A note about Route Magazine

by Ian Daley, Editor

Hi Edward,

First of all let me apologise for not replying to your questions. They came in when I was stacked up with deadlines and then we moved our office to Barcelona for three weeks and it slipped my vista. Very sorry about that, wish I had done it. Secondly, well done on the article, it covers some good ground.

I'm assuming that you have had to make a few guesses with Route, but just so as you know, we have been working on the Internet since 1998. We were perhaps the first people to run a huge literary project online, which we did with the Opening Line (Route grew out of that and Route's first - and best - website was published in January 2000). I wanted to attack the possibility of using the internet as a vehicle for literature at the outset of the Opening Line project. I met a writer and designer called Andy Campbell, and offered him a job. Andy had been publishing illustrated stories on disk since the Amiga days, you can read some of his history on www.dreamingmethods.com. We then set about the long thinking process of how best to proceed with the online possibilities.

There was obviously two strands to look at. One way was to fully embrace the new technology and incorporate the visual and animation aspects through Flash, and the possibility of interactivity, into the narratives, and see where that went. Second was the use of the internet as a new way to distribute literature. Andy is particularly talented, uniquely talented in many ways, to deliver the onscreen narratives, as you can no doubt witness at Dreaming Methods. We encouraged this. We also took on commissions and tried to work with traditional narratives and filter them through Andy to see what came out. We also encouraged other artists to take up the mantle. What we found was that Andy's output was much stronger if he had conceived the whole thing himself, that his work was an extension of himself and his intuitive understanding of the medium led to quality outputs, whereas when asked to work with other writers, the task was more of a conversion process and therefore didn't really hold together in the fullness of Andy’s own work. Other writers were only working on the surface of possibility. Similarly, we've kept a keen eye on the developments at Trace and other online developments, including going to conferences etc, and although there were some possibilities emerging, there was a sense that some of the work being carried out was a bit of refuge and somewhat lacking in talent. So, eight years in, we're confident that the new technology narratives are a discipline to themselves and really shouldn't be confused with traditional literature. You need a basket of skills to attempt it, and those skills need to be matched with creative talent. Andy has all of that and more, not many others do.

The other strand, of using the internet as a distribution device for traditional literature, is still in development. One thing we did realise early on was that text written for the page is exactly that and it is not a neat fit to the internet. Publishing has always been as much an economic as it is an aesthetic idea. The safeguard against the publication of trashy material has always been there - it costs money to publish. However, the internet comes along and a wash of cheap websites have appeared that present short stories and other such texts online, simply by cutting and pasting stories into websites. Everything is published and nothing is read. We've never bought into that, mainly because I've never actually had a quality reading experience sat at my computer screen and secondly, without critical judgment editorially, no readers will ever trust you. It's quite an investment of our time reading people's work. Also, the reading experience is about sitting anywhere but at your computer screen, and the people who buy our books tend to agree with that. So what we wanted to do was to look at producing books which we could distribute over the internet.

We instinctively knew how to do this. We have long worked in creating simple books which we supply to our test readers for comment on forthcoming texts. We typeset the books on screen, and printed them out on our desktop printers, then fastened the pages together with simple binding. What we found was that the readers held these books as some kind of aesthetic object. So simply, what we realised was that we could easily distribute these kind of books over the internet, this was obvious as soon as the pdf was popularised. So, logically, we've dipped our feet into the technology, starting with our first titles in February 2005. To understand what we were trying here, it is important to understand the rationale of our press. We consistently look at ways to develop our own stable of writers, for a long list of reasons, and it's a costly business developing new talent with books through traditional channels. We're also driven by a notion of cultural exchange. The byteback was developed as solution to these ends.

Now, we didn't really expect people to engage with bytebacks at first. First of all we had a series of quite difficult texts by writers probably few people had heard of. Then we had a quite convoluted instruction page on how to turn these files into books. What were the incentives for people to do that? It was a hard sell. The development aspect was pretty much bullet proof, and has proved to be a very useful aid to us. That was never really in doubt. The whole process was a good training ground for the publication process, for us to work with writers and see how it panned out, and this new format meant we could test many things without the usual heavy duty financial investment. (It's also worth noting that in the traditional book trade, the lion's share of all proceeds is taken by the distribution network, which makes it even harder to test out new talent.)

We suffered no illusions on the audience take up of the bytebacks, our expectations were very low, and we were fully anticipating a long haul. However, so far we have been astounded by the take up of these online books. So we're very pleased by that, it's a bonus and has moved us on further than we could have hoped. But importantly, as you perhaps hint in your article, we've now got 18 months' experience of publishing books online. That's invaluable and we can now move on to the next level with all the lessons learnt, lessons that no one could have taught us. So we're in a pretty decent position. The byteback is a prototype for the inevitable, so it's good to be in there fighting and cutting a path.

Sorry for the length of this and the fact that it's really late, but I was motivated by your article to let you know what we've been doing.

All the best

Ian Daley