"These are the best of times and the worst of times," declared Robert McCrum. He paused, then added to wry laughter: "They are very confusing times."
Confusing, yes; cataclysmic, no. The attitude from both speakers and audience at Writing In A Digital Age, The Literary Consultancy's second annual conference, distinctly implied that the days of Chicken Licken are over; it's time to focus on action and leave the apocalypse to the journalists. In a session reviewing the past year's mergers, mistakes and mass-market mega-successes, Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at Random House, quoted Churchill. "This isn't the beginning of the end. It's the end of the beginning."
Both keynotes, from McCrum and Audrey Niffenegger, were bracingly optimistic about the current juncture in publishing's turbulent history. Niffenegger's review of the evolution of typography, set against her own journey from craft-obsessed book artist to seven-million-copy-bestselling author, posited that our new digital ecosystem is dissolving boundaries in an unprecedented way. As a professor at Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, as well as a prolific graphic novelist, illustrator and, most recently, collaborator with choreographer Wayne McGregor on Raven Girl for the Royal Ballet, she confided that "the word interdisciplinary lets you get away with a lot". Yes, the ebook is still in its clumsy infancy, just as the Gutenberg Bible aped the look of early manuscripts, but the book community is incredibly robust and self-sustaining. Allow time for the artists to catch up with the technology, she said, and in the meantime, stop worrying so much.
While Niffenegger focused on form, McCrum made a rallying call for content. In our "golden age of reading", he believes, readers still care most about compelling stories. Quality, original writing, rather than esoteric technological dabbling, is more important than ever before. He too called on the past to provide a sense of perspective, reminding aspiring authors that writing has never been free or easy, but often mortally dangerous. We need to take a longer view of progress - there were, after all, 50 years of novelistic drought between Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe - and focus on the language and ideas that are urgently meaningful to us now. If he were 25 today, McCrum claimed, he could think of no better place to be than independent publishing.
Of course, the debates that ran across the two days of this excellently curated event still contained plenty of juicy angst. McCrum's emphasis on the reader was particularly refreshing because, in all the conversation about author services, publishing strategies and interdisciplinary doodahs, the ultimate audience had a tendency to get obscured. The Collaborative Force panel, in which the Writing Platform's Kate Pullinger, Watershed's Jo Lansdowne and Media Futures' Nico MacDonald presented case studies of projects "pushing the boundaries of technology and narratives" - including the community novel Wiki A Million Penguins, the Neil Gaiman-backed Bristol-based narrative These Pages Fall Like Ash, and Microsoft's IE-ad-come-interactive-story Brandon Generator - provoked reactions ranging from silent meh to open animosity, as the Independent's Christina Patterson accused the panelists of peddling over-subsidised, underwhelming "posh art".
For me, the pressing question revolved around the degree to which these innovations truly improve on the core reader experience. The act of reading has always been subversive precisely because it requires - and perhaps depends upon - zero intervention from institutions, benevolent or otherwise. Our private imaginations are inherently anti-social and tricky to monetise. Most current digital collaborations appear to give more creative power and pleasure to their writers and designers (not to mention revenue and/or data to their sponsors) than to their readers. Do we really need our eyes and limbs guided by online prompts or offline ARGs, when for centuries we've created far more weird, wonderful and personally relevant "contextual content" in our heads? I can't help but think of my two-year-old niece, who still invariably prefers a cardboard box to a shiny plastic thing with buttons and beeps.
Steve Bohme's robust research from Bowker, on how readers are consuming and discovering self-published books, was a welcome corrective. Sure, the results were largely unsurprising. In 2012, self-publishing comprised 12 per cent of overall ebook purchases, with over 20 per cent coming from genre fiction such as crime, SF, romance and humour. Books were mainly found via browsing in subject, recommendation and offer sections online, and bought by older, prolific female readers, mainly on the merits of their price and blurb. But the very predictability of the findings was a sharp reminder of how out of touch traditional publishing can be with what free-range readers really want. It also touched on a second theme of the conference: value.
TLC's tagline is "literary values in a digital age", and in a panel of the same name Sally O-J, TLC editor and Sarah Waters' beloved first reader, mounted a spirited defence of the much-derided sphere of fan fiction. Yes, much fan fic is derivative dross, but it also exposes an alternative canon which, whether we like it or not, is inspiring hundreds of thousands of readers to grow their own. Take the example, O-J suggested, of the online popularity of slash fiction. Most agents would snort at the idea that heterosexual women have a voracious appetite for stories centred on gay male relationships, and would immediately consign such a manuscript to the bin. But by working with raw new authors to help refine their literary skills, and established ones to broaden their notion of the zeitgeist, might we approach a middle-ground between elitism and amateurism that could breed an interesting and profitable new wave of literature?
Considering value from the angle of money rather than morality, Dr Alison Baverstock made another insightful point in Saturday's self-publishing masterclass. There was much talk throughout the conference about pricing and the pros and cons of Amazon's KDP Select and Daily Deal services. Baverstock pointed out that publishers, who usually get all of their books for free, often underestimate how much people are willing to pay for quality work. Self-published author and SEO consultant Chris McVeigh agreed, insisting that he would never give his book away for free on a commercial platform. Perhaps, if we all believed more literally in the value of literature, and more strongly in the goodwill of readers - Niffenegger's self-sustaining book community - our literary values might not feel quite so compromised by the digital age.
On a lighter note, the two more performative sessions in the conference were as exhilarating and moving as ever. Canon Tales, nine seven-minute, Pecha Kucha-style talks where some of the UK's top literary and digital players used 21 images to illustrate their influences, obsessions and hopes, and Pen Factor, in which six brave writers had their works-in-progress critiqued and judged live by a panel of agents and publishers, were a reassuring reminder of the heartfelt, personal passion and talent at the core of the literary ecosystem.
But my overriding feeling on Saturday night was that as a community of publishers, agents and writers we must, as TLC director and conference organiser Becky Swift put it, "pull our socks up". Rather than getting swept up in expensive experiments, we need to think less about ourselves, less about short-term gimmickry, and more about readers and words. We must listen harder and fail better, all with our eye on the timeless goal: to get damn good books out there, and get them read.
This article originally appeared on Bookbrunch.