Essay: Sophie MassonWeek in Review

Authors in a changing world

Last year, Keesing Press published my book, The Adaptable Author: Coping with Change in the Digital Age, which featured interviews with established authors both in Australia and overseas, as well as interviews with Australian publishers and agents. The interview questions centred on whether it was now more difficult to ‘stay published’ — to maintain a viable writing career in a time of changes within the industry. Within the 40-odd interviews in the book, there was great variability as to experiences —  but all the authors interviewed reported having to adapt to stay relevant, including the use of new technologies and options such as self-publishing.

This week, the results of an extensive survey of over 1000 Australian authors, assessing the impact on authorship of changing circumstances in the book industry, including the impact of new technologies, was published by Macquarie University’s Faculty of Business and Economics. And those results bore out both the variability of experience in the current circumstances, and the imperative to adapt. Survey findings indicated that some authors, especially in genre fiction, are doing well out of the changes; others, particularly in literary fiction, children’s literature and in non-fiction, are experiencing more problems as compared to the past. But it’s especially in the area of changing professional practice that the issue of just how things have changed for writers really struck home for me.

Any author who’s been in the business longer than five years can tell you that we’ve had to change our professional practices in response to the transformed circumstances in the industry. All the interviews in my book made that clear, and the Macquarie University survey emphasised it even more.

Many different promotion, publishing and distribution options are now possible. Once, for example, self-publishing, or ‘indie’ publishing as a lot of people like to term it, would have been seen by established writers as an embarrassment suitable only for amateurs who couldn’t get a book accepted by a ‘proper’ publisher; today, it’s increasingly seen as just another option. The Macquarie University survey indicates nearly one-fifth of all authors, including nearly one-third of genre writers, had self-published in the past year, in e-book or print form. The results of that of course can be varied. In The Adaptable Author, for instance, Isobelle Carmody and Steven Herrick, both highly successful established authors within the field of YA fiction, reported on two very different experiences of e-book self-publishing, one positive, one not so much. Another effect of digital change has been to promote the flowering of small and boutique presses, with poetry being a major, though certainly not the only, beneficiary of this.

The survey also strikingly bears out something else that pretty much all Australian authors have experienced: the impact of technology on interactions with readers.

Two-thirds of authors surveyed reported changing the ways they interact with readers. Much of that is now online. And that is perhaps to my mind the most profound change of all — because, though it wasn’t in the survey’s scope to examine it, such a change  in writer-reader interaction could fundamentally alter not only the way in which books are promoted, published or distributed, but actually created.

There’s a hint of that in a survey finding indicating that nearly one quarter of authors had shown drafts of their work in progress to closed or open public forums on the internet, to gain feedback. Of course, showing a work in progress to a small circle of family and friends is hardly a new practice. But this is considerably widening the net. Readers without a personal connection to the author may thus have an opportunity to directly influence a work in the middle of its creation — whether for good or ill.

Another impact potentially on the creation of works is the fact that authors have to spend so much time in online interaction. Nearly one quarter of authors surveyed reported writing time being eaten into by such activities, including nearly one half of genre fiction authors. The time-consuming nature of these activities and how much it’s changed for authors over the years was brought home to me sharply last year, after the release of my first adult novel in 13 years, Trinity: The Koldun Code. (Most of my books are for children and young adults). When my last adult novel, Forest of Dreams, came out in 2001, I was commissioned to write a piece for a newspaper on the historical background of the novel (a paid piece), and reviews of the book appeared in several print publications, despite its being genre fiction. When The Koldun Code, also genre fiction, came out in 2014, I had to write several guest posts for blogs, do interviews for online publications (all unpaid) and reviews only appeared online. It was a lot more work for me as well as my publisher, and it felt harder to get news of the work out there, as well.

Book reviewing is another area in which so much has changed, with the professional reviewer now a rare bird, and amateur reviewers more the online standard. But the effect of that on authors, and the fate of books, is another story.

In our first essay this week, The Atmosphere We Live In , Julieanne Lamond discusses Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us, a novel ‘which plays out what could be a conventional small-town mystery within an unconventional and unsettling set of atmospherics’. She writes:

The World Without Us captures a bewildering sense of loss that is both personal and planetary. This town’s inhabitants speak a weird scientific language that has invaded our daily lives: electromagnetic fields, fracking, agro-toxins. Tess and her sister accost their father: ‘But we’re eating beans from a tin. Bisphenol A. And you microwaved them. With Cling.’ These kinds of exchanges capture the spooky sense that personal losses are linked to environmental ones in ways that are not easy to untangle or understand.

In September we launched a series of longform interviews with Australian writers about their practice, influences and community. In Everyday Intimacies, Rachel Morley speaks with poet, critic, editor and essayist Fiona Wright:

For poets in particular, what we do is only important to a small number of people, or at least, only recognised as important by a small number of people. And people who work with or in poetry are never lukewarm about it. There’s always a huge amount of passion and excitement, so it’s really special to find other people who share that, and who understand immediately what it is you do and how you work. I also think that a lot of poets – and I include myself in this, no question – are slightly strange people, and really appreciate the strangeness in each other.

Throughout 2015 we’ve been publishing by instalment Don’t Go To Jolo, Matthew C. Thompson’s account of his 2014 journey into the Sulu Archipelago, a violent, beautiful and contested region of the southern Philippines. This week the third instalment, a long interview with ‘Tiny’ Perez, appears on the site.

‘I look at them as a criminal group posturing as Islamic radicals,’ says ‘Tiny’ Perez, the battalion’s big, muscular and stretch sports-wear clad commanding officer, as we have chocolate wafers and coffee in an open hilltop hut. The sumptuous view of jungled ranges and out to the sea is soothing, especially now that the rain has stopped and little birds flit about, calling and singing to each other. It is relatively cool up here, comfortable after the humidity of the lower regions. Gazing a mile and a bit down to the valley below I see rooftops scattered amidst the palm forest of al Barka, a rebel dominated municipality where hundreds of government troops have been killed, scores of them beheaded. When the guerrillas look up here to the infantry base, it probably appears much the same – ramshackle wooden huts and walkways in lush forest where black volcanic rocks jut and bulge from the soil – just with a more commanding position and heavy weapons.

And finally, in From the Archive we stay this week with Fiona Wright. Her  essay ‘Listen’ on Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil appeared on the SRB in 2014. She writes:

Within Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, there is a constant shifting, a continual and often uncomfortable interplay between acts of speaking and acts of writing, between text and voice and back again. Speaking and writing, in Foreign Soil, are never simple acts. Both are, of course, embedded within the body, and as such are deeply personal and even instinctual; but they are, at the same time, inextricably implicated in wider social circuits of violence, of bodies politic, of privilege and power.