Redefining Reader Engagement in a Digital World

Jul 04, 2012

As a child, I practically lived at the library. Much to my mother's exasperation, I would decimate my stack of borrowed books (the maximum limit) in two days tops even though they were supposed to tide me over for the entire week. Back then, it didn't take very much for me to get lost in a book-all I needed was a really good story. I was perfectly content to give myself over to the twists and turns the author carefully set before me and relinquish control of myself for a few hours to venture into these magical places. To me, that was engagement. Perhaps it was nothing fancy, but it sure was effective. And truth be told, not much has changed for me-I still love a good story.-

But in the digital world, the idea of engagement has a very different meaning. Marketing is no longer a one-way street. Rather, marketers have learned to leverage social media to build two-way conversations in pursuit of that magic word: engagement. Scrolling marquees decorated with hashtags and @ symbols stream across our television screens, encouraging viewers to engage, luring us with the promise of sharing our shout-outs with the world. In the social networking age, companies continuously ask themselves: How do we reach these communities? How do we engage? How do we create valuable conversations?

While storytelling has always been a conversation between author and reader, the latter usually accepted the role of silent participant. And yet, true to today's interactive culture, we are seeing more and more new digital publishers explore the idea of using reader engagement to actually influence a story-a topic that we have been exploring in detail over at Appazoogle recently.

One such company is Coliloquy, a digital publisher of "active fiction," whose "proprietary platform lets authors create episodic content, branching narratives, and interactive environments that deepen reader engagement." Using a choose-your-own-adventure format, Coliloquy ebooks encourage readers to make decisions as stories unfold, and for many of these books, the choices are relayed back to the authors to potentially shape future episodes in the series. While each story is written in a linear fashion and endings are predetermined, readers can make choices that influence specific details along the way.

Although I am no stranger to choose-your-own-adventure narratives, I first bristled at the idea and perhaps overreacted. My mind raced, and before I knew it, I was asking myself what would have happened if F. Scott Fitzgerald had access to these technologies. What if Jay Gatsby's death was a choice-and if so, could popular vote have potentially saved him from his iconic demise? And then, thankfully, logic kicked in. The more I thought about it, the more I realized these books tap into another form of storytelling, particularly targeted to the young adult audience. The same audience that relies on social media to communicate. Perhaps this is what engagement means now.

Medallion Press is another example of a publisher exploring the meaning of reader engagement through its newly announced, not-yet-released TREEbooks, which stands for Timed Reading Experience E-book. In contrast to the previously described "active fiction" from Coliloquy, TREEbooks take passive cues from reader habits, and stories unfold based on reading pace and a combination of time-sensitive, random, and real-time events. (For a more thorough explanation of TREEbooks, check out Keira Lyons' take.) So in the end, though readers may purchase the same book, they may end up with very different storylines.

While I am still partial to the traditional reading experience, I am nevertheless curious and fascinated by the ability to leverage reader engagement in the actual story development. It also begs further question: are we now dealing with interactive ebooks or apps? Are they books, or are they more akin to games? And, since these are still fairly new storytelling devices (the first TREEbook will be released in October 2013), will they ultimately succeed in the eyes of readers?

Personal experience tells me that so long as readers find value in the story, even if it is technologically driven, then it probably doesn't matter what you call it. The real question, of course, is whether readers are, in fact, truly engaged.

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Word up to would-be writers, novelists, self-help scribes and long-form authors everywhere: Get ready to turn the page and make the jump from print to pixels. Because if you haven't transitioned to electronic publishing yet, you'll need to get up to speed fast and not only learn what it takes to make an ebook, but also how and where best to sell it.