A Calendar of Tales: Participatory Culture & Interactive Book Design

This research investigates Neil Gaiman's book, A Calendar of Tales, which was produced by Blackberry and published in a digital format in the fall of 2013. Gaiman solicited story ideas from his fans via Twitter and utilized crowd-sourced artwork throughout the book. My work highlights the unique design qualities that emerged from this project as well as the potential problems with such a publishing format.   

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The future of books is a contentious topic. On the one hand, there is the constant hand wringing from publishers and writers (and the general public) about the supposed death of the novel. On the other hand, tech folks optimistically proclaim a new era of open publishing, accessibility, and opportunity. While I certainly find myself on the latter side of this debate, there is no denying the shifting nature of book publishing and the general decline of print readers. But, I don’t see any reason to panic. We shouldn’t lament the death of printed matter, but rather we should revel in the possibility of what screens can do for books. There is much to talk about when thinking about the future of books, and here I'll focus on one project in particular: A Calendar of Tales, by Neil Gaiman. 

Although A Calendar of Tales is not the most radical or innovative digital book design in recent history, it strikes me as important precisely because it is a relatively mainstream book, written by an extremely popular author with the aid of Twitter, and produced by Blackberry. These factors point to the fact that this book is not simply an experimental art project, or a niche indie book with limited readership. Beyond the production, the lush design of the book has implications for the role of the designer as author, as well as notions of linearity, shape, movement, and interaction. My thinking situates itself under the idea that book design lives on a spectrum, and as more and more digital options appear, this spectrum continues to expand. A Calendar of Tales is not an end-point in book design, but a stepping-stone of sorts. To where, I can’t say for sure, but I believe there are some predictions that can be inferred from this book, and an analysis of the design and production will illustrate some of the possibilities for books in the digital space.   

A Calendar of Tales is a collection of twelve stories. In order to write each story, Neil Gaiman tweeted a question to his many followers (over 1.9 million) for each month. Such questions included, “Why is January so dangerous?” and “What's the strangest thing that ever happened to you in February?” and “What mythical creature would you like to meet in October? (& why?).” From the thousands of responses that he received for the twelve tweets, Gaiman picked one answer and based a short story on it. The stories range in terms of content and style, from funny to serious to cheerful to melancholy. Gaiman also solicited art for the book from his fans. Each story includes one primary piece of art, as well as a dozen secondary pieces. The artwork, too, ranges in style and medium; some are realistic and somewhat dark and mysterious, while others are cartoonish and whimsical. The entire project was funded, promoted, and built by Blackberry, under their “Keep Moving” campaign, which also includes projects from Alicia Keys and Robert Rodriguez.

The use of Twitter in literary endeavors is not entirely new. In 2009, Rick Moody published an entire short story via 153 tweets over the course of three days. @VeryShortStory tweets 140 character micro-stories every day. Jennifer Egan published a short story via the New Yorker Fiction Twitter account, one line at a time. There are many such examples, but most authors seem to utilize Twitter as a publishing mechanism. Interestingly, Gaiman didn’t use Twitter to publish the story, but rather engaged his users to solicit their contributions. Twitter is often used for contests and other similar marketing techniques, but this seemed to go beyond simple marketing, allowing the users to be truly creative in their responses. Each of the “winning” responses are included in A Calendar of Tales, though it is unclear if the participants received any sort of payment for their work. The use of Twitter indicates that the traditional mode of publishing is breaking down, as is the notion of a single author. Collaboration, long promoted as one of the biggest benefits of the web, influences the way we think about creative projects. Instead of a single writer, toiling away on her own, in front of a typewriter, we now see writers directly engaging with their fans, and even utilizing their creative talents within the story.

The fact that this project was funded by Blackberry has many implications for the publishing industry. Private corporations backing art projects is not entirely unheard of, though it’s much more unusual for corporations to fund publishing projects. Certainly, the traditional book publishing industry has been crumbling for the past decade, but does this project indicate a move by corporations to scoop up a piece of the publishing pie? With the recent merger of Penguin and Random House, there are now only five big American publishing houses. Traditional publishers have yet to find a viable financial model, and tech companies may be in a unique position to fund and promote literary works. Small publishers would not be able to afford a project like A Calendar of Tales, but Blackberry has the money, the technical expertise, and the reach to ensure that a project such as this will be successful. 

In his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins writes about the nature of publishing companies, referencing the late MIT political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool, he says, “Once upon a time,” Pool explained, “companies that published newspapers, magazines, and books did very little else; their involvement with other media was slight.” Each medium had its own distinctive functions and markets, and each was regulated under different regimes, depending on whether its character was centralized or decentralized, marked by scarcity or plentitude, dominated by news entertainment, and owned by governmental or private interests.” If a tech company that primarily makes phones begins to produce literary works, what might this mean for the publishing industry? Are there aspects of traditional publishing (such as editing and curating processes) that are being sacrificed under this new system? While these questions suggest the negative aspects of Blackberry’s production, I am inclined to spin those questions around: If a company like Blackberry approaches literary publishing, what new and innovative thinking might they bring to such a project? Might they be able to create a unique form of literature that we’ve never seen before? And might they actually be more qualified to do so than a traditional publishing house? The nature of our current culture is one of blurred lines and uncertain domains. As Jenkins suggests, each medium had its own functions and markets, but these distinctions are rapidly deteriorating and creating a new production landscape. It is likely that creative projects will increasingly be funded by private companies and tech companies are uniquely positioned, not only to fund, but also to produce and build such projects.   

In Convergence Culture, Jenkins also writes about the idea of participatory culture. “The term participatory culture contrasts with older notions of passive media spectatorship. Rather than talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands. Not all participants are created equal. Corporations—and even individuals within corporate media—still exert greater power than any individual consumer or even the aggregate of consumers. And some consumers have greater abilities to participate in this emerging culture than others.” A Calendar of Tales is a fine example of “participatory culture” as users are going beyond passive reading, and engaging with Gaiman via Twitter and submitting ideas of their own, but I am most intrigued by Jenkins’s notion that “not all participants are created equal.” One has to wonder if this kind of project would ever translate beyond a big name author. Neil Gaiman is a hugely popular, best-selling author, which lends a lot of credibility to the project, but also suggests that there is no room in this structure for the unknown author. Would Blackberry ever support a lesser-known writer? (What would be the benefits for them?) A new writer would (perhaps even more than Gaiman) benefit greatly from the kind of exposure they would receive. But, in our current digital world, not all participants are equal, and though this project hints at boundless potential for individual creators, it will be quite some time before corporations throw money at unknown artists.  

Moving towards the visual, a noticeable aspect of this project is Blackberry’s logo as a constant part of the book; it’s always on the page in the upper left corner. Traditional page elements have always included the author’s name, page numbers, book or title chapters, but this logo marks a new kind of branding within the story. Does this somehow compromise the reading experience? Does anyone actually notice it? I, for one, did notice it, but not so much that it affected my ability to enjoy the story. But, beyond the visual disturbance it may cause, this has the potential to displace the author as a creative authority. Instead of Gaiman’s name at the top of the page, as you might find in a print book, there is now corporate logo. 

The design of A Calendar of Tales is quite unique (in terms of both web design and book design) and the book evokes the seasons as the reader scrolls from top to bottom. The background illustrations change from winter to spring to summer and then fall. The leaves on the screen literally change color and fall from the trees, while the colors of the sky shift from dark shades to lighter, brighter colors, and then back to wintery shades of grey in December. Small flakes of digital snow even fall in the background during winter moths, while March brings lighting strikes, and June brings a hot air balloon, casually floating across the screen, as if enjoying a sunny summer day in the country. The book can be read or listened to (Gaiman reads the stories) or both if you want to read along while listening. I listened to the book, while clicking on the artwork. Each story is about 5 minutes long, and the entire experience (if you peruse from top to bottom) takes about an hour.

In her collection of essays about design, Jessica Helfand writes, “It is no longer enough to design for readability, to suggest a sentiment or reinforce a concept through the selection of a particular font. Today, we can make type talk: in any language, at any volume, with musical underscoring or sci-fi sound effects or overlapping violins. We can sequence and dissolve, pan and tilt, fade to black, and specify type in sensurround. As we “set” type, we encounter a decision-making process unprecedented in two-dimensional: unlike the kinetic experience of turning a printed page to sequence information, time now becomes an unusually powerful and persuasive design element.” In the context of A Calendar of Tales, this has powerful implications for how the story may be read. We aren’t simply turning page after page. We aren’t reading black text on a white page (or screen); we are interacting with a dynamic experience, and the designer has a lot of control over how we experience the story. The text on the page ranges from titles in script, to story pages that employ texture like a vintage piece of paper, to buttons that have rough edges to suggest softer, more malleable movement. All of these elements have a profound effect on the way we read, the pace at which we move through the content, and the way our eyes move around the page. The experience, unlike many web pages, suggests a distinct linearity. Although a reader can click ahead to other stories (by using the right side navigation) the page design impels us to read from top to bottom, one story at a time, in a relatively linear fashion. Stories traditionally function under some kind of structure—typically a defined linearity (though not necessarily chronological)—and this is usually determined by the writer, who arranges words, sentences, and scenes into a specific order. Though many argue that the web will produce a plethora of non-linear narrative books, I believe this is unlikely to happen because most readers can’t connect to a story unless the flow makes sense. In terms of linearity, A Calendar of Tales provides a reading experience that is not dissimilar to a print collection of stories. 

In his essay, “What Screens Want,” interaction designer Frank Chimero attempts to answer the question, “What does it mean to natively design for screens?” Though examining this question in its entirety here would take far too much time, there are some components to his argument that clarify my own thinking around A Calendar of Tales. He says, “A designer’s work is not only about how the things look, but also their behaviors in response to interaction, and the adjustments they make between their fixed states. In fact, designing the way elements adapt and morph in the in-between moments is half of your work as a designer. You’re crafting the interstitials.” To put this another, simpler way, Chimero writes, “Movement, change, and animation are a lot more than ways to delight users: they are a functional method for design.” There are aspects of A Calendar of Tales that directly influence the way we interpret the story. These elements include the illustrations, leaves, colors, movements, buttons styles, typography, and navigation. Each of these elements, which was not chosen arbitrarily, but rather thoughtfully constructed by a designer, connects the reader to the story. The stories, in fact, relate to the seasons, inasmuch as the stories in winter are somewhat “sadder” while the stories in summer are “happier” across the collection. As we read the stories, we are influenced by the colors and shapes that float in the periphery; this has an impact on our emotional state and the way that we connect to the story. This kind of influence cannot happen in a book that exists only as black type on a white page. Our imagination is being influenced in a new way, and unlike a book that includes static illustrations, A Calendar of Tales pushes literary illustration into a new realm of movement and visual flow.  

Drawing on Frank Chimero again, from his book The Shape of Design, he writes, “The best way to describe design is that it seeks to connect things by acting as a bridge between them. The design of a book connects the author and her ideas to the reader by complementing her writing.” Although this is true for all kinds of books (and any kind of editorial design, including magazines and newspapers* it is particularly noticeable in A Calendar of Tales. The role of the designer is to connect form and content, to communicate ideas in the most effective way possible. Designers are ultimately problem solvers. The problem to be solved in this case is helping the reader to make thoughtful connections to the narrative. This connection is partially made by the writer, who of course writes a compelling story for us to engage with, but unlike more subdued forms of design, A Calendar of Tales allows the designer to (in a sense) become an author. We are guided through the story as much by Gaiman’s words as we are by the designer’s choices.

*For a more precise analysis of editorial design, Chimero says, “Telling a story with design in a magazine or book, for example, is possible by using the passage of time as a reader goes down the page or moves from spread to spread. Slowly decreasing or increasing the line height of a block of text, for instance, tells a story by suggesting urgency or relaxation as the lines expand or contract. Similarly, magazine designers spend incredible amounts of time ordering and pacing their publications spread by spread, creating an experience for the reader as they flip through. After a series of quiet, typographic spreads, a publication might choose to run a splashy design with few words and a large photo to capture the reader’s attention.”

Literary theorist Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia suggests, “Literature as the art of written works will never change and even might become “the art of recorded works” or “the art of binary represented works.” But this will not change the main function of literature, which is to share one’s imagination, feelings, experience, and thoughts with others.” In some ways, it might be argued that the shape of a book doesn’t matter, that a book is a book is a book, no matter what the form. For as long as humans have been around, there have been stories, and these stories simply take new shapes. Jenkins expresses a similar theory. “A medium’s content may shift (as occurred when television displaced radio as a storytelling medium, freeing radio to become the primary showcase for rock and roll) its audience may change (as occurs when comics move from a mainstream medium in the 1950s to a niche medium today), and its social status may rise or fall (as occurs when theater moves from a popular form to an elite one), but once a medium establishes itself as satisfying some core human demand, it continues to function within the larger system of communication options.” 

However, there is value in examining the shape of a book. The design does matter. The production method does matter. These aren’t things that simply happen without context or for no reason, but rather these are precisely the things that push books into new places, and shift our understanding of storytelling. Yes, A Calendar of Tales may just be “another story” that tugs at our imagination and provokes our emotions like other books, but it is fundamentally unlike anything that has come before. It is a new reading experience, one that combines design and text in ways that muddy our definition of what exactly a book is. The ever-expanding spectrum of books is being defined right now—literally right in this cultural moment—and this is what makes this book so important. There is still much expanding of the spectrum to be done, and A Calendar of Tales suggests a few directions that books may take. If we are to understand the future of the book, we must start with examining the fundamentals: the design and production. In Critical Margins, Kevin Egan writes, “…technologies change, but distinctions between good and bad writing or art stay. Once e-books become the normal reading medium (or, perhaps they’ll be replaced by something else), there will still be good books and bad books. People will still talk about books. The way they talk about books might change, but literary culture is sticking around for a while.” So, while one can debate the value—the “goodness” or “badness”—of A Calendar of Tales to various ends, what really matters is that this book has given us a new vocabulary for the conversation. It is utilizing design and production methods in ways that we have never seen, and A Calendar of Tales is only the tip of the iceberg when considering the possibilities for digital book design.