Monday, 31 March 2008

Another dilemma for publishers

As the title suggests, this is a follow up to my post about The Pirate's Dilemma. Somewhere amongst my Google Reader news feeds I happened to spot that today's Times has an article about book piracy.

Apparently, The Society of Authors has warned the publishing industry that as book piracy will only increase, it must make serious attempts to adapt to the challenge of digitisation sooner rather than later. Tracy Chevalier, author of 'Girl with a Face Like Scarlett Johansson', and chair of the society, said of traditional book publishing:

“It is a dam that’s cracking. We are trying to plug the holes with legislation and litigation but we need to think radically. We have to evolve and create a very different pay system, possibly by making the content available free to all and finding a way to get paid separately.”

She goes on to say that at present piracy is a problem more for authors of poetry, cookbooks, travel guides, short stories - "books that you dip in and out of." But sooner or later it will impact on everyone:

“For a while it will be great for readers because they will pay less and less but in the long run it’s going to ruin the information. People will stop writing. There’s a lot of ‘wait and see what the technology brings’ but the trouble is if you wait and see too long then it’s gone. That’s what happened to the music industry.”

Thankfully, the society's statement does at least seem to be more a call for pre-emptive action than an immediate cry for lifebelts, but still, it looks like I might have underestimated, yesterday, exactly how much piracy has already dented the hull of traditional publishing.

As for new ways to remunerate authors, even if "people will stop writing" is ridiculously alarmist, the future pay of authors is certainly as pressing an issue as that of in which medium exactly they might be published. Indeed, it's probably the same issue. We Tell Stories, the A Million Penguins wiki-novel, Penguin Remixed, etc. might have shown readers glimpses of the future, of how they might come to interact with fiction, but the images in the crystal ball seem even less clear for authors; at least where money is concerned.

As it happened, also popping up in the Times article was Scott Pack, from blogs-into-books publisher the Friday Project - funnily enough, this news wasn't mentioned at all. I guess Murdoch might be serious about acquiring his company after all, then...

Anyway, that's quite enough for today of stuff I've happened upon in my newsfeeds. I have things to be doing...

Next Monday: personal productivity tips.

Yep, getting things done, and all that.

You see, when Fiona first asked me to contribute to this blog, I came up with a couple of possible ideas for regular features:

On Friday afternoons - a selection of fun/interesting links that might help people accomplish that always pressing Friday afternoon task of 'finding stuff to look at on the internet'.

On Mondays - links and tips of the lifehacker, 43Folders, etc. type.

I figured the second would sort of balance out the first.

There was one drawback, though: I know next to nothing about, and am frankly a little dubious of all this life-hacking, personal productivity, time-management gubbins. Erm, having completely failed to get around to providing any links on Friday, though, maybe looking into it might not be such a bad idea.

If I get around to it...

Watch this space :)

Saturday, 29 March 2008

The Penguin's Dilemma

I had a pleasant surprise this lunchtime: something shiny, yellow and American had found its way through the catflap.

Nope, the cat hadn't brought in a plastic replica of Woodstock (or, for that matter, something much much funnier that I apparently couldn't think of): it was actually The Pirate's Dilemma, a new book by journalist, consultant, entrepeneur, IT expert, etc. and so on, Matt Mason. And for the record, even though the cat is black and white it's not called Jess and has nothing to do with mail delivery. In other words, the book came in the mail.*

Anyway, getting a little closer to the point (honestly, there is one), if that name or book title sounds even slightly familiar to you, then chances are you probably checked out the We Tell Stories site when Fiona blogged about it earlier this week - Matt Mason, as it happens, has also written one of the stories for the aforementioned experiment. As far as I can tell, though, he doesn't seem to have any track record in fiction...

So what exactly is he doing on there? At least, that was what I found myself wondering.

Well, for one thing, Penguin will be publishing the UK edition of The Pirate's Dilemma this May; which would be the cynical - and not at all interesting - answer. Another answer would certainly be that Mason's a good writer. Having now read part of the book, I can attest to that - it might not be fiction, but he tells a good story. The other possible answer, though, and the one that interests me most, is: that We Tell Stories might itself be a tentative attempt by Penguin at answering the Pirate's Dilemma.

For anyone who hasn't already clicked on the links above, the very basic thrust of the book is this: piracy is simply another business model; thanks to the internet and digital technology, an increasingly persistent, relevant and influential one. One which innovates and points out inefficiencies in the market. One which leaves intellectual property holders with two options:

1). Sue the pirates. This is usually akin to fixing a sinking ship with sellotape - likely to, at best, temporarily lessen rather than fix the revenue leak; and, as piracy often exists to provide some kind of added value that the public appreciates, often not great for PR (e.g. Hasbro and Scrabulous).

2). Compete. Offer what the pirates offer, and more. Innovate, if that's what it takes.

This is not to say that Mason doesn't believe in intellectual property - he does, or I'd probably be linking to a free download; also, he addresses it in the comments at the end of this blogpost - and the book itself is much more than the above argument: it's a, so far, fascinating story of how punk/DIY/youth culture/remix culture/piracy has frequently changed the world, how it has subverted and then become the mainstream. Indeed, the book is called The Pirate's Dilemma, and not the more obvious title The Pirate Dilemma, because with so much of how we all live now having been influenced by piracy (in its many forms) there is, Mason says, a bit of the pirate in all of us. With technology increasingly allowing everyone (legitimate companies, illegal pirates, law-abiding citizens) to compete (and co-operate) in the same arena, the dilemma facing all of us is whether or not to embrace that pirate spirit.

While the film and music industries have been facing this dilemma for quite some time now - mostly by crying, whinging and stamping their feet, and occasionally by suing the very poor, the very dead, and the entirely innocent - because books have remained largely un-digitised, piracy has yet to cause publishers very many headaches at all.

Except, perhaps, in anticipation of the future: digitised books for the Kindle and the Sony Reader are gaining in popularity; novels on mobile phones are already popular in Japan (chances are, if someone brought novels to the iPhone, they'd soon take off in the West too); and advances in book scanning technology could eventually make direct conversion of physical books into digital versions quick, cheap and labour-free. Even print-on-demand technology could conceivably be used for piracy sooner or later.

Having had that luxury, then, of being able to stand back, watch, and one hopes learn from their sister industries' attempts to swim rather than sink in an ocean they now share with pirates, it will be interesting to see how the publishing industry evolves in response to increasing digitisation of its wares.

While HarperCollins and Random House are experimenting with, respectively, limited period offers of free downloadable books, and downloadable chunks for a small fee, and other publishers are utilising print-on-demand to extend the Long Tail of backlist titles, it seems to me that We Tell Stories might be another such look into things to come, or at least a sign that Penguin has been considering The Pirate's Dilemma as more than just something else to publish. And perhaps, too, it's the most interesting publishing foray into a market conditioned to expect free everything.

While Penguin is giving away stories, and even an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), for nothing; in compensation it's receiving from newspapers/magazines/blogs, for six or seven weeks, (virtual)reams of free publicity for: a) all of the Penguin authors involved, b) the 1300-strong library of Penguin Classics it's offering as a prize, and c) itself, as an innovative brand capable of embracing both the future and the past.

On this occasion, the novelty value of We Tell Stories has probably guaranteed it more publicity than future repetitions might get, but still, it's an interesting way the company might, on a more limited scale, be able to attract customers and generate sales in the future.

Chances are, though, that publicity wasn't the only revenue generator Penguin was looking at. We Tell Stories might have represented, too, not only an opportunity to test the public's potential interest in new forms of fiction, but also in the ARG dimension and the kind of viable sources of alternative revenue it might be possible for Penguin to piggyback onto free content in the future - if people do come to expect free stories, perhaps they might be willing to pay for something like an ARG that links into them?

But who knows what the future will bring? (Or by whom it will be delivered. Or through which kind of flaps).

Still, it's nice to see Penguin remixing the past and the present in an effort to find out. As for why Mason's involved; a former pirate DJ could come in handy for that kind of thing... His mash-up will appear on 15th April.

N.B. If We Tell Stories has given you a taste for "watching stories", as Fiona put it, you could do worse than taking a look around Locus Novus - this one in particular's just beautiful (and probably a nice contrast after all that talk about "revenue generators" and such).

*Yes, through the catflap. Since some landlord-hired loon decided a very much exposed to the elements frontdoor was the most sensible place in which to install something that might frequently blow open letting freezing cold air circulate near-constantly through the lower floor of the house that I increasingly grudgingly call home, the catflap seems to have become our postman's favoured point of delivery. Unlike my housemate's cat, though, at least he closes it after himself, (should anyone now have the image of a tiny cat-sized postman: glad to be of service).

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

We Tell Stories. You Watch Them.

There's a prevailing belief in certain quarters that while spending hours reading books is Good For You, spending hours on the internet is most definitely not.

Books feed minds, goes the argument, while 'the internet' saps and enfeebles them, reducing people to drooling, glassy-eyed, socially-incapable morons.

Never mind the fact that, as Steven Johnson recently pointed out, most of what people do on the internet *is* reading; for many people, it's reading of the wrong sort. 'Proper' reading is the sort they remember from childhood: the reading of books while curled up in an armchair or in bed, rather than the reading of newfangled online stuff - like, say, this blog - while sitting upright in front of a keyboard and screen.

So I wonder what the pro-book lobby would make of venerable book-publisher Penguin's latest foray - into what it's calling 'digital fiction'.

Never in fact a company to shy away from embracing new formats - anyone remember its Penguin Remixed competition, which invited musicians to make a moody dance track out of A Tale of Two Cities? - Penguin's latest experiment, We Tell Stories, involves asking six well known authors to create a 'digital short story' using new online formats rather than ink on paper.

Each story is 'inspired by' a Penguin Classic (the ultimate aim of the exercise being to promote the Penguin Classics range - and full marks to Penguin for using ultra-modern technologies to promote fusty old Victorian novels), and they're being published at the rate of one a week.

First up is a modern version of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, called The Twenty-One Steps. It unfolds entirely within Google Maps, so you can trace the protagonist's movements as he's whisked along by a high-speed plot that takes him from the new Eurostar terminal in St Pancras to the National Gallery, Heathrow, Edinburgh, Gullane Bay and beyond.

With only Google Maps speech bubbles to contain the text, the author, Charles Cumming, has had to convey the story very sparingly. There's only really scope for bare-bones descriptions of actions and terse, single lines of dialogue, but for the most part this limitation actually suits the high-octane plot, and I soon found myself being carried along with the story.

It's difficult not to think of this as pure gimmickry, though. Following a blue line on a Google Map for ages isn't terribly exciting, especially as you can't really see any of the scenery that the protagonist is passing through. The new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras is stunning, but all you can see of it in Google Maps is the roof. Likewise Edinburgh, which is a fantastically beautiful city, but which only appears in The Twenty One Steps as a blurry, grey roofscape. I'd far rather watch The Twenty-One Steps as a film, frankly, or read it as text (either on paper or online) and imagine the action in my head.

While undoubtedly innovative, the Google Maps format can't help but combine the least evocative kind of writing with the least evocative rendition of scenery. So, while it was an interesting experience - and it's quite telling that Penguin has felt the need to incentivise people to read these stories by hitching them to a weekly prize draw and an overarching competition to win all 1300 Penguin Classics - I don't think that book-publishers and filmmakers have anything to worry about quite yet.

I did get a weird glimpse into the possible future of publishing in the digital world, though, when my other half asked me what I was doing and I said 'I'm watching this story'. I've never had occasion to say that before. If 'watching stories' online is the future of reading, then I can't imagine the pro-book lobby will be calming down any time soon.

NB The second story, Toby Litt's Slice, is now online, and takes place across two blogs over the next week. As the blog format lends itself far better to prose writing - and to interactivity - I wonder if this one will shape up to be a more satisfying experience. It's based on a ghost story by the masterful M.R. James, as well, so it should be well worth a look.

UPDATE: The Wired games blog suggests that The Twenty-One Steps may be more sophisticated than it first appears. More perspectives from Dr Tom Abba at Other Things (on the narrative aspects) and the FortiusOne blog (on the use of maps to tell stories).

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Syntax error?

Sorry, still no amusing punctuation. But I did see some amusing syntax the other day:

You can just imagine them, can't you, frolicking happily in luscious green fields, their little pastry cases turning a healthy shade of brown as they harden naturally in the sun?

Until the pie-herder comes...

There'd be ten if it were Christmas

Well, I've utterly failed to spot any amusing punctuation lately, so I guess that leaves me with putting "ephemeral technological developments into some kind of wider philosophical and/or cultural context." Erm, well, I'll give it a go...

But before any of that: hello.

As Fiona explained, I'm Tim, and I'll be blogging here at least once a week, until... well, until I'm not. But until then, expect some of that technological ephemera and context stuff she promised, plenty of useful and/or amusing links, and perhaps some regular weekly features... (we'll have decided more about that latter one by next week).

As for today; let's see, what's been attracting my attention lately? Erm, besides the thumping Techno of my Slovakian housemate, and the uncanny resemblance between Avram Grant, the current Chelsea manager and Baron Silas von Greenback, archenemy of Dangermouse...

Well, on Monday, the BBC reminded me that Avram Grant isn't the only person in the public eye with grey hair and the look of someone perpetually troubled by the effects of acid reflux indigestion. Plenty more of them can be found in the House of Lords. Recently, perhaps their pained looks have had less to do with their lunch, though, than the news that nine of their gamer colleagues have been persuaded by the Hansard Society to begin blogging about their work.

Such news, and the no doubt fearful prospect that, perhaps, they might be coerced into following suit must have come as quite a shock to some of their Lordships. Once they'd been woken up. And had it explained to them what a blog was. And what the internet was. And a computer. And exactly where they were. But that's probably exactly the kind of prejudice Lords of the Blog was designed to explode, so I wonder how the nine are getting on?

Not great, it has to be said.

While only one or two of the blogging peers might, uncharitably, be described as a bit sleepy in appearance, their blog posts, as yet, are far from lively. Think, in some cases, grown-up versions of 'What I did on my holidays', only at work, and with far fewer brightly coloured drawings. As for the rest, most of their writing styles are indistinguishable from each other. And, crucially, the last thing I might describe their offerings as being likely to do is: "engage with the public". Unfortunately, that's one of the blog's stated aims:

" help educate, raise awareness and engage with the public on a range of issues relating to the role and business of the House of Lords."

Nothing wrong with those aims, of course - one could certainly argue that the public having greater access to the unelected members of our system of government might be a good thing. Nor with the medium: blogging might indeed be the way to go. Except, to engage with people you need to write something engaging.

Not much of that going on yet, sadly.

Barely once do you get the sense of who these people are beyond what they do at work - Lords of the Blog is blogging without the all-important personal touch. Either they have no personality, or they're so used to keeping it out of their writing that blogging perhaps isn't the best medium for them. As I was reading, I found myself thinking, over and over, "Yes, you went to a meeting about such-and-such, but what did it mean to you? How did it affect your life? How does this help us to get to know you?"

And why did those questions matter to me?

Because good bloggers can and have carried their readers into all sorts of unfamiliar worlds, simply through the connection their readers come to feel with them - through the quality and personality of their writing, through conversations in the comments boxes. As a blogger's readers become invested in what happens to him or her, they can find themselves taking an interest in any number of things they might never have done otherwise; blogging can turn something impersonal into something personal, and therefore accessible. It certainly wouldn't hurt if someone could do that for the House of Lords.

As it stands, though, Lords of the Blog might well give the odd insight into how the House of Lords operates, and what a Lord does there (there's plenty of dry factual information), but there's precious little there to make any of us really care; no-one you'd want to follow through their time there; no-one who would make you learn something about it all almost inadvertently. No-one whose writing and/or personality looks like truly opening it all up to a reader.

Even if that opportunity seems to have been missed, perhaps, it's at least stirring debate?

Or perhaps not.

There's certainly very little there that might stimulate debate: no-one's expressed any really strong opinions; and while some of the Lords have been expressing their gratitude and surprise at the level of feedback, very few comments seem to have actually made their way onto the site. If there is any kind of conversation taking place, then, it's certainly not a very open one.

Still, it's early days. Maybe, given time, Lords of the Blog will develop into something a bit less one-way. Perhaps, the Lords might eventually kick off their shoes and relax into it all. Perhaps, it might actually become a blog.

Already, though, we have one moment to thank it for: Lord Soley's Comment is free... article in the Guardian. Granted, maybe not the piece itself, but come on: doesn't he have a wonderfully cavalier attitude to byline photos?

Positively windswept.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

We're Back!

Hmm, there have been quite a few developments since I last posted back in November.

This blog is now (or at least, will soon be) the blog of my new copywriting company, Radix Communications, based in sunny Falmouth on the Cornish Riviera. It's got a new name, as befits its new status, and I'm delighted to welcome new contributor Tim Warren to the fold too.

Tim and I will be seeking out interesting things happening in the worlds of social media, mainstream media, technology, gaming, marketing, writing, and anything else that attracts our attention, really.

Tim's got a degree in Philosophy and I've got one in Popular Culture, so we're sort of planning to put ephemeral technological developments into some kind of wider philosophical and/or cultural context.

That's the aim, anyway. We might just end up posting amusing photos of wrongly inserted apostrophes. Let's see how it goes.

In the meantime, if you want to know more about what Radix does, just click here to have a look.