How to write in the digital age
By Catharine Morris
There have been plenty of conferences about the future of publishing, but few, if any, have been aimed at writers. The Literary Consultancy remedied this recently with a two-day conference – Writing in the Digital Age – held at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon.
One of the speakers, the American writer Robert Kroese, likened submitting a manuscript to publishers to turning up to a club to find a group of people waiting outside. Some have been there for a few minutes; others for hours. Nobody seems to know when they will be let in, if they are to be let in at all, or even what the criteria for entry are. You eventually resort to sneaking in by the back door – the back door being self-publishing, of course. Digital self-publishing.
Kroese recommends that option to those who are entrepreneurial, impatient, sociable and difficult to classify. He fits that description himself. Having done all sorts of preparatory legwork including compiling spreadsheets of potential reviewers and being funny on a blog, he uploaded his comic fantasy novel, Mercury Falls, to Amazon’s self-publishing platform in 2009. When he took the tactical step of dropping the price from $4.99 to $0.99, it made the sci-fi top twenty; and having sold 5,000 copies in its first year, it was picked up by Amazon’s flagship imprint AmazonEncore. A good number of writers have been taken on by traditional publishing houses having first had success on their own in this way. (No literary novelists among them, though, as far as we know. They still wait their turn out in the cold.)
One pressing concern was: should writers use Twitter? The answer seems to be yes, if it suits your temperament and you are in need of publicity, but don’t bang on about your book all the time – be interesting and entertaining about a range of topics and then casually mention it as if in passing.
Writers can bring their personalities to bear on Facebook too; those who keep a private account can also use it, Linda Grant told us, as a literary salon and somewhere to “talk about problems with writing . . . the day-to-day vicissitudes”; one author she knows posted an account of a two-hour book signing during which he sold one book, whereupon “everyone piled in with similar experiences”. Kate Mosse pointed out that, amid all the social networking (which she herself shuns), you have to write the novel. If Facebook and Twitter start to eat into your writing time you can always – Grant’s suggestion – buy software that disables them until you reboot your computer.
The keynote speaker, the novelist Hari Kunzru, addressed the wider implications of living in a data-rich, technologically advanced era. Is the novel an outdated form? We live in a time of unprecedented change, he said; our lives are characterized by participation in networks, and literary fiction is particularly good at representing them. More than that, there is interest to be drawn from new forms of language – the language of text messages, online advertising, instant messaging and spam. (Kunzru collects examples of that modern epistolary form, the financial scam letter.)
But our era also “raises questions about authorship”. Kunzru told us about prose and poetry “written” by a computer, and about a spam Twitter account called @horse_ebooks whose tweets – fragments from a range of texts, including advertising material, with occasional links – sometimes have a striking “oratorical tone”. What does it mean if we can experience machine-generated text as literature?, he asked. It's a difficult question to answer, but perhaps it's worth posing: when I last checked, @horse_ebooks had 80,873 followers.
Illustrations by Joan Hall, from The Policeman's Beard Is Half Constructed: Computer prose and poetry by Racter (1984; Warner Software/Warner Books)