Will Augmented Reality and E-Readers Kill Paper Books?

the art of journeyAs 2012 closes and 2013 dawns, it seemed a good time to enter the fray on a popular discussion: will e-books be the death of paper books? I’m a confirmed Luddite (no dedicated e-reader yet, though I do finally have a smart phone) and I love my paper books, but even I have to admit e-books present exciting new opportunities. In the right hands, e-books have come a long way from the poorly-formatted and typo-ridden uploads we came to expect in the early Kindle and Nook days.

One of the most exciting things I see writers exploring on paper these days (it’s not actually new, but I’m just now discovering it) is hybrid forms. Writers like Michael Ondaatje and W.G. Sebald blend poetry, prose, news clippings, images and more. These narratives come alive in new and interesting ways as the writers and readers fill in gaps between these forms to create a different kind of story.

E-books have infinite potential to take hybrid forms to a new level.

Enhanced E-Books as Illuminations

Melville House has been experimenting with HybridBooks. These e-books contain additional materials from maps to curated text that are meant to illuminate the stories they accompany. This series has been well-received and I’m intrigued by the ability to immediately follow intertextual linkages (without the trudge to the bookstore). And I’ve always loved the maps inside the covers of books, so I suppose this is an extension of that and I can definitely see applications.

Reinventing Publishing with New Media: Augmented Reality Books

My husband received The Art of Journey for Christmas. Using an app, his smartphone turns this illustrated companion to the PlayStation game from a paper book (art by Matthew Nava) to a four-dimensional world as characters literally fly off the page accompanied by a haunting soundtrack.

Though this “augmented reality” only works for a few pages in the book (I imagine the animation is insanely expensive), daqri, the company behind the technology has already been using it to take scientists inside the protein shell of a virus. The possibilities for turning a book into a high-tech immersive entertainment experience are endless.

Will Paper Books Still Exist?

Paper books will always exist in my house as long as I can get them. Sure, there are times when it’s great to be able to click through to understand a reference I hadn’t quite gotten or to see an illustration of what someone else envisioned a creature to look like (this would have been very helpful to me with Lovecraft). But the beauty of black ink on white paper is that I get to participate in the experience of creating the stories and images. If I had a clickable Les Misérables, I would never have spent hours in a British Consulate library looking up new words in the full-length OED and discovering how much I love language and etymology.

I have to admit, though, that for the right project, HybridBooks and augmented reality are very intriguing. Would either of these options enhance the manuscript you’re working on? I’d love to know more. And if you know about other new ways people are re-imagining the book, please share.

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Author of Polska, 1994 and co-author of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art, Isla writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and BAs in Sociology and Political Science from the University of Washington.


  1. says

    I’m a Luddite like you, but that’s probably because I’m much older. Some twenty-something might be able to think up ways to re-imagine my manuscript, but I never will.

    • Isla McKetta, MFA says

      Sometimes I think these tech improvements are a bit like optioning something for a screenplay. It’s best for a writer to find someone with fantastic potential and a vision and then let that person make an entirely new baby out of it.

  2. says

    Interesting thoughts and I would agree with most of those.

    However when you write… “These narratives come alive in new and interesting ways as the writers and readers fill in gaps between these forms to create a different kind of story.” Sometimes, I wonder if this “filling the gap” is not taking away the power of imagination, the capability of creating new visions out of visions, or the chances of starting up new discussions?

    PS: And then again, I love and need to get some new input as the writer’s topic seems to be challenging me…

  3. Isla McKetta, MFA says

    I agree with you about imagination, Martin, but I misspoke about the writers filling in. In fact, what I love about Ondaatje and Sebald is that they present these fragments of things (more so in Ondaatje’s case) and it is nearly entirely up to the reader to use that wonderful imagination to bridge the gaps and create new meaning.

    What I think a lot of writers (including me) wrestle with is how much to control that experience of imagining the world and how much to let the reader make their own. These new technologies certainly contribute to the control, but so do writers who tell you the eye color of their characters and how many freckles are on their nose. It’s a balance and I love that there are so many different options. Some days I find Sebald maddening and some days I want to collaborate with him to create something greater that could only be made through the combination of our imaginations.

  4. says

    Isla, I have a couple of thoughts on this. I recently purchased a book on psychiatric service dogs. I am reading it using the Kindle software, which is a free download from Amazon. When asking myself if I should purchase the Kindle version of this book or the paperback version, I considered price (Kindle was cheaper) and time I’d have to wait. I also considered ease of reading the book while riding the bus. It’s hard to carry around a laptop in the first place, let alone pull one out quickly on the bus and quickly put it back again and not miss my stop. But do I really have room for any more books? I already have about 700 on my shelves and my apartment is barely larger than a breadbox. I opted for the Kindle format.

    I am not sorry. In this particular case, the book contained a bunch of appendixes and resource lists. Here, there were tons of links. What good are these in a paperback? In the Kindle, I could click on these and get right to where the author intended. Not only that, but next year, the link will still be good and it will lead me to next year’s information. Specifically, I could find out about laws pertaining to service animals, information about the Americans with Disabilities Act, and resources for people with psychiatric disabilities all over the US. True, I didn’t buy the book for the appendices, I bought it for the very informative and touching stories in the main part of the book, but these links were an added bonus.

    In my own case as published writer, my memoir came out first as e-book, then two years later as paperback. I replaced the e-book text with the 2012 paperback text when it came out, so both texts match. My publisher agreed to do this. The covers are different.

    When the e-book came out, I did not publicize, because the immediate reaction from people around me was near repulsion (I am not kidding you) with the e-book, almost disgust, like, this is not real publishing, it’s only an e-book after all. So no one would buy and they insisted on waiting. I decided to wait as well. I kept my trap shut. I said, okay, wait for the paperback.

    When the paperback came out (again, I am not kidding you) this was July 18 of this year, I was, to be exact, incarcerated in an eating disorders lockup mental ward, or you could call it that. When I told the staff, “I’m having a book coming out any day now,” they though I was lying, that I was a lunatic, that this was some grandiose delusion. Most thought that I was deluded that I had met my publisher in person in London and that I did not in fact have an MFA, that This Hunger Is Secret and Goddard College were part of some big manic fantasy of mine.

    So the book came out and no one would buy it cuz it costs $25. This was unexpected, but hey, that’s show biz, right? If I’m gonna try to sell the book, I sell my own signed copies, that I purchased for a discount and sell myself for a lot less. Or I explain about downloading the free Kindle software if you don’t have the Kindle device, or downloading the .pdf from the publisher.

    The times they are a changin’ and it’s time to get with the times I guess cuz they ain’t gonna change back.


    • Isla McKetta, MFA says

      Thanks for sharing your story, Julie. I’ll vouch that the MFA was no illusion, even if it does all feel like a dream sometimes. I hope you are doing well. I haven’t bought your book yet, but it is on my list to read. The scene you read to us about your experience at home over breakfast has stuck with me ever since.

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