In this Episode
In this interview, Dan discusses his education and career, his involvement in mind sports, the impact of AI and potential changes to net neutrality on publishers and authors, and other important issues facing writers and the book publishing industry.
This interview was recorded on December 4, 2017.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
A Note About the Leanpub Backmatter Podcast
This summer we split the old Leanpub podcast into two distinct podcasts:
Frontmatter, which is a general interest podcast where you can listen to Leanpub authors talk with Leanpub co-founder Len Epp about their books and their areas of expertise, from data science to molecular biology, to the history of labor and management. And for those interested in the nitty-gritty of what it takes to be a successful self-published author, at the end of each episode Len asks the author about how they made their book and how they are spreading the word, and other publishing shop talk.
Backmatter, a new podcast focused specifically on the publishing industry and its latest trends. In each episode Len interviews a professional from the publishing world about their background and their insider's perspective on what's happening in the huge and evolving world of book publishing.
A Leanpub Backmatter Podcast Interview with Dan Holloway
Len: This is Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Backmatter podcast episode I'll be talking with Dan Holloway.
Based in Oxford, Dan is a speaker, writer, performer, and mental health campaigner, a mind-sports competitor and creative thinking world champion, amongst his other activities and accomplishments, including a weekly self-publishing column at selfpublishingadvice.org.
You can find Dan's column at https://selfpublishingadvice.org/author/DanHolloway, and you can follow him on Twitter @agnieszkasshoes, ead his posts on Medium @DanHolloway1, and check out his website at rogueinterrobang.com.
In this interview, we're going to talk about Dan's career, a variety of his interests, and as someone who writes about it every week, we're going to pick Dan's brain about his opinions about the general state of the self-publishing industry, and the latest developments and controversies of interest to authors and experts in the book publishing industry.
So thank you, Dan, for being on the Backmatter Podcast.
I always like to start these interviews by asking people about themselves; my little joke is I'm looking for their origin story. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your path, about where you grew up and how you became interested in writing and in the publishing world generally?
Dan: That's a big question. I grew up in Stroud, which is sort of hippy capital of the UK. It's known for being the first place in the UK to have a non-cash economy. It was absolutely full of really strange bookshops; it's full of performance poets.
When I was a kid, [at our house] we just drowned in books. I grew up swimming in books. I sort of always knew I wanted to be involved in books in some way.
The big event in our house every year was the publication of a new volume of Virginia Woolf's diary. So I sort of grew up knowing books were special.
Then I went away to college and sort of lost touch for about a decade, a decade and a half, and then got back into books, got back into writing just as the self-publishing thing was taking off.
I got into - it was an online Hannibal Lecter forum, is how I actually got back into writing. And then I ended up at an online writer's site in 2008, and that took me into self-publishing from there. It was sort of clear that I was a bit too awkward to work with a publisher, a bit too bloody-minded ever to want to get involved with the industry as I saw it. I think they probably wouldn't want anything to do with me, because I'm too awkward. And so I just became outspoken about self-publishing, and started self-publishing in 2009. That's the very short version of it.
Len: And when you say you got into college, you went to Oxford?
Dan: I came to Oxford at age 17 and I'm now age 45 and I've been here ever since and never left.
Len: I wanted to ask you a question about that. One thing in particular North American listeners might not be aware of - is that when you're applying to Oxford as an undergraduate, you have to do an interview.
I just wanted to hear what you had to say about that experience, because I know it can be quite trying. And especially at that age, facing that, with your family knowing you're there and all that kind of background, it's a very big event.
Dan: It's really interesting - we actually have the students up for interviews, they came up today. So for the next two weeks, Oxford will be full of 17, 16 year olds here to have their interviews.
What I remember most was being late. I didn't know where I was going so I arrived out of breath and bright red. I was sat down in a chair, and the first thing they said to me was, "When you woke up this morning, how did you know you were the same person who went to bed last night?" I thought, "Wow, is that what I've got to expect here?"
That clicked with me straight away. I loved somewhere where there was no small talk, there was no nonsense. You just got straight down to the big questions, thinking on your feet, and thinking weird things - and being able to be as creative as you wanted, and as weird as you wanted - that really appealed. It's still what appeals to me most.
Back in those days, we didn't actually have to have any qualifications to come to Oxford. You got these sort of unconditional offers if the interview went well, they'd just give you an offer and say, "Come." Which has changed a lot since then - now you need straight As. So it's less open to that extent, but if you have an off-kilter way of looking at the world, it's a great place to find like-minded people.
Len: And what college did you attend?
Dan: I was at Christ Church as an undergraduate, which is now best known as Harry Potter College of course, because where we had dinner every day is now the Hogwarts Hall on the films.
I remember once - it never seemed like a big deal, because we were so used to it. But obviously it's really famous, so it's a slightly weird feeling. I remember going into the cathedral one day just dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, because that was what I did. And there were all these tourists there looking at me really strange like, "What the hell are you doing?" It was a really, really interesting experience, Christ Church.
Len: I wrote my DPhil at Balliol in English Literature, so I spent a few years there myself. I was back a little while ago for a friend's wedding - it was actually in the Divinity School which was a fascinating experience. And things had changed since my time. I matriculated in 2001, and I remember the lineups for Christ Church with tourists were bad enough when I was there. But it's gone crazy since Harry Potter.
Dan: Yes, you can't move in Oxford. And every shop has Harry Potter merchandise in the windows. It's extraordinary. You can't walk on the pavement.
Len: One thing I wanted to talk to you about as well, just going down memory lane - one thing that I think a lot of people, particularly in North America, might also not be aware of, is that generally speaking, at Oxford when you do an undergraduate degree, you have all your exams at the end. It's a three-year degree, generally, for an undergraduate degree. That's an extraordinary experience.
Speaking of surprising tourists, one of the conventions that happens after you finish your exams is, when you come out, your friends shower you in glitter and you get drunk.
I remember seeing a kid in his - you wear a gown as well, and I remember seeing a student slumped over in a bench, in the middle of a busy tourist street, with a - grossness warning - a puddle of vomit beneath him, completely passed out, covered in glitter and goo. And there were these tourists just looking at him like, "This is not what we expected to see here."
I wanted to just generally ask you, because I know from LinkedIn you got a first, which is one of the highest grades you can get, and that's something that colleges publish proudly. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that experience? What did you do to prepare? Because I know that's a big deal.
Dan: Wow. I did go through that phase of being that student slumped on that bench, in my secondd year. I did a lot of mind maps - that's when I learned mind mapping, I guess it was back in 1992. That was when mind mapping was quite new. That's how I learnt a lot of my stuff. I also basically learned that if you work really hard in your first year, you don't have to work that hard after that - if you played catch up, and try and cram everything at the last minute, because the courses in Oxford - you sit about eight to ten different papers, and they seem really unconnected.
We had a paper on early church history, we had a paper on the philosophy of mind, and they just seem like they've got nothing to do with each other. But if you do all of the work really early on, then you find that over the next year everything beds in, and your brain just makes these unconscious connections between things.
Whereas if you learn everything at the last minute - if you have your parties early, then it's much harder to do that. So you are literally learning pieces of fact, whereas if you start early and learn everything, then what happens is, you can spend the last two years taking it fairly easy, because your brain is doing the real work subconsciously.
I guess that's really where I learnt about creativity and the way you form connections. You form connections by having lots of information in your head that you put there, and then you just let your brain do its own thing, and it will find it. So learn early, and use mind-maps to help make connections.
Len: I've got a question or two about creativity that I'd like to ask you in a few minutes. But before that, one thing I discovered when I was researching for this interview in advance, was that, as I mentioned in the introduction, you're a mental health campaigner. In particular, you've worked with, amongst other groups, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, specifically on the question of debt and mental health.
I confess to have never thought about connecting those two things before, other than the sort of standard anxiety one might have about paying one's debts, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your work on that issue?
Dan: That started because I wrote a blog about having bipolar disorder. One of the things with bipolar disorder is you can go on these binge spending sprees. I got into bad debt problems, having gone on these binge-spending sprees.
One of the ways it manifested itself, because I was studying theology, was I convinced myself that I needed 23 bibles. Because I happen to have every translation that had ever been made. So I got into all sorts of debt, and I blogged about that, and the Royal College found my blog.
And yes, it's a two-way relation between debt and mental health, which makes it such a dangerous thing. Either depression or bipolar can lead to either comfort-spending or binge-spending issues. You cannot open letters, you cannot pay your debts because you can't face up to them. And that can lead to all sorts of debt problems, and debt problems can then in turn lead to mental health problems. So it's a really insidious feedback loop that you get into.
One of the things I was instrumental in doing, I was on the steering group that set up - it probably doesn't mean much, but it's something called the Debt and Mental Health Evidence Form, which is, if you get into trouble with your creditors, it's a form you go to your GP to fill out, and it will help them to see the effects that mental health has on your capacity to repay debt and your financial behavior, for example. So it's made a huge difference to people, and to helping the finance industry understand the impact of mental health on finances.
Len: I remember moving to London in 1999, and there were a lot of student protests happening at the time, about the introduction of tuition. And I remember being very surprised, because in North America we take tuition payment for granted. I'm based in Canada, so the situation isn't as bad as it is in the United States, but it can still be pretty bad. I remember talking to a coworker who had recently graduated, and he was quite dismayed by his £5,000 of debt. I was at the same time sorry for him, and quite surprised that that was considered to be a shocking amount of debt. And then I was glad to be in a place where that was a shocking amount of debt. But that's changed a lot.
Dan: That has changed, yes.
Len: ...in the last 20 years. I was wondering, since you're based in Oxford, have you noticed an effect on student life? I remember undergraduates there - you have to choose at the beginning what you're going to study, and you study one subject. And so that choice was always difficult, but when you're now facing debt that you wouldn't have been facing in the past, that's probably an even more difficult prospect. Have you noticed a change in the atmosphere?
Dan: I think there are people making choices because they want to go into a career where they're going to be able to repay their student debts. That's not necessarily a good thing, because you're learning for a financial reason rather than an academic or an intellectual reason. That doesn't help the creative atmosphere in the country, and the innovative atmosphere. It's this idea that everything has a financial value, and nothing has a creative value - it isn't necessarily healthy.
It places a lot more anxiety on students around results, because they know they have to get a certain grade to get a certain career. It has changed the way the whole interface between students and teachers works. They're much more aware that they are paying a set fee, and they expect a set service. So it's become almost like a customer-shopkeeper atmosphere rather than this sort of pedagogic learning institution. It's still a great place to be, and there are still amazing things happening, but it has definitely affected the atmosphere.
Len: That's a very interesting subject in itself. My brother is a professor, and the administration at his university on forms started referring to students as customers.
When he was filling these forms out, he would do his little protest, and cross out "customers" and write in "students" - for what it was worth. There are many things that have happened in conventional university life in the west in the last, let's say 50 years, that have been very transformative. One of them is the transformation of that relationship into something transactional, in a way that it wasn't in the past. It's really troubling.
At the same time, universities have become these sort of self-aware hubs for innovation. You had a recent success where you won the Oxford University Humanities Innovation Challenge for a creative training course tool called Mycelium. Can you talk a little bit about that? How you found out about the challenge and then what Mycelium is?
Dan: Yes. As you probably gather already, I had a breakdown at the end of my student life, and I never completed my doctorate. So I've ended up as an administrator here, and as an administrator, you're very much shut out from a lot of the academic things. It's like you've signed this contract, and the contract says, "No, you do not have a brain." So whatever you've done, it doesn't matter.
Part of my job is to send out circulars to our academics, and one of the circulars that landed on my desk was about an innovation challenge, with a prize of some seed funding. It looked interesting, and I had a look through the rules and there was nothing that stopped me as an administrator from entering. So I thought I might as well enter and give it a shot. So I did and I entered, and there were 14 academics who had also entered. I ended up winning for some reason, which was really great. That has sort of kick started what I've been wanting to do all along, which is getting back into some kind of academic, but impact-related work.
It's a very simple tool. It's based on my research, which as a theologian was into early modern thought systems - in particular, memory palaces and memory wheels, the kind of thing that you see on Hannibal or Sherlock. Also, my friends in the mind sports world's research into the neuroimaging of memory athletes, the neuroscience of jazz improvisation and battle rap. It's a way of basically reshaping your mind, so that you are more prone to being innovative.
It's like we talked about earlier, it's growing these associations of a database in your head. At the same time, it's a way of helping you to be less self-detrimental so that you more easily form connections. Because the main thing that stops us forming connections is that we're worried about looking an idiot, basically. And that's never a good thing. Basically, the way creativity in general is scored is the more original your idea, the more it's worth.
By putting that in the form of a game, you can actually reward outrageous behavior - you're rewarding outlandishness. That's encouraging you just to be more ridiculous, and the more you're encouraged to be more ridiculous, the more naturally it will come, and the easier you will find it to connect up the things you might not have thought about connecting up, I guess what you would call thinking outside of the box.
So you're more likely to find innovative solutions to [?] problems and the challenges that we need to face up to in the 21st century. That's a very grandiose way of saying, a card game that asks you questions like, "After the zombie apocalypse, would you choose to save an oil well or a violin?"
Len: That's a hard question.
Dan: It's a fun card game with lots of research behind it. You get 5 minutes to come up with as many answers as you can.
Len: You mentioned the memory wheel. I'd heard of memory palaces - it's an ancient rhetorical device for memorizing speeches, where you sort of construct a building in your head a subject is associated with each room that you walk through, as I understand it. But what's a memory wheel?
Dan: It's a similar principle. The idea again is that you associate ideas with fixed objects. But then also, by placing these fixed objects, instead of in rooms, but in concentric circles, it's a way of helping you to make connections. It was also associated, as were the memory palaces, with Hermetic religions, and the Kabbalah, and these slightly occult things.
You would have things like the orders of archangels and astrological symbols, because these are all things that are very familiar in the intellectual landscape, medieval Europe. And you would associate your ideas with these things, but because they were circles, you'd almost be able to spin the wheel, like Wheel of Fortune, and make new connections. The idea was that by making these connections, your soul would been lifted up to some sort of spiritual plane.
But actually what it did was - it's a really great mechanism for making new connections. It didn't work so well at the time because they were using astrological symbols, basically, to help memorize things - they ended up getting burned at the stake a lot, because those things were really bad, so it was actually quite dangerous to be a memory athlete in the middle ages.
Len: That's really fascinating. I had no idea about that aspect of hermetic and Kabbalistic - I suppose, in particular, if things need to be secret and not written down, memorizing them and keeping the, invisible, would be a very important thing.
Speaking of invisible things - mind sports. Can you talk a little bit about that? For example, your experience competing as the creative thinking world champion?
Dan: Mind sports have always been with us for things like chess and so on, and it goes back to the Greek days. Obviously Go is one of the oldest games in the world. I'm sure we'll come on to talk about AI later, because obviously Go and AI have been in the news a lot this year.
Mind sports has a big competitive movement. It started in 1997, was the first Mind Sports Olympiad, which was held in London for people from all over the world. They could come and take part in events like intelligence, creative thinking, chess, Go, speed reading - that kind of thing. It was in one umbrella movement. I was lucky enough to go along with the first year back in 1997, just sort of on a whim to see what it was like. I ended up with the bronze medal in creative thinking and thought - I really enjoyed it.
I went back for a few years. I won the World Intelligence Championships in 2000, which was really interesting. I had a bit of a break after my health took a turn for the worst, but came back to it in 2016, and went along and took part in creative thinking, and ended up winning that. And then I came back and won again this year, and won the speed reading championships as well, which was really fun.
It's a really good way of keeping your mind fresh. I'm sure you're aware of the theories about deep practice that are really trendy at the moment.
Len: I confess, I'm not.
Dan: Deep practice is the idea that you learn best when you're at the edge of your capability, and you're always learning something new and learning something that you're not quite good at yet, rather than just going over the things that you are good until you're flawless at them. It's sort of the idea that you practice driving at 90 miles an hour if you want to be really good at driving 50 miles an hour, because although you might struggle at the higher limit, it makes all the connections faster in your brain, so that you're better at the lower level.
I've found competing at mind sports is a really good way of making sure that you never get into a mental comfort zone, but you're always out of what you're happy with doing, so that when you come back into something that's more straightforward, you do it much better.
It sort of fits in with things like Josh Kaufman's 20 hour challenge - this idea that you can get really good at anything by spending 20 hours of really deep, concentrated practice doing it. It's a great TED Talk.
Len: With creativity competition, what particular form does it take? Are you standing in front of a group of people, and then asked questions which you answer verbally? Or are you sitting at a desk?
Dan: You are sitting at a desk. There are four rounds, you get asked really strange questions, and you get 20 minutes to answer them. So for one round, for example, you get drawings from the Swedish Patent Office, at the turn of the 19th, 20th century. You get all of the words stripped out of them, and you have to come up with outlandish ideas for what they might be drawings for. The object isn't to get it right, it's just to come up with really weird things that it might have been.
And last year, one of the drawings was for something that you put on your arm, so that you could wipe your nose while skiing, for example. You'd never come up with that in a million years, but you can come up with some really interesting things it might be.
Another one, he took five things he'd heard in the street that week and we had to connect them into a story. You could make any story you wanted based around these five quotations. It's this odd scenario of thinking, and you have to come up with as many outrageous ideas as you possibly can.
Len: That sounds challenging.
Dan: It's sort of similar to [?]. It's a lot of fun, yes. But really challenging if you're not used to thinking in that sort of way.
Len: Switching gears slightly - you're an advocate for the Alliance of Independent Authors, which is behind the Self Publishing Advice Center website, where you publish your column. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what the Alliance of Independent Authors does? You spoke a little bit before about your own personality, that perhaps finds a home in places with independent in in their name.
Dan: The Alliance has only been going since 2012, but it's already sort of grown into this several thousand author strong movement, under the tutelage of Orna Ross, who's a wonderful force of nature. It's mainly, it's an advocacy group for self-publishers to enable indie voices to be heard in the wider community, to enable indie concerns to become part of the main [?] of the conference landscape and so on, so that we're not just stuck in the a background.
There's a lot of practical advice. And we've got people like Mark Dawson and Joanna Penn, who are associated with us in the self-publishing world. We do a lot of campaigning, for example, on getting competitions and prizes to accept indie authors, on getting indie books into bookstores, into libraries - just getting the indie movement taken more seriously, which it is now being obviously done.
But still at events like London Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair, Book Expo, there's a tendency for us to be put in the backroom a little bit.... [?] And when we're heard, we're heard because of our sales, rather than because of some of the more innovative things that we're doing. So it's basically trying to push a more do-it-yourself - we use the word "authorreneurial" a lot. It's this just sort of taking back.... [?] So we're advocating for the process, but we're also advocating for our voice to be heard. And we're advocating for just a more forward looking approach to - literary world in general, because it's somewhat retrograde.
Len: Speaking of publishers being retrograde, they do sometimes try and dip their toes into computers, and there were a couple of recent things that you've written about, and other people have written about, that happened in the self-publishing services world, related to publishers trying to do things. One was the announced failure of something called Type And Tell, which was providing author services, and was owned by the media company Bonnier.
Another was the announced closure of something called Pronoun, an e-book distribution service that had been acquired by the publishing giant Macmillan just a year and a half or so ago.
In both instances, this was big publishers trying to do, just something - and both failed relatively quickly, athough Pronoun itself had a long history - but it failed relatively quickly after being acquired by Macmillan.
I was wondering if, in particular, if you could talk a little bit about, why do you think it is that big publishers have such a hard time with the online?
Dan: I think in those cases, they were just impatient. I absolutely have no idea why Type and Tell closed, because they launched at London Book Fair this year. That was back in the spring, and they were announcing their closure by November. That's the sort of time cycle you certainly don't have in tech if you've got a company the size of Bonnier behind you. Because it makes no sense at all. So I have no idea what was going on then.
If that was a genuine cycle of, they thought they had tested it, and it hadn't worked, then I think the message that you get from that is that they don't understand the time cycles and the life cycles of how the internet works - what you need to do to build a customer base, and how you would measure whether you were being successful.
Because in the early stages, it's really hard to tell - when basically your numbers are flat-lining, it's hard to tell whether you're making progress or not. But there are ways, if you do some detailed cohort analysis, you can tell whether that flat-line is actually - if it's a changing flat-line, or whether it's a flat-lining flat-line. And my guess is that they either decided that there was something shiny somewhere else they wanted to move to, or they just weren't doing any analysis which was able to give them any measure of what they were doing right or doing wrong. Or they just figured they didn't know how to improve. They didn't know how to AB test to change what was happening. Yes, it's confusing to work out what's going on.
Len: It's very interesting in particular with the book publishing industry, where publishers will invest in books that can take years to write. But then they invest in companies and give up so quickly.
I know it's hard to answer, but is it something about - ?
Dan: It makes sense with the fact that they will tend not to give authors a second chance if your first book doesn't do well. And that shows that, in a way they, don't get the building-on-failure thing. They don't get iterative testing, and they don't get improving by changing things up and experimenting. It's either succeed or fail. And if you succeed, then great. If you fail, then you don't get a second chance.
That's certainly the case of their authors these days - massive advances for your first book. If your first book doesn't bring it in, then tough.
That's where smaller publishers are obviously having a lot of success, because they don't have that model. I think that's what the problem is, that's probably switched over to how they do online. And that just isn't how it works online.
Len: If you want to bag one of these giant advances for a first book - have things changed with respect to that in the last few years? You mentioned briefly I think that indie publishing has become a little bit more respectable. I think that there was a time when, if you were indie publishing, people feared, and perhaps in many cases rightly, that that would then disqualify you if you approached a big publisher for a big advance. Has that changed?
Dan: I think it's probably still true that if you indie publish and you don't sell, then that does disqualify you. If you're indie publishing and you sell, then you'll get snapped up if you want to be snapped up, but not everyone does. But if you indie publish and the numbers don't follow you, then you probably aren't doing yourselves any favours.
I think the chances of getting a big advance if you're not a big-name celebrity are probably increased a little bit. Most of the agents and publishers I talk to, they seem to be very into this sort of literary-commercial crossover they talk about. Books like The Kite Runner, The Cellist of Sarajevo. And I guess in young adult, there's something like The Fault In Our Stars - this kind of book that is on that sweet spot between literary and commercial. Through a lot of book clubs, I guess in the States through Oprah, in the UK through Richard and Judy - this is the kind of book that has been hyped and has done well from grassroots up. I think if you write that kind of book, there is an opportunity now to get the big advances.
I mean, we've seen some classic failures, haven't we? It was Garth Risk Hallberg, wasn't it - City On Fire that got an absolutely massive advance for that kind of book recently, and then totally tanked. So we may be just going over the crest now. But I think there is a chance for you to get a big advance if that's what you're after, if you aren't a celebrity and you are writing in that sweet spot.
But I think if you indie publish, and then you do well, then yes, publishers will - they basically spend half their life on the Amazon charts looking for the successes and will want to mop them up. And people are getting more imaginative about how they approach that. So you get people who will sell - Hugh Howey will sell their paper rights and keep their e-rights.
Len: One interesting thing that people talk about in the self-publishing world is the importance of data. Not just the self-publishing world, but the publishing world as well. I think that was one of Pronoun's claims about how it was going to fund itself.
For those listening, the story of Pronoun was essentially that it eventually morphed into something where you could upload a text, and it would then distribute it to various places where people could buy it, and it would pass through all of the revenue from those books after the outlets' take had been deducted from it. It would pass through everything it received to the author.
And people wondered from the beginning, how is this going to work? And there was a fair amount of, "I told you so's" happening. And these were all kind of sad "I told you so's." People really wanted Pronoun to work.
Anyway, one of the claims it had made about how it was going to fund itself was through data - that it would presumably sell this data both to self-publishing people who are interested in what they should be doing, and to publishers themselves.
I believe one subset of this concept of how data can be useful, is actually knowing what subject you should be writing about, or what types of characters you should be having in your book. So for example, we know that if you have a character of this type, undergoing this type of challenge, then people are more likely to read through to page 50, rather than abandoning the book at page 40. So you're going to get a bigger cut of the subscription services revenues, because they go - by page reads.
Just generally speaking on that particular subset of how data's important - do you believe that? That that is something that authors and publishers should be focusing on?
Dan: There are certainly a lot of stories about - and there is a lot of machine learning going into identifying the perfect narrative arc, and comparing the successful books across different genres, to find what the perfect narrative arc is. I think publishers are interested in it. My experience of the indie world has been that most people laugh at it. I wonder though if that might be a bit premature.
You've got things like The Bestseller Experiment, for example, where people have written a book from scratch, with the intention of it becoming a bestseller, and then seeing if it happens - seeing if you can almost write to formula. You had Ottessa Moshfegh who wrote Eileen, the thriller, because she was a literary writer, but she wanted to see if she could write a book by numbers. She ended up getting shortlisted for a lot of major awards as a result.
The people who want to publish by formula are going to be interested in it. The people who want to write lots of books and shove them out quickly are going to be interested in it. Publishers are definitely going to be interested in it. My take is that it's a bit o the tail wagging the dog, and that in general in writing, once you've identified a trend, the trend's gone and it's too late to write to it. And then it's much better to try and anticipate the next trend.
The more you can show what works across genres and across trends, the more valuable the data will become. If you can show that historical sagas have the same points as vampire romance, have the same points as erotica, have the same points as dystopian thrillers, then you've got something really useful, because you've got something that will translate across trends. Whereas if you're looking at something that's very trend specific, I think the data probably isn't as useful as it might be, because by the time you can analyse it, the market has moved on.
Len: You mentioned AI earlier. In this context, I guess I'd like to ask your opinion about that. If we're doing this analysis of narratives, and relating them to yhings as precise as page reads and tracking sales and things like that, fo you think we're approaching a time - let's make the horizon say 20 years - when computers are going to be able to write bestsellers??
Dan: In 20 years of course they are, I think. I think we'd have our head in the sand to say that they weren't. I mean, the thing that Elon Musk always likes to point out is the way the curve works. If you're standing on the curve, you can never see the exponential growth, because everything seems flat. But actually, if you zoom out just one order of magnitude, then you will see that you are on something that ise just zooming off.
So even the tiniest progress that books seem to be making, and AIs can now write reasonable poetry as well - a lot of my poet friends would probably disagree with me, but they have made a lot of progress on writing poetry. They're not so good on writing novels. But the fact that they have made any progress at all in this brief period says to me that within 20 years, of course they're going to be able to write something that's equally as good as anything that a human could write today. I think it shows a lack of imagination to think that they wouldn't be able to.
Len: And what do you think that's going to mean for the book industry?
Dan: I think we couldn't take the book industry out of the whole of society. I think AI will have transformed the way everything happens completely within 20 years. As creatives, I think we are in a better - it's a standard line to trot out - we're in a better position than most to get ahead of the curve, by thinking what we can do next. Our stories will still be valuable, because people will still value an authenticity, I think, of knowing that they are connecting with someone who has the same experiences and emotions as they do. And to the extent that they value that, they will still value what writers have to say.
When it comes to driving out plot, though I don't think there'll be anything that we can do in that. I think publishers - why would they want to give us a cut of something they can do with AI perfectly, that everyone's very happy that it has come from AI, because it's just as good as what we do? I think as creators, we ought already to be thinking beyond the ten-year horizon.
That's one thing that frustrates me a bit about the indie world, is everyone is very short-term focused. I think we're better than the publishing industry. You've talked about how Type and Tell shut down after six months, which is really, really short term.
We talk about long tails, and we talk about how the books will stay on the shelves forever, but we're not really thinking about what we as writers will be doing in 20 years' time, and I think we should be, because we need to start now, and if we start now, then there's at least a chance we might still be ahead of some kind of curve.
Len: When you speak about starting now, what form do you think that should take?
Dan: Looking for other ways of building a living, looking for other ways of building creative content. Again, it's a bit of a trope. We're looking for more offline content-building. Connecting directly with audiences, for example. I'm quite lucky I'm a performance poet as well as a novelist, and that goes down really well.
But this kind of experience that you can't get from AI - audience interactivity - people love it, and people will increasingly love it, because as you become more and more immersed online, you will more and more seek out offline experiences to counteract that.
So I think that's something we could be looking at. But we should also just be looking at our imaginations, the things we haven't already thought of.
What technologies might emerge in the next 20 years that we could use? How could we use AI to create interactive experiences for our audiences? How could we redefine what storytelling means? Can we redefine storytelling down to its very first principles and talk about things that give you an emotional hit or a dopamine hit? Can we deliver those in different ways through doing something creative that still takes you through a process?
Because that's what a story is. It's a process that has various emotional waves along the way. Can we deliver that in some other form? I don't know what that might take, but that's the sort of question we should be thinking, rather than, "How can I produce ten books in this series with my erotic protagonist?"
Len: Speaking of the big technical issues, I wanted to ask you about net neutrality. You made the point earlier that one can't necessarily separate things like the book publishing industry from wider impacts of developments on society as a whole. But coming from the perspective, say, someone who is a self-published author, who is looking to succeed in that world - do you think they should be concerned about net neutrality? And is there a particular impact on being an independent author that you think might come from restrictions on net neutrality?
Dan: We should be concerned about all kinds of technical aspects of the internet, that we aren't concerned about enough. Net neutrality is obviously one, because it might not affect our ability to access the market, because we can access the market though big channels, but it affects our ability to to access the market on our own terms. So it will effectively limit choices.
One of the things at the moment that we have is an immense choice of ways we can reach market. You can reach the market though a tiny self-published blog, or you can reach the market though Amazon. And pretty much, if you do it right, and you find the right niche , the only thing that's stopping you is how good your metadata are, for your audience finding you.
But if you get rid of net neutrality, then there are all sorts of other things which will stop the audience finding you, if you're not using the highest-bandwidth channels.
And so yes - we can still make a living as writers, we can still do things. But we can't do things in our own way as much, and that's just one of the things we should be looking at.
Other things are data degradation, for example. The future of especially proprietary software and proprietary e-book titles, it's something that W3C is looking at, I know, with keeping EPUB as a long-term archive of a written record.
But companies come and go, and they say eventually Amazon will go. And when Amazon goes, every MOBI file will - that'll be it. If you're using KDP Select, not only your revenue stream, but your legacy - the fact that you were there, that was ever a hint of you being there or your words being there - that will all be gone. And we need to be thinking about these things, and how you preserve yourself for the long term in this kind of environment.
Len: This has been a big issue for, let's say three decades at least now and in the library world, and the world of archivists and academics.
I remember one particular thing - and this will partly date me, but - libraries started storing digital data on laser discs, these giant LP-sized things. Probably more or less there was a lot of foot dragging about the digital transformation for all kinds of reasons, going back to conventions hundreds of years old. And so a lot of libraries were finally dragged into, "Fine. Fine, we'll do the laser discs."
And then the laser discs went obsolete. And archivists in particular, they're not thinking on the 10 years or 20 years timeline. They're thinking on the 1000 years timeline.
So this concept of data degradation and format preservation, I suppose, is a really big deal. What do you think authors should be doing? Or is there anything authors can do besides watch and see what people in charge of these protocols are deciding?
Dan: Well, one thing - I don't know if you know the No Shelf Required site?
Len: I actually interviewed Mirela for this podcast.
Dan: She's one of my absolute heroes. They had a thing, just this week, about the internet archiving of the Open Library Project. Which is something we can do - we can upload our books to the Open Library Project. It's not perfect, but it's dedicated to making sure books are preserved. Also Project Gutenberg is now realizing that it's been preserving books in formats that aren't going to last. So it's starting over. So we can be campaigning to get involved in that kind of work and have our works included.
One of the things I have noticed in the indie community, is we are so twitchy about issues of piracy and copyright, that when I posted a link to this article about the Open Library Project, the first comment I got was saying, "Why would I do that? I'll never sell another book if I do that." I think we have this tendency to be so worried about our immediate sales, that we're not concerned about our long-term legacy. I guess as a writer, that's the choice you make as to which you are most concerned about.
But for me, certainly, I want future generations to have my words, more than I want to have some sales. I think getting involved in projects like that, and making sure that indie voices are are enabled to be involved in projects like that -
Len: So what is your view about piracy generally, or in particular about whether or not an independent author should be concerning themselves with piracy, and how they should let that affect what they do?
Dan: I think it's entirely up to [the author]. One of the things about being an independent author is you get to set what agenda is important to you.
I would say I would never tell people what to think, but that's a lie - because I often tell people what they should think about it. My personal opinion is that I believe in complete open access. I think that everything, the sum of human knowledge should be freely available to everyone, because that's the only way we will maintain progress.
I think that has to go hand in hand with something like a universal basic income. And I think that if those two things are in place, then you're not going to damage anyone's livelihood by making everything available to everyone. There would also be no need for piracy if everything is open access. So that's my personal take. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
There was an interesting study that came out a couple of weeks ago, that showed that piracy might actually have an effect on sales. So if sales are what you're interested in, I know it's been a long-standing idea that piracy actually doesn't affect sales or can actually be positive for sales. But a really interesting [thing] was carried out, I think in Thailand, that showed that if you shut down enough piracy sites, you did actually see a boost in sales. So that was really interesting.
People who are concerned about, apparently a bottom line - yes, probably piracy is a concern. But for me, that's much less important than having everything available in some sort of library system to everyone, so that they can build on it. That's what we're ultimately doing - not making a living, we're enriching culture. That sounds very grandiose, but that's what we should be doing, I think, as writers.
Len: On the subject of things like piracy, and copyright - and obviously when you talk about shutting down piracy sites, that's obviously not a self-published author doing that. That's probably a government agency of something of that kind, or else credible threats that law enforcement will come after you if you do X, Y, and Z. And that brings us into politics.
I wanted to ask you about Brexit. Because, because peoople who follow copyright - I mean, that's a whole issue in itself - but specifically with respect to these questions, because people who follow the EU - which you have to do if you're in basically any industry really, that's doing business online - they can have their very opinionated take on things, and it impacts everybody.
What do you think Brexit means for people doing business in the UK, with respect to that? Do you think, for example, that a UK outside the EU will be less stringent or more stringent when it comes to copyright law and enforcement?
Dan: I don't think the government has the first clue what it's doing about anything like that. I don't think we will know. I think we will probably be more at the hands of bigger corporations, so I worry more about net neutrality and that kind of issue.
I think there is something, what you might call a progressive social democracy behind the EU project. It means that they are always slightly suspicious of handing over power to corporations. And they're slightly suspicious of complete free trade.
I think that will go, because I think one of the causes of friction between Britain and Europe is that Britain isn't quite so suspicious of that kind of thing. So I think that there will be more willingness to bargain away various things in the name of trade. I think that authors might lose out in that.
I think, to be honest though, that a lot of it will turn out to be pretty irrelevant in the changing landscape, because one of the things that publishing still hasn't quite come to terms with is what "rights" mean, what "territories" mean in a digital landscape. We're still dealing with a publishing landscape that feels like it's based on physical books crossing physical borders. I think that's a little bit of a fiction that the publishing industry is sustaining. Because no one has pulled the rug out from underneath it, it's able to carry on sustaining this fiction.
I think, at some stage over the next decade, they will realize that it is a fiction, and that in a digital world you just can't maintain territories in this way, and the whole rights industry will have to undergo massive change. National borders and national trading blocks will become pretty much an irrelevancy that we have to find a way around.
Len: I couldn't agree with you more about that. It's really interesting the way, very quickly, the book publishing industry became constrained by regional rights, constraints. Basically, my argument is that the industry evolved to make money around the externalities of paper, because it could be blocked at borders.
I could go on. But we now see this in policies around things like Netflix, for example. So Netflix, as I understand when I last read about their position, they want there to be one global Netflix. But because there are these conventions from the past that are hanging on, that people make money from - they make money not from the features of the latest Thor movie, but rather from this inherited legal system that's got this web all around the world. I guess I'm with you that that should go, and it's going to be really interesting to watch as these powerful constituencies - that's how they make their money. And with things like geo-blocking.
Dan: That's been in the news recently, because - to go back to the EU, the EU has basically said that geo-blocking for digital products is no longer acceptable. So you will have to treat, certainly the EU, as a single digital market as well as a single physical market, and I think that can only spread.
Len: I hope it does. I guess this is the interview of hard questions, and thank you for being so game.
My next question, would be, perhaps, partly from the sublime to the ridiculous - but what do you think is going on with Barnes & Noble?
Dan: I don't know. They must have got shares in a popcorn company, because it just feels like every week there's something with Barnes & Noble, that you just want to sit down and watch the disaster unfold. They seem incapable of making a sensible decision.
I don't know if you've interviewed Nate Hoffelder from The Digital Reader, he's sort of made a profession out of Barnes & Noble jiving. And I can sort of see why. I don't know what's happening with them. I think they've reached the point where they know something's drastically wrong, so they're lurching from bad decision to bad decision in the hopes that they might come across something that works.
Len: There was an extraordinary quotation from their CEO - I think after probably a bad quarterly report or something like that - where he said that, "Oh yeah, the reason sales are down at our company is because everybody's scared at home sitting on their couch watching the election." [Note: It was not the CEO, it was B&N Founder and Executive Chairman Leonard Riggio] - eds.] You know, sometimes you hear a leader say something and you're like, "How on earth? Who are you surrounding yourself with that you're not being corrected when you float ideas like that?"
I mean, I wasn't surprised. I think it was after that that they announced that they were abandoning Nook - not that that was necessarily the wrong decision. But you do certainly get a sense of aimlessness.
Dan: Yes, and they don't know what to do with their bookstores either. They opened a load of restaurants, and everyone said that was the way forward. And then they suddenly realized their bookstores are too big, and so they're closing all the restaurants. I don't know what they're doing. If they radically reinvented themselves, maybe there's a chance they could do something really interesting? But I don't know how they would do that.
In the UK we have Waterstones, who are doing really well, which - they're a big national chain. I don't know what Waterstones are doing that Barnes & Noble aren't, but they need to maybe come over and spend some time in our shops over here, because they've clearly got a lot to learn.
Len: Particularly in Britain, the bookshop plays a particular cultural role that I think it doesn't in many other countries. People in Britain read more - not just books, but newspapers, and other things as well, than in many other countries. I'm glad to hear Waterstones is thriving. I have fond memories.
Dan: Very much.
Len: Actually, on that note, you wrote not too long ago about the question whether or not tomorrow's readers will want to read books at all, whatever form they come in. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that people being born now are going to be relating to books in a similar way that we do now? Like people of our generation might?
Dan: That's a really difficult one. It's a really good question, though. I think we can't - unless we go into the matrix, you can't leave the physical completely. I can't imagine that we will just plug ourselves into the wall and that will be it. As long as we're in the physical world, we will seek sensory experiences. I think books may well be part of that, because they're often described as the perfect invention, the perfect machine, aren't they? Because they're so perfectly crafted and the form goes so well with the content.
I think the physical act of reading is probably so well-designed that it might survive. It's sort of like the coffee cup, one of those perfect delivery systems. What will be really interesting to see is what happens when neural laces come in, and when information uploaded becomes an option.
I think reading online and Kindles, and reading on smartphones and audio books won't ever challenge paper books for complete supremacy. But if we could just upload books [to our minds], which would be sort of 20, 30 years away from what I understand, then the question becomes, would that upload experience deliver what reading a book delivers?
And that, I think, we don't know. Because we don't know what it will be like at all, because we don't have anything to measure it against. It may be that that is just as rewarding an experience. And the fact that we can read so much more that way, because it would literally be 30 seconds to have the experience of reading a whole book. And if you can get, not just the content, but the sense of suspense and the rhythm, and the cadence of a book in that 30 seconds - then I think that'll be very hard to compete with.
I think that people working on neural laces and how information upload will work, and whether it will become narrative upload as well as just information upload - that's something really exciting that you could be working on. How you create what feels like a long-term experience, over something that's uploaded in a matter of milliseconds. That's a really interesting prospect. But that's the only thing I could see challenging the book.
Len: Thanks very much for that exciting and slightly terrifying prospect. I really appreciate your views on that - and that they are looking out so far ahead in a way that is often unconventional, because it's so easy to get caught up in just catching up, basically.
Dan: I think that's what publishing struggles with a lot too. Because it's on the defensive, and because other than academic publishing - academic publishing is in fabulous health and, as long as it's basically a scam that is ripping off the public and researchers, it will always be in great health. But main fiction publishing and mainstream publishing, I think it's so busy looking over its shoulder, that it finds it very difficult to look ahead. Which is maybe why tech companies are going to be where the exciting breakthroughs come.
Len: Well, let's hope there are some publishers listening to this who do start maybe looking forward rather than looking back. And let's hope some of these developments are really good for authors. I mean, it's easy to be negative, but things have changed dramatically in the indie publishing space, just in the past few years. And many of those developments have been for the good in terms of getting yourself out there - and particularly it's changing conventions around self-publishing.
Dan: Yes, and authors are creative. So no one is in a better position to take advantage of whatever comes along than authors are.
Len: Once again, I couldn't agree more.
Thank you very much, Dan, for taking the time to do this. I really enjoyed the conversation. We covered a lot of ground, which you did effortlessly, so thank you very much for doing that.
Dan: Thank you.
Len: And thanks again for being on the podcast.
Dan: Thank you so much. It's been an absolute pleasure.