An Occasional Blog
Writers are generally pretty good at reading the writing on the wall, and right now the wall appears to be falling in on us: a revolution is going on in publishing which is not only changing our experience of buying books but also our concept of what a book actually is. The digital book phenomenon has taken hold, and publishers, booksellers, and authors are scrambling to respond. The problem is that not many can agree on just how extensive this transformation is likely to be. Currently, ebooks make up about 11% of the overall book market, which still seems rather small, but sales have shown steep growth year by year. EBooks are the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry. Back in May Amazon announced that sales of electronic books had overtaken those of printed versions for the first time. B&N also now sells more digital books online than physical books.
Where will things level off? I have no idea. When I ask my friends in publishing, the predictions range from 35% as the eventual ebook market share, to as high as 90%. And there are those who actually predict the death of the printed book by 2015 .
Despite my reluctance to offer my own well-reasoned prediction, I'm not above using other people's predictions for the purposes of fiction. The December 2011 issue of Asimov's includes my novelette "Ephemera," a story about book collecting, hoarding, the end (or near-end) of printed materials, one possible evolution of the ebook, and all things, well, ephemeral. It's available for your favorite electronic reader, with individual Asimov issues from Fictionwise. Amazon also allows you to buy a full Asimov's subscription for your Kindle. And if you get there before the death of print, you can even buy a copy at your local newsstand.
In "Ephemera" I envision an ebook technology which allows my protagonist to read his books on a wall, a desk, a ceiling, anywhere he likes at any size. He can also view them as simulations of any edition, including rare and valuable editions (assuming the original has been scanned). The technology also allows him to project a simulation of a number of famous libraries onto the blank walls of a room, so that he can view his ebook collection as if it were part of, say, the Merton College library, Oxford. That kind of technology certainly seems plausible, and not that far away. And at least part of me?the techno-geeky part?finds it highly desirable.
Another character in my story, Ascher, the book dealer and collector, finds the development to be less than completely amazing. "The books aren't there anymore," he says. "They've been killed, and these are just the ghosts we have to remember them by.?
I wouldn't agree with that viewpoint exactly?I'm still geeky enough to own a Sony Reader, a Kindle, and an iPad, and I share my protagonist's pleasure in carrying around a large, convenient electronic library. As Melanie and I begin the process of downsizing our home, this new electronic technology allows me to have a much more complete library than I'd ever hoped for. But I certainly understand how Ascher feels. Actually, both characters reflect my passions, and doubts, on the subject of electronic books.
My desire for publication was set early. When I grew up, we didn't have a lot of books in our home. The public library system came late to our southern rural county, but when it finally did, I devoured its offerings. Finding the latest sf magazines and paperback releases required a monthly trip to a newsstand in another town, where my desire for the offerings was heightened all the more because they were sporadic and inconsistent. I fell in love with pulpy crime novels and poorly-printed issues of Fantastic and Amazing magazine. I wanted to have people go to the public library and check out an anthology with one of my short stories in it. I wanted them to go to that dingy newsstand and pick up a garishly-covered pulpy magazine and perhaps encounter my work for the first time, because that's the way I had encountered so many of my favorite writers for the first time.
The desire for creation is another matter entirely. It's about scratching an itch, working out an aesthetic or a character problem, giving imagined people a chance to tell their stories, finding tales to fit the invisible dramas that are constantly at work inside me, describing what I find under the ice. Choose your favorite metaphor, but that work is done once the final draft is complete. Unlike some I do care whether it's published or not, but that's all about a different need.
Perhaps you see the problem. An electronic book is ill-suited to fulfilling that desire for publication I first felt so long ago. That doesn't mean I feel no pleasure at having my work appear electronically?I still do. But it isn't the same. The visceral sensation of holding the finished result at last in my hands is gone. There is a certain ghostly quality about the whole ebook enterprise, and I can imagine if I blink my eyes or if there's a current surge or an electromagnetic pulse my life's work might disappear into the ether. I've discovered that it's one thing to appreciate the electronically-delivered works of others and quite another to feel fulfilled by my own digitally-published work. And if electronic publication were all that was available to me I'd be in serious trouble. I find myself envying those newer writers with a different set of expectations?no doubt many of them will find the world of electronic publication to be a much more validating experience than I do.
This essay won't even attempt to address the issue of the usefulness of a printed book as a device for delivering fiction: its versatility, its portability, not to mention the ease with which you can view the entire book, as a whole, and skim it with some confidence that you actually know where you are in the thing. I will point out, however, that when I'm reading a physical book, and I see from my bookmark that I'm only 30 or so pages from the end, it actually changes my reading. I read with more anticipation, reviewing what I've already read (sometimes actually going back at this point and rereading passages) and finish the final few pages with this perspective. I've been unable to duplicate this experience with an ebook. But for those thinking that we would never let such a useful device slip away from us, modern marketing has at least taught us that the best format doesn't always win.
Now maybe all that means is that I'm an artist of my time and that time is slipping away. I recently turned 61 and despite the most extreme predictions I don't expect to see the death of the printed book in my lifetime. Print newspapers and most print magazines, quite possibly, but not books. I expect to see some exciting changes in electronic publishing over the next decade. Perhaps there will be new permutations in the form as creators better realize the possibilities inherent in combining text and static images and comics and video and motion graphics and even hypertext for storytelling. In fact one of my disappointments with the electronic book has been that so many of the potential capabilities have gone largely untapped. And the experimentalist in me is interested in what might be accomplished with those elements. Someday, someone is going to create a powerful viewing and authoring platform which will make using these various elements together a much more accessible enterprise, and consequently create a revolutionary new storytelling form.
I also expect to see interesting developments as online magazines proliferate as the new economics of publishing allow a much higher degree of subject matter specialization. Once upon a time there were thriving markets for crime, western, adventure, and even nursing fiction. That time may come again. We've already seen the arrival of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, devoted to stories featuring "adventure fantasy plots in vivid secondary worlds, but written with a literary flair." My own "Dying on the Elephant Road" appeared in issue 54 .
The digital revolution has had a profound impact on audiobooks. According to the Association of American Publishers, downloaded audiobooks now account for over 59% of audiobook sales. I have to say it's always a thrill to hear a good performer reading my work. And because of services like Audible I'm now listening to more audiobooks than ever before. Both Melanie and I currently have audiobooks featured on our Ebooks/Audio page : Melanie's novel Slain in The Spirit, and my novel The Book of Days and audio-only short story collection Invisible.
But there are still some large practical obstacles that writers will have to overcome in this new electronic environment. Primary among those is income. Although some authors have achieved phenomenal success in the ebook market (thriller writer J.A. Konrath being a prime example), most can point to steadily increasing, but still modest sales?a good supplement to their print book income, but hardly a replacement. This is worrisome, since many commentators are already anticipating that ebooks will replace the mass-market paperback segment with the genre segments of f&sf, crime, and horror leading the way. As one acquaintance told me, "Guys like to read sci-fi on their iPads." I've also heard people say that they'd rather order an ebook than take the time to drive to a bookstore just for a paperback.
I would hope that the perception of genre fiction as a kind of "throwaway" literature doesn't play into this, but I have my fears. Of more concern, I think, is the anxiety that such a replacement might mean smaller advances from the major publishers, with a heavier reliance on royalties, a model which hasn't always worked to the author's benefit.
Another obstacle is figuring out how these ebooks are to be marketed. Although online review sites and blogs have largely taken over from print media the job of reviewing new material (quite an adjustment if you haven't tried marketing a book recently), ebook promotion for the most part piggybacks on the promotion for the print edition. I know for myself most of the ebooks I buy were purchased after I saw the print edition in a bookstore and was stimulated enough visually and physically (by picking up the physical book and handling it) that I felt like investing in the (cheaper and more portable) ebook. Currently there are very few sites focusing on ebook reviews and when contemplating the idea of ebooks completely replacing the mass-market segment you have to wonder how they're going to be promoted. PW now accepts "egalleys" and with the new NetGalley web service this would seem to be the trend, but I have to question if this really means more ebook-only editions are going to be reviewed. At this moment I doubt it.
Authors who have arranged to have their backlist released as ebooks are already facing this dilemma. The market for reprinted backlist titles has shrunk dramatically so for most authors an ebook edition is the only realistic possibility. Authors who are already adept at self promotion have at least that as a strategy to build on, but most of us (especially the "marketing savvy-impaired" such as myself) need a little help.
In the future it's not too difficult to imagine "book boutiques" in the shopping centers which customers would visit with their mobile phones and readers and view spiffy promotional posters and videos and multimedia displays promoting the latest (or at least best-promoted) ebook titles. The intent here would be to generate as much excitement and interest as possible. An application sent to your mobile device would allow you to buy and download an ebook automatically with one click. And of course the boutique gets its cut.
But more immediately we need website destinations devoted to promoting and selling ebooks and other digital content which can somehow emulate the stimulation naturally provided by a physical store. These should be locations internet users would want to visit on a daily basis. That means lots of collateral material?reviews, essays, interviews, video and audio segments, illustrations, etc. I don't know of anything exactly like that currently devoted to ebooks, but I see elements of what's needed in websites such as Pitchfork , Metacritic , Salon.com , and as a good example of an effective bookseller's site, Powell's Books.
And although I don't expect to see ebooks reach 90% of the book market while I'm still alive?I'd be quite surprised if I see them even hit the 50% mark?I think the eventual predominance of electronic text I've envisioned in "Ephemera" is inevitable. People will desire the occasional specialness of a printed volume, and there will always be those stubborn craftspeople, bless 'em, happy to provide them in either fine or guerilla editions. But these will be the exception. Someone like me who grew up set on print publication may be somewhat disappointed by the development, but to ignore this transformation would be to deny the realities of the profession.
Much of the Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem backlist is available in ebook form. See our ebooks/Audio section for more information. Future print books, such as my new novel Deadfall Hotel, will also have electronic editions.
Some links for further contemplation (I warn you, the connection may not always be obvious):
? Scott McCloud's website provides a deep exploration of graphic storytelling. I suspect that whatever future form electronic storytelling takes it will incorporate many of Scott's ideas.
? Daily Ebook Reviews is one of the few sites focused on providing regular reviews of ebooks.
? Vook was one of the first companies to incorporate video into their ebook titles. They've largely scaled back their operations to focus on nonfiction and instructional books, but they still hint at what's possible.
? Melville House recently launched its HybridBook project, designed to bring the features of enhanced ebooks to printed volumes. Essays, maps, illustrations, and other source illuminations are available by means of an internet link.
? Eastgate is the place to go for information about the creative use of hypertext in fiction.
? Booklife is Jeff Vandermeer's site set up in support of his book Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer. Jeff is one of the best thinkers around regarding the issues writers face in this evolving publishing environment. I highly recommend this book and I eagerly anticipate his next book on writing (working title Wonderbook). Also be sure to check out his website Ecstatic Days .
-- Steve Rasnic Tem