Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Hypothesis of a Book

I discovered this little story about a soon to be published book drawn from the writings of Roland Barthes after the death of his mother. What does this have to do with printed matters, precisely? Well, it’s more of an impression than an idea, but these words from the story really resonated with me and this project:

“The reader is presented not with a book completed by its author,” the volume’s annotator, Nathalie Léger, writes, “but the hypothesis of a book desired by him.”

The hypothesis of a book is a great phrase, and for me it’s evocative of the kinds of work that is going to be done over the next few years as we work out what it is we want most from printed books, and what we want from digital publishing. What are the elements of the book that we need to keep? What might we relinquish? The article talks about Barthes having jotted down his thoughts about his mother on little slips of paper, a free floating diary… It’s interesting to think about this in light of what we call a book, and our assumption that books must involve bound pages between covers. Barthes book about his mother’s death began life as individual pieces of paper, perhaps in part this was a by-product of the project itself. Memory and grief and emotion don’t run in long narrative streams, they’re bite sized and unpredictable. The hypothesis of a book suggests that there’s no sure way for the publisher/translator/annotator to know for sure how something experimental (and intensely personal) was supposed to wind up. Instead they look at the form, at the content, at the function and make an educated, empathetic guess. This seems like a sound way to describe what is happening around us with the range of small publishers producing journals and books.

There’s another element to this hypothesis of a book idea too. It has to do with the work done by if:book and other similar think tanks that spend serious time speculating and experimenting with the way books work in a digital society. Happily, I’ll get to do some more musing on this when I take up a 4 month fellowship in London next year (just announced today!) to research the future of the bookshop. I wonder what the hypothesis of a bookshop desired by Barthes (or anyone else, for that matter) might involve?

Monday, October 25, 2010

On the ‘thing-i-ness’ of books...

One question rarely posed to commentators predicting the imminent demise of the book is, what about the tactile appeals of print-on-paper? I don’t mean to suggest that the love of dead trees is going to counteract a tide of digital information, but I do think that there is something very particular about our attachment to ‘papery-objects’. That phrase is one I owe to Dave Eggers, a man with a bonafide passion for paper. Recently he’s taken to making affirming pronouncements on the continuation of print publishing, and the continuing possibilities for print newspapers, but it’s something he said a little earlier on in his career that I find most interesting about the possibilities for publishing now. In an early issue of his journal McSweeney’s he explained to readers his reasons for starting up his own publishing house, saying,

“we are talking about smaller and leaner operations that use the available resources and speed and flexibility of the market […] to enable us to make not cheaper and cruder (print-on-demand) books or icky, cold, robotic (electronic) books, but better books, perfect and permanent hardcover books, to do so in a fiscally sound way, and to do so not just for old time’s sake, but because it make sense and gives us, us people with fingers and eyes, what we want and what we’ve always wanted: beautiful things, beautiful things in our hands – to be surrounded by little heavy papery beautiful things”.

Things, things, things! You can practically taste the whimsy, but Eggers’s incantation, as I read it, reminds us that books are lovely in large part because of their thing-i-ness. A book’s value is caught up in how we relate to it as an object. That might mean the emotional associations we have with a particular title (it might’ve been a gift, a beloved bed-time story, and so on). But it might just as easily mean how we relate to the feel of the paper, the look of the typeface, the touch of thick paper. To me it’s this quality that goes some way to explaining the continued (and growing) popularity of independent publishers, journals, and zines in Australia. It also suggests that there is space for print to thrive. I’m not talking about vast forests of printed material here, more like well-tended veggie gardens.

Like veggie gardens, this model of print publishing is about sustainability, and the satisfaction of a DIY project. It’s also a useful antidote to the sense of futility and frustration that current discussions about the future of publishing can induce. “We’re tired of all the END OF PAPER, the END OF PUBLISHING AS WE KNOW IT stories”, read a blog post by the Baltimore independent book shop Atomic Books. “We’ve been hearing and reading about it ever since we’ve been open (which is going on almost 20 years now)”. Which is where the Revenge of Print project comes in. It’s a challenge organised by Atomic and a collective of likeminded print and paper advocates to encourage anyone “who’s ever made/self-published a zine, a comic or mini-comic before to dust off the ol’ photocopier and make at least one more new issue in 2011”.

This idea is already gathering enthusiasm from zine makers past and present, and it looks likely to encourage those who have an abiding belief in the pleasures of DIY and print-on-paper to get themselves back into the habit. It’s certainly true that, despite predictions, print and paper are still an important part of our lives. Remember discussions in the 90s about the inevitability (and wonder) of a paperless office? Well, email may have trumped the fax machine but there’s still plenty of paper floating around the laser printer in most workplaces. It’s true that email has changed our work habits, just as e-books will change our reading habits, but that doesn’t make papery-things obsolete. In fact digital communications technology makes paper all the more valued and valuable. Eggers is pretty careful, for instance, to make it clear that he doesn’t love paper because he’s devoted to tradition and the idea of ‘old time’s sake’. He wants to invigorate print because print is a beautiful way to read. Books feel good between your fingers and are easy on the eye (particularly those published by McSweeney’s). Eggers has realised that the key to success is making a product that is irreplaceable and indispensable, and more small publishers are catching on.

When commentators talk about the end of publishing as we know it what they most often actually mean is the end of publishing according to a very specific corporate model that proved popular (and lucrative) over the last fifty years. That model (think: the conglomerate-owned publisher, the celebrity autobiography, the movie-tie in) is on the way out. But that doesn’t guarantee some utopian world for authors. As John Birmingham pointed out last week in the Australian, big corporations like Apple and Amazon and Borders are trying hard and fast to capitalise on the possibilities of money-making through digital publishing, with little interest in aesthetic considerations, be they the development of literary talent, or the look of books. Perhaps there’s hope for print precisely because it’s starting to lose its appeal to corporate publishers and corporate book stores. If books are heavy and costly and slow they can make the most of this, reminding readers of their their tactility, weight, and shape – their printy-ness, if you will.

‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’, said Dorothy Parker, but it isn’t cold-blooded emotional detachment that motivates the revenging zinesters, ‘big-time’ indie publishers like Eggers, or the multitude of local small presses and literary enterprises around our towns, it’s a passion for print and paper and a feeling for (the feel of) books.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Is blogging self-exploitation?

It’s surprising that, in spite of all the current talk about the rise of e-readers, shrinking attention spans, and the critical inadequacies of the blogosphere there is very little consideration of the actual work circumstances of the people engaged with this hybrid culture of digital/print production where readers and writers are very often the same. It sometimes seems to me as if there's all this 'culture' out there happening, but no one is really prepared to think about the people doing the work behind it. I'm not sure why this is given that the literary industry is usually pretty good at celebrating the professional personalities that have shaped the culture.

One reason this might be the case is because when it comes to a print/digital hybrid culture it is a lot more difficult for anyone to know who is in control and who is doing what. There is so much going on out there and so much of it is very specifically targeted. While this essay from the New Yorker about Nick Denton, the creator of Gawker (and its affiliate websites), isn't exactly what I have in mind when I talk about considering what it means to do writing work in the digital era I do think it offers some interesting insights about the nature of digital work culture. For instance, Denton paid the first Gawker blogger, Elizabeth Spiers, two thousand dollars a month, on the assumption that posting twelve short items a day in response to things she’d read in the Times or gleaned from other media sources was a part-time commitment. Yep, 'part time work'. Spiers eventually complained and the model was changed, when Gawker took on more staff Denton instituted a system which offered writers a bonus for high page views in addition to a flat $12 per post.

As exploitative at this sounds, poor Spiers had it better than most bloggers who try to make a living. Of particular interest to me are those writers providing content for Australian blogs, and similar, without ever taking into account that there is more to a career in writing than networks, exposure and doing work for free for the sake of experience. The sociologist Andrew Ross has done some excellent research on “the Political Economy of Amateurism” in the creative industries. Ross looks at the unrecognised exploitation that often happens in new formats such as reality television and blogs, where non-professionals are primary content creators but are given none of the rights and benefits of their more traditional counterparts.

While it’s no secret that the Arts sector often calls upon the goodwill and enthusiasm of “emerging” creative types (often young people) to help pick up the slack when it comes to things like ushering, driving, organization and production work it is increasingly common for writers, artists and film makers to complete many unpaid “internships” in the hope that it will lead to something that offers some financial compensation and professional opportunity. When the ABC’s Radio National Book Show announced that it was offering a number of unpaid spots as official bloggers for the program, a few writers kicked up a ruckus about the lack of respect accorded to young writers. If you listen to the podcast from the Book Show during the week that their blog launched you'll hear Romona Koval make some glaring generalisations about blogs and some patronising remarks about bloggers and their audiences (thankfully, this is rescued somewhat by the presence of Sophie Cunningham from Meanjin and Max Magee of the Millions). This is especially unfortunate given that the Book Show blog offers no payment to its writers, and indeed, framed the blog writing gig as a 'competition' which the writers were no doubt 'lucky' to have won. No discussion of their talents, abilities and qualifications were cited. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth and I'm not the only one. At the time a few writers kicked up a ruckus about the lack of respect accorded to young writers who are using blogs as a way to hone their craft. You can read more about that here and here.

I'll be presenting some ideas and research at a conference in Byron Bay in December this year on this subject; hoping to more thoroughly explore why it is that (young) writers are (too) willing to give away their work and engage in self-exploitation.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

This is Not Art: This is not a pay cheque?

A week away in Newcastle for fieldwork and presentations at National Young Writers Festival as part of TiNA. From my 'researcher's perspective' the most interesting session from the perspective of the current project on freelancers working in the arts (Giving it Away) was a round table discussion entitled ‘What Are You Worth?’ dealing with how to make a living from freelance life. As you might expect, no shortage of horror stories about exploitative work in the arts: people underpaid, and sometimes, not paid at all. But also some very interesting and animated discussion about the problem of self-exploitation: which, in a nutshell, involves undervaluing your work, either deliberately or through lack of confidence. By doing creative activities for free or next to nothing, freelancers do themselves a disservice they not only exploit themselves but their whole field. If you offer to do a job for 20% less than your colleagues, then you’ll wind up deflating the value of your work in the market. A clichéd phrase comes to mind here: “why buy the cow if you get the milk for free…” Most of the time we hear that phrase used in conjunction with self-respect and cautionary advice about chastity. I suppose this was a comparison that I’d already made (perhaps inadvertently) when I entitled my project ‘Giving it Away.’ It captures that sense of insecurity (or in industry speak – precarity) that often affects creative workers who feel that they can’t challenge the expectations of the workforce, either by asking for higher wages or better rights at work. It’s also important to consider how easy it can be for creative workers to do work for free because it is (at least in some respects) pleasurable work. This can mean that it is all too easy to do ‘extra’ work, to under charge, or, in some cases, not take stock of the fact that some everyday creative tasks can, in some contexts, also constitute work and ought to be factored into the rates that creative workers charge (for instance, blog posts like this are part of my daily work, but not everyone would think to consider their commentary on blogs, forums, etc as an important aspect creative work online).

This question about valuing creative work and representation as an industry is of growing importance. Just this year, for instance, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ruled that freelancers can unite to seek better rates and conditions. In the last few days I’ve uncovered research similar to my own being carried out by OzCo and Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (you can do the freelancers survey here). Hopefully there will be some chance for cross-pollination of our ideas resulting in advice for arts organisations which represent the interests of creative workers (especially young people and those just starting out) wondering how to put a price on the work they love.