book fair enough

I'll write up other thoughts on this year's London Book Fair shortly, but for now here's the article I wrote for the Bookseller's book fair daily, which appeared yesterday. It's based on the presentation I made at the sunday seminar on the digital publishing scene in the USA where it was fascinating to hear upbeat words from Lexcycle, producers of the Stanza application for iPhones and Daily Lit who send books in episodes to your email. Their freshness of approach contrasts dramatically with all those publishing liners struggling to turn themselves round in these stormy seas.

Just as I was leaving yesterday after some very exciting conversations about potential projects, I came across the stand of, a publisher of books with big round squishy covers to look like baseballs, coca cola signs, Beatles drum heads etc. The guy on the stand then showed me the demo of his next line: a single title e-reader which will retail at the same price as a paper book. It's the missing link: the ebook with none of the advantages of being digital. Except I can imagine it being hugely popular for a while with those who want to give screen reading a try.

Here's my article, a re-statement of familiar themes from this blog, but with some extra bits.


Will it be the Kindle or the Sony Reader or the iRex or the iTouch or the iWash (that’s the one you can read in the bath) which catches on as the reading device of
the future? A far more interesting question is what will be reading on it.

2008 was the year of umpteen editions of Frankenstein and a clutch of other popular classics reformatted for every new format going. I read The Time Machine and Sherlock Holmes on my iTouch on holiday, then Anna Karenina on my Sony Reader. This reminded me that a book isn’t primarily an object, but an experience which happens deep inside us, the paperback or laptop simply the means by which it’s ingested.

Yes, the codex is still, as they say, a neat piece of kit, but it really does have its limitations; you can't write comments in the margin to be read and added to by other readers around the world, like you can on, where eight readers conversed together as they read Lessing’s masterpiece online; you can't find new friends in a novel or join in the story, though you can in the online communities of fan fiction and Alternate Reality games ; you can’t write bits of a paper book yourself, or find that the beginning has been rewritten by the time you reach the end, as you could in the creative chaos of the wiki-novel One Million Penguins. A paper book won't include moving pictures, a soundtrack, animated text, or links directly to other texts and places.

But current e-books are drab text on the grey, e-inked page, publishers cautious of radical departures in cash strapped times despite a rich history of experimentation in digital literature, from the first hypertext poetry to Kate Pullinger’s Inanimate Alice and the recently lauded We’re still at the beginning of new literary and cultural forms, and the trade needs to attend to seeking out and nurturing the Austens / Joyces / Mozarts / Fellinis / Dylans of the digital who will seize on these new forms as their natural canvas, finding the perfect blend of constraints and attributes to help them express a compelling personal vision and make a masterpiece and/or a bestseller.

This is the first networked recession. Previous downturns cast workers onto the scrap heap of history, now the unemployed may be broke, but they can still keep in touch with colleagues on Facebook, google information about their field of interest and Tweet and blog their opinions to all and sundry. As long as you can afford wi-fi and a laptop there's a free library online for us all to savour in the time we gain in exchange for loss of wages. The bad news is you may be robbed of a job by what's free on the web, but once robbed of it, there's lots to do for free. A good time for new, grass roots ventures in storytelling and the growth of a dynamic and artistically subtle collaborative culture.

In September 2007 I set up if:book London, a small think and do tank, inspired by the Institute for the Future of the Book, founded in New York by longstanding digital publisher Bob Stein.

We’ve just launched which celebrates William Blake, a radical, self publishing, multimedia visionary, in a digitally illuminated form. As the chair of the Blake Society Tim Heath says (out loud) in the book, “Blake was always using new technologies, often abusing technologies, not for the sake of an interest in the technology per se, but what he could use it for. He believed that, rather like learning a language… if you speak a different language maybe you ask different questions. And the language of the digital age is one that Blake would have pursued.”

It’s strange that it’s taken so long for writers to want to create in this way, given that so many of us sit at machines that make it possible to mix film, sound, links and text more easily than it once was to tippex out misprints. Technologists have imported literary terms into the digital space, making bookshelves, netbooks, facebooks and bookmarks; it’s time for writers to stop harping back and start exploring the real potential of digital to bring words alive, and in so doing address their realistic concerns.

Future generations will read and write this way, people say, but actually we do now: google this, watch that, listen to this, talk into this – then go to bed for a couple of minutes reading before our heads hit the pillows.

After years working to promote literature as CEO of Booktrust and the Poetry Society, I now believe that there is more chance of keeping the reading habit a vital part of our cultural life if people are able to do their fiction on the same console they do their other stuff on. I simply don’t believe that most of those people who tell me so vehemently how much they prefer pages to screen actually spend their evenings leafing through tomes. The book has already been pushed out of the lounge and sent up to bed.

if:book’s education project The Motfothotbook involves a curator from the 3rd millennium who sends back ‘litch bits’ via a flatpack time machine. These pieces of literature include animated Gawain, extracts from Darwin’s Origin of the Species recited in Second Life, and stories of the future commissioned from living writers such as Cory Doctorow, Naomi Alderman and Jacob Polley, imagining what literature might look like over the next few hundred years. The project is being piloted now and evidence so far suggests it appeals to those Year 8 students who aren’t naturally drawn to reading, and engages them with rich, complex language before they can jump to conclusions about it.

Next we’re launching the if:so press, a production house for transliterate reading experiences which unfold in real time. That may sound weirdly futuristic, but it’s bookgroups which have shaped a new concept of reading as a shared experience, dealing with one book per month, culminating in food and wide-ranging conversations. We’re wondering how to curate some new kinds of writing to be shared in this way. You want to experience one? If so press here… Oh, but of course you can’t - this is printed on paper.


jeangenie said…
Thank you for your inspirational thinking.Way to go!

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