About a year ago, I had a conversation with a dear friend about ebooks. A traditionally published and well-regarded historical novelist, she was excited about the possibilities. She talked about embedding links in her texts, providing photos and other details of her research, adding sound and video. I have to admit, as she talked about links and video and audio and photos, I was frowning deeply enough to leave scars.
I said, “If you’re going to add all that stuff to it, why not just make a movie?”
She didn’t have an answer for that.
And now I read about the five trends in epublishing as proposed by Philip Ruppel, president of McGraw-Hill Professional. He imagines “books” with not only video and audio and links, but also the functionality of any computer. Help buttons. “In-book apps” which would allow people to download specific tutorials and lessons on specific subjects. These things sound good for textbooks, but I’ve also heard YA novelists talk about adding specific character playlists to their books, so that readers can listen to the same music as the characters would. I’ve seen reviews of children’s apps that tout the games and the videos over the story.
The Register, reporting on the Frankfurt Book Fair said: “A speaker from publishing-services company Aptara asserted that publishers will need to change the way they think about books, as the very notion of "a book" is morphing. People are busier than ever, information is becoming more fragmented, and books can now contain animation, sounds, and — gasp — hyperlinks.”
And of course there's this, which I've posted before:
(Alice for the iPad)
Yeah, it looks really cool. Awesome, even. But here’s my question: if you’re too busy shaking your iPad to make the watch swing back and forth, are you actually reading? At what point does the functionality detract from the story? How much functionality turns a book into something else entirely: a movie, an app, one more level of Angry Birds?
And most importantly, does it matter?
At the risk of sounding like a luddite, I think it does.
The long-form story has been around for thousands of years, and our collective hunger for them hasn’t abated yet. (Just ask the millions of Twilight lovers). The best thing about a story is the reader’s ability to lose him or herself in the world created by the author and/or illustrator, the reader’s ability to lose themselves in the vivid and continuous dream . How will we be able to do this if there’s a hyperlink/video/audio clip every paragraph? How easy will it be to put excitable children to sleep after they’ve played The Very Hungry Caterpillar app in which the caterpillar goes on a Pac-Man-like rampage?
To ask a question I’ve already asked in the comments section of this blog, just because we have the technology to do a particular thing, does that mean we should? (I mean, why not start adding QR codes to films, so that movie-goers can access websites and order film-related merch while they watch?)
That’s not to say I think we should ignore technology. We shouldn’t. We can’t. But, as creators of children’s books, we have to find that sweet spot between functionality and story, between enhancement and the vivid and continuous dream. Because, no matter what the delivery system, no matter the bells and whistles, we still want books.