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I am heading to bed to grab three hours snooze before getting up at 2:30am to watch the Inauguration live. (Curse Australia and it’s proximity to the international date line!)

So, instead of a thoughtful, considered blog post, you get literary sadmasochism, courtesy of Write or Die!, a  friendly little web app that punishes a writer for not making their word count.

The idea is to instill the would-be writer with a fear of not writing. We do this by employing principles taught in Introduction to Psychology. Anyone remember Operant Conditioning and Negative Reinforcement?

Negative Reinforcement “strengthens a behavior because a negative condition is stopped or avoided as a consequence of the behavior.”

Consequences:

  • Gentle Mode: A certain amount of time after you stop writing, a box will pop up, gently reminding you to continue writing.
  • Normal Mode: If you persistently avoid writing, you will be played a most unpleasant sound. The sound will stop if and only if you continue to write.
  • Kamikaze Mode: Keep Writing or Your Work Will Unwrite Itself

(Thanks to The Book Oven for the heads up)

Bren MacDibble alerted me on Facebook to  some grumblings about HarperCollins’ Authonomy site.

Authonomy participant, Alexander McNabb, fought his way to a top 5 ranking on the site, spurred on by the promise that each month HarperCollins would read the Top 5 ranked manuscripts. What he got was not what he expected.

But the HC review of my book (next to the gold star on the book page) was slapdash and odd. And many other writers who’d got to the top of the ‘greasy pole’, as some called it, got the same feeling. Now, over 25 chart-topping reviews, five months, into the exercise, HC has not asked for ONE full read from a writer whose book reached the top, let alone taken anything further to any degree.

Yesterday, HC sent me a note offering me the chance to put my books up as POD (Print on Demand or Publish on Demand) books on authonomy. Soon, according to the email, all books on authonomy will be available as POD books but for now only ‘a few early adopters’ have been offered the opportunity – and a ‘gift’ of the first 10 books free.

For those who’ve not discovered it yet, Authonomy is HarperCollins UK’s social networking experiment for authors. Authors can upload all or part of their manuscripts to an online community. The best ranked submissions, based on the community’s votes, are read by HarperCollins editors. Members also have  chance to converse and swap critical feedback.

I’m not a member of Authonomy and am certainly not in a position to judge whether Alexander’s account is accurate. But regardless of whether HC editors are reading full manuscripts or not, the move toward POD sales of members’ books is disquieting.

My best friend‘s favourite adage is “It’s all about managing expectations.” HarperCollins have clearly encouraged certain expectations among aspiring authors flocking to the site.  Authonomy’s tag line is “Beat the Slush” which holds out to authors the promise of catching the attention of publishers who are seeking fresh new talent. In the original media release that accompanied the announcement of Authonomy, HarperCollins stated:

For aspiring authors the site is both a new route to publication with a leading publishing house and a genuine base from which to build a long-term following online.

Authonomy also reinforced this expectation on the site itself, both in the FAQs and in its own “HarperCollins response” thread on the forum:

We thought this would be obvious, but perhaps we need to spell this one out: Our editors _do_ browse the site looking for manuscripts that meet their requirements and if we like something we follow up directly. (To pre-empt the sceptical who seem to doubt everything we say – yes, we’re in dialogue with a number of authors from authonomy).

HarperCollins have at no point promised any author any outcome at all, other than to read the most popular content posted to the site. But all of these messages create a very strong expectation: that Authonomy was set up as a pathway to publication for aspiring authors.

If it’s true HarperCollins will now be offering members the opportunity to sell their work to the community via print on demand (presumably for a fee, or by ceding some rights and sales revenue), members would be justified in feeling their expectations have been betrayed. Many Authonomy members have posted their own reactions on the site’s forums. Here are a few:

“Authonomy has moved from potentially innovative to concretely exploitative.” Richard P-S

“Slow-moving slush pile is one thing… but captive market and preying on our desires to be published is another thing. It’s just cruel. Lulu already exists… and at least you know what you’re doing when you sign in there.” macdibble

“If I wanted to POD, I’d have gone (as I think Diane said) to Lulu by now. I don’t. I thought that, no, was led to believe that authonomy was a genuine effort to create a peer-reviewed, community based filter for publishable writing. And by publishable, I don’t mean POD.” alexander

I will emphasise not all responses from Authonomy users on the forums are negative ones. For balance, I recommend you read through the threads yourself to assess what the reaction has been, but to me it appears the majority of users (at least those bothering to voice their thoughts on the forum) are feeling misled.

At the heart of this anger and disquiet in the Authonomy membership is HarperCollins’ failure to understand online communities. Authonomy has all the trendy social networking bells and whistles. It’s got well-trafficked discussion boards and user-generated content. But social networking platforms at their most vibrant cede control to the community, they don’t (in fact can’t) hoard it for the platform developer. (Which is why Facebook is having trouble monetising itself) Authonomy users came to the site because of an expectation they were sold by HarperCollins. Having built up a successful community, those users don’t now wish to be told by HarperCollins to do or be something else especially when it’s transparently about making money for HarperCollins. Or, as put by an Authonomy member:

‘Hidden agenda’? How about a rollout plan that hasn’t been shared – an intent to create a site in phases without sharing with, or consulting, the people that populate that site? How about misrepresenting the site to those people as you do your rollout? What does that make you? alexander

I wonder what HarperCollins’ answer will be?

BoingBoing has alerted us to a marvellous multi-channel fiction and photography project called Dr. Julius T Roundbottom. The puppetmaster of this fascinating world is Jeremiah Tolbert, who says of the project:

“It’s a little fantasy, a little steampunk, a little clockpunk, and I hope a hell of a lot of fun. The comment community that has grown up around the site respond to the stories in their own characters, and the characters of the site have a dialog with them. The audience, through comments, influence the direction of the story, often introducing new concepts to the world building.” [via BoingBoing]

The site structure is essentially a blog, beautifully designed in steampunk style, which follows the adventures of Dr Roundbottom, a naturalist studying faeries in City Park. Each post is fiction written in the first-person voice of the good doctor, with a few other characters thrown in. Tolbert accompanies his posts with high-quality art photography. He has also established an ‘encyclopedia’, a tikiwiki to expand and flesh out worldbuilding aspects of the site (there’s that quasi-spectral hypertext again)

I particularly love that readers are encouraged to engage with and extend the narrative by posting comments “in character” and conducting dialogue with Dr Roundbottom and his colleagues. Tolbert is monetising the narrative through sale of photographs and premium memberships to the site. I imagine there are any number of other ways he could introduce income streams to this, especially once the community builds up around it.

There are pretty tried and true methods of getting a publisher to look at your book manuscript. There are only so many pathways. You write a manuscript and either take your chances in the slush, find yourself an agent, or more rarely, leverage a contact or referral that gets your manuscript in front of someone who can do something with it. Regardless of which pathway you find yourself on, the method of presentation doesn’t change much. A pitch or synopsis and some sample chapters for a novel. A proposal or outline for non-fiction.

What about digital? If you’re a savvy author with a great pitch for a digital publishing project, how do you talk to a publisher about it? Who’s even listening? Can innovative digital projects only be conceived and driven by publishers or specialist companies like 4th Story Media which is doing The Amanda Project, or are publishers interested in hearing ideas from authors themselves?

Quite a few authors I talk to these days are already thinking ahead to digital channels as they develop their manuscripts. For some, this is marketing oriented and they make plans for promoting the book in various online platforms. But for others, their story is digital native and the online channels are integral to the telling of the narrative.

We need new protocols that assist authors to start the conversation with foreward-thinking publishers who are interested in input from all kinds of places.

I’m truly bummed not to be able to go to National Young Writers Festival (NYWF) this year. Instead, I’ll be heading west with QWC’s Programming Director Julie Beveridge, with Neil Diamond on the iPod apparently, visiting the fine citizens of Roma, Cunnamulla, Goondiwindi and Toowoomba to present QWC events.

That road trip is going to be fab and I can’t wait to see what the writers of those towns are working on. But having just checked out the NYWF program on their site I’m really sorry to miss it. This is exciting stuff, and despite the name, is a festival that any one of any age would enjoy and be stimulated by. There’s a killer line-up of guests including Marcus Westbury, Mark Davis, Amy Barker, Lisa Dempster, Simon Worthington, and Michael Webster. NYWF also presents the kind of events that seem to be mostly absent from the mainstream writers festivals in capital cities, events such as Web2Pod how-to workshops, StreetSpoken, a spoken word tour of Newcastle’s hidden locations and Get Lost! (with me), an interactive art adventure combining photography and storytelling in public and private spaces around the festival.

In every nook and cranny of the festival program there’s something to do, say, create and participate in, a much more energetic and active focus than writers festivals where the emphasis is on listening and observing. That’s not a criticism of the major capital city festivals, but more an observation that the audiences are different, and I don’t mean that NYWF is targeted at young people. The audiences are different because NYWF is aimed at writers, makers, producers and curators, rather than readers and the general public. Or, looked at from a different angle, NYWF assumes its audience wants to write as well as read, create as well as consume.

So, while I’m dodging kangaroo carcasses on the Moonie Highway singing along to Sweet Caroline (thanks, Jules), I hope you will be at the National Young Writers Festival making your own zine and remixing some lit.

Bob Stein has published a brilliant piece over at if:book about the paradigm of the book in a networked world, and the role authors/ readers/ editors/ publishers can play in generating and curating ‘book’ content. I place those quotation marks deliberately because Stein interrogates the notion of the book as artefact, whether print or multimedia, and discusses how this concept has changed as we’ve evolved into a networked society. 

GavinBell

Image: GavinBell

“Reading and writing have always been social activities, but that fact tends to be obscured by the medium of print. We grew up with images of the solitary reader curled up in a chair or under a tree and the writer alone in his garret. The most important thing my colleagues and I have learned during our experiments with networked books over the past few years is that as discourse moves off the page onto the network, the social aspects are revealed in sometimes startling clarity. These exchanges move from background to foreground, a transition that has dramatic implications.”

This is essential reading but Bob is also encouraging comments and discussion.

Link to article: A unified field theory of publishing in the networked era by Bob Stein
Visit the Institute for the Future of the Book

…and with that neat turn of phrase, Brian Tart, publisher of Dutton of Penguin Group USA, has expressed why subsidiary media rights are no longer subsidiary. They are the whole box and dice.

From Rachel Deahl @ Publishers Weekly:

Dutton has laid out big money for what it’s dubbing a “digi-novel” by the creator of the C.S.I.television franchise. The Penguin imprint paid millions for a multimedia three-book series from Anthony Zuiker that, at its centerpiece, features a mystery novel which will send readers to a Web site with companion footage relating to the plot…Zuiker’s story…will, as Dutton noted, “move from books to film to the web with ease.” Read the whole article…

It’s an exciting project from its description. More importantly, this is an early example of more and more digital “publications” that publishers will be doing in future, which begs the question – how do you sell the rights to it? This is not a traditional deal where a publisher licences print rights and also subsidiary media rights, including film and digital. Most publishers have fairly standard contracts, but this project is entirely bespoke. It requires an entirely different way of conceiving of the project and the intellectual property involved.

I think this is largely positive. Publishers need to loosen up their contracts and start thinking about different ways of licensing content. I’ll admit the morass of copyright legislation makes it difficult to slice and dice copyright however we want, but there is still scope for more flexible approaches to publishing contracts. For example, with a project like Dutton’s (or for that matter Scholastic’s 39 Clues or HarperCollins’ The Amanda Project) there may be a mix of licences needed, including Creative Commons licences to cover the web 2.0 components and user generated content.

All this may be obvious, but I recently had a conversation with an Australian publishing professional who works in contracts and insisted that digital = e-books. What about alternative reality games, web 2.0 and mobile content, I asked? “That’s what game rights and film rights etc are for,” she replied.  My point is that these things don’t sit in neat little boxes anymore. They haven’t for some time and we’re only just catching up.

Aside from sorting out who licences what, another question I have is, how do authors get paid? 10% of a book’s cover price is a neat equation. It provides a simple economic basis for calculating advances and also judging the success of a title. Not so with mixed media projects like this one. I think we’re going to see more revenue models proliferating now, including profit sharing between authors and publishers.

Lastly, and slightly off-topic, with more projects like this popping up I wonder what the difference is now between publishers and other media companies? Not a whole lot, it seems.

On the Jellicoe Road

Most writers I know would like nothing more than the financial independence to give up work and write full-time. I’ve never felt this way. I love my job passionately and even if I had the opportunity to give it up to write, I think I’d prefer to keep working, however hard it may be to keep a balance. There are joys I get from my job that writing could never provide. I’ve always admired authors who (at least in my imagination) are successful enough with book sales to write full-time but instead choose to keep working. I imagine they too love their jobs and do it for passion and fulfilment, just as they write for the same reasons. After all, it’s very hard to make such a deliberate choice. It means never quite having enough time for anything, and it means producing books at a slower rate.

But then I read books like On the Jellicoe Road by Mellina Marchetta and my position is instantly reversed. Why, oh why, can’t she give up her pesky time-consuming job as a teacher to concentrate on delivering to me more novels as fine as this? Why must I wait so long between each of her books? I will surely die before having the pleasure of the next one. It cannot be borne! How could she consider spending her time on anything else when she is so very very good at writing?

Bookseller.com reports the new Warwick Prize for Writing.

The Warwick Prize for Writing will be awarded biennially for a piece of 
writing in the English language. Genres and form can range from the
 traditional book to blogs, graphic novels or scientific theses. Organisers
 aim to make it an international award, with a different theme every year. 
Next year’s will be “complexity”.

Very cool, not least because the marvellous China Mieville is heading up the judging panel. I look forward to seeing what the first round of nominations yields.

Whenever futurists or commentators talk about the future of books and the publishing industry they tend to focus on publishers, and how their industry is changing. Naturally, I’m more interested in writers and how the landscape is being changed around and by them.

There always seems to be a bullish optimism about future opportunities for writers, especially those who can adapt the way they think and act about storytelling. I share this optimism, but I’ve yet to see any tangible, viable suggestions for how such storytellers will be able to support themselves financially via the marketplace. I’m confident business models will emerge – they always do – but I’m impatient and I don’t have anything other than Yoda-like assurances to offer my members when they ask me how authors are going to get paid in the future.

Patrick Tucker doesn’t provide the answer in his article The 21st Century Writer. Nevertheless, his analysis and historical perspective is incisive and explains why authors should be engaged and proactive.

For people who make their living selling words to readers—and indeed for readers themselves—these are times of upheaval. The information technology revolution has led to an explosion in textual content. More people are engaging in more conversations, sharing more opinions, learning more, and learning faster than anyone could have imagined just a few decades ago. The site Blogherald.com counted more than 100 million blogs as of October 2005. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 93% of U.S. teens aged 12–17 used the Internet in 2006; among them, 64% have created content, up from 57% in 2004. We’ve entered an era where the acts of thinking, writing, and to a certain extent publishing are indistinguishable, and where charging money for editorial content is becoming an ever trickier proposition.

This is the best article I’ve read so far this year. Hands down.