Future of Publishing

Connecting Readers to Writers:  the ONLY POSSIBLE future of publishing

21 July 2010 | Comments (3)

messy desk

Two photos for my blog today:

my desk before I spent an entire day and a half clearing it

tidy desk

and my desk after I spent an entire day and a half clearing it. 

So now I have a desk like the people in movies and on tv!  Yay!

If a publisher or journalism outlet ever again deems me worthy of a commissioned author’s photo, I will foreswear the book-lined library backdrop in favour of a mobile phone mast or wifi hub, I swear. 

Two conversations have got me thinking, yet again, about the future of publishing, even though of late I’ve been trying to tell myself to stop thinking about the future of publishing:  one with Anna Lewis of via e-mail, the other with Antonia Byatt of Arts Council England.  Publishing, as we know it today, will surely collapse due to multiple factors too complex to go into here.  The only important question left, really, is HOW TO CONNECT READERS TO WRITERS.  In a world where writers may have to become their own brands, forms of curation – whether that is prizes, or book clubs and reading groups, or the websites and blogs that we rely for personal recommendations – will be of huge importance.  The traditional role of publishers - gate-keeping - will become more akin to curation. 

In my bad-tempered way I do wonder what will happen to the big conglomerates with their huge overheads.  But, to tell the truth, I don’t really care what happens to them, and I am certain that readers don’t care about publishers either.  Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely thrilled to be published by them, that’s not what I’m saying.  What I care about, on a highly personal level, is being able to write what I want to write, being able to publish that writing in some way, and for that work to be able to find its way to readers other than my siblings.  These three things – write, publish, be read – matter more than anything else to me as a writer. 

I do want to be able to make an income from this activity as well though like most writers I will never expect to be able to live by writing alone. 

As a reader, what I want is access to good writing, to long-form sustained prose narratives as well as work that experiments with form, content, and media.  At the end of the day I don’t really care how that good writing is delivered to me, whether it is via the printed page or via digital files on a screen of some kind.  But I want to be able to find the writers I want to read, even if I’ve never heard of them before.  Which leads me back to my original upper case statement a few paragraphs back:  the only important question left, really, is HOW TO CONNECT WRITERS TO READERS.

Any publisher who isn’t addressing this directly and urgently will be in trouble soon.  And I don’t mean in trouble with me. 

And that’s my prediction for today.  I’ll go back to admiring my tv-lawyer style desk now.

Geek Camp 3

25 May 2010 | Comments (5)

Last week I went along to Geek Camp 3 at Free Word - my first time at this event.  Lots of opportunities to talk to people, set up to encourage discussion around key topics - this worked really well for me as I have a stupid tendency to talk to people I already know at these events, and I managed to break that habit at Geek Camp 3.  There were some interesting presentations too - from the Literary Platform people, looking for ideas about how to manage the success of their project, as well as how to create revenue from it; and also from the Lazarus Project, a fascinating look at Cambridge University Press and its very successful print-on-demand resurrections from its 450 years of accumulated backlist.

The Lazarus Project (which doesn’t seem to have a website) takes books from this backlist, gets them scanned in India, copyedits, tidies up the file, and reproduces original cover here in the UK, and makes them available for between £15-20 as print-on-demand.  Alistair Horne, the speaker, said they only need to sell 4 or 5 copies to make this financially viable.  He used the example of a splendid book called ‘The Complete Bibliography of Sponges: 1598 to 1754’ which they had brought back to life - and have now sold 22 copies.  An interesting look at the potential economics around print on demand for backlist titles.  Tell me again how publishers figure a royalty of 25% on ebooks - which, afterall, remain as a digital file so don’t even have printing costs -  is fair? 

It was a good evening, but I came away with a weariness about our endless discussions about the future of publishing - and I’m not a publisher, lord knows how they stomach it.  For the time being, when it comes to these kinds of events and discussions, I’m going to try to focus more clearly on writing - the future of literature, what literature and good writing can offer in the digital age.  Good writing, and good reading - these are the things that matter to me.  How will we read in the future?  Will the novel as we know it today fundamentally change?  Is the investment we writers ask of our readers worth it?  I’m not talking about the £7.99 - or less - you hand over to buy a book, print or digital.  I’m talking about the hours and hours readers spend with our work - the time they spend reading.  No other cultural producers require such a huge investment of time.  Opera might be long, but it’s nothing compared to reading a novel.  Does this matter?  Will this change?

A Writer’s View of the Future of Publishing

29 April 2010 | Comments (0)

I wrote this piece for the launch of The Literary Platform on Tuesday 27 April.  The Literary Platform is a place where all the conversations about the future of writing and publishing can come together.  Less industry focussed than other websites devoted to this subject, the articles posted thus far are thought-provoking and wide-ranging.

Over the past ten years I’ve been deeply enmeshed in discussions about the future of writing, and the myriad ways in which the new technologies have the potential to change literature.  My interest is in text, and what happens to text when you put it on a screen alongside the full range of media computing offers.  I write ‘digital fiction’, works that are not digital conversions but are ‘born digital’,  using text and multimedia to tell a story that is meant to be viewed on a screen. 

However, as well as digital fiction, I also write books – novels and short stories – and have been functioning as a writer within the traditional publishing industry for more than twenty years.  I’ve watched as the publishing and bookselling industries have struggled to come to terms with the new technologies and what they have to offer to both readers and writers.  I’ve had many discussions with agents and publishers about what the future will hold.  I’ve stumbled down my share of blind alleys, waking up to discover that last night’s certainty (fiction for UK mobile phones!) is this morning’s well-that-was-a-dumb-idea (fiction for UK mobile phones!).

I’ve also had the odd experience recently of having a novel disappear completely in one territory while winning a big prize and becoming a bestseller in another, hammering home to me yet again the fact that in 2010 success with publishing fiction is as random unpredictable as a lottery.

Most of my discussions to date have had an edge of frustration to them, both from myself as a writer excited about technology but annoyed by the glacial pace of change, and from publishers and agents who have been doing perfectly well for the past two hundred years, thank you very much.  However, things do seem to be changing rapidly at the moment as digital books at last become a reality. 

Readers aren’t much interested in publishers; most people can’t remember who published the last book they read, and that’s as it should be.  In the past few months several agents have whispered to me that they can see a future where the roles of publisher, agent, and bookseller merge online (this is something Amazon is already attempting), while writers make more of their status as sole traders, their name their brand, their backlist their business, supported by this new agent/publisher/bookseller hybrid.  I can see a future where publishing is turned on its head with the writer as CEO, hiring and firing editorial, marketing, etc., as he or she sees fit.  Doubtless this future would be as dog-eat-dog as the present day, with the bestselling author being able to afford the premium editorial and marketing talent, with their books finding the largest audiences.  This model is of course perilously close to vanity publishing.  And most writers don’t want to be CEOs, they want to write.

Instead of voicing the same old frustrations and demands, I thought I would take this opportunity to think a bit about what I would like from a publisher in the future, the stuff that I need help with, that I want someone else to do beautifully while I stick to writing. 

1. Editorial:  I still want an editor who can help me make my novel better.  Of all the roles that publishers fulfil, editorial remains the most valuable to me.
2. Marketing: While most readers don’t pay much attention to which publisher publishes which book, a strong editorial brand might work online in a world where people are looking for guidance on what to read next, beyond online- bookseller-recommends automation and book clubs.  One of the toughest tasks for publishers and writers alike is how to find your readers – in a world where many books are published, whether print or digital, finding your way to readers is still the trickiest, and most important, thing.  I’m completely enamoured with the way that social media allows me to connect with my readers directly, but I’m not naïve enough to think I could conduct my own marketing campaign.  The publisher of the future needs to be smaller, smarter, and nippier, willing to work harder to recognise, seek out and find the multitude of niche groups that make up the readership for most books.

3. Nuts and bolts:  proof-reading, proper conversion to relevant formats, cover, prize submissions, fiddly bits like ISBN etc.  I need help with this stuff, please. 

4. Payment:  I want to have the potential to make money from what I write.  This might sound idiotic but it is a fundamental principle that sometimes gets overlooked in these discussions.  I won’t be surprised if the traditional advance on royalties disappears completely for all but the biggest sellers, but I will be surprised if writers don’t find a way to demand a better rate of return than the 10-15% on print, 25% on ebook that is standard currently.  In order to move away from this advance/royalty structure writers may have to share financial risk.  Historically, financial risk (beyond that of the huge investment of time any writer makes) resided with a sponsor/benefactor, then a printer/bookseller, and more recently, the publisher.  How this will play out in the future is a key question but we need to be willing to try new models.

5. Conviviality:  From the editors and agents and festival organisers to the journalists who write about books, people who work in publishing are among the most intelligent, funny, gossipy, well-read, and passionate people I know.  No future industry would have any spark or wit without them.

6. Innovation:  What is reading going to be like in the future?  What kinds of stories will our wired-up online kids want to read?  Is literature evolving beyond the printed page?  Are we up to creating stories that make the most of what the technology offers while remaining true to our long-held notions of what the word ‘literature’ means?  In a world where the roles of publisher/agent/writer/bookseller begin to merge and change, the truly innovative ‘publisher’ will be the one who begins to experiment in multimedia content instead of simply adding on ‘enhancements’ and marketing extras.  This is the publisher I want to work with, one who is interested in new platforms, new business models, and new ways to tell stories. 

Reading is changing.  Publishers need to be able to move quickly:  the massive conglomerates may have the deepest pockets, but their vast overheads combined with their entrenched reliance on territorial rights mean they are not light on their feet.  As US publisher Richard Nash put it in an inspiring talk recently, forget about all this supply chain stuff, publishing is, or should be, devoted to connecting writers with readers.

One final thought:  is it possible that digital libraries hold the key to our future as readers?  Some pundits insist that the book industry of the future will drown under a tsunami of digital piracy.  Is the current system of PLR for writers – a few pennies for every copy borrowed – one that we need to look at more closely for clues about how books will be distributed and catalogued, protected and housed, indeed, how books will be found by readers, in the future?  If so, what will this mean for publishing? 

The Literary Platform

O’Reilly TOC - Tools of Change for Publishing blog

26 April 2010 | Comments (0)

I’ve written a piece for the re-vamped O’Reilly TOC blog, ‘Seven Paranoid Provocations on E-Books and Digital Fiction’; this is an expanded version of a piece for my own blog from last month. 

Great to be asked to write something for this US blog - there are a few comments there at the moment, hoping to garner a few more. 

Seven Paranoid Provocations on E-Books and Digital Fiction.

A (S)Creed for Digital Fiction - again

12 April 2010 | Comments (0)

I jumped the gun slightly last month by blogging about this article on EBR - A (S)Creed for Digital Fiction..  The article was being sent out for consideration and hadn’t actually been published yet.  But now it is.  Looks like my response is now being circulated for consideration to EBR’s e-mail list.  Once it goes through this process it will be published on the EBR site, in due course.  My apologies if I managed to confuse anyone else, apart from myself.

Five Provocations - Banff In(ter)ventions Manifesto

12 March 2010 | Comments (0)

I wrote this manifesto prior to attending ‘In(ter)ventions’; it reflects my concerns as a writer who works in both print publishing and digital fiction.  At Banff the focus of the conference was primarily on the avant-garde and poetics; as a fiction writer my concerns, in this context, felt more mainstream.  This itself was interesting – in the world of book publishing I’m often seen as the futurist, the digital advocate.  At Banff my concern with narrative and story positioned me as a member of the non-avant old guard, a traditionalist.  This is an observation, not a complaint – I found the conference hugely useful and completely fascinating. 

1.  We need to talk about money.  Some of us reside inside the academy, some of us reside outside the academy; some of us get grants for our work, some of us do not.  Writers need to be thinking hard about how to protect our revenues across all platforms.  As publishing is shaken up by the new technologies, writers need to be proactive, involved in the on-going discussions about developing fair terms and new business models.

2.  Writers, publishers, and teachers need to get their heads out of the sand:  the digital future is already here and we risk becoming dinosaurs, as well as ostriches, if we don’t engage with the multitude of possibilities for storytelling offered to us by the new technologies. 

3.  Stop talking about ebooks. Ebooks are boring.  Convenient, practical, destined to become one of the ways we read, but boring, as counter-intuitive as placing the text of the latest blockbuster novel on a television screen.  The Google Book project, which sees the world’s leading libraries collaborating in secret with a giant corporation, effectively pulling the copyright rug out from under our feet, is either our best friend or our worst enemy or both; however, the Google Book project, along with rapid developments in ereaders, has ensured that the book, as a digital file, will remain at the heart of our culture for the foreseeable future.  So stop talking about ebooks.  There’s a new world of media-rich literature around the next corner; reading on screen has huge potential to enhance the way we tell stories, and to expand our audiences in new directions. 

4.  Always remember that human culture is highly visual.  The first non-oral form of storytelling was cave-painting – the original powerpoint presentation.  The dominance of film and television as storytelling forms in the twentieth century demonstrate that as soon as we are able to use pictures to tell stories, we do.  Literature must reckon with this fact.  As technology enables us to carry rich media in our pockets we need to find ways to make writing - good writing - relevant to new generations of readers.  If we take the long view of the history of storytelling, are plain old words on the page – fixed-type print - an historic anomaly? 

5.  Good writing – and by this I mean writing that demonstrates the love of language, of a good sentence, a well-turned phrase, the power of words, writing that rewards re-reading – must survive, regardless of platform or media.  It’s up to us to make sure that happens. 

A (S)Creed for Digital Fiction

9 March 2010 | Comments (3)

Yesterday I sat up and took note when an e-mail from the Electronic Book Review (ebr) arrived in my inbox.  Listed in its brief summary of the articles in the most recent volume, was this:

A [S]creed for Digital Fiction” by Alice Bell, Astrid Ensslin, Dave Ciccoricco, Hans Rustad, Jess Laccetti, and Jessica Pressman.

I took myself over to the url in question, and read the screed. 

It’s an elegant piece of writing.  For me one of the most important aspects of this anti-manifesto comes in its title - ‘A (S)creed for Digital Fiction’.  Not that tricksy ‘(S)Creed’ (I’m tired of words broken up by brackets, though I can see the point they are making in the Introduction), but digital fiction.  Does this mean that, at last, we have agreed on a name for the kind of media-rich, screen-dependent, born-digital, works of fiction that folks have been creating and disseminating for the last fifteen years or so?  ‘Digital fiction’ is definitely my preferred term, and I’ve found myself using it freely of late, with less obligation to explain what that might mean.  So, hurray for the Digital Fiction International Network for this not-so-simple act of naming.

DFIN’s list of what the screed includes is generous and rich; while it ticks the theoretical buttons that, as a writer, I find less interesting, it also foregrounds ‘readers’, ‘reading’, and ‘re-reading’.  Its broad inclusiveness is inspiring, and I like this approach to defining a set of concepts, by listing what is ‘embraced’.  Over at TRG we are continuing to work on a definition of transliteracy and DFIN has provided us with a useful model here. 

The list of what the screed embraces is followed by a list of what the screed ‘deliberately neglects’ and this too is thought-provoking.  However, I think they have jumped the gun a bit by including ‘e-books’.  I know why they have included e-books on their list of exclusions - when I gave my talk at Banff In(ter)ventions (those pesky brackets again) one of my manifesto points was the bad-tempered ‘Stop Talking About E-books; e-books are boring’.  However, despite my own weariness with the subject, I think e-books are undergoing a rapid and soon-to-snowball set of changes and advancements and the ‘paper-under-glass texts’ analogy DFIN uses will soon no longer hold true.  ‘Enhanced editions’ and single-book apps where the author provides a wealth of extra digital material that is embedded in the text, from audio recordings of the author reading to music composed by the author, are already beginning to appear;  children’s books are undergoing a rapid revolution as the games industry giant EA collaborates with publishers to create works like ‘Artemis Fowl’ for Nintendo DS - fully interactive, with games, puzzles and a whole wealth of extra material for the reader to explore, embedded in the text.  Both these examples are still a considerable distance from what I consider to be ‘digital fiction’, as both are still pretty much a traditional print book with a bunch of e-extras added on.  However, e-books will doubtless continue to transform, especially as e-readers become more sophisticated and people really do want to get the most out of the potential for reading a story on a screen. 

Personally, my current anxiety around the form is that the kind of work I’m involved in, digital fictions like the latest iteration of ‘Flight Paths’, will be completely swept aside and obliterated by the Great Machine of Corporate Publishing as it discovers the huge potential for digital fiction, and that works of this type, with their hand-made and very personal aesthetic, will soon look like a movie I made on my mobile phone when everything else looks like ‘Avatar’.

Banff and book tour

16 February 2010 | Comments (0)

I’m off to the Banff Writers Centre for In(ter)ventions this week; so looking forward to spending time at the Writers Centre, to meeting folks there, and to seeing old friends, including Lance and Andi Olsen, writer and artist extraordinaire. 

Eh-List reading series, TPL

It’s great to be going back to Canada so soon after my numerous trips last autumn; it will be fun to be in the country during the Winter Olympics, and it will be great to further some of the work I’ve been doing with my publisher, booksellers, book clubs, and readers.  Winning the GG continues to provide huge opportunities for me, and I still can’t really believe it.  Maybe this time when I land at Calgary the immigration people will tell me it was all a big mistake, and I need to give back the leather-bound artist edition of the novel, the cheque, and all those photos of me and the GG. 

Next week I’ll be doing events in Canmore and Calgary, as well as Montreal and Toronto - including the ‘Eh-list’ reading series at the Toronto Public Library.  Check out my Events page for the details.

New year, new post

4 January 2010 | Comments (0)

2010.  Hello.

2009 turned out to be a great year.  Publication of my novel ‘The Mistress of Nothing’ in Canada came with the completely unexpected and truly wonderful bonus of winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction - the GG.  Since then, the book has been in the Canadian bestseller charts and has sold into several other territories, including the US, where Touchstone/Simon & Schuster bought it a few days before Christmas.  They plan to publish in January 2011.

Here in the UK the fate of the novel has been much more mixed.  When it came out there was a flurry of reviews, mostly good, as well as the virtual book tour which resulted in a series of interviews on great book blogs.  However, the book failed to find its way into UK bookshops on the whole; shops that stocked it did so briefly.  Now the only way to buy the book is online.  I think perhaps a year ago I might have felt this didn’t matter, but my recent in experience in the Canadian market, where the book has been heavily promoted in the chains and even in the big box stores, shows me what a difference this can make to the fate of a book, in particular, enabling a book to find its way to readers who are new to my work. It’s interesting, if a little confusing, to contrast the progress of the book in terms of sales between Canada and the UK; it’s exactly the same book in both markets, after all.

I started writing this blog in the autumn of 2008, thinking I would write it for a year, tracking the progress of publication.  But of course now I’m hooked, though in a minor, infrequent, kind of way. I’ve read a few interesting pieces of late about whether or not blogging and the use of other social media can influence book sales and/or a writer’s profile - the jury seems to be out on that one still.  But because of my work in the digital realm, keeping a blog up and running makes sense to me.

In the meantime, the holiday is now well and truly over.  I will continue to write this blog, and I’m also going to go for a total redesign of my website. I’ll be back in Canada at the end of February for both a digital conference and more events/readings for ‘The Mistress of Nothing’. The Fiction module I teach on the MA in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University starts next week; I am looking forward to that. The composer with whom I’m collaborating on the opera based on ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is coming to London soon, so I’ll be able to hear the first act of her orchestral score.  The day long conference on Transliteracy that I’m helping to run at DMU will take place on 9 Feb - abstracts and registration are now available here. The nine multimedia short stories that Chris Joseph and I are creating for the educational publisher Rising Stars, ‘Lifelines’, are nearly finished. I’m a year older.

Happy New Year.

TRG launches today!!!

13 October 2009 | Comments (0)

TRGlogoSince transliteracy research began at DMU in 2005 under the umbrella of PART (Production & Research in Transliteracy), group members have produced a significant range of projects, events, presentations and publications, stimulating an informal research network around the theory and practice of transliteracy.

My colleague, Sue Thomas, and I have now established The Transliteracy Research Group with the aim of focusing PART’s work yet more closely. TRG will continue to draw in a broad coalition of theorists and practitioners, both from DMU and other international institutions and organizations, whilst continuing to develop our already strong links with business, local community, and the broader cultural sector. A major strength of transliteracy events at DMU is that participants have come from academia, the arts, information sciences, pedagogical researchers, and the creative industries, and this has impacted in many different areas.

The Transliteracy Research Group (TRG), is a research-focussed think-tank and creative laboratory.  The public face of the group resides on a new blog.  This blog will be run by Thomas and me, with regular contributions from the following De Montfort staff, Phd students, and graduates of the online MA in Creative Writing and New Media:  Tia Azulay, Heather Conboy, Gareth Howell, Anietie Isong, Jess Laccetti, Kirsty McGill, and Christine Wilks.

Please join us as we develop this new field of academic research. You can contribute via comments to the blog or join the community ‘Transliteracy Notes’, designed by Gareth Howell.

As well as the new research group, we would like to bring to your attention a new resource, the Creative Writing and New Media Archive, an archive of all the Guest Lectures given during the four years of the online MA in Creative Writing and New Media. This archive contains lectures from theorists and practitioners as varied as Christy Dena, Rita Raley, Alan Sondheim, Caitlin Fisher, and John Cayley.  Created by CWNM graduate and digital artist Christine Wilks, this resource will be of value to practitioners, students and academics with an interest in transliteracy, digital fiction, digital art, e-poetry, and cross-media.  Please feel free to use this archive and discuss it in ‘Transliteracy Notes’.

We will be hosting a day-long Transliteracy Conference on Tuesday 9 Feb, 2010, at the brand-new Phoenix Square Digital Media Centre, Leicester, UK.  Please watch for our Call for Presentations which we will be sending out next week.

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