Monthly Archives: January 2009

Time Magazine on the Book Future

Lev Grossman has an article in Time about modern book publishing and the culture around it. He writes:

So if the economic and technological changes of the 18th century gave rise to the modern novel, what’s the 21st century giving us? Well, we’ve gone from industrialized printing to electronic replication so cheap, fast and easy, it greases the skids of literary production to the point of frictionlessness. From a modern capitalist marketplace, we’ve moved to a postmodern, postcapitalist bazaar where money is increasingly optional. And in place of a newly minted literate middle class, we now have a global audience of billions, with a literacy rate of 82% and rising.

Put these pieces together, and the picture begins to resolve itself: more books, written and read by more people, often for little or no money, circulating in a wild diversity of forms, both physical and electronic, far outside the charmed circle of New York City’s entrenched publishing culture. Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.

Grossman paints far more details into his picture of the book-future (compared to mine), though they’re mostly observations I agree with. Here’s a summary of his points, and my responses to them:

1. The publishing industry isn’t dying, it’s just evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it’s done. This is an interesting departure from the “PRINT IS DEAD!” rubbish we’ve been seeing around in the blogosphere, and I think it’s a fairer take. What we have to keep in mind here is that most people in the book business are now seeing content being created for the sake of content – much of online fiction, for instance, isn’t published for the sake of commercial interests. Grossman also offers some ideas on how this new industry would look like …

2. Old Publishing will live on as a radically altered, symbiotic form – the small, pointy peak of a mighty pyramid. Readers can chose from the top (in his words: ‘carefully selected and edited, and presented in a bespoke, art-directed paper package’), the middle (reasonably good web fiction and self published works) and the bottom (fan fiction and rubbish, etc). Under Grossman’s analogy, we occupy the middle rung of that piramid, and we’ll probably be pushed down a coupla rungs once the publishers move to the digital sphere. 

3. Self-publishing has gone from being the last resort of the desperate and talentless to something more like out-of-town tryouts for theater or the farm system in baseball. I’m expecting the publishers to begin mining the more prominent blooks for future deals, and while it’s already happening (see: Authonomy, David Wellington, Aaron Dunlap), it should accelerate as they acclimatize to the Internet as a fiction medium. A logical progression from this would be a future where writers each hawk their own portfolio of online/self published fiction. This isn’t very different from the past, where a writer would submit to agents their formerly published work (short stories in small magazines, the like) but the only difference now would be the amount of data these publishers would have access to – the numbers of sales, the visitors, the RSS subscriber numbers, etc.

There’s one more point, but it’s worth quoting in its entirety:

In theory, publishers are gatekeepers: they filter literature so that only the best writing gets into print. But Genova and Barry and Suarez got filtered out, initially, which suggests that there are cultural sectors that conventional publishing isn’t serving. We can read in the rise of self-publishing not only a technological revolution but also a quiet cultural one–an audience rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker too.

There are old reasons for writers to turn to the Internet, reasons that I learned first-hand when I began producing Novelr. The above is one of them. If a new publishing industry accepts that it cannot predict what the masses want, and they change to compensate for a democracy of taste, then perhaps, in time, we will begin to see a far more accepting book-world than the one we’ve taken for granted today.

Bookmarked! 18th Jan

Video on how a book gets made. Fiction apparently takes ’10 to 30 years to finish … many authors will supplement their income with blogging, a far more lucrative field, considered by many to be a higher art form’. One word: Awesome. (via Bibliobibuli)

Also:

And I’ll close on a quote from the great Salman Rushdie: 

There is more well written fiction — creative writingese, bloodless, humourless competence – today than there has ever been at any time in history, and less really great literature. This thanks to an epidemic of writing classes.

Craft is the one thing you can teach.

But you can’t teach eye — what to see/select. You can’t teach ear. Or a vision of the world that is interesting. Or how to develop a profound relationship with language.

In other words, you can’t teach people how to create great literature.

Digital Publishing’s Set To Explode. Will You Be Sidelined?

It is tempting to assume that what we’re doing here, at Novelr, is going to be the centre of the new digital publishing revolution. We probably feel like we’ve been doing a lot, haven’t we? We think that we’re going to render publishers and their ilk useless. We think that getting published on the Internet is as good as getting published on paper. And, yes, I’ll admit there has been a constant increase of writers who start blogs and write fiction, and who gather here at Novelr to talk shop and to discuss new ways of writing, of publishing, and of circumventing the old agent-publicist-publisher network. We have become closer, as a community. We’ve started a quality filter, a Web Fiction Guide (recognition to Chris Poirier here), to help new readers sort through the dross and find good things to read. And we’ve done quite a bit in the past two years or so.

But guess what? I’m starting to believe that what we’ve done is not enough. I’d been out of the loop for four months, and I hadn’t been keeping track of all the new developments in the online book world. But this afternoon I sat down and made my first real sweep of the lit blogosphere – my first in half a year. And God, let me tell you: it was different. Scary different. Former boundaries I’d taken for granted were no longer there. People I never expected to talk about digital fiction were now talking about nothing else. Publishers had started blogs, opened up experimental digital teams. Regular people had created commentary blogs similar to this one, in an attempt to make sense of this shift from page to screen. And what was scary about this whole thing was that the biggest efforts everywhere were by the publishers.

Now I’m not really surprised, but my initial enthusiasm during Christmas has by now worn off. It may well be true that a rising tide raises all ships, independent producers like the blooking community included, but I’m inclined to think that it’s not going to be clear cut. And why should it? Look at the facts: the publishers that are jumping into the digital medium are making big waves, and they’re the ones with the money. Independent content producers – we the writers, the blog fiction people – we’re disjointed. We don’t have the resources nor the manpower to do anything matching the kinds of sites and software that these companies are now throwing up (you mark my words,  Authonomy won’t be the last site we’ll see from Harper Collins). Can we create an iPhone ebook reader? Can we push out a platform for publishing novels, and pipe them straight to the bookstore? The truth is that we can’t, and that once the big wigs step in, we’ll be revealed for what we truly are: big fish in a small pond. To me, it now seems that the book future before us will be startlingly similar to the book world we thought we left behind.

A Glimpse Ahead

But what book future are we talking about? I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball, but a few things seem certain in the near future, given recent developments.

Firstly: more and more people would begin reading books in the digital format. Sharon Bakar points out that an increasing number of people in the US and the UK received Kindles for Christmas last year; Gregory Cowles said in a recent blog postKindles are a regular sight on my train these days, and seem poised to become as ubiquitous as iPods …

Secondly: There will arise a new kind of publishing industry, a major portion of which will be heavily invested in digital and Internet-related technology. How they make their money isn’t clear, but I believe (though don’t hold me to this) that they’ll adopt a scalable, free model – most books available for on-screen reading; payment for book/mobile download. This model meshes with what we know of commerce on the Internet thus far, and it would make sense, considering the success of iTunes for the music industry. But let’s pause here, and think about what this means for us. If thousands of quality, paper-published writers are shifted online, for free, how will the independent writers be heard? What will happen if the major agencies and publishers begin their search for the next hot writer on the Internet? We will be swamped and oversaturated, won’t we? And here’s the question that matters most to us: what will the relevance of WFG be, in light of these huge online repositories of free, quality fiction?

Why Do We Call Ebooks, Ebooks?

There’s this great article by Mandy Brown over at aworkinglibrary, asking a worthy question: why are ebooks called ebooks, considering that previous iterations of the ‘book’ were called by distinctively different names? Scrolls were different from Codexes, Codexes were different from Books, and now … why ebook? Why not something vastly different, considering that ebooks have nothing in common with books?

We are now ushering in a new age of books which exist without any physical presence at all, which can be transmitted across oceans in moments, in which annotations and criticisms can be shared in ways no one of the seventeenth century could ever have imagined. (Indeed, ways we of the twenty-first century are only beginning to understand.) And yet we still stubbornly refer to them as “books,” tucking but a sly vowel up front (“ebook”), as if we’re afraid to really admit how much has changed. This naming convention is no less absurd than if the codex was called a “folded scroll” or the scroll a “soft, thin, rolled tablet.” Dramatic changes in form require equally dramatic changes in terms.

Hate to quaffle over an already excellent post, but I wonder if taxonomy changes really reflect our society’s acceptance of a medium. Would it matter if we use different naming conventions? And it’s an interesting question to ask, in light of the current shift to digital lit. Because if Mandy’s right, then the amount of names applied to digital fiction (blook, wovel, webfic, blogfic, ebook, etc) simply mirrors the fragmented and disorganized medium we have at hand.

Exploring Personality Bias

Early last year, 2005 Man-Booker prize winner John Banville did a fiction serial called The Lemur over at the New York Times website. When I covered the attempt here at Novelr I immediately received a comment by reader Bill Hilton, who groaned about the choice of author. Why him?! Hilton asked. It turned out that Banville had made a couple of obnoxious comments upon winning the Booker prize some time back: he implied that a lot of middle-brow novels were winning awards lately, and it was good to see a book of real merit – his – fiinally win. Hilton then went on to say:

I wouldn’t mind, but (the Booker-prize winning) The Sea is the most pretentious load of old tosh that I’ve read in years.

I didn’t bother to follow The Lemur after that.

I think most of us now recognize the Internet’s potential for social communication and information dispersal. The tidbit about Banville wouldn’t have reached me if I hadn’t been writing a lit blog, and it also wouldn’t have reached me if Bill Hilton hadn’t passed by and commented on the piece. But consider the other things that made the exchange of bias possible: Mr Hilton had probably picked up the news from a newspaper or such during the 2005 Booker Prize news coverage – something that I couldn’t possibly have done given the limited nature of book news in Malaysia – and he’d probably remembered that tidbit when he read Banville’s The Sea. Also, NYT online had published the Lemur on the Internet, had released the item in their news feed (which I had subscribed to), and had taken the time to mark it as web fiction. There was a whole lot of variables that made this exchange of views possible, and the most astounding thing was probably the fact that I lived in Malaysia, an inherently non-reading nation. I wouldn’t have contracted a bias against John Banville had it not been for the opinion of a British reader who had more information about Banville than I did, and who lived in a nation where getting this information and finding his book was easier. Once upon a time a friend’s recommendation may have been limited by social and geographical boundaries. That time no longer exists.

The above example, however, is just one of many illustrating the social side of the Internet, and I’m sure you can all come up with more. Let me throw you another. It is now possible for you to read a poem in a book, enjoy said poem, and then go online, head to the publisher’s website, and email the poet your thanks. I remember a writer (can’t remember his name, for the life of me) who did just that, and who later commented on how the Internet’s connectivity added another dimension to his reading experience. I’m sure this was possible before, with post, but the Internet has now made it global, and painless, and very, very cheap.

The point I’m getting at here is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to enjoy books without some knowledge of the writer that wrote it. And, in web fiction, it is becoming near impossible to enjoy a work without interacting, and perhaps judging, the online writer behind it.

Memorandum

Welcome, folks, to a redesigned Novelr. I call this version two point oh, draft eight, and I hope you like it as much as I do. (Note: bugs are still being ironed out, so please bear with me for awhile).

Before I talk about the upcoming changes in Novelr, I’d like to explain the idea behind the visual lift Novelr now sports. I have been intending to redesign Novelr for quite a bit now. Part of it was due to the Picture Book post I did last year, where I discussed how a website design affected the way readers saw your content (and in the case of blooks, how they saw a story). It was one of my favourite posts of 2008, but I felt a little off about it at the time because Novelr itself was a very colourful, hippy, non-serious blog; quite at odds with its content, as you can imagine. A redesigned Novelr would mean a Novelr that wasn’t so dissonant – a redesign would mean a stronger message.

Throughout the 4 week redesign process I didn’t write on Novelr as I did before my study lift. I know that my last few posts have been lacklustre at best, and I also realize that this is completely my fault – I have a bad habit of not writing for a site that I’m designing, and this applies even when said redesign takes an extraordinarily long time to complete. For that, and for the lousy, linkish posts I have churned out over the last two weeks, I ask for your forgiveness. Novelr will return to its core immediately in the posts that follow this one, that I promise you.

Wait, What Core?

Novelr is now two years old. When I first started writing it I set out to create a one-stop resource for all the writers on the Internet: the ones who weren’t yet published; the ones who wanted to use the Internet to get their work read. That core remains. Over the next few weeks I’ll be editing and rewriting major portions of the Ultimate Blook Guide, much of which had been rendered obsolete in the months since I first published it. By the end of Step 7 of that guide a novice writer should be well versed in the ins and outs of publishing on the Internet – how to write, where to write, and where to find other fellow writers. 

There are other things to do, of course. In the past year Novelr has become a point of community for the many who already write web fiction. The joint efforts of that community resulted in Web Fiction Guide, a fantastic filter for new readers to the medium, powered by a wonderful team of editors, writers, programmers and readers. But that is only the beginning. There’s a recession going on, and the mass publishing-industry-shift to the Internet has changed the landscape quite a bit. This is ironic, this is: many of the things Gavin Williams predicted in a 2008 Novelr guest post are now coming true, and more besides: the middlemen are bleeding red ink; the publishers themselves in need more than ever of a new business model, or at least a new bestseller. These are bleak times, yes, but great ones for those working only on the Internet. And it’s Novelr’s job to make sense of that chaos. Web Fiction Guide may be a good start, yes, but how do we channel new readers to that site? How do we get more people to read? How do we make webfiction mainstream? These are problems that Novelr and its community have been struggling for a full two years, and our jobs have suddenly turned easier with the stumble of the traditional literary establishment. If you’ve got some insight to the situation we’re facing, or if you’ve got something to say to the online fiction community, feel free to contact me to write a guest post about it.