A Short History of the Networked Novel

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

Digital technologies have given writers countless opportunities to experiment and play. New forms of digital writing are possible online and writers are embracing their potential. They give us a chance to reconsider our roles as writers and provide us with unexpected ways to connect with our readers.

The networked novel has emerged over the past six years as a form of digital book that is written, edited and published online. Whereas a printed book is closed, the networked novel is open.  It exists online and can include text, audio, video, links to other online sources and anything else you can imagine. Picture a piece of fiction that is constructed in the same way as Wikipedia and you begin to see how a networked novel can be possible. It is not written in isolation by a single writer. Instead, several writers work together to produce a more fluid form. As with Wikipedia, the networked novel actively asks its readers to become its writers and take part in the writing process. It is an opportunity for collaboration and innovation and a new form of narrative is possible.

In this open structure, the traditional view of who is a writer and who is a reader is challenged. A writer can potentially take on a role of editor or facilitator and support a piece of fiction to take shape. It can be a challenge, as a writer, to let go of control over the narrative but what is produced can be brilliantly unique.

The experience of both reading and writing the networked novel is a social one. As readers can actively collaborate, it turns reading from a solitary act to a social experience. What we think of as a book is challenged. It becomes a place for readers and writers to work together, a platform for invention and a space for collaboration. As this form of novel can be linked to other places online, the boundaries of what we know as a book are stretched.

Several writers and organisations have experimented with this form of digital literature – here are some you might like to explore.

The Silent History

Launched in October 2012, The Silent History is a serialised collaborative novel available as an iPhone/ iPad app. Readers are able to access elements of the story both through their digital devices and in specific physical locations and contribute their own writing.



A Million Penguins

 Launched in 2007, A Million Penguins was a raucous and riotous experiment. Using a wiki format, a novel was written collaboratively and anyone could change it as it was being written.  It was a challenge for its editors, from Penguin and De Montfort University, to hold control over what was produced.

A Million Penguins is no longer online but has been archived by the Way Back Machine. It can be found by searching the archives of www.archive.org for www.amillionpenguins.com from 2007.

Flight Paths

In 2007, The Writing Platform’s editor, Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph launched Flight Paths, a networked novel that used stories, videos and audio to tell a story. Its aim was to make the writing process collaborative. Readers were invited to contribute their ideas and these contributions were used to shape the digital novel.



Songs of Imagination and Digitisation

Songs of Imagination and Digitisation was launched in 2009 by IF:Book. Inspired by William Blake, this book contained moving images and interactive elements. It offered readers the experience of interacting with digital text, audio and video and the opportunity to contribute their ideas as comments.


The Golden Notebook Project

The Golden Notebook Project, designed and run by the IF:Book, ran for five weeks from late 2008 to early 2009. It documented the experiences of seven readers as they read the novel The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing while a virtual community of readers to discussed the text. These discussions became a form of networked book, one which explored the nature of collaborative reading.


Let us know what you think about networked novels – and any favourites we’ve missed – in the comments section below. 

Amy Spencer is a writer and creative writing tutor. She holds a PhD from Goldsmiths, where her research focused on collaborative authorship in digital literature. She is the author of DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture and The Crafter Culture Handbook.

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