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Bookcamp: the story of the future @ MWF2011

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By Kaye Blum

Retired content delivery devices find a new purpose.

Retired content delivery devices find a new purpose.

Describing itself as an ‘unconference’ with a mission to explore the future of new book technologies, this day-long session on Friday 2nd September was the highlight of the MWF program for me in terms of e-writing and e-books. Presented in partnership with if:book Australia, speakers included Kate Pullinger (author and co-creator of Inanimate Alice) from the UK, Kassia Krozser (booksquare.com) from the US, and Hugh McGuire (LibriVox, PressBooks) from Canada.

Facilitated by if:book’s Simon Groth, the ‘unconference’ format enabled participants to help decide the topics for discussion and set the agenda for the day. With three rooms available at the Wheeler Centre, sessions were divided by topics and designated a room.

For the first session, I decided to attend non-linear narratives, a topic set by participant Jeni Mawter, a writer and teacher. It was a lively discussion with participants providing some interesting examples of existing interactive and non-linear narratives. I’ve since connected with Jeni on Digital Book World’s forum via LinkedIn, where I found a robust discussion from a range of writers interested in this field, whether it be transmedia, multimedia, or interactive.

There was a 15 minute break allowing participants to choose their next session and make their way across three levels to the appropriate room. I chose a session hosted by Hugh McGuire, titled Why the internet and books will merge. McGuire has been researching and working in publishing and digital media for many years. He’d had a profound epiphany and once tweeted “the distinction between books and the internet is going to disappear” which created a tweeting backlash. He informed us that around 20% of the book market in the US is now e-books; in Australia it’s still only about 4%. While he acknowledged there is a different perceived value between a printed book and an e-book, “e-books are just html shrunk-wrapped into a different format,” he said.

An interesting statement, but I’m not sure I agree with it. I again mentioned the concept of ‘lean back’ and ‘lean forward’ technologies, which I believe is a major point of differentiation between e-books on tablets, compared to the web as viewed on a static desktop computer. Like smartphones, tablets have mobility and portability. They also have the ability to utilise GPS – locative media. This is one of the core aspects of the creative project for my Masters/PhD candidature. But more about that in upcoming blog posts.

The next session was titled Why do we read and what do new technologies offer stories, hosted by Kate Pullinger, co-creator of Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths. As an author of several printed books, she has been looking at new forms of narratives online for some time. Researching new technology has motivated her to ask: why do I read?

“I want a good story, good writing, to be taken away from myself – to be connected to the writing in a personal way,” she said. “It is something intangible, profound… This is the space I want to take you as a writer and where I want to go as a reader.”

She described a p-book (printed) as a content delivery system. I think that’s an entirely appropriate term for the printed book format; but I consider an e-book to be content and the e-reader or tablet as the delivery device. (Incidentally, I find it a little absurd that there isn’t yet a consistent way of spelling ebook, Ebook or e-book.)

Pullinger suggested asking: “When you move beyond the p-book, what are the elements that make it work?”

The discussion opened up to questions, with various threads on multimedia, non-linear narratives and aspects of gaming being raised.

“I am not a gamer,” Pullinger said. “I don’t want to make choices when reading, I want to be told a story.” This seems to be a significant point of differentiation between adult readers and the children’s book market. Children love the gaming element of interactive. Many adult readers want the immersive experience of reading a book without any distractions.

She explained that Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths were both collaborative processes. As she’s also an author of several p-book novels (her last one took her 12 years to write), she likes the contrast of collaboration when working on digital projects. But the creative process is different: “you have to get the script right first before you start making it,” she said.

Pullinger stresses the most important issues to consider are:

  1. How do you connect with your readers?
  2. How do you find your readers?

In retrospect (and because I’m writing this up over a week after the event and my hand-written notes are sometimes crap), I’m assuming this applies to writers, self-publishers, and publishers grappling with the new digital realms.

I found this session to be the most insightful, with valuable knowledge generously shared by a writer who has a wealth of experience both in print and digital media.

It was difficult to choose which room to venture into for the fourth session. Out of sheer complacency I stayed on in the same room for The value of interactive/ personalisation of stories. It was a reasonably interesting discussion which digressed in many directions, but my notes are sparse. I think I did more talking than writing in this one.

The final session for the day re-united all participants to discuss their findings. A valuable point was raised about education institutions and creative writing programs lagging behind in terms of new media. Actually I think the description was “they’ve got their heads stuck in the sand”. Given that I’m researching in this field at a university that’s supposedly pro-technology, my opinion of this is, well, varied. While it’s certainly not the case for journalism and communication courses, I think in terms of creative writing, it’s probably not far off the mark.

Another issue raised was the lack of enthusiasm or interest in digital/new media from mainstream publishers. There were no representatives from the majors at this conference. No surprises there.

IfBook is doing a great job of facilitating further conversations on the future of storytelling. They did a great job of organizing the day’s ‘unconference’, too. While I am still left with some of my core questions unanswered, I’ve realized over the past week that I’m not the only one. On that note, I’ll finish with a quote from another conference participant: “Every person in this room is the future of digital publishing.”

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

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Seeking writers unbound at MWF 2011

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By Kaye Blum

This year’s Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) is themed ‘Stories Unbound’. It’s a delightfully positive spin on the status quo of the publishing industry as it edges tentatively into the digital era with (hopefully) a little less confusion, fear and foreboding than the music industry experienced not so long ago.

I’ve regularly attended writers’ festivals in various Australian locations including Brisbane, Byron Bay and Melbourne. In recent years there’s usually been a session or two on e-books and what’s going to happen to our beloved paperback.

Much of the focus has been on the current issues facing the publishing and book retail industries. And there are many challenges, including digital rights management (DRM), the different formats required for the range of tablets (or e-readers) available, pricing models and distribution.

You only need to be the owner of a tablet yourself to know the current limitations of the Australian e-book market. And if you are a tablet owner, you’re one of the rapidly growing masses, according to the stats in this promo blurb for AIMIA’s upcoming seminar on Tablet Wars:

“It is forecast that 5.5 million Australians or 3 million households will own a tablet by 2015…. The rate of adoption is twice as fast as smartphones, broadband and other technologies that have preceded it.”

These stats are from Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s Australian Entertainment & Media Outlook 2011-2015, due for release some time in August 2011, which will include a focus on tablet devices. Hopefully the report will also include some up-to-date statistics on e-book sales compared to printed books in Australia, which I’m currently struggling to find. (If anyone has any data, please be kind and share.)

But there’s no point having the tablet if we don’t have the content. And to me, the tablet is more than just a device to transform a printed book into a PDF. It’s an entirely new world for readers – and writers.

As writers, we are no longer limited to words on paper. With smartphones and tablets, we can integrate sound, moving image, location and real-time interaction from anywhere in the world as narrative devices. Storytelling is literally leaping from the page to become story sharing across media platforms and across the globe.

At this year’s MWF, I want to find out how writers feel about the potential of the e-book. Are they mainly concerned about piracy and how they might protect their hard-earned income? Are they ambivalent about making any kind of change to the structure and methods of their storytelling? Are they interested in developing new skills to explore the possibilities of interactive or non-linear narrative? Do they think the title ‘content creator’ holds less esteem than ‘author’? Are they – like me – excited by the limitless potential of stories unbound?

If you’re a writer of any genre, I’d love to hear what you think.

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

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