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'The Silent History' turns up the noise on a new kind of e-book

The app/serial novel 'The Silent History,' a dystopian fiction told in installments and with visuals, is also a literary treasure hunt complete with GPS.

October 05, 2012|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
  • Readers can access Field Reports — additional stories written by various authors — by going to a specific location and unlocking stories unique to that spot.
Readers can access Field Reports — additional stories written by… (Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles…)

For the last 18 months, it was tough for Kevin Moffett to tell people what he was working on. "I would find myself getting out of breath," he says of his attempts to fully describe the project he was co-authoring.

It's "The Silent History," an app that's a serialized novel, as well as a literary treasure hunt. Like a television show, it took a team of people to create and produce. And it dramatically advances the way digital novels take advantage of the latest bells and whistles available on the iPhone and iPad (sorry, no Android).

"It's artistically exceptional, and also built around technological innovation," says Erin Kissane, a consultant who helps publishers with digital content strategies. "These guys have just raised the bar — a lot."

E-book sales have been increasing at a tremendous rate — 117% in 2011. But the majority of e-books — particularly novels — simply replicate the print experience on-screen. "Mostly, we're just really happy if they're easy to read," Kissane says.

Certain nonfiction books have been able to successfully integrate multimedia. Cookbooks can print a shopping list or set a timer, math textbooks have built-in problems to solve, biographies include videos, photographs and recordings of the real people involved.

Finding appropriate places for those bells and whistles is easy in nonfiction, but "it's not clear how to include those elements in the DNA of a novel," says Eli Horowitz, the producer and creator of "The Silent History" and the former publisher of McSweeney's, Dave Eggers' independent publishing company.

When you open "The Silent History," there is a three-part prologue, with visuals and text that set up the story of a present-and-future dystopia in which a mysterious speechlessness epidemic has broken out among a generation of children. You can then buy volumes for $1.99 apiece — an easily digested price tag for people used to purchasing their entertainment a song or video at a time. Purchase the entire 120- episode story and it's $8.99.

Subscribing to the entire story at once means each day's content downloads automatically. After the novel's launch on Monday, I found myself fruitlessly tapping the wedge of screen where the next episode would appear, hoping that somehow Tuesday's installment would arrive.

A good cliffhanger creates a fevered demand — trying to get their hands on the conclusion of Charles Dickens' serial novel "Little Dorrit," American readers rioted on the docks as the shipment arrived.

Dispirited by the humdrum state of e-books, Horowitz committed himself to creating the page turner of the future, devoting a year to developing an app/serial novel that would push beyond what anyone had seen before.

"E-books were unmistakably a lesser form," he says. "There was not a spirit of excitement about them, among writers or readers."

After making a list of what iPhones can do, Horowitz developed a story that would suit them. It would need to be delivered in bursts short enough to be read in about 15 minutes, standing in line or waiting for the subway. And it would take advantage of GPS, creating location-specific features.

"The app is really tuned to the story, and the story was created around the possibilities of the device," Kissane says. "The form and content are closely entangled without being gimmicky. It's a good novel. It feels like a real book."

Horowitz structured that book as a multi-voiced oral history. It was written by two co-authors — Moffett, who teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, and Matthew Derby, an award-winning short fiction writer. Another essential collaborator was Russell Quinn, a top-notch software developer.

Horowitz gave Moffett a two-page story summary and worked with the authors throughout. "We pushed to go big wherever we could," Horowitz says. They strove for "the most vivid, memorable, surprising, interesting mix."

"We had models — serialized TV shows like 'The Wire' and 'Deadwood,'" Moffett notes, "with large outsized figures who you know but continue to change."

Like a television show runner, Horowitz oversaw it all, mapping out story arcs, discussing emotional beats and tracking factual strands. When they were finished, they'd written a 160,000-word piece, the equivalent of a 500-page novel.

Another innovation of "The Silent History" is the additional narratives that complement the story, contributed by other writers. Called Field Reports, they appear as pins on a dynamic, zoomable worldwide map inside the app; so far, there are 13 in Los Angeles, 29 in New York City, 25 in Australia and one in Antarctica.

The only way to read a Field Report is to visit its location, with iPhone or iPad in hand.

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