The publishers and authors of "The Silent History" are pushing traditional book publishing into places where (to my knowledge) it's never been before.
Specifically, publishers Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn (both veterans of literary magazine and book press McSweeney's) and writers Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett are collaborating on a new form of storytelling: a geo-located serialized story that users can experience on their mobile devices starting in late August 2012.
As described in a July 13th 2012 post to buzzfeed by Reyhan Harmanci, the premise of "The Silent History" is that "there are a group of children born with the strange condition of silence who appear normal as babies but never acquire language capabilities. It turns out, though, that they have other gifts."
What makes "The Silent History" unique is that, in addition to an episodic ebook, the experience can be enhanced by users who travel to certain locations and use the geo-location technology embedded in their mobile devices:
Starting in August, "readers [can] download an app and then receive daily doses of fictive oral history ("Testimonials") that they can read wherever. This is where the main plot unfolds. But the real innovation comes in the related, secondary piece: the geo-tagged "Field Reports" that can only be downloaded when the reader is standing in a specific place, as shown by the mapping interface on the app. Currently, there are between 300 and 400 Field Reports written for locations around the world, but that will grow as readers add their own stories."
It's this second prong, the ability to use specific places to trigger custom content, that is something that traditional book publishers have not yet (to my knowledge) commercially exploited.
Yes, there are bus tours that visit the real-world locations that inspired a book.
And other publishers have used discovery of printed text in real world locations as a tool for building excitement about a new book.
And geo-location has been used in Alternate Reality Gaming before - rewarding users who arrive at a particular spot with custom content. (In fact, I am currently working on an ARG called The Miracle Mile Paradox, where clues are hidden in locations in LA.)
But "The Silent History" is apparently a novel twist on the immersive experience of reading a good book. In this case, the reader's presence in a particular location becomes integral to the storytelling ("You won't be able to fully comprehend what you're reading otherwise"), merging a real place with written content that will be delivered via that user's mobile device.
Instead of relying on your imagination from an armchair, The Silent History offers an immersive experience that includes traveling and discovery. Add in the potential for curated user-generated content - that part of the expanding storyworld that can be built by fans - and a doorway opens to a form of storytelling that is unique to the new digital age and yet also familiar. Travel and great books have always been transportive and immersive: The experience offered by "The Silent History" just adds a new wrinkle.
As this is an experiment, it should be acknowledged that "The Silent History" might fail. It could be that this particular attempted enhancement offers too little to justify the cost.
But, just as the fictive experience of the motion picture evolved from early experiments (and there were probably many doubters circa 1896 who thought that films were a novelty that could not compete with the artistry of books and plays), it's just too soon to say whether "The Silent History" will be remembered as an important breakthrough - or whether it will be soon forgotten.
Thanks to Mike Monello for the link. Careful listeners will recognize that the trailer for "The Silent History" above features the voices of Ira Glass and Miranda July.