By Tony White
LONDON: The Science Museum, where I was writer in residence in 2008, has just published my latest novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South. The Museum, has a century-long publishing history, but this is the first time it has ever published a novel.
Shackleton’s Man Goes South flips the polarity of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s story, to tell a new tale of climate change refugees who are fleeing to Antarctica instead of from it as Shackleton had done, in a hot world rather than a cold one, but where the Shackleton story has become a founding myth of the new continent, much as the story of Christopher Columbus gave symbolic value to historical migration to the United States of America.
Inspired by True Story Written in Antarctica
The novel was inspired by — and explores the implications of — a science fiction short story written in Antarctica in 1911 by a British polar explorer named George Clarke Simpson. Those early ‘Heroic Age’ explorers of Antarctica had discovered fossil evidence that the continent had not always been frozen, that it had once been — they thought — a tropical continent. It is fascinating that Simpson and one or two others then explored the idea of climate change by writing science fiction stories that they passed around in an occasional, handmade, scrapbook-style journal called the South Polar Times, where they have largely been overlooked ever since. Simpson’s own story is the most striking example of these. “Fragments of a Manuscript Discovered by the People of Sirius When They Visited the Earth During the Exploration of the Solar System” tells of a far-future Antarctica that is threatened by industrialization, a continent whose freezing and thawing cycles are disrupted, where ice age is followed by tropical age, with fatal consequences for Humanity. ‘The great question of the day,’ it tells us, ‘was, does climate change?’ Finally, it warns — with some prescience — of the dangers, the folly, of ignoring scientific evidence.
On Working with the Science Museum as Publisher
The Science Museum is obviously then a good fit for Shackleton’s Man Goes South, but this is also a rare opportunity to explore new frontiers. Rather than publish through traditional bookshop channels, Amazon etc., we decided, initially at least, to do things a little differently, to take advantage of the Science Museum’s huge footfall (250k per month), its central position as a major national cultural institution and destination, and the corresponding popularity of its website and social media platforms.
The novel is published as the Science Museum’s Atmosphere commission for 2013 (the previous recipient was UK artist David Shrigley in 2010). Publication is supported by a year-long exhibition in the Science Museum’s Atmosphere Gallery that charts some of the literary and scientific inspiration for the novel; a level and duration of support that would be almost impossible to secure in a bookshop. For the Museum the commission is an opportunity for visitors to extend their experience of the Atmosphere Gallery — a still relatively new, second-floor exhibition space devoted to “our changing climate.” The Museum describes Shackleton’s Man Goes South as a chance for visitors to explore some potential social, political and cultural implications of climate change. In the words of Hannah Redler, the Museum’s Head of Arts Programme, the novel “carves out an intellectual space where we hope visitors…may find themselves drawn into imagining [the] multiple futures potentially facing us.”
The main thrust of the commission — the central innovation — is that Museum visitors can email themselves the novel from a dedicated touchscreen that is part of the Atmosphere Gallery display. This functionality sounds simple, email yourself an ebook, but it has been rather complicated to achieve for all kinds of infrastructural and technical reasons, including that the firewall ‘didn’t like it’ – luckily the Museum’s technical team managed to find a workaround. It was vital too that this transaction be as quick and seamless as possible. I didn’t want it to take any longer than it would to buy an e-book on Amazon. The most important aspect of this is that Museum visitors using an iPad or a smartphone running iBooks or similar, can be reading the novel in situ, in just three taps of the screen, within seconds of emailing themselves. Matthew Petrie in the Guardian newspaper argues that museums need to enhance their mobile offering to take advantage of the fact that 58% of the UK population have smartphones, and offer online content that museum visitors can access as part of their visit. Shackleton’s Man Goes South is an attempt to do just that.
As well as this “email yourself” function for Science Museum visitors, anyone in the world can download the same files directly from the Museum website until July 24, 2013. The novel is available free and DRM-free in EPUB and .mobi formats that should be compatible with most devices. It is also available as a PDF, which despite being decidedly trailing edge, had nonetheless been requested by some of the readers that we canvassed. The DRM-free aspect is important, too, a way to follow the ethos of the South Polar Times — that stories are things we like to share.
A limited print edition of Shackleton’s Man Goes South is only available from the Science Museum shop, where to promote around publication it is at the centre of an ‘author picks’ table promotion of other climate change-related titles that I have selected, using branded shelf-talkers and bellybands. The Museum shop does not generally sell fiction, so there is an additional spotlight on my novel. Additionally, between publication and the end of July, the Museum will be releasing three free audiobook extracts via their SoundCloud page, which are being trailed on the @sciencemuseum twitter account.
Further innovation has been with the type of contract used. The novel is licensed to the Museum, royalty-free, for a three-month exclusive period during which time the novel is available gratis on their website, then for a longer non-exclusive period until April 2014, when the novel remains available free to Museum visitors while the exhibition remains in place. All other rights — translation, film and TV adaptation, etc. — have of course been retained.
Publishing Workflow, Applying Analytics
The Science Museum hasn’t published on its own imprint for a couple of decades, favouring the licensing of Science Museum-branded popular science books for the children’s market to mainstream publishers such as Macmillan or Dorling Kindersley. Because publishing workflow has largely been outsourced in this way, they needed to assemble a kind of literary ‘A-Team’ to deliver the project alongside the in-house Design Studio and Arts Programme staff. Typesetting and production was done by Charles Boyle – one of the most experienced editors and typesetters in the business — formerly of Faber and Faber now running his own CB editions, while British designer Jake Tilson, who is known for his work with the late New Wave singer Ian Dury, fashion designer Paul Smith and many others, designed a “melting” Shackleton’s Man Goes South logotype for book cover, exhibition and other uses. The cover itself was conceived as a “kit” — a couple of color gradients, Tilson’s logotype, the Science Museum logo etc., that could be reconfigured as needed to suit embedded and catalog cover uses, as well as square format thumbnails for social media and iTunes. In a couple of traditional touches, the Museum sought advance quotes, and is entering the novel for literary and science book prizes.
As the square footage of the traditional book trade literally diminishes there is increasing pressure on writers and publishers to find new ways to reach readers, to go where readers are. Collaborating with a major national institution like the Science Museum is one way of doing this. In 2012-13 the Museum welcomed over 3 million visitors, the highest visitor figures in their history. It is simple, then, to contrast the ultra-availability that this Science Museum publication brings, with the likely subscription if it had simply been published unsupported and without this incredible platform.
The Science Museum is a vast institution and at times I have joked that it has been like collaborating with a small town, but the level of in-house expertise is extraordinary, with dedicated teams, confident in their subject specialisms and what the Museum offers, and with the tried-and-tested ability to design and deliver incredibly complex multifaceted projects at speed. The Museum also has a highly nuanced and detailed understanding of its visitors; a level of analysis that was happily shared. We were able to use this extensive data in planning publication of Shackleton’s Man Goes South — looking at all kinds of visitor statistics, dwell-times (i.e. average times spent by visitors at particular locations or engaging with displays), as well as routes into and within the Atmosphere Gallery. This enabled us to tailor the duration of the exhibition experience, for example, and to ensure that the twenty-foot wall vinyl of Tilson’s striking logotype would have a clear and unimpeded line of sight for visitors as soon as they enter the gallery. Looking at the visitor stats, I was also surprised, for example, to discover that 70% of the approximately 0.75m annual visitors to the Atmosphere Gallery are in the age-range 16-60+, a slightly higher percentage of adult visitors than the rest of the Museum. Shackleton’s Man Goes South is aimed at – and publication designed to intrigue — this general readership.
Unexpected outcomes of the Science Museum publishing a novel for the first time in this way include an immediate international reach, which seems to have been facilitated by a wide and rapid retweeting of press such as the Guardian’s coverage – and of the Museum’s own tweets; they have 250K followers – by the twitter accounts of climate change pressure groups and others. It resulted in the first substantial review of the novel appearing within days of publication in the Madrid-based Spanish-language popular science magazine Gravedad Cero, and the Science Museum shop quickly receiving international mail orders. Other review coverage has followed, while some bloggers have grouped Shackleton’s Man Goes South with what they suggest is an emerging body of current climate-related fiction, so-called “cli-fi.”
Uniquely, the Science Museum provides both the platform and the community of interest all at once, with potential readers ranging from those who have an existing or specialist subject interest to those who have none, or whose interest in the book is piqued by their visit, by the exhibition or by a tweet. It is not only exciting but also seems wholly apt to work with the Museum in this way, to publish to this potential readership as directly as we possibly can. If you are in London over the next year, do come to the Science Museum and see this in action. It has taken us several years to get to this point, but now that we are up and running, elements of this model could easily be reproduced, adapted or built upon by others.
DISCUSS: Should More Museums Publish Fiction?