Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Letting Forbes weigh in on our industry

So Forbes decided to devote an issue to publishing - how kind. And they include all kinds of... wisdom. Yes, deep wisdom from the experts.

It's actually not a bad collection of pieces. My friends and I were just wondering the other day how McSweeney's does it, as I've asked here, so the article on Dave Eggers was rather, if you will, illuminating. It didn't touch too much on the issue of publishing online, like other pieces did.

Cory Doctorow's article about having his publisher, Tor Books, publish traditional books for a price while giving away electronic versions of his book for free. He explains how this works:
A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free e-book as a substitute for the printed book--those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book as an enticement to buy the printed book. They're gained sales. As long as gained sales outnumber lost sales, I'm ahead of the game. After all, distributing nearly a million copies of my book has cost me nothing.

Pretty handy. He even frames this as word-of-mouth with fewer downed trees. I can appreciate this sentiment, realizing full well that this is in part due to the genre. Again, as he explains,
Given the high correlation between technical employment and science fiction reading, it was inevitable that the first nontechnical discussion on the Internet would be about science fiction. The online norms of idle chatter, fannish organizing, publishing and leisure are descended from SF fandom, and if any literature has a natural home in cyberspace, it's science fiction, the literature that coined the very word "cyberspace."

So not every book could work in this way, I think we can safely say. What works for sci-fi won't necessarily work for romance, literary, non-fiction of all kinds.

I still find his notion of using the internet to kind of infect readers a little disturbing, but I guess he is a sci-fi writer after all. Of the e-book, he says: "It is so fluid and intangible that it can spread itself over your whole life." Okay, get your e-book off my leg, buddy. I ain't interested. You over-sold it.

And then we have Ben Vershbow doing his whole networked-book thing. Snore. He praises Wikipedia, and says "down the road we'll see similar kinds of open, distributed authorship of all sorts of books, from academic textbooks to travel guides." Terrific! I recently heard from a professor and a grad student that many students are now quoting Wikipedia in their papers - often without citing it. Ah, information sharing. It's the way of the future! It's like I'm pushing to videotape the Daily Show, fooling with VCR timers, and you're just watchin' the 2:24 minute clip on YouTube. Get with it, daddy-o!

I'm also bothered by his casual mix of scholarship and commerce. In one single paragraph, he mentions Neal Stephenson's use of the internet for edits to his novel, Quicksilver, and then cyberlaw scholar Lawrence Lessig's use of "crowdsourcing" for his "seminal text." He talks about building readership - important for any author, whether a scholar, activist, or novelist - but then says, "publishers are beginning to realize that giving away some or even all of a text online can lead to increased community interest that can, quite counter-intuitively, sell more books in the physical world." Capitalism, are you listening?!

And then later, "No longer just an audience, readers will become assets, and eventually writers will be judged not for the number of books they sell but for the quality and breadth of their networks." Again, this reminds me of the Boston Globe including readers' comments in the "You're Up!" section. Make the reader work a bit, feel that they've contributed, and you have a solid customer. Make them invest mentally and you can count on them investing financially. I'm not convinced this is good for authors or readers.

He ends by saying, "We're learning to read and write all over again." It's too arching, too large a claim here. I get itchy hearing it, and I'm allergical to fascism. Correlation or causation?

I know, I'm going too far. The Future of the Book people are NOT fascists. I just think their efforts to blur the line between author and reader are suspect. They say authors will be more important than ever as guides in these new worlds, so it's not as if they're eliminating the author's role. But the idea of entering a book with others... it feels like my role as reader is lessened, and I would have too much competing for my attention. I want to trust an author, have her show a world to me that's from her. I know it's not pure, that it has influences that may be drug-related (Huxley), unacknowledge personal experience (Harper Lee?), or just plain plagiarism (oops, Kaavya and Alloy Entertainment), but we usually find this information out and leave it outside the novel, not bring it inside in some community setting.

Not everything has to be social and immediate. Reading can be quite and solitary, a time to develop yourself and your imagination. I don't want bostonboi24 and hollagal38 reading with me or commenting on what I'm writing as I'm reading it. Maybe that's what I fear.

The rest of Forbes is worth a gander. I may very well never say that sentence again.

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