Books
4:56 pm
Thu December 27, 2012

Margaret Atwood's Brave New World Of Online Publishing

Originally published on Thu December 27, 2012 9:40 pm

If you're a Margaret Atwood fan — and you've got some spare change under the couch cushions — just a few dollars will get you a stand-alone episode of the new novel she's writing in serial form.

It's called Positron, and Atwood is publishing it on Byliner, a website launched last year that's one of many new sites billing themselves as platforms for writers.

So what inspired the best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author of The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale to try out this newfangled approach?

"Once upon a time, novelists of the 19th century, such as Charles Dickens, published in serial form," Atwood tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "They would put out maybe three chapters or so, and then they would respond to readers' reactions. And then, that moved on and serial publication got taken over by magazines and newspapers, and that was where it was in my youth. But that died out as the 20th century neared its close, so a whole way of publishing, a whole platform vanished."

Now, Atwood says, the advent of the Internet means that platform has reappeared, and she's in the middle of writing Positron — the third episode went on sale last week at Byliner.

Positron imagines a near future where society has solved a major problem of modern life — the absence of jobs — by making everyone a part-time criminal. "They can live in prison and they take turns," she says. "One month they're the prisoners, and the other month they're the people in the town taking care of the prisoners. So that provides full employment for everybody all the time."

Lest you fear that Atwood has abandoned regular old print novels, don't worry. This fall, she's publishing a traditional novel as well — a very different experience from writing an online serial.

Atwood compares online serial writing to improv comedy, to creating a story live in front of a waiting audience. "Whereas, with a comedy play, with a script, it's already finished, you learn the part, you get up, you perform it — well or badly — but it is not something you're making up in front of everybody," she says.

Serial writers — like Dickens — got plenty of feedback from their readers about what should happen in their stories. "The closest analogy is probably TV sitcoms: If somebody's getting high ratings, you make their part bigger, and if they're not you have them die of an unfortunate disease."

Once Dickens was done with his serials, he republished them in book form, which is exactly what Atwood plans to do with Positron — so you may yet see the title at your favorite bookstore.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Next up, recently we made a call to a tech-savvy writer in southern France. Hello, Margaret Atwood. Can you hear me?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Hello. How are you?

CORNISH: Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist was squirreled away in what she called her writing burrow. The best-selling award-winning author of "The Handmaid's Tale" and "The Blind Assassin" is writing a serialized novel. She's publishing it bit by bit on a website called Byliner, which only launched last year. A new episode, about 50 pages, cost 2.99. It gets posted every few months, then readers comment, and Atwood sits down to write the next episode. The novel is called "Positron." It takes place in a near future where society has solved the problem of modern life, the absence of jobs, by making everyone a part-time criminal.

ATWOOD: They can live in prison, and they take turns. So one month they're the prisoners, and the other month they're the people in the town taking care of the prisoners so that provides full employment for everybody all the time.

CORNISH: Atwood might write about a scary future, but she says writing a serialized novel is a return to the past - the 19th century, when Charles Dickens penned his novels in installments. So I asked what's the difference between writing a novel in full and writing and publishing one episode at a time?

ATWOOD: Let us turn to the world of comedy as an example: improv.

(LAUGHTER)

ATWOOD: You know, improv. You have to get up there. You don't necessarily know what's going to happen, and you have to make a story right in front of everybody while they're watching, whereas with a comedy play, with a script, it's already finished. You get up, you perform it well or badly, but it is not something you're making up in front of everybody.

CORNISH: Getting that kind of direct feedback, too.

ATWOOD: Direct feedback about the kinds of lines you should be saying. With the serial - and this is what happened to Charles Dickens when he was writing them - people will write in and then, in this day and age, they will E in, they will digital in, and they will say, how could you be so mean to poor Miss Mowcher? Or they will say, we love Sam Weller. And you will make Sam Weller have a bigger part. The closest analogy is probably TV sitcoms. If somebody is getting high ratings, you make their part bigger. And if they're not, you have them die of an unfortunate disease.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: But in a way, are people then reading a rough draft of a novel when they're reading episodes of "Positron"?

ATWOOD: That remains to be seen. We don't know that. What Dickens would do would be he would put it out in serial form, and then he would put it out later in book form.

CORNISH: So you never know. There is a chance you might see Margaret Atwood's "Positron" one day on a bookstore shelf. In the meantime, you can frequently hear from Atwood on Twitter. At age 73, she's got a major following, which she offered to wield for our benefit.

ATWOOD: Give me a URL and I will tweet the URL to my 663 - 330 - however many they are - to all those people. And a certain number of them will listen to it.

CORNISH: For the record, Margaret Atwood has more than 365,000 followers on Twitter. When we return, how the digital transition is shaking things up at your local public library.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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