Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Richard Curtis: On the road to virtual

On 27 January I drew attention to a series of three articles by the US agent Richard Curtis, available on Backspace. The articles describe the changes that have occurred in publishing over the last few years, and the third article in the series, which has just appeared, attempts to look into the 'virtual' future.

You should read Curtis's series of articles in full, but here, just to get you interested, are a few comments on number three.

Curtis suggests that, while the people who work in publishing have (eventually) accepted digital innovations, such as email, they may have overlooked what he calls a 'shift to a new publishing paradigm.'

To my mind this is an unfortunate form of words. It makes Curtis sound like a third-rate sociology lecturer from the 1980s, and I think he's better than that. 'Paradigm shift' is the sort phrase that people use when they wanted to dazzle you with bullshit, and it's not very helpful. Insofar as the phrase has any meaning at all, I think it just means that tastes and fashions have changed, and that new ways of doing things have become available. And in publishing that's certainly true.

Curtis rightly points out that the experience of reading stuff on screen is different from that of reading text on paper. You've probably noticed this from your own experience. I certainly have; I am much more inclined to skip and skim through text on screen than I would be if I was holding a book or a sheet of paper. Which is why I have repeatedly suggested that my long essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile is best downloaded as a PDF file and then printed out on paper; that way, if I may make so bold, you are more likely to get the full benefit of it.

However, we have to acknowledge, as Curtis does, that, in the wonderful new age in which we now live, people are reluctant to print stuff out. No less a person than M.J. Rose has told me so, and I believe it. Curtis also points out, again correctly, that this circumstance will affect the nature of the book itself.

A consequence of this, says Curtis, is that 'the new breed of publishing animal seems to exhibit diminished confidence in the power of words alone.' So if, as a writer, you want to do business with these people (which I do not recommend), you have to take that change of attitude into account.

Modern publishers now tend to be interested in many other things besides, or before, the manuscript of a new book: they want to know what the author looks like; whether she is the owner of a chain of shops, or hosts a TV series, or can otherwise get exposure. Can the book, potentially, at least, be turned into a video game, a movie, a web site? All of these factors may influence a decision on whether to even bother reading the author's manuscript.

Yes, some people are undoubtedly concentrating on the multimedia possibilities of text and author. But the new technology has generated another effect too -- in the opposite direction.

Some writers (me, for instance) and some readers (me, for instance) have begun deliberately to concentrate solely on the text, and to ignore, consciously, all these other 'wonderful possibilities'. For well over fifty years I have been interested in the power of words, and I am now much more interested in the layout of text on the page than I was in the past.

Just as it is true that reading words on screen provides a different experience from reading them on the printed page, it is also true that the choice of font, the size of the type, the lengths of sentences and paragraphs, all of these have a largely unconscious but in my view quite profound effect on the reader. And so when I now present text on paper (or even on screen) I pay very close attention to those factors -- at least when I have any control over them. And if you publish your own stuff in printed form, as I do, then you do have control.

Curtis then moves on to blogging, and he tells us that some writers are making money from their blogs. Are they indeed. Very few of them, I suggest, and not much money.

Curtis's belief is that blogs will meet the needs of niche audiences, people who feel passionately about particular subjects or issues, and that in due course advertising will be targeted precisely at these readers, thus generating lots of moolah for those who write the blogs. Hmmm. Don't hold your breath, is my view.

Curtis also suggests that blogs can be 'enhanced' by all sorts of fancy doo-dahs in the graphics line. Well, yes, you can clutter your blog with pics of the kids and the dog if you wish, or even with pictures of Britney. But blogs began with the word, and it is still, I believe, the word that counts.

And what of the future? Curtis presents us with a picture of publishing in which the big firms become less and less influential and authors become more powerful. Possibly. The trouble with predictions of this kind is that we have heard them all before, and they never work out as envisaged. All we can say for certain is that things will not stay the same, and we cannot predict how they will change.

Meanwhile, I could not help smiling about one point. A couple of weeks ago I wanted to send Curtis an email. At the end of his articles on Backspace there is a full description of his achievements but there is no email address for him. His firm does have a web site, but the contact information provides nothing but a snailmail address. In short, Richard Curtis, who undoubtedly does have an email address somewhere, doesn't seem to be at all keen that anyone should contact him by that means.

For a man who writes about the electronic future, and who begins part III of his survey of modern publishing by telling us that agents now have to do most of their business by email, this seems a little odd, don't you think?

I understand the reasons, of course. Richard Curtis doesn't want to be bothered by the likes of you and me. He would rather we didn't send him 430 unsolicited mss a day, as email attachments.

However, if you're really keen to let Richard know what you think of his articles on Backspace, you can find an email address for him (as you would expect) on Everyone Who's Anyone.


Suzan Abrams, email: suzanabrams@live.co.uk said...

Many blogs lack in a reputable writing quality where it counts, Michael.

Anonymous said...


Excellent comments on Richard Curtis,whose Part III seemed scarcely worth reading. Note that Richard Curtis, in the past, has been involved with e-books. Note that his fantasy content vehicle of the future seems like little more than another e-book reader tricked out with a cell phone and other whistles and bells.

Gordon Taylor

Anonymous said...

While my comment is several years late, and my email copied below to Richard Curtis even older, I am glad to have found your blog and thought I'd send you the brief email exchange I had with Mr. Curtis, and also his email address, should you care to contact him.
"Josh Rubin" (joshrubin2000@yahoo.com)

To: acreatyv1@earthlink.net, gamut@mratcliffe.com, wiseword@juno.com, info@curtisagency.com, RCURTIS@curtisagency.com, jhacrworth@curtisagency.com

To the EFA [Editorial Freelancers Association] Newsletter Editor:

In response to Mr. Richard Curtis' speech at the EFA February [2003]general meeting, in which he asserted that the business of "traditional" publishing is due to go the way of the dinosaur, I'd suggest that Mr. Curtis has been blinded by the bottom line. He's not alone, of course--the publishing world has always attracted those who, for some reason, believe they can make a killing in that world (even if they have to turn books into hand-held televisions to get there. What's next, Mr. Curtis? Animations to go with the printed text? Scenes acted out by actors? Elimination of the pesky printed word?).

Mr. Curtis is wrong, of course. There are more books being published now than ever before, and to a wider audience. Books are easy to carry and use, while the gadgets Mr. Curtis has invested his money in are a strain on the eye, easily broken, and clumsy to carry around. But the reader's comfort and enjoyment is not Mr. Curtis' concern. Mr. Curtis is interested in his bank account, which is why he tells us that e-readers or e-book downloads are an inevitable e-replacement for the printed book. They are not. What IS inevitable, what has always been around, is the huckster, the con/man, the seller of snake oil.

From: rcurtis@curtisagency.com
Who is this fool? Did he actually attend the meeting?
Richard Curtis

From: Josh Rubin
I was only putting forth the idea that the reason you peddle your e-books at speaking engagements is of course because you are relying on making your fortune through that technology. It stands to reason that you would want as many people as possible to fall for your thinly veiled sales pitch, thereby increasing your wealth. In your own, simpler, words: "How do I get rich off this?"

There was no need for name-calling, Dick. I was just calling a spade a spade.

Anonymous said...

Fast forward four years, and it turns out that Richard Curtis did know what he was talking about.

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