image The good folks at Feedbooks are improving their publishing application programming interface (API).

Writers can now “switch to the Table of Contents (ToC) of your book while editing, to drag & drop parts/chapters/sections and re-order them the way that you want.”

Sounds very user-friendly—another online publishing option for potential authors.

But quickly reading the post the first time, I mistakenly thought Feedbooks was going to let the reader perform these in-book mashups.  It got me to thinking: why not?

When a mashup will work

For novels that rely on straightforward linear progression, a mashup probably wouldn’t work.  But not all novels do. The Sound and the Fury, for instance, or David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (available as DRMed Kindlebook). Or imagine a novel written around a cluster of characters.  You, the reader, follow the characters along as they intrigue you, reading the book in an order of your own choosing.  (Note: I’m working on a manuscript along these lines.)

Hard to fathom the amount of technical work that would be required to create such a beast, both in terms of actual writing and e-book API.  It would have to be done very, very well.  The “hypernovels” of the 90s that I’ve seen are dismal failures, no improvement on the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, which at least had the virtue of being entertaining. 

In Pale Fire, a protype for e-book mash-ups?

image The only really good book I can think of written in this way is Nabokov’s masterwork Pale Fire, conceived as a commentary on a 999-line poem. The poet himself has been killed by a man who may or may not have been sent to assassinate the commentator, who may or may not be the mad exiled king of a conquered principality, which may or may not exist. 

You can’t just read this book chapter by chapter.  You have to page back and forth between poem and commentary and index.  The prototype for e-book mash-ups? 

Undoubtedly there are more.  Italo Calvino?  Maybe the original “postmodern” novel, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy?

Possibly this would be a more effective technique for nonfiction.  For instance, allowing a reader to order the chapters in a how-to book as they find them relevant.  Or history books.  For instance, allowing me to get to the good stuff connecting 12th-century Heian-era Kyoto to modern-day Tokyo while skipping over the hackneyed samurai derring-do in between.  Bringing the sort of hop-scotching link-jumping we associate on the internet to e-books, while maintaining a semblance of chapter order. 

Certainly this would be a break from reading tradition, but that’s already happening on the Internet.  (How many hyperlinks have you clicked on so far?)  I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a bad thing to follow your clicks down the rabbit-hole, as long as it doesn’t involve too much time watching skateboarding rabbits. 

I think e-books can be a lot more than just a convenient offshoots of paper books.  E-books with this sort of functionality built in would allow you to zero in on what fascinates you most.  Sort of a hybrid between website and paper book.  The sort of thing that could send e-books in a really radical new direction.

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