Category Archives: childrens_books

on collaborating with the reader

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of reader collaboration, prior to GAM3R TH3ORY‘s publication but to a good deal in response to its impending arrival. This notion clearly means that after the author has done one thing, the “book” becomes the accumulation of author’s and readers’ contributions.
So I’ve been thinking about collaboration. My starting point was something mentioned on my visit to the Institute — that the book’s source needs to be distributed, and it can be altered by the reader. (This is a very big idea, btw, and it’s radically altered my notion of what an e-book format’s obligations are. But that’s another discussion.)
SInce Sophie is an authoring tool, I thought, Why don’t I author something and really see what it can do? So I’ve been working with my own notion of what a book would be like that isn’t wholly limited by its medium being print. And I thought maybe I should let Sophie’s developers in on my ambition so that there’s a possibility that the features I’m envisioning might be included in the program, at least at some point in the future.
I think it’s easiest to understand my notion of collaborating with the reader by describing my work-in-progress.
So the basic notion is fairly simple, realizable already in Flash, say, or SVG:
Imagine a story, with multiple tracks. (I’m actually envisioning a short book, so let’s say 16 or 24 pages and 5 tracks.) On any page, you can go to the next or previous page. Or you can change tracks and see the next or previous page from some other track. It seems just like a 24-page book, except that the 5 tracks provide variations on what is on each page.
That’s not too exotic. And I don’t stray too far from this notion.
The first thing I’d like to do is provide multiple series of illustrations for each track. So track A might display what i call the French illustrations, or the English, or the Klee, and so on. Thus the first capability I would want to see in my authoring/reading tool is a way to change which illustration (or series of illustrations) displays within each track. You still go backwards and forwards, but maybe I like Van Gogh’s illustrations and you like Ansel Adams’. Perhaps I should mention at this point that it’s a children’s book, so I’m not casually speaking about illustrations. They are the central aspect.
The next thing I’d like to do is to allow the reader to supply illustrations, for any page (in any track), and supplant the author’s (or publisher’s) illustrations. So that perhaps my book comes with 4 series of illustrations for each track, but a reader could add many others. If these series were shared (upload your own, download others’), then perhaps you have 9 series for track A and I have 23. There has to be an easy way for the plugging in pieces, which is more on the level I’m expecting a reader to manage, as opposed to the full set of tools the author will access.
With this, the collaboration with the reader becomes two-fold — first the creation can be shared: make your own illustrations. Then, second, each individual instance becomes distinctive. If we trade “copies,” then we see the distinctive choices we each have made. Each instance is unique, especially as it contains series of illustrations that are not shared/distributed at all. In a way this reminds me of the trading card games that my ten-year-old and his friends play. They all purchase the same cards, each possessing hundreds of cards, and collect them into unique decks that they each admire and study (and then compete against, the duel being paramount). Moreover, each has some cards that none of the others has.
In addition to accepting individual illustrations or whole series of illustrations, the book should allow its text to be edited and alternate versions selected for display. I’m not sure whether one text track would be read-only, or if clicking some button would restore the text to its default form in some track, but I’d expect the author’s initial, unedited version should be retrievable in some way.
I’m far less concerned about the text than I am about this capability with illustrations, btw.
Since my project book is intended for children, I’ve thought a lot about the nature of collaboration with them. In this instance, I think will use little or no animation — it’s not an equal collaboration if the initiating author can do tricks to gain attention that the collaborating reader cannot manage. And that is one thing that makes this a book and not an animation or a cartoon and yet still strives to keep its electronicity high.
And my effort at collaboration is more like a teacher’s — here, you write/draw something, and we’ll replace what I’ve done. Perhaps in the end all the words and pictures are yours. My role was to get you started and to provide the framework. But every new collaborator can begin with the pristine master copy that anyone can access (or maybe they’ll start with a local, already altered variant that the teacher gives them). It hasn’t escaped my notice that in fact the collaboration might be between author and a class of students, not just one reader.
So. Likely as not, this first version of Sophie won’tt contain this addition/substitution capability, or perhaps not to the extent I describe. But I hope it can be added to the future feature set, or hooks anyway that will enable some plug-in to provide this capability. Because this type of collaboration seems to me to be essential.
* * *
It seems a natural expectation that a book constructed of multiple units might have multiple paths through it.
In the case of this children’s book, I don’t expect that going from track-A-page-1 to D3 to B4, and so on, is going to provide anything useful.
But I can clearly envision publications — a guidebook, a cookbook, a college course schedule, an anthology of poetry, a collection of photographs, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers — in which a reader (or a teacher) may beneficially provide paths that an author overlooks. (Each of these examples of course is an instance of wholly independent units.)
In fact, I expect that Sophie’s envisioneers have thought of such circumstances already, but I raise it here as a collateral issue — collaboration with the reader must inevitably involve everything an author touches: the text, the development of the ideas, the sequence in which they are conveyed, how they are illustrated, the conclusions drawn. In a true collaboration, the author becomes something more like a director, operating perhaps at a remove (how active will the author be in reshaping the book after its publication?). Or maybe the director analogy is too strong; perhaps it’s more like an organizer — the Merry Pranksters, Christo, Lev Waleska — who launches his/her book like a vehicle (like Voyager) and then simply rides its momentum.
Once we make the book more collaborative, we remake what it means to author a book, and the creation of a book itself may come to be something more like a play or a movie or a dance, with multiple, recognized contributors.
I’m wondering how far Sophie goes in anticipating these ideas.