Willy Lit Fest Part 2: eBooks

Well, okay. I had said this post was coming a day or two after my previous one. But I guess I hadn’t factored in driving to Canberra and back again, preparing to move house,  getting sick,  and a confounded devil named procrastination. But! This post’s subject matter remains relevant, I already had a draft written, and I just had to get it finished before getting down to my Emerging Writer’s Festival blogging. Anyway, excuses are lame, so enough of all that and on to eBooks!

The third and final panel I attended at Willy Lit Fest was named From the Quill to the Kindle, and up on stage was Torpedo editor Chris Flynn, Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham, and Penguin Books senior editor Dmitri Kakmi. Again, before I begin, Ms Thuy Lin has a great roundup of this panel already, so I won’t go repeating everything. But I guess, along with some stuff from the panel, I had a few other things to discuss regarding eBooks.

One of the main questions the panel raised was whether books as we know them now will eventually ‘die’. I don’t see it happening any time soon and I think the two will coexist quite peacefully for a while yet. But will it, inevitably, eventually, happen? I know the comparison isn’t perfect, but if you look at the similar situation faced by the music industry, there remains a decent amount of people who still buy CDs and even vinyl, in addition to, or rather than, downloading. Maybe books will become something of a similarly fetishised or desirable physical object, kept alive by true believers. The arguments for physical books share similarities with those for CDs and vinyl: the ability to have an actual artefact that you can hold in your hands, show off to others, touch and smell. For many, these physical objects are more tactile and aesthetically pleasing, the cover/packaging/design looks better, or the experience may just be more ‘authentic’, more than ‘just data’ or, simply, it might be all about embracing a different but equally worthy medium. Like comparing a vinyl record to a folder of mp3s, a book is a different experience to an eBook, and both have their pros and cons. A page I bookmarked a while back, Books in the Age of the iPad by Craig Mod, explores something along these lines: the difference between Formless Content and Definite Content.

Another barrier I perceive to eBook adoption is the devices. If your paperback is lost, stolen, damaged, dropped in the bath or what have you, it’s not nearly as big a deal as the same thing happening to your new Kindle or iPad, along with any associated data you can’t retrieve. And if you’re not particularly well-off, mightn’t you just go to the library for all the free books you want, rather than purchasing a device worth hundreds of dollars?

For sure, when Sophie held up what must have been an imported iPad (a first for an Australian literary festival, she wondered?), I was a bit excited. I’ve only tinkered briefly with friend’s iPhones and I’m keen to play around some more with these new devices. However, none of them look like something I’d buy. There is definitely an appeal to their many features, but I feel like the eReader medium is still in its early transitional stages, and I won’t be as interested until there’s something like colour e-ink and a move away from both DRM restrictions and monopolisation, where only Apple and Amazon seem to call the shots.  Still, the fact of the matter is that in Australia we’re still lagging behind the USA and other countries when it comes to this sort of technology, so we do get an element of foresight to the developments.

One argument that Chris Flynn made for the transition to eReaders is an environmental one. To me, this is where the eBook option starts to look way more appealing. The proportion of books made with non-recycled paper really is disturbing (again, Thuy Lin’s got the stats). Indie publishers do better in this regard, I’ve noticed, but there are so many mass-market paperbacks, disposable magazines and bulky textbooks that would be much more environmental and sensible on an eReader platform.

I do wonder, however, what the environmental and social costs are if millions of people are always purchasing the latest eReaders, iPhones, iPods, iPads, smartphones, laptops, etc. Here are just two articles that at least begin to interrogate some of the other factors behind eReaders and the like: the costs, conditions and materials involved in manufacturing; whether ‘conflict minerals’ are used; and the huge amount of greenhouse gases involved in maintaining ever-expanding computer/server networks. I think, especially if these things are noted and start to be addressed, and we get eBooks and eReaders right, then they will be indeed be a far greener and greater option.

Someone on the panel made another interesting assertion: that publishing is always behind the eight-ball, and that tech companies are taking publishing from the publishers. This, so far, has not just meant a bypassing of the usual production and distribution channels, but lots of secrecy and Digital Rights Management.

A somewhat recent post on Mobylives outlines a few of the problems with DRM. At the other end of the argument, of course, are people worrying about piracy wrecking the book business. I’m still not sure where a balance lies so that artists and publishers see rewards for their efforts, without placing unnecessary burdens or restrictions on their audience. I like Cory Doctorow’s thoughts on the matter (here’s a good three-part interview with him), but I’m not sure his approach can apply to everyone. But still, any DRM that is applied can and will be broken: Kindle’s DRM was broken last year. In the end, I’d like to think that if you offer high quality, assured, open, flexible and beneficial content for a reasonable price, a good amount of people, especially your loyal fans, will be happy to pay for it. And at least those who don’t are still reading and sharing your stuff.

Interlude: relevant webcomic!

Another related interesting point that arose in the panel: I’d never considered the legal deposit issues that come with eBooks. When a work like a book is created in Australia, the publisher is required to send copies the State and National Library for archiving and such. But if you’re only giving away DRM-locked licenses to books (as with the Kindle) rather than actual copies, it makes legal deposit rather difficult. Libraries can’t actually store a lendable copy, because Kindle eBooks can’t be shared and loaned, thanks to their DRM. It’s very odd to think that when you buy a book, it still doesn’t belong to you, and that the provider can actually alter or remove it from your device remotely.

Beyond all of that DRM stuff, I was interested in what Sophie talked about concerning changing mediums, and how they change the reading and writing process. From speech to handwriting, to redrafting over and over on a typewriter, to the cut and paste of computers, and on to the podcast/audiobook/eBook/multimedia situation we find ourselves in now, with all the associated multitasking distractions and possibilities. (Meanland has been exploring this stuff in more detail). Compare all this to the more fixed text of a book. But we have to remember: the novel is only 200 years old. Novels may well become rarefied, kept alive only by true believers, and maintain an old-fashioned status, akin to opera today. But people will always want stories, and many will want long-form narratives. So really, there’s no need for concern.

Finally, I believe Dmitri Kakmi mentioned this video to illustrate the merging of reading with play; it’s a fusion between iPhone and Book: the PhoneBook!(?):

I guess after all this rumination (I really need to write some shorter posts), I’ll finish with a link to a recent post by Emmett Stinson, who hopes, as I do, that with the arrival of the iPad, the launch of Kobo and other imminent developments, we can stop talking about the future of digital publishing in Australia and start talking about what’s actually happening in the present.

And with that, I think I’ll end my rambling about eBooks and Willy Lit Fest. But as one festival passes, another emerges. Thus, the Emerging Writers Festival began on Friday night, with The First Word. I went along, and I’m planning to get as involved as I can in the rest of the festival. In the spirit of that, I plan to get my blog on harder than ever. Starting today!

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Willy Lit Fest Part 1: Being Frankie and Talking Blogs

Last weekend I ventured along to the Williamstown Literary Festival and checked out a couple of panels:  Let’s Be frankie, Literary Blogging and From the Quill to the Kindle. All in all, it was good stuff, and it was nice to experience a different part of Melbourne, one that’s more like a coastal town, with the sea breeze, fish n chips and hordes of seagulls, along with some good literary company.

Thuy Linh Nguyen has already written about her experiences going to two of these panels, and Lisa Dempster has expanded on some of the stuff covered in her blogging panel, which I’ll get to later. But first, Let’s Be frankie.

I was drawn to this one because, while I don’t mind the odd look through a frankie mag if I see one,  I really wanted to see Marieke Hardy and Benjamin Law. The former, still jetlagged from an extended holiday in volcano-wracked Iceland, I’ve long been a fan of, thanks to First Tuesday Bookclub, JJJ Breakfast, her blog and her numerous other writings.  The latter I recently became a fan of, upon reading his hilarious story about murdering cockroaches en masse in the latest Brow. And I’m really looking forward to his first book, The Family Law. PLUS he just did an interview with Virgule, the newish Voiceworks blog. Check it.

So with Susan Bird as chair, and plenty of  audience interlocution, their casual discussion covered all kinds of things, from freelancing to Twitter to Ben’s mum’s vagina.

Ben, who often writes somewhat ‘personal’ stuff about his partner, parents and siblings, mentioned that family is such an interesting subject for writing because it’s one of the basic social units, like a microcosm of society. It’s true, your family shapes who you are and how you relate to people. Plus everyone’s got one, so it’s always at least somewhat relatable.

They discussed how important it is to run your material past the people you’re writing about if you think there’s the slightest chance they might have issues with it. Plus, it really helps to flesh out your work and get a new perspective on it.

They went on to discuss that, sure it can be good to be honest and lay everything on the table when you write, but have you really thought about the consequences of putting what you’re writing out into the world? Have you considered your audience and the context and how it could be received? Some boundaries are important. Sure, external censorship is something to take a stand against, but it’s interesting to think about how important self-censorship can be, for good or ill. And all of this applies not just to stories, articles and essays, but to blog posts, status updates and even microblogging/tweets (hello Catherine Deveny). They also touched on the idea of ‘the illusion of intimacy’, which I’ll get to later.

Ben discussed the life of a freelancer. He always strives to find something interesting in any dull freelance gig he takes on, and noted how easy it is to get overloaded, because you always think every assignment is going to be your last. He also recommended that, when you’re writing, you should keep a template of ‘good writing’ close by (or perhaps at the back of your mind), so that you’ve got something to aim for, no matter how high you’re aiming.

Marieke mentioned how handy she found News Ltd. lawyers, as dull as they might sound, and how they kept her out of trouble 99% of the time when she wrote for the Green Guide. Still, she was a little surprised that the people she’s writing about actually read her columns and sometimes take offense. It was similar back when she was writing her blog. She saw it as a place to vent, and didn’t really consider any potential offense, defamation or other trouble she could face. It’s funny, I guess when you’re a lone blogger, most people aren’t going to bother taking you to court, whereas a huge organisation like The Age with a reputation, stakeholders and circulation necessitates the team of lawyers.

She also discussed how it’s easier writing about crap TV, because writing about programmes you love just turns into celebratory, masturbatory drivel. Finally, she compared her scriptwriting to her blogging, and discussed how writing for TV doesn’t get much personal response when the finished product finally emerges, whereas writing online has the benefit of immediacy and instant feedback.

*

Speaking of writing online, the next day, satisfied but eager for more, I went along to the Literary Blogging panel, with Lisa Dempster and Angela Meyer (aka Ms LiteraryMinded), both of whom have blogs I follow and enjoy reading, so I was interested to hear their thoughts. There were plenty of questions from the small but engaged crowd and it gave me a lot to think about.

They both agreed that blogging can help you find your voice, build your style and help you grow as a unique writer. Lisa reckoned writing her book Neon Pilgrim was easier because she’d been blogging for so long. She didn’t have to struggle to find a writing voice; she already had that part mostly sorted.

They said that blogging is a discipline to stick to, and that you have to want to stick to it, then it builds its own momentum, just like other forms of writing I guess. But it’s unique in that it’s a good way to test ideas and see what others are thinking. You can admit that your ideas aren’t fully formed and open them up for discussion.

Angela says she still questions her role when she’s blogging: is she a reviewer? A cultural commentator? ‘Just a blogger’? Or, simply, a writer? It’s part of the necessary constant process of self-reflexivity.

And again, they touched on this idea of self-censorship. They wondered about ‘stepping on toes’, especially in such a tight community like that of Australian literary bloggers. You want to be honest, but there is always a degree of self-censorship. The question is where to draw the line. Personally, I want to be able to critique art, literature, media and the world around me, but at the same time, it can be damn hard to really call out perceived major flaws in something, or someone’s work, especially if they’re just starting out or you know them personally. So do you tone down your critique, not put up a review, or be bold, harsh but fair, and give an open opportunity for anyone to reply, refute and defend?

They also discussed this ‘illusion of intimacy’ idea that Ben and Marieke touched on. Sometimes these writers have been accused of being not just honest, but ‘oversharers’. But the fact is, people often don’t know about all the stuff that they’re not sharing. It can seem like they’re telling readers everything about their life and readers might feel that they know everything about them. But like all art, blogging is a constructed representation, and while you may be getting an honest picture and feel you know all about the author, you only know about them from what they give you. Three quarters of their life, or more, might not even be hinted at.

Is this ‘illusion’ a bad thing? Not really. Unless you want to go, warts and all, publishing the minutiae of your life, while alienating everyone you know and possibly facing legal action, it’s hard to have it otherwise. The boundary has to lie somewhere. In the end, of course, it has to be a personal decision. As long as you strive to be honest and fair in what you do reveal, and seriously consider what to publish and what to hold back, then it’s all good.

When asked about whether one should try to blend a large variety of topics in one blog , Lisa replied that cross-over is fine. The blog is your blog, so its topic is always going to be you and your interests. Other people have cross-over interests too, and if your blog is good enough, people will keep coming back for the stuff that they’re interested in, and won’t mind the odd uninteresting post.

There were a couple of other tidbits to think about:

  • A blog evolves over time and has its own narrative. So in a sense, a blog is a story.
  • Before the rise of Facebook and Twitter, people used online ‘handles’ more often. But now with such sites we’re commonly going by our real names online, or our real names are not so hidden anymore. Interesting point.
  • How is blogging perceived? How do you perceive it? Is it for your ‘best’ work? Does it really distract you from other writing? Or is it just a part of the broader spectrum of writing?
  • Finally, they mentioned two interesting things I’d never really heard of: blog tours, where someone hops along onto various blogs from all over the place, providing guest posts on each. Then there’s blog carnivals, where various bloggers all riff on a chosen topic, and they can engage with each others ideas on that topic.

Essentially, this panel built on what I already knew about blogging, gave me a lot to consider and gave me a good kick in the rear to blog more. All in all, blogging is experimental: it’s an experiment for each individual and also because the internet is a medium in flux, all of this stuff is still changing and being negotiated.

Speaking of emergent mediums: eBooks!

But that final panel will have to wait for Part 2, in the next day or two. This time I’m not going to go away for a week or so; I’m going to get some of that momentum happening with this blogging thing.

Litblogs

After reading a post on the Overland blog, I’ve been thinking about literature and the avenues for conversation surrounding it. Many people read books as part of a diverse media diet that also consists of television, radio, magazines, newspapers and, yep, the internet. But only a certain number of people might call themselves book lovers and an even smaller number are the ones who (like me) frequent litblogs (LiteraryMinded is a good local example). These might be people who are interested in literary journals, book launches, the latest small press publications and the like. But while litblogs do skirt the mainstream, occasionally reviewing Dan Brown novels, Booker prize winners and the like, they may need to do even more for a general readership soon.

In the past, people interested in all things literary (be they writers, those in the publishing industry or just dedicated bibliophiles), might have kept up-to-date via weekly or monthly literary supplements in the newspaper. But the general public would also flip through this section. Maybe something would catch their eye, they’d decide to read a few stories or interviews and engage with the literary culture. But on the internet, you never need to even browse past topics you’re not immediately interested in. Your blog reader or your bookmarks exclude anything outside your personalised niche interests.

So the decline of print newspapers (especially if Australia follows the trend in the USA) may mean the decline of literary pages and thus the decline of the literary community engaging with the general public. Of course, if  you want your literary fix, you can just go online where myriad litbloggers or alternative websites post news, reviews and interviews daily. But who’s going to go out of their way to find this stuff besides bibliophiles? Does the world of literature afficionados becomes a clique that just talks to itself? Or maybe it was always like this?

One of the great things about the internet is that you can easily find anything you’re interested in and stay updated. But does this mean people aren’t challenged enough; that they never even find out about different points of view if they don’t want to? The internet can be a browser window to the world, but it can also keep us locked in our own little bubble, if people don’t make efforts otherwise.

How does the literary community reach the mainstream? I guess it’s the age-old question for any niche or subculture looking for broader appeal.

Will The Age‘s Saturday literary supplement soon be gone? Or the monthly literary supplement in The Australian? Will litblogs continue  to serve the bookish community’s niche interests or will they go beyond to claim the place of established newspaper sections?  Or will the literary supplements flourish in a new form online, funded by the monetisation of online news services?

As with all things, I think it’s good to be informed and on top of whats going on, but this ponderous ramble boils down to: we’ll see!