Can you tell me how if:book [the UK division of the Institute] came into being?
The Institute was set up in America by Bob Stein, a digital guru who has been in digital publishing since the cd-rom days. He was exploring a topic which wasn’t really much talked about back in 2007. I’d been running Booktrust, which was a relatively conventional books and reading organisation, and I was leaving. I’d been doing an MA in Creative Writing and New Media when Bob invited me to become co-director at the Institute, which is really – and this is his definition which we adopted – a think and do tank, exploring the future of the book as our culture moves from the printed page to the networked screen. The book is a container of culture which we’ve used for a few hundred years, and now times are changing. I realised that all that time I’d been running The Poetry Society and Booktrust, people had been getting more passionate about the wonder of books, but it was the laptop now that we carry our culture around in. Anyway, we set up if:book in the UK, and there’s now an if:book in Australia and if:lire in Paris as well, all doing different mixtures of thinking and doing.
They’re independent of The Future of the Book?
Yes, we’re informally affiliated. And now the whole world is talking about the future of the book – but it’s become a debate about the survival of publishers. What’s unique about if:book UK is that the industry is not our starting point. My work has always been about opening up free access to reading and writing through libraries, through community publishing, through all sorts of means. I’ve still got that first sense that digital just allows us to do what we’ve always wanted to do: set the word free.
Are larger organisations just slower to react?
I think the changes threaten all sorts of industries and entities. I saw ‘The Artist’ recently – a film about how a new technology disrupts all sorts of people’s jobs. When you look back, some of the changes are simply progress, and the things that are lost aren’t what we worried about losing at the time.
So often it’s a passion for the artefact rather than the content?
Yeah, and I think that’s a complete red herring. It’s like thinking the sandwich is the wrapper it comes in. Meanwhile the book-loving lobby is dangerously ill-equipped to describe what really matters about literature when it appears on a computer screen.
It’s about the words, not the box they come in?
It’s the words themselves, and also the attention that we give them and the space that we create around them. Now we’re taking the wrapper off the book, and in a thrilling way we’re learning how we engage with ideas and how we put them together in our heads and our lives and across different platforms, not just computers, but between this conversation and what I read on the bus going home, and what I read on TV, and who I talk to after that.
Someone mentioned at [The Society of Young Publishers’ conference at Oxford Brookes] that with the rise of the ereader, sales of pulp fiction, of romance and so on, have rocketed — perhaps because people don’t feel as if they can be judged while they’re reading on the Tube.
That’s very interesting. Years ago when I worked for Sheffield Libraries we ran a festival called ‘Opening the Book’. We talked then about how everyone was embarrassed about what they were reading; if you were caught reading Ulysses on the bus you’d look pretentious, and if you’re reading a Mills & Boon people would think you shallow. The Kindle makes it easier to read crappier books than you think you ought to, but there are plenty of examples of people who were too embarrassed to read ‘serious’ literature. I met a guy who used to be engaged with philosophy chat rooms when he was 12; the anonymity of the web liberates people to be more intelligent than people expect them to be – and of course sometimes less.
It’s a chance to break away from book snobbery?
Yes. And readers enthuse about the private reading experience you have in your head, your free choice to read whatever you like, to select individually; yet on the other hand, book groups are very fashionable and they’ve made books a social experience. It’s time to think about what we really want from reading, to clear away our habits and go back to the basics.
Does much of this change manifest for the mainstream author?
It’s threatening to published authors, but there’s so much to be gained. Now we’re all ‘amplified authors’ and the publisher is no longer essential. Until recently to get your words read by as many people as possible you had to get them typed out and reproduced mechanically by an organisation, and then sold in bookshops. Well, we no longer need that. I can write something today, put it on a blog for free, tell people about it via social media. I think that’s good, as long as you’re not a publisher. It’s a much more natural way to structure cultural conversation.
What do you think about the role of the publishers as gatekeepers, as the people who are finding all the good stuff?
Yes, we need a means to find the best writing, we need people to help us write better and improve its quality: absolutely. But there are such different ways of searching these days, and there are plenty of people out there saying, ‘this is what I like’. Word-of-mouth has always been a very strong way of finding books anyway. The ‘trusted brand’ has a role, but trust can come and go quickly. There are lots of services needed by writers: people to design and promote and edit and collaborate in different ways, but I wouldn’t assume that print publishers are the best placed to provide these.
And this was triggered by a shift away from the paper book?
I’m in my 50s and I’ve lived in a multimedia world all my life. TV, films and music have surrounded me, and yet the idea survived that the book world was where true knowledge lay. Digital change has triggered an overdue exploration of the experience of literature and where it fits in our lives.
So it’s been accelerated by the transition rather than started by it.
And it’s also made it possible to think about creating forms of cultural exchange which fit the way we operate today. Instead of saying ‘what about that thing we used to do?’ we should be asking, ‘what are you most passionate about? What do you want to get across? What do you want to find?’ Let’s use the available tools to do what we want.
Short stories have traditionally been a loss leader for the mainstream publishers, but with the advent of the ebook they have become a lot more popular, seemingly just because they are more readily available. Any idea why this might be?
I was at Booktrust when we took on the campaign for the short story. It was very interesting looking at the research. In Africa, short stories are very popular; they’re the main form of fiction, published in newspapers, whereas here they’re more ‘niche’ than the novel and mostly authors don’t publish collections unless they’ve got a really strong reputation already. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens next, what forms thrive and which ones – well, nothing really disappears – which ones take on a new role. There are benefits to brevity. There’s no need to pad something out to 150 pages unnecessarily; and it’s easier to sell a short shot. So short fiction I reckon is in a really good position.
Everything competes on a more level playing field in digital space?
Everything just becomes stuff. YouTube clips are YouTube clips. You can find yourself looking at completely different genres without even knowing you’ve moved from opera to romance, from porn to education. They’re just things you find yourself looking at. And that’s amazing for art forms that were frightening for a lot of people. [The London poet] Benjamin Zephaniah tells a great story about how in the 80s a friend of his was coming back from a poetry reading. He got stopped by the police and asked where he’d been. He said, ‘oh, a poetry reading’, and was arrested immediately. It was unimaginable to the cops that a young black guy would go to see a poetry reading. Now anyone could find themselves clicking on a link to a Benjamin Zephaniah poem. It’s a bit like being able to read without other people seeing the cover of the book. There’s no longer this issue about getting access. The next issue is what stimulates us to give it a bit of attention and find out more about it, to realise that this is not just a funny viral video, it comes from some kind of cultural root or has a political edge to it. That’s the big new question, isn’t it: how do you find your way, or lead people through what’s available, in a way that’s creative and developmental?
There’s a lot to think about.
Yeah, but in a lot of ways, some of the organisations I’ve been involved in – the gatekeepers who have been trying to open up the gates – well the gates aren’t there any more! [Laughs] Now it’s their job to say, ‘hey, look at this; this really matters’.
You’ll be glad to know I have a question which you probably get in all the three minute interviews.
Oh, good! [Laughter]
Will we still be reading paper books in ten years?
This one does tend to crop up…
You’re welcome to give your stock answer.
It’s become clear – even since last Christmas – that we’re going to be buying most of our books online and for devices in the near future. I hope we will also be bringing our reading attention to interesting things we wouldn’t even define as books. The app is a very interesting new development because it’s a chunk of digital content that’s shaped very specifically; it’s authored.
Can all this technology distract us from what really matters?
Well, if it does we need to demand more from technology: devices that help us focus on the things that count.
Do you think these changes might drive publishers to publish better quality paper books? I have a lovely clothbound edition of Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs, for example, and it was only a little more expensive than a run-of-the-mill paperback.
Absolutely, and if you go to a forward-looking bookshop, it’s full of those books, and not necessarily expensive ones, just nice objects. But I think it’s more important that we lose that obsession with the object. We can find different things to put on our shelves to show that we’re intelligent. We really can.
I first came across if:book through the Unlibrary – can you tell me a little about that?
Well, I was using the term ‘unlibrary’ in talks, saying that when we have our library with us all the time, we still need somewhere to take it, to share it with others and get into another frame of mind. And then how can we make these typical places better as places to bring people together to interact with each other. I met a woman called Anke Holst who does digital networking in Crouch End where I live, and through her we approached the library and we got a room there. The key thing was having free WiFi and then on the empty shelves we let people create profiles for themselves; essentially assemblages of words and pictures plus a contact twitter name or email address, a space to describe what you are studying, reading or writing; to advertise yourself if you want or just to share what’s on your mind. Then we just saw what kind of community grew up around that space. It’s now become the if:book café – we’ve taken over the café space – partly because they wanted the room to hire out to someone else, and partly because the café has a till in it, so that while anyone can sit in there and think and read, we can also sell things, from coffee to new kinds of literature happenings.
And Tunnock’s Teacakes!
That was the clincher. [Laughter]
Community members can make work together, can collaborate as well as sit alone writing. We’re bringing together people with different skills that you might need when creating digital literature things.
Are these generally local people?
Yeah, but the great thing is that when you communicate via Twitter, you suddenly find out you’re talking to someone in Seattle, or Africa, so there’s a normal conversation that can carry on across all sorts of boundaries. It’s not just local in the sense that it’s only for the kind of people who want to hang about in libraries and identify as local. I think online it’s much easier to have something that connects a much wider community. Andrea Levy lives nearby, and she’s a friend of the if:book café just as much as someone who comes in everyday to keep warm.
So you have a few projects on the go!
Creating a publishing studio based there is what we want to do; to build a structure for doing a number of different projects, some with schools and some with general readers, some collaboratively written and some written by one person with lots of contributions from readers. But to do that in a way that has a recognisable format. At the if:book café we’ve got a song-writing workshop and a Schopenhauer study circle, so a group that creates and one that thinks hard together. Next I would really love to do a project about all these issues to do with localism and the Big Society – a sort of anarchistic self-help guide, tactics on how to make good things happen locally in the face of the Government’s message that ‘there’s no bloody money so sod off and do it yourself’.