Digital Drive was a day-long event at The Wheeler Centre devoted to exploring aspects of writing and publishing in the digital realm, co-hosted by the Emerging Writers’ Festival.
Words Beyond the Page
Photo by Sarah E Holly, Via Instagram
Myself and Antony Loewenstein kicked off the day with a session entitled ‘Words Beyond the Page.’ Antony is a successful independent journalist whose work is regularly published in the Guardian, the Nation, and the Huffington Post, as well as three full-length books to his name. He has elected to remain independent because it gives him the opportunity to write about what he chooses, and is not constrained by a media empire’s own agenda. He acknowledged that the drawback is financial instability. He emphasised the importance of regular blogging for those who want to build careers as journalists as well as using Twitter and Facebook to build your brand. I discussed my interactive digital novel The Ark and the process of creating an accompanying app.
The Medium or the Message
Connor Tomas O’Brien, Co-Director of the inaugural Digital Writers’ Festival (2014) opened this session with an unashamedly nerdish gambit – a line graph, indicating that Google searches for the phrase ‘future of the book’ have been steadily declining since 2007 until, statistically speaking, they’ve almost disappeared. I was fascinated by this data. Does it mean people no longer care about the future of the book? Or that they now assume books will become digital and interactive and no longer need to ask the question. Perhaps a bit of both.
Connor challenged this second interpretation, however, questioning the assumption that a book needs to absorb or imitate all other mediums. Given that Connor is writing a PhD on digital literature this was a surprising stance. He argued that while cross-pollination is positive, the idea that every medium should act like a different medium is fundamentally flawed. He advocated playing to the strengths of your primary medium, rather than aiming for a lowest common denominator that is a sort of jack-of all-trades, master-of-none. He argued, most persuasively, that e-books are best when they act like books, and that readers don’t really want gimmicks; they want good content presented in a way they understand.
Contrary to a lot of popular thinking, shiny features often detract from, rather than enhance, underlying narratives.
Vanessa Hughes, the Digital Editor of Going Down Swinging seemed a little more sold on the ‘bells and whistles approach’, demonstrating some strong examples of interactive, multi-media apps/enhanced e-books, including the latest digital issue of Going Down Swinging, and the oft-cited app for TS Eliot’s The Wasteland.
However, Vanessa agreed that experimentation with apps does need to be done carefully to ensure it does justice to the original content.
The session then got pretty techy, with discussions of different versions of ePub, open source code and all sorts of things I pay a programmer to understand. There were some excellent audience questions about problems of archiving and distribution of review copies etc:
Luke Ryan and Clementine Ford had a lively conversation on the challenges and possibilities of online freelancing. Both agreed that blogging is an excellent way to build a profile and become better known in the writing community, as well as being great regular writing practice. Clementine added that your own blog is the only place you should write for free, and that you should never provide free content for others to profit from. Yes!
Luke mentioned the need to respond quickly on topical issues, and the phenomenon that when you’re the first voice on any given topic, you somehow become THE voice on that subject. Though Clementine differentiates between journalism and opinion writing, they agreed on the need to bring something of yourself into your writing – an emotional currency that will resonate with readers, and acknowledged that writing which is too factual can sometimes disappear without a trace. Luke had mentioned that many of his writing opportunities had come through Twitter, however, he also admitted that Twitter is becoming saturated, thus making it harder to establish a voice and connect with thought-leaders in that forum.
There were many more fascinating sessions including one on audience development with Sarah Wendell and Luke Buckmaster, as well as Alison Croggon and Sophie Black tackling the issue of dealing with commenters, reviews, trolls and social media but by then my brain was starting to melt and I needed to recover by having Sex with a Bearded Man at the Aylesbury. That’s a cocktail, by the way.
Your turn: What are your feelings about the digital realm? Are you hungry for the bells & whistles? Or do you think less is more?