ARTIST PROFILE: ROBIN SLOAN

Posted on February 07, 2013 by Admin . | 0 Comments


Robin Sloan is redefining the future of media. Or, maybe more accurately, he recognizes that media is redefining itself, and he’s along for the ride.

Sloan studied economics at Michigan State. While he was there, he and some classmates co-founded a literary magazine called Oats. It was, he says, a "not-even-concealed plan" to publish their own work. In the end running a magazine was more work than they had anticipated, and Sloan only published a short story. He was nonetheless  intoxicated by the experience. Still, he never considered a career in literature. “I always got the sense that it was frivolous, and that maybe writing made-up stories wasn’t the best use of my time,” he says.

Today, with a decade of his life and a career in the tech world behind him (he’s worked at companies like Twitter and Current TV), he’s changed his tune. “I believe that stories told primarily (but not exclusively) with words are among the most durable things a person can produce, and I’m trying my best to write a few that might make it through to the year 2112,” he explains on the “About Me” page of his website. That parenthetical specification of non-exclusivity is the difference between most people who write novels–you might call them “authors”–and Robin Sloan, who calls himself a “writer and media inventor.”

If you’re wondering what a “media inventor” is, Sloan is happy to explain–although it’s clear that the job description is evolving as quickly as media itself. “I think it’s someone primarily interested in content–words, pictures, ideas–who also experiments with new formats, new tools, and new technology,” Sloan says, citing Allen Lane (founder of Penguin Books) and early bloggers as some examples. He says that media inventors are dissatisfied with traditional forms of media and “feel compelled to make the content and the container.”

Sloan has done just that. All of his work has pushed the boundaries of how we use media and has embraced the marriage of old and new technology.

He wrote an essay called Fish for the iPhone App Tapestry, in which a short essay is presented to the reader sentence-by-sentence at their command as they tap the screen. It’s absolutely lovely–if you have an iPhone and 5 minutes to read it, download it for free here. Not only is the presentation groundbreaking, but the essay itself addresses an interesting topic: the difference between “liking” something on the internet and “loving” something on the internet (the fact that we wrote a whole paragraph about it means we loved it).





Another of his projects was a “novella” called Annabel Scheme. He wrote it in 2009, when the fundraising app Kickstarter was just beginning. He told his audience: “I’m writing a detective story set halfway between San Francisco and the internet. And the more people who reserve a copy, the better each one will be!” When he launched the campaign, he’d already begun writing and had a completion deadline. Three weeks after launching his project, he updated his “posse,” as he called those backing his project: “As I’m writing this, I have: 295 backers. 507 copies of the book spoken for. 46 days to finish the text. Each one of those numbers is totally thrilling, (And okay, one is scary. Guess which one.)” He exceeded his funding goal and wrote the book in just 69 days while simultaneously running a Kickstarter campaign–no easy feat. But he didn’t stop there. He designed and illustrated the book himself, and, yes, even personally handled the shipping. After the hard copies were brought into the world, he took it one more revolutionary step. He published it digitally For free. And he released it under a Creative Commons License, meaning that anyone is free to make a copy, or use the story or characters in their own work 



His most recent project is a novel, Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore. We’re big fans of Robin, so we dedicated to reading the whole thing (which we think Robin will appreciate: the result of the internet, he says, is that “it’s really hard to keep people’s attention”). It’s a fun, witty, fast-paced story about Clay, an unemployed art school graduate, who finds temporary work–and a huge adventure–at a 24-hour bookstore in San Francisco. “I wanted to do something that bounced back and forth between the real world and the virtual world, the new and the old,” Sloan explains. The book does just that. While Clay is solving a mystery surrounding some very strange and archaic books that patrons of the bookstore borrow, he employs the help of his team of high-tech friends: a girl who works at Google, his roommate who is a special effects artist, and a childhood friend who’s made a fortune inventing video gaming technology. Without giving too much away, we’ll just say that the plot brings together the old (a 500-year old mysterious book club) and the new (Google), and the message is that new technology and traditional forms of literacy are not mutually exclusive The book is a wonderful read, but if you’re not sure you can commit to a book, you could read the short story version that came before the novel (although it does contain some spoilers if you plan to read the novel later). And we don’t even think Robin would be upset: he knows you have a lot to read. "It's the great agony and the ecstasy of the Internet today. I think we have more great stuff to read than we ever have before, but of course the downside of that is we have more great stuff to read than we've ever had before," he says. However, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore will not disappoint, and the video of the cat will still be on the internet when you’re finished. Oh, and did we mention that the cover of the book glows in the dark?



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