Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Over the weekend I plopped myself on my couch with my smartphone and read Dead Letter Office by Kira Snyder, a young adult “active fiction” ebook published by Coliloquy. Technically an app, Dead Letter Office (or DLO, as Amazon reviewers fondly abbreviate it) is one of six Coliloquy titles that embraces a new twist to the choose-your-own-adventure genre. The apps are currently available for Kindle, Nook, and Android.
DLO, the first installment in the Parish Mail series, is a gothic young-adult mystery that takes place in New Orleans. Celia, the protagonist, receives a letter from the past that provides her with clues that eventually lead her to solve a murder in present day. Oh, and there’s also witchcraft, teenage love triangles, and an innocent romance with a “hot” ghost. (In other words, similar elements to those you will find in other trendy YA novels.) I’ll tell you, it was an interesting reading experience.
Though the story does have a linear construction—and there is only one ending—the reader is presented a handful of choices along the way that subtly shape the way the story unfolds. Here’s how Coliloquy describes the behind-the-scenes workings of the book:
Kira has written Parish Mail like a TV series—there are over-arching mystery and romantic story arcs that extend between the episodes, while each episode has a smaller case that is presented and solved. Along the way, she asks you, the reader, to make several small decisions as you read. These choices do not impact the overarching storyline, but certain combinations “unlock” clues to the series’ mystery, which are embedded in the text.
Kira also asks you to cast a vote at the end of the episode, to get additional feedback from her fans about their preferred love interests in future episodes.
While an interesting concept, if I’m being honest, my reading experience was fairly mixed. Putting aside the story itself, because I clearly am not the target demographic for this one, here is what I liked and didn’t like about the Coliloquy title.
What worked: Because I read the Coliloquy description, I knew I would be asked to “cast my vote” for Celia’s love interest. I was expecting a question to pop up after I was through with the story, but I was pleasantly surprised that this question was woven into the story itself and framed in a less-than-obvious way. If I hadn’t been on Coliloquy’s site, I probably wouldn’t have known this information was getting sent back to the author. (But then again, knowing you have some influence on future storytelling is also part of the book’s appeal.) Additionally, the story unfolded fairly seamlessly with my choices. There were no strange inconsistencies, and I didn’t ever feel regret for any of my choices.
What didn’t work: Although this is called active fiction, I didn’t think it was nearly as active as it could have been. I am fine knowing that the story is written in a linear way, but I would have liked more opportunities to make choices. Additionally, the first choice does not appear for quite a while into the story (as the author is establishing the setting and characters), so when it finally does present itself, it can be a little jarring. Finally, the app costs $4.99, but I thought the “episode” was a bit short. And yes, I fully recognize that I am bemoaning five bucks in the age of the magic $9.99, but I still thought it was short!
Overall, though, I can see how something like this might be a pretty big hit for the YA market. I also find it interesting that readers’ choices can potentially shape future installments. According to Andrew Losowsky, books editor for the Huffington Post, Coliloquy apps “send anonymized data about your decision, as well as about how often you have read a particular chapter, and which characters you have followed the most. They are the first third-party publisher to receive such data from Amazon. They surely won’t be the last.” And that right there is pretty exciting. In fact, in another recent post, Appazoogler Keira Lyons told us about TREEbooks, which use reader behaviors to passively influence the reading experience based on data. The ability to leverage technology to get a first-hand look into what readers want, whether collected passively or actively, could potentially open up a whole new set of options.
Although part of me feels like this can be more gimmick than substance, I do feel it’s a promising sign. I’d also be willing to check out more Coliloquy titles. Some are written in episodes, like DLO, but there is also one standalone title, Fluid, which could potentially provide a different reading experience. And, for all you Fifty Shades fans, it seems that one of these Coliloquy titles inhabits in a similar niche. It will be interesting to see what else we see from Coliloquy in the next year.