Rohan Tambyrajah, digital innovation director, Arena Media.
Last Christmas I became one of the many people that received Amazon Kindles as gifts, in fact one in 40 of us found the device in our Christmas stockings. Since then I’ve been attempting to study its effect on me and understand whether it’s changing the way I read and choose literature.
Digital has had a clear and profound impact on the way we tell stories and consume the written word. In moving from the old world of publisher to consumer communications, we have embraced a networked society where stories are beginning to evolve collectively rather than just independently. We see them unfolding in much more participatory, interactive and immersive ways.
But of course, books are among the oldest forms of one-to-many communication. When Johannes Gutenberg fathered the modern printing press it allowed for mass publication of single texts, that were then distributed to a limited amount of people and from a single source. The web changed this by both democratising the tools of creation and of distribution. As individuals, we all of a sudden had the potential to create and have our creations go global.
For a long time, I’d assumed this paradigm shift did not carry through into the digitisation of books, and that the real difference was in the concept of the ownership of literature. As with the huge waves of change that swept through the Film and Music industries, content does not necessarily need to be associated with a physical artefact, it becomes something fluid and accessible on consumer terms. So people stop having bookshelves like they do CD racks.
I’d also assumed that the new web principles of interactivity and reader influence had no part in shaping literature. It seemed that was the way things should be - a great literary mind is a singular thing and not a hive. But this wasn’t strictly true, over 100 years ago Dickens was publishing his stories in a serialised format and taking reader feedback to shape the outcome. Novels like Oliver Twist were consumed in part in newspaper. So in true cyclical fashion, it seems fit that we are starting to see a resurgence of this type of evolving literature.
Amazon has just released Kindle Serials, a subscription service that allows authors to track data and feedback from readers and adapt the next instalment based on this. We are even seeing specialist analytics companies emerge that provide detailed data on reader behaviour that can draw insights on whether certain characters or plot twists are creating higher attrition rates, or determine the top highlighted passages and annotations. In fact, much like the open and transparent modern brand, authors are starting to create a dialogue with their readers that shapes how they behave and influences their values and the content they produce.
Also important is what literature influences people to create. Star Wars and Harry Potter are two great examples of stories creating rich story worlds upon which fans have built large collaborative communities that are focused on creating new and alternative stories. This big trend in fan fiction takes the same characters and backgrounds, but creates new narratives and scenarios that bring them to life on their terms. These communities are often self-moderating, with the best content being surfaced through user reviews and ratings. There have even been instances of fans taking these titles to print and distribution.
So whilst we might all still love to curl up with a good book, what adorns the pages and is spread across the screen, might have a bit of all of us in it.