Fearbreeders: A Case of Enhanced E-Reading


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Article ImageSUBJECT: RICH JAMES, AUTHOR

Rich James is a novelist, blogger, editor, speaker, and teacher living in east London. His books are set there as well. He is contracted to write several science fiction episodes for an up-and-coming radio serial that's being produced by a London-based audio production company.

BUSINESS CHALLENGE

James wanted to use existing technology to write fiction in a way that he hadn't seen done before-with hyperlinks embedded in the story, directing readers to external sites that enhance the story being told. "From the perspective of an author, I wanted to show that by using new technology interactively/innovatively an author could publish their work and stand out-and continue to stand out-in an overcrowded marketplace," James says.


THE PROBLEM IN-DEPTH

James is an academic writer by trade; his day job is writing and editing academic essays for students at English universities. As such, he is familiar with how "useful, interesting, and versatile" links can be within academic texts-such as through footnotes and similar items. "But nothing like that existed to contribute a little bit more in the way of fiction texts as regards the narrative stories," James says. He adds there have been instances of epublications in which links are used to provide additional information, "but nothing that continued the narrative, as it were-in other words, offered other strands of the narrative from the main story via links."

Readers want choices, James feels, and if you're publishing a story in an ebook format, the potential for an infinite amount of choices is there. And it was a potential James was eager to tap into.

"An e-reader is basically a specialized web browser," James says. "Therefore, writers should be thinking, in my opinion, of making their manuscripts a specialized website. Once you make your manuscript a specialized website, the options and choice are as limited as the internet-which is limitless, I would dare say. If you get the narrative working like that, you offer limitless choices."

THE SOLUTION

Enter Billy Bickster, the 12-year-old protagonist of Fearbreeders. In the young adult fantasy novel, Billy discovers that the monsters pursuing him and his two friends in their dreams are more than real. Those green creatures, with demonic red eyes, are actually the summation of the children's darkest hidden fears.

As they peruse the book, readers can click on links taking them to blogs, video sharing websites, and gaming websites-all with a paranormal or psychic bent, and some are even "hosted" by the dead. The sites are also the very same ones Billy and his friends are viewing in the book as they try to solve the story's tale.

It's an innovative concept, but James says he didn't come up with "any great technical innovations" to execute it. Instead, he tapped existing technology and used it "in a creative way within the narrative."

"All we had to do was basically build all the websites, and link it through to the text" in the publishing files, which were subsequently uploaded on to Amazon, James states. He says the publishing files were kept as EPUB files, not MOBI files, "simply because then we get greater control over the text and the ability to control what new links we're allowed to upload. ... With the MOBI file, of course, you're fixed. There's not a lot you can do about it. With the EPUB file, of course, we have the opportunity to continually change the links and modify the links and where we send people."

This elasticity is key for James. If he writes a new story that is too short to publish, he can put it on the websites "that you've directed people to anyway, and off the back of these stories, they can go to Amazon and buy another book related to that."

THE OUTCOME

James published Fearbreeders in November 2014, without the backing of the traditional, more mainstream publishing houses-who, James admits, weren't too "keen" about the project. "I just think they didn't understand it," James says. "It's outside their spectrum of interests. I just don't think it made a lot of sense to them."

James says publishing houses seemed to think what he was trying to do with e-manuscripts "was somehow compromising their literary goals in some way, shape or form-which is ironic to me, as I don't see a great deal of literature coming out of these people. They want to do anything they can to make it commercial, so I was surprised at the snub."

"They're set up to sell books a certain way," James adds. "They're just resistant to change. It's change; it's something different. That's the only way I can see it, because otherwise I don't know why you wouldn't look at this. I thought it's a great idea. It's very logical the way the technology's progressing. It seemed fairly straightforward to me, but apparently not."

However, James predicts the more traditional houses will come around to his idea. "There's nowhere else [for them] to go," he says. "Everything else has been exhausted." For one thing, James says, there's the sheer money-making potential of approaching e-readers as "specialized browsers."

"When you're sending people through to links that you control, to websites that you control, all of that is open to advertising prospects," he says. This new way of looking at ebooks "offers that choice, and all these commercial possibilities as well. I think everybody wins."

And, just as you can watch a movie on DVD without viewing the deleted scenes or alternate endings, you can read Fearbreeders straight through, without clicking on the many embedded links. "If you don't want to click on them, don't click on them," he says. "It's a complete story in itself; otherwise, you're not a very good writer."

In terms of sales, James says they've been "okay, so far," admitting that "we didn't do as well as we thought." He attributes some of that to a marketing company he used that "didn't get this concept" and "never figured out how to market it." Feedback, on the other hand, has been "great," says James, who has sequels planned for mid-2015. He has even been working with a producer in Los Angeles on a screenplay adaptation.

The reader feedback, James says, also points out a benefit of publishing Fearbreeders in this manner. If somebody writes in with a suggestion, he says, "I can do that immediately." "Because we've kept the novel as epub, and we control the primary sites, I can do that immediately if it sounds like a good idea," James says. "I can write that particular story or that particular blog post. ... You can be that responsive, instantly responsive, to fan feedback and include them in it."

And that ability to continually evolve the story, to make immediate changes based on fan input, is "very, very cool," James says. "From the perspective of the serious writer who believes in the craft, and of course literacy and education and getting people involved, that's what I want, that's what can be done," he says, "and that's what you can do with ebooks."  


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