I fed the paper through the roller, flicked the bar down and sat, staring at it. It flashed its metallic grin back at me. Starting has always been the hardest part. A blank screen and the rhythmic blink of the cursor has long been a kind of nemesis of mine: …come…on…come…on. But this was different. The page was just as blank as the screen, but there was no cursor. No prompt.
I sat before a 1969 Underwood 310 manual typewriter. Made in Spain by Olivetti, these portable devices were once ubiquitous: the notebook computers of their age. This one was a donation to the Queensland Writers Centre, courtesy of a member who wanted to be rid of it. It was the first one I had seen in a while. My parents had a similar model at home when I was a kid ((My mother was a professional typist, though I only remember her working on upscale electric models)); they even dug it out of a shed and brought over for me to try, dried out ribbon and all. So, though I suddenly had access to two machines, only the Underwood was up to the task.((Contrary to what you might think, typewriter ribbon is not all that difficult to find.))
A moment passed between the machine and me and I was given to wonder why I had volunteered for this in the first place. Why would anyone willingly eschew their still new MacBook Air and commence writing on this antiquated piece of kit in 2013? Continue reading
The recent official launch for The City We Build, the amplified ebook made between if:book and the Queensland Poetry Festival, has highlighted some of the challenges faced by authors, publishers, and readers when designing digital books that take advantage of their capabilities.
Regardless of how well designed or how beautiful its content, The City We Build is unlikely to ever reach some readers. This is because it has been designed for one digital platform alone.
Writers and publishers alike want their content accessible and available to as many readers as possible, but in the digital world this means taking into account a wide variety of devices. Some have high colour screens that can handle video and other content. Some have more simple ‘eink’ black and white screens that are simply not fast enough to handle anything other than page turns (and even those are too slow for some readers). Some devices are connected to the internet and handle much more than just reading; others are largely unaware of anything on the web other than their own bookstore. Some devices use highly response touch-sensitive surfaces, others opt for physical buttons.
Some devices are available in Australia, others are not.
It’s entirely appropriate there should be no one-size-fits-all reading device. But, for creators of content, this incredible diversity of devices presents a challenge of first principle.
What kind of book are we making here?
A recent article by veteran US indie musician, Damon Krukowski (formerly of Galaxie 500) highlights the paucity of remuneration to artists from the popular internet radio-on-demand services Spotify and Pandora. While it has been common knowledge for some time—a well-circulated 2010 infographic calculated that an artist would need more than 4 million plays on Spotify to earn the minimum US monthly wage—the disconnect between music streamed from the cloud and money in an artist’s pocket has usually been demonstrated in hypotheticals. Instead, Krukowski generously opens the books on his own music with hard data one of from his former band’s best known tracks.
My BMI royalty check arrived recently, reporting songwriting earnings from the first quarter of 2012, and I was glad to see that our music is being listened to via these services. Galaxie 500’s ‘Tugboat’, for example, was played 7,800 times on Pandora that quarter, for which its three songwriters were paid a collective total of 21 cents, or seven cents each. Spotify pays better: For the 5,960 times ‘Tugboat’ was played there, Galaxie 500’s songwriters went collectively into triple digits: $1.05 (35 cents each).
It’s one thing to talk hypothetically. It’s quite another to see nearly 8,000 ‘plays’ of an actual song valued at less than local phone call. Continue reading
Emerging. There’s a word that tends to stalk writers for a long time. It always reminds me of natural selection: the idea that a writer’s emergence is less from obscurity and more from some kind of primordial soup. Like Godzilla.
In 2008, I met a group of writers who were all at much the same stage of emergence as I was. In evolutionary terms, I guess we were at the reptilian stage. Since then, all eight of us have taken extremely different paths. Some of us have been published traditionally and some have chosen to go it alone. Some of us have done both. And some have opted not to engage with the industry all—yet. I would argue we have all been successful, but some of our names you’ll recognise and some you won’t. Though we all now occupy a different habitat, we’re still equals, discussing similar problems and clinging to the same love of writing that brought us together in the first place.
Our conversations reflect the same daily challenges of putting words together and the same pressures, both external and internal.
For me and I think for many writers it’s not necessarily about how many copies are sold or how much money you make it’s about seeing your work published.
I remember when I was writing like a maniac for years and years, always with the dream of snagging a bite from a big publisher. That was the surface motivation. But looking back I realise that the far deeper motivation was that I just enjoyed it so much.
So here’s my question: out of this group of writers, who can we say has emerged and who is still in the process?
In all my years growing up surrounded by examples, I never once gave thought to precisely how the book was defined. It would have seemed like a silly question, really. It’s only in relatively recent times I have come to the realisation that, to paraphrase a classic television commercial from my childhood, books ain’t books. By accident of history, we have applied the same word to pop-up illustrations for children, lavish art and architecture hardcovers, compendiums of home cooking recipes, telephone directories, multi-volume encyclopaedias, historically significant works of literature and poetry, and fun and exciting works of entertainment and pop culture. What we call a ‘book’ has always been loosely inclusive. The only common element to these kinds of content is the object through which they’re distributed: paper, ink, thread, glue.
It was a definition of convenience. After all, the magic of a book has never resided in its ink and paper (though they aided greatly in its portability). No one becomes a lifelong reader because of their love of offset printing. Each of the kinds of content listed above fulfilled a different need: some were served well by ink and paper, others perhaps not so much.
At about 11:30 am on Tuesday 12 June, a group of writers surrounded me at my desk, handed me a glass of sparkling wine and took photos while I desperately copied a group of hyperlinks and emailed them to my colleague at a desk three metres away. Shortly before that, I’d been uploading ebooks to the if:book website and felt a pang of completely unexpected emotion. Uploading files had never felt so weighty before. Within about an hour, a photo would appear via Twitter of a print copy of the same book visiting Times Square and I would end up in a sad approximation of a human pyramid.
It was a strange couple of days.