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
[ A new experiment in publishing: this entry can also be read on Medium.com, in a different form ]
Two weeks ago, I did something I would once have considered shameful, if not humiliating.
I published a book that could be mistaken, from the look of its opening pages, for something spat out and trampled on by a frothing Chihuahua.
I must explain that this book was researched under pressure, with criss-crossing train journeys in Switzerland in a hard winter. It was edited and checked for accuracy as obsessively as any text destined for ungentle scrutiny by an old print publisher, even though — for reasons I will explain later — I was launching an e-only version for an opener.
What I saw when I clicked on my book’s ‘Look Inside’ invitation, in its Amazon’s Kindle shop window, was a formatting disaster. The text was no longer paginated. The names of my dedicatees, honoured with their own page, were swimming into the table of contents, which was on the verge of a messy entanglement with the preface. Close to a week of wrestling with incompatible software, meticulously following formatting instructions, and here was my reward.
I downloaded the book onto my tablet. More formatting gone awry. The text that was my engine — the point of any book — was propelling a car with prima donna headlights blinking off or on when they felt like it. The simple, uncomplicated map of Switzerland I had laboured over converting from its original form was not squarely at the centre of its page, where I thought I’d put it, but mysteriously shrunken and stuck to the left margin, like a cringing apology.
Yes, Amazon will always be thanked from the bottom of my heart for boldly deploying new technologies to give us all a miracle — some means of letting trained and untrained writers publish without intermediaries. I am with all those who see this as an essential, soaring vault in cultural progress (a point I recently made on post-Gutenberg.com with indirect help from three highly accomplished writers, Carl Djerassi, Theo Padnos and Edward Lucas.)
But, oh dear! … What no one who hasn’t personally tried doing this knows is that the process can be as simple, and the results as reliable, as blogging with WordPress — as I have done for a few years. But it can also — commonly — be a perfectionist’s sweaty, sheet-drenching nightmare. Amazon’s indie publishers’ discussion forum gets a steady pounding from complaints and frantic pleas for help. Too many of these agonising visitors, on a typical day, are having trouble converting their manuscripts from Microsoft Word — the word processing programme that Amazon’s Kindle itself recommends as ideal for its site — into the Amazon software that assembles e-books. (Dear Amazon and Microsoft: both your nerve centres are in Seattle: surely you can do something to end the agony?)
It was from a conversation there that I discovered that the online ‘preview’ option — which is supposed to let you see how the book you are about to publish will appear to its audience — does not work as advertised. If it did, you would indeed be treated to knowing how your book will look on all Apple devices, including the iPhone, and Amazon’s own family of Kindle e-readers and tables.
Unfortunately, in famous techie shorthand, Amazon’s online ‘preview’ is not WYSIWYG — What You See is What You Get. It is WYSIWYM(ost certainly don’t get, but something else, depending on the software’s whim-of-the-day). Nothing on the book’s editing dashboard explains that this is why Kindle also lets you download an offline ‘preview’ tool, different software altogether that actually delivers on its promise.
After I clicked on ‘publish,’ the book that had looked perfect in the stripped-down, minimalist style of most e-books, was — in the description of one disappointed indie author after another — ‘a mess’.
What effect has this had on me? Mainly, it has led to a realisation I find mildly shocking — that if you use enough of the new tools for e-publishing, you gradually submit to a cultural reconditioning by — well, I may as well be frank: the aliens have got you. You begin to do your work the way techies do theirs.
For an explanation of what this entails — and why I find myself grumblingly going along with it — I have to thank the 2 December post on Medium.com by Esen Yogurtcu. All I know about him is that his arresting Turkish name goes with a description of himself as ‘entrepreneur, strategist and Zen enthusiast’ — yet he is already someone I’m unlikely to forget.
His contribution to my re-education by digital natives was a correction of conventional Silicon Valley wisdom: that the key to successful innovation is now, apparently, called the minimum viable product.
This is not quite like a car you think thrilling until its wheels fly off around the first corner, on your inaugural drive together — or the Apple core-software update that means that although your photographs acquire an even eerier laser-like precision, after you install it, you can no longer scroll through your iPad albums. The Wikipedia supplied the essential tutorial: an entrepreneur unleashing a new product rakes in the biggest profit by spending only as much as is absolutely necessary on design and testing, and lets the customers who most love trying out novelties — ‘able to grasp a product vision from an early prototype or marketing information’ — assist in making it work properly. Or, presumably, damn it to eternal obscurity with their reviews.
The Yogurtcu perspective is that minimum viable is not ambitious enough by half:
Focusing only on a viable product is like sending a robot to the Mars but not thinking about the atmospheric conditions. For a product to be successful … [it] … has to be viral.
I read that as meaning, spread the pain of undercooked, glitchy, infuriating products as far and as fast as possible — hoping that they offer enough attractions and benefits for compensation. The optimism might just prove justified.
So there you are. Ignorant as I am about the stratagems of marketing-Einsteins, because Amazon’s ‘preview’ offering is a fine example of a minimum viable product, I must repeat silently: ‘When in toolmakers’ Rome, …’ etc..
I must shut out the outraged little voice inside my head complaining that this is a cruel penance after my trouble over getting my manuscript right.
My conclusion, after a dozen-odd email exchanges with Amazon’s technical support staff, is that if I want the book to look the way it does in the Kindle preview, I will have to un-format my 30,000 words and start re-formatting them from scratch — the work of a long weekend—or pay someone else to do the job. There will be no map of Switzerland’s principal cities until then. Meanwhile, just like the patched-together, unripe software we have all been buying for years and patiently downloading new versions of repeatedly — until it lives up to its buzz — buyers of my e-book will receive refined and corrected versions of its layout and look-and-feel in forthcoming releases of it.
As if things weren’t confusing enough already, I must say this: even before I ran into my Amazon Kindle headaches, my book was designed to be published in parts — as a serial — like the newspaper serialisations of the novels of Charles Dickens and other eminent Victorians. Think of what he missed by being born 200 years too soon: Great Expectations, Book I, 1.1.2 … 1.1.3 … and so on, into digital nirvana.
But Dickens is the greatest novelist that ever lived. Why should my readers buy a book in serial form and pay homage to the Silicon Valley creed: launch fast and iterate?
Why did I choose serialisation at all?
I will do my best to explain in additions to this diary of a scribe crossing over from the print ‘mindset,’ as the tech-wizards say. The best short answer is the usual techie justification: for the chance to get something useful that either did not exist before, or was hard to come by. That, anyway, is my hope.
Published here and on Medium.com on 12 December 2014 by Cheryll Barron (CheryllBarronT)