What Makes A Good Social Strategy?

What does a good social strategy look like? As one of the judges of the Warc Prize for Social Strategy, which has just named AMV BBDO's 'Doritos Mariachi' Facebook campaign 'the world's best social strategy', you'd think I might have my answer down pat. But after four months spent arguing the merits, or otherwise, of 40-odd case studies with a brilliant global group of strategists, planners, researchers, analysts and creatives, I have never been more aware of how subjective success can be in the social marketing world.

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Wary of my own prejudices, I employed the process to articulate the criteria I use to define social success. It turns out I have four.

Does this strategy use social channels in a uniquely appropriate and/or innovative way?

Does it spring from an idea that is inherently conversational?

Does it generate enough emotional advocacy to achieve behaviour change?

And is it the product of a company that 'is' social, rather than one that 'does' social to try to win awards?

Let's examine the first. I have to admit that, when one entrant explained that they 'started a relationship with bloggers', I scribbled a weary 'woohoo' over the submission form. Putting slick images up on Facebook or sending freebies to semi-celeb bloggers seemed fresh in 2008. They can still form useful components of a wider strategy, but they're mostly tired old tactics from print or PR squashed to fit a new space.

How about harnessing geolocation, augmented reality, wearable tech? How about looking beyond Facebook or Twitter to engage with exciting emerging communities on Findery, FightMe or VSCO?

Saatchi & Saatchi's ASB 'Like Loan' campaign, which won a Gold Award in the Warc Prize, used the power of group-buying to create the world's first home loan rate powered by likes. It's a great example of a brand using a uniquely social technology to game-change a risk-averse industry. Making an expensive video and slapping it on YouTube – a common tactic for weaker entries – is not.

And what about the small matter of an inherently social idea? What we're looking for here is a concept that makes people talk, a spark that builds relationships, a story that inspires others to tell their own.

A strong example of this is the Silver Award-winning 'Animal Strike' campaign by DDB Group New Zealand for Paw Justice, which gave animal lovers a series of tools to help their pets 'strike' on the internet in protest against new chemical testing laws. The 'black paw' symbol, whether plastered over a deactivated YouTube video or printed onto signs outside empty zoo enclosures provided a bold, simple message that people could customise to disrupt their own networks and convey their own sentiments.

The opposite of this is a brand pumping out a smorgasbord of content – Facebook posts, Twitter Q&As, blogger outreach, hashtags – at great volume but without a single coherent, emotional centre that will turn a marketing drive into a movement that others want to own and share.

Thirdly, behaviour change. It's no coincidence that the Doritos case study scooped both the Grand Prix and the Special Award for Analytics. With its mix of metrics encompassing reach, engagement, sentiment, intent to purchase, shift in demographics of Facebook followers and, yes, sales figures, it was a refreshingly sophisticated definition of social value in an industry that remains over-reliant on views, follows and likes.

The fact is, if you want massive exposure, you might as well just pay for a Facebook ad or put up a billboard. The superpower of social media is not exposure: it's influence. Did your audience do anything more taxing than clicking on a button or typing a smiley face? Did they create their own content and translate the spirit of your campaign into their own lives and words? Tracking emotional impact and consumer action is an essential indicator of social success.

Finally, a great campaign should be just one manifestation of a brand's commitment to a lifelong relationship with its consumers (not to mention partners, stakeholders and staff). Running shoe brand Mizuno deservedly won Warc's Special Award for Social Business with its Mezamashii Run Project, in which it collaborated with runners to rigorously test its product. The approach stemmed from a deep respect for existing online running communities and involved the company being publicly honest about its challenges and mistakes, resulting in an ongoing conversation between equals rather than a short-lived marketing stunt.

That's my take. You probably have four – or 40 – more. Tell me why they're better with a tweet to @mollyflatt.

This article originally appeared in Admap.

How Social Media Is Coming Full Circle

Last month, I took seven days' holiday, in a remote cottage on the Suffolk coast. There was no phone signal. I switched off the WiFi. I cooked some locally caught fish. Then I sat in front of the log burner and read The Circle, Dave Eggers' controversial Google satire. 12192913926_e8b9deb5b3_b

Eggers is a star of contemporary American fiction and, like his equally talented peer Jonathan Franzen, a deep sceptic of 'technoconsumerism'. His novel is a bit clunky, but it makes brilliant, albeit painfully resonant, reading for anyone who works in social media. As his heroine, Mae Holland, becomes indoctrinated by her new employer, a slick, data-hungry internet corporation called The Circle, she reduces her identity to a thousand tick-box surveys and comes to believe that sharing every moment of her life is not just a liberating choice, but a moral imperative.

The novel takes a rather dim view of humankind, and Eggers ignores how empowering social media can be when used with purpose and perspective. But his somewhat clunky challenge is both timely and important. It is all too easy to let your sense of purpose and perspective slide, especially when you start to feel that opting out of online sharing amounts to professional suicide.

In your personal sphere, you might find yourself starting to gag at the calculated cool of your tweets, or cringe at the one-upmanship on Facebook. As a marketer enslaved to the idol of content, you may start to suspect that the digital white noise you churn out on behalf of your brand is as hollow as the feeling in the pit of your stomach. Increasingly, you wonder whether you are feeding ego-trolls rather than strengthening relationships, and you secretly believe that the endpoint of social media marketing is A Billion Brain-Numbing Branded Buzzfeed Lists, with their guarantee of easy likes, shares and click-throughs.

Our sense of disillusionment is very real, and we need to listen closely to what it is telling us, but we would be unwise to underestimate the self-correcting power of the internet. As established platforms become over-commercialised and clogged with crap, a new generation of apps and platforms are aiming to reinstate something of the serendipity and yes, even anonymity, of the early social media landscape.

Take VSCO Cam, a photography app that stormed onto the scene in 2012, securing over a million downloads in its first week. VSCO (short for Visual Supply Co.) started out as an in-house editing tool, amassing a cult following for its outstanding 'presets' (filters to you and me). In 2013, the company took a dip into social networking by introducing the 'Grid', a minimalistic image-sharing stream that opens automatically when you run the VSCO Cam app.

It may look like a sleek Instagram, but VSCO Grid is a very different beast. You can't leave comments on photos; you can't even 'like' them. You can follow other users, but recommendations get served by the VSCO team themselves, not an algorithm. The emphasis is on curating quality content, not playing status games; there are no trashy memes or wobbly selfies, and VSCO founders Joel Flory and Greg Lutze claim that the platform will never focus on numbers or adopt the bolt-ons of a traditional social network.

Any brand with great visuals or a design-based offering would be mad not to pay attention to a community where quality of content and depth of emotion reign supreme. Of course, the price of authenticity is a tricky measurement, and any brand with a heavy hand will be quickly ostracised. But VSCO has recently collaborated with Levi's to create a bespoke LV1 preset, which denim fans are using to share images of their jean-clad commute on the Levi's® x VSCO Commuter Grid. It's one example of how both brands and individuals are reclaiming meaning in a crowded space.

Another can be found in Sgrouples, a free platform that lets users 'privately communicate with friends, families and groups' by creating invite-only conversations, free from trolls, frenemies and data thieves. Sgrouples allows users to pick which ads they want to see and which brands they want to interact with, including the option to see no ads at all. No profiling, tracking or media buying is allowed, so if brands want users to subscribe to their feeds, they must raise their game with increasingly useful and delightful content.

We may not have reached the apocalyptic meltdown of The Circle quite yet, and we hopefully never will. But to future-proof the value of social media we must make our sharing matter: less, better, more helpful and on our customers' terms.

This article originally appeared in AdMap.

The Gnarly Art Of The Social Brief

What is the single common thing that drives every social media strategy? A belief in the power of word of mouth? People? Measurable objectives? Facebook? Nope. It's the brief. Whether created by a planner or a marketer, whether served to an agency or an internal team, the brief is the genesis of any social media activity, whether that's a short-term campaign or ongoing community management. And if you're not achieving your anticipated results, the culprit – underneath all the cultural resistance, resource issues and problematic metrics – is probably that original brief.

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There's a great meme currently doing the rounds on Twitter, called 'client brief vs. client budget'. It consists of two images. The first, labelled 'client brief,' shows a still from the movie The Life Of Pi, with Pi standing defiantly on the prow of his boat while the CGI tiger Richard Parker roars in the foreground. The second, labelled 'client budget', shows a scruffy Indian boy in a makeshift costume posing behind a grumpy ginger cat. It has provoked glee – and homemade spin-offs – from thousands of creatives around the world. It has also, no doubt, secretly enraged thousands of planners too.

Every business in the world has more ambition than resource. Surely it's the job of a creative team to turn constraints into opportunities? Surely the culprit of social media is the response to the brief and its subsequent execution, not the brief itself? Inevitably, it's a bit of both; but too many campaigns are doomed, in full knowledge, from the start. Client and agency alike are all too used to accepting that every potential cash cow must be turned into a camel; designed by committee, but likely to spit out the basic metrics required to keep us all afloat. How do we stop settling for 'close enough?'

Let's take ourselves back to exam time at school. What makes a good exam question? Geared towards getting the best out of its students, it is driven by hope, not cynicism. It is specific enough so that students understand what they are being tested on, but not so prescriptive so that it precludes individuality or originality of thought. It is crystal clear on practical constraints – word count, time limit, format, number of examples – but, as to the spirit and technicalities of the solution, the examiner is open to being surprised. In fact, the examiner, 50 camels on, is desperate to be surprised. But the examiner also knows what good feels like. Even if the topic sits outside their specialist subject area, they have the experience and confidence to distinguish esoteric bullshit from left-field brilliance.

What makes a good answer? We all know that the first commandment of exams is to interrogate the question. The question, you see, is not the question. The question simply points to a whole host of more real and complex questions buried beneath those words on the page.

Here are some of the most common 'iceberg questions' buried beneath social media briefs. How will this answer stop me from losing my job? How can we convince the CEO that this isn't a waste of time? How can we make our service better so that people don't talk so negatively? Why should anyone be enthusiastic about this product when none of us even like it?

By interrogating the question, you also interrogate objectives and assumptions. Does your team value this enough to put in the necessary resource? Is your CEO willing for everyone else to have a public opinion? Will 20,000 Facebook fans really make any difference to your bottom line?

When you've surfaced the real questions, it's time to find some answers. At their core, you need one big, over-arching emotional idea: a story based on what your target audience really wants. This is your argument. Around this core argument you then create a number of more practical answers, known as tactics; these should be specific, surprising and scalable, offering a number of different entry points. And don't forget to show your workings; explain the insights that led you to your conclusion.

Finally, add something bold and disruptive. The thing you'd love to do, even though they probably won't. Stretch the muscle of their minds so that even if they reject the idea, they're that bit more loosened up.

Whether you're creating a brief or responding to one, I'd encourage you to spend twice as long as you normally do exploring those words on the page. You might not end up with a tiger, but you'll have so much more than a grumpy cat.

This article originally appeared in AdMap.

The Power Of Strangers

The image shows a young man leaning against a marble bannister in Grand Central. He is wearing a beanie and a straggly beard, with a skateboard in one hand and a bottle in the other. He looks half-hopeful, half-resigned. The caption above reads: "I told her that if she wanted to start over, to meet where we first kissed. She was supposed to be here 15 minutes ago." The Facebook post has 107,490 likes, 4,020 shares and 4,719 comments. If you aren’t already a fan of Humans Of New York, you’re missing a powerful daily hit of social media zeitgeist. Founded as a humble blog in 2010 by photographer Brandon Stanton, HONY “now provides a worldwide audience with glimpses into the lives of strangers in New York City” via its three million collective followers on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, and a No.1 New York Times bestselling book.

Why are strangers’ lives so compelling? Most of us have imagined the stories behind the faces we spot in the street, or experienced the unexpected empathy of a brief encounter on a train or in a hospital ward. In fact, encounters with strangers often provoke stronger emotions than exchanges with people we already love or hate. If I receive a compliment from a stranger on my shoes, it will probably mean more to me than one from someone I know, even if that someone is a stylist.

I don’t mistrust the acquaintance, of course but I know that there are probably a host of other social nuances driving her comment: a wish to let me know she loves me, say, or even a need to perform a subtle piece of one-upmanship. With the stranger – unless they’re coming onto me – it’s more likely to be a pure expression of admiration for those gorgeous boots. Moreover, because the stranger has had to take the risk that they will be thought weird or sleazy, their opinion feels all the more potent.

A 2010 study into how people choose a mate from Indiana University found that we are not only greatly influenced by what our friends think of our potential partner, but also by the opinions of complete strangers.  "If you walk into a party and don't know anyone, you might think, 'Why do I care what anyone here thinks?'” explains Skyler Place, a researcher in IU's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “In reality, we're paying close attention to what others in our social environment are thinking and doing."

The influence of strangers has been central to the rise of social media. Back in the early days of Live Journal blogs, AOL chat rooms and niche passion-based forums, the joy of the social web lay in the opportunity to reach out to likeminded strangers, beyond the restricted circle of your geographical or genetic community. If you were an early adopter dabbling in these emerging platforms, chances were that your friends and family simply didn’t have the dial-up capability or plain geeky interest to be present in those spaces. For the first time, you could pick the brains of people across the world who didn’t have the same background or biases as your real life social circle. As a consequence, their recommendations for brands or products – from a brilliant book to a stain-remover – held special weight.

Brands’ obsession with Facebook – to the exclusion of blogs, forums and topic-based communities on Twitter - can lead them to forget the importance of helping strangers to bond around their brand. Many of our lasting friendships develop circumstantially, through school or work, so our Facebook friends’ passions and preferences may diverge wildly from our own. Focusing on spreading recommendations within personal networks may not be as influential as brands think. Facebook itself seem to be clocking on to the need to reincorporate serendipity into the mix; Paper, its beautiful new US iPhone app, allows users to view their newsfeeds via topic, so that they can surface relevant popular updates from people outside their own friendship group.

It’s important to keep this in mind with offline engagement, too. Creating opportunities for strangers to connect around your product or brand – in a retail store, or an airport, or in the middle of the street – is highly emotive, and drives plentiful, highly charged content. It’s why stunts such as the interactive vending machines Coca-Cola created for the film Skyfall, or the car-sized gift boxes Mini seeded around Amsterdam streets on Boxing Day, are so effective.

When it comes to social influence, it’s not just who you know, but who you don’t know that counts.

 

Social Media Needs Strong Brands

Hands up if you hate the term ‘brand’. Yep. I thought so. The word originally comes from the Old Norse ‘brandr’ – the practice of stamping hot metal symbols on livestock – and the etymological whiff of brutality still lingers. Brands stink of globalized uniformity, of slick corporate coercion cloaked in a shiny logo and an uplifting tagline. And we hate them even more now we’re all supposed to be one, with our precious, unique, hydra-headed identities boiled down to a Klout score and a sexy one-line Twitter bio.

But the old-school principles of branding have never been more important. The organisations that are proving successful and resilient in the age of social media are those that have a strong sense of what their ‘brand’ means. Having worked with conglomerates and independents, blue-chips and charities, from Beirut to Birmingham, I have come to the conclusion that most social media problems are in fact branding problems instead. Teaching a marketing department how to use a #FollowFriday hashtag is not the issue. The issue, in the words of the great social media dissenter Jaron Lanier, is that “you have to be somebody before you can share yourself.”

Robert Bean has thirty years’ experience rebranding companies such as BMW, Honda, BT and Yo!Sushi . In his book Winning In Your Own Way, he explains that organizations must find the intersection between their culture, their product or service, and their reputation: what he calls their ‘single organizing principle.’ And listening to him talk at an event in London, I realised that social media terrifies many leaders exactly because it highlights the holes in their organisation’s SOP. Social media demands transparency, so if the truth under their tagline ain’t pretty, it’s quickly going to show.

One story Bean recounted involved a visit to a regional BMW dealership with the company’s CEO. Finding that the toilet was a little grubby, the CEO summoned the manager, pointed to the loo, and mused, ‘the ultimate driving machine?’ He didn’t need to say another word. The manager rushed off to solve the problem; he knew exactly what his boss meant.

It’s the equivalent of being able to point to Facebook, say ‘the ultimate driving machine,’ and trust your staff all over the world to understand exactly why and how they should connect with customers online. When it comes to social media – and indeed most things in life – a glut of rules, safeguards and processes is usually an indication of insecurity. Engaging in consumer conversation requires organisations to traduce boundaries: between departments, between on and offline spaces and between personal and professional selves. Having a simple SOP ensures consistency yet allows each individual to interpret that collective spirit in a way that suits their role, their personality and the conversation they currently need to have.

I may come from the box fresh end of the marketing discipline, but I spend well over half of my time running my own version of Robert’s branding process. Although teaching teams the technical stuff – platform best practice, content calendars, tools and tricks, timings and process – is important, it’s useless if they don’t understand the essence of exactly what it is they are representing when they engage online.

No-one following your Pinterest board? It’ll usually be because your images have nothing to distinguish them, no unique style or provocative purpose. That’s a problem with your visual identity, not a problem with your inability to ‘be social.’ What if your team has posted some inappropriate tweets? That’s a culture issue, not a ‘social media mistake.’ Or what if the quality of your Facebook pages varies wildly across different markets? You won’t solve it by trying to get every region to imitate brilliant Bulgaria, or by crafting a ten-page policy for them all to translate. Only once each one of those owners has understood and internalized your SOP, can they start to interpret it for their communities in a fluid and meaningful way.

The challenge is not just to define your SOP, but to make it spread both wide and deep, from the CMO to the intern. Leaders must show they are committed, but granular, practical action is also key. Start by building it into your rewards and incentives programme. You can throw up a thousand pretty wall vinyls, but an SOP will only really flourish once daily behaviours are being judged and reinforced accordingly.

If you’re struggling with social media, you probably need to dig deeper than you think. Make-up will only give you so much social sex appeal. You need to start with good DNA.

 

This article originally appeared on 12ahead.com.

Scarlett Johansson Gets Under The Skin

skin3 Velcro books. You probably have a few: those quiet, quirky novels that you relentlessly recommend. They’re not blockbusters; you most likely stumbled across them by chance. And although you find it difficult to describe precisely why you find them so compelling, you just want other people to have a go. To hear what they think.

Michel Faber’s novel Under The Skin has long been one of mine. Although it was shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread Award, it didn’t seem to make much of a blip on the popular radar, possibly because of its genre-bending nature. Ostensibly sci-fi, the novel follows the story of an alien called Isserley, who prowls northern Scotland harvesting the flesh of hitchhikers for her extraterrestrial employers, but the prose is as tautly opaque as the finest literary text. Part crime thriller, part psychological drama, it riffs on themes of corporate ethics, environmental destruction, factory farming, identity and class. See? It sounds rubbish. It’s not.

So when I found out that it was being made into a film directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Guinness ads) and starring Scarlett Johansson, I was worried that my odd little gem was going to become a big, reductive blockbuster. I was reassured when its premiere at the Venice Film Festival sharply divided critics, however, and it turns out to have all the strange and subtle anyone could want. Perhaps too much.

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There are many memorably good things about this film. Johansson, renamed Laura as the alien, is a marvel. Every movie Johansson stars in features obsessive, salacious camera shots, and Under The Skin takes this fascination with her face and flesh to the extreme, both revelling in and satirising the objectification. Laura’s discomfort in her human body, and her slow journey towards finding acceptance and even pleasure in the ordinary stuff of human life, is mesmerising. Glazer is not afraid to let a single scene of Johansson driving, or looking in a mirror, or walking, play out for several minutes, until we too become defamiliarised from those familiar shapes and textures of fat and bone and skin. It’s deeply eerie, slightly disgusting, and utterly beautiful.

This is enhanced by one of the best soundscapes I’ve ever heard in a film. The minute crackles, pops, crunches and scuffs of a human moving through their environment are magnified so that we feel like our senses have been flayed, raw to the air. Much of the horror of the scenes where we see Laura’s victims disappear into a sea of black goo, only to have their insides sucked into a conveyor belt of gore and their skin deflate into a twist of parachute silk, is aural. Every slow, terrified eye blink and glacial finger movement has the opaque intensity you get from ducking your head under the bath.

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The extraordinary ordinariness of Glasgow and its residents – many of whom were picked up by Johansson, cruising in her van, without realising they were part of a film – is deeply moving. From a cocky young clubber to a young man with a bone deformity making his way to Tesco’s in the dark, we see the full humour, heroism and vulnerability of people who could not be further from Hollywood. And later in the story, as Laura hides out with a reclusive man whose undemanding tenderness starts to crack her chill, her exploration of the surrounding wilderness – majestic snow-frosted mountains, forests, lochs – provides an exhilarating contrast.

As a mood piece, it’s an utter triumph. Aesthetically, the horror and the beauty are stunningly intertwined. And yet, and yet. You don’t have to be a soulless popcorn-munching pleb to long for the tiniest bit of structure or dynamism. As viewers, we are willing to wait a long time for the anticipated moment of reversal or development, because we’re so immersed. When it never comes, we are left with a slightly greasy taste in our mouth. Johansson gropes towards change and discovery but never quite gets there – meaning that when she literally climbs out of her burning skin in the putative climax, it doesn’t have the moment of impact the film so badly needs. Like her ash, we just kind of drift.

Like the book, it’s hard to say what the film is about, or even what really happens. The opening images – a series of circular surfaces, reflections and halos of light moving into and out of each other, evoking, in turn, hospital scanners and eyeballs – perfectly set the atmospheric scene. This is a film that lives in the boundaries between things, the silence beneath dialogue, the spaces where one body ends and another begins.

It’s a gorgeous ride to nowhere. Love it or hate it, it’ll velcro itself to your brain.

This review originally appeared on PHOENIX Magazine

Are You A Junk News Addict?

NEWS It’s Sunday morning, and in an uninspiring lecture hall somewhere in the boondocks of Bloomsbury, bestselling popular philosopher Alain de Botton is teaching us how to read a newspaper. He brings up a slide showing a photograph of a glacier crumbling into the sea, then flicks to a photograph of Taylor Swift in a pair of shorts walking along a sunny LA street. One is news, the other is not. But why? And how, as a society, can we rise above our Twitter-fuelled deluge of real-time ephemera and use the news to become better people, and think deeply about the issues that really matter?

De Botton has a new book to flog, and it makes sense that he should flog it at one of the School of Life’s brilliant Secular Sermons, a monthly gathering – complete with Lady Gaga hymns and themed biscuits – at which earnest young hipsters and earnest mid-life self-developers listen to the likes of David Baddeil on Fame or Mary Anne Hobbs on Love and Loyalty. De Botton founded the School, which gives people “a place to step back and think intelligently about central emotional concerns” via lectures, workshops, books and products, in 2008, and The News: A User’s Manual is exactly the kind of lightly controversial, culturally zeitgesity fare that regular attendees adore.

If you bookend your day with compulsive glimpses at the BBC News app or spend guilty lunch-hours bingeing on the Mail Online’s Sidebar of Shame, de Botton’s manual makes uncomfortably acute reading. Promising “to bring calm, understanding and a measure of sanity to our daily (perhaps even hourly) interactions with the news machine”, he analyses 25 classic news stories to prove that most ‘breaking exclusives’ are in fact the same old archetypes served up in different wrappers. Envy is fed; fears are resurfaced; relief washes through us when we witness that it is someone else’s turn for disaster today.“Yet there is a particular kind of pleasure at stake here too,” writes de Botton.

The news, however dire it may be and perhaps especially when it is at its worst, can come as a relief from the claustrophobic burden of living with ourselves, of forever trying to do justice to our own potential and of struggling to persuade a few people in our limited orbit to take our ideas and needs seriously. To consult the news is to raise a seashell to our ears and to be overpowered by the roar of humanity. It can be an escape from our preoccupations to locate issues that are so much graver and more compelling than those we have been uniquely allotted, and to allow these larger concerns to drown out our own self-focussed apprehensions and doubts. A famine, a flooded town, a serial killer on the loose, the resignation of a government, an economist’s prediction of breadlines by next year; such outer turmoil is precisely what we might need in order to usher in a sense of inner calm.

In other words, news addiction serves a very real purpose, and we should not feel ashamed. We should, however, reflect on the feelings that that interview with Natalie Massenet evokes in us, and try to use them to make us healthier and happier, rather than just stewing in envy. For example, a more rewarding approach might:

  • Seek out more complex, historic stories such as climate change, or the culture of Iraq, and find ways to make them part of everyday conversation
  • Use art, from paintings to theatre, to direct us to deeper more stimulating spiritual, cultural and emotional ‘news’ that is always relevant to humankind; and use art to make difficult subjects sexier and more palatable
  • Consider issues through the lens of a number of different biases – say, imagining what Miley Cyrus twerking would mean as part of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path
  • Rather than feeling guilt about our obsessions with celebrities, accept that role models are important – but understand which of their qualities we would really wish to emulate
  • Seek out good news so we get a better balance with the bad

The book is far from perfect. It has stirred up a hearty ripple of controversy in the news organisations it both implicitly and explicitly criticises – surely one of de Botton’s intentions. Reviewers have condemned it as “simplistic” for swapping probing research in favour of obvious platitudes; The Sunday Times‘ Dominic Lawson complains that “de Botton talks about the entire industry as if it were homogenous. It is extraordinarily diverse, more so than ever.” Indeed, such a short volume cannot hope to fully address the nuances of the questions the author raises, and his failure to acknowledge many of the positive practices and innovations being used by organisations such as the BBC is galling to a generation of journalists and broadcasters who have deep integrity in their work, and who are already being squeezed on all sides.

But de Botton’s writing is witty and lucid, his examples eclectic, and his focus refreshingly practical. And his accompanying website, The Philosophers Mail, which rewrites real-time tabloid headlines to give us a glimpse of what a more theraputic model of reporting might look like, is a work of disruptive genius.

This is an important book. Love it or hate it, has the capacity to stimulate some touching conversations about your own hopes and…oh, wait. I’ve just seen that Opening Ceremony is trending on #NYFW. Better go.

If you’d like to receive an elegant signed bookplate especially designed to fit into de Botton’s new book, email your retail receipt together with your address to siobhan@senecaproductions.com using the subject header ‘Bookplate’. 

This article originally featured on PHOENIX

Time For A Social Media Detox

slide8-blender You'd better accept it now: your January detox is bound to fail. The British Liver Trust has described short-term New Year abstinence as 'medically futile', but we don't need scientists to tell us that attempting to embrace salads and spinning classes at what is possibly the darkest, coldest and most anticlimactic time of year is dumb. Instead, I recommend you stock the boardroom with biscuits and motivate your team to shed some flabby social media habits in time for spring.

Marketers are always being told what to do in social media, but they're rarely told what to cut loose. So here are three toxic behaviours that commonly clog brands' communication colons, with ideas for how to cut them out.

Old habit # 1: Monitoring without listening. The importance of social media listening has become such a well-worn truism that it can be hard to remember what it really means. It does not mean paying for the most basic Sysmos service, slapping a bunch of graphs into PowerPoint, then sending them round in a monthly email that no-one reads. It does mean drilling down into specific conversations, so that you can understand the motivations and advocates. It does mean listening for what isn't there – such as finding the places where your competitors are being talked about but you are not, and asking why. And it does mean making sure that everyone in the company takes ownership of celebrating, stimulating and learning from your word of mouth.

New habit # 1: Qualitative weekly alerts. In practice, specific human stories inspire colleagues far more than impressive-looking quantitative reports. Assign a different member of your team to create a company-wide, super-short, super-visual social listening alert each week (use Email Monks to make it look easily digestible and appealing). This should contain one concrete example of conversation about your brand, competitors or category; one insight that piece of content demonstrates; and one suggestion for what the company might do in response.

Old habit #2: Relying on vanity metrics. The bullshit triumvirate of likes, followers and fans might look good on paper, but chasing empty social actions leads to meaningless content strategies. Frankly, the most valuable word of mouth – the personal recommendations that spread beyond your control and out of your sight, offline as well as on – will always be the hardest to capture. Nevertheless, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) is currently corralling a heavyweight panel of academics, brands and agencies in an attempt to develop a rigorous model in language marketers understand. Until then, remember that you need to weight your social metrics according to their level of emotional engagement (a passionate blog post matters more than a neutral tweet; a Facebook share with an added recommendation matters more than one without). That way, you know you're starting to measure advocacy.

New habit #2: Integrate conversation metrics with business metrics. Set business (not social) objectives and KPIs, and value your social media activity accordingly. Try to run pilot projects that solely use word of mouth as a marketing tool, so you can compare the results to other programmes. Benchmark your presences and volume of conversation against competitors. Ask advocates what effect their relationship with the brand has had on their purchasing and recommending behaviour. And employ trackable tactics (such as discount codes) to isolate WOM-driven sales and footfall.

Old habit #3: Obsessing over Facebook and Twitter. Social networking, opinion-forming and recommendation-sharing happens everywhere – on photo-sharing sites, in football team forums, at school gates. If your social media strategy is confined to consumer-facing tweets, you've kind of missed the point. Colleagues, partners, suppliers and clients are all potential advocates, and most online sharing is sparked by disruptive, emotional experiences that occur in real life.

New habit #3: Make your out-of-office messages conversational. It's amazing how strongly emotions are roused, and word is spread, when you apply a conversational approach to the least obvious areas of your business. Brainstorm ways in which you can add a touch of personality, wit or unexpected functionality to your invoices, post-meeting takeaways or delivery boxes, for example.

Of course, you shouldn't stop at three. Use this month to examine your social media assumptions, oust unspoken constraints and raise difficult issues around budgets, ethics and skills. You might not yet have all the answers, but even just framing the questions will set you up for a more purposeful and productive year.

Social Commerce Comes Of Age

social_commerce_final Social commerce – where the act of shopping becomes seamlessly embedded in the creation, sharing and consumption of social media content – has always been the pot of gold at the end of the social media rainbow. According to McKinsey, word of mouth drives 20-50% of purchase decisions, so enabling people to buy in the same venues and contexts where they’re chatting with their peers makes total sense.

Unfortunately, it’s had a less-than-salubrious history. Facebook has found it particularly hard to nail. First there was 2007's short-lived Beacon plug-in, which published users’ credit card activity in their friends’ news feeds. Presumably intended to inspire copycat purchases, it actually inspired shame, lawsuits and divorce threats. Then came in-page F-Commerce stores, which were prohibitively expensive for brands and an utterly disjointed experience for consumers. Finally, last year’s mobile app, Facebook Gifts, offered users a chance to share real and physical gifts from retailers. Users promptly declined, and the service has been dramatically scaled back after only eight months.

There have been a few good examples of brands building social elements onto their own ecommerce sites – see Levi’s Friends Store – and some interesting experiments in group buying from the likes of Groupon and Living Social. But the anticipated wholesale transformation of online retail by social media has failed to take place. Mostly, that’s because the people with the technology have failed to understand the behaviour.

Social commerce has the potential to be powerful, not because we want to share what we’ve bought, but because social content and conversation inspires us to buy. If you can make it easy for us to shell out in the very midst of our moment of emotion – the joy, envy, hope, hunger, lust, relief, or even guilt which we experience when we see a picture of a gorgeous interior, read a tweet about a brilliant book, or watch a how-to make-up video-then you’re quids in.

is why Pinterest has been so successful. An unashamed arena of aspiration where brands are more than welcome (and not edited out of user feeds, as with Facebook), Pinterest requires users to make at least two clicks on an image before it leads out to a shopping site. Nonetheless, shoppers referred by Pinterest are 10% more likely to follow through with a purchase than visitors from other social networking sites, and an estimated 47% of US online shoppers have made a purchase based on a recommendation from Pinterest (more stats here).

pinterest-shopify-infographic

Why? Pictures. On Pinterest, there are no elaborate storefronts, no sales bumpf or lengthy reviews – the whole site is one big aspirational catalogue, where our peers filter, curate and endorse the products they love.

It looks like investors have scented an opportunity. This summer Fancy, a Pinterest imitator which allows users to purchase any product direct on-site, raised $53 million from the likes of American Express and actor Will Smith, and is now said to be valued at $600 million. And the excitement is transferring to moving images too. ‘Hotspotting‘ – a technology which allows viewers to click on and directly purchase any object in a video – is gaining traction, particularly with fashion brands.

But what if you don’t have a visual product? If Chirpify can live up to its claims, hashtags are the other big social commerce hope. Having already pioneered a system whereby consumers can buy or sell products in-stream on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, using keywords and hashtags such as ‘buy’ and ‘gimme’, the Portland-based start-up is now launching ‘actiontags’ for brands.

 

how-it-works

 

Effectively turning hashtags into hypertext, actiontags allow brand followers and fans to click on commands such as #buy and #vote in order to do, instantly, just that. Founder, Chris Teso, believes that ‘hashtags are the new URL’, and considering that they’re simple, flexible, cross-platform and increasingly dominant in pop culture, he could certainly be right.

This August, Twitter appointed ex-Ticketmaster CEO Nathan Hubbard as its new head of commerce. It’s clear that social’s big players know that the time, and the technology, is finally ripe for social commerce. But as new and more sophisticated developments unfold, it’s important for brands to remember one thing. You can build mechanics that make purchasing your products as easy as pie, but if your content and conversation don’t inspire emotion, we just won’t bite. Technology won’t distinguish you – passion will.

The conversion of social media to sales, whether it’s achieved through a click, an actiontag, or some yet-to-be-discovered in-stream wizardry, will only come if you make us feel something first.

Why Every Writer Needs A Group

hemingway_lg-e1387211082722-800x600 “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” said Ernest Hemingway, whose idea of a great social life involved a remote cabin, dead animals, and the bottom of a brandy glass. “Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing.”

Isaac Asimov – a self-confessed claustrophile whose greatest childhood wish, according to his autobiography, was to live in a magazine stand in the New York subway so that he could listen to the trains and read – agreed. “Writing is a lonely job”, he wrote. “Even if a writer socializes regularly, when he gets down to the real business of his life, it is he and his typewriter or word processor. No one else is or can be involved in the matter.”

The writer as maverick loner, doomed to exhaust their emotional energy in the dazzling salon of make-believe inside their brain, has become a romantic cliché; and it is one that writers themselves particularly love. Certainly, to write well, we must, well, write, which requires hermit-like stretches of solo graft. But we’re also prone to using our creative introversion as an excuse for perfectionism and pride. In our day jobs we evangelise teamwork, but at night we obsess over our manuscripts like a host of literary Gollums, snarling at the idea of ‘feedback’.

By we, of course, I mean me. As a child of social media, I have long been a vocal champion of open mental API. But up until two years ago, while I over-shared in every other area of my life, I couldn’t bring myself to expose a single sentence of my fiction to someone else’s scrutiny. ‘Writing groups’ were herds of passive-aggressive women firing off thinly veiled invective about each other’s historical murder mysteries in community centres, and if I couldn’t pour out the prose with the sole support of a Moleskine and a martini, I simply wasn’t fit to write.

Everything changed one balmy August day in 2010, when my mother emailed me a link to (the pre-S.J. Watson, little-known) Faber Academy. “I don’t need a bloody course.” I snapped, contemplating the glittering string of adjectives occasionally bumping into a plot on my laptop. “I just need to write. I certainly don’t need the bastardised highlights of Steven King’s On Writing flogged to me by some consumptive publishing house reduced to whoring out its name to would-be soft-porn self-published housewives with more money than sense.”

At the other end of the phone, there was a dignified pause. “Darling,” my mother said, “It was just a thought.”

But it was a thought that lingered. Perhaps I was being a little rigid. Perhaps writing was more of a craft than a trait. Perhaps, just perhaps, a tiny bit of mentorship might not go amiss. In any case, it would be a good excuse to buy new stationary. So, two days later, I sent out the first ever extract of my book, and two months later, found myself in a room in Bloomsbury with fourteen other tense-looking weirdos who had obliterated their ISAs in order to secure a place on a six-month novel-writing course.

There are many reasons why I am now grateful for that decision, from the warmth, wisdom and wit of our brilliant tutor, Richard Skinner, to the generous guidance of guest speakers such as Helen Dunmore. But the fourteen most important reasons were undoubtedly those fourteen fellow weirdos. I didn’t know it on that first day, but thanks to Faber, I’d found my writing group.

Now, over two years later, ten people from our original class still meet every month. A fortnight before each session, two of us still email round 5,000 words for the others to discuss – just like Richard taught us – with a chairman to keep conversations on track. This spring, we even organised a four-day writing holiday in Italy, complete with exercises, readings, one-to-ones and private writing time.

We are friends now, proper friends. We meet each other’s partners, we cook each other dinner, we sing awful karaoke while drunk on cheap wine. But, in that room above a pub, our shared commitment to getting those damned novels finished comes first. It’s a unique relationship, necessarily different from those we have with our families and our regular mates.

Our group is the place where we can bang on about the stuff that would quite rightly be esoteric and irritating to anyone who has never tried to write a book. Did I get away with that exposition? Do my semi-colons drive you nuts? Have you discovered the snapshots on Scrivener? These people care. More importantly, they understand. They might not always have the answers, but you can be sure that their questions will force you to face up to all those sneaky little obfuscations and evasions that you’ve been trying to repress.

So what makes a good writing group? Without a doubt, diversity. We are recent graduates, we are working mothers, we are globetrotting businessmen, we are retired. We even, God forbid, live outside London. We all share a certain ballpark of skill, but it would be difficult to imagine a more eclectic mix of personalities and writing styles. Our collective life experiences and expertise (including that of a lawyer, a doctor and a wonderfully pedantic architect) help inject fresh perspectives, catch factual anomalies, and prevent any whiff of echo-chamber. Somewhere in the class, each one of us has our natural first reader, but we also have our natural critic, too. And reading others’ work is just as valuable as having yours read.

“To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light,” explains Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer.

Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies. The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own—a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

What else matters? Commitment – you have to be willing to consistently put in the time if you expect others to do the same for you. Kindness – you’re dealing with the raw underbelly of our identity and dreams, and it is easily flayed. Honesty – because a true desire to help each other succeed sometimes requires harsh truths, albeit tactfully delivered. And humility – fighting your corner can help you understand what you’re trying to write, but learning to shut up, sit back and listen is even better.

There’s a lot of luck involved in corralling a compatible group. But now I’ve experienced the benefits – benefits which have helped turn my novel from an egotistical outpouring into a almost-better-than-rubbish third draft – I would urge every aspiring writer out there to trawl writing courses, networking events, bookshops, libraries, social media and friends of friends until, by trial and error, they build their own magic circle of trust. And finally, remember that one old cliché still works; unfortunately, your mother is always right.

This article originally appeared on The Writing Platform.

Does Jude Law Do Henry V Justice?

HENRY V by Shakespeare, Image credit: Johan Persson

Henry V, Act 4, Scene 7. The King of England, engaged in the midst of a bloody battle with France, strides onto the stage with his nobles in tow, having just discovered that, against all codes of military conduct, the French troops have murdered the group of English boys left to guard the baggage. Henry begins:

I was not angry since I came to France Until this instant.

In Jude Law’s mouth, it’s not quite the truth. Undoubtedly, Michael Grandage’s much-anticipated production of Henry V confirms that Law has the acting clout to match his looks. He offers a charismatic and charming portrait of a heroic warrior king, maturing to an outstanding climax towards the end of the show. But the smooth pitch of righteous anger that he maintains throughout the production made me long to see a little more of the conflicted young man underneath.

To be fair, Henry has a lot of reasons to be angry. The king begins by being offered a haughty insult from a messenger of the Dauphin of France; next uncovers a betrayal by three of his closest nobles, conspiring with the French against his life; and then faces a dangerous campaign on foreign soil against ludicrous odds.

And certainly, Law does angry well. You believe that he could rally a divided nation of reluctant soldiers into devoted followers. You believe that, boyishly handsome yet supremely comfortable in his lean, louche frame, he could win the hearts of a weary public. It’s just a shame that he can’t find a few more moments of doubt amongst the daring, a few more moments where we see the sceptical mind of the commoners’ champion peeping out from under the crown.

The tensions that make Henry intriguing – the conscience of a man already well aware of the cost of royal escapades to ordinary English men and women, the insecurity of a youth only recently and reluctantly thrust on the throne – are all too often drowned in Law’s boys’-own gusto. Even in the opening scene, where Henry debates his right to launch a potentially cataclysmic war, we get the sense that he is already firmly plugged into his mission, and that nothing so trivial as doubt will get in his way. There is no real sense of internal struggle or decision-making – although Law repeatedly brings his hand up to his mouth, as aping a thinker’s pose will indicate his invisible brain whirr.

It’s a pity because, when Law shows us the human side of Henry in the final wooing scene, he’s brilliant. I’ve rarely seen a better take on the hilariously excruciating exchange as the tongue-tied king attempts to extract a promise of love out of Princess Katherine (a delightful Jessie Buckley).

HENRY V by Shakespeare,

Imsge credit: Johan Persson

There are other notable successes too. Ron Cook’s puffed-up old blusterer Pistol and Matt Ryan’s indignantly earnest Fluellen tease out every last note of comedy in the soldiers’ scenes; a welcome relief and poignant foil to the rest of the play’s patriotic bombast and death. Christopher Oram’s set, a weathered, Globe-esque wooden O, is elegant, simple and flexible, and his costumes strike just the right balance, nodding to the period without becoming distractingly ornate.

There are, however, problems with the verse-speaking from the rest of the cast. The energetic Ashley Zhangazha, as the Chorus, is typical – he has a fine relish for the music of the words but fails to make their logical ley-lines clear. When battle commences, we all too often get groups of men barrelling onto the stage, shouting stuff at each other. Their voices carry perfectly, but they simply don’t hit the emphases that make sense of the speech. It is laziness like this which can make audiences unfairly feel that they just don’t understand Shakespeare. But that’s the actors’ job.

Michael Grandage has chosen a clever swansong to end his directorial season at the Noel Coward theatre. This is arguably Shakespeare’s most accessible and humorous history, helmed by a hot A-lister with previous theatre form. It will no doubt be welcomed by critics and audiences alike. But I can’t help but feel there were some subtler, sadder gems to mine in this taut, glittering pageant of a show.

 

The Zen Of Social Media

twitter_zen Two years ago, I went on a 10-day silent retreat at a Buddhist monastery in the middle of the Thai jungle. One morning at 5am, in the first of the day's meditation sessions, with bites on my arms from the spiders I wasn't allowed to kill and cramps in my stomach from the food I wasn't allowed to eat, I finally achieved my revelation on the impermanence of all things. Praise the universe, I thought. Glory to the fickle world. In only 48 hours, this too will end, and I'll be able to go back to my blinkered, base, absolutely wonderful life of electricity, box sets and beef.

Back in London, I endeavoured to bring the lesson of eternal impermanence into my day job, because social media is surely the viparinama-dukkha of the corporate world. The once-startling pace of a Twitter feed feels positively sluggish compared with newer tools like Snapchat, the photo-messaging service which deletes users' images after 10 seconds, or Vine, the six-second video app which acquired four million users within two-and-half months of launch. Every day we're bombarded with start-ups promising to be the next global sensation, plus a raft of updates and tweaks from established platforms. For users, it can be a little bewildering. For businesses, it's hell.

Over the recent years, brands have gone to great lengths to ensure they can successfully manage and grow a community in social media. They have invested a lot of resource and budget into developing their 'owned social' strategy and considering how they can track and measure success, respond to their community outside traditional working hours, and continuously engage through daily editorial. They have created ethics policies, content calendars and process flowcharts. They have argued with legal. They have consulted the interns.

Most of them have needed to find a new employee, or even a new team, to turn the strategy into a reality. The skills possessed by the 'community manager' or 'social team' are a unique mix, requiring a deep understanding of the organisation alongside knowledge of social platforms, professional writing skills, and, most importantly, the ability to talk to people in a natural and human way.

But just as soon as they thought they had their head above water, a tidal wave of innovation – and the concomitant change in consumer behaviour – comes and knocks them back under, flailing and spluttering. Twitter smarts, good copy and flexi-time are no longer enough.

Throughout 2013, we have seen a rise of new platforms and new features on established platforms, which add a plethora of new skills to the checklist. Creative, design and production demands have skyrocketed, particularly when it comes to mobile. The ability to whack out hi-res and appealing images, GIFs, Vines, pins and videos is now essential if brands are to progress their community management efforts.

Text updates enhanced by the odd lo-res asset will no longer suffice. Rich media assets are now part of a staple content diet needed to realise the ambitions of a solid social marketing strategy and achieve the required KPIs around views, engagements, sentiment, click-throughs and audience reach. As I write this, I can see two people from our production department crafting a Vine for one of our clients. The skills, patience and time required for six glorious seconds of stop-motion animation are very real indeed.

Led by social technology and consumer behaviour, brands and agencies need to keep pace and acquire the relevant production and communication skills, not just for their existing presences but for the emergent communities that they wish to engage. Our hunger for ever more digestible, engaging and accessible content is only going to grow, and we will start to see content production skills that are currently quite novel become a regular feature both within internal social teams and on agency service menus.

Moreover, just as brands struggle with the impermanence of social media, they fret about its permanence too. Nothing ever really dies online. What if they make a mistake as they scramble to participate on these new platforms? Will they be forever haunted by knee-jerk comments continually resurfaced by Google, or screen shots of embarrassing etiquette fails?

The unwelcome fact is that a truly social approach is, by definition, never finished, never comfortable and never entirely fit for purpose. Organisations must design a team and a way of working that is flexible, curious and confident enough to embrace continually changing technology and skills.

Hey, nobody said it was going to be easy. Just be grateful you don't have a pillow made of wood.

This article originally appeared on WARC.

Big Is Still Beautiful

luminariesstack Unity Studies by various impressive-sounding academics have shown that, thanks to a multi-tasking whirl of texting, tweeting, one-click buying, email checking (on average 30 times an hour) and – oh, look, a butterfly! – our reading habits are officially rubbish. Statistics verified by the Associated Press suggest that our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight in 2012. To put that in context, the attention span of the average goldfish is nine seconds. Yep. Goldie could beat you at Pong.

Over the past few years, publishing pundits have predicted that this will usher in a shiny new era of short-form fiction, as authors scrabble to adapt to their attention-deficit audience. This is, they declare, the era of flash fiction, perfect for readers addicted to micro-this and insta-that. We are witnessing the rise of the Twitter novelthe return of commute-friendly serialisation via media-rich apps, and the resurgence of the short story - after all, the grande dame of the form, Alice Munro, just won the Nobel.

So upon hearing that the Man Booker Prize has been awarded to Eleanor Catton for her vast, dense and demanding second novel The Luminaries – with 12 parts and 852 pages, the longest book in the history of the competition - must we conclude that the twenty-eight year old author – incidentally, also the youngest winner in the history of the competition - is dangerously out of touch with her generation, and that the judges have no idea what the reading public enjoy?

Of course not. For every example that short books own the zeitgeist, there is equal if not more evidence that this is, in fact, the era of the epic. Last year, The Daily Beast’s Marc Wortman complained that a combination of over-easy Google research, and an ebook-influenced disregard for length, was in fact encouraging non-fiction authors to release ever-burgeoning tomes. When it comes to fiction, consider the popularity of the two previous Booker winners, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, or the excitement around Donna Tartt’s enormous, long-awaited new novel, The Goldfinch – modeled on the nineteenth-century doorstoppers she adores. Add in the fact that most writers considered to be the world’s current finest – Jonathan Franzen, Haruki Marukami, David Mitchell – and many of the Best Young Novelists on this year’s Granta list – Steven Hall, Adam Thirlwell, Benjamin Markovits - also have a penchant for four hundred pages plus, and the short-form ‘trend’ seems distinctly baseless.

Both Franzen and Dave Eggers have recently released diatribes against our obsession with digital, afraid that the ‘Play Doh’ of social media is corrupting the publishing industry; Franzen is famously disparaging about novelists who dirty their toes in Twitter. It’s all too easy to agree with them, in a chicken-licken sort of way, but when we look at our bookshelves or ereaders, the generalization falls apart. Sure, there are plenty of bad, shallow books out there, but there’s also plenty of extraordinary, original, long-form new fiction – not to mention the fact that Eggers and Franzen, for all their self-avowed maverick status, still seem to sell their massive opuses in the mainstream rather well.

Consider, too, the people around you on the tube. Chance is, far more of them will be ploughing their way through Game of Thrones than zipping through an installment of a serial or downloading a novella. Catton herself has explained that The Luminaries was "very strongly influenced by long-form box-set TV drama”, which she believes to be the novel’s “on-screen equivalent," and it could be said that our hunger for sprawling escapism has never been greater, precisely because we spend so much of our working day hopping from half-baked blog post to Pinterest soundbite.

Earlier this year I attended a workshop at The School of Life called The Connected Brain, in which psychologist and writer Dr Tom Stafford and neuroscientist Dr Ben Martynoga examined how our brains are changing to accommodate the demands and distractions of social technologies. The overriding message was: not much. We’re good at adapting our minds to exploit new media, and we’ll happily outsource elements of memory that technology better serves, but we never loose the old skills; it just takes a bit more effort to dredge them back up.

The form of the novel simply isn’t as fluid or vulnerable as commentators would have us believe. It is led by the needs of authors; not readers, or technologists, or academics. The creative possibilities afforded by a rich, roomy, multi-plot behemoth are unique, and readers are resilient too. The attention we lend to a novel is entirely different to that which we expend online. Sure, nowadays it might take us a bit longer to relax into the slower, denser pace of a big book, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the capability, or the hunger, to do so.

This article originally appeared on Bookhugger.

Writing On Writing

keep writing It is a well-worn truism that all novel-writing advice boils down to a handful of simple tenets. Show, don’t tell. Cut adjectives. Kill your darlings. Get in late, and out early. Read your work aloud. Don’t give up your day job, you masochistic fantasist; don’t you know that publishing is dead?

Okay, so that last one was mine. But from Aristotle’s fifth-century Poetics to this year’s On Writing by A L Kennedy, the elements of how to spin a satisfying tale have remained remarkably consistent. That’s the thing about good writing; the rules don’t really evolve. Our ability to tell awesome stories is part of what makes us human – self-consciousness is, after all, the greatest story of all – and it seems that the sweet-spots of pace, character development, suspense and so forth are ingrained inside our neurons. Of course, every so often the rules get broken by a genius, who redefines the possibilities of form, subject or style; that’s the best writing of all. But we need an instinctive consensus about the golden mean for those subversions and revolutions to work.

Yet writing about writing has become nothing less than a fetish over the past few years. The culprit is, yet again, that tireless, whip-wielding mistress we call Social Media, who offers everything from hourly tweets served up by self-promoting editors to twee typographic Pinterest posters exhorting adverb genocide. That isn’t to say the advice is always bad. There are some genuinely helpful new articulators out there, such as Chuck Wendig, a prolific blogger/novelist whose writing-advice ebooks say the same things over and over again, but with such brilliant self-deprecation, humour and filth that I never get bored. And the online vogue for circulating vintage essays from canonical writers such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway has resurrected some beautifully examples of the genre. I can lose hours at a time browsing sites such as Brain Pickings, Maria Popova’s inspiring online grab-bag of creative inspiration, or the Paris Review’s Art of Fiction archive, featuring interviews in which authors from William Faulkner to William Gibson discuss their craft.

That timewasting is, of course, one reason why we are so obsessed with re-describing (and often unnecessarily complicating) the writing rules. Yes, the rise in digital self-publishing, which does not offer that crucial editor-author relationship, has fuelled demand for DIY novel how-tos; but frankly, we could just stick ten sentences up on the wall above our laptops and be done with it. The fact is, it’s easier to read about writing than to do it. Poring over fellow wordsmiths’ wisdom makes us feel like we’re putting time in on the novel - regardless of the fact that it has no more tangible impact than bunking off to watch Game of Thrones.

A second reason is that the best writing advice is so profound in its simplicity, and therefore so difficult to apply, that writers must repeatedly grapple with it, like (if I may) Peleus wrestling the shape-changing nymph Thetis, to pin it down and into their work. Those pithy injunctions aren’t so much rules as descriptions, principles of literary taste. They tell us what great writers do instinctively, and although taste can be honed and matured, the dash of beautiful tastelessness that elevates a technical success to an emotional tour de force is even harder to acquire.

Frankly, I think rookie writers (and by rookie writers I mean me) would be better off spending less time pondering how to write, and more on clarifying whatever it is that they passionately, immoderately want to say. The best way to develop a craft – once you’ve had some basic training - is by doing. By experiencing different contexts, trying your own ideas, and, most importantly, by not just striving for the ‘good’, but being brave enough to make your own mistakes; by being rubbish and then persisting in your rubbishness until you become slightly less so. Surely the best way to progress a novel is to think more about the world of your book, write more, and read the works, not the discursions, of authors you admire. There’s a fine line between pruning your voice into a leaner, more sophisticated and more generous version of its natural self, and chopping at it from so many different angles that it becomes a timid mess.

Personally, I’m going to try and go cold turkey for a while. If any developer out there fancies coding a web tool that, whenever a user attempts to click on a link to the latest nugget of literary wisdom, blocks the page and flashes up a GIF of Hilary Mantel with a shotgun exhorting them to THINK AND WRITE instead, I’ll stump up the fee.

Yes: real, shiny money. I didn’t give up the day job, you see.

This article originally appeared in Bookhugger.

The Real Value Of Books

DoeringerFreeBooks Do you think Dickens should cost more than Dan Brown? Do you approach a 99p ebook with a different mentality to a £10 hardback? And does a soy latte really have more impact on your life than a book? The value of literature – not in the sense of soul-stirring, brain-pimping, culture-cementing worthiness, but in the sense of cash – has never seemed more contradictory.

Historically, reducing the cost of book production, distribution and ownership has been an important step in increasing the freedom and sophistication of society, from Gutenberg’s press to Penguin’s sixpence paperbacks. Books are essentially whores, not madonnas; the more people that get the chance to handle them, the better for us all. Sure, there is a place for beautiful, limited edition objets, handcrafted by callous-palmed bookbinders, but that place is on a coffee table, not out in the world, in pockets: connecting people, spreading ideas.

But that was before the Kindle Daily Deal, which gives the harvest of an author’s heart and soul the status of a hamburger. That was before I saw recent book-buying data from Bowker, which finds that price is the third factor for people buying paper and ebooks (behind author and subject), but the first factor for those buying self-published ebooks. The first factor? Are people seriously downloading manuals on falconry and novels about time-travelling dinosaurs simply because they are free? Do they perhaps believe that reading works like your five-a-day, shoving in a stale turnip of a story because it will eventually come out the other end just the same as a fresh organic strawberry?

And no, apparently free books do not act as gateway drugs, luring non-readers in, before hooking them on more expensive product. At the The Literary Consultancy’s annual conference Writing in A Digital Age, self-published author and SEO expert Chris McVeigh highlighted research showing that people who read free books simply do not go on to pay for books. He declared that he would never offer a book for free on a commercial marketplace such as Amazon; he may give a few copies away within his personal networks, but maintaining the idea that his work was actually worth paying for was an important part of his marketing strategy.

This is part of a wider debate around the value of original creativity in social media. Jaron Lanier, early internet pioneer and author of seminal manifesto You Are Not A Gadget, was once a vocal advocate of online music streaming, but now insists that society simply must start to pay for what makes it rich. As he put it in a recent talk in London, “If we’re in an information economy, and information is free, we’re fucked.” Surely, musicians and journalists have taught us by now that freebies can’t save an industry.

Producing even half-decent literature is extraordinarily expensive. One of the best things about Unbound, the brilliant crowd-funding platform that allows prospective readers to invest in unknown authors or quirky projects from established names, is the insight it gives the public into exactly how much money is needed to create a book. In most cases, the bulk that money doesn’t go on award-winning cover art or innovative multiverse web builds. It goes on time. Time to write. Time to research. Time to edit. Then more time, to write and research and edit again. Even if you believe art is a luxury, it seems extraordinary that a ticket to the theatre can cost ten times as much as a novel, when the former is a one-night stand and the latter a lifelong relationship.

At the same TLC conference, Alison Baverstock, Senior Lecture in Publishing at Kingston University, ventured to suggest that, because people who work in book PR get books for free, they underestimate how much consumers are willing to pay. And yes, perhaps the publishing industry does need to grow a pair in regard to pricing; but to be fair, finding itself squeezed on all sides and pilloried from all angles, the publishing industry is doing its best. I think the responsibility lies with the readers.

If you get a mass-cc email containing a PDF of the latest must-read, swallow your pride, be that guy, and send a mass-cc rant back. If you get sent a freebie from a marketing department, pay full price for another novel that same day. Don’t showroom in bookshops, buy online, then moan about the demise of the high street. If you care about hardbacks, make an effort to buy one for every handful of ebooks, and buy them as gifts.

Of course, free books still have an essential place in libraries, schools, and education and social schemes. Literature is a human right. But it simply must be subsidised by those of us who can pay.

This article originally appeared on Bookdiva.

Self-Help Fiction

Hi. My name is Molly and I’m a self-help addict. Although I avoid anything involving diets, doctrines and fist-pumpers in suits, recent, beautifully written pop-psychology classics as Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit have given me a socially acceptable way to indulge. I’m certainly not alone; in 2012, Laura Vanderkam identified that “45,000 self-help titles are in print, and the self-improvement industry does $12 billion worth of business each year”, while the impoverished NHS is even considering prescribing self-help titles to treat depression. But my deepest and most lasting moments of self-discovery still come wrapped in a fictional pill, and I’m not alone in this, either. Waterstones’s new online project The Book That Made Me features videos and testimonials in which cultural superstars such as Michael Parkinson, Malorie Blackman and Caitlin Moran discuss the books that have had a profound impact on their characters and lives. The hope is that the rest if us will join in and share our own literary lifesavers, either on the website or by tagging content with the #TBTMM hashtag, and that the best stories will be displayed in Waterstones bookshops this summer. A quick browse of the existing content shows many moving, uplifting and surprising tales beginning to emerge.

In a similar vein, the London Library Magazine runs a quarterly Bibliotherapy feature, in which members discuss the books that helped them weather tricky life events. This issue, I was lucky enough to be invited to contribute, so below, in the spirit of #TBTMM, I’d like to share my recommended reading for anyone going through a long-distance relationship. Please, join in, contribute to the Waterstones project, and tweet me your tales. It’s time to rack up your book karma brownie points.

A Book That Made Me: The Vinter’s Luck, by Elizabeth Knox

We had been going out for a year. I wasn’t quite a waitress in a cocktail bar but, as an out-of-work actress, I was close enough. He was a lawyer, which was bewildering. We shared a fabulous, fractured 12 months in London before he announced that, inspired by seeing me pursue a career that I loved (although considering that by this time I was starring in a Japanese shampoo commercial, the terms ‘career’, ‘pursue’ and ‘love’ should be interpreted in the loosest of terms), he was jacking in his magic circle fast-track to retrain for a job in the sports industry instead. In Arizona. For two years. Followed by, as it turned out, a summer working in New York, then nine months in Paris.

On receipt of the news, I put on an impressive display of bravery, selflessness and quietly anguished solidarity, which was, I am reluctant to admit, cut through with an ignoble whiff of joy. Because although being in a relationship with this good, gorgeous man was flesh-sweet, soul-deep and everything in between, it was also sorely starting to encroach on my reading time. I’d only ever previously had undemanding flings, and had thoroughly underestimated how much talking and gazing and basically non-book-related activity true love requires. Of course, several months later, finally curled alone on his massive bed after he’d gone, I fondled and discarded one paperback after another; for the first time I had discovered a space inside me that a book couldn’t fill.

That’s when I met Xas. Xas was a fallen angel with enormous white wings, leather trousers, a penchant for gardening and a lingering perfume of snow. In short, the perfect lover: exotic, damaged, fickle, faintly ridiculous and, being fictional, incredibly discreet.

The Vintner’s Luck (1998), a novel by New Zealand writer Elizabeth Knox, tracks the unique relationship between Xas and Sobran, a vintner in eighteenth-century Burgundy. At the start of the story Xas, injured from a divine battle, tumbles out of Hell, on to a hill-top, and into the arms of the wistful young peasant. Year after year the angel descends to the same spot, to see what changes joy, violence, illness and betrayal have wrought on his mortal specimen, while Sobran quietly provides the tenderness and constancy Xas secretly craves. Between rendezvous, we follow Sobran’s struggle to build a meaningful life – with his homely wife Celeste, his rough wartime comrade Kalmann and his beautiful widowed employer, the Countess de Valday – as France itself struggles to reconcile the new scientific discoveries with the old comforts of faith.

Knox’s brilliantly original story had everything I needed to weather separation: escapism, romance and torment, not to mention what is perhaps the ultimate portrayal of lifetime long-distance love. Arizona might have seemed unbearably hot and far away, but Hell, gratifyingly, sounded worse. Knox’s themes are epic, but her prose is subtle and earthy, lyrical in the most specific and sensual way. It’s also highly erotic, and when you’re on a 12-hour plane journey anticipating the first sexual contact you’ve had in 3 months, a bit of inter-species sodomy goes splendidly with your complimentary nuts.

On my last visit before the by now ex-lawyer was unexpectedly transferred to London for good, I took him a copy of The Vintner’s Luck, lovingly inscribed. He told me he hated it, and I seriously considered throwing those three loyal years away. Instead, Reader, I married him, which has resulted in the most extraordinary bliss. And now, whenever I think back to those early years of our own modest, still-unfolding drama, I always return to the very last lines of The Vintner’s Luck. 

"You fainted and I caught you. It was the first time I’d supported a human. You had such heavy bones. I put myself between you and gravity. Impossible."

This article originally appeared on Bookdiva.

PHOENIX Needs You

PHOENIX What would your ideal magazine website look like? Why do you visit sites associated with print magazines? How do you connect with mags on social? And what would bring you back to a fashion and culture site again and again, every day, like a drooling, toothless glossy-mag meth-head?

I am delighted to have been appointed Digital Editor for PHOENIX Magazine. I've been Features Editor for our print edition for the past three years, and now I have the opportunity to redefine everything we do online, including a full web redesign and overhaul of our social media strategy. I'd love you to tell me what you want.

PHOENIX is an independent, London-based quarterly magazine which brings the perspective back to fashion and culture. Perspective in the sense of an intelligent and witty view on a breathless industry; and perspective in the sense of taking a stand, having an opinion and promoting quality and originality in all its forms. In short, cutting-edge creativity from some of the best writers, stylists, designers, artists, photographers, actors and musicians around.

As someone who is both a paper-sniffing, hardback-reading traditionalist, and a tech-licking, Kindle-touting geek, I want PHOENIX to be the place where we can reconcile both extremes of our twenty-first century appetites. So, while our quarterly print magazine is the spirit of PHOENIX - the place where you can shut out the world, mix a negroni and luxuriate over deeply delicious shoots, features and interviews - the website will become the place where you can live like a PHOENIX every day, via short, visual, real-time nuggets of inspiration and opinion. Premium espresso shots for the mind, body and soul, if you will.

Social media is the beating heart of PHOENIX digital. Hell, I want to do as little work as possible; you're the ones who know where the everyday gold lies. My dream is to build a community of brilliant people who embody the PHOENIX attitude, sharing ways in which we can cut through the same old anodyne bullshit and rise above the rest in what we wear, read, watch, visit, do, listen to and buy.

So talk to me. Let me know what you want. Who you want. Where you want it. How you want to be involved. Leave a comment here, connect with me on Twitter, drop me an email.

Oh, and did I mention that you can buy our latest issue, SUNSHINE & SHOWERS, online right now? Oh look, I just did. You know what to do.

Digtial-Only Imprints: Inclusive Or Cynical?

Carina UK Poor old big-name publishers. Stick to your guns by insisting on the value of your traditional, print-centric gatekeeping, and you'll be shunted straight to the top of the endangered species list. Pander to the plebs by putting a fancy cover on fan fiction, and you'll be decried as an opportunist whore who has swapped literary values for trending hashtags. It's enough to make you run screaming out of your Bloomsbury redbrick and set up in a cheap little Hackney warehouse with a bunch of fixie-riding digital natives who can knock out a Dickens alternate reality game before breakfast.

For those brave soldiers who have remained in the barracks of trade publishing (the smell of fear and ink catching in their nostril hairs), digital only-imprints must seem like a promising hybrid. First, take a brand that both readers and authors trust. Next, put said brand in a genre-specific digital cage, with a ringmaster offering some editorial and production support. Kick off the show with a few established writers and, finally, allow the unsigned, self-published or unpalatably niche pen-monkeys in to play.

Random House has been one of the earliest and most comprehensive adopters, with Hydra (sci-fi and fantasy), Alibi (mysteries and thrillers), Flirt (new adult, or soft porn) and Loveswept (romance and women's fiction). Harlequin UK has Carina (multiple genres) while Little, Brown is breaking with convention to focus on literary and non-fiction with Blackfriars. This month alone, Penguin, Kensington, F+W Media, HarperCollins and Bloomsbury have announced new or expanded digital imprints. Democracy, speed and low overheads, plus author support and brand heft: what's not to love?

Cue a scandal around the "predatory" Hydra contracts, which have been derided for offering no advance, deducting costs such as editing and design, and retaining rights for the term of copyright. Follow that with Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), pleading with writers at the Literary Consultancy's conference, Writing in a Digital Age, to be "extremely wary" of "the new vanity publishing". Sit back, scroll through your RSS feeds, and watch the name-calling ensue.

"It's easy to see why this option is attractive for a publisher," explains Ross, who recently published an ALLi manual for authors called Choosing a Self-Publishing Service 2013. "They can push books into a growing marketplace at a much lower cost than with a conventional imprint, and reap the profits. From the author's perspective, though, such imprints seem to offer the limitations of digital-only publishing, without providing any of the offsetting advantages available to self-publishers – control over format, publication dates and pricing; creative freedom; better royalties. Authors need to think carefully about what value is being added here and look closely at the contract's terms and conditions, comparing them with what they get if they publish themselves."

But is this an example of yet more publisher-bashing? Should we be giving them credit for at least trying to find a compromise? Evidently, the imprints vary hugely in their aims and approach.

"The Blackfriars contracts are conventional publishing contracts," explains Ursula Doyle – Blackfriars co-founder and Virago associate publisher. "We acquire the rights – all for full term of copyright so far, as is usual, but allowing for certain reversions in certain circumstances – we remunerate the author and offer advances, and we bear all the costs."

Doyle is passionate about their integrity. "Blackfriars is a small list by the standards of many digital imprints, and it is as carefully put together as our other literary lists. The books are edited, designed and published in the same way as all our books. We have dedicated publicity and rights people who ensure they have the same shot at serial, review and interview coverage; one of our launch titles, Too Good to Be True by Benjamin Anastas, was serialised over four pages in the Observer Review last weekend. All our authors are remunerated for their work, and all of them so far have representation. We believe that a digital-only launch is the perfect way to publish wonderful books that otherwise might not be published at all, purely because the market for print is so brutal right now."

And what of authors? While some are raging about the small print they failed to read, others are celebrating this new flexible approach. Amy Bird, who has just signed a three-book deal with Carina, and whose first novel Yours Is Mine will be published next month, spent months bashing her forehead against traditional brick walls before the Carina team visited her MA creative writing group at Birkbeck, University of London.

She considers her contract more than fair – there is no deduction or charge for editing, marketing or design, and there are provisions for rights to revert to her after seven years if certain conditions are met. "True, there is no megabuck advance," she admits. "But I don't need an advance: I work part-time as a solicitor. And I am being offered 50% rates on royalties, which seems fair. And most importantly, nobody is asking me to get my cheque-book out."

She believes there are many misconceptions about the industry. "Digital publishing is not about dumping books on a Kindle. From my experience, it is about bright and talented editors finding work that they love and working with an author to get a book the best it can be. With Carina UK, I have gone through all the processes one would expect with a 'traditional' publisher: initial feedback with detailed suggestions for structural revisions; a full copy edit; consultation on title, cover designs and marketing. The amazing thing about digital for me is that I submitted my novel in late February, and it will be coming out in mid-July. Going digital is not for everyone, but for people like me, who have been tweeting, reviewing and blogging for years, it feels natural, exciting, and, frankly, kind of cool."

Of course, the truth of these imprints will be in the storytelling. Until we see them producing consistently exciting work over the long term, neither authors nor readers should be dazzled by their daddy's name. But I strongly believe that we should also get better at taking and celebrating risks. We must allow publishers to fail better, without engaging in continual media mudslinging, or citing specific horror stories as symbols of endemic rot. Otherwise that brave, imperfect future, of which we don't yet know the contours, won't take shape at all.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

Writing And Reading In A Digital Age

tlc2 "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.

Reading Lessons From A Two Year Old

ESME When I first found out that my sister was pregnant, I knew there were countless pleasures in store. Hot, squirmy cuddles. The DUPLO farm. Jelly.

But above all, I couldn’t wait for the reading. I longed to rediscover the stories I loved as a child, from Each Peach Pear Plum to Pippin and Pod. I wanted to be the one to start her on the adventure of a lifetime, helping her discover for herself the freedom and nourishment to be found between a pair of wipe-clean boards.

What I didn’t anticipate was the fact that, two years and nine months later, it was my niece that would be teaching me. Sure, grown-up literature demands subtlety that a toddler can’t appreciate. But I soon realized that a lifetime of accumulated reading habits had derailed some basic instincts that were still strong in a box-fresh mind. Thanks to Esme, I’ve learnt some sharp lessons about how to be a better reader. Here are five of the best.

Be less forgiving

Kids are ruthless. At an age when the real world is as magical and mysterious as any fictional fantasyland, it takes a seriously compelling story to keep them on your lap. Forget subtle undercurrents and enlightening metaphors; if a book doesn’t hook them quick and deep, they’re off. And although there is much to be said in literature for the difficult and the digressive, I have realized that I am far too accepting of self-indulgent authors. Why shouldn’t a book have backbone as well as beauty? Why do I condemn my own failing attention span rather than a writer’s lack of skill in keeping me hooked?  I have determined to abandon my ridiculous rule of finishing every book I start, ploughing through languorous, critically acclaimed crap that seems to posit that plots are for plebs. There are too many genuinely good novels waiting to be read, and the DUPLO cow is missing again. Priorities have changed.

Read aloud

Why on earth do we stop doing it? As any editor knows, reading aloud is an unbeatable test of quality. Sentences that look fine on the page become claggy in the mouth. Repetitive words and grammatical structures drum an unwelcome rhythm into the listener’s ear. Lapses in pace, clumsy similes and unbelievable dialogue all explode on contact with the air. Conversely, writers who treat their words like notes in a symphony shine anew; step forward, F Scott Fitzgerald and Alice Munro. And the bond created by companionable reading shouldn’t just be reserved for kids. On a torrential Tuscan honeymoon, my husband and I took turns reading Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap during long, misty car journeys and foamy hotel-room baths. Not only did it prevent us from spending our time together but apart, locked into separate fictional worlds, it provided delicious fuel for discussion and speculation over our subsequent pasta and wine.

Move. Laugh. Scream.

Sometimes, an incident or passage in a novel is so shocking, moving or funny you just want to share. The end of Engleby. The opening of Earthly Powers. The rat scene in American Psycho. So why do adult readers sit, silent and tingling, when a two year old would shriek or clap or cry? Well, sure, we don’t want to be thought irritating or insane, especially if we’re on the tube. But in the privacy of our own homes, might we not lose control now and again? Punch the air when Lizzie Bennett tells Catherine de Bourgh where to go? Roll on the floor, weeping and vomiting, at a Dan Brown metaphor? And hell, once in a while, why not let rip in public too? I will never forget the woman I saw sitting in a Soho café, crying with laughter over her copy of collected PG Wodehouse. She made my day.

Re-read

I am a reluctant re-reader. With so many books to read and so little time, it seems positively irresponsible. But I cannot deny that much of the pleasure of Room On The Broom or An Evening At Alfie’s comes from their familiarity, each word turned over and over until the narrative nap is worn soft as silk. This has inspired me to go back and catch up with some old friends - Catch-22 and Madame Bovary are first on the list – but also to take more time over new ones. Children don’t just have favourite books, but favourite pages, too, which they will linger over and stroke. For grown-ups, re-reading arresting lines or paragraphs can reveal complexities and delights skimmed over in the first pass. It’s also a brilliant training for writers, encouraging us to root around for the mechanics beneath the bonnet.

Short is underrated

The recent popularity of doorstop tomes such as Game of ThronesWolf Hall and Dominion, abetted by the rise of the eReader, has somewhat thrown the joys of shorter fiction into the shade. But toddler-length tales provide a welcome reminder that fewer pages can have a disproportionately powerful effect. Apparently, May is Short Story Month in the US. In celebration, Flavorwire has asked a series of acclaimed short story authors to recommend their favourites, and over on Huff Post, Scott Borch has been talking to Random House’s Ann Kingman about why 2013 is ‘the year of the short story.’ I’m on the hunt for my old Chekov collection; what’s more, I might just have a chance of finishing one before the beast wakes up.

This article originally appeared in Bookdiva.