Online Only: Excerpts from Jon Evans’ first novel, Dark Places, as well as his upcoming novel, Invisible Armies.A
few years ago, my first novel was published. It did pretty well, won an award, was translated and sold around the world; the movie rights were even optioned. Now I want to put it online — no charge, no hook, no catch. My motivation is simple: greed.
My publishers are resolutely opposed to this idea. They fear it will “devalue the brand” and set a dangerous precedent. They fear, intuitively but wrongly, that fewer people will buy a book that is also given away for free. But most of all, they fear the future — and with good reason. Book publishing is a dinosaur industry, and there’s a big scary meteor on the way.
Newspapers, with their readerships and profit margins being hammered by television, free dailies, and the Internet (Yahoo! News and Craigslist, among others), have been forced to adapt or die. Even the august New York Times
now has more readers online than “onpaper” (for the moment a neologism). The broadsheet’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., has speculated that in five years’ time it might stop producing a print edition. Magazines are way ahead of him. Many scientific journals don’t bother printing physical copies. Premiere
, once one of Hollywood’s mightiest arbiters, recently announced that it will henceforth exist only online. Slate, an online mag covering politics and current events, is turning a profit, and long-established titles like the Atlantic
and the New Yorker
give selected content away for free, using the web to drive subscriptions. If you thought the Internet revolution ended with the dot-com flame-out in 2001, think again. We are witnessing the beginnings of a massive tectonic shift.
Book publishers, however, stand apart, aloof, shielded perhaps by the dismal failure of electronic books. After a decade of hype and development, e-book sales have achieved the dizzying market share of 0.2 percent for full-length books. It seems that books, unlike newspapers and magazines, are protected from the encroaching digital revolution by some kind of moat. Let’s examine that divide — but first, let’s take a closer look at what it guards. What exactly is a book?
rom the time of Gutenberg until about twenty years ago, any non-academic could have answered this question without hesitation: a book is a bound sheaf of pages. If the pages are blank, it’s a notebook; if they’re full of factual information, it’s a reference book; if they tell a made-up story, it’s a novel. The bound sheaf of paper is not just an artifact, it’s an icon of civilization.
Enter the Internet, muddying definitions everywhere. Enter Project Gutenberg, which puts out-of-copyright classics online. Enter book-length blogs and online literary experiments. Enter reference works that “live” online, constantly changing and growing, but that occasionally also result in paper editions — works such as The Java Tutorial
, a technical manual that explains the intricacies of an Internet programming language. A book is the text, not the form in which the text is rendered — we’ll leave to literary theorists the implications of non-linear hyperlinked texts — and the online version of a book can be the “master copy,” the bound sheaf a mere textual snapshot, already stale when printed. Online reference works can make use of endless space for appendices, unlimited full-colour graphics, examples that run on the user’s screen, discussion boards, and chat rooms. Given this interactivity and timeliness, why would anyone want to buy, say, The Java Tutorial
And yet people do. The book is a worldwide bestseller for technical manuals. The physical Java Tutorial
is, compared to what’s freely available and downloadable online, limited in scope and out of date; but its readers — overwhelmingly web programmers — purchase the bound sheaf version anyway. What is going on here? What is keeping the big bad twenty-first century from the publishing industry’s nineteenth-century castle walls?
oth e-books and sheaves of paper have pros and cons. Sheaves never lose battery power; you can flip through them quickly, use them as bricks, or take them to the bath; and they are still relatively cheap. On the other hand, digital readers can store hundreds of e-books, including those available for free, and their contents can be updated, searched, and annotated. In the near future, the number of digital readers will skyrocket, and making copies for friends will be simple. All things being equal, you’d expect e-books to have grabbed a significant share of the book market by now. So why haven’t they?
The answer is simple, and if you’re a publisher, not at all comforting. The enormous and lasting success of ink on paper is almost entirely due to one thing: contrast. Ink on paper has almost perfect contrast, allowing the average eye to make out small shapes such as letters with little strain. Luminescent pixels on lcd
screens represent a tougher challenge. The eye has to work for its input, a slow and subtle strain. This is no big deal if you’re reading a few pages over the course of several minutes, but if you’re devoting yourself to tens of thousands of words — in other words, if you’re devoting yourself to a book — reading from an lcd
screen is a physical burn.
Of course, many say there’s more to it than contrast, that there’s something special about paper, something sacred; that people like the feel of paper, the smell, the cover art. All of which is true, and similar arguments were once made about vinyl records. Until a few months ago, I was a great champion of the “tactile experience,” of holding the thing and its art in your hands. Then I went browsing through a Borders bookstore in California, where I saw and experienced a Sony Reader.