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The Story of the Book

By Stephen Chinnery/ Creative Writing/Digital Publishing
Publishing a book never meant to be read - the 24-hour book and other stories told by if:book Australia.

Whether it’s taking a book from concept to print in a short space of time, developing live audience-inspired writing, or modifying the way text appears on the page, if:book Australia aims to explore the many ways writers can connect with their readers. Aspiring writer Stephen Chinnery sat down with the energetic Manager of if:book Australia, Simon Groth, to talk about the future of the book.

Writing a book in 24 hours

When I heard that if:book Australia had turned a single idea into a printed, physical work within the space of 24 hours, I realised there were two things I really needed to do:

1)    Write faster. A lot faster.

2)    Speak to the man behind the project.

I started with option two, which led me to sit down with Groth at the Queensland Writers Centre surrounded by the projects of if:book Australia. There was the Memory Makes Us ideas board, their latest inspiring pocket book titled Hunted Down and Other Tales, and of course the 24-hour book, Willow Patterns, which sat on a shelf nearby, each hour’s progress a separate book and each book a colourful, bound piece of art.

When discussing the creative and collaborative process, Groth explains that he, and if:book, start with a practical idea and then ask, “what can we do that’s really interesting and can only be done with this combination of media and in this environment?”

With the 24-hour book and my own future as a writer in mind, logically my next question was, “how on earth did you manage to make this happen and please can you teach me your secrets?”

It turns out the key ingredients were one crazy idea, a dash of stress and about twenty-seven tablespoons of panic.

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Willow Patterns, by the hour. Each copy is the 24-hour book at that current stage of the process, with page numbers fluctuating every hour as the team wrote and cut content.

Because of the short timeframe, Groth admits the team working on the 24-hour book quickly realised they weren’t going to be writing a novel. “[Willow Patterns] was going to be a really disparate work. Everyone was going to be working simultaneously and we had to find a way of making it hang together”.

In response they decided to choose central themes and characters, the most prominent being a vase with a willow pattern, an elaborate design traditionally used on ceramics and housewares. Despite the stress and fear they weren’t going to meet the deadline, Groth says they pushed through.

“There was a really specific point in the process where everyone flipped over and thought, ‘We’ve really got something here’. We all got excited about each other’s ideas.”

After twelve hours of fast-paced writing from a number of authors, it was then over to the editors. It wasn’t until 7am, five hours before the book was due to be finished, that the book had a cover and a title.

Groth recalls telling the designer, “We’re going to call it Willow Patterns and there’s a flood. OK, see ya”.

Despite the stress, panic and impending deadline, Willow Patterns was published as a printed book within the 24-hour timeframe, with the help of WordPress’ Pressbooks and an Espresso Book Machine across the globe in the Brooklyn Library.

Perhaps more interesting than the process of creating Willow Patterns is its outcome – a book that is not designed to be read, but to be looked at.

“People will look at it and say that it’s a beautiful object, but some people are quite disturbed by it, that we made a book that can’t be read and shouldn’t be read.”

Groth’s path to if:book Australia

if:book Australia was established by Kate Eltham in 2009. Groth became a part of the project in 2010, at a time when digital publishing was a contentious issue. The iPad had just come out and with it began the ‘books in the bath’ conversation.

At this turning point for the world of publishing Groth thought, “there are two ways we can take this… we can keep talking, or we can get our hands dirty and drive some of the ideas ourselves”.

A significant factor in being able to create such innovative projects like the 24 hour book is that if:book Australia is not driven by a commercial imperative. Groth says, “we can follow mad ideas… and those can then be picked up by publishers. I like to think we’ve inspired a few, writers and publishers.”

Interestingly, Groth’s past career experiences as an occupational therapist have impacted his view of how we define technology. Through his experience working in assistive technology, which includes anything used to help people with a disability with their daily tasks, Groth realised how we often misinterpret the word.

He noted how easy it is to forget that the book is a technology. He also stresses how important it is for writers to “embrace the technology” in its various forms and media.

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The Queensland Writers Centre is the creative space if:book calls home.

“Even established writers get hung up on the book as a ‘thing’. It’s all about producing the work and getting the work out there. That’s the means to getting the readers, which is what you really want. The way that we [at if:book] define the book is as ‘a relationship between writer and reader’,” he says.

This alternative definition of what constitutes a ‘book’ is important from a technological standpoint, where the reader-writer relationship takes precedence and the work’s format takes a backseat.

“At that point,” Groth says, “the technology that enables you to establish that relationship becomes not irrelevant, but it’s agnostic. You can use whatever technology you have available to you.”

The reader-writer relationship

From 2013 – 2014, if:book Australia experimented with this reader-writer relationship with the project Memory Makes Us, which saw a team of writers invite the public to share a memory with them anonymously. From here, the public could track the writers live as they worked to incorporate a collection of memories into one, whole work. So innovative were both the concept and design that the print version of Memory Makes Us won the Best Designed Independent Book at the 2016 Australian Book Design Awards.

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One of the many posters showcasing if:book’s work on the wall of the Queensland Writers Centre.

As explained by Groth, it seems that each if:book Australia project builds on the existing ideas created by others. Their latest project, Hunted Down and Other Tales, is yet another innovative iteration of connecting reader and writer.

Hunted Down and Other Tales is a remix of short stories by Marcus Clarke from the 1870s. When flicking through the pages of the book, the text is not what you would expect. For example, when the characters get drunk, the text starts coming in nonsensical waves on the page.

There are other areas of the book where the writing has been manipulated to appear as a text message conversation. Some sections include physical inserts and pop-outs.

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The text manipulations of Hunted Down and Other Tales demonstrate a unique way of presenting the written word.

“In a lot of ways, the print book’s ok. The way we make them has changed. I think that’s really underappreciated.”

Groth says the work was the product of collaboration between the writer, editor and designer.

The digital revolution has heralded a new and exciting age of innovation, where openness to ideas and having the courage to follow them like Groth has are encouraged. Which begs the question: what’s next for if:book Australia?

“We’re starting to move into a different phase again,” Groth says. “We’ve followed that rabbit hole, and there’s more we can do there, but more and more we’re feeling it’s time to step back, look at the volume of stuff we’ve done, and start building on that, getting that message out and talking about it.”

You can check out if:book’s work over at their website.

Groth’s biography, work and musings can be found here.