Friday, March 21, 2008

Penguin UK: "We Tell Stories"

On Tuesday, Penguin UK launched an interesting new interactive fiction project called "We Tell Stories."

Over the next six weeks, six classics books will be reworked into a series of short stories, each written by a notable contemporary author. The first story, by thriller writer Charles Cumming, is inspired by John Buchan's 1915 mystery novel "The 39 Steps" (currently the subject of a comic adaptation on Broadway, incidentally.) It uses GoogleMaps to tell a story about a young man with a shady past who gets embroiled in a scheme involving Renaissance art, a family of Greek shipping magnates, and a murder in London's St. Pancras station. You click on little pop-up balloons to advance the text, and a little blue line traces the protagonist's path through London and, eventually Edinburgh. It's a neat concept, but it gets a little old after a while.

Still, I'm looking forward to the next five stories, which will apparently use different kinds of web technologies. The whole project is designed by the alternate reality game firm Six to Start, who were behind the massive-scale ARG "Perplex City," so I have faith that it'll develop into something more substantive.

[ARGs--which I wrote about for Alyssa Katz's class last semester--are sort of a cross between a story and a game. They're multi-media narratives that play out in real time, using the web, email, phones, and sometimes live events to transmit elements of the story. "Perplex City," for example, had a staged event that involved an actor getting whisked away in a helicopter after leaving a bunch of clues for players. They're usually played by hundreds or thousands of people at once, who gather to share clues and solve puzzles on message boards online. See ARG Network for more info.]

As an added bonus, the Penguin project has a hidden surprise, according to the "About" page:

"[S]omewhere on the internet is a secret seventh story, a mysterious tale involving a vaguely familiar girl who has a habit of getting herself lost. Readers who follow this story will discover clues that will shape her journey and help her on her way. These clues will appear online and in the real world and will direct readers to the other six stories. The secret seventh story will also offer the chance to win some wonderful prizes in addition to the prizes on offer on, including The Penguin Complete Classics Library, over £13,000 worth of the greatest books ever written."

Americans aren't eligible to win the Classics Library, but maybe there'll be some fun stuff for us in the "secret" cache of prizes.

Penguin has been doing a lot of digital experimentation over the past few years, with varying results. (A Million Penguins, Penguin USA's collaborative writing project, fizzled quite spectacularly.) Still, "We Tell Stories" is really exciting, and I'll be tracking it with interest over the next month and a half. It's great to see traditional publishers playing around with the Internet for more than just marketing or distribution.

[Side note: Scholastic will be launching a similar, ARG-ish project in September. It's called "The 39 Clues"--not to be confused with "The 39 Steps."]

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Book videos on the net

This weeks sees the debut of two book-themed online-video initiatives.

Yesterday, Barnes & Noble (aka my old employer) launched B&N Studio, a special section of the website that hosts a range of video programming. It has a mix of archival material (videos of in-store lectures and other live events) and original "mini-documentaries."

Tagged!, a weekly series, gives the back story on new books. I watched the first episode and it was a little excruciating. The host, Molly Pesce, is set on high chirp mode, and the actual content was pretty thin--the three-and-a-half minute clip rounds up three authors who visited prisons to research their latest books, points out that Anne Rice and her son both have books coming out, and, pegged to the Oscars, lists books that have had recent movie adaptations. It's the video equivalent of an FOB chart, and the video format only emphasizes its fluffiness. Book Obsessed, a series that profiles all kinds of bibliophiles, is more fun, but I wish it would up the camp factor a bit. Obsessions are ridiculous! (As our Portfolio class is learning.)

I'm more excited by the archival stuff, like the hourlong "Upstairs at the Square" programs, in which authors get paired up with musicians and present their work jointly. (These seem to be a mix of audio and video recordings.) Now I just need to figure out how to download these to iTunes--because even if I'm excited about hearing Gary Shteyngart perform with Sondre Lerche, I'd much rather listen to it on my iPod, on the train, than on my laptop.

The other big debut is Titlepage, which is being billed as "a 21st century version of the Algonquin Round Table." (It was the subject of a NYTimes piece last month.) Hosted by Daniel Menaker--the former executive editor at Random House as well as a New Yorker fiction editor--the hourlong show features four thematically-linked authors sitting around a table, discussing their work. It promises to be a literary version of the oddly-compelling Dinner for Five, the Independent Film Channel series where Jon Favreau (of Swingers fame) gets a whole bunch of movie celebs drunk and blabbing. Unclear whether Titlepage has an alcohol budget.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

More free e-books

From Publisher's Lunch:
Charles Bock's debut novel BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN is being offered as a free PDF download via, starting last night and running through midnight this Friday. (Sharing, emailing and printing are all allowed.) [Note that! My italics.-- ed] The free file is also available online via, Barnes &, and

Bock says in the announcement, "I want people to read the book. If that means giving it away for free on-line, great." Random's deputy director of marketing Avideh Bashirrad adds, "The book really struck a chord with readers as bookstore sales have demonstrated. We believe it has even more potential readers out there, and the best way to reach them is online, with this unrestricted access."
Beautiful Children, incidentally, was the subject of a looong NY Times Magazine profile by former NYT Book Review editor Charles McGrath last month, which set lit blogs a-twitter.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Two if:book essays

if:book, the blog for the Institute for the Future of the Book, has had two great literature-themed essay-posts this past week.

The first post is about Graham Rowle's recent book, Woman's World--a novel entirely composed of fragments cut out of women's magazines. (The book's ransom note-like page design preserves the mode of construction; see above.) Dan Visel offers a dense but fascinating meditation on this weird hybrid work, touching on Barthes, Ted Nelson, and
The Devil Wears Prada along the way. Worth a read.

The second post is about cell phone (or flash, or keitai) novels, the tiny, bite-size fictions made for mobile phone screens. The post--written by my good friend Ben Vershbow--is pegged to a recent interview of Barry Yourgrau, a New York/South African practitioner of this mostly Japanese genre. Ben treats keitai novels as more than just a goofy Japanese trend, offering some serious reflection on the form:
Western publishers would do well to study this free-flowing model. A story need not be bound to one particular delivery mechanism, be it a cell phone, web page (or book). In fact, the ecology of forms can make a more comprehensive narrative universe. This is not only the accepted wisdom of cross-media marketing franchisers and brand blizzardeers (Spiderman the comic, Spiderman the action figure, the lunchbox, the movie, the game, the Halloween costume etc.), but an age-old principle underlying the transmission of culture. The Arthurian legends, for instance, weren't spun in one single authoritative text, but in many different textual itertations over time, a plethora of visual depictions, oral storytelling, songs, objets d'art etc.
Ben also delves a bit into how the tools of writing affect the content of what is written, noting that Yourgrau writes his incredibly terse stories longhand because "the computer is too suited to Flow." He also notes that many of the most successful keitai novels were actually composed on cell phones, which (even if you have fleet little Asian fingers) takes a lot longer than tapping away on a keyboard. "[O]ne wonders whether the bloat of much contemporary fiction is a direct effect of word processors and the ease of Inernet research," he writes.

This is a point emphasized in Sven Birkets' book
The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, which I've been reading on the train. Birkets, musing on the word processor in 1995, wrote:

The dual function of print is the immobilization and preservation of language. To make a mark on a page is to gesture toward permanence; it is to make a choice from an array of expressive possibilities. In former days, the writer, en route to a product that could be edited, typeset, and more or less permanently imprinted on paper, wrestled incessantly with this primary attribute of the medium. If he wrote with pencil or pen, then he had to erase or scratch out his mistakes; if he typed, then he either had to retype or use some correcting tool. The path between impulse and inscription was made thornier by the knowledge that errors meant having to retrace steps and do more work. The writer was more likely to test the phrasing on the ear, to edit mentally before committing to the paper. The underlying momentum was toward the right, irrevocable expression.

This ever-present awareness of fixity, of indelibility, is no longer so pressing a part of the writer's daily struggle. That is, the writing technology no longer enforces it. Words now arrive onto the screen under the aspect of provisionality. They can be transferred with a stroke or deleted altogether. And when they are deleted it is as if they had never been. There is no physical reminder of the wrong turn, the failure. At a very fundamental and obvious level, the consequentiality of bringing forth language has been altered. Where the limitations of the medium once encouraged a very practical resistance to the spewing out of the unformulated expression, that responsibility has now passed to the writer. (page 157 in the 2007 paperback edition)

Both posts are vintage if:book--complex and erudite, yet engagingly conversational. I also think they do a great job balancing their forward-thinking thirst for change with a healthy skepticism, not to mention a firm grounding in literary history. They're excited about the new, but not shocked by it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Inside the Writer's Studio

When thinking about electronic literature and digital culture, it's easy to start feeling untethered from the real, physical world. You can do so much of your reporting from behind your laptop screen--you really have to work to get out there, to meet people, to see and record things.

Text, after all, has an element that is completely abstract and non-corporeal. (Until it's set down as writing or printing.) But people, at the very least, still live in real, tangible, physical spaces and are formed by specific environments. I've been thinking a lot about this notion of physicality vs. virtuality as I prepare to (hopefully) profile some artists working with digital text.

Given all that, I was totally charmed to come across this feature from the Guardian called "Writers' Rooms," which shows the desks and offices of famous (non-digital) writers. Here's Martin Amis's office, for example, above.

If you've read Rob Boynton's book The New New Journalism, you'll know that the most fascinating parts of the interviews--if you're a writer yourself--are when Boynton asks tthem what kind of pens they use, where they like to position their desk lamps, and what kind of notebooks they like to carry in their pockets. A friend of mine likes to call that part "journalist porn," and I totally agree.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

What is electronic literature?

On Friday, I met up with Dan Shiffman, an "associate teacher" at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. (ITP is a division of Tisch, the arts school, that pursues all kinds of fascinating work in digital communication and interactive design.) While flipping through Dan's syllabus for "Programming A to Z," I found "What is Electronic Literature?", a highly useful writeup by Brian Kim Stefans, an internet artist, digital poet, and former instructor at Brown.

Stefans defines electronic literature as "any form of writing that takes advantage of the possibilities afforded by digital technology" as well as, more loosely, forms of writing that are inspired or "informed by digital technology." (I think he means structurally and formally more than thematically--does William Gibson fall under this umbrella? Unclear.) He then offers a list of (admittedly porous) categories that fall under this genre.

Check it out--it offers a good intro to a fascinating artistic field.

(the image is Daniel Howe's piece, "Text Curtain")

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Traditional publishers are giving away the cows

The tech-centric O'Reilly Media is currently hosting its second annual Tools for Change for Publishing conference here in New York. Sadly, even the reduced student fee was way out of my price league--but luckily, the proceedings are sure to be covered ad infinitum on the blogosphere.

There's already news trickling out about some interesting digital experiments being undertaken by traditional publishing houses:

** Tor, the venerable sci-fi/fantasy imprint from Macmillan, is starting a digital book-of-the-week club: If you sign up, you'll get occasional newsletters and a free e-book every week.

** Megapublisher HarperCollins is also giving it away for free: They're currently offering full online access to five titles as part of a program they're calling "Full Access." One of these books is The Witch of Portobello, by Paulo Coelho, author of the omnipresent The Alchemist. Coelho is actually participating in a year-long pilot program with HC, in which they'll offer online access to a new Coelho book every month. Neil Gaiman, author of the awesome Sandman comic book series, is also going to be offering free access to one of his (presumably prose) books--you can vote for which one you'd like to see on his blog. (Motoko Rich wrote about the announcement in yesterday's New York Times.)

** Random House is experimenting with an iTunes-esque model--selling single chapters of a book online for $2.99 a pop. Right now they're only offering this on one title: MADE TO STICK: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath. If you buy a chapter, they throw in the intro and index for free.

The publishing industry--like all media industries--needs to find new models of distribution and monetization that suit today's digital marketplace. Luckily, publishing isn't in quite the same sinking boat as the music, TV, or film industry. Online book piracy isn't really much of an issue (until someone manages to invent a super-fast, automatic book scanner). But publishing is an industry--like newspapers and periodicals--that's continuously sounding its own death knells, so it's good to see them experimenting, even if they're doing so relatively cautiously.