A draft of a chapter of some thoughts on things.

The following is a very early draft of a chapter from a book I’m writing with Tom Abba. Think of it as a couple of academics/creators trying to help other creators avoid all of the dumb mistakes they’ve made. It’s very early stages still but all feedback welcome (send them to baldur.bjarnason@gmail.com or to Tom, if you can dig up his contact details somewhere. Probably on his twitter. Or his home page. Maybe just shout it in our general direction).

Choose your structural grammar

My dad has regularly been going to the theatre for decades. He and a few of his friends have a subscription at Þjóðleikhúsið and, come rain, come shine, every few weeks they go to see whatever it is that they're staging. It doesn't matter if it's getting awful review, whether it's a farce or a tragedy, they go, watch, and then talk about it over wine. This tradition has survived two divorces and several major career changes.

Theatre has that effect on people (especially if you fancy yourself as a cultured middle-class citizen of the world). People get hooked on watching it. People get hooked on working in it. Theatre isn't a mainstream hobby activity but it's here to stay.

It is, arguably, the oldest form of storytelling that we still practice. (The other contender being music, although given how intertwined drama and music have been, the distinction is moot.)

Speak to any historian of cinema (especially the amateur ones) and you'll get a yarn about how early cinema consisted just of a camera pointing at a stage: recorded plays that didn't use the medium to any sensible degree and that film didn’t begin to advance until filmmakers began to break away from the conventions of the stage.

This narrative—even though it's demonstrably, completely, and utterly untrue1—has become a standard trope in media commentary.

Even though this story is a complete fiction, its message is a useful one: different media have varying qualities which means that each medium lends itself more to doing some things over others. It’s a McLuhanite parable—his pithy ‘the medium is the message’ aphorism writ large.

Which is all good. My only problem is that there’s a better yarn we can use for this: the story of an earlier media evolution that has much stronger parallels to our current new media predicament.

The novel has a longer history than people expect. How long, exactly, is a bit more complicated to answer because then you have to start defining exactly what a novel is in terms of length, style, and structure.

We’ve clearly been telling stories in prose for millennia but even if we restrict ourselves to something more specifically novelistic in terms of structure and style then we’re still talking about more than a thousand years2.

This is something we’ve clearly been doing for a while.

Despite this extended history, prose never really took off as a method for telling long stories. It dominated non-fiction, philosophy, and theological studies, sure, and it was the primary form of telling really short stories like fairy tales, fables, and ghost stories.

But when it came to telling longer interconnected stories poetry was what most storytellers reached for: Gilgamesh; Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Virgil’s Aeneid; Beowulf; Poetic Edda; Dante’s Divine Comedy; Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso; Milton’s Paradise Lost; Byron’s Don Juan; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Prose stories and novels existed but they have been in the storytelling minority for most of their history—even many of the exceptions relied heavily on poetry. Most of The Canterbury Tales are in verse. Even the Prose Edda was written and presented as a textbook for poets—it isn’t strictly speaking intended to be a prose retelling of the Norse myths. It was a Christian-era explanation of norse myths so that contemporary poets could read and use the metaphors, idioms, and similes that were based on those old myths. Drama and poetry ruled the storytelling roost.

(On a tangental note: what the Prose Edda omits, elides, and adds is just as interesting as the retelling itself. If you compare the Poetic to the Prose Edda, it seems clear that Snorri Sturluson adjusted the myths a bit to suit the more Christian culture of his day. For example, you can read the Poetic Edda as saying that Freyja ruled over the armies of Valhalla with Odin—that she, as the viking feminine ideal, was a lot more warlike than the Christian retellings made her out to be. Make love AND war, instead of make love, not war. The idea that the viking goddess of love would be a passionate general appeals to me.)

It wasn’t until moveable type became the norm that the novel began to make headway and even then poets like Byron and Pushkin dominated the scene with what were essentially novels in verse.

It isn’t that printed poetry doesn’t work. It does. It’s that poetry isn’t reliant on print, as a form it works just as well orally3 as it does printed.

Novels needed print to thrive as a medium.

Print distribution put novel distribution and dissemination on an even level with poetry. But even with a more even playing field it took the novel many years to reach parity and then surpass poetry as the western world’s primary form of written storytelling.

Back when I was a kid in gagnfræðaskóli (the Icelandic equivalent of high school, literally ‘school for useful studies’) a friend of mine, pressed for time, wrote a book review essay for school pretending that a AD&D roleplaying session of his was a fantasy novel.

His teacher had given the class the assignment to review a book of their own choice. He’d been too lazy to read something so he just gave the session a title and wrote a literary ‘review’ of it for the class. The teacher couldn’t tell the difference and none of the kids blabbed.

Much ink (and pixels) has been spilled on the issue of the role of storytelling in games. There’s always been a narrative element to games but the use and importance of stories in games exploded in the late 20th century. Even without computer games, roleplaying games, board games with an explicit and important setting and back story, and choose-your-own-adventure books make the issue complicated enough on their own.

That a medium like games can accommodate and use narrative elements but not be dependent on them seems to break the brains of a lot of academics, despite the fact that this is the role that stories tend to play in at least two other historically important art forms:

  • Poetry? Can use stories and story-like elements but doesn’t need them as a form.
  • Music? Ditto.

Of course, this complicates all attempts to define a theory of games. Is it a good game when you’re just using the mechanics of the form to deliver a story? Is it a good game if the story is rubbish but does an excellent job of serving the gameplay? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Asking if something is a good game or novel is only a useful question if you’re an academic or an annoying snob. You can take that question and its siblings (such as did this conform to the rules of its form as academics define them?), put them in a box, and throw them in a particularly indigestive volcano. They don’t help you create. They don’t help you create.

The questions to ask are more along these lines:

  • How did this affect me?
  • Was the experience consistent?
  • Did it play with or too my expectations in an interesting way?
  • Would I do this again?

Anybody who has spent any time researching readers and players knows that these four qualities—effect, consistency, expectations, and repeatability—are what is important to them about works of art.

When it comes to deciding on a medium or genre as a creator, how those four qualities play out and support or don’t support our goals and intentions is the single most important factor to consider.

My great grandfather was a journalist, translator, politician, academic, poet, playwright, and a priest.

Not all at the same time but he multitasked more than you’d expect.

He was an interesting fellow—founding member of staff of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service and in charge of their newsroom during the start of World War Two—but what’s relevant to us today is that the list of the media he worked in roughly corresponds to the list of subjects and fields he worked in.

He didn’t do journalism or news reportage as poetry or drama. He didn’t deliver academic essays on Byron’s work from the pulpit.

He did mix up some things. His poems were very political. His drama had religious overtones. But for the most part the various media were treating like sorting boxes: something from this field went into that box, a different field went into another.

He realised what a lot of creators today don’t: some things only fit in some boxes.

Most of what’s in people’s head about writing and creating is romantic nonsense dominated by psychobabble (‘the creative personality’, ’artists have an irresistible urge to create’) or mysticism (‘the creative spirit’). Most of those bullshit notions about art and creativity aren’t compatible with thoughtful consideration of your actions. Beginning writers don’t choose novel writing because it’s the right choice for what they have to say. They don’t even think about what it is they have to say in the first place.

I know because I’ve made all of those mistakes myself.

Despite the label, creative acts—storytelling in particular—tend begin with the creator just going with the defaults.

If you can write, the default is to write a novel. If you can draw, the default is to draw a comic book. If you have money and gullible friends, you make video.

Major upheavals in media, such as the shift from poetry to prose, or the current introduction of digital media, only happen because somebody began to choose something other than the default. It happened because, at some point, an storyteller looked at the stories they had to tell, then at the qualities of the various media at hand, and decided on using something less tried, less developed, and unexplored.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman includes a story called A Game of You. It's usually remarked as one of the least popular of the series. It's difficult, awkward where its predecessors (especially the piece that comes before; Season of Mists) are sly and clever. At its heart is a narrative about dreams, and the power of an internal fantasy life that might tell us things about the external world. It is also an echo of a Jonathan Carroll novel; Bones of the Moon. Gaiman initially abandoned the story after reading Carroll's novel, finding the similarities too close to ignore. Carroll told him:

Go to it, man. Ezra Pound said that every story has already been written. The purpose of a good writer is to write it new.

A Game of You is a cousin to Bones of the Moon. They share genetic material, a DNA of story, but each tells its tale in ways that only their chosen form can deal in. The grammar of a 24 page comic book, with monthly instalments, words and pictures in concert on a page, re-reading and visual connections, is markedly different to that of a novel. The two works are, as Gaiman suggests, born from 'two radio sets tuned to the same goofy channel', but what arises from that transmission is native to their form, each using the grammar of their medium with subtlety and grace.

This place. This point where you are looking around and poking your way through digital media. You don’t get here without an essential curiosity—a compulsion to chip away at the unexplored and to wander into the dimly lit unknown.

And the first step in that wandering is a decision to choose. Once you’ve made that decision, whether you end up going with the default or not doesn’t matter, because you will have considered and weighed your options, instead of just being pulled along with the crowd.

One of the biggest mistakes you can do is simply lump all digital media into one and pretend that it’s all the same thing. That’s like pretending that all print books are alike and that the distinction between novels, short stories, journalism, poetry, and comics isn’t meaningful.

Digital storytelling, once you’ve let it settle after shaking it up like a snow globe, tends to settle into two broad piles, each which can be subdivided into countless mini-piles.

The first pile, on your imaginary left, is games.

The second pile, on your imaginary right, is hypermedia.

There’s a bit of indistinct sludge in between the two where you can’t quite tell which pile it’s in. That’s okay. Crisp, paper-like boundaries are for print anyway.

Games are the more easily recognisable of the two. Not because there’s more of them (in fact, there’s less) but because they have a much clearer boundary. When you can’t figure out whether a piece of storytelling is a game or hypermedia, that’s because it isn’t fitting the definitions coming out of the games field. Hypermedia doesn’t care. Hypermedia loves everything and everybody. Possibly a little bit too much.

Games design is much too big a concept to be covered here. Like poetry and mechanised print, games predate digital by several millennia. Their principles, while benefiting enormously from digital, aren’t dependent on it.

The ‘hypermedia’ that predates computers, on the other hand, works in ways that are fundamentally different from actual hypermedia. To pull that off in print, you’d need to be able to perform instantaneous transformation of matter.

Because it isn’t the link, per se, that puts the ‘hyper’ in hypertext. It’s the instantaneous and dynamic transformation of one text into another when you press the link that gives hypertext the oomph we associate with hyper media.

Think ‘hyperspace’ and you’re on the right track.

The hypertext that you read and enjoy vastly outnumbers the games you play because hypertext is how the web and apps tell stories.

And almost everything we do on the web and in apps is storytelling.

Facebook’s a story. Twitter’s a story. Blogs are stories. Every website, every app, every chat platform, they’re all hypertext and they are all stories.

That most of these are also conversations doesn’t make them any less hypertextual because hypertext is fundamentally conversational. That’s what linking and dynamically including texts in a variety of context does. It makes conversations. That’s hypertext.

Even in a plain old web page, links are conversational. Unlike references, which are formal even at best of times, links can be witty, tragic, satirical, tongue-in-cheek, and laugh out loud funny, even when neither the linking or the linked text are any of these things. Simple things like linking from a person’s name to the page in a medical dictionary for restless leg syndrome can be hilarious in the right context, even when the tone of both texts is serious and deadpan. That’s hypertext.

Hilarious juxtapositions of tweets or Tumblr posts are a common enough phenomenon for it to become a regular trope on Twitter and Tumblr. That’s hypertext.

Even ebooks are hypertext, if only by virtue of their reading context. Some of them are only accidental hypertexts, sticking to print conventions and ideas even as they have lost all meaning and sense in digital. Others, like this book, are written as hypertexts first, where links are used as one of the primary punctuation marks—more common than the m-dash, less pretentious than the semicolon.

This isn’t a book; this is hypertext.

Because this text was written with digital first in mind—unlike those print books which have been skinned and then re-coated with a digital gloss—this is a loose, conversational, and sprawling hypertext that might well eventually be bundled up and stuffed into print form like a set of clothes stomped into a suitcase while the taxi to the airport is waiting outside.

Which is fine. If I don’t want you to criticise my preference for reading print books lifeless, skinned, and flattened into ebook form, I don’t get to criticise you for preferring to read the ebook as a bleeding, severed appendage cut off from its network.

Games design is huge. Lucky for us, there are a lot of books and websites covering the subject so we really don’t have to do the form an injustice by covering it badly.

My personal favourites are:

  • A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster.
  • Lost Garden by Daniel Cook. A website that is a treasure trove of notes, ideas, theories, experiments, and examples on games design theory and practice.

There are more and I’ll add them as I think of them.

Digital media of all kinds is built on a series of action feedback loops. You do something and the device gives you feedback on that action. It’s the foundation of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design and the basis of everything we do in the field.

The core difference between the structural grammars of games and hypermedia is that in games the centre of meaning is in the action feedback loop but in hypermedia it is in the feedback loop’s context.

This difference in grammars expresses itself as different kinds of structures. Games are a tightly interwoven structure of feedback loops: one loop leads directly into another and they build on each other like Lego™ blocks. Sometimes that structure is hierarchical, i.e. levels of increasing difficulty and requiring increasingly complex actions: finish one to get to the next). Sometimes it is networked: e.g. a large space that you can explore where difficulty and complexity is distributed spatially.

In hypermedia, no matter whether it’s Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, A Story, Kottke’s weblog, or Twitter in its entirety the centre of meaning is in the context: where you get to after you take the action. The action only has meaning insofar that it affects the context. The page or tweet you see is what says something, the link and following it only modifies it.

The popularity of game mechanics in user interface design complicates things but mostly because they are usually badly thought out and not that unique to games.

Some of the things labelled as game mechanics are merely good UX design practices, like having clear, dynamic, and immediate feedback loops throughout your app. Others, like using leaderboards and the like to foster competition and manipulate your users into dehumanising their fellow people and thinking of them as things to be beaten is a tactic long used by the managers of sales teams. It, and a lot of other ‘game mechanics’ are only really competition mechanics and aren’t specific to games.

In the end, the ‘is it a game or not?’ question doesn’t matter to us. While the distinction between the two is important when it comes to understanding the strengths of each, it’s important also to understand that digital media (as well as a lot of non-digital media) can be more than one thing at the same time.

You can make a game that works just as well as just a story with all of the game’s feedback loops dialled down to ‘So Easy a Drooling Infant Could Do it’. You can make hypermedia, apps, and websites that can be played like games.

Absolutism doesn’t work for digital. Often the answer to the questions you ask yourself as a creator will be ‘both’.

I don’t remember the first time I told a story. None of us do. It doesn’t matter whether its genetic or learned, nature or nurture, storytelling is a basic human activity.

We only have two ways of teaching:

  • A show-do loop. The teacher demonstrates. The student tries to do. Gets feedback from the teacher who my or may not show again. The student tries again. Repeat as necessary.
  • Storytelling. The teacher encapsulates the showing, the doing, and the information needed to do, in a story.

Every teaching method or form is just a variation of one of those two, usually replacing the teacher or the storyteller with a technological proxy.

Games are strong on the former method: a feedback loop between showing and doing. Hypermedia is strong on the latter: even incomprehensible non-sequiturs are filled with narrative logic once you post them online, on the web, on Twitter, or on Facebook. The very context coopts everything that appears into telling a story.

In real life, how you teach isn’t limited to just one method but usually a mix of the two depending on the subject, strengths of the teacher, and the abilities of the student. The blurry line in digital media between games and hypertext is just a reflection of common practice.

What you teach isn’t limited to skills or knowledge, although that’s what we usually associate with teaching.

Sometimes what you teach is emotion. Feel the sting of murderous jealousy. Experience humbling shame. Understand the fear of death. Fall in, feel, and lose love.

This is what it feels like.

As teachers storytellers cannot just pour information into the heads of the listeners. They have to lead them to an understanding. It doesn’t have to be exactly the way you understand it—we all start in different places—but it needs to be of a kind with your understanding. Emotions need the same build-up, practice, demonstration, and experience as any other thing you teach.

And to be able to do that you need to understand your medium. You need to have at least made a conscious note about what you’re doing. Choose your medium. You need to know how that medium is and has been used. It doesn’t matter if your colleagues in that form aren’t doing what you’re doing, their techniques are relevant. Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Will Eisner’s Contract With God are, respectively, journalism, autobiography, and fiction but they share a form of storytelling. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a comic on cute cats, their methods are relevant to your work. Copy the way they do things. Try them for yourself. See what works for you and what doesn’t.

The same applies to games designers and hypermedia authors. Don’t limit yourself to the games or hypertext that are covering exactly the same subject as you are. The form is where the methods and the structure comes from. Copy ideas from apps, websites, and games.

Choose your structural grammar. Study it. Practice it. Repeat as necessary.

  1. Right out of the gate, early cinema focused on spectacle, fantasy, and documentary works. Most of the stage adaptations come after the special effects and documentary films. The crude and stage-bound nature of early film has more to do with the limitations and immobility of the cameras than an over-bearing influence of drama on the filmmakers.
  2. Who’s with me on holding a party in 2021 celebrating the thousand year old birthday of the published novel?
  3. Oral transmission coupled with the mnemonic aids of verse makes poetry less dependent on print for distribution and authorship.

Taking stock of 2013 and 2014

I’ve never been much for end-of-year traditions. New year’s resolutions, for example, seem like a reliable way of setting yourself up for the fall. Taking stock of the passing year, figuring out what worked and what didn’t, seems to be a sensible thing to do, though, irrespective of tradition.

As I was sitting in a car stuck in a blizzard the other day (yay, Iceland!), I began to see the past two years as a unified whole. Two years ago I went from having a day job in the software industry with a sideline in publishing to having a day job in publishing with no sideline. In effect, I lost a hobby and failed to replace it with anything productive or interesting. It was the single biggest change in my life since I moved back to the UK during the economic crash. Taking stock of 2014 alone is impossible because most of it is the second half of something that began in 2013.

Most of what has changed in my life over the past two years is boring: a new flat, a return to coffee drinking, a return to health (the old flat was infested with black mould), tinkering with my diet, that sort of thing. Most of it is mundane and not worth pondering.

The four areas of my life that do warrant some processing and stock-taking are writing, working in publishing, conferences, and social media.


I stopped writing at the start of 2013. Not completely, as the archives of this blog bear witness to, but I broke a long-standing writing habit.

Starting in my last year of junior college, I built a habit for writing for about an hour a day, or thereabouts. The writing projects have never been that specific. Often they’re just ramblings. Occasionally they’ve been fiction projects that I’ve written for myself. Almost always it’s something utterly disposable—not even fit for a blog post.

Sometimes I’ve skipped a day. Sometimes I’ve written for two hours instead of one. But, for the most part, it’s a habit I’ve kept for most of my adult life.

With three exceptions:

  1. When I first started my MA I didn’t have a computer for a few weeks, which put a crimp on my writing routine. It took me a long while to rebuild the habit.
  2. I stopped writing for a spell during my PhD. Despite what you might think, writing a PhD mostly consists of research, not of writing. The PhD didn’t just break my writing habit, it almost broke me, and it took a lot of work to get back into the routine (and to recover my mental health, but that’s a story for another day).
  3. And now, when I joined the publishing industry.

Every time I gave up the writing habit, I’ve entered a period of anxiety, stress, and general psychological misery, so from my personal experience there may well be some truth to the idea that writing regularly improves your mental health. The PhD in particular was the most horrible period of my life, and that includes the two times I’ve been hospitalised with acute life-threatening illnesses (meningitis as a child and flesh-eating bacteria as a teenager, the latter left me with a foot-long scar on my right leg).

The first two times I broke the habit, the causes were clear: no computer and PhD hell.

The causes of the latest hiatus are not that obvious.

A lot of it is simple burnout. Deciding to experiment with self-publishing and trying to write fiction for an audience took me down the wrong creative path and led to an artistic dead end.

On the non-fiction side I’ve burned out on blogging several times over the past few years, each time it made writing less and less enjoyable.

Of course, that might just have been the subject matter.

Writing about publishing is a singularly unrewarding activity since, paradoxically, it’s one of the few knowledge industries where writing has little to no impact on industry practice. If you look at software, or design, or even the craft of writing itself, writing about the practice plays a big role in shaping that practice.

But publishing, as a field and an art, pays absolutely no attention to writing and thinking about the craft of publishing. Instead it relies on arrogance, hearsay, and superstition. (Self-publishing is a partial exception to this, but only as long as you are unrelentingly positive about self-publishing in general, refrain from sounding even vaguely critical of the ‘leaders’ of the self-publishing movement, and never ever even intimate that traditional publishing might have a few good ideas to copy.)

And, yes, publishing a media artefact is a separate craft from creating that same artefact. It combines production, design, marketing, and sales into a unified whole. Unfortunately, unlike creators, publishers don’t seem to be interested in furthering their craft through discourse.

As I touched on above, the fiction burnout is easier to explain: I made a huge mistake. Instead of telling the stories I felt I needed to tell, and then figuring out if it had an audience or not, I decided on an audience first and then wrote for them. Turns out that just doesn’t work for me. (Doesn’t mean it won’t work for others, of course. People vary.)

The tactic I’ve been trying to use to break my hiatus is simple: write non-fiction for creators and fiction for myself and try to write something, no matter how trivial, every day. It’s been going in fits and starts, rebuilding a habit like that takes a long time, but I’m relatively optimistic.

Aside: my PhD thesis

I hate it. I really, really hate my PhD thesis. I was forced to abandon avenues of research that I thought (and still think) are important for storytelling in interactive media and to this day remain mostly unexplored. I was forced to drop theories I thought were more relevant than the ones I had to keep. I was forced to write in a style that is borderline incomprehensible to normal human beings. (I was literally criticised for writing in a too readable style.) I was forced to cater to the whims of people completely ignorant about interactive media and software in general in order to pass. I was repeatedly told that my writing was barely usable (a variation on “you will never be able to write without substantial editing” was a refrain I heard on more than one occasion, always from people who then followed up by never giving me any writing advice or specific feedback).

And, yes, if you’re guessing that it sounds like the people giving me feedback—who had the fate of my PhD in their hands—kept contradicting themselves, you’d be right. The fact that the various feedback and advice I was given was utterly at odds and irreconcilable made the PhD experience frustrating at best and pathological gaslighting at worst.

I hate my PhD thesis and I hated writing it. The experience was easily one of the worst of my life. It took me two years after finishing it before I felt even vaguely human again.

Now, the thesis itself isn’t as bad as it should have been, all things considered, but it is in my opinion severely compromised and you’d do yourself and me a favour if you destroyed every copy you got your hands on.

Everybody told me that it was just over-exposure, that I’d see the entire thing in a different light in a year or two when I had more of a distance.

It’s been eight years and I still hate it. I’ll still hate it if I live to be eighty.

Working in publishing

It’s quite easy to sum up my feelings about working in this industry: I enjoy the work but don’t care one jot about the industry itself. I don’t think I’d mind switching to solving exactly the same problems but in a different industry like, say, solving the document problems of corporate law firms or marine insurance companies.

(I actually did do a bit of work for a marine insurance company back in the day.)

People in the publishing industry talk a lot about how the joy of being involved with literature, good books, and interesting people makes up for the crap they have to take.

It doesn’t. And it doesn’t make up for it for a very simple reason: those aren’t our books. They belong to the authors and the publishing companies. The rest of us only own the paycheque we get handed every month. The ‘joy of publishing’ is a lie people tell themselves to excuse crap pay and crap working conditions.

It’d be a different story if the industry paid proper wages, or had their offices in less expensive cities, or let people work from home. Working and not getting a share of the proceeds is just what life is like for most people in a capitalist society. But the only way that deal is sustainable in the long run is if we get a liveable wage in return.

There needs to be at least a little bit of a balance. Industries with crap pay shouldn’t be based in the most expensive cities on the planet. Or, if they have to be based there, they shouldn’t force their low income employees to commute to said expensive hellholes on a daily basis.

(Or they could just pay more.)

Iceland is a low income country. The pay there in any given field is, by any given measure, generally among the lowest in northern Europe.

Too many of the people I’ve met in UK publishing are paid less than their counterparts in Iceland while at the same time being forced to live and work in one of the few cities in Europe that makes Reykjavík prices seem like dollar store bargains. Most of these people are more than qualified enough to easily get jobs in other, less romanticised, industries.

Publishers (and retailers, in case you’re planning on being an arse and pulling the irrelevant ‘what about Amazon?’ card) exploit authors, their employees, and their customers (see: collusion and price-fixing). I’m not particularly eager to be a part of that. I rather wouldn’t.

Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about that at the moment.

I enjoy the work I do for Unbound. I like the challenges of working on the digital side of publishing. I like the deal I have with Unbound and I trust that they’ll always try to do the right thing. But I do not enjoy the publishing industry, nor do I feel an emotional attachment to its output.

I don’t think of myself as being ‘in’ or a part of the publishing industry. That’s something that changed in 2014, after spending a few months feeling like I was ‘in’ publishing before being disgusted by the whole thing.

Aside: romanticised industries are dangerous industries

Some romanticisation of the workplace is an inevitable side effect of how we use storytelling to transmit information and knowledge.

The stories coworkers tell each other teach and reinforce the value systems that underlie each workplace. Every profession has stories that signal what is considered good (i.e. what’s considered ‘heroic’ performance). Transforming mundane work activities into jokes, myths, and fables is one of our most effective and most important teaching tools we have. Some romanticisation is an inevitable side effect.

However, some industries go further than others and they tend to have one thing in common: they are dependent on the creativity of their workers but are unwilling to pay a fair price for it.

In software the biggest culprits are games developers and VC-funded startups. All of the media industries fall into this category. A theme common to all of these industries is that the workers make sacrifices for a sense of ownership in the end product without receiving any actual rewards for that sacrifice. They get paid less and own less than people in other industries and mitigate their cognitive dissonance by mythologising their participation.

It isn’t a healthy way to lead your life.


I don’t like conferences, never have. Not only am I an introvert but I also usually have no idea what’s going on in most social settings. I frequently misread situations, miss jokes (and all too often I take what’s said at face value, though I’m a lot better at that now than when I was younger), and misunderstand what’s being said because of some invisible goddamn signal that I can’t see. I also babble a lot.

(Social situations seem to operate on an expectation of pervasive communal telepathy.)

Of course, conferences are a good way to practice at the whole social thing. When something doesn’t come naturally, the only way to improve is to practice. Unfortunately conferences are also, on the whole, very expensive, time-consuming, and full of self-obsessed career people which makes them a particularly bad venue for this sort of practice. Given the price, they’re usually only worth it if somebody else, like an employer, is paying your way.

Connecting with people who you’d otherwise never interact with is why it’s often worthwhile. The problem is that I don’t know if the worthwhile bits make up for the sheer avalanche of nonsense that comes with these gatherings.

The easiest way for a conference organiser to make it worthwhile would be to dial down the nonsense but the only ones likely to do so already have. The rest just seem to get worse every year.

In the past I’ve always gone to conferences when I could do so affordably—i.e. somebody else was paying in part or in full—but I’m changing that policy in 2015. I’m going to actively avoid conferences unless they are unusually relevant or interesting (like ebookcraft).

Social media

Twitter is terrifyingly addictive but I’m not sure what value I get out of it. It’s a decent source of links to whatever seems to catch the fancy of the people I follow. But people also tend to all tweet the same links at the same time. Every week, the most interesting and engaging web pages I read come from the feeds I subscribe to in my feed reader. Twitter is a nice source of casual social interactions: jokes, banter, and simple conversation. It’s also, quite simply, incapable of being a platform for serious discussion about anything worthwhile.

Which would be all well and good (not everything has to be deep) if it weren’t for two things:

  1. Twitter has over the past two years been the single biggest source of negative social interactions in my life.
  2. On Twitter I frequently witness people I know or follow get drenched in a flood of toxic remarks, hostility, or outright abuse. Kathy Sierra is the biggest example from the year but I see it in small ways every day.

The last time I saw this many people leave a social network because of a hostile atmosphere was when Google was aggressively enforcing the G+ real names policy. The risk that Twitter is facing isn’t that people will leave en masse but that the engagement of those who aren’t affluent white males will peter out slowly as the more interesting and productive tweeters get driven off.

Facebook is only useful for one thing, as far as I can tell: sharing photos with your relatives. It’s crap (and getting worse) for marketing. It’s crap for building a social network with your peers (professional or not). It’s crap for following the news and links that people find interesting (the stream is too filtered). So, I’m not likely to be using that.

Tumblr is a nice source of triviality and silliness. It’s also an easy way to keep up with the various online fandoms. It makes for a nice occasional break over the day. So, no problems there, really.

Linkedin I just don’t use. They annoy me with emails occasionally. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten any value from it whatsoever.

That’s it. Out of the various different social media I’ve had the occasion to use, Tumblr remains the most trivial (and fun) and Twitter remains the most engaging and exhausting. Unless Twitter figures out some new ways of stemming the tide of toxicity, I don’t have high hopes for its future or of my use of it.

Aside: the social world of books

It’s been a tough year for online book communities. Authors have gone bonkers. Discussions have become more adversarial. Abuse has increased. People are getting tired. They’re taking their blogs and their twitter accounts private.

But the kicker is the sense of betrayal. Running through these private tweets and blog posts is the feeling of being let down by authors and publishers—not only that they should have been helping make the social world of books a safer place but that they have actively made it worse. The marketing and sales forces of the publishing industry (self- or traditional) have invaded and coopted the online space inhabited by readers. Trying to control the organically grown communities of the various readerships was just too lucrative for them to realise that what they were doing was the digital equivalent of strip-mining. It can only end with an empty pit barren of life.

Publishers (again, self- or traditional) need to start interacting with reader spaces in ways that preserve the boundaries between publishing and reading and need to figure out how to feed and nurture those spaces without threatening or compromising them.

It can be done.


Over the past two years, the two biggest sources of negative experiences in my live have been Twitter and writing/speaking about the publishing industry.

The two biggest sources of negativity for the two years before that were also Twitter and the publishing industry, but back then it was more manageable because working in publishing was only a sideline for me.

I think I’ve figured out a routine for managing Twitter: regular and aggressive muting and unfollowing.

On the publishing industry side I think I’ll be fine as long as Unbound continues to chart its own course and as long as I continue to avoid interacting with the larger industry.

You know the old joke about not doing the thing that causes you pain? Good advice that.

Basically, those two things are likelier than others to cause me anxiety so I should do less of them.

And rebuilding the old writing habit is, of course, just something I’ll have to work on.

The weather, of course

I’m back in Iceland, visiting over the holidays, and the local weather gods seem intent on making the visit as memorable as they can.

Turns out that my flight yesterday was the last one that could land safely. I stepped out of the terminal, with my dad, into a snow storm with only a few yards of visibility.

Now, normally, in Iceland that wouldn’t be a cause for much concern. With a decent driver, as long as you can see the road and the car in front of you, you’re going to be fine. But as soon as we drove off, the storm weighed down on us and visibility went down to zero. So, we did the only thing sensible: pulled over and put on the hazard lights.

Most of those who didn’t pull over and stop ended up stuck in snow or off the road.

So, to make a long story short, a trip that would normally only take about 45 minutes took me five hours yesterday, two spent sitting in a car off to the side of the road, two spent stuck in Keflavík as the road to Reykjavík was closed, and then an hour to drive back.

Spent most of the time in Keflavík in Hlölla, a hamburger/fast food joint which had an excellent bacon burger special to tide us over while stranded in Keflavík.

This was the worst snow storm to hit the Reykjavík area for about twenty years. Most of the roads outside of the main routes were blocked and impassable. Cars were stuck in snow all over the place. We counted 22 abandoned cars on our way back.

Did they cancel school? Nope. “Drive your kids to and from school and start earlier.”

Did the universities cancel their final semester exams? Nope. “It’ll take you longer to get to work so just start earlier.”

Did people take a day off work? Nope. My sister walked to work through a zero-visibility snow storm. She wasn’t the only one.

Why did she walk? Because there was too much snow for the buses to run.

Welcome to Iceland.

Publishing business ideas are a dime a dozen

Execution is the only thing that matters. So, here are a dozen simple ideas that popped into my head while I was on the train the other day. Keep the dime because ideas are actually not even worth that much. Some of these ideas are quite crap and dumb and vague so caveat emptor.

Use software to leverage an old business model

Use ecommerce to build a print book distribution company. Start off on the long tail. Make an ecommerce site worthy of Amazon but make it so that only registered businesses can order. Be the ‘other’ book distribution company, the one that corporations use to buy in bulk, the one that book retailers use for the backlist because using your site is much easier than whatever messy crap it is that their other distributor offers.

A print-only bookstore app that uses Stripe, Touch ID, bar code scanning and location-based discounts to sell print books. Start off by focusing on a single genre or field, like SFF or comics. Be the hard place to Amazon’s rock that bricks and mortar book retailers are in between.

Use software to create demand for existing product

A subscription site for SFF short stories. Scifi and fantasy has an almost epic tradition for short stories, one that continues to this day. Fans will pay a monthly subscription to a site and app combo that gives them access to an extensive collection of modern and classic SFF short stories.

A proper digital book club. People have been trying this already but it’s one of those things that has room for more.

Go where big companies can’t go because of the strategy they are pursuing

Print-only publisher. Since traditional publishers and those that copy them are committed to the ‘all the IP, all the time’ strategy, that leaves an opening for those who are open to the idea of getting exclusive print rights to existing self-publishing bestsellers for cheap. There are a lot of books out there with a proven track record and no print editions.

Do a magazine app but model it on Slack and not on a print magazine. (Issues? In an app? What the fuck is wrong with you?). Model it on the stream, short content mixed with occasional longer pieces. Mirror on the web and twitter. Keep the longer pieces behind a porous paywall. In-app subscription model. Allow comments but do them in app only. Model the social bits of the app on Slack or Hipchat. ‘Retweet’ interesting comments into the app’s public stream. Print+digital magazine publishers can’t copy you without severely compromising their print product.

Use software to connect readers with stuff they like

A Medium-Patreon hybrid that specialises in digital publishing and handles VAT. Offer a Medium-class writing and publication platform for the private posts and optionally for the public ones as well (though, as in Patreon, the selling point to creators is that they can build on their own web platform).

A genre-specific ebook store (such as SFF). DRM-free. Have an in-app store with books from the publishers who are willing to give up margin. Heavy focus on bundling as a discount and promotion strategy to get around ‘most favoured nation’ clauses. Get genre and comics artists to create exclusive and optional covers for popular books that buyers can choose instead of the publisher’s default. Do cover themes and multi-title alt cover/art events. Steal Sam Missingham’s ideas and tactics for online social media genre festivals.

A preorder service for books styled after Kickstarter. Crowdfunding works best when the actual capital requirements of a project are quite high. In a world of ebooks and print-on-demand, books are too cheap for their production to be that much of an uncertainty and their sales are low enough for the crowdfunding marketing disjoint (first you market the crowdfunding, then months later you market the book) to be somewhat harmful. So take out the uncertainty and instead pitch it as a preorder platform that is otherwise structured exactly like a traditional crowdfunding platform (rewards, stretch goals, etc.). The only change is that people know that the book is coming out and the preorder campaign leads unbroken into the release campaign.

Using software to leverage human effort

A CMS for book creation. Plenty of existing competitors but also plenty of room for more variety. We need simpler book CMSes and more complex ones. We need CMSes that specialise in group collaboration and ones that are designed to specifically to help one person make a great book. We need app-based tools and web-based tools, ebook-oriented tools and print+ebook tools. Don’t aim to conquer the world, make each one either a little bit expensive or open source, and build with a small team.

An ebook fulfilment service that optionally offers its own payment platform. Something to manage a publisher’s catalogue (self- or traditional) and connects it with whatever they’re using to sell it. Even just having one place to edit the metadata for a book and download copies to send elsewhere would be useful to many.

Version control and issue tracker for docx files. Bonus points for giving people the abiity to strip out ‘track changes’ crap and formatting. Extra bonus points if you help people automatically strip out custom styles and apply a house style. Docx and Word are horrible horrible things but for some insane reason publishers hang onto it. It’s unfair if Microsoft is the only company that makes money from the publishing industry’s irrational fixation on the format.

An ebay for secondary book rights: translation rights, regional rights, etc.

EU VAT changes shift the digital landscape

From The VATman Cometh, Destroying Businesses by Cheryl Morgan:

Except that the new rules coming in next year have a turnover threshold of zero for digital products. Yes, that’s right. If all you do is sell one ebook, or a few knitting patterns on Etsy, or a little app you made for fun, you are required to register for VAT and file VAT returns once a quarter. Even if the tax involved is only pennies.

And from New EU VAT regulations could threaten micro-businesses:

The HMRC spokesperson says that most micro-businesses, such as developers of apps or digital downloads, trade through a third party platform or marketplace, like an app store.

“Where this happens it will be the responsibility of the marketplace operator to account for the VAT. As a result the vast majority of micro-businesses are unlikely to be affected by the changes,” adds the spokesperson.

It’s kind of amazing how hostile an environment for small digital service providers the EU is becoming.

None of these changes have too much of an effect on large corporations. Most of them already have the software to deal with this and the accountants to sort it out. But it has a devastating effect on small businesses and sole traders—exactly the kind of business that the web is otherwise enabling and giving massive leverage.

On the one hand this is a classic example of how our society favours larger corporations over small even when the small is more appropriate.

But on the other hand this also gives small publishers an incentive to change their strategy in ways that could make the rest of publishing very uncomfortable.

When you have two versions of the same product…

  1. A physical version that is zero-rated (no VAT paid), commands a higher price, and lets you trade up to 80 000 or so pounds a year without too much regulatory hassle.
  2. A digital version that has a next to zero marginal cost, substantial competitive price pressure, a high VAT in most countries, and imposes on you a lot of incredibly onerous taxation requirements.

… it makes sense for you to give the digital version away to increase sales of the physical version. Use outfits like Kickstarter and Blurb to increase the variety of your print offerings (i.e. adding more high end versions, collectors editions, etc.) and give away the digital version to promote them.

The other alternative is to stop selling ebooks directly, become entirely reliant on Amazon, Kobo, and iBooks for ebook sales, and give up on the opportunity to build a direct business relationship with your readers.

Of course, small EU-based software providers are screwed either way. Especially those offering web-based services. This will push a lot of desktop app developers who were fine with selling directly over to being exclusive to the app store. At least they have that option. Web services don’t have an app store.

Nominally, these changes are a part of a larger plan that’s supposed to even out the competitive landscape for large ecommerce providers. Amazon and Apple aren’t winning because they happen to be able to charge Luxembourg VAT while their UK competitors have to charge 20%. It gives them a slight leeway that others don’t have, sure, but they are winning because they both have huge platforms with a lot of users. Changing the VAT landscape won’t change that one jot.

Money is a poor measure of value

A recent report on a report on ebook-lending by libraries decided to headline the fact that the lending didn’t increase ebook sales.

Of course, when you dig into the thing you find that it isn’t that simple, that it only didn’t increase sales via a single specific mechanism, and that there is no real way here of connecting the dots to see if A causes a change in B (whatever A and B are).

But even when it’s bad, news reporting does one thing well: their assumptions tell us what society values. In this day and age of analytics and optimisations, what they decide to headline tends to be what most of us think is important.

And it’s clear that what our society values above all else is money.

Libraries aren’t measured by how they improve our communities, educate our children, or democratise access to information, but by how much they increase sales for publishers.

Schools aren’t measured by how good of a citizen the average graduate is, how informed they are when it comes to voting, or their ability to manoeuvre their way around the emotional rocks of life. They’re measured by the income of their graduates—more specifically, by how much more they earn than the graduates of other schools. Our society’s measure of value distorts the education system until the only thing it provides is value for corporations.

And when the only real rationale is a moral one—such as with a full-service, no compromises, universal healthcare, or universal basic income—our society demonstrates that it really does value money more than people.

On conferences

Publishing conferences are deadly serious

Publishing conferences are ritual performances. They are to the varied segments of publishing what morality plays are to the various forms of Christianity. They are narratives that are organised to demonstrate, emphasise, and reinforce the orthodoxy.

When heterodox speakers—like myself—are invited, we are there to perform a liturgical role. By providing a clear demonstration of threatening ideas from the outside, we end up giving the orthodoxy’s ideological centre a clearer delineation—reinforcing it. We are Vice, Folly, Death, Prodigality, and Temptation in the morality tale. We have to sound plausible, reasonable, and enticing for the drama to work, but are then parodied and mocked by the context. We exist solely to create an uncertainty that can be assuaged by the characters Mercy, Justice, Temperance, Truth, Virtue, and Tenacity, who bring the viewer back into the fold with convictions even stronger than before. Everybody who sets foot on the stage is a stock character serving a stock role that, one way or another, reinforces what the audience considers normal.

‘Digital’ publishing conferences are deadly serious

Alternative conferences, those that cater to the publishing heterodox ‘digital’, work in exactly the same way, often using exactly the same speakers, except the roles are reversed.

In traditional publishing conferences the temptation is the seducing allure of the new and exciting (i.e. unproven and risky) that pulls the audience away from their faithful field (traditional publishing). In a digital conference the temptation is the pull of the familiar, where instead of continuing the exploration of the unknown—which is where future inevitably lies—the true believer abandons the righteous path and goes down the known route that leads to stagnation and decline. Both groups are exposed to the same facts and the same reality, but end up seeing it in two completely different ways.

In both contexts the play is the same. The performers alternate between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, always making sure that the orthodoxy of that specific community controls the context and wins out both in numbers and presentation. The more hyperbolic the heterodoxy sounds, the better because the orthodoxy has to sound reasonable. The simpler the heterodoxy sounds, the better because the orthodoxy has to claim ownership of nuance and real-world complexity. Even when the heterodoxy does sound reasonable and nuanced, the orthodoxy has the high ground of owning the surrounding message and so can recast whatever the heterodoxy said in a grimmer light.

A conference isn’t for learning

The experience is a religious catharsis, purging doubt, and reinforcing faith. By joining in the communion of verbal diarrhoea spewed by consultants and overpaid executives, the faithful build a bond that becomes invaluable for networking in the conference’s corridors and coffee breaks. Trying to change anybody’s mind is the worst thing you can do in a conference: it’d be like lecturing people on atheism as they gather outside church after a Sunday mass.

My advice on how to properly attend a conference:

  • Ignore the talks. At best they serve as a conversation starter. For that, only one of you needs to have listened to them. At worst they fill your head with out of date nonsense designed to sell you on somebody’s services. If the talk is any good, everybody will be talking about it during the breaks and online and you can catch it when the video or the slides are posted.
  • Find your crowd. If you’re in digital production, a conversation with a print-oriented executive with thirty years of experience in avoiding change is going to be torturous. It’d be about as much fun as waiting in the queue for the toilet after having drunk five pints at the pub while listening to ‘Splish Splash’ on a constant loop. The point of conferences is to find and connect with like-minded people you aren’t likely to find elsewhere.
  • Don’t try to change anybody’s mind. It’s like trying to teach a cat to type out Ulysses. It won’t work and they won’t appreciate it.
  • Every conference has a reality distortion field caused by the faith-affirming ritual nature of the beast. Maintain your skepticism and assume that all of the speakers are bullshit artists, even the ones you agree with.

Above all, try not to think about how much money the entire brouhaha costs.

Crushed by multinationals

From an interview on Salon with Cory Doctorow:

But I don’t think that’s true of the majority of artists. I think the majority of artists get the least that the investor class can get away with. They are, from the perspective of the investor class, largely interchangeable. That is to say, if you plan to publish 15 fantasy novels this month that are going to be primarily aimed at people who are buying them in airports to read on an airplane, then really what matters is that you just have 15 novels that are of readable quality. And there’s far more than 15 people willing to write you a novel this month for it.

What happens when the number of “channels” increases?

There’s more people competing to buy your stuff. And when there’s more people competing to buy your stuff, then they can be played against one another. You can shop around for a better deal. I think what’s happened, not just in the arts but everywhere around the world, is that we’ve had incredible waves of concentration in industry, where we have policies that favor extremely large entities at the expense of smaller and medium-size ones. (Italics mine.)

This is what I’ve been saying (and in the splintered author). The problems authors are facing are neither caused by Amazon’s dominance nor are they caused by traditional publishing. Presenting a dispute between the two as a battle for publishing’s soul is missing the fact that we already lost publishing’s soul years ago. It didn’t happen when Amazon launched KDP, if anything, that was a lifeboat for authors (more channels are always better). It happened when all power in the industry concentrated in the hands of a few large multinationals.

We don’t solve this problem by picking one multinational to win over the others and then hope they won’t step on us. We solve it by introducing new channels—new ways of connecting authors to readers—and the only way to do that sustainably is to build communities or become a part of one. To do that in a way that properly leverages the resources you have, you need to understand the strategic role of software.

If you expect whichever multinational that wins the current dispute to be a fluffy teddy bear who will be nice to you forevermore, you’re going to be disappointed. They already view most of you as interchangeable. Only the authors of bestsellers and blockbusters have any real leverage.

And if you’re a publisher who expects to win out in this market by doing exactly the same thing as a multinational who has—literally—several orders of magnitude more financial resources than you do, then you will be stepped on.

If you’re serious about ‘saving’ publishing, you need to stop playing their game.

Software as a strategy: prefabricated publishers


Activities that make money aren’t strategic. Activities that affect a company’s ability to make money in the future are strategic. Where is the leverage? That’s what is “strategic.” Only software provides significant leverage in business today. (Alan Cooper – https://storify.com/fakebaldur/software-and-strategy)

Most publishers today don’t understand the role software has come to play in business strategy.

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Software as strategy in the ebook world

The other day I storified a bunch of tweets by Alan Cooper on the strategic role of software in business.

Here’s the first half of it. You should go and read the rest.

All business activities that used to be strategic are now hygienic. Today, all that is strategic is software. Activities that make money aren't strategic. Activities that affect a company’s ability to make money in the future are strategic. Where is the leverage? That's what is "strategic." Only software provides significant leverage in business today. If your office lacks electricity or wifi, nobody shows up and nothing gets done. But neither electricity nor wifi are strategic. (Alan Cooper – https://storify.com/fakebaldur/software-and-strategy)

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