x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Digital technology: A potentially liberating opportunity for writers

Author and journalist Dan Hancox writes in praise of the ebook, a democratic literary form that has breathed new life into short stories, and asks what’s next for publishing.

The ebook revolution has eliminated previous problems such as story length and printing costs. Above, the popular Kindle Fire tablet computer. Scott Eells / Bloomberg
The ebook revolution has eliminated previous problems such as story length and printing costs. Above, the popular Kindle Fire tablet computer. Scott Eells / Bloomberg

"Times are bad," the Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote: "Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book."

If these are your criteria, times have not improved in the past 2,000 years. While this echo from the past may be familiar, the future for anyone interested in reading and writing is wildly, almost dangerously uncertain. One thing is clear: digital technology has wreaked utter havoc through the publishing industry, in newspapers, magazines and in book publishing in the past decade.

Circulations have tumbled, newspapers and magazines have closed en masse and, for books, the dominance of fewer, larger publishing houses and fewer, larger bookshop chains have brought an ever-more-limited range of options. The stories of much-loved independent bookshops closing after decades of dedicated, enthusiastic service are all too common.

And then there is Amazon, the elephant in the room, contentedly munching away on a feed-bag of small publishers and bookshops. But for every avenue technology closes, it opens another and one of many potentially liberating opportunities for writers - and more importantly, for readers - has been the ebook.

The format's greatest advantage is its flexibility, and it's one I've seized with gusto for the journalism I write. Physical books tend to be 50,000 to 100,000 words long, while the longest magazine or newspaper articles tend to be capped at 4,000 to 5,000 words. But what about that meaty, under-used middle-ground, between 5,000 words and 50,000? When a story is just too long for a magazine, but too short to require a "proper" book, the ebook is perfect.

It's a lease of life in storytelling, in a context where many newspapers and magazines, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, are decreasing their pagination, as print sales continue to fall - which means lower word counts (and consequently, lower pay, too). In the digital age, erstwhile concerns about page space, advertising revenue or printing costs no longer need dictate the length of a piece of writing, whether you call it a book, or an essay, or an article.

The allure for the journalist is also in the spontaneity of ebooks: finish a piece of urgent, timely reportage, and you could have it on sale around the world in a matter of hours. Finish an urgent, timely book and you will be waiting months (in the case of my next full-length physical book, The Village Against the World, six months) before it's on the shelves. In a world of 24-hour news cycles, where revolutions are unfolding on Twitter in real-time before journalists are even awake, let alone dodging bullets, it's some comfort for journalists to feel we are not too far behind the general public.

In the last three years, I have tried numerous approaches, when it comes to publishing what are called "digital shorts" - ie pieces of 10,000 to 30,000 words, what would be say 30 to 100 pages of a real book, usually priced at around US$2-5 (Dh7-18).

The first was for Random House, at its request - a 12,000-word polemic on Britain's student protests, Kettled Youth, which was published alongside Peter Beaumont's Revolution Road, about the Arab Spring, and Mehdi Hasan's critique of austerity economics, The Debt Delusion, under the series title Summer of Unrest.

It was edifying to have the words Random House attached to my work and the commissioning editor was great, but given how few overheads there are with ebooks (the labour and … that's pretty much it), I found myself wondering whether the industry-standard 25 per cent royalty rate was high enough considering all the promotion and publicity I'd had to do. I started wondering this a little more noisily a few months later, when I discovered self-publishing an ebook using Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing programme would offer 70 per cent of the royalties.

So in 2012 I self-published a 30,000 word travelogue, Utopia and the Valley of Tears, about a little-known Spanish communist village, hoping to use my networks and contacts along with a mathematical theory I was working on, that 70 per cent is larger than 25 per cent. While I shan't be retiring off the back of sales of either, the self-published ebook sold almost twice as many copies as the one published by Random House and, perhaps more importantly, led directly to a publishing deal for a full-length, physical book on the same subject with the publishing house Verso (out later this year).

I was pleasantly surprised that going my own way had sold more copies and had done so at a substantially better royalty rate, but a little baffled. Maybe Kettled Youth just wasn't as good, maybe its appeal wasn't as wide - maybe Random House had been too busy dealing with the Alastair Campbell diaries, its big investment that season, to be wasting its time on a short, ranty ebook by a newspaper journalist.

It can't have helped that its substantial PR department first of all forgot to issue a press release announcing the Summer of Unrest series and then finally sent a mass email out with a mortifying, botched mail-merge, so it literally read "Dear , I'm emailing about a new digital project of ours …" - there's nothing like the personal touch, when you're trying to get someone to write about your book. I only found out because a British newspaper editor who knew me forwarded the PR email, teasingly, with the following note: "Dear , would you like to run an extract of this in The Independent?"

It may be that, as the saying goes, big ships take longer to turn around. They are only getting bigger, after Random House's astonishing recent merger with Penguin, to create the new company Penguin Random House, a publishing megalith which will control 25 per cent of global book sales, putting out more than 5,000 books a year. Its chief battle seems to be against Amazon, whose success in undercutting its competitors has made it something of a dirty word in the publishing industry - mentioned in the same breath as the fact almost half of British bookshops are thought to have closed since 2006. In the US, Amazon sells more (real world, paper) books than all other booksellers combined.

"I'm optimistic that we can have more loyalty than Amazon," Markus Dohle, the new boss of Penguin Random House told the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper last month. "You can be loyal to Amazon because you can get a new tennis racket in 24 hours, free freight. But you're not being loyal to them on a more visceral level." He hoped, he said, that his new company would be able to "come closer to the end consumer", proving once again that just because you work with words, it doesn't mean you're obliged to use them in a manner that is comprehensible.

One thing the entire industry seems to agree on, myself included, is that it's a brave new world out there, no one knows what the rules are yet, no one knows for sure what will or won't work and experimenting to survive in the rapidly changing publishing market is essential.

To that end, when I published my latest ebook, Stand Up Tall, a 15,000-word piece of music journalism about Dizzee Rascal and the London he grew up in, I pitched it to Amazon directly for its Kindle Singles project: a specially curated list of ebooks (fiction and non-fiction) billed as "compelling ideas expressed at their natural length".

More than five million of them have been sold since the scheme was launched in 2011, big names and newcomers alike, and I'm fortunate Stand Up Tall is now one of the few hundred titles on the slate. It's technically still self-published, so the 70 per cent rate is still in place, but I had the help of an editorial team, formatting help and a designer for the cover artwork.

Amazon is taking seriously its role as publishers, rather than merely distributors: in the UK, Kindle Singles is headed up by Andrew Rosenheim, the former managing director of Penguin Press, and in the US by David Blum, the former editor-in-chief of the Village Voice and New York Press.

Even without Amazon's help, the mechanics of self-publishing ebooks are beguilingly simple: finish your manuscript, commission or design a cover yourself, convert your word processing document to an .epub (ebook) file, iron out any formatting glitches (this takes at most an afternoon), choose a price, click "upload", and a few hours later you're away. Well, sort of away: getting the book on sale is the easy bit.

The days of an author dropping a manuscript off at their publisher and then reclining with a cigar until the royalties start rolling in are over - even the most successful writers, with a heavy groan, more often than not, are expected to push themselves and their books personally online. Promotion that might have been done at literary parties and book launches over drinks is now be done via the likes of Twitter and Facebook. I've found using social media incredibly productive for securing not only sales and general interest, but reviews and even newspaper serialisation.

Perhaps the era of the decentralised social network is liberating writers from their publishers - at least in the sense that they can speak directly to their readers, all the time. In a grotesque prophecy a decade ago, the British sitcom character Nathan Barley put it best, when he proudly described himself as "a self-facilitating media node".

"Everyone has a book in them" runs the wisdom - and in the digital age, we're seeing more and more of them make it out into the open. We are all becoming storytellers to the world at large: hundreds of millions of internet users around the world are effectively self-publishers. The publishing industry is learning to feed off this, and not just through projects like Kindle Singles. Personal blogs and diary sites like LiveJournal (words which might once have dwelt in notebooks in a bedside drawer) are picked up and become bestsellers. Light-hearted, photo-based "counter books", the kind you find on the counter in a bookshop, are perfectly matched to the Tumblr platform - a book of pets that look like their owners, or buildings that look like fascist dictators - and the industry is capitalising by publishing them.

 

The revolution in self-publishing resides not just in ebooks: websites such as Lulu and Lightning Source have made physical self-publishing cheap and easy, working to a model where you don't need collateral for the expensive process of printing and distribution. No one need pay for the printing of 1,000 copies of their masterpiece, only to find 900 of them still sitting in boxes a year later - these companies work on a print-on-demand basis, whereby every time someone orders a book, one is printed and posted, with little effect on the cover price. A web search turns up all sorts of other options: "BlogBooker produces a high-quality PDF Blog Book from all your blog's entries," offers one company, "Blog2Print gives bloggers the ability to print their blog," says another.

The traditional dismissal of this as "vanity publishing" now seems pretty pompous and unfair, for three reasons: first, it assumes that the author has failed to get "properly" published; that after a decade or two of rejection slips they have decided to stump up some of their savings to make their dream happen after all. Secondly, it assumes nothing tawdry, bad or self-indulgent has ever been published by the traditional industry (have you read any celebrity autobiographies recently?). Finally, it suggests only self-published authors are vain; as if there's any other reason why writers write.

From blogs and newspaper comment boxes to ebooks, the hard lines of "reader" and "writer" are being irreversibly blurred and the internet has sparked a change perhaps as revolutionary as Gutenburg's printing press did in the mid-15th century. Between 1450 and 1800, the number of books published in Europe rose from a few million to around one billion. Like today's, this was so much more than an economic transformation, affecting commerce and industry: it changed people, too - democratising knowledge, opening up the history of human civilisation and faith, the classical canon and dangerous new ideas alike to the world beyond a tiny, educated elite; the likes of Erasmus and Luther soon sold vernacular (rather than Latin) pamphlets numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Gutenburg's invention involved millions in reading for the first time and digital technology is likewise involving millions in writing. This revolution is taking some unlikely forms. The website Rap Genius was created for fans of rap music to collectively annotate the words to their favourite songs with explanations (or at least theories) about what particular lyrical metaphors, references or allusions mean. It has been so successful, attracting a $15-million venture capital investment, that it has expanded from rap to incorporate myriad other texts, from Barack Obama's speeches to Supreme Court judgements, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and the Apple iTunes Terms of Service. Rappers such as Kendrick Lamar and Nas now have officially verified Rap Genius user accounts to share what they meant in their lyrics with fans, and even Sheryl Sandberg has signed up, annotating the opening chapter to her best-selling book Lean In with the 21st-century equivalent of footnotes (with words, but also pictures and hyperlinks).

It's a collectivised or crowd-sourced knowledge pool for anyone with an internet connection and a computer and provides a more open-access updating of the role of the medieval "glossators": normally monks who, in an era before Gutenburg's printing press, built on the sum of human knowledge by writing in (or "glossing") the margins of religious and legal texts with their thoughts and critiques. Many of these glosses were then incorporated into subsequent printed versions of the texts, and have been invaluable to historians.

The Wiki revolution, most famously manifested in Wikipedia, was supposed to democratise the discussion and spreading of knowledge, but its survival in this idealised form isn't guaranteed. While her involvement is no doubt well-intentioned, and welcomed by her fans and readers, the arrival of such big-name authors as Sheryl Sandberg on Rap Genius (or Nas or Kendrick Lamar) raise the question: will the purported egalitarianism of the first decade or so of web publishing revert to the primacy of these kind of "verified" accounts - the commentary and interpretations of those with the loudest voices?

Despite the apparent openness of the digital form, many of those five million Kindle Single sales are by authors who are already bestsellers in their field - not to mention the fact that the technology to read them will always be off-limits to large sections of the global population. Things may be changing fast, but for the moment, the people making money out of ebooks remain a select few, even those who go it alone: according to a 2012 survey by the Australian website Taleist of 1,007 self-published authors, 75 per cent of revenues were concentrated among less than 10 per cent of authors.

In the keynote speech at the Edinburgh World Writers' conference last summer, entitled "The Future of the Novel", leading science-fiction author China Miéville delivered that rare thing from a big literary figure: a defence not of the writer, but of the reading public. He cited those same glossing monks of the medieval period and described a digital future of collective editing and literary reworking, where ebook piracy and copyright infringement might be rendered a creative good, even predicting the "remixing" of novels.

"The text is open," he declared. "This should - could - be our chance to remember that it was never just us who made it, and it was never just ours. To love literature doesn't mean we have to aggrandise it or those who create it. That aggrandisement is undermined by the permeable text. Be ready for guerrilla editors. Just as precocious 14-year-olds brilliantly - orcrappily - remix albums and put them up online, people are starting to provide their own cuts of novels. In the future, asked if you've read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but 'which mix', and why?"

In a sense, Miéville's prediction is already happening. That much-maligned beast "fanfic", or fan fiction, has been a genuine grass-roots web phenomenon, where fans of a book, film or TV series imagine, write and share their own alternative narrative iterations for their beloved characters. It was never supposed to be a commercial enterprise to begin with, but then Fifty Shades of Grey happened: EL James' erotic novel is the fastest-selling paperback of all time, with 70 million copies sold globally. The book began as fan fiction for the Twilight novels, shared with fellow vampire enthusiasts on fanfiction.net.

Some of Miéville's suggestions in Edinburgh were a little out there and dismissed by many of his peers in the inevitable literary fall-out: most notably, the proposal that a standardised national wage for writers was the best way to circumvent the piracy problem. But he was right about one thing: that however uncertain it may be, we shouldn't fear a literary future in which elitism will probably be the greatest victim. "We are, at last, leaving phase one of the ebook discussion, during which people could ritually invoke the 'smell of paper' as a call to cultural barricades. Some anxieties are tenacious: how will people know what a splendid person I am without a pelt of the right visible books on my walls? A hopeful future: that our grandchildren will consider our hankering for erudition-decor a little needy."

With or without pages, the book is open - and it's too late to shut it now.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review.