Digital, serial, communal: books?

(Originally posted on Words and Things as The Return of the Serialized Novel. An early look at the way books can become transmedia properties. 14/10/10) When Charles Dickens wrote many of his novels, they were written as serials -- each week or month, a chapter of his novel would appear in a magazine, such that to read the whole thing, one would have to buy each issue of the magazine.

Today, the same kind of effect is produced with comic books, and some continuing-story TV shows (serial dramas), but rarely with novels. (Some magazines still publish serialized novellas, but it's not common.) Instead, we of course most often use a traditional codex for a complete novel.

However, the continuing e-book evolution (revolution?) brings forward new and interesting possibilities. Enter SF author Neal Stephenson. He and a group of colleagues, now the "Subutai Corporation", are creating a "book" called the Mongoliad. The idea behind the Mongoliad is something of a cooperative storytelling experience, combined with a serialized format.

Basically, you download the Mongoliad app to your iPhone, iPad, Kindle, or Android phone, for what software developer Jeremy Bornstein calls "a relatively low price." Every week, you'll gain access to the next part of the story, written by Stephenson and his team of writers. But the app is the epitome of an enhanced ebook -- besides the story itself, you'll also have access to maps, movies, images, and a full glossary.

The fun doesn't stop there. Because the Mongoliad is a collective experience. Stephenson wants you to help. Do you know a lot about Mongol-era Medieval Europe? You can contribute to the glossary. Readers can rate each page of the story. If you're an expert in sword fighting, and a description of a fight scene doesn't quite jive with you, you can comment on it -- and the writers will rewrite the fight scene to make it more realistic.

The app will foster a community of readers, and encourage them to add their own stories. Write all the fanfiction you want. Of course, you could do that anyway -- but with the Mongoliad, if the team likes what you've written, they mark it as canon. It will become an official part of the world. And so the world of the story will expand beyond the base novel.

Chris Arkenberg, who works in transmedia and is a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Future, thinks that this is what a large part of transmedia writing can and will be -- the expansion of the world. Even if the main story is told on one platform, other media can be used to explore other characters, other places, parts of the world only barely touched by the primary narrative.

Different publishers, writers, programmers, are all taking the possibilities of e-books and transmedia in different directions, and I couldn't be happier. This is where innovation comes from, and I'm sure we'll be seeing some really neat things in the near future.

I have only one concern -- what kind of time commitment will be required to keep up with it all?

(story via io9:

Have any thoughts on e-books, interactive media, and transmedia? With these things still developing around us, everything is a conversation. Leave a comment!