Ergodic literature

(This is the third post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

Ergodic literature is a fancy term for being intentionally over-wrought and difficult. Sometimes this can be an effective tool, much like when a psychotic gym teacher forces you to run several times around the Reykjavík Pond the exercise makes you appreciate a coke and a hot dog (with ketchup and crispy fried onions) that much more. Or, you know, the effort makes arriving at the destination that much more blah blah blah.

(Actually, the only thing the psychotic gym teacher accomplished was to teach us how to sneak off and get hot dogs when we should have been jogging around the pond.)

The app Fish, for example, plays with being deliberately difficult and not allowing you to tap back and revisit earlier chapters. Reading it is a one way trip. You go from the beginning, to the end, and then you can start over. You cannot flip back. You cannot browse forward. You read it, in order, or you don’t read it at all.

Author control over the reading process also used to be a feature of many early hypertexts. What? That wasn’t just because they were a UI mess? Well, yes, that as well. They were an UI mess compounded by a severe case of ‘intentionally difficult’. Arseholes!. Lesson learned: only let yourself be deliberately difficult in a feature when the others are easy peasy.

The non-psychotic rationale behind this approach is often (mistakenly, in my view) conflated with a school of thought pioneered by John Dewey. You may know that school of thought by the more commonly known facile formulation by pseudo-intellectual bildungsphilister catchphrase artist Marshal McLuhan:

“The Medium is the Message.”

So, making something difficult, making it require some sort of effort, skill, foreknowledge, or time, changes the meaning of that something, because the medium with its difficulties has an inherent meaning. A piece of text that is only visible when you’re constantly drawing circles on your phone while hopping on one foot means something different than the same text on an otherwise straightforward website. Text that can only be read while standing in a bus stop in Croydon means something different from the same text in an ebook.

Academics love this line of thinking.

—Let’s wrap barbed wire around the reader’s iPad while I stomp on their toes and you threaten to defenestrate their pet Chihuahua.

—Ooh, what if we attach a GPS to the Chihuahua so the reader can see on the iPad where it lands? Locative media!

People obsessed with ‘innovation’ and doing ‘edgy’ things also like this approach. Computers are already a difficult pain in the arse. Making things difficult is easy and—bonus!—turns out it adds arty meaning to shit you don’t care about enough to do properly.


(Err, no. Most of the time readers will astutely observe that interactive ergodic literature is hostile to the reader. It also alienates every sensible person on the planet.)

It’s conceivable that this approach might be appropriate under some circumstances. Such as when the source material really does benefit from being closely tied to a location, or when the effort involved demonstrates something meaningful for the text. But even then the benefit is undercut by the fact that it’s fucking annoying.

Does my antipathy towards ergodic literature make me a populist. Yes. Fuck off.

This trend is particularly tragic because Dewey’s ideas (and McLuhan’s by virtue of being derivative as hell), as far as the artist and author are concerned, have more in common with wabi-sabi than ergodic literature. It’s about embracing the imperfect means by which you tell a story or create art, acknowledging the means, their flaws, their strengths as a fundamental part of your creation. It’s not about pissing off the reader.

What I thought I wanted versus what I really wanted

(This is the third Stumbling into Publishing post.)

The project idea was simple: write and publish a series of novella-length ebooks.

The reason was even simpler: to learn about ebooks and publishing.

I had a few requirements at the start.

  • I was only going to put together four to six stories. Not just for my sake, but also for the reader. I wanted to make sure that the reader had an end in sight.
  • I needed to pick a genre.
  • Ebook only. I have nothing against print, I’m just not curious about the ins and outs of print publishing like I am about digital.
  • My sister would be doing the covers. We had been looking for projects to work on together for a long long time. This publishing project then led to Studio Tendra and the Oz Reading Club, and will lead to more.
  • I wanted to do the whole shebang: ISBNs, formats, design, website, etc. Because that sounded like fun. (Which it was, for the most part.)

I didn’t do this to get published. I don’t have any particular desire to be published or have my writing widely distributed, but I do find the idea of an ongoing readership interesting, especially if it can pay for the work in some way.

The covers turned out great. My sister is a fantastic illustrator. The ebook files were easy but a tad overworked (e.g. there was no point in them being epub3 at the time, way ahead on the curve on that one). The website was easy (websites is what I was doing for a living at the time.) There was more paperwork, bureaucracy, and admin than I expected but nothing overwhelming.

The problems I encountered were both obvious and subtle.

One obvious problem is that I’m crap at marketing. That’s fine. I knew that going in.

The subtle side of that problem is that while I’m pretty sure most of my regular blog readers know about my fiction, they just aren’t interested in it. If I had a penny for every time somebody told me they really liked my blog but didn’t have time to read my fiction, it’d be a bigger pile of money than what I earned from selling ebooks.

Which meant that I was starting from scratch when it came to marketing these stories, I just didn’t know it at the time.

Another obvious problem was with my choice of genre and style. I picked fantasy but didn’t really bring in any of the tropes or traditions people expect from fantasy. Which made it even harder to market. Then again, marketing the stories wasn’t the real problem.

I had four choices for genre. The first was literary fiction. Which, frankly, I’m pretty sure I can’t pull off. Mostly because literary fiction is just a genre fiction with really boring rules and tropes dominated by a big pile of snotty authors. The second was crime fiction. But every other Icelander on the planet is writing crime fiction, so that ruled that out, even though I’m a fan of the genre.

Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery was the genre I chose, mostly because it was safe. It’s a big genre with a big following and plenty of room for variety. Or, so I thought. A big potential audience ought to be easy to market and sell to, right?

I think, in the end, that was a mistake. The mistake wasn’t in choosing fantasy but in choosing it as a safe option. That cut down my emotional investment in the stories right at the start. This in turn compromised my motivation and led me to vacillate during the publishing process as I tried to rediscover the emotional core of the stories and reconnect to them, which then caused the delays. If other people aren’t connecting with the stories, it’s probably because I was finding it difficult to connect with them while writing.

The genre I really wanted to do was oddball unclassifiable weird stuff that would probably qualify as SFF—as in, not scifi, not fantasy, but in the wishy-washy, hand-wavey area that both of those belong to.

At the face of it, that sounds like an even less practical choice than literary fiction. Prose scifi is a tiny niche these days (TV and cinema scifi being less tiny) and, if anything, looks like an even less inviting clique than the fantasy crowd. It’s a community full of old and middle-aged male authors saying awful and horrible things and self-important fans who castigate new writers for not fitting in with their favourite flavour of scifi (hard, space opera, near future, post-human, mundane, whatever). Most of them sound like exactly the sort of people you try to avoid when you go to the comics store.

“Oh, no. It’s a Scott Lobdell fan. Don’t make eye contact!”

(Some writers simply have very creepy fans.)

Wanting to do weird-ass stupid stories that are so hard to categorise that you’d have to just stick with SFF over either scifi or fantasy seemed like a crazy stupid idea. So, I didn’t.

There’s a lot of nice and incredibly clever people in scifi, doing incredible work. Athena Andreatis, Ann Leckie, Debora J. Ross, and Tobias Buckell being a few examples of the many good, smart, and eminently sane members of the SF community (all with good blogs as well), but as a whole the culture surrounding the genre looks worse than inhospitable. It looks outright hostile.

It was a mistake to think I would have to engage in the culture and community around the genre in any way. Fuck community. I’m crap at it, so I’m not going to do it. And, as it happens, these genres—both of them—are crap at it as well, so it all works out.

Anything oddball might well be harder to market and sell. It might not be. Anything that is different should, in theory, be easier to sell because it is easily differentiated. Different makes it identifiable. Different does limit the upside: the maximum number of sales you can make. (Too different: too small an upside.) But, remember, you start with zero sales. Alienating a bunch of non-customers doesn’t matter if it brings you your first real customer.

But, honestly, I don’t care anymore. Fuck sales. My interest is what counts. If I want to be clever, I’ll be clever and play with the thing until it won’t fit anywhere in any genre. If I want to be stupid I’ll be stupid and make something that gives me joy and visceral thrills even if other people groan at the idiocy of it. If I want to be anonymous and alone, I’ll bloody well be anonymous and alone and write in the dark.

Fuck sales.

Which brings me to…

My biggest mistake was not choosing to write the stories that fascinate me the most either emotionally or intellectually. That’s the one that came back to bite me again and again. That choice meant that the stories never quite clicked, never quite worked, never had that spark you drive for. That choice meant that the whole process was a lot less fun.

You have to care about the end result—personally, intellectually, and emotionally.

Otherwise what’s the point?

The mistake of ‘enhancing’ novels

(This is the second post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

A novel does not benefit from a host of videos of talking heads, interactive maps, or the kind of gunk that clutters up most DVD extras. A novel is not a movie. The film production and marketing process lends itself towards the whole DVD extras phenomenon. You have dozens of unused scenes, a special effects team, the filming crew, and an army of people performing various roles. The stars are loved by millions. The movie’s launch and its production are events. Even a bog-standard TV series has buy-in from society at large and a wealth of collateral material that is rare in publishing.

A novel is just one person sitting in a room for what is sometimes years, occasionally talking to a couple of other people, with an itty-bitty burst of social activity towards the end. Some of them may launch with a bang but the revenue curve for most novels bears no resemblance to that of either a successful or unsuccessful movie.

Moreover, the interactive content most publishers have bundled with their ‘enhanced’ novels is hideously misplaced. They are marketing assets locked in a sealed, unseen, container.

All those talking head videos? Put them on the website. That interactive map of the fantasy world? Website. Unused scenes? Website. Those commentary bits on the author’s manuscript?

You guessed it. Put it on the website.

The core value of a movie is spectacle. (Obviously, I’m talking here about the US-oriented movie industry, not the form. The cinematic medium is capable of considerable nuance and subtlety. Hollywood, however, isn’t.)

Extras feed into and complement the spectacle. The selling point of a novel—even the cheap-o, sleazy, low-brow ones—is to disappear into a new world for hours on end. Marketing assets help readers discover novels to step into—explore the feel of it before they commit to reading. They don’t add any value when fused into the body of the novel like a malignant tumour. There they become a distraction.

Book apps, where you take a linear novel or piece of narrative writing and pin interactivity on it like a tail on a cartoon donkey, don’t make sense. They make slightly more sense for non-fiction titles (hence iBooks Author’s focus on textbooks and the like) but even there the costs often outweigh the benefits.

If we are looking for publishing titles—or even new ideas that have no print history—that would benefit the most from being digital—the most logical ones to look at are titles that are confined and limited by print.

A book that works great in print, that is adapted perfectly to its form, is exactly the worst candidate for digital. It’d suffer from high expectations on the part of the readers (because the print version was great) but it would also see little improvement in digital. Because it was already good.

This is the quintessential lose-lose double whammy. Like an author whose skills have managed to attract an audience that consists mostly of expert readers, you’ve navigated yourself into a scenario where you’re surrounded by passionate people with high expectations and both the capacity and motivation to outline, in public, your every single fault. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, your audience will find reasons hate you.

Instead of enhancing novels, what we should be looking at are titles and types of books that are a little bit awkward in print, ones that are useful and loved because of their subject matter, but have never had a chance to bloom due to the limitations of the printed form.

Those are the ones worth ‘enhancing’.

Stumbling into publishing

(This is the second Stumbling into Publishing post.)

If it looks like I have focus, that’s just because every hour, every minute, every second of every day, I feel lost.

I eye the world seeking sense and finding patterns in the same way a man on a sinking ship eyes the horizon desperately for sight of land.

I’d like to call it curiosity but it really is more than that; deeper and more obsessive. As I’ve grown older I’ve learned how to direct my fixations a little bit better, but I still sometimes fixate on a trivial subject and end up spending a weekend researching what is known about the Antarctic climate during the Paleocene for absolutely no reason whatsoever instead of doing whatever it is normal people do on weekends. (I wouldn’t know. Haven’t met a normal person in years except in passing. No idea what they actually do on weekends. Wouldn’t know where to start. I’m assuming there are social rituals involved as well as misdirected sexual anxiety. There always are.)

Still, I’m not as bad as I was ten years ago; one time I lost a couple of weeks fixating on the subject of dyspraxia for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

One tactic that has always worked well for me, to direct my focus and to work my way through by obsessions, is to write about them. It’s a way of processing. Sometimes that writing is non-fiction. Sometimes it isn’t. (The other thing, doncha know?) Sometimes that writing goes onto a blog somewhere. Mostly, over the past year, that writing hasn’t gone anywhere, just stayed in my Dropbox drafts folder.

I hope to make the reasons for that clear over the course of this series of blog posts and, by writing about it, process them, and learn.

The beginning is never where it starts. It’s in the instincts of most writers to begin where the story starts. Because you have a clear picture of the course of events—the progression of fact A to fact B all the way to fact Z—your instinct is to present everything to the reader so that they can see the beauty of the whole like you do.

But they won’t. They never will. They never see the beauty because they don’t care like you do. You see how glorious it is, the intricacies, and you feel in your bones how much it matters, because you care. You have to make them care. And that’s why you never begin where it starts. You begin where it gets interesting, where the emotions of the story are clear. You begin at the point when everything that is at stake can be taken in at a glance. They might not understand it all yet, but they can see it, like a grand emotional snapshot of the story’s landscape.

Only then, after you’ve drawn them in, after they have bought into the stakes—been touched by the emotions—only then can you show them how it all started.

And with that, everything unfolds in their mind. They see it like you do. They feel it like you do. They care like you do. The story has become a part of their world and they can’t breath without finding out, like you do, why it matters.

Back in 2009 before I had published my first blog post on—a year earlier—I began work on a plan to self-publish a series of novellas. I hadn’t decided what to publish; I just knew I would never publish any of the fiction I’d written before 2009. I decided I’d have to start from scratch with new stories and a new world. I’d have to figure out all of the details about how everything works in ebook publishing and production. I needed a lens, an angle that would let me approach, understand, and process what was going on in digital publishing. The project did that.

A project’s failure is found in its genesis. If it can’t be traced to a fundamental part of the project’s initial design then you can still find hints of it mixed in with the scattered and random jottings and outline that served as the first vestiges of a plan—like a haunting vision serving to onlookers and in your hindsight as foreshadowing.

All of my projects fail. Not necessarily because they are bad. Nor do they always fail to meet what I and others expect of them. Actually, they usually meet expectations.

(Have I told you that I have a reputation for pessimism?)

They fail because at the end of it, I know better. I can see all the incorrect turns, all the mistakes, all of the things that were simply wrong, even though I can’t articulate exactly why. They just are. I’ve found the patterns I’m looking for and they are irregular, broken, uneven, and so utterly human. All I can do after that is accept failure and aim to do better.

Hence this series of blog posts. They’ll be sporadic—mixed in with posts on other subjects—and it’ll probably be a long while before I feel done with the issue. I plan to go over what I learned over the last four years writing and preparing a series of novellas, self-publishing them, the mistakes I made, the emotional roadblocks I hit, the wrong turns that caused me to burn out on posting things on the web, the gaps that put me in a holding pattern, and the realisations that finally brought the sight of land on the horizon into focus.

The publishing industry’s new product categories

(This is the first post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

A while back it was popular at many of the bigger publishers out there to release apps that they called ‘enhanced ebooks’. Some of them were branded as ‘book apps’, but that name too suffers from the same basic idiocy.

Enhanced ebooks is quite possibly the worst possible name that anybody could have thought of for a piece of media. It misses out on the one thing that is that particular genre’s greatest strength: it isn’t a book, not in any way shape or form. It’s an app.

And by virtue of being an app, it can have a structure and form that is entirely unlike the book, gaining in the process the business model flexibility that ebooks don’t have.

The state of play

The publishing industry has a set of standard bling that they use in place of interactivity whenever they implement something ‘enhanced’ or app-like. (Video, maps, slideshows, 3D widget crap, etc..)

Some of these approaches are confusing to say the least. Others are just plain dumb.

Commercial interactive textual content is a genre without direction. Everybody seems to be throwing stuff randomly against the wall to see what sticks.

Which would be fine if they didn’t keep picking up the spaghetti strands that didn’t stick just to try them again.

—Maybe I didn’t throw it hard enough?

Or, you just picked the wrong thing to throw.

—No, really. Jack over there is doing the same thing. I can’t let him get a lead in case this turns out to be a big market. I just need to throw harder.

No, you really don’t. Jack is making a mistake.

—Are you absolutely certain he’s making a mistake?

No, of course not. It’s impossible to be certain here, there are too many unknowns.

—Ah, so he could be right! Okay. I’ll try my best to throw harder next time. [Bends to pick up a cluster of spaghetti strands that hadn’t stuck to the wall and pitches it at the wall again.]

Nobody wants to be left behind so they all run as fast as they can in the wrong direction.

What to do, what to do?

Before you run, you first need a direction. Before you start an interactive project, you need to decide on what sort of project, and don’t just jump on whatever bandwagon you think others in the industry are on.

I don’t really care what your ‘why create’ reason is. As far as I’m concerned you don’t need a reason to create. But, if you want to create and if you want to do it on a regular basis, you need two prerequisites:

  1. You need projects you can figure out how to make.
  2. You need to have a sensible idea for how to fund project after project.

Costs and revenue. Two things that, at the very least, need to balance out.

If the projects are simple enough, then you can make them yourself and funding won’t be much of a problem. This lets you experiment and iterate your way towards discovering a genre, form, or medium you like.

But, a lot of the time you can’t do that. Especially not if the ‘you’ in that previous sentence is a corporation whose owners need it to stay relevant in a changing world.

There are three ways to slice the problem of deciding what to do.

  1. Look at the genres of interactive content (all of them, not just the crap publishers release). See if you find a few that inspire ideas.
  2. Look at the individual bits and features that make up the genres, go more granular than just looking at apps as a whole. Sometimes the approach and style is more important and inspiring than the whole.
  3. Look at your means and capabilities. It’s not a question of staying within your comfort zone but of making sure you don’t stray into mediocrity. If your ambitions vastly exceed your own capabilities, then you need a plan for how to grow them yourself, without outsourcing them to somebody who doesn’t give a damn and is just out for a buck.

(Yes, this is a lot of work even before you start planning the project. What did you expect?)

Finally, once you have a set of ideas and aspirational projects, you need to whittle them down, or at least prioritise them. That means you need to look at the cost-revenue balance for each one. And to do that you need to figure out the business model, often from scratch because, unlike print, interactive media doesn’t come with a business model attached.

Publishing has catered to dumb for a long while

The following is from The Technique of the Novel – A Handbook on the Craft of the Long Narrative, originally written in 1947:

Why aren’t novels better? It is surprising that they are not worse. Real profits are made in the publishing business by employing highly talented individuals who understand, intuitively in most cases, I believe, the dumb yearnings of dumb people and devise products to please them and keep them dumb and happy. Most books of fiction are written solely to entertain. Where one novel educates or enlarges the mental horizon of the reader, a hundred confirm his prejudices and exploit his ignorance. If novelists as a whole made even a beginning at telling what they know to be true, the book publishing business would collapse. (Thomas H. Uzzell – The Technique of the Novel – A Handbook on the Craft of the Long Narrative)

The more things change, etc., etc.