On Saturday, as part of an event for the Literary Archive at Newnham College, I chaired a panel discussion on the future of publishing. Karolina Sutton, a literary agent at Curtis Brown, Helen Garnons-Williams, Editorial Director for Fiction at Bloomsbury, and Cathy Moore, founder and director of the Cambridge Wordfest, all spoke passionately about how new digital platforms might affect publishing, writers and writing.
Given that our session followed amazing contributions by Dame Margaret Drabble, Patricia Duncker and Jenn Ashworth (all Newnham graduates), there was no fear in the room that literary fiction was under threat.
We discussed various issues: how to monetise e-publishing successfully (it’s hopeless to acclimatise readers to the idea that they can buy books for less that it costs to write them); whether digital self-publishing is democratic or we still need traditional gate-keepers to judge what is worth reading; how a writer’s ‘discoverability’ functions in a crowded market-place; and how content will adapt to new delivery platforms (Karolina Sutton pointed out that Margaret Atwood is already writing original fiction for the online site Byliner).
A generation of ‘digital instinctives’ is ready to consume stories. Writers must react and adapt to this generation by innovating both how we tell stories and what stories we tell. Narrative form is simultaneously technologically driven and specific to the social and emotional needs and desires of its time. Dickens wrote in weekly instalments for the popular magazines (which he owned) made possible by widening literacy and cheaper printing methods. In a bid to brand itself in the online subscription market, Netflix has just rolled out an entire season’s worth of House of Cards, an original, commissioned drama, to be watched – if so desired – in a single binge-session. Two very different ways for people to consume narrative. But, whatever the medium, the form, the delivery platform, writers still have to touch a nerve, which means using new technology in ways intimately relevant to our readers.
Whatever comes next, it’s an exciting time to be a writer.