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Special Edition Books

A while ago I wrote about enhanced ebooks, about how they had largely been somewhat underwhelming and that though the medium offered much in the way of potential, there was more enhancement in the reading experience to be had in a 1980s Choose Your Own Adventure paperback.

So, in lieu of offering a successful model for enhanced ebooks, I’m offering a potentially similar – though fundamentally different – option: special editions.

Perhaps where enhanced ebooks aren’t getting it quite right is in the idea of what they’re meant to be doing. So far they seem concerned with the medium, that reading an ebook is somehow different in its essence to reading a paper book. And because the medium is different, it can therefore change the experience, provide an alternate journey through the story, and as a result, enhance it.

So far this usually seems to be through inflationary methods: interactive maps, hyperlinked indices and character details, images, sound and video. Enhancement here seems preoccupied with turning a book into something that it isn’t.

The difference in medium is misdirection. Ebooks are still books. They are still read like books – with a certain degree of qualification. This experience shouldn’t really change, lest enhancements give the way to novelty, and then redundancy.

While DVD sales may be on the wane, the special edition model offered by them and BluRay is worth considering. Here, the original story is still intact. What is offered in addition is a supply of extras: development stories, interviews, commentaries, outtakes, deleted scenes and so on. The rise of special editions saw consumers become wise to the early release of the vanilla edition – the film without any extras – and merely wait it out for the more expensive yet more enriched viewing of the special edition.

With downloads now supplanting the vanilla releases, the special editions are quickly becoming a norm for hardcopy releases: audiences now expect the extras, the special has become standard. What remains intact, however, is the original story itself. Unless the original director chooses to recut a new version – something that is becoming rarer – there isn’t a preoccupation with enhancing the film from what was seen in the cinemas.

So can’t special editions work for books?

The text of the book would still remain the same. Previously explored enhancements only make the book itself less navigable – and this is something that cannot and should not happen in books. The joy of reading a book is in how simplistic the form is through its elegance. Its linearity serves the story, serves the reader, and makes it a model that can’t fundamentally alter, and hasn’t in centuries. So that ideally remains, eschewing any temptation to drive the reader away from the story into a cul-de-sac of an image or video or whatever else.

But ultimately the one thing implicit in a linear read is that it ends. The story stops, the characters finish, and we have to find something else to read. Unless more is offered.

Why not show behind the scenes of the creation of the book? Stories from authors about where ideas came from, about the foundation of characters, settings and scenes are always devoured by readers with eager anticipation, so why not include these extras as part of what a reader receives alongside the book? The readiness of readers to attend and meet and listen to authors at signings and festivals show that the interest is palpable.

The proliferation of books on writing, by authors who often cite examples from their own stories about how they were developed, is potentially also something that could be included. The stories about stories are fascinating in their own right, and worthy of readership. Allowing readers to discover what happens after a book is accepted, and how it is then developed to become ready for publication, would be fascinating for anybody who has just finished reading that actual book.

There isn’t anything hugely groundbreaking here. All of these things are often available for readers from a variety of places, but these are usually beyond the experience of reading the book itself. Offering readers a book that packages many aspects of what goes on around the book itself would create a special edition worth purchasing. Possibly.

To me, a workable model could be one that looks at the before, the during and the after. What happened before the writing of the book, for the author, that deliberately allowed them to create the story they did. Then what occurred during,what detours did they take, what was left out and what had to be included in service of the story. And then the afterwards, the reflection and acknowledgement of what ended up on the page.

As a reader, I’d like this. I’m unsure how much this has already been explored, or how viable it is, but I think a special edition book would be an excellent way of enhancing the reading of a book, rather than enhancing the book itself. And the experience of reading a book is still unchanged. All of this is trading on words, which is the contract a reader signs up to when the pick up a book, digital or not.


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