Hug a Technologist - #TOCcon NYC

27 February 2013 in Future of Publishing | Comments (0)

Am just back from NYC where I attended Book2Camp as well as #TOCcon – O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change conference.  I say, ‘just back’, but of course, owing to time passing more quickly than it should, I’ve been back a while now.

I had a great time in NYC.  Book2Camp was an interesting afternoon of discussion, though I’m tiring slightly of the unconference format, where topics for discussion are suggested by participants; while timings of sessions are pre-determined, there is no set agenda.  Sometimes this works well, sometimes not so well.  In NY the discussion was interesting, but not quite fresh enough for me, not quite radical enough.  Ever since hearing John Naughton talk at the AHRC Moot Day I went to in the autumn, the idea that we are only at the very beginning of a long process, that the digital will transform every single institution we hold dear, from libraries to universities, let alone bookshops and publishers, far beyond our current imagining, has stuck with me, making me impatient with discussions that dwell on where we are today without taking a more trenchant look at where we might be heading. 

The High Line

TOC itself worked better for me as a format for thinking about how to transform writing and reading in the digital age.  First off, I was lucky enough to have been asked to speak at TOC’s first ever day aimed at writers, the Author (R)evolution Day.  This was a great day, where a big range of writers’ organisations, and writers themselves, got the chance to talk about how writing, reading and publishing are changing, and what kinds of opportunities this presents for writers.  The writer as entrepreneur was a theme that emerged during the day, and while it isn’t a mode I see myself employing (ahem), the notion of writers taking control of their own publishing apparatus applies as much to established, traditionally published, or emerging writers as it does to the self-published, and this is something we’re trying to facilitate at The Writing Platform.

One of my favourite talks was given by Laura Dawson, from Bowker (this link takes you to her talks and slides at TOC).  Bowker are the people who are in charge of issuing ISBN numbers among other things (Laura was also at Book2Camp where she was one of several people knitting during the sessions – knitting!). Laura talks in a clear and urgent way about the need to improve metadata for books, the way that this information, this data, accessed by search, is one of the main tools that readers use to find books online, and so this data – the words, keywords, and tags, used to describe the book – needs to be as accurate and as all-encompassing, and as reader-centric, as possible.  Writers need to understand metadata.  Her most startling slide included the following information, gathered from Nielsen UK: 

- Titles that meet the BIC Basic standard see average sales 98% higher than those that don’t meet the standard
- The addition of an image (to a book’s metadata) has a strong impact on average sales, of 268% in comparison to titles without an image
- Split into offline and online sales, offline sales see an increase of 35% for titles which have all enhanced metadata elements present, whereas online sales see a massive 178% increase

The current writing economy is very complex and the day reflected that.  My talk was the final talk of the day.  I took the opportunity to launch The Writing Platform and, as well as that, given the revolutionary theme, I came up with some exhortations for writers.  Here’s what I suggested:

hug a technologist:  for many writers, myself included, the only way to move into the sphere of creating work for digital platforms is to collaborate.
make your work spreadable:  for your work to have a meaningful life online, you need to create work that is spreadable.  ‘Spreadable media’ is a hugely useful concept that Henry Jenkins and his team are exploring. 
look at what’s out there, and start thinking beyond the book: this is an exciting time to be a writer - get out there and start experimenting.

The rest of the conference had numerous highlights, terrific keynotes, and many many great conversations in corridors and over lunches and drinks.  I met Eve Bridberg from Grub Street, a very dynamic centre for writers in Boston, and renewed my acquaintance with journalist and writer Porter Anderson (whose conference twitter stream and Writing on the Ether column are both must-reads) and Meg Vann who now runs the Queensland Writers Centre, a focal point for local/global, online/offline writer-centric activity in Australia (and who I’ll be visiting later this year). Hugh McGuire’s talk on the book as API was galvanising in terms of opening up new ways to think about how books can become more webby (a version of this talk exists here); in my dreams, we’ll create a version of my new novel Landing Gear using this approach.

And, as always, being in NYC was exciting enough in and of itself.  I had a couple of meetings with editors, outside the conference, to talk about my new book.  I met my new Canadian publishers and drank a glass of Californian bubbly with them to celebrate. I rode the subway and took taxis, and talked to people about Hurricane Sandy. I wandered around the city’s streets – surely wandering around New York City is one of life’s greatest pleasures? – and, early one morning, 8 a.m., a cold and sunny February day, I went for a walk on the High Line.  There were few other people, the planting was snow-blasted and brown, and the boardwalk was slippery in places, but what a gorgeous re-imagining of a post-industrial urban space, strangely moving, simultaneously affirming and melancholy. 

I was lucky to be there.  Thanks again to Kat Meyer, Joe Wikert, and TOC.

Off to TOC NYC

4 February 2013 in Future of Publishing | Comments (0)

Next week I’ll be heading to NYC for O’Reilly Media’s massive Tools of Change digital publishing conference.  I’ll be giving a talk at their first ever Author (R)evolution Day on Tuesday, and I’m on a panel on the Thursday as well - Creators and Technology Converging.  TOC NYC has been on my radar for a number of years, but I’ve never been; I haven’t spent more than a day in NYC for ages, so I’m really looking forward to this.

I’m also attending Book2Camp, so it will be an all-out future-of-publishing extravaganza for me.  As my novel, Landing Gear, goes out to publishers in Canada and the US, it will be hugely interesting for me to get a snapshot of where things are, at the forefront of where technology meets publishing.


22 January 2013 in Landing Gear | Comments (0)

My agent in Toronto loves the new book!  So, watch out all you publishing people, ‘Landing Gear’ is lifting off!  Hooray!

MIX Digital - Call for Papers and Presentations

22 January 2013 in | Comments (0)

The MIX Digital Call has been extended to 31 January, 2013

Text on Screens; Making/Discovering/Teaching


Bath Spa University/The Writing Platform Conference, Corsham, England, 15-17 July, 2013.

Deadline for Abstracts: 31st January, 2013

Submit to Lucy English:

After the success of MIX 2012, Bath Spa University is co-hosting a second MIX DIGITAL conference, in partnership with The Writing Platform. This small-scale, intimate series of events will take place over three days at BSU’s Corsham Court campus, set in a Grade One-listed Jacobean mansion in the bucolic Wiltshire landscape.

This year the themes will be ‘Text on Screens: Making, Discovering, Teaching’. We invite papers and presentations of creative works that focus on making digital work, including fiction, e-poetry, videopoetry; mobile, locative, and site specific forms; digital non-fiction, games, text-based digital art, and other electronic, hybrid forms. We invite papers and presentations of creative works that focus on discovering digital work, including publishing, curating, gate-keeping, distributing, discoverability, search, audience and performance. We invite papers and presentations that focus on pedagogy and pedagogical issues in the fields of ‘text on screens’, digital transformations and digital humanities.

Papers will be published in a peer-reviewed e-journal; further details to be announced in 2013; e-journal edition to be published in 2014.

Proposals are welcome on the topics including, but not limited to, the following:

What does it mean to put text on a screen?
What new forms of storytelling are emerging?
Does reader/writer interaction – via, for example, social media and social reading platforms – transform the work?
Is writing itself altered by digitisation?
Publishing, distributing, gatekeeping and curating digital forms
Discoverabilty and search in the digital landscape
Transliteracy and transmedia
New forms of narrative and narrativity
Audience, performativity, e-performance
Disruption and transformation of narrative forms
Pedagogy: how do we teach, collect, and distribute new forms to students?
As well as this, we invite practitioners to send in proposals for presentations or performances of their creative digital works.

Conference Committee: Katharine Reeve (BSU), Lucy English (BSU), Sarah Tremlett (artist), Kate Pullinger (BSU), and Donna Hancox (QUT).

Conference Keynote Speakers will include Naomi Alderman and Sophie Rochester.

Abstracts of up to 300 words should be sent to Lucy English at: 31st January, 2013.

Not Writing

17 January 2013 in Landing Gear | Comments (0)

It’s 2013 and cold and sunny and I’m in the middle of one of those all-too-frequent, and hideous, periods of my life: waiting for the verdict on a new book.  These days I’m waiting to hear back from a small collection of agents and publishers - one agent, two publishers.  Whatever they say, whatever decisions are made, it is likely to lead to a second phase of waiting (more publishers), and then, if all goes well, a third phase of waiting although that third phase is a good phase: if the deals get done, waiting for the book to be published.  The waiting might be interspersed with periods of writing - perhaps a re-write, or an in-depth edit or two - but, really, the major writing on ‘Landing Gear’ is done.

Truth be told, I’ve been enjoying this phase of not writing my book.  Not writing is a great place to be.  I finished the penultimate draft of ‘Landing Gear’ in September, shortly before I started my new post at Bath Spa University.  It’s been wonderful not writing while getting my feet under the table at Bath Spa.  I’m also busy with the launch of The Writing Platform (click on the link to go to our brand new holding page - hooray!), so not writing has been great for that as well.  And over the next three months I have trips to NYC, Boston, Milan, and Vancouver planned, so not writing works well for that too.  The great thing about not writing is that it means you don’t have a huge thing occupying two thirds of your brain, you don’t have a huge thing sitting there, half on your shoulder, half on your desk.

Of course, the reality is I’ve been writing a lot: a number of Inanimate Alice photo stories, an article for the Royal Society of Literature’s magazine, a bunch of presentations, a couple of proposals, a grant application. And I will be writing more articles, presentations, grant applications, ‘Inanimate Alice’ photo-stories. Plus there’s that new idea for my next book/web project…

Not writing won’t last.  So I might as well enjoy it.

The Writing Platform - press release

7 December 2012 in Future of Publishing | Comments (0)

This week saw the release of the press announcement for The Writing Platform, a new site aimed at writers.  I’m Editor of the site, in partnership with The Literary Platform and Bath Spa University.  Full text of the release follows:

The impact of technology on the publishing industry has seen agents become publishers, publishers become software developers and technology companies offer direct publishing platforms. The Writing Platform aims to help writers who may find themselves feeling either under-informed or faced with conflicting information. It is designed to break down the barriers between different groups of writers and provide practical advice for all, from the complete novice to the technically engaged wishing to understand the complex debates around the digital transformation of the publishing industry.

The Writing Platform, a website and program of live events dedicated to arming writers with digital knowledge, will launch in February 2013. The Writing Platform will be a free online resource for all writers and poets - emerging, established, not yet published, traditionally published and self-published – who are looking for neutral and best practice information about writing in a digital age in order to inform their practice and career choices. The Writing Platform is funded by the National Lottery, and supported by Arts Council England (Grants for the Arts).

Nick McDowell, London Director of Literature at Arts Council England, said:

“Digital technology is enabling writers, emerging and established, to publish their work in innovative ways and engage audiences like never before. We are pleased to support The Writing Platform as it addresses the pressing need for writers to be able to access current, authoritative and impartial digital knowledge. The Arts Council puts the development of artistic talent at the heart of all it does, and this initiative will offer information to today’s writers, empowering them to make sophisticated choices about their creative and professional work.”

The website will be supported by a series of writer-focused live events. The first of which took place at Rich Mix in early November 2012 with organisations as diverse as Wattpad and Words of Colour Productions taking part. One of the key themes to emerge from that day was the demand for more writer-centric events. (Click here for a record of the day.)
The Writing Platform will be edited by writer Kate Pullinger and project managed by The Literary Platform. Kate brings her considerable experience in writing for digital platforms, navigating the opportunities and pitfalls of digital publishing and her experience of being traditionally published to this role. Kate Pullinger comments:

“Writers receive a great deal of contradictory information currently. In my own practice, my agent in North America is setting up as an ebook publisher for her client’s out-of-print backlist, while my agent here in the UK maintains that if agents become publishers there is a clear and simple conflict of interest. With regards to an important issue like, for instance, ebook royalties, the industry standard has become 25%, while if you publish straight to Kindle it is 70%. None of this is easy. The Writing Platform will state the facts.”

The Writing Platform will commission regularly updated content about platforms, copyright, royalties, ebooks, metadata and other complex areas that have implications for writers and their work. 

The team behind the project is keen to hear from writers interested in contributing to the site and in informing the content they would like to see on The Writing Platform. Between now and launch we will be running a survey of writer’s experiences in the digital world. To register your interest in contributing, please email ( and complete the survey here.

The Writing Platform will partner with Bath Spa University’s School of Humanities and Cultural Industries, which, with its leading Creative Writing and Publishing department, is well placed to sponsor student internships at The Writing Platform. Bath Spa will also host The Writing Platform’s forthcoming 2013 event as part of their ground-breaking Digital Writing Summer School and MIX Conference.

The Writing Platform has the endorsement of a range of organisations including Literature Works (formally Cyprus Well), Geekcamp in association with The Reading Agency, if:Book, The Literary Consultancy, The National Academy of Writing, National Poetry Day, Portal Entertainment, Wattpad, Words of Colour Productions and Unbound.

The first phase of The Writing Platform website will be launched on 12th February 2013 at O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change Author (R)evolution Day in New York where Kate Pullinger will be speaking about opportunities for writers in the digital age.

Books in Browsers

4 November 2012 in | Comments (0)

Books in Browsers has been running for three years now, curated by Peter Brantley, an expert in digital publishing and the digital future of libraries, and co-hosted by Oreilly Media.  The conference takes place in the Internet Archive, San Francisco, where Brantley is based.  Housed in a grand, white, colonnaded, deconsecrated Christian Science church, the archive was set up and is funded by Brewster Kahle, one of the early Californian internet entrepreneurs (he helped design WAIS, a precursor to the world wide web).  Books in Browsers 2012 took place in the IA’s Sanctuary, a congregational space, with wooden pews, an organ, and, at the back, banks of servers on which tiny blue lights flash whenever anyone anywhere uses the archive.  The IA is best known for its vast archive of the internet itself, accessed by most people via the Wayback Machine.  But it also houses a large film archive - the Prelinger Archive, run by moving image evangelist, Rick Prelinger – and has undertaken to scan, digitise and store a copy of every book ever printed.  The dates for Books in Browsers coincided with a celebration as the archive passed the 10 petabyte mark, which means it now houses 10,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of data.

As per usual, I was the only fiction writer invited to speak at the conference, though there were other writers and journalists attending.  The focus of Books in Browsers is on, well, books in browsers – the inevitable progress of books from print to ebook to webbook – ‘containerless content’ and what it means for books to exist primarily online.  Most of the publishers and start-ups present at the conference work at the cutting edge of digital publishing, far beyond standard industry discussions around digitisating workflow and ePub formats.  Companies like Safari Books Online and AerBook allow for the creation of complex multimedia content; start-ups like London-based Valobox, Enthrill Books and Inkling focus on finding new ways to sell content; others (Bibliocrunch) exist in the vast proactive realm of self-publishing, while a whole raft of companies deal with creating and curating reader communities. There was one games start-up presenting, Simon Fox from Playlab London; he will be a good contact for a potential collaboration with students.  Kassia Kroszer (@booksquare) helped to end the conference with a beautifully put reader’s manifesto, ‘What Do Readers Want? Books! How Do They Want Them? Every Way Possible!’

For me there were two revealing and fascinating aspects of the conference. Firstly, several speakers came from start-ups who’d failed to find ways to collaborate successfully with mainstream publishing companies, despite Herculean efforts, vast amounts of brain-power, and great ideas. Kevin Franco of Enthrill, Hugh McGuire of PressBooks, and Peter Collingridge of the now defunct London start-up Enhanced Editions, all delivered harsh mea culpa’s regarding providing elegant solutions to problems that don’t really exist.  Secondly, while Laura Dawson of Bowker talked about how publishers must learn to respond to the way that readers search for books online – ‘search is the new bookstore’ was a conference mantra - it was during a between-sessions conversation with consultant Charlotte Abbott where I had my biggest lightbulb moment. Charlotte talked about the importance of reader-centric tagging in metadata, to aid search, and how she fears publishers are persisting with cultural blindspots in metadata.  For example, while a publisher would put together metadata for a title like ‘Twilight’ using a set of standard keywords such as ‘YA, paranormal, romance’, a teenage reader is more likely to search for the book by typing ‘vampire novel for teens’ into a search engine.  More seriously, if publishers aren’t using keywords that communities like African American readers, or gay readers, use to search for books they want to read, then these books are effectively rendered invisible – unfindable - to that community.  While reader-focussed tagging is emerging through big online reading communities like GoodReads, writers also need to be thinking about this, and collaborate with their publishers to make effective use of metadata tagging for search.  Given that one of the themes of the conference was the impossible situation faced by mainstream publishers (and there were several present at the conference),this seems as likely to happen in the current climate as all the thousands of homeless people in San Francisco suddenly finding nice friendly places to live. 

A log of the twitter, blog, and photo streams provided by conference attendees is available at Epilogger.
Peter Brantley’s write-up of the conference, for Publisher’s Weekly, is here.

Our Stuff and Our Things no longer:  welcome to Landing Gear

11 October 2012 in Our Stuff and Our Things | Comments (0)

Three people have now read my new novel-in-progress, and everyone seems to be in broad agreement - it’s ready.  However, two of these readers had difficulties with the title (including my agent).  They both felt that ‘Our Stuff and Our Things’ sets up certain expectations - quirky, urban, young people, or quirky, urban, family saga.  The truth is that my novel is those things, but it’s also weirder than that.  I want to the book to work, obviously, and the title for any novel is crucial.  So… Landing Gear has arrived.  I think it probably works better.  I think.  We’ll see.

I’ve had a website built for the new project, a kind of umbrella site that pulls together my digital fiction ‘Flight Paths’, the novel ‘Landing Gear’, and my new digital fiction collaboration with Andy Campbell, ‘Duel’, explaining how these three fictions work together to tell a larger story.  The main purpose for this website, at this stage, is to have a page that my agent and I can show publishers and anyone else who is interested in this project.  It’s not for readers yet, not really - ‘Flight Paths’ has its own website, ‘Landing Gear’ is not online, and ‘Duel’ is represented by the project’s blog only for the time being.  The project overall has retained the title, ‘Our Stuff and Our Things’, but if that proves to be too confusing, that will change too. 

So, if you are a publisher, and you want to take a look at this project, the novel and the prototype first episode of ‘Duel’, you know where to find me.  Or, if you don’t, find the project here.

When Real Life Meets Fiction

21 September 2012 in Our Stuff and Our Things | Comments (0)

Two things have been in the news in the past week that bring to mind events in two of my works of fiction. 

Last week a body landed in a street in Mortlake, southwest London.  It transpired that the body was that of a man, North African or possibly Congolese or Angolan in origin, who had stowed away in the landing gear of an airplane.  While many of the newspaper reports focused on the horror of waking up to find a dead man crumpled on your street outside your house, others explored the risk demonstrated by the stowaway’s breach of airport security, back in the country where he boarded the plane.  Of course, this story replicates the story I’m currently exploring in my new novel, ‘Our Stuff and Our Things’, and the digital fiction Chris Joseph and I are working on, ‘Flight Paths’.  In my version of the life of a stowaway, he gets up and walks away.  If only that was true for the man who fell on that street in Mortlake.  Here’s an interesting report on the story

As well as that, yesterday the news reported that a British soldier in Afghanistan had gone into labour and produced a baby, having not realised that she was pregnant.  This story unleashed a media stream of concealed and unknown pregnancy stories.  In my novel, ‘The Mistress of Nothing’, Sally Naldrett, the main character in the book, conceals her pregnancy.  Since the book was published, various readers have queried whether or not this could be possible; indeed, most women’s experience of pregnancy, my own included, precludes the idea of either not knowing you are pregnant or being able to hide it.  However, as the stories in the press revealed yesterday, it is actually much more common than anyone would think possible.  One radio report I had mentioned a study in Wales that concluded that 1 out of 2500 pregnancies are concealed or unknown.  Sally Naldrett’s concealed pregnancy is a true story; she really did hide her pregnancy from Lucie Duff Gordon, despite living in close and continual proximity with her.

‘Inanimate Alice’ goes up on The Space, the BBC/ACE showcase

14 September 2012 in Inanimate Alice | Comments (0)

‘Inanimate Alice’ today has gone up on The Space, the BBC/ Arts Council England showcase of the arts in digital form.  It’s on the homepage of The Space for the time being, and will reside in the Literature and Spoken Word section of the site.

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