Sunday, 7 October 2007

Wuthering Heights for the 21st Century

This blog is in danger of becoming a collection of video clips - but hey.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are a source of joy.

And, talking of musical joy, here's the Bettertones' MySpace page.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Billy Collins - Animated Poetry

In our search for great examples of literature on line, Mags Treanor, fellow M.A. student, found these wonderful animations of Collins' accessible and powerful poems.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Real Trevor

The only real Trevor I knew was Trevor Glover, once CEO of Penguin Australia, then Penguin UK. He died last week after a long battle with cancer. I'd sent him an invite to my leaving party from Booktrust and was concerned that I hadn't heard from him. I didn't know Trevor before he became Chair of Booktrust, but he turned out to be wonderful at the job and was high on my list of role models for the older man - such an enjoyer of life, hugely knowledgeable and experienced, but also appreciative and genuinely supportive. He saw his role as Chair being about helping things work better; so many in such positions are more interested in being seen to be important. We never discussed the future of the book, but he was a lover of gadgetry - he'd have been an early adopter of any e-reader gizmo going. I'll miss him.

Pat, Trevor, Bob

This stunning piece of viral marketing came from my son Joe whose organisation, called bafflingly 'Pat and Trevor' have held events at the ICA and other London venues, made short films and installations, do all kinds of contemporary socially networked, interactive type things. It's an amazing stunt by the Dyaln people, apparently now out to woo a younger generation with poetic appreciation of his lyrics for National Poetry Day and remixes of the master. Try sending your own message to a Dylan fan and make their day.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Summer Holiday Books 2007

Snaps from Montenegro where Penguin book, notebook and MacBook were all enjoyed along with food, wine and water. Readers used to be accused of being cut off from reality with their heads stuck in books, now the page is presented as healthy but the screen is what's supposed to be toxic.
Last week I went to an unconference on transliteracy at De Montfort University where there was much conversation on whether this term is useful. My question is how would you teach transliteracy? Is it primarily about how we construct a personal viewpoint on the world from all the different media we draw from in our multiculture, or is it about learning a range of technological skills? Basic Transliteracy to me involves reading, browsing, swimming.. then talking in ways that connects insights from all those activities. Do we need classes in it? There's certainly the need for more discussion about how the sense of self changes in the networked world.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Steve Dearden on Bookfutures

I've recently entered the playful world of FaceBook to be poked and befriended by people from different corners of my life. My daughter is horrified - "you can't be my friend on FaceBook- you'll be able to spy on my life!" And I see what she means.
In amongst the hiyas, I was delighted to get the following essay from my old friend Steve Dearden, literature development supremo who writes:


Thank you for your site, I really enjoyed it, it has given me a whole morning's distraction from what I should have been doing. It's great. Provoking.

I love technology. I love buttons and dials, even more so touch screens, hanging plasma, the idea that technology will respond if I twitch my nose, or wink at it, or sneeze in a different country. I am not an either or person, I want the lot!

There has always been talk about the impact of new technology on form, not surprising when it works so well with other formal structures than the classic narrative line, but then those have always been there – dipping, rereading, reading backwards, multiple choices and alternative narratives. They are brain and custom things rather than a medium thing.

What has interested me lately is the relation to tactility and space. At the recent We Love Technology conference there was a brilliant commentary by Alexander Grüsteidl on how domestic utopias have been realised ( for the context and link from my latest paper adventure's electronic sibling) in which almost as a throwaway he mentions how the one thing none of the futuristic visions predicted was the computer mouse.

It made me think about this little arm extension, we wave about, squeeze, bang on the desk, a precursor of the Wii. It is the interactive device, but it also predisposes us physically to engage with the medium. Of course the other thing that none of the pictures of the future predict is the book. The mouse and the book. In a similar way, beyond the obvious and oft-mentioned tactility of nice pages, covers, smell etc. like the mouse to the screen content, approaching, holding, carrying, manipulating the book physically predisposes us to the medium of navigateing/imagining the page.

Maybe this is why some very simple things like the wonderful Miranda July fridge/cooker piece on your site work so well, whereas some of the others, like He Wants to take Your Picture in Born magazine are superficially impressive but ultimately leave me, at least, non-plussed.

What was also interesting about WLT was how much of the work relied on text and narrative, rather than image. And how much the future – interactive window displays, fog-screens, projection (see the links down the right of holds. Content might be an issue! Beauty certainly isn’t, have you seen Julius Popp’s bit.fall, not light on water, but water shaping words, bit.fall
and for a film in action:

Bit.Fall - MyVideo

And another aspect of WLT was the yearning of technology for tactility, the sensual interface – I don’t know if you have seen this lovely little film: woebken

take care


Saturday, 28 July 2007

Geraldine on facebook, Ruth on conceptual laptop.

Last week the FLO consortium of literature leaders worked on a planned white paper on the future of the organisations we've run and 'the sector' as a whole which we know has immense potential for the digital age. Now it's my job to try to sum it all up pithily and stirringly in the first draft of the final document.

Bob (Stein) spoke and showed this brilliant Alex Itin moviette.

Sunday, 15 July 2007


Our garden with studio at the bottom, Hattie & Dora at work, curiously reminiscent of the Institute at the bottom of Bob's garden!

Friday, 6 July 2007

at the Institute for the Future of the Book

Photos of my inspiring visit to Brooklyn to meet Bob, Dan, Ben, Holliday, Ashton...and Alex the artist who made the dog at the door and this wonderful piece of film.
I had a fantastic time talking, listening, laptopping, eating, thinking. Thanks.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Sigurdur Gudmundsson, 'Extension' 1974. From 'The Libraries of Thought & Imagination', an inspiring anthology published by pocketbooks in 2001.

Friday, 4 May 2007

hopes and fears for books in the digital age

"I am prone to severe attacks of technophobia so I welcome all cures and restoratives. I'm also very aware of a cultural conservatism that I seem to be developing. I fear that the two conditions may be linked. I am nostalgic for the clear genre divisions of the past, for sentences with beginnings and endings, for korect speeling.

At the same time ( everything is the same time now) I'm excited by the speed, efficiency,time travel, confusion and disorientation that my computer has brought into my life.

One of the many paradoxes that i enjoy about e mail and internet is the anonomous and secretive way that i can endlessly communicate and participate. however the ease and comfort with which I depress the buttons of my keyboard implies a lack of commitment to anything and everything. Should things be this easy and efficient? What will we value?..."

- Toby Jones, actor and writer

"My fear is that the richness of the English language - its nuances, the
amplitude of its vocabulary, its varied idioms and expressions - may be
diminished; my hope is that new forms of creativity, which will take
advantage of written texts as well as visual images and even music, may
be emerge, and that these will be additional to, rather than substitutes
for, our traditional literary and linguistic culture."

- Diana Reich, Charleston Festival

"Regarding my hopes and fears for literature in the digital age.
On the plus side, I think the internet has probably encouraged many more people to at least have a go at expressing themselves through the written word, with the proliferation of blogs and the possibilities for immediate collaborations in projects pushing creative boundaries.
In the hackneyed prognosis of an Ebook world of the future versus the dusty old asthmatic wheeze of the traditionally published book puffing desperate last gasps as a final universal emphysema sucks all life out of the form. Well, sorry I don't buy it, even in the face of the most incredible and prodigious software developments, I think beautiful books which are portable, pleasing to the eye and deliciously tactile are here to stay. Let alone their provision of escape or education at the flick through of pages as opposed to the pressing of fiddly plastic buttons. Also as an expression of ones individuality they make an important statement and collecting and displaying them I suppose can say, look at me see how eclectic and eccentric my tastes and learning can be.
But then I would say that wouldn't I. In short I think literature in the digital age can embrace the traditional and the innovative and the two can both complement one another and survive side by side. Unlike the cd I don't think the Ebook will conquer all and anyway vinyl has never gone away and is now making a strong comeback."

- Nick Dalziel, Bookseller

"John Lanchester in todays’ Guardian Review (7 April) voices many of my thoughts but here goes:

I realise that my attitude divides on the basis that sometimes I am an author-researcher, sometimes a reader. I know that total separation is not possible or desirable (and blurring the distinction is obviously encouraged by new technology) but it will help me to get my thoughts straight.

As an author, I adore the searchability of etexts and would like the process to be simpler and more user-friendly. At present, finding the passages of text I need is relatively easy but reading it presents a problem. I often have the dilemma of reading long documents on screen v the hassle and expense of printing them. At the library, printing the hundreds of pages I need is expensive. I would like more readable etexts for this purpose.
Also as an author, I am concerned, like John Lanchester, about the economics of digitised books. The return to writers, other than for bestsellers, has been driven down by discounting, the supermarkets etc. In music, I believe that artists get less for their work on iTunes than on CD. It is possible that digitisation will make it easier for writers to find an audience and hence an income but that is uncertain given the vast numbers of people who will be vying for attention.

For me, as a reader, I feel that so far IT has been entirely beneficial: I can buy books more easily thanks to Amazon, including foreign editions and out of print books. This has made me more adventurous in my reading. But this is the digitisation of distribution. Content is different. Working so much on computer, I love the different feel of a paperback book. I don’t like to spend long periods looking at screens. For entertainment, the YouTube clip is about my limit. I use screens for information, books for reading as fast or slow as I like. But I’m intrigued by ereaders and certainly want to try them.

In most things I believe in horses-for-courses rather than all or none. Many technologies co-exist because they have different attractions. Cinema, TV, video all have their niches although one could theoretically replace the others. But some technologies do get replaced. With books I’m not sure. I would like to be able to be able to download some books, read them quickly and delete them. Others books I want to keep. I suspect printed books are strong enough to hold up however attractive ebooks become. But the economics may be against them. Print-on-demand may be the only answer for the many books whose print runs and sales are reaching appallingly low levels even before the digital revolution kicks in.

So, no clear answers yet."

- Peter Forbes, author

"I guess my fears relate to me as a writer – all very exciting, but how do I make any money? (not that I’m making any now, but I guess there’s always that hope/carrot of a publishing deal….) Maybe some embarrassingly conservative reservations about breaking down the traditional models of agents/publishers (I guess born out of that having been my goal for so long?) and some probably misplaced worry about the quality of what’s published and what’s not (though having written that, I realise that I have that worry with traditional publishing too). I don’t think I’m worried that the book will disappear, I hope it will remain with the digital stuff supporting and developing it.

I guess I have a personal issue with online networky type of things in that I’m just not into them. I use the internet to get information and that’s about it (well, and email obviously), I’m yet to get personally excited about getting book recommendations etc online.

Hopes – well, it’s exciting isn’t it? Having more direct contact and interaction between writers and readers (and readers and readers) changes the playing field and I think there’s lots of scope for imaginative and exciting work. Maybe more collaborations?

Practically, I travel a lot, and the idea of taking one ‘receptacle’ that can contain lots of books is pretty appealing to me!"

- Sarah Butler, writer and literature development worker



“If I stood on the bow-backed chair, I could reach
The light switch. They let me and they watched me.
A touch of the little pip would work the magic.

A turn of their wireless knob and light came on
In the dial. They let me and they watched me
As I roamed at will the stations of the world."

- from 'Electric Light' by Seamus Heaney

New technology is marvellous and terrible, makes the impossible possible, promises paradise, threatens to unleash abominations.
Every generation feels nostalgia for the last innovation and anxiety about the next.

"Wireless" had become such a cosy word, an old fashioned term for the first electronic form of communication to become old hat, summoning up Cat's Whiskers, the Shipping News, Listen with Mother, pop pirates on the North Sea. Now wireless technology allows us to walk our laptops from room to room unhindered, to browse the web in cafes – and baffles older surfers like my mum who doesn’t quite trust a machine you don’t need to plug in.

This paper looks at the anxieties of one highly influential writer and reader faced with the prospect of books going digital and then presents a menu of ideas, informed by conversations with a range of ‘book people’, outlining ways to help those who love fiction to engage with new media.

For those interested in making multimedia literature for the web, it’s frustrating that the literati cling on so tightly to their books. And yet all those who love reading are right to be wary of changes that might threaten the essence of what they hold so dear.


- What frightens authors and readers about the digital revolution?
- What might inspire writers to incorporate new media in your work?
- How can the web give authors greater control over the way their work is received?
- What’s the role of fiction in relation to the other media in people’s lives?
- What new roles are emerging for organisations working with writers and readers in the digital age?

Andrea Levy


Andrea Levy’s father arrived in England from Jamaica in the Windrush ship in 1948. She grew up in North London, watched Doctor Who as a girl and listened to the Beatles and Bowie. She wasn’t a reader and didn’t start to write until she was in her mid-thirties, producing novels which explore the Black British experience and its evolution.

Levy’s fourth novel, Small Island, won the Orange Prize for Fiction and then most of the other prizes that year; it jettisoned her into bestsellerdom and celebrity. The book has been translated and published around the world, and was chosen for a massive reading promotion across Britain: Small Island Reads 2007.
In this interview Levy reveals her unease about changes taking place, but becomes increasingly intrigued by its possibilities and engaged with the issues for literature in a transliterate age.

IMAGINE you’re producing your next novel to be published on a reader machine which could also be used to watch movies, TV, surf the web – and which made it possible for you to add, if you wish, elements like sound and moving images to your text - how does that grab you?

“How does it grab me? My gut would be that my job is actually to convey story with words and words are the tool and so I don’t think I’d want to put sound effects on or anything like that because I think it’s my job to put those effects on, that’s what my job in writing a book is about, it’s about conveying that message, those sounds, smells and whatever through words. So if I was to put a sound on I’d think I’m cheating.

“If somebody doesn’t quite get the accent – for example with Small Island I’ve read too many times that Queenie is a Cockney, and think that nobody can quite hear that, but then I think that doesn’t matter because once something goes out of my hands how the reader interprets it is fine.

“I can’t think of anything where I thought if you really don’t get this - except once with the word wind – the word wind is spelled w-i-n-d – how do you get someone to read it as ‘wind it’ not ‘wind it’?”

SO for this author the book itself is the text alone. But the success of Small Island has made it a multimedia property, with a radio adaptation, TV film in the making and a special edition of the novel with added extras. Is Andrea happy handing over responsibility for these versions to others?

"More than happy. Once something’s out there it has a life of own. As long as I don’t have to take part in it, it's someone else’s interpretation and it doesn’t worry me.

“If you ask me about it I’ll have an opinion, but I don’t feel that precious about it that I’d throw a wobbler.”

Authors can now build a direct relationship with their readers through the web, and many enjoy this, updating their sites frequently, blogging to their fans. Andrea doesn’t.

“If they're comfortable with it, fine… I am extremely uncomfortable with it and actually don’t think there's anything to be gained from being incredibly accessible with who you are as a person. I've fallen out in my head with writers who I know too much about. You think, I don’t want to think this person is an arse hole. I have this thing with David Bowie, I grew up with David Bowie, I love him - and the more I hear about him now at that time I am horrified. And I think is that right, should I be put off the music and what it meant to me because the person I believe to be a litle twat? Should that influence me? Probably not, but it does.

But there are other ways a writer can build a web presence.

“I go to websites and cannot be bothered to try to figure out how to get in here. It’s not like a book. You cannot tell when you Google something what state it will be in, will it be a school essay, or an erudite bit of a book or, ‘hi! Welcome to my website’? It’s so vast and hit and miss that you do need a lot of time with it and a lot of patience.

“The marketing stuff has a ring round it, it's finite; what you're talking about is an open ended experience, you don't know where it will take you or how it will take you, like those windsurfers on the beach you'd get dragged along by something that isn't what you really want to do.”

But isn’t that the point when you might lift off to new heights of creativity?
I talked to Andrea about a conversation I’d had with Stephen Page, CEO of Faber books and President of the Publisher’s Association. He’s convinced publishers will survive as arbiters of quality and the paper book won’t disappear, but recognises that fiction has taken a form defined largely by the habits of the printing process. Novels tend to be a few hundred pages each, stitched or glued together, taking a year or two to create. An on-line publisher could break with that tradition, could employ a team to work on a never-ending novel of the soap operatic kind, commission an author to bring out a story episodically, as Cory Doctorow does now via e-mail, or be sent a paragraph by Ishiguro in the morning and publish it globally in the afternoon.

“Without being copy edited? My god!”

As a writer you could think afresh about how you wanted to tell each story.

“I wouldn’t like it. I’d hate it, to do something episodically. I know for certain I’d go down roads I didn’t want to go and I’d want to go back because I discard large chunks sometimes. I was talking to a writer the other day who started an episodic thing and then had to complete the book and couldn’t get rid of the stuff they’d already done.

“I’m sure there will be younger writers who have grown up with a different understanding of how media works and how they interact with the different media we have that would find it as an exciting challenge. I’m quite old now and it's taken me quite a while to really enjoy novels, to see when a novel is good that it is the best form of art you can get…I’m probably never going to see a film in a cinema where the bad guy triumphs. I know that somehow it doesn’t work like that. But I know I can read a book and anything can happen and therefore it's a very rich experience, and there's nothing else like it. It’s one person's vision, completely in your hands, it’s a pure thing – you and the page, there is no intermediary. With the novel you can try and push the form, try and do something experimental - if you have a nice enough publisher they may even publish it, you never know.

“It’s a place where you have a little bit more freedom to tell a story. The next bestseller is always a surprise.

“I’d be very surprised if the book in book form doesn’t survive any other onslaught on it. And one reason is that books in book form are the nearest you get to storytelling, the nearest form of communication and possibly one of the oldest. It's just one human being talking into your head. And that will survive any gimmick.”


“But actually having said that I've just put myself off that argument. In that not a great deal of people read a lot of books. I’m surprised that I have friends who don't read books or say, I read one but it took me ages, it’s a difficult thing to do.”

Twenty years ago if you were interested in ideas you read books and hoped to write books. Now every reader also uses TV, films and the web. We all lead transliterate lives. A lot of the fuss currently about the future of the book is about the cultural dominance of literature over other forms isn’t it?

“It’s true. You gain everything from everywhere.
But I still say the novel is where you go for a more thoughtful experience.”

“Film and TV – they’re always nicking books. The storytelling in books has something about it that those other media haven’t got the space often to explore and have a look at and so they want your book immediately, and they want to make it into a film.

In fiction you can break the rules - you’ve got that openness, but then the movie makers can come in and introduce the happy ending and the car chase?

“And they do and their rules can often make a very good story - nothing like the book, but - you’ve started out with a product of such quality that you can play about with it and still keep a beautiful story. And I think that’s because the writer of the book took time with it and took risks with it. But also the pinnacle for all my friends: they all just say, ‘Oh you’ve finished a book? It might get sold as a film!”
Books are second class citizens in that respect.

We’ve talked a lot at Booktrust about book time, how what we're really about is the value of making more time for reflection, and its getting harder to claim that reading is automatically the place where that happens.
We need to define more clearly what it is that we mean by creative reading – is it about using text to make pictures in your head, or an emotional and intellectual space where we feel empowered to respond to cultural input, blended from text, website, TV, radio, conversation.

“Yes, I see what you mean. I'm getting very, very nervous now.”

The question is, why does Booktrust just promote reading rather than intelligent viewing?

“Absolutely, and I've always been a great advocate of TV, and when people ask me where my storytelling influences come from I always cite TV and film and not books, because I never read books when I was younger. I learnt to tell a story by watching the television - soap operas, plays. And I know I did and I can tell by the way I write. And there are some writers, George Eliot bless her, I say she did not have advantage of having watched television. Brevity. She's a fantastic writer - I shouldn’t pick on her, but Dickens sometimes; I think, oh if only he'd watched the telly he wouldn't have been going on and on and on about that.

“There are some writers, bless them, whose parents wouldn’t let them watch telly when they were little and then went straight onto Oxbridge and learned really to read books through literature and I used to say, and I don’t think I can now, that I could tell those who had learned their storytelling through 19th century literature and those who'd learnt it from the telly.

“The other thing: we do tend to be incredibly snobby about other cultural media.
When I do readings and say my influence is TV there's a gasp and they think ‘she must be thick’. In 50 years time you'll get writers saying I can spot writers who are influenced by blogging. But I can safely say I’m never going to be influenced by a blog because I never blog.

Well you say that now…

“You think I will blog?

“When you talk about these possibilities, these new ways of doing things that are coming up, every organ in my body clenches. I mean it really does. But that’s just about change which is always difficult to manage. But it’s because I really love my craft and I don’t want it to change, you know what I mean, because it’s such a beautiful thing. But I can see that when I was saying earlier about the book – I’m thinking, well really in the great scheme of things not many people read books, and perhaps more people would read books if they were more interactive and came to life for them a bit more.

“It would be quite nice to build a team of people you worked with who did the films and the website… Instead of Dreamworks it would be Andrealevyworks.
The only limit is your imagination. There’s a tremendous amount you could do.

“There’s going to be a lot of pain around it, in terns of money like there was with the music industry where they tried to block things then thought, no well it’s going to happen so let’s go with it. But there will be a lot of pain about because writers are badly paid and a few people earn money but lots don’t. Exploitation will be rife. It’s a tricky one and agents are finding it hard to keep up.

Nobody knows what has value and what doesn’t.

“Yes, so agents are very, very, very nervous.”

According to the ‘Long Tail’ idea, if you have something of specialist interest you can keep it accessible for a long time - you can tell the whole world about your obscure book, and up the other end you become a brand and can keep your own database and sell directly.

‘I’ve often thought of that. I’ve sold 800,000 books in this country. If I had everybody’s name, I could publish the next book myself and go straight to them.
I could have a website with adverts on it. I could be rich, RICH!...(Laughs)
But there is a certain sort of romance about writers that you can’t be cavalier about. I was with a friend recently and saying how I thought I might get quite a lot for the next book and they looked at me and said that’s not why you do it is it and the pain - the idea that I might be doing it for that reason and not for a better reason. I feel it too - If I thought my favourite writer was just thinking about making money I’d be just devastated.”


So what is the essence of Andrea’s concerns and how could a new agency linked to an organisation such as Booktrust provide support and services that would help authors and readers find their way in the new literary world?

Firstly any new initiative must be entirely devoted to the quality of writing and reading, but quality without snobbery; no breathless rush to embrace whatever gismo and gimmick comes along, but a breathing space for creative thought, undefensive but clear sighted about new developments, devoted to examining the essence of the reading experience and enhancing that rather than diluting it.

New media writing has been even less concerned with market forces in recent years, but will soon be under the corporate microscope as companies seek product for new gadgets. A shared space for reflection could be valuable.


I think it’s possible to develop a website on the future of books and reading which would be influential amongst the literary community.

This needs to provide links to the best new media work around, reviews of those sites and books which look to the future of reading, ideas for reader development projects which use the web in new way. Finding a tone of voice that bridges the language of book and web cultures is the biggest challenge.

Peter Forbes, ex-editor of Poetry Review and now a science writer feels there is room for a new on-line journal with some of the spirit of ‘McSweeney’s Quarterly’, the magazine created and edited by American author David Eggars, champion of graphic novels and the short story.

The blog could spearhead a campaign for authors’ rights and engage in viral marketing by publishing and disseminating new media writings donated by authors, all on the theme of intellectual property.

Protecting authors’ income is paramount. But lawyers and software designers and agents and legislators will need to work on that one too. Although authors are hugely concerned about the potential loss of earnings from widespread flouting of copyright, they’re nervous of being drawn into marketing and money making schemes that damage their reputations and conflict with their politic beliefs and creative processes.

In the same way that an agent can fight ferociously on behalf of their client, so a different kind of intermediary can help an author to define and implement their on-line strategies. Do they want to sell books, promote their political views, provide background information to their work, engage directly with their readership?


There is also a role to be played in brokering relationships between authors and creative makers of digital art and fiction – helping to create and manage the equivalent to the ‘AndreaLevyWorks’ team that will help an individual writer control the realisation of their fiction in other media.

Cally Poplak is Director of Egmont Press specialising in children’s books many of them featuring TV characters (or ‘properties’). Publishers, Poplak says, have not been good at responding to the challenge of the new, but need to recognise that their key strength should be knowledge of customers, what they want and how best to reach them. She sees businesses setting up where an author, a designer and a publishing expert work together on a project, creating, developing and distributing content. This team would create a fiction including paper book, multimedia and interactive content for the user to explore as they please, choosing what to read, watch or listen to. And she thinks this approach could draw some back to reading, in particular teenage boys who aren’t ‘into books’, but will go to them for information they need.

AndreaLevyWorks would build a database of fans of her work. While Andrea wrote the text, her team would be producing the audio version and graphic elements for the web and downloads, all to Andrea’s specifications. The publisher on the team would be tasked with finding the best means to market and sell the entire package in line with the originator’s artistic vision.


Stephen Page is uncertain whether the e-reader will ever be a big seller, and is waiting to find out before Faber devise content for it. But one electronic platform is already commonplace. Jane Tappuni is Managing Director of iCue, a company selling fiction to download to your phone. You can scroll through chapters or read it one word flashed up at a time (like getting a novel drilled into your head). The product will be launched to the general public this year, and many publishers are on board. Jane is optimistic - she tells me about ketei, Japanese Mobile fiction which has been selling in bulk for years. A regular novel might be structured in five chapters, but a mobile novelist like Mica Naitoh has to write 100 volumes, each one persuading readers to want to see the next. So is this form akin to the haiku or the soundbite? That depends on the quality of the work it inspires.

Although every major publisher has a digital expert on board, many come from very different industries and most seem at sea about their strategies.
Agent David Godwin has gone on record saying agents could cut out publishers and take their authors’ work directly to market via the web. When I speak to him he’s interested in a collaboration to commission new media work from a range of authors including major literary names and emerging talent. This could be toured to literature festivals and venues as the focus for discussion. As a charity for readers Booktrust has no commercial axe to grind and is well placed to lead such experimentation and debate.


How do young people, as they learn to be readers of life, put together insights gleaned from various media to construct an individual world view?

A few years ago my son went to see a band at the ICA. At the door he was given a bag containing a packet of seeds, a plastic bull, a CD, a feather, a copy of a novel by Will Self, a key ring bearing a web address. The selection demanded decoding; visiting the site it became clear that each item connected to a song title by the band. Vitally it was not a book promotion at all but simply an incentive to think more deeply about the music. It points the way towards other projects to develop our transliteracy skills, by which I mean the reader’s ability to connect ideas from a range of media.

Imagine a multiplatform exploration of Andrea Levy’s work and its themes of immigration, prejudice and identity, marketed through eBay or Amazon to all those who google her name. A book group which normally discusses a novel per month decides to subscribe. Over a period of a month group members are each sent short stories by the author, emailed to them every few days with web links to related sites, video or podcasts.

Participants are invited to write their own stories on themes related to the books. These are submitted to a reader in residence who sends feedback on their work. The whole group could meet online for a discussion. A final podcast by Andrea prepares the group for their next real-time meeting where they discuss the book and the process they’ve been through.

Then imagine a multi-platform fiction delivered the same way – an expansion of the ‘Online Caroline’ model pioneered by Tim Wright, written by Levy, designed by Banksy with film by Greenaway, hosted by Zadie.

Well, I think that sounds exciting, but I have to admit that others I’ve talked to in the process of researching this essay are not so convinced.

Peter Florence, Director of the Hay on Wye Festival, writes, “Non-fiction – yes, sure: the game’s up. Wikipedia won and will devour the knowledge of the publishing world and parcel it up into free, manageable bites.

I don’t think the i-reader will devastate the fiction arm of the publishing industry as it has the music industry. The net is already awash with blogs a very few of which become books. This is a useful model…
New Literary Forms? I imagine text messaging jokes or sampling audio of under 3 mins is about as good as this'll get. Within a written entertainment culture the value of books is their length. No-one watches movies on three-inch screens, and people won't read novels on them either.”

No, but they may use them to enjoy new literary artforms designed to be that shape.

Liz Attenborough, Director of the 1997 Year of Reading, writes: “I feel confident that books in their current form will continue, alongside new additional excitements. Way back in the early 70s, when I started in publishing, we were told that no one wanted hardback books any more, but 35 years later they still seem to be around. I also remember that when video was first introduced we were told that cinemas wouldn't be necessary any more. Well, it's the video that has gone before the cinema, which thrives as a particular way of seeing film, alongside home screenings of DVDs. (It's fun that the cinema has now had to produce 'ads' to tell people not to talk or make noises as there are no rewind buttons in the cinema, and other people may not wish to hear the chatter of others.) So I feel that new electronic ways to tell stories will grow and thrive, and we will think of new things we want to put in the book format. The birth of one does not necessarily mean the demise of the other.”

But there’s certainly a bitter cynicism abroad about the endless stream of new platforms which force us to re-buy the same tunes and movies and discard the last outmoded device. There’s a deep-seated resistance to undermining the perfect bound, printed page. It’s up to those who are excited by the creative potential of new media writing to provide the incentive we really need to read it: engrossing e-narratives that are unputdownable, unswitchoffable and unforgettable.

Is the book an object made of paper, is it a process, or a name for the entity in which we store and read our cultural product?

For my generation, movies, TV and rock music have been as important as poetry and fiction, but still our cultural store was seen to reside in books. That is simply not true anymore. My son has an A Level in English and at twenty two continues to read fiction, but his cultural ‘bookshelf’ would naturally include all media.
Booktrust’s name has seemed anachronistic, but now… As the Mission Statement for Bob Stein’s Institute for the Future of the Book puts it: “ for the past five hundred years, humans have used print — the book and its various page-based cousins — to move ideas across time and space. Radio, cinema and television emerged in the last century and now, with the advent of computers, we are combining media to forge new forms of expression. For now, we use the word "book" broadly, even metaphorically, to talk about what has come before —
and what might come next.”

My iMac died last week and all the data on the hard drive has gone - which makes me painfully aware of how much its contents matter(ed) to me. And now I’m writing this on a new laptop which invites me to ‘bookmark’ my favourite websites; a networked device storing pictures, tunes, words – my own and other people’s. I can sit in the garden and read good looking print off a sharp, attractive screen. The book of the future is in my hands, and behold it’s called a MacBook.
No publisher has yet brought out a Paperlaptop.

Don’t worry, Andrea – the book rules OK.


"I choose to believe that humans have agency. That what we know, communicate, and do can make a difference…Every medium has its own affordances, scope, and limits. Are humans simply the passive victims of the tools we create, or do we have control to any degree over how we use them? I suppose that is one of the big questions regarding global warming. Big test for human race coming up!”

- Howard Rheingold, (from an on-line lecture for de Montfort University,
Creative Writing & New Media M.A.)

Thursday, 26 April 2007

hopes and fears for books in the digital age

"There can't be many writers who don't enjoy a little frisson when they open that box from the publisher which contains the first, pristine copies of their latest book. And I feel a similar anticipatory thrill on parting the covers of anything I'm really keen to start reading. A fetish perhaps, but a common one and not something that's going to disappear overnight just because more people have more computers. The use of digital media enables the transfer of boundless numbers of words which used to be stuck on a page, and offers countless opportunities to explore, amend, modify, amplify and share. Unsurprisingly, the results range from completely rubbish to astoundingly good. Eventually, I suspect that writers and readers (and if we are to have wreaders, will there also be riters?) will use the new technologies in two main ways: to plug gaps in the current literature scene - for example, new short story collections are notoriously hard to sell while online short story sites are thriving - and to experiment with the kind of techniques we like to mess about with in workshops or at our desks, only at a more public and speedy level. Public and speedy can translate as accessible and effective, or exposed and ill-formed. That's up to us. Most writers put words directly onto a screen these days; the fact that those words can be sent through the ether and end up on millions of other screens as well as being printed on paper is a great challenge.

I love reading. Books are for reading. Ergo, I love books. I'm fascinated to see whether the next generation's syllogism will be any different. What's to fear?"

- Clare Brown, author

"I don't think the i-reader will devastate the fiction arm of the publishing industry as it has the music industry. The net is already awash with blogs a very few of which become books. This is a useful model. In a un-navigable ocean of writing online, the publishers approval and adoption will become a valued quality-mark. Any literary organisation that has a reputation for selecting and promoting books will have added brand value to their customers. Publishers may even market-test writing on their websites.

New Literary Forms? I imagine text messaging jokes or sampling audio of under 3 mins is about as good as this'll get. Within a written entertainment culture the value of books is their length. No-one watches movies on three-inch screens, and people won't read novels on them either.

- Peter Florence, Director, The Guardian Hay Festival

"I’m excited at the prospect of new writing that engages creatively with the opportunities offered by the digital age, that we think beyond seeing a podcast as an add on or solely a marketing tool. I want new forms to emerge that build on excellent writing and the immediacy of the live experience. In live literature the relationship between the performer and the audience is key – intimate and yet communal – surely this is what the internet is trying to achieve, I’m intrigued to see if that is possible."

- Geraldine Collinge, Director, Apples & Snakes

I love 'want to promote literature, not paper'. Absolutely right: it's story we need, in whatever form.
I feel confident that books in their current form will continue, alongside new additional excitements. Way back in the early 70s, when I started in publishing, we were told that no one wanted hardback books any more, but 35 years later they still seem to be around. I also remember that when video was first introduced we were told that cinemas wouldn't be necessary any more. Well, it's the video that has gone before the cinema, which thrives as a particular way of seeing film, alongside home screenings of DVDs. (It's fun that the cinema has now had to produce 'ads' to tell people not to talk or make noises as there are no rewind buttons in the cinema, and other people may not wish to hear the chatter of others.) So I feel that new electronic ways to tell stories will grow and thrive, and we will think of new things we want to put in the book format. The birth of one does not necessarily mean the demise of the other.

I look forward to hearing more about Bookfutures as it develops. We need creative minds on the case, and it will be exciting to see how it develops."

- Liz Attenborough, NLT

Friday, 13 April 2007


I recently had the bruising experience of being invited to write a piece for the Guardian book blog about my decision to step down as Director of Booktrust to set up the Bookfutures project, an idea still at a very formative stage. One weekend and over 100 blog entries later I emerged, staggered by the intensity and the unpleasantness of the ensuing debate. This wasn't mindless abuse, but clever people, mixing articulate argument with a level of personal sniping that wouldn't happen in any other public setting. Re-reading it is painful, but there's lots of food for thought. The Guardian chose to headline the piece "Embrace the Digital Revolution", which set me up to appear particularly naive and evangelical. However I now have some juicy quotes from that particular out house of the public domain.

One participant in the Guardian Blogathon said this:

“I don't want to read books on a screen - not even an all singing all dancing flexible paper screen. I don't want poetry to scroll across the page, I don't want to go to read wuthering heights and get a little message box that tells me 'we apologise but this book is no longer available by subscription.' I don't have the scruples about buying books that I do about CDs because I know the format will not go out of date and even if I don't want to keep a book I can pass it on to family and friends or bring it to a charity shop where it will find a good home. The fact is there is no incentive to read digital books when the paper version is so convenient and accessible.”

To read the whole painful discussion CLICK HERE . Then again, I wouldn't bother.

Sunday, 28 January 2007

Literature Leadership & The Digital

Stephen Page, CEO of Faber & Faber, talks at an event on Literature Leadership organised by the FLO consortium of Friendly Literature Organisations.
Members of FLO each gave short talks on different issues. Here's mine on the future of the book.

As it happens it was the poet Simon Armitage who was the first person to show me an iPod at a Booktrust event in Birmingham. I thought it was a lovely and snazzy device, but at the time thought it was just a classy form of walkman.

Actually the iPod was the moment when music stopped belonging on disc or CD or even concert hall and sailed aloft to exist in the ether, ready to be downloaded into our lives in whatever way seems most appropriate at the time.

That’s what’s happening now to words – it won't be long before we each carry a flexible screen on which we could watch a tv programme, read a short story, search a blog, or do all kinds of inbetween things we’re only just beginning to think about.

So the book is changing, artforms and platforms converging, but what’s that to do with leadership and literature?

We need to lead the way for writers grappling with the ‘transliteracy’ skills they need to make texts which incorporate new media as part of their substance, not just the wrapping.

And we need to be clear about the essence of what readers need, as all the trappings we associate with books transform around us.

But I think the ‘Literature Sector’ is ahead of the field.

We’ve talked for years about creative reading and writing. In the digital age that blurring of divisions between creator and consumer is now taking place across the board.

Other art forms are suddenly grappling with personalisation – turning their staged events into podcasts to be consumed privately in people’s own homes and heads, creating on their computers a ‘bookshelf’ of their favourite cultural product.

But those who work in literature organisations know all about bookshelves, and the portable, personalised virtual reality generator that is the book.

Film makers are horrified to find everyone churning out YouTube snippets, remixing Star Wars and finding thousands of viewers for a film of teenagers miming to stolen songs. Publishers realise that readers and writers can cut out the middleman and communicate directly...

But Literature Development and Reader Development are practices based on the interactivity between reader and writer.

Back in the 80s in Sheffield we set up Write Back noticeboards in libraries and encouraged users to post their own poems then post their comments on other people’s. We photocopied single copies of anyone’s work and made it free to borrow – looking back it was akin to a manual MySpace for local writers.

Young poets - like Daljit Nagra, now being published by the illustrious Faber - are likely to have learnt their trade through workshops, contributing to small magazines, appearing at poetry clubs above pubs. Nagra lived in Sheffield so maybe he even came across the Write Back board. Once published, poets like bloggers know they’re still responsible for growing their readership through appearances and wordspreading.

Before the blog there were photocopied pamphlets of poetry, before videocasting there were rooms above pubs. Anyone who has run a poetry competition knows about User Generated Content; there is no shortage of poetry out there.

Workers in literature organisations like the Poetry Society, Booktrust, New Writing North, the Arvon Foundation and the rest have helped to coax great writing from that dense but democratic mass of words.


A retired publisher at a dinner of bookpeople enthuses about an electronic reader she has used saying,“it’s beautiful”. At a presentation on Web 2.0 and its implications for literature organisations, the Director of one expresses horror at the idea of user-created reviews which might insult her Fellows and their work. At my book group the idea of looking at new media writing for one meeting prompts a stream of paranoid rant from some members about the end of culture as we know it.

The times are a-changing in publishing and books, evidenced by the strength - and weirdness - of feelings expressed on these issues at the beginning of 2007. Tim Godfray, Chief Executive of the Booksellers Association has said that the book world is two years away from a revolution as profound as that led by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type printing in 1450.
Conclusions of Brave New World a report recently published by the BA include:
“Digital content is accentuating the differences between sectors, which are diverging and migrating at different speeds.
“The audio download trade market is rapidly changing, is on the cusp of the digital content change, and is already at the tipping point of consumer adoption.
“The consumer confidence in the e-book is growing but is being held back by lack of content… and is still unlikely to change in the next two years. ..
“The digital migration is resulting in a significant power shift towards a consumer-driven market that demands personalisation and “My World”.

The digitisation of literature is being rapidly undertaken by Google and others, the Sony e-book and other reading equivalents of the iPod (like Plastic Logic's flexible screens) prepare to do battle in the market place; the Espresso print on demand machine is already available,capable of producing 20 books in an hour; sites like eBay and Abebooks have created a global secondhand bookshop which keep all books in and out of print in constant circulation; blogs and community sites such as MySpace giving everyone the chance to publish their work for free... Everything in the world of books is up in the air.

In fact literature itself is lifting itself up off the page and rising into the air to float alongside all that music which once seemed condemned to exist only on scratchable vinyl, tape or metallic coated plastic. Now both hover around us, waiting to be drawn down into our lives in whatever way seems most appropriate – on CD and DVD, through live performance, in paperback or hardback books, bought borrowed or stolen, online or downloaded to iPod or e-reader.

In a debate on ‘Books in the era of Txting’, at the 2006 Battle of Ideas at the Royal College in London, Professor John Sutherland defended the bookshop as if literature couldn’t exist without shelves to browse. What’s really at stake though is the cultural dominance of The Tome. In our society to have written a book signified validity, an attitude ruthlessly exploited by vanity presses who charge money to give people the illusion of publication. Now anyone can put their work in the public domain. (Though of course everyone shares the problem of how to find their way through all that work to find something they actually want to read).

The supremacy of the perfect bound, cardboard and paper publication over other formats is fading fast. But reading is still a very popular activity. Millions gain pleasure from act of creative reading. Why? A written story still engages with the brain in a distinct and special way, relies upon our imaginations to construct a world from the architecture of words, overlays itself uniquely upon our lived reality. But creative relationships by their nature will evolve.

In Tristram Shandy (1759-67), one of the first novels, Lawrence Sterne delighted in the technology of print, interrupting his narrative with a blank and a black page, and squiggles describing the shape of his discursive narrative and the precise arc of Uncle Toby’s cane’s trajectory. He mined his new form for tricks made possible by the printing process.

Now a new generation of literary authors are learning to play with the possibilities of digital technology – they’ll naturally want to orchestrate the way in which words appear on the page and images intermingle with text. Authors will conceive stories with animated illustrations, stories with forking paths of alternative narrative, stories for each reader to re-configure, stories that whisper and argue, that pop up in our lives unexpectedly. Such experiments, on page and screen, have so far existed on the fringe; now there’s a place for them centre stage.

What will convince a consumer to download the new Zadie Smith novel rather than buy a paper copy? It will come with some tempting extras - a free podcast interview, an animated short story or some other multi media collaboration between author and artist. Suddenly the experiments of new media writers and other on-line creators have a clear place in our culture and the marketplace.

In 2000 Kate Mosse set up a website with support from Orange. was a three dimensional world in which readers could follow the author’s creative process as she researched and wrote her now bestselling novel Labyrinth. It won’t be long before every new work of fiction has its accompanying blog, its collection of references and influences into which readers can delve, its community of admirers and critics.

So we urgently need transliterate writers, capable of handling this expanded pallete, and other makers keen and able to participate with them.

Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms and tools from orality through print, TV, radio and film, to networked digital media.
It's a concept being explored by Prof Sue Thomas, founder of the TrAce on-line writing community and now Professor of New Media in the Faculty of Humanities at De Montfort University.

Web 2.0 offers writers new means of researching and marketing their work, but will it abolish the individual author to replace them with collaborative communities of makers? If the Penguin Wiki Novel project, now being undertaken with De Montfort new media students, creates a masterpiece more brilliant than the sum of its participants then authors are in serious trouble, but I somehow don’t think it will.

Certainly collaboration is easier on-line; the novel already involves editors and designers in its production process, but the author is seen as the real creator. In the future some literary fictions could be devised by teams, as sitcoms and movies already are, with writers only part of the chain.

Some will relish these new opportunities, others dread them and fear they lead to invisibility as well as poverty for authors. For better or worse, at a time when pure content can so easily be cut and pasted, sampled and stolen, the author needs to become a brand in their own right to retain profile and financial control over their works. The text of the Da Vinci Code can be pirated in a trice, but there’s only one Dan Brown whose overall notoriety increases his clout and earning potential however his atrocious book is disseminated.

Chris Anderson in his book ‘The Long Tail - How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand’ shows how Web 2.0 sites like eBay help tiny sellers reach a global market, making all kinds of specialist niches viable. Down towards the pointy end of the Long Tail, every poet knows how important readings and signings are for their sales, and how much of their income comes not from selling their books but trading, as critic or broadcaster or workshop leader, on their reputation as poet.

Piracy is easy in the era of cut, paste and email, but then search engines allow producers to track down breaches of copyright easily too. At the same time human beings can decide whether to do anything about these different kinds of theft. Copyright laws haven’t been abolished, but are regularly ignored now as in the past. Children have re-drawn their favourite superheroes, teenagers burn copies of albums, and record themselves singing favourite songs; what’s new is that they can now put the results onto sites with a potential to reach millions. YouTube’s most popular clips include plenty of teens miming into hairbrush microphones.

Are there historical precedents for what’s happening to copyright now?
In 1966 when stoned hippies gawped in awe at Pink Floyd at the UFO club in London, Barry Miles and John Hopkins launched International Times and a syndicate of underground magazines established a prequel to the Creative Commons Licence, pronouncing their articles copyright free to other similarly alternative periodicals. In an era when everyone felt they could put on a show, start a headshop or launch a small magazine targeted at ‘the underground’ there was an extraordinary flowering of activity the legacy of which had as big an impact on commercial entrepreneurialism as political radicalism. People tried things out, then thought about how to make them pay - then gave up and tried to borrow the dosh off a Beatle. There’s a kind of similarity between that approach and the Google model of experimenting first, looking for ways to ‘monetise’ a good idea later.

It would be hard these days to create a new model of copyright based on who is cool and uncool, but it is time to make a distinction between writing which is produced with the intention of being literature, and what I call ‘wreading’, words produced primarily as personal documentation, an activity which has mushroomed online.

What do I mean by a Wreader? Someone who leaves reviews on Amazon, writes a blog about the books and films they enjoy (which may include extracts and samples of these), writes stories and poems as a form of self expression. Their website is their diary, notebook and commonplace book.

If wreader turns writer, it means they are choosing to present a crafted work of art to the world, and await the world’s verdict on its quality. Or else their work has caught the eye of passing browsers - like the millions who can latch onto a blog or YouTube miming teen, making its creator an accidental and probably very temporary star. In this way Wreaders can define what they want to see in print and writers can build a readership in advance of a book’s actual publication.

Wreaders will reach out to each other and the writers they admire, create their own undergrounds of shared values and customs They’re a force for political change too – writing back, giving feedback, registering their objections and ideas.

In the NESTA report Ten Habits of Mass Innovation Charlie Leadbetter writes:
“The future of our society should not continue to extend the pleasures of consumerism ad infinitum. Our aim should be to become a society of adapters, contributors, participants and designers, with people having their say, making a contribution (often in small ways) to add to the accumulation of ideas and innovation. A society of mass innovation offers access to a deeper story about freedom and self-expression that will distinguish us from many societies...”

Many would argue that the digital world is not the place to find deeper story; they see their children sat at screens clicking and tapping and fear they’re being poisoned by a toxic diet of shoot ‘em ups, chat, porn and warlocks.
Sites like Second Life may seem the last straw for fearful parents, but can offer a far wider range of narrative possibilities and emotional interaction than conventional computer games.

If getting drawn into imaginative worlds is bad for us then good books should have been banned centuries ago. But of course readers don’t bury themselves in fiction, they inhabit it, mould it and apply it to their whole lives. And real lives include the mental and physical, internal and external, profundity and triviality, actuality and imagination.

In ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ (Continuum, London, 2004) Christopher Booker has analysed the structure of hundreds of stories, from sagas to soaps, categorising them all under seven types of story which he believes are fundamental to human development. We all need to imagine our way through
‘Rebirth’, ‘The Quest’, ‘Voyage and Return’, Overcoming the Monster’ etc.
But of course today these may be experienced through computer games and websites as well as in films, theatre and books.

The fully transliterate wreader of the future will forge a sense of identity that integrates all their virtual and actual selves and stories. The transliterate author, neither baffled nor bedazzled by new media but enriched by its potential, will use the expanded digital palette at their disposal to articulate our becoming.

- Chris Meade, January 2007

BOOK 2.0: Where Words Went Next


Anderson, C (2006) The Long Tail: How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand. London. Business Books

Booker, C (2004) The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. London.

Daniels, M. (2006) BRAVE NEW WORLD: Digitisation of Content the opportunities for booksellers, London, Booksellers Association

Leadbetter, C. (2006) Ten Habits of Mass Innovation, London, NESTA

Miles, B. (2002) In the Sixties. London, Pimlico

Palmer, S. (2006) Toxic Childhood: How The Modern world is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It, London, Orion Books

Sterne, L. (1767) The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. London. Penguin