2012 Snapshot Archive: Kate Eltham

First published at Helen Merrick’s blog.

Kate Eltham is a writer and CEO of Queensland Writers Centre. In 2010 she founded if:book Australia, an institute exploring book futures and digital media. if:book Australia forms an international fellowship with the Institute for the Future of the Book (New York), if:book London and if:lire Paris. Kate is also the Co-Director of Clarion South Writers Workshop, currently in hiatus, which supports the professional development of emerging speculative fiction authors. As one of the founding committee of Fantastic Queensland, Kate helped coordinate the Aurealis Awards from 2004 to 2010 and chaired Conjure, the 2006 Natcon in Brisbane. Kate has published short fiction in several small press anthologies including Fantastic Wonder Stories (Ticonderoga), Encounters (CSFG) and Glimpses (CSFG). In 2011 she contributed a chapter to Best on Ground, a Penguin anthology of essays about Australian Rules football. She is currently writing her third first novel.

You keep yourself very busy with your work for the QWC as well as iF:book Australia. Amongst your many projects is the intriguing-sounding 24 hour book – what’s it all about?

On 11 June, (next Monday!)  if:book Australia will challenge a team of writers and editors to collaborate, write, and publish a book in a single, continuous 24-hour period. At midday, nine writers (including Nick Earls, Steven Amsterdam, Rjurik Davidson and Angela Slatter) will gather at the State Library of Queensland and begin writing furiously. Their stories will be written live on the day, with work in progress posted online to allow readers to watch the story unfold and to submit ideas, suggestions and contributions across media. As the stories are completed, a team of bleary-eyed editors (led by Keith Stevenson) will take the text from manuscript to a book. By noon the following day it will be available in both digital and print editions, with a launch event to follow.

24-Hour book uses a WordPress-based platform called Pressbooks. We know we can publish instantly using blogging and social media platforms like WordPress, but we can also use web-based tools to transform the workflow of more “traditional” publishing media. With 24-Hour Book we want to see how far we can push those tools for collaboration, not just in producing a book in a compressed timeframe, but simultaneously to invite collaboration between writers and audience. I’m also keen to see, beyond the 24 hour period, what interesting things we might create or learn from the “data set” of this process, the minute by minute writing and editorial changes that will form part of the record of the publication.

The project has been entirely driven by Simon Groth, the Manager of if:book Australia. I just get to hang out and drink coffee and watch authors and editors inch toward meltdown.

Why were you driven to found iF:book? What are you hoping it will achieve?

It wasn’t so much that I was driven, but rather inspired, to create if:book Australia as the third in an international fellowship of research centres investigating book futures. The first was the original Institute for the Future of the Book, created by Bob Stein in the US, and was followed by if:book London, led by Chris Meade. I did it because, while there had begun to be a lot more debate about digital publishing in industry circles by 2009, and some of it was bubbling up in Australia, most of this discussion focused on conversion of print books to ebooks, and fairly prosaic questions like “will people really read on screens?” and “is this ebook thing really going to take off?” and “will publishers go out of business?” As I’m fond of saying on the myriad “future of the book” or “death of publishing” panels I find myself on these days, ebooks haven’t anything to do with the future of books, they are about the present. The future of books and reading is something we struggle to imagine, at least in the context of the publishing industry. When I first became aware of Bob Stein’s writing on book futures, I was thrilled and fascinated in equal parts by the long-term ideas he had about, well, everything, from bricks and mortar bookstores to social reading. Really, he was imagining futures fifty years ahead. It’s the same thrill and fascination I get when reading really good science fiction. I wanted Australian writers and readers to have the opportunity to be part of this discussion, and to engage with not just the thought experiments about book futures but the practical ones too. So what I hope if:book Australia will achieve is the new knowledge and insight that comes from actually testing a few wacky hypotheses, from trying things that aren’t commercial or sustainable, that appear to have no relevance for current day writers and publishers but that hopefully give us new relationships between things we hadn’t connected before.

Where will Kate Eltham be in two years time? What other crazy projects are you hoping to have out in the world by then?

I think my time at Queensland Writers Centre is winding its way to a close. I’ve relished the open and enterprising culture of QWC and its appetite for innovation, which has supported me to launch a range of projects that might otherwise be considered beyond the reach of a small non-profit arts organisation. GenreCon, for example, is a new national conference for Australian writers of genre fiction, which we are hosting in Parramatta, Sydney in November this year, ably led by talented writer Peter Ball.

But QWC is also, by definition, focused on creating professional opportunities for writers and I’m just as interested in creating meaningful experiences for readers and audiences. I think my next project will be something in this vein.

I also can’t imagine myself straying too far from the digital space. I’m mostly interested in the intersection, or perhaps I should say melting point, between physical and digital modes. It seems, increasingly, that the web is the world. When you look through that lens, an interest in books and publishing is also, by necessity, an interest in topics like design, data, language, user experience and networks. Possibly not in the next two years, but at some point in the future, I’d love to be involved with a technology startup that is doing interesting things with all these elements.

What Australian works have you loved recently?

I adored Penni Russon’s young adult novel Only Ever Always. It’s a book that isn’t easily classifiable, and certainly not as straightfoward in its structure as most teen fiction that I see nowadays, so I’m really pleased to see this kind of writing being supported by Australian mainstream publishers. Also on the YA  front, Sue Isle’s Nightsiders is outstanding and, personally, I thought it deserved to be a bit higher up on the honour list for the Tiptree Award.

I’m loving everything that comes from Kathleen Jennings’ pen at the moment, both illustration and prose. Let’s all gang up on her and demand a graphic novel!

Outside of speculative fiction, I feel like Australia is experiencing a real moment in essays and long-form journalism. There’s some outstanding writers coming through: Trent Dalton, Benjamin Law, Elmo Keep, Anna Krien – oh my god I love Anna Krien! This crop of talent is supported on the way through by literary magazines like Overland,Meanjin and Griffith Review who also publish fiction and just keep getting better and better I think. I’m always surprised more emerging Australian speculative fiction writers don’t submit to these journals. Perhaps it is a perceived bias against genre fiction, but my sense is while this is sometimes justified it is rare. It can be a great opportunity to be read by mainstream publishers who are more likely to keep their eye on these magazines than on, say, Lightspeed or Strange Horizons.

Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think are some of the biggest changes to the Australian Spec Fic scene?

Two things. Firstly, the larger trade publishers have finally woken up to the value and appeal of genre fiction. It used to be the case that there were really only two publishers to whom a writer or agent could submit speculative fiction novels with any realistic expectation of a fair reading, particularly adult science fiction. Today, I can think of at least six off the top of my head, with a bunch more who publish it (but are still cloaking it beneath the more respectable shroud of “literary fiction”). I’ve had endless discussion with friends and peers about why this might be so. Partly I think its generational. There are some younger editors who have finally made it into positions in publishing houses where they can influence the titles being acquired. In more recent months, I believe it is almost certainly influenced by the wild commercial success of genre fiction in ebook format. It has helped make more visible what we speculative fiction writers and readers have known all along. People actually want to read this stuff.

Secondly, I also see a new professionalism and confidence among the growing indie publishers. If ever there was a moment in publishing to build a business around a niche audience (or “vertical” as some like to say) this is it. And there’s absolutely no reason a smart and entrepreneurial small press from Australia can’t build a global readership for its titles. I’m pretty encouraged to see some of them attempting this and even more excited to see the early successes of it. Not that it’s easy or fast, but it’s possible, and I think that has led some publishers to realise that small press doesn’t have to be amateur.

On a final note, it feels at least anecdotally true that the Aussie spec fic scene is more and more based around writers, and less so fans. I think fan culture of speculative fiction has broadened and migrated to places like Supanova. Given how overwhelmingly young (and massive) the audience for Supanova is, I can’t help but feel this is a good thing for both creators and fandom generally. But it’s a little sad for the older fan communities around the Natcon and other long-running conventions who have failed to attract the next generation. On the other hand, every other person I meet at a con these days is a writer or editor so perhaps it’s simply that this community has focused itself around the professional aspects of the artform/genre.

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