How an Illustrator Chooses Their Style

People who take an interest in children’s books and comics learn to recognise individual illustrators by their distinct styles, but not many outside of the trade itself realise that illustrators can and do often work in more than one style. Nor do they understand how an illustrator chooses the styles they use most often – and how those choices can affect their career. You might assume that the style they’re known for is one they chose at the beginning of their career, developed deliberately, and that they fully intended to end up where they are. If so, you’d be amazed at the random things that can influence an artist’s path.

Illustrators rarely achieve the same kind of recognition as writers in children’s books, though creative credit is far more evenly balanced in comics. If you want to become recognisable as an artist, to have a brand, it’s best to have a single distinct style that will become tied in to your professional identity. This style will, in turn, dictate the kind of work that’s offered to you, which will affect how much money you can earn and the recognition you might receive. It can also mean that you can be in fashion as an illustrator . . . so you can also fall out of fashion.

There’s also the matter of what you want spend your time drawing or painting. The subject of your art might well be a major element in the enjoyment of the work, whether it’s caricatures, animals, machines, superheroes, architecture or whatever. Part of loving the making of art is the passion you have for your subject.

Unless you’re lucky enough to make a living from one style in your chosen subject early on in your career, however, you’re going to end up taking on a range of different jobs to get established . . . and those early jobs will have a serious influence on your development, and on the future of your career. And though I’d say technology is changing the nature of that development more than ever, art has always been influenced by the technology of the age.

Many illustrators can and do work in a variety of styles, either because they never settled on one they wanted to concentrate on, or because the opportunity to specialise never presented itself. For me, it was a bit of both. Some who do have an established style will also feel the need to branch out from time to time, either to take on more varied kinds of jobs, or just for the sake of doing something different. We learn early on that persistence and pure chance are as important to illustrators as they are to writers.

Changing drawing styles is much more common in animation, where every artist has to work within whatever style is being used for each production. Individuality has less of a chance to express itself, because unless you’re making your own film, you’ve a specific part to play in a bigger operation. You have model sheets to stick to, to ensure a unified look to the visuals. Corporate comics companies like Marvel or DC take a similar approach; if you want to work for them, you have to conform to their style first, though you’re expected to find ways to give it your own distinct flavour.

Imagine yourself at the start of your illustration career: the biggest influences will be the artists you love, the ones whose techniques you copy over and over again, though they may be a wide and varied bunch. To pick some at random, let’s say your favourites include Norman Rockwell, Beatrix Potter, Charles M Schulz and Jim Fitzpatrick; four very different illustrators. Which aspects of their work do you choose to emulate? Perhaps you decide you want to have two or three styles you can concentrate on.

When I was starting out, nobody I knew drew on computer, though digital art was starting to find its feet. Even if you did just settle on two or three styles, the tangible materials you chose to work in would affect the look of your work. Pencil gives a different line to a brush; dip pen, felt tip or technical pen will be different again. Your hand physically moves across the paper in a different way for each of these tools; most people are more comfortable with one rather than another. Does your black and white shading style lend itself to pencil, charcoal, ink or paint? Each one has a distinct finish. If you are providing what we used to call ‘camera-ready’ artwork for someone to scan – which was almost always the case for an illustrator, back in the day – necessity will guide your decisions. Materials like charcoal, chalk or oil pastel aren’t practical, being easily smudged or scuffed during transport or scanning.

Your choice of paint is a factor too: do you work in thin washes, as you would with water colour or ink, or do you go for thicker layers, like acrylic or heavy gouache? You normally wouldn’t use oil paints because they are too slow to dry. There’s all of this consider, even before you decide how you draw noses and eyes and all that stuff. When you do settle on a style, choosing a different material to finish it can be enough to introduce some variety.

Then there’s the time you need to think about. If the job’s not paying much, or if you’re working to tight deadlines (or both), this affects your choice of techniques. Black and white is faster than colour, line and wash is faster than fully painted work. Simple cartoons are faster than realistic drawings. Expressionistic, gestural art can be faster than a tight, neat finish – though not always. Even small tweaks one way or the other are already influencing the style that will, through repetition and habit, become a natural technique for you.

Or maybe you’re working in Photoshop, or one of the many painting apps available these days. As styluses and slates have improved, more and more artists are drawing straight onto computer, able to switch ‘drawing tools’ at the click of an icon. In which case, your style is being influenced directly by the technology and what it can do – and also what you can afford. Most of the artists working today however, started off using physical materials and many still rely on them for some stages, despite providing the digital finished product that’s expected by publishers these days. Their drawing and painting styles will reflect this.

Even working digitally, things like detail, perspective and the need for reference images all add time, which means extra cost, which either the client has to pay for, or else you have to put in that additional time and effort at your own expense – which you might well do if it’s the type of commission you want more of. Because it’s not just how you’re drawing or painting, what you’re creating is important to your career too. Being able to work fast does mean the ability to make more money, but only if the money’s there to be made. Normally, if a job doesn’t pay much, you get it done quickly and move on to the next one. The client won’t suddenly offer to pay you more for doing nicer work. Cost will dictate other factors too; for instance, if a book’s internal pages are printed in black and white or colour . . . and all of this will affect what the illustrator has to show to a client for the next job they pitch for.

A professional illustrator’s portfolio should be made up primarily of paid work. Prospective clients don’t want to see you doing it as a hobby – you have to prove you can produce quality art to a brief and a deadline.  They’ll judge you on what they see in front of them, so your past work is the single biggest factor in what future jobs you can get. The nature of paying work available to you, the opportunities you’ve been offered, start to shape what kind of artist you are.

Starting out, you may want to concentrate on a style for which there isn’t much work available in Ireland or the UK, say fully painted fantasy book covers or some funky collage work. In the meantime, you need to get established and make a living, so you take any paying work you can get, so you let the demands of the work steer your style, because you want more of the stuff that pays, so you can keep making a living. And all the time, you’re trying to work your way closer to the jobs you want to do, often by doing your own pictures on the side. Not only do you need to show other people this kind of stuff, you also need practise doing it, so you’ll be able for it when you get the chance.

Talk to most book illustrators, and you’ll find out they had a long and varied road to the work they do now – and chances are, they’re still taking on other types of jobs.

My background is more mixed up than most, which has been incredibly frustrating at times, though it’s ended up serving me well. I wanted to do that fully painted sci-fi and fantasy work. And the wacky cartoons. And the expressionistic stuff. And the Marvel-comic-style stuff. And the . . . Actually, what I really wanted was to be able to illustrate whatever story I wrote, and in an appropriate style. For me, there were so many different kinds of career I wanted, but telling my stories took priority over getting recognition for a single style of art. The only problem was, that meant getting published as a writer as well as an illustrator. Talk about making life hard for yourself.

For a long time, I took any job I could that paid. I did cartoons and graphic design and illustrated children’s books and school books. It didn’t pay much, so I learned to draw fast, so that I could make the time worth the money. I was a background layout designer for an animation company. I did paintings on commission on anything from paper to walls, motorbike helmets to leather jackets. Ireland was a small market and it was almost impossible to get enough work to make a living in just one style, and back then, working for clients abroad inevitably meant having to move abroad.

I don’t know if I’d have been able to keep working if I’d stayed in Ireland, but there’s no question my illustration style would have been influenced by the decision – perhaps I’d have stopped trying to make a living from varying my style, got another job and concentrated on honing one or two styles and then sought out commissions from publishers in the UK or the US. There just wasn’t enough work to be had in Ireland back then, despite the fact that there were very few full-time commercial artists in the country. Most of the work didn’t pay well and the use of cheap stock photos was just starting to eat into our commissions. I was seeing one person after another dropping out of the trade, so eventually, like so many before me, I made the move to London.

At a meeting with a couple of people from the Association of Illustrators, I was advised to have a maximum of three styles of art in my portfolio to avoid confusing potential clients. I imagine they’d offer the same advice now – I would. I ended up spending nearly a year working night-shifts in security as I tried finding illustration work, the meagre pay supplemented with regular cartoons for a local newspaper. Any hope of a clearly defined path into London’s illustration market was undone when I got a job as an art director in a small advertising firm, where I expanded into copy writing. Having an illustrator on staff was very useful to a small company with limited in-house resources. Weirdly, we ended up illustrating a higher proportion of our ads than a company like this normally would. Once again, I found myself responding to the demands of the jobs, rather than my own tastes, working in whatever style and whatever medium got the message across.

The key point here is that, not only was I not working in a specific style, but the subject matter of each illustration was out of my control. Commercial artists don’t get to choose what they create. I had to draw everything from engineering parts to Santa Claus for corporate Christmas cards; cartoon gags about computer telephony to the Photoshopping of product photos. It was enjoyable, and sharpened my skills further, but – ironically, considering the nature of the business – I was no further along the road in terms of developing a ‘brand’.

For me, this wasn’t such a bad thing, because the books were always going to come first anyway, but as I’ve already said, look into the past of any illustrator, and you’ll probably find stories like this. I came back to Ireland and found that publishing was changing. Illustration was being taken more seriously, and the technology meant there were more opportunities to work for clients abroad, while staying at home.

As the nature of the business has changed, the opportunities, but also the demands, on illustrators have been changing too. Illustration and design was going digital even as I was starting to learn my trade in the nineties. Physical artwork is in decline; working on paper has its advantages, and its pleasures, but it’s slower, because it needs drying time and scanning, steps we can now cut out of the process. I still love working with traditional materials, but they’re harder to fix and change, either for yourself or at the request of the client. The range of tools and effects available in art apps now is extraordinary, though the fundamental drawing and painting skills still apply. It will be interesting to see what happens as the influence of those physical materials fades and younger artists form new kinds of habits from scratch, some of whom might never get their hands dirty on charcoal or paint. We can already see new habits forming based on effects, short-cuts and trendy techniques that didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago – just as my generation would have developed ours. And are still developing ours.

So next time you find yourself admiring an illustrator’s work, maybe go and have a look at their website or wherever you might find their gallery or portfolio, and see what else they have there. You could be surprised by what other kinds of things they do. And you might wonder what random happenings helped bring them to this point in their career, and where they might still want to go from there. There’s always a lot more than what you see on the page.

 

 

 

 

Just What the Hell is a ‘Young Adult’ Anyway?

If you’ve been to any of my talks, you may already have heard me say that, for me, the definition of a ‘Young Adult’ book is something that appeals to both young and adult readers. Looking at it this way, you could say that most of our entertainment – whether it’s written down or shown on-screen – is ‘Young Adult’.

I’m not the only who thinks so. The Library Journal in the US ran a recent article discussing YA literature, and who read it. And the answer to that, it seems, is pretty much everybody. . . . . . . .

There has also been an outcry about the desolate wasteland that children’s publishing apparently threatens to become, due to the lack of interest young people today have for books. Y’know, what with their minds being poisoned by electronic entertainment devices of every kind – though Sam Leith in ‘The Observer’ takes much the same point of view as me, arguing that these are just new ways in to reading.

But surely these new kinds of media are pulling our newest batch of trainee adults away from books? I certainly would have thought so. However, according to an article on Timothy McSweeney’s site entitled ‘Young People are Reading More Than You’, it seems this isn’t the case. Thanks to the Inis blog for pointing the article out.

Stealing Books

The illegal copying and distribution of digital books. We knew this was coming – in fact, it’s been possible for a while. Ever since book production went digital, and distribution went online. But thanks to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and some handy pieces of dodgy software, any git with a smidgeon of computer savvy can now rip off somebody else’s book and sell it as their own . . . in industrial quantities.

This is what publishers have been gnawing away at their nails about for the last few years. Margins in the book industry are small enough without someone nicking your stuff and copying wholesale.

You can get DVDs showing you how to do this. There are online courses.

Amazon has been marketing itself as an easy means for writers to publish themselves – angling to become a producer as well as a distributor. On one hand, it’s a smart move, and a real boon for writers (albeit one that offers no filter of quality). But the internet giant is facing a serious problem with what has become known as ‘book spam’.

Online cowboys are getting hold of content through what is referred to as Private Label Rights. This is where you buy text, including the right (a rather arbitrary term in this case) to use it, reformat it, change it or even claim it as your own. People are copying-and-pasting what is often poor quality content in forms such as a cookbook, a diet plan, a get-rich-quick scheme or a travel book into an ebook format which they then put up for sale cheap online, using platforms like Amazon’s and programmes such as Autopilot Kindle Cash.

As far as I know, this isn’t technically illegal – it just means Amazon and the like are publishing a wave of garbage that book-buyers have to wade through in search of anything of value. But some pirates are actually pulling the content from existing books, removing the author’s name, changing the cover and passing it off as their own work. This takes very little work, so even a few sales can make it worthwhile. I’ve heard different figures, but apparently Amazon pays between 30%-75% of the price of the book to the author, depending on the size of the book. And it seems you can even just add irrelevant or repetitive text just to bulk it out and make it look like the book is better value.

Amazon and other distributors can use software to detect when two ebooks have exactly the same text, just as search engines can detect when the same piece of text has been used on more than one website and filter it out during a search. But some book pirates use a process known as ‘spinning’, where they use a piece of software – an ‘auto spinner’ – to alter the text, changing and replacing words, so that it looks just different enough to fool the search engines.

This is fast becoming a big business. According to Reuters, 302,000 conventional books were released in the US in 2009, versus 1.33 million non-traditional books, including ebooks. Contrast this with 2010, when 316,000 traditional books were published, compared to almost 2.8 million non-traditional books (quoting Albert Greco, a publishing industry expert at Fordham University’s business school). That’s a massive jump in one year, and it’s just going to keep growing. If book pirates can grab even a small percentage of that with little effort, especially if a lot of the work is automated, they can make a fortune.

This is a big deal for authors too. I publish about a novel a year (the publisher’s schedule, not mine), along with a few other different projects. Even after I’ve finished writing the book, it usually takes about a year before it reaches the shops. Someone else can dump a load of content into an ebook in minutes, with the same title, even sticking my name on it, and put it online. Worse still, they can just rip off my story and publish it under another name. Then they can switch to automatic fire, replicate it over and over again, just slightly differently each time, and blast it out there as often as they like.

Amazon are not sitting still on this – after all, it’s bad business and it’s doing serious damage to their brand. And it threatens to do the same to others who’d like some of that business, like Barnes and Noble, and no doubt Google at some point too. Companies like these are determined to offer this self-publishing service – and who can blame them, when you consider most of the people who read books would love to be able to write one? But these firms  are quickly going to find themselves in the same boat as the film and music producers.

This uncomfortable trend for ripping off books could quickly become a hoard of spammers and pirates armed with spinners and PLR and all manner of other dastardly devices. Filtering them out will mean proper detection systems (that’s a link to the best article I’ve seen so far on this subject), but also human resources – real live people, sifting through this stuff and getting rid of the randomly-generated garbage, and the scale of that job is going to increase exponentially.

I’ve been all for this digital revolution, but I’ve been saying for a long time that the publishing industry needs to take the reins, rather than letting our futures be decided by the people who design the technology (see ‘Seizing the Means of Production’ Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

‘Waiting to see what happens’ is not a strategy. And approaches such as Digital Rights Management (which controls access to a given file), holding ISP’s responsible and copyright breach lawsuits are next to useless if we don’t get the consumers on our side. It’s no point trying the punish ‘wrong-doers’ if everyone is doing wrong, because they can get the same quality product quicker and easier for free from an illegal source. Here are a few points to think about, just from the production point of view:

  1. With the mass of both quality and garbage on the web, people want their choices made easier. Publishers need to hold themselves up as filters of quality. At the moment, most people don’t know or care who publishes what book. Publishers need to be become more aware of how to use their brand, so that consumers will look to them as trustworthy producers of quality.
  2. Digital Rights Management should be carried out in a way that makes it easier to get hold of the right stuff, rather than making it more difficult. No reading device should be restricted to reading one type of file, or locked in to one supplier. I don’t want to be dictated to about where I buy my books.
  3. Perhaps, as things lean more and more towards the online aspect of publishing, we should look at subscribing to a service, rather than buying a product, particularly for mass market stuff we don’t necessarily keep on our bookshelves once we’ve finished with it. Think on-demand television rather than buying the DVD – but with no need for a schedule. And yes, sometimes you do want have those special ones to keep. It might be a case that booksellers and libraries would have to merge functions in some areas, or draw firm lines between each other’s turf.
  4. And finally, a point especially relevant to children’s books: We need to come to think of publishing as producing content in a range of forms, not just a printed book, or an electronic version of that printed book. Even as the manuscript is being turned out, and the design is being conceived, we need to ask ourselves: ‘What other formats do we need to think about? How many other ways can this story be told, can it be presented?’ Hook readers in by producing a more comprehensive product – not every aspect of which is sold as a complete unit such as a book. There can be online, interactive elements, involving social media, clubs, book forums, access to imagery, short stories or research materials, possibilities for fan-fiction and the like. Readers can be encouraged to take part in something, rather than just buy it.

We can produce this stuff far better, and offer far more, than the pirates. And it should be much easier for us to earn our readers’ trust and loyalty. But to do this, we need to convince them that we can provide them with these books in a way that is substantially better than the one which might offer those readers the same books much cheaper, or even for free.

We won’t beat piracy by focussing all our efforts on punishing the criminals who are beginning to steal our books. We have to beat these pirates by stealing their customers. Selling books is our business. Let’s show them how it should be done.

It’s a Book, Jim, But Not as We Know It

I’ve long been interested in how our relationship with text is changing as the means of producing it changes. For many people, the term ‘ebook’ means the same text you read in a book, displayed on the screen of a eReader, an iPad or a computer.

For designers, illustrators and computer programmers, and even film-makers, it’s something that potentially means much more than that. You can already see this revolution happening in the form of websites and experimental books on things like the iPad.

Here’s the best example of this potential that I’ve seen so far – demonstrated by Mike Matas on TED (the video’s less than six minutes long). Now, if you just want to read a novel, you wouldn’t need all of these functions of course, but as a tool for passing on information – for teaching, it’s superb. Check out the comments below the video, from all the tech-heads who think this doesn’t go far enough. Some people are never happy!

The British Library – Now Available from Google

In its ongoing crusade to make as much of the world’s information available online (an act that is not entirely altruistic), Google have teamed up with the British Library to release 250,000 books online, from the library’s stock.

‘The Telegraph’ reports that the books will cover the years from 1700 to 1870, so the copyright issues  that Google has had with other aspects of its library project won’t be a major concern.

About 40 million pages will be digitised, meaning anyone who’s interested, can read books by writers who witnessed the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the invention of rail travel and the abolition of slavery.

When people look back at the revolution that’s happening right now, I wonder will they be reading about it on paper or on-screen? And which will offer the most ‘authentic’ experience? Or will they even be reading at all?

Seizing the Means of Production – Part 3

To recap from Part 1 (of my ambitious and epic blog trilogy) what a publisher traditionally does for a writer is:  first, they take that story on. That approval is, in itself, a recognition that the story is of a reasonable quality. Then they hone it into something they can sell, produce the printed matter and distribute it to reviewers and the shops. Shops treat books from well-known publishers far more seriously than they do self-published books.

You write stories on your own, you publish them with a team, but you sell them with a community. Contrary to popular belief, writing is not a solitary occupation.

The single biggest change to the world of publishing is the fact that anybody with a web connection can now publish text online, and it is increasingly easy to get an ebook accepted by mainstream outlets such as Amazon. Seizing Production 1-eReaderIn fact, why bother with an ebook? Just stick it on a website, or in a blog, or in an email, on your Facebook page . . . hell, just slap it in a text on your mobile. What’s the difference, when you get down to it?

So publishers no longer control distribution – access to the market. Desktop publishing and design software offer anyone the ability to put a book together themselves. And with people reading more and more online and onscreen, printing is becoming less important, so publishers no longer control the means of production.

And given that most books do not benefit from any major promotional work from the publisher (the bulk of the marketing money and effort is reserved for the top 5% of authors), this is normally left to the creators of the work – the writer and/or illustrator. Particularly nowadays, when a children’s writer is expected to also be a children’s entertainer if they want any chance of a career – see my last post. So publishers do not, for the most part, control the promotion of a book.

In fact, much of what a modern publisher does control – or contribute – can often be sub-contracted out to freelance professionals. Publishers long ago stopped printing their own books, even though this is how the oldest companies started off. Publishers used to be printers. That work is now farmed out to printing firms – it is no longer where the publisher can add the greatest value, and therefore make the most money in the publishing process.

But editors, designers, marketing and PR people are also increasingly working for themselves or smaller, specialized companies. More and more  full-time publishing employees work from home. If you really wanted, you could bypass the ‘publishers’ altogether and hire what freelancers you need directly, and then keep all the money your books earn for yourself. That’s one theory. However, as I said before, with the technology available, it’s possible to do the whole shebang by yourself. Writer, John Scalzi, takes a dramatic look at these propositions on his blog.

There is a point in the future where my name – my ‘brand’ – might become recognizable enough for me to say: ‘Why bother with a publisher and distribution system that takes 80-90% of the money from the sale of book, when I can do it all online myself and cut them out of the picture? With print-on-demand, including marvels such as the Espresso Book Machine, I can even send people printed versions of the books if they want them.’ If my publishers seem to be dragging their heels when it comes the seizing this new means of production, why don’t I just do it myself? If I made enough money, I could pay a few experts to do the tricky bits for me, and then manage the whole thing and take most of the money for myself.

As an author, I already have far more direct contact with readers than my publishers do. I also have this blog and this website as an online means of contact, but other authors go further, giving out email addresses, having Facebook pages and tweeting regularly on Twitter. The line between linear stories and more interactive formats such as online role-playing-games is starting to blur – as is the divide between author and reader. I’m no programmer, but I am an illustrator and designer. I can handle much of the production of an ordinary book myself and I have people around me who can do most of the rest of it. So why not?

Seizing Production 2-One Man BandTo be blunt, even in the digital world, self-publishing is incredibly hard to do properly. Publishing your own work requires a wide range of skills to do effectively, is ravenously time-consuming (leaving you little time to write) and can be hideously expensive once high-end production for printing becomes involved. I know – I’ve tried it. It actually went okay; I published the first issue of a comic entitled ‘Twisted’ (go find that one, you comic fanatics!), but then started getting real illustration work and that was that. I managed to get the cost of printing covered by a business partner and selling advertising. But I never made enough money on the sales to cover the cost of the time I spent writing and illustrating the comic. Mainly because, back then, I didn’t understand a thing about marketing or distribution.

That said, I find normal publishing isn’t very different – you get published, and then do a lot of the selling work yourself. Despite all the difficulties, self-publishing does work for some people. And now there is an astounding number of people taking up the challenge. Many aren’t interested in making a living from it at all – they just want to get their work out there. Sometimes it couldn’t even be called work. They just want to throw their voice, their text, out into the wilderness and see if anyone answers. We’re becoming addicted to this random, stream-of-consciousness stuff. It feels raw and immediate, and is often entertaining. But like watching MTV, it never quite satisfies. You’re always hanging on to see one more bit, in case that has what you’re looking for.

And there is still the issue of quality. I believe there is a serious risk that, if we fail to adjust to the new modes of reading that come with all these changes, the measures of quality that are accepted across the publishing world will become irrelevant to young readers who are effectively starting from scratch in a new medium. This is already happening in the world of news – look at how commentary has already taken over from investigation. The old media are making less money, so they have less to spend on digging up facts – and anyway, it takes too damn long. It’s easier to read the press releases from those in power and pass them on with a bit of commentary – or indeed, getting a group of journalists together to discuss them at length. As I mentioned in an earlier post,  Charles Stross talks about this and other points in his blog.

And I hate the idea that the fantastic developments in production and distribution could lead to the discarding of much of what is still good in publishing. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Except, in this case, it’s the baby who’s throwing us.

Like Charlie Stross, Eoin Purcell talks about the race to the bottom in the world of digital publishing. He questions whether there could ever be ‘an iTunes for books’ and asserts that the demand for quality writing could force internet service providers to start paying people to produce good stuff – to keep people clicking through those all-important ads. Such desperate measures could be called for, since the ‘all-information-should-be-free’ philosophy extolled by some will ensure that few good writers will be able to spare the time to produce that good stuff on a regular basis. They’ll all be off finding other ways to pay the rent.

Eoin has subscribed, tentatively, to the belief that, to keep consumers glued to their screens, ISP’s will have to start investing in talent. That would be nice (and overdue). I think there’s a lot to be said for the concept, but I’m not sure if that’s how it’ll come about – at least the bit about the ISP’s doing the paying.

Seizing Production 3-PhilosophySome of the people who once preached the virtues of the ‘all-information-should-be-free’ philosophy have started to change their minds. Probably because they are having to face up to the fact that they need to make a living too, and now that the idea is no longer a revolutionary one, there is less demand for it on the lucrative lecture circuit.

So, we know who needs the money in order to keep producing decent quality work: the creators of the content and those who help them produce it: everyone from investigative journalists to literary novelists and the organizations who support them. If we look beyond the traditional market to the digital one, we have to look at where that money is going to come from.

The consumers, obviously, but we already know that digital tip jars and PayPal accounts are not the answer. If people can get something as easily for free as they can while paying for it, most will take it for free, or won’t pay enough. Even if you can convince people to pay you enough to make a living from it, your success could mean you become more desirable to the pirates, and there goes your income again.

Some authors have tried getting sponsorship, or even investors, a kind of ‘crowdfunding’ to help them cover the expense of the time it takes to write a book. There have been suggestions that writers start releasing stuff in a drip-feed fashion, waiting for a certain number of subscriptions to their site before releasing the next episode. But it’s a shaky way to do it, and demands that you write serials with constant cliffhangers. It’s a tough way to go about writing a book.

Everybody is trying to figure out how they’re going to make their money in this scary new digital future. Seizing Production 4-HagNewspapers have tried the subscription model, failed, and now seem to be giving it another go in a slightly different form. Even iTunes is starting to steer in that direction. Rock bands have tried releasing their new albums online and asking their fans to pay what they think the music is worth, but this only seems to work at all if the band is already huge, and makes plenty of money from performances anyway.

As an author of children’s and young adult fiction, I do a large number of events every year. If I was a musician or a storyteller, I would be trying to make my living from these, but that’s not my goal. I am having to learn the skills of an oral storyteller, but I’m trying to promote books.

Except I’m not. Not any more. In fact, I never really did. I sold stories, each of which I wrote in the format of a book to be printed, to be marketed in a certain category, for a certain market. But I was happy for those stories to be sold in other formats, even though I rarely got much say in how subsequent formats were produced. Why didn’t I get much say? Because the people who bought the rights all took the printed book, not the story in my head, as their starting point.

My books have been published as audio-books and ebooks. I have sold film rights for one of them, and would be delighted to sell more. The same goes for other kinds of broadcasting, including console or online computer games. I will soon be releasing my first ebook novella free online. I have read, performed, my stories for audiences of children. Excerpts from one of my novels have been performed as drama presentations. As ebooks, my stories can be read out loud by text-to-voice software for the visually impaired.

Do I want to even attempt to self-publish into all of these formats? Not bloody likely. So I need a publisher. Not a company that bases its business on printed matter, but one that can help me hone and adapt my stories for different formats, either for different audiences, or the same audience that wants to be able to enjoy my stories in different ways. Kids in particular, expect their favourite brands to stretch across different media. The story they sat up all night reading on paper by the light of a lamp, they want to continue reading on their phone while being driven to school in the morning. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have it, except that the publishing industry has so far baulked at making it possible.

In an article for the Computerworld website, Michael Elgan puts forward the idea that publishing must change its very shape. He suggests that when a book is sold, it could be offered at each outlet in any format the reader wants, or indeed, as a bundle. So instead of having to buy the ebook, the audio-book and the printed version individually, they could be bought as one package. And if you’re talking just about digital files, this would be easy, and makes complete sense. That’s what makes digital stuff so great. You can keep it all together in the same place, but use it in different ways.

Elgan goes on to talk about being able to borrow or rent audio-books (a service some libraries already offer) and books that can download the updated version on a regular basis – not just your newspapers, but books, particularly useful for things like academic texts, manuals, law books etc. He argues for ‘social books’, where a book has its own website for discussion about it, although I think online book groups serve this purpose better and cheaper. But the book could still be used to take you to a relevant online world to enrich the reading experience. He questions why ebooks are released at the same time as printed books, when they are obviously much quicker to produce.

But books are no longer solid, static things. Soon, they may no longer have a single size, and could have multiple layers. How do you pay once for something that comes in different forms, or is constantly changing, renewing itself? Well, you don’t pay for that one thing.

Google are pushing for a model where we stop downloading stuff altogether, that we stop storing everything on our own computers and just access everything online. You don’t pay for individual bits of software, or for the products you use online, you just pay a subscription for the whole service.

All right, as a human being who likes his privacy and independence, the ‘putting my whole life online’ idea does give me the shivers. And I certainly don’t want Google becoming the purveyor of all media – or indeed, all knowledge, as they claim their ambition has always been.

But it brings me back to the idea of subscription. The idea that we no longer seek to own a version of story, we just pay for the right to read, listen, watch as much as we like in a given time, and put up with having to look at a few ads along the way (If you do absolutely have to own it, you can still buy a printed version). We use this license or subscription model already, every day of our lives, and it has produced some of the best (and worst) writing in any media. It’s called television.

And even though television programmes and fims are ripped off and distributed widely on the web, most of us still sit down and watch the box, rather than trying to download free stuff on the computer. Why? Because it’s easier. And our televisions are becoming so versatile, so multi-functional, that even the free means of downloading individual files isn’t enough to draw us away from the box that we can work from our armchair with a simple remote control. We don’t want to know what’s on the world-wide web each evening when we come home from work. That’s too much hassle. We want a fairly restricted menu of options that suits our tastes, which won’t demand too much thought. And I’d still rather rent a box-set of DVD’s than try and download them off the web. I am happy to pay for that convenience, for something that gives me pleasure.

Now think about how much easier and cheaper it is to produce text, or even illustration and design, compared with your average television show.

Seizing Production 5-TVIt’s not just about the service. In terms of a means of accessing stories, text and any related files, we don’t need a wide array of gadgets for reading in different forms. We need one that can manage all kinds of text in a simple way. I had high hopes for the iPad, but I think it’s fallen short (I’ll cover that in another post). But we’re coming close. The key is the combination of the reading device and the service. Perhaps Kindle will crack it, perhaps Google will get there first. Maybe Apple will even come up on the inside and steal the prize. Hopefully they’ll all produce different types and we’ll actually have a choice of what to use. But these companies create formats, devices. Not content.

I believe that the publishing industry needs to get together, from the likes of giants such as Random House to small independent firms like the O’Brien Press or Barrington Stoke, and figure out how to move our industry online in a unified, forward-looking, strategic way. We must seize the means of production before it is foisted upon us, and we end up having to figure out how to work within an alien system, while we lose our increasingly more tech-literate young readers to those who have mastered the medium, but not the content.

If publishers are to remain in business, and maintain the standards that excite such devotion, intensity and passion in a bizarrely untenable industry, they must become what most creators of content cannot and do not want to be. They must act as hubs of expertise in all kinds of formats and media, helping the creator adapt their story, their book, to each one. They must ensure that the outlets they choose to work through are so easy to use and access, and offer such opportunities to become more involved with each book, that pirate material– which will always exist – cannot become mainstream.

As a writer, I want to make a living from my work, so I can spend my time doing it and so I can remain productive throughout my life. But I also take a keen interest in how stories are told and spread and how they mutate and take new forms – along with the information and inspiration that they carry. I believe it is vital that we meet the developing needs of our readers, so that they do not see our industry as becoming increasingly irrelevant as they are led away by forms of reading that offer more fashionable, eye-catching snatches of entertainment, but less technique, less investigation, less thought, less depth and perspective.

For the sake of our industry and our audience, we must stay relevant in their eyes. I appeal to the publishing world to seize these new means of production, and stop being afraid of them. These are merely tools we need to learn how to use. Painting is not restricted to those who can manufacture canvas or brushes. Let’s not get left behind.