Monday 21 August 2006

Why competition from the internet means children’s writers must get web savvy

My 15-year-old son read three novels last week. Perhaps no mean feat for some, but it sure gave me a warm feeling inside. Normally, the boy would rather be downloading iTunes than flicking through a wedge of bound paper.

What made this reading binge possible? We had no internet access while on holiday in a remote part of Ireland.

Comes the headline ‘Book sales a page turner’ in the Daily Telegraph:
Despite ever greater competition from television, the internet and iPods for people’s free time, book publishers are enjoying a resurgence in British sales.

Stephen Seawright
The Telegraph, 11 Aug 2006
It was a report on strong results for UK publishers, improvements that hopefully signal a recovery in the depressed book market. Cause for celebration? Oh yes, especially for us unpublished writers desperate for a break. But wait – it was not all good news.

Ofcom reported last week that young people (16 to 24 years old) were forsaking old media (books, landline telephones, TV, radio) in favour of a multitude of new technologies. You can read the relevant part of the Ofcom report under section 1.2.2 ‘Young people are moving away from old media’.

Broadband has been key to this sharp change of allegiance – with the number of connections increasing by a humongous 63 percent and the price of broadband falling from £41 a month to as little as £16 a month.

The Ofcom report only describes 16 to 24-year-old media use but we are all painfully aware of how precocious the younger members of this tribe can be. Know your reader, they say in all the How To books on getting published and writing for children. Well, for goodness sake, according to Ofcom, the kids are even switching off the TV – reading’s traditional rival – to get online!

Are writers for children losing their readers to the internet?

Know Your Enemy

Well, do you? Do you know why the internet is such a turn-on for kids? Or do you shuffle into a dark corner and mutter about the youf and bloody new technology? Do you mourn the days when it was enough to take a pen to paper?

But there is no time to moan.

The longer we delay, the further we will be left behind by the internet juggernaut that even now is evolving into something bigger and more pervasive than we ever could have imagined.

You only have to look at a few authors’ websites to figure it out. Most are merely flyers about the authors’ work or, worse, CVs that might as well be on a printed page for all the interactivity they offer. And sadly, a few are only out to impress their mothers, close friends and former associates looking them up on Google.

Now look at what our market is into. You may think you know Ebay and Amazon. The teenagers we write for are into blogging, Flickr, Friendster, Technorati,, wikis, podcasting, YouTube. No time to explain here what these sites are all about except to say it’s all about social networking. Their Web is not just about Google, email and newsgroup discussions, it’s about sharing not just words but images, sounds, videos and authorware programmes. They are not only literate but transliterate.
The transliterate person has the ability to read, write, create and interact across multiple platforms. A simple example might be understanding the variations between reading the print edition of The Guardian newspaper, and reading the online edition - each have their own physicality and navigability, to name but two of many features worthy of discussion. Or the difference between communicating a sequence of events by drawing in the sand with a stick versus oral storytelling versus hypertext.
These are our readers. And when it comes to How to Use the Web they really get it. If you write for younger readers, don’t worry, they will get it too.

So you – we, all of us – writers need to get with the Web or lose out.

Get with it

“If email once eclipsed the letter, it now sits in the shadow of the social Web,” writes Daniel Anderson a teacher at the University of North Carolina in his blog I Am Dan.

Anderson, in a blog addressing teachers of writing and their students, makes the point that “writing can be a social act”, citing blogging as evidence of a significant shift in the way people are writing. He quotes Pew Report figures showing that 12 to 19 year olds blog more than twice as much as older bloggers.

“Writing is moving into social Web space. And Web writers compose with multimedia,” Anderson says, offering a list of suggestions about “what you need to know and what you need to do to write today”.
To write today you need to:
  • Conceptualize networks,

  • Find and move materials,

  • Make rights decisions.

  • Edit images,

  • Edit sounds,

  • Use a movie or authorware program,

  • Compose prose,

  • And what else?

    You need to spatialize the net. Understand computing metaphors, established (desktop, server) and alternative (bus stop, kitchen sink). Know about files and applications. Understand and shape your computing environment. Find archives and databases. Compose searches. Get into the public domain. Know not to be thwarted. Capture. Screen shot. Exercise your fair use. Make decisions. Give credit. Know about layers. Resize. Crop. Add text. Move among media. Compose with a timeline. Fade in. Say something. Shape it. Fade out.

    But how?

    Here's how the Telegraph report said publishers were responding:
    Despite the recovery in British sales, publishers still realise they need to adapt to the internet. Penguin is starting to provide e-books and podcasts to compete as more people move online. In a recent interview, Random House chief executive Gail Rebuck said she was looking forward to the day when she could read a variety of titles in one e-book.
    So these publishers seem to think readers want to read books on the screens of their PDAs or listen to them on their iPods. But I would argue that our readers want much, much more.

    The good news is that for once we can do something about this problem – unlike scary stuff over which we lowly authors have no control like sinking book sales, publishers not publishing new authors, accountants dictating publishing decisions.

    I recently blogged a report YA Voice: Slang and Teen Vernacular based on a workshop by YA author Scott Westerfeld. I was amazed to very quickly get comments from Scott’s readers and, checking out Scott’s blog, I found that he was getting up to a hundred comments a day from teenagers who had discovered his books.

    How did he get such a following? Well, apart from the excellence of his prose (I thought Uglies was great!) Scott really knows how to talk to his readers. He publishes their drawings, links to their websites and comments on their comments. It’s a wonder that he gets any writing done at all.

    I’m no expert but it’s all new territory anyway – so here are some ideas on how to get with the Web game, with thanks to Scott for showing the way:

  • Published or unpublished, you can practice talking to your audience through a blog. Check out Scott’s blog to see how he does it. Or try developing a character by putting all his thoughts in a blog. Here's Wilf's blog - wilf being a fictitious boy who admires Buzz Aldrin and loves inventions. Here's another fictional blog by Atyllah the Hen, a chicken with Attitude from the planet Novapulse, here (a la Mork of Mork and Mindy) to research the human condition. Or why not go the whole hog and blog your novel - that is, if you can bear to be critiqued in public!

  • If you are setting up a website, think interactive – can you update it regularly? Ask your designer about designing for a CMS – Content Management System – an example is Macromedia Contribute which claims you only need word processing skills to update your website. But the quick, cheap and easy way to set up a website you can update is to set up a blog (see Blogger)- it's not hard if you've got the bandwidth.

  • It’s the social networking that young people enjoy. If you’ve got a website already, is there a space for your readers to publish their own drawings, photos, comments? Here is a teen video collage homage to Scott’s Uglies book and Scott’s homage to their homage.

  • Have your readers got a reason to return to your website?

  • Set up an entry for the lead character of your book in Friendster or MySpace. Check out the MySpace page for Scott Westerfeld fans Or how about a blog? Count Olaf (A Series of Unfortunate Events) had a short-lived blog as part of the marketing campaign for the movie version of the bestselling books. Not the most brilliant example but you get the idea.

  • You can learn a lot from looking at DVD bonus materials. When you’ve published your book, what will your ‘bonus materials’ be? Examples – podcasts, historical background, anecdotes about The Making Of, the true stories behind the fiction, roughs of illustrations, etc. etc.

  • If your book is still a work-in-progress, you can whet the appetites of readers with tantalising background stories about the process either by blogging or participating in relevant chatroom discussions. Here is Scott Westerfeld’s blog on the book he is currently writing And, taking a cue from the movieworld,
    this is the week by week production diary kept by director Peter Jackson while making King Kong. Hmm. We could use that idea.

  • Visit the newsgroups and chatrooms where your readers hang out. Post a notice when you’ve got new entries and not only will they come to check it out, you increase the ranking of your Google listing!

  • Good luck - we'll need it.

    Do write in if you've got more ideas on how to exploit the Web or links to more examples of authors using the Web to their advantage.

    Update! Publishing News (24 Aug 2006) reports that London-based independent publisher Gravity Publishing is developing a new e-reader that bypasses the internet. By cutting out the web, the e-reader overcomes the rights issues associated with the internet.
    The use of reading matter differs greatly from the iPod model of music consumption. When you realise the lack of rights security comes from expressly delivering texts into computers and computer-like machines that can talk to the Internet, all else follows.
    But doesn't all the talk of e-readers miss the point of the internet? Surely getting people to read off monitors and expensive little electronic devices is not the best use of the web. people are connecting to people, not to display formats.

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