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Friday, October 16, 2009

Writing, small press and technology

I seem to have gotten into such a nice discussion with Adelaide about technology, I thought it might be better to do a post than continue with the comments chatter.

Recently, I did a panel on small press at the Continuum 5 SF convention. On my way to the panel, I found a lot of tables in the dealers' room, all selling small press science fiction books. That, of course, included my own, the Andromeda table.

Small press has been around for a very long time,as I remember from my early days in SF fandom. In Australia we had several, over the years - Norstrilia, Aphelion, Corey and Collins to name just a few off the top of my head. And those are just the ones that did books.

They worked hard and got their stuff printed and they published writers and artists who went on to become famous. Sean Tan, who did art for Aurealis when he was very young, has become an award-winner with many books under his belt.

But since computers became available to everyone who wanted them and then the Internet arrived, it has become a lot easier to publish. There's do-it-yourself desktop publishing that lets you do something that looks good without worrying about hiring someone to do the layout, and publishing on-line and artists can submit their work overseas if they want, by email; we commission plenty of overseas artists to do work for Andromeda Spaceways, both covers and internals, and we don't have to wait days and days for it to arrive and worry about whether it might have been damaged on the way. I remember the wonderful Marilyn Pride telling me once that she couldn't send her work overseas because publishers had tight deadlines. Well, Andromeda is done entirely on-line, until the printer gets the hard-copy to us. We meet on-line, slush on-line, edit and receive the finished product on-line; I've never even met most of the Andromeda co-op members.

Technologically, it is a wonderful time for small press to flourish. And technology means I no longer have to re-type entire manuscripts. Mind you, I do copy and paste into a new file when I am going to edit, so any future university academic who wants to do a PhD on the works of Sue Bursztynski - if any - will have no problem accessing my original MSS.

My last few books have been done almost entirely on computer, the editing done by email. I do like to meet editors, but there are some I have never met at all. My second editor, Sarah Brenan, was just a voice on the phone to me till after I had handed in the full manuscript of Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science, although I must admit it was a little before the time of email for me; we exchanged letters.

Research has become easier for me since the Internet. I do still use plenty of books, but because I am a librarian I can understand the difference between a good site and one that isn't likely to be of use, and it's amazing what you can find on the web. My book Rolling Right Along, a history of the wheel, included a chapter on the Ferris wheel, with a description of what the builder's wife was wearing at the launch. "Are you sure?" asked my editor. I was fairly sure, because my Internet research had unearthed a newspaper article written at the time by someone who was there. The World Wide Web is, for me, a massive library on the other side of the screen, just waiting for good researchers to use it properly.

For my book Crime Time: Australians behaving badly, I did research in books, web sites and newspapers. Many of those newspapers were on-line archives. Only a few years ago, I would have had to go to the State Library and spend the evening hunting through microfilm - and I would have had to know exactly what I was looking for and when it happened before starting. Now I just need some keywords - well, duh - librarian! Pity the newspapers are planning to start charging to view their sites.

Now I'm off to do something a bit less technological - I am spending the rest of the day researching guitars for a possible book on musical instruments, and reading photocopies and printouts somewhere quiet with coffee...

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