Friday, October 18, 2019

100 WRITERS _____ I’ve gazed deep into the eyes of this thing called Digital Publishing and at the Singapore Writers Festival 2019 I will tell you about it

From 2015, talking about my early experiments with digital publishing
at the Asian Festival of Children's Content.

NOTE: This post is part of the 100 WRITERS project.

I’ll be at the Singapore Writers Festival this year. There’s a session about digital publishing, and the nice organisers have allowed me to say a few words as part of the panel. Of course, you might be wanting details. Where, when, who else, so on:

Publishing Beyond Print

3 Nov, Sun 5:00 PM - 6:00 PM 

The Arts House, Screening Room 

Ng Kah Gay

Jo Lusby
UK- Hong Kong

Don Bosco

Colin Goh
Singapore - Taiwan

As a growing number of readers choose electronic platforms such as e-books and apps over physical books, how should writers and publishers adapt? Three panelists recommend resources and share their experiences developing works for a digital age.

This session is co-presented with Tender Leaves Translation and Singapore Book Council.


I know, lots of people have had lots to say about this matter already. So what’s new? For this SWF session, I’ll focus on how I’ve been trying to make sense of digital publishing, from my own experience these past 8 years.

And here below, I offer some rambling comments in advance, for your benefit, in case you decide to join us and I’m not able to get my hands on the microphone long enough to say all these things, or, as might be more likely, the other speakers have wonderfully brilliant insights to share and I get so in awe that I forget all of this.


Rambling begins.

In the old days, see, in ancient times, stories were circulated via this great open platform called the Oral Tradition.

Okay, it's not really a platform.

Imagine people sitting around a fire, listening to a storyteller, roasting chestnuts, ooh-ing and aah-ing when it got interesting. That kind of thing.

Basically, people told stories, and the others present would try to remember as much of this as they could, and then they would go off and tell more people.

Of course, there were no concerns about copyright protection or ISBN numbers or even genre categories. A good story was a good story.

At some point, a person might feel particularly inspired to tag on a colourful embellishment to the existing tale. Stories grew and morphed and forked into competing versions, like this.

Quite a few of those folk tales, legends, etc, have survived these thousands of years, and we know about them today, sometimes in great detail. But we don’t know as much about the people who retold them, the carriers of the stories. We can say that in those conditions, the dimension that was valued most was the WHAT. The listening experience. The stories themselves.


In the industrial era, with printing presses and global logistics and mass retail strategies, book manufacturing corporations of different sizes took over the Story Economy.

As with the rest of modern manufacturing, the focus was on systems, technical innovation, efficiencies of scale, branding and developing new markets. Production lines of editors, designers, printing technicians, marketing professionals and so on, sometimes ghostwriters and manuscript doctors, all assembled to package an author's chunk of text in the most competitive and profitable way.

This was the era of submission procedures, manuscript development budgets, agented negotiations, imprint identity, mergers and acquisitions, territorial rights, book promotion tours, etc.

Producing inventory, shipping inventory, retailing inventory, acquiring future inventory.

There was a new focus: HOW to retail books and engineer a bestseller, or at least break even.

Authors believed that Publishers had the resources to do all this for them.

There was a sense that the HOW could determine the fate of the WHAT.


In more recent times, in this age of digital text, the Story Economy is looking quite different. People, us readers, are able to go online and publish our thoughts and responses easily. We create and invest ourselves in online conversations about what books we read, what books we hope to read, and also what books we are writing, or hope to write. It's a rewarding activity.

And so emerged a completely new factor known as online fan communities. Best and earliest example of this that I can think of: the armies of passionate supporters who organised themselves around the Harry Potter books, and made the series such a phenomenal success.

Just as important a new development: fan fiction, some of which have earned their writers deals with established publishers.

Also: social storytelling, like that on the Wattpad platform, which have also earned some of the writers publishing deals.

Also: Goodreads, which is a reviews platform with community functions (forums, etc) and automated recommendation features driven by user analytics.

Also: crowdfunded books, on Kickstarter and elsewhere.

Also: pre-order campaigns, commonly over a year in advance.

All driven by readers' online activities.

The focus is now WHY.

Why would a reader pledge to pay for a book, where in some cases the first draft hadn’t even been completed? Why would a reader go online and earnestly persuade others to buy, or read, a particular book? Lots of people do this, without being compensated for it.

They have their own WHYs.

Some publishers are keen to participate in this new thing, and the various digital publishing tools make it possible to get started.

Other publishers might be focused on salvaging the HOW of their book production advantage, and find this engagement a distraction or liability.



Old days: WHAT

Industrial times: HOW

Digital era: WHY


I have a few personal anecdotes to share about this, based on my adventures in digital publishing these past 8 years. I must save these for the panel session itself. It just occurred to me that after reading all this, you might decide that you’ve heard enough, and not turn up for our session. Please come. The future of digital publishing is in our hands, all of us, and we must believe we can make a difference. I will have funny anecdotes for you. Yay!


See you all at the Singapore Writers Festival 2019! Very soon indeed.

— D

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Available at the SWF 2019 bookstore:

My new interactive fiction series
published by Penguin Random House