A year ago, I wrote that April 3rd 2010 would be remembered as “the most important day in 570 years”.
Do you remember that day? The excitement and expectation as the iPad finally hit the stores after months of rumor? Of course by April 3rd 2011 no self-respecting technista would be seen dead with an iPad. Now it’s all about the iPad2 – ‘thinner, lighter, faster’, all manner of temptation to succumb to the Apple again.
But I wasn’t writing about the product. What happened that day was a turning-point in history – a watershed. The ebook had been rapidly emerging for a couple of years, but the iPad somehow legitimized digital publishing. It was the new cool. Bless my soul and whiskers, even Twitter millionaire Steven Fry was promoting the virtues of e-reading on this ‘game-changing’ new product. It was cooler than anything since …
The last game-changer in the history of text – Gutenberg’s invention of the printing-press. No longer would the monk labor in his drafty cell, painstakingly hand-crafting the illuminated manuscript (“How I love the smell of vellum.”). Now a book (“Call THAT a book?”) could be produced in a matter of hours – thinner, lighter and faster than ever before. For the first time, books passed out of the hands of the Church into the homes of ordinary people (“How will standards be maintained if there are no gatekeepers?”). A social and cultural revolution was underway.
What changed? As literacy spread, learning was increasingly secularized. Books started to appear in the vernacular instead of the language of Christendom, Latin. There’s a strong case to be made that print was directly responsible for the Reformation, the Renaissance. The reliance on oral tradition died. Arguably, print brought about the growth of organizations and centralized businesses, created modern urban society. But of one thing there’s no doubt. Print created a market of private readers. And to satisfy this market, a new art-form emerged: the novel.
To today, a year after a new text revolution. What’s changed? Perhaps it’s not so much change as acceleration. Writing has been democratized: we write almost as much as we talk – some of us more so. A year ago, we sent 50 million tweets a day; today it’s 140 million. In the same time the number of WordPress blogs has increased from 10.5 million to 18 million. The number of books published on Smashwords has passed 40,000, with 5000 new titles added per month.
Those are the figures, but what’s the impact? We’re beginning to recognize the vernacular: this week OMG and LOL were added to the OED. (If OED is a new one to you, don’t worry – you really don’t need it for most texts.) We’re decentralizing: who needs to be in an office when you can message anyone on your mobile? The prophet of our electronic age, Marshall McLuhan foresaw this 50 years ago when he wrote of our return to the village – but now ‘the global village’.
But most tellingly, the events of the last few weeks in the Middle East are directly the product of the text revolution. I remember sitting on a beach in one of the Arab Gulf states 35 years ago, and asking how long their comfortably feudal systems could survive in a modern world. The answer was 35 years. After all those years of quiescence, the ruled have erupted against the rulers. And what’s driven their revolution – not the cause but the mechanism? Text messages, Facebook, Twitter.
Weren’t you supposed to be talking about the novel?
I’m coming to that.
So authors are publishing 5000 new books a month on Smashwords. On Amazon it’s probably more … plus of course all the previously published books re-released there. In the digital world, publishers realize, books never need go out of print. (Watch for proposals to change the copyright law.)
But almost without exception, books are still written first for print, then converted to a digital format. The iPad in particular perpetuates the illusion that we’re still reading a printed book, with a display that simulates a page turn. How long will it be before we start seeing books written to take advantage of the new medium? How long before an e-novel emerges, as radically different from the current literary form as the novel was from its predecessors?
Probably a long time. After all, it was 200 years or more after the printing press that novels in English began to take off with the work of Bunyan, Defoe, Richardson, Fielding.
Our friend Stephen Fry, it’s true, has already had a stab at it. In September last year The Fry Chronicles, a memoir, was published simultaneously in hardback, as an eBook and as an iPhone app. And it’s genuinely innovative: the app allows readers to skip through the book using color-coded categories to focus on different people and subjects.
But most writers have carried on as before, conceiving the novel as a print object, thinking in terms of the number of print pages, maintaining a print layout, telling the story as they would a print story.
Then this week, for the first time, I heard the faintest whispers that change is in the air.
First on an Amazon thread – that old chestnut, ‘What is literary fiction?’ In a fascinating series of posts, Stefano Boscutti claims to be working on stories that can change in reaction to a reader’s physiological responses – but admits that it’s ‘a stupid, crazy, ridiculously daunting project’. Maybe. But it will happen one day, to be sure. Then Stefano touches on something of particular interest to me, because it’s exactly what I’ve tried to do in my novel, The Lebanese Troubles:
I’m pushing for a hybrid of screenplay and prose to make my stories “read” better on screens. Increasingly the screen is how we consume text.
Then just this morning, I was followed on Twitter by 40kBooks.com – and their site was a real find. ‘Smart content for smart people’ was the message I got from their home page. And I have to say that these folks have a smart marketing strategy. They’re thinking about where their smart readers read, and how. It may be hard to get time to curl up with a novel, but there are times in the day when you’re waiting, maybe commuting, maybe taking a lunch break, and your mobile phone is already with you. So what kind of material are they publishing? Novellas, from both top and up-and-coming European and American writers. Essays, from leading thinkers. The sort of content that will keep the reader fully absorbed for around an hour. Because ‘short is more’ they say. That’s thinking outside the book.
And then, right there on the home page, two sentences that expressed my thoughts perfectly, from an essay by Thierry Crouzet:
We know today how to translate books from paper to the e-world. It is now time to learn how to write books which could not have been written on paper.
Whisperings perhaps, but the game really is changing. The e-novel is being conceived.
If you’re a novelist who thinks screen rather than paper, please check in here, with a comment. We could have fun exploring ideas together.
The discussion continues in ‘e-Novel: explorations in writing and reading‘, with discussion on the changing relationship between writer and readers, and a live e-Novel exercise.
The most important day in 570 years – my original post
MediaDigest – Twitter figures
ReadWriteWeb – WordPress figures
Smashword figures – see post for March 25.
Wired.co.uk – new entries in the OED
Stephen Fry‘s blog
Stefano Boscutti‘s website
The 40kBooks website
Thierry Crouzet on 40kBooks.com