Transliteracy and Publishing

Kindle I was recently invited to give a presentation at the University of Alberta. The topic was "new media and publishing." This might sound simple enough, but after pulling together my thoughts with other references, graphs and statistics, it became more and more muddled. Publishing is not (or has never) really been just about publishing…editing and writing form part of this industry.  Interestingly, there were people who decidedly see three separate industries and believe there are separate experts in each very separate field. Of course, there are experts in each field but I think – what new media perhaps makes more tangible -  is the possibility to be an expert across the three fields.  I imagine this is an aspect of transdisciplinarity and transliteracy. Writers, for example, are able to blog/tweet/update their narratives, edit them, and then publish. Sure, at times writers will collaborate with editors or designers in order to create a more *professional* product, but the ability to be writer/editor/publisher is (easily) there.

Thinking about how these three fields intertwine, I wonder (as many do) about the future of the publishing industry in general.  We have heard of the demise of *the author* and then the death of books one cannot read in the bath…but with new media devices taking off, what really happens with publishing?

The Economist recently explained that John Grisham had a change of heart and suddenly, his books will be available in an electronic format. Had the publishers convinced Grisham to embrace new media or was it the (timely) arrival of the iPad that swayed him? Amazon, (I wonder if it's in response to the iPad), has also upped its voice. Moving from the online environment to TV, we witnessed an ad. for Kindle during a break from Lost. The ad. had a specific feel and I'm not sure whether it really was congruent with the Lost audience…in fact, Amazon customers are having their say:

"I can't believe Amazon is wasting money on Kindle ads during LOST on
ABC. That's some of the most expensive prime-time air time out there.

ads are TERRIBLE too. They don't say anything about the product at all,
and have a terrible indie/emo feel to them. YUCK!"

The ads by Amazon might also be an effort to encourage the sale of e-books. We know newspaper sales are dwindling, print book sales are suffering and e-books (currently at least) might well be boring as Kate notes…but they are selling.

"Like many other parts of the media industry, publishing is being
radically reshaped by the growth of the internet. Online retailers are
already among the biggest distributors of books. Now e-books threaten to
undermine sales of the old-fashioned kind. In response, publishers are
trying to shore up their conventional business while preparing for a
future in which e-books will represent a much bigger chunk of sales.

Quite how big is the subject of much debate. PricewaterhouseCoopers, a
consultancy, reckons e-books will represent about 6% of consumer book
sales in North America by 2013, up from 1.5% last year (see chart).
Carolyn Reidy, the boss of Simon & Schuster, another big publisher,
thinks they could account for 25% of the industry’s sales in America
within three to five years. She may well be right if the iPad and other
tablet computers take off, the prices of dedicated e-readers such as
Amazon’s Kindle keep falling and more consumers start reading books on
smart-phones. Mobclix, an advertising outfit, reckons the number of
programmes, or apps, for books on Apple’s iPhone recently surpassed that
for games, previously the largest category."

What I am interested in seeing develop is the writer/editor/publisher convergence alongside the emergence of multimodal e-books, what David Young calls "enriched e-books." Multimodality – surely that's the future of publishing?

Note: Kindle vs print image from Type Desk, e-book sales image from The Economist.

Five Provocations – Kate Pullinger

I wrote this manifesto prior to attending ‘In(ter)ventions' at the Banff Centre in Canada; it
reflects my concerns as a writer who works in both print publishing and
digital fiction.  At Banff the focus of the conference was primarily on
the avant-garde and poetics; as a fiction writer my concerns, in this
context, felt more mainstream.  This itself was interesting – in the
world of book publishing I’m often seen as the futurist, the digital
advocate.  At Banff my concern with narrative and story positioned me as
a member of the non-avant old guard, a traditionalist.  This is an
observation, not a complaint – I found the conference hugely useful and
completely fascinating

1.  We need to talk about money.  Some of us reside
inside the academy, some of us reside outside the academy; some of us
get grants for our work, some of us do not.  Writers need to be
thinking hard about how to protect our revenues across all platforms. 
As publishing is shaken up by the new technologies, writers need to be
proactive, involved in the on-going discussions about developing fair
terms and new business models.

2.  Writers, publishers, and teachers need to get their heads out of
the sand:  the digital future is already here and we
risk becoming dinosaurs, as well as ostriches, if we don’t engage with
the multitude of possibilities for storytelling offered to us by the new

3.  Stop talking about ebooks. Ebooks are boring. 
Convenient, practical, destined to become one of the ways we read, but
boring, as counter-intuitive as placing the text of the latest
blockbuster novel on a television screen.  The Google Book project,
which sees the world’s leading libraries collaborating in secret with a
giant corporation, effectively pulling the copyright rug out from under
our feet, is either our best friend or our worst enemy or both; however,
the Google Book project, along with rapid developments in ereaders, has
ensured that the book, as a digital file, will remain at the heart of
our culture for the foreseeable future.  So stop talking about ebooks. 
There’s a new world of media-rich literature around the next corner;
reading on screen has huge potential to enhance the way we tell stories,
and to expand our audiences in new directions. 

4.  Always remember that human culture is highly visual.  The first
non-oral form of storytelling was cave-painting – the original
powerpoint presentation.  The dominance of film and television as
storytelling forms in the twentieth century demonstrate that as soon as
we are able to use pictures to tell stories, we do.  Literature must
reckon with this fact.  As technology enables us to carry rich media in
our pockets we need to find ways to make writing – good writing –
relevant to new generations of readers.  If we take the long view of the
history of storytelling, are plain old words on the page –
fixed-type print – an historic anomaly? 

5.  Good writing – and by this I mean writing that
demonstrates the love of language, of a good sentence, a well-turned
phrase, the power of words, writing that rewards re-reading – must
survive, regardless of platform or media
.  It’s up to us to
make sure that happens. 

This was first posted on my blog at

Transliteracy and Animals

BlueWhale I recently came across a mention of naturalist Lyall Watson's story of an encounter between a lone elephant and a blue whale swimming just off-shore from where the elephant was standing and facing out to sea. Apparently the elephant was heard to be expressing all kinds of sounds, as if in conversation with the whale. I don't know any more about this and have ordered Watson's book Elephantoms to find out. But whether true or not, the mental image is astounding and inspiring, isn't it?AfricanElephant111

It reminded me of how, as a child, I used to wonder about the voice of my pet dog Sarah. What would it sound like if she spoke to me in English? I imagined her voice as soft, friendly and female. It always felt as if this was a potential communication, just out of reach but hindered by our two very different lifeworlds and physiologies. What would it take, I used to wonder, to bridge that gap beween us?

And then there is eco-philosopher David Abrams'  description of an encounter on a steep mountainside in the Himalayas. Resting on a rock, he was idly rolling a silver coin across his knuckles when he realised that the glinting metal had attracted the attention of a condor which now flew towards him:

“As the great size of the bird became apparent, I felt my skin begin to crawl and come alive, like a swarm of bees all in motion, and a humming grew loud in my ears. The coin continued rolling along my fingers. The creature loomed larger, and larger still, until, suddenly, it was there – an immense silhouette hovering just above my head, huge wing-feathers rustling ever so slightly as they mastered the breeze. My fingers were frozen, unable to move; the coin dropped out of my hand. And then I felt myself stripped naked by an alien gaze infinitely more lucid and precise than my own. I do not know for how long I was transfixed, only that I felt the air streaming past naked knees and heard the wind whispering in my feathers long after the Visitor had departed."(1)

To date, our deliberations about transliteracy have focussed on the human, but what about the literacies needed (those already used and those with future potential) for communication with the non-human world, and between its members themselves? Such a discussion would take us a long way from technology and towards a very different set of faculties. Are we ready to encompass it?

(1) Abram, D. 1997, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage, New York, p.24