Interactive Books

 Technology is changing a lot of things about writing. If you’re not aware of that, the rock you’re living under must be a monster. Just like in other areas of life, in some ways it’s happening fast, in others it has the pace of a large river of ice.

I learned to type on an electric typewriter—which means that, to this day, I tend to pound on a keyboard much harder than I need to. I just bought a new-used keyboard from a thrift shop—my old IBM was slowly giving up the ghost, if you can believe that of a twenty-year-old peripheral—and I’m now typing on a Dell QuietKey. Except that it’s not so quiet with meusing it. Hey, I got it for two bucks and it looks as if it’s barely used at all.

When I was in high school, yes, we had computers. But you have to keep in mind that this was before Windows ever existed. I’m not even sure of the Mac OS existed then. Pretty much everything was DOS in those days, and computers, as best as I remember, were these single-unit things with green screen monitors and very noisy keyboards. Since I was a science fiction fan, I thought they were the neatest things, but never expected to own one. Not when they ran five or six grand for a decent one—and a decent one in those days won’t do what a cheap cell phone will now.

So, while I didn’t have much in the way of specific dreams of being a writer then—at least not consciously—I never expected to be doing much with or on computers. Everything was command line then, and I had neither the desire nor the patience to learn that crap. Learn another language? Heck, I had enough trouble with English. Learning one that would allow me to interface with an expensive machine I’d probably never own seemed pointless. I would probably end up a farmer or a mechanic, and what use did either of those have for a computer?

That was before I knew anything about Excel spreadsheets to keep track of your farming expenses and income or the AllData network that many maintenance shops use these days to look up everything from vehicle wiring schematics to how long it’ll take to do a particular job.

It’s hard for a guy like me to keep up sometimes.

When it comes to writing, it’s a lot the same. I sit at my computer, writing in Word, and wonder how the hell people did it back in the days of treeware: can you imagine having to type an entire page over because of one little mistake?

Actually, yes, I can, because I’ve done it.

(In a discussion about how the world has changed in the last twenty years or so, my daughter stated the other day that she didn’t get a cell phone till she was in ninth grade. I countered that I was something like thirty-seven before I got one, and I know at least one person who still doesn’t own one—and he’s older than me.)

If you take that back some, think on this: if my information is right, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the first novel written on a typewriter. That means that a lot of books were written in longhand. If you think it was rough retyping an entire page, try doing it by hand.

A promotional flyer for Adventures of Hucklebe...

I’ve done that, too. I didn’t even own a typewriter for years and wrote some of my early fantasy stories in spiral notebooks. I still have them, too.

That means I’m old-fashioned enough that, when I’m published, I want it to be a real book, not an ebook. Yes, I know the future is heading toward ebooks, and that the royalties are higher there—by quite a bit, from the numbers I’ve heard. Last year, Amazon sold more ebooks than it did paper books. That should say something. And it’s becoming a given that you can’t get much done if you’re not online these days.

But I know of at least two hybrids of paper and ebooks: Personal Effects: Dark Art by JC Hutchins, and County Line by Bill Cameron.

I haven’t read Personal Effects, though it is on my list. It’s basically a combination serial killer/horror story, as best I can guess. The main character is a psychiatrist or psychologist (I think the latter) who takes a job at a max security asylum in New York that’s built underground. That cuts down on the escape attempts, but also, because it’s state run, means it’s run down and in need of things like light bulbs and other basic repairs. He’s put on the case of a serial killer who was convicted and sent there when there weren’t any real bodies, if I remember right. And, of course, he hears voices telling him what to do. In this case, those voice might be real.

But the book itself—and by that, I mean the actual, physical book—is interesting. There’s a pouch inside the front cover that contains all kinds of things: the killer’s driver’s license, his admittance form, all kinds of stuff like that from his file. On top of that, there are phone numbers and websites listed in the book that, at the time of publication, at least, all worked. You could call the numbers and look up the sites. The book’s a couple years old now, so I don’t know if the numbers and sites are still maintained or not.

One of the reasons I’ve held off on reading this particular book, even though I love a good serial killer novel, is that I wonder how much of the story I’ll miss if I don’t visit the sites or call the numbers. I appreciate the author’s intent to make the book interactive, but I’m not online at home. I can’t afford it, for one, and there’s no decent access here. I’ve bitched about that before, so I won’t go into detail.

Will I miss something important to the story if I can’t jump up and look at a website he mentions? Will I finish the story feeling like I haven’t finished it because I didn’t want to run downstairs and call one of the numbers? And, if this is true, what happens if I read the book now and the numbers/sites are no longer there? Will the book be incomplete?

These are the questions I ask myself every time I see it on the shelf and think about reading it.

County Line, on the other hand, takes a different approach, and it’s one I like.

County Line is the fourth book in a series about a retired cop. In this one, his girlfriend comes up missing and he tracks her down because things look a little hinky. We find out some backstory on her in the middle of the book, and I thought it was a decent story.

The only websites mentioned are when the main character—whose name sadly escapes me at the moment, except that his nickname is Skin—prints out Google or MapQuest maps when he goes from Portland, Oregon to the strange environs of the small town Midwest. I think in Iowa or Indiana, but I’ve read two or three books since so some of the details are a bit fuzzy.

I don’t know if it was the author or the publisher who made this book interactive, but they did it the same way you get interactive with a DVD—by tacking on extras. Of course, on a DVD, you do this by going to the extras menu, but with the book, they did it through the use of QR codes—those funky looking boxes that will take you to specific sites if you have a smartphone and the app to do it with. According to the publisher’s note in the front of the book, these codes take you to things like their catalogue (Tyrus Books), a deleted scene, an interview with the author, and other things. They didn’t detail it all.

I liked this approach. I felt I could read the book without missing anything important. The QR codes don’t take me to things that are integral to the plot anymore than extras on a DVD take you to things important to the movie. But, if I have the smartphone and the desire, I can look at the extras and they will, possibly, deepen my appreciation of the book. If I’d had the phone, I probably would have looked at these things. I’m the kind of guy who likes to watch most of the extras on a DVD, after all. I like behind-the-scenes stuff.

Are these two books indications of directions the publishing industry is going in the future? Or will it be something else entirely? I heard a story on NPR a few months back of a kids’ book that did much the same as Personal Effects, except in this case the websites helped to deepen the educational aspects of the book, if I remember correctly, with factual things about the animals in the book.

The author referred to it as a multimedia book.

I can see the potential there, especially with ebooks (which, the more I think about, is what that kids’ book was: an ebook for the iPad). A friend of mine suggested I start putting pictures in my blog posts to brighten it up, because that’s what everybody else does. I wouldn’t mind, if I had the time. But I’m so limited when I get to the library—you’d be amazed at how fast two hours can go by—that looking up appropriate pictures isn’t much of an option. Yes, WordPress provides some, but none of them ever seem quite what I’d want to post.

If books get interactive/multimedia as a matter of course, I hope that means the publishers will have an editor whose job it is to put those things in, because, in my mind, they’re already pushing a lot of things off on the writer that interfere with the meat of the job: writing. We’re supposed to do most of the promotion these days. If we have to do research to find interactive and multimedia files to make our novels and stories more interesting, when will we find time to actually write?

I’m sure it’ll happen. I just hope it keeps happening slowly, so that I can keep up.

What do you think?




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