The (Digital) Education of Henry Adams
Visit a few writing communities across the country or on the web, and you’ll find they have a lot in common: namely, they’re attended by writers who are nothing short of desperate to understand the transformation that technology has forced upon traditional publishing—and what it means for their aspirations to find an audience for their work.
I find this to be true no matter what city I’m in or what population I’m speaking to–from CUNY or NYU to Oklahoma or St Louis or Portland. I field the same questions, look out into the same bewildered faces, and shake the same eager hands wherever I go. The opportunities of the digital age are endless, but expertise rare, and the feeling of vertigo that many authors feel in the face of the digital shift is enough to freeze them into inaction, when the digital openings should be inspiring wonder and igniting productive creative lives.
The response to the recent Kindle Serials announcement surfaced some of this anxiety. The announcement described a feature that invites readers to interact with the story, saying what characters they like or don’t, what they hope will happen next, “influencing the path of the story.” While some writers found it inspiring, if the conversation on #litchat yesterday is representative, there are plenty of writers who see this as another technological development that is cause for concern, even panic.
What the writers I meet seem to need most is basic orientation. Writers are the best minds of their communities, but their allegiance to craft and their allergy to fads (virtues both!) mean they are often not the first movers when it comes to new technology. What they need is an introduction to the fundamentals of the publishing revolution, a simple map of the new media terrain, and the tools available for their use–they need this to continue doing their work of creating the narratives that help the rest of us order our lives.
Luckily, such education is happening. Grub Street in Boston, which offers probably the most impressive course catalog of any writing community in the country (160 courses this fall!), is piloting their LaunchLab this fall, an intensive program that equips authors to build a publicity and marketing program to support their books. Mike Shatzkin‘s growing conference offerings will include a new event in January that brings publishers, authors and agents together to discuss their joint work in selling books in a new mediascape. Dan Blank’s WeGrow Media, and others like him, are choosing to focus not on publicity services, but on author education around social media, audience development, and content strategy. A few forward-thinking MFA programs are adding select courses to provide their graduates with practical tools in producing and marketing digital content (I’ll be talking more about this on a panel at AWP in March).
What Grub and Shatzkin and Blank and many others are proposing is that one of the crafts writers now need to learn is the artisanal act of independent publishing and audience-building. It can be as much a part of their intentional work as good narrative construction and proper use of synecdoche. We’re in a world where hypertext will soon be the only kind of text that most people engage, and in that world, content and form can be easily separated. Authors are no longer producing content to fit inside the covers of a book. Authors and writing programs have done a marvelous job of teaching content, i.e., the structure and soul of narrative. We’re now seeing the addition of education of form, which is to say, the manner of that content’s representation in the public sphere, something that can now be overseen directly by the author.
(NB: Later this month, I’m partnering with Grub Street in offering a short course that accomplishes that kind of simple demystification + education + inspiration. Teaching the fundamental of digital publishing, from economics to technology to social engagement. It’s taking the form of a one day seminar, during which we’ll be playing with technology, talking economic models, and learning what it means for an author to think like a publisher. )