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I see now that creative people who write, tell stories, paint, photograph, compose music and create tactile art – and many other forms of art – are ultimately trying to turn one experience into another.
During my career I’ve tried my hand at being a journalist, photographer, recording producer, video director, creative writer, salesman, playwright, public relations officer, actor, tour guide, tennis coach, priest-in-training, musical composer, academic researcher, retail business analyst, educator, publisher and editor ... and I’m not 60 yet so I’ve still got plenty of time to add things to my list.
In each of those jobs, I imagined that I was trying to tell people things, sell them things, or change their behaviour somehow, because this is what we’re taught in communication school, business school and education school … that we can, if we’re good enough at our work, influence people and change their behaviour and, ultimately, the direction of their lives.
At the same time, I have worked next to other people – mostly in university psychology and engineering departments – who have a more targeted approach to life. They work towards being able to detect and then predict what people will do next (psychology) or what machines or nature will do (engineering). A simple cost-benefit analysis tells this is a much more potent approach to professional life if you’re seeking power and that’s why psychologists and engineers have captured most of the power on this planet. Their methods are so much more enticing for politicians.
At the pinnacle of this power pyramid is the engineer who can also claim to have the magic of the psychologist. Who is this? The software engineer who runs a social media advertising network.
Such a person – think Mark Zuckerberg (FaceBook), Sundar Pichai (Google), or Tim Cook (Apple) – can rightly claim that the algorithms on their engineering platform can detect and predict what people will do next. Think also companies such as the ill-fated Cambridge Analytica, who went a step further, in claiming to be able to detect, predict and change what people would do next. That might have been a step too far at the time but rest assured there are other similar companies out there today.
The big social media companies are not particularly interested in what people will do in the long-term … or “ultimately” as philosophers say … but they want to predict people’s next move because that’s the move that matters in business transactions.
I frequently tell my business students and business clients that what MBA and business degrees prepare students for is to advise business owners how to make decisions … “what to do next”. That’s why MBA degrees are useful and that’s why offering MBA degrees is the biggest growth industry in the international higher-education market, followed closely by offering nanodegrees in software engineering. The ability to “make a decision” is what’s lacking among small business operators and it’s also what’s most in demand among big business operators.
It’s also why “how-to” books in the management and business section are the hottest short-term sellers in bookshops all over the world and among internet seminar websites.
But where does this leave creative artists such as novelists, poets, musicians, people who draw, paint, make, weave and sculpt?
At first glance they’re a bit hamstrung by physical reality and the audience member’s capacity to look, listen and touch and subsequently imagine. Writers who try to turn one experience into another are stuck within the two dimensions of what one critic called “literary artiface”; painters, sculptors and quiltmakers are initially confined within the three dimensions of paint, mixed media on canvas, or various textiles but if they move to making clothes or wearable art, they can include some personal intangibles such as texture, fit, comfort and utility. Musicians, performers (such as stand-up comedians), dramatists, digital game makers and filmmakers at least can start with the two-dimensions of notes or words on paper (or computer screen) then move to the three dimensions of including the performers’ bodies, instruments, props and stages, and add haptic ingredients such as vibration, tone, amplitude and smell.
No way am I the first to think this 😉. American literary critic Harry Levin (cited by that other American critic Harry Bloom in “Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, p6) developed what he called “Cervantes’ formula” which included the observation “… literary artifice is the only means that a writer has at his disposal. How else can he convey his impression of life?” Bloom also notes (p.7) that “the aesthetic truth of Don Quixote is that, again like Dante and Shakespeare, it makes us confront greatness directly”.
More recently (last week Feb 14 2019) a phrase from a local movie review struck home for me. Movie critic Sarinah Masukor wrote that actor Willem Dafoe, while portraying artist Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate captured the artist’s “determination required to turn experience into paint”.
Ultimately, the creative and the novelist seems to want to “tell the truth” about something. Sometimes – in the vein of cosmologists such as Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking – it’s a truth about everything. And sometimes, as with more fine-grained tales such as Frankenstein, Don Quixote, Pride and Prejudice, Catcher in the Rye, To the Lighthouse, My Brother Jack, My Brilliant Career or Huckleberry Finn, it’s a writer’s portrayal of a single event or person in an attempt to indicate a greater truth: that thing critics call the “theme”.
I now see that in my life I’ve been trying to turn one experience in another – better still, several others.
While standard, died-in-the-wool (I really hate the word “traditional”) authors try to turn their experiences of living into the two-dimensional experiences of writing and reading, which might if they’re lucky become the almost three-dimensional experience of dreaming and imagining, I’ve been dedicated into trying to bust out of three two-dimensional frame into something else … a “something next”.
In 1992 our first brand for readers and writers, Books on the Park, set up a bricks-and-mortar shop to learn the retail side of the creative industries. We learned what readers want, what they’re willing to pay money for, and how much they’re willing to pay (see this crystallised in my 2015 book Shopping News). We also learned what publishers and booksellers want, which was equally valuable.
In 1994 and 1995 our second books brand, Strictly Literary, learned from our Books on the Park experience and – as we actively represented and sold authors and their work to existing trade publishers such as Harper Collins, Pan Macmillan and Lothian – also helped to turn authors’ written experiences into data (digital bits and bytes).
Our fiction and non-fiction authors, in 1995, were among the first in Australia to have their works professionally edited and published and then advertised, marketed, emailed and sold across the globe. This helped our authors to convert their experiences into words that people could read – and were prepared to pay for.
In 2008 we offered our author-clients the opportunity to turn their written books into products that many more people worldwide could access, in Amazon Kindle, Google Play and Lulu Print-on-Demand Books, so they could explore the experience of being on sale in the largest markets in the world.
And in 2012 we started to experiment with a Dr Who-like extra-dimensional feel (space and time) in book publishing by introducing customised Quick-Response (QR) codes and World-Wide-Web hyperlinks into Rob Simson’s young-adult fiction yarn Cave Hill, which was Strictly Literary’s top-selling book last year.
We’re always looking for the next thing in publishing for individual creatives. For example, we’d like to try customised audio grabs in our books, illustrations that can change, and links to interactive author interviews, so that the author and the consumer (reader, viewer, listener) can come closer together than across a desk at a standard in-store book signing.
Are you up for it? Let me know now, in the comments box ...