Category Archives: uk

this is a world of imagination & digitisation

On Thursday October 9th, National Poetry Day in the UK, 2008 if:book london is launching an exciting experiment in reading and writing, supported by Arts Council England. Over the next six months I will be working with artist and web designer Toni Lebusque, project manager and film maker Sasha Hoare and a team of inspired people to create an illuminated book online, containing the poetry of William Blake, new writing, art and song inspired by Blake’s work, and the voices of many readers as they debate some of Blake’s key concerns and their relevance in the digital age.
Why Blake? Well, just imagine what William Blake’s blog would look like. Think what this radical, visionary maker and publisher of multimedia books would have made of the web.
I came across Songs of Innocence & Experience as a teenager, before teachers could convince me he was difficult. My great grandfather was a Blake scholar, and I found reproductions of the illuminated books on my grandmother’s shelves; they soon inspired me to churn out epic poems of mythical worlds, to write them out neat in an exercise book and embellish them with crayons and felt tip pens. ‘This is a world of Imagination & Vision’ he wrote, which I took to mean, ‘Go for it!’
Blake has been an inspiration to generations of real artists too, from Allen Ginsberg to Jah Wobble, a source of Imagination and Vision to all kinds of readers, yet he’s also been colonized by the academics, judged obscure on one hand, nuts on the other.
Blake railed against the treatment of Chimney Sweepers and working Londoners locked in the mind forg’d manacles of man; he conjured up vivid images of nature enhanced by symbolism and transformed by imagination; he celebrated the importance of freedom in play for children. How would he react to London now, to the digital printshop, the sweatshop and call centre, the lack of spaces for kids to roam except online? What would Blake build in Second Life’s green and pleasant land? And what digital tools might he use to make what kind of books?
Bob Stein has talked of a new kind of curatorial role involved in the publishing of tomorrow; in his Unified Theory of Publishing he writes:

“far from becoming obsolete, publishers and editors in the networked era have a crucial role to play. The editor of the future is increasingly a producer, a role that includes signing up projects and overseeing all elements of production and distribution, and that of course includes building and nurturing communities of various demographics, size, and shape. Successful publishers will build brands around curatorial and community building know-how AND be really good at designing and developing the robust technical infrastructures that underlie a complex range of user experiences.”

I agree completely, but I’m not convinced that traditional publishing companies are best placed to take on this role. I’ve spent many years working with literature organisations like the Poetry Society and Booktrust, alongside professional workers with reader development projects in libraries and the community; our trade is the creation and execution of projects which bring writers and readers together, commissioning new work for specific settings. A good arts festival sparks conversations around the themes it explores and the events it makes happen.
The Poetry Places scheme we ran at the Poetry Society in the 1990s involved residencies, workshops, performances in all kinds of venues, and the creation of poems to be engraved into a public space, proclaimed at an event, used as signage in parks, zoos and estates…
People usually classified as ‘arts administrators’ are orchestrating interactions that are much more akin to Bob’s concept of the curator of the networked book than publishers who seem to find it hard to see much beyond a downloadable replica of their traditional product.
Songs of Imagination & Digitisation will involve working with a range of those people, commissioning new writing and art, providing incentives for new voices to submit work and for readers to give us their ideas. We will mingle film, text and image, reader response and author interviews – and once we’ve gathered enough ingredients on our blog we hope to transmute them into something that feels like a proper, substantial, networked book.
So many web projects go encyclopaedic and neverending. The book of the future will be linked to a community, open to revision and extension, but also bounded in a meaningful way, a satisfying artistic entity, porous but not pointless.
if:book kicks off this project on National Poetry Day. In the morning some of us will wander round Covent Garden and Soho, where Blake was born, and talk to people about their working lives. We’ll film them reading lines from Blake, then go and drink tea while actor Toby Jones reads us Blake poems and we respond to them in doodles, written words and conversation.
And that day the inspirational Bill Thompson will release into the wild a laptop loaded up with Blake’s work. For the next five months it will be passed from person to person, each one recording their responses, and emailing them to the blog
Over the next six month’s we’ll take a psychogeographical walk to Blake’s house in South Molton Street to discuss the city, gather at the Museum of Gardening near Hercules Buildings in Lambeth where Mr & Mrs Blake naked played Adam and Eve – allegedly. We’ll go to the Sassoon Gallery near Peckham Rye where young William saw angels in the branches of trees, and discuss the innocence and experiences of childhood then and now. We will be commissioning some writers, artists and musicians, offering eReaders and iTouches to others who contribute. We hope to build an international community of readers around our blog of the project’s progress,, including students at all levels who have Blake as a set text. We want the Songs to be a springboard into all kinds of reading.
So – Tell us what you think of this Idea; Bookmark, RSS and us; Send us your Blake related Poems, Stories, Photographs and Drawings; Together Let Us Sing Songs of Imagination & Digitisation!

if:book london… tomorrow the stars

We’ve now launched a website for if:book london, the British iteration of the Institute, at, and that links both to this blog and one which will focus on UK activities and in particular our work with the literature sector following a very positive reception by Arts Council England to the report by Mary and I: read:write – digital possibilities for literature and the imminent launch of another report, digital livings, how new media writers do, can and could make their way in the world , commissioned by the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University. We will be making both reports available to download as soon as possible.
I think this if:book blog is wonderful, stimulating, challenging, brilliant – and so somewhat daunting to post on. It has a strong sense of itself and, tell me if you disagree, but it doesn’t feel right to me to start bombarding this space with discussion of very specific issues to do with the UK literary scene and the organisations which work around it. Which isn’t to say that some posts shouldn’t appear in both places.
One reason I’m hesitant about writing here is uncertainty about who I’m talking to.
I would love to know more about if:book readers and wonder if some might be prepared to step forward and tell us briefly about themselves and why they keep an eye on this place.
I would love to see an anthology of if:book’s best bits, in print on page or screen. People have been writing serious, lengthy essays here, some of which quickly stimulate much attention, others drift by unnoticed like leaves in the blogflow and deserve fuller consideration.
Meanwhile Sara Lloyd, Head of digital publishing at Pan Macmillan in the UK quotes if:book in a fascinating book publishers manifesto for the 21st century. You can download it from It’s more evidence that the future of the book may be arriving shortly in the NOW and, having led the way up to this point, now is a good moment for the Institute to reflect further on what role(s) it wishes to play in a rapidly changing landscape, whether it should be looking much further ahead for next big futurethings or focusing on specific interventions in distribution and creation in the digital here and now.
However on the ‘it’ll-never-catch-on’ front, Doctor Who, Britain’s favourite time traveller, is trapped on a gigantic planet-sized library on BBC 1 this week. Electronic librarians oversee rows of very conventional looking dusty tomes and death lurks in the shadows. The Doctor has already told us how, despite all the advances in technology, future life forms still love nothing better than the smell and feel of a proper old book. No sign of the great grandchildren of Kindle here yet then, but it is only episode one. More next week!

fail again fail better have fun

A new research paper by Bruce Mason and Sue Thomas on A Million Penguins, the controversial wiki novel created last year by Penguin Books makes fascinating reading.
It includes amongst other delights an analysis of the activities of the contributor known as YellowBanana and whether s/he was vandal, genius or troll, and the report concludes:
“The final product itself, now frozen in time, is more akin to something produced by the wild,untrammelled creativity of the folk imagination. The contributors to A Million Penguins, like the
ordinary folk of Bakhtin’s carnivals, have produced something excessive. It is rude, chaotic, grotesque, sporadically brilliant, anti-authoritarian and, in places, devastatingly funny. As a cultural text it is unique, and it demonstrates the tremendous potential of this form to provide a stimulating social setting for writing, editing and publishing. The contributors may not have written one single novel but they did create something quite remarkable, an outstanding body of work that can be found both in the main sections as well as through the dramas and conversations lacing the backstage pages. And they had a damned good time while doing so.
As the user Crtrue writes.
“Hi hi hi hi hi!
Seriously. This is going to fail horribly. It’s still fun.””
Read more at:

stories and places

I found this new site, set up by Brighton based journalist and writer William Shaw, to be a nice example of an online fiction that actually gets you reading rather than admiring it awhile and then glazing over or clicking away. A clean page, simple navigation and, most importantly, words that hook. Knock on the door and take a look.
Last year Shaw created another inspired piece: 41 Places, a city-wide artwork of 41 true stories, installed in the place where they happened – stories of people who live, work and play in Brighton, narrative non-fiction miniatures become something between a giant work of art, scattered through the city, and a treasure hunt of stories. The narratives were collected by Shaw between September 2006 and April 2007 and designed and installed by Richard Wölfstrome, John Easterby and Tom Snell.

floing again

“While businesses based on the sale of paper may or may not be in crisis, those of us with a wider responsibility for ensuring our literary culture thrives have wonderful new tools with which to encourage participation and communication.
The curse of vanity presses can be replaced with free online opportunities to put your words in the public realm and means for the best to be spotted.
Collaborative writing and book sharing sites are democratising the way we share ideas and stories.
“Running small creative teams dealing with quality communications, working across different media platforms; social entrepreneurs finding cost effective means to change lives; experimenters with words and audiences using an art form which has been personalised for centuries, creating a virtual world in the user’s imagination – we are ahead of the game.”
This is an extract from AND YES I SAID YES I WILL YES, a white paper by the FLO consortium of ‘Friendly Literature Organisations’ in the UK, which was launched recently at the London Book Fair. I put up a link here to the first draft, but it’s now been revised so do take a look.
I’d be interested to know if literature organisations in the USA face similar challenges and how they are tackling them.

friday projections

It’s all go on the digital publishing scene in the UK with Penguin launching their first ARG next week – go to for more details, and various big companies plotting experiments. Meanwhile this week Gail Rebuck, chief executive of the Random House Group, delivered the Stationers’ Company Annual Lecture on New Chapter or Last Page? Publishing books in a digital age, an upbeat and positively inspirational assessment of the potential for e-reading.
She ends: “This future is ours to grasp, but only if we understand that it is not technology that makes books, but readers, and authors and creativity. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that every child can read, and can have his or her world opened to the extraordinary possibility that only books can offer. Our responsibility is to nurture every last drop of creativity and talent that we have in our society. And finally our responsibility is to protect creativity so that all of us, not just the authors themselves, can be rewarded and enriched.”
All great stuff and well worth reading in full.
Rebuck says, “people who think a new reading device will somehow change the content of the books we love are missing the point: our attraction to narrative is visceral and enduring, an integral part of being human. Whether we choose to read our favourite novelists on a printed page or in E Ink, it simply doesn’t matter, because that core experience of books will remain undiminished.”
Undiminished yes, but changed surely. The next great breakthrough won’t be an e-reader but some born digital piece of transliterate brilliance. Great art stops us in our hectic cultural tracks and forces us to settle down and appreciate it on whatever ‘platform’ it was made for. We need a digital Shakespeare (or even a Rowling) to get readers downloading with passion.
I feel more confident about our enduring cultural richness than the viability of parts of the publishing industry in these turbulent times of convergence and confusion when anyone with a sharp mind, an office full of macs and some financial backing can have a crack at producing pretty much anything . Doing our research for the Arts Council it’s been a delight to meet sparky young independent publishers like Salt and Snow who are doing exciting things to sell books made of paper in a webby way, but it’s tough out there.
I was delighted to be on the panel of ‘Book Futures’ last night, the final event of the London Word Festival, a dynamic new event marketed through a torrent of blogposts, emails and facebookery. Up there with me was Scott Pack, the once much feared buyer of Waterstones – he who decided which books went in the shop windows – whose blog-to-book company The Friday Project appears to be in deep financial trouble. Of course rumours of new backers hover, but it’s hard to tell right now whose waving whose drowning.

fight path

“Writers of the world arise! It’s time to throw off the shackles of traditional publishing contracts and face a brand new digital future with a brand new set of priorities.” So starts an article on the Guardian ‘Comment Is Free’ blogs by Kate Pullinger, writer of fictions in media old and new. Kate argues forcefully that authors are in danger of being short changed by publishers as they rush to secure digital rights before anyone susses how different the dissemination of a digital text is to publishing the printed word.

e-read all about it

An article in Publishing News this week suggests that UK publishers are bracing themselves for the arrival on these shores of the Kindle or a rival to it soon. Much discussion of e-royalties is going on; HarperCollins and Random House US are putting some whole works on line for free; meanwhile Francis Bennett, the consultant who has been gazing into the crystal ball for the booktrade re digitisation, admits to being “baffled by Amazon – they never do what you expect them to.”
Consultant (and ex-Penguin boss) Anthony Forbes Watson is more definite (maybe): “The competition will be between the best of the closed networks. Perhaps Amazon will rope in Abebooks. Perhaps Barnes & Noble will join up with a partner to combat Amazon, perhaps Amazon will develop something with Apple. But I don’t think the market will be that big. I’d be surprised if it goes above 3%, or 10% tops.”
Well, nothing to worry about there then. Meanwhile we’ve been talking to friends in the booktrade who point out how little publishers will do for their huge slice of the cake these digital days, once printing and physical distribution are out of the picture. Do the e-royalties being offered reflect these changes? Do they hell.

digital livings

Alongside our research for Arts Council England, I’m also looking at how how new media writers earn their livings and make their way in the world.

The Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media
at De Montfort University is so innovative that there isn’t an obvious career path for its graduates nor an established group of successful role models for students to look to in the UK for inspiration. The Digital Livings project is finding out how writers are carving out professional careers, starting with a survey of UK writers and expanding worldwide later in the year.
Which skills do new media writers possess? Where do they sell their work? What advice do they have to offer those wishing to follow in their footsteps? Is the market for digital fiction growing or not? I’ll report back on our findings.

future boy

The picture is of a Futurizer, based on the kinds of contraption I built as a child from cardboard, balsa wood and string which allowed me to communicate with other planets and centuries. It was reconstructed by a group of us at a conference on Transliteracy at the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University, organised by PART. The aim of the day was to try to make some transliterate objects and in so doing consider if such things can, could or should exist. We had an enjoyable if inconclusive time grappling with this.
Plug headphones into an iPod or XBox and you will be able to listen to one of a large but finite range of sounds. Plug headphones into a cardboard box and you can (not) hear anything you can possibly imagine. Travelling back through the years to my childhood, these machines allowed me to think across time and space, out of the (cardboard) box. They were also a means of engaging with the TV I loved, in a bygone era when no adult expressed any interest in the way I read my TV21 comic or consumed Thunderbirds and The Man From Uncle.
Unlike those friends who screwed together bits of meccanno to build working bridges, or fiddled with circuit boards until bulbs lit up, my games were all about interfaces.
I never worried for a moment about how these things might actually work. Now a lot of inventiveness is once again going into cutting and sticking, playing with FaceBook applications and YouTube clips like we used Corn Flake packets and sticky-backed plastic. Isn’t it great, living here in the future?
By the end of the day the Futurizer had been photographed and uploaded to Second Life. a fitting place for it to end up really: transmogrified, transliterated, futurized.