‘There’s a new sheriff in town’

Timothy Olyphant as Sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood. The Movie Network.

I’ve been reading an article by my friend Neil Cross, that has made me sit up and think about how I feel about fiction in a fundamental way. You can read Neil’s piece here.

Neil asks how the novel, as a form, can continue to be relevant as a representation of reality in such rapidly evolving times. It is far from being one of those slightly tedious ‘the novel is dead’ articles so beloved of literary journals (which are really just a posh way of saying ‘we’re bored by the novel’) and looks much more interestingly at how the novel has become an increasingly out of touch vehicle for reflecting our experience.

At root we read novels because one of our fundamental needs as human beings is the need for story. Story is our way of understanding and explaining the world, of marvelling at its complexities, empathising with our fellows and laughing at its absurdities. As a species, we are pretty much hard-wired to both tell and enjoy stories.

But I don’t think we are hard-wired to do so through novels, and what’s more, I now believe its possible the novel could recede in importance as a form in inverse proportion to its current dominance as the story telling vehicle.

At the advent of television there were many predictions that it would be the death of books. Now, of course, that didn’t happen as foretold but it may actually prove to be right. The book maintained its hegemony because it is far more portable and user oriented than television scheduling. I can sit with my paperback and dip in and out as I please. I can read on the bus, the beach and in the bath. I don’t have to stop reading for commercial breaks or wait until chapter 17 appears next Wednesday night. The book as a delivery method for story delivery on demand was still top dog.

Until now.

At the weekend, we started viewing the first series of Deadwood. Now I know I’m behind in my viewing, Deadwood having started in 2004, but then I still haven’t read Middlemarch which was first published, in serial form, in 1871. Now, as with books, I can choose when I view.

We have it as a DVD boxed set, but I could rip it to a hard drive or download it from iTunes and watch the episodes on an iPad. I can view it in bed, on the bus or the beach (though I grant you, the bath is still too risky) as I please. The experience of a movie is now as deliverable on demand as easily as the experience of reading a novel. It is also possible that as more books become digital they may be measured more aggressively against other digital products.

As Neil points out, television can be just as well written and as compelling a vision of human experience as any novel:
In Jamesian terms, I think the two greatest literary novels of the new century were television programmes: The Sopranos and The Wire.

This is of course the crucial point. If the experience of visual storytelling is as good or better than the novel and if it can capture the nature of humanity the way we are now, then why would we not seek a  more contemporary, more relevant relationship with story not based so strongly (or perhaps even weakly) on the printed word?

Neil reflects on the ratio of his reading has shifted from fiction to non-fiction. If I look at how my own consumption has changed then there is, likewise, a big shift. I still read and enjoy novels but increasingly I find myself watching something like The West Wing, in just the same way as I once read novels, four chapters a night. Unlike the 1950’s harbingers of doom for the novel, this isn’t speculative futurology, its what I’m actuallydoing.My need for story is undimmed, but perhaps its route to my imagination has already changed its path.


Flashlight: Strobing the book world # 4

It’s definitely an interesting newsday in the book world.

Kicking off with this article by Ewan Morrison from the Edinburgh Book Festival via the Guardian. It’s an excellent, though very bleak, article that I need to digest some more before commenting on properly.

I’m interested in this piece which looks at the possible entry of some unusual players into the book market. No doubt many non-traditional players will seek to enhance the offer to their customers through selling content actively, but the fact that there might be some increased competition to Amazon in the UK is highly significant. I also think it interesting that Argos would consider developing a reading device, which in terms of their product range would be a much easier sales proposition for them than ebooks themselves.

This piece from Philip Jones is good, both for its observation that the tenor of the publishing/bookselling debate is still worryingly defensive in character and for invoking Douglas Adams.

This article from the National Literacy Trust is a timely reminder that the universality of the skill of reading is one we cannot take for granted.

Lastly, from Galleycat I hear that The Decemberists have reenacted a scene from David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest in their latest video. Which is as good a reason as any to have a musical interlude.


Update: This piece from Marcus at Vicbooks is just lovely.


Ah but its good to come home to memory lane. I’ve been out and about a bit in rather a busy way over the past couple of weeks.

However, I have been doing some interesting things. A couple of weeks ago I was part of a  panel discussion on the future of books at the Taranaki Arts Festival. Among other things, I discovered that New Plymouth is a rather excellent town to go for your first weekend away with partner but without kids in seven years. Great art gallery, museum and pub. The festival was also rather memorable in that it introduced me to the concept and reality of the Spiegeltent. I never knew such things existed but am now very glad to know that they do.

The panel was fun, a good discussion and plenty of questions from the 60 or so strong audience. Bookseller Tilly Lloyd’s view is online here.  My talk was delivered from notes rather than a written out speech, but you are likely to read its main themes here very soon. Interestingly, about a third of the audience were already using an ereader and well over half expected to be using one soon. I’m not sure why I was surprised at this as the world is, after all, increasingly joined up.  Perhaps this Guardian editorial is right.

In other news I’ve done a my first review for the New Zealand Listener on Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. Loved it.

I’ve found some new sources that I’m quite taken with, especially the Elitzr podcast series which is excellent. I very much enjoyed the Richard Nash interview (who is also worth looking at here) and Seth Godin’s talk. There was a lot of stuff in the Godin edition I found fascinating, particularly his view that books need to be designed to be infectious. But I confess that I found myself strangely saddened by his comment that bookshops will become ‘giftshops for smart people’. He may be right but somehow  I can’t quite buy into that just yet. Indeed I’m not even sure why I can’t buy into it. Which means I’ll probably have to write about it.

September is shaping up to be rather full-on, but will be posting and I still have a good deal to get down on the publishing of fiction.

Finding fiction

The New York band Finding Fiction

In a recent post I may have been somewhat glib about the traditional marketing tactics deployed by publishers. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea here. Publishers work incredibly hard to make their books work and their tactics have been, to varying degrees, successful in the past. My point is that they are no longer enough.

The objective of publisher marketing has always been to make the book as discoverable to its market as possible. This has been done by educating, inspiring and occasionally cajoling the book trade to stock, support and sell the book. When done well, this achieves a virtuous circle, bookshops fall in love with and ‘hand-sell’ the product. The bookshop ‘community,’ if you will, adopts the book and takes on the role of telling the story of the story to readers.

Digital changes all of this. It does away with the element of a well-prepared trade.  There is no showroom for the customer to hold and sample the book, no bookseller to influence and advise, no context in which to measure the book easily against others. In short publishers have no-one to tell the story of the story to readers.

In its place we have is a search engine. Now this can work quite well with non-fiction about which we often have a clearer idea of what we are after. If I want a book on the French Revolution and Simon Schama’s Citizens pops up, then my mission is accomplished and my need sated. If I need a book on Tatting, then Google is unquestionably my friend.

But we buy fiction in a different way and for reasons that are much more speculative in nature. What if I’m in the mood for, say, a love story? How does Google interrogate my desire further? What context or experience can it apply to help me sate that rather nebulous desire? Most importantly how do I get an authoritative enough recommendation to part me from my cash?

At the moment the answer relies largely on the accuracy of meta-data but if we are to keep breaking new voices into the fiction market then surely we will need to build new and effective recommendation synapses into our new digital environment? Some might argue that these already exist in various online communities but as yet I don’t see much evidence of them penetrating into the mainstream world of the general reader over and above the blunt instrument of Amazon’s suggestions.

Maybe the reading and recommendation of fiction will become a matter of niche online communities or reliance perhaps on already dominant ‘brand name’ authors. But what will this do to our reading culture? Might we find that an activity already beginning to struggle in reaching segments of the population, loses even more relevance.

If you change the supply chain, it’s not just a change of reading format, it’s a change in the way people find and propagate their experience of story. Inevitably publishers will have to adapt but if they don’t do this quickly or adroitly enough, will people simply go someplace else to get their narrative fix?

Publishers don’t just need to master the supply chain of e-publishing, they need to find a new way of connecting that chain to readers. They need to find a new way of telling the story of the story.

P.S. Amazing what you can find just googling words and there is a certain relevance to what the band are doing. The great Simon Reynolds gave this interview at the weekend on the Kim Hill show. Fascinating for all sorts of reasons but not least because of his insight into the need for music to be not just a private, iPod-only experience but a public one. More to say on this insight regarding books.

The Publishing Tunnel

Into the tunnel

If aliens observed human publishers they might be forgiven for the thinking that the method by which we disseminate our ideas is somewhat dull. Even now, by and large, publishing books follows pretty much the same steps over and over. Manuscript to catalogue to sales conference to proof copy to presenter to review campaign and repeat. If the numbers on our spreadsheets are high enough then a bit of advertising, some twitter and a website.

It’s not that these tactics are wrong necessarily, it’s just that we rarely question whether they are enough or, for that matter, whether they are working at all. And in truth, we can’t because we are compelled to enter a ‘tunnel’ process at the beginning and follow its path from acquisition to returns pallet.

What makes publishing work as a creative business (and the reason we don’t all get bored and do something else) is the fact that while the process is repetitious we inject it each time with a huge range of content; new authors, new stories and new concepts. The sheer wild diversity of ideas and entertainments that flow through this ‘tunnel’ is what keeps us enthralled.

Why then are our publishing tactics so dominated by the tunnel.

The trouble with the tunnel is its rigidity. The waypoints of publication are fixed by the manufacturing process and the demands of the retail sector. Certain marketing tactics are expected in order to convey seriousness and adherence to the trade calendar is crucial in successfully attaining a vital retail slot.

The problems this system causes are twofold. Firstly, the decisions on positioning, artwork and approach made at the start of the process set a rigid framework that will determine the success or failure of the book. Once the book is into the tunnel it becomes increasingly difficult (and expensive) to alter its chances of success. What’s more because the tunnel behind is full of new books there is almost no room for the analysis or reflection required to change a book’s trajectory.

Secondly the system allows for only relatively small variations in tactics, and therefore we are forced to deliver some of humanity’s most vivid creative enterprises with only a modicum of creativity. Our publishing process, almost by its very nature, ensures that plenty of books with potential (in all markets) fail to cut through. We have no time to rethink, re-imagine and retry. Our products cannot be honed, fine tuned or perfected.

Print publishing, in too many cases, operates with one creative arm tied behind its back.

The digital transition by loosening this system may allow the industry a new freedom to experiment. We must learn to test and to analyze, to do less of the magical thinking involved in hoping for ‘word of mouth’ and reintegrate our efforts based on expressing the content as opposed to servicing the requirements of the tunnel. The absolutely crucial element of catching the imagination of the audience must come first. If we are the master, as opposed to the servant of the tunnel, we can dramatically improve the success of our publishing. And if the aliens were to look again at publishing, they would see us telling the story of our story.