Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Corduroy Mansions: The implications of publishing an online novel

This paper examines the online publication of the serial novel, Corduroy Mansions, by Alexander McCall Smith, as well as other online novels, and their implications for writing, publishing and the cultivation of a global reading audience.

[This paper was delivered at the 7th International Conference on the Book in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Oct. 18, 2009.]

On September 21, 2009, the Telegraph Media Group embarked on the publication of a second serial novel, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, by Alexander McCall Smith. Like Corduroy Mansions, the author’s and the UK’s first publisher-supported online novel, the sequel is a complex production that makes use of most of the media formats available on the Web. The site includes illustrations by Scottish artist Iain McIntosh of the novel’s characters and setting, organized in professionally rendered graphics within the familiar telegraph.co.uk page layout; downloadable audio readings of the daily installments; and links to related sites. One link to the home page of McCall Smith’s official website. And another to a Google map of the novel’s London setting (the previous novel had a link to a YouTube video of McCall Smith, bareheaded, walking through a perfect weather day in rainy Pimlico). There are also links to an ex-pat book club and to the Telegraph Bookstore. A summary of Corduroy Mansions on the site provides a kind of preface to this second novel, and an appraisal distilled by the Telegraph staff from readers’ comments continues the first novel’s precedent for reader interaction, not only with the Telegraph but also with McCall Smith himself.

All these forms of online promotion have been developed over the past decade through individual and corporate practitioners’ use of the Internet. Online novels themselves have been on the Web for some time—if not from the Internet’s Big Bang then at least since the beginning of its Jurassic age—and they are part of the vexatious issues constituting the Sturm und Drang that has plagued corporate publishing and individual copyright and intellectual property rights on the Web.

The e-novel’s lack of material form and the general unruliness of the Web make them a capitalist’s nightmare. For theoreticians and academics, the format has quixotic paradigm written all over it. But the e-book’s most obvious feature is that it eliminates the author’s—and the reader’s—need for a publisher and all the paraphernalia that goes with making a printed book. Unlike the Internet, the bound book promises sustained endurance and duration in the material world. The fact that e-books lessen the need for a publishing elite that mediates between author and reader unburdens them from the detailed work of corporate publishing while contributing to its economic floundering.

The Internet is filled with websites for online novels, such as www.onlinenovels.net, which claims to “provide links to any and all novels, short stories, and poetry that can be read or downloaded on the Internet.” The novels on this site, which I’m using as characteristic examples of online publications, take several forms, from blogs with serial entries to downloadable and compact e-books. Even in the blog format, however, these novels are, for the most part, structured to follow the traditional form and concepts of the twentieth-century print novel.

Occasionally, in the supplemental information available around an e-novel, the author will address issues of online publishing. Novelist Cory Doctorow writes about the issue of copyright on his website for Little Brother, his free downloadable e-book: “E-books are verbs, not nouns. You copy them, it’s in their nature. … Hard drives aren’t going to get bulkier, more expensive, or less capacious. Networks won’t get slower or harder to access. If you’re not making art with the intention of having it copied, you’re not really making art for the twenty-first century.”

Doctorow redefines e-novel publication as a practice in which reproduction is given over to the reader, and then makes a leap of understanding in use of the Internet as a medium for art—one dependent on multiplicity rather than uniqueness. Multiplicity extends not only to the copying of manuscripts but also to the participation of the author, as an abstract concept. Potential readers sort through material and select by either author or genre. Since most online writers are unknown to either the print or the cyberspace reading community, selection by a reader is based on descriptions of the book, or rather, on the genre the book seems to inhabit. The practice is similar to choosing books from a section of a bookstore or library with all the high-profile writers’ work pulled. Shifting text selection to genre rather than author is reminiscent of a time before nineteenth-century Romanticism, which brought an emphasis on the artist as a unique and gifted solitary, and before the twentieth century’s emphatic legal institutionalization of intellectual property.

Mainstream publishing has both used and misused this shift—wavering between conservative possessiveness and liberal attempts to redirect and adapt to the Web’s amorphous and exponential growth of immediate community. Time-Warner and J. K. Rowling have been extremely aggressive in their development of licensing for the Harry Potter books and in their control of copyright, going so far as to threaten legal action against fans who have used Rowling’s characters to develop their own Potter stories in online fanzines—a switch from the fanzine policies of American television and movies, where writers scrupulously avoid using fanzine ideas for shows. The attempts by Time-Warner to assert provenance over Rowling’s property within this community of mostly young fans were thwarted when some more savvy Web users brought the news media into the fray.

These property issues reinforce the notion that a text is not inviolable. But for online authors such as Doctorow, the use and reuse of text found online is a secondary issue. He writes, “For me—for pretty much every writer—the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”

The HarperCollins website Authonomy (www.authonomy.com) uses the Internet to support the costly publication process entrenched in the publishing industry by putting editorial responsibility for the development of novels in the hands of authors and the peer groups they develop online through their postings. Shared manuscript readings and commentary are an active though not obligatory practice throughout this online community. Publisher-run sites like Authonomy also put in place a kind of ad hoc marketing study by asking participants to evaluate one another’s writing skills and book popularity.

This sense of developing and maintaining community is the earmark of many online groups, even those not openly connected with fiction and literary writing, such as Facebook and Twitter. At the moment, though, publishers like Time-Warner and HarperCollins continue to consider the making of the book as a material object and physical possession the final stage in publication of a text for its widest possible audience.

The Internet’s first publisher-sponsored online serial novel, Naomi, by horror and fantasy writer Douglas Clegg, was launched in May 1999, when the Web was only a few years old. Clegg continues to produce online serial novels, like Naomi, that are free and downloadable and available by subscription. How he writes his books seems to vary little from the standard fiction model; however, it is clear that Clegg views his work as a creative act scheduled primarily by inspiration. To his subscribers, he writes: “I will send out The Locust as each episode is finished. That means, ‘not like clockwork,’ but ‘as soon as I can’ … The episodes may go out twice a week, once a week, or even twice a month. It’s [or, writing is] not like delivering groceries.”

Stephen King was the first high-profile best-selling author to write a book that had the Web as its primary publishing format, but his attempts to use the medium have been spottily successful at best and bumbling at worst. Like Clegg, he used the writing model developed in print publication, which he has practiced for some 40 years; the only change was the medium the book would occupy. In 2000, one year after Naomi, King posted the novella Riding the Bullet online for free downloading; Amazon pulled the book not long after, reportedly because customer demand exceeded the online bookseller’s ability to meet it. Simon and Schuster now carries Riding the Bullet as a $2.50 e-book for downloading. In March 2002, the story was included in the hardcover collection of King’s stories, Everything’s Eventual. It is currently available in hardcover, softcover, e-book, audio, and Kindle formats.

King continues to flirt with online mega-bookseller Amazon. His latest e-book, Ur, was released in early February 2009 to coincide with the launch of Amazon’s upgraded Kindle reader—an electronic device that Amazon advertising describes physically as “thin as most magazines” and “lighter than a typical paperback,” and functionally as “reads like real paper.”

Ur is about a professor who receives a supernatural Kindle that gives him information from other eras. One reader of Ur in Kindle format, J. Gremillion, commented on the Amazon site, “Numerous times throughout the book the professor is told to ‘Just read books on the computer like everyone else’ … King also goes into lengthy detail describing … how awesome all the Kindle features were … You cannot get through more than 2–3 paragraphs without feeling like you’re reading an infomercial for Amazon.”

According to Ralph Vicinanza, King’s New York-based agent, Ur will eventually go to print, even though Kindle “sales of Ur reached ‘five figures’ after barely three weeks on the market.”7 Ultimately, however, Kindle and competing devices account for no more than 1 percent of overall book sales.

King’s most controversial online publishing adventure, however, was The Plant. In January 2000, King offered the book as a work-in-progress on his website. Again, the idea was simply to change the means of distribution by eliminating print and the corporate editorial and production services around print. The problem was how to ensure that readers paid for the book—a problem that had sprung up around the distribution of Riding the Bullet. To prevent copyright infringement, King offered the book unencrypted and in installments. Each installment cost $1, and the total cost of the book was set at $13, no matter what number of pages were eventually written. King vowed to drop the project if the percentage of paying readers fell below 75 percent of the readership.

After three installments, King and his publisher decided to double the cost of the fourth installment to $2, at the same time doubling the size of the installment to 54 pages. Paying readers dropped to 46 percent of those downloading the fourth installment, and the number of downloads decreased overall as well. During the experiment, King posted his hopes for The Plant and gave an accounting of the number of “copies” sold in the message section of his official website. The last installment of the unfinished novel was published on December 18, 2000, leaving those who had paid in advance for future installments with unfulfilled promises and, judging by some posted comments, feeling bereft. JRM posted the following message on Sept. 7, 2009: “For the love of all your fans. PLEASE finish this story as a novel!” Other loyal fans stated that they would wait, and pay, for The Plant, in whatever format it appeared. King claimed that other more pressing projects had taken over his schedule but that he would complete the project in the fullness of time. A shift in creative focus later became King’s final defense for abandoning the project midstream.

In his comments about The Plant, King criticized online publication in general—or, rather, criticized online readership: “I see three large problems. One is that most Internet users seem to have the attention span of grasshoppers. Another is that Internet users have gotten used to the idea that most of what’s available to them on the Net is either free or should be. The third—and biggest—is that book-readers don’t regard electronic books as real books.” It’s unusual for an author to so directly criticize his readers—or grasshoppers. Also unusual was King’s unabashed recounting of his sales of The Plant, which clearly indicated that the e-book was an experiment in publishing rather than in fiction and that King’s concerns were financial rather than artistic.

An op-ed piece in the New York Times suggested that ultimately the failure of The Plant came about because it deviated from his plot-driven writing, which appeals to readers based on the feelings of horror and anxiety it elicits and which demands a quick and continuous read or resolution. King produces “suspense of a kind that cannot be drawn out over months. It is far better consumed in a single sitting, like a bag of hot popcorn or a bowl of cold cereal,” the article asserted.

If we assume that capitalism will prevail in discovering a means for online writing to be profitable and that it is not the primary occupation of writers to discover how to manipulate the profitability of such writing, the questions to be addressed by and for writers are: what kind of writing is suitable for the Web, and how does the Web dictate how writers write?

No one has suggested that Alexander McCall Smith should be writing something other than serial novels. On the contrary, the description of him as the “Dickens for the digital age” has become a critical cliché. His first serial novels—the 44 Scotland Street series—appeared in print in 2004, published by the newspaper the Scotsman, and were later put into hard- and softcover print editions. In September 2008, when the Edinburgh-based author began his first online novel, Corduroy Mansions, it was published on the online site of the London newspaper the Daily Telegraph. He was brought to the Telegraph by the former Scotsman editor, Iain Martin, who had joined the Telegraph Media Group in 2006. The publication rights for Corduroy Mansions were split between the Telegraph Media Group, which had online rights; the Scottish publisher Polygon, which published the hardcover edition; and McCall Smith’s UK publisher Little, Brown Book Group, which held the UK paperback rights.

Almost every day for 20 weeks, McCall Smith published a 1,000-word episode, concluding the novel on February 13, 2009, with its 100th episode. Reportedly, the author wrote the installments as the days passed, the novel developing through a process in which the readers were able to read the book’s installments as immediately as they were written. But because the Telegraph Media Group was recording the downloadable audio files in groups of 15 installments, McCall Smith maintained a lead of some 25 episodes between writing and online posting.

Clearly the writing of this novel varies greatly from preceding e-novels by best-selling authors, if only because of its harrowing deadlines, which preclude the caprices of inspiration. McCall Smith followed a similar practice in print when he wrote the 44 Scotland Street novels originally serialized in the Scotsman. Those ran for more than five years, appearing every weekday for six months of the year.

To write that series, however, the author was aided by knowledge of his hometown, Edinburgh, which allowed for embroideries of place and setting. All of McCall Smith’s writing is aided by the fact that he is a deeply well-educated man with a wide range of social and cultural expertise.

McCall Smith has claimed that serial writing with this demanding frequency becomes “addictive.” Notoriously verbal, the author is known to write between 3,000 and 4,000 words per day. In a January 15, 2009, interview he stated, “I realise that I am very fortunate in the way in which I write without redrafting … I find that I do not have to think a great deal in advance about what I am going to write; I sit down, and it just seems to come. It is a little bit like being in a trance.”

The publishers’ editorial staff, however, shared the pressure of the schedule, as it transformed each installment into a flawless text. Telegraph Assistant Comments Editor, Ceri Radford, wrote in her September 23, 2008, column, “The daily podcasts will be turned into an audiobook by Little, Brown next year without any anticipated re-recordings, so we’re committing ourselves to turning out a final, edited version of Corduroy Mansions to rolling deadlines. We quickly arranged a loop so that the chapters pass through editors at Little, Brown, and the recording studio, before ending up with the online arts team here.”

Part of the writing process for Corduroy Mansions, and an aspect that differs most radically from the usual writing and publishing of a novel, was that it was ostensibly interactive: readers were encouraged to email suggestions to the author about the novel and the directions they thought it should take; their suggestions were recognized and responded to. Because of the production schedule, however, there was a time gap between when suggestions were sent and when they could be integrated into the story, making the assimilation of readers’ ideas into the plot less practical. Nonetheless, McCall Smith emphasized that he listened to readers’ comments: “I take them seriously,” he stated. And he especially listened if readers protested that “one of the characters is unsympathetic.” More than in his print novels, he found that “readers have an emotional stake in the [online] characters,” a phenomenon that he ascribed to the immediacy of the Web: “It changes the relationship of the readers to the characters. It increases the reader’s sense of ownership of the characters.”

The fact that McCall Smith’s novels are serial, meaning that they tell a story through smaller stories presented over time, with few shifts in the direction of time—no flashbacks or flashforwards—makes them suitable for reading on the Web. But his novels are not serial in the same manner that Dickens’ were. Although Dickens wrote his novels in sections that were published in print monthly, the stories were highly structured, leading to one conclusion or resolution, whether or not Dickens had committed himself to that conclusion at the beginning of his writing. McCall Smith’s writing is episodic, but the stories do not necessarily lead to a final conclusion. Rather they are strung like shiny beads on a string.

The regularity of postings, the evenness of their length and the similarity of structure among episodes that deal with an event within a somewhat rambling text create a basic symmetry in Corduroy Mansions, which most people find pleasing. It is neither too rigid nor too random. This basic formalism, when coupled with accessibility and the ability to respond and comment instantly, sets up a simple scaffolding over which more complex language, ideas, and actions can be draped. The security of the structure trumps the amorphous irregularity of the Web.

In developing his approach to the serial novel, McCall Smith’s practice was to “let it [the novel] go wherever it wished to go.” In the writing of 44 Scotland Street, a clear pattern developed within the simpler thousand-word structure: three chapters would deal with a character and his or her dilemmas, then the next installment would switch to another character. The result was a group of stories “running parallel and contemporaneously.” One main issue is addressed in each chapter, and within that chapter the prose can “meander.” This meandering gives “an intimate feel” to the writing, so that the reader feels “caught in a bit of a conversation.” It’s an organic form that follows of the flow of thought without becoming, like stream of consciousness, locked into the writer’s point of view. As McCall Smith comments, “writing comes from the subconscious.” This approach to the novel form runs against the current logic of literature, in which no detail is accidental and every incident builds toward a conclusion. A meandering flow is an aspect of journal writing, however, and the journal’s online sister, the blog.

McCall Smith used an episodic narrative style in his hugely successful first series of novels, The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, although the episodes there are longer, giving the novels a more leisurely pace. Unlike the typical genre mystery, the novels deal with small mysteries that are interwoven and solved throughout the book. The standard huge and bloody crime, often followed by other bloody crimes that are related or subordinate to the initial murder, which is solved in a final turnabout and revelation at the end of the book, simply does not exist in the series.

What ties the Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories together is the setting of Botswana and the personality of the lead character, Precious Ramotswe, as a woman of Botswana. All of McCall Smith’s series have followed this commitment to place and character: the 44 Scotland Street series and the Isabel Dalhousie series, both set in Edinburgh, the Professor Dr. Von Igelfeld series, set in the rarified metaworld of academia, and Corduroy Mansions, set in the Pimlico district of London.

Place is the overarching narrative of McCall Smith’s books—it impels the characters. For Corduroy Mansions, the selection of Pimlico was suggested by Iain Martin: setting the novel in London made sense not only because the bulk of the Telegraph readership is based in London but also because many people living abroad have traveled to and have memories of London. Corduroy Mansions is set not in a city as much as in a small corner of that city, a house in a district where groups of strangers live tangential lives to one another. That this would have great appeal to a global community, in which individuals are both restricted to the local, where they were born, were raised and now live, and yet have wider connections to a community that is without territory or physical surroundings, is understandable. It was common practice in comments on Corduroy Mansions for readers to state where on the planet they lived, to revel in their locality in the midst of global anonymity. In the immaterial world of the Web, place becomes magnetic, and setting an identity.

McCall Smith’s series call attention to character rather than plot. There are few cliffhangers, a plot device Dickens used amply in his serial writing to entice the reader from installment to installment. The cliffhanger has since been used in media adaptations from the earliest TV serials of the ’50s and continues to be a feature of soaps and other TV dramas. How many times was Flash Gordon left in dire straits before the evil Ming? How many times has a soap opera housewife staggered before a revelation at the last second of supposed or real infidelity? The device used by McCall Smith to move the reader from episode to episode is less a cliffhanger and more a hesitation at a crossroads. His characters are everyday folk with everyday concerns muddling through their dilemmas in a kind of post-angst existentialism that has slipped from the avant-garde into the middle-class. The readers, like the characters, may recognize their own questioning in the self-questioning of the characters: “Where is this going?” “What does it mean?” “Is there a conclusion or a closure?”

More likely, though, readers recognize the impulse for storytelling that grips us all in the face of our perpetually separate loved ones and the inscrutability of life. It is the same storytelling that inhabits the world of the campfire and the saloon, in mythologies gone commonplace and confessions made in the therapist’s office.

In this palette of human relationships, narcissism, not murder, becomes the ultimate crime between individuals. Narcissism is often the bloodless crime that stalks the darker sides of McCall Smith’s characters and that confounds them and creates sorrow. The closure of his novels—the resolution of transgression or the abandoning of distress—comes in the final scene, which unites the characters in a celebration of community.

The Telegraph’s Assistant Comments Editor, Ceri Radford, writes, “I like to think of Corduroy Mansions as a microcosm of what the Internet is doing for lovers of literature as a whole: connecting people divided by geography, allowing them to share their interests and exchange ideas.” Though Radford maybe idealistic in her perception, there is some truth in her suggestion. Her vision mirrors McCall Smith’s ongoing consideration of his readers and their desires and his relationship to them as a writer within a community.