All right. Last week we talked about the relationship between digital communication and brickspace data relay a little. Let’s see if we can hook it into fiction and books this week.
It was once said of George Bernard Shaw that his essays were the price you paid for his plays, which would make less sense if you didn’t know that he often put his essays into his plays, thinly disguised as monologues. Shaw was a radical, an egotist, and an essayist to be sure, and like most writers throughout the ages he attempted to convey a message using fiction. He wasn’t the first to do so — I just really love that quote about him because I think it applies to a lot of storytellers. The price you pay for a good story is often your absorption of, collusion in, or at the very least momentary complicity with the ideology of the author. That’s the point of most fiction reading, after all — to put yourself into a story. This isn’t automatically a bad thing; some authors have ideologies well worth adhering to.
Prior to the mid-nineties, these stories were heavily gatekept by economic necessity. Between Gutenberg and — for amusement’s sake — let’s say the first episode of The X-Files in 1993, anyone could print a screed or a story or a play and distribute it, but you were paying your own way, especially if you didn’t turn an eventual profit. Which meant you had the kind of cash to spend on that, or a patron who would spend it for you, be they a wealthy donor to your cause or a publisher interested in selling your book.
When we talk about twentieth century gatekeeping we primarily talk about the publishing industry pre X-Files which, being in it for the money, published books that they thought would sell. They published compellingly written books, pop-appeal books, scandalous books, or books by someone who already had fame riding on their side. (It is also important, if not necessarily directly relevant here, to point out that the only people who generally got a look-in for consideration were white dudes, so assume that the above was not applied in an equal-opportunity setting.)
The communication of data has always required resources — the ability to pay for printing, the ability to travel to a conference, the ability to purchase ad time. This is still true in the digital age. You must have access to a computer, which must be connected to the internet, and you must have a basic level of literacy plus either training in digital communication or the time necessary to train yourself in its arts. This is not an insignificant burden and it is the reason we have the term “Digital Divide”.
That said, these resources are much easier to procure than at any other time in human history: libraries offer free access to computers and the internet, MOOCs offer free tutelage in internet use, and if you have a laptop or a smartphone you can get wifi at McDonalds for the cost of a cup of coffee. People often have access to computers and internet through their workplace if nowhere else. And people who have the money to buy a computer and pay for monthly internet are still potentially paying far less for access to mass-communication tools than they would have for most of human history.
This kind of mass communication somewhat invalidates the old reason we met face to face at conferences, as I discussed last week, but conference culture has been slow to catch on. It also invalidates, in some sense, the old reason we published nonfiction books. Don’t get me wrong, I love nonfiction and I read a lot of it, but the same information can be conveyed through the internet. A lot of scientists and historians have blogs, and STEM podcasts are proving very popular (my personal favorite is Caustic Soda, run by non-scientists with science guests). The reason we still turn to nonfiction books is narrative — a book forms a more cohesive experience, and even a nonfiction book still tells a story. And there are people who legitimately prefer reading a book to reading a screen.
So what about fiction books? Are we returning — or could we return, and should we return — to the serial model? Serial novels worked like gangbusters in the 19th century, when rising literacy rates and lowered printing costs made newspapers, and magazines like the Strand, available cheaply for mass public consumption. Internet readers seem resistant to the concept of fee-based fiction online, but Netflix has proved the fee-based consumption model at least functions, and Amazon is attempting to change peoples’ minds with its “Netflix for books” (with understandably limited success, given the traditional definition of “netflix for books” is library). Bloomberg recently suggested that the fight between Amazon and publishers currently going on over print books is sad to watch because it’s already irrelevant — that fee-based access to books in a permanent cloud will be the new face of publishing. Their logic was unsound and their research was shoddy, so I can’t recommend taking the linked article too seriously, but they are suggesting an Amazon-derived model that has realistic potential. It may be too soon to tell — or the people handling the big data may not want to share their results yet. I’m just a paladin author, usually with no publishing house to my name, so it’s difficult for me to say.
I also, last week, discussed the idea that in some cases a website about a subject could draw more attention and accolades than a presentation about the same subject, and could actually provide fodder for a better presentation. This is the new, non-gatekept marketing: hook ’em online and get interaction going, instead of shouting advertising at people and hoping something sticks. “Going viral” is a dream that has yet to be bottled, because nobody seems to be able to quantify what drives the nature of a viral meme, but going viral has never been as helpful as a long-term, hooked in, loyal and interactive fan base, known as the “long tail”. These are difficult and can be expensive to build, but the long-term return on investment is much greater, as long as the product continues to please and engage the consumer.
As an author, attending a non-author day-job-oriented conference, what I think I carried away is a confirmation that primary digital engagement is often a step in the right direction — but that not a lot of people have caught on yet.
And as I’m writing this on my authorial blog, I may be preaching to the choir.