Extending the book

One, two, three, four. Beat, two, three, four.

That’s how Willow Pattern starts. It’s also the two paragraphs Angela Slatter wrote between midday and 12:04 on Monday 11 June. Over the next eleven hours, Angela made more than 160 revisions to that text before handing it over to editor, Keith Stevenson. She made her final change with just five minutes to spare before the nominal 11:00pm deadline. In between was a roller coaster of paragraphs added and language extracted, modified, subtracted, and refined. Eight words became 4,621 words.

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I know this for several reasons. Willow Pattern was written as part of if:book’s experimental publishing project, the 24-Hour Book. The 24-Hour Book was written using an online publishing platform called Pressbooks. Pressbooks retains and timestamps the complete text of every saved version of Angela’s story, stored in an online database and I can access and review that data at will.

Timeframe aside, there’s nothing especially unique about the mechanics of how we made Willow Pattern. All books go through more or less the same processes; that was part of the project’s design. But in a typical publishing environment, so much of the work that goes into the creation of a book is lost: whether discarded or never recorded in the first place. What’s unique about Willow Pattern is that I’m able to quote the statistics at all.

For many readers, a new book from their favourite author drops, fait accompli at regular intervals. The 24-Hour Book offered instead a glimpse into the reality of a book’s world, the hard graft from writer and editor that pulls a story together and makes sense of it and the publishing process that brings the result to the world. What Pressbooks enabled us to do is record information that’s usually invisible, even to a book’s creators. As a result, Willow Pattern is not just the completed volume, it’s also the entire publishing process, the nuts and bolts and the broad range of information that went into creating it.

It’s a database.

Okay, this relegates the print or electronic book to just one expression of the data. But it also opens a world of new possibilities. What if we make full use of the information usually left on the cutting room floor to reconceptualise the book? Can we represent the story’s progress visually? Can we reorder the content chronologically by creation? Can we animate it? Can we analyse the data to find new threads between stories within the book? Watch this space.

The 24-Hour Book is available in both pixels and paper.

This post is republished from my regular column for WQ Magazine and is an extract of a longer essay I wrote for Meanland over at if:book.