Monday 27 April 2009

Using the Internet to do something NEW

Blogs have turned the internet into some kind of noisy Hobbesian nightmare. Twitter has quietened the noise to a series of feint coughs, but the effect is the same – now everyone has something to say and no one has any time to listen. We are all participants; we are all producers; the consumer is dead.

It sounds scary or exciting depending on your take, but actually it’s rather dully neither. Technology may have changed the number of writers there are, but it hasn’t really changed writing. Writers who talk about the Internet – and even that’s a small percentage of them – see it as a way of publicising their book through a website. A few of them will try exotic marketing techniques like giving away their book, or producing their book as an e-book. The object of their craft, though, remains a book.

Which is a terrible shame when there IS so much creativity out there on the web. Some of it involves stories and characters – the tools, we were led to believe, of the writer. But what creativity there is belongs to the YouTubers and the gamers, groups of people who work together to create stories from the roots up, or to take narrative in surprising new directions.

So what can we, as humble writers, do with the Internet? Tom McCarthy, one of literature’s great innovators, said earlier this year that he couldn’t think of much – the Net did little but make more bad books available than ever. He’s right, but he needn’t be.

The first thing we need to do as writers is stop seeing ourselves as writers, and start seeing ourselves as creators of culture. Stop drawing boundaries and fences and closing off exciting possibilities. So you want to incorporate a video of someone singing into your novel but that’s music and film? So what? It’s a sad indictment of the boxes we put ourselves in that the most innovative novel of the past twenty years remains House of Leaves, a book that only ever existed on paper.

Two things excite me about the web. First, the potential for collaboration; and second, the fact that it exists in so many places and in so many ways that are all only a click away from each other. To make the most of these we have to get rid of two preconceptions – that we as writers sit in our attics dispensing words to the masses; and that what makes something literature is the possession of a story arc that can be contained neatly between the covers of a book.

It’s only since the printing press that writers have been physically able to separate themselves from the communities for whom they wrote. Storytelling always used to be a dialogue between teller and audience. The web allows it to be that again - it allows us to take our writing to people, listen to them listening to us, and change things as we go along. We can produce different versions of a book; we can even write the whole thing as one gigantic, multi-authored mess. Why don’t more of us stop worrying about the fact collaboration means the end of “auteurishness” and see where it leads in its own right – why don’t we allow ourselves, for a moment, to revel in the anarchy of it all, and see what emerges the other side?

I have offended countless writers by calling the centrality of “story” a myth – those writers who know their theoretical onions accuse me of swallowing Denis de Rougemont’s rather torturous conclusion that narrative arcs are an infusion of Platonic death into the pure life of culture. I haven’t swallowed him at all- historically speaking, his Tristanocentrism is rubbish. But he’s right about one thing – there’s nothing “natural” about the mythic status the likes of Dwight Swain accord to “story”.

Story implies unity, direction, that things follow from one another. In order (and I’ll explain if you want to know more): story is a phallocentric invention; story is the obsessive compulsive ritual at the heart of western literature; story is what literature should look like if quantum never happened and relativity still ruled the astrophysical high seas – only it did, and it doesn’t, and story is, therefore, an atavism, a throwback, a genetic anomaly that has interest but shouldn’t, by rights, exist.

What the web gives us as authors is the ability to put bits of stuff here there and everywhere and leave readers to join the dots. The fact that we as writers don’t is, to be honest, rather patronising. Of course most of the time people just want to relax in the bath with a good book. And for that, nothing is better suited than something with a good story. But there are other times when as readers we want to discover, elicit, be part of the uncovering and unravelling – revel in the wide-webbed mess of an entity that’s everywhere – it’s like watching the Usual Suspects with a zillion bells on. And the web gives us the potential to do this.

The Man Who Painted Agneiszka’s Shoes, my Facebook novel, is a vague stab at this. There’s a text. But it exists within a great morass of other “stuff”. Some of that stuff is on the Facebook group in the form of character sketches, back story articles, podcasts and pictures. But there’s also this blog, there’s a YouTube channel, there’s tweets, there’s a whole game the successful completion of which will influence the novel’s end; there’s fake websites; there’s fake blogs and dead end links; there are all sorts of phrases that you can google and find yourself in another part of the novel. You can enjoy the “story” without any of this – but you can also follow it down a hundred different routes, and enjoy it in as many different ways. There is no “one” novel. There are as many novels as there are readers – and then some to spare. As a writer, laying down these paths is like writing a thriller only in four dimensions. It’s the most intense adrenalin rush imaginable. I still haven’t figure out why other writers don’t agree, why they’re all still pounding away to write “a book” rather than exploring this wonderful multi-dimensional virtual notebook we now have. A few of us are – I invite the rest of you to come and join us. It’s fun.

It’s also got serious commercial potential. But that’s for a later post. This one’s all about getting you creatively excited.

Hi, Agnieszka Kitty

Big news is The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes has a logo, and this is the first place you’ll see it (when my scanner starts working!!). By a couple of minutes, anyway. That way Facebook can’t get their mitts on the copyright, because this is one thing I’m not giving away.

The logo even has a name – Agnieszka Kitty. It’s a manga take on Paul Klee’s “Eros” – with shoes, and it says about all that needs saying for this group – it’s simple, and it will look great on a T-shirt.

OK, here it is, Agnieszka Kitty, copyright Dan Holloway 2009

The full galley of entries will be up on on May 1st, and then on the group site. There weren’t many of them – that’s the lesson I learned – don’t go in with a competition too early, before you actually have followers and media coverage.

And the artist? Er, well it was something that came to me in the bath a couple of days ago. That probably sounds hooky, but it really does hat I want the logo to do. Still, if the other fantastic entrants object I’m happy to stand down.

Give the nice people a dictionary.

Today sees the London launch of Punk Fiction, a collection of shorts for charity by rock stars (great idea). Kele from Bloc Party’s going to be there. Even better. Sadly Alison Mosshart’s too busy working up a sleazy storm with The Dead Weather in the States to promote her story with an appearance. I’m tempted to pop along to see if my childhood hero, guitar god Johnny Marr, turns up.

I just wish people would stop hyping slick, highly branded, “product” from the cultural elite as punk. Time was the word meant something. It was about doing it yourself. I know it’s for charity and celebs bring cash to the party, but the chances of I or my hugely talented and innovative writing chums being let anywhere near a project like this by the PR storm troopers is about the same as The Sex Pistols being asked to advertise butter (er, note to self – update dodgy simile database). So don’t pretend it has anything to do with punk.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Publishing's in BIG TROUBLE

OK, so publishing’s in a bad way. Victoria Barnsley was speaking at LBF on the future of publishing. She’s the industry’s chief insider futurologist. And the best she can manage is what a couple of amateur dingbats sitting on a chatroom managed to knock up months ago. Serialisation (like Dickens, in fact) – sounds remarkably like the project one of my good writing friends has been working on for a long time – G, sort out the software, flog it to HC, and set up a press fro the rest of us with the proceeds.

And as for making money out of new tech – well, it’s hardly news is it – where it IS big news, of course, is for all those “insiders” who’ve been saying the industry doesn’t need change – the news is the biggest insider of all says otherwise. And like film and music first, when she comes a looking she’s going to be seeing what the indie innovators are doing, and see how she can spin it off to make gazillions if you shove a marketing shunt behind it.

So this is my last warning to the debunkers – the industry itself is won over to what we’ve been saying. Some of those of us who do our indie thing properly and innovatively now will have our doors battered down by execs with cheques in 2010. I intend to do everything I can in 2009 to make sure I’m one of them. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll worry about that next year. It’s not too late for everyone else out there to give it a go. I told you in January this was land grab time and no one believed me. I’m telling you again now. Come share the spoils. Because if you stick to the old way because there’s time for innovation later, you’ll end up discovering what the destitutes found out –a bandwagon’s a hell of a bumpy ride unless you’re the person driving it.

Sunday 19 April 2009

The new post-recession landscape of publishing

Please note, there are no value judgements in this post. I’m not saying publishing has to change, or ought to change – nor am I saying the current way is bad, or that we are stepping into Utopia. I’m simply saying what I think WILL happen. And the reasons I think it are purely business and economic related ones. This is about the business model of publishing

In other words, publishing’s going to change over the next couple of years. And because of the economic climate big publishing houses may not be able to keep up. It may well be the ones that have no choice but go for broke – or the ones who are so vulnerable they get snapped up and stripped for parts – that will actually emerge stronger. The result is when the recession’s over publishers may find themselves as dinosaurs in a land of mammals.

I wrote an article on publishing in 10 years’ time recently for in which I predicted a POD machine in every supermarket and on every high street. I don’t think we’ll see that in 2010/11. I DO think we’ll see publisher become flatter and leaner.

Briefly, how; then, why; then, what does that mean for writers.

How? What does “flatter” mean? It basically means this. There isn’t one thing a publisher does. Publishers provided a whole host of services. For a writer to be with a publisher means they hand over control of all these services to one organisation. Now that has a vast number of benefits. After all, we all like a one stop shop. But there are disadvantages too – there’s a real lack of focus, and some big old cumbersomeness. Plus there just isn’t the choice there should be.

OK, lack of focus – what do I mean? It’s easy to say what a publisher focus on doing – they focus on publishing, on getting the best book possible to the widest number of possible readers for a price those readers can afford that still makes everyone a slice. But that’s a category error. I mean the same Bertrand Russell meant when he said to the person who’d just had the contents of the Universe listed and then asked – “yeah, but you’re forgetting the Universe itself.” The Universe isn’t a “thing”. It’s the sum of all things. In the same way publishing isn’t a service. It’s a host of other services – editing, marketing, design, proof-reading, PR, printing, logistics, IT etc. – and when you’ve listed them all there’s nothing else to say – “yeah, but you’re forgetting publishing itself.” “Sorry,” I say with Bertie R, “Publishing ain’t a service. It’s the sum of all services”. That’s what I see happening – we’ll have all these services provided by small specialists, and the writer (or their manager) in the middle, picking and choosing who does what.

So? Here’s the why. Well, so what we’ve seen in other sectors of the economy – I’m not going to keep coming back to IT, so I’ll just say techie stuff now and explain when I’m asked – plus fashion, manufacturing – is that big umbrella industries work better when they’re not big umbrella industries but lots of small specialists (I think Charles Handy said something about donuts but last time I read his stuff I just got fat). And don’t forget the banking industry got in trouble because firms that did one financial thing thought they could do lots of financial things. My point is the economy’s moving to a situation of lots of little companies doing very focused tasks – when complicated products are put together it’s a coming together of lots of these little companies each doing what they do excellently, rather than one company doing everything reasonably well.

I’m not talking from a publisher’s POV on this blog but a brief note – Harper True, MacMillan New Writers – great ideas, but if they’re going to work you’ve gotta let these pseudo small companies act like REAL small companies and cut the apron strings.

This new publishing landscape will be a minefield. It’s always like that when things start – most of the new specialist companies will go to the wall – many taking writers’ hard work with them. As Hurricane Number One said, only the strongest will survive. As writers there’s a chance to get it very right in the new picture – but a bigger chance to get it all wrong.

So what are the benefits for you as writers? Well, first off, you will get to deal with the editor who’s right for you; the designer who knows your genre best; the web person who can give you exactly what you want. Sounds good? Maybe. Sounds hellish daunting though. That’s work and money. And there won’t be “publishers” handing out advances to cover it now you’re doing it yourself.

Some writers will thrive in this model – the entrepreneurial, extravert, business-savvy ones who know exactly whom to use, how to use them, and what to pay. They will be better off than they ever were under the old system. Much like the savvy self-publishers today, only better because distribution and printing will finally be separated properly.

How will the rest survive? Two ways. Collectives with a niche audience, who basically act as a specialist Yellow Pages for writers, pooling information, possibly tying in with specialist credit unions (a forgotten but highly successful – because focused – part of the generally failing finance industry) to offer small loans tailored to authors needing self-pub costs.

In the past few weeks my thoughts have surprised me, but I think anyone who’s followed the argument here knows where I’m going for my conclusion – we’re going to see a new model of agent that’s more like a project manager, who coordinates all these things for their writers.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

The second commandment

Marketing is something small groups of like-minded writers can in many ways do better than big publishers

If there’s one reason writers give more than any other why they don’t want to self-publish, it’s marketing. Sometimes that’s because they see the writer’s job as writing – the rest is for the publisher. Sometimes it just seems a daunting prospect. I’m not going to argue with the former. Some people just don’t want to do anything but write. I’d question how feasible it would be for a new author with a big publishing house to do it that way, but I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to the people who are interested but think marketing’s impossible.

It isn’t. It can seem like it – websites, blogs, book tours, twitters, virals, readings – when you can’t see where it stops, how on earth do you know where to start. One thing I will say is – assume the Web, or Web 2.0, is the answer to everything, and you probably will do just what you fear – throw hundreds of hours into all these gismos and gimmicks – and end up talking to no one but yourself.

Get it right, though, and it needn’t take forever – and will get great results (of course, marketing is about getting people to look at your book thinking it’s what they want –e-book, POD, or real book, though, if the actual thing isn’t up to scratch many of the people you draw in won’t buy it – and if you do your job well and get the attention of the marketer’s gold dust – a big opinion-former – you could do way more harm than good if you haven’t got your writing, and your layout at least as good as a regularly published book.

This isn’t really about what YOU can do – although alone you can do a lot. I’ll give one piece of advice to the soloist. For someone as ardently supportive of new tech as I am, I still believe the very best thing – if you only do one thing for your book – is the local newspaper. They will almost never say no, first off, if you offer a story. I’ve done it twice – and twice I’ve had an e-mail straight back saying here’s some questions, when can we send the photographer round? (of course you’ve got to pitch it right – human interest, local story: make it about YOU more than your book). And the thing about the local rag is that freelancers scour it for stories they can sell on to national rags and magazines. The local paper ran a story on how my wife and I had been to 23 countries in a year on budget airlines a few years back (I was writing a comedic travel book – the airline industry went belly up just as I was ready to pitch it). Within a month we were front cover of Woman’s Own, I had a piece in The Observer, The Sunday Times was on the phone, and I had a TV crew round shooting a screen test for a travel documentary. They’d all contacted me – because of a small piece in the local rag. So when people say to me “I want to get in the media – I’ll contact The Times, The Guardian, Channel 4…” I tell them to take a deep breath and send a well-crafted one page press release, with a short bio and maybe a photo, to their local paper, and give it a month before they even consider anything else.

That’s an aside. The main point of this week’s column – but I’ll keep it short – is this. If you get together with a few other writers who write the same kind of thing as you, and form a collective identity, you can achieve a vast amount.

My golden rules for collective success are:
Replicate don’t duplicate. If one of you finds something that works – tell the others how to do it by copying the template, but don’t all do the same thing. For example, if you’re geographically scattered – you can each approach your local radio station and offer to appear on a phone-in show. But don’t all put effort into contacting Radio 3.
focus on marketing – if you want to make your books perfect, get in a professional editor, professional cover designers, even professional IT staff – if you were running a small business you’d outsource things – so do it with your books and give yourselves time to get the marketing right.
Promote your brand at least as much as the individual books – that way you all benefit from each person’s efforts.
Stick to your target market. Collectives work better if you have a specific niche market – and you will often know this market better than a publishing house because the chances are you’ll be part of it. My collective writes fiction aimed at urban indie readers. I like to go to gigs and galleries and coffee shops – I know where my readers hang out and what they do – I speak to them every day. That’s all marketing often is – speaking to your readers. So don’t just throw things out into cyberspace. Find real (or virtual) groups of your readers and speak to them about your book. They like what you like – if it’s any good they’ll like your book and tell their friends – and because you’re operating in a small circle, word will spread wide through the group’s channels.
Share ideas, and form action plans. Don’t all do your own thing. Don’t get carried away. Start off with a time-limited brainstorming session. Online or face to face, give yourselves enough time to think things through, not so much your mind wanders – a tight schedule means you start to bounce ideas off each other and creativity arises out of the whole process. Then analyse what you’ve got – research the options you like, and draw up a realistic timetable for action.

I could happily write a whole column on each of these. That'll come with time, but for now, these are tasters to get the ideas flowing

Tuesday 7 April 2009

The first commandment - there is no stigma to self-publishing

In many ways this debate is already tired. Some writers will never take self-publishing seriously. For others the “stigma of self-publishing” isn’t an issue that figures on the radar. For me, it’s a non-issue in need of swift despatch.

Here are the various strands I have come across against self-publishing – in the “stigma” vein – there are all sorts of arguments based no marketing difficulties, but those arguments are for another week (if you have more please add them – this isn’t meant to be a white elephant hunt):
It’s just vanity publishing under another name
No one will take me seriously if I self-publish
There’s no professional editing or design, so my book will look amateurish
Even if that’s not the case, other self-published books are amateurish and I’ll be lumped in with them
Bookshops won’t stock my book, so I’ll lose a massive chunk of my potential market
Anyone can do it, so the fact my book’s in print doesn’t actually mean anything

The standard response you here – so and so did it (usually G P Taylor or the like) – are particularly vapid, so it’s no wonder people aren’t convinced. That doesn’t show there’s nothing iffy about self-publishing. Just that a few remarkable people have risen above the iffiness. Most of us aren’t remarkable.

So here are my response to each point in turn
1. I’m not sure why there’s a stigma to “vanity publishing”, unless you’re just repeating point 6. The only real objection is that vanity publishers rip writers off. True. Many do. So don’t use them – do your research, just like you would if you were starting any business (this is a column for people who seriously want to get ahead with their writing, not people who just want to see themselves in print), find a good printer, and use them. Not going through your business plan properly is no one’s fault but yours.
2. I’ll deal with bookshops under point 5. Readers I’ve spoken to don’t care less who publishes the books they read. If they’re buying a new author they want a good cover, a good pitch, and a gripping opening. To this extent the stigma is in the head of writers – not readers.
3. Just because a publisher isn’t doing this for you, there’s no reason your book should look any more amateurish than those you see on the shelves. The printers you end up using will do the same things publishers’ printers do. If you don’t feel happy doing your own editing and design, you can outsource these tasks. Don’t self-publish your book until it’s ready. Be as professional in your approach as you’d expect a publisher to be. Join writing groups, get feedback, work with professionals. Thin seriously about joining a writers’ collective so you can pool knowledge about professional practices.
4. See point 2.
5. No, a lot of bookshops won’t. That means you’ll have to look at new ways of marketing. It is hard work. But that doesn’t give it a stigma.
6. Before you decide HOW you want to get published, ask yourself seriously WHY you want to get published. Do you want to see yourself in print? Then it doesn’t really matter how you go about it if you are happy with the end result. Do you want recognition of your worth as a writer? If, to you, that means having the publishing world take you seriously, then self-publishing isn’t for you. Do you want to try and turn your writing into a business? Then choose the method that gives you the best chance.

Friday 3 April 2009

Something borrowed? AND A polite way of saying no?

If Tuesday’s is my regular column, Fridays are for gossip and an irreverent look at the state of writing.

For those who don’t know me, I’m a member of a whole host of writing sites, and at some stage I’ll mention them all. For those who do know me, don’t worry – I don’t do names or personal attacks. Back to the first bunch – sorry if that makes it dull but don’t worry – I do forthright and I do scurrilous.

Anyway, as this is a current affairsy thing, I’ve got two things to say this week.

The Boxer Rebellion are playing Jersey. Yay! Er, so what? So what?! Not only are they the best band on the planet at the moment. Not only do I have a piccie of me, my wife and Nathan on my Facebook. More to the point, they’re huge and they’re unsigned – in fact, the first unsigned band to play Jersey. In January they reached number one in the iTunes chart without a label.

Writers, take note – if it wasn’t time to take downloads and self-promotion (and, yes, self-publishing) seriously THE MOMENT Napster hit the news – WHICH IT WAS, then it *@$! is now. So back to next Tuesday’s first commandment for 2009 – there is no stigma in self=publishing. Hard work – hell, yes. But the only stigma is I~N YOUR HEAD.

OK, so this week I had two “no”s from agents (yeah, I’m still subbing as well as forging ahead with Year Zero – all bases and stuff). But not the usual form letters. Rather, BY RETURN a scribble at the bottom of my letter saying “sorry, we’re not taking any new writers on.” I posted this over on Authonomy so people didn’t waste postage.

I got one comment that this was just a polite way of saying no. It wasn’t. A typed form letter after three months is a polite way of saying no. This is, as my cynical interlocutor admitted in the next post, symptomatic.

Agents aren’t buying because Publishers aren’t buying. That’s bad news for writers, right?

DUH, NO!! It’s great news for writers with the get up and go to do it themselves; to band together into lean, flexible collectives – like Year Zerø J. It means there’s a real open door for people to come and offer readers quality new, fresh fiction they just can’t get elsewhere.

And the publishers and agents are SERIOUSLY shooting themselves in the foot. Because if they force writers to go it alone of necessity, then when the recession’s done and the agents and publishers say “OK, come on. Business as usual” you know what? Writers are going to say “sorry, we worked out we don’t need you.” (WHY we can do it better is for a later Tuesday column – if I remember my business for dummies it has something to do with donuts and being horizontal)

My message – if established literary businesses want to survive through the recession they better adapt – because new ones with leaner business models are gonna emerge just like they always do when recession hits just at the time something tech is kicking off (and if I’m right I’ll be poo-pooed from now till about March next year but that’s OK because by the time people realise I was right I’ll be able to make a shedload in appearance fees speaking about why I was right). And they’re gonna grow and they’re gonna swallow the behemoths (er, AOL anyone?) and strip them for their parts – logistics and presses.

So, to the publishers and agents – I actually have nothing against you. In fact, I’ve REALLY liked everyone I’ve ever dealt with in the industry. I just think you need to read the runes better. Because the days of deference are over. I understand all the business reasons why it’s hard to change, to do something new. But we can. And we will.