The Momentum Blog
Posted November 11, 2013 by Mark
Former Momentum-ite Anne Treasure recently wrote this excellent article about audiobooks. It makes a lot of sense, we are more and more tied to our devices, and audiobooks are an easy way to get through that list of titles that you may have always intended to read but never had the time to face.
My problem is that I am also addicted to podcasts. Every week I have to find 20+ hours to listen to all of them. Ok, maybe I don’t *have* to do it, but I like to. It’s important that I hear what the Slate Culture Gabfest and the Pop Culture Happy Hour thought of the Breaking Bad finale. How can I face the week unless I hear the /Filmcast people spoiling Thor 2? I can’t stay relevant without finding out what I’m meant to think about Melissa Joan Hart via Bring a Plate. Not to mention the hours of entertainment I get from Welcome to Nightvale, The Bugle, The Moth, Selected Shorts and Risk, among many, many others (including the greatest of all podcasts, Podmentum).
Add an audiobook on top of all this, and I’d wind up spending the entire week with my headphones on. I like to consume my books in silence. If my phone is on my person or near me, I’m tempted to use it. I need to update social media, take a photo, read a message. Any one of these distractions can rip me away from the world I’m trying to immerse myself in. This is not such a big deal with a podcast, but with a book, where the author is trying to use each word to build a world or convey a character or idea, it can be terrible.
However, performance can be hugely important in an audiobook. David Sedaris reading his own stories, for example, brings a quality to them that you miss by reading them in silence. Similar with the recent Alan Partridge autobiography, or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography (apparently he only reads the first and last chapters, but still).
So I do have audiobooks on my phone, and they are always in conflict with my podcasts. I listen to a chunk of an audiobook and then open Downcast, only to wind up downcast myself when I see the podcasts that have stacked up (see what I did there), many of which I will ‘mark as played’ even though I haven’t listened to them.
AUDIOBOOKS ARE MAKING ME A LIAR
I try to consume my audio content in bite-sized chunks. A few minutes on my walk to the coffee shop, ten minutes while I do the dishes, a good chunk at the supermarket (I can’t make decisions easily – why are there so many types of apples these days). And then people want to talk to me. I’m cooking dinner and turn around to see my girlfriend standing behind me, one eyebrow raised, hand on hip, waiting for an answer to a question she’s asked. What to do? Take out the headphones and miss a moment, or take out the phone, pause, and then remove headphones? I should ask Dan Savage or Judge John Hodgman what the answer to that one is.
AUDIO CONTENT IS MAKING ME A BAD PARTNER
The point is that I’ve restricted my audiobook reading to titles where the performance aspect makes it truly unmissable. The rest of the time I still like to engage with the printed text (either on the page or on my Kindle), and spend my audio hours with podcasts.
Tagged: audiobooks, content, podcasts, reading, technology
Posted October 18, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
There’s a section within William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition where the protagonist is on her computer, sifting through posts on a message board. It runs as follows:
She automatically clicks Reload, and his response is already there:
Where are you? nt.
London. Working. nt.
And all of this is hugely comforting. Psychological prophylaxis, evidently.
The phone rings, beside the Cube, mirror-world rings she finds unnerving at the best of times. She hesitates, then answers.
There are a countless number of these throughout the book, where the character of Cayce juggles multiple strands of communication, flipping instantly from a text-based conversation on the internet to one on a phone. What I found fascinating as I read it was how rare it is to see someone effortlessly weaving in multiple strands of communication without drawing too much attention to it.
There are anachronisms throughout Pattern Recognition, which is to be expected, given that it was written in 2003. Given that so much of the plot is based around information and communication carried across the internet, and that the internet of 2002/3 is a vastly different landscape to the internet of 2013, it makes it quite fun to read the now-antiquated shorthand that dotted the forums ten years ago, the searching for crucial plot points in a web browser’s history, and the fact that all the characters in the book are obsessed with discovering the source of anonymous video clips on the internet. It’s almost quaint.
But I guess that’s the point now. Technology is so pervasive these days, and so ingrained into our daily routines and communications that it’s logical to include it in such a normal, effortless way as Gibson does. The problem is that is changes so readily that even a story written two years ago instead of ten will quickly appear outdated in how it references our use of technology.
Gone are the days where anything technology-related in the plot is farmed out to the token hacker character (otherwise the velociraptors will eat us) or that a character’s affinity for technology becomes the driving force for the plot (we can’t always rely on Sandra Bullock to save us from the internet).
Anyone uses technology these days. Everyone. It’s practically banal. So do we include phones and tablets and wifi and whatever else we invent tomorrow in our stories?
It’s not such a problem if the genre demands it. But what if it’s a story where technology is not necessarily inherent to the traditions of its genre? Can you make an iPhone romantic?
Use of contemporary technology can make a story relevant and effective for its immediate audience. Douglas Coupland’s early novels Generation X, Shampoo Planet and Microserfs all went a long way towards defining a large section of early 1990s culture, particularly in the proliferation, usage and inundation of rapidly developing technology.
And there’s the benefit – I think – for featuring technology in stories: it makes them immediate.
But the exponentially evolving path of technology these days has meant that the window of that immediacy grows ever shorter. Coupland’s more recent novels have failed to strike as much of a relevance to a 21st century audience as they did to a late-20th century audience. Or maybe they did, but they then quickly became out of date.
In the 1999 film The Insider, Al Pacino’s character ropes Russell Crowe’s whistleblower into an interview through a series of unanswered phone calls, fax machine notes and answering machine messages. It’s ridiculously dramatic in the steps their protracted conversation negotiate. It’s also ridiculously ‘90s.
Technology quickly becomes laughable as it becomes obsolete. There is the potential a story can live or die by this, in the sense that unintentionally jarring and comical references occur out of nowhere.
So do we avoid technology, if it’s not needed? That seems almost odder, given how infected we are with it these days. How much we do seem to need it.
Maybe it’s just that awkward middle ground, the time that occurs between a book being shockingly relevant and now, and it becoming quaint and nostalgic. Maybe that’s it. If we’re daring enough to throw in iPhones and Twitter and Facebook and whatever else we’ll use to generate and communicate information in the future, if we risk a brief period of obsolescence, we can eventually reach that time when a reader gets to look back fondly at the way things were and see with fresh eyes how far we’ve come, just like in Pattern Recognition.Tagged: communication, digital, genre, technology, William Gibson, writing
Posted November 21, 2012 by Joel
It’s often said that writers write for themselves. This might be true, but as a publisher it’s my task to be the reader’s advocate. The first question I try to ask when considering a new project is to consider the audience: “who wants to read this stuff?”
In the digital realm, particularly at the experimental, pointy end of digital, this question of audience is, I think, rarely considered as a first step. The excitement of shiny gadgets and new software overwhelms our puny publishing minds. So instead, the first question is often – “what can it do?” and the second question is “what else can it do?”
The answer to that question is – “pretty much anything”. There are bog standard ebooks, of course, but it goes much further than that. There are transmedia stories, geo-located stories, multimedia enhanced stories and fully interactive pseudo-gaming experiences. We can serialise books, we can release short stories and we can make apps and games.
In other words “What can it do?” is an exciting question and it’s full of potential rather than limitations. But it’s my contention that when it comes to the business of storytelling – whether you’re trying to entertain, educate or inform people – it’s not a very good question. To put it indelicately, there’s a very short distance between asking the question “what can it do?” and disappearing up your own arse.
My argument is basically this: the colourful and exciting part of digital publishing innovation is – for the most part – not something that readers actually want. Pushing the boundaries of what a book is – whether it’s by blurring the lines between different kinds of media or questioning the linear nature of traditional narrative – is not something that people are looking to book publishers to provide. Too much of what we call innovation is basically turning our content into a showroom for device manufacturers – and we do it to the detriment of more important and more useful innovation at the back end of the publishing business.
This is not to say that every example of a book app or interactive book-like experience is bad. Consider The Waste Land or The Sonnets that have been released by Faber & Faber. Both of these apps successfully meld critical annotations, video, audio and multiple text versions into a unified whole without distracting from the fundamental purpose of the text. It’s interesting that poetry, perhaps because it’s so dense, seems to lend itself quite naturally to this kind of enhancement. There’s a lot to unpack in poetry. Poetry itself isn’t necessarily linear and it’s often intended to be performed rather than read so it seems the marriage of technology and literature is a happy one in this instance.
However you might not want the pace of your Lee Child novel interrupted by a quick video of the author reading a couple of paragraphs or Tom Cruise running about in the trailer for the new movie. That would probably somewhat lift you out of the story. And yet publishers return – again and again – to cheap gimmicks and unnecessary tricks to try to enhance what doesn’t need to be enhanced.
The real experiments that will actually help publishers make books that people actually want to read – for a price they want to read them for – are distinctly lacking in sex appeal. They aren’t books – they’re improvements to things like workflow, content management systems, metadata optimization, distribution efficiency and rights management.
For example, a digital-only, format independent workflow drastically improves the speed and quality of ebooks and other digital content production.
Metadata – the information about a book like price, category, the book blurb and author information – is essential to making a book discoverable in an online retail environment. There is now solid evidence that improving the accuracy of metadata increases sales for books.
Distributing our content in a global market is a new challenge that needs some creative thinking and a lot of resources to get right. We need to get better at working with our overseas colleagues to make sure our content is available simultaneously or as quickly as possible.
I won’t go on about rights management too much as it’s a bit of a bug bear for me, to the point that Momentum has now removed these controls from our books. Suffice it to say that digital rights management is bad for readers in the same way that awkward user interface design in book apps are bad for readers. It interferes with the purchasing and reading experience in a non-intuitive way.
These are the kinds of invisible improvements to a modern publishing business that have helped Amazon to become the biggest single bookstore in the world – and allowed them to single-handedly take on publishers at their own game.
More than a few publishers are steadfastly refusing to make some of these changes. Among those that are making deep systematic changes – and there are plenty – many are moving so slowly that they are risking losing the race.
Meanwhile, many modern publishers are distracting themselves with experiments that do nothing but provide a nice press release and show-off the latest capability that Amazon, Apple or Google have built in to their newest device. And it’s not just publishers. I’ve been on a number of panels with industry pundits who love to talk about the death of the book and how technology is going to radically alter our sense of what narrative is and how we are going to consume stories in a completely different, non-linear and interactive way.
What an utterly exhausting proposition.
Nothing I’ve seen in the past year of running an experimental digital imprint has led me to believe there is a voracious horde of early adopters out there who want this type of content and that publishers are failing to deliver it. I’m not saying it won’t ever happen, but it hasn’t happened yet and I see no indications of it coming other than the fact that it’s technological feasible.
The next decade is inevitably going to provide some creative re-imagining of the boundaries of what a book is. And that is a good thing. Technology can and already does help us deliver content around the world for a fraction of the cost that it did only a few years ago. The self-publishing revolution means that there are now very few roadblocks for authors to get their content read by audiences. There is now an audience for serialised content and short stories that seems to have sprung out of nowhere. This is the actual revolution at the foundation of the publishing business. The boundaries of what publishers can and should do have already shifted while we weren’t paying attention – there’s no need for us reinvent the wheel when it comes to storytelling and narrative. We must remember what it is we’re good at – looking at that manuscript, whether it’s delivered by horse and cart or email – and asking the question “who wants to read this stuff?”
This post was adapted from a speech delivered at The Future of Writing symposium at Macquarie University on 14 November.Tagged: digital publishing, DRM, narrative, reading, storytelling, technology
Posted May 14, 2012 by John Birmingham
I just e-mailed off a draft of the manuscript for Stalin’s Hammer: Rome. That’s the working title I’m going with for now. I got this idea that Stalin’s Hammer will play itself out over half a dozen books, most of which will be set in a different city, hence the subtitles.
I’m not going to get into any spoilers or even much in the way of detail about Rome. It still needs a fair bit of work, being only a first draft, and even more importantly being my first attempt at standalone e-book. It’s been kind of fascinating the ‘challenges’ that the new format has thrown up. Mostly in terms of structure and pacing.
Some things never change, however. Making stuff up and blowing stuff up is always great fun. One of the really interesting things I’ve had to grapple with in this project is ‘the shape of things to come’. Just where have technology and society developed on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the 10 years since the end of the war?
Again, no spoilers from me, but I did see this great piece in Wired the other day about the future of the Israeli Air Force. I’ll clip in the paragraph below:
“Nano drones that an infantryman can pull out of his pocket; helicopters piloted by robots who extract wounded soldiers from the battlefield; micro satellites on demand; large spy balloons in the upper reaches of the stratosphere; virtual training with a helmet from your office; algorithms that resolve pilots’ ethical dilemmas (so they won’t have to deal with those pesky war crimes tribunals); and farming out code to a network of high school kids.”
I can remember when I was plotting out the first part of Weapons of Choice how much time I spent poring over stories like this. It was partly what motivated me to write the book in the first place, the idea of mashing up old and new tech together.
I doubt that will be seeing many nano drones, even in The Zone. Ten years is just a bit too short an horizon to pull off a technological acceleration like that. But given how much military and civilian technology and information came through Manning Pope’s wormhole, and given that the world has had 10 years of relative peace and prosperity to exploit them, I’m fairly confident there would be some quite massive leaps forward over the original timeline. Even if it’s only a leap into, say, the 1970s.axis of time, ebooks, genre, john birmingham, nano drones, technology, weapons, weapons of choice, wired, writing