Monday, January 23, 2012

What the eDickens?

Last week we wrote about the logic of the appeal of the short story in this new digital world and yesterday we attended The Museum of London’s special 200th celebration of Charles Dickens.

What may you ask have has Dickens to do with today’s digital publishing world?
The answer is simple and is significant if we are to learn from the past and keep our literary heritage alive.

Dickens was a master of the instalment.
He not only wrote many works by the chapter, he also delivered them as ongoing works. He used the ‘penny press’ to presale the stories by instalment and in 1837 was selling some 50,000 copies of his Pickwick periodicals at a shilling a time. These contained one chapter sandwiched between pages of adverts. Many of these adverts had little to do with books or even the subject matter of the story. In fact the adverts demonstrate the diversity of the audience.

The journals appeared either weekly or monthly and given the number of chapters and volume of sales, plus the advertising revenues, should have earned him a good return. It is claimed that when Great Expectations was published in weekly instalment in 1861 it had weekly sales of some 100,000 units a week. Interestingly they didn’t diminish his book appeal but fuelled interest in the finally work.

We find ourselves again asking why we are not publishing digitally by instalment today? The Keita novels in Japan thrive through instalment and Stephen King and others have also ventured down this digital route, but why hasn’t a publisher grabbed this clear digital opportunity by the throat? Is it down to the way many write today? Has the publishing and editorial process got in the way of the instalment? Is it just too revolutionary?

Why are even short stories still seen as collections and packaged as such. Even worthy initiatives such as Quick Reads appear to be locked into what some may question as yesterday’s thinking and merely duplicating the physical offer digitally.
What is also interesting is that Dickens lived through the literacy revolution where the masses were able to read and penny fiction was a way of feeding their new habit in a digestible form.

Dickens embraced the new
The transport and communications revolution of Dickens’ time was, on reflection, as great as that we have today with technology and communications changes. He travelled extensively, especially by the new railways, used the new telegraph and postal services. Between 1858 and 1870 he gave some 472 readings of his works in the UK and US. He even had special bound reading copies in larger font and was a consummate speaker. He was a writer, social observer, pamphleteer, speaker, columnist, playwright and publisher.

Dickens enhanced his works
In Victorian times the novel was often enhanced by illustrations. The ‘Sketches by Boz’ was illustrated by George Cruikshank and as with many Dickens tales the reader was able to picture both in words and in imagery the story as it unfolded. Today we have often lost the imagery of yesterday. Does the new ebook now enable us to once again enhance and illustrate the book? There is now a new opportunity to bring back the imagery and even differentiate the different renditions.

Dickens wrote in the language of the people
Dickens was a master of not just description but narrative. He was a master of dialect and could write and express narrative to reflect a person’s origins, class and the times. He even travelled one day to Yarmouth and used the dialect he heard to paint the character he wanted. It is fascinating to hear how Dickens used the dropping of the ‘h’ , or how he could change ‘ing’ to be ‘in’ or even ‘ink’ to reflect the character. He would have been a nightmare to edit today!

But this understanding of the narrative and even the enthusiastic way Dickens would have read to his captive audiences may also be new enhanced book opportunities.

It is not hard to see the relevance of Dickens to today and why it is somewhat ironic that 2012 is the 200th celebration of his birth.


Russell James said...

Good point. Nice idea. Anyone who tries it now should remember that to keep people coming back for more, it'll be necessary to write a serial, in episodes, and not just to take a novel and break it into parts.

Fiona Ingram said...

Great post. So, it's true - there are no new ideas, in marketing or in writing! Dickens did it all already.

Sylvia Broady said...

A dinner guest at Dicken's table I would delighted to be. And how I would love the literary discussions to be. A dream...