The Books That Read You

So much attention in the unending digital vs print debate has been placed on the physical properties of the book, both positive (books survive without power supplies, books look great on bookshelves, books are cheap) and negative (books are heavy, books aren't delivered instantly with a single click).

In other words, e-books are generally praised in terms of what they aren't: heavy, tree killers, limited in distribution, of fixed text size. Beyond that, we look also at e-readers as potential devices on which we can check email, watch movies, surf the web. Not enough focus has been put on what an e-book could become, and how it could outstretch the spatial and temporal restrictions imposed by print.

This is starting to change. In January, a new publisher appeared on the Kindle. It's called Coliloquy, and its books are a little different -- at certain pre-defined moments, readers are asked to make a choice. Which character should the protagonist date? What event should they go to? In which narrative direction do you want to travel? The books, which are primarily aimed at a young adult and romance novel-reading audience, are like a digital version of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books from the 1980s.

What most people haven't realized is that the technology works two ways -- as you make a choice in the story, Coliloquy's books read you back. They send anonymized data about your decision, as well as about how often you have read a particular chapter, and which characters you have followed the most. They are the first third-party publisher to receive such data from Amazon. They surely won't be the last.

Coliloquy currently uses the data in one of two ways; they either commission authors to write serial narratives, and the writer agrees to follow the narratives that the majority of readers have chosen to follow, or the author writes multiple versions of a narrative, with readers receiving different tales depending on their decisions.

Coliloquy's latest book, Fluid takes the idea even further, with what it claims as 500 different story paths made possible by the readers' choices. And the real kicker: unlike those "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories, where you could leave your finger in a page and choose again if you made an unfortunate choice, Fluid only lets you make each choice once. There is no going back. Your decisions have unchanging narrative consequences (that is, until you've finished the story, at which point it unlocks all of the other pathways).

Fluid opens right at the beginning with the question: "Who is more powerful? God. The devil. Man." The narrative deals with questions of free will, perhaps the ideal theme for a story whose development relies on reader choices.

Coliliquy calls such stories "active fiction," and whatever you think about the individual stories themselves (early reviews have been mixed), the principles behind them are part of a new flourishing of narrative possibilities that come with the e-book medium.

Future tales could include stories that you can only read once; books that can only be downloaded on a single day; books whose words disappear as you read them; books whose covers change as you the narrative progresses, like Dorian Gray's portrait in the attic. You can only read a book for the first time once, so why can't the book itself change as part of that experience?

The Atopia series, published by PhutureNews, launched last week, brings another kind of technology, augmented reality, to its Kindle books -- you point an iPhone camera at the Kindle, load up a special app, and an image floats above the device on your cell-phone screen.

Of course, Electronic literature isn't a new genre. Eastgate Systems started publishing "electronic fiction" in 1990, not to mention the development of video game narratives, which already manifest many of the traits described above.

What makes this series of narratives different is that they are presented not in the context of obscure literary experiments, or as graphics-based entertainment, but instead alongside classic and contemporary literature, on a device that people don't expect to involve interactive reading experiences: the Kindle.

E-readers are now mainstream devices, used by millions of people. Their e-stores feature both small and large publishers. It's a wonderful space in which to experiment, and the data that the devices generate brings us ever closer to understanding who is reading a story, how they are reading it, when and where. If e-reader companies agree to open up more of this data, suitably anonymized with opt-in functions, this would only encourage more authors and publishers to experiment with what an e-narrative can be.

These forms of publishing aren't for everyone, of course -- many people don't want their books to involve choices, or for the text to change at all, or for others to know when or what they are reading. Just as not everyone Tweets, or wants to read on a digital device. But that doesn't remove the urge to experiment, and to push what stories can be. That is what writers have always done, and Coliloquy and others are suggesting what else could be achieved with a little imagination and know how.

This is an amazing moment in storytelling, an opportunity for publishers and device manufacturers to team up and explore what a digital book can be, in the hands of millions of readers around the world. It's time to redefine what an e-book is -- instead of only focusing on what it isn't.