Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Liverpool's First Virtual Book Fair

The first computers were introduced into my school, De La Salle, way back in the later 70’s/early 80’s. I was on my way out so didn’t get near them; they would have been simple word processors. When I worked in an office in the mid 80’s we had one computer, an Amstrad. The text on the screen was green on a black background and it printed onto sheets with holes down the side for a dot matrix printer. Very exciting. It was good for text documents and address lists, etc., but slow, awfully slow. When I went to university in 1999 it felt quite radical when one of the tutors handed us our course materials on a floppy disc. I’m not sure kids like my nephews would know what a floppy disc is now. At the risk of sounding like an old duffer - how quickly things have changed, exponentially, in the most recent past.

The book, the form of the book as a physical object, has stood well the test of time. Second-hand book shops are testament to their durability. Books generally don’t break or wear out. From bedside to beaches they’re our lifelong companions, but now the new kids on the block look like they may be gaining the upper hand.

The e-book, Kobo, Kindle, etc., the smartphone and the tablet, and the apps that accompany them, have eased into our lives as platforms for reading, writing and publishing, and have provoked an ongoing debate about potential dangers of the quality of self-published writing, of storytelling, etc., and a discussion on the future, or otherwise, of the book itself. Will e-books save the trees and rule the world, should we jump in with gay abandon, or, should we follow the advice of Children’s Laureate, Mallory Blackman, to ‘proceed with caution’?

Nielson, who document book sales on all platforms, reported recently that print sales have fallen by 10% last year while e-book sales have risen by 20% in the UK in 2013, with 80 million books being sold in the UK last year. This trend has continued over the past few years, and looks to continue, with e-book sales predicted to outsell physical books in future years. However, the monetary gap in sales gives some indication that this could take longer than the 2018 target being anticipated by some. The book trade in the UK in 2013 was worth £2.2 billion, a figure that currently towers over the £800m in sales for e-books.

Although there are many publishers living in morbid fear of this growth, this is contested by some. One of those arguing against the decline of the book, who has a big interest in the sale of physical books, is Tim Waterstone, founder of the national Waterstones chain. He argues the ‘product is so strong, the interest in reading is so deeply rooted in the culture and human soul of this country (UK) that it is immovable’. This appears to be backed up by sales figures last year from America, which appear to contradict the figures I gave for the UK, where e-book sales rose by just 4% compared to the sales of physical books, which rose by 11.5%. If this trend crosses the Atlantic, Waterstone may be proven right.

I do wonder if the current financial strength of physical books could turn into a weakness for the bookselling industry, with one of the strengths of e-books being the ability to undercut the often, in my humble opinion, exorbitant price of physical books. As readers become more familiar with the new platforms, including mobile phones, I feel there is the potential for a very rapid shift from physical to e-books. I think generational shifts would be the key to this, as the younger generations are the first to grow up with the complete digital experience available to them, and we’ve yet to see the full potential of smart phones and phablets, which are favoured by younger people. Although personally I believe, in much the way the two are combined at, for example, Liverpool’s Central Library, the two will survive alongside each other for some time to come.

So it’s timely for Writing on the Wall to give people in Liverpool the chance to get in on this debate too. It’s a nice touch that it takes place in Liverpool’s magnificently refurbished Central Library, which, according to Trip Advisor, is one of Liverpool’s most popular tourist destination. The library has a good combination of books and new media, with rows of computers and iPads laid out among the book shelves. As a member of the library I enjoy having the ability to download e-books from their site, particularly the audio books.

Some argue it is in self publishing that the real revolution is happening. Long gone, it seems, are the days of fear and snobbery about ‘vanity publishing’. If the latest figures are anything to go by writers are taking to the new form with glee, and achieving some success too. In 2013, 18 million self published books were bought online, a growth of 79%. We’ll be featuring some self-published authors at the Virtual Book Fair, including Karl Coppack and Beth Reekles, and finding out from them the attractions, the pitfalls, and how it feels to be in total control of their work – from writing through to the publishing and marketing.

Writers have always had the option to self-publish, but, besides the issue mentioned earlier of ‘vanity publishing’, the major pitfall has always been marketing and distribution. It’s impossible for any single writer to match the power of the major book stores and distribution companies. Getting your book into your local independent book shop, or Waterstones through their community agreements, is some achievement, but it’s a long way from gaining the visibility you need to break through nationally.

But that monopoly has been broken, and any writer with a fair bit of social media savvy can find an audience for their work, given that it is of sufficient quality to have some legs about it (more about this later). I would argue for writers that the task for them is not to try and reach out to the whole market, but to target audiences for their work by getting their book into the right marketplaces.

Beth Reekles
A good example of this is Beth Reekles, a young author with a remarkable story, who is appearing at the Virtual Book Fair. Beth published her first novel on Wattpad at the age of fifteen. The Kissing Booth received an unbelievable 19 million reads and 40,000 comments/reviews. She has achieved this without the notoriety of a Fifty Shades of Grey, and clearly hit a more subterranean market based on the strength of the work itself. Beth has now signed a three book deal with Random House, successfully making the crossover from e-publishing to mainstream physical books. It’ll be interesting to hear whether she feels a more established author after signing up to Random House than she did as a successful e-book publisher.

A question jumps to mind: is it really the aim of self-published writers to get noticed by mainstream publishers?

Reading through the comments following an article on digital self-publishing, one complaint that came up time again was of the quality of the actual writing of self-published novels – for me Fifty Shades is a case in point. We could argue all day about the quality of many books that for no apparent reason make it into print, but there at least you’ve got an editor to blame (hopefully). Now that writers can bypass the gatekeepers of the publishing industry, do they too often they throw the baby out with the bathwater, forgetting that a good editor can transform a novel? If you can’t get a professional editor, or at least proof reader, which can be expensive, then at least get a knowledgeable and critical friend, or even better, friends, to run a critical eye over it. Writers will get the chance to pick up on some well tutored advice on this and other pitfalls with the writer’s desk at the Virtual Book Fair. Novelists Caroline Smailes, The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, Debbie Morgan, Disappearing Home, and LJMU Writing MA leader and novelist Jim Friel, The Posthumous Affair, will be putting a virtual spin on some words of wisdom they’ll be giving to writers interested in self-publishing.

In some ways I wonder if it matters so much in the overall scheme of things. When punk happened no one worried too much that bands didn’t have degrees in musicology. The best part was that they didn’t, and didn’t care. Quality will rise to the top, and hopefully survive, and the rest, well, if you loved an obscure punk band with one EP and three chords to their name, good enough; they all pitched in to create a movement that changed music for the better. Maybe this could be the punk revolution for the writers.

And maybe, when we talk of digital publishing, there is too much concentration on the novel. The form of the novel has been with us for time. It began to reach the heights at which we now regard it during the 18th Century. It is the perfect form. So why break something that ain’t broken? There are restrictions ‘imposed’ by the finances of publishing, although no doubt by readers’ attention span too, whereby the ideal form these days seems to be of about 70,000 words. I don’t see much reason why that would change with the advent of the e-book. What is most interesting is the opportunities and options that digital publishing, and the platforms we use to consume it, are presenting us with as alternatives to the novel.

You can see the form changing already with the advent of, for example, Kindle Singles, which allows people to develop short fiction, or essays, in a newly recognised form. Major authors such as Stephen King have used this form to quickly put out material they feel important (King’s essay was on guns in America).

One of my favourite apps, that shape the form to the platform, and to the reader, is LitNav, produced by Manchester’s Comma Press. Jim Hinks, Digital and New Writing Manager from Comma, will be demonstrating the app and the background to its development at the VFB. The app, available for free download, is designed to accompany readers on their journey, giving options of reading, or listening, to stories on the go – whether by train, car, walking, and can be selected for journey length and location. It features stories from all the continents, from major cities inc. Berlin, Shenyang, New York Istanbul, Alexandria, and of course, Liverpool (False Light by Margaret Murphy). It’s a brilliant idea, and a well executed app, which demonstrates just one way of really celebrating the new digital platforms.

There’s also Touch Press, who aim to ‘re-invent the reading experience by offering information that is enhanced with rich media and that adapts dynamically to the interests and experience of the reader.’ – at least that’s what their mission statement says. I downloaded and had a wander through two of their apps for iPad; one based on TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, and the other a rewriting of Five Fables of Scottish 15th C writer, Robert Henryson, by the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

Leaving aside whether you’re into Eliot and his poetry, The Wasteland app has something for everyone - it’s the experience that this platform gives you which matters here. The app gives you the poem, images of the original manuscript with annotations Eliot and editorial by Ezra Pound, audio of a range of people, from Eliot himself to Jeannette Winterson, and notes, commentary, etc. You can also make your own notes. I loved it.

I loved even more Heaney’s Five Fables. It also has commentary, introduction and text of the fables, but its best feature is the animation of the fables, with the voice and avatar of comedian Billy Connolly adding extra weight and dimension to the words. I imagine kids would love it, definitely wee Scottish kids.

The reason I mention Touch Press is that they have kindly given us some free downloads of their apps as prizes for people at the Virtual Book Fair, and we’ll have a digital station with iPads available for people to test them out and see what works for them.

All in all, really looking forward to the VBF – the Twitter competition, the kid’s digital corner with illustrations and storytelling, meeting the Salt writers, and of course our guest speakers. Most of all I’m hoping people can bring to it a little more than what we already know, which, like everyone, is relatively not a lot compared to the ocean of digital material developing, but, it’s a start, and a long way off from the first word processors at school.

Mike Morris

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