H A P P Y C H R I S T M A S
H A P P Y C H R I S T M A S
7 reasons why indie publishing is the right choice for a travel book on Switzerland and its curious culture of extreme equality
Practically no one knows that the Swiss are the world champions at working collaboratively – in ways that go far beyond the ‘extreme democracy’ by which they rule themselves. This matters because so many of us would like to see the egalitarian feeling of this internet translated into workplaces restructured to flatten hierarchies, and because inequality is the supreme flashpoint in public debate, today.
Like most educated – and even over-educated – people, book publishers in the English-speaking world share a clichéd, hopelessly mistaken view of Switzerland as no more than an abettor of tax-dodgers and holiday destination for fat-cats on skis. Practically no one outside the German-speaking sphere learns any Swiss history in school. Switzerland is effectively awarded only non-speaking walk-on parts in history textbooks. Institutions such as the Centre for Swiss Politics at the University of Kent have had to be created in attempts to fill the void in higher education and research.
Preliminary conversations with publishers and literary agents made it clear that writing and submitting a book proposal to them would be pointless. The book I envisioned would have to be written without their help to show them exactly why Switzerland deserved it.
I compared my impressions of publishers’ prejudices about Switzerland as a subject with the experiences of other writers – most helpfully, in a conversation with Diccon Bewes, whose elegant Swiss Watching, de-mystifying his second home for fellow-expatriates, deserves its huge success (for reasons explained in an earlier entry on post-Gutenberg.com). In looking for a publisher, he had the advantage of being a graduate of the London School of Economics working at the time as the manager of Stauffacher’s, the most popular English-language bookshop in Bern. But even he had to put up with the lazy response, over and over again, that I got from a literary agent in Oxford – that Switzerland is ‘too small and boring’ to merit attention. Anyone intellectually curious could have read Jonathan Steinberg’s riveting Why Switzerland? (1996) to be cured of that delusion. But many publishers are suffering – too lost and confused in this transition to digital media to have the mental energy to challenge their preconceptions.
There is a huge appetite, now, for exploring practical egalitarianism. The German head of a small, respected literary publisher of English books referred me to her editor-in-chief, when I asked if she would be interested in a look at my work-in-progress. The reply from this colleague was friendly and encouraging, but warned that months could go by before she got to any manuscript pages sent to her for vetting, when I was ready. This is still a typical editor’s sense of time, in print publishing.
That same editor-in-chief told me that if I were to experiment with publishing the first section of my book as Part 1 of an e-serial, I’d be ruling it out for consideration by her firm. That convinced me that serialisation was the right route for me – and, lo! … last Sunday’s New York Times quoted several writers with proven money-making instincts who are also switching over to publishing their books in parts.
Also in that New York Times article is the wittiest, most incisive explanation of why writers should resist ceding control of our work to publishers in the old-fashioned way (barring exceptional circumstances — and publishers). It is in a quotation of Holly Ward – whose words instantly conjured an image of a fellow-pedestrian playing girl-Viking whom I met, fleetingly, in Olten, in my research on Enemies: a cash-strapped traveller’s search for the secret of Switzerland’s extreme equality:
“The only person I truly trust with my career is me,” she said. “If you hand over your work, it’s like dropping your baby in a box and kicking him to the curb. Maybe he’ll grow up and be awesome — or maybe he’ll get sucked into the sewers and be raised by rats.”
Published here and on Medium.com by Cheryll Barron, 1 January 2015
A writer who isn’t personally negotiating the transition from print to digital publishing has no idea of the dimensions of its strangeness. Nor does almost anyone else. Last week, I described the experience — to expensively educated non-writers — as travelling in a car you have had to design yourself, from guesswork. But that isn’t all. It is a car that you must keep re-building on your journey — from glitchy, off-the-shelf components.
Nothing in the set of tools you use is stable. Already, some digital tools that print people still think of as new are being spoken of as nearly obsolete. Cognoscenti of the likes of the financial journalist Felix Salmon are saying, in online conversations: ‘[Y]ou and I still spend … time clicking links on computers. But a whole new generation is growing up which doesn’t use computers and web browsers nearly as much.’
In this screaming blizzard of change and experimentation, for those of us working online, a travel writer is apt to wonder — what would the genre’s legendary practitioners have done? Would Wilfred Thesiger, Freya Stark, Rebecca West, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron, V.S. Naipaul or Paul Theroux have interwoven paragraphs and pictures – using photographs they took on their journeys – if this had been easy to do?
I have a hunch that the last four authors on that list, who are still alive, would strongly advise against doing so. In writing an account of a journey for anything but go-see tourist guides, you are creating a sequence of images that has to come alive in a reader’s head. This happens as your reader interprets your words, combining her or his own imaginative visualisations and personal memories. With concentration, these become more vivid. When a text is visually rich, images add colour and feeling to acquiring information, and being amused, intrigued, saddened, and so on, by language. Surely, adding photographs would mean not merely distraction from — but derailing — deepening engagement?
We know that we use different parts of our brains to look at pictures and read. Would forcing more frequent switching between them be desirable?
I typed questions from this stream of dilemmas into Google. Almost the first page to come up was on a meditative, beautiful site — Vertigo, whose special interest is in the works of W.G. Sebald, an intriguing, idiosyncratic German novelist – emphatically modernist and experimental, who died in 2001. He made a habit of inserting black-and-white photographs – many of them mysterious and blurry – into work that was ‘part hybrid fiction, part memoir and part travelogue.’ The Vertigo blogger, Terry Pitts, posted this excerpt from a commentary on Sebald by Ivan Vladislavić (The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, Seagull Books, 2012):
The most compelling motive for including a photograph in a fiction is to discount it. … In Sebald, the images are cut down to size and drained of authority. … Their purpose is less to define than to disrupt, to create ripples and falls in the beguiling flow of the prose. They are pebbles and weirs.
But then, haven’t we all got used to unreliable, nonlinear narratives that undermine themselves – storytelling conditioned by the cinema’s jump cuts, splicing and scrambling of time and space? Borrowing these techniques has become unremarkable in prose, both fiction and nonfiction.
The only answer I could think of, in the end, was to yield to instinct. I decided that it would be best to publish my book as just a text, and the pictures separately, online. I chose a site that turned one, on its birthday earlier this month, to display them – Exposure.co, part of the Elepath group in San Francisco – almost on my first visit there. Its bold minimalist layout and other design choices, including generous expanses of white space, were instantly addictive. After days of witlessly typing variations of search terms like ‘blogging plus photography’ or ‘text plus pictures site,’ into search engines, there was suddenly a mention in The Verge of this gathering place for people with a special interest in photography.
One of Exposure’s two co-founders, Kyle Bragger, has explained that it grew out of the obsession of the other, Luke Beard: ‘A talented amateur photographer, he’s been wanting a way to build beautiful photo narratives for literally years.’
Though this venture has a social media dimension, I have – so far, in about six weeks – picked up no hint of cliquishness or coercion. It feels like a sandbox, genuinely open to all. Its subscription fees – for publishing on the site, not looking — start at less than I pay for a barista coffee and will, with luck, mean that its founders can keep their promise not to use hawking information about their users as their economic survival plan.
Do have a look – and buy the book at its throwaway price. Then — and this is most important of all — please improve on what I’ve tried to do with your own multimedia experiment. That shouldn’t be too hard.
Published here and on Medium.com,18 December 2014, Cheryll Barron