Friday, 20 November 2009

A Google-eyed slant on the world - Dianne Hofmeyr

As a break from editing the bare breasts and sex out of my Egyptian novel Eye of the Moon for a US publisher, I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Jeff Jarvis’s What Would Google Do? simultaneously. The three make very odd companions while I shift from 1500 BC to the 16th century, and then on to the digital world of now.

In What Would Google Do? Jeff Jarvis suggests we have to kill books to save them. He says they’re dead because they’re frozen in time with no means to update except by new editions, they’re a one-way relationship – the author seldom benefits from the reader, they’re expensive to produce, they rely on ‘blockbuster’ economy – few winners/ many losers, they’re subject to ‘gatekeepers’ (do we know this!), they aren’t read enough (according to Jarvis, 40% of printed books are never sold) and then there’s the problem of ‘returns’.

On the other hand books that are digital can be linked and updated, can find new audiences and can grow and live on beyond the page because of interaction and discussion.

I can understand that literacy may be ‘rekindled’ as a result of the Kindle and similar devices being able to offer a rebirth of books that are out of print. But I’m not sure about rekindling ‘visual’ literacy. The fact that we all carry favourite picture book stories around in our heads suggests a strong interaction with the page as a child. I doubt this kind of engagement and a development of visual literacy is possible in a digital format picture book.

So on reading what Jarvis had to say generally about books being dead, my first thoughts were – Why does everything have to be so interactive? Can’t a book just be a book? Why this clamour for digital interaction? Can’t a book, like art, or theatre stand alone? A work of art is still a work of art with only one person viewing it. How would we experience the ‘redness’ of red if we did away with real art and only viewed a Mark Rothko digitally. And theatre doesn’t expect comments to be thrown at it from the audience (except in Shakespeare’s times). Do writers really need interactive audiences drawing on the opinion of everyone, to survive?

Then I reread parts of what Jarvis was saying. And came back to the word ‘re-invention’ – rather than killing the book. What about putting the book online in full for a few weeks? Or serializing extracts from the book for a limited time? (some ABBA bloggers are doing this already and may be able to give feedback). Or putting up a free PowerPoint or video version of the book? (I’ve tried the visual PowerPoint route as a marketing device to get publishers interested but generally they’ve been lethargic and haven’t seen it as a tool to market the book publically.) What about ads in a book?

He cites Paulo Coelho who says ‘blogs’ have given him a different voice that attracts new readers. Coelho invites readers to make a movie of his novels or movies of his books’ characters (easier to do if your fans are adults but some schools have film and photographic clubs). He asked fans to take pictures of themselves reading his books for a virtual exhibition at the Frankfurt Book Fair which was also put on Flickr (it helps to be famous first). The suggestion is that creativity creates creativity. Find a relationship with your readers and you’ll sell more books.

So on first being anti the concept of ‘the book is dead’ I came around to Jarvis’s idea of ‘re-invention’. His suggestion that through the Internet, publishers and authors can reach a huge audience that never goes into a bookshop and can find new ways to bring books into conversation, appeals.

Right now I still believe in ‘print’ but anything that offers hope for the book is fine by me! But for the rest of the day I’m back to editing breasts.
My revamped website is at:


karen ball said...

Your post made me think of those books I read, remember fondly for a certain mood or scene ... then I go back and discover that they're nothing like how I remember, that I've 're-imagined' them in some way. That's interactive, isn't it? I quite like the fact that the book changed in my head even after it went back to sit on the shelf, not changing at all. Perhaps we don't need the digital age for books and readers to interact. I'm not quite sure what I'm trying to say, but I don't think I agree that books are frozen in time as Jarvis suggests - or that they're a one-way relationship. Anyway ... good luck with the breasts!

Nick Green said...

I believe Terry Pratchett has said that he considers the novel to be the most interactive medium there is. With 26 characters and a handful of punctuation he can cause any image to appear in a reader's mind - but the image is still different for every reader. What's more interactive than that?

steeleweed said...

I think printed books and online writing are entirely different things and mostly appeal to different people. As a voracious consumer of words-on-dead-trees, I would never have the patience to read a novel online, although there may be those out there who would do so gladly, particularly on mobile devices. The only advantage I see to an EBook is that one could include hyperlinks to related or explanatory data - sort of like footnotes, glossaries or indices. The Internet is the sensible medium for cooperative writing, of course, and there's no reason a method of reader feedback couldn't be provided. As a reader, it's just not my cup of tea, but as a writer, I may play with the idea, just to see where it leads - when I wrap up my current WIP...

Tuesday Kid said...

Blogs have started me reading more since readers have recommended books they think I'd like. I've also kept an eye out for books mentioned on blogs I like.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

This has been fascinating... I thought I'd be cheeky and see if Jeff Jarvis really so digital and reads all his email and sent him one to say I mentioned his book on a blog... but to be fair he probably gets his fair share of weirdo's contacting him!
Your comment had resonance Karen because I once met Doris Lessing at a signing and mentioned a scene I'd remembereed from her book The Grass is Singing and she looked at as if I was crazy and said she didn't remember writing anything like it. So perhaps we carry images/scenes from books and along the way make them our own... so much so that the originator finds them unrecognisable... as you described Nick with Terry Prachett's wonderful observation. And Tuesday Kid what are you doing in those outfits!!!! But actually delighted to hear this as my son has just started a list site, that is based on lists that people like, will often be enjoyed by other like-minded people. And yes agreed Steeleweed... at the end of the day I want to put my screen aside and hold on to real pages!

Stroppy Author said...

Very interesting post, Diane - thank you.

Interactivty (not of the Pratchett type, but of the Jarvis type) is something that appeals less to (many) established published writers than to others in the book/e-book world (from geeks to readers) because the very reason we are successful writers is that we have mastered this method of storytelling that is words on the page making pictures in the imagination. Many of us actually don't want to be involved in making pictures with pixels or sourcing soundbites - it's not the job we chose. Are you listening, Chris Meade? Some do, and that's fine (Kate Pullinger, Cory Doctorow...). But I want every child to imagine the character in his/her own likeness if that's what they want (reader as personal god ;-).

Some people who want to be involved in writing but are currently not, or not professionally so, or not competently so, may prefer the idea of (for instance) collaborative fiction or adding to an author's work because it gives them a creative involvement they don't otherwise have. Which is all very nice for them, but I earned this creative autonomy and I'm keeping it! What people do with our work in their own heads is their business, but if I create a character and a plot that I feel have integrity and are effective, I don't necessarily want a 'relationship' with people who want to write it differently. Does that make me a writing fascist? If so, pass me the moustache and I'll wear it.

Natasha said...

Penguin Dutton (my US publisher) recently signed Anthony Zuiker to a seven figure deal to do three "digi" novels. Zuiker,who is the executive director of the TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, says this is the future of book publishing and that he is catering to the YouTube generation. The idea is that readers will buy a book -- read about twenty pages or so, and then will be asked to go to their computers to access a website where they will see video material with actors acting out some of the scenes. They will also be asked to solve clues before going back to the book.

I think this raises the bar even more for us scribes. Not only do we have to come up with good writing, we also have to be film producers. And it deepens the divide between the haves and have nots. The production cost of such a "digi" novel must be considerable and it is a fair bet that publishers will only pick their top authors for this kind of money handout. Dutton certainly hasn't offered me this kind of deal! Here's a link to an article about Zuiker and his books. I find it pretty grim reading...

Lee said...

I'm completely uninterested in collaborative fiction of any sort, but that's not the only reason to publish digitally. For me, it's all about independence.

Nor is it necessary to use sound or images, though the potential for innovation is fascinating and will certainly make for new art forms in the years ahead. I get readers from all over the world, a surprisingly solid number of readers, many of whom would have no access to a print edition - or couldn't afford it! Mobile devices have increasingly contributed to a distant readership.

Lee said...

I should add that my numbers are not anywhere near as huge as Cory Doctorow's, but that 50-75 readers per day is surely respectable. As a conventionally published midlist writer, I couldn't hope to have that many. (And the audio versions of my novels, i.e. podcasts, are even more popular.)

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I know this post is long buried but I like the idea of 'creative autonomy' and want to see you in your moustache Anne!

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