Talk on Digital Publishing for Poetry Ireland
Cheyne Theatre, Royal College of Surgeons, York St entrance, D2.
11.00am. Monday, 20th of July.
Chair: Seamus Cashman. With Samantha Holman of Irish Copyright and Licensing Agency.
I want to make two main points with this talk.
First: The things I’m going to talk about are not primarily issues of technology. They’re issues of how we are living our lives today.
Second: Instead of allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by this tidal wave of new developments in the publishing industry, it’s important that we seize on the ones that are useful to us and take advantage of them – and avoid being distracted by the ones that don’t concern us, or those we can’t do anything about.
For people who love books and abhor the very idea of electronic media rendering them obsolete (which I believe isn’t likely to happen for some time yet), it’s worth remembering that print itself was once a revolutionary technology. There was a time, only a few hundred years ago, when people realized that books were no long going to be reproduced by hand.
I believe we are entering an era of equal importance now.
Text – that simple arrangement of two-dimensional words on a page – has become fluid, amorphous, multi-functional and interactive. This is throwing a whole range of new challenges at those who produce and distribute it, and offering unprecedented choices to those who read it. The publishing establishment is seeing its life flash before its eyes. I’m going to follow the course of a book’s life and see how things are changing:
As an author, I squat like a pair of bookends, occupying both the beginning and the end of the publishing process – authors write the story from scratch at the start, and then go out and promote the book at the end. And in the vast majority of cases we do both more or less on our own. Anybody who makes their living from writing and claims they don’t keep a bit of wary eye on the market while doing so is either lying or a complete eejit. We are self-employed and have businesses to run.
I once worked as an advertising copy writer and part of me will always be a commercial writer. In publishing, we are becoming increasingly aware of the different ways text can be formatted, particularly when you’re trying to please different markets. In children’s writing, this is particularly true – the format of the text changes with age ranges, interest levels, design and subject matter. We have to change how we write to suit our market and our readership. More often than not, writers have to conform to an informal set of guidelines: word count, levels of language, the nature and pace of your story. Personally I enjoy the discipline of that, but the constraints can be frustrating at times. But that’s the difference between writing . . . and writing for a living.
We are already used to the idea of poetry and other forms of writing being used across other media. Apart from the scripts for plays and the radio, screenplays, we also have poetry in the soundtracks of films, put to music or as parts of art installations. There is no shortage of examples of where writing has been produced with more presentation in mind than just text on a page. The earliest books weren’t just written, they were illuminated. When books were first produced, the text did more than just give you words to read.
Now the nature of writing is changing once again. Some writers are already using online interaction with their readers to allow those readers to see early drafts of their work, or even releasing their work in excerpts and responding to reactions by changing the flow of their writing to please readers. Fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson is one example of this. He released his book Warbreaker, in excerpts on his website, getting his readers involved long before it was published by his mainstream publisher.
Writing is changing because the way that we read is changing. This is a Sony eReader. I held off buying this kind of thing until I found one that I could read as comfortably as a book. This comes close. With E-Ink technology, it’s like reading off paper, not a screen. There is no backlight, no pixellation. This is still a pretty basic model, but it holds as many books as you could ever want to carry with you, including heavy academic texts, whole libraries of reference materials.
Other features (including those on other devices)
- Touch-screen that can be written on
- Can play audio files, including audio books
- With Wi-Fi, you can link to the internet – the Amazon Kindle doesn’t even need Wi-Fi to buy new books – it uses a direct mobile phone connection. Not in Ireland yet, but it’s on its way. With a web connection, you can have links in any document you’re reading to anything on your device or on the web.
- If your eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, you can change the size of the text – you can read landscape or portrait No more reading manuscripts. You can read a rich text format file – an ‘rtf’ – or a pdf, as if it’s a book.
But this is just a stepping stone. Soon, we’ll have a phone that combines the readability of an eReader, the game appeal of a Nintendo DS and the functionality of an iPhone. Some people already read ebooks on their iPhones, but reading off a tiny screen doesn’t appeal to me.
Here’s a phone that already exists that uses E-Ink technology on a sheet of plastic that can unfold into a larger size. It’ll only be a matter of time before a phone can combine all of the latest functions.
But how is all of this affecting writing? Japan’s current bestseller list is dominated by books that were originally written on, and for, mobile phones – a genre known as Keitai Shosetsu. Normally romance stories written in screen-sized, cliff-hanger excerpts – each takes about three minutes to read, the average length of time between stops on the Japanese Tube – they have taken the country by storm. Japanese literati are having conniptions. Reared on the melodramatic world of manga and anime, the teenage ‘thumb tribes’ cannot get enough of this new style of storytelling. It reflects the increasing trend in young readers for reading quickly and shallowly, demanding ever more gripping, punchier writing from storytellers. It also introduces a brand new hazard for professional writers – the danger that you could walk out onto a road and be hit by a car while composing a sentence. SKY OF LOVE MOVIE: http://www.moviexclusive.com/review/skyoflove/skyoflove.htm
Mobile phone fiction is the extreme end of a new writing culture, but one that has still ended up being facilitated by a publisher of sorts; networking sites that distributed each episode and then later released the most popular stories as books. However, just as desktop publishing put typesetting, graphic design and printing into the enthusiastic hands of everyone from office workers to schoolchildren, so the worldwide web has enabled anyone with a computer to publish their work into a global market – placing their products right alongside those of mainstream publishers. The question must then be asked, can the publishing industry as we know it now, continue to exist?
Publishing has taken a wide variety of unanticipated forms – so much so, that it’s hard to say where the boundaries are any more between a phone text, a blog, a newspaper article, a website article, a social network, an ebook, a photo or art gallery, an audio book, a game, a music- or film-sharing site, a video library, a radio or television station. Businesses now have to work across a number of these media.
Twitter networking and promotion is leading to Twitter fiction – stories of 140 words rather than the mammoth 350 words of mobile phone fiction. Something to consider for poetry, perhaps? The electronic haiku?
Most poets may not need publishers at all soon, or may simply need them as a quality filter – websites and forums where good poetry can be recognized, rather than poetry being published in printed form. Writing published on the web does not make money, but it can go on to make money in other forms once it has gained enough recognition.
SOUTH DUBLIN COUNTY LIBRARIES: http://digitallibrary.southdublin.ie/06A45628-2F63-4AA1-B5EB-D24312E9CDCD/10/382/en/Default.htm
Digital developments are revolutionizing the archiving and accessibility of written works. South Dublin County Libraries have introduced Ireland’s first digital library service, offering the download of ebooks and audio books to your computer or even your iPod, facilitated by a company called Overdrive. I’ve only just woken up to the realization that I can get an audio book and listen to it while I’m out for a walk. The range of books available from South Dublin County Libraries is still limited by what Overdrive can provide, but they’re only starting out. Put simply, if you’re a member of South Dublin County Libraries, you can now borrow books while you’re on the other side of the world.
The EU Digital Library project, funded by the European Commission and overseen by the EDL Foundation, set out to link the library catalogues – within the area of cultural content and scientific or scholarly content – of the national libraries of Europe. Now all the countries of Europe are part of the European Library service. Their catalogues are being harmonized to allow access through any European language and a great deal of digital content is already online, under the unfortunate name of Europeana (You’re a piano).
ARROW PROJECT: http://www.arrow-net.eu/
The Arrow project – or Accessible Registries of Rights Information and Orphan Works – was established along similar lines, intent on finding ways to identify rightholders, rights and clarify the rights status of a work including whether it is orphan or out of print. This will enable libraries, as well as other users, to obtain information on who are the pertinent rightsholders, which are the relevant rights concerned, who owns and administers them and how and where they can seek permission to digitise and / or make the work available to user groups.
Book publishers who, for centuries, have centered their activities around printed matter, are having to face up to the fact that the book is changing beyond their control. The bound collection of printed pages that has, for so long, been the focus of their industry is now just one of many forms in which they need to deliver writing. Even children’s picture books, those untouchable conveyors of storytelling magic, must now compete with the likes of TumbleBooks, offering animation and audio along with the pictures. These are already available from South Dublin County Libraries.
The word ‘book’ can no longer just refer to printed pages, bound and wrapped in a cover. Now, this is just a print-out of the real book – the original digital file provided by the author (and sometimes the illustrator) that publishers have been using for decades. The book, as we must think of it now, is the raw creative material, which can be produced and consumed in a range of forms, including but not limited to: printed books, books in Braille, ebooks and audio books, stretching on into other established media such as radio, television and film and more unknowable forms in the future. Perhaps, some day, we’ll be able to read a book using just our sense of smell – who knows?
One of the reasons that the publishing industry is in such a panic, is that this raw creative material is so hard to protect, once it can be accessed in a digital format. Just as the music industry has been devastated by online piracy, so the book publishers are afraid that once they make their content available online in any kind of digital format, that raw material will be stripped of its protection, reproduced and passed on for free to the same audience they’re hoping will pay them good money for it. Music shops have lost all but the most loyal, most discerning, or least technically literate of their customers.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, the publishers are making exactly the same mistakes as the music industry. By trying to strengthen legal controls that will be completely disregarded by code crackers worldwide anyway, they are building a more rigid and fragmented structure, rather than a flexible, universal one. Their first concern should not be creating work for lawyers; they should instead be ensuring that readers can access their legally produced books as easily as humanly possible.
As a consumer, I want to know, while sitting at my computer, or looking at my eReader or mobile phone, how many times I have to click to get that book – and any added value I can get with it. Lawsuits have not provided many solutions to the music industry. iTunes has. We need an iTunes that specializes in written material. And it needs to have the flexibility to change as this new market develops. And it needs competition. What we have to avoid is a situation where one company emerges with a complete control over the sale and distribution of books.
Which is why the Google Book Settlement is such an exciting and frightening development in the world of publishing, and one that will change the industry forever. With one astoundingly ambitious and autocratic move, the book industry is being dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age. We can be sure that this settlement was part of Google’s plan all along. It is easier to ask forgiveness than to seek permission, particularly in publishing.
BOOK SCANNER: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oOXXpxzETA
I am not particularly worried about Google having all-powerful control, because the anarchic nature of the web will soon break down that control and eat away at the boundaries of its dominance. My biggest concern is for the very idea of copyright – of creators of content being rewarded for the reproduction of their work. If Google does not exercise enough control, copyright could become obsolete, irrelevant. And once it’s gone, we’ll never get it back. There are already movements like Creative Commons and Copyleft spreading the belief that creative content should be treated more like open source software: free to distribute and share, but retaining some creative control over the original material. Some believe there should be no such thing as copyright at all.
As the means of creating and distributing books become so varied, the means of promoting them and selling them follow suit. The same things that cause publishers such huge problems can also be turned into opportunities.
There is unprecedented technology available for adding new features to printed books, from foil stamping to die cutting, from special colours to textures, from revolutionary typesetting capabilities to holograms. As we move into the electronic medium, the lines between books, games, websites and films will blur more and more. And it will all be available on the phone you carry in your pocket.
Booksellers and distributors have not been resting on their laurels either. Lightning Source is a company that is setting itself up as the Western Union of publishing, going one better than Amazon, in being able to print the book you order in the country you order it from, so it can be delivered from a local depot, instead of having to come halfway across the world.
ESPRESSO BOOK MACHINE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q946sfGLxm4
This technology is also being introduced in pilot schemes in shops in Britain and the US, in the form of the Espresso Book Machine. You go in, order any book they have on file and it is printed and bound there and then, in a few minutes, in full published book quality. The bookshop only has to stock the materials and the digital files for every book available online in an ebook format.
John McNamee, President of the European Booksellers Federation aspires to a day when someone can come into a shop, ask for a book, and be charged a base fee for the intellectual rights, and then a further fee for whatever form they want that book in. He knows more than anyone that booksellers are facing the kind of upheaval that the music shops are going through even now. They will have to change their business models, and quickly.
Young readers are starting to take the initiative in so many ways. Plenty of children’s authors keep in contact with their readers – and the readers with each other – through email, blogs and regularly updated websites. News of local author events can be spread quickly and effectively and the organizations that facilitate these events are becoming increasingly wise to the different ways of publicizing them. Working with children is becoming an integral part of an author’s job and as a result, we are having to learn performance skills. We are having to go back to the roots of our art, to relearn how to be oral storytellers once more. It’s a skill that is increasingly necessary in the wider world of writing and particularly that of poetry. I hardly read any poetry at all, but I do enjoy hearing it recited . . . and I hate hearing it recited badly.
YOUTUBE WINDOW ON BOOKSLAM WEBSITE: http://www.bookslam.com/videos.asp Ask them how many of them have filmed themselves reading for YouTube?
But as a result of the sheer amount of children’s writers promoting their books in schools and libraries, we are more in touch with our audience than any other branch of literature. Even those in the tech-savvy genre of science fiction, who saw this revolution coming years ago, cannot compete with the dynamism of the children’s books network. And we need to be dynamic, because we have an audience that is changing faster than any other. Educated on interactive whiteboards, researching primary school assignments using the web, walking around playing games consoles and doing most of their reading on mobile phones, they are defining the future of their book industry.
CB INFO: http://www.childrensbooks.ie/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=191&Itemid=375
At Children’s Books Ireland, we have produced a branch of the CBI website – called cb info – that not only provides information on how to get published as a writer and get work as an illustrator, but also includes summarized guides to most of the professions and organizations working within the children’s book industry and related sectors, from publishers to the Arts Council, Poetry Ireland to the Illustrators Guild of Ireland. It has an annotated directory of links to all the associated websites – and many more – will have a regular viewpoint articles dealing with issues in the industry and will basically give a comprehensive overview of the entire children’s book industry to anyone coming at it for the first time, or anyone who just needs to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. We intend to bring in a regular email bulletin that goes out to anyone who wants it, an online forum for professionals and eventually one for kids too, giving them a means for them to review and discuss books on their own terms.
METAROAR (JACOB SAM LaROSE): http://www.metaroar.com/
Online social networking has already become a key factor in the promotion of books, but one which the publishing industry still has no systematic approach to. Publishers do not help their writers set up and run blogs or websites, and they certainly don’t set up their authors’ pages on the likes of Facebook, MySpace, Bebo or Twitter. If writers are going to take advantage of any of these forms of networking, they’re going to have to do it on their own. And if you’re not out there in some form or other, it’s going to be very difficult to spot future online opportunities.
FAN FICTION WEBSITE: http://www.fanfiction.net/book/Great_Expectations/
Young readers will learn faster than we can, will take these new forms of writing and make them their own. Readers aren’t happy to be passive spectators any more. They’re starting to take part in the process of creation. Fan fiction involves creating new stories using elements from existing books, much to the annoyance of some writers. But it is done most often out of love of the original work and a desire to be a part of its story, an ally in its success. Fan fiction can be a boon to writers. Our readers are no longer satisfied with the writer being a name on the front of a book. They want to know about the person behind the book. It’s the celebrity culture – they want to nose into our lives. And we need to impose our influence on that information or somebody else will control what people are finding out about us. And that’s what’s selling books these days.
The writer is like a pair of bookends at either extreme of the publishing process. Perhaps one of the ways we can excite our readers when we’re trying to sell our work at the end of the process is to find a way to engage with them at the start. Before I send a book in to my agent, I pass it round to family members to get some feedback first. But there are some far more innovative and involving projects out there. Penguin carried out what was referred to as a ‘wiki-novel’, where they asked people to take part in the writing of their story A Million Penguins. Jenny Everywhere is another online project from The Shifter Archive, which lays a few ground rules for the use of the character named Jenny Everywhere and then invites the world to write their own stories about her, free from copyright restrictions. Alternative Reality Games are games run, sometimes for their own sake, but often as a means of promoting films or computer games such as Batman: The Dark Knight or Halo 2. Run over different media and involving storytelling, puzzles and problem-solving overseen by human writers, rather than just computer programmes, they are a means of engaging an audience on a more individual basis over more than one medium, so they get more thoroughly hooked.
The publishing industry has always, rather cheekily, relied on its market to do its marketing for it. Books – particularly poetry books and other literary works – are still sold mostly by word of mouth. Now word of mouth can move as fast as light down an optical fibre, the signal diverging and multiplying, scattering across the world.
ARTS COUNCIL OF ENGLAND, READ:WRITE DOCUMENT: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publications/publication_detail.php?browse=recent&id=625
This is not a time to panic because we feel the means of reproducing and selling our writing is being taken out of our control. It has never been easier to produce a book and make it available to a global market. This is not a time to feel isolated and out of touch. There has never before been such a varied and versatile means of communicating ideas and information to our peers and educating ourselves. This is not a time to be hesitant or conservative about the marketing of books. People are cutting back on other, more expensive forms of entertainment – let’s take advantage of that by reminding them just how cheap and engaging books can be. This is not a time to be daunted by these new formats, these new media. Ideas, imagination, language and expression, these are the tools of our trade and they can be applied to any medium. The art of painting is not restricted to those who can manufacture canvas.
Let us remind the world that technology enables us to express to others what is in our heads and our hearts. And let’s not forget it ourselves.