During February’s Meanland: Reading in a time of change panel, literary critic Peter Craven argued that the future of books might depend on our ears.
‘The thing I’d like to put my faith in, in terms of a technological future, is actually the spoken word recording,’ he said. ‘I think what’s going to happen is that we’ll become functionally illiterate in the visual sense … [but] you don’t have to be able to read a Beethoven’s score or a Bob Dylan song, all you have to do is be able to listen to it.’
An audio tale can be an attractive and cheap alternative to a printed book. For example, $15 buys thirty hours of Anna Karenina from the iTunes store. The advent of MP3 devices, in tandem with increased commuting time, has created a demand for content convenient for driving to work or on a crowded train. For publishers, distribution as audio downloads makes commercial sense, side-stepping traditional production and packaging overheads.
Outside official channels like iTunes or Audible, an underground scene has already developed. A growing number of authors are making their manuscripts available online as podcasts – free MP3 downloads in which their work is read aloud. American authors like Scott Sigler and JC Hutchins have demonstrated the potential of podcasting unpublished fiction, building audiences large enough to attract major-league publishers.
Hutchins says that podcasting initially appealed as literary rebellion. After spending a year trying to find an agent for his novel 7th Son, he podcast his manuscript to prove, primarily to himself, that his writing was worthy of an audience. ‘If I based my opinion of my work solely on the reaction of agents, then the work was shit,’ he explains, ‘and I didn’t think it was.’
English author Mike Bennett also went looking for readers after experimenting with the more tried-and-true method of self-publishing. ‘It cost a lot of money, I got 200 books and just couldn’t do anything with them.’ Podcasting, by comparison, was a cheap way to reach a larger audience.
In his Meanland speech, Craven suggested listening to stories would always be popular. ‘You might have a PhD from the Sorbonne but you will still find it much easier to listen to Proust for an indefinite period of time than you would to read it on the page. It’s why the groundlings at the Globe, who couldn’t even read, could follow Hamlet as easily as we follow Avatar.’
Likewise, Bennett says his listeners enjoy his work in the midst of a busy, if unfulfilling, working life.
‘In the past, I’ve worked in factories and other jobs where my hands were busy but my brain was free to go mad with boredom and audio books were a godsend.’
This ease of consumption is key to a literary podcast’s appeal, argues Jon Tjhia, one half of Melbourne podcasting outfit Paper Radio. He disputes, however, any suggestion that a powerful reading will trick the ear. Bad writing always sounds like bad writing. At the same time, not all good writing plays well, since complex stories with repeated motifs can confuse a partially-distracted reader.
‘We’re aware people drift in and out a little while listening to fiction,’ he says. ‘I guess one of the ways we try to mitigate the drifting-off factor is by adding a soundtrack that supports the vocal element and reflects the concepts as they pass through the mouth of the reader.’
Certainly, a podcast provides an intimate connection between author and audience. Listeners are, in a very real sense, hearing an author whisper a story in their ear. Furthermore, if the work is still in progress, they can potentially influence and interact with its creator, instead of passively consuming a completed work. Hutchins says a key part of his success was an aggressive exploration of this interaction. ‘I, the author, was verbally interacting with my audience by addressing them as personally as I could.’
Both Hutchins and Bennett have been delighted with the response from the podcasting world or ‘podosphere’. At times, collaborations have developed, with listeners volunteering to build websites and create accompanying artwork. And, of course, a waiting audience is great motivation to see a work to its completion.
‘There’s a deadline factor, the deadline being the audience,’ Bennett says. ‘If they don’t get an episode, all these angry emails start coming in. It’s good to have that, otherwise I think I’d just fuss over it forever.’
As motivating as this can be, it does raise questions of quality over pace. Being a new media provider demands constant, meaningful engagement with an audience. For a podcast author, that means more free stories, all the time. Hutchins, for instance, says promoting his podcast became a second full-time job, leaving him little time to write.
The most successful podcasting authors, those who have crossed over into traditional publishing, are those who have expended the most energy in shouting their merits from the rooftops.
Many authors feel uncomfortable with this self-promotion. As a podcaster, Bennett admits he struggles with putting himself forwards in the manner of other, mostly American, authors. ‘There’s a lot of “awesome, awesome, awesome, this is awesome, let’s get out there and promote this, we’re awesome”,’ he says. ‘I could no more do that than I could cut my arm off with a penknife.’
On the other hand, podcasts, as a form of global publishing, can attract audiences outside any parochial enclaves, as Paper Radio recently discovered when The New Yorker featured them in its column ‘The Book Bench’. But, when connecting with an international – that is, predominantly American – market, will Australian authors feel obliged to moderate their cultural voice?
Jon Tjhia doesn’t think so. He sees Paper Radio as a chance to step outside dominant literary tropes in Australian fiction and experiment with new voices. Paper Radio aims, he says, for a more subtle approach to national identity, escaping the limits of what he calls ‘Australian gothic’ – stories told from the perspective of the ‘gritty yobbo’ – and present a new face to the outside world.
Mike Bennett feels a ‘foreign’ flavour may not be an impediment to success. But the nature of a podcasting audience does, he thinks, put limits on the sort of stories authors can tell. Bennett says the dominance of horror, fantasy and science fiction in the iTunes podcast charts can exclude authors, and he has personally altered his own podcasting trajectory in the direction of horror.
Hutchins, however, disputes this. While genre fiction may have dominated in the past, he says the market has since broadened significantly since 2006. ‘Four years is a long time in online land. Our grandparents are on Facebook now. I think what’s really happening is that people who write in other genres aren’t attracted to releasing their work in this way.’
He may have a point, though it’s worth noting those podcast authors who have made the leap to mainstream publication have each built an audience of hardcore genre fans. Podcast poster boy Scott Sigler’s best-selling novels Infected and Contagious are, for instance, pure sci-fi schlock, detailing humanity’s battle with a mysterious and malevolent virus. But, such was the size and dedication of the audience Sigler had amassed, that any poor reviews – The Guardian, for example, said the book should be ‘avoided … like the plague’ – failed to dent sales figures.
Some have argued that Sigler’s success heralds a literary democratisation, with an audience able to lure a publisher and then tell them what to print. Bob Sessions, publishing director of Penguin Australia, agrees that a publisher would find it hard to resist a product with proven appeal, even if it had been previously ignored. ‘It would be like,’ he says, ‘Charles Dickens coming along and saying, an awful lot of people have bought subscriptions to my magazine because they’re enjoying reading Bleak House.’
Nonetheless, he argues publishing houses and their filters still have an important role to play as identifiers and guarantors of quality. ‘Personally, when I’m looking for information, I’d rather get the information from a reliable source and that’s what publishers are, usually. Otherwise we’re talking about something that’s pretty anarchic.’
Critics such as the Guardian’s Robert McCrum have argued that, whatever the method of publication, a ‘measure of mediation’, such as a good editor, will always be necessary. A true democratisation of the literary sphere has the potential to result in appalling, amateur writing, untouched by editors and ignored by critics. Indeed, Hutchins believes this has already happened, with the podosphere saturated with mediocre work.
Jon Tjhia, however, notes that zines and websites are produced without industry involvement, and yet the best always stand out. When audiences are given voices, they become the means of mediation. ‘In the digital world, the power of recommendation is stronger than ever, word of mouth is how people hear about a lot of things.’
So far, few podcast authors have seen word of mouth propel them into the limelight. Mike Bennett says he is yet to receive any interest from traditional publishers, despite his podcasted fiction regularly outcharting popular author Alexander McCall Smith. JC Hutchins did win a publishing contract but his online audience failed to translate into sales figures. His contract was terminated after one book and, as a result, he ceased podcasting.
‘I’m fundamentally rethinking the value, from an artist’s perspective, of releasing a whole work of fiction, particularly if you’re going to be selling it down the road,’ Hutchins says.
The majority of podcasted fiction is, ultimately, a transitional product, designed to facilitate an author’s emergence into print. But can podcasting as end product, as a unique method of publication, be financially viable for an author?
Jon Tjhia says Paper Radio is working on a way to pay participating writers but is reluctant to shut out visitors by instituting a paywall. Instead, he hopes a donation model will offer authors some recompense. ‘I think it’s really difficult for anyone to make money in a world that naturally gravitates towards free distribution,’ Tjhia says. ‘But as long as people have money and have culture that’s valuable to them, they’ll try to support it.’
Some podcasters have already experimented with charging for content, with limited success. Having made his novel Brave Men Run available as a free podcast, Matthew Wayne Selznick released a second work in instalments to paid subscribers. He has since abandoned this in favour of a system he calls ‘neo-patronage’, where listeners are encouraged to pay whatever they think his fiction is worth.
‘My paying subscriber base consisted of people who were already familiar with me and my work – my “true fans”,’ Selznick says. ‘[Neo-patronage] makes it easy for new people to access the content, thereby potentially growing the overall audience, and still gives the “true fans” a way to support the creator.’
UK band Radiohead employed a similar model for their 2008 record In Rainbows. Months before its CD release, the album was available via the group’s website, with downloaders asked to pay what they considered fair. Frontman Thom Yorke saw this experiment as sidestepping the record industry to forge a direct relationship with listeners. Ultimately, one third of the three thousand downloaders paid nothing for the album, with the average price approximately $10.
Of course, for less established bands, making their music available online is still seen as a mere stepping stone to a record deal with labels like EMI, in much the same way as podcast authors release their wares to build an audience.
While JC Hutchins no longer believes podcasting is a promising route into the industry, Mike Bennett insists it’s a better path than posting a manuscript to a slush pile. ‘I think that’s a complete waste of time, definitely. To take my first book One Among the Sleepless and stick it into an envelope, I might as well stick it down the toilet.’
Writing is, unquestionably, lonely. A novelist spends years in confinement, telling their stories to nobody. Podcasting, at least, provides a means of discovering if anybody out there is interested.
Bennett says this connection means he can’t see himself stopping – even if a big publisher never comes knocking. ‘It’s too late now, I’m in too deep, I’m too far from shore,’ he says. ‘There may be a lot of other people swimming in the sea but at least I’ve got an amber hat on, people will go, “Hey, that’s Mike Bennett”.’
None of our authors are sure that stories read aloud, whether via podcast or a yet-undreamt-of medium, will be the future of literature. Jon Tjhia, however, likes the idea that people will find ways of engaging with storytelling long after the last book is printed. ‘There is a great romance to the idea of people reading stories to one another and I think I’m glad that we can still do that in a time when people seem to be less patient for such things.’