Monday, March 8, 2010

heading for the cloud?

I went to a workshop last Friday, put on by the Writers Union of Canada. It was a daylong exploration of the writing life in these definitely changing times, called: "Getting a Secure Footing in a Changing Literary Landscape." Do you even need feet in cyberspace? Listening to the three presenters, I thought of Neuromancer, of jacking in, of virtual reality, of cyberpunk lit. Could that be me? We're moving into the 'cloud', that amorphous fog of information flowing through cables and out of them, all over the world, possibly never even setting 'foot' down in any servers at all.

I got some interesting ideas out of this workshop. Perspective, really. The talk was about what books mean, where they are going, if we need them. How writers will find readers (if they want them) and where. How the publishing world is changing.

I can see for myself that things are changing. I grew up in a pile of books, and spent a great deal of my life adding to the pile, surrounding myself with bookcases, and filling them up. The smell of books hold memory for me and I love their feel; I don't even have to read them. But space has become an issue, and books lose their appeal somewhat when they preclude other bits of life. So, I've been thinning out the stacks of books, and taking myself to the library and not the bookstore when I want something new to read. Reference materials? The internet.

A lot of my books have been turned over to used bookstores, but last week I discovered that the rules are changing there too. The independent bookstores are folding, and now the secondhand shops are increasingly unwilling to take in any stock except in trade. One store I went to has stopped buying completely, and only does trades. But the credit they give only applies to half of any books you want to 'purchase' in trade. I thought about that long and hard, and then decided that I don't want to donate to a failing business. Harsh, I know, but if I have to cough up more money to get back the credit that's due, well, I suspect they won't be there long enough for me to get any value back. Then the next store I went to gave me cash for some of my books, but it was so little that it barely covered the gas (non-renewable) I used to get there. Forget whether my time is worth anything. I took the rest of my books to the Sally Ann; if it's charity, I get to choose.

Anyway, that was all in my head as I sat listening about different ways of living the literary life that really don't have a lot to do with my old love affair with books. But it all still involves writing and reading, and that did get me thinking. Book publishing is drifting the way that music publishing has, and more and more, it'll be print-on-demand, if you want print, or else digital. And a lot of it will be free. Like this. The lovely romantic vision of life as a novelist working with an industrious editor before your books arrive in the mail is fading away (what's mail?).

So here I am thinking of ways to write in a digital world without all the noise of popups and twitterers and such.  And yet. I do put in links from time to time, encouraging you beyond my words, don't I? (And of course 'noise' exists in the published-in-paper world too, judging from all the newspapers, magazines, newsletters, flyers, ads, etc that litter our physical landscape.

I think that the workshop made it clear that if we can loosen up our thinking, and it is an incredibly freeing concept, there is writing-life out there in the cloud. All you need is a computer and an internet connection, and if you're reading this, well, you've got that already. You just have to keep writing.

And if you've got the world out there as potential readers, it certainly beats the numbers you might reach the old way. No matter how obscure your appeal, there'll be someone out there, no doubt about it. The old way, the book, is going to become elitist, too expensive. Good books anyway. The pulp market may be something else (like sustainable). I'm enough of a snob that I'd rather be the winner of the critical acclaim of my peers than the winner of best-selling blockbuster... er, um, maybe.

So the only problem is the one writers and other artists have always had. How to live while you work. Get creative, which shouldn't be such a stretch, if we're any good at this writing business. It doesn't really matter how good we are either; if we need to write, we need to write. Getting readers and getting paid are separate issues that we all have to work out, once we've got the word on the page. Or in the cloud, as seems more and more likely.