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News from the Speaking City

At Salt, we like to think that readers care more about great stories than they do about great genres. I’ll come back to this in a moment. First, let me step back fifteen years.

When we started thinking about Salt’s digital strategy back in 1999, it was heavily informed by our prior employment in academic publishing — it was all about fragments, about identifying content below the ‘chapter’ level, about topologies, linking, indexing, searching and pointing to knowledge objects and compiling these, on the hoof, and delivering them to customers in a media neutral way — and in a beautiful way via XSLT and XSL-FO (just don’t ask how). It was all about XML workflows. Now, Salt had a small emerging critical list: companions and some essays and literary criticism to come — but the model did not graft well on to poetry, and for fourteen years, poetry was where we went.

Then a great deal changed and the trade caught up with academic publishing and has been going through its trauma stage of development.

So here we are in 2014, having now developed into a trade-focussed fiction publisher — hopefully an exciting one and it is time to revisit digital and plan a new way forward.

People do get hung up about genre, but when we’re reading a great story, we don’t keep at the forefront of our mind it’s category, still less its subject code or subsidiary subject code. We just want to know what happens next in the text.

Okay, we’ve seen the extraordinary success of ‘genre fiction’ in digital — pawed over the pie charts, annotated those pizza slices (panicked at the thin wedge of literary fiction), and learned what people currently seem to want to read on portable devices (as well as what they don’t), but over at our place on the North Norfolk coast, we began to think that the possibilities of genre were also becoming crowded culs-de-sac. We began thinking that the next steps for us might be something different, and different is what we specialise in as a tiny and feisty independent.

What emerged from this discussion was something like the following:

News from the Speaking City

-We want to hear the city talk. Why? Because cities are the place of collision and because stories create enfranchisement.

-Our social narratives often ignore those at the start of their adult lives. We know that the young don’t vote; this is either a failure of the young themselves or a failure of our politics. Let’s imagine it’s the latter and read what young lives are really like today, so we can connect with real people and their lives.

-Everyone is on the move even if some folks want to bolt the doors shut, so the stories must move with them and digital is the easiest way to let stories travel. You should be comfortable reading a story on your phone.

-We don’t need large canvasses when it comes to digital. We want to read shorter dramatic works. Let’s prioritise the digital novella.

-If we want literature to matter, the stories must matter. Let the stories be driven by contemporary issues whatever they are — and be fearless in raising the difficult subject, even taboos, and seeing them played out with compelling characters.

Some think that the next stage in the life of digital publishing will be a new model (subscription, serialisation, supplementary), or a new platform, or a new device. At Salt, we think the next stage will simply be new content.

On the first of June we launch our new publishing venture – Modern Dreams – with seven stories that deal with issues ranging from the far Right, inter-community racism, the sex trade, drugs and sectarianism in Northern Ireland, lost dreams of a misspent youth, sexual abuse and sexual self-discovery. These are stories of wrong turnings, dead ends, self-sacrifice and personal transfiguration — the stories we all recognise from growing up. We’ve a dozen more in development and we think the writers — many debuting — are simply brilliant, but we would, wouldn’t we. You might call this ‘new genre’ or ‘city lit’ or ‘issue bites’ — but we’re not interested in categories, we’re interested in stories and especially from those we don’t normally hear.

What we’re banking on, is that a coherent (ahem) publishing strategy is more important than an isolated digital strategy, when it comes to eBooks — and what we aim to do is create a new space for great stories to occupy: one that matters to real people in real cities right now. On June 1st, we’ll find out if we’re correct.

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