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Digitial big bang: a brave new world for writers

The digital big bang is neither a good thing, a bad thing but neither is it neutral, agreed panellists Marc Fennell, Antony Funnell and Stephen Sewell.

The way Sewell described it, we’re looking at a revolution. Pillars of our economy, our arts and our society are crashing down around us. We cannot possibly know what might be left when the smoke clears. An oppressive online environment controlled by large corporations, or a great freedom and deregulation with all the advances and the dangers that might encompass. Fennell thought it was most likely we’d end up somewhere in between.

Funnell agreed with the sentiments of revolution. He described the digital big bang as an evaporation of everything we understand about writers, books and publishing. We are standing on the edge. Exhausted as we might feel by the constant digital expansion, we’ve barely dipped our toes in the water.

Dickens’ words “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” captures perfectly the digital revolution. Sewell fantasises about being author to a kind of Alice in Wonderland story. Readers would just leap into a hatch and could go wherever they pleased within the written world. On the flipside, the internet brings new debates about censorship and copyright, it brings trolls onto the scene and it takes some of the legitimacy away from ‘published’ books.

With so much choice, the panel wondered, how can we know what is worth reading? Publishers have performed that function: will we eventually need to trawl through masses of unsolicited works to find the diamond in the rough? A publisher brings a critical eye and editorial ability to a manuscript. Without them, authors risk self-publishing inferior work or they will be forced to hire an editor privately. Potentially a very profitable decision, Fennell thought – IF the book proves successful.

At a session yesterday, I heard about how the success of 50 Shades of Grey has caused publishers to start wildly publishing erotic fiction hoping to capitalise on E. L James’ success. The same thing happened following the hysteria over Twilight. With the economic climate turned against publishers, there is a risk that excellent writing will be left on the reject pile because it fails to fit the sellable mould.

Digital publishing risks the intensification of the shrinking literary variety. Publishers can receive feedback through our e-readers on what we’re reading, how quickly we do it, what we highlight and how often we return to it. In the same way the advertisements you see online are tailored to your search history, we may see publishers tailor their commissioning of new work to suit the style that our data says sells well.

To be an author online is to open yourself to criticism; you need to be prepared for that sort of audience interaction. Fennell spoke about his The Movie Book, the subject of at least three blogs. He is used to his work being discussed online (his advice is to never Google yourself). Fennell however felt that his work was skewed for audience interaction, and the way people reach out to do that is online. As a movie critic, his role he felt is in starting a conversation which the audience finishes. Maybe that’s the future for all writing. Writers stepping out of the ivory tower and into the throng.

Emily Handley is a Southern Cross University media student.

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