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Here’s the thing / The Yellow King

Okay, so here’s the thing. The King in Yellow is either the thematic backbone of HBO’s True Detective,or it’s an incidental device being utilised by the hipster, HBO-centred crowd to draw in the weird fiction mob and convince them that this series is worth sticking with. Time will tell which of these is true, but to paraphrase the words of a noted writer of my acquaintance; rest assured, there is a Dog. It might not be the dog you expected, but it is there and it is barking.

Either way, the end result is that a short story collection from 1895 is now (don’t quote me on this as things will have changed by the time you read it) sitting at #9 on Amazon’s bestseller lists. Then, toward the end of last week, something interesting happened. Gollancz (who are part of the Hachette stable) released another eBook edition of Chambers text, this time with Ambrose Bierce’s short ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa‘ and a copy of the entry on Robert Chambers from the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Curated content, selected for and undoubtedly a timely nudge to a fanbase, all for the simple, micropayment point of 99p.

A note – if you bought this book before today, then you ought to update your copy. This short essay will make a lot less sense if you don’t.

First of all, before we begin, a note from history.

Way back at the end of the 1990s, Scott McCloud wrote his follow up to Understanding Comics; Reinventing Comics. In Understanding Comics, McCloud had explored and defined a critical language for comics, and now he turned his attention to the potential of digital platforms on the fields language and distribution.

To say that Reinventing Comics wasn’t as big a hit as Understanding Comics is a little bit of an understatement. McCloud advocates a number of things that are so fixed in their time, and whether or not they’re a better present than the one we have (massive clue – unless you’re a huge fan of motion comics as the pinnacle of digital form, then they are), the industry as a whole hasn’t really adopted them (although see this beautiful piece of comics-that-can-only-work-in-digital-space). He also proposes micropayment as a solution to falling revenues and a downwardly spiralling indie comics scene.

In 1999, we didn’t have a micropayment infrastructure. It would take several years before a combination of iTunes,  a generation comfortable with having their credit card details held by a faceless organisation online, and a period of relative prosperity in the west turned a micropayment pipe dream into a practical framework.

McCloud was ahead of his time.

And then there’s this.

And this, specifically:

When we think about digital’s effect on storytelling, we tend to grasp for the lowest hanging imaginative fruits. The common cliche is that digital will ‘bring stories to life.’ Words will move. Pictures become movies. Narratives will be choose-your-own-adventure. While digital does make all of this possible, these are the changes of least radical importance brought about by digitization of text. These are the answers to the question, “How do we change books to make them digital?” The essence of digital’s effect on publishing requires a subtle shift towards the query: “How does digital change books?”

Craig Mod’s essay, first published in 2011 (I was thinking my way through this piece at the weekend, and exchanged some views with Alastair Horne, including the remark thatit’s 2014, and I’m not angry, I’m just very very disappointed‘. The distance we’ve travelled since Mod wrote that piece three years ago is indicative of my disappointment) has been feted, quoted and exalted by a number of industry insiders and critical thinkers and has had pretty much no discernible effect on their business practices whatsoever. In this, and a small collection of other pieces published around the same time (Books in the Age of the iPad, Embracing the Digital Book), he outlines a set of coherent and contingent issues at the heart of the emergence of digital products and platforms in publishing.

How does digital change books?

If you want an example of the answers to the question, “How do we change books to make them digital?” then look at this piece in Saturdays Guardian review. That’s right, all of Wikipedia printed as a bound volume. Instantly out of date,  shockingly irrelevant and immediately symptomatic of the desire of conventional presses to make books digital. If you’ve supported this project, your only defence is that you either have money to burn, or that you took leave of your senses sometime in 1996.

And, as an aside, James Bridle’s print of the Iraq War entry makes the exact opposite point to that demonstrated by printing the whole site. Think about it.

Anyway, back to Craig Mod and The King in Yellow.

How does digital change books? One of the problems with Mod’s insights, and maybe the reason that he’s quoted a lot, but has had comparatively little effect, is that figuring out how digital changes books is really quite difficult. It’s simple of me to say (as I do quite a lot) that adding video and animation to an eBook does not address the question. It’s easy for Baldur to say thatBut there’s another more subtle problem with this type of interactivity. They add little to no value to a text exactly because they are harmonious and integrate well with most texts. Because they don’t disrupt or restructure anything, they are sapped of power.“  (It isn’t easy to say that, by the way. It takes time and energy and thought). It is, thought far more difficult to make the sort of work that proposes a solution, however faltering, to Mod ’s thesis.

And, to my surprise, Gollancz’ edition of The King in Yellow is actually a step toward that solution. What it does is this. Alongside the additional Pierce short story is Chambers’ entry for  the SFE. This edition of the SFE hasn’t been printed, hasn’t (as far as I know, at least) been included in any form as a bound volume; print or digital) and only exists to be read by the public in its online state. Hyperlinked, networked, nodes and spines and flares of content.

Then there’s ‘Chambers, Robert’. Taken verbatim (well, one changed word at the start for grammatical effect) and placed within another text as an appendix. And afterthought. Consider this.

The obvious changes wrought by digital on the process that produced that edition of The King in Yellow are programmatic. They are, as George Walkley has described, the speed of response to gather the content, decide to publish, bind under an existing imprint and get into digital stores the day before True Detective aired in the UK. The real shift though, is the existence of the ‘book as a node’. Chambers’ SFE entry links to all of the thematic, ancillary and  connected content on the main SFE site. It’s likely that few readers of the Gollancz edition will explore the SFE in any real depth, but some will. It’s likely that if they’ve bought that edition of The King in Yellow, then they’ve been reading the analysis of the series on i09, on the Wall St Journal, and on a long list of other sources. They’ve been participating in a networked discussion, facilitated by a combination of BitTorrent, quality online journalism, intelligent discussion and comments, and inquiring minds. They’ve read this content exactly as Vannevar Bush described Memex – information by association, the mind leaping from one thing to the next instantaneously. And now this edition of the book that Nic Pizzolatto has been dangling in front of us since the start plays the same interconnected, networked games as we’ve been doing ourselves.

The King in Yellow is a smart, timely intervention by a publisher with the means and opportunity to grab a slice of the True Detective pie before it spoils. But it’s also one of the first coherent answers to Craig Mod’s questions that we’ve seen so far.

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