Sunday, 9 May 2010

time seized

Here's the piece wot i rote for Bookbrunch
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Publishing
Friday, 07 May 2010 00:47
Chris Meade suggests that the digital communities growing up across the literary spectrum need curatorial attention and pruning
"There will always be the need for our editing, marketing and design skills in the digital age," the big cheeses of publishing proclaim from conference platforms. Well, yes, maybe, but the future surely belongs to those most clear-sighted in stripping away their habits and assumptions to focus on the vital qualities of what matters to them. So many traditional industries are bogged down in turning round their liners, disentangling the future from the flotsam of the past. Meanwhile newcomers arrive, take a quick look at what’s happening, and get stuck into making something of it now.
When I set up the think and do tank if:book three years ago, it was because I believed that the "literature sector" - that network of Arts Council-funded development organizations that promote creative reading and writing - had exactly the skills and experience to seize the opportunities that digital platforms offered to broaden access to literary culture.
Bodies like Booktrust , the Poetry Society and the network of literature development agencies round the UK exist to help the art form thrive, to widen access beyond the boundaries of normal marketing, and to curate the kinds of conversation between readers and writers which are all the rage in digital debate.
Often overlooked and misunderstood by writers, publishers and PR agencies focused on the bottom line of commerce, this sector is surely ripe to be brought to the fore. Their mixed economy of grant aid and ticket sales should free them up to make the most radical experiments in networked books, multimedia and multiplatform narratives, to try out new business models for selling combinations of event, object and download. There’s so much to learn from their history of festivals, book groups, residencies, workshops, literary public art and community commissions.
Now cometh the iPad moment, when literature finds its place back on the main stage, in a media-rich environment and in the midst of the rest of our digital culture. Whereas people have defined themselves as book-lovers or film buffs, from now on they’ll seek out genres and styles of cultural product without much noticing whether they end up watching, listening, reading - or a mixture of all three.
Big commercial forces hover, prepared to pounce on an opportunity to sell glossy reading experiences online. But I’m not convinced they "get" what it means to curate the networked book. If:book designated this April as time to "Seize the Time", and I’ve been offering free surgeries to interested parties looking at how we can make the running instead of playing catch up with the corporates.
I’ve already met the Itinerant Poetry Librarian who travels the globe with a backpack of books, embodying the ideals behind librarianism which are so important in the age of information abundance. I’ve been to Leeds, where ex-bookseller Wes Brown has founded a community of young writers and readers around his online magazine thecadaverine.com. His publishing plans blend page, screen and live events in a thoroughly networked way.
I’ve been talking to students creating online journals and communities for student-led discussion, and to agencies like Writing West Midlands whose experience seems so relevant to digital publishing, though their core audience are late adopters of new technology, still tending to see books in opposition to web.
Too many imaginative literary minds don’t get it either, and balk at engaging seriously with digital culture because they don’t get on with computers, and so fail to see how their heartfelt ideals and literary ideas can be furthered online. We need their skills to ensure that, whatever else changes, literary quality survives and thrives.
At a gratifyingly packed Children's Bookfutures discussion at this year's LBF, a gasp was heard as publisher Neal Hoskens produced his iPad and showed us books with falling snow and whizzing bikes. Naomi Alderman introduced her new story/game TheWinterhouse.co.uk. To some authors these new platforms and playgrounds evoke panic, but more are beginning to feel tingles of excitement. Amanda Wood of Templar reminded us that children's books had been enhanced for years. She showed a book with glove puppet attached, a pop-up Big Ben with electronic chimes, and a baby book fused with an activity centre. There's inspiration here for adult publishing perhaps: Austen with finger puppets? Scratch and sniff McEwan?
At a salon last month at Somerset House, writers Romesh Gunesekera, Lisa Gee and Kate Pullinger expressed their enthusiasm for new media experimentation, Adrian Hon of Six to Start bemoaned the lack of good writers involved in the burgeoning art and industry of gaming, while English teachers expressed concern that schools were failing to help their students to explore the changing landscape of our culture. There’s so much to be done.
As books develop digital communities around them, networks of readers commenting in the margins on new work, there’s a need for reading gardeners to seed, grow and prune the resulting conversations. Authors may love or loathe tweeting and blogging, but properly mediated this literary community-building pays dividends both in terms of sales and creative energy.
This curatorial role isn’t marketing or editorial, it involves serious engagement with the work and the conversations to be had around it – and it’s what we literature development people have been doing for years.

At if:book, we’ve already made resources for schools curated reading experiences, producedilluminated digital texts and held debates at festivals, conferences and our own salons. Recently, we’ve been talking to lots of people about new kinds of public spaces for books and new kinds of enterprise around the word – now it’s time to make them happen.

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