Sunday Times, 26 June 2011
Bleak, obscurely allusive, psychologically fraught, at times terrifying, TS Eliot’s The Waste Land is a marketing nightmare. Eliot himself once called it “rhythmical grumbling”. Never mind that it is probably the greatest poem of the 20th century, that it changed the English language for ever or that its cold beauty can leave you gasping for breath. This is not a product you would want to launch in these trying times, or, well, ever. Last week, however, Faber & Faber did. The Waste Land is now an app — an expensive one at £7.99 — and everybody is talking about it. Even The New York Times ran a leader.“For all its accoutrements,” the newspaper intoned, “The Waste Land app honors the silence of the text itself, the silence that makes Eliot’s many voices in this poem so clearly audible.”
Hmm, er, moving on… Henry Volans, Faber’s head of digital, admits he was “taken by surprise” by all the interest. “We didn’t try to second-guess our potential markets. We just thought we could make something good and see where it got us.”
Faber produced the app in partnership with Touch Press, a smart digital publishing operation that made its name with spectacular apps illustrating the periodic table of the elements and the solar system.
It has programming talent far beyond that of any ordinary publisher. And it shows. “Touch Press has a scientific background,” Volans says, “and this was a challenge of making an app with that background. That’s why it stands out. It’s not an autopilot publishing route. We have started from scratch.”
The Waste Land, he says, was the only possible poem to start with. It is very well known, but often greeted with incomprehension by aspiring readers. And, with high-street bookshops in deep financial trouble, the range of their stock is shrinking, and Eliot in particular, but also poetry as a whole, is becoming harder to browse.
The app is a virtuoso performance. It took two years to produce and, again, it shows. There is a beautifully filmed performance of the poem by Fiona Shaw. And, while reading the text yourself, you can jump to listen to readings by Ted Hughes, Alec Guinness and Viggo Mortensen, or to two alarming, sepulchral versions by Eliot himself.
On top of that, the app offers no fewer than 37 short films, by, among others, Seamus Heaney — the poem scared him stiff when he first read it — Craig Raine and Jeanette Winterson. There is also the folk/punk singer-songwriter Frank Turner, who draws parallels between the poem and the work of Bob Dylan — a refreshing demonstration of the scale of Eliot’s impact on the culture.
The text can be read alone or it can be integrated with the readings, films and explanatory notes. Highlight a line and you can call up a reading of your choice or check your own interpretation with that of the commentators.
You can also see the original manuscript pages, complete with the ruthless editing marks of Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound. This is, in many ways, the most intimate part of the package. Eliot’s original was longer and less dramatic, but it made his intentions clearer. Pound heightened the tension and the drama, but took out some of the explicit narrative elements. The poem is revealed as the product of two very different kinds of genius.
This is a turning point for digital literature. The app does not merely illustrate the poem, it helps you read deeply into it. This is not just a way in for inexperienced readers of Eliot, or poetry in general. Since I was a teenager, I have known large parts of The Waste Land by heart. In a way, though, that was a way of forgetting it, of consigning it to automatic memory. The app is a much more profound reminder of a work of art that stands close to the summit not only of English poetry, but of human creativity in general. Spend a day with this app and the poem will be where it should be — lodged for ever in your mind.
Volans is cagey about what comes next. Possibilities from the Faber poetry list include Auden, Larkin, Hughes and Heaney, and there is fiction, too — James Joyce’s Ulysses has been discussed. For the moment, though, the big point is that an enormously famous but voraciously unread poem has been reborn as an app. Digital literature has arrived.
And the publishers are terrified. Almost every day there is more chilling news for them. Last week it emerged that John Locke, a crime and western writer from Kentucky, had sold 1m ebooks by publishing himself using Kindle Direct Publishing, a way of self-publishing direct to the Amazon store that gives authors a 35% royalty. With systems and numbers like that, who needs publishers?
So they are scared — or rather, “50% excited and 50% scared”, as Scott Pack, who runs an experimental publishing operation called The Friday Project for HarperCollins, puts it. Publishing houses may be facing their iPod moment. Almost as soon as the iPod appeared in 2001, the music industry went into meltdown, as illegal downloads and file-sharing sliced into their revenue streams. Are books next?
The Amazon Kindle ebook reader emerged fully into the British market at the start of last year. Then, halfway through 2010, the market changed. Ebooks took off. Online, they are outstripping pbooks, or physical books. Now Amazon sells more e than p, and, with the arrival of the iPad, Apple offers not only a reader, but an app platform. (Crime, as we see from John Locke’s success, has led the way. This is, Pack says, because crime readers read quickly, read a lot and don’t value the physical book as an object.)
The problem for the publishers is that the new media are all about DIY. You can make — or steal — your own music and you can bypass publishers. That is exactly what Rupert Colley did. Not long ago, Pack was scanning the sales of ebooks and noticed that among the biggest sellers were books from an operation called History in an Hour. “I knew it was not from a major publisher, and I downloaded one assuming it would not be very good. But it was.”
Pack had paid £1.79 for World War Two in an Hour, a 10,000-word essay by Colley, an Enfield librarian. There were 12 other essays, from Ancient Egypt to the World Cup. Pack read them all, and Colley’s company is now a division of HarperCollins.
Colley was a frustrated author (he has written three unpublished novels), and it was another author’s frustration that made his venture possible. Smashwords.com was started by an aspiring author who was tired of having to deal with publishers. It puts out ebooks and gives complete control to their creators. This gave Colley and all other aspirants access to the big retailers, notably Apple iBooks, which would take no notice of a lone author, but would accept books from Smashwords.
Or you can get your agent to do it for you. All the big literary agencies are now wondering whether they should become publishers. Last year, Andrew Wylie, agent to Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, went into ebook publishing, using works whose contracts, usually pre-1995, did not cover electronic rights. Next, the agent Ed Victor — Nigella Lawson, Andrew Marr, John Banville — is to launch Bedford Square Books, which will publish ebooks and POD — print on demand — books. “I always thought,” says Victor, 72, “that by the time books went digital, I would be dead. Instead of which I find myself up to my armpits in digital stuff. I was depressed for a brief moment…”
I ask him about the future and he immediately quotes the one imperishable truth of all media industries, as stated by William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.” (Actually, he could have quoted The Waste Land: “On Margate Sands./I can connect/Nothing with nothing.”) Yet Victor doubts that this is an iPod moment, because that moment was defined by piracy, and books, on the whole, are not pirated.
Waterstone’s, meanwhile, has been sold to the Russian Alexander Mamut for a mere £53m; in recent years, it had been struggling. Most obviously it failed to get a grip on digital. In America, the high-street retailer Barnes & Noble is having enormous success with its Nook e-reader, but in Britain Waterstone’s has no such toe in the electronic market.
This leaves Amazon as the gorilla in the retailing room. Its exact market share seems unclear, but it is easily the biggest, cheapest and fastest bookseller in the world. No problem for the publishers there, then? Well, yes. Last month, in New York, Amazon announced it was launching a publishing company. As a result, some have spoken of the disappearance of half of all publishing houses in the next five years.
Still, given that nobody knows anything, what is going to happen in these next five years?
George Walkley laughs at the question. “Anyone who claims to know that is either a liar or a fool, but over the next two years or so, I think we can look at a situation where ebooks represent about 30% of the market.”
Walkley is head of digital for Hachette UK, which includes Orion, Headline and Little, Brown. He accepts that publishers face a huge challenge, but it all depends on what you mean by “publisher”.
“At one level, there will be a huge increase in the number of publishers. A lot of them are going to be one-man bands, a lot of them are going to be people operating out of the spare bedroom. At the same time, there will still be publishers in the conventional sense of the word. I think what we are going to see is a larger, more diverse publishing scene and a more diverse notion of what a publisher is.”
The premium asset in all new media markets is brand value, or, avoiding marketing speak, authority. “There were,” Walkley says, “something like 1m unique titles published in America last year, of which two-thirds were self-published. Now, in a world where the storefront is going to be a search engine, rather than Waterstone’s, there is a point about authority and quality. How does the consumer know that what they are getting is good? I think, in that world, having a name like Weidenfeld or Penguin is valuable.”
In the babbling world of the DIY net, publishers have to decide exactly what it is that they bring to the party. Authority — the judging, editorial function, the guarantee of quality — seems to be the answer. How to maintain authority when Amazon, the agencies and, increasingly, authors are massing their tanks on your lawn is the real problem.
Perhaps the answer lies in The Waste Land app. Check out Ezra Pound’s editing marks. With the savagery of his peculiar genius, he laid into Eliot’s original, turning it from a great poem into a very great one. Pound represented what publishers have been — the editor, the authority — and must be again if they are to survive. And, for his efforts, Tom credited Ezra with a dedication, calling him il miglior fabbro, the better craftsman. It wasn’t true, but it had to be said.