digital focus

HERE are the contents of the DIGITAL FOCUS section of the Bookseller magazine guest edited by if:book. Cartoon by Toni

In the digital age the book can no longer be defined as a stack of paper glued together at the side—it's a unit of culture, a container of ideas that requires a certain kind of attention from its consumer. Reading on iPods and e-readers reminds us that however we receive it, fiction happens in our imaginations, the book is a souvenir of that experience.

Digitisation is a huge challenge to industries engaged in making and selling books made of paper, but what are its implications for writers and readers? These are the questions if:book exists to explore.

if:book has already undertaken research for Arts Council England on digital possibilities for literature organisations, and is setting up a network to support them through changing times. The organisation has also been involved in a range of experiments with new forms of writing and publishing. Projects include Songs of Imagination and Digitisation, an online illuminated book inspired by William Blake. put the entirety of Doris Lessing's epic novel online with comments of readers alongside the text. With and a team of writers, if:book recently made the 24hr book, collaboratively written, edited and printed over one weekend.

The HOTbook is if:book's schools project, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Trust, which imagines how literature might develop over the next thousand years.

For this month's Bookseller Digital Focus, if:book asked some of its 21st-century experts to use their time machines and then report back from the near and far-flung future.

Bill Thompson, journalist and expert commentator on the BBC World Service's "Digital Planet" pictures the world beyond Google; Timo Hannay, publishing director of Macmillan's, imagines the intelligent book; Naomi Alderman, winner of the 2006 Orange Award for New Writers for her novel Disobedience (Viking) and writer for games such as alternate reality game Perplex City, looks forward to new hybrid forms of writing; performance poet Ross Sutherland muses on the future for his artform; if:book's director Chris Meade visits the Unlibrary; and Sasha Hoare, who has worked on literature and education projects at the South Bank, for Booktrust and with Michael Rosen during his children's laureateship, explains in detail how HOTbook may develop present and future writers in schools.

Bill Thompson reports back from a post-Google world

Burning the books to keep power running to the servers had seemed like such a good plan in the dark days after the grid failed, but the librarians soon came to regret it once the last vellum-bound manuscript had joined the law journals, parliamentary records and works of 21st-century fiction in the ever-hungry furnaces of the power room.

After six months it was clear that the grid was never coming back, that the post-industrial world would be a post-electrical one. They would rebuild, of course. People always rebuilt, though the new society would not simply be a replica of what had gone before, the com'era, dov'era (how it was, where it was), that the Venetians insisted on as they rebuilt the campanile in St Mark's Square in 1901. It would be different, perhaps even better.
But it would have no printed books. The great scanning had seen to that, especially after Google persuaded the US courts to amend copyright law and allow it full rights to digitise and exploit any printed text, and authors realised that under the final Book Search settlement it made more sense to abandon publishers and simply send their finished manuscript to the Googleplex.

No books had been printed for a decade, with every bookshop now operating as an advertising-funded GoogleZone. No books had been read, it seemed, except as pixels on the screen of a networked device that was connected straight to the Pagebrinary—all the world's knowledge at only a eurocent a page. And the books that remained were now mostly gone, a final burnt offering to the gods of the data centres.

And then it began to happen, first a trickle and then a flood. People arrived at the library clutching carrier bags, or boxes or in one case a massive traveller's trunk, all packed with books that had been put to one side, left unopened on shelves or simply lain undisturbed among discarded computers, phones and indestructible CDs and DVDs.

The people emerged with their books, and offered them to the library, restocking the city's memory with textbooks and poetry and works of fiction. Not everything, not enough, and rather too many trashy airport novels and books about mystical intrigues involving the Catholic Church and western powers. But enough to offer a chance of rebooting one corner of civilisation a bit faster than the others, enough to get things started.

"If there was hope", the librarian muttered, "it lies in the pages". He was sure he'd heard that before, somewhere.

Chris Meade imagines the ‘Unlibrary' of the future

Once upon a time books were made of parchment and carried around in buckets. Then came the codex, designed by early Christians as a means to fix the canon and make sure no one glued extra bits onto the end of scrolls. The first books, hand written by teams of monks, cost a fortune. Gutenberg invented the printing press but went bankrupt when his invention failed to catch on. It took the Reformation to make publishing commercially viable, when every faction going was producing new tracts and pamphlets. The paperback provided cheap portable fiction for the troops and the workers.

The e-reader briefly bridged the gap between page and screen, but soon every laptop and mobile was a platform for prose. Far from killing literature, new devices led to a renaissance of artworks mixing text and images, sounds and conversations. The book was no longer defined as an object but as an experience, a unit of meaning, some of which were produced in beautiful, customised printed form, others in lavish online editions. But perhaps surprisingly the term remained—thanks to Macbooks and Facebook, Audiobooks, Digibooks, Skybooks, ifbooks etc, but the term was used to include events, performances, recordings, websites which demanded a certain level of attention. And all books were also communities, though mostly quiet ones, like library users silently sharing the same virtual space.

Libraries used to contain copies of works that were otherwise inaccessible to people without parting with their cash. Books were chained to desks, then loaned out for short periods, then after culture went up to the cloud, their role became really important, providing a safe local space in which to meet real people with the expertise and ideas to help us each explore our particular interest.

Where once people had been intimidated but uplifted in places of culture such as theatres and libraries, now all content emanated from the same devices. There was no longer any need to differentiate much between movies, books, ifbooks, pop music and opera. Whereas once these commodities were sold and performed in completely different places for different prices, now all was stuff, funded from the licence.

So we needed to create new means to uplift the spirit and encourage deeper attention and focus. Unlibraries flourished—designed to inspire and intrigue through displays, events and atmospheres which helped minds to expand; they sold and loaned out souvenirs of intellectual journeys undertaken there, were havens for debate and the simple, basic pleasures of social networking.

Novelist and digital writer Naomi Alderman pictures fiction in 2059

Human beings never change as much as we imagine. Technologies change, but human needs remain: food, water, companionship, sex, shelter and—a constant among all civilizations—stories.

We need stories as much in 2059 as in 2009. "Traditional" forms never go out of fashion. Live theatre remains exciting. Beautifully-made books are still prized. The linear story, the novel, short fiction—these forms aren't going anywhere.

But the fiction audience of 2059 has more options. For one thing, computer game stories have become richer. Even 50 years ago, games like "Portal", "Shadow of the Colossus" and "Grim Fandango" had thought-provoking, engaging stories. And novelists were already exploring fiction with multiple endings: from The French Lieutenant's Woman to Leila Johnston's Enemy of Chaos. Authors now often work with a programmer—like the time-honoured musician-lyricist partnership—to produce fiction that's interactive, games that are literary. These partnerships shy away from defining their work as story or game, coyly calling them "experiences".

Our new generation of writers grew up with the internet. Though some value printed books, for others print would mean that their work was instantly irrelevant. Some authors use their audience as a test-bed, a source of encouragement and inspiration. While writing, they post new chapters online to reader-subscribers who give suggestions. If the writer takes on a reader's idea, they might get a small fee—or just kudos. Other authors release their work to be "remixed" by the audience; some remixed works are more popular than the originals. And authors have discovered the joy of live improvisational writing: creating an instant story by writing in character in response to readers.

The ubiquity of mobile devices with clear, readable screens has created a phone-fiction subculture. Like soap operas, these novels—no longer limited by physical print—can continue for years. Some of the best known have multiple authors; they could carry on being written forever.

Mobile devices also mean that stories can take place in unlikely venues. Using augmented reality tools, you can watch a story that seems to be taking place around you while you're queuing in the supermarket or at the dentist. Or if you have 20 minutes to spare in central London, why not play a chapter of the new James Bond story? Disney's "Kim Possible Epcot Adventure" was already using this technology in 2009.

But these technologies haven't changed the fundamentals of good storytelling; in fact, they may have brought us full circle. Campfire stories were always interactive—the audience shouted out suggestions, acted as a community. Interactivity hasn't been an innovation as much as a rediscovery.

Poet Ross Sutherland on poetry in the near future

Here's a quick story about the death of poetry. It starts in the not-too-distant future with, a reasonably-priced, comprehensive, cross-publisher retail platform for buying poetry.

I think that sounds like a pretty good idea, but then again, I just invented it, so of course I like it. My original business plan is to attract customers to through the audio functions. You can download The Birthday Letters, turn on Ted Hughes, and let him read along with you. Then, if Hughes becomes dull, I've installed Brian Blessed on the other side. With my audio in place, I produce weekly podcasts, featuring highlights from new collections, plus well-known poets presenting their favourites.

However, despite being the country's one-stop shop for all your poetry needs, Poetry4All still isn't making me enough cash. I feel like I've barely tapped into the colossal online poetry community, which churns out thousands of poems every day onto the message boards of Britain. I decide my website needs to accommodate these poets too. I need to turn these eager producers into eager consumers.

I relaunch the website and throw the doors wide open. It's one big poetry house-party, and because I'm really popular, everybody comes. However, many of my new poet friends don't seem to have any connection with my old friends. Operating outside the publishing industry, these new poets are strange adjuncts from other artforms. They're mutant poets: cybertext authors, installation artists, poet-filmmakers, a capella rappers, unpublished page poets born in the wrong century.

Trawling through my website soon becomes like walking into an incomprehensible bar-room brawl. If you knew little about poetry before coming in, you'll know even less when you leave. It's hardly a cohesive community. My published poets threaten to pull out now that my website's top five most popular poems are all limericks about cats.

Forced out into public, but frustrated at their inability to distinguish their own work, the poets start to become increasingly inventive with their self-labelling (even poets are savvy with branding in the not-too-distant future). With help from the press, micro-movements emerge, emulating the quick turnover of fashion and music industries. They even start to write manifestos again.

It turns out, by forcing the community together, I'd inadvertently shown them how much they hate each other. And seeing as they're either all poets, or none of them, they decide its best to remove the word "poetry" from their sales pitch altogether. After decades of hybridisation and misappropriation, the term gets quietly killed off and replaced with a glut of sexy subcategories instead.

And despite this sacrifice, I think that's pretty much a happy ending. Readers are happy. Sales increase, so the writers are happy. The publishers are happy. Here at Poetry4All, we've got a nightmare rebrand ahead of us, but apart from that, we're pretty happy too. And sure, it's sad that poetry had to die, but in doing so, we might have just ensured the content inside has the best chance of survival.

Timo Hannay on a whodunit from the era of the Intelligent Book

There are, I discover, still books in the world. Not just those bundles of bits we all carry in our personal devices (PDs), but what some people used to call "real books": blocks of paper and ink and glue. Until my recent adventures I had thought them extinct.

My life as a literary secret agent began with a call, the voice at the other end flustered and incoherent. There had been a murder, that much was clear, but I couldn't catch the names of either the victim or the perpetrator before our one-sided conversation came to an abrupt end with a crack and a strangled cry.

"Hello? Who is this?" I demanded, tapping with my earpiece as if to coax it to speak again. Since my lenses were in I switched on the display, but there was no video or caller ID.
Then—ping!—a text landed before my eyes bearing only two words: "General Scholium". A search revealed this to be not a Roman military leader, but Newton's addendum to the Principia. I grabbed a copy from the Internet Library and skimmed the text, but saw nothing significant until I got to the end. The phrase "a certain most subtle spirit which pervades and lies hid" formed a link.

And so on down the rabbit hole—via other classics (Melville, Dickens) and sections of my own library (Borges, Wiseacre). In each place there appeared messages in the form of marginalia, animated illuminations or entire rogue passages. Gradually I pieced together a vast and astonishing conspiracy. Locations were significant too—an abandoned library was a hideout for pirates, a local pub a cyber-schemers' den. And where my PD detected an old-fashioned paper book (though whether by RFID tags, image recognition or some other magic I cannot tell), then that too turned out to be part of the plot. Indeed, I hope this is not revealing too much to say that my principal discovery so far is that the codex did not die—it was murdered.

The phone rings again. My trembling hand reaches for the switch. But this time it's my wife wondering when the train will arrive. Any minute now, I tell her as my pulse slows.

This is an Intelligent Book in the modern sense that it responds to its surroundings and the reactions of its reader, but also in the old-fashioned sense that it makes you think. The plot will seem far-fetched to those who don't remember a time before storytelling became sexy, when publishing was still paranoid and parochial. But it is in its own way a landmark, for the team that created it has built the most convincing transmedia work to date. We now live firmly in an age when literature itself has become the canvas on which stories are painted. The messages have become the medium.

Sasha Hoare on the HotBook: past, present and future writers in schools

The HotBook, if:book's groundbreaking project for secondary schools, invites students to engage with literature in digital forms in an overarching story context. Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, The HotBook is aimed at year eight and nine students, and was conceived as a way to help less confident readers stay interested in literature at an age when many young people start to switch off from books.

The poems and extracts from plays, novels, non-fiction texts and broadcasts in the HotBook are presented as short films, Flash animations, podcasts and HTML web pages. They range from Macbeth's "Tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech to Christina Rossetti's poem "Spring", from Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales to "Talking Turkeys" by Benjamin Zephaniah. They also include new commissions from contemporary writers such as Daljit Nagra, Cory Doctorow and Naomi Alderman, who were asked to write examples of the literature of the future.

Feedback from the four pilot schools spread across the country is encouraging—all the schools intend to run the project again this academic year, and 82% of students at Queensbridge School in Birmingham rated the project as good or excellent. Teachers have found the project works particularly well with lower ability groups. Although digital provision—including hardware, software, home access to computers and teacher confidence in delivering learning through Virtual Learning Environments—varies considerably across the country, the digital learning revolution is slowly gathering pace in schools. The ways in which students encounter literature is already changing.

if:book is now developing the final version of the HotBook, which will be available to all secondary schools in January 2010.



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