eBooks and audiobooks are now consumed in their droves, and yet they remain a mere alternative to the traditional paper or hardback book.

And when it comes to marketing, apart from a few juggernauts like J.K Rowling (more on her later), not many authors receive the investment or resources needed for large scale digital or social campaigns.

So, how do publishers tell (and sell) stories to a digital audience? American author James Patterson is the latest author to experiment with a new strategy. He has teamed up with Facebook to release an ‘interactive’ version of his latest novel, ‘The Chef’, on the Messenger platform.

Is it a marketing gimmick, or a glimpse at how we will consume and enjoy books in future? Here’s more.

Telling stories on social

James Patterson is no stranger to experimenting with digital formats. In 2016, he released a series of ‘BookShots’ – short digital stories that are designed to be read in a single sitting. Now, he’s trying to capture our supposedly dwindling attention spans with a new format – a novel told through Facebook Messenger.

The Chef

Called ‘The Chef’, it is a shortened (and free) version of the same novel that will be released next year, telling the story of police detective and budding chef, Caleb Rooney, as he comes under investigation for murder.

On Messenger, the novel is told via a ‘chatbot’ format, with users clicking to prompt the bot to tell them a new chapter or to offer new content. Interspersed between the novel’s text are videos, photos, and audio soundbites. Another nice touch is the associated ‘Killer Chef’ Instagram profile in the name of Caleb Rooney, which helps to bring to life the character in a more tangible way.

The Chef Instagram

Interestingly, users can also interact with the bot, asking it questions relating to the plot such as who a particular character is. While the bot can only answer a few basic questions at the moment (others are ignored or replied to with unrelated information), it is said to be able to improve over time.

A Marketer’s Guide to Chatbots

Overall, ‘The Chef’ is certainly an interesting and original concept. Apart from the plethora of retail and customer service chatbots we’ve seen over the past few years, there’s been nothing like it before now. Indeed, Facebook has insisted that it is just an experiment, and that they have not paid Patterson for the project.

An immersive and interactive experience

So, does the experiment succeed?

In terms of the novel itself, ‘The Chef’ seems no different to Patterson’s usual schtick, with the text aligning to his fast-paced and easily digestible writing style. While this is not a literary review, it is an important point to make, as the short and succinct nature of the novel is aligned with the Messenger platform and the way the bot is able to deliver it in bursts. With a different, perhaps more fluid or flowery writing style, it is hard to imagine that it would work in the same way.

Moving on to the main point of the bot – the interactive tools it uses to bring the story to life.

The videos, audio, and imagery are certainly effective in doing this. The concept of a police investigation also nicely aligns here, as much of the content is made up of police interviews or security camera footage. Again, I’m not too sure whether this would work as well with a different type of novel, as the content relies on the short, intense, and, slow-reveal style of the plot.

The Chef Facebook

As well as immersing the reader into the story, another benefit of the Messenger novel is that it nicely aligns with behaviour on mobile as well as social. Most people tend to pick up their mobile regularly, for short periods of time, and in moments of boredom or downtime.

This means that users can easily consume the story, with Messenger also being an easily accessible and commonly used app. There’s also no need to bookmark anything, as users will be able to resume the content from where they left off – even if they switch devices.

Will we see more novels like this?

Reading a novel in this format is certainly a unique experience, and one that not everyone is going to enjoy. However, for die-hard fans of Patterson, it is a great opportunity to become more immersed in this particular fictional world.

It is perhaps a shame that the Messenger novel wasn’t released after or in conjunction with the main book, as the additional content would work well as a bonus or for greater insight into the story. In this sense, it acts as a nice example of digital content, offering additional value for readers rather than a replacement for the real thing.

Most digital content in relation to books usually stems from the publisher’s social media pages, or as part of a campaign for a new release. Pottermore is perhaps the only (and most impressive) long-term example we’ve seen, giving fans continued enjoyment through exclusive and additional content.

It is a standalone website, notably, and an impressive one at that in terms of scope and design.

Consequently, with most publishers and authors not having the time or budget (or indeed the ready-made fandom) needed to create similar efforts, Facebook Messenger is perhaps a more viable option.

So, will we see more interactive novels on Messenger in future? Perhaps – if the stories themselves are well-suited to the short and visual nature of the platform. What might be more likely to happen is that publishers take heed of this example and start to create more accessible and immersive forms of digital content based around the core premise of a book.

‘Immersive novels’ are unlikely to overtake the medium in its traditional form for the majority of readers, but as I said in the beginning, it’s a nice alternative (and a bit of bonus material) to have.