The same week I see Sports Illustrated‘s plans for an e-reader friendly version of their magazine – virtually sealing the fate of print magazines – Nielsen decides to shut down Kirkus, the book review journal, and the whole world (at least the world that cares about such things) is declaring a Brave New World and the end of books as we know it.
Okay, first, if you haven’t seen it, go check out the SI demo here. Seen it? Good, let’s move on.
That’s a pretty dynamic display of what is possible with electronic print media, and for magazines I think it works. All the magazine features are there with the “value add” of personalization, videos, and the bonus of not deforesting the planet. The really interesting thing to me is that Time Inc chose Sports Illustrated for this demo, not their namesake magazine or any other holdings.
Because SI is aimed at sports fans who are primarily male readers. And male readers prefer non-fiction to fiction and respond well to non-linear narratives. All those boys who struggle reading novels for school but could spend hours with The Guinness Book of World Records do so because they like the puzzle of putting a narrative together in their heads. It’s why boys take things apart to figure out how they work. It’s how their brains understand the world.
So how do people read magazines anyway? Do they open with page one and read straight through, or do they scan the contents and go for what interests them? Do they flip through the pages and land on something that catches their eye and read outward from there? The fact is, no one considers a magazine’s narrative to be strictly linear, and so Time Inc. is wise to test this out on the market that would most appreciate the approach.
But what does this say for publishing, for books? It says “Wake up!”
Linear narratives are a way to tell stories but we tend to think they are the only way. It fits our natural sense of order, our understanding of time being forward-moving, our progression shuffling from point A to B. But movies have shown us there are ways to tell a story that bend time with flashbacks and fast-forwards that are accepted without jarring our sense of order. We watch as things flit around, follow different characters, shifting time and place in a split second, and in the end we can recombine the narrative in our head to make a complete story.
Even in our daily lives, when we recount an event that has happened to us, we backtrack and fill in details out of sequence as necessary in order to better fill in our audience. We teach children history in a linear this-happened-then-this-happened-causing-this-to-happen way, and yet we expect them to recall all that information out of sequence in tests and when articulating themselves in essays. Our constant need for linear order may be holding us back from lateral thinking.
Which is why I believe non-fiction is the new fiction.
Creative non-fiction and modern journalism have figured this out long ago. Scan any at-length Rolling Stone expose or New Yorker profile and you will see a narrative construct that is non-linear. There will be a telling snippet at the beginning that sets up the story and tantalizes, some background, the story-before-the-story, a side excursion, the story itself, and finally a bit that circles around and pulls it all together. Sure, there are traditional storytelling elements involved – conflict building tension toward a climax and a denouement – but it isn’t bound to the straight through-line.
But how does this change publishing, or books for that matter? Or children’s books?
I’m going personal for a moment. I just finished a middle grade story about two goofy boys who manage to find themselves in a publishing war with a pair of mean girls. The story is a traditional linear narrative. However, if I was approached by a publisher and told “how would you adapt this for an e-reader?” I could think of ways to structure it so it would work.
First, the boys are creating (thought they don’t realize it) old school mini comics. At the point in the story where they create the comics it would be too much to pull the reader out of a traditional narrative to show the boys entire creative process. But what if, at that juncture, the reader could touch the screen and jump to an animated display of what the boys are creating, hearing their dialog as they try things out, watching the images that the book describes come to life as they talk about them. When it’s over the “book” brings them back to the place in the text where the reader left off. There are four such places in my story, four small little jumps that would enrich the story and yet maintain the story’s structural integrity even with interruptions. I have other ideas, but I’ll save them for the future. Which might not be that far off.
Fiction revels in both rich language and visual details. Writers must still know and learn the craft of storytelling, but they will also need to consider ancillary content as well. For most this won’t be hard – many writers already do extensive backstories on characters and places that could easily be incorporated into a digital text. If a writer is telling a period story, there are places to insert historical documents and background. Imagine a fictional story set in war-torn Afghanistan that included images from photojournalists and military documentarians, giving readers with no real understanding of war or other parts of the world a deeper insight to the story. And the elements of non-fiction – the non-linear presentation, the ability to jump focus, the visual presentation of data – can all be combined in this new reading experience that will, no doubt, change our views of what we now call fiction.
Books used to be only for the rich, objects to be owned and coveted. And when paperback books were introduced they were thought of as disposable, like magazines, an object with limited use. People would buy a pocket paperback book for travel and toss it when finished. The only books worth owning, it was believed, were hardcover. Just as movies used to only be experienced in theatres. VHS and DVD didn’t kill the movie theatre (though they keep trying) because, in the end, there is an experience that cannot be replicated in the home. People still go out to hear music they could just as easily listen to at home.
The book will be with us always. But we’ll have to wait and see what shape it takes and how its content will evolve. The way things are going, it shouldn’t be long.