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After the Fire and Fury

Image – iStockphoto: Nateemee
‘Data Overwhelms, It Overflows’

The writing community, as a whole, can get tired of something. Just like a person, the whole crowd, from their outlawed prologues to their too-late afterwords, can talk itself into one planetary yawn.

And this is the case with platform.

Years ago, platform was the word, and the word it was, and its buzz vibrated in our nightmares and its phantasms implied our inadequacies and its terrors launched a thousand online courses for writers, many of those seminars and webinars and training bazaars run by people who had less platform than the people paying for them.

One of the problems was that it took us a long time to get the right words to explain what a publisher or agent might mean when sending us into Munchian screams by quietly asking, “And how’s your platform, dear?” We work with words for a living, you know. And so we couldn’t find the right ones. The right words. For platform.

  • We meant salability. How’s yours?
  • Salability through visibility. Who knows you?
  • Salability through visibility as someone who knows what she or he is doing. Why would anybody pick up a book with your name on it?
  • Salability through visibility as an expert who interacts with consumers. How many followers did you say you have?

This was always clearer in nonfiction, of course. That superb medical guidebook you wrote, for example. You mean you’re not a doctor? And no one more than three blocks from your home has ever heard of you? 

And yet even in nonfiction, we failed to get the right messages across. I was asked recently by a very fine writer–and not without stern indignation–whether it wasn’t the publisher’s job to supply the platform for an author on current politics. This reflects a confusion we’ve allowed to linger. The answer is no. Not even one of the Big Five can make you a veterinary surgeon Great or Small, or a Skyfaring pilot, or a Fiery and Furious media pundit.

Here’s something else we got wrong. Platform is a factor in the salability of fiction, too. While you may not be dispensing twice-weekly advice on dog health or air travel or a failing presidency, you can still be asked, How many followers did you say you have?  And Who knows you? And Why would anybody pick up a book with your name on it? 

Particularly in the case of a strong debut, yes, we can look to the publisher help carry the load of establishing an author’s platform. And in all cases, publishers must market their books, and vigorously, and in alliance with their authors and their agents. And this is something everybody isn’t clear on yet, either, as you may know.

But if we look at platform now, things have moved along since the days when these were our fretful focal points. There’s a new factor to consider. Allow me to scare you, won’t you?

We have some very fine, if worrisome help on that, some new data, as it were.

‘What Is Real and What Is True’
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

My provocation for you today lies in new writings from Brexitian England. Dan Franklin is the gifted digital publishing executive who for longer than most digital directors survive in such posts was that creature for Penguin Random House in the UK, and before that he worked with Jamie Byng’s trailblazing Canongate in Edinburgh. Today he’s a senior commissioning editor at Pottermore. You remember Pottermore, don’t you? Rowling, Rowling, Rowling, keep those doggies Rowling. Sorry, I don’t know what came over me.

Franklin’s pathway through the industry has put him at the helm of some of the most advanced and best-funded efforts in digital storytelling. This is why his essay for The Writing Platform is important for you to read. It’s called Should a Great Writer Ever Feed the Dolphins? and it’s still sizzling hot, just off the digital griddle, landed on our plates on Monday (doesn’t everything?). It’s the text of a talk he gave for Bath Spa University in the Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries, co-hosted by the Ambient Literature project, a collaboration that includes Bath Spa digital author Kate Pullinger.

Franklin’s commentary charts our recent trek from those platform-pounding debates of a few years ago to today’s reality of truth (remember that stuff?) and data.

Let me sort out something badly fast for you: a publisher can easily tell just how much of a contrail your work leaves in the data sphere. Data reveals and defines where a platform stands, and where it doesn’t. Salability? It’s all in the data now. Your platform? They may no longer ask you but tell you about your platform.

Dan Franklin

Hoping that Franklin will forgive me, I’m going to pluck some lines from his essay (do read it all), pertinent to our meditation on platform today. I’m excerpting without a lot of ellipses and with a bit of license from the context of his piece. But I think it’s important that we hear him and think about what he’s saying from the author’s viewpoint.

Data overwhelms, it overflows. Perhaps this also accounts for the retreat back to the material world. [Think of the ‘print resurgence.’] In the face of all of this data is it coincidental that the publishing industry has rekindled its love for “beautiful books”?

There is useful data that flows and enriches like oil, and data like a monstrous sewer-bound fatberg which clogs up information systems. If writers are expected to make sense of the world by telling stories and truths about it, then unclogging this data blockage will be one of those challenges.

And then we come back to the audience. How real is the “audience” likely to be going forward? Are we in danger of creating artificial intelligence which makes authentic critical opinion, or simple and authentic audience feedback, impossible to glean? Is the future fake audiences posting fake reviews for fake books by fake authors?

There is a fast approaching, intertwined crisis of authorship and audience which we must face down. We are only just beginning to see the impact of data on the act of writing and how it is consumed, and the feedback loop that follows.

The crisis might become so grave that we cannot identify what is real and what is true – writers trade in truths and a corollary of that truth is the authenticity of the authorial voice. In this way, the teeming data of the ecosystem around our online selves threatens to stymie the development of literature in the digital realm.

I’ll be parsing this more deeply in another article soon. But for the moment, I’d like to leave  you provoked, I hope, by these heavy surf flags Franklin is posting on the beach of our writerly future.

I need not remind you in 2018 how easily truth and lies can be blurred. You are surrounded by fact-checking operations that have sprung up, after all, in the past Trumpian year. And as data-harvesting and processing intensifies, can  you see good literature, important stories, being shoved aside–no platform!–because “the numbers just don’t add up”?

Here’s one more line from Franklin: “We are left with the troubling possibility that data does not facilitate but instead slows and halts the development of literary culture itself.” What do you make of this?


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.