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Some Thoughts On The eBook

Posted by acdtest on December 8, 2003

Some Thoughts On The eBook

fter watching a TV version of A Christmas Carol (the George C. Scott one), I urgently felt the need to again read Dickens’s original text, which is something I haven’t done in decades. A quick glance through my present library assured me that my copy had gone the way of the rest of my previous library, which is to say up in smoke and flames some eight years ago, and hadn’t yet been replaced.

Damn! And I really wanted to read that book. Now. This instant.

Believe it or not, it took me almost an hour before realizing that all I had to do was log onto the Web, Google on the search string “a christmas carol” + ebook + free, click to the indicated website(s); click on “Download”, and, Voila!, in less than five minutes (and in this case, at zero cost) the complete text of Dickens’s classic, beautifully book-formatted, ready for my on-screen perusal, was permanently resident in my computer.

Today’s conventional wisdom is that while the eBook (especially the fiction eBook) is essentially a dead-in-the-water concept at present, it will not always be so, but even when that future time arrives, the ink-on-paper volume will still reign supreme because one will never be able to snuggle up with cold, phosphor type on a glass or plastic screen in a hard plastic or metal portable case, like one can with a bound, ink-on-paper volume.

Well, I’m here to tell y’all that’s a total crock; one perpetrated by whomever to make all you ink-on-paper-book-loving Luddites and semi-Luddites feel more comfortable about the future of your beloved ink-on-paper volumes. Just one development is necessary for the eBook to replace almost totally the bound, ink-on-paper volume forever: a proper display screen; a screen where type and images will display in a way indistinguishable, except by physical touch, from ink-on-paper. Or display in a way perhaps even more vivid and warmly intimate.

You perhaps doubt my word on this. If so, do this little thought experiment.

Think of a paper-thin sheet of plastic on which appears a page of text (or text and images), the plastic sheet of the same size as a typical size ink-on-paper trade hardcover volume, and the page of text displayed indistinguishable in appearance from the ink-on-paper book page. Now affix that sheet of plastic to any substrate of your imagining; say, something an inch-thick, and about the same shape and weight as a standard size trade hardcover paper volume of the same thickness, and made of just about any material you like. Now place a rigid, thin, side-hinged cover on top of the whole thing.

There you have your eBook of the future. As cozy and cuddly a thing to snuggle up with as any ink-on-paper book you ever owned. Except it’s not a book. It’s a dozen (two dozen; ten dozen; whatever) books. And not just a certain, unchanging dozen, but a dozen that can be exchanged with any other dozen at your pleasure, one by one, by the simple expedient of plugging in the appropriate credit-card size memory module, and in a flash (PI) copying its contents into your eBook. Or be exchanged by connecting your eBook to your computer wherein is stored your complete library of hundreds or thousands of e-volumes, all of which were previously downloaded from the Web. Or be exchanged by logging onto the Web directly with your eBook, and downloading whichever volumes you desire.

And you can do this 24/7 without leaving your home, and have the volumes in your eBook in a matter of minutes. And I here make no mention at all of the other benefits of digital text such as the invaluable search function, integrated dictionary, note taker, highlighting and annotating functions, etc., etc. Nor do I make any mention of the production advantages over ink-on-paper for publishers, and the inventory advantages for booksellers.

How far off in the future is that sine qua non display technology that will replace almost totally the ink-on-paper volume forever? I of course don’t really know, but I’d be willing to bet, giving odds, that five years out is not over-optimistic. I mean, we’re talking here about a multi-billion-dollar consumer market for eBooks (machine and texts), and when a market of that dollar size is at stake amazing things can and do happen. All that’s required is a recognition by the industry that such a market is for real, and here right now, not a blue-sky, if-come affair.

Well, even though those who make up that vast consumer market (that’s to say, you) may not know it, that market is very much for real here and now, and waiting. Waiting for the proper display technology to make its appearance. As I said, you may not know you’re waiting for it — until you actually see it, that is — but the industry does know, and so it won’t be long now in coming.

Trust me.

Posted in ePublishing, Print Publishing | Comments Off on Some Thoughts On The eBook

What’s It All About, Alfie?

Posted by acdtest on July 14, 2003

What’s It All About, Alfie?

eblogger Aaron Haspel writes:

It is to obsessed lunatics that we owe the greater part of the world’s permanent literature. For most of history authors not only didn’t make money from their work, but often risked their lives by publishing it. Although it is impossible to assess a counterfactual, I see no evidence that this seriously impoverished literature. To take an obvious instance, Russian literature flowered under conditions so harsh as to be nearly unfathomable. Thomas Gray may believe in “mute inglorious Miltons,” but I don’t. Neither does Ludwig von Mises, who essentially exempts art, or art worth having, from economic calculation.

Quite right. In the rarefied domain of so-called literary fiction especially, the question of economics is a non-question, and pretty much a non-consideration. Oh, sure, wannabe writers of all sorts of fiction fantasize extravagantly and often about six-figure advances; glowing reviews from the literati (which reviews the wannabe is forever mentally composing); multiple appearances on big-time TV venues; and chauffeured book tours complete with plush hotels, champagne lunches, and the adoration of the masses, all of which will conspire to bring truckloads of filthy lucre to the deserving author who, like all authors of litrachure, earns his living, cardigan-clad and pipe in mouth, in the cozy comfort of his very own book-lined writing room, crackling fire going in the natural stone fireplace of his woodsy retreat high in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

In other words, a wannabe author fantasy that even in pale part will become the real-life experience of but a vanishingly-small few.

So, is that any reason to attempt to dissuade anyone from having a go at it even in the esoteric domain of trade book literary fiction? Not a bit of it. No writer of literary fiction, or writer of any sort of fiction for that matter, decides to write based on expectations of economic return and dreams of the writerly life (an exception to prove the rule follows momentarily). He writes because he’s in some way compelled to, either by his gift (very rare), his imagined gift (very common), or his simple need to just “get it down on paper” for whatever internal emotional reason(s), and whatever the it. What’s to warn against?

True, time was not too long ago that the publishing biz was, for the novice writer, a forbidding and daunting mystery. No longer. Today, a novice has at his disposal any number of reference and self-help books and periodicals, a few of them actually even worthwhile, that can give him all the skinny he needs to get a fair sense of the treacherous waters into which he’s about to plunge, as well as provide him well-proven rules and techniques for their reasonably safe if not guaranteed successful navigation.

In short, any fairly diligent wannabe writer of fiction who wants to make a go of it today pretty much knows from the get-go the dangers and vagaries of the treacherous waters that lie before him, although he won’t really understand the full implications of their perils until he actually jumps in, and starts swimming in earnest.

About that exception I above mentioned: Some years ago I sat down to write a so-called “cozy” mystery novel, and did so in cold blood, so to speak and no pun intended. I had no inner compulsion to write a work of fiction, and knew for an almost certainty I lacked any gift for it, which is why I chose to write a formula genre work. Craft alone, I thought (wrongly, as it turned out), might there be sufficient. And I made the attempt strictly in prospect of making a modest but not paltry dollar return for my labors. My reasons for making that attempt (which, pardon me, I do not mean to share as they’re neither germane to the instant purpose, nor any of your business) were actually quite practical, and at the time, and under certain then prevailing conditions, made good economic sense as attempting freelance article work or embarking on a work of non-fiction (both of which would more properly have been suitable to any small gift I might possess) would have required time and money expenditures I was unwilling to make or risk.

My case, however, is the exception, as I said, and a rare one at that. Few — very few — can manage to be as cold-blooded as was I in the face of such a typically ego-freighted matter. Most interestingly, however, cold-blooded and practical as my attempt was, I found myself not in the least immune to the wannabe fantasies above enumerated, which insinuated themselves almost against my will, and in spite of my fairly solid knowledge of just how the publishing biz works.

‘Tis surpassing strange and marvelous, the workings of the human psyche.

Indeed it is.

So, is there a moral of sorts to all this, the rare exception notwithstanding?

There is. In the matter of the writing of works of fiction, it’s about impulse, Stupid, never economics.

Prospective well-meaning Cassandras take note.

Posted in Print Publishing, Writing | Comments Off on What’s It All About, Alfie?

End Of The Properly-working Dog

Posted by acdtest on April 8, 2002

The End of the Properly-working Dog

ome years ago I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “you really ought to sit down and write a novel. No, not the Great American kind. Something a bit more modest. A nice little murder mystery, perhaps. Shouldn’t be too difficult, and pretty much everyone likes to read a good murder mystery, right? Of course right.”

And so I sat down and wrote a nice little murder mystery. A neat by-the-formula-connect-the-dots genre number more manufactured than written, the genre I chose called in the biz a “cozy”. Piece of cake, actually, even though I’d never so much as read a murder mystery before. Not all the way through, anyhow. Not even a Christie. That might be evidence of a streak of snobbishness in me, but I tend to think not. It’s simply that each time I attempted to read, say, a Christie (that master of the so-called puzzle mystery or whodunit, and the fons et origo of the cozy), I had the identity of the murderer, and why he (or she, or they) dunit, by page fifty. I mean, what was the point of reading further?

So, now I have this nice little murder mystery written, and the next thing to do is sell it. This, it turns out, is not a piece of cake. No more direct-to-the-publisher with your precious manuscript, its pages still damp with your blood, sweat and tears. No more a reading by a qualified editor or editorial assistant to determine its suitability for publication. The major houses don’t have the necessary staff for that anymore. They now depend on agents to perform that function for them, and won’t even look at a fiction manuscript by an unknown author not submitted by a bona fide agent. It’s the publishing house’s almost-guarantee the manuscript is, at minimum, of publishable quality and worth at least a look. Ninety-nine percent of fiction manuscripts submitted to agents for consideration aren’t, as dismaying and disheartening a bit of news as that might be for starry-eyed wannabes.

And what primarily determines whether a fiction manuscript is of publishable quality? Strange to relate, not the quality of the writing. That’s some way down on the list of essential requirements. At the top of that list is how well the manuscript will sell when made into a book. If an agent determines a fiction manuscript has high potential in that regard it’s ipso facto publishable. If not, not, even were the quality of its prose and construction such that it might have been written by a latter-day Joyce.

Is something wrong with this picture?

Just about everything, as a matter of fact. It’s classic tail-wagging-the-dog, but it’s what today overridingly controls the acquisition and market practices of the major publishing houses. You might be tempted to ask if things were ever any different. And the answer would be, indeed they were. During the era stretching from the turn of the 20th century up to the early 1940s, the era that saw the emergence of the great American publishing houses — Knopf, Random House, Scribner’s (begun in an earlier era, but whose zenith period as a book publisher began during this era), Simon & Schuster, etc., — things were very different indeed. Those houses were founded and run by men who first and foremost loved books. Great books especially. Books whose most salient characteristic was the stellar quality of their writing. And these men held as their primary role the sale of those books to as many people as possible because they were great books. Which is not to say they were against making a healthy profit on those sales, or that they were any less ruthless and conniving than their most crass commercial brethren. But it was their love of books rather than profit that turned them into publishers instead of purveyors of you-name-the-product, the manufacture and sales of which would have brought them far more filthy lucre with far less trouble than they could ever earn by making and selling books.

This is a properly-working dog, and these men not only did good, but made a great deal of money doing good.

So, what happened? Why is the dog now working ass backwards, and what made it work that way?

The facile answer is corporate greed, and while that answer may be facile, it has much to recommend it as the answer that most pointedly, and most accurately, answers the question. The men who founded those great American publishing houses are of course all gone now, their houses purchased and run by huge, multi-national corporate entities, and with them has gone the dedication to the Great Book — that is, the Great Book as understood in that era of great books. Great Book today means any book that sells, or has the potential to sell, at least 50,000 copies in hardcover, and the threshold number for admission into that exalted category is fast rising.

So, what chance, then, my nice little murder mystery given numbers appropriately scaled down for its niche (genre) market? Not much as it turned out, and three agents tried peddling it, two of them first-rate, seasoned veterans. And what was the remark most heard against it by publishers? Too literary(!), by which I suspect they meant no sex, car chases, shootouts, or things blowing up.

Uh-huh. I get it. I understand perfectly.

In a pig’s eye I do.

You may download an ad hoc eBook (Free) of the “nice little murder mystery” (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader (Free), or Acrobat eBook Reader (Free) to read).

Posted in Print Publishing, Writing | Comments Off on End Of The Properly-working Dog