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. www.mosselabyrinth.co.uk 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 del.ico.us 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