Software, The Internet, and The One Man Show

Panic Software ProductsBefore the Internet, software companies plied their wares through brick-and-mortar stores, in handy little diskette drives the size of folded pocket-handkerchiefs. It was a smaller industry, back then – Microsoft was still getting a start in IBM’s god-forsaken armpit, Apple had yet to discover the GUI, and almost everyone was working with a command line interface. It was also a simpler time. It wasn’t too hard for a well-placed, lone programmer to whip up some fancy app and pass it on – via diskettes, perhaps, with a healthy dose of door-to-door spit – and land himself a nice contract at some new-fangled, pre-bubble Valley startup. And that was, for a few years, enough to live by.

But then time passed. The little software companies consolidated, grew bigger, and swallowed up all the lone hobby programmers. It was harder to find individuals writing software and passing around diskette drives – it was much easier, in fact, to buy software from the big companies, with their cubicles and identical workstations and well-oiled distribution channels. So when the Internet came along, and the individual hobby programmers came out of the woodwork to begin selling their software, just like old times, they found themselves going up against huge, established companies – giants like Microsoft and Adobe and Macromedia, with their advertising budgets and their PR people and their customer support floors, all of which – if the prospective hobby programmer stopped long enough to swallow – amounted to overwhelming, mind-boggling competition. You wouldn’t have liked the odds if you were an outside spectator when that happened, and I know that had I been a hobbyist, I would have thought twice before leaving my desk job to write code for myself.

But then something interesting happened. The hobby programmers didn’t die out. The small software companies – startups in the aftermath of the dotcom bubble – took to the Internet like so many ducks to water. They launched little websites, bought modest amounts of office space, and began competing with the corporations. And they did well.

Software and Books

It doesn’t take a genius, really, to see the parallels between the scenario I just described and what we’re trying to do here, with publishing our stories independently, and on the Interent. The small-time software writer had to compete against well-established,  financially richer competitors, in a market that didn’t make any disctinctions between geographical boundaries. Also, software and books are similar products, particularly in the context of the Internet – both are propietary, both suffer from piracy, both come from companies with a long history in marketing and distribution know-how. And so, assuming that the giants of both fields are going to start-off with an advantage, how do small content producers compete, survive, and eventually get ahead?

Before we go into specifics, let’s talk about the current bevy of independent software developers. I’m not sure what you call them – but for some time now I’ve been noticing these little sites, some of them powered by a 1 man team – selling software, primarily for the Mac. I suppose you can consider them boutique shops. Tuck away into little corners, with a bonsai next to the cash register and the velvet curtains; with only one or two kinds of product sitting on the shelves. They’re small, very focused, and they usually have cool, clever names like Panic or 2d boy or Potion Factory.

They’re also usually well designed. I don’t know if there’s a correlation between their aesthetics and their popularity, but most of the small software companies I’ve seen sell their software in very well-packaged, beautifully constructed sites. In a way, it makes sense – their main (and possibly only) selling point is the web, and it’s within their best interests to make sure you come away with a favourable first impression. 

The second thing you’ll notice about these little software producers is the kind of products they sell. They’re useful, and they come with snazzy icons, but you’ll realize that not many challenge the bigwigs in their own fields. Nobody has challenged Word, the same way nobody has really challenged Photoshop. They’re smart, in this aspect – beat the big companies in the little niche areas they don’t care about … business isn’t a zero sum game, after all. Ironically enough, there are app makers out there who are putting out e-books in the iPhone and the iPod Touch – for instance, see: Benjamin Button and the Classics App.

But I think the most surprising thing about these little software producers are that some of them are really, really successful. I think the one thing we can all take away from this is the inherent flexibility of the Internet’s marketplace. As long as your distribution channel is online, and you’re putting out reasonably good stuff, then you’re certain to enjoy the benefits of the Long Tail – people will find you, people will pay you attention, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll make enough to buy a whole new HQ of your own.

The Ecologist Model Of Seeing The Future

To answer the question of why these little software companies matter to us, I turn to notable writer and speaker Steven Berlin Johnson, who gave a talk recently about the future of news (and newspapers) at South By Southwest. In it, he presented an idea that I now find myself constantly going to bed with. He says, and I quote:

… I think it’s much more instructive to anticipate the future of investigative journalism by looking at the past of technology journalism. When ecologists go into the field to research natural ecosystems, they seek out the old-growth forests, the places where nature has had the longest amount of time to evolve and diversify and interconnect. They don’t study the Brazilian rain forest by looking at a field that was clear cut two years ago.

That’s why the ecosystem of technology news is so crucial. It is the old-growth forest of the web. It is the sub-genre of news that has had the longest time to evolve. The Web doesn’t have some kind intrinsic aptitude for covering technology better than other fields. It just has an intrinsic tendency to cover technology first, because the first people that used the web were far more interested in technology than they were in, say, school board meetings or the NFL. But that has changed, and is continuing to change.

Now let’s be clear on the distinctions, shall we? Johnson was talking about journalism – something completely different from book publishing – and he was looking through a prism of the current Tech sector. But if we append that idea, and we bend it to fit the current shift in book publishing, I think we’ll find it to be a first indicator of how a mature digital publishing industry would look like. On one hand you can have beautiful, standalone sites by independent writers, and on the other you have collective, publisher-managed projects, like the Tor supersite and Authonomy. 

In the end what I’m trying to say is that it’ll do for us to sometimes think like a small software producer. Face it: they’re making a name for themselves, by leveraging the Internet’s (small) economies of scale, by targeting areas the bigwigs don’t care for, and by presenting themselves in very careful, very beautiful packages. If they can establish themselves in an industry that is mostly known for their behemoths, and if we take this to be an indicator of how a mature digital book-future would look like, then I suppose that we can, too.

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Category: Publishing · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    I found this a really interesting viewpoint, primarily because I’m a one-man show, working on various projects. I’d like to think that I’ll still be writing ten months from now, ten years from now, and we’ll see if science lets me keep going ten decades from now.

    However, I don’t know if the Long Tail and I actually will ever see my stuff become financially self-sufficient. While Webcomics that make money seem to thrive on the interlinks between visual medium’s easy entrance/audience/tshirt sales/advertising to generate income, text-based stories are a harder go.

    So far as I know, Alexandra Erin is the only “independent” out there making actual money, and recent blog posts indicate she’s worried about that continuing. She lasted a year, so far. And she’s been more inventive than most in promoting herself, and creating merchandise — and I get the sense her largest income isn’t from that or advertising, but from donations.

    The Long Tail certainly applies in her case: she blends Dungeons and Dragons/Lord of the Rings/ Harry Potter fantasy tropes with nerd/gamer/television stuff, sex, soap opera and college life over on Tales of MU. While she has other stories, none of them are as popular (though I would argue many of them are better written). She has her niche.

    I think MeiLin Miranda is doing okay, but I don’t think she’s quite as popular. And she’s feeding into the fantasy and sex crowd as well. I don’t know if they make money because of the sex or because they find a strong niche and feed to their audiences, or what.

    I know “No Man an Island” was written with a specific niche in mind, namely, me. I’m very pleased that some other people read it, but it’s unlikely to be a raging success (literature, philosophy and Christian mythology, with an examination of the intersection between imagination and reality, cultural narratives and individual identity — I don’t think that’s very sexy, even with cool fight scenes and battles).

    “The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin” is more accessible, I think, with a more personable protagonist, more humour, and soft sci-fi undertones — but, while interest is growing, it’s slow-going.

    I really took your comment on small, beautiful websites to heart. One of the things I like about the Drupal I’m using via the digitalnovelists.com connection is that I don’t have to do a lot of set up work to get chapters up — whereas, with WordPress I had to do my own links and Table of Contents. I like that I have a one stop site, with a unifying set-up and individual small banners for my stories.

    But there are days where I miss the unique image and clarity of the No Man an Island original website. Lately, I’m debating if I should just go back to that, screw the advertising money (which is pennies a day, because of the slow-going popularity thing) and just design something that looks awesome on WordPress, even if it is more work.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    Oh yeah, one other thing: I’m also worried about the fact that online writers seem to cling to certain niches. Part of the attraction for me to the Internet and free posting was that you could write about ANYTHING and no one could stop you. So why are so many writing about the same old stuff?

    Over on WFG, there are 21 stories about vampires, that’s almost ten percent of the entire catalogue. There’s over 30 about magic, and 103 fantasy stories. I’d like to think they’re all original re-envisionings of these classic themes, but how many actually are? What would make them worth someone’s time more than the current bestseller list, other than the fact that they’re free online?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    The sad thing here is that I agree with you, Gavin. I’ve been meaning to revisit the 1000 true fans theory, and how it hasn’t played out very well in today’s economy. I remember last year that Walt Crawford, who wries a library journal on new/old media and publishing, criticized my views on 1000 true fans. He challenged me to figure out a way around what he saw as irrevocable problems with the theory. I’m still trying to work that one out, and you bet’cha you’ll hear from me on the subject in the very near future.

    I think that also explains why I left out all mention of the financial element in this post. It’s true that software writers have a set, proven business model, and in that sense they’re better off than we are. But I’m inclined to think that they’ve been here longer than we have, so it only makes sense for them to have figured out how to thrive in an online marketplace.

    On your Drupal site vs your WordPress site: I’m actually reading NMaI from your old WordPress blog. It’s got better typography and cleaner design, but more importantly, it loads faster on my end (though that’s due to my network, and not because of your server). But there’re several things I must point out – that first of all, I dislike the little snap previews that pop up whenever you hover over each link, and also, if you’re serious about designing something good for NMaI, you’ll probably have to purchase their premium features – in this case, the ability to edit your style sheets. But then again it isn’t too bad – just $15 a year.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Oh, and for your second comment: I think that’ll change, don’t you worry. When the Internet first started up almost everything was about technology and code and geeky stuff, and it was only later when the web gained traction with more people that we saw a growth of other interest groups. Now it isn’t too hard to google up a community of cat lovers in Groups.

    The other writers will come. Soon. Well, that’s what I think, at least – if they don’t, then I suppose we can dragging fellow writers in by force. ;-)

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    I need to look, but I think I can disable the snap previews myself. I forgot all about those, thanks!

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    Yep, got it — no more Snap!

    As for your other comments — yes, I suppose it will just take time. I hope.

    And, it just goes to show how little I understand the technical aspects of blogs (I think I’ve done okay learning from scratch, but man…) that I don’t know what you mean by “style sheets” or why they would improve the old NMAI website. I think it’s a lot better than anything I can do on Drupal, so far as I can figure out, despite Drupal’s conveniences.

  • http://www.takingoff.org Nat JM

    Great article Eli and interesting discussion with Gavin. BTW, Gavin, I would totally go back to a WordPress design if I were you, I’m not a huge fan of Dupral, their design looks a bit generic.

    I am myself skeptical regarding the link between the software industry and the fiction publishing industry, though I agree that the parallels are quite strong for the non-fiction publishing industry.

    Softwares should answer needs and therefore, if a software designer spots a current need, by keeping themselves active online and spotting new trends, they will be able to get in before the big companies, which have internal hierarchies which slow everything down and prevent them from reacting quickly to the trends they are observing. The best softwares are developped through a constant dialogue between the programmers and the users, and the internet is the obvious place for this. This doesn’t apply to fiction, hence why I think the parallels between the two aren’t very strong.

    On a plus note, I agree with you that other types of writers will be coming, slowly but surely, to the internet. I myself don’t read sci-fi or fantasy (my favourite author is Paul Auster, closely followed by Sarah Waters). It’s only been during the last 6 months that I have considered the internet as a publishing outlet. I was an early adopter of the internet, as a musician, but never considered it as an outlet for my fiction writing until recently. So in 2 or 3 years, I think the offerings will be much more varied in terms of fiction writing.

  • http://webfictionguide.com Chris Poirier

    Hey Gavin,

    Linking the chapters together appropriately in WordPress is as simple as putting all of the posts in one category and changing the template to show next/previous links only within the current category. Swapping them so the “next” link is on the right and the “previous” link on the left is just a matter of swapping the order of those two function calls, in most cases. In both cases, you would need access to edit the “single.php” template. Generating a table of contents is similarly easy, though a bit more computationally expensive.

    What you’ll find in the stylesheets are the control for typography — font size, line height, bolding, etc. — and general layout. If you are already happy with what you’ve got, then you don’t necessary need to change them.

    Email me if you need help.

    Chris.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    Thanks Chris!

    It’s a bit of a moot point when it comes to No Man an Island, because that wordpress version has been finished for a long time — I did everything by hand, creating next/previous links and a Table of Contents myself. Nice to know a year later that I could have found an easier way. ;)

    However, now that I know, it makes it that much easier for me to go back to WordPress, if I finally make that decision. Thanks for that freedom!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Nat: The lessons we can take from small software producers isn’t the content – it’s the way they compete with bigger competitors. We can’t emulate the way they write and distribute software (specific needs, and so on) but what we can do is to follow their strategies for getting the word out on their software, as well as their presentation and their web savvy.

    @Gavin, Chris: WordPress.com only allows style sheet editing. I don’t think you can directly edit the .php files, so it is slightly more limited than a custom WordPress installation.

  • http://webfictionguide.com Chris Poirier

    Maybe it’s time I do something about that — start a WordPress-based fiction hosting service. I’ll give it some thought.

  • http://www.takingoff.org Nat JM

    @ Eli: point taken, and I do hope you are right ;-)

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    Chris: I’ve thought about doing that myself…

    Gavin: I can answer WordPress questions too if you have them.

    About the web fiction business model: I’m inclined to look at the webcomic model, myself. They didn’t start out making money. It happened over the course of a few years. I think that, given time, web fiction can too.

  • http://poorbob.blogspot.com Bob Collins

    I’m a relatively new reader here, and I’m not sure if the subject has been touched on in the way I am thinking about it, but something that strikes me as interesting is how similar most web fiction is to print fiction. I don’t just mean subject matter. I’m thinking more along the lines of pacing, detailing, etc…

    The printing press allowed writers to flesh out everything, from description to character to plot — any facet of a long story which we refer to as a novel can be expanded; I mean, look at War and Peace, it never would have been written without the printing press. You could argue that the technology of a printing press demanded that the novel be invented. You could also argue that you could write even longer stories with the Internet. But the act of sitting down with a book invites that type of reading which is extended and leisurely. I don’t think the Internet invites the reader in the same way. Internet and hand-held devices like the iPhone sort of demand — in my mind at least — a different pacing, a different way of writing narrative, especially a long story. Dickens re-wrote his serialized novels when they were to appear in one volume, which seems to me that he was conscious of the way different publishing mediums change the way a reader reads. Oddly enough, I’ve been thinking something designed like the narrative poetry/romances that were common before the printing press might be a good fit for the new technology. Compression, not expansion of the narrative (which, in my mind at least, is different than just shortening or abridging a story). It’s just an idea I have had, and one I might be compelled to experiment with.

    I tried to do a little bit of that on my blog. Trying to keep the posts small, even though I originally wrote the story a couple years ago with the intention of publishing it on paper.

    I am convinced Internet fiction/narratives must be written in a fundamentally different way from book-published fiction before the breakthrough will occur.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    Chris and Jim: thanks for the offers, I’ll see what comes of my current thoughts.

    Bob:

    A few online authors are approaching online fiction the way Dickens did his serials. Notably, Alexandra Erin, her Tales of MU is an ongoing soap opera, instead of a structured novel. Her series Tribe has a set word limit for every short installment, I think 365 words or something like that.

    I’m writing “The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin” more like an old time serial movie — like when Flash Gordon would have a cliffhanger and next week you’d tune in for the next installment. If I ever collect it for a Lulu print edition, I will certainly have to edit the shorter chapters into a longer format.

    I think short installments that get the audience to come back for the next chapter are best for online fiction, and different forms of that will become the norm. Reading an actual “book” is a different experience, and sitting that long in front of a computer isn’t the same.

  • http://poorbob.blogspot.com Bob Collins

    Gavin:

    I agree. I’ve recently looked at the sites you’ve mentioned and the cliffhanger-installment form obviously has a lot to be said for it in the online world. Maybe it was my failing in the previous post, but what I am actually thinking about goes further than keeping posts short. Short posts is one part of it — content obviously is the most important part — but the other part I am thinking about is formal in the the way new technology changes the way narratives are written. I’m thinking about a different way of structuring prose. Maybe it won’t even be prose anymore. Maybe it will be more like verse, but not quite verse. The way the Aeneid of Virgil or The Odyssey are verse, but still narrative. Maybe digital “novels” are not novels and writing them as such is a mixing of oil and water. Maybe digital narratives are something else, something that has not been defined, created or invented yet. That’s what I’m trying to get at. Maybe digital narratives have nothing to do with novels at all; maybe we are barking up the wrong tree when we make that comparison. Because, it seems to me that writing traditionally structured prose, prose that has developed out of a printing press and bound paper technology, may be part of the reason Internet published fiction has a problem making a name for itself. I think that viewing the Internet as analogous to prior forms of serial publication, such as magazines and newspapers, borders on a false analogy. Newspapers, magazines, and books have far more in common with each other and the way they are read than books, computer screen, and smart phones do.

    Does that make any sense? Am I explaining my viewpoint any clearer this time?

    Just a thought: It is interesting that epic poetry, verse narratives, romances, and novels can be published in book form and suffer very little in the way that we read them, but they don’t seem to travel to the Internet very well.

  • http://www.takingoff.org Nat JM

    @Bob – I have been having such thoughts myself (you can read my musings about this at http://www.takingoff.org/2009/03/18/the-reading-experience-online/ ), but I am quite far from reaching a satisfying conclusion on this lol

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    I’m going to have to agree and disagree with Bob (I’m idiosyncratic that way).

    First, I agree. Online fiction is an emergent art form, a phrase I keep repeating (see my guest articles here on Novelr). That means it hasn’t reached its potential, nor caught on with the public at large. Ask “the man on the street” about books, and he knows what you’re talking about. Not so with online fiction. We don’t even have consensus on the name. Should it be “blook”? “Online fiction,” “web novel,” “web serial,” or something else entirely?

    It is an undefined quantity. And, until more people are writing online, more people are reading online, and more experiments to cause both those things take place, you’re right, it’s not going to take off/catch on/become famous.

    Because you’re write, long texts like epics, narratives and novels, don’t travel well to the Internet.

    But here’s where I start disagreeing: there’s a reason for that, and the reason is the link between expectations, brain function, and format. It’s not the nature of prose text that’s the problem.

    Studies and behaviour prove people will read online. People read the news, check the weather, catch up on sports, read gossip blogs, write and read diaristic blogs, check in with webcomics, and play text-based games and check emails. The majority of the Internet requires some level of literacy.

    However, studies also show that the way the brain is used when surfing the Net is different than the way the brain functions when reading a book. Novels provoke parts of the mind that lead to concentration, long term thinking, logical processes and command function: the ability to step back from events, process them despite emotion, and make long term plans.

    Internet minds develop multi-tasking skills, short term memory, and visual acuity. They seek active, not passive, engagement, a chance to be involved and have a multimedia experience. They are short-term reactive, and don’t use the same amount of command-function.

    So, a well-rounded human needs both, if you ask me. So how can a book be translated to the internet successfully, if the brain functions differently?

    Change the format. This is why the current most successful internet fiction is in the serial format, so that the text is in small, digestible chunks that satisfy the fast pace of internet surfing minds. That balance is different for each person, and very experimental, but it’s evolving. It’s especially different for generations: teenagers and twenty-somethings like reading online far more than their parents.

    What helps is visually appealing layouts, the point Eli has been making lately, so I won’t repeat it. I think the other thing that will be incorporated for some fiction is multimedia: art, podcasts, music, video, flash media. The faster technology develops, the faster we’ll evolve.

    But traditional books are unlikely to be replaced until there’s a electronic parallel that’s as comfortable to take to bed ;). I picture something similar to the thin tablets on Star Trek, but they’ll have to flip pages instead of scrolling down — that’s the principle problem, I think, for most people. They aren’t turning pages, they’re reading continually downwards. Again, expectation.

    But I highly doubt that narrative verse will make its return. It served its time and place in the distant past because verse made memorization more possible for travelling bards. It achieved its pinnacle with Shakespeare’s day, and the dramatic verse of plays. No one writes like that anymore, but prose is everywhere. The printing press can be thanked for that — anything could be written down, instead of memorized, so beat/rhyming/rhythm became less important.

    Evidence of this can be seen in modern poetry, which has virtually abandoned the concept. And verse and poetry are not as popular as prose.

  • http://poorbob.blogspot.com Bob Collins

    Gavin:

    There are a lot of points you made, and some good ones. There’s a lot to think about, but if I am reading your post correctly, the disagreement in the way you and I see the online narrative question comes between FORMAT, which you are endorsing, and actual FORM, which is what I am thinking about, and, if my understanding of art history is good (which it is, especially the visual arts), tends to be a more serious business.

    Since you (in general) are writing fiction for a different medium — the Internet and smart phones or dedicated readers — the writing itself should change in some way based on intended publication method. You are writing fiction and/or narratives for a different medium, right? Or are you writing a NOVEL and re-formatting it for online (serial) publication? That’s the gist of it. When people write a novel, they by default think of book publication. I’m not talking about writing a novel at all. I’m talking about perhaps inventing something new, some new form that can only be conceived of with the new technology, a form that a generation of people will see as theirs as opposed to the previous generations’ veneration for books (which I prefer anyway). (That doesn’t mean the new narratives might not travel to book format, as book format seems pretty forgiving and in many ways superior.) I think what I am trying to get at, and perhaps failing to explain adequately, goes beyond FORMAT — ie serialization and short post length — which is the word you have been choosing. I think it goes into a question of FORM itself, which is a different monster. Hence, my argument for the possible re-conception of prose. This might be something as simple as compression; maybe not.

    It seems to me similar to the way orchestral music was in part developed with a certain class of instruments, while rock and roll, due to a different set of instruments (being one of the influencing factors) created a different kind of music. Can you imagine Hendrix on a totally un-electric guitar, or cello?

    (By the way, I never advocated a return to straight verse; I only meant to suggest that maybe there is something to learn from verse, especially in terms of pacing since people tend to read online differently than they do with books, as you mentioned. So why provide a bookish reading experience if the technology demands something different?)

    You mention how a book translates or travels or doesn’t travel to the Internet? What I am saying has nothing to do with a book, but a narrative of length conceived, executed and written for the Internet and emergent technology.

    I think that is the gist of our disagreement. Am I misreading your post?

    RANDOM THOUGHTS:

    Dedicated reader, why should it mimic a book? If you want to flip pages just buy a book.

    Why do we assume a reader must scroll DOWN? Scrolling ACROSS implies a story unfolding through time, a timeline, and when you think about it, when you read a book you are traveling a timeline by turning pages.

    If we’re stuck on a page-format conception, why not create a series of equal-sized rectangles on your website scroll them left to right and fit your prose into them instead of just uploading blog posts? Does anyone know of anything other than webcomics that have tried this?

    Thanks for the back and forth, Gavin. Your comments and fiction have provided me with some ideas.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    Not to worry, Bob, I like being contrary in order to keep an interesting dialogue going, both for my own edification and that of others. I think the more we talk about this, the more the medium will evolve.

    The main point I was trying to make, and the reason I somewhat disagreed, is that I saw what you were saying about FORM and pointed out that the FORM of Internet text actually affects the brain differently than the FORM of paper prose. My argument is that by simply creating better FORMAT we can invade the Internet with the book FORM and improve minds for the better.

    Because the Internet is largely designed for instant gratification, while books require delayed gratification and deeper thought processes. What is required of internet fiction is to bridge those two worlds — provide instant gratification for readers, while building story worlds and memes that stay in their minds, get them coming back for more, and build by accumulation into something larger.

    One of the most interesting things about literacy is that, the more you do it, the more the brain is able to, and wants to. So hook them with the FORMAT that looks like their FORM, and trick them into the FORM that we all know and love. Because it’s still valid, reflects a large part of how people think, and in fact mimics thought process to a large degree.

    Because the only way FORM changes is if thinking itself changes. And do you want a FORM of thought process that mimics the current trend in electronic prose, towards C U L8R, lol, MOAR of the same? I think the multi-tasking, engagement of the Internet generation is valuable, but it becomes more so if it’s coupled with long term, command function thinking — and that requires the FORM of printed prose.

    FORM is a very serious business, moreso than just format. But art has been lucky in the past 150 or so years, that it’s had breakthroughs from artists who challenged the classical forms. Picasso, Pollack, Dali, Monet, all looked at the world in a different way than others, and found a way to express it, and then others learned from their breakthroughs. The visual FORM is more flexible and evolves faster as a result.

    However, the written word takes longer to change. We no longer read hieroglyphics or scrolls, we read books, but have yet to evolve a new form, because that has been the dominant and monopolistic form of our education and culture. Newspapers, textbooks and novels all utilize it, and it forms the way we think. To change the FORM of text would require a new way of thinking, and then emulators to follow whoever had the breakthrough.

    However, James Joyce’s style has yet to catch on. Experiments by Faulkner or Goulding were simply experiments. The FORM itself resists further change because it functions so well.

    It is highly possible that the current technological changes of our culture and the Internet will lead to a change in the way we write. But I prefer the old method to the current new trends of text-speak or internet babble.

    But the art form itself is emergent, and will remain so because the technology itself is still changing — I was just reading today that we are less than 5 years away from contact lenses that can display computer images on the eye, so that we can read the news, play video games, etc. while walking around in our day to day lives. When that happens, what else will change about writing?

    I think we’re living in a time of experimentation, that will hopefully push the medium in new and interesting directions, as different as Jackson Pollack and Salvador Dali are from Leonardo DaVinci. But people still love DaVinci — so I hope that our many experiments in multi-media and style don’t evolve into one strict FORM, but rather the freedom for all of us to create and make new literary art.

    To answer some of your questions: I wrote my first novel, No Man an Island, for traditional publication. About three quarters of the way through I realized that it was unlikely to get published, because it had an experimental approach — so I brought it onto the Internet, where some of it needed to be re-FORMATted and changed significantly because of the medium and because of interactions with readers. I think it’s original website, http://www.nomananisland.wordpress.com, has better formatting than its current home on my other site, part of what I was discussing with Eli and Chris. I also think that some of it might hint at the FORMs to come, but I’m not sure.

    My current project, The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin, is less innovative for subject matter, but attempts a more serial format specifically for an Internet audience. I am constantly thinking of how to improve it for its audience, because it does require different structuring than standard book publishing.

    So, I agree, things are changing in regards to FORM and FORMAT both, and some mix of the two might be what makes online fiction catch on. But I think a lot of the traditional FORM is still vital and necessary, and needs to be incorporated in that vision, despite the butchery that happens in text messages. I think this will happen eventually regardless of the fact that people currently choose books over computers, because paper is environmentally irresponsible and unsustainable.

    Thanks, this is thought provoking and fun for me too.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Gavin, Bob:

    I’m sorry for not taking part in this discussion earlier, I didn’t have enough time to frame my responses in a coherent manner.

    But generally, Bob, you’re not the only one who thinks like that. James Smythe, who did his PhD thesis two years ago on blog fiction, came to the exact same conclusion: that too many people assume you can port the book directly from the page to the website, and expect readers to find and enjoy them. Not true, for all the reasons you’ve pointed out.

    Secondly, a lot of effort has been put into figuring out the best way to present fiction online, or even (and Gavin would like this, I’d bet) how to mesh multimedia and writing together. The Internet is good for many things, and writing is good for many things … so the reasoning goes: what happens if we mix this element of the Internet with that (the forms of writing).

    Some experiments you might be interested in:

    The 21 Steps – what happens when you mix the tactile visuals of Google Maps with the prose of an action novel?

    Dreaming Methods – what happens when you mix multimedia (in this case Flash games, music, movies and pictures) with prose? Or with poetry?

    Gamer Theory – what happens when you mix prose with a highly compressed flash-based presentation format?

    The Golden Notebook – what happens if you mix commentary with one of the postmodern world’s greatest novels?

    I hope you find these examples inspiring.

  • http://poorbob.blogspot.com Bob Collins

    Eli:

    I wasn’t aware of Smythe or his conclusions. I came up with that idea in about four hours of thought and three dozen aborted attempts at reading blog fiction. But, I’ll tell you what, knowing I came up with the same conclusions as a doctor makes this functionally illiterate (at the time I dropped out of high school) former ward of The Cleveland Public School system tingle with joy.

  • http://poorbob.blogspot.com Bob Collins

    By the way, the above is tongue-in-cheek. And thanks for the sites, Eli. I’ll definitely check them out.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    As a direct result of my comment on Eli’s next post, his “month long absence” story — I’ve revised some of my thoughts on this topic somewhat.

    For one: those sites that Eli linked us to are examples of the “literary art of the future” I’m thinking will exist. They are different in format and form from traditional printed books, and create new kinds of experiences, while still linking to the old tradition.

    But I realized something in the course of commenting on Eli’s next post: books offer something that the Internet can’t. Serial posts and fancy formats are all well and good, in that they suit the rapid pace of the Web and modern life. Multi-media, interactive sites are creative and create a more sensory experience. Active engagement is great.

    But a book is designed as the first virtual reality. It’s an immersive experience. Ideally, a reader gets drawn into the world the author created, so totally that they hopefully read the entire novel in one sitting. That’s highly unlikely on the Internet, given standard technology. Not impossible, but harder.

    However, they aren’t just passively reading. Not only are they immersed in the fictional world, they are actively participating in CREATING it. The author might write the words, but the reader has to use their imagination. Words on the page suddenly become buildings, countries, people. Dialogue transforms into familiar voices, with cadence and tone.

    Short posts are less immersive, and while the same experience might still take place, I think it might be harder to get there and stay there. I think eventually there will be technology (a superior Kindle maybe?) that allows us to curl up with an electronic book for hours on end without distraction, but we’re not quite there yet.

    So, while I’m excited about online literary art that changes the way we look and think about text, I’m still passionately in love with the old way, too. I don’t want to lose it.

  • http://www.pampelmoose.com Dave.allen@pampelmoose.com

    Another speaker at SXSWi was Clay Shirky. On a panel about book publishing and the end thereof he reminded the audience that – “the internet is the largest group of people who care about reading and writing ever assembled in history…”

    I recently posted about the end of the music album as the organizing principle which I believe has relevance to this post.

    http://www.pampelmoose.com/mspeaks/2009/04/the-end-of-the-music-album-as-the-organizing-principle

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