Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Virtual FantasyCon 2014: When Fiction Goes Digital

What happens in the age of the digital story? Do stories look the same? How does form intersect with function, beyond a trip to the e-reader?
With Glen Mehn (m), Jenny Barber, Farah Mendlesohn, Marc Aplin, Laurel Sills, Del Lakin-Smith
[with occasional asides from Megan]


The initial promise of hypertext fiction didn't follow through into experimental fiction, but we have seen a lot of experimental reading, including fan-fiction. Readers want more of the story, so if writers let go, the fan-fic people take the story, characters, and so on further. Manga comics in particular generate a lot of fiction - in sharp contrast to the threats issued at school, that "comics will stop you reading fiction!"  In China, this interaction is more professional, with authors publishing instalments online Dickens-style and readers massively engage - sometimes characters even come back to life if readers object, and so on.  That's where fan-fic enters: readers object to what's done, or want to see something else done, so they write it themselves. As always, platform does not dictate quality! The idea of "a solid thing" - a journal issue, a collection, and so on - is still attractive, but digitally it's cool to have everything online and easy to add extra stuff to a theme, so it's allowed to expand organically.

With both fan fiction and writing being published online, the issue of copyright arises. Should your work be protected or the worlds opened up?  This is quite personal to the writer and also depends partly on their fan base. From a flat-out economy basis: writers earn their living with their words and worlds; being plagiarised or having your ideas taken can affect (or destroy) your income. Aesthetically, though, copyright is not an issue: "stealing" stories and worlds covers the entirety of storytelling history. That raises the question of whether control / ownership enhances or restricts culture: one can see both the economic argument and the value of building on ideas.

The economic argument is simply this. For people to make art, you need to pay them, or they don't have time. Many writers who are fiercest about "free access" have other ways of earning a living - the man who fought for Public Lending Rights was someone who needed to make his living from it. [Note: the speaker might have meant Eric Leyland or John Brophy, who proposed it in the UK; the idea originated with a Danish woman, Thit Jensen. More info here.  Also, any author reading this who hasn't yet signed up to PLR and ALCS, do so immediately! I'll wait.]  The business model's impact for digital fiction is online ads - but the digital economy doesn't necessarily reward quality, but rather quantity and engagement. The old publishing model used to be "publish lots, some will be successful", with a massive time lag in finding out what's successful. That time lag has shortened dramatically, as more fiction goes online.

The question of fiction being widely accessible and free online is great, but how do we remunerate people? We're caught between wanting it to be widely available and wanting to pay the creators. This leads to a resurgence of 19th-century business models - our Kickstarter and crowdfunding sites are the equivalent of their subscriptions.

The digital process does reduce costs in the sense of resources. Glen Mehn recalls going on a FACT trip to Sony years ago and seeing their then-new system of a music CD being saved onto the hardware.
"So what do you do with the CD?" he asked.
"Keep it, cos you want a record of the cover," they replied.
In fact that's not how the music industry progressed, but it does seem to be how we approach books: digital and hardcopy go in parallel and we still want the paper copy as well. Amazon has taken this a step further in medium, synching its audiobooks and ebooks, so you can cross platform seamlessly, read over breakfast and carry on listening in the car.
Del Lakin-Smith realised, with a book on Diana Wynne-Jones, that when she was listening to the book, she heard parts that she missed in reading it: the platform affected her comprehension.
Again, if we compare this to the music industry, digital music is killing the industry whereas ereaders aren't savaging publishing. It's also worth noting that ereaders still offer a physical experience [though I'd say an iPod does, similarly]. The industries are very different though - the average book ownership in the UK is fifteen books! Most people have rather more songs.  Also, music is something one listens to again and again, whereas even with one's favourite books, one rereads perhaps a dozen times at most. [If you've read any novel more than a dozen times, give it a shout-out in the comments.]  For music, going digital has led to a resurgence in live music; what is the equivalent response in books? [I think that's the increased value of the beautiful thing, an increase in high-quality editions.]

Online magazines have allowed for a much wider cross-section of people, including traditionally underrepresented minorities, classes, sexualities, and so on. It is also conceivable, as a paying model, to have contracts that allow readers to assemble their own magazines, or DIY anthologies, in print with print-on-demand. This is already happening an academic publishing, albeit complicated by the fact that "pay" in academia is brownie-points and the selection process is part of that.  However, suggested Lakin-Smith, peer review isn't always the gold standard it's cracked up to be and many academics may have papers they haven't done anything with. Academia.edu provided a home for a conference paper she'd had for some time and gained 129 readers in a week - more than one would ever get in a journal! The economy vs free access argument sometimes leaves out a third core factor: writers want to be read, academics want to share ideas. Journals, safely protected behind their university's promotion, aren't actually good at what publishers should be doing: getting stuff to readers. Small-nation publishing is also changing the landscape here, making it feasible to publish stuff with much smaller readerships, such as work in a language not widely spoken. The paper cost for that would be prohibitive, but distribution costs for electronic versions have plummeted. It's created a leveller playing field. [I dispute this: among the mass of voices, the question of who gets heard and how to get noticed is anything but levelling and often runs along existing lines of bias.]

One aspect of traditional publishing that has been killed off outright is large-print publishing - that very limited selection of very large books, with enormous print.  Every elderly person who would once have needed large-print now can get an ereader and just increase the size themselves. [Assuming, one ought to note, they can afford it. Brave-new-world views of technology do sometimes forget that not everyone has access to or can afford tech.] This is a bigger change for that market segment than we realise, especially as that segment is not necessarily vocal.

Speech-to-text technology, on the other hand, hasn't developed as well as expected: the audio version for potentially successful books are commissioned early and there's a vast difference between a machine speaking and having someone act it out. (The Lenny Henry reading of Anansi Boys is especially recommended.) We sometimes forget that audio books are also an electronic form. The early experimentation with audio books got it wrong: they assumed we'd want abridged versions, but actually people want the whole thing. Many people find that they have different tastes in different platforms, which is also affected by the environment for that platform: for instance, if you mostly listen to audio books in your car, you might prefer non-fiction audio, as zoning in and out according to the demands of driving is less disruptive for non-fiction.

Another aspect of digital fiction is gaming, as non-linear storytelling. Harry Potter now exists in varying versions on book, audio, games, and so on. We might have purist twitches about the Sacred Original Text, but we're perfectly happy with adaptations of Shakespeare set in World War Two. In the mid-1800s, though, there were actual riots about which version of Shakespeare was correct. [Read or listen to more about the Astor Riots here.] Our notions of canon, the original, authenticity, and so on, which were developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, are unravelling. [And let's remember that they weren't even Shakespeare's stories to start with.]

Shakespeare also had issues with piracy, a common subject in discussing digital fiction. People attending his plays would memorise them or even stand there writing down his words as they were performed! Digital fiction is notably easier to steal, and this seems especially common where publishers don't serve the market - for example, not releasing a book in certain territories. If something is easily obtainable, concluded the panel, most people don't pirate books - "People don't steal chocolate bars." [But actually, they do...]

Next up:
But Does It Make Sense?
Economics of fantasy systems. If Smaug holds all the gold and it gets liberated, what does that do to the economy?
Leila Abu el Hawa (m), Kari Sperring, Kate Elliott, Tom Pollock, Anne Lyle

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