Digital lit: How technology is changing what we read

By Mary K. Pratt, Computerworld |  Tech & society, Amazon, consumer electronics

Aya Karpinska had a story to tell. She could hear the words and envision how the tale would unfold. All she needed, she says, was the right iPhone app.

So Karpinska hired a programmer, paying him $500 to deliver in five days an application that would disseminate her piece, called " Shadows Never Sleep," through an iPhone application.

The application allows Karpinska to tell a visual story, with white text on a black background that makes the actual appearance of the words -- whether blurred, twisted, or different sizes and fonts -- integral to the plot itself, as you zoom in on it to follow the story through. The author calls it a "zoom narrative."

Karpinska is not alone in her endeavor to adapt literature to today's technology. Writers and publishers of all kinds are turning to technology to bring literature to the masses.

Much of the work to date has focused on transferring existing print books to an online format. Project Gutenberg is one of the most prominent examples of that. Founded in 1971 by Michael Hart, it has turned tens of thousands of print volumes into e-books, making it the first and largest single collection of free electronic books. Similarly, e-book readers such as Amazon.com Inc.'s highly publicized Kindle are designed to replicate the traditional experience of reading a book, using technology to bring convenience to the endeavor.

But the work on this front involves more than just converting traditional printed texts into electronic versions. Writers and publishers are also using technology to deliver literature in new and innovative ways using, for example, RSS feeds and text messaging. And they're employing programming and mobile devices to develop new literary art forms, too, forcing us to reconsider how we collectively define the term "literature."

Is tech redefining literature?
"I think we're going to have to change our definition of what writing is, because [electronic] media is expanding the definition of what reading and writing can be," Karpinska says. "It opened the door for different kinds of writing."

The variety of work available through cyberspace ranges from visual works such as Karpinska's "Shadows Never Sleep" to "twiction," ultrashort pieces written specifically for Twitter. You can even find classics delivered in digestible doses via e-mail or RSS feeds.

Susan Danziger is founder and CEO of DailyLit LLC, whose site delivers serialized stories via e-mail and RSS feeds. She and her husband, Albert Wenger, thought up the business a few years ago after seeing that The New York Times had serialized Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Danziger remembers thinking, as she carried her paper daily onto the train for her commute into New York, that the only item she carries around more often than the newspaper was her smartphone. So she and Wenger decided to build an application that would deliver classic novels electronically.

"We really started it for ourselves," Danziger says, noting that she had always wanted to read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and her husband wanted to read War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Danziger, who was working as a literary agent, and Wenger, who has a Ph.D. in information technology, mocked up an application to serialize stories. They tried different lengths before finding that a 1,000-word installment was just about right. And then -- like all good techies -- they showed their program to friends, who asked to use it for themselves.

In May 2007, a year after they had the original idea, the couple formally launched DailyLit.com, which is designed to allow readers to set their own schedules for installment delivery and to speed up delivery of the segments if they're fast readers or can't wait for the next section.

"We're all about integrating reading into the normal day," Danziger says. "It's not meant to replace regular book reading. It's meant to be able to read literature and books that you wouldn't have had a chance to read otherwise."

The site now offers more than 650 public-domain books for free, as well as a number of contemporary titles offered for varying fees. In addition, Danziger worked with Poets & Writers Inc. to deliver "Masters of Verse," a daily dose of poems for National Poetry Month. She launched an integration tool so readers can link their DailyLit profiles to Twitter and developed Wikipedia Tours to deliver bits of knowledge right to readers' in-boxes.

Technology is really the only way to make this work, Danziger says. Printing and distributing hardcopies of this material would simply be cost-prohibitive.

Flash fiction
Jake Freivald, publisher and editor of Flash Fiction Online, had a similar rationale for his venture. Freivald says he has a particular interest in so-called flash fiction, which is storytelling in 1,000 words or less.

Although flash fiction dates back at least 20 years, Freivald says he saw no market outlet for professional works in this genre. Instead, he saw an opportunity to create one.

Freivald launched his first issue in December 2007, and he now delivers a new one with several stories and a nonfiction article every month. He uses RSS feeds and e-mail to keep in touch with subscribers (who receive the fiction free of charge) and to alert them to special editions. And he's starting podcasts to deliver audio versions of the work. Flash Fiction Online has about 900 subscribers, gets about 30,000 page views a month and has 6,000 unique readers monthly.

"The Web makes this viable," he says, adding that he could not afford to do this in print form. Freivald pays $110 a year out of pocket for Web hosting and spends about $200 monthly paying authors for their submissions. Plus, he adds, the brief nature of flash fiction makes it "Web-ready." It's long enough to tell the story, he says, but not so long that people get tired of looking at the computer screen.

The low cost of Internet publishing isn't the only enticement for Freivald and others. Going hand and hand with that is the relative ease with which people are starting their own "presses."

Freivald built Flash Fiction Online himself; he considers it core to the business and as such keeps the work in-house, so to speak. He uses off-the-shelf products for other functions, such as JS-Kit, to give readers the ability to add comments on the site.

Freivald acknowledges that he may be more technically adept than other online publishers, but he says there are many applications available today that are low-cost and simple enough for less technically adept literati. He points out that a flash fiction story can fit on a blog post, so writers or other publishers could easily use blogging programs to put their materials out there for public consumption. They also could use content management software to manage their material.

Reaching your niche
Technology also makes it quicker, easier and cheaper to reach your audience, particularly when talking about niche genres.

Publishing online "allows me to broadcast to a niche market, which is harder to do if you're trying to distribute through book stores," says Nathan E. Lilly, who publishes three online specialty magazines: " Everyday Weirdness," " Thaumatrope" and "SpaceWesterns.com."

Lilly, who works out of Parker Ford, Pa., built a career in Web development but says he also has an interest in science fiction. So Lilly combined his professional skills with his interests, launching SpaceWesterns.com in April 2007, which publishes short fiction (works of 7,500 words or less). Everyday Weirdness, which launched Jan. 1, is a flash fiction site, while Thaumatrope, which launched last December, is what Lilly says is the first professionally paying Twitter magazine.

These stories -- Lilly calls the pieces "nanofiction" or "twiction" -- go out multiple times a day. Like Freivald, Lilly doesn't charge for his publications, he but does ask his readers for donations.

Twitter isn't the only form of short fiction now on the market. In Japan, novels written on and for cell phones have become incredibly popular. After reading about this literary phenomenon, Mary Robinette Kowal, a professional puppeteer and writer, decided to try that in the U.S.

Kowal wrote several installments of a science fiction piece she called "The Case of the White Phoenix Feather" on her cell phone. She wrote her initial installments using the 1,000-character limit of her cell phone, but there was a problem: The phone broke it into random 180-character chunks and didn't send them in order. After the first installment, she manually broke them into 140-character chunks and sent them out to approximately 120 people via either their cell phones or Twitter feeds. Each day's installment was made up of three or so text messages.

She abandoned the project before the story was completed. "I felt like it wasn't entirely successful," Kowal says. She realized that while 140 characters translates into 140 words in the Japanese language -- making it easier for Japanese authors to send fuller "chapters" -- in English, that limit translates to only about 25 words, making it much more difficult to tell the story in such short segments.

These novel types of writing are a far cry from the classic works of literature that remain staples in high school and college courses. They're certainly different from the contemporary novels that still dominate best-seller lists around the country.

And their appearance on the literary landscape certainly invites questions about the future of literature in a wired world.

"You're asking the $50,000 question at that point, and no one has come up with the answer. But the idea of what's literature is changing," says Mark Marino, director of communications at the nonprofit Electronic Literature Organization

Marino, who in 2006 earned a Ph.D. in electronic literature from the University of California, Riverside, says electronic pieces generally "started out as text, and text has always been the center of the experiment." But these literary works are expanding to including more visual and sometimes even interactive components.

That is giving rise to new forms of art, as writers experiment with delivering serialized stories through cell phones or writing pieces in atypical applications, such as Microsoft Excel or Diigo, a Web-based annotation tool. Marino has tried both.

And while Marino and other writers and publishers acknowledge that the ease with which one can publish online means there's a proliferation of low-quality work, they insist that interesting, well-done pieces will be the ones that are widely circulated, receive the praise and ultimately earn a place in literary history.

Can it make money?
As writers and publishers use Internet and mobile technology to deliver more and more pieces of literature, they grapple with the same dilemma that other online entrepreneurs face: How can this make money?

Some online literary talents say they're beginning to develop a business model that could allow their sites to generate revenue, although most have yet to make money off their endeavors.

As publisher and editor of Flash Fiction Online, Freivald has a number of ways to make the site pay. He says he makes a little money by selling ads on his site, and he hopes to make more in the future. He has a "donate now" button on the site, which brings in an occasional $5 or $10. He also has negotiated with his writers for one-time rights to publish their stories in a paper anthology, which he hopes will bring in some cash someday.

But his aspirations are modest. "As a business, I want to make money off of this, but I won't be able to make a living," he says.

Some, though, are already seeing their online work pay dividends. Back in 1997, California-based writer John Scalzi had written articles for newspapers and several nonfiction books, but he wanted to write fiction. He wrote Agent to the Stars as a practice novel in 1997, putting it online with a note to readers asking them to send him $1 if they liked it. He earned about $4,000.

Scalzi, who is well known in the online community as an advocate for online publishing and copyright reform, followed that up with Old Man's War, a Hugo Award-nominated science fiction novel he intended to sell to traditional publishers to put in paper form. But he remembered how daunting the process was, he says, and in December 2002 decided to just put it online instead, serializing the 18 chapters over 18 days.

Then Patrick Nielsen Hayden, a senior editor at Tor Books, saw it and offered to publish it. The print version has sold more than 100,000 copies, and since then, Scalzi has sold four other books for print, including Agent to the Stars.

What does this mean for literature?

Meanwhile, Karpinska continues to expand what society considers literature. "The text is an essential component, but I focus on what you can do on a computer that you can't do with paper," she says, "so what we think about reading and writing is not the same today as what we thought it was five years ago."

It is thanks to today's -- and tomorrow's -- technology that writing as an art form is evolving. While words (the content, in today's tech-speak) are still the basis for literature, the the innovative ways in which they've been assembled to fit today's digital formats may have wide repercussions for tomorrow's literary scene. Whether any of these new forms will last is anyone's guess -- but their existence proves that an art form as old as writing can still morph into new structures.

Mary K. Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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