This is an extract from a longer article written for the International symposium "STATIONERY. The book and its future" to beh held in Freiburg this December. Picture from the Unlibrary launch.
Whatever else is going on, there's a revolution happening in how we use words to connect with each other. Blogs and microblogging tools like Twitter give every citizen the potential to amplify their words by publishing them on the global bookshelves of the web. Most blogs are read only by a handful of friends, but there’s nothing to stop ripples of interest forming around compelling content so that thousands can alight on an unknown writer’s work.
The amplified author doesn’t wait for a publisher to decide if his or her work deserves a readership or not. Before considering sending a manuscript to a traditional publisher, the writer may have tested out their ideas on a circle of readers via a blog, drawn new readers in through Twitter and a variety of online networks. Acceptance from a quality publisher gives a boost to profile and reputation, but the amplified author doesn’t need to cede control to any one gatekeeper.
A writer who has one book bought by a conventional publisher might want to self publish the next one, freed from the constraints of editors and marketing departments who have a view on what kind of book they think they can sell most effectively. And this approach can be adopted by writers at all levels, from emerging writers to global bestsellers.
Amplified authors aren’t prey to vanity presses selling them a pretence of publication; they study the analytics and comments to find out who actually reads their work and what they make of it. Few ‘conventional’ authors make anything like a living wage from the books they publish, yet labour under the belief that they are failing if they can't. Amplified authors know they don’t need cash up front to put their work into the world, and can develop techniques to expand their readership and market their wares if they wish, buying in design, editorial and promotional skills when they choose. Amplified authors drive their own careers forward.
The question is how long creators will think of themselves as working in the literary arts at all. Looking back to the invention of the scroll, the codex, broadcasting and film, DVD and download, there are moments when cultural forms split apart forever.
We don’t think of movies as an extension of literary fiction, of newspapers as a continuation of the tradition of the ancient traveling bard, but of course they share common roots. Likewise I doubt the next generation of digital storytellers will queue up for the services of literary agents and publishers, they will do deals with whoever can best help them produce their ‘thing’, reach an audience and make a living.
LAST WEEKEND If:book opened the first UNLIBRARY, a social network linked to a wi-fi enabled work space in Hornsey's thriving local library, in Crouch End, North London.
Whereas not long ago the perceived problem for libraries was how to afford to buy enough books for the shelves, now search engines and the web give all those with a computer access to a massive collection of free information and imagination.
But far from being rendered redundant by these technological changes, public libraries are ever more important, both to bridge the technological divide between rich and poor, and to provide a local setting in which to share the contents of our laptops. Where else can we go to locate people living locally who share our enthusiasms, who can help us get to grip with Twitter and all the new tools for learning? The Unlibrary aims to create the unique atmosphere of the traditional library, its role as an accessible and democratic space for learning, browsing, mingling and dreaming,
a public space where we can read privately and freely but in the context of a global network of information and imagination.
How can we recreate the essence of that library experience while recognizing how digital culture has transformed so much about how we find what we want to read? Libraries represent our right to read freely, deeply and on our own terms. The Unlibrary aims to protect that right in changing times when the role of so many public institutions is under pressure from the repercussions of recession and digitization.
Thanks to the newly formed if:book Australia, in May 2010 I visited Cooroy, a small town on the sunshine coast of Australia where five amazing artists and writers are collaborating on a project about identity. I was invited to help them explore ideas for developing some kind of digital anthology. Cooroy’s new library has high speed broadband, workshop spaces, a collection of books and other resources, plus amazing local talent. I realized there is nothing to stop such a place anywhere in the world from becoming a globally recognized cultural generator.
Publishers see only a new market for their products, but the web has set the word free. Imagine a world full of Unlibraries, places for free reading and reflection, creation and curation, collaboration and illumination.