Why aren’t Interactive EBooks a Thing?

When we were developing our interactive sci-fi story The Pulse for Android devices, we asked ourselves what seemed like a very simple question: can we make this available as an interactive ebook so our book customers on Amazon could experience it on their Kindle readers?

We had recently released our adventure novel “New Horizons” and were seeing how many readers were out there, waiting and interested in finding fresh stories in ebook form. It certainly seemed like a market worth investing in.

Before diving headlong into development though, we sought some advice from an expert, someone who we knew had been down this road-less-traveled already – author of “The Fabled Lands” series, and gamebook legend, Dave Morris.

Morris had worked with Inkle on a popular interactive adaptation of Marry Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and we knew that he had gone through some version of develop hell to bring it to e-readers as well as iOS.

Our question for Morris was simple – Is it worth the effort?

His answer was basically, ‘Sort of… but there are challenges’:

“I was thinking of an epub3 version of Frankenstein, and we had a perfectly good working prototype,” he told us over email. “The snag was that although part of the epub3 spec was that it should support Javascript, quite a few of the supposed epub3 readers didn’t bother with that.

So you could play the Frankenstein prototype just fine on iBooks or the Chrome e-reader, both of which support Javascript as per the spec, but there’s no guaranteeing which reading app somebody will have installed.

It all depends on how much interactivity your book needs. I did a Kindle version of The War-Torn Kingdom (the first Fabled Lands book) which was just hyperlinked text with the ability to leave items at locations using the Notes function.”

That was helpful to know.

Even if we could port our Twine content into a book-friendly writing program, or, god forbid rewrite it all, and even get all the story paths hyperlinked, there was no guarantee it would be playable in everyone’s various devices. Definitely a problem.

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But back to the main question, which is why aren’t interactive ebooks a mainstream thing by now? Well, as we can now attest, they are incredibly difficult to write. Writing interactive fiction is a demanding task that most novelists would balk at.

This also comes down to education, which contributes to their hesitation. Interactive fiction is currently seen as a games skill, so writers who pursue a post-secondary education in creative writing are rarely exposed to the medium by their college or university programs or professors, instead becoming proficient in telling stories in more traditional mediums.

[Related: How The Pulse is more than binary choices]

But even beyond branching narratives, it’s surprising that ebooks are not more interactive in terms of the rich media they could provide. Music, links to references, images, locations, videos, fashion, pop-culture references. It seems to us that there is a certain kind of story that might benefit from feeling as though it’s open to the whole world.

In a recent article for Book Riot, author Danika Ellis wonders this very thing, writing, “Why can’t I check out an interactive version of my favourite book, where there is an embedded playlist, so I hear the same music or bird songs the characters are listening to? Why don’t my textbooks all come with interactive illustrations that can be rotated and disassembled? Why isn’t there an ebook of House of Leaves that is even more immersive and claustrophobic? Where are the ebook gifs, I ask you?”

Our question exactly, Danika!


In the late 1980s, a work of short fiction began circulating through a small subculture of writers and technologists called “Afternoon, a Story”.

It was written by Michael Joyce, a professor and passed around on a floppy disk. It is considered, if not the first, then certainly one of the first exampled of a narrative written in a new authoring program called Storyspace, and a work of true hypertext fiction: a branching path of overlapping narratives detours that the reader navigated by clicking textual links.

At the time of its release, there was a buzzing in everyone’s head. Would this change the way readers engage with stories? Would they be able to explore a story, maybe even wrestle control of a narrative away from the author in some profound way?

Well, forty years later, whether mainstream readers would rather not, or perhaps writers are resistant, it seems the interactive revolution has yet to come to ebooks.

If there are great example of interactive ebooks that people can read on Kindles, or other mainstream, commercial e-readers than we want to hear about them. Who knows, maybe we’ll make one ourselves sooner than you think. For now though, interactive ebooks remain something of an elusive notion.

Hit us in the comments, IF fans.


THE PULSE is out now on Google Play

StoryFix Media produces interactive fiction games and novels. Our sci-fi text adventure The Pulse is out now

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1 Comment

  1. claire says:

    I’ve been trying to work my webbed fictional history stories into an interactive ebook for some years, with no success. I’ve finally given up and started developing it as a database in Webflow, which I’ll initially release as a website complete with mapping, documents, stories, and images interlinked. Then maybe later if the tech becomes available I’ll make it an ebook. Seems like a huge opportunity is being overlooked here. As an avid e-book reader, I can’t even get the reader to properly display footnotes, so it seems they’re stuck deeply in the paper age, even now in 2021.

    Liked by 1 person

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