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Literary Arts

Electric (book) dreams

The future of publishing


Published: 22 Dec 2021

Time taken : >15mins

Print is alive and kicking.

The pandemic, ironically, has shown us that much—providing a shot in the arm for the book trade.

Holed up at home during lockdowns, people have found solace in reading. Book sales have gone up: in September 2021, Publishers Weekly reported American publishers’ revenue rising up to 18% and bookstore sales jumping 30 per cent (“The Covid tailwinds are real,” HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray was quoted saying). Publishers are pushing out more new titles, while printers struggle to keep up in the wake of supply-chain disruptions. Meanwhile, writers, like everyone else, have fewer social engagements—freeing them up to sit at their desks to eke out ever more lines.

Over the past few years, notes Australian publisher Karen Mc Dermott, print has overtaken digital delivery. Some readers even buy both print and digital versions of a book they love. “The easy access to electronic platforms services the demand for instant content, but print is holding up, likely because of the experience that accompanies reading a physical book,” she wrote in Forbes.com earlier this year.

So what does this all augur for the future of the book? And what role will the digital continue to play in publishing? A look at some possibilities (and fantasies):

The return of the e-mail newsletter

In July 2000, horrormeister Stephen King began releasing a novel in instalments on the Internet. The Plant—about a house plant that demanded human sacrifice—was issued as an experiment: King asked readers to voluntarily pay US$1 to $2 to download each chapter. He would keep writing if at least 75 per cent of readers honoured this system. “My friends,” he wrote on his website at the time, “We have the chance to become Big Publishing’s worst nightmare.”

Five months and six chapters later, King announced that The Plant was going back into hibernation. Sales had wilted after an initially enthusiastic reception: More than 120,000 copies of the first instalment was downloaded in its first week; by November, the latest instalment only shifted 40,000 e-copies, with only 46 per cent of readers paying. Reporting on King’s announcement, The New York Times went with the headline, “A Stephen King Online Horror Tale Turns Into a Mini-Disaster”.

On 18 Dec 2000, The Plant dropped its last (for now) chapter, while King focused on other projects. No new chapters have been added since.

Fast forward 21 years, and the serialised novel is being dusted off, with big names announcing that they’re joining the fray. What’s different this time, however, is that unlike King’s download-now-pay-if-you-want honour system, authors are getting behind digital newsletter platforms, which are operating in a quasi-publisher manner.

In September 2021, Salman Rushdie broke the news that he was going to make a go of it on Substack, a company which provides a digital platform for readers to subscribe directly to an author’s writing – either as newsletters or posts emailed to your inbox or read online, with options for mixing paid and free content. So far, Salman’s Sea of Stories comprises posts about Rushdie’s favourite encounters with other famous literary (male) authors (V.S. Naipaul, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Mario Vargas Llosa, Vaclav Havel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez); his thoughts on movies like No Time To Die, Dune and The French Dispatch; and a serialised novella titled The Seventh Wave.

Launched in 2017 and headquartered in San Francisco, Substack has in recent years courted promising and big-name writers with grants and advances. In March 2021, the company revealed its Substack Pro programme, which paid selected writers substantial fees to produce content, in return for a cut of their subscription revenue. Substack has been described as “operating in a grey area between publisher and platform”, for its providing of services such as support for editing, design and production, as well as a legal fund.

So far, those who have moved from mainstream publishing to Substack include film-maker Michael Moore, feminist writer and cultural critic Roxane Gay, tech journalist Casey Newton and former Forbes entertainment writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg. Author Chuck Palahniuk is serialising his 16th novel, Greener Pastures. Booker winner George Saunders has taken to the platform to dispense writing wisdom.

Substack, however, has its share of controversy. Recently, some writers have left in favour of more neutral pastures like Ghost, which bills itself as an “independent Substack alternative”, after becoming unhappy with Substack’s permitting the content of authors who spread right-wing and anti-trans rhetoric. Singapore activist-journalist Kirsten Han, who has previously received a Substack grant, has also publicly called for the company to be transparent about who they fund or cut deals with under their Pro programme. Still, the sector looks set to grow, with competing platforms springing up.

In January 2021, Twitter acquired Revue, an editorial newsletter service, which allows your followers to subscribe to your newsletter directly from your tweets. And the company formerly known as Facebook, now Meta, has Bulletin, its newsletter platform which went live in June with a roster of curated writers and content producers.

While serialised novels and newsletters are nothing new—past proponents range from Charles Dickens to Lena Dunham—platforms like Substack are levelling the playing field when it comes to starting, growing and monetising one’s direct reach to readers. Someone I know recently texted to casually say she was putting her blog posts on Substack to see who would pay to read them. An initial wade-through the offerings on the platform, ranging from perfume analysis to feminist K-pop essays, gave me ‘why not’ vibes about joining the fray.

No doubt, The Plant was two decades ahead of its time. Of this writing, there’s no sign of Stephen King on Substack or a new green shoot of that novel yet.

Books and AI

Artificial Intelligence (AI) software crunching out news stories and avant-garde poetry has come to pass, but robots generating novels at the speed of light may take a while. At least, that’s what human wordsmiths can tell themselves when they encounter the occasional nonsensical chatbot and its gaffes.

That said, AI has been playing a greater role on the periphery of marketing and producing literature.

Penguin Random House, for example, has been using AI since 2019 to crunch metadata and analyse reader behaviour online in order to personalise book recommendations to customers, make their titles appear higher in search results and stock them in the right quantities at the right places. And a company called Storyfit promises to analyse an author’s entire back catalogue or latest release for keywords, to “optimize [sic] book listings for better traffic and sales, target niche audiences… and more”.

A May 2021 article in Fortune.com outlined ways in which publishers are exploring and innovating with tech, including having covers embedded with augmented reality elements (dragons flying around the bookstore, anyone?) and using AI-generated voices for audiobooks. Two companies, London-established DeepZen.io and Siberia’s Speechki, are a couple of older players in the AI-voicing or text-to-speech field. And, as opposed to the thousands of dollars invested in each traditional audiobook title, they promise to produce an average audiobook—around 50,000 words—with convincingly human and emotive voices for as little as US$500.

Companies are also looking into creating choose-your-own-adventure stories for kids that work with Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home devices. Last Halloween, for example, audio experience studio Earplay and tabletop roleplaying game developer White Wolf jointly released The Orpheus Device under the World of Darkness series, a free-to-play audio narrative which basically turned Alexa and Google Home into haunted house guides, allowing users to talk to ‘ghosts’.

French publisher Hachette Livre is reportedly testing using AI to personalise and adjust plots for individual readers, based on data taken from their smartphones such as photo tags and location; as well as books that can entertain in new ways when self-driving cars become default reality. A narrative, one speculates, might be informed or shaped by the landscape one is being driven throughor plot twists and conflict can erupt based on coming into proximity with readers in other cars. Imagine lifting one’s eyes from the page to meet a stranger’s in another vehicle at the traffic lights, and somehow experiencing the shock of recognition that you both have been inhabiting the same literary world.

Early this year, Singapore-based digital storytelling studio Tusitala Books began researching a project that makes use of Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 mixed reality (MR) glasses: a panoramic, 170m-long illustration conceived as a canvas for multiple artists to tell their individual MR stories. Part of the National Arts Council’s inaugural Arts x Tech Lab aimed at fostering collaboration between the arts and tech sectors, Tusitala’s project is currently in the prototype stage.

“The idea began with us considering how MR can be used in history museums,” says Tusitala’s publisher Christine Chong, “then thinking about how MR […] could parallel the notion that history is not just one narrative, but multiple, sometimes competing, narratives occupying the same physical space.”

She adds that the studio’s wish list of projects include playing with Charisma AI, a platform for creating interactive stories with believable virtual characters; a poetry-critique audio walk, and a group-storytelling experience with sound mixing and projection mapping.

A big part of what motivates us is getting past the idea that reading is boring.

Christine Chong, Tusitala Books

“A big part of what motivates us is getting past the idea that reading is boring,” says Chong. “Almost all of our projects are centered around the text in full.” Although many of their projects are very visual, she says, the team designs them to consciously draw attention to words themselves.

For instance, a recent project for the Singapore Heritage Festival, Local Flavours, billed as “a fun, poetic twist on food delivery sites”, lets readers tarpow (takeaway) Singapore food poems by sending them to your inbox. The interface, says the publisher, forces users to slow down. One has to tap to progress stanza by stanza, and cannot skip straight to the illustrations.

Bite-sized digital stories

Flash fiction, micro fiction, nano fiction: the short-short writing genre has always been both pushed and pulled by perceptions of dwindling audience attention over the ages. But bite-sized fiction has really come into its own in the era of the ubiquitous smartphone and tablet.

It remains a key trend moving forward, particularly as more platforms sprout, devoted to delivering stories that can be devoured onscreen on the go. Amazon launched its Kindle Vella platform in July 2021, with a bank of stories ranging from 600 to 5,000 words per episode. Readers purchase tokens to unlock subsequent episodes after trying out initial storylines. Similar platforms include Radish and Chapters.

Meanwhile, Toronto-based Wattpad, founded in 2006 and which now has more than 90 million monthly users, was acquired by South Korea’s Naver this year. Naver owns Webtoon, the largest digital publisher in the world, and the merger gives them enormous reach in the social story-telling and comics sphere online. The plan is to leverage on Wattpad and Webtoon’s combined intellectual property, to put out cross-media content, said Wattpad co-founder Allen Lau.

“Not only do we have the fan bases it’s data driven,” Lau told TechCrunch in May. “When we adapt from the fiction on our platform to a movie, we can tell the screenwriter, ‘Keep chapter one, chapter five and chapter seven, but in seven only the first two paragraphs,’ because that’s what the 200,000 comments are telling us. That’s what our machine learning story DNA technology can tell you: Where are they excited? This is something unprecedented.”

In other words, not only will many books delivered online in future be bite-sized, they will also have all the ingredients that will keep you devouring them.

Tusitala Books’ The Serial Short Story Project co-presented with The Arts House over Sept 2020 and March 2021 was an experiment involving two crowdsourced collaborative serial fiction works with writers Suffian Hakim and Xie Shi Min. Through livestreaming and upvoting, the writers discussed plot and character with readers, incorporating the latter’s feedback to come up with a short story each.

“We definitely learnt a few new skills, such as moderating and facilitating livestreaming and upvoting sessions for each episode,” says Chong. “Episodic stories seem to be gaining traction with younger readers, so I think another edition targeted at them might be interesting.”

The finished stories were pitched to Audible, whichwhile unsuccessfulled to Tusitala collaborating with Xie on another work that has been accepted into the American audio book and podcast service’s Audible Accelerator Singapore programme.

NFT e-books and the Metaverse

With Non-Fungible Token (NFT) art and merchandise being the latest bandwagon many are jumping on, the time might come when e-books might take on some version of this digital ledger form. Perhaps e-books might evolve simultaneously backwards and forwards, into beautiful and labour-intensive illuminated manuscripts or limited edition folios that are then digitised and sold off as part of a blockchain. Perhaps an author might write a story meant for an exclusive audience, and people would pay to literally own a part of the story.

The Metaverse—yet another buzzword—might also change the way books are presented, traded and experienced. Perhaps there are books that you can only buy in an online virtual environment; that you can only read while in the form of your 3D avatar. High-tech invisible ink and a combination of machine-learning that can decode these papers would render them unreadable in the real world, should you track down a physical copy.

Remember when reading a good book would make you anticipate the movie/TV adaptation, after viewing which you would then buy the Original Soundtrack? How about a future in which K-pop conglomerates, having invested in subsidiaries churning out tech innovation and intellectual property, would release songs by international boybands that would send fans flocking to the Metaverse for narratives, bite-sized serialised fan fiction and other experiences?

Such transmedia shifts are already increasingly common. Tusitala’s Chong hopes that books will become more integrated with other forms of media, pointing to The Boy in the Book—self-described as “an interactive true story in 10 chapters”, “part film, part game, part memoir”—a choose-your-own-adventure experience centred on choose-your-own-adventure stories. It has taken the form of an actual book (published by Headline in 2014), live performances/a documentary, and a free-to-play online narrative with hundreds of thousands of endings (2020).

Maybe, says Chong, books in the future will be “some version of Harry Potter’s Daily Prophet”, referring to the wizarding series’ newspaper with magical elements such as moving photos.

Or, she says, “it would be really cool to have some super AI Babel fish that can translate one’s complex thoughts, visceral feelings, and physiological responses into a literary representation of that experience.”

Contributed by:

Clara Chow

Clara Chow is writer and publisher at Hermit Press. Her latest book, a short story collection, Not Great, But At Least Something, is decidedly low-tech.

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