Thinking Outside the Book


The publishing industry is in a state of tremendous flux. The traditional model where publishers act as gatekeepers to talent is under siege from ebooks and self-publishing. Authors today don’t have to bang on the doors of the “Big Six” publishers like Random House to get their books published; they can leverage existing platforms like Smashwords and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to ease their publishing pursuits and often outcompete legacy publishers.

At the same time, there is an undercurrent of a more dramatic change in the publishing world: what constitutes a “book”? The advent of visual storytelling tools has the potential to completely alter the way ‘books’ are written and consumed. Authors can create tremendous stories when not bound by the physical limitations of the medium. This re-definition of what a book is and can be is at the core of the creator’s divergence away from traditional options.

In this brave new world, the very essence of storytelling is changing. As such, the ripest opportunities for authors exist in publishing realms outside of the conventional book definition. These adjacent and thriving territories may seem daunting to authors on these thresholds for the first time. That feeling is understandable though unnecessary. Authors don’t need to rush into these new worlds and run helter skelter across the publishing rubicon. Rather, authors can and probably should just take it slow as they immerse themselves in new publishing mediums. Here are a few transitional ways to begin engaging in the re-imagination of storytelling and publishing.

1. Use Pictures Where Appropriate

To use a cliché, pictures do tell thousands of words. Incorporating powerful visuals wherever appropriate can deepen the impact of your stories. Traditional publishing was not very conducive to stories that harnessed the power of visuals due to the limitations of legacy book publishing technology, namely the printing press. But with digital formats and self-publishing channels, any author can use images to create more profound and engaging stories at no additional cost. And the production costs of doing so are becoming almost inconsequential.

There is historical precedent for creating narratives that combine words with images. William Blake’s poems, for instance, were meant to be accompanied by his relief etchings. The illustrated manuscripts of medieval and early Europe are another example where images help create more engrossing stories. For as long as man has been telling stories, in fact, narrative have always been coupled with visuals whenever possible. The means of doing so are simply as easy and beneficial as ever before.

2. Experiment with Non-Linearity

The physical form of the book limits the author to narrative linearity since all pages must be turned one-by-one and usually in front-to-back order. This limitation does not apply to digital books, however. A digital publisher is completely free to jump from page 1 to page 10 and then back to page 2. Such non-linear engagement is becoming so preferred in digital reading that the concept of “pages” is even being questioned. This gives the author much more control over the ‘flow’ of her book—the reading experience becomes more intimate and aligned with her and her reader’s desired styles. By controlling how the reader reads the book, the author can shape the story to her liking, giving it a more organic nature.

3. Leverage Multimedia

Pictures may be powerful, but they can’t compete with interactive elements—videos, games, puzzles, and quizzes—in terms of storytelling. You could, for example, complement a narrative about vampires terrorizing a small town in Maine with a haunting background video that captures the mood of Maine’s cold, bitter winters. Or you could create a little word game in your children’s book where the reader can pick up and drop words, thus creating much more engaging stories.

Using multimedia has the power to completely change the way we think of, write, and consume stories. Multimedia can complement words, or it can replace them altogether. Either way, it’s an exciting new world of opportunities for authors where, much like software, the boundaries of what a book is are bursting wide open and limited only to the author’s imagination. Those that will continue to prosper in the brave new world of publishing will continue to think outside of the classical idea of a book. The book universe is much bigger than anyone ever thought before.