By Jane Friedman
October 11th, 2012
This month, a new experiment in digital storytelling has launched: The Silent History. Described as a serialized, exploratory novel for iPad and iPhone, this stand-alone app delivers brief installments to your iOS device over a period of six months. The app itself is free and comes stocked with two brief videos as well a prologue to get you hooked. After that, you pay per volume ($1.99) or for the entire series ($8.99) to start reading.
Other features include “Field Reports,” parts of the story only revealed to you if and when you find yourself in the right location with your iPhone or iPad. While these location-based segments are not critical to understanding the overall series, people have already said these reports “gave me chills” and are surreal experiences. Furthermore, readers are invited to contribute Field Reports of their own.
(To learn about the premise of this serial, watch the video above, or click here.)
Eli Horowitz, one of the key figures behind this launch, graciously agreed to answer a few questions about The Silent History.
The Silent History strikes me as a lively and innovative way of delivering serial fiction—which has received a lot of buzz lately due to the launch of Kindle Serials. Yes, your app has multimedia/geolocation elements, but at its heart, I see it as a serial fiction experiment that takes advantage of app packaging. And serial fiction has a tradition of involving the readers, which The Silent History offers as well. Did this idea start off as a serial fiction idea, or as something else?
It started as both, I guess—a novel that could be read or explored in a variety of ways, and in which those different approaches supported and deepened each other. So, for you it’s primarily serialization, with a site-specific thing on the side; for others, the serialization just makes them impatient and the exploration is what appeals. But both reactions are fine, and we expect that both will eventually lead toward the other.
Having reported on serial fiction in the past (see here), I often hear the point raised that maybe one-third or one-half of readers will be truly invested in the serial form, while the rest will prefer to have the entire work for an immersive reading experience. Thoughts? Would this be against what you are trying to accomplish here?
This is among the many things where we really have no idea what to expect. I’m sure you’re right that different readers will have different preferences. Also, a reader who downloaded the app on Day One will have a different experience than a reader who downloads it two months from now, once there’s a whole bunch of backstory waiting to be read. These variations don’t really trouble me; we were more concerned with building a structure that allowed for all these different approaches.
It’s very early in the serialization, and thus far, I don’t have a clear idea of who the main characters will be. Will you be fulfilling some of the traditional expectations that readers have for narratives, e.g., a hero we’re rooting for? Is it appropriate to liken the narrative of The Silent History to a TV series with an ensemble cast?
We aimed to fulfill the goals of any good novel: character, voice, propulsive storytelling, lasting ideas. The various characters and threads definitely intertwine more and more as the story progresses, with twists, cliffhangers, all that good stuff. Television helped inform the serialization and pacing, but at its core this project is about writers and readers.
I’m already feeling disappointed that I won’t be able to unlock many of the field reports—especially since I’m reading about people who have surreal experiences unlocking them. It seems the majority of field reports are in major metro areas and on the coasts. (True? Will you eventually release a list of where these field reports exist?) So, I have to ask, if my previous assumption is correct: what about those of us who live in flyover country? It seems like some of the magic is going to be lost. I’m sorry to pick on you with this question, but as a Midwesterner, we typically get the short end of the stick already in all things literary. Are there any plans to offer the field reports in a different medium/format/channel, even if at the end of the serialization?
The location of the initial field reports is just a product of wherever I could find writers willing to take a chance on this strange project; this does tend toward the obvious cities, but there are also several in rural Pennsylvania, central Florida—wherever the writers happened to be based. (For Virginians, there are five or six strong reports over in Richmond.)
Going forward, however, the reports’ placement will be entirely determined by who chooses to write them. I’m excited for collaborative communities to spring up in random spots; all it takes is one motivated reporter plus an audience of curious readers. So the Midwest can’t get the short end of the stick—the Midwest (and everywhere else) will make their own stick of whatever length!
What’s hard to understand about the field reports, until you visit a few, is that being at the specified location is a fundamental part of the experience. I’ll go further: if you can fully appreciate and enjoy a field report without being at the location, it’s not a well-crafted field report. So the reader isn’t supposed to go to the spot in order to “unlock” or “collect” the report—the reader goes there because that’s where the report is. This might sound strange, but it’s definitely what I believe, and I do think it’s worth a try. I understand the initial frustration, but I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be reminded that there’s a difference between seeing a place on the map and actually being there. Not all experiences are available to us just by looking at our phones.
I love the introductory videos and the visual nature of the app. Are there plans to offer any further video or audio segments as part of the narrative?
Yup, we hope to keep making new videos—partly because they’re fun and partly because they provide a way to reach new readers beyond the walls of the app.
Speaking of audio, my partner consumes a huge amount of media every day when he’s outside walking, and the first question he always asks about apps like this: Can I stream an audio version? I can see the answer so far is no, but are there any plans for an audio version?
We’ve considered using audio, and it could happen eventually, depending on our resources. However, we really wanted to make the text the main event—we were trying to reimagine the possibilities of the novel, so we resisted most temptations toward multimedia.
Do you expect to turn a profit from the serialization itself, or do you plan to launch other types of products (like a compilation, audio version, etc.) after the serial concludes?
I don’t even know what a profit would mean—almost all the “expense” was our own labor, so I guess it depends on my hourly rate ($7.95?). Beyond this, though, no one really has any idea what to expect, since I don’t know any of real precedent to use for projections. This whole thing is very much an experiment.
The Silent History appears to be a true group effort. I’m always thinking about author branding and marketing, and wondering—if you are very successful with this effort and collect a fan base—what “name” should people look for if you launch another project?
The collaboration was definitely at the core of this thing—Matt and Kevin and Russell made it what it is. Thinking about follow-up projects is a bit terrifying at the moment while we’re still wrestling with this first one. But eventually there’ll be something else from Ying Horowitz & Quinn, and meanwhile readers should go get the terrific story collections of [The Silent History writers] Matt Derby (Super Flat Times) and Kevin Moffett (Permanent Visitors, Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events).
If you’re curious about how this app—and how the writing of the story itself—all came together, I highly recommend The Rumpus interview with Kevin Moffett.
Then, if you haven’t already, go download The Silent History app. (It’s far better experienced for yourself rather than reading descriptions of it.)
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this experiment in the comments.