Can Digital Fiction and Commercial Publishing Work Together?

First of all, hello again, old blog. I haven’t visited you, much less nourished you, in quite some time! What’s that meme that goes around about the best friends being those that can go months or years between contact, and then just pick up right where they left off as if no time has passed at all? Let’s go with that.

Second, the impetus for this blog post is a new research project I’m (slowly but surely) launching. I’ve been interested in the overlap (or, frankly, entire lack thereof) between digital fiction and the publishing industry; specifically, I’ve been wondering if that overlap is ever going to actually happen. So I’m kinda trying to shove them together.

There have been a few promising case studies emerging in the last few years that show audiences actually are interested in interactive storytelling: Ryan North’s wild success with Shakespearean Choose-Your-Own-Adventure; Zoe Quinn’s rocky go of publishing Depression Quest through Steam; and the rise of walking simulator games, which shows interactive engagement doesn’t have to be maxed out for audiences to enjoy a hyperfiction. The popularity of Twine, and the increasing ease of creating hypertexts and hyperfictions, not to mention websites and mobile apps, mean more students and aspiring writers are experimenting with and creating incredible fictions in digital forms…

…yet still no commercial framework has emerged to service this growing creative industry.

Part of the issue is history. Online marketplaces emerged as child-nodes of brick-and-mortar stores, and their nomenclature is inherited. Visit Amazon, and you’ll find categories laud out like sections of a massive box retailer: books, DVDs/movies, electronics, clothing. Even within sections, the genre listings conform to the same tropes as the old bookstores. Even digital content is arranged by strict sections and categories: Kindle books, Instant Video, Apps. There’s just no room to put something new.

Currently, digital fiction is offered much like software: through the developer’s own site, or as one-off apps in the Apple Store or Google Play (on which, I’d note, they still don’t have capability to group anything like “digital fiction” into an easily searchable area; the categories still conform to old brick-and-mortar analogs). One or two might have success, but as a recognizable form, it has yet to emerge. (Of course, it would help if we would all agree to call it the same thing, but when has that ever happened in the history of humans naming things???)

Another issue is the perception of digital fiction. Because of early gatekeeping and barriers to entry in terms of cost and skill, digital fiction has proliferated among academics and avant garde artists. My students reactions to most digital fiction – even the avid gamers and internet-dwellers – are often initially negative. I’d point out they have similar reactions to most Modernist and Postmodernist literature – that the authors have sacrificed story for the sake of playing around with form.

Of course, the more digital fiction my students are exposed to, the more nuanced their reactions become, until some of them take it to heart as writers and artists and start creating their own. But it takes a while. It takes assigned readings and in-class discussions. It takes guided tutorials in creating digital fictions and exploring the new form for writing. Your average reader, looking for a little distraction and entertainment, is never going to commit that much.

Enter my latest effort: hyperbooks. I’m launching a series of hyperfictions that take two simultaneous forms: one, a digital form such as hypertext or interactive fiction (entirely text-based), and the other a familiar, run-of-the-mill (nowadays, anyway) e-book that can be sold on all major eBookseller sites and read on all digital devices and eBook apps.

The first of these, “The Futographer” can be found here in its eBook form, and here in its hypertext form.

Adjustments have to be made from the typical highly experimental shape and drive of digital fictions, in terms of both narrative and programming (Kindle books, in particular, are pretty restrictive). I plan to publish more about these changes as the project progresses, and as I learn more about the process and writing these works. What I’m hoping to achieve is some audience awareness of hyperfiction/digital fiction, some desire for more, and to establish an expectation that these works are worthy of paying for, rather than just floating around free on the internet.

There’s a lot of room for expansion (what if an actual publishing house got on board with these, and could persuade the eBooksellers to create new, searchable categories?!?), and a real possibility of just shouting into a densely packed convention hall of self-publishers and developers all angling for airtime. Wherever this falls, I expect it to at least be an interesting creative endeavor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *