace books with something different and better, writes Tom Abba.

An iBooks book.
An iBooks book.

The future of publishing has been on its way for a while.

Yet with notable exceptions like The Silent History on iPad, the knee-jerk reaction of the publishing industry has been to copy the form of a physical book, skeuomorphically, creating something that bears a resemblance to print but doesn’t do much else besides.

This is a huge missed opportunity, because the digital medium itself is full of opportunities for literary content. Tablet computers can provide much more than a flat surface on which to read typed words. They afford a whole new platform that draws on the contract between the author and the reader, but needn’t restrict itself to physical analogues. The possibilities aren't bound to the book.

Some authors have already begun addressing this. Nick Harkaway explored networked collaboration in his writing allowing readers to be instrumental in developing a story. While as offline readers we interact with the book as a physical object, as digital readers we are able to explore the relationship between form and content, such that each can become implicit in the creation of the other. Reading a narrative encased in a physical object, our input to the story is limited by its very physicality, but as digital readers, we can comment, note, question and add within a network, changing the nature of the written text.

There is a programme based at Watershed in Bristol and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council called REACT: Books & Print, which explores the future of publishing in a way that allows for real experimentation with digital platforms, without the pressure to sell a commercial product in the short term. As part of the programme, I am working with the artists collective Circumstance and authors Nick Harkaway and Neil Gaiman on a project called These Pages Fall Like Ash, wherein an audience based in Bristol will be invited to participate in a narrative experience: accessing, altering and constructing a story that will demonstrate the possibilities of the form and challenge traditional publishing norms.

Try this at home: watch an episode of The Bridge—with subtitles—and try to browse Facebook, or send a tweet during the broadcast. What you're likely to find (unless you're a native Danish speaker) is that conventional second screen engagement doesn’t operate very well. On the one hand, it’s the subtitles; they demand we look as well as listen, that our eyeballs don’t flicker between device and screen and our attention fixes on one thing rather than two, but another, more subtle change, is in architecture and the lighting, in mise-en-scène. The sky is different and the city looks strange. These people aren’t speaking our language and something exotic is happening.

That’s the sensation we’re aiming to achieve in These Pages Fall Like Ash. The experience begins with the sudden appearance of another city alongside the one our 300 participants live in. They can’t see it, but they can feel its presence, hear the voices of its citizens and read their words. Two populations start to communicate and exchange ideas, stories, gifts, and then something happens. And something happening is how stories start.

Story is at the heart of this project. REACT’s Books and Print programme asks us to consider what happens when digital technology meets reading and writing. Our response is to define a grammar for writing in a digital space, where attention is a commodity and interaction is an anticipated mode of engagement. We chose to work with two writers who have each, in their own way, explored the grammar of writing platforms—be that television, comics, novels or radio—and whose voices we can add to our own, and those of our audience to create something singularly new.

The city and its twin isn’t a new idea though. Whether you look for recent examples - China Mieville's The City and The City, and Nick’s experiments with Urm, Neil's Neverwhere, or head back a little further for Michal Ajvaz' The Other City and M John Harrison’s In Viriconium, Moorcock’s Tanelorn or Borges’ Uqbar, the notion that something else, something uncanny, lurks at the corners of our attention is a provocative one and as a framework for a distributed, exploded story form, it practically demands other voices to add to the canon, to world-build. Our readers will experience another city, alongside their own, and will be asked to bring it into being by their own writing and contributions.

Running through These Pages Fall Like Ash though, are a set of questions about writing and digital spaces. Writing is a craft, one that’s learned over time and honed by experience and profligate use of words, sentences, dialogue and character to build story and ground narrative. We’ve asked our writers to help us scaffold the story and provide a substrate by which we write, design and develop the content through interaction. Our audience are going to engage with digital content alongside physical books, artefacts that cross the boundaries between two worlds and two technologies. They’re going to learn to write for an unfamiliar medium, and their writing will impact the way they view the narrative at its completion.

It could be the start of an astonishing journey, the story of the evolution of the written word in the digital age.

Tom Abba is taking part in the Books & Print Sandbox, part of REACT, one of four UK Knowledge Exchange Hubs for the Creative Economy. It is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). REACT Books & Print