Liza Daly is Vice President of Engineering at Safari Books Online. Previously, she was owner of Threepress Consulting, where she provided strategy and software for publishers, authors, and vendors. In 2008, she developed Bookworm, one of the first open-source EPUB readers, and in February of 2010 released Ibis Reader™, the first HTML5 ebook platform. Liza is on the Board of Directors for the International Digital Publishing Forum. You can find Liza on Twitter at: @liza.

What Can You Do with a Digital Book?

You can do a lot of things with a paper book. You can read it. You can make notes in it.  You can fold down corners of various pages to mark something of note or just keep track of where you are.  You can easily lend a physical book to a friend.  You can destroy it forever. You can even make it into art[1].

But what can you do with a digital book?

In the nascent electronic book era, much of the discussion covers what you can’t do.  Generally, digital books can’t be lent or resold.  You can’t curl up with them and smell them, nor can you pass them on to grandchildren.

Many of these limitations have nothing to do with the intrinsic qualities of a digital book, but are instead a reflection of the difficult transition between an old, established medium and a new, to-date undeveloped one.  We compare the physical to the digital and quickly spot the differences: digital’s shortcomings.

Ebooks do not have to be mere simulacra of printed works. What are the unique qualities that being digital, especially born-digital, add to the reading experience? In what way is literature being transformed? What can we do with these new kinds of books?

The Opportunity to Upgrade

Upgrading Pride and Prejudice
Upgrading Pride and Prejudice

When readers open ebooks today, they have some expectation that the digital book will contain the same content it did when they last opened it. That sensibility reflects the limitations of current ereaders, not an intrinsic quality of digital media, as software clearly demonstrates. Software is, after all, text written for an audience of computers rather than people.

When software first became a consumer product in the 1980s, it was literally unchangeable. It was written on media that was write-once,[2] placed in a physical box, shrink-wrapped, and set on store shelves. Later releases of software in a box would likely include some bug fixes and minor feature additions, but conceptually, a software program was treated as any other kind of physical media—it was produced once, and if there were sufficient interest for a second edition or version, a user would be expected to purchase a completely new copy of the product.

Until computer networking became ubiquitous, there was no straightforward method for computer software to be upgraded in-place, or “patched.”[3] In the 1990s and early 2000s, software updates were still done via formal release numbers and discrete new editions. The onus was on individual owners to find and acquire patches to update their own products, sometimes for free and on occasion by paying for an upgrade.

Increasingly, software designers are moving toward a versionless, seamless upgrade model. Applications now routinely notify users that a new version is available.  These updates typically contain a time stamp or version number and a “change list” of bug fixes and new features.  In effect, software updates have moved from a “pull” model (where users must find and then manually download updates) to a “push” model, where the user needs to play no role beyond accepting or declining the update.

Even this hands-off approach to software updates may itself be short-lived.  Web browsers are beginning to continuously update without user intervention.[4] These programs are perpetually and automatically at the latest version.

Applying an updatable model to ebooks can evoke some squeamishness. The latest version of a digital book may not represent the best or most desirable version.  In software, new features have been known to add new bugs or bloat the application; books could suffer a similar fate. As with software, readers may want an option to decline a proposed upgrade.

This concern grows more acute when considering fixity as it applies to scholarship.  To understand an author and a work, it can be critical to have persistent access to the original version.  We know that the original Huckleberry Finn contained offensive racist language,[5] but its use is of a time and place that demands the author’s version to understand its intended message.

Digital access also makes it possible to see and perhaps access a range of versions of a single text.  However, not all versions are created equal, and it is a legitimate criticism that by surfacing all versions of a text, we risk endorsing the worst of them.[6]

Nevertheless, I argue that the vast majority of digital content updates can be made ethical, innocuous, and in the service of the reader. Change lists must not be optional; it should be possible for a reader to know what is different about a new version, either through mechanical means[7] or through editorial commentary.

But there is no reason that the spectre of censorship should make us fearful of updates, edits, or upgrades. The internet is the greatest copy machine[8] ever invented; storage is plentiful. Digital preservation is an admirable goal and a tractable problem, and it can be managed while the benefits of truly “living” texts are explored.

A Chance to Interact

“Will you read me a story?”

“Read you a story? What fun would that be? I’ve got a better idea: let’s tell a story together.”
—Photopia, Adam Cadre

The growth of digital texts is a precursor to the advent of digital storytelling.  The lessons of early game developers can teach us much about the possibilities and pitfalls of designing for true interactivity.

Transforming digital text into interactive narrative was one of the first impulses in computing. Limitations in graphics and computing capability meant that the very first games, distributed via early versions of what has become the Internet, were text-based games such as Colossal Cave (1975)[9]. Textual gaming had an initial commercial flowering, in part due to the heterogeneity of computing platforms at the time—there were dozens of consumer operating systems, each with a different set of severe constraints on memory, processor, and display.

In contrast to today’s high-budget video game world, development teams in the 1980s were miniscule. Authors were generally paired with software engineers.  Many classic games across all genres were coded by a single person; this model of author and implementor in small, focused teams remains viable in developing ebook-based interactivity.

In the 1980s and early 90s, game publishers experimented with form, pricing, and budget. They also exhibited tremendous anxiety about piracy[10].  Authors frequently played a direct role in early gaming, including Douglas Adams[11], Geoff Ryman,[12] and Robert Pinsky.[13]

Of these three examples, it is notable that Ryman’s work, hand-coded by the author in HTML, is the only one that modern computers can still “play” (read) natively. Text games like Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy can be played today only because a distributed effort to reverse-engineer an obsolete but beloved technology[14] has made it possible.  Proprietary game engines as used in the Pinsky work are nearly impossible to run,[15] both from a legal and practical perspective.

More recently, mobile devices (including but not limited to ereaders) have resurfaced many of the same issues that challenged early computer game developers.  These include platform variability (a wide range of sizes and computing capability) and an immature market with uncertain consumer expectations.  A book’s natural status as a cultural symbol is worth preserving, and the standardization effort around interactive ebooks,[16] suggests that viewing these artifacts as books rather than games will benefit future scholarship greatly.

A commitment to standards, however, need not limit the opportunities that digital books provide readers.  These can be thought of in terms of participation, exploration and illumination.


Discussion of interactive storytelling tends to revolve around the “choose your own adventure”[17] model, in which the author writes a fixed set of narratives and the reader is given the option of exploring one or all of them. Many reject this conceit as a meaningful form of expression. “Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices,” writes Roger Ebert[18] in one of his many critiques of videogames as art.

Yet extended choices is not the only way in which a participatory narrative can augment traditional storytelling. Many interactive works do not have alternate endings or choices; they may even exploit Ebert’s concept of inevitable outcomes. In Phototopia[19] by author Adam Cadre (Ready, Okay![20], HarperCollins), you do not play as the central character. The story is a series of vignettes about other people who intersect with her life. You are riding with a drunk driver who is unable to stop before running a red light. You are the father of a newborn. You are a teenage boy with a crush on a girl in your class. Interspersed with these slices of life are sequences from some kind of fantasy story, but the didactic narrative voice and dreamlike inconsistency of the settings suggest a story being told orally, made up as the narrator goes.

About halfway through the story, it is clear that these narrative pieces are being told out of order, and that when reordered, add up to tragedy. There is no opportunity for the reader/player to alter that outcome. The story, to use a derogatory term from the gaming world, is “on rails.” The purpose of Phototopia as a work is two-fold. First, it uses the apparent agency given to the player/reader as a tease; one should be able to turn the car away, to magically warn the protagonist to stay a moment longer, but it is impossible. Second, you never play as the protagonist herself. Instead you see her through the eyes of people who care about her, at various times in her short life, told in the second-person, as is typical for these games. The intimacy and participatory nature of the experience means that the work can be concise and devastating in a way that would be difficult to achieve in a linear, static story.


Textual computer games with a literary bent often take the form of wordplay.  In The Gostak[21] by Carl Muckenhoupt, the narrative is grammatical, but nonsensical at first:

You are the gostak. The gostak distims the doshes. But you’ll have to discren those glauds first.

Based on a famous illustration of syntax,[22] The Gostak recalls The Jabberwocky[23] but adds the pleasure of discovery. Readers do not just enjoy the wordplay—they engage with it, using trial and error and inference to solve the mystery of the words.

Crenned in the loff lutt are five glauds. A gitch tunks you from the hoggam.

>tunk glauds

Which do you mean, the raskable glaud, the poltive glaud, the glaud-with-roggler, the glaud of jenth or the Cobbic glaud?


A raskable glaud is about as unheamy as a darf of jenth, but at least it can vorl the doshery from the gitches.

Here, “tunk” is clearly a verb, and glauds is clearly a plural noun. “Raskable” is some kind of adjective, maybe color? When used as a verb, “tunk” provided additional information rather than causing some kind of action, so the player will assume here that the verb is something like “look at” or “examine.”

The narrative may still be set, but in these examples, the digital text encourages exploration in ways that can challenge and reward the reader.  By seeking direction, the reader’s engagement with the text moves from passive to interactive, while the software itself—a digital book—provides direction and meaning in unexpected ways.


Text-based gaming offers a wealth of experimentation, but typing commands at a computer can be frustrating.  Engaging users this way is seen as an obsolete form of interaction. Following the author/implementor model, in 2010 I commissioned an interactive piece from game designer Emily Short with two constraints: it must be primarily textual, but use a simple touch-based interface.

First Draft of the Revolution, Emily Short
First Draft of the Revolution, Emily Short (September 2012)

First Draft of the Revolution is an epistolary story set in a parallel history in which written documents are magically linked. The reader is presented with each letter in sequence, each sentence fading in slowly to reflect the “magical” transition between sender and receiver.

The letters are at first incomplete or impetuous and cannot be sent “as-is.” User interface clues (such as red text) provide hints as to which passages need to be revised.  Tapping on those passages allows the reader to edit or delete them altogether. While the message of each letter is authorially fixed, readers control the tone and how much is revealed or hidden in each response.

First Draft of the Revolution was released in September, 2012 as both a browser-based experience and a free EPUB3 book—to put it distinctly among other books, not games.  At its heart are the core elements of story, set in a digital environment that allows both exploration and illumination.


Immersive and Nontrivial

Starting with the CD-ROM era of the 1990s,[24] the development of “enhanced” ebooks, usually with multimedia elements, has seemed to be a natural evolution. Yet the industry has struggled with early commercial and artistic failures, suggesting that consumers don’t want or need multimedia content — such enhancements may be distracting. There is widespread concern that a multimedia ebook is not “enhanced” in any way, and that it is actually inferior to its quieter, static counterpart.

I propose that digital-only additions to texts should pass a two-fold test of utility. First, such additions should be immersive: they should appear to be natural extensions of the work, satisfying the curiousity of readers at the moment that these curiousities naturally arrive in the course of consuming the text.

Enhancements must also be nontrivial. Loading up a reference work with links to Google Maps or Wikipedia offers little value the reader could not obtain independently. Primary source material, topics not easily discoverable via search engines, or deeply curated dives into ancillary topics represent rewarding additions that readers will want to explore.

For example, ChessBase[25] is a database and game engine used by serious chess players worldwide. It holds thousands of historical games and provides users with a challenging artificial intelligence engine that can recommend moves based on deep searches of those games.

ChessBase is also an ebook reader of a kind in that it can consume and display the PGN format (Portable Game Notation[26]), which mixes narrative content with game notation. Players can purchase chess ebooks[27] and read them inside the engine; the games that are referenced in the book can be played interactively.

The scope of the experience is not limited to information available at the time of the ebook’s publication.  If a reader wants to know more about the Sicilian Defense, ChessBase data can provide a list of all tourament games that used it as recently as a matter of days.

Chess ebooks can also be authored in ChessBase.  The ebook sold to consumers is essentially the author’s manuscript and source file. This is perhaps the fullest expression of immersive reading—there is a one-to-one relationship between the authoring and reading environment, and readers engage with the content in the same context in which they will make use of it.

By comparison, Listen to This by music critic Alex Ross has an extraordinarily complete companion website[28] featuring audio and video clips to accompany the pieces mentioned in the text. The web-based guide is nontrivial, but because it is external to the ebook, it is not immersive.  While rights issues around multimedia are murky, they should be clarified, not avoided, in pursuit of experiences that are both immersive and nontrivial.


Options to Invent

The cell phone has rapidly cemented its place as a media delivery platform for young people. In a typical day, 8- to 18-year-olds spend an average of 49 minutes either listening to music (:17), playing games (:17) or watching TV (:15) on a cell phone—and this is an average for all 8- to 18-year-olds, including the youngest children, and all of those who don’t even own a cell phone.”

—Kaiser Family Foundation study[29], January 2010

In 2011, nearly every online form of self-expression enables commentary. Whether it is the erudite dialog of MetaFilter,[30] dubious comments on YouTube, or a simple binary Facebook “like,” children today are growing up with media that is almost universally participatory. The next generation of authors will expect the written word to be as fluid and maleable as online video or updates on social networks. Some might take comfort in writing as a solitary pursuit, but most will embrace the cacophony of digital expression.

Production values of home videos today exceed those of big-budget network shows from only 20 years ago. I similarly expect tech-savvy or curious authors to leapfrog the tentative digital experiments of the 1980s and 1990s directly into new forms of popular expression. I encourage those of us in the publishing industry during this transitional period to enable this expression, technologically, economically, and culturally.  We need to provide readers with their own options to invent, or we risk losing them to other media possibilities that do.

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