Note: I’ve made my latest book, Overshare, available for free download through this Friday, 1/20/12 – it may be informative to download a copy and look at it in the (free) Kindle Reader app or on a Kindle Fire (it’s presented in full color, so viewing it on a monochrome Kindle won’t give you the full experience) before reading this post.
These days, authors and publishers are beset on all sides by pundits and industry watchers telling them they must innovate, they must redefine the meaning of the word "book", they must experiment with new forms, make use of multimedia and transmedia if they hope to stay relevant in the new, digital frontier of literature and publishing. All of which is well and good, until you take their advice.
The relatively minor transition from hard copy to ebooks has been difficult enough, and there are still plenty of readers who prefer the feel (and even smell!) of "real" books so much that they’ve sworn they will never switch to using an ereader. There goes a chunk of prospective readers, if you’re intending to release something in a digital format.
Next comes the form the experimental content takes. We’ve all heard of Vooks, "enhanced" ebooks and ebook apps. But how many of us have actually bought, or even seen one for ourselves? Think about it: if those of us who are in the publishing and literature business aren’t invested (or in many cases, even interested) in these new forms, why on Earth should we imagine casual readers would be? So now your prospective audience has been whittled down further, to include only those ebook fans who are also interested in experimental, new forms of digital lit.
Finally comes the quality of the content. Once you’ve brought the experimental digital lit fan to the table, it’s much the same as winning over any reader. If your content appeals to the specific tastes and preferences of a given reader, he’ll like it and maybe even be so kind as to leave you a nice review on Amazon or Goodreads. If not, he will deem the book a failure. And unless he leaves a negative review somewhere, detailing the reasons for his dislike of the work, you’ll never know if it was a failure of form or of content.
Overshare is an exclusively digital release, and it’s presented in an unusual form. When the reader "turns" to the first page, she doesn’t find the typical chapter heading followed by paragraphs of text. She finds what looks like a Facebook page. After a few such pages, she finds what looks like a Twitter stream. Then a post on the protagonist’s blog. And so it continues: social media pages and blog posts, lots of pictures, but nothing else. No narrative is provided, the reader must construct her own.
I’ve sent out MANY advance review copies of Overshare. The responses seem to fall very clearly into two camps. On the one side, there are the people who rave about it and respond with genuine excitement to its non-narrative, heavily graphic presentation. On the other, there are the people who initially say they’ve begun to look at it and find it "fascinating", "intriguing", etc., but then never respond in full. Obviously, these readers ultimately did not find the book to their liking, but I’ll never know if it was a failure of form or content from their perspective.
This is frustrating, since it’s impossible to refine or improve either the form or content of other works going forward if I don’t know what needs to be improved. It’s also possible that any kind of experimental thing, simply due to its experimental nature, will always create a sharp divide of opinion.
Experimental digital lit is a tough sell. The non-narrative form of Overshare makes it very difficult to promote. While regular users of social media—my target audience—know how to interpret this material right away, others don’t know what to make of it. When my own father, who does not use social media, was out for a visit recently, he asked me, "How do I read this book?" One hates to discourage ANY sale, but I have to accept that people outside my target audience aren’t likely to "get" Overshare to any extent, and their negative reviews can be a liability.
I thought I could build buzz initially within publishing and author circles, which are presumably more fertile ground for digital lit and experimental lit, and branch out from there to the general, reading public. Dan Holloway ran an interview with me on his eight cuts site, focusing primarily on the non-narrative aspect of the book (e.g., the book demands, or allows, depending on how you look at it, the reader construct his own narrative) and the Creative Commons licensing issues it raises. Joanna Penn ran a guest blog from me on the technical aspects of creating this heavily-formatted, graphics-intensive book. Both pieces generated a lot of reads and some comments, but scarcely bumped the sales needle for the book. I got a bit of discussion going on Facebook, where one commenter noted that by turning on the Commenting function of the Kindle, readers can insert themselves as characters in the book by adding their own "Likes" and "posting" comments to the protagonist’s blog. A very promising idea, I thought; but it still didn’t generate sales.
So now, I’m trying a giveaway. While it’s always been possible for prospective buyers to view a free excerpt, an excerpt doesn’t adequately convey what the book is all about, or how it’s supposed to be "read". People viewing the excerpt are just as likely to be confused as prompted to buy the book. When what you’ve got to offer isn’t instantly accessible and doesn’t immediately touch on familiar reference points for your target audience, sometimes the only way to get people to take a risk on it is to give it away at first. Even then, some people will decide it’s not worth the investment of their time to try the new thing.
But hopefully, many others will try it. And whether they like it or not, some of them will talk about it. Some will blog about it. Some will post reviews. And with any luck, after you’ve stopped giving it away, the book will have made enough of an impact that it can stand on its own two feet. Time will tell. If you’ve decided to download Overshare, and I really hope you will, I would very much appreciate your feedback: in the comments section here, in the form of a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or even sent directly to me via email (my address is readily available on my website, Facebook profile, Twitter profile and Blogger profile).
Circling back around to the whole question of whether or not dabbling in experimental digital lit is worthwhile…well, I’d say it depends. If your goal is to maximize the commercial potential of your work (e.g., to make money—and there’s nothing wrong with that) as efficiently as possible, then experimentation is not for you. On the other hand, if your financial needs are pretty well covered and more or less every manuscript you write is an experiment of a sort, you may want to give it a try. Those with some tech savvy will have an easier go of the writing, formatting and publishing steps, but once the book goes on sale, we’re all in the same, leaky boat.