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Seven Paranoid Provocations on Ebooks and Digital Fiction

Pullinger_Kate.jpgEditor’s note: I love manifestos. I worry they are becoming too commonplace and will
lose their cool factor, but this one, by Kate Pullinger – an incredible
novelist, and trail blazer in the transmedia (or what ever u want to
call it, @mikecane) arena, puts quite succinctly into words much of what
has been missing from the future of publishing traveling circus.

  1. Writers need to talk about money. Some of us reside inside the academy, some of us reside outside the academy; some of us get grants for our work, some of us do not; some of us are bestsellers, most of us are not.  Writers need to be thinking hard about how to protect our revenues across all platforms. As publishing is shaken up by the new technologies, writers need to be proactive, involved in the on-going discussions about developing fair terms and new business models.
  2. Writers, publishers, and teachers need to get their heads out of the sand: the digital future is already here and we risk becoming dinosaurs, as well as ostriches, if we don’t engage with the multitude of possibilities for storytelling offered to us by the new technologies. For many years a vanguard of writers and artists have been experimenting with form, creating media-rich, screen-dependent, born-digital, works of fiction.  However, in the absence of a proven business model, the traditional gatekeepers of writing and publishing have not been interested.  This is changing.
  3. Stop talking about e-books. E-books are boring. Convenient, practical, destined to become one of the ways we read, but boring, as counter-intuitive as placing the text of the latest blockbuster novel on a television screen. The Google Book project, which sees the world’s leading libraries collaborating in secret with a giant corporation, effectively pulling the copyright rug out from under our feet, is either our best friend or our worst enemy or both; however, the Google Book project, along with rapid developments in e-readers, has ensured that the book, as a digital file, will remain at the heart of our culture for the foreseeable future. So stop talking about e-books. There’s a new world of media-rich literature around the next corner; reading on screen has huge potential to enhance the way we tell stories, and to expand our audiences in new directions.
  4. We better keep talking about e-books.  Despite my own weariness with the subject, e-books are undergoing a rapid and soon-to-snowball set of advancements and the ‘paper-under-glass’ analogy will soon no longer hold true. ‘Enhanced editions’ and single-book apps where the author provides a wealth of extra digital material that is embedded in the text, from audio recordings of the author reading to music composed by the author, are already beginning to appear; children’s books are undergoing a rapid revolution as the games industry giant EA collaborates with publishers to create works like ‘Artemis Fowl’ for Nintendo DS – fully interactive, with games, puzzles and a whole wealth of extra material for the reader to explore, embedded in the text. Both these examples are a considerable distance from born-digital fiction, as both are still pretty much the print book with a bunch of e-extras added on. However, e-books will doubtless continue to transform, especially as e-readers become more sophisticated and people really do want to get the most out of the potential for reading a story on a screen.
  5. Be afraid of e-books.   Will the kind of digital fiction projects I’m involved in be completely swept aside and obliterated by the Great Machine of Corporate Publishing as it discovers the huge potential for digital fiction? Will works of this type, with their hand-made and very personal aesthetic, soon look like a movie I made on my mobile phone when everything else looks like ‘Avatar’?
  6. Always remember that human culture is highly visual. The first non-oral form of storytelling was cave-painting – the original powerpoint presentation. The dominance of film and television as storytelling forms in the twentieth century demonstrate that as soon as we are able to use pictures to tell stories, we do. Literature must reckon with this fact. As technology enables us to carry rich media in our pockets we need to find ways to make writing – good writing – relevant to new generations of readers. If we take the long view of the history of storytelling, are plain old words on the page – fixed-type print – an historic anomaly?
  7. Good writing – and by this I mean writing that demonstrates the love of language, of a good sentence, a well-turned phrase, the power of words, writing that rewards re-reading – must survive, regardless of platform or media. It’s up to us to make sure that happens.

Kate Pullinger writes both books and digital fiction.  Her new novel,’The Mistress of Nothing’ won Canada’s Governor-General Award for Literary Fiction and will be published by Simon & Schuster in the US in 2011; her award-winning digital fiction ‘Inanimate Alice’ is available for free online. 

Comments: 5

  1. The worst way to greet change is to dragged kicking and screaming behind it. It won’t be comfortable, it can’t be familiar and it isn’t ending soon.

    I prize bound books for their own sake. I enjoy reading them and remember where something I read was by what part of the page it was on. I don’t dog-ear pages and rarely write in margins; the main exception being The Chariot of the Gods where my outrage and indignity overcame my humility and respect.

    I doubt that many of you have seen a real penknife; likewise that you have used a dip pen or even a fountain pen. There may be some that regularly use a typewriter but if you use a computer for your writing then what happens to your text after you type save and push-back from your desk, coffee table or fold-down tray is something that you have only partial control over.

    You can’t wish the internet away, you can’t command Google to stop their scanners or Amazon to cease undercutting printed books with their Kindle digital publishing.

    Talk to other writers, follow the various false starts in this new process and try some new ones. Be ready when the way becomes clearer; I am going to be waiting to read what you have to say.

  2. I agree with every word you said. I’m struggling myself to find a proper format for my books. I feel strongly that all books, eBooks or hardcopy, must be strongly supported by media in the future. I recently went to Greece to video some of the locations where my new novel The Mysteries, A Novel of Ancient Eleusis takes place. I wanted to put the videos on YouTube and link to them from the book’s website. But how to go about doing the video clips rapidly became a big question. Should I stand in front of the camera and narrate them while there, realtime? Or should I just shoot the footage without me in it, bring it home and then record the narration and a short introduction with myself in front of the camera? How much footage should I include of myself at all? After all, I’m not Harrison Ford, nor Rick Steves either.

    I finally decided that shooting footage of myself and narrating realtime in Greece just wasn’t practical. So I shot the footage of the archaeological sites while there, and now I’m adding an introduction and narration here at home. Still, editing the footage in Apple’s iMovie and providing voiceover is time consuming and scary for someone never involved in production before. I wonder how this homemade media will strike my readers? I realize that much of the reading and viewing public is tired of professionally packed content. Viewers are flocking to Felicia Day’s web series, and then there’s Zoe Keating with her one-woman cello orchestra. So how much can we do ourselves as authors to augment the reading experience? How much amateurism in the name of authenticity will the online public stand? I’m guessing quite a lot.

    For most of us, one thing is sure. No publisher will fund this activity. And none of us know for sure what will work. Every situation is undoubtedly unique. We just have to get to work providing the media content that we can afford, and see what happens. Scary, but that’s why they call it the bleeding edge of innovation.

    Thanks for your article. Thought provoking.

  3. Dear David and Jack –

    Thanks for your comments.

    David, I think these kinds of writer-led experiments in media are going to be hugely valued by readers. But we need to think hard about creating works that integrate media, without simply using media as add-on or enhancement.

    best – Kate

  4. I am quite frightened by the digitizing of children’s books from an educational and psychological point of view. I speculate that kids are going to begin further losing their ability to focus on one task at a time rather than develop this skill. Comprehension is developing an image in one’s mind as (s)he reads, but this concentration is interrupted – distracted – by the features of “enhanced” texts. We are already seeing the incline of attention deficit disorders and my prediction is that this will continue to increase as publishers provide children with embedded texts. Plus, will most kids still WANT to read traditionally published books if they don’t have all the cool features? I sure hope so, but I’m worried!

  5. Much of what digital fiction throws at the novelist is not new. when seen as individual elements. Putting words with..:
    -images (print advertising)
    -sound (oral tradition, Homer…radio/audio taped fiction)
    -moving images (cinema/TV)
    -serialised, fiction in bite-sized chunks, for the short attention span and ‘what-happens-next’ sensationalism (Dickens, Conan Doyle… soap operas)
    – interactive (fantasy books- do you a) pick up the sword, then turn to page 21, or b) pick up the ring then turn to page 37 , or c) …
    -vote for the next action/outcome (Pop Idol/X factor- the most recent, but been going on for decades, centuries..)
    -viewpoint, you choose (video games, which player do you want to be: x the archer, y the wizard, z the strong man…)
    -‘reader’ becomes the protagonist (cluedo)

    What will be scary is when all these (above), and all the many many other possibilities for how the ‘reader’ (consumer) will be given story, are put together. The traditional 2-D, linear concept of story will seem like cavemen grunts. And if Gates, Jobs, Zuchenberg, or whoever, ever come up with a virtual reality system that can give the ‘reader’ smell/taste/touch senses… well, then, us (old-skool) writers will be DIGITALLY FUCKED!