The chances are that if you have ever uttered those immortal words, or had them uttered to you, then there will have been a storyteller, who will have been holding on their lap, in their hands, resting on their knees, a book. Ink printed on paper, that sort of thing. For a few of you though, in place of a book may have been held an ereader, tablet computer or perhaps even a smartphone. For even fewer, there will have been no object at all, simply the teller’s memory and imagination – but that, alas, is not the next great technological innovation, but rather a way of telling stories that really has nearly fallen by the wayside.
Much has been written about the gradual shift from ink to e-ink, from page to screen. Some of it, such as Lane Smith’s It’s a Book has been irrefutably charming.
Other parts, including in a more oblique way Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid - which includes explorations of the comparative effects of reading on screens to reading on a page – have been insightful and scholarly. There’s a lot of hot air out there too – from the avant garde of the self-proclaimed ‘digerati’ who are counting their e-chickens well before their e-eggs have hatched, to the traditional motley pack of, well, traditionalists, who declare that a technology that hasn’t broken for 500-odd years doesn’t need fixing.
When an industry sector experiences triple-digit growth in its first few years (from a low base admittedly), it naturally attracts a lot of attention. As a full disclosure here, I make my living working with the digital changes being thrust upon publishing and books. I think they’re incredibly exciting. There are innumerable arcane industry issues – considerations which are (thankfully) invisible to those whose jobs aren’t directly affected by them – upon which new technologies are having an effect.
This blog post isn’t about these kinds of ins and outs, however. I want to offer a short view on the importance of the digital revolution for storytelling, and one of the things that we are aiming to achieve with Guardian Shorts.
Until roughly 4th August 2011, there were two ways of telling factual stories – books on the one hand, other media on the other (newspapers, blogs, magazines, social networks). In the world, things happened – people rioted, new countries were formed, dictators fell, economies thundered into the wall. (Sometimes good, peaceful things happened too, but these stories weren’t told so much.) Within hours, hundreds of thousands of words would appear. Within a month, millions of them would have been expounded upon the subject in question. And then, somewhere between 12 to 24 months later, a book would appear. A further 50,000–150,000 words, seeking to draw further meat from the picked-over remains of the media feast.
There are, it should be said, good reasons for this – news operates on a 24-hour cycle; with extremely few exceptions, books need a good few months to reach the shops. The have to be written, for one thing. And the publishing sales cycle works to roughly six-month lead times. If an author is trying to cast the definitive interpretation upon a subject, time is required for judicious research and editing. Books, as a consequence, have a different purpose – their job is not only to understand and to analyse, but it is also to form a narrative of events. They are the coherent summation of the story shrapnel that has exploded from myriad instant media outlets over the preceding months.
One of our aims with Guardian Shorts is to bring forward this crucial act of storytelling. We are able to do this by reducing the number of words in a book, by drawing on authors and editors who are immersed in their fields and, perhaps most importantly, by publishing only as ebooks. This latter factor enables us to dramatically curtail the journey a book must take from editor’s desk to the reader. A few months is thrown out of the window, replaced instead by a few hours.
Guardian Shorts can be characterised in a number of ways: they are long-form journalism, short-form non-fiction, entirely original reportage, stories told from the archive, collections, understandings and lessons. Where we cover the news agenda – from phone hacking to Libya – we seek to bring the first attempt at giving a narrative to what is going on around us, months before this would ever normally be available for readers. Our aim is to distill a story from the noise. This is what books do best. With the power of digital, we can do it a little bit quicker than we used to be able to.