Tuesday, December 14, 2010

An Interview with Chris Meade from if:Book London

Earlier this year while I was in London I had a chance to catch up with the UK Director of if:Book, Chris Meade. After our chat not only did I write up this interview (which was published last month in the Emerging Writers Festival Reader) I also put together a research project examining what will happen to bookshops as readers make the transition to e-readers and downloadable texts. Happily, my project was selected for funding as part of the Endeavour Award which means that come May 2011 I'll be heading to London to work with Chris. Since we're coming to the end of the year, and since the interview has been in print for a few weeks, it seems like a good time to make it digital and spread the word...

In the 80s, before Chris Meade took up his current role as the Co-Director of The Institute for the Future of the Book (if:Book), he pioneered a program to reinvigorate public interest in libraries, promoting them as imagination services. Today, Chris spends most of his time imagining how we might engage with books in the not-too-distant-future. Having met Chris at this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, I wanted to ask him if he felt the iPad might not be this century’s hovercraft? Would we really teleport into the world of Pride and Prejudice? Would compliant robots dust our empty bookshelves while we played the first-person shooter of The Satanic Verses? Despite these burning questions, it seemed more politic to sit down and talk about what we mean when we talk about books, and whether or not that will really change over the next few years.

Chris Meade: Have you noticed how things have turned inside out? An organisation used to be a building with a website serving as a sort of leaflet, but now the website is what the organisation is, and the building is just a way of promoting it.

Caroline Hamilton: I have. But I wonder how much optimism there is about what we can do with that digital space for writing and literature?

CM: Well, one example is that a writers’ festival will have a bigger audience via podcasts than actual people sitting there.

CH: But it’s not only tweeting at festivals or downloading podcasts, is it? Technology can lead us to find value in new forms, or rediscover old forms. There’s a lot of hope, for instance that the iPhone will lead to a reinvigoration of the short story.

CM: Yes, it’s true that forms can fit a new platform unexpectedly. I’ve just discovered how nice album covers now look, for instance, on my iPad. It’s nice to know that there’re new ways of appreciating old forms. And it’s important to note that we’re stubborn about the forms that we like. I was involved a few years ago with the Book Trust’s Save the Short Story campaign, and they did some research which showed that if people wanted to read a book they wanted to read a really big book. They weren’t interested in the short story, they wanted to get deeply involved. That surprised some people, there was an expectation that technology would lead us towards short stories, but people were saying they wanted to read a big story, even on an e-reader as much as anything else. Sometimes we have low expectations of ourselves and our children… we do know what we want and what we like.

CH: Which makes me wonder about the current panic about the end of the printed book. Do you think this fear is over-generalised?

CM: We have to wait and see a bit, how much of the anxiety about the loss of the object is transient and how much is real and significant and lasting. But we do want ways of signifying books – we are starting to realise that, starting to experiment with ways to satisfy our desire to read books and to signify reading and having read books.

CH: Yes, as handy as an e-reader might be I do feel like part of the pleasure of a big book is that the object itself has some literal as well as figurative heft to it. We think of them as weighty for a reason.

CM: We do want ways of signifying books and now is a time for experimentation and people who aren’t too profit-driven are doing that: they want to play and try out a few things; play with the souvenirs of reading experience.

CH: A great phrase! The physical book as a souvenir of reading experience.

CM: Well, once you’ve read it, that’s all there is. The book is this attractive thing to put on your wall to show that you’ve read War and Peace, or whatever.

CH: And the word souvenir hints at the way books, when we’re not reading them, are largely useless. Like the snowglobe you lug home from Toronto or wherever. It sits on the shelf, it’s an aide-mémoire – a trigger.

CM: Yes, mostly it serves to remind you of what it was like to read a particular book, and you’re telling others too. A bookshelf is a store of knowledge in a way. It matters to a lot to people, but quite a lot of that is snobbery… you could just as easily have a badge that says I’ve read such-and-such, you don’t need the book on your shelf to do that.

CH: That’s true. Though I don’t know that the concept of a badge will take off. People are very attached to the idea of papery books, most of all writers. They might not be so interested in writing if their work is literally reduced to some status-seeking badge. Then again, maybe all this change that is happening – and that is about to happen – in publishing, will help to free up a lot of writers.

CM: I think it’s important for us to encourage writers to take advantage of this moment, to say: let’s not worry too much about the publisher’s problems. Focus on ourselves, as writers and readers, focus on what it is we want in terms of our experience and then look at the potential of technology to help us get what we want. What can be done in terms of publishing and distribution and multimedia literature and the rest? And, of course, be aware of what could be the real losses as well.

What if, as a writer, you don’t always want to fix down your work, what if you want to keep testing it, working with the readers of your blog, or whatever? Publishers can’t always own everything. Sure you can do some things which are stable and fixed, publish those, gain reputation in a conventional way, but you can still go back, keep blogging and publishing yourself. Build an audience and a reputation in a different way. I think the real challenge now is to not get hooked on the past, particularly in publishing, not to simply think that being in a certain magazine is crucial and everything else is irrelevant. Remembering that there is more than one kind of audience, more than one kind of writing, more than one type of publishing.

It’s becoming much more natural for people who are used to digital means to put their thoughts out in the digital sphere. I think of a blog as a cross between a notebook and a novel: you can jot down a few ideas and share them with a few people and then mould that into something for a much wider readership. I think that’s becoming much more natural for many writers and thinkers, but for others it doesn’t come naturally or easily at all. There’s a certain fatalism surrounding technology: Oh well, now we’re going to have to do it another way… But it’s really important to reserve the right not to. Quite a senior figure in publishing here in London was saying just the other day that lots of English people have a problem with dignity; and the blogosphere is quite undignified, suddenly we’re all showing each other pictures of our summer holidays and our first jottings and sketchy outlines. The finished book represents some immaculate perfectly finalised version of how you want to present yourself. At the end of the process you can throw away all your notes if you like, no one will know how feeble the early drafts might have been. In contrast to that model of perfection the blogosphere is quite threatening but, if you’re prepared to show your working and test things out and pop back and change them, then it’s a hugely liberating way of working.

CH: It sounds to me like there’s considerable potential here for independent writers to be in a strong position, in terms of the future of publishing and the future of the book. You’re talking about not adhering to the old model simply because that’s the way it’s been done, that this model doesn’t have the longevity we once assumed.

CM: Independent writers are in a strong position, yes, if they can clear away their own hang-ups. So many writers feel that they are failing to earn money and that there’s some magical world where other successful writers are rolling in it. You know, if only they were published everything would be alright. Of course, many published writers feel that way too. If only they were published with X instead of Y, or if only they could get a spot on a festival panel. When we talk about writers we’re usually talking about a very small segment of people who are very successful writers.

CH: So that’s a hang up we need to get past then? We need to get over it? Get on with doing whatever we like doing rather than holding onto an old model?

CM: That’s it. And we already know how it works, how to do that. Lots of writers, poets especially, have operated for generations in a very weblike way. They make more money from being sorts of brands, from running workshops and giving readings and selling books themselves. Most of the books are sold on recommendation rather than bookshops, it’s not formal, it’s word of mouth. And the opportunity we have now, independent writers of all stripes, it’s a great chance to build on that and see how you might have more control over your destiny.