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Catching the TV buzz wave

Posted February 26, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Lately, everyone seems to be in various stages of spontaneous combustion over True Detective, the latest showbag of televisual storytelling that causes just about everyone’s frontal lobes to contract Stendhal syndrome.

A few months back, it was the final season of Breaking Bad. Before that, season three of Game of Thrones. Then Homeland. But go back far enough and the thrall of the buzz, the state of captivity that we are held to when a new show captures the collective consciousness, disappears. There are shows, certainly, that held appeal and warranted a status as a water-cooler topic – Twin Peaks in its day, 24 for a brief period of time, among others – but one of the byproducts of how mass culture is communicated and shared these days is that we are all talking about the same thing at the same time.

Witness the incremental meltdown US Twitter users went into over The Rains of Castamere in the most recent Game of Thrones season – followed in the next twenty-four-hours by those sections of Australian audiences who abide by piracy laws. Witness the social media groups that followed and dissected every possible frame of the final seasons of Breaking Bad – in a way that the earlier seasons were never looked at – so as to form some prediction of how Walter White would conclude his antiheroic ways.

This is a form of television viewing wholly new to us. The idea that one doesn’t just watch a show to watch it, but to share in the watching with everyone else. The irony of social media – sociability without society – has transformed the relationship we have with TV.

Previously, the medium saw itself as wholly distinct to cinema. In a cinema, we are in an audience and yet presented with an image to experience, without distraction. We are in a crowd, but the film speaks to us individually, without pause or hesitation. It is visual storytelling at its purest. TV, on the other traditional hand, has generally been more conscious and less subconscious; we were prone to distractions – other channels, ads, dinner, the minutiae of household life – and so TV shows had to anticipate distraction by being big and obvious, in short punctuated bursts. Key moments would be repeated, recapped, and over-explained, just in case we were doing something else when Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed.

Now, though, everything has changed. House of Cards has illustrated best just how we watch TV. We praise and privilege the long form narrative, the back-to-back episodes, the complex narratives that are resolved over dozens of hours, rather than a cinematic two. But most importantly, we are sharing TV like we never have before. We are in the audience again, sitting with others, everybody’s couch and TV and bedroom and computer is now one giant cinema screen.

Cinema these days sees value in the opening weekend. Catch the audience while it’s still hot, or before bad word can get around. TV does allow more flexibility, and we are now championing the lack of scheduling, the lack of gatekeepers who decide what we watch and when. But, even when there’s all this freedom for us to watch what we want, we seem to be instilling a new law.

We must all catch the TV buzz wave, we must all watch at the same time, or else we will miss the conversation. The exponentially shorter timeframes that dialogue exists on social media means that if you wait but a month, nay, a week longer to watch the show, you’ll miss the talk, miss the excitement of sharing with everyone else.

So have we torn down one set of gatekeepers in order to create new ones? Are we policing our own viewing?

The interesting thing is how this affects the medium itself. Homeland fed off its buzz for the first season and a half. It lived for it, creating and manufacturing the type of plots that enabled the conversation to generate itself, and ensure we all kept watching just to see what would happen. And the shows creators knew what they were doing, always trying to stay one step ahead of audience expectations, giving us resolutions to plot points way before we’d anticipated, then throwing us headlong into the unknown. It’s what made it watchable, but it’s also what has made it unwatchable since. If you start with excitement, and then build quickly to hysteria, where do you go from there? Homeland and The Walking Dead both seem to be suffering from a midlife crisis. Where do TV shows go, once they’re not the conversation anymore?

Where shows once used to build audiences – a la Breaking Bad – it’s now almost necessary to take the audience fresh from one show concluding, and transplant them into a new one beginning. We’re all dying for the next something, and every show is dying to be the next something, rather than just being what it is.

I think we still need room to find shows – and films and books and anything else that wiles away the hours – on our own. While there is some kind of unalloyed joy in privately watching a show while it is being recognised publicly by the masses, we can’t watch everything. And also the masses can sometimes get in the way of just enjoying a story because you like the story.

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Genre is as genre does

Posted February 17, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Recently, there has been a flurry of scandalous debate about a report and analysis into the changing world of publishing by Wool author Hugh Howey. Howey’s exceedingly detailed report suggests that – based on an analysis of Amazon sales – genre authors are much better served by going the independent and self-published route, as this will offer greater yield financially for their efforts.

Howey admits aspects of his analysis are speculative and inferential, as data on raw book sales is often undisclosed or incomplete. This, admittedly, offers the first point of interest. While box office on films, and sales and downloads on music and television are all widely available (allowing for elements of bias), figures on book sales remain obscure and coded behind veils of good intentions. There is the suggestion that book sales are undisclosed for our benefit, the implication being that perhaps we wouldn’t read what we read if we knew what everybody else was reading.

The report concludes with Howey wishing for greater transparency, greater understanding of how traditional publishing models lead to a benefit in sales. Others have criticised Howey’s lack of understanding in data analysis, and that he is offering a post hoc inference about data that wilfully ignores its limitations.

Regardless, the report comes at a time when many are looking and questioning the cost benefit of writing for a living. This recent surge of attention in demanding payment, and demanding transparency in the finances of writing suggests that writing as a profession has until now existed (and subsisted) on a level where we feel it lives beyond daily wages. How do we measure writing? Per word? Per hour? Per book sold? What constitutes a financially successful career as a writer?

And is that different from being a good writer?

Do we regard certain writing as ‘good’, even if it doesn’t make money? And does writing that makes money necessarily qualify for public recognition as ‘good writing’?

Howey directed his report at genre writers – mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, romance – as categorised by Amazon.  The suggestion is that the rise of self-publishing, and the rise of digital publishing, is seen as an opportunity for genre writers to earn more from non-traditional publishing pathways.

What I find odd is that this categorisation places genre as a money-defining result. That the genre – the label prescribed upon the writing upon publication (on Amazon) – is all important, and is placed as a premium ahead of any other qualities the story might contain.

And here we have the tricky problem of genre – as it currently is the dominant way we categorise the stories we read and the stories we write. Bookshops, real and digital, organise their shelves according to genre. But this is an imperfect system. Stories often defy genre, or alternate and transcend; stories combine and manipulate genre and set it upon the reader via subterfuge. How would Kazuo Ishiguro feel if Never Let Me Go was shelved in science fiction, given the very late and shocking reveal of that element within the story? The genre here is one part of the book, not the whole, and certainly not the label.

To follow further examples in my favourite field, this genre categorisation becomes even trickier when looking at an author like Stephen King. Once upon a time, in the world where Borders still existed, Stephen King books could easily be found in the horror section. He practically was the horror section. And while many of his books, particularly the early ones, are horror, this is again an imperfect system for categorisation.

Of his recent books, 11/22/63 is listed under fantasy, where it places #3 in a subgenre of fantasy. However, it is also listed under horror, placing at #92. And yet the book is clearly not a horror book. In fact, it relies really on only one element of fantasy to even qualify as that type of story. His earlier collection of short stories, Different Seasons, is also listed under horror, and yet is the collection that spawned the films The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. Again, clearly not horror. So do we make excuses for writers who cross genres, but still define them (and their books) by the genre they started in, or dominate?

If we follow the idea of using genre to define stories, then we will end up with a never-ending spiral of subgenres upon sub-subgenres, to serve every whim of the reader, and every style of the writer. I would hazard that writers rarely view genre as a defining boundary on their imagination – so should genre be the label that prescribes expectation to the reader on what type of book it is? Should it explain exactly what it is?

Will we end up with a Science-Fiction>Alternate-Reality>Victorian-Gothic-Robotics>Anthropomorphised-Rabbit>Western>Young-Adult subgenre?

Obviously we do need some method of organising, and at the moment genre works – to a degree. But as a financial imperative? What about all the books that don’t fit genre? Why does Howey not include literary fiction as a genre itself?

There are many questions that come from the report, and many that suggest our way of viewing books, writing, and sales is imperfect at best, and fundamentally flawed at worst. The most positive take away for me is that everything’s changing very rapidly – how we write, how we publish, and how we read – and this can hopefully lead to a future where we can write and publish and read with greater ease, and freedom, and enjoyment.

 

For more on genre, Momentum authors Nathan M. Farrugia and Luke Preston, and Anne Treasure and myself are discussing Genre In The Digital Age for the Digital Writers’ Festival tonight at 6:00pm.

As it’s a digital festival, you can attend via the magic on the internet, and watch us all talk at digitalwritersfestival.com

 

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The death of the pen

Posted February 14, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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A discussion yesterday about the practice of editing on paper against editing electronically branched off into an interesting tangent: just how attached are we to maintaining paper and handwriting practises? Furthermore, is this getting in the way of some fairly serious progress of twenty-first century society?

While the reports of the book’s death were greatly exaggerated, to the point of being entirely fictitious and presumptuous, it has since emerged that we actually are reading more now than ever before – at least as far as our ability to track this kind of thing.

Writing as a method of communication has always been after the fact; we spoke before we wrote, and writing initially was merely a method of establishing fact, of dismissing doubt. By the time the first books were created, writing was still a unique, unrepeatable event. Reading as a past-time was not a fathomable occasion. If we wanted to share stories, we shared them, by and large through voice and performance.

From the advent of the printing press to the spread of public education and universities, through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and on to the technological advances of the twentieth century, the book emerged as a convenient method of containing and conveying words, of communicating stories, of ingesting and processing new information. Reading and writing as a study and as an art arrived.

Our nostalgia for the book as a physical paper product is founded on a short-sighted view of human history. We have always communicated in the most convenient form available. As we settle into the twenty-first century, it becomes apparent that not only are we swallowing stories at a higher rate and in more ways than ever before, but we’re also physically reading more content as a whole. Far more communication occurs through reading, and effectively through writing, but here’s where the issue arrives.

With more being read, that means more are writing. But not writing by hand. If more and more content is arriving in a typed form – a trend that really isn’t going to lessen lest the computers turn on us – then really it should be handwriting that we’re issuing death notices for, not paper books.

Unfortunately, it appears the older generation is the one that’s caught up in blindly nostalgic waves of OCD with their inability to let go of handwriting as an asset. I say this not as an outsider, but as part of that generation. I still instinctively handwrite, I still find it easier to shape thoughts through a pen than through the tips of ten fingers. And certainly, it is an asset in a profession where handwriting might be required, but how many of those still exist? How many will for the next generation?

While Victoria has recently decided that it will look into ‘planning’ for online, typed exams for Year 12 students, leading education systems like those in Sweden and Norway have had them implemented for years. Our failure to act is costing the students. To compound this, the recent Australian Curriculum – while admittedly introducing many positives – emphasised handwriting as a key component of students’ learning, something that had rightly disappeared in recent years.

We emphasise the introduction of technology into learning, into the lives of the younger generations, as it has become the currency and medium that dominates our lives. Pen and paper are as archaic as the topics in the history curriculum. But then after all this embracing of technology, something strange occurs.

By the time these students reach their final years, all assessments become handwritten again. All final exams are written, at hours on end, with a pen and paper. Why? Why do we insist this happens? Everything we had encouraged them to learn for more than a decade is diminished by the distillation of their ability through a pen.

Many universities still follow this model as well. The fear of plagiarism, the fear of students using more than the contents of their heads is what drives this avoidance of technology in exams. And yet it has no practical parallel in the real world. We never confine our knowledge in our jobs, we never limit our resources to see what we can really do. So why test this way?

We need to let go of handwriting as the end of the line for the written word; we’ve found a better way. The pens of the world are haemorrhaging our words, instead of giving them new life. To use them as modern tools is damaging the capability and potential of our potential society.

 

 

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Objectifying books

Posted January 24, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Last year recorded the biggest sale of vinyl albums in Australia since they started tracking their sales in 1991.

What has this got to do with books? Well. Not that we want to put anymore air to the theory that paper books are technological dinosaurs slowly asphyxiating in a digital meteor cloud, but the resurgence of vinyl music does illustrate some interesting things about the role of traditional books now and in the coming years.

Vinyl’s revival has been coupled with the digital era of music purchasing. Part of the appeal now is the bundled digital download offered with many new vinyl presses, and the ease of digitally transferring many old records. Music has shown that it can sustain two diametrically opposed formats – one that prioritises convenience, the other that emphasises the object of music itself.

Clearly there is an element of nostalgia here, but nostalgia doesn’t really drive commerce – outside of Antiques Roadshow. What I think is occurring is a transition in how we perceive music. It is now two things – music as an aural experience, and music as a physical experience. Certain music we desire aurally, others we desire the object. It is a fetishisation, after a fashion. The packaging, the art, the physical experience of listening to an album beginning to end, that becomes the desired experience that the object allows.

So, what then for books?

In 2000, Mark Z. Danielewski released his meta-fictional horror story House of Leaves. This was followed up by several different editions, including the 2006 remastered, full colour edition, full of torn notes, handwritten inserts, typewritten attachments, drawings and other paraphernalia that twists the reading of Danielewski’s narrative into something beyond just words on a page.

I wanted to set this book for my book club, but most of us use ereaders and there is no known way Danielewski could create an ebook version of House of Leaves. It is very strictly a book to be read in hard copy.

Secondly, film and TV director J.J. Abrams (yes I know) and author Doug Dorst teamed up to write another convoluted book called S. This takes the form of a 1940s overdue library book, The Ship of Theseus, which arrives in a sealed black box (it must be cut to be read). The Ship of Theseus is itself ‘written’ by a fictional author – V.M. Straka – and has been handwritten all over the margins by two other ‘characters’. These characters have also included postcards, letters, napkins and other bits and pieces in the folds of the pages, so that the whole book itself takes the shape of a found object for the reader. Dorst and Abrams wanted to create a story that exists in the margins of another story, and again this is something that could only be conveyed through a multi-layered, intertextual object like this.

Without debating the merits of the stories themselves – I’ve yet to finish reading both – it is quite clear that S. and House of Leaves are intent on reasserting the physical experience of reading a physical book. This is not to dissuade against ebooks, but rather use the traditional format for a reading that is unique to its medium.

So, are we seeing a resurgence of the hardcover book as a fetishised object? If music can be both the sound and the object, are we witnessing books becoming both the reading and the object? As Mark wrote last week, people are these days purchasing books in a divided fashion – some assigning certain reads to ebooks, with others being saved for hard copies.

Both titles mentioned here are clearly meta-fictional in their approach to story, and the medium supports that approach. This is not to say the fetishisation of traditional books is due to an inherent need of the story – the purchasing of hardcovers, of first editions, of illustrated copies and reissues show there is a long-established market for the book as an object. There has also been discussion over digital copies of books accompanying the hardcopy purchase, much in the way of vinyl.

Will book writers, book makers and book buyers begin to distinguish themselves more clearly as having and wanting two distinct types of books, even more than they already have? Will we want one type of reading digitally, and another physically?

 

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Live event spoilers and the internet

Posted January 14, 2014 by Mark

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I used to do a media blackout when the Academy Awards were on. Being in Australia, they happen during work hours on a Monday, and it’s not always possible to watch live. Usually the event is shown at around 8.30 in the evening, so I’d turn off my phone, not watch TV or listen to the radio all day.

And then I started to work in social media.

Social media pretty much makes it impossible to avoid these kinds of spoilers. Golden Globes and Academy Awards are the kind of newsworthy stuff that gets picked up and run by pretty much everyone. It’s no use trying to mute keywords because there are so many names that it would take half the day to do it effectively. I became slightly frustrated at the fact that my tradition was ruined.

And then I decided to stop being lame.

Why the hell would a normal person want to sit through an awards show anyway? They’re long, usually boring, and now anything interesting is cut into a bite-sized chunk and put on YouTube. All you really want to know is who won, and why would you want to put that off until 11.30pm on a Monday night, when you could have found out at 2pm (or whatever, I don’t know time zones)?

Also, being a competitive Oscar-guesser, it’s good to have the information to hand as early as possible, so you can rub everyone’s faces in your rightness, or run away from your wrongness. The conversations surrounding these shows are always fun and interesting, and social media is a glorious place to be when they’re occurring. You don’t want to be the person tweeting about the ‘we saw your boobs’ song 8 hours after it happened. Hashtag lame #lame

I no longer bother with media blackouts. Except for Eurovision, for reasons.

 

 

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Audiobooks vs. Podcasts: The Battle for my iPhone

Posted November 11, 2013 by Mark

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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.

 

 

 

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Do androids dream of fax machines?

Posted October 18, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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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.

‘Hello?’

‘Cayce?’

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.

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Who Wants to Read this Stuff? The Business of Storytelling in a Digital World

Posted November 21, 2012 by Joel

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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.

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Axis of Time 4: ebook imminent

Posted May 14, 2012 by John Birmingham

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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.

 (This blog post was originally posted on John Birmingham’s Cheeseburger Gothic blog, here.)
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