As with Facebook before it, the success of the micro-blogging service Twitter has been so enormous that it's hard to tell if it's a genuine innovation destined to transform the way we communicate or a gimmicky waste of time. Whatever the answer, it's currently the bandwagon everyone wants to clamber aboard - and that includes book publishers.
Philippa Gregory, the author of The Other Boleyn Girl, serialised her new novel The White Queen on Twitter earlier this year, while last month two American students, Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin, secured a (traditional, dead-tree) book deal for Twitterature, which condenses 75 of the world's greatest literary classics into 20 or fewer 140-character tweets - for example: "WTF is Polonius doing behind the curtain???" (Don't worry. It will include a glossary of acronyms and so-called "tweet speak".) Its editor at Penguin imprint Viking, Will Hammond, says Twitterature is "for book-lovers who have heard of Twitter but know nothing much about it. They will laugh at Twitter's expense". It will be published in the UK in November.
In March, the Booker Prize-winning Nigerian novelist Ben Okri released a poem line by line on Twitter. He explained himself in characteristically lofty fashion: "Form follows adversity - we live in uncertain times. I think we need a new kind of writing that responds to the anxiety of our age and yet has brevity. My feeling is that these times are perfect for short, lucid forms. We need to get more across in fewer words."
Gregory, who tweeted from the point of view of her novel's main character, Elizabeth Woodville, expressed a similar view: "Tweets are a discipline, rather like a haiku, and the shortness of the sentence gives each one a rhythm which is really interesting to me. It was more like writing poetry than prose. I especially like the first one: 'If my mother were not a witch, and the descendant of the goddess Melusina, I think none of this could ever have happened to me. But it did.'"
This is all well and good - yet the truth is that neither Okri nor Gregory were acting solely out of a belief in the inherent brilliance of Twitter as a literary medium. They were simply trying to drum up interest in their new, dead-tree books. Okri's is called Tales of Freedom. Gregory's The White Queen is both her first book for a new publisher, Simon & Schuster, and the first in a projected series of novels set during the Wars of the Roses, the series of bloody dynastic battles between supporters of the rival houses of Lancaster and York for the throne of England. She needed rebranding and Twitter proved itself an effective marketing tool; though a cynic might attribute the coverage she and Okri enjoyed to its novelty value.
Yet there is clearly more to it than that. "The beauty of Twitter is its simplicity," says Sarah Such, the literary agent and founder of the Sarah Such Literary Agency. "We'll see many deft marketing wheezes in the months to come. Where once a publisher or writer invited people to visit their website, Twitter usage insists on us all visiting the same forum. This results in a relationship with a readership that is captive, but that also becomes more demanding and ultimately intolerant."
What about proper, original Twitter novels? Do such things exist? It seems so. Last September, The New York Times journalist Matt Richtel wrote a real-time thriller on the site about a man who wakes up with amnesia - and an uncomfortable sensation that he might have committed a murder. In possession of only a mobile phone that lets him tweet, he uses it to tell his story, 140 characters at a time. Richtel calls the novel a "Twiller": "Think Memento on a mobile phone, with the occasional emoticon."
As for literary novels, there's some debate about who the first person to have tweeted one is. The Huffington Post writer Matt Stewart insisted it was him and invited readers to sample his "Junot Díaz-style wordplay" and "Jonathan Franzenish multilayered plotting". But there have been many rival claimants, among them Nick Belardes whose Small Places first appeared in April 2008. In a sense, the Twitter novel belongs to a venerable literary tradition - that of "constrained writing". French novelist Georges Perec thrived on the challenge of writing lipogrammatic novels such as A Void (which doesn't use the letter "e"). Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss, bet his friend Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House, that he could write a book using only 50 different words. The result was the children's bestseller Green Eggs and Ham.
But maybe some constraints are too great. One hundred and forty characters is, surely, too few to do anything interesting with. Aren't novels at their best when they're providing a sense of immersiveness and interiority? Micro-format fiction might make a decent fist of communicating plot and pace, but it can't take us inside someone's head. This doesn't stop it being the future, of course. Its champions point to the success in Japan of keitai shousetsus or mobile phone novels; detractors observe that these tend to be written by high school girls who bash them out in between classes and that their content - and readership - reflects this.
Fearful of being left stranded in the way that record companies have been by the MP3 revolution, book publishers have seized on the idea of the interactive, collaborative, paperless novel and delivery systems like Twitter. Last year, Penguin in the UK conducted an experiment called We Tell Stories, taking six books by six different authors and distributing them through new-media channels. A story called Slice about a girl and her parents was disseminated through LiveJournal blogs and two Twitter accounts - one for the girl, one for her parents. A second story, The 21 Steps, was placed on a navigable Google Map so readers could track its protagonist's progress.
We Tell Stories wasn't a massive success in real terms - only 200-odd people signed up to follow Slice - and strained rather too hard to be hip. But its mastermind, Penguin's digital publisher Jeremy Ettinghausen, insists it was a worthwhile exercise: "Almost unanimously, the authors have described the experience as harder than they expected, but also more satisfying. We've encouraged them to think not just about story and plotting, but about 'user experience', which has been a new challenge and one to which they have really responded."
Whether authors want to think about "user experience" in this sense is debatable. The novelist Nicholas Royle considers the Twitter novel "patently absurd". But that hasn't stopped him writing a Twitter short story, Follow/Unfollow. "It's only a Twitter story in that it uses the follow/unfollow concept and there are no sentences in it with more than 140 characters," he points out. "I have no intention of publishing it tweet by tweet on Twitter, though. It's appearing in The British Fantasy Society Yearbook 2009 next month."
He concedes that Twitter has its uses: "If you can't get your novel published by conventional means - and let's face it, times are hard - I can understand writers looking for new platforms." The question is whether these new platforms have real value or are simply a distraction from the increasingly tough business of publishing books people want to read. Isn't the digital future for prepackaged narrative units more likely to be a mundane medium like the podcast (essentially an MP3 audiobook)? Doesn't Twitter work better as a means of augmenting a reader's experience of a story - by providing top-up content like hidden clues or revelations - than when it's trying to constitute that experience?
"I think Twitter is only workable in the main for high-profile new works where a readership is avidly awaiting publication or for books where there's impact value such as a 'lost' work," says Such. "But I also think that in the same way as with traditional blogs - which suddenly seem old-fashioned - there will be one or two really successful novels or non-fiction works written and influenced by or involving Twitter."
Perhaps our obsession with mobile phones and notebook computers is just too great to go untapped. Winged Chariot Press has just launched Europe's first children's picture book for the iPhone. The Surprise by Sylvia van Ommen can be downloaded for 59 pence (Dh3.45) as an iPhone application. "At home, many parents already share their laptops and phones as digital entertainment devices with their children," explains the company's founder, Neal Hoskins. "Now, they can use and enjoy them together in a new variety of mini-reading experiences on journeys."
In a transitional period like this one, it's hard to say for certain if this is the way forward; it's harder still to predict how writers will make money from these various species of digital book. With every new development like Twitter, the issue of digital rights management becomes more complicated. There's also the issue of identity fraud. Who can say for certain that a particular author is the genuine source of a tweet? You might think it would be obvious, but a 20-year-old artist called Lee attracted nearly 2,500 followers on Twitter when he pretended to be the celebrated poet and memoirist Maya Angelou. So convincing were his posts ("History, despite its wrenching pain/Cannot be unlived, and if faced/With courage, need not be lived again) that he fooled even literary professionals before being exposed by the Los Angeles Times.
Appropriately, he responded with a tweet: "I am very sad. My friends are few but my words runneth over."