Digital and literature

It’s more than just publishing an eBook

Great and terrible things can happen when we merge art and technology

It’s an interesting time in publishing. We seem to have almost got past this ‘uncertain’ period in the business, this ‘turmoil’ when digital finally entered the publishing industry and everyone started to panic. In the last few years we’ve heard all sorts of apocalyptic predictions, but the fact is nobody really knows what is going to happen. We’re in the middle of a revolution, and who knows when that’s going to come to an end. But we can speculate, of course.

The current state of things are — eBooks are now a staple part of any publishing house, everybody seems to have a Kindle (or at least a device which can turn into a Kindle), and the market share figures of eBook sales are slowly growing. In 2015 the ebook market is predicted to be worth £350m.

But the book is still going strong. Yes, more fiction has moved to digital, and physical books sales in general have declined by £150m in five years, but there have been a number of resurgences — the sale of trade paperbacks increased in the first half of 2013, even if the hardback was down. Bookshops perhaps aren’t the bustling, vibrant places they once were — but they are still here.

So we are still buying books. Not everybody has a Kindle, yet. Publishing is not dying, it is simply undergoing a metamorphosis of the like it hasn’t seen for a long time. And that brings me to another issue…

Is this good news or bad news for writers?

Long gone are the days of the booming 80s, when the Big Six of the publishing world threw huge sums of money at the likes of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, and across the water, writers such as Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz paraded around New York as the ‘literary Brat Pack’ because they’d written cool books of the zeitgeist. These days a writer is lucky to receive an advance that even tip-toes into five figures, let alone the mythical six and seven figure deals of the past. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. There is no less writing talent around than before, but it is an increasingly rare thing when talent combines with a lot of luck to land a writer a big pay day.

Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis in New York in the 1980s.

The number of writers who make a living from purely writing novels is pitifully small (something like 2%) and there have been many articles full of doom and gloom published about this recently. It’s getting increasingly more difficult to get into that bracket, even though there are now more opportunities and platforms to sell your book beyond the traditional high street retailers. Amazon has transformed the publishing landscape, everybody has decided to start writing a book, and the market has hence become saturated with all sorts of questionable literature. Some of it is very good, of course. Some of it is also very bad. And then there’s a lot of stuff in the middle. Lots and lots of stuff. Millions of eBooks are available on Amazon alone. We’ve moved from a business dominated by a few conglomerates and their gatekeepers (literary agents), to smaller houses looking to inject a bit of the esoteric and overlooked into the marketplace, to the start of ‘Everyone Wants to be a Writer Syndrome’ and the self (or vanity) publishing era that followed it. And now — we have the eReader, the eBook and platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.

There are many benefits of publishing digitally with Amazon. The royalty rates a writer receives if they publish a novel with Amazon are more than a traditional publisher will offer you. Amazon give you a maximum of 70% on sales and a minimum of 35%, whereas the best you are likely to receive from a publishing house is 15% on hardback books, and 8% on paperbacks.

“Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.”
Patti Smith

What next?

This is the bit where digital comes in. And this is where we writers should all start getting excited again. Because the good old days of huge advances, ‘rock star’ lifestyles, legendary book tours, and that romanticised dream of getting on the tube and seeing everyone reading your book, are all but gone. With technology, we are actually reading more than ever, even if what we’re reading isn’t as highbrow as it used be. And with eReaders, the act of reading has become more clandestine. We can download and read whatever we want, whether that by Mein Kampf (which has been rocketing up the UK eBook charts recently) or Fifty Shades of Grey.

Readers on the tube

This was one of the big trends in recent years — we saw an increase in the sale of erotica to the point where everyone decided they had a hot and kinky tale of whips and chains in their locker waiting to come out. Another trend was eShorts, or Kindle Singles, which Amazon describe as ‘Compelling Ideas Expressed at their Natural Length’ — a piece of writing typically between 5,000 and 30,000 words in length. Kindle Singles is a marvellously simple and brilliant idea. Why? Because they’re not simply eBooks. They’re pieces of writing that are often unpublishable in any other format, and they fill what was formerly quite a sizable hole in publishing — consisting of forgotten, useless novellas, short memoirs, and short stories that are commonly too expensive for a traditional publishing house to print. There’s no special technology involved here. That’s the beauty of it. It just makes sense.

Great and terrible things can happen when we merge art and technology

Technology has changed the way publishers are marketing their products and it has changed the way that we consume products, but what about the product itself? Why aren’t we talking more about that? It’s much more exciting. This could be the year when we truly start to realise the great things we can do with art and technology. Because digital is more than just publishing an eBook or sending a few tweets. We could use digital to improve or enhance the reading experience, forging ahead into tantalising and unexplored territory to create something that has longevity and innovation. That is more than just a gimmick.

But this is very tough, and something that Jennifer Rankin discussed back in 2013 in her article about how publishers and authors are trying to break through in the world of digital and literature. So it is starting to happen. The industry is slowly, slowly adapting to the new world. We have such enterprises as Amazon’s Kindle Single, unique publishing platforms such Medium, (which is remarkable in how it has bridged the divide between publishing, reading, and technology), and even publishers determined to bring something new to the market, such as The Pigeonhole, which is just as much of a community as a publisher — offering serialised online books and printing physical editions based on popularity. Another recent venture is MacGuffin — launched by Comma Press, it allows authors to self-publish short pieces of writing, both as text and audio file, and provides detailed analytics to show where readers stopped reading. It’s also worth mentioning the likes of Aitken Alexander’s new website which breaks the mould of what a literary agency’s site has been and is expected to be (namely where potential authors go to get agents’ contact details and submission preferences) and looks at what it could be — a content hub, filled with more than just news of book deals, but fresh, interesting and relevant content from the publishing world, often curated from elsewhere on the web. From the revolutionary and forward-thinking, to the controversial — such as Penguin’s hotly debated and highly controversial venture Twitterature, which involves squashing classics into twenty tweets or less, or Clean Read, the app which replaces ‘unclean’ words with more palatable alternatives (which the writer in me thinks is utterly diabolical, but the digital strategist in me admires for their nerve, determination and creativity). From the mad and radical to the very basic. Building microsites or apps can be very effective, going beyond just a marketing tool and way of shipping more copies, and actually supporting or even expanding on a novel by offering extra chapters or outtakes, which are great for building an audience and tying readers over until the next novel. All of these things are great, but I think they are just the beginning — the small pitter-patter of stones before an avalanche. So much is possible with digital and literature, and as much as I think this is a good thing — as a bibliophile and book collector myself and one who doesn’t own an eReader — I hope that the paperback will survive too. Beautiful physical editions of novels will always find homes when there are people around who still appreciate them. They will look after themselves, like they always have, and hopefully bookshops will also have the staying power and ingenuity to survive the recent purge. The key is going to be how the old world exists alongside the new world, and for me that is where the potential and the excitement is.

So hopefully in the next few years we’ll be reading more articles about some amazing ventures, ideas, and inventions in the world of literature and publishing — as opposed to just the same old news stories about the death of the novel, the death of the eBook, or the death of the writer himself as machine written literature tops the bestseller chart for the first time, and the year after goes on to claim the Booker Prize.