Monday, June 05, 2006

The Book As Hybridized Writing Project

Lately, the hot topic of how digital technology will change the publishing business seems to be burning up people's ears. Establishment writer John Updike was up in arms about it at the big BookExpo in Washington, there's a long article in the local Denver newspaper, it was featured in the long New York Times Magazine article called "Scan This Book!" that I wrote about here, and there's also a new article in the NYT called "Digital Publishing Is Scrambling the Industry's Rules" which gives us various perspectives on whether authors should embrace or fight the move to digitize (and possibly freely circulate) their work.

It's a complicated issue, and anyone who has followed my Alt-X site or has interacted with some of my digital narrative projects, knows that I embrace the changes happening to the publishing scene as a result of these emergent new media technologies. The novelist Mark Z. Danielewski, whose House of Leaves is a favorite of many of my students, is hybridizing his new book project. According to the NYT article:
When Mark Z. Danielewski's second novel, "Only Revolutions," is published in September, it will include hundreds of margin notes listing moments in history suggested online by fans of his work. Nearly 60 of his contributors have already received galleys of the experimental book, which they're commenting about in a private forum at Mr. Danielewski's Web site.
And then later:
Mr. Danielewski said that the physical book would persist as long as authors figure out ways to stretch the format in new ways. "Only Revolutions," he pointed out, tracks the experiences of two intersecting characters, whose narratives begin at different ends of the book, requiring readers to turn it upside down every eight pages to get both of their stories. "As excited as I am by technology, I'm ultimately creating a book that can't exist online," he said. "The experience of starting at either end of the book and feeling the space close between the characters until you're exactly at the halfway point is not something you could experience online. I think that's the bar that the Internet is driving towards: how to further emphasize what is different and exceptional about books."
That's the ticket. My sense is that if contemporary writers and artists want to "stretch the format in new ways," it will require us to reimagine the book, both as a printed object (like many metafictionists before Danielewski have done), and as a hybridized writing project that exists in multiple formats across media platforms. This includes print, DVD, blog, mp3 download, live performance (not just "bookstore readings" either), museum or gallery installation, interactive net art work, ebook, etc.

Let me put it another way, in quantifiable terms, since I am the Publisher of Alt-X Press, a literary and new media ebook publisher. Our most popular books have been downloaded between 60,000-80,000 times, and our worst "seller" (they're free) has been downloaded about 15,000 times. One of our authors, Raymond Federman, is becoming famous in literary circles in France and appeared on national TV there, so that at one point, over a two day period, there were over 4,000 downloads of his book in English. Oui, it's true, we don't know how many of the downloaded books are actually read from front to back cover, but do print book publishers know how many consumers who buy their books read them all the way through? Think of the number of books that you own that you have not read from front to back cover and you'll see what I mean.

The most popular of our ebooks are very experimental in nature. Some would call these works unclassifiable writing, similar to the Degenerative Prose anthology Ron Sukenick and I edited back in 1995. But here's something to consider: a lot of the subject-matter informing the works we publish is actually influenced by the net culture that digital technology facilitates and that we use to to help us reconfigure our audience. So the fiction and theory we publish, though in the tradition of avant-garde art and writing, deals with issues like computer code, net art, online identity, the boom and bust cycle, and info-politics, to name just a few of the themes circulating in the formally innovative writing styles featured in our titles. This is what a more politicized, avant-pop-influenced readership demands. Of course, a more "refined" literary press, like FC2 (who published my first two novels as well as the Degenerative Prose anthology metioned above ), might find most of the work we publish to be too avant-pop, and as a consequence, not part of a literary tradition per se. We would disagree. Still, there will inevitably be some overlap with the audience for our books and theirs, as well as with Danielewski's book.

Somehow it all comes back to networking. Really, as a writer, you're only as good as your network. I imagine John Updike would not agree.

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