Hey everybody. Kevin Smokler here as part of the Virtual Book Tour for my new book Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times. As part of the tour, MJ asked me to put together an essay about new technologies and how they can be helpful to authors. See below...
If you've got your ear to the railroad tracks of book publishing, or you're even at the station a bit early, you can hear a big change a rumblin'. Not only are our readers stretched thin between their iPods, TiVos, Neflix queue and a little thing called the Internet, but everyday seems to bring another news story about another newfangled way to consume entertainment and culture. It can't help but feel that the implication for writer is rather bleak: Not only are books inconvenient, soon they'll be uncool too.
Hogwash I say. There's nothing in the recent onslought of acronyms like "RSS" and frankenwords like "podcasting" that spell doom for literature. Instead I'd say they offer a menu of options for us to reach readers in new and and exciting places. Writer and thinker Douglass Rushkoff said it quite succintly in an essay entitled "The Computer Ate my Book" for my new book Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times (Basic Books, June 2005). "Media don't steal from one another" he writes. "Just when it appears that a new medium is going to replace its predeccesor, we tend to figure out the true value of the older."
Remember when Amazon came along in 1994, they were the newest of new media, a way to buy without ever leaving your desk, lifting a catalog or calling a customer service rep. And what did they build this business on? The stodgy old book. Netflix pulled the same magic on film, iTunes on music. Both created a painless way for a curious audience to sample culture they might not ordinarily and created a distribution channel independent of the restrictions of shelf-space. So there's no reason to believe that books don't belong. We just have to peruse the media menu and figure out how.
Menu Item #1: The Blog
What is it? A blog is a frequently updated website consisting of links and commentary in reverse chronological order, usually on a specific subject. There are blogs about just about everything including something as specific as the design of movie posters. The more well known author bloggers include Neil Gaiman, Jennifer Weiner and Stephen Elliott to name only a few.
What's it for? Many authors blog to give themselves a venue for bite-sized writing and to give their readers access to their daily thoughts, creative process or simply a little taste of them over the the long stretch between book publications. There's also a vibrant community of literary bloggers (several of whom formed the LitBlog Co-op in order to give underappreciated books some recognition) who cover the publishing business, review books and debate issues related to books, literacy and the writing life. Buzz Balls & Hype fits in here...
Should I be blogging? Only if you have something to say that does not fit easily into your books. Blogging is, by itself, not a good marketing tool since blogs built to shill get dissed quickly by the blogosphere. And since linking is the currency of blogs, count on little love real fast. Also, blogs should really stick around for at least a year if they are worth reading. Ask yourself if you have that kind of time.
Where do I start? A professionally designed website and blogging software like Typepad, Wordpress or Blogger. It should also be noted that, even if you have no interest in a blog, these software package make updating your author site quick and easy and save you the trouble of bothering your designer.
Item #2: RSS
What is it? RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. It's a file format by which the content of a website can be syndicated. Think of it as a carbon copy that can be mailied around cyberspace.
What's it for? Imagine you read 10 websites a day for research, professional development or your own enjoyment. You probably visit those ten websites through a series of bookmarks. Now if you arrive at website #6 and there is no new content from yesterday, you've just wasted your time. Now imagine if you read 50 websites a day. Could amount to a lot of wasted time.
RSS takes the new content from your favorite websites and brings it directly to your computer's desktop. Using a free piece of software called an RSS Reader (a good list of readers), you then enter in the URL's for the rss "feed" from your favorite website (usually an orange button marked "XML" or a link that says "syndicate this site" will give you the feed") into your reader and presto! The new content comes straight to you as soon as it's ready.
So what? For writers, an rss reader is a great way to keep track of your favorite book review sites, blogs or newspapers as well as industry info from publications like Publisher's Weekly. Also, using a free service like PubSub, one can set up a custom rss feed of any phrase in the English language. I have one called "Kevin Smokler", another called "Bookmark Now." Whenever I or my book get mentioned anywhere online, notice of it comes right to me. This a quick,e asy way to track reviews and media mention of your book, particularly in the early stages of publication.
How do I start? Download an RSS reader from this list and start filling it with feeds.
Item #3: Podcasting
What is it? TiVo for sound. Using an RSS reader, you can now subscribe to sound files as well as new content on websites, which means that if your favorite radio program is podcasting, it will download an audiofile of itself to your desktop when it is done and you can now listen to it any time you like.
It works the other way too. If your website produces an rss feed (any site using Blogger, Wordpress or TypePad does), you can now send out your own little radio broadcasts from it. Using a simple web-based tool like Audioblog.com (subscription is $4.95 per month), you can dial a number on your phone, enter a PIN and talk. Audioblog makes a recording of your voice and automatically posts it on your website.
What's it for? Audio diaries of your book tour, your writing process, cheap easy recordings of you reading. A chance for your readers to hear your voice and add a whole other dimension to your work without you having to be there.
Item #4: "Tagging" and "Folksonomies"
What are they? Terms, really, of a new way of organizing information. When you use the card catalog in your library, the makers of the catalog determine the catagories by which the books will be organized, a top-down model of organization. A "folksonomy" is a bottom-up method of organization, where each piece of information is added and catagorized by the person who added it. The customized categories given to the piece of information are called "tags." Creating them is called "tagging."
What's it for? Sharing information with friends and strangers. Flickr is an online service for sharing photos with friends and family which allows to "tag" photos (example: "My graduation") and then allows to view all photos with this tag. I plan on using Flickr as a way to organize all the photos taken on my tour, not just those by me. Author Wendy McClure is doing this for book tour as we speak. Upcoming.org is a bottom-up events calendar where you "tag" events like stops on your book tour. Readers and fans can then receive an rss feed or an email reminder based on the tags assigned to that event. I've placed my entire book tour on Upcoming based on my last name and the tag "bookmarknow". Now anyone who wants to attend an event can see not only who else will be there but will automatically be reminded if dates and times change.