#wossybookclub digital editions

The week has been a twitter with the news of @wossy's book club, or #wossybookclub as it is also known, or Jonathan Ross' twitter book club as it is definitely not known. Happily a Picador book was chosen, Jon Ronson's THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. We decided that to get the book as widely distributed as possible we would zoom the book out in digital editions, both as a subscription access title and as a download. Check out this piece on the Picador blog for more details or go to either Exact Editions or Waterstone's to view or download the book.

There are a few firsts here for us. This is the first time we have ever used a subscription access model. Readers can buy a years worth of online access for cheaper than the price of the book, £4.99 against £7.99. One advantage of this access is that it allows deep linking and so stimulates the kind of conversation book clubs are all about. Like a passage? Then via Twitter, or wherever you are, you can easily direct a distributed set of people to it.

Which brings me on the second first (as it were)- on Sunday between 17.00 and 18.00, in the midst of the bookclub, we will be allowing free access to the work. This should further allow people to discuss, point, link, look, read, flick, browse and comment on the book, recreating the back and forth dynamic of a book club online, with thousands of people involved.

The ebook download means that those who cannot buy the physical book (unprecedented demand means stock has been rapidly disappearing) can at least have a read before the club gets going.

Hopefully this is the correct response to a book club that is not just web native, but entirely twitter native. If ever the future could be said to hit group reading, it has now, and hopefully we can use what is unique about the web- that ability to share, the immediacy- to try and bring something to the bookclub that works for its twitter based format.

We would be interested to know your thoughts on the subscription model, so do get in touch.

The Lessons from Texas

Watching the aftermath of #sxswbp has been fascinating. As with most such events I candidly confess to being a mere spectator once again rubber necking from across the Pond. Still, this is too juicy to let go without any comment. The "New Think for Old Publishers" panel has entered the annals of SXSW lore as a car crash session. Probably not quite of the magnitude of last years Zuckerberg keynote disaster, but hey, it seems SXSWers like nothing better than something to bitch at on Twitter.

For the full story of #sxswbp Medialoper did a good report at the time; now we have some fascinating panel side views from Peter Miller, who is also offering some advice for future sacrificial lambs, sorry publishers, heading to Austin.

The great irony of all this is the session was organised by Penguin. Now the winner of both the Experimental and Best in Show awards at SXSW was We Tell Stories, a project also from Penguin.  I'm not sure the significance of a publisher, and a UK publisher at that, winning something this big and with this much kudos has fully sunk in. Suffice to say it is very significant.

All the snarky tweets from #sxswbp look slightly off kilter in this context (without doubting for a second that the panel radically ill judged the ethos of SXSW).

For me the whole affair neatly sums up the position of the publishing industry vis a vis new media. At once fully engaged, rapidly and radically innovative, plugging the business into new media even as it extends the reach and depth of that new media itself, while also cowering and confused in the face of an uncaring juggernaut already cutting swathes through other creative industries.

The lessons then? New media needs to be engaged on it's own terms. Publishers have to be bold, have to be different and have to set the agenda, rather than let it be set for them.  From where I'm sitting, that was difference between SXSW's two publishing encounters.

The digerati want freshness and new ideas, not indecision and meekness.

PS- does anyone else get the feeling that for the SXSW hardcore Twitter is now becoming a bit mainstream, a bit passe, like your favourite underground band suddenly appearing in the charts?

Digital Books Are Already Here

Quite frequently I hear people talking about the future. They will argue and pontificate about when the new digital book, the new digital fiction, the new digital culture will arrive. In the world of digital publishing futurologists abound as we all try and work out what will happen next, even as we are still working out what's just happened. The thing is that digital books and digital fiction and the like are already here. The die is, by and large, cast, and if we are still talking about the future it's either because the new forms so little resemble the old we can't recognise them or they are so familiar as to have slipped under the radar. A couple of examples. A few years ago we had these things in our cars and houses called maps. They were, if you recall, like large books with lots of pictures of how to get from A to B. Often they were quite confusing and the source of many arguments but they pretty much worked. People had a nice sideline in publishing them. Likewise we had these big books known as Encyclopedias, great Enlightenment projects to capture the totality of man kinds knowledge, preferably in expensively produced multi-volume hardback editions.

Now we have Google Maps and sat nav, Wikipedia and, ahem, Google Knols. There is a reasonably obvious equivalence between the products. They resemble one another albeit with crucial evolutionary differences, but perform the same function. The content is roughly the same, the generation of that content and the interface is radically different. The point is no one is talking about what maps and encyclopedias will be like in the future. We know that already.

Yet digital fiction and the book is still surrounded by rampant speculation. However I think all the elements are already here, as with maps and encyclopedias. Firstly we have the ebook. Digital is meant to be good precisely because it breaks with print; however I believe the success of the ebook is because it resembles print. People don't necessarily want a radical break. They want the same but easier.

People like books because they offer a very usable experience that has a USP over other forms of media: it offers the undiluted communication of one mind, one vision with another. If we mess this basic formula too much then reading will not work.

Ah but of course there is another form of digital fiction that has been around for ages, only we don't call it digital fiction. We call it computer games.

Quite why we are still debating what digital fiction looks like when we had games like Zelda years ago, when we have games like GTA IV now, is crazy. There are usually two arguments put against this theory. Firstly that games are not about narrative they are about play. I am not going to get in the whole ludic debate, but I feel this tell only half the story (excuse me). Suffice to say that many games do have a narrative element and this element is central to the overall concept. An analogy I often think of is with songs and lyrics- the tune is like the game play, the lyrics are like the narrative.

The second argument is that the quality of narrative in computer games is so universally and consistently appalling that it can't be compared to literature, an argument I last heard expounded with some force the other week at Bookcamp. Quite what criteria can be used to establish this objectively is not clear. In fact I would say that much of this is down to prejudice as narrative judgements are ultimately subjective statements. Equally the target audience of computer games is the same as that of all action mega hardcore action busting action films (not known for the sophistication of their narratives or dialogue).

Even if we put our hands up and acknowledge that the quality of storytelling in computer games has been lacking then by comparison to the history of the novel we are still at an early stage. Novels written in the mid to late seventeenth century, the form's genesis, read as clumsy, simplistic and contrived in comparison to the well oiled slickness of the modern novel. No doubt games will follow a similar curve over time.

Beyond even games we have already have the outlines of digital fiction. Projects like Inanimate Alice, the story games and ARGs, narrativised blogs and twittered fiction. All the tools and standards are now roughly in place. A wave of innovation has most likely come to a close as the "social media boom" hits the skids. We have been innovation addicts, slavishly jumping on each new trend, application and concept, moving without thinking. The dust is now settling and the landscape for digital fiction and digital books is clear.

To recap, digital books/fiction looks like this:

- ebooks and ebook derivatives

- "writerly" computer games

- stories told used existing forms of social media (blogs etc)

The first and the last are already realities. Pretty much every large publisher has an ebook program; most publishers are now using social media for at least marketing. Both authors, publishers and others are increasingly using social media more creatively. The middle is the most difficult for those involved in books. The big winners maybe authors and agents who can begin to sell rights for game spin offs and/or get involved in the process of conceiving game ideas.

Lets not wait for the future anymore; it arrived in about 2006.

Two Presentations

Recently I gave too little presentations and thought that the time had come to stop keeping these things secret. The first was at the Digital Forum of the Publishers Association and the second was at the awesome Bookcamp 09. The former presentation is fairly straightforward and deals with how publishers can and should be getting more involved with social networks. It was originally delivered at a conference in Russia so is primarily visual, hence I'm not really sure quite how well it works online. Oh well.

The latter is a more of an academic, off the wall, blue skies thinking presentation. It was enormous fun to write and allowed me to go back to my glory days talking about people like Jacques Derrida (no, don't groan, he's cool, honest). The presentation basically looks at how our culture is turning back into an oral culture, how even text is becoming like oral communication and asks what this means for the novel and the book.

Any questions feel free to get in touch!

Presentations below the fold.

Visuals and Text

There is often a perception that digital text is somehow different to print.  It hyperlinks, is easy to update and is, according to the argument, filled with pointless invective and ephemera. It doesn't allow for deep and considered reading, catering as it does for the atrophied attention spans of the Youtube generation.  Despite their recreation of print, ebooks are often included in this category. However the Youtube generation isn't even reading online. It's, er, watching Youtube.  In "Is Youtube the Next Google" read/write web outlined a growing trend- rather than looking for a search term in Google kids will type into it Youtube and see what turns up. Alex Iskold writes:

"Whenever his son needed any information, he would open up YouTube, type in the search term and then just watch the videos that showed up as matches. He never Googled anything; he never went to any other site; his entire web experience was confined to YouTube videos."

Doing some comparisons it turns out that for many search terms Youtube offers a viable alternative to Google. Currently Youtube has about half the searches of Google e.g. a lot of searches indeed, and this is growing.  Whereas Google is largely text based in the results it throws up, Youtube is by definition visual, you don't read Youtube you watch it.

This has enormous ramifications. At the moment I am reading a book about the science of reading, about how the act of learning to read reconfigures and restructures our brain.  Reading changes us innately and irrecoverably; it is the key in allowing us other points of view, in going beyond ourselves.  The author, Maryanne Wolf, is concerned about the transition from print to digital text that I mentioned earlier. This doesn't worry me- in the book she frequently mentions how it is not so much the content as the mere fact of reading that can be beneficial.

What is more worrying is the way we are evolving out of a text based culture. Sure there will always be a place for the economy and density of text. This place could get ever smaller though. The early days of the internet might come to be viewed as a golden age for text, a time when web sites and blogs poured forth a profusion of words such as the world had never seen, a textual Eden before the video Fall.

Ok, that may be a little dramatic. But this is something we should be thinking a about. While in many ways we live in, and have always lived in, an illiterate culture (and I mean this in a non-pejorative sense), think say of the non text entertainment industries stacked against the text based, this further evolution of a non-text culture presents a profound shift. If people are largely not reading then the very biology of human thought will change, and not for the better. As a species we will be less able to empathise, less able to imagine and less able to articulate and formulate complex thoughts.

While it's futile to rail against new technologies, and generally I am all for them, the emergence of visualisations, Youtube search and on demand and ubiquitous video presents a massive challenge to educators and publishers.  Google is lucky (rich) enough to own Youtube; the same cannot be said of us.

Second Life / Second World

A few years ago Second Life was everywhere. It wasn't just in the papers; the papers were in Second Life with Reuters famously employing a journalist, Adam Reuters, to scout for interesting in-world news. There was a political riot when the French Front National set up shop; companies like Rivers Run Red sprouted up as even bigger companies pored in. The Linden Labs were a web colossus in the making, bestriding the future with their all conquering intimation of cyberspace and the metaverse predicted by Gibson and Stephenson years before.

Then it all sort of dropped off the radar for a while. Second Life was no longer the cool kid. Everyone was too busy microblogging and the like. However it never went away and recently we all saw the frankly rather bizarre story of Second Life infidelity and suddenly it's back on the agenda, or at least in the headlines (who can tell the difference?)

The neglect of Second Life smacked slightly of the obsession with newness and the bleeding edge that characterises much activity on the web. As soon as one product is launched people are myopically searching for the Next Big Thing, even while the Last Big Thing is struggling along with a couple of users as the average surfer wades through something several iterations of Big Things back.

It was with a view to the long term that the Nature Publishing Group has developed the Elucian Islands, an extension of the previous Second Life portal Second Nature and the shop front for the Macmillan Group in virtual worlds.

They are pretty damned impressive. They feel more like an impossibly utopian Californian technology campus than our offices in rainy, grimy Kings Cross, London. On the islands there are Skylabs for experiments, conference halls, books to be read, videos, spaces for scientific collaboration and communication, areas with information about the company. Whatsmore the Elucian Islands have a business model backing them up, so rather than being an example of corporate new media self indulgence they should make a contribution by being available for hire, with scientific events being the main target. If you are interested give us a shout and we can put you in touch with the right people.

The launch of the Elucian Islands co-incided neatly with the publication of a new techno thriller from Pan, Eddy Shah's Second World. It imagines a future of totally immersive and ubiquitous second life spaces- a second world, then injects a dose of hardcore page-turning rip-roaring action right in the middle of it. The author himself has styled it as being a Snow Crash for a mass audience. Eddy spoke eloquently at the Elucian Islands of how technology can become a part of people's lives, and the novel sets out this vision, it's opportunities and threats, with characteristic panache.

So it made sense to put them together. At the launch party we hooked up a link to the Elucian Islands so people could get a taste for life in a virtual world at a virtual launch party, with virtual copies of the book available for reading. The guys at Red Rocket Design knocked up a trailer, which you can watch below, that gives a sense both of the Elucian Islands and offers some clues about what happens in the novel.

In truth nobody knows where things are going. Google announced the launch of Lively last year but it seems to have faded pretty quickly (from my radar at least). Habbo Hotel remains popular though. Meanwhile MMORPGs like mighty World of Warcraft keep quietly generating insane profits with their fiercesomely addictive gameplay. Perhaps it is this element of Second World that will prove most prescient.

My guess is that gaming and various forms of 3D interfaces are only going to get stronger and more prominent. Open source projects like Genecys might also gain more exposure, and do for virtual worlds what apache did for web servers.  Aside from that, if second life does becomes second world we should be well placed.

ARGitrage #2

In Here ARGs are maybe seven or eight years old, if we take The Beast as a starting point. A few things are becoming clear: they are, conceptually at least, one of the hottest things around; they are a genuinely exciting web native form of storytelling; there is the glimmer of a business model behind them and paradoxically there is no one thing that can be called an ARG. The term itself is slippery and expansive.

We have now seen ARGs promoting films (like Cloverfield and The Dark Knight), TV series (like Lost) and even albums (like Nine Inch Nail's) not to mention charitable causes (like the Red Cross and Cancer Research). It seems that the promotional model is well established and provides a workable raison d'etre for many ARGs.

However my concern is that this is not sustainable. ARGs are still new and interesting enough so that the simple fact of their existence is sufficient to garner publicity. However as even this list demonstrates there must be a saturation point on the horizon where this is no longer the case. What happens to the business model then? I made the point that if one looks at the genesis and early years of the form then it coincides with a boom. As marketing budgets are slashed in the bust, what happens to ARGs?

A related point is that I suspect more people are talking about ARGs then actually playing or following them. Most of them require considerable investments of time and initiative- I freely confess they are beyond my feeble powers- that most people don't have. They are still niche, difficult and in many cases overly complex.

Dan made two good points in response. Firstly that ARGs, if done well and tailored to the product and audience, can actually offer a higher ROI than conventional advertising and hence are ripe for growth. Secondly he likened an ARG to the FA Cup final: you might only have 22 players on the field, but you can then have thousands in the ground, millions at home watching on TV, all participating.

This makes sense, up to a point. I managed to follow the We Tell Stories ARG without strictly "playing". However the forums and discussions at places like Unfiction and ARG Net can feel like a demi-monde of impenetrable geekery. Nothing wrong with that, natch, it just makes it hard for ARGs to reach a critical mass.

Perhaps that is the point, perhaps ARGs are meant to be small scale, light weight, free thinking, anti-corporate entertainments. Perhaps, but I can't help but feeling that would be only half the story.

Round Abouts

For me there are two really exciting possibilities in ARGs. Firstly is how they could be used to produce second order products that would augment the existing business models. Secondly how they can, in both complex and simple ways, form part of what Henry Jenkins calls transmedia storytelling.

By creating new products or gathering valuable data the proposition of an ARG changes. It can become a crowd sourcing application, an engine of content creation with a ready made fan base. This could be a union between entertainment companies like us and the grass roots explosion in creativity (or distribution depending on how you see it) engendered by the web. It allows an ARG to be somehow packaged or archived without detracting from the unique nature of the ARG, whilst also providing a strong rationale for the initiation of the ARG.

Stories are increasingly transmedia, which is to say they exist across platforms. This is not to suggest they are ARGs, but ARGs too are cross platform and so the have a resemblance. Fans like to get deep into a fictional world and transmedia storytelling is an enabler of this. ARGs point the way in terms of creating engagement in this fashion. They have pioneered the seamless use of mixed media integrated into a conceptual whole. Many of the biggest cultural phenomena of the past few years have been fully transmedia- think Potter and the Matrix, and this trend will become ever more the norm.

For publishers then I think these two strands are especially promising. Smaller scope projects like the Young Bond adventure will have their (ever growing role). These big two tap into emerging trends in what was traditionally publishers back yard and add economic incentive while they're at it.

No one truly knows where ARGs are going, least of all me. I do know, however, that they are seriously cool.

And being cool counts.

ARGitrage #1

Last Friday I attended a Channel 4 Talent Inspiration Session on ARGs as part of the Hello Digital festival in Birmingham. Speaking were Dan Hon, Alex Fleetwood and Hazel Grian, although the day was designedly informal and was meant to encourage dialogue between us, the assorted noobs and delegates, and them, the experts, and to a large extent it succeded. Out There

I've written before about ARGs on The Digitalist, and obviously no one could have missed THAT publishing ARG but the day was interesting to get some new perspectives on what has been happening. Alex Fleetwood discussed his Hide and Seek festival, something I was annoyed to miss early this year. The festival is one of "social games and playful experiences" and specializes in live, pervasive gaming. Most enticing of all was a game called Journey Through the Night. The premise of the game is that players have to get from Point A to Point B in London via a series of checkpoints; at the same time a bunch of people are chasing them and if a player gets caught they to are a chaser. Like "It" meets psychogeography via a benign version of Resident Evil, kind of. What appeals is the way a new dimension is added to the urban space- it becomes naraitivized, experienced as an adrenalin fuelled game space not the trudge home. He also gave a mention to the Sleeveface phenonmenon- I for one love it.

Hazel Grian was talking about work she is doing at the extraordinary Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol. In partnership with HP Labs (who are building some seriously cool technology with mobiles and GPS) they are pushing the boundaries of what media is and can do. Hazel has been involved in web projects like the sucessful Bebo drama Kate Modern and has now been working on pioneering ARGs like The Sky Remains, which took the extreme step of building in its own social networking site. The advice was: don't do this, use the SNSs that are out there already. Audiences are hard to come by, go where they are.

Lastly Dan Hon was chatting about some of the stuff they have been getting up to at Six to Start and before that the work he did on Perplex City. The quality of what is produced by Six to Start is never less than brilliant- I have been playing there latest offering with Puffin, a young Bond text adventure- and it's fantastically good fun. Dan and Six to Start have developed an excellent set of principles for ARGs- they should not need instructions, they should tell a good story, they should have some kind of commercial viability, they should be well and intuitively designed. This is ARGing looking to the big picture, gesturing towards the mass audience while keeping the quality high. Legendary ARG developer Jane McGonigal (whose latest ARG was the environmentally minded World Without Oil) cited Dan and Six to Start at this years SXSW as some of the most innovative and interesting ARG developers in the world so it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Coming Soon

The Future of the ARG, haphazardly guessed at, in miniature.

go anywhere, be everywhere?

BBC Have Your Say is moving out into the wilds of the web and joining the conversation where it happens - link [via Peter Brantley] This is surely a significant move that publishers should watch with interest. The BBC is testing the waters of not hosting the discussion.

One of the answers to MBQ (My Big Question: why visit a publisher's website?) contains 'discussions and user generated content' in it somewhere. If the best stuff about your book of the moment can be easily found, and neatly aggregated, on the publisher's site then surely surely surely that's a good reason to visit the site. Right?

Perhaps, though, if the publisher joins the conversation you're already having on Phreadz or Qik or Twitter, then that is a good reason to visit their site - to find out more about the book at source... to see what else the publisher's saying about other books... and so on.

There are real advantages, too, for the publisher in creating and stimulating discussion (i.e. 'undertaking customer engagement') on other people's servers where the storage and serving of the content is someone else's problem (sorry, can't help being pragmatic, as ever). The stock disadvantage to this, of course, is that you're not as directly in control of your own content anymore, or people's interaction with it. But that's the point, isn't it?

The point: joining the conversation, whereever and however it's happening, is an open impulse; it is a release of control and a shifting of roles. And I think another answer to MBQ, if not the answer for a while at least, is that people will come to your site if you make it into a purple cow [tips hat to Seth Godin] - shift the roles, change the content, flip the structure over, and generally do things in a new, unexpected way that connects with readers.

State of the Writopshere

A few weekends ago I came across this article in the Independent on Sunday (thanks to a tweet from Professor Sue Thomas). The article itself trotted out the cliches on ebooks, with John Walsh saying "[ebook] callowness makes you weep" and hence we go back to dead wood fetishes and the boredom of square one in the great ebook debate. The usual suspects- Nicholas Carr, Sven Birkerts- were quoted arguing that in the 21st century nobody reads War and Peace anymore because our brains are too withered, our attention spans too shot and fractured, to even care about the notional existence of great literature and that we would rather consume endless amounts of intellectual junk food like social networking sites and crap TV. Ok then. Like, whatever. More interesting were the opinions offered by various commentators at the end of the article.  One however caught my eye for the wrong reasons. Andrew Cowan, a lecturer on the UEA's famous Creative Writing MA was talking about the attitudes of his students to digital publishing. Here are some quotes:

- "As a student 20 years ago, I did the MA that I now teach in prose fiction and I see no change in the approach and ambitions of my own students to that of me and my peers back then."

- "Ahead of this interview, I talked to them about digitisation and not one of them had heard of Twitter, and they were all hostile to the idea of e-books."

- "None of them keeps a blog, though one admitted sheepishly that she'd started one, and the others were all smirking about it. This is the new generation of writers."

Whoa. It is frankly bizarre that this school boy attitude runs rampant on a course designed to foster creativity. Not only does it show a woeful lack of imagination, vision and sense of possibility in different forms and genres of writing but it also shows an utterly and foolishly blinkered attitude to the modern business of publishing.

Cowan says "Their ambition is to be on sale in high-street bookshops and published in book form by a mainstream publisher", yet they seemed to think that a luddite view on blogging, ebooks and new media generally is clever in a climate where publishing is become increasingly engaged with and reliant on digital marketing strategies, and where authors (especially debut authors) are expected to be actively involved with promotion of their books.  Their thoughts on writing seem to extend to getting published- but not actually selling any books. In the current retail climate this is possibly unwise.

The technorati State of the Blogosphere 2008 report makes fascinating reading in contrast. Outlining how blogs and blogging have become, in the words of Joicih Ito, "a global main-stream activity", it describes a flourishing and heterogeneous media landscape. It makes cleaer that as with books there are countless kinds of blogs, from personal diaries to rich news sites; as with books the potential for creativity and communication is near limitless.  Decent traffic figures right down the tail and the widespread potential for monetizing blogs both stood out to me as examples of how blogging remains a viable platform for publishing.

While some aspiring novelists spurn blogging others are making a success of it.  Think of people like Alison Norrington or Scott Sigler who have used blogging technologies to tell and promote their novels.  While many people cherish the opinion that their unique vision stands out the sheer mass of the estimated 188 million blogs seems to curl the lips and spike the arrogance of those who can't see that this is now part of the writosphere as much as scribbling sestinas and neo-Freudian meditations on childhood.

Creative writing is as much about tweeting and posting on blogs as anything; or if not then it will be, or at least, if writers accept the challenge, could be. The novel to was once seen as a rather shabby medium, not fit for the Augustan literary elite.

Times changed.