For a brief but happy period I rejoiced in the somewhat overblown title of “Executive Publisher” at Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, and was delighted when one of the handful of Edinburgh -sourced executives who had made the long journey with the company to London reminded me portentously that I was “sitting on the chair once graced by John Buchan”. And, indeed, Buchan in his writing days was also editorial director, keeping things safe for his old friend Tommy Nelson while that great leader was at the War – from which he never returned. So I responded with alacrity to a London Book Fair press release from Faber in which they announced an app for “The Thirty Nine Steps” (published in 1915) to create a “fully playable, fully immersive” (if its neither I shall want my money back) new product. This app includes “classic stop-frame animation and original silent film music”: what a huge mound of mine-able data this one book has produced. Hopefully the beautifully taut story-telling of Buchan himself is somewhere in there alongside what Henry Volans, digital supremo at Faber, calls “a new way of reading, with John Buchan’s story at its heart, presented afresh through a TV and gaming-inspired lens”.

I love this and want it to work: at the same time I get all sorts of goosebumps about what the result might be. I believe passionately that the network will produce art forms of its own. The long history of gaming, graphic novels, manga, picaresque narrative, novels of manners, film and television, and animated developments of all types from cartoons onwards, must, if our culture plays out true to type, be antecedents to something else. Clearly narrative is very important and clearly visualization is as well. In the same PR tranche a further Faber announcement indicated that the new Ian Pears novel, Arcadia, to be published next year, will appear first of all in an “semi-interactive” form, and only subsequently in a printed form. Here again is evidence of open-mindedness, though I found the idea that Mr Pears, whose writing I have enjoyed, wrote the novel, according to the Guardian (16 April) “inspired by quantum physics, and written in “nodes” which had been mapped to a graph constructed after consultation with an Oxford Mathematics professor. The aim was to create an infinite number of ways in which the story could be read -“. That word “infinite” has a whiff of the publicity department about it if you ask me, especially since Mr Pears later says “I’m still in charge of the story because I am arrogant enough to feel that I’m a better story-teller”.

Never mind. This is brave and ambitious stuff. The announcement occurred in this same week when The Guardian itself launched its own first essay in Citizen Journalism (see my 4 April blog on “Editorial Views and Viewers”). The Guardian has not gone for nOtice, but has created an app of its own for community responses and submissions. TNW characterized it like this:

“You can access the app via the Web, but there’s also native incarnations for Android and iOS. To contribute content to GuardianWitness, you need to create an account, either using your existing Guardian credentials, or through your Facebook and Twitter details.

The Guardian actually posts ‘assignments’, inviting users to post content based on themes – for example, when Britain experiences unseasonably bad weather. Editors set a range of assignments each week, covering news, sport, culture and life and style.

Photos and videos will constitute a large part of this, particularly for users out and about on the streets with their smartphones.

Selected submissions could be featured on the Guardian website or also in the Guardian and Observer newspapers, while video submissions could be added to the GuardianWitness YouTube channel.

The apps also lend themselves well to big breaking news stories, where Guardian and Observer journalists simply can’t cover the sheer scale of it on their own.

However, if you don’t fancy one of the assignments, and there’s nothing big going on in your neck of the woods, you can also simply submit a story, which constitutes an ‘open’ assignment.

For the Guardian, encouraging the public to submit their content via dedicated apps is a great move, and serves to formalize the growing shift towards user-generated content. It transforms anyone into a roving reporter, giving them direct access to a major news brand. Surely it’s only a matter of time before more big-brand news outlets follow suit, including the BBC.”

When John Buchan climbed down from the editorial chair at Thomas Nelson he went off to govern Canada. I always envied him this in my time: it had to be easier than trying to govern (Canadian) Thomson Corporation’s regiments of accountant managers (as my Chairman said, with deep seriousness, “you could make this so much easier for yourself if you stuck to only publishing bestsellers”). But the equations that we faced then will never be the same again. Just as print will go, so will editorial and authorial control. In a contributory content world, users will assess and vote for each others contribution, pre-buy content to which they are contributing, subscribe where they are contributors, and vote for each others contributions, views, plotlines or innovative media narrative combinations. The tools of the trade are on their desks: for some years now everyone has the potential to be his own studio, or her own graphic artist. The result may not be High Art, but the skills levels of whole populations will increase rapidly as “entertainment” becomes not just experiencing things, but participating in them as well. If self-publishing eBooks has taught us anything, from Amanda Hockings and John Lock onwards, it is that the publisher editorial selection process does not satisfy the participatory urges of large populations, and that user review and rating is seen as the selectivity tool, not publisher puff and blurb.

Now I must dash. There is a real hold-up on the M25 that I feel I should cover for the Guardian…!


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4 Comments so far

  1. Jon Peterson on April 18, 2013 12:03

    Publishers are still clinging to editorial control. They think that content creation is a low-margin activity that can be outsourced to the public, while editorial control and curation is a big value add that will distinguish them from their competitors.

    They have it exactly the wrong way around. Few people can actually write well, or take interesting photographs. The masses can generally bring two useful things to the table. Zero cost, and expertism (you can reach people who might actually have valuable background knowledge). They also offer things that are actually not that valuable – speed of reaction, and eyewitness accounts. One just doesn’t matter that much, and the other is often actively misleading and a barrier to the truth.

    The motivation of contributors to things like GuardianWitness is to see their work next to a big brand name. That’s not a motivation that particularly encourages quality.

    What publishers should be doing, is investing in content, and sacking their editors. The network can be effective at filtering good from bad. It is not effective in generating content.

  2. Shane O'Neill on April 18, 2013 16:26

    your trip to the M25 incident no doubt prompted by the alert to your mobile phone, and your diverted route intuited by your in-car navigation system working off the ELGIN feeds.


  3. Roz Morris @ByRozMorris on April 19, 2013 09:25

    All interesting points, especially about user-driven content. I can’t help but think how prescient Ray Bradbury was when he wrote about mob rule and entertainment in Fahrenheit 451. But we don’t have to be as pessimistic as that, thankfully. These new forms of entertainment are in their infancy. The more they evolve, the more distinct they will be from narrative books or straightforward film or documentary. As creators experiment, they will discover the strengths of these new media. Books will still be able to do what books do well – provide an absorbing experience that engulfs the reader. Games will still be able to make the player solve puzzles, shoot baddies or steer a character around a shopping mall. And the new artforms will do… something different we don’t yet understand.

  4. dworlock on May 2, 2013 19:41

    The note above would lead you to believe that The Guardian eschewed nOtice in favour of building its own service . In fact , The Guardian has built its own service , but it is based on nOtice .