Why Did Interactive Ebooks Never Catch On?

From BookRiot:

It’s taken for granted that an ebook will be almost indistinguishable from its paper version. You could change the font or text size, sure, but you aren’t getting anything that couldn’t be achieved in print. But reading text on a screen offers a lot more options: when reading lengthy online pieces, we expect to have embedded images, videos, and hyperlinks mixed in with the text. Click on a Wikipedia article, and it’s a very different experience from a paper encyclopedia, if just for the links. You can get lost in a never-ending proliferation of tabs. Paper books don’t usually invite this non-linear reading experience, and ebooks copy this system.

. . . .

So why did interactive ebooks never take off? Why can’t I check out an interactive version of my favourite book, where there is an embedded playlist, so I hear the same music or bird songs the characters are listening to? Why don’t my textbooks all come with interactive illustrations that can be rotated and disassembled? Why isn’t there an ebook of House of Leaves that is even more immersive and claustrophobic? Where are the ebook gifs, I ask you?

There’s an excellent Wired article by Steven Johnson that I recommend called “Why No One Clicked On the Great Hypertext Story.” In it, Johnson describes how in the ’90s, with the growing possibilities of the internet, “hypertext fiction” became not only possible, but seen as the future of literature: a pick-your-path story for the digital age. After all, the internet makes the navigation of these kind of stories a lot easier. This technology opened up a lot of possibilities for storytelling. Decades later, we have come nowhere near realizing that potential.

For hypertext fiction, there are were a couple of problems, and they can be expanded to interactive text in general. For one thing, they were incredibly difficult to write. A story that can be endlessly reshuffled in its parts to combine into new stories is a lot to demand of an author, but even the most basic of interactive ebooks requires additional work to finding the right words. Imagine if authors not only had to craft their world, but also provide Pottermore-style interactive illustrations for each scene, and select the perfect soundtrack.

Even when you have all the component parts, it’s a whole other layer of difficulty to make an interactive ebook work. Right now, most interactive ebooks are available as their own apps, because the most popular ebook apps don’t support interactive formats. And if you’re going to be making an app, you need to be able to code.

There’s a lot more demanded on the reader’s end. You have to find and download each individual book’s app . . . . If they are truly interactive, these ebooks also require more from their readers⁠—which was another problem with hypertext fiction. Most people picking up a book don’t want endless ways to read them, and don’t want to pause partway to play a mini game before they can read the next chapter. For the most part, we want our books to be linear.

This isn’t to say that interactive ebooks don’t exist. There are some, but they have not come anywhere near to being mainstream. They aren’t available as a format next to the audiobook and standard ebook option.

. . . .

[I]s the simple, text-based format of books a feature, not a deficit?

. . . .

At their best, books become invisible. They are the means by which we dive into a story, and once we are invested, we stop even seeing the words in front of our eyes. We don’t register that we’re reading. We’re transported. An interactive ebook may end up being less engaging than the plain text version, because it creates a barrier to losing yourself in the story; it makes it harder to forget that you’re reading.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

PG suggests linearity in books is a feature, not a bug. He suggests the human brain is constructed to absorb, retain and analyze information in a linear form.

Beginning, middle and end is not the only way stories can be constructed or recounted, but it is almost certainly the most common story form. Flashbacks can be interesting, but, ultimately they’re not usually satisfactory (at least for PG) unless they contribute to an understanding of a character or story at the time when the story, in the main, is taking place.

For the record, PG doesn’t characterize stories that begin, “When I was a little girl . . .” and end with something like “And so, I’ve always remembered to be kind to all animals.” as a flashback so much as it is a story that takes place in the past with a bit of a frame on it.

PG also doesn’t have a problem with the linearity of two parallel stories taking place at different times with the narratives jumping between past and present so long as they are linked in some way that creates a satisfying experience for the reader. However, if an author tried to combine an episodic telling of the stories of Charlotte’s Web and The Cat in the Hat into a single narrative, PG doubts that a result more satisfying than reading each story by itself would be delivered to the reader.

PG also poses a question. He understands there is a concern with substantial numbers of young people who seldom read for a variety of reasons including poor schools, addictive videogames, unlimited television, etc., etc.

However, is there any real evidence that children who receive a decent education that includes reading and have the opportunity to read outside of school are not enjoying the experience and continuing to read as they grow older? In other words, is there significant and reliable evidence that stories told linearly, beginning, middle and end, are no longer satisfying for such children?

Or, perhaps, PG is entirely out of touch and wrong as can be?

31 thoughts on “Why Did Interactive Ebooks Never Catch On?”

  1. The OP seems to be thinking of interactive in a different way than I was thinking of it. I don’t want to read the book non-linearly, I just thought that if a character is eating something mysterious like a “poi roll” that you might have a link to a picture of them. Or, when Nancy Drew says a loon sounds like a screaming woman, I could have a link to what that bird sounds like. But my Kindle Fire can satisfy my curiosity when I just highlight the word and tell the app to search on the Internet for it. Some books have annotations, which works for me, too.

    For the most part, the things I was thinking of for interactive e-books could be solved by the simple expedient of bringing back illustrations. I can only think of one indie who had illustrations (pen-and-ink drawings) in her novel, and I know Stephen King had illustrations in the ebook of “The Stand.” But that’s rare for modern adult fiction. I want illustrations to be commonplace again.

    As for kids, my sister-in-law reads, and I read. So, my nephews read (the niece is too young). One of them told me that he didn’t write a lot of stories that particular year because, “I didn’t have enough imagination this year, because I didn’t read enough books.” He always asks me for books for Christmas and his birthday. These are linear print books, so …

      • I fully expect the illustrator to get paid, of course. More than likely the indie was friends with her illustrator, so she probably got a good deal. And Stephen King is Stephen King … I just wish more publishers with Stephen King-dough might do what he did in “The Stand.”

        But thinking about it now, it’s very likely that all or most of the illustrated novels I’m thinking of from the olden-days were serialized in magazines first. Which means, illustrated adult novels weren’t necessarily as commonplace back then as I thought it was. Survivor bias; since the books I have encountered are classics now.

        • I just wish more publishers with Stephen King-dough might do what he did in “The Stand.”

          The problem with that again – and this may sound odd – is that illustrators need to be paid.

          When a publisher buys a Stephen King book, his advance pretty much uses up all the oxygen in the room. Any unnecessary expense is going to come out of the publisher’s profits, because it’s unlikely to increase sales materially.

          I suspect King insisted on having illustrations in The Stand, and got them because he is Stephen Fricking King and publishers actually have to accommodate him. That doesn’t apply to you and you and you.

      • The other trouble with illustrations is that they suck on a Paperwhite, which in turn is vastly superior to any alternative for text.

        • And they are virtually indecipherable on a phone, which is the device most of us happen to have on our persons when we get caught with a few otherwise wasted moments and want something to read.

        • I switch between three devices myself, but whether or not illustrations suck depends on how they’re coded into the book.

          I do expect this to be tested for prior to publishing, though. Failure to test how things look across devices is common in other ebook scenarios (whether tradpub or indie); illustrations are not an exception.

  2. Interactive stories are successful under a couple of different names:
    Role playing games. Text adventure games.
    They have been around since long before the internet or even computer graphics.


    Over time the field has evolved into a variety of graphical formats on arcade, computer, and gaming console systems. There’s pretty good money in it.

    NYC publishing has never been a player in this niche, though, and it annoys the heck out of the establishment.

  3. There are a few books where the music is significant to the story and I would have liked to have a playlist that would let me hear the music (having a page of printed lyrics only helps if it’s a tune I’m very familiar with)

    but that can be satisfied with footnotes that are links, without requiring the fabled ‘interactive e-book’

    • John Ringo has a habit of listing a recommended playlist, chapter by chapter, in some of his books.
      With today’s music subscription services it’s not hard to queue the songs up if you’re the curious type.

  4. I’m going to sound curmudgeonly here, but this drives me batty.

    The non-linear information format encompassing video, music, still photos, text, audio clips, maps, animations etc. has existed for a long time.

    It’s called a “web page”.

    A linear with multiple paths interactive storytelling experience utilizing animation, still photos, text entries, video, background music, recorded dialog, user input, and even communal participation is called… a video game.

    It’s just for historical reasons and the similarity to print books that the linear, still photo, text and narrative based storytelling format that lacks interactivity and high storage or bandwidth is called an “ebook”. The repeated efforts to “invent” interactive or enhanced ebooks is just reinventing primitive web pages.

    I hear Toyota is coming out with an electric horseless carriage soon. I’m so excited.

    • I scrolled down to the comments pretty much to say exactly this. I’m a massive fan of story driven video games and have been since I was a child. If someone wants an interactive story with visual and audio elements there you go. And you’re right, what is being described here is about as unappealing as a late 90s GeoCities website.

  5. A ‘book’ is most often considered pages with a ‘story’ printed to be read. Anything that interrupts the reader reading the story pulls the reader out of the story and therefore is a bad thing. Being able to listen to a song or a bird cry is nice – unless it interrupts the reading.

    As most ‘interactions’ drag you out of the story then for most stories it’s the wrong way to do it.

    MYMV and your story not be interrupted … 😉

  6. From the article:

    “At their best, books become invisible. They are the means by which we dive into a story, and once we are invested, we stop even seeing the words in front of our eyes. We don’t register that we’re reading. We’re transported. An interactive ebook may end up being less engaging than the plain text version, because it creates a barrier to losing yourself in the story; it makes it harder to forget that you’re reading.”

    An excellent observation by Danika Ellis. I think her conclusion is exactly right.

    I’ve made the same point about why I believe books need to be carefully crafted and well-edited. Errors, sloppiness, and failures of craft jar the reader out of the spell of a story, out of his or her immersion in the Story World.

    My “Prime Directive” as a novelist is to grab the reader from his place in the Real World, drag him into my Story World, and use every trick of craftsmanship to hold him there, spellbound and turning pages, until the very end of the story.

    If that’s my literary Prime Directive, then my literary equivalent of Mortal Sin is anything the writer does that jars the reader from the spell of the Story World and propels him back into the Real World. Such sins remind the reader that he IS a reader, rather than a participant within the Story World. Once the spell is interrupted, the reader suddenly remembers he is hungry or thirsty, or he starts to think about Real World matters. He may very well stop turning those pages and put the book aside…possibly for good.

    In my other literary role — a book editor — my job is to point out to writers the places where, through errors or various writing deficiencies, they have interrupted the spell of their tales and jarred the reader back into that Real World he was trying to forget for a few hours.

    Writers should work hard to learn and master the basic writing skills of good grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and punctuation, to avoid the kind of rookie errors that catch the reader’s eye, annoy him, and thus prevent or disrupt his full immersion into the Story World.

    But writers also must study and practice the art and craft of good storytelling — including dramatic structure, suspenseful pacing, vivid characterization and description, compelling dialogue, and the other tricks of the trade. Those are the elements that grab a reader from the first sentence, then rivet him to the tale for its duration.

    That takes work and practice. In our world of easy self-publishing, too many lazy writers neglect basic writing skills and storytelling craft. Then they wonder why they fail to gain, or retain, a readership.

  7. Interactive books would currently lead to way too many dead ends. Think of the various threads running through the Game of Thrones books. Dead ends everywhere.

    But, there is hope. When AI starts writing books, it can move ahead of the reader in whatever direction he wants to go. This opens the door to every reader encountering a unique book that no other reader ever sees.

    I know authors hate this notion, but I doubt consumers will care.

    • It’ll make for great video games, yes.
      But it won’t be a book.

      And cobsumers will care.

      A book is a bounded narrative.
      The author’s ideas, not a framework for a mixmaster of random threads and choices.

      The griping about GOT was precisely because the show left two many degrees of freedom viable until way too late and those options obscured the inevitability of the ending. Plus, they reversed two of the three key events that made the inevitable clear. Namely: the break between Jon and Daenerys needed to happen before she torched the city, not afterwards. It needed to *show* her internal isolation exceeded her growing external isolation.

      They strung the happy-ending crowd too long.

      In a well-written, cohesive, book the ending can be surprising but it needs to be inevitable, at least in hindsight.

      In a proper book there can only be one ending, even obscured, not a spread of outcomes according to reader prejudices. Otherwise the author’s message is worthless.

      In games, however, this is actualy highly desirable because the whole point is to maintain the player in illusory control and replayability is value.

      A game like Fallout 4 that can keep players doing multiple runthroughs for years because of richness and flexibility is a great thing. Linear games with a fixed ending had better be otherwise masterpieces or be panned.

      A book where the reader can edit characters and outcomes at will isn a good thing.

      FOOTFALL’s outcome may be left undetermined (and properly so) because the entire story is about a very specific element of human nature that might be a survival trait or doom humanity. The purpose of the book is to pose the question and make the readers ponder it, not let them fill in the blanks based on preference or prejudice.

      MASS EFFECT, on the other hand, presented a similar scenario and *invited* players to choose an ending based on those preferences and prejudices.

      “Have it your way” works with games and burgers but not books.

      The two compete but they’re not the same thing and they are not converging.

  8. It was obvious to me twenty years ago that interactive or “enhanced” ebooks were a terrible idea. There are some limited exceptions, mostly in some but far from all areas of nonfiction. I have, for example, a history of 20th century classical music. If I want to listen to some piece of music it talks about I can usually pull it up on YouTube easily enough, but this is the low-handing fruit for integrated multiple media.

    The further away the book is from something like this, the less well the multiple media will work and the more it will be pointless gimmickry.

    It also illustrates the problem of doing something like this well. Just think of the rights nightmare. Even if the composition is in the public domain (by no means an automatic thing, with 20th century music) the performance probably is not. So every single clip will involve tracking down and obtaining the rights: simultaneously expensive and a pain in the butt.

    There are any number of additional problems, such as the addition of sound to what previously was a quiet, private experience. So now I have to wear ear buds? I hate ear buds. And so on…

    • In the late 80’s and through the 90’s there were some beautiful multimedia CDs. Totally wondeful but expensive to assemble precisely because of rights and processing. Fabulous reviews.
      Almost all were nonfiction.

      Decent enough sales but nobody made enough money to justify the effort other than Microsoft, because of EXPEDIA. And even there, AFRICANA didn’t get a second edition. And Microsoft divested Encarta as the web started to become ubiquitous. It was dead and buried by 2009.

      The costs weren’t proportional to the market.
      Probably still aren’t.
      Pundits just forget how freaking expensive multimedia projects are. Games run into the tens of millions and survive by high prices ($60-100) and multi-million sales, much bigger than all non-Potter books.

      • Pundits just forget how freaking expensive multimedia projects are.

        I think some of the pundits regard that as a feature. Turn a book into a gigantic media project that costs tens of millions of dollars to create, and only gigantic media conglomerates will be able to write them. This gets rid of the competition and also stifles that pesky ‘freedom of speech’ stuff right at the source.

          • The BPHs? None. Their parent companies? As many as they choose.

            Anyway, we are not talking about the BPHs here, but a certain group of pundits who are having wet dreams about stuffing the genie of indie publishing back in the bottle. At no time will they be called upon to put their own money where their mouths are.

            • I doubt that.
              They lack the imagination or courage to bet those kinds of money on creating anything. They’re spread out but they’re still nickel and dime thinkers that prefer to buy ever more failing publishers than try to create something new. Remember, in the 90’s they had a chance to create an ebook market and folded after six months. It was too rich for them. In their mind if it’s not an instant success it’s a failure.

              The pundits are even more limited. They don’t even understand the past so they’re totally incapable of addressing the future.

              • Again, you’re talking about the BPHs themselves. I’m talking about companies like News Corp. and CBS. They have the resources to buy up game companies the way they did with publishers and other media properties – if they so choose.

                • Those guys? They *already* tried and were barely alive on the way out. They’ve tried a few times in the last 40 years and it never ends well.

                  Here’s what CBS electronics published way back when:


                  The experience left them with no taste for interactive markets. Lucasfilm had a game division in the 90’s. Produced a couple of good ones. And a bunch of less successful ones. They quit.

                  Disney quit in 2016. On and on.

                  Seriously, they may have tbe money but video games isn’t a quarter-to-quarter business. They have no stomach for investing $300M over three years, hoping the game isn’t ignored upon release.

                  Rhode Island learned that the hard way with Schilling’s videogame company. They loaned out $75M, he produced an excellent RPG game, critically acclaimed, and still ended up bankrupt leaving Rhode Island with a hundred million dollar hole.

                  That’s about the hole buying Fox and releasing DARK PHOENIX gave Disney. leaving

                  Studios, gaming and movies, have died because of big flops. Often. And that’s despite big movies being funded by consortia. Few if any studio fully funds a movie out of pocket like the game studios do.

                  There’s a clear separation between the media giants and the gaming giants. And that’s how the media guys prefer it. They’ll license their IP but fund it? Nope.

  9. The linearity of stories assists kids in understanding things like:
    – cause and effect
    – sequence of events
    – the common structure of stories

    As a retired teacher, I have to say that those students who struggle with reading also had difficulties with the above associated skills. Flashbacks and other breaks in sequence are often confusing to them.

  10. In the late Nineties and early 2000s, a bunch of fiction writers created interactive ebooks, and NO ONE bought them. It wasn’t long before no one was writing them.

    And, as someone said, various forms of games fill this niche quite nicely. Also, as someone else said, popular fiction works because it is immersive. Anything that takes away that immersive element is bad writing, and the reader is unhappy.

    • Broderbund’s living books were among the more “successful” interactive books of the day. Chapter books, too. Very well done.


      Sold 400,000 over three years.
      Not a particularly good return.
      And tgis was at the height of the MPC wave, just before the internet went mainstream.

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