The skilled and thoughtful William Gosline returns for a second guest post. The news of Robin Williams’ suicide has sparked an ongoing conversation about depression and mental ill-health among artists and other creatives. In a nuanced post Gosline reaches beyond the simple correlation between creativity and depression, to reflect on the real and complex relationship between the two.
Read William Gosline’s serial fiction Jury Selection at the author’s blog.
A week has passed since the world lost one of its best and brightest. Robin Williams took his own life. The Internet has writhed conjecture, as is its nature, but perhaps as a sign of its maturation, the overarching tone is one of loss and sadness. Eulogies as memes abound. Because who amongst us hasn’t felt the heavy hand of depression, either within a loved one or ourselves? Robin Williams’ passing epitomizes one of humanity’s great contradictions: that the most gifted and giving of us are often the most tortured.
Artists are especially susceptible. Depression, madness and suicide recur elliptically in the lives of our great creators. Spalding Gray, after watching Tim Burton’s Big Fish of all movies, drowned himself in the river. Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven. Ernest Hemingway, stripped in his dotage of his trademark virility, took matters into his own hands.
But what is the connection between vision and psychosis, between depression and creativity? By rights, Picasso should have been mad: he worked in four dimensions. Dali, with his wild eyes and curled mustache, only pretended to be mad and when asked to play a truly mad man, the Emperor in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never realized Dune epic, sanely declared he would–for the sum of $100,000 an hour. A cynical nod to the shrewd megalomania of Hollywood and a point in fact: his madness was self-promotion.
“alienation, while important to the formation of the writer, is not necessarily a prerequisite to insanity or depression.”
Van Gogh, on the other hand, painted the commonplace, pastoral world in which he lived. Dali and Picasso consciously manipulated reality, its tropes and dimensions. Van Gogh, for all the effulgence of his art, the broad strokes and bold colors, painted what he saw. Yet, it was he who lost the battle. Perhaps then in contemplation of his craft, we can get a bit closer to the crux of the question: what is the relationship between the artist and depression or madness.
In the course of doing research for a character based off of Jack Kerouac, I pieced together an extremely rough sketch of the famous Beat writer. I read some of his work but also found the ancillary scholarship on him just as illuminating. Of French Canadian extract, he was a quasi second-language speaker whose first language, Quebec French, was dismissed as nothing more than a backwoods colloquial dialect. Like many writers, he was astride two worlds, at home in neither. But such alienation, while important to the formation of the writer, is not necessarily a prerequisite to insanity or depression.
Of more value is a consideration of the method by which he worked. The manuscript of On the Road is almost as famous as the book itself: one long scroll that he pounded away at over the course of a few weeks, literally churning it out of the typewriter. It is here that we might begin to discern a connection, in the spontaneous, feverish “channeling” of Kerouac’s recollections. In fact, in the preface to his collected letters, the editor mentions the perils of spontaneous writing. Kerouac, like Gene Wolfe’s famous character Severian the Torturer, was doomed to forget nothing. The avalanche of memory crushed him and towards the end, even the solitary heights of Big Sur, an aerie to which he had oft retreated for silence and solace, couldn’t save him.
But if Kerouac was powerless before memory, exhuming it in frenzied streams, others are powerless before sensation. Van Gogh was evidently that and in the world of literature, his match might be the forgotten Swiss writer, Robert Walser. Robert Walser, like Van Gogh and Kerouac, was the passive observer. In an essay by William Gass, his anonymous narrators are described as “will-less wanderers, impotent observers of life, passive perceivers of action and passion.” As Walser drew nearer to the asylum where he would live out the rest of his life, his writing became increasingly disjointed and impressionistic, the nebbish narrator flitting from field to café, from cobbled street to farm, like a drift of cloud.
I believe that Robin Williams held something in common with these artists. His improvisation was explosive: machine-gun one-liners uttered at the speed of thought; impersonations rattled off in a bricolage of association. His performances were gut busting, hilarious, his ability to transition from idea to idea, mind-boggling. But in light of recent events, there is also something troubling in the frenzy of his delivery. As though, through frantic incantation like a Catholic priest or a mystic, he could stay just one step ahead of his ghosts.
I have ventured too far down the path of conjecture. The truth is I was as shocked and dismayed by his death as everyone else. My rambling is just an effort to make some sense of it, to furrow some parameters around depression and its relationship to the artist as a means of self-preservation. Because Robin Williams had fooled us all, with his broad smile and kind eyes. Here is a man, we thought, who has attained peace despite his tribulations. But his suicide is an object lesson for us of how easy it is to mistake someone who has come to terms with their demons with someone who has succumbed to them.
Whereas Victorian writers could rely on repressed sexuality to generate unease, today’s horror and fantasy novels put sex on the front cover. But the best new examples of the genre still bring up the things we don’t like to talk about.
When Bram Stoker penned Dracula in 1897, Eastern Europe was still remote for most Britons. But Jonathan Harker’s tortuous overland journey to Transylvania would today be a short hop on a budget airline. And Count Dracula, as both a Romanian immigrant and wealthy foreign plutocrat, would be attacked on arrival first by the Daily Mail for taking our jobs, and then the Guardian for forcing up property prices in the capital.
The fear of foreigners that fuelled Dracula is nothing today but a tabloid scare story, putting it alongside the other great fear of Victorian society – sex – which has also been reduced to mere page filler. Mina Harker doth protest too much when the sexy Vlad Dracula turns up in place of her dowdy solicitor husband. Today’s horror heroines, like vampire hunter Anita Blake, are just as likely to screw a vampire as slay them.
Digital nomads are a 21st century counterculture. The choices they make today will shape how we live and work tomorrow.
Words and pictures by Damien Walter
The global network enables us to react to the world as a whole. – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
The center was not holding. But that was a good thing.
It was a world caught in the fallout from credit bubbles, financial collapse and bank bailouts. Of Occupy protests on the streets of our cities and illegitimate wars that disappeared from the news cycle as fast as they had been invented to fill it. It was a world waiting for a recovery that would never arrive. Most of us were trying to pick up the pieces and put them back together as we remembered them being. But others were asking if the way things had been, had ever really been that great.
There was a revolution in the air. We’d packed the world full of laptops, smartphones and iPads and stitched them all together with the Internet. The year was 2013, and our world was bristling with new technologies that were only beginning to fulfill their endless potential. There were seven billion people on the planet and for the first time we could all talk to each other as one global network. There was no rule book, and we were starting to realize that there never had been.
Many smart, creative people were looking at the deal being offered and wondering what fool negotiated their side of the bargain. Students were quitting schools that wanted them to take on crippling lifelong debt. Graduates were saying no to unpaid internships that offered no promise of work. Skilled professionals were quitting jobs that wasted their creative potential. People were selling up, moving out and hitting the road, with only a backpack, a laptop, and a few creative ideas about how they were going to pay the bills. In the 30s they would have been called Bohemians. In the 50s Beats. In the 70s Hippies. Now it was 2013, and people were starting to call them ‘digital nomads’.
At some point in mid-2013, I realised I was one of them. More and more of my working life fitted into my laptop. One day, I realized I could pack up the laptop, go anywhere in the world I wanted and take my work with me. I spent the summer in France and then decided I wanted to go further. The nomad network was buzzing about Chiang Mai, a small city in the northern highlands of Thailand, and the district of Nimmanhaemin, that had somehow become a mecca for digital nomads. I was writing a book, and because I could do it anywhere, I decided to do it there. I didn’t even know what I wanted to find, so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends.
Perched at the Birds Nest
The Bird’s Nest cafe occupies a teak frame house on the edge of Chiang Mai’s old town. A hammock swings between two wooden uprights, bright sunshine filters through the Lanna style carved fretwork and fearless street cats weave among table legs, chasing speedy brown mice and yellow lizards. If you’ve ever daydreamed of freedom from your swivel chair in the cubicle farm, the Bird’s Nest is the place.
I was on a tight deadline of my own making. It’s easy to confuse the life of a digital nomad with a never ending vacation but in reality combining travel and work means taking on all the stress and insecurity of freelance self-employment, while navigating a complex territory of time zone clashes, wifi failure, visa negotiations, and jet lag. I was drinking the strongest coffee I could find in bulk, anything to stay awake until I hit my word count, when Peter asked what I was writing.
Explaining you’re writing about digital nomads when you are a digital nomad raises confusion. Was I writing about myself? Was I writing about myself, writing about myself? It turned out, I was writing about Peter.
The Bird’s Nest is a haven for digital nomads, with a few dozen travellers passing through on most days, though the faces are never quite the same. They come looking for good internet, strong coffee and carrying Macbooks and iPads. Many are designers – of user interfaces, websites, graphics. There are photographers, video makers, and content creators. People who’ve realized they can take their work anywhere with an internet connection and that the unstable income of a creative freelancer stretches a lot further in Chiang Mai than New York. In the old city $1 will buy you dinner, $2 a large Chang beer, and for a $150 a month you can rent an apartment with a balcony, internet and laundry service.
Peter is one such digital nomad. He works for an executive coaching company in Hong Kong helping market and sell their courses online. He’s training to deliver coaching himself, most of which is done over the internet. Top employees and executives are a valuable business asset, and the market to help them improve their strategic and leadership skills is booming. The work demands complex and subtle kinds of communication that once had to be delivered face-to-face. Now, it can be done over Skype allowing the best coaches to connect with the right clients anywhere in the world. It’s just one example of the unexpected kinds of work migrating from the physical world to online.
But it wasn’t coaching that first brought Peter to Chiang Mai. At age 32, Peter, who is Anglo-French and switches fluently between English and French, had already travelled much of the world. The Thai’s call Westerner’s “Farrang”, a term leftover from the Frankish empire which had dominated Western Europe for much of the middle ages. For all that time, Westerners have been traveling to Thailand to learn about Buddhism. Peter arrived at a one of Chiang Mai’s numerous Buddhist monasteries simply looking for shelter, with no money and no home after years spend living in India. Arriving without any notice, or the traditional donation made by most visitors, Peter was fortunate the monks were merciful and allowed him a place on a month-long retreat. Twenty-eight days and nights of silent meditation opened his mind in ways he had never imagined.
Meditation and yoga are remarkably common activities among the digital nomads of Chiang Mai and such pursuits are a part of Chiang Mai’s unique appeal to tourists and backpackers. But nomads aren’t on holiday or looking to discover themselves. They are working and this often includes long hours on creative but high risk projects. Making the leap to a nomadic lifestyle comes with unexpected stresses, the kind that arise from leaving behind friends and family to immerse in a foreign culture. For many nomads, meditation is just as an essential tool for accomplishing their work as a laptop. The most common reason people give up on nomadism, especially younger men away from home for the first time, is simple loneliness. Perhaps one reason why digital nomads often travel as couples.
In March 2010, Simon and Erin sold their belongings and left the UK to travel the world. Like many successful nomads, they are slow travellers, staying in a location for weeks or months, enough time to allow them to focus on their work. Nonetheless, they have still managed to visit 30 countries in Asia, Central America, Oceania and other parts of the world. They tell the world about their journeys through the Neverending Voyage website, a popular digital nomad blog and the place I first read about Chiang Mai.
I chat with Simon over fruit shakes. Average daytime temperatures in Chiang Mai push 30 degrees celsius even in winter, and there isn’t a street corner that doesn’t have a stand selling big cups of fresh fruit and crushed ice. It’s a far cry from the cold, grey Novembers of Britain that Simon and Erin escaped three years prior. The couple had an joint epiphany after returning to their jobs and home after a more traditional vacation. The trip made them realize that many of the things they had – a house and mortgage and traditional careers – simply weren’t making them happy. Simon was already working in web design, and so the pair took the leap to digital nomadism.
Like many who succeed in going nomad, Simon and Erin took to the road with both a healthy buffer of savings and a residual income from renting out their house in the UK. But they’ve worked hard to develop sources of income that can make their nomadic lifestyle sustainable for the longterm. Last year they released the Trail Wallet app for iPhone, to help travellers and nomads keep track of their essential expenses, and have continued with web design work. In their third year as nomads, they succeeded in breaking even for the first time.
Simon, like all the nomads I’ve met in Chiang Mai, is a creator. He began as a musician, a drummer in rock bands and then channelled his creativity into digital design and coding. But he found creative fulfillment hard to come by in the corporate dominated, technocratic world where the work is often done for the profit of others. Successful digital nomads are people with the passion, skill, and creativity to achieve goals outside the prescribed structures and rules of a workplace. They are artists and entrepreneurs, people who thrive on freedom and creativity. They are people seeking places where they can have both, and today they are finding it in Chiang Mai.
It’s that search for the sustainable creative life that has sent generations of creatives travelling to parts of the world where they can live cheaply and find fullfilment of their passions. In the 20s, it was the Montmartre slum district of Paris documented by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. In the 40s, Jack Kerouac captured the Beat generation’s nomadic soul and the heart of the United States in his epic novel On The Road. In the late 60s, Joan Didion painted a vivid portrait of San Francisco’s hippie counter culture in her essay Slouching Toward Bethlehem. It is the same creative spirit that is now departing Europe and America as young creatives are displaced by gentrification and high costs of living. Now they come to Asia and the city of Chiang Mai, carrying laptops and smartphones, slouching towards the streets of Nimmanhaemin.
Go East, Young Man
In 2010, political unrest in Bangkok persuaded many digital nomads based in Thailand’s capital to look for a new home. Chiang Mai was a long an established stop on the backpacker trail, and had a small expat community of retired Westerners. The city’s remote location in the depths of Thailand’s populous but poor northlands gave little reason to think it would suit the needs of digital nomads. But Chang Mai was changing quickly, and no part of it more so than the Nimmanhaemin district, where the city’s prosperous middle class and young creatives were making their home.
Those who arrived in Chiang Mai found a city in the first stages of an economic boom. Thailand’s left leaning Pheu Thai Party government had invested heavily in the infrastructure of the city between 2001-2006, which in turn attracted major investment from nearby China. By 2010, the city was positioning itself for status as a UNESCO creative city as part of its strategy for economic growth. Alongside the traditional wood-frame houses and tin roofed noodle bars of the city’s old town, a new wave of high end restaurants and luxury condo towers proliferated. The Nimmanhaemin district to the west of Chiang Mai was filling up with kooky coffee bars, art galleries, craft stores and fashion boutiques. The first nomads to arrive found a perfect location for slow travel, a city with an ultra low cost of living but an amazing culture of creativity. Word quickly spread through nomad blogs and forums and in the last three years increasing numbers of ambitious creatives have arrived in the city. Word-of-mouth is that there are 30,000 in Chiang Mai by late 2013, spread across the city among residences, guest houses, coffee shops, and a hand full of co-working spaces.
Successful digital nomads are people with the passion, skill, and creativity to achieve goals outside the prescribed structures and rules of a workplace.
Punspace opened in early 2013 to accommodate the burgeoning population of digital nomads in Chiang Mai. It sits in a quadrangle of hip glass fronted boutiques and tea shops in a quiet corner of Nimmanhaemin. In the lingering heat of late November, a Punspacer stands stripped to the waist, balanced on a tree stump, sculpted abdominals rippling as he goes through a Ta’i Chi routine with martial discipline. His practice is exemplary of the digital nomad lifestyle of working hard and relaxing harder. Yoga, Thai massage, meditation, and athletic exercise as opposition to the tradtional backpacker activities of drink and drugs. Inside, the brightly lit shared space is solid with young professionals, predominantly male, focusing on their work in the oasis of air conditioning and high speed internet Punspace provides its members.
“I’m out man,” says Adrian, a slighty-built, young American who, for the past two weeks, has been doing solid 12 hour days of coding at Punspace. He works with big noise cancelling headphones and sitting next to him, you can hear the tinny clash of techno music powering his fingers through line after line of computer code. His contract for a European tech start-up is up and he’s moving on from Thailand to Vietnam, an upcoming hotspot for digital nomads.
Voices say their goodbyes and a forest of hands go up for fist bumps: “A thousand blessings upon you.” “Chiang Mai’s gonna miss you.”
There’s a jockish camaraderie among the Punspacers. But it disguises the basic transience of the digital nomad life. No one knows Adrian beyond small talk over lunch. Three minutes after he leaves, the space is silent again, excepting the bur of laptop fans and Adrian remains nothing more than a membership entry on the Punspace database.
Coders are the bulk of the Punspace membership and some are contracted to major development houses who don’t care how or more importantly, where the work gets done. Others are navigating a richly rewarded freelance field so hungry for engineers that they can negotiate their own terms, including location independence. But also drifting through Punspace during my month long membership were film-makers, podcasters, web-designers and even a writer: Me. Among the punspacers there are many bloggers, content creators and SEO consultants whose main activity s writing. When I ask why they don’t call themselves writers I’m surprised by the answer – they don’t think they’re good enough and they fear being called out for not being “real” writers.
The next phase of digital nomadism will not be lone adventurers with only a backpack and a laptop, but small companies and potentially entire industries relocating to parts of the world best suited to their business needs.
Also gravitating to Punspace are an assortment of “internet marketers”, the broad catchall term for anyone with some web skills and something to sell. In many cases, the thing they are selling is advice on how to sell things. The bible of internet marketers is The 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. This handbook of “lifestyle design” advocates a system of digital outsourcing and automated business models to escape the “deferred life plan” of traditional 9-5 work. Like all persuasive sales pitches, there are nuggets of insight in the Ferris lifestyle manual. But there’s widespread skepticism amongst other digital nomads about Ferris’ ideas. The many internet marketers who have adopted Ferris as their gospel resemble nothing so much as a pyramid marketing scheme. The same same advice on how to make it as a digital nomad is repackaged and resold time and time again, for decreasingly small return, to those further down the pyramid.
Chiang Mai Mecca
Kasper has lived in Chiang Mai for over two years now. He sees hundreds of digital nomads coming through Chiang Mai, but many never succeed in their ambition of establishing a location independent business. It’s not an easy goal to achieve, and Ferris’ dream of a 4 hour work week is very far from the reality.
“A website with Google Ads or an ebook on the best coffee shops in Chiang Mai isn’t a business, “says Kasper. “It’s not sustainable. The blog or ebook might succeed for a little while, but sooner or later that bubble of success bursts and people run out of money. People come and stay for six months or a year, run out of funds and then go back home.”
Kasper left Europe because he simply couldn’t see opportunities there for young entrepreneurs like himself. With his partner in Sao Paolo, he owns a development company that specialises in online services, many of them tailored to the needs of digital nomads and mobile businesses operating internationally.
We’re talking in the Warm-Up Cafe, a buzzing nightspot in the heart of Nimmanhaemin. Nimman Road is a unique blend of traditional Thai style, European chic, and a retro 1950s Californian vibe. The college kids who party here are obsessed with motorbikes, 90s grunge music and hipster culture. In 2013, hipster students look the same the world over – skintight low-slung jeans, asymmetric haircuts, tattoos. Nimman at night could be London’s Soho, Saint-Germain in Paris or the Mission district in San Francisco. And in a decade it will likely be as exclusive as those neighbourhoods. An apartment in Nimmanhaemin today costs 30% more than it did just a year ago.
Kasper has agreed to introduce me to Edmund, an American entrepreneur who now makes his home in Chiang Mai. Edmund has taken advantage of the boom in Chaing Mai, helping businesses set up shop in Thailand, a process that can be bureaucratic and labyrinthine for new entrepreneurs in the country. He helps new businesses establish a legal structure, and can even manage ongoing work permits and permissions for employees.
“There’s like an escalating contest to attract entrepreneurs, attract direct investment, among emerging economies,” Edmund says. “If you have capital you can choose between places like Thailand, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong, offering years of tax free operation, free office space, even cash incentives.”
Chiang Mai is a potential mecca for tech start-ups and creative businesses. The next phase of digital nomadism will not be lone adventurers with only a backpack and a laptop, but small companies and potentially entire industries relocating to parts of the world best suited to their business needs. Skilled professionals can be tempted to work here for a third of the pay because they can achieve a much higher standard of living in Thailand’s northern capital. Cities like London, Paris, New York, San Francisco and other cities that have priced themselves out of the reach of most young people could see a shock exodus of the very creative professionals on which their fortunes are founded.
However, there are still a few barriers to Chiang Mai’s potential transition to a startup hub.
The lack of a physical base in traditional centres of capital like San Francisco, New York or London is still a deterrent to many investors. Such traditional perceptions take time to change, but changing they are, not least because a small start-up operating at half the cost of its competitors has a massive commercial advantage. The rise of platforms like Crowdfunder, an “equity crowdfunding” version of Kickstarter that allows backers to actually invest in and receive a return on projects, has the to potential to radically democratise where new business emerges.
The Answer Lies Within
The holy mountain of Doi Suthep imposes over the bustling streets of Nimmanhaemin, and the golden minarets of the Wat Phra That temple sparkle in the relentless Thai sun. Young monks in the traditional orange robes of the Thai buddhist tradition walk alongside young hipsters. Ancient temples stud the old town of Chiang Mai, rubbing shoulders with the glass and steel of condo towers and shopping malls. But it’s not complete coincidence that brings a generation of digital nomads to an ancient capital of Buddhism.
For two and a half millennia, Buddhism has been challenging people to climb the holy mountain and take part in spiritual retreat. The thirty days and nights of silent meditation are a serious challenge. Few Westerners conditioned to our culture of constant activity and stimulation can deal with silence with only their thoughts for company. But it’s in the silence of meditation that life’s hard questions are answered. For today’s digital nomads, the question is whether their travels are only taking them back to the material culture of the West, or towards a different kind of life.
But digital nomadism is not a life for everyone. The freedom and creativity that make it exciting for artists and entrepreneurs also comes packaged with exactly the risk and and insecurity that most people seek to avoid. As humans we’re conditioned to seek security in our relationships and connections to each other, in friends, family, and tribe. As nomads, we give up that security in exchange for the freedom to find ourselves as individuals.
The counter culture of the 60s liberated a generation from the conservative social values of their day. Today’s counter culture is changing our relationship to where we live and how we work. We’re a generation freeing ourselves from the assumption that a 9-5 life and a crushing burden of debt are the only kind of life. Instead we’re seeking better, more creative ways to live. We’re finding ways to use technology instead of being used by it, ways to be liberated by our inventions, not trapped by them. In a decade, we will look back on digital nomads as pioneers of a lifestyle so widespread that it no longer requires a name.
Walking the streets of Nimmanhaemin I wonder why I came to Chiang Mai. Was it to write a book? Or was I seeking something else? Looking up at the holy mountain of Doi Suthep, I think I might climb it myself, and find my own answer.
Damien Walter is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in Wired UK, SFX, i09, Aeon, and Electric Velocipede. He teaches creative writing at University of Leicester and writing for digital media at University of Nottingham.
Much of my first decade as a writer was spent helping people read and write. I ran workshops and development projects for libraries, a part of my professional life I wrote about not so long ago. A big part of my work then was caught up with the question, asked in various different ways, “why don’t more people read?” Reading is both fun and remarkably good for people. So why isn’t everyone an avid reader?
The common assumption, one I came to believe was profoundly incorrect (and got in to remarkable amounts of shit for vocally challenging), was that “non-readers” were a) poor and b) uneducated. In other words, lack of participation in reading was laid at the feet of class and social politics. My own experience first made me suspect this was untrue. I grew up in a single parent family, in a council flat, on state benefits, in the “underclass” that were defined as “non-readers”, but I grew up surrounded by books, instilled with a love of books, and I knew that I wasn’t alone in that. When I began to look at the paltry research on the subject of reading I saw it presented no real evidence to back up the assumptions on poverty, and as I got deeper in to my work I saw the truth with my own eyes. In tiny homes on grim housing estates I would find hordes of books, defeating the poverty of ignorance stereotype again and again.
In fact the people who read the least were usually rather affluent. At least financially. Rich in money, but poor in time. Middle class parents struggling to maintain a high standard of material living. Young professionals carving out a career. Teenagers balancing minimum wage jobs with their studies. The big gap in the reading demographic isn’t poor people, it’s busy people.
And we’re becoming a world of very, very busy people. To be clear, I’m not criticising people for being too busy read. I think many of us might benefit from making more time to read (I literally have to schedule reading time or, even as a writer and reviewer, I won’t do it) But if the reason we’re not reading is that we’re too busy living I can’t in truth see that as a terrible problem. And the combined wonders of digital technology and late stage capitalism keep us very busy living indeed. Laptops and smart phones mean we can carry on our work at any time or place, and the high competition of today’s economy means that we likely have to whether we like it or not. In short, our attention is occupied.
The recent discussion of the Amazon / Hachette negotiations turn, more than we may think, on this contest for attention. The core message of Amazon’s open letter is that books need to adapt to the new demands on our time that the digital, attention deficit economy imposes. The core belief of the writers howling back at Amazon is that books can, and in fact must, resist the pressures of limited time and attention. At heart this is not a business issue, at least not in its wider appeal to public opinion. Amazon / Hachette is a culture clash, and a serious culture clash at that.
I find my heart and soul divided in this conflict. Amazon are right, books will have to change. And writers are correct, books will have to change the world. They’ve done it before, they can do it again. Here are my thoughts on how :
1. An effective digital strategy
I write this in a 24 hour study cafe filled with *counts fingers* 160+ teenagers, students and young professionals. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM IS LOOKING AT A COMPUTER. Laptops, smartphones, tablets. Books have to exist on these devices, they have to be visible, and they have to capture attention not simply passively demand it. Amazon is absolutely right to point again and again at the need for books to compete with films, tv, music, apps, social networks and everything else that happens on these screens. And to be very frank, the reason Amazon are beating publishers up so badly at the moment is that they demonstrably understand the digital paradigm far better. In this area, Amazon and the technology companies win.
2. Innovate both form and content
Where technologists really don’t win is in writing books. You do not improve a book by sticking video clips in it, giving it a branching multiple-choice narrative structure or, and I will bold this for emphasis, make it a fucking video game. Books are already built on the most sophisticated technological communication platform ever evolved – language. That’s where they need to innovate. The novel as commonly encountered today is the outcome of a long series of technological innovations in the use of language to tell stories. Innovations made incrementally by writers and publishers. Publishers can reassert their importance in the digital era by innovating the book successfully for digital readers. To date, major publishers have done almost nothing in this space. That has to change. In this area, writers and publishers have the skills and experience needed.
3. Redefine Value
There’s very little likelihood of new release ebooks selling well for £17.99 (the standard hardback price) when other digital goods are much, much less. But a ten-part serial fiction at £1.99 an episode might make the same ball park revenue as a hardback. But to do so it would need both an effective digital strategy, and an innovative form that made to episodic structure work effectively in prose fiction. I’m not suggesting serial fiction as the answer, merely as an example of one answer that might redefine the value of books for digital readers, and maintain that value at levels needed to keep books an industry not a paying hobby.
For this culture clash between technology geeks and book geeks to resolve, both need to play to their strengths and stop denigrating the strengths of the other. Technology companies like Amazon know digital. Writers and publishers know books. When they work well together then the book industry booms, as we’ve seen at times on the Kindle platform. If they continue to clash however, the future for books may be far less bright.
Sigh. Writers and publishers are again up in arms about Amazon, this time because of a letter sent directly to thousands of self-published writers by the book behemoth, and repeated on a new Readers United website. Full text of the email below for non-KDP authors who are curious.
So here we are again. Amazon is correct, 100% so, in every major point they make. The comparison with paperback publishing is HUGELY relevant and the price elasticity is absolutely in line with every major consumer product that has transitioned to digital. And how have many writers and publishers responded? Basically by screaming…
FUCK YOU AMAZON!
Yeah Amazon, fuck you! Fuck you for being right! Again! What have Amazon ever done for books eh? Pioneered a postal delivery market publishers ignored? Yes ok, but what else? Invested millions in an ebook infrastructure publishers deliberately ignored? Fine, but what else? Opened up publishing to thousands of independent authors of all kinds, many of whom are making entire careers in digital sales with 70% royalties? Well, damn yes that’s pretty good I guess, but what else?
What else? Look people, there is no scenario where publishing isn’t utterly transformed by digital technology. Do you know what the real threat to book publishing is? Total and utter irrelevancy. If books aren’t present in the digital market places where people now buy music, films, tv shows, games and apps, they effectively cease to exist for the VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE. Remember record stores? Remember video rental stores? You’ll soon be remembering book shops as well, beyond a handful of well run independents in rich neighbourhoods. Where the hell do you expect people to see your books if not on Kindle, iBooks or Google Play? And in what possible universe are people going to pay $19.99 for an ebook when that pricing is waaaaaaaaay over the value of other digital media?
People are justifying this “FUCK YOU AMAZON” response by the “tone” of Amazon’s letter. Read and judge for yourself. It may be assertive, or it may be patronising. It’s still right.
From: Kindle Direct Publishing
Subject: Important Kindle request
Dear KDP Author,
Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.
With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.
Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.
Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.
The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.
Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.
Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.
But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.
And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read). A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures. And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.
We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.
We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.
Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com
Copy us at: email@example.com
Please consider including these points:
- We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.
There are 7 billion people on planet Earth. 7,000,000,000. That’s a vast audience that in the digital age is only really limited by language and literacy barriers. But let’s be really tight, and say that the operational potential upper audience for your book is 1 billion people. 1,000,000,000.
The best selling novels of all time like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter top out at between 100-200 million copies sold. That’s 10-20% of our arbitrary 1 billion. Sell 10 million books and you’ll easily enter the ranks of all time bestselling authors. But that’s far more than you’ll need to get on the New York Times bestseller list, which are often around 10,000 sales in a week. And a writer can penetrate the Amazon top 100 with only 1000 books sold. That’s right, you can become a bestselling author by reaching only 0.0001% of your potential audience.
If your goal is to be a bestseller, lack of people is not the problem.
“Your enemy is not piracy, but obscurity.” It doesn’t seem to matter how often this famous statement by Tim O’Reilly is quoted, authors and the publishing industry that represents them don’t seem to take it on board. That’s partly a matter of emotion – success as a writer is hard fought and for anyone who doesn’t find it, piracy is a convenient lightning rod for negative emotions. But I suspect the wider cause is that many writers have miscast the basic nature of their problem.
Obscurity is your problem. Obscurity of the kind a snowflake faces in a snowstorm, or a scream faces in hell. There are 7 billion people in the world and almost all of them are selling something on the internet. And so, as a writer with the goal of becoming a bestseller, are you. Engineers use a term called “signal to noise” to talk about the challenge of getting a desired signal through the background noise around it. The signal to noise ratio of the internet is immeasurably huge.
But the irony is that you may be better off penetrating it as a indie published writer than with the backing of a major publisher. Because in the unfolding era of digital publishing, major publishers aren’t demonstrating a single clue about how to overcome that staggering signal to noise challenge. I’m watching hundreds of mainstream published debut authors plunge in to the abyss, while all the new names I see establishing themselves in the imaginations of readers are either indie publishing or building their own marketing platforms on blogs and podcasts. Why is this?
Could it be that the hysterical response of publishers to piracy is emblematic of why? Faced with the titanic struggle to penetrate the signal of a new writer through the noise of the internet marketing apocalypse, what do publishers do when they identify small pockets of people who are actually interested in reading that authors book? They waste their time issuing DMCA take down notices (because legal threats are always a great way to solidify a reader / writer relationship) when they should be taking a leaf out of the indie writer playbook and doing everything they can to befriend the book pirates. Because while pirates aren’t your best friends, as a debut author they may well be your only friends.
Excellence isn’t a word often heard in the world of digital self-publishing, where Good Enough has more force when backed up with six-figure sales. In a smart essay William Gosline asks and answers the question; can excellence survive in the digital era? Gosline is a talented writer of speculative fiction, currently writing a fascinating serial fiction Jury Selection. I get the feeling you’ll be hearing more of him.
Answer The Question is my regular slot for guest posts, you can get details on how to contribute here.
Charles Bukowski and William Gass are not usually mentioned in the same breath. They do share some similarities, however. Both were raised in abusive households – not the same one, of course; their generation was one rife with domestic abuse. Both turned to writing to make sense their father’s rage, their mother’s disaffection. Finally, most who know their work would agree that they are serious writers, if not literary figures. Bukowski had become a legend before his death, loved by celebrities and the workingman alike. Gass, on the other hand, is still trucking along at the age of ninety, happily peripheral but well regarded in certain circles.
“No aspect of writing can inspire as much ire as Form.”
But there is also a fault line between the two that, like most fault lines, is at once minute and significant: the question of Form.
No aspect of writing can inspire as much ire as Form. For some, like Gass, it’s the pinnacle of craft. For others, it’s a dirty word: form is what “educated” writers rant about, what college courses study, what critics praise. In short, Form is for the elite. For the pulp novelist, the digital self-publisher, the everyman who hit it big with a thriller written at midnight, the proof is in the pudding—and the checks they brag about: Readers want story.
In William Gass’ titular essay from the collection Finding a Form, he lists the problems of popular fiction: subject matter that quickly becomes irrelevant; twist-endings that forestall revisiting; posturing from a belief system that will someday become obsolete.
“The problem [of fiction] was how to achieve a lasting excellence — that is, it was a problem of form.” And it is the quest for lasting that leads writers like Gass to think first and foremost of Form.
For the Methodologist — as he calls his caste of writer — every word enlists the ghosts beneath and behind it. Strung together and multiplied, they, like the tip of the iceberg, evoke metaphor and meaning within the subconscious of the “free reader”. Form, then, is what lasts when all else has been swept away.
Bukowski was famously mean in words — in both senses. Here, on the other hand, is what he had to say about Form:
“As the spirit wanes the form appears.”
Let’s agree to disagree.
In the 21st century, literature—like the publishing industry that represents it—is in a state of disruption. Words no longer carry weight nor have the depth of meaning they once did. The novel, that giant wounded whale, is being pecked at by smaller, swifter predators. In the digital universe, entire idioms are created and rendered to dust over night, misspellings and grammatical errors replicated.
Writing that both Gass and Bukowski would consider mediocre at best is out there, proliferating with the speed of a million typing fingers. With social media, writers are no longer at the mercy of their critics. The doors have been flung open. The barbarians have arrived at the gate. Those in the Ivory Tower shake with fear, along with their shuddering edifice.
The question becomes, can the goal of William Gass “to achieve a lasting excellence” survive the digital publishing revolution, or will his efforts be run over, like a desert tortoise in an Arizona suburb — places also hastily erected in a bubble of confidence?
In short: can the lasting excellence that Form strives for survive in the Digital Era?
I have a friend who buys books on the basis of what will look good on his shelves to anyone inspecting them after he has died. Like always wearing clean pants just incase you get hit by a car, this motivation for book purchasing has a lot to do with how others see us. I don’t recommend it. But I think it’s likely true that part of what most of us enjoy about books is the act of putting them, keeping them, and ordering them, on shelves.
I no longer own any book shelves. I’m currently living out of a single back pack as a globetrotting digital nomad. I do have some boxes of books in storage, and one day I might place them back on some shelves of my own. Until then I’m 100% ebook. My book collection lives on a hard-drive alongside my music, film and tv collections. My ebook collection is by far the most important to me. But it is also by far the least satisfying in its digital format.
Ebooks themselves are unsatisfying. I love reading them, but as objects they are a failure. An ebook is really just a text file wrapped in some markup code which instructs your e-reader on how to display it. It’s technically almost identical to a webpage, except with all but the most basic features crippled to create the perceptual illusion that this is a book (something worth paying for) not a web page (something most people are not willing to pay for). As skeuomorphism recedes from digital design, ebooks are clinging on to it for dear life. But it’s in contrast to print books that ebooks fail as objects. A print book arrives ready to read. An ebook needs bits of software and hardware, may well need converting if not for the exact platform you are reading on, and will often break and lose essential formatting. An ebook feels much like an unbound print book, like a stack of loose pages liable to chaotic disorder.
The Amazon Kindle, iBooks, Kobo and Google Play platforms solve this problem by providing a beginning to end experience from choosing and purchasing and ebook to reading and storing it. But none of them do it very well or very creatively. The best ebook library software is the open source Calibre, but it’s ugly and buggy and will never be loved despite being extremely useful.
What I want for my ebooks are…ebookshelves. I want software that beautifully and elegantly stores my ebooks, in someway echoing the experience of a study in English stately home, stocked with excellent hardbound tomes. I want a reading experience, on my computer, phone or tablet that replicates the satisfying objectness of a print book while integrating the best of what ebooks could offer in interactivity and illustrating graphics if they chose to. And I want these things not just as a reader but as a writer as well. Because if the writers business (as opposed to art) is, ultimately, selling books to people, then the experience of buying, reading and owning those books still needs to be radically improved from its current piecemeal, unsatisfactory state.
Online abuse reminds us that while technology is upgraded, human qualities of jealousy and bitterness are not.
It may contain some passages judged by one Amazon customer to be “brilliantly written”, but that isn’t enough to spare Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road a two-star kicking. The reason? Byrne has committed a political sin in presenting the scientific reality of climate change – or according to this customer “a fantasy future where it turned out that Global Warming fanatics actually got something right”. Worse yet in this user’s eyes, Byrne’s depiction of women fighting back against male violence makes her guilty of misandry “thick enough to plow”. Climate change and gender politics, two hot-button issues for reactionary conservatives who have found a new outlet for their hate speech – online reviews.
Negative book reviews are a reality of life for all professional writers. And the proliferation of user-generated reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads make readers’ opinions just as important as those of professional critics. But for authors like Byrne, politically motivated reviews are easy to spot. “There’s an unmistakable tone,” Byrne says. “And if they’re using condescending or otherwise gender-coded language, that’s a dead giveaway.”
In the three decades since Fighting Fantasy began, games have changed our concept of story forever.
When I was 10 I wanted, for a brief period, to be a professional Fighting Fantasy player. I was so fascinated with the now-iconic green-jacketed gamebooks, emblazoned with the legend “Thrilling fantasy adventures in which YOU are the hero!”, that I hatched a plan to make playing them my job as a grown-up. The market for professional gamebook players never materialised, but fantasy gaming has become big business. If I’d chosen to hit the Magic the Gathering pro tour, or joined a videogame clan I might have stood a better chance.
What made Fighting Fantasy so addictive for my 10-year-old self, and for a generation of geeks around my age, was the combination of two things we love with a passion: stories and games. I’m fascinated by the way in which the massive growth of gaming in the 30 years since Fighting Fantasy was first published has changed how we think about stories – so I was very lucky to grab some time with one of gaming’s most influential figures, Ian Livingstone, co-creator of Fighting Fantasy, founder of Games Workshop and lifetime president of Eidos Interactive, the company behind Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.
“I started playing games as a child and never stopped,” Ian says when asked about his own passion for games, which started with classics like Monopoly and chess, then war games and board games before he discovered Dungeons & Dragons in his 20s. “For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to turn my passion for playing games into a business of making them.”
It was Dungeons & Dragons that helped fulfil that ambition. Games Workshop purchased the UK rights to the cult role-playing game in 1975, which established the company’s mission to make progressive games for core gamers, and led in turn to the immense success of the Warhammer franchise in the 1980s. Dungeons & Dragons established an entirely new paradigm for gaming, one that brought story and character into games as never before. “In many ways paper and pencil role-playing creates a much deeper gaming experience than many video games,” Ian argues. “The narrative is made up as the game is played out rather than along a predetermined arc written by the games designer. This unstructured format of role-playing on the big screen of the imagination can’t be bettered in terms of unique user experience.”
It was on the big screen of the reader’s imagination that the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks played out. Ian and co-creator Steve Jackson wrote the books in a second-person present style, with branching story narratives and a dice-based game system bolted on. “Fighting Fantasy gamebooks empower the reader, who felt the anxiety or joy of being fantasy heroes themselves – they lived or died by their decisions. And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” And a lot of people did exactly that: more than 17m Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were sold, in 28 languages. And Fighting Fantasy is still going strong, with Chinese translations launched very recently.
“There are thousands of traditional books which are of course brilliantly written and have incredibly exciting storylines and thought-provoking philosophies,” Ian continues, as we talk about the differences between traditional novels and interactive fiction of the kind pioneered in Fighting Fantasy. “Yet traditional books have a linear storyline and sometimes a hero which the reader may or may not relate to.” The appeal of a gamebook then is that it allows the reader to be at the absolute centre of the story. The idea of a thrilling fantasy adventure where YOU are the hero is more than just a clever marketing line, it’s central to the success of Fighting Fantasy and a very significant part of how games have changed stories.
The techniques Fighting Fantasy employed to put you at the heart of the story became standard in the burgeoning videogame industry. “In the early days of computer and videogames there simply wasn’t enough available memory to include a compelling story, let alone graphics, speech and music. But today that’s all changed, and storytelling has become an important and integral part of a videogame.” Graphics are near-photo-realistic, characters more believable, and professional writers are transforming the experience of story-led games such as Deus Ex and Mass Effect. But first person action and branching story narratives are still the standard ways of telling stories.
Are we becoming a game-culture? Fighting Fantasy gave a generation of readers a first taste of what games can bring to stories, and the videogaming industry has gone on to take gaming from the parlour and make it an absolutely central part of contemporary life. Gamification has become the trend of the day in the world of marketing, with companies such as Zynga and their game Farmville exploiting our hunger for games to hold our attention and sell us products. In her super-insightful TED talk of 2010, game designer and academic Jane McGonigal asked if gaming could help make a better world, arguing that an estimated 1.5 billion “virtuoso” gamers represent a massive untapped resource of expert problem solvers just waiting to … solve all the world’s problems! Games put us at the heart of the story, in a world where very often we feel far out on the edge.
That was once the traditional role of novels as well, but increasingly stories are also reflecting our hunger for games. Game of Thrones charts the power struggles between warring families in a medieval fantasy world, with each new chapter like a new move on the chessboard of Westeros. The Hunger Games has cashed in on our thirst for competition and its consequences in our daily lives. Perhaps we’re becoming aware that in a world where everyone is the hero of their own story, the inevitable outcome is an ever more competitive society, and we demand books and films that reflect this reality.
I finish my conversation with Ian Livingstone by asking him the Desert Island Discs question for gamers; if he was stuck in the grim far future of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 franchise, which game would he take to keep himself entertained? The writer of Fighting Fantasy has more than 1,000 boardgames and thousands more videogames, but there’s only one choice for a true gamer. “I would probably play chess because it is the ultimate pure game, and I will always be able to improve no matter how long the war goes on.”
The Amazon books team deliver some interesting, but non-specific, data on ebook prices. Bottom line – lower prices deliver higher revenue and profits because e-book prices are “highly elastic”. So indie authors putting their work on for £2.99 against the standard publisher price of £8.99 are doing exactly the right thing.
It’s worth noting here that ebook prices now behave much more like the dynamics of crowd-funding than traditional book pricing. Your product is essentially unlimited so you price at the point that produces the highest volume. It’s clear publishers don’t understand this yet. They are setting prices on the basis of product scarcity – put simply, publishers still don’t understand the market for ebooks.
One more note on our proposal for how the total revenue should be shared. While we believe 35% should go to the author and 35% to Hachette, the way this would actually work is that we would send 70% of the total revenue to Hachette, and they would decide how much to share with the author. We believe Hachette is sharing too small a portion with the author today, but ultimately that is not our call.
This begs the question, if Amazon are fighting for higher author royalties and more profits overall, what are Hachette fighting for and why does anyone support them? It’s clear, Hachette are fighting for their existing and increasingly outmoded business model. They’re fighting for stasis in the face of inevitable change. Worst of all, they are fighting against changes that are vastly to the benefit of writers. I still say this is a fight authors do best not to take sides in. But if you are going to join the battle, you’re a fool not to see Amazon as your ally.