Rich media, e-books, new channels and other technological innovation have re-invented the book for the digital age. The discussion looked at digital-born books and how e-books and more traditional books now co-exist.
The talk featured Simon Groth, Manager of if:book Australia, Charlotte Harper, founder and publisher of Editia and Zoë Sadokierski, Vice President of the Australian Book Designers Association.
*Speakers: George Dunford (G), Simon Groth (S), Charlotte Harper (C), Zoë Sadokierski (Z)
*Typist’s notes: unclear caused by overtalking
G: Hello and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m George Dunford, the Director of Digital Engagement here at the library. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
Today’s digital culture talk is looking at where the book went next. Rumours of the book’s death have been constantly exaggerated, the invention of the printing press, the rise of pulp and paperback and now the web, eBooks, social media, all these have been blamed for the demise of the book but the book continues on in different forms and with different stories. Our three panellists today are all very passionate about the future of the book and believe it has a life both in print and online. We’ll hear from each of them individually and then we’ll have a quick panel discussion with plenty of time at the end for your questions. If you’re tweeting throughout this event please use our hashtag digiculture so we can tell the folks back home what’s happening as well if they can’t make it to this event.
Joining us firstly from Brisbane is Simon Groth, Manager of the Institute of the Future of the Book in Australia and an author of Off The Record, 25 Years in Music Street Press. He’s edited two essay collections for if:Book, the Noobz and Hand Made High Tech as well as working on Lost in Track Changes, a project that we’ll be hearing some more about today. Also joining us is Charlotte Harper, publisher at Canberra-based digital first publisher, Editia, who are on the shortlist for the ACT Book of the Year for their title, 18 Days, Al Jazeera English and the Egyptian Revolution. And finally joining us all the way from Sydney, ZoeSadokierski, is a book designer, lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney and columnist with The Conversation. She recently completed an exhibition of her books that uses print on demand to show how that technology can make some truly beautiful books which I hope we’ll also be seeing some more of today. We’ll kick off with Simon who’s going to tell us about what he sees as the future of the book.
S: Thanks guys. Thank you, thank you for inviting me, George, and it’s such a pleasure and an honour to come and talk to such a huge audience about something as awesome as the future of the book. The future of the book is ...it’s a big idea, it’s filled with promise and it’s fraught with traps. And in some ways it’s too big a topic to fit into my job which is running the Institute for the Future of the Book let alone you know a single presentation like this but ... so what I wanted to do was talk a little bit more broadly about what it means to be immersed in the future of the book before diving into some of the expressions through some of if:Books’ experiments. So when I talk about the future of the book I usually refer to the relationship between readers and writers. The reason for this is that it really neatly bypasses the problems of having to define what the book is. If you can’t resort to a description of a physical object then how do you define what qualifies as a book and what does not? Is it length? Is it form? Content? So okay before your brain explodes from that question also remember that the book is actually not a fixed and permanent ideal, what qualifies as a book is not a static set of ideas but is something that’s constantly evolving. You’re never going to get a straight definition for the book because the book defies any kind of arbitrary boundaries you care to place around it. And trust me when you stare down the future of the book for long enough the book itself begins to kind of disappear in front of you.
Often when we talk about where the book went next we picture this orderly transition from one container, print, to another, screen. Okay, that’s a really gross simplification of what’s actually going on but if we run with that idea for a moment, just sort of turn it over, squint at it, you can come up with a few useful ideas. Put simply print is static, screens are fluid and these qualities are both strengths and weaknesses for each medium. And I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know but if we take a look for a moment, print is a proven means of communicating across distance and time. When they’re made well books can last a really long time. They’ve got a really easy operating system, they’re really easy to figure out how to work .. how they work but although they’re ... individually they’re really beautifully portable, in quantity they start to become really heavy and cumbersome.
So what about digital texts? Now they’re not limited to a single container, they have no physical form. Text is resizable and machine-readable which opens up reading to people who’ve previously had to rely on others to create large print or audio books, singly one of the most brilliant aspects of digital texts. But it just hasn’t been around long enough to prove its permanence. It might be a great way of storing text for long periods of time but we don’t know that yet because it just hasn’t been around long enough. But what is worrying about it is that the containers have a limited lifespan and they require some kind of external power source in order to read. Sharp-eyed observers will note that that is the Rocket reader. Google it and you’ll find out what happens to containers. So if, and this is a big if, don’t forget, if books are making a wholesale transition then it wouldn’t actually be the first time. Over around 50 years in the 15th century books broadly speaking moved from hand copying to print and in that transition the basic design cues of print had to be invented, roman type faces, page numbering, running headers and footers.
None of these made any sense prior to print technology and for a while print books simply reproduced illuminated manuscripts. And they look like this because nobody knew how else a book was supposed to look. So here we are in 2014. We don’t know what screen-based books should look like so we’re reproducing the design of print. Now I don’t think it’s going to take us 50 years to figure out what we’re doing this time around. And I don’t think that screen will entirely replace print in the way that print replaced illuminated manuscripts but the comparison is still a pretty instructive one. There’s so much of the big picture that I’m skimming over because of time but I did want to briefly touch on what If Book has been doing and in some of the ways that we hope to advance the discussion and explore what kind of stories can be told at the blurry edges of the book. Many if:Book projects explore the interaction between physical and the digital world. I love creating physical objects that couldn’t exist without digital communication. In the same way I love creating digital objects that couldn’t exist without physical interactions. Sometimes our project looked like a book that Gutenberg would recognise and sometimes they don’t.
So our most recent book is the result of a remix project. This year we asked five writers to create a short work of memoir, a vignette. And then we asked them to pass that work around the group for the others to remix as a kind of Chinese whispers process. Now a literary remix is something that’s really quite distinct from editing. It’s a creative act, it’s taking someone else’s work and using it as the basis for something new. So the book which we called Lost in Track Changes is a great example of what we like to do when we hit the print button. Lost in Track Changes is a peculiar book, it’s published in spiral binding with enormous left-hand margins and enough white space to drive a truck through. This is a book that challenges you, the reader, to take part, scribble in your own remixes, to tear out pages and put your name on the cover. It’s an example of a book that can only exist in print. The digital edition of Lost in Track Changes which is actually coming soon is going to be a different beast altogether. So what we’re doing with Lost in Track Changes is bringing out the unique qualities of each medium that we use.
In 2012 we created a book called Willow Pattern in a single 24 hour period. In the process we created a database that told a kind of second meta story of the book’s creation from its first word to its final edit. We made that database into a searchable online archive and even turned that data then over to a small group of other writers to come up with some creative responses to that work. But even after all that I kind of felt that there was another slightly more visceral way that we could tell this story, the story of the book’s creation, I mean. So I took all that editing data back to print. The resulting 28 volume set, the complete 24 hour book, reproduces every edit made in the creation of Willow Pattern in a kind of lavish hard cover ‘cause if you’re going to do something ridiculous why not go all the way? The continuous bind design by Benjamin Portas kind of breaks down the project hour by hour so you can see instantly the level of activity through the book’s creation, you can see when we stopped for dinner, for example. What you’re looking at is ... really it’s the world’s most expensive bar chart but it’s an artwork that is equal parts beauty, mathematics and a bit of visual gag. And it prompts a discussion around the future of the book because if the future of the book includes print as an aesthetic choice then it’s worth considering who makes that choice and to what end? So that kind of future has to surely allow for the possibility of printed books that are designed for purposes other than reading.
So finally I wanted to mention Memory Makes Us which is a series of live writing events that have taken place throughout Australia. Presented by if:Book in partnership with local festivals Memory Makes Us has challenged writers in Darwin, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to create a new work live before an audience. Up to three authors sit before their computers in a public space and they write. Their work is fed to a large screen and then simultaneously to the project website. Every key stroke they make is visible to the world. The audience, both online and in person, can contribute to the writing in progress by providing the authors with a memory. Memories flood in online direct to the website and in person via the manual typewriters that we provide at the venue. And then as the number of collected memories grow throughout the day they’re attached to the author’s table and eventually reaching the floor and sort of spilling out towards the audience. Yeah, it’s kind of visual flourish but it’s also a mark of our progress through the day.
So this is writing as a performance but it’s a performance that’s distinct from other performative aspects of literature, it’s not a reading of a prepared work, it’s not freestyle poetry. It is improvisation but not with speech, it’s with text and with the tools of contemporary writing, keyboard and cut and paste. For most readers Memory Makes Us is a website. For festival visitors it’s a live event. Next year we’re taking aspects of Memory Makes Us to print but none of these individual formats capture the whole project. Memory Makes Us exists in its most complete form on the web where writers’ and readers’ contributions are presented in their entirety and with equal significance. But the web still doesn’t capture it entirely, not quite. Because it’s in that large interaction where the project really sings.
The last thing worth mentioning about Memory Makes Us is it’s an ephemeral project. The reality of writing has always been a lot more fragile than what we usually acknowledge. We write to remember and to be remembered but the reality is that for most writing, regardless of its medium it’s going to disappear. Following the final event the letters and the words of the authors and the audience will gradually become corrupted on the site until nothing is left. The writing that we remember for centuries is not only preserved, it’s also made accessible and crucially it’s repeated and referenced and acknowledged as an influence over and over again. In the context of authorship we frequently refer to humans as storytelling animals and I think that’s only half right, I think we’re also story-perceiving animals, we’re narrative animals. Stories are kind of hardwired into us. We don’t just like them, we need them and it’s a need that exists independently of any object, no matter how important. It existed before the book and it may just exist after it as well, maybe. And with the need for stories comes the need for the creation of stories, for the collation of stories and for the preservation of stories. Thanks.
C: Hi everyone. Thanks, Simon, and welcome, it’s great to be here talking about where the book went next because it’s a topic I’ve spent countless hours pondering, writing and talking about over the past 15 years. I’ve wanted an e-reader ever since I first picked up the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the early 80s. I interviewed Douglas Adams in 1998 and hoped his prediction that we’d all be reading eBooks within a few years would be proven right. When I first spotted the Apple tablet hashtag on Twitter in late 2009 I knew it was about to happen and I was glued to it every single tweet you know is the Apple tablet real? Well it sure was, wasn’t it? Sony had already ordered ... launched an e-reader in 2006 and there were some predecessors like the Rocket that Simon showed us but it wasn’t until Amazon’s Kindle hit the market in late 2009 and the iPad arrived in May 2010 that eBooks became mainstream. Amazon and Apple had the retail piece of the puzzle sorted which made it simple for anyone to download and read eBooks. Sony’s devices were nice but they were bit too fiddly to use and they actually ceased production earlier this year.
The Australian Publishers’ Association ran a symposium that shook up the local industry in February 2010. Attendees at the Digital Revolution Publishing in the 21st Century, who may have still been in denial about the rise of eBooks, literally gasped at young entrepreneur Phil Boshaw’s presentation on his interactive Peter Rabbit app for the iPhone. There were stunned faces and jaws dropping around the room. I think that the whole industry was taken by surprise and just hadn’t realised it was going to all happen so quickly. The eBooks were coming whether they were ready or not. I wrote a 5,000 word feature for Fairfax on that event but only 1,200 words ran in print. The full piece ran online broken into four separate stories. I thought long and hard about this clumsy presentation and about my two decades spent cutting newspaper and magazine articles to fit arbitrary spaces as a subeditor. I pondered the number of times I’d read a nonfiction book of standard length and felt that it had been padded out to the conventional 65 to 80,000 words.
I thought about a model where the readers judge a book’s length by the estimated reading time including the marketing blurb rather than the width of its spine. Here was a gap in the market, the e-single, a work of between 5,000 and 50,000 words could fill that gap. Then there was the timeframe factor. Book publishers tend to take a year from signing an author to getting their book to market. In a world where you can publish any digital content in seconds this seemed ridiculous to me. Surely we could speed the process up. Sure it would mean all the players from author to designer, editor and printer to distributor and publicist would need to think differently but that’s life, right? I wrote about all of this and studied business models of US publishers experimenting with similar projects like the Atavist which is now actually more focused on its software business but started out focused on long-form journalism and short nonfiction, Byliner which had a similar brief and didn’t make enough money and nearly went under and has just been acquired by Vook which is another digital publishing start-up. And then the successful player in the field which is the Amazon with its Kindle singles. They’ve probably 600 of these works that are between about 10,000 and 35,000 words and they sell them for about 2.99 a copy.
So I decided it was time to get in and be part of it rather than just commentating on it at this point and launched by own digital first publishing business, Editia. Editia is focused on long-form journalism and short nonfiction too. I figured I could publish eight eBooks a year of around 10,000 to 35,000 words, offering print editions later if there was demand. But life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect it to. Authors kept approaching me with projects that were longer. For example while the first edition of Crowdfund it! was 30,000 words, the third edition was pushing 50,000. 18 Days Al Jazeera English and the Egyptian Revolution which as you’ve heard has just been shortlisted for the ACT Book of the Year is 97,000 words. I expected Kevern Write a Book, the Best of Rudd 2000, the @Rudd 2000 Twitter account to be a short book of satirical tweets when I commissioned it ... acquired it, I should say, but it ended up running to more than 230 pages in print.
The whole digital thing is becoming a misnomer thing for Editia ... sorry, digital first thing is becoming a misnomer for Editia too. Literary editors and readers still want printed books. In many cases if I couldn’t offer them a print copy or at the very least a print-ready PDF they lost interest altogether. Kevern Write a Book for the very digital project but 80% of its sales has been in print. Fans of the @Rudd 2000 account wanted a physical memento of their digital experience, I think. I first approached the authors of Kevin on August 5 after learning that they ... of their identity via Twitter. Coincidentally one of them was the author of 18 Days so he was already on my books. They’d kept their identity a secret for I think about six months and everyone in Parliament House was trying to work out who they were and assuming that they were press gallery journalists or political staffers and they were not, they were a couple of academics. Yes and ... so anyone with an interest in federal politics in Australia knew about their parody account. Actually further afield we’ve sold copies in Denmark and other countries about this parody account and its laugh until you cry commentary. So in addition to Kevern, Rudd 2000 chronicled the lives of figures such as Ablo who has a seemingly insatiable appetite, Craig Thompson who is down on his luck but loves to party, Scott Moronson who takes delight in others’ misery, Tony Abert who is a world expert in lying, and the ever lovable Emmo. After tweeting anonymously for months the ... oh I’ve already told you that, sorry ... the authors ... yeah, they [unclear] about themselves on the day they reached 5,000 Twitter followers. They were sitting in a pub watching their Twitter follower account and when it hit 5,000 they tweeted Ablo eat Kevern.
We discussed the idea of the book for two days that afternoon and then over the weekend and announced the project with a link for discounted presales on Twitter during Q&A on August 11. Many of Rudd’s ... Rudd 2000’s 5,000 followers were exactly the sort of customer that an eBook publisher needs, tech-savvy and very active on social media. They flocked to the Editia website within seconds of the announcement tweet sending the server into meltdown. I had to triple my capacity overnight. We sold about a book a minute for the first few hours with the rush continuing for weeks. We tweeted ... we then tweeted to alert readers to an imminent price rise on September 1 and witnessed another huge rush.
The authors collated the best of the tweets with some commentary and images and submitted the manuscript on September 3 so less than a month later than we first began discussion. The manuscript spent three weeks with a defamation lawyer as you can imagine. And in fact we did send it to Kevin Rudd before anyone else just to make sure he was happy about it and you’ll learn later that he was. It spent three weeks in print and digital production. I edited it at the same time as I created the print and eBook files in a program called Press Books. And I proofread it in a day. EBook quality assurance testing and distribution took place over the two days that the PDF was with the printer in its final stages.
So I’ll tell you a bit about Press Books. It’s a fantastic tool. It’s based on the Word Press blogging software. Each chapter is set up as a Word Press post so that’s what they look like. That’s actually Anthony Albanese’s foreword to the book which is hilarious in itself. You can output each chapter individually or as part of a larger file with one click so there are the chapters and here’s the output page and you literally click that red button that says export your book and it outputs it to print-ready PDF, e-pub and Mobi which is the Kindle format. The print-ready PDFs require some tidying up and there is scope to fiddle around with cascading style sheets to customise one of Press Book’s many templates so there’s just an example but there are dozens of the templates. And that’s what the CSSs look like so you can go in and change the fonts and styles and so on. All four of Editia’s titles have been published this way although the first two were edited by an award-winning professional book editor because we had a bit more time. Our digital book ... I won’t show that yet ... our digital printer, SOS Print and Media in Sydney turned the print run around in a week. In fact I ... completely insane ... two days from when I signed off with the page proofs so it’s pretty much unheard of in the book industry, usually it takes weeks. They get it, they understand what I’m trying to do and they’ve put up with my rush, rush, rush scheduling to date. We’ll see how we go.
I drove to Sydney and back in seven hours to collect the books and the co-author, Scott, and I sat in the office at the Gorman Art Centre stuffing envelopes for hours before literally filling my entire Golf with parcels and heading to the post office to post them out. The next day Anthony Albanese launched the book to a packed committee room at Parliament House. Philip Ruddock was there, he’s characterised in the book as a vampire so I thought it was pretty big of him to turn up. Sarah Hansen-Young and Wyatt Roy who’s just pretty much described as a little kid on a tricycle in the book so again, very big of them. And Tim Watts, another one of the youngsters, often playing with Wyatt Roy in the Rudd 2000 tweets, he held the book up in the House of Reps during question time that afternoon. And described Rudd 2000 as a great if transient institution of Australian politics. He said buy this book, do a good deed and get it now before Ablo eat them all. You can ... the authors were sitting in the public gallery and didn’t know he was going to this and again jaws were dropping and you can read his speech in Hansard. He uploaded the speech ... the video ... the speech to YouTube and it’s had more than a thousand views to date so this is the kind of publicity that you cannot buy, there is nothing you can do to buy that sort of publicity, it’s amazing. And then, speaking of which, the real Kevin Rudd, he made a joke about the book to his 1.4, 5 million Twitter followers, went to find a copy of Kevern book but think Ablo ate them all. So he does have a sense of humour. That was retweeted sort of a hundred and six times and favourited a hundred and nine times.
We sold out the second print run that night before we’d even contacted a single bricks and mortar bookstore. Editia has subsequently and as a direct result of all of this signed a distribution deal with New South Books so booksellers can now order Kevern and its sister Editia titles just as they would stock from major publishers. This is exciting but it’s a bit sad at the same time because I really enjoyed driving around Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne delivering books to my favourite bookshops in person. Still there are now more bookstores stocking Kevern than would have been if it were just down to me and this is a good thing ‘cause we’re giving all the profits to the UNHCR, the High Commission for Refugees. EBook sales of Kevern were strong on the Editia website to begin with but stopped altogether once the book was available on Amazon, Ibooks, Kobo and Google Play. Sales from these platforms continue to tick over ‘though at nowhere near the rate of those first few weeks of direct sales. The boom was big but it was fast and it has past.
So what does all this tell us about where the book went next? I believe it is that the power no longer resides with the big five book publishers nor even with the online retail giants like Amazon and Apple. It’s that audiences for niche titles are out there and hungry for instant gratification. They’re price-sensitive, they learned about new books from social media, platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads or even within their reading apps by reading shared highlights and comments. They want what they want in the format that suits them now and if you miss the window or charged too much they’ve moved on. Publishing has to change to meet their demands and this change will continue to impact on the industry’s processes and people in a dramatic fashion. But just briefly where is the book now? In the US eBooks make up more than a quarter of all trade book sales. In Australia that number is reportedly around 5% smaller but I question the relevance of all of this research given how many books I sell off-book, as it were. Ninety per cent of Editia’s sales are direct via our website or at market stalls or launch events at non-book store venues. No organisation measuring book sales has ever asked me for sales data. I suspect there are a lot of self-publishing authors and small presses like me out there. That said, for a publisher that started out focusing on digital but quickly moved to add short print runs into the mix to meet demand we’re still making around a third of our sales in the digital space. I believe that number will grow and eventually overtake the print figure at least in the narrative space. Children’s books and other heavily illustrated titles are another matter and one that we will no doubt discuss further this afternoon.
Z: Today I’m going to talk about how digital technologies allow us to create and share stories in new ways. So I’m not a publisher, my background is as a book designer and as an academic and what I’m really interested in is the way that digital technologies allow us to create publications in which word and image are grafted together. So we’re creating rich and complex narratives that aren’t primarily text-based because we have digital technologies that allow us to play more in the creation stage. So digital technologies challenge us to make decisions about what kinds of content remain static on the page and what becomes dynamic on screen but they also allow us as I just said to start to think about how we might put word and image together in a way that makes a very different kind of book. So there are some really exciting bookish experiments going on and I thought I’d start by just quickly showing two of my favourite sites that report a lot of these kind of book projects. So the first one is the Literary Platform which is an online magazine and it’s based in London. Sophie Rochester who has a background in book publishing set the site up and she just talks about enhanced eBooks, apps and games that have a kind of literary bent and alongside it she actually started up TLP Collective which is a little research institution. And she just started to collaborate with libraries and universities and publishers and all of the projects that they do and workshops are around the impact that technology has on writing and publishing.
A slightly more ... I actually ... on an aside I did go and visit the Literary Platform and this is quite a big ... it’s a big production to keep a website like this running and it’s actually three women working but of a cupboard in Shoreditch so a lot of these start-ups ... a bit like Charlotte talking about putting a whole carful of books down to the post office ... a lot of these things are really small at the moment and that’s what’s exciting about it. It’s a kind of lawless territory that’s really opened to change. So the second place I wanted to talk about is the publishing lab which probably has more of an academic bent on what they do. This was started by Alberto Hernandez and Maria Serrano, originally as a Facebook page, where they were just trying to find places where people were talking about hybrid books which is what I’m about to talk about so books where word and image are starting to integrate in ways that are different than a kids’ picture book, different than a graphic novel and certainly different than a conventional novel. So what the publishing lab as a kind of academic institution, has a slightly more overt manifesto and I’m just going to read from their website. We believe that 21st century narratives must both demand and create savage readers, not tame readers. We think this makes good training for being able to read all sorts of social narratives and the real world with a critical stance. We don’t think textural hybridisation is the only way to do this but we think it’s a good way to do it. In the hands of a designer, writer or editor who is humble, sharp and generous, multimodal narratives will become useful training tools for the savage readers our society is so much in need of.
So what’s interesting to me here apart from the fact that they’re starting to really foreground this idea of hybrid books being a kind of way of the future is that they’re also putting design in the mix there. As a book designer this is a great call to action. So stepping into this new publishing landscape where designers have traditionally been at the production end of the process, if we start to think about what happens when you bring a designer in at the creation side of the process, the very beginning of the book project, what might change? So I’m just going to talk through one example of my own work which is a project called Analogue Bodies. And this is a collaboration between myself and a writer and friend, Tom Lee. It’s a book of illustrated essays so Tom and I have collaborated previously. I turned his essay on the Poetics of Naughtiness into a zeen and we turned a trip to his family farm with another colleague into an exhibition of photographs and works on paper. So this is where designers might start to play with writers and in some way I guess skip the publisher or become the publisher themselves.
So Tom often sends me and other friends early drafts of his essays just to read and get some feedback on. And in July 2013 Tom wrote me an email saying you’re probably sick to death of my writing but I’ve attached an essay I wrote. It's about foot feelings and features a cameo from Farm Things, burs, sheep, Dad, mud as well as Bruce Willis. I responded so I love it of course and I’m totally doing a foot book. Ten months later at the Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne we presented a fully illustrated 90 page book that includes Tom’s foot essay alongside another essay he wrote about teeth and five smaller books that I made in the process. And this is how it unfolded. Because Tom’s essays were on feet and teeth and I’m not an anatomical illustrator I thought I’d see what I could do with Creative Commons images. So Creative Commons are licences that copyright holders put on images, written text, music, any type of digital file that’ll allow people to reuse them for free as long as they’re correctly attributed.
As I was reading and rereading Tom’s essays I started collecting images of feet and teeth and collaging them together. This is part of my creative process, it’s just something I do to help me think about ways that I might create a visual dimension for a written text so I just thought you kind of need to see that this is actually very small, this little book. And I was just collecting image ... copyright-free images of teeth and then sort of noticing that they looked a bit like mushrooms and that skull looks a bit like a kind of pomegranate. And I put these things together just to start to make myself think. And then I discovered the Wellcome Library which is ... the Wellcome Institute is in London, it’s a really big science library and fantastically what a lot of cultural institutions like libraries and art galleries and museums are doing is starting to digitise their collections. So they’re starting to scan in and make available images of work in their collection and release it for free for people to play with so it’s actually making cultural institutions through digital technology start to have more I guess relevance to a contemporary audience. And this is an incredible gift for illustrators and designers.
So because Tom writes his essays by pulling bits of quotes from lots of different places I thought it would make sense if I illustrated his essays using images from different places. So my design process was kind of mimicking Tom’s writing process and as an example on this double-page spread from the final book the tooth images from the Wellcome Library and the lemon and crab images are from Vintage Printable which is another website that I used. It was all either Wellcome or Vintage Printable. So what you can see here is how when I’m just kind of messing around for fun and I’m starting to juxtapose images that made sense to me to do as a way of illustrating these texts. So on the right side there the tooth and lemon go next to this little passage of text that says indeed it is more rea ... oh sorry, the structure of the tooth is for the best part composed of a dense tubular stuff known as dentine. Like oranges and lemons teeth contain pulp. I found this idea troubling. To the right the image there goes next to, indeed it is more reassuring to think of a tooth as a densely resistant pebble than a potentially homely shell. This idea now calls to mind the experience of abject horror that I felt when discovering a small translucent crab nested in a mussel shell that I expected to house only mussel.
So I’m placing these illustrations next to Tom’s written text to enhance it. The illustrations kind of illuminate the writing and bring a different reading experience. On another spread ... so it’s not a spread, sorry, just a single page over there you can see that small image which is ... it’s called three unusual-looking men and it was a drawing that was done in the 17th century and the piece of text that it’s next to is where Tom’s talking about the aliens from James Cameron’s film, Avatar. Now if you look at one drawing from the 17th century and then an image from 2009 there’s a kind of creepy resemblance there. So that drawing doesn’t appear in Tom’s text, it’s just that because I had his essay in my head when I was searching through these digital archives, these things appeared to me. And I don’t know what it means but it’s worth thinking about so I’ve put it there on the page so other people can think about this connection.
And this is what a hybrid book can do. An unexpected image can extend the text, opening up a richer reading experience. I never would have found this image if the digital technology, the searching through archives wasn’t there allowing me to search in a really loose and unfocused way to find things I didn’t know I was going to find. And the digital archives revealed a mass of fascinating images. I could have filled every page with really interesting visual asides but I chose not to because what would happen if I started overloading the text with too many images is that you wouldn’t actually read Tom’s essays, it would become kind of too busy. And so what I did instead was created a couple of little books on the side where I pulled together collections of images that I thought were really interesting and sort of too good not to include but on the side of the main book. So for instance that thing in the top corner there, that’s a talisman that they use to ward off evil spirits and they gave it to babies to hold in their cribs. And I became weirdly fascinated with footbinding so I made a foot book as well. So just to give you a sense of how I presented this and why I’m saying that I did a different thing within Tom’s main book, you can see this little diagram here is there is the main book with an introduction and the essay on feet and teeth and then I made a whole bunch of little antichapters so things that sat on the side of the main book that were these illustrated essays. So again just to give you a sense, that’s the size of the main book and that’s the size of an antichapter.
And the final of the antichapters I did there was the little flower fold book, another kind of strange book and then two essays on feet and teeth and the last thing was I took all of the emails that Tom and I sent to each other in the 10 months of producing the project and turned them into a book. ‘Cause what I was thinking about was what’s really interesting is that we started to send each other things back and forth. This is again at digital technology where Tom was sending me images that informed my visualisation of his work and I was sending him bits of writing and things that informed his writing so all of a sudden the line between word and image in the production process started to blur because of what we could share with each other. So this is a kind of record of actually a digital collaboration. We met in person, we work in the same institution but a lot of our collaboration happened online and through email and that was a really important part of our process. I’m going to end it on that note because I think we’re running a little over time and I think we should have questions.
G: Thank you very much for that, everyone. I wonder if we could talk a little bit ... you talked a little bit about your process in creating books and things, I wonder if some of the things that the digital technology has done has influenced that so reading on the web people say that there’s a lot less time and that people are compressing the amount of time that they have. I think, Charlotte, it’s interesting the way you talk about the e-singles as being something between say a blog article or an essay and a full-blown book. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how that process works successfully and where some of those e-singles might have been created?
C: Yeah well they come from different places, I suppose. Sometimes a journalist will write one with that genre in mind, they’ll think right, I’m going to write 35,000 words on this topic but other times perhaps they write an article for a newspaper or a magazine and they have a lot of material that they haven’t been able to use and they think well okay, I can only put 1,500 words in the magazine article but I can turn this into something bigger. And similarly books that exist already can be broken up into something smaller so I guess there are different ways they can come about.
G: And online people do buy a smaller essay and read it via an e-reader or on their iPad or something like that.
C: Yeah, absolutely, I don’t ... I mean Kindle ... Amazon I don’t think would still be doing it if people weren’t buying them ...
S: It goes both ways as well.
S: We were talking to Mark Coker who’s the CEO so Smashwords, huge distributor of self-published work and their best sellers are gargantuan 120,000, 200,000 word books, you know completely impractical books to try and take to print, you would have to cut them into separate things but it seems to sort of ... the most interesting places are at those extremes where it’s very short little pieces or gigantic pieces.
C: Yeah, well I’ve always thought that now finally I can read ... is it Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy? You know it’s a massive to me and I used to always look at it and think I can’t carry that ‘round in my handbag. Well now you can read it on your e-reader, really good, makes a lot of sense. Things that are easier to read through a device like this, yeah.
G: It was interesting, Simon, you talking about the containers for books that are becoming obsolete you know whether it’s an older Kindle device or something like that. That’s a challenge for us at the Library around digital collecting and getting some books that are appearing in new formats and how we capture those. I wonder if any of those containers have influenced how we create books? If anybody’s decided there’s a Kindle ...
S: Hugely, hugely. You know over the size of the devices, the screen ratios you know all of those things are all ... and I think it’s telling that the devices mostly are designed ... well if you look at ... the most popular of the devices now are tablet devices rather than dedicated e-reading devices so the devices that are designed not with reading in mind primarily, they’re designed to do all sorts of junk so you know books is just one of those things. But ... then again on the flipside is there really that much difference between a dedicated e-reader and a tablet?
C: I think there is, I think mostly because I have to ... like if I’m reading a novel I have to put my phone in the other room because I can’t help myself like I look at it, it’s just you know it’s second nature and the thing that I still love about reading print books is that they don’t do anything else but be a print book.
G: There’s something about knowing that there’s all this stuff behind you know like there’s just sort of emails picking up from behind the book saying oh you know pay attention to me, I’m here too.
C: And I mean if you slip when you’re reading, your attention slips, it does all the time ... well mine does anyway ... you just kind of ... you jump back a page and you start reading again and it’s okay but if my attention slips and I go away and start doing something else it’s much harder to come back.
Z: Sometimes the window, the 10 minutes you had to read has gone.
Z: Yeah, I agree, I’m the same as you. I have a Kindle Paperwhite which is backlit so I can still read in a dark room at night as you can with a tablet and I use that for reading and I use this for everything else.
G: I think there’s a lot of talk about e-reader devices evolving to shut out email or to not let you do those things, I think you know we’re still really adapting to having a device that can take you off to see ... read your email or you know when you don’t know what a word means you can Google it or something like that. I think that’s quite exciting but I think a lot of readers still find that they do want that separation. It’s interesting when we talk about creating books that a lot of the metaphors even for eBooks are still very much based on print terms. Even on the web we have pages, we have chapters in eBooks and things like that. I ... Simon, I think you’ve talked about it before about the way this is still a relatively new kind of disruption of the book. I wonder if we’ve seen things evolving in other book formats that aren’t taken from other books or you know if perhaps as Zoe has done with her books created antichapters and unbooks that sit beside books. I wonder if there’s any things like that that you can refer to?
S: Do you know it’s not ... there’s lots of really interesting stuff that’s kind of happening ‘round the edges and they’re always fun to kind of look at but I think the stuff that’s really ... the stuff that’s really disruptive is the boring stuff, it’s the you know the web itself is a publishing platform, that’s what it was designed to do. You know I remember first you know going through Telnet to try and hook into this thing called the worldwide web and you know being astounded that I was pulling up you know black text on grey background in you know Mosaic 1.0 you know this ... that kind of you know it was designed as a publishing platform. All this other stuff that we’ve done with it you know there’s YouTube and you know the web itself is just this most incredible amazing platform. All of that was built on this idea of being able to publish something to anyone, anywhere for nothing and that ... that’s actually the most disruptive thing that has happened. So the funny thing about it is that the book kind of sits alongside that and that’s why I sort of ... I’m very wary of this idea of one replacing the other because they seem to do quite different jobs and they seem to reach us in different ways and I think there’s ... it seems to sort of touch a different part of you, a different kind of reader you know we’ve had to learn to read in a different kind of way to cope with the web and Twitter and ...
C: And that’s the savage readers thing that ...
C: ... that little passage that I read out from the Publishing Lab, that idea that ... I think that they’re saying that they need to be savage because you have to actually ... like you got to kind of almost armour up to go in there you know to go onto ... go online or even onto online bookstores. It’s like you got to know what you’re doing to go in there, it’s not as .. I don’t find it as pleasant an experience as wandering through a bricks and mortar bookstore where you get to you know kind of pick things up and handle them and spend a bit of time privately deciding whether or not you might like it without everything popping up and saying you might like this and you might like that and it just ... it feels really ... I don’t know, very invasive.
G: Looking at some of the books you can see that they’re very tactile things too, they’re very real world. I wonder if books are ... if that idea that there’s an object book, is very powerful and people buy object books. I think your experience of saying that about 20% of the sales of books are online or are eBooks, that’s something that you see in international publishers mimicking as well. It’s about 20% of eBooks are being sold at the moment, it’s sort of levelling out. I wonder if there's a point about the versus idea, is it eBooks or a print book or can they coexist?
C: Well they can coexist. I ... we sell bundles so people who buy a print copy from my website, I send them a download code so they can then have the eBook for free because why should they have to pay for the book twice, you know?
S: How many people take up that?
C: Quite a lot. Initially none and I thought oh they’re crazy but it’s growing and I think it depends ... it also depends on the book. The book that most people do that for is Crowdfund it! so that’s a very digital book anyway, I guess, yeah.
Z: I think that there can be editions of things and I suppose that’s a lot of what I’m playing at. Some of Tom’s essays that I’ve been doing things with have been published elsewhere so they’ve been published in literary journals or you could do a straight text version of it but I think that there’s this idea that if you’re a book person and you like having the object, that the object is meaningful and I don’t want to give someone an eBook as a gift but I definitely give people books as gifts and there’s some books that I don’t want a copy of, I want my copy of it and I want it on my shelf and I think there you know that ... those people, it’s not just nostalgic that you know that generation is going to die soon and then that won’t be a problem. I think that you know there’s still ... what excites me about that is that the people who still really love books will perhaps pay a little bit more for them to be really great objects, beautifully designed and beautifully made and we still make those books. For other stuff, if you want to get it out there quickly and you want to be able to edit it then I think eBooks are terrific and I read heaps of stuff on my ipad but there’s some things that I want to be a print book because I care about the content so much that I need it to be in the world with me and I don’t feel like it does that on an e-reader.
C: Yeah, I think genre fiction like crime and science fiction and fantasy and romance is huge on eBooks because those are sort of churn reads that you don’t ... you’re not ... you don’t need to keep it, once you’ve read it you move onto the next one.
G: I think there’s also a bit of a ... some people say that it’s the anonymous read, being able to read as much romance as you want and nobody ever knows.
C: Yeah. Well we didn’t ... I didn’t mention erotic fiction but ...
Z: Well ...
C: ... that’s very much the case, isn’t it?
Z: .. want me to sit on the bus, you know?
G: [unclear] a panel that doesn’t mention Fifty Shades of Grey.
C: No ...
Z: ... you just named it.
C: But then I think there's also like you know a lot of people will read Game of Thrones for instance, and I’m doing to dilute the argument because that’s also obviously a TV series, but you might read that on an e-reader but then there’s all this stuff around it now, you can buy figurines and coffee cups and all the other stuff so you can still be visibly a Game of Thrones person but you don’t have to actually have the books taking up too much space in your life so I think that there’s this book culture that exists as well.
S: I think you know I think there’s always been a range of readers but this is ... it’s the first time in a long time that there’s been a choice, that if you ... if ... if the physical form of the book didn’t ... doesn’t matter to you then there’s nothing wrong with that you know if it’s just the content, well now you’ve got that option. So you know it makes sense that the sale of a digital book sometimes will take the place of what would have been a print book but that’s not always going to be the case, it’s not a one-to-one you know it’s not a zero sum game.
C: I wonder ... sorry, George, I wonder whether people who are really big book buyers like me, I think I’ve probably invested you know most of my earnings over the years that I haven’t eaten, I’ve spent on books, I’m more likely to become eBook people because you literally run out of space in your house. Last time I moved house I had to get rid of 20 boxes because I just thought I’m not going to pack them and unpack them again, I can’t go through it again.
S: You’ve just get a bigger house.
G: It might be a very Canberra argument but print books do make very good insulation, though [unclear].
G: I think the other thing that eBooks have introduced is the idea that there’s a binge read you know when you get to the end of a Game of Thrones book you want to keep reading the next one so you download the next one and the next one. I wonder if that’s a phenomenon that any of you have any experience of?
C: Happened to me with Game of Thrones, I read them all within the space of a few days, staying up until 4 in the morning and did exactly what you said, bought the next and instantly started again straight away. And then when I saw them ... I’d never seen them in a bookshop ... I saw them in a bookshop and I thought I can’t believe it, I’ve read that much ‘cause you’re not aware at all and I think I mentioned before about there are some websites now that market their content by ti ... reading time rather than word length and I think that’s really something that ... that is different to the traditional book and that is sort of specific to this technology.
S: That’s part of that working out what books are supposed to be onscreen ‘cause page numbering suddenly doesn’t matter anymore.
G: Medium is a site that does that too and it’s interesting because a lot of what Medium does is has small snacks on the Medium website and then draws you through to purchase the whole book or the book of essays. That might be all we have time for.
G: I was going to say join me in thanking our speakers but I think you just did. You can find out more about the digital culture talks online at nla.gov.au/events. Thanks so much, everyone.
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