01 February 2010

Looking Back at the Book Futurists

Last Friday night I attended the first meeting of the Boston Book Futurists, a group interested in exploring the evolving forms, meanings, and business of books in a digital age.

The meeting was held at Microsoft’s New England Research & Development (NERD) Center, in a meeting room with two screens set up to show digital slide shows and mouse-clicking. And we soon confirmed a rule I also noticed during my OAH panel in Seattle last March: the more a session depends on technology, the worse the technology behaves.

We appeared to start a half-hour late (unless that was supposed to be networking time, in which case most of us book futurists used it to fiddle with digital projectors or sit in chairs watching other people do so). By the end of the evening, one of the screens was showing only about 2/3 of the images, and we all had the chance to say whether we wanted to update the Norton Antivirus software.

Joanne McNeil of the Tomorrow Museum moderated the program, introducing three narratives in unusual form:

The first speaker was Joshua Glenn, coeditor of Hilobrow and author of Taking Things Seriously. He talked about his Significant Objects project, conceived with Rob Walker. They bought 100 cheap secondhand objects and auctioned them at big markups after having fiction writers invest each with some “meaning” through a story. The profit went to those writers, who thus had the incentive to maximize their objects’ appeal. Even though the stories were identified as fictional, they gave the objects enough perceived significance to inrease their value (in most cases) several hundred percent.

Sean Fitzroy, a local filmmaker, then presented his idea for how marketing these days corresponds the three-act structure of classic myths and popular entertainment. I didn’t think the periods lined up exactly. Or, to put it another way, we can divide any endeavor into three or four stages. But I agree with Fitzroy that the “making of“ story has become a crucial part of attracting and rewarding an audience for many types of stories. The most obvious examples are the on-set interviews used to promote movies, but writers’ websites and social networking posts, interviews, and public presentations are also increasingly about how they produced their tales.

Putting Fitzroy’s ideas together with Glenn’s, I foresee a market for people able to massage “making of” stories into more entertaining, compelling forms with fictional material. (“The road to a Newbery Medal began in a deep cavern underneath Corvallis, Oregon—and it almost ended there. . . .”)

Novelist Stona Fitch discussed the Concord Free Press, which published books in a familiar form—the paperback novel—but a new manner. The non-profit endeavor gives away 2-3,000 copies through its website and independent bookstores, “demonetizing” distribution to lessen the risk and anxiety for all involved. The press asks readers to give a donation to charity in lieu of the purchase price, and to pass on the copy to another person. So far the enterprise has issued three books and raised $127,000. I haven’t read any of the books, but I did go home and buy the snazzy T-shirt.

Peggy Nelson introduced her Twitter narrative In Search of Adele H., tweets in the voice of Victor Hugo’s daughter, who became obsessed with a suitor who didn’t deserve her, but also didn’t deserve to be pursued across two continents. This series started last June, and will run through March.

Finally, Matthew Battles, author of Library: An Unquiet History, offered a “Terms of service agreement for the book.” His presentation involved such remarks as “Book futurism is about that type of negative capability,” so I could tell that it was time for me to go home.

One question that occurred to me about all these innovative ventures and forms is whether they would get attention and support if they weren’t innovative. To reach their potential, most artistic forms have to be revisited and refined by other minds. Will the second attempt in each of these areas be seen as, well, meaningful? To take a small example, will the second meeting of the Boston Book Futurists attract as many people as the first?


Matthew said...

Ouch! Maybe I'm the one who stayed too long.

J. L. Bell said...

Nah, that was just when I realized I’d had a long day and would not be up for the pub afterward.