A Provocation:  No More Outsourcing Knowledge to Agents

20 March 2012 in Future of Publishing | Comments (4)

Last Friday I went down to Goldsmith’s College in New Cross (always feels like an epic journey somehow though it only takes an hour) to hear John Thompson give a lecture on ‘The Digital Revolution in Publishing’.  Thompson is a social scientist, and I read his excellent book, Merchants of Culture last year when I was working on my PhD by Published Works.  The book is a fascinating study - part sociology, part business analysis, part ethnography - of the past two decades in trade publishing in the UK and the US.  An updated paperback is just coming out now.

Thompson’s talk was fascinating; he gave an in-depth analysis of where the publishing industry is at currently in terms of digital transformation.  He told a few good stories, focusing on the unpredictability of the shift to digital; for instance, how the overall trade publishing percentages of market for ebooks disguise the fact that, within the market for fiction, the shift to digital has been much much higher for certain authors in certain genres.  He talked about ‘the hidden revolution in publishing’ over the past decade, the complete transformation of workflow and production from analogue to digital.  He discussed how many people within trade publishing have been surprised to discover that readers have a big appetite for reading on e-readers, and how sustained narrative in the form of fiction or creative non-fiction has proved to be hugely popular in the digital realm. 

One of the things I found most interesting in Merchants of Culture was the final chapter, ‘Trouble in the Trade’, in particular the section ‘Damaged careers’, where Thompson gives several case studies of writers who have, to put it bluntly, ended up on the scrapheap after failing to sell as many books as the market deems fit to survive.  The thing that struck me most forcibly in this section - and that clearly struck Thompson as well - is how these writers operate within an industry of which they have next to zero real knowledge.  To repeat: most writers know nothing about the publishing industry.  They know how much they’ve been paid, and they know how much their friends have been paid.  But as to how the industry actually functions, both on a production level, and on a larger cultural level - what, for instance, makes a ‘Big Book’? - writers function in a knowledge vacuum.  There are many reasons for this - writers are interested in writing, and they are interested in reading, and they are interested in other writers - but during the question period I got to ask Thompson about this.  Why does he think that writers are so ignorant about their own industry? 

Thompson pounced on the question, saying that his next big research project will focus on this very thing - writers, and the world we inhabit.  Then he said a very interesting thing.  He said, ‘Writers outsource their relationship to the publishing industry to their agents’. 

This struck me as a very simple way of stating a profound truth, and one that carries with it many layers of complexity.  Writers can’t survive in the industry without agents.  Agents act as our intermediaries - we let them get on with business while we write.  But, more than this, this statement reflects a cultural truth - writers aren’t supposed to be business people, we’re supposed to stay in our garrets and dream our beautiful dreams.  No publisher wants to have to deal directly with a writer over a contract.  And while writers outsource their relationship with the industry to agents (apart from, of course, the writer-editor relationship we all hold dear), publishers outsource the finding of new writers and new books to agents. 

Of course, the rise of indy or self-publishing is beginning to disrupt these relationships:  I suspect that whenever any writer self-publishes, the thing they discover, above all else, is how much they don’t know - and how much they need to learn - about how books are published. 

Thompson also stated that one thing that isn’t talked about in all the endless discussions about the future of publishing, and the state of the industry today, is the human cost to writers who are experiencing the blunt end of change.  Last week the agent Jonny Geller published his excellent ‘An Agent’s Manifesto’; he says its time for the industry to wake up to what is happening to writers, that this industry would not exist without us.  ‘The author is not an object which a publisher has to step over in order to achieve a successful publication,’ he says.  But he also adds that writers need to step up and understand more about how publishing actually works. 

Geller is right to say that now, more than ever, we writers need our agents.  But we writers also need to wake up and understand how this big complex industry works as it heaves itself, groaning and moaning, with bits dropping off, and two black eyes, into the twenty-first century.

Shelf-Life:  Digital Fiction v Trad Fiction

24 February 2012 in digital fiction | Comments (0)

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.

The Creative Penn - an interview with me

23 February 2012 in Future of Publishing | Comments (0)

Joanna Penn is one of the most interesting indy authors to emerge here in the UK, not the least for her well-thought out use of social media to innovate around publishing, and publicizing, her books.  We met at a dinner with Stellar Innovator Dominique Raccah form SourceBooks late last year.  Earlier this month, Joanna interviewed me for her website, The Creative Penn.  I’ve posted the audio of that interview over on my Press page.

Point of View in Fiction

8 February 2012 in Mentoring | Comments (0)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as surprising – in a good way – as ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’, by Juan Pablo Villalobos.  I’m an AndOtherStories subscriber, so I had a copy, but I’d forgotten about it until a friend of mine - another AndOtherStories writer, Deborah Levy - told me how much she’d enjoyed the book.  From the very first page of this elegant and economical, accessible but at the same time experimental, novel, I read with amazement.  It’s an astonishing and hugely enjoyable piece of writing.

I’m currently five weeks into teaching a six-month long weekly UEA/Guardian Masterclass, ‘How to Tell a Story’.  One of the things that comes up regularly in class is the business of point of view in creative writing, and how difficult it can be to get right.  Beginner writers often shift point of view without quite realising - telling most of a story from one character’s third person point of view, then slipping, without intending to, into another character’s point of view for just a few lines.  We’ve had a few pieces produced using a child’s point of view and here the problem often is that the writer assigns the child opinions, turns of phrase, or emotional responses, that are too adult or, indeed, too authorial.  ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ suffers from none of this.  Early in the story, the seven-year-old narrator assigns himself a set of grown-up words he’s learned - including ‘sordid’, ‘devastating’, and ‘pathetic’ - and proceeds to use these, relentlessly, to describe almost everything.  But more than that, it’s the slow accumulation of detail about the extraordinary and, indeed, horrifying world of the Mexican drug baron hideaway, ‘our palace’, where the narrator lives, that really gives this book its unusual power.

It’s a short novel - less than seventy pages - translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, and this extreme brevity is part of what makes the novel work so well.  For anyone interested in point of view in creative writing, as well as how to execute an extremely controlled, darkly funny, experiment in narrative, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ is itself - dare I say it? - a masterclass.

‘A Million Penguins’ Five Years On

25 January 2012 in Transliteracy | Comments (0)

This post was written for the TRG blog, at 

Well, without dipping into too many cliches about the passage of time, it is nearly five years since the DMU/Penguin wiki-novel experiment, ‘A Million Penguins’, took place.  The project ran from 1 Feb 2007 for five weeks, and all of us who were involved with it remember it as a time of chaos and great entertainment.  Yesterday I was down at Goldsmith’s College, in London, where I was the external examiner for a PhD candidate, Amy Spencer; her PhD was on the Networked Book.  She built her thesis around three case studies of networked books that are also works of fiction, ‘Paddlesworth Press’ , ‘The Golden Notebook Project’, and ‘A Million Penguins’. It’s a solid and interesting piece of research.

Reading Amy’s thesis promoted me to look at the current status of ‘A Million Penguins’ online.  We heard early last year that Penguin was going to give up hosting the project, and we didn’t have the time, or the resources, to figure out how to archive the massive wiki, with its many many pages, ourselves.  I regret this, though it is hard to see how we could have saved it in time.  So the original site no longer exists.

However, a good portion of ‘A Million Penguins’ was archived by the amazing people at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, and you can find these pages by searching for it via the Wayback Machine

During Amy’s viva we talked a bit about the phenomenon of the networked book itself.  Amy pointed out that during the noughties there were a significant number of projects that called themselves ‘networked books’, both fiction and non-fiction, my own on-going project, ‘Flight Paths: a Networked Novel’ among them of course.  Amy wondered if the networked book concept has had its day.  I think that we are now seeing trade publishing approaching publishing fiction in a manner that owes much to the networked book concept, although of course, all in the service of marketing.  Social media marketing campaigns are now being built around books; these campaigns include bespoke web content, games, extra content, author interviews, etc.  These campaigns aim to foster reader engagement around a newly published book, whereas the networked books of the noughties all sought to foster creative engagement with text and other forms of media.  The networked book emphasis was on collaboration and contributing, whereas, of necessity, a trade publishing networked social media campaign is about sales.

Our Stuff and Our Things 1

13 January 2012 in Our Stuff and Our Things | Comments (0)

I’ve been working on my new novel, which is called ‘Our Stuff and Our Things’, for about a year now - had a good chunk of writing time in May/June/July last year, and am embarking on a new chunk of time now.

The story takes the premise developed in my digital fiction, ‘Flight Paths’ and develops it further.  It tells the stories of the two characters in ‘Flight Paths’, Yacub and Harriet, and it tells the stories of a number of other characters as well.  At the risk of over-complicating this description, if not the project itself, the novel will have three chapters that will be published in bound book and ebook format, and one stand-alone chapter, a multimedia digital fiction I’m working on with Andy Campbell of Dreaming Methods, called ‘Duel’. 

The weird thing is that I am finding the writing process fun.  Really a lot of fun.  I have no idea why this time around it is fun.  Maybe it’s because ‘The Mistress of Nothing’ was such an epic research job, and while ‘Our Stuff and Our Things’ does require some research, it’s nothing compared to MoN, where I even attempted to learn Arabic (six months of 1-1 lessons:  I know four words).  The writing process - and this peculiar experience of ‘having fun while writing’ - reminds me a little bit of when I wrote my novel ‘Weird Sister’.  That was the only other novel I’ve ever written where I knew pretty much where to start, where to go next, and how to end, before I started writing. 

Hmm.  Maybe there’s a lesson there.  Or maybe not.

So, doubtless now that I’ve written this blogpost, it will all go horribly wrong.  But I just wanted to put it on record - writing can be fun.  There, I said it.

McGill Drop-Out Gets PhD FOR REAL!

9 January 2012 in | Comments (1)

Back in July 2011 I underwent the Viva exam for my PhD by Published Works.  I passed, with minor amendments, which in the real world means I passed, but they wanted me to make a few changes to the essay, and to show those changes to the internal examiner within six months.  The changes weren’t vast, but they involved re-focussing the essay into three case studies built around three of my published works (The Mistress of Nothing, and and getting rid of some of the more ranty bits where I sounded off about trade publishing vs digital publishing, copyright, etc.

So, I spent time over the autumn re-drafting the essay, posting it off to the university between Christmas and New Year, and have just had word that the internal examiner is happy!  I’m happy she’s happy, and as for all of you, well, now you really will have to call me DOCTOR PULLINGER!!  I’m available for most surgical procedures (fiction only).  HOORAY!!

Two Thousand and Twelve, or is it Twenty Twelve?

6 January 2012 in Mentoring | Comments (0)

A new year.  This week I’ve found the idea of a whole new year rather exhausting.  My family and I went into deep hibernation after Christmas - a full week of doing pretty much nothing at all, blissfully - and I’ve found the whole emerging-blinking thing rather hard.  2011 was a good year; I was still riding the GG wave for the first half of the year (that was a big wave, and it lasted a long time), and the second half of the year washed away swiftly.  What’s with these similes?  See - I’m not really awake.

But now we’re in 2012.  I’ve got a few goals.  I’m going to finish my new novel.  I’m going to work with Andy Campbell on our digital fiction Duel which we’ll launch in November at the ELMCIP conference and exhibition.  I’m not going to travel as much.  I’m hoping my PhD amendments will be passed by the internal examiner so that at long last I can lord it over everyone by making them call me Doctor.  I’m going to figure out how to get my backlist published as ebooks.  The three grant applications I’m involved with will all be successful and then I’ll have work coming out of my ears.  The various Inanimate Alice projects I’m involved with will come to fruition. 

From next Monday I’ll be teaching a weekly class as part of the Guardian/UEA masterclass series.  It’s a six month course called ‘How to Tell a Story’.  I’ve got 12 students for this, and I’m looking forward to getting started.

The Future of Publishing, Again!

9 December 2011 in Future of Publishing | Comments (0)

There’s been a flurry of future of publishing conferences of late, none of which I’ve attended, unless you count following tweets which, in some instances, is just as good, perhaps even better, than actually attending.  I’ve missed out on the socialising and networking, however, which is at least half the point of attending such things.  Yesterday saw a conference in Bristol, put on by Media Futures and Plymouth University, where Alastair Horne, of Cambridge University Press - otherwise known as @pressfuturist - launched his report, ‘The Future of Publishing:  A Report on Innovation and the Future of the Book’.   It’s recommended reading, very up-to-date, a succinct and comprehensive look at publishing today, with a keen eye on what needs to happen for publishers to survive.  It features a few quotes from, ahem, me, and lots of other quotes from plenty of people with insider views on the industry.

For me, one of the most interesting points Alastair makes is the digital skills gap within the publishing industry, and how they face a rather stark and expensive choice between training current staff and outsourcing digital skills.  The digital skills gap in the industry is enormous, but it runs throughout, from editorial, agents, through to many writers as well.  I feel as though I’m forever trying to interest publishers in my digital projects, though the truth is I probably gave up on this last year after a meeting with my editor at Simon & Schuster in NY, a very senior, very savvy, publisher with many years experience, who looked completely blank when I started to talk about my new digital fiction project, before informing me that S&S has an entire floor devoted to ‘that stuff’.  This is not meant as a criticism of this editor, who has since been further promoted within the firm and I’m sure has quite enough to do without having to completely reskill.  But it depressed me, and made me think, yet again, that the divide between digital innovation in the realm of fiction, and traditional publishing, is as vast as ever.

Alastair includes within the report a quote from me where I managed to make a point about, or get a plug in for, the vast community of electronic literature, digital fiction, and epoetry practitioners who have been innovating away around form and content for many years now, on the other side of that digital divide.  So that’s good. 

To Self-Publish Own Backlist as E-Books or Not to Self-Publish Own Backlist as E-Books?

23 November 2011 in Future of Publishing | Comments (5)

For ages now I’ve followed the debate about the level of royalties publishers offer writers when it comes to ebooks.  About every six months I found myself getting VERY AGITATED about it all, usually when I come across an article that does the math, crunches the numbers, and shows, exactly, precisely, and in great detail what a LOUSY deal a 25% net royalty is for writers.  The last time this happened was when I came across a blog post from the Author’s Guild in the US, ‘E-Book Royalty Math:  The House Always Wins’.   It happened again this morning when I came across this lengthy piece by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, ‘The Business Rusch: How Traditional Publishers are Making Money’.

A couple of weeks ago I received my first royalty statement from my US publisher; this was the first statement I’d received where I could see a volume of ebook sales set against those of hardcover sales (in the period covered, 25% of units sold were ebooks).  The book, The Mistress of Nothing, sold fairly well (for me!) in hardcover and got up into the top of the escalating royalty rate for hardcovers, 15%.  A hardcover copy of my novel at a 15% royalty gives me $3.31 per copy, whereas the ebook at the decent sounding, but actually lousy, royalty of 25% net, gives me $1.92 per copy.  There we have it.  That is the math.  These figures don’t take into consideration the fact that the ebook might have reached readers who would never buy a hardcover, indeed, might have reached readers who no longer frequent bookshops and only read in digital formats.  But even so, it was interesting to see the figures laid out plainly. 

For several years now, publishers have been banging on about how the move to digital costs them money, how there are many extra steps added to the workload when it comes to publishing ebooks alongside bound books.  But publishers are rarely transparent about these extra costs.  S&S’s statement, quoted in Rusch’s article, “Strong growth in the sales of more profitable digital content was offset by lower book sales” is revealing:  more profitable digital content tells writers all we need to know about actual production costs when it comes to ebooks.  Looks like it’s time to get agitated, again.

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