Books are no longer simply books thanks to the strides the digital publishing industry has been taking in recent years. Many publishers are being forced to up their game to compete with new media forms like games, movies and the popular eBook. Technology is rapidly overtaking most aspects of our daily lives. Tom Bonnick, business developer at Nosy Crow, said that ‘using content in different ways was the key to publishing success.’
Charlie Redmayne, Harper Collins UK chief executive, stated ‘when it came to the digital revolution we came to a point where [publishers] stopped innovating and creating.’ Because of this, he says that publishing competitors are ahead of traditional publishers and that, if publishers wish to catch up, they must ‘[go] beyond eBooks to apps, games and video.’
Since the digital revolution, books have been adapted further and further into different mediums to suit new audiences. Because of new forms of media, people have been reading less and less. Physical books have to adapt to the accessibility demand in order to keep the publishing industry alive. The most commonly known form of adaptation is the eBook, a digital representation of its physical counterpart. However, simple eBooks are not enough to overcome the problem publishers are facing. More elaborate adaptations are needed, such as storyworlds like Pottermore, game and film adaptations like the Harry Potter franchise, and audiobooks.
But what makes a successful adaptation?
Well, first, let’s consider what success would be. Many people find it a challenge to finish certain books, for instance The Thirty-Nine Steps is not an easy book to complete. However, they are quite capable of finishing a two hour movie in one sitting, or playing a game for eight hours or more.
Books stimulate two senses, sight and touch. Movies stimulate the auditory and visual senses. Games go further, allowing players to experience visual, audio, touch (through the controller) and reactive stimuli. In this sense then, games would be the most successful adaptation format. These ideas fall very much inline with Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation, stating that telling, showing and participatory elements are vital for book adaptation. However, making a game is not always commercially viable, and does not always lead to success.
Another format, the audiobook, though only stimulating one sense, has seen a recent increase in production due to the large number of available platforms, such as the iPod and Amazon Audiobooks. Nicolette Jones, children’s editor at the Sunday Times, said that ‘publishers are raising their games with physical books’ but she had ‘reservation about apps that replace books.’ This reservation could in part be due to the accessibility issue facing adaptations such as the audiobook. So, success can be measured in the number of platforms it is available on, the number of people to whom it reaches, how engaging it is with the reader, and the accessibility of the product.
So then, what makes a successful and viable book adaptation?
Different adaptation formats, such as games, films and simple eBooks require different budgets. Games and films carry a higher risk due to higher production costs, however they also offer the greatest returns if successful.
For example, American McGee’s Alice was a highly successful game adaptation of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, wherein Alice, having witnessed the death of her family to a fire, goes insane and must face a corrupted and warped Wonderland in order to save herself. Its success led to the production of a sequel and was praised by literary critic Cathlena Martin, even saying that the adaptation would ‘potentially [lead] to a rereading of Carroll through the darker lens of McGee’s Alice.’
But, according to IGN: The Economics of Game Publishing, ‘the costs of developing games for the next-generation of consoles such as Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 is estimated to be roughly $10 million as compared to $3-$5 million for the Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube’, which is a large amount of money to risk on what might become a costly flop.
For instance, the Harry Potter franchise, which saw critical acclaim in film, has received gradually lower and lower reviews for its gaming series. In regards to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow Part 2, GamesRadar stated, ‘this is the absolute nadir of the series. Harry Potter has finally devolved into a total cash-in and we can’t score it low enough.’ When done well, a game adaptation can be commercially viable and encourage later sequels. On the other hand, when a book is adapted for commercially-driven purposes without making an identity for itself, failure can ensue. The Harry Potter gaming series in this sense is the complete opposite of The Thirty-Nine Steps app and American McGee’s Alice.
However, J K Rowling has created a successful adaptation, or rather expansion, of her novel in the form of Pottermore. Storyworlds are expansions on pre-existing books and contain additional information and lore. Pottermore in particular goes further and makes it interactive, adapting gaming elements. Online users create an account in order to access the content, where they will then be sorted into a house, given a wand determined by a quiz and so on. Effectively, this works as character creation seen in many RPGs. This engages the reader and takes them through the world of Harry Potter, with minigames, videos from the author herself and additional stories becoming available the more you play through Pottermore. In terms of success, the website reports around ten million users.
But such high costing and elaborate productions is too much to mass produce or adapt multiple novels at once.
So, what is a cheaper, but still successful method of adapting a book?
Companies like Faber and Faber have chosen to adapt books in the form of apps. While still utilising gaming elements, Faber and Faber have retold the original story by John Buchan by using a range of mechanics primarily found in old point-and-click adventure games, and using voice actors to deliver dialogue. Their attempt has been arguably one of the most successful and engaging. However, that is not to say it has gone without criticism. The Guardian stated that ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps is breathtaking to look at but the storytelling is desperately slow.’ Conversely, many users on the app page rate it as being very good and easy to use:
‘I love reading. However for some time I have been too tired to read a book by the time I’m able to sit down of an evening. Equally I’ve been getting frustrated that this has been the case, missing not having a diverting story to “work” through… [This game] is impressive since it deliberately eschews trying to be frenetic in its presentation, yet remains highly evocative & adept at creating tension (using headphones only heightens this).’
Apps are more accessible to the general public and thus potentially more appealing as an adaptation form. Games can only, depending on the platform, be accessed by a singular device such as the Xbox or a PC. However, apps are easily received by iPads, tablets, kindles, iPods, phones and so on so forth. By having cross-platform availability, companies can improve the chances of a return on their product. According to appmuse.com, an article on app development costs found that small apps cost between $3000 and $8000, whilst more complex apps could be anywhere between $50000 and $150000. In comparison to typical AAA game budgets, this price range would be far more viable for publishing firms.
However, even this price range would prove to be too much for a publishing house that publishes a hundred novels a year. And again, there is no guarantee of a return. The Jack Kerouac’s On The Road app by Pearson PLC has shown this. The app only went so far as to add in extra information and images behind, what was essentially, a simple ebook. Subsequently, it has received a far more negative reception amongst app users, with the app page itself displaying two and a half stars, compared to The Thirty-Nine Steps’ four out of five.
On the other hand, apps have a huge amount of potential. Statistics reveal that, in the UK, an estimated 35 million people use smart phones – roughly 55% of the population. Conversely, Amazon has sold roughly 30 million kindles total. Assuming each was given to a single person, that would account for about 47% of the population. So, finding an audience could be far easier for the app than it would be with an eBook. Especially since Waterstones recently announced that their Kindle sales have ‘disappeared’.
What is happening with the eBook anyway?
Since games and apps offer far more functionality, the simple eBook is starting to look rather barebones. Most only engage in skeuomorphism – representing the physical components of books in their digital counterpart like flipping a page (as thrilling as that sounds). However, if you move away from skeumorphism and into enhanced eBooks, you will discover interactive elements such as multimedia and extra content. However, if not handled properly, this will easily fall to the same problems that On The Road had.
Who is reading anymore?
With more engaging platforms available, it’s no wonder that books are starting to see the end of days. If publishers want to start fighting back, they need to start adapting their products sooner rather than later.
We now know that the most successful form of adaptation is one that is not commercially driven, but strives to engage a new audience. It must have interactive elements and it has to do more than simply provide additional information. Involving the reader, retelling a story or adapting it with a twist, and developing the adaptation for the intended platform, which must be accessible, is critically important. However, the publisher must consider what is commercially viable for them and whether the source material can support a more ambitious adaptation. Games are all well and good, but apps and enhanced eBooks can do just as well for less the cost.
But vitally, publishers need to adapt soon, otherwise their competition will get ahead of them, because nobody reads anymore.