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Writers Union of Canada:  A Writers’ Bill of Rights for the Digital Age

10 October 2011 | Comments (2)

I saw with interest last week that the Writers’ Union of Canada (@twuc), of which I am not a member (I’m a member of the Society of Authors here in the UK), has published on its blog ‘A Writers’ Bill of Rights for the Digital Age’. 

Here is what they propose:

To Respect the Rights of the Creators of Literary Works in Canada:
1.  Copyright legislation shall ensure the protection of intellectual property and appropriate compensation for rightsholders.
2.  Exceptions to copyright shall be minimized.
3. The publisher shall split the net proceeds of ebook sales equally with the author.
4.  The author shall retain all electronic rights not specifically granted to the publisher or producer and shall have approval of any modifications made to the work.
5.  The publisher shall not exercise or sublicense ebook publishing rights without the express authorization of the author.
6.  When a book is out of print in print form, continuing sales in electronic form shall not prevent a rights reversion to the author.
7.  For ebooks, the publisher in its contract shall replace the traditional “out of print” clause that triggers a rights reversion with a sales volume clause (e.g., less than a specified quantity of ebooks sold in a specified number of royalty periods) and/or a finite term of license (e.g., five years).
8.  When rights revert, the publisher shall provide the author with the digital file of the book.
9.  The Public Lending Right Commission shall provide author payments for electronic books and allot additional monies to this end.
10. Libraries shall acquire digital copies of works in their collections only from rightsholders or their licensing agencies.
11. Ebook retailers shall require the rightsholder’s permission for any free preview or download of an electronic work, and the rightsholder shall specify the maximum amount to be made available.
12. Agents, publishers, aggregators, retailers, and libraries shall ensure that works in digital form will be well protected and will not be shared, traded, or sold outside the boundaries authorized by the contract.

I think this is an excellent list of rights and it covers many complex issues succinctly.  There are a few things that seem to me redolent of wishful thinking:  ‘3. The publisher shall spit the net proceeds of ebook sales equally with the author.’  This can happen, and indeed I have had this happen with one of my books, but that publisher was unusually transparent about the costs of producing the book, as well as the cut the retailer would be taking, etc.  6 and 7 are both excellent, but ‘8. When rights revert, the publisher shall provide the author with the digital file of the book’ also seems to me to be… optimistic, not the least because if a publisher has invested in design, layout, etc for an ebook, the question over who owns that digital file is a little murky - obviously the writer owns the text itself, but do they also own the file that the publisher has paid to create? 

‘10. Libraries shall acquire digital copies of works in their collections only from rightsholder or their licensing agencies.’  Paired with 9 and PLR, this should work.  But there’s a larger question about libraries and digital files:  a library system only needs one copy of a digital file, if that file can be accessed across their entire digital network.  Publisher, libraries, and writers still seem to be pretending that a digital file is the same thing as a single copy of a book.  I think this is an area that would benefit from creative thinking. 

I love the idea of a bill of rights for the digital age, and its great to see TWUC taking a well-aimed stab at it.

Response to James Bridle’s ‘The New Value of Text’ blogpost

6 October 2011 | Comments (0)

James Bridle, over at Booktwo.org, has written a thought-provoking piece on ‘the new value of text’ as he sees it, in a time when he feels there is ‘an increasingly pervasive’ (albeit erroneous) ‘notion that other forms of media are additive to literature, that they somehow improve it’.  He discusses the current industry moves toward ‘enhanced ebooks’, books-as-apps, etc as part of ‘a profound assault on book publishing and literature, on the text itself.’  The addition of other media to text ‘reduce the bandwidth of the imagination.’

He’s not talking about ebooks, which do the job of getting text onto ereaders fairly smoothly.  He is talking about literature, with a capital ‘L’ - Literature - and how it is possible that literature is under threat in an era where publishers become spell-bound by the potential for bells, whistles, and animated audio clips to add ‘value’ to works that a decade ago would have been published as plain old ‘books’. 

It’s a fascinating post, with a few wobbly bits in it, (like where he asserts that text is ‘not platform-dependent’ - it was last time I looked at my collection of medieval scrolls), but the bit that struck me most forcefully was where he writes this: 

‘“Storytelling” is what we do for children. It is the infantilisation of literature. And while there is much of interest in children’s literature and children’s publishing, to emulate it is to debase     literature, and ourselves.’

In the past few years while I’ve been attempting to talk to people about what I see as the vast potential new technologies have to offer to both writers and readers who are interested in thinking about finding new ways to tell stories, I’ve often found myself referring to myself as a ‘storyteller’.  And this never fails to make me feel uneasy.  I’m not a storyteller, if what a storyteller means is someone who is really good at telling stories in any sense of our oral tradition.  In my own life, I don’t tell stories, I’m not an adept raconteur.  What I am is a writer, someone who sits alone most of the time, working on text, crafting text, shaping text, and, hopefully, creating literature.  So I agree with James on this. 

However, I wonder if the term ‘literature’ can be stretched away from the ‘long form prose narrative’ that James is so attached to, that I am also attached to as a writer and a reader.  I consider my own attempts at experimenting with the new technologies to tell stories ‘literature’, in the same way that the books I write are attempts at creating ‘literature’.  But ‘Inanimate Alice’ and ‘Flight Paths’, among other works, are not literature-as-we-know-it.  But they are also not stories with media as additive; they are stories with rich media at their heart. They are more than the sum of their parts - or at least, that’s what I aspire for these works to be. 

One other quibble with James’ excellent blog post.  He states:  ‘no application or television programme is equal to a well-written, long form text.’  Well, I just read ‘One Day’ which many people would argue qualifies as a well-written, long form text.  I enjoyed it, and like everyone else, found it hard to put down.  However, I’d argue that ‘The Sopranos’ and, oh, let’s say, quite possibly ‘Nurse Jackie’, are equal to it in terms of cultural significance and quality.  But that’s where our arguments about what is art, and what isn’t art, sink into the swamp.  So I’ll end there.

Melbourne on my mind

1 September 2011 | Comments (0)

Here I am in Melbourne where it is rather grey and chilly - I know it’s winter here in the southern hemisphere, but still, after all my years of hearing about Australian sunshine, you’d think the sun would deign to come out once or twice while I’m here.  Instead I’ve resorted to buying red tights and a brightly coloured necklace.  However, as I look over my shoulder now I can see that, in fact, the sun has come out today, so I’ll keep this short and then run outside to play.

I’m here for the Melbourne Writer’s Festival.  I’ll be doing two events; the first takes place tomorrow and is a collaboration with if:book australia, the good folks who invited me over.  I haven’t met any of them yet, though of course I ‘know’ Kate Eltham and Simon Groth online, and we’ll be meeting up tonight for the first time.  Tomorrow we’ll be running BookCamp Australia, a day-long unconference on the subject(s) of what next for reading and writing.  I’m looking forward to a day of discussion and questions and talk, talk, talk, something that digital book people are always good at. 

On Saturday we’ll be doing a panel, ‘The Connected Book’.  At both events there’ll be people I’ve met online already, including a few educators who work with ‘Inanimate Alice’, so it will be great to put faces to names. 

It’s been great having a few days in Melbourne which strikes me as a fantastically liveable city, full of great bars and cafes and gardens and beaches and cool little shops and art and a multitude of peoples from all over the world - everything a city needs, in fact.

World at One with Martha Kearney

25 August 2011 | Comments (0)

I was interviewed by Martha Kearney for the BBC Radio 4 news programme, World at One, last week - Thursday 18 August.  The interview was part of a series of interviews the programme was doing about the future of the book - my interview was preceded by interviews with the agent Andrew Wylie, Victoria Barnsley the CEO of Harper Collins, James Daunt from Daunt Books and Waterstones, and Graham Swift, the writer.  All four of these interviews had been on the gloomy side so I was happy to lend an optimistic note to the discussion.  Plus it was huge fun to go into Television Centre at 8 a.m. - after we recorded the interview, Martha led me through the newsroom where I caught a glimpse of the Today programme being made.

PhD by Published Works essay

23 May 2011 | Comments (1)

Today I submitted my Phd by Published Works essay to the printers.  I’ve been working on it over the past eight months - I’ve done it quickly.  And now I feel sick - truly,  like puking my guts out.  I wasn’t expecting that kind of reaction to handing the thing over to be printed.

PhDs by Published Works are odd beasts - you take a selection of your own work and attempt to write about your practice in relation to those works.  The fact that I work in the parallel fields of fiction for print and born-digital fiction was useful for me, in that I was able to write an essay that looked at the similarities and differences between these two distinct modes of writing and publishing. 

My plan is to publish the PhD essay online once - if - I get through the Viva examination, which will be toward the end of July.  I’m looking at a few options for how to do that.  I’m interested in PressBooks and hope to talk to them about using their software as a platform for publishing a version of the PhD that will be open to comments and questions.

I think the way I feel now is down to a combination of factors - relief at getting it to the printers combined with anxiety over whether it is good enough; the ongoing stress over the uncertainty over whether or not DMU is going to renew my contract (I’ve been waiting to hear about this for the same amount of time that I’ve been working on the PhD, and time, and my contract, is about to run out); and just plain old nerves.  It’s been a very long time since I submitted work to examiners.  Of course, handing in a book to agents and publishers is a similar process, but somehow the whole thing about academic judgement feels very different.  I am, after all, a drop-out, so of course academic pressure isn’t something I’ve responded well to in the past.  Ha ha! I can hear all my students shouting, Now you know how It Feels!  Well, all sympathy, that’s all I can say. 

Gulp. 

Dreaming Methods Open Source Digital Fiction

10 May 2011 | Comments (0)

Chris Joseph and I have been working with Andy Campbell of Dreaming Methods to create an app, and a web app, using the five existing digital stories from ‘Flight Paths’ along with additional material and a brand-new sixth story.  The app won’t be ready for a while yet, though in the meantime Andy has been working hard.

To kick off our project, Andy has been experimenting with the first story from ‘Flight Paths’, ‘Yacub in Dubai’; he’s created an open source version of it that is compatible with many devices and platforms, including iPhone, iPad, and Android, as well as all desktop computers.  This version gets round the problem that we’ve had with Flash not working on certain devices.  Here’s the link: http://labs.dreamingmethods.com/flightpaths/chapter1_open.html

This link to the latest Dreaming Methods newsletter also showcases several of Andy’s other projects, including his own Digital Fiction Boilerplate, which allows creators with some knowledge of HTML and Javascript to create works that are viewable across platforms and devices, including smartphones. 

As well as that, the newsletter provides a link to the Dreaming Methods mobile site. 

All very exciting and, indeed, ground-breaking, developments for our work on ‘Flight Paths’.

Where Are the Writers?

22 March 2011 | Comments (2)

Publishers are engaged in the digital conversation now in a way that even two years ago would have seemed unlikely.  It’s all happening, at last, and publishers are beginning to experiment with finding the right content as well as the right platforms for publishing in a manner that is native to digital technologies.  Ebooks are, at last, a given - a growing part of the market, yes, but at the end of the day, just another way to publish, no big deal (that’s skimming over all the masses of problems with eretail, royalties, DRM, etc, but that’s not what I’m talking about here).  What this means is that I can finally stop shouting the thing I’ve been shouting for what seems like forever - ‘STOP TALKING ABOUT EBOOKS, EBOOKS ARE NOT INTERESTING’ - and move on to shouting the other thing I always shout whenever given the opportunity:  CAN WE AT LAST TALK ABOUT CREATING DIGITAL WORKS THAT MAKE THE MOST OUT OF THE VAST POTENTIAL FOR NEW FORMS, NEW WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT STORY, NEW WAYS OF CONNECTING WRITERS WITH READERS, THAT THE DIGITAL PLATFORMS ALLOW FOR?’

Today’s explosion of capital letters was prompted by the announcement from FutureBook and The Literary Platform that they are co-hosting an event, the FutureBook Innovation Workshop here in London in June.  This is an entirely good thing from two good people, indeed two organisations, who are dedicated to thinking about the future of the book in ways that highlight innovation and experimentation.  The description of the day sounds great:  publishers will get the chance to ‘showcase their recent apps, enhanced e-books and e-books, and share best-practice with fellow publishers. In addition, the conference will provide a platform for publishers to meet with developers, with a “speed-dating” session aimed at putting book professionals in touch with potential digital partners’.  Fantastic.  I want to be there.

Except for one thing - no writers included.  No mention of writers, no mention of writing, no mention of stories.  I can see why this makes sense - this is an industry event aimed at publishers and developers, co-sponsored by FutureBook, which is an off-shoot of The Bookseller, the publishing industry’s main source of news and comment.  This conversation - about the future of publishing, indeed, the future of the book - is one that writers have been largely absent from throughout the past decade.  But this omission is symptomatic to me of the weird division that exists in our bookish world between the makers of content and the sellers of content.  I say ‘weird’ because it never ceases to amaze me how ignorant most writers are about the industry they work so hard to survive in;  that said, if writers are ignorant about the industry, most of us are even more ignorant about digital technologies. 

What would writers do at such an event - pitch their incredibly cool ideas for digital projects at the cohort of publishers and developers present?  Hmm.  Now there’s an event I’d like to attend.  I’ve got this great multi-platform idea - book plus web apps, growing its own interactive reading community…

Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2, launches today

9 February 2011 | Comments (0)

This post is a replica of today’s post over at OpenBook Toronto.

Today marks the launch date of the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2:  http://collection.eliterature.org/2/  This is an elegantly curated collection of eliterature, a great starting point for anyone interested in the way the new technologies can be used to tell stories.

Over the past decade, I’ve effectively had my feet in two quite separate camps when it comes to writing and reading.  As well as writing, publishing, and editing novels and short stories, I’ve also been involved with creating and publishing works of digital fiction online.  By ‘digital fiction’ I mean works of fiction that depend upon the computer to exist, works that blend text with other media, including images, sounds, music, animation, video, and games; by ‘digital fiction’ I don’t mean ebooks, or enhanced ebooks, or books-as-apps.  While works of digital fiction are increasingly high profile and popular, the two worlds – traditional publishing and digital fiction – remain remarkably immune to each other’s charms. 

Two of the most high profile works of digital fiction I’m involved with – both of which are ongoing projects, and both of which are included in ELC2 – are Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel.  ‘Inanimate Alice’ is the story of Alice, a girl who wants to be a games designer when she grows up; in the existing four episodes (six more are planned), the level of interactivity in the story increases as Alice’s own skills as a game designer increase.  ‘Flight Paths’ is the story of what happens when two lives – a Pakistani man who has stowed away on an airplane, and a London woman – collide rather dramatically in the parking lot of a supermarket. 

‘Inanimate Alice’ is used in schools and universities around the world as a tool for teaching both digital literacy and new ways of telling stories using the new technologies.  There’s a very active international pedagogical community around the stories; if you are interested in this, the best way to find out what’s going on is to join the ‘Inanimate Alice’ Facebook group http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/InanimateAlice or to follow @inanimatealice on twitter. 

I’m passionate about the possiblities for literature in the digital age.  We live in a time of great change – the way we read is changing, the way we write is changing, literature itself is changing.  But our deep need for stories will never go away. 

Will You Please Manage My Metadata:  TOC Frankfurt - Tuesday 5 October 2010

7 October 2010 | Comments (0)

TOC (O’Reilly’s Tools of Change) Frankfurt was demanding, brain-filling day - lots of great speakers, and great projects showcased.  The focus was on publishing and the digital - ways forward for the book industry.  On the whole, it was an optimistic day

For me the most interesting speaker was Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks US, a medium-sized independent publisher.  Dominique has moved swiftly and firmly into the digital realm, and is excited about the possibilities for the future, while remaining frank about the economic reality of publishing digitally in the present day.  Her talk was a model of transparency - she discussed various multimedia projects she’s been behind and their success (‘We Interupt This Broadcast’ being an early best-selling example), and failure (several of her more recent multimedia endeavours).  She is also frank about the real cost of digital publishing - the whole business of managing what Dominique calls ‘the ugly stuff’ - metadata.  This was the thing I came away with from TOC Frankfurt - that the role of publishers in the future will not be publishing books, but will be all about managing metadata.  In a world with multiple digital formats and multiple digital reading devices all with their own specifications and multiple digital retailers all with their own demands, it will be down to publishers to make sure all this metadata is managed correctly.  Gone are the days when publishing was about acquiring manuscripts, editing, copyediting, lay-out, print, and distribution:  now it is all about managing metadata.

Jeff Jarvis finished the day with a complex keynote about his idea that publishing is ‘a tool of publicness’ - his new book is about the notion of The Public.  Frankly, I was a little too brain-dead to take on what he had to say,  However, he did say the following:  publishers need to think carefully about what their value is, and in a digital age, that “value is not distribution, control and ownership, but in curating people, content, editing, teaching and promoting.”

There’s an interesting report on Raccah’s talk over at The Bookseller .

Why I Still Don’t Have an E-Reader

6 September 2010 | Comments (4)

A confession:  despite the fact that I think of myself as an ‘early adopter’, a ‘digital native’, and even - god forbid - a bit of a webby geek, I do not have an e-reader nor do I use my fancy smartphone as an ereader.  The reasons for this are as follows:

1.  Ereaders are all so ugly, apart from the fancy expensive one.  I have enough white and grey plastic in my life already thank you.  And the fancy expensive one is way too fancy and expensive. 
2.  Why should I buy a piece of hardware that restricts where I can purchase content?  I do not want to buy all my books from that online bookseller.  I do not want to have to have a whole pile of different ereader apps on my fancy smartphone according to where I buy my content. 
3.  Why should I buy a thing that restricts what I can do with the books I buy, that won’t allow me to lend books to friends?  That’s just stupid. 
4.  Ereaders cost too much, even the cheaper ones cost too much, and I’m paranoid that an EVEN BETTER ONE will suddenly appear, and I’m tired of buying things that become obselete within months - days - of purchase.
5.  All the companies involved, especially the fruit one, and the one-breasted warrior woman one, are way too annoying with their attempts to rule the world. 
6.  I want to pay for content, i.e. STUFF TO READ, not the platform to read it on.  I know, I know, a book is a platform too, and, given that most writers get less than 10% per book sold, you could argue that I’m already paying more than 90% of a book’s price to get the gadget (in this case a book) that delivers the content (the words the writer wrote), and that, in the case of a book, it’s insanity to buy the same gadget over and over again, when you could buy just one gadget and get each new set of content delivered straight to that instead.  I’d be happy to do that, apart from numbers 1-5 above. 

The truth is I really do want an ereader.  I love the idea of a device for reading, a device that holds all my books in one slim well-designed piece of kit, a device that allows me to annotate and search and read, read, read.  But the device I want, that allows me to buy books from wherever I want, whenever I want, to share them with whoever I want, to read how/when/and why I want (whether that’s alone in a corner or social media’d up the hoo-hah), in whatever format I want (which, ahem, includes Flash) DOES NOT EXIST.

That’s my Monday beginning of September rant for the year.

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