How will we read in the future?


In 2008, Penguin Books published a digital fiction website called We Tell Stories. At that time I was working for a Penguin subsidiary and had already observed that Penguin was quite concerned with positioning itself at the forefront of the new digital world. The changes that were coming were going to reshape reading and writing and it seemed to me that Penguin didn’t just want to react to whatever happened, they wanted to be part of creating it. I could see that this push was coming from the most senior levels at the company and that impressed me. It also impressed upon me that this was important and that those of us who loved books would have to adapt. I don’t necessarily want to frame this adaptation as purely survive or die. It was also very exciting.

By late 2009 I had moved from London to Sydney and about the time the iPad came out I formed the conclusion that books, films and video games were going to meet somewhere in the middle. The lines between them would blur and interactive storytelling would be the result. I wasn’t sure when this was going to happen, but I knew that it would and I wasn’t interested in working in publishing again until we had found that interactivity.

So I picked up an idea for a novel I had and started work on it (old-school, paper, no interactivity), began writing for a company that makes virtual agents (new-school, digital, loads of interactivity) and waited to see what the world would bring me.

It turns out that there was lots going on in the world, but not much of it came to find me. I had to go and find it. And in the going out and finding I discovered how much there is to tell.

We Tell Stories is my starting point. It hasn’t held up very well and some of the stories definitely work better than others. But it’s useful to look at first (even if it’s not the earliest of the digital writing experiments), because it did have some interesting ideas at its base. And some of those ideas have found their way (consciously or otherwise) into more modern creations.

To get my biggest criticism of the project out of the way first: I find a number of the stories thin and unsatisfying. There were six of them, told over six weeks, and each based on a Penguin classic. Today, only five of those stories are accessible.

Slice by Toby Litt is a reworking of The Haunted Doll’s House by M.R. James. It tells the story, via their respective blogs, of a teenage girl (Slice) and her parents. After moving from Florida to London, they discovered a supernatural disturbance in their house. As well as reading the characters’ blogs, it was also possible to follow them on Twitter, which was a relatively new platform at the time.

Fairy Tales by Kevin Brooks is a choose-your-own-adventure story about a girl who must either get riches to save her parents or marry a vile prince. Inspired by the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson.

Your Place and Mine by Nicci French draws on Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. It details two people’s thoughts before and after their first date and completes the story by linking the reader to a news web page. It was originally told in real time, in five hour-long instalments.

Hard Times by Matt Mason and Nicholas Felton is similar to a powerpoint presentation, filled with the slogany graphics that were popular at the time. It’s about how digital culture is changing our world. Linked (by title only) to the Charles Dickens novel.

The (Former) General In His Labyrinth by Moshin Hamad is inspired by Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. This story is a gem. It’s very well told but the navigation through the story reminds me of special effects from the 1980s. It’s a great idea, but the execution is unsophisticated.

The final story, which was also the first to be published, is The 21 Steps. Unfortunately, it no longer loads today. But it told its story via Google maps and was based on The 39 Steps.

As I’ve said, some of these ideas were precursors to projects that are around today. I’ll come back to them in future posts.

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