Books in Browsers 2013 – Reflections

November 1st, 2013 by Anna von Veh § 3 comments § permalink

Books in Browers 2013 is the highly regarded annual book-meets-tech conference in San Francisco, and I had the privilege of giving a presentation this year. Books in Browers 2013 was one of the best conferences I have attended.

The programming was intelligent and thoughtful. Sessions were grouped, and each presentation within a session complemented the others, so that by the end of the conference both a palimpsest and a narrative structure emerged. Many of the presentations, including my own, referred to earlier histories of storytelling and of the book itself.

The Internet Archive

Photo borrowed from http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2012/04/preserving-the-internet-and-everything-else.html

Context, subtext, paratext, text

The subtext to many of the presentations was the idea of ‘context first’, i.e. that in a digital networked world, context, all the related information surrounding the main content and the book itself, is not only important but critical.

The idea of ‘context not container’ was first raised at Books in Browsers in 2010 by Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media Partners in his presentation ‘Context First’, and it continues to inform and influence thought about books and publishing. (‘Context not Container’ appears in Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, available to read online).

My presentation on fan fiction (Beyond the Text: Writing Undercover on the Web) extrapolated Brian’s idea. Amongst other things, I talked of how the physical boundaries of the book have become synonymous with the boundaries of the story or content itself. Fan fiction on the internet is the manifestation of a hybrid, more fluid and nuanced understanding of story and storytelling: drawing on oral storytelling traditions, and is both performative and written.

In his entertaining presentation, Corey Pressman used the word “paratext” to describe “context” and drew a direct line from Stone Age tools to the smartphone.

Several speakers explored how to address and incorporate ‘context’ into the networked book.  Anthon Astrom of Astrom/Zimmer provided an aesthetically beautiful and also functional design for tracing the lineage of annotations and conversations. Hypothes.is showed their impressive contribution with two open source projects with huge potential: Epub.js and their own hypothes.is.

Using an API to make context available was a feature of the hackday on the Saturday. Kate Pullinger,  co-author with Chris Joseph of the groundbreaking Inanimate Alice is doing very interesting work online with her novel Flight Paths. In an exciting move, the digital division of her publisher, Random House Canada, developed an API for an excerpt from the follow-up book, Landing Gear, for use at the conference hackday. (For details of the API and related information see the website for the Random House API).

There were wonderful presentations at the intersection of tech, design and art, with one drawing spontaneous mid-presentation applause: Etienne Mineur’s imaginative inventions: playful books and board games integrated with technical wizardry linked to the internet. (See the company’s website: Volumique).

Some conference coverage

The conference was live streamed, and the videos of the presentations are now available. Once on the site, select the session you’re interested in from the sessions list on the right of the screen. The sessions correspond to the order in the BiB program (for example, mine is “Session 3″; the sessions on Day 2, have the day in the name of the video)

Publishing Perspectives had daily reports on the conference. Search using ‘Books in Browsers IV” (here is the review of the first morning’s sessions)

Manuel Schmalstieg of ms-studio handily uploaded his live notes for all the sessions too.

Brian O’Leary wrote a post on Collaborative Creation, addressing the first morning of the conference.

Update: Peter Brantley, Porter Anderson and Lynn Rosen have all written excellent articles on the conference.

Conclusion

The venue, The Internet Archive, was itself a metaphor for the conference: integration of old and new, a reimagining of culture, space and purpose. The building used to be a Christian Science church and now houses one of the largest digital archives in the world, and is staffed by a group of committed people working to keep the internet free and open. The servers blinking away at the back of the ‘auditorium’ hint at the new gods at work and play. And the Psalms at either side of the stage reflected, respected, acknowledged and incorporated the building’s origins.

It was a remarkable conference for the juxtaposition and blend of the old and the new, as well as for the meticulous and wonderful timekeeping. Peter Brantley (@naypinya) of hypothes.is and Kat Meyer (@katmeyer) of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and all the sponsors and speakers should be congratulated on a truly excellent and thought-provoking conference.

The PANZ Book Design Awards, digital absence, and lessons to be learned from Educational Publishing

July 18th, 2013 by Anna von Veh § 2 comments § permalink

Digital publishing didn’t make an appearance at the PANZ Book Design Awards that were held tonight (18 July 2013) at the beautiful Gus Fisher Gallery at the University of Auckland.

It was a lovely evening, with luminaries from the New Zealand Publishing industry and others in attendance. Of course, one couldn’t ignore that many people are feeling unsettled by the merger between Penguin and Random and the seemingly inevitable job losses to come, the closure of Pearson’s education branch in New Zealand, the cutbacks at Pearson Australia, and the news of Lonely Planet’s demise in Australia.

The speeches were entertaining and enjoyable. Alan Deare won four awards, including the Gerard Reid Award for Best Book (sponsored by Nielsen Book Services) for On Song, published by Penguin, and gave weary, droll, thank-you speeches which were a mixture of appreciation and the seen-it-all cynicism of someone who has worked in the publishing industry for many years.

The shortlisted books were beautiful. There was creative use of typography, and some striking covers, including a maths book, published by Pearson, which surprised everyone but the Educational publishers.

Essential Maths and Stats by David Barton and David Cox, cover design by Cameron Gibb

Essential Maths and Stats by David Barton and David Cox; cover design by Cameron Gibb

Educational books tend to be patronized by trade publishing, and that was evident in comments tonight too, but they are true tests of a designer’s skill. Designers are constrained by budget, the curriculum, the requirement for consistency, unforgiving deadlines, and sometimes challenging content (Essential Maths and Stats. Hmm).  The user experience is vital, not just a ‘nice to have’.

Textbooks are what I call ‘tipping point’ books. They sit at that edge between the old ‘aesthetics’ of handcrafted book design (yes, including in Adobe InDesign) and the structure required of content management and true digital workflows. Trade publishing could learn a lot from educational publishing.

But I digress.  The absence of any digital presence, even in the speeches, was both surprising and it seems, to be expected.

I long for the day when local Book Design Awards include true digital books, not just ebooks, or ‘enhanced’ ebooks, or god forbid, fixed layout ebooks, but books that start with flow and ebb, that use the liquidity that digital provides.

Light, space, movement. What could skillful designers do with that?

Reflections on a book launch tour

July 7th, 2013 by Zirk van den Berg § 0 comments § permalink

Last month, I had a week of being made a fuss of. Flown halfway around the world. Media interviews. Sound and video recordings. Photographs. People regarding me as if I were important, asking questions and listening to what I had to say. The odd bit of flattery.

It was all in aid of selling a book.

Zirk van den Berg best seller

The Afrikaans translation of my crime novel Nobody Dies at no 1 on a bestseller shelf. A rare occasion that had to be captured.

Never before, a publisher told me, has the persona of the writer been so important. These days people apparently want to know about the person behind the book.

Personally, I prefer the book to the author in most cases. This whole phenomenon of the author as public figure makes me uncomfortable, never more so than when I am that author.

Before heading off on this book tour, I was expressing these doubts to my 16-year-old daughter who understands the world a lot better than I do. She cut me short: “Listen! You’re there to sell your book. Not to talk about your vulnerabilities and be boring.”

Not being one to argue with the wisdom of a teenager, I took that as my mantra on my travels. Rather than kvetch about what I was doing, I was determined to enjoy it. And I did.

Writing is such a lonely business, with so few external rewards, that being patted on the back and seeing my book on a best-seller shelf was a thrill.

Good as it was, though, it wasn’t writing. That lonely business, the groping for words while staring at the page or screen, is its own reward. Some of us could not exist without it. Neither could the business of publishing and bookselling.

Hello, Kindle Worlds and fanfiction; Goodbye, Pearson Education in New Zealand

June 4th, 2013 by Anna von Veh § 0 comments § permalink

Kindle Worlds – a new world of publishing?

Fanfiction is a topic that generally invites disdain from the publishing industry for understandable reasons, although of course there has been attention since the outrageous success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which by now is commonly known to have been based on Twilight fanfiction.  I am hopeful that Amazon’s new venture  Kindle Worlds, which in its current form anyway, seems to be a limited approach to fanfiction (I will cover this more fully in an upcoming article in Publishing Perspectives; update: now published), will nevertheless open up dialogue about fanfiction. The number of fanfiction stories uploaded and read on Wattpad alone is incredible, as shown in this infographic, and online writing is a trend that publishers ignore at their peril.

With the advent of Kindle Worlds, my professional interest in fanfiction as an online model for interactive, dynamic book publishing has garnered some attention. In the past week, courtesy of an article I wrote last year on fanfiction being republished by Publishing Perspectives, I have been contacted by Business Week in the US, been interviewed by the German publishing magazine buchreport.de and wrote the article for Publishing Perspectives.)

Pearson Education in New Zealand – a thing of the past?

In the same week, it was with great sadness that I read that Pearson Education’s New Zealand office was likely to close down. Martin Taylor, long a proponent of digital publishing in New Zealand, wrote an excellent post on what this might mean to New Zealand publishing.

I worked at Pearson for eight years, and was the Editorial and Production Manager, and Content Management representative, until I left to do further postgraduate study in Business Administration and to concentrate on digital publishing and content management. While I haven’t worked at Pearson for some years now, it will always be meaningful to me as I started my publishing career at Pearson Education (Maskew Miller Longman) in Cape Town, and it was Pearson head office’s promotion of technology and content management that first got me thinking about new forms of publishing and sparked my interest in content management.

I wish my ex-colleagues at Pearson, New Zealand, as well as the excellent authors and freelance editors and designers I worked with regularly, the best. I remember well our weekly Editorial and Production morning teas when we each took turns to bake. Some baking could have been contenders for national baking awards, whereas other cakes, for example made by this Anna, were swigged down with a good gulp of tea. Thanks to you all. And I wish you well.

How to like reading about a hero you don’t like – ‘The Goodbye Kiss’ by Massimo Carlotto

May 2nd, 2013 by Zirk van den Berg § 0 comments § permalink

Reading Massimo Carlotto’s crime novel The Goodbye Kiss, I was once again reminded how intriguing an unsympathetic main character can be in fiction.

My own novel No-Brainer features a main character some readers find too hard to like. However, I do ascribe to the accepted truism of writing that the reader should care for the main character and preferably like them enough to root for them. I also wrote elsewhere that one of the reasons I don’t like reading books about serial killers is that I don’t want to spend time with sickos.

So why did I enjoy Carlotto’s book so much when the main character is a lying bastard, robber, serial abuser of women and commits a string of murders?

For one thing, he’s not a sicko. He commits these crimes, but unlike the serial killers I detest, he doesn’t derive particular pleasure from doing so. Although he does confess in one place to always having enjoyed murder, that is not the motivation for his actions. He is simply trying to look after number one the best way he knows how. He is callous and cruel, but not sadistic.

The way the book is written, with its incredibly fast pace, is also not indulgent. You never get the feeling that the narrator is enjoying the gore or is hoping that the reader will get kicks from descriptions of violence. The violence happens, matter of factly, and the story moves on.

Massimo Carlotto reminded me of nobody so much as Jim Thompson, whose main characters can also be morally corrupt. Both these authors write lean and mean fiction… and these words are not just chosen because they rhyme. There is a commendable, merciless quality to the writing of both these men.

I read The Goodbye Kiss without as much as a glance at the blurb. I saw the book at a second hand store, liked the look of it and decided to simply open on page one and start reading. It is only afterwards that I read the blurbs and discovered the degree to which Massimo Carlotto’s life story mirrors that of the protagonist in this book. (Presumably the author is not really a murderer, though he did spend five years in prison before his conviction on a murder charge was overturned.)

While Carlotto’s biography can be considered to lend credence to his work, I believe that’s neither here nor there. What you read in the book is the work of someone with a hard-nosed approach that is clearly not put on. (I’m so bored with narrators who pretend to be tough. Isn’t it far more compelling to read stories, especially crime stories, courageous enough to show vulnerability?)

Interestingly, I also recently read two other books where the main character didn’t entirely win my sympathy: John le Carré’s Absolute Friends and James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce.

In Le Carré’s case, the character was a victim of larger forces and should’ve evinced more sympathy. Yet somehow he just never came alive to me, despite all the pages and all the information and everything that was done to him. A spark of life was missing. Brilliant writer though he is, I think Le Carré didn’t quite get this character to come off the page.

The title character of Mildred Pierce was more appealing, at least at first, though her actions made one care about her less as the story progressed. Still, it is a marvellous book and one I can almost not believe has been as successful as it has been. It certainly doesn’t follow the popular pattern. It’s actually an incredibly brave book.

And one cannot consider unsympathetic main characters without a nod to Nabokov, whose works feature a succession of them. In his case, the trick is that you recognise the humanity of these characters. You may not admire them, but you feel you know them and, however begrudgingly, are willing to indulge their weaknesses. And, of course, there’s that Nabokov style to make the reading a pleasure.

Which brings me back to Massimo Carlotto’s book. If the writing is good, then the book is a joy to read. As Oscar Wilde said: “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.”