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The Future of the Book

Emma Nuttal

Emma Nuttall is currently studying toward her PhD on ‘The Future of the Book’.

She works for Thames & Hudson as a project manager and co-founded interactive book publishers VIKA Books.

Emma writes fiction and literary journalism. You can find her on Twitter @EmNuttall.

As we celebrate 300 years since the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe - arguably the first English novel, Emma Nuttall talks to us about what could be next for the novel - and literature - in the years ahead.

From new printing processes, to the emergence of different genres and narrative styles, there can be little doubt that the novel has evolved significantly since this illustrious castaway tale was first published exactly three centuries ago. But now technology is having a huge influence on how we consume this much-loved literary form.

“The history of experimentation in literature might be considered to be as old as the history of literature itself,” Emma explains.

“Defoe was one of the first writers who dared to experiment with a 'new form' - Robinson Crusoe defined a new genre and a new narrative style and consequently the mainstream model today.”

While the publication of Robinson Crusoe is said to have been part of a new style of realistic fiction, the advent of digital media offers an entirely different experience to readers, as well as exciting possibilities for writers and publishers.

Immersive reading experiences explained

Multimodal experiences
Multimodality describes communication in different forms, from textual communication, to sound, spatial, animated, and visual or coded messages. Literature, for example, features text as its primary means for communication, while film might use a wider range of media to convey meaning. In a multi-modal piece of work, all these elements can often be taking place simultaneously. The collection of these elements or how they relate to each other, can bring about different opportunities for the audience.

Poly-linear narratives
A narrative technique previously used in experimental print literature where events are portrayed out of chronological order. Unlike a print book, where the same information is presented to the reader in the same order every time the book is read - a hypertext narrative is not necessarily linear; it may offer multiple beginning points and contain many different pathways to the reader.

Reader/player interactions
Within new digital fictions, work is emerging that gives the reader increased ownership over the construction of the narrative. The author only creates the setting, characters, and situation, which the narrative must address, but the reader experiences a unique story based on their interactions within that story world.

“I'm particularly interested in the impact of digital technologies on the book and the written word,” explains Emma. “Could the rise of technology actually contribute to the medium in a creative way? My research, titled ‘The Future of the Book,’ is an exploration of digital reading that seeks to identify new opportunities for readers, publishers, and authors to discover, consume, and connect in different formats.”

Emma’s PhD research is largely concerned with how writers can use a digital medium to produce new narrative perspectives. 

“In a digital fiction, for example, you might find hints about a characters psychology by shaking a reading screen so that the words 'fall off' revealing hidden codes. Other narrative elements could be unveiled by opening the book while in a specific geographic location. Authors can programme in the possibility of readers receiving text messages and emails from the characters in their book.

“The reader might even be involved in the production of a digital narrative, co-developing the story, character backstories and new chapters, allowing themselves to become immersed in the story from multiple angles.”

While tools are being developed to help authors make these books, Emma believes “there are definite possibilities for a new breed of novels, and a coming generation of writers, that play with the book format and develop lots of new ideas.

"There's already a growing mass of writers," she says, "who are simultaneously contributing to books, games, films, comics and novels, combining narrative methods as content evolves.”

An evolving medium

Despite its potential, Emma doesn’t believe that electronic literature will replace the conventional print novel, short story, or poem. “The media is dominated with these provocative questions echoing the concerns of today’s publishing industry and some of the moral panic surrounding digital culture. Physical books have wonderful and irreplaceable qualities but digital is only going to conquer ever more of our lives, imaginations and entertainment time. Electronic literature is merely a form, which enables new ways of reading that can complement and sometimes challenge more established media like books.”

According to Emma, electronic literature is still very much in its infancy. “It needs the space and time for writers and producers to understand the new tools and develop the practice - Cinematography wasn’t born the moment we invented the camera…

“We also need more discourse around electronic literature within academia and definitely more within industry and with our audiences. The best ideas come out of discussion, debate, critical thought and collaboration.”

Child using augmented reality

Along with her research, Emma is also working on two augmented reality books:

“The first, was a bit of a stab in the dark," she admits. "It was a piece of short fiction with illustrations that became animated when viewed through the app on a smartphone. I wanted to try and make the animations tell some of the story. That’s what I’m aiming at overall - that the technology element is integral to the experience of the story, but I’m also trying to do it in a way that doesn’t disrupt the reader’s engagement and attention. I am now writing another novel, which intends to explore that avenue further.”

Emma has found that augmented reality books help to invite a shared experience instead of the solitary reader experience most of us are familiar with. It's an element she finds very encouraging, since ‘sharing’ is in itself an integral part of what we enjoy and value about current digital culture.

In addition to her work as a writer, Emma is also in the process of co-founding a publishing house for interactive books, and works part time at publishing house Thames & Hudson. She believes that the most interesting and experimental work can currently be found within agencies and small independent publishing houses, which have the capacity to work in a more agile and dynamic way.

“What working for a publishing house has taught me, however, is the value of a book and what readers are looking for… publishing houses care about understanding their audience and are very careful about investing in something new.”

While Emma’s research won’t be completed until next September, she believes that a digital revolution is taking place. “Future books will be born from digital thinking, drenched in a passion for creative culture in all its forms, and play seamlessly with a variety of technologies. Reevaluating how a book can be created, leads to revaluation of what we think of as literature and what it can be - it’s a very exciting time to be studying this field!  And writers, readers and publishers alike ought to be a part of that conversation.”

Some of Emma’s favourite writers in this sphere include:

  • Kate Pullinger’s Breathe
  • Joanna Walsh’s Seed
  • Iain Pear’s Arcadia App
  • Carlton Books recently brought out the first augmented reality novel for children called The Ghost Keepers Journal by Japhet Asher


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