Seven Paranoid Provocations on Ebooks and Digital Fiction

Pullinger_Kate.jpgEditor’s note: I love manifestos. I worry they are becoming too commonplace and will
lose their cool factor, but this one, by Kate Pullinger – an incredible
novelist, and trail blazer in the transmedia (or what ever u want to
call it, @mikecane) arena, puts quite succinctly into words much of what
has been missing from the future of publishing traveling circus.

  1. Writers need to talk about money. Some of us reside inside the academy, some of us reside outside the academy; some of us get grants for our work, some of us do not; some of us are bestsellers, most of us are not.  Writers need to be thinking hard about how to protect our revenues across all platforms. As publishing is shaken up by the new technologies, writers need to be proactive, involved in the on-going discussions about developing fair terms and new business models.
  2. Writers, publishers, and teachers need to get their heads out of the sand: the digital future is already here and we risk becoming dinosaurs, as well as ostriches, if we don’t engage with the multitude of possibilities for storytelling offered to us by the new technologies. For many years a vanguard of writers and artists have been experimenting with form, creating media-rich, screen-dependent, born-digital, works of fiction.  However, in the absence of a proven business model, the traditional gatekeepers of writing and publishing have not been interested.  This is changing.
  3. Stop talking about e-books. E-books are boring. Convenient, practical, destined to become one of the ways we read, but boring, as counter-intuitive as placing the text of the latest blockbuster novel on a television screen. The Google Book project, which sees the world’s leading libraries collaborating in secret with a giant corporation, effectively pulling the copyright rug out from under our feet, is either our best friend or our worst enemy or both; however, the Google Book project, along with rapid developments in e-readers, has ensured that the book, as a digital file, will remain at the heart of our culture for the foreseeable future. So stop talking about e-books. There’s a new world of media-rich literature around the next corner; reading on screen has huge potential to enhance the way we tell stories, and to expand our audiences in new directions.
  4. We better keep talking about e-books.  Despite my own weariness with the subject, e-books are undergoing a rapid and soon-to-snowball set of advancements and the ‘paper-under-glass’ analogy will soon no longer hold true. ‘Enhanced editions’ and single-book apps where the author provides a wealth of extra digital material that is embedded in the text, from audio recordings of the author reading to music composed by the author, are already beginning to appear; children’s books are undergoing a rapid revolution as the games industry giant EA collaborates with publishers to create works like ‘Artemis Fowl’ for Nintendo DS – fully interactive, with games, puzzles and a whole wealth of extra material for the reader to explore, embedded in the text. Both these examples are a considerable distance from born-digital fiction, as both are still pretty much the print book with a bunch of e-extras added on. However, e-books will doubtless continue to transform, especially as e-readers become more sophisticated and people really do want to get the most out of the potential for reading a story on a screen.
  5. Be afraid of e-books.   Will the kind of digital fiction projects I’m involved in be completely swept aside and obliterated by the Great Machine of Corporate Publishing as it discovers the huge potential for digital fiction? Will works of this type, with their hand-made and very personal aesthetic, soon look like a movie I made on my mobile phone when everything else looks like ‘Avatar’?
  6. Always remember that human culture is highly visual. The first non-oral form of storytelling was cave-painting – the original powerpoint presentation. The dominance of film and television as storytelling forms in the twentieth century demonstrate that as soon as we are able to use pictures to tell stories, we do. Literature must reckon with this fact. As technology enables us to carry rich media in our pockets we need to find ways to make writing – good writing – relevant to new generations of readers. If we take the long view of the history of storytelling, are plain old words on the page – fixed-type print – an historic anomaly?
  7. Good writing – and by this I mean writing that demonstrates the love of language, of a good sentence, a well-turned phrase, the power of words, writing that rewards re-reading – must survive, regardless of platform or media. It’s up to us to make sure that happens.

Kate Pullinger writes both books and digital fiction.  Her new novel,’The Mistress of Nothing’ won Canada’s Governor-General Award for Literary Fiction and will be published by Simon & Schuster in the US in 2011; her award-winning digital fiction ‘Inanimate Alice’ is available for free online.