Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Small press networks in the digital age

Julie Koh, Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn

Sleepers Publishing is an independent publishing house based in Melbourne. Founded by Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn in 2003, it advocates for new and emerging writers in Australia. Writer Julie Koh interviewed Louise and Zoe about the implications of new technologies for the work of Sleepers Publishing and other small presses across Australia.

How does social networking impact on how you connect with readers?

Social media is a really quick and easy way to speak to our audience frequently and light-heartedly. We use Twitter, which is big in the publishing industry, and Facebook. Some of our authors are great social networkers: Steven Amsterdam is big on Facebook, with regular and interesting updates, and miles vertigan is a prolific Tweeter. His tweets are funny and irreverent, and a great companion to his book, Life Kills - they have a similar style and sense of humour to the book, so they are each a tiny publicity stunt.

The Sleepers App for iPhone comprises short stories from previous Almanacs. What was your rationale behind creating the app? Are you finding this technology to be a worthwhile venture?

We were aware a few years ago that reading habits were starting to change, and as we began to make our existing books available as ebooks we also wanted to dive into a new format. The iPhone App seemed like a good way to start because we know many users of the iPhone, and the great thing about it is that it’s with you all the time. There have been sales but digital formats are generally slow at the moment, and plenty of our readers still prefer paper books. However, it’s been a really useful way for us to get our toes in the water of digital reading, and we have discovered a fondness there. We are, increasingly, surrounded with friends and family reading on Kindles and iPads.

You publish in both paper book and ebook formats. Are you finding one format to be more popular than the other? How much do you think this will change in the future?

All of our books are now available as ebooks. We still sell more paper books, by a long margin, but it’s slowly changing. It can be hard to find the books you want as ebooks in Australia, due to territorial rights, so readers are sometimes wary of investing in the new technology until everything is available. However, availability is increasing, in multiple formats, starting, for us, with Readings and Kobo, and we envisage a steady rise in ebook take-up from our readers over the next few years.

A few years ago, the Small Press Underground Networking Community (SPUNC), in which you are both involved, commissioned a report by Kate Freeth, A lovely kind of madness: Small and independent publishing in Australia (2007). Freeth found that some of the more common difficulties that small presses face relate to issues of distribution, publicity, marketing and public awareness. How is SPUNC helping small presses to confront these difficulties?

SPUNC has been invaluable at connecting small presses with the ebook retailers/distributors, and therefore showing us the market that is out there. It can be difficult to keep up to date with all of the technology as it changes so it’s terrific having someone "on the ground", digitally speaking, to keep us in the loop. In terms of paper book distribution and marketing, the SPUNC site and blog and surrounding social networks creates an easy to access way into a community of likeminded publishers, and a community of eager readers. It’s the linking and educating that SPUNC does so well.

Can you comment further on how new technology has had, and will have, an impact on the operation of Sleepers Publishing and small presses in Australia?

We can’t speak with any authority about other small presses but, at Sleepers, it has been terrifically energising to know that we are now able to access a worldwide community. Prior to ebooks, it has been near impossible for us to take our books out of Australia and New Zealand, but now we are in the global market. We look forward to seeing that grow and continue. Sometime in the future, we will print fewer books – ideally only printing on demand – therefore reducing the need for warehousing or, as is the case at the moment, overcrowding our micro-tiny office. We look forward to that day!

Louise and Zoe discuss the Sleepers iPhone app,
the founding of Sleepers Publishing and paper books.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Memories of Car and Phone, prosthetics of the cyborg citizen (Part II)

Kieran Tranter

This post continues Dr Kieran Tranter's series on 'Memories of Car and Phone', the first instalment of which can be accessed here.

The demographics of the car, of the makes and models of drivers and vehicles, over the past 15-20 years in the West make an interesting study. There are more cars per head of population, women are now almost equal owners of the Western fleet, and by percentage there are less "male hero" and "man of the family" vehicles than in the past. The "average" Western car can probably be described as a Toyota Corolla, front wheel drive, 4 cylinders, practical, functional, user-friendly, economical, safe, and it is owned and driven by men and women alike. It will be owned/leased for three years and then traded in for a newer…Toyota Corolla. Its bonnet will probably never be lifted by the owner. In short it is the internal combustion engine version of an iPhone on a 24 month contract. I think this challenge to the traditional automobility of combustion masculinity is interesting.

Foremost, it represents a souring of the mythos of the car in the West. The symbolism of freedom mass-produced in chrome and steel had to reach the end of road when the common experience was gridlock and repetitious commutes. Combustion masculinity’s linking of car to hetero-normative sex was also doomed to a cul-de-sac when it became increasingly clear that burnouts in a “fully sick” car only appealed to other young men. The green movement’s chipping away at the car’s fender slowly rendered the car and car usage problematic, and the roadside memorials have come to haunt our travelling dreams. The car has made a life that is not sustainable in environmental and social terms, and the changes in car demographics mark an interesting evolution in automobility away from the hydrocarbon and testosterone fuelled combustion masculinity to a less identity focused use of cars. As I anticipate my plug-in electric car recharged by a photovoltaic array on the carport roof, this is to the good, even if it will be the car equivalent of the mobile phone, used, abused, and then replaced with same.

But I worry about the types of memories that we’ll take from this future. Sure there might be thousands upon thousands of images of our life and loved ones stored in our portion of the cloud accessible at will through whatever access device is de jure, and available on a 24 month contract, but will we have memories? The car’s physicality, its imposing on life, makes memories. The sunlight machines might access images of the past, but they do not seem to be mnemonic aids in themselves.

What I am concerned about is life. Martin Heidegger’s account of human living was as an entity in time and aware of time; an entity whose memory of past grounds certainty of future. Time passed,and memory was the storehouse, and safeguard, of that life that was. Through memory future becomes possible. Pre-modern Western time could be seen as different. The life of the seasonal cycles and ecclesiastical calendar was a life of repetition, of the same over and over again. Modernity was ultimately a revolution in time; the past became history that could be known, remembered, studied; and from this, the possibility of future, a future different to the past, could be aspired towards.

While Heidegger was famously concerned about the impact of modern technology on human experience, the car has been a memory aid for the cyborg citizens of the West for probably over half a century. With the fading of the car to white(good), to another sunshine machine, the hard materiality of the fabric of memory is potentially reduced. An important way that life has been marked and remembered in the modern West declines. The endless cycle of another featureless, while feature-full consumer good, almost returns us to pre-modern time of endless present. It raises the possibility that our future memory of past will be of a past as same giving rise to an anticipation of a future that is same. In the sunshine our chronological horizons collapse.

So possibly we need the car to be human. But perhaps, as I get ready to ride my bike home, what is also possible is that out of the near limitless data of our contemporary lives we learn to piece some solidity from the zeros and ones. Maybe without the imposed cultural meanings of our car prosthetic, there is a possibility to freely create more complex and empowered life narratives, through the sunshine, from the cloud.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Memories of Car and Phone, prosthetics of the cyborg citizen (Part I)

Kieran Tranter

Can you remember the make and model of your past mobile phones? I sort of can. I’ve had a succession of Nokias over the past 10 years culminating with an iPhone. But model number or features are a bit of a blur. Yet I had it on me and used it every day. It was a phone, it was useful, and it only made it presence felt when it was not useful: the times that it went through the washing machine (twice), dropped in the ocean (once), and shattered into several pieces having fallen from a height (twice).

Now – can you remember the make and model of your past cars? I can. In my 20 years of car ownership I have survived a 1981 silver four wheel drive Suzuki Sierra with a 1.0 litre engine and unassisted drum brakes; a 1973 baby-poo orange Renault 12 Sedan, a 1975 blue and white two-tone Renault 12 wagon; a 2002 XC Holden Barina (known in Europe as an Opel Corsa, my one experiment with a new car); a metallic green-gold 1985 Volvo 240GL sedan; and a 1997 TARDIS blue V70 Volvo station wagon (yes it is a blue box and it is bigger on the inside)...

What can be made of this distinction (aside from character judgements relating to mobile phone abuse and ownership of embarrassing cars)? Car and phone are the two prominent prosthetics of the cyborg citizens of the West; yet their memories seem to generate different degrees of affect. I remember affectionately my little Suzuki and the Renaults. I regret selling the Barina and I still miss the fear and wide berth that the 240GL Volvo was given by other road users. Car and life can be mapped coexistent; phone and life not so much. I cannot recall which phone it was that I rang my family with to tell them that my daughter had been born; but I can very much remember the drive to hospital in the Barina, with the morning sun reflecting off the silver bonnet.

There are some obvious explanations. The purchase and running cost of a car imposes itself. We remember the car because we are continually paying for it. But phones impose themselves as well; the slight trepidation when approaching the monthly bill witnesses this. However, this does not explain the level of affect. There is the coming-of-age ritual of passing the licence test that marks freedom and adulthood that could be seen as making the memory of cars more endearing. But I am sure for the next generation that similar symbolism will be associated with their first mobile phone. And it is not time spent with the thing – given I often ride a bicycle to work, I spend significantly more time with my phone than my car.

There probably is something about gender at play. As Sarah Redshaw observes in her cultural account of Australian automobilities, In the Company of Cars (2008), there is a form of maleness that is particularly entwined with the motor vehicle. Her term “combustion masculinity” is fabulously suggestive. The metallic technicality, the symbolic economy of men speaking through cars and not words, the speed, freedom, risk, and triumph of the car resonated, and still does resonate, with men the world over. Indeed, BBC’s Top Gear has become an institution and global marketing phenomena, as a celebration, and perhaps a slight parody, of this auto-mentality. The phone is a phone. It might now access the net/cloud, take photos, allow the sci-fi dream of videophone, play music and games, show TV and movies, and chirp reminders cross-linked to a diary; but even an iPhone does not have the cultural meaning of a 1967 Citro├źn DS 21 or 1957 Chevy BelAir Hardtop. I am pretty certain that there will not be clubs and enthusiasts in 50 years engaged in global discussions of how to source parts and repair old mobile phones as there probably will still be for the “Goddess” and ’57 Chevys.

The phone integrates to life. As Donna Haraway wrote in her iconic “Cyborg Manifesto” in 1985, “‘[o]ur best machines are made of sunshine”, anticipating our wireless reality of connectivity, and not the clunky, modernist, greenhouse-causing dinosaur of the car. The car makes life. Our cities, our lives, the way we feed ourselves, educate our children, and know space from place – the geographies of Western habitus – have been made because of the automobile. We remember the car because the car has impacted on us; even if we are fortunate never to have been involved in an accident. We don’t remember phones because they are sunshine; pleasant when there, soon taken for granted, only missed when connection to the cloud is unavailable. The car represents a certain form of cybernetic citizenship of machines and meat that has to be earned and paid for with resources, time, and sometimes blood. It has configured certain desires and modes of living that have been considered mainstream in the West since WWII. In this our past cars are remembered. There might be risks from phones – the research is on-going on the mobile phone-radiation-cancer link – and there is all that communication, data, and virtuality.  However, pocketing a Samsung Galaxy is not the same as tinkling a set of keys.