Since this is supposed to be a 'Welcome to the Future' theme issue, we should begin
the issue by speculating a bit about the future of publishing. Actually, not all
that much speculation is even necessary; already, paper-based fanzines like this one
are becoming an endangered species in favor of 'electronic' publication, on the
World Wide Web; we have an electronic equivalent of many issues on our web site, but
some newer fanzines -- Joyce Worley Katz's Smokin' Rockets, for instance --
exist only as a web-based publication (at efanzines.com). Book
publishing might also be headed in the same direction, which brings us to this next
article. The writer, besides being a welcome addition to our pages here twice
previously, also writes Romance novels under the pen name Darlene Marshall. Her
first book, Pirate's Price, is available from LTDBooks
(www.ltdbooks.com) and Powell's Books (www.powells.com), and she's
just finished her second, which has a working title of Pirate's Hope, and is
about to start novel number three. Here's a look at the brave new world of
I am not a Luddite. Every morning when I pop my disposable contact lenses into my eyes, when my coffeemaker's timer goes off making sure I have a fresh brewed cup at hand without me having to think about the mechanics of making coffee, when I boot up my computer to begin the day's work, I'm glad I'm living in the here-and-now.
Think about it for a minute. We're living in the 21st century. We're living in the future. How cool is that? Even though we don't yet have weekly shuttles to colonies on Mars we do have palm size computers and cars that ask directions for you. We have polio vaccine and penicillin. My dog takes a pill and does n't get fleas. Men can take a pill and get an erection.
And we have a whole new world of publishing, electronic publishing. I see e-books as being right now in a sort of fuzzy area between fanzines and professional publications, which is to say while much of what's being put out in e-format is royalty-paying publishing, there's also e-pubbing in the vanity press mode, a chance to get your work before some audience even if you have to pay the freight yourself.
My first book is published in e-format. It's not SF, but a historical romance. What can I say? Authors are told "write what you know" and I know more about 19th century Florida history and piracy than I do about FTL space travel. When I completed Pirate's Price and sent it out for publication, I got back some nice responses along the lines of "it's a very entertaining story, but it's too short. Make it about another 50,000 words and we'll talk."
The problem was, the book was done. Finished. Oh sure, I could have padded it, thrown in another 50K's worth of adjectives, adverbs and modifiers, but then it wouldn't have been the same story and I didn't believe it would be better.
I belong to an on-line writing group on CompuServe (there's that modern technology again), their Readers & Writers Ink Forums. And let me say this about an on-line group vs. a face-to-face writing group: with an on-line group you can attend sessions in your jammies. You can download and read messages on your own time. And when someone critiques what you write, you can scream, "You stupid SOB! You couldn't write out a shopping list and you have the nerve to tell me to cut back on my modifiers!" and the person you're screaming at doesn't hear you.
When I was discussing with an on-line writing friend the publisher's responses to my novel, he said, "Why don't you contact an e-publisher?" and sent me to a site for a company that had published his wonder fully amusing romance novel, a novel just like other romance novels I'd read, except instead of a hero and heroine the two main characters were the same sex.
The more I investigated e-publishing, the more intrigued I was. When it comes to a great deal of what's being published in e-format, you can say Sturgeon's Law is generous. But at the same time it's filling a niche and a need. As conventional print publishers tighten their submission policies and seem to publish a great deal of cookie cutter plot lines, the e-publishers are able to be a bit more daring and innovative.
One reason is overhead. There's just no comparison between the cost of production for an e-book and the cost of a print book. An e-book publisher doesn't have to worry about remainders, oversells, and books piling up in warehouses. If an e-book has a typo graphical error, it's simple stuff to get back into the program and fix it. You don't have to wait for an other print run. And while e-book readers are nice, they're not necessary. Almost all e-books come in formats that make them readable on your desktop, notebook, or PDA.
From my perspective, one of the advantages of e-publishing is short is better than long. Where a print publisher wants books of a certain length for them to be saleable on the mass market and worth the cost of production, an e-publisher wants shorter works because no one wants to read War and Peace off a computer screen.
I've seen e-publishers bring back out-of-print books, release short stories individually and allow new writers an opportunity they might not otherwise have. There are advantages for the consumer as well. If you travel with your computer you can have multiple books and articles loaded waiting for you to read them, lightening your travel load by not having to schlep a lot of printed material around.
But there's a downside to this new technology too. For many people it's not a book if you can't caress its cover, smell the ink, stuff it in your purse or prop it up on your chest to read in bed at night.
Selling my novel to the e-publisher wasn't hard. Selling my novel to the reading public was hard.
The general reaction was, "I want, y'know, a book. If I have to read it on my computer, it's not a book."
Not surprisingly, people under the age of 30 were much more open to the idea of my e-book. In an age when college students take their lecture notes on laptops, getting someone to download and read a book is not such a hard sell. And for the reactionaries I used different sales techniques.
"Look," I said, "it's a short book. You download it onto your computer at work and when the boss isn't around and you need a break, read a chapter or two. It's got sex and pirates. Much more entertaining than Minesweeper."
Part of the problem is we do not yet have a standard, cheap e-reader. My dream as I watch my teenagers struggle out the door each day, looking like turtles under the weight of their backpacks, is to see an e-reader emerge that will fill a market need. Some thing extremely durable (bounceable from a height of 1.5 meters would be nice) and relatively inexpensive (under $100) that would serve one primary purpose, to display text comfortably. For students, it's a natural. Textbooks that now get replaced every ten years could be updated and replaced quarterly with a quick download. The back troubles would disappear. Students already get notes off the `net, accessing school websites or teacher's homepages, or e-mailing school assignments and notes to their friends. Wouldn't it make sense to have their textbooks as easily accessible?
Once that market has been opened, then it's a small step to provide the product for the e-readers. Books, periodicals, professional journals, monographs, all could be downloaded and printed if necessary, but if not they're not printed-out -- there are that many less trees being pulped, that much less space taken up at the landfill.
There will always be a market for quality printed books, but let's face it, a great deal of what's published now is highly disposable and prompts the great cry of reviewers everywhere, "trees died for this?!"
There is a lot of SF out there which doesn't reach the audience that wants it. Old stories out of print, books out of print, classic anthologies out of print. Some companies are already bringing the out of print material back as e-books and allowing subscribers to download single stories or combinations of stories. Just glancing at my shelves as I write this I see a number of SF books and collections that are currently unavailable but deserve another chance.
So, getting back to my e-book, it's been a struggle to get people to accept the idea of a book that's not like the books they're used to. Even the courts have been involved, arguing over whether e-books are true "books" as defined by publishing contracts. And I do have some concerns as an author over what's being marketed. I know my book is being published by a royalty paying publisher who paid me an advance and put me through an editorial process and sends me money. In other words, I didn't pay to have my book read, edited and published. But many of the new publishers are offering what is essentially vanity press service and there's nothing wrong with that. If people want to self publish, they're entitled to do so, but when your book has passed through the hands of an editor who isn't being paid by you the author, but is being paid by a professional publisher who sees some value in the story, it does send a different message to the potential reader.
But I can't complain. Because of the new world of publishing I've got an outlet that didn't exist a few years back. I've now finished my second novel, which is longer and perhaps will be considered more publishable by a traditional print publisher. But if not, I've still got the option of going the e-book route.
So when it comes to the technology of the 21st century, I'm an optimist. Who knows? By the time my grandchildren read my books, they may be reading them on those weekly Mars shuttles.
All illustrations by Kip Williams