Writing in a Digital Age: Discoverability and the Pen Factor
Traditional linear narrative was not about to disappear, but new technology offered scope for a host of original ideas, said Hari Kunzru, setting the tone as the keynote speaker at the Writing for a Digital Age conference (8, 9 June).Kunzru's talk ranged over spam letters from Africa, the various effects of Times Roman and Comic Sans fonts, and Google filtering.
The conference took place at the Free Word Centre in London. It was organised by Rebecca Swift of the Literary Consultancy and Jon Slack, and took place in association with the Guardian, Arts Council England, Free Word, Arvon, and Commonwealth Writers. The speakers included Linda Grant, Kate Mosse, Michael Bhaskar, Kerry Wilkinson, Ellah Allfrey, David Godwin, Carole Blake, Maria Rejt, and Arzu Tahsin.
Nicola Morgan, Linda Grant and Kate Mosse discussed social media - Morgan and Grant being enthusiastic users of social networks, albeit with provisos, and Kate Mosse being wary of them. Don't let technology bully you into wasting time, Mosse urged the audience.
Chris Meade, Tony Knight, Jonas Lennermo, and Mike Jones (by Skype from Australia) demonstrated the various ways in which books could become multimedia experiences. Jones's Portal Entertainment offers immersive storytelling in which the reader becomes a central character and the writer's role is that of an "architect", creating the framework in which plots can flourish. Meade's if:Book is offering a New Media Writing Prize. Knight's interactive drama, Ivy4ever, uses text messaging. Lennermo's company employs writers, sound and visual designers to produce iPad apps, and produces software enabling writers to sell books through their own websites and social networking.
Kerry Wilkinson, who self-published before landing a deal with Macmillan, was among the speakers in the session devoted to discoverability. He did not set out with a strategy, he said; "It just happened", mostly through word of mouth. He priced his first ebook low to attract new readers, raising the prices of subsequent novels in the hope that people would be prepared to pay more to read about characters they knew. But Michael Bhaskar of Profile warned that pricing low was not, by itself, a strategy: the author and publisher had to offer something more.
Various writers shared their experiences of making unconventional approaches to the market. Gemma Seltzer wrote 100 100-word short stories over 100 days, and got a deal with Penned in the Margins, which published a book with one story on each page. Lazmi Hariharan began promoting her first book on Amazon four weeks before publication, then decided entirely to rewrite before the release date.
Robert Kroese is the author of a book about self-publishing, as well as of an SF novel, Mercury Falls, later taken on by Amazon Encore. He offered seven questions that self-publishers should ask themselves:
- Is your book publishable?
- Are you entrepreneurial?
- Are you web-savvy? Do you understand social networking?
- Are you sociable? (Or can you fake it?)
- Are you impatient? A control freak?
- Is your book difficult to classify?
In the Canon Tales section, agents and publishers offered presentations about themselves and their literary careers through images. They showed images of their first jobs, of their "I told you so books" (rejected by numerous houses before becoming bestsellers), and of their out-of-office activities. David Godwin presented his DGA awards: best book, best cultural event, best (and worst) book cover, bravest book and publisher, and most must-buy book (his own book about golf).
The climax of the conference was The Pen Factor: a chance for aspiring writers to pitch their projects to panels of agents and publishers. The winner was Nicholas Lim for The Pattern Maker, about a religious cult - "unashamedly commercial" and "I loved every moment" were among the comments.
Photos: (from top) Jon Slack and Rebecca Swift; Kate Mosse (left), Linda Grant, Nicola Morgan; Hari Kunzru
Notes by Patsy Trench
Photos by Elixabete Lopez