Two things happened last week that will have a profound impact on the future of if:book Australia.
For the last six years, if:book Australia’s activities have been possible because the Australia Council for the Arts provided baseline funding to Queensland Writers Centre. It was a privilege we never took for granted and we’re grateful for the opportunities it enabled.
Last week, we learned that such funding would not continue. The announcement was made public on Friday. This does not spell the end of if:book, but it does change how if:book works and the scope of what it might be able to do from now on.
That same day, some time after 9:00pm, we learned that our book Memory Makes Us won Best Designed Independent Book at the Australian Book Design Awards. It was a tremendous outcome for its team of three designers who were given free creative reign within ridiculous parameters (It’s on newsprint! It must fade!), a short timeframe and with too little remuneration.
Memory Makes Us is not just a beautiful object. It is the product of years of thought, craft, and energy in a package that challenges the notion of what a book can be and how a reader should approach it.
These two things that happened last week are not independent from each other.
When Queensland Writers Centre established if:book Australia in 2010, the public perception of ‘the future of the book’ was largely based on anxiety for the future of print and/or the novel. A big part of our early years was devoted to countering the notion that the ebook spelled the end of civilisation as we know it. If that sounds hyperbolic, you perhaps need some gentle reminders.
We hosted talkfests that assured anyone listening that the doom and gloom was misguided. We created education sessions on ebooks and industry disruption that have now become mainstream fare for teaching new writers about what they’re getting into. We asked great writers from around the country to experiment with their craft and they wrote beautiful essays in response. And we created longform projects that invited contributions from some of the best in Australia and have been showcased internationally.
We’d like to think that our work has in a small way contributed to a contemporary reading and writing culture where the old paradigm of electronic-vs-print no longer makes much sense: where digital tools enable us to tell stories in ways we have never before conceived, and yet where physical media remains an important and effective means to reach people who want to read.
Over the last six years, the panic and loathing of digital media seems to have abated. Ebooks have been comfortably absorbed and subsumed into the broader publishing amoeba.
There’s a sense everything’s cool now. The ‘future of the book’ is passé. Why on earth should we still need to think about it?
Contemporary audiences are more connected than ever and our use of digital devices continues to become more refined and sophisticated. Books have always competed with other media for an audience’s limited time: from theatre to radio to social media. What has changed in the last five years has been in the nature of communication itself: to consume new media means increasingly use the same tools and skills as it takes to produce. The devices we use are capable of both and new platforms are built with this knowledge in mind.
This is a profound shift, even from the assumptions that underlie the web and it’s a landscape in which, at first blush, the book does not seem to have an obvious place.
And yet the books continue to emerge from this new paradigm: books that require GPS location, books that expand seemingly to infinity, books that require you to unscramble a character's thoughts before you can continue, but that’s just the beginning. Books that strip character and plot away in favour of pure world building or that remix existing sources reveal fundamental changes in how we tell stories and how they’re read.
Working at the blurred boundaries of what qualifies as ‘the book’ continues to provide fascinating and instructive observations on how writers and readers interact and what kind of stories can be told. It was never about ebooks. If we remove the medium altogether and define the book as a type of interaction, a relationship, between reader and writer, then we can ask:
What is the purpose of the book in a connected, participatory reading and writing culture?
What are the new forms that continue to emerge that take advantage of how ideas and stories are discovered and shared?
How can the technologies for old and new media interact to create new work? What does that mean for how that work might be read?
What changes when we change the book? And what remains the same?
After a week at the extremes of disappointment and success, these questions only ring stronger in our ears. The ‘future of the book’ is a long way from passé. Some of the futures we explore will eventually become the mainstream and in the coming years we expect to see more of our work folded into the services and resources provided by Queensland Writers Centre, providing not only what writers need now, but anticipating what they will need. To that end, we will continue to observe, write about, publish on, and experiment with that elusive relationship between writers and readers and the kind of stories shared between them.
If you want to support us directly, the best way is to explore our work, share it, and discuss the ideas it inspires. As a starting point, the award-winning Memory Makes Us and our new second edition of Hunted Down and Other Tales by Marcus Clarke are available now.