Shelf-Life:  Digital Fiction v Trad Fiction

24 February 2012 in digital fiction

Andy Campbell and I are working away on our new digital fiction collaboration, Duel; our project blog is the sole public-face of the work currently.  At the same time, I’m working on my novel, Our Stuff and Our Things.  The two stories are linked - the characters in the digital fiction will also appear in the novel.  Working on the two projects at the same time has lead me to think about the shelf-life of fiction.  The brutal truth is that the on-going digital fiction projects I’m involved with, in particular, Inanimate Alice, have a far greater audience reach, and a far far longer shelf-life, than anything I’ve published via the traditional publishing industry.

There are a number of reasons for this.  First off, in traditional publishing terms, I’m a classic mid-list literary fiction author.  At this stage in my career, I’ve written a lot of books, and many of them are no longer in print.  The exception to this is my most recent novel, The Mistress of Nothing; the fate of this book was transformed when it won the GG in 2009, Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction.  This prize gave me access to a much larger readership in Canada, and led to the publication of the book in a number of other territories, editions, and translations.  But even now, with several translations yet to appear, this book is fading from the market; it will doubtless have greater longevity than anything else I’ve written, because of the prize, but - unless of course the movie gets made - it will have a placid, quiet, life. 

It’s tough to find ways to continue to promote a book that was originally published in 2009; as a writer, my focus is elsewhere, as I move onto working on my next book and other new projects. This is not helped by the fact that one of my publishers appears to be in serious trouble - haven’t had a royalty statement (nor a payment) since the one that covered the period up to December 2010.  So any sense of the book as an on-going project, with a building readership, has faded.  As well as that, the idea of trying to promote a novel that was originally published two and a half years ago just seems a bit weird. 

But the opposite is true of several of my digital fictions, and the powerhouse in this field is, as mentioned earlier, Inanimate Alice.  IA has not published any new episodes (there are four existing, out of a projected ten) for several years now, well before The Mistress of Nothing first came out.  However, the audience for this digital fiction, about a girl growing up in the near future, surrounded by technology, continues to grow and grow.  This is largely down to the tenacity of the project’s producer/publisher, Ian Harper; he has spent many years now looking for the right business model for IA.  We took a step in the right direction with this project early on, when we decided to publish teachers’ guides alongside the episodes themselves.  The pedagogical project found its first audience in universities, but it was when secondary and primary school teachers and pupils grabbed hold of it that it really began to take off.  Now all the investment that is going into the project is coming from the education sector.  We’ve found our niche - it’s a global ‘niche’ -  and we’ve found ways to continue to engage new readers and new audiences, and the audience for this digital fiction continues to increase, year after year.  Inanimate Alice, a completely new, hybrid form of storytelling that combines text with video, animation, music, and games, shows no signs of fading away, shares none of the second-hand, remaindered, dog-eared fate that so many of my books have met. 

I’m not completely sure what this means.  It certainly won’t stop me from writing my next ‘traditional’ novel.  But it is interesting to note that this most ephemeral and technology-driven piece of fiction is proving to be so enduring.

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