Putting the eeeeee! into e-books

I am returned from Bookcamp. I have seen the future. It is now.

Yes, I am tired, and yes, I have drunk too much coffee, and no I have not joined the Marines or some weird exercise cult. Rather, I joined 70 to 80 interested people at an ‘unconference’ about the publishing industry, run by if:book Australia in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers Festival.

the scream by edvard munchFor the most part, the story was comforting and even exciting. Writers write, people called publishers disseminate the written work in the hope of finding an audience and making income for everyone involved. But the publishers ain’t what they used to be — Dymocks has just announced it’s hitting the POD and publishing pathway, for instance, and even agents are (controversially) getting in on the act. And, of course, authors are acting as their own publishers. And, presumably, their own editors, designers, legal department, advertising department and PR firms. And, also importantly, distributors. Or they’re outsourcing those tasks they can’t or don’t want to do, to specialists who can.

For instance, I’ve recently received a handful of press releases from Australian and American public relations outfits touting the attractions of self-published novels. That’s a serious investment.

Probably my greatest, scariest realisation during the course of the day was that, now more than ever, my stories are truly not mine once they’re published. Not only can readers review them, in whatever fashion, and indeed convert them within their mind’s eye to whatever text they want to — the story is, and always has been, theirs to interpret — but they can, more easily than ever, mash them, adapt them and generally fuck them up any which way they choose (within the bounds of copyright at least, if they’re playing fair). There’s a suggestion that this is a good thing, art sparking conversation and more art, art as the centre of community; but part of me shrivels at the thought of all that work being edited, altered and re-visioned. Another part of me asks, what’s my cut? If I’m being remixed, do I at least get my name in brackets?

It is indeed a braver new world.

Another item emerging from the discussions, in amongst the generally accepted wisdom that the traditional publishers are still way behind the 8-ball on the whole digital thing, is the ability to ‘enhance’ e-text with stuff: music, hyperlinks, comments, annotations, pictures, videos, behind-the-scenes … you get the idea. This stuff not only adds interest for readers, but adds to the conversation generated by the text. It’s a cafe chat on the interwebs centred on the text. Which is kind of neat.

A cited example of how a narrative, in this case essentially a children’s picture book, can be enhanced through the web, and spin off user-generated adaptations in the great tradition of fan fiction, was Inanimate Alice, proving a hit in classrooms as a means of getting kids interested in storytelling.

An e-book, one of the guest speakers, Hugh McGuire, said, is essentially a web page with limited functionality. Food for thought, that.

But what if you don’t want bells and whistles? What if you want that escapist submergence in the text and only the text, without pauses for even dictionaries? You just want words making pictures — indeed, an entire world — in your head.

It’s an issue that Louise Cusack has fortuitously blogged about, sparked by an article in Publishers Weekly, which examines the advantage vs disadvantage of e-adding.

Thankfully, we can have our cake and eat it, too. Just as with a DVD with extra features, we can choose which version of the story we want. The Inanimate Alice producers found that their audience was split 50-50 for enhanced vs unenhanced, so new episodes are being made both in enhanced and unenhanced versions.

paul hogan in shrimp on the barbie tourism advertisementSo now I’m imagining by nasty little outback vampire story romping in the e-wilderness with pop-ups for the Strine-challenged reader. No more Americanisation required (I’m still bemused that English is converted for North American readers but the reverse does not apply — aren’t North Americans insulted by not being trusted to handle colour with that pesky u? Of course, fanny is more problematic…). Don’t know what the boot of a car is? Enable the special features and *pop* — even better than a footnote. With pronunciation guide, aural or text-only. With a picture, even. This would be fun, even better than a glossary at the back of the book. Paul Hogan could resurrect his career doing voice overs for books — “g’day readers: in Aw-strayl-ya, we throw prawns on the barbie; if you throw on a shrimp, you’ve got a small lad with a nasty burn”.

OK, maybe not.

Still, exciting times as the world gets smaller and the barriers between writers and readers are increasingly broken down. But let’s not forget that, regardless of format, regardless of Flash, regardless of publisher, the readers still deserve something worth reading (and please, gods, at the barest minimum, something proofread). Hell, maybe they’ll even consent to pay for it.

Meanwhile, if you’d like more information about the digital age and what it means for writers, check out the Digital Writers conference in Brisbane on October 15, organised by the Emerging Writers Festival with support from if:book Australia, Queensland Writers Centre and Avid Reader.

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