Romesh Gunasekera interviews Chris Meade, Director of if:book UK, a think and do tank exploring the future of the book and a champion of digital media. From 2000 to 2007 he was Director of Booktrust, the UK reading promotion charity, and previously the Director of the Poetry Society where he set up the Poetry Café in Covent Garden. He’s currently a PhD student at Bath Spa University making a digital fiction: www.nearlyology.net
Chris, I thought I’d try to fox any computer-aided answering programmes you might have by using the alphabet as the only logic for my questions. So we will start with what ‘A’ might prompt.
Advice: For an aspiring novelist today, getting their toolkit together, what is your advice?
We’re all amplified authors now, sharing our words naturally, with friends and then a widening circle of readers via social media, blogging, self publishing and possibly via a traditional publisher, but we don’t need a publisher in the way we once did. What’s vital is to seek out a community of trusted advisors to help us decide when work is ‘cooked’ enough to share and how best to package up and sell what we’ve written. I'd like to see libraries as the natural hub for such a community, but they're not that now.
Book: The physical book has been around since Moses found that tablet, but for most of us the book has meant a bunch of papers with writing on it stuck together as it has been for a few hundred years. So will it continue in that form?
Paper stuck together at the edges with glue will survive I’m sure, but for some time already it's the content stored digitally that is the core version of the work, whether it’s then printed and bound or downloaded or simply read on a website. My book loving friends once swore blind they’d never read on screen and now enthuse about their kindles and iPads, so I think more will be read that way, but those that do get printed will be beautiful, tactile, making full use of print technology.
Cafe: Give us some clues to the equivalent of the Poetry Cafe in cyberspace.
We set up the Poetry Café when I was Director of the Poetry Society and I always imagined it as a virtual space too. www.poetrysociety.org.uk is the centre of a poetry community and the youngpoetsnetwork on facebook is another hangout for young writers. Despite the dangers of wasting time online, it’s a place where writers can meet and share ideas, as well as research.
Device: What’s your favourite device? Why? Would our readers recognize it by the time this book comes out?
The iPad or tablet is what we’ve been waiting for as a pleasurable means to curl up with literary works that can include text, sound, images, video and opportunities to write to the book too. That’s where literature can spread its wings and fly up above the confines of the printed page.
I like paperbacks still, and reading on the go on my mobile too, though. Maybe next we’ll be able to download novels direct to our memories so we suddenly find we ‘know’ War & Peace without needing to read it at all – but I hope not.
E-book: In America it is big, in the UK it is growing, in Japan it is phenomenal, in the rest of the world it is negligible. Like a lot of innovations in technology there is a problem that e-books lock you into a system: you have to shop in the same place. The beauty of the original design of the book was that it opened doors. So how will that be dealt with?
Did it really open so many doors? The doors of libraries and bookshops can be intimidating to many, and these used to be the only places books could be found. I worked for many years in bookshops and libraries and love them dearly, feel sad to see both dwindling, but they’re closing because there are frankly better ways to make the word accessible now and we should celebrate that – and be healthily sceptical about the commercial and social forces which control those spaces. Searching and surfing opens more doors than ever.
Future: What can the Institute for the Future of the Book tell us about the future of the book?
It aims to widen definitions of what a book is, was and will be. The mission statement written by the Insititute’s founder Bob Stein in 2007 still puts it very well:
For the past five hundred years, humans have used print — the book and its various page-based cousins — to move ideas across time and space. Radio, cinema and television emerged in the last century and now, with the advent of computers, we are combining media to forge new forms of expression. For now, we use the word "book" broadly, even metaphorically, to talk about what has come before — and what might come next.
In all the fuss about e-books and apps we’re failing to appreciate the web itself as an astounding and never ending book of freely accessible information and imagination.
Google: Anything you’d like say about Google and books?
Not naming names, but I hate secretive, greedy, tax-dodging, global corporates. Then again, it amuses me how people say, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if…” and then, when that happens and we get free access to it, say, “isn’t it terrible that…”
The ambition to put into the public domain all the texts which previously vanished into invisible out-of-printness takes my breath away, but the ethics of how that's done are questionable. We need to ensure that search engines are guiding us to knowledge, not signposts pointing where the advertisers want us to go.
Hardbacks: What is the e-equivalent of the hardback, which was the dream of many would-be novelists for so long.
Try looking at the work of Touchpress who make apps about the Planets, the Elements, and a gorgeous version of the The Wasteland; lavish productions full of clever and appropriate interactivity.
Print on demand makes it easier than ever to make a hardback book of anything, but surely the essence of the writers dream is to be recognised and appreciated. As Benjamin Zephaniah said in an interview with if:book, “ “the important thing is to publish in people’s hearts.”
I: imac, iphone, ipad. I had a student who wrote a wonderful story about an iChild. Is i-before everything, or its android equivalent, the answer to all problems?
Joyce: Margaret Atwood in a recent interview commented, ‘James Joyce was fascinated by all forms of writing … He’d be on Twitter like a shot.’ Do you think Ulysses would have been even longer if he had Twitter? Or just 140 characters? Would it, and all the other forms of social media available, have been a distraction or an inspiration?
I think it can be hard to decide when you're being distracted or inspired online. Noodling about on the web often feels like timewasting, but can lead to nuggets of information and ideas. Would Joyce tweet? #yesIsaidyesIwillYes
Kindle: Is it the Kindle the Penguin of our times, or was it?
Penguin paperbacks were probably more revolutionary in opening up access to literature to a wide public, bringing down the price of books and presenting them as affordable and acceptable items to carry around in any pocket. Then again, Iast Christmas I found myself sitting on the toilet at midnight downloading a book I’d just bought and thought this really is a radically new way to buy literature!
Less: Less is More was a handy tip for writers. But with digital tools the temptation is to do more and more as there are very few physical constraints. So is the new tip More is More?
Did authors ever enthuse about having to write novels of a certain length? I don’t think so. They railed against constraints until these were removed and then began to moan about needing them.
Isn't it preferable to let the story you want to tell define the length, shape, form and distribution method that seems most appropriate for it?
More: see above. Anything to add?
It's interesting that the web has spawned a lot of short form writing like Flash Fiction whereas TV’s moved towards epic narratives like The Wire, The Killing, Breaking Bad. It seems our attention span can be stretched or tightened any which way.
I’m currently working on a novel which includes a narrative, songs, reader contributions, collaborations and live events. MORE doesn't need to be a longer and longer story; it could involve spin-off stories for a community of readers hooked by the core text; it could be work in other media. If that makes your head ache, don’t panic. The whole point is that writers and readers can choose what they want from the growing menu of possibilities.
Novel: what is the biggest challenge for the novel in the digital age?
To be novel. It depresses me how many debates around fiction have become so defensive and backward looking – there’s this horror that things might change. Novelists of all people should be looking for new ways to tell stories to best express what it is to be alive today.
Openings: The opening page of the novel has had tremendous attention in recent years. Possibly this is due to creative writing courses. It is also because of the natural tendency to use it as the selection criteria when faced with huge numbers of submissions. As a result opening pages of most manuscripts receive 80% of a writer’s energy, and after that the rest of the novel tends to fade. In the digital world is this even more important? Will it all be about first impressions of the first web page, the first image? Or is it more holistic?
In the olden days readers only had the blurb on the back of the book to go on. I’ve heard it said that self published Kindle authors agonise over the first few sampler pages which hook readers into buying, but they won't get repeat downloads if they don’t keep hold of our attention after that. There’s still a hunger for big stories – when they’re worth it.
And analytics can reveal not just how many visits your work received but exactly when people got bored and went away again.
Physicality: Tell me about the physicality of digital books. One of the pleasures of the paper book is that if you love it, the touch, the feel, the smell and the look all contribute to your enjoyment and memory of it. If you don’t like the book -- for the words in it, the emotions in it, the smell of the paper -- you can slam it down or chuck it away. Physical satisfaction either way. But you can’t fling your expensive electronic device quite the same way. You can certainly have the positive feelings about it but it is not so easy to express the negative. But is there an alternative way of expressing this physical relationship with things of the mind, other then pressing the delete button really hard?
Tapping, swiping and pulling at the screen of a tablet is a very touchy-feely experience. Touchpress for instance make beautiful literary apps which are a delight to handle.
If you hated an eBook enough you could always smash your eReader I suppose, which would be cathartic but costly. I suggest keeping a cushion to hand which you can hurl and bash and cuddle as a means of expressing your reading experience. Maybe we could market special thumpable reading cushions and make a fortune!
Quirky: What is the quirkiest thing you have come across in digital media?
Blimey – the web is a cathedral of quirk! For a fascinating digital literary mind making projects that couldn’t exist on the page, try Tim Wright http://timwright.typepad.com/. His Kidmapper project involved him walking in the footsteps of Stevenson’s book and reading extracts to a community of reader. The New Media Writing Prize, now five years old, highlights a fascinating range of experiments www.newmediawritingprize.co.uk
Royalties: is there a future for royalties? And the publisher-writer relationship?
Ok, so the money is the big issue. But it's not insurmountable. At one it was widely held that everything online was always going to be free, but now we’re getting back into the habit of buying chunks of digital stuff from app stores etc.
‘The publisher-writer relationship’ isn’t some mystical experience, and can be a feeble one. Writers need certain kinds of advice and support and they can find this in new places now.
What bugs me is that we’re all being dragged into worrying about the woes of publishers. Let’s get the horse in front of the cart again: writers concentrate on making great work for readers and let business people find ways to generate income for us and them from the results.
Search Engines: It is hard to imagine we managed without them. Are they getting better, or worse?
I fancy making a search engine that operates like the worst small local libraries of yore: closed on Wednesdays with a limited range of titles and a grouchy librarian looking sniffy if you asked for something s/he felt was inappropriate. I hate being told what I'd like by some algorithm, but they do seem to be getting better at it.
Text: what does this word mean to you?
How about thinking of it as a fluid thing, made of words that sometimes drip slowly, sometimes pour from us, which can be uttered, scattered, enriched and evolved, cupped in our hands, held in all manner of containers? I like the idea of the Liquid Book.
Unlibrary: You were keen on unlibraries? Tell me more about that and un-books.
We ran a pop up Unlibrary within Hornsey Library for a year. It was a room with wi-fi, tables and chairs, shelves on which users could put information about themselves and create little assemblages based on their interests, with an email or twitter address displayed so others could contact them. We ran a weekly drop in and helped launch a philosophy learning circle and a songwriting group which still thrive. So here was a place where local readers and writers could make themselves known, seek collaborators, and meet together to think and create. Why ‘un’? Because it’s a library turned inside out - the people and their interests are the resource, given space to mingle as much as they wish. Out of that grew the idea of the Nearlyversity: informal tutorial groups devising their own courses using free resources from the web and meeting in cafes to discuss and help keep each other on track.
Virtual Reality: Do novels do it better than computers?
You can read a novel on a computer, but YES if you mean that there is still nothing richer than the world created by words in the brain.
But let’s not get complacent about it - there’s so much smug, nostalgic twaddle spoken about the power of books, as if music, film, games and multimedia can’t be mindblowing too.
Websites: Lots of questions here. What should a novelist do about a website? How? Are there websites you would recommend for information on writing, as publishing platforms, for digital media?
Yes you need a basic website now, at least as a digital equivalent of a business card. Beyond that it's up to you to decide whether you want to publish and/or sell your work there, encoyrage lots of interaction with your readers or none whatsoever.
Go to www.theliteraryplatform.com and www.thewritingplatform as well as www.ifbook.co.uk for good stuff on digital writing and links to much more.
X-factor: So what is the x-factor in digital media?
The good news is that there’s no Simon Cowell figure telling you if you’re any good or not. The New Media Writing Prize is an annual prize for this kind of work. Bringing the inspirational sensibility of literary mind to digital formats is what if:book’s work is all about.
Young: Will the young read differently since they now learn to handle touch screens sooner, and better, before they learn handle letters?
Yes. Neuroscience shows that using tablet computers changes the shape of our brains. But then neuroscience shows that everything changes the shape of our brains. Young people will discover the joy of reading, watching and making on whatever tools they come across.
Zero Sum Game: Is the link between a novel and a game, similar to the link between a novel and a film? Or does the digital age offer us something different?
The great thing about digital is that we can make our own links, connections and remixes. Writers can make novelishgameythings, poemydrawingybloggythings, storyessaysongy things as they wish, and put these online where readers can find them if they’re looking. This age offers us amazing opportunities to make something different. Now it’s up to writers to seize the time.