New edition of Hand Made High Tech

blackHiOur collected essays from 2011, Hand Made High Tech, has been included in the latest ebook bundle from our friends at indie online store Tomely.

Like Willow Pattern in the previous bundle, our book becomes available as a social media bonus. Tweet or post to Facebook about your purchase and the book is yours.

Hand Made High Tech features essays from John Birmingham, Jackie Ryan, Paul Callaghan, and Christy Dena and more. For Tomely, we have created a brand new edition with an updated introduction and a new section of ‘Bonus Remix’ essays (not actually remixes, but more recent essays from the if:book vault).

Check it out.


What is an ebook?

Literary historian and new if:book contributor, Kylie Mirmohamadi explores a recent ebook offering from a major Australian newspaper and discovers a place where past and future collide…

In a post on the Meanland blog earlier this year, Simon Groth reflected on the deceptively simple but really very complex issue of what constitutes a book. Changing patterns of publishing and reading tend to provoke questions that go to the heart of literary experience and practice – what are the relationships between content and form, text and print, the page and the screen? The corollary to the question ‘what is a book?’, is the related, and equally fraught, ‘what is an ebook?’

The Australian newspaper inadvertently explored these issues when it launched a special promotion in October 2012 of ‘The Australian Selection’ of ebooks [The Australian, 13-14 October 2012]. Over the twelve days of the exercise, titles from Harper Collins Australia and Collins booksellers were available for download from the Kobo website via a keyword from the day’s newspaper. While ostensibly promoting the form to readers (‘the e-book, like the electronic newspaper, is available instantly, affordably and democratically’), Nick Cater’s introductory column on electronic reading  revealed some thorny questions about the nature of the ebook, and its place in the present, past and future of thebook. Continue reading

The Golden Era of Journalism

“There were days when the Red Crescent was begging for volunteers to help in taking the bodies of dead people off the city street and bury them properly. The hospital grounds have been turned to burial grounds [sic]…”

It was in 2003 that a fascination with the possibilities of a new contribution to journalism was born for me out of the words of Salam al-Janabi, known to all his readers at the time as Salem Pax. Salam was an English speaking blogger whose blog Where is Raed? became a testament to the limitations of traditional ways of reporting and revealed the possibilities that online publishing tools brought to journalism. Each day, I couldn’t log on to the internet fast enough, dial-up screeching my impatience, to see what had happened overnight. I was fixated. And excited.

Disquiet had begun settling on reports coming out of Iraq; questions were emerging on online forums about US government motives and the information being fed to audiences by The New York Times. And then there was Salam writing a blog for his friend Raed about what was going on during the invasion of Iraq: sometimes eloquent, sometimes observational, sometimes clumsily written, but always compelling. It was an insight into a situation that might have reached a limited audience months later, but online it reached a mass audience as it happened.

Consequently, it was later revealed that reports filed by Judith Miller for The New York Times about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, often quoting unnamed US officials as sources, appeared to be fabricated. Whether this was deliberate or not has not yet been fully established. It was a front page article of Miller’s that reported Iraq had “stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and…embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb,” that was cited by Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld as reasons to go to war. It was a report later proven to be false.

In a poetic full-circle Salam eventually landed up writing for The Guardian, which also published a book based on “Where is Raed?” under the title The Baghdad Blog. That’s not to say that his posts were not to be viewed without question; there were many at the time, as there should have been. In the beginning, Salam was writing under a pseudonym and it wasn’t until May 2003 that The Guardian tracked him down and verified his identity.

But this isn’t a story about the death of traditional news organisations or even their perceived political biases, but rather the moment where the impact of a single blogger made a lot of people sit up and notice a powerful shift in news distribution.

Continue reading

Comic Books in the Digital Age

I can’t draw.  There was a time when this would have been something of an impediment to the DIY production of a comic book.  I’m also not rich, famous, connected, a creative team, a publishing house or a marketing department.  I do, however, have a camera, a computer, a graphics tablet, an internet connection and the Adobe Creative Suite.  Burger Force comics are brought to you by the democratisation of technology in the digital age.

Burger Force is the story of a pop culture detective agency located beneath a fast food takeaway. To avoid drawing it, I have combined film and photography techniques with sequential art storytelling to bring you the world’s first professionally cast comic.

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The Living Dead

Five years is an eternity in the digital age. The Book is Dead was published in 2007 (and written in 2006) so it’s no surprise that the book world is now dramatically different. Back then, suggesting that the future of books was electronic was pretty provocative. Luckily for me, things unfolded pretty much as I’d expected (or hoped!) While printed books are obviously still around, it’s clear that the momentum in publishing (whether it be books, magazines or newspapers) has shifted from paper to screens. Amazon now sells more electronic books than printed ones and almost all the things we used to read on dead trees — from The New York Times to Ulysses — have migrated to an electronic format. The entire book industry from publishers, through booksellers to readers and writers is in the midst of enormous upheaval – mostly to do with how they might survive in the brave new digital world. Yes, some doomsayers continue to cling grimly to old leather bound editions and scare young children with their gloom, but I think we’ve reached the tipping point, and ebooks are fast becoming normal.

Continue reading

A Less Lonely Pursuit

Writing is a lonely pursuit. As a full-time writer, I spend most of my days sat alone with the blinds drawn, pretending the dog is interested in my observations. Still, this is the career I’ve dreamed about since I was far too young to consider any career that wasn’t ‘Ghostbuster’ or ‘adventuring archaeologist’.

Strangely, I never really worried that I couldn’t write, but I did worry the stories I was telling wouldn’t appeal to the arbiters of the publishing world. Another podcaster, J.C. Hutchins once said something similar: “If I based my opinion of my work solely on the reaction of agents, then the work was shit, and I didn’t think it was.”  Maybe that was why I never sent any chapters off to publishers or agents, fearing rejection was inevitable. If only there was some way of side-stepping the slush pile and connecting directly with an audience.

Continue reading

Poetry in the (Digital) Wilds

The digital landscape is comprised of lines, tendril connections between events and objects, moments (past, future, present) and ideas. The field of digital poetry is driven less by mountains of accepted theories and practices than by the intersections of the artist/poet’s life and their expression of those experiences through experimental and nearly unclassifiable digital creations. Digital poetry began as – and continues to be – a wild and lawless land. There are no clear rules, no dominant conventions, no semi agreed upon canon of “great works”, not even a clear definition for the slim entry fields of grant proposals. Indeed, in 2008, the Electronic Literature Organization put forward a project with the United States Federal Archives who were collecting websites to spider (web bots) and archive in the national collection. Many digital writers were upset with this “canon building” activity, fearing this sweep of websites might be the only digital writing future aliens and/or archivists would ever know. The archive went forward, but it was clear despite decades of digital literature production, there continued to be a strong resistance to “pinning down” the genre. This story speaks to two common traits of the digital poet. First, they are typically mavericks, cowboys of the poetry/digital art world. And yet most have no desire to become pioneers, to lay roots and build towns, as they are quite satisfied with the occasional job rounding up code and/or fighting those greedy mine owners who want to tame hypertext. And secondly these electronic verse makers are continually riding the ever-changing gusts of technology, their practices bending, swaying and almost always breaking during spring storms. Even the term group, in the great cowboy tradition, only fits during weekends at the Saloon after some wayward academic conference.

Continue reading

Moving On

Over the last twelve to eighteen months the debate over the future of the book has moved through a number of stages. We initially focused on ebook devices and their features, functionalities and sales volumes, particularly when the iPad first appeared; we then moved onto DRM, ‘windowing’ and ebook pricing; then to agency and other supply models; then, when it became obvious that retailers were suffering, onto the critical role of high street booksellers and whether they’d survive and what impact on an emerging ebook industry their possible demise would have.

Now we’re at the stage of debating the role of publishers, and not just their role, but whether, in a thoroughly digital future, they’d even exist.  Would they not be exposed as analogue relics, rooted to the legacy business models of print, and soon to be cast aside by the inexorable march of digital progress?

Continue reading

In the Service of Crowds: Writing in Public

As with so many things in my public life, I fell into Twitter by accident. Having lunch with a friend who was a bit of a social media guru long before we all thought of ourselves as social media gurus, I was told to get onto Twitter and grab up my name before somebody else did. Good advice, as it turned out. Within a couple of weeks of the registering my account as @JohnBirmingham, a fake John Birmingham had also registered.

I was kinda chuffed, identity theft being the sincerest form of flattery. But unfortunately fake John Birmingham’s tweets petered out, buried by an avalanche of my own. I quickly became entranced with Twitter, partly as a time waster and partly because of its potential to amplify the buzz we’re all desperate to create in the two or three weeks after a book first appears on the shelves. Twitter, it seemed to me, was word-of-mouth raised to the power of lots and lots.

Continue reading

You’re The Voice

There was a time, kids, back in nineteen tickety two, when people sincerely believed in the internet as the great democratising power of the twenty-first century. I, for one, thought it was the Second Coming of the Gutenberg Revolution. But then I’m one of the most naive and optimistic people I know. Gullible maybe, whatever.

Now, in only nineteen tickety three, this promise has gone the way of … well, democracy itself. Just as a concentration of third-estate power has occurred in Thomas Carlyle’s esteemed fourth estate, control of the online knowledge market is coagulating in the cloyingly, sickeningly sweet hands of our dear friend Google.

Sure, there are others (alternatives), but only in the same sense there are alternatives to News Ltd and Fairfax in Australia’s traditional media industry: they’re nominal alternatives, with no real power. Running a successful, independent newspaper in Australia would be much like going into farming against Monsanto in the United States.

The book-industry implications for this trend first dawned on me when I found another puff piece about cultural criticism, this time in the Guardian: “Is the age of the critic over?” Puff piece or not, the precis really got to me:

Critics reflect on how social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and myDigg, fit into the perennial debate on cultural elitism.

How Long Can we Look at Each Other?

It’s that phrase ‘cultural elitism’ that worries me.

I had a bit of a freak out around the time I read this article, when a couple of sinister-looking Web 3.0 technologies burst into my corner of the internet: Google’s Priority Inbox, which sorts your email, and a creepy website called voyURL, a site that turns your browser history into a public timeline much like Twitter’s (if that gets up it will be in the hands of Google in no time).

With their fancy algorithm, Google will continue scanning all this data and selling it to advertisers, who will feed us back an approximation of our existing taste, further enabling our predilection for confirmation bias and empowering groups with already significant market share to dominate the advertising feed we consume according to that bias. Information will be delivered to us in the same way: Google even enables you to block results from particular URLs.

This is bound to lead to a concentration of market share and power, and the big guys will muscle out the small producers. Just as Monsanto has muscled out all the small farmers. The book-industry implications of these developments in technology scare the bejebus out of me.

If, in their fight with Google for a monopoly, Amazon gain an ascendancy in the production and distribution of literature to the same extent News Ltd has gained control of the world’s news media, our literature will go the way of our journalism: as meat goes to domesticated dogs – cheap, nasty and homogenised.

This technology was supposed to free us from niche cultural elitism and monopoly power, not exacerbate them. But as I’ve written before, we’re becoming trapped by this technology and, as Eli Pariser recently reiterated for us, it might be that this technology is actually make us more stupid – less discerning. This tweet I found puts it well: ‘Your google search is curated, which isolates you into bubble & narrow world view.’

The book trade is already geared to service the interests of the few bestsellers published by the few big publishers, just as the agricultural industry is geared by Monsanto for Monsanto. Some of the literature produced in these upper echelons of the publishing industry is great (thought-provoking, challenging, progressive, entertaining, beautifully written, artful, delightful), but many big publishers are pedalling tripe (boring, generic, conservative, woefully written, artless, not delightful at all).

Small producers are producing artful literature, which is important for aesthetic reasons I always have trouble articulating, but you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t know those already. The industry importance is clear: these houses are bringing in the new crop – risking it on new talent, developing our future producers. Even this sector is a niche though, with its cliques, elites and cloisters. It’s upsetting, then, you might agree, that the first great enabler of democracy since Gutenberg has begun to fuck out within a couple of years of it beginning to come of age.

When it grew up, the internet was going to take the power and responsibility of cultural discernment out of the hands of the few big publishers, and ‘the critics’ of the Guardian‘s article, (the cultural gatekeepers) and into the hands of the small press, and good criticism would move online. There was that whole thing about the long tail. But until at least its balls drop, the internet will continue passing that power into yet another set of hands.

Hang on. There I go again: using the present continuous tense, as though the internet were a sentient being, with free will and therefore the ability to do anything. All of these developments are contingent on us, on our will and our actions. The internet will not set us free, because it does not have free will.

These are not new ideas: I just want to reiterate that we (individuals) are responsible for democracy in all its forms, from governance to culture.

The moment we think we’re off the hook because some clever bugger has come up with a harebrained doovalacky that cures cultural elitism is the moment we roll over and take it, the moment we accept our governments bombing the shit out of third-world countries in the name of … yep, there’s that word again: democracy. The moment we defer responsibility for our literary culture to a machine we’re all fucked, because literature helps us to understand how to live well in the world – how to stop fighting and start loving.

Maybe I’m being naive again, but I reckon we can harness our power as consumers to enable the broad dissemination of recommendations, that golden goose of books marketing: word of mouth. Even if Amazon doesn’t go Monsanto on our arses, rolling over to Google’s ‘intuitive’ recommendations leaves us at risk of cloistering ourselves into inescapable niches.

We must speak now or forever hold our peace: if you let the elites and the established publishers take over those niches and don’t look elsewhere to stock your to-be-read towers, or start making your own literature, you lose the right to bitch about the Miles Franklin.

Musical Interlude

Press play.

What Farnsy says is true: you’re the voice. I’m going to quote some parts, in case you missed the relevant lyrics:

We have
The chance to turn the pages over
We can write what we want to write
We gotta make ends meet, before we get much older

[Choral Prelude]

We’re all someone’s daughter
We’re all someone’s son
How long can we look at each other
Down the barrel of a gun?

[Weird guitar sound? Bwow …]


You’re the voice, try and understand it
Make a noise and make it clear
Oh-o-o-o, whoa-o-o-o!
We’re not gonna sit in silence
We’re not gonna live with fear
Oh-o-o-o, whoa-o-o-o!

This time
We know we all can stand together
With the power to be powerful
Believing, we can make it better

[Choral Prelude] [Weird guitar sound? Bwow …] [Chorus] [Instrumental: Bag pipes and tin whistle.] [Choral Prelude] [Weird guitar sound? Bwow …] [Chorus] [Repeat chorus until end of song.]

So, where’s this voice? In your: wallet, search engine, feed reader, pen, mouth, keyboard, etc.

Buy from independent retailers, who are generally more discerning about quality. Research publishers and consider buying directly from them if you like what they’re doing. Or order their titles through your indie store if you want to support booksellers. Avoid buying loss-leaders. Buy classics second-hand and contemporary literature new. Buy your friends’ novels, at least. Don’t torrent books.

Find and read lit blogs covering books that don’t get much fun from the corporate media. Sort out the wheat from the chaff. Tell people about great books you’ve found. Buy new books for Book Crossing. Review literature you like on blogs, or write Amazon reviews if you want to ride that bully. Share this essay. Go direct to the source: produce your own literature; Salt Publishing is soliciting recommendations of writers – nominate someone. Tell them who you want to read. Nominate yourself.

The internet will not do it for you.

Image of Farnsey’s Statue by WalkingMelbourne