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A Novel Experiment, and a Tube Mystery

photo by Judith Clute.

It’s been a while since I used this blog regularly, which has been entirely due to Secret Project #1, which officially finished last night at the Wellcome Trust in London. I’m still a little wiped from the last few days and the drive back, and my head is buzzing with ideas and possibilities. I’m going to write a set of posts and thoughts over the next few weeks, but as a kick-off, I’m posting the speech I gave last night.

Many thanks to all who attended, and gave their thoughts, time and bought me wine. The photo is from Judith Clute.

“Early in ‘This Is Not The End Of The Book’ Umberto Eco remarks that the journalistic profession is still obsessed with the idea that the book is about to disappear. He points out that the death of the book is an recurring prediction, and that while improvements to the form might be handsome, their constituent elements usually remain the same.

My constituent elements were 60,000 words, fifteen minutes of video, four digital prints, three websites and too many post-it notes to remember. And about two years of planning.

My name is Tom Abba. I’m a writer and an academic and in February this year, I mailed out 120 cardboard tubes, each a metre long, to colleagues, friends and most importantly – to complete strangers, and then I crossed my fingers.

Thank you for coming tonight, thank you for reading, for being enthusiastic, for tweeting, for blogging and for talking.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it, and I hope what I’m going to talk about makes some sense.

Before I get to that, some more thanks are due.

To the Wellcome Trust, and to Martha and Danny, for offering to host us tonight.

To Jon Dovey and Nick Triggs at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, for support and making things happen.

And to Steve Hoskins and Paul Laider, at the Centre for Fine Print Research, for finding exquisite and expensive paper.

So. I promised some answers.

Why did I do this? It wasn’t easy, or simple, or quick. There had to be a reason?

I did it to get your attention, to hold it for a while, and to start a conversation about a possible future for publishing, and especially for digital books.

For a while I’ve suspected that you, as much as I, are tired of hearing about ePub conversion and xml workflows. The ebook, while an essential element of a publishing strategy, has begun to dominate the whole conversation. We’ve stopped talking about content, and form, and writing. New digital platforms have become the backdrop for marketing spend and window dressing, not experimentation or genuine innovation.

If digital can break out of the shackles of promotional gimmickry, then it can be about production, from the outset of the commission. If you confine it to marketing, your next ten years are looking at repeating the short, somewhat self-obsessed history of Alternate Reality Games.

This was an experiment to see what a digital novel might look like. An attempt to show, not tell you all what I was getting at.

If I can suggest a couple of contextual thoughts:

  • Charles Olson proposed that the Form of a thing is never more than an extension of its Content.
  • Jonathan Safran Foer, talking about Visual Editions’ beautiful production of Tree of Codes, asked “Why wouldn’t – how couldn’t – an author care about how his or her book looked?”

Put that way – the shape of a book, how it is presented, printed, even distributed, should be influenced by the content. And never more so when that book is a digital object. That was the spirit in which I started this project. To design and write a digital book that belonged to the internet. That wasn’t designed to exist in any other form. That addresses form and content and shape and distribution.

This book is a hundred and sixty-seven separate fragments of text and video, which can be put back together in almost any order. I’m going to confess a few things:

  • I didn’t write it in a linear order, and I don’t know what order everything belongs in. It’s designed to allow a reader to put the pieces back together and rethread the plot their way, not the way I told them to.
  • Despite that, there is a story. It begins fifteen years ago, with a suicide, and then explores what happens afterward, deals with the reasons for the act of ending a life, and slyly asks what would happen if you woke up and found out you were God.
  • There is an end. You’re shown it fairly early on, although its real significance isn’t evident without working back through a lot of the text.
  • Those are real bees, I’m afraid. They are dead, but I didn’t kill them.
  • Everyone’s name is deliberate. You have to go a fair way back to find them, but they’re worth the search.
  • And finally:
  • It’s an experiment. I don’t know whether it works or not. You’ll have to tell me.

So. Where does that leave us.

It leaves us asking why I did this?

  • To sow an idea. Something I’d not seen done yet.
  • Because if we don’t start to really innovate, we’ll have wasted the opportunity that digital offers.
  • Because form and content are important – they’re how we learn new things, and how we learn to do more than just repeat what’s on the surface.
  • Because in ten years time, when piracy has picked over the bones of the ebook market, and we’ve forgotten why we got excited about new toys, I’d regret not doing this.
  • Because I attended London Book Fair last year, and every second presentation in the Digital Pavilion was a snake-oil salesman selling a new way to process epub workflows. None of those talks made any mention of content.
  • Because it’s our responsibility to seize the moment and do something – to do what we think is interesting and new and innovative.

You’re being told to think short-term to stay ahead of change, to think medium term and be more than a publisher, but more than that – you’re being asked to innovate without being shown what the ground rules for innovation might be, without knowing how to tell a story in a new way. Even if what you do as a result is something completely different.

That’s why I did this.

Thankyou very much.”


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