The INTRE:FACE Digital Conference (06.02.2016-07.02.2016), organized by Katharina Deloglu and Tom Bresemann, hosted by Andreas Bülhoff, tackled many important questions regarding digital literature. In a series of articles we bring you the speeches and discussions held at the INTRE:FACE Digital Conference, dealing with problems regarding digital literature and different tools used to construct it, for example how can digital tools be used to offer new approaches to production, what digital tools already exist and how are they structured, to more applied problems, such as how can literary activists use digital means to connect with one another, how we can make most of digital material and many other interesting topics.
Nikola Richter is the founder and head of one of the most important digital publishing houses of Germany, mikrotext. She founded the digital publishing house in 2013, after noticing that high quality literary texts were missing from the e-book market, and wanted to rectify that. Mikrotext now publishes poetry, essays, but the main focus in publication is in prose. The publishing house runs a subscription which gives access to 30 e-books with more than 100 writers from 7 countries. Nikola selects texts which are very subjective and also related to the web. Some books, even though they existed first as e-books are also published in print, and there is also an idea to possibly try and publish literary performances in the e-book format. In her speech, Nikola focused on the practical issues related to publishing, communicating with writers and readings.
The first question that arises is why e-books are a good choice for writers and readers. For the former, e-books have a fast publication cycle. You can publish short e-books or longer e-books. There is no limitation on page numbers, you have access to infinite storage and the books are easy to send around. E-books can also be easily updated and the books themselves won’t become worn out or damaged, as would normal publications. For the reader, the format presents instant access to global publications. Prices for e-books are lower, they are more portable and there is no need to shelf space to store it. Digital tools, such as word searching, can be used. E-books can be read in the dark, using the ‘night-mode’ function of an e-book compatible device which could be useful for bringing reading back into our lives. The texts can be read offline, however they still imitate the presence of text on the web.
Even though the Internet is supposedly open source and there are huge archives that exist as part of this open culture, e.g. the Gutenberg project, the Baltic Sea Library… and it would perhaps seem paradoxical to publish something in e-book format, Nikola Richter explained that her role is that of an active editor of the web. She puts certain people out there and picks up on certain trends and brings them to a wider public. In some ways, therefore, mikrotext could be seen as a traditional publishing house in that is works with classically edited text, as they do not publish multimedia works, for instance. She describes mikrotext as a ’publishing house with a surprise’, as she is embedded in the texts that she publishes – she is part of the community of readers of those texts before she publishes them. She sees mikrotext as a publishing house which gives you a little ‘nudge – you don’t know what will be coming next.’
Such a thing can be seen in the presented examples of the ‘so called web literature’ – literature that is written on the web, on Facebook, Twitter, various blog platforms… It’s impulsive, dialogic and the commentary is always part of the text.
Assaf Al-Assaf for example started writing on Facebook about the relationship between a fictive German diplomat and a Syrian refugee and his posts eventually turned into an episodic novel called ‘Abu Jürgen: Mein Leben mit dem deutschen Botschafter’. His readers were eager to follow the story and would ask about what had happened to the characters. Without the readers, this book wouldn’t have been created. The dialogic element between the writer and reader is embedded in the writing.
Similarly, Jan Kuhlbrodt’s ‘Das Elster-Experiment: Sieben Tage Genesis‘ was written on a blog, which can still be found today unedited online. The reader was included in the production of the text by discussing the role of ‘genesis’ today, in a world there we are constantly rethinking out relationship to the environment. The discussion can also still be seen in the comments of the blog.
As can be seen, much writing on the web tends to be episodic in nature, perhaps because it’s hard to write longer works online. Due to its episodic form, it’s easy to jump in and out of the work, a property that was used with Aboud Saeed, the author of ‘The Smartest Guy on Facebook’. He was working as a blacksmith in Northern Syria and started writing about his experiences of the Syrian Revolution on Facebook. He writes in a cynical and matter-of-fact manner about his life in Syria, often on controversial subjects, such as women, smoking… His writing gained a lot of attention in the Arab world. The first line that he wrote on Facebook reads: ‘I write whatever comes into my head on the emptiness of a phantom poet’. He is using the window opened by Facebook to write and become a poet – the web instigates his work.
Another interesting example is Thomas Palzer, writer of ‘Spam Poetry: Sex der Industrie für jeden’. He started collecting his spam mail, usually written by bots with the sole purpose of selling things. They use a language that is very repetitive, insistent, metaphorical and sensational. Through his editing, spam poetry reads as a manual for life enhancement. It is no longer bot poetry, but a reflection of the deeper philosophy of spam.
As someone who is always connected to the Internet, to the medium she works with, Richter is part of what she calls a ‘Digitallektorat’. This means that, as a publisher, she has to consider textual elements specific to the online context. For example, with texts produced on Facebook, one has to think about if the like should be published or not, the date it was published online… She often chooses funny text, because those which are the most successful online are often the most funny.
Does mikrotext has to have best sellers?
Nikola Richter: Yes, for literary ebooks, I would say, we have best sellers. Last year, I have created a system which produces a very quick publication so that I can increase the output and the possibility of more best sellers: Mikrotext uses the ‘Booktype’ publishing platform, created by ‘Sourcefabric’, who support other types of open publishing.
Because e-books are so cheap, the income is very low from sales. But because these texts are so engaged with the public, the writers have many events and interviews – this creates revenue. And, not to forget, mikrotext has good press coverage.
Are you profitable? How do you pay the writers?
Nikola Richter: They get a percentage of the sales. Germany has no state funding for independent publishers, it has funding for other types of culture institutions, but not publishers. This is a pity I think because independent publishers are important agents for diversity in the publishing market. I rely a lot on the revenue gained through events for example on digital publishing and on the sales of publishing rights – print licenses, international licenses…
Would you consider your role in the artistic selection and compilation of the texts as being perhaps larger than that of a traditional publisher?
Nikola Richter: My input is different depending on the type of the text. If there is a translated text, the translator plays a big role in most cases. I work a lot with the text’s structure, everything which affects the reading experience.
Will the canon change in the wake of this kind of digital publishing? Will the role of the writer change?
Nikola Richter: Yes, the canon changes all the time. The writer Aboud Saeed has over 7000 followers on Facebook, and has also been translated from Arabic into German for his first ebook publication with mikrotext. When they asked him at a festival in Germany whether he is a part of the German literary scene, at first he replied that he was not a writer and therefore also not interested in the literary scene. After some reflection, however, he said: ‘But when I think about it, I’m a part of the German literary scene – a big part.’
Who has the rights to published material online, on Facebook for example?
Nikola Richter: According to Facebook’s terms and conditions, the writer. This is an important question as it also raises the question of how we can archive material, as often posts can be lost when profiles are refreshed or updated. Thus, a digital publisher, as I understand it, also plays a huge role in archiving digital writings and by creating a timeless access to literatures online.