Apocalypse Soon

The future of reading
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?

From 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 onpaper?

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?

Both 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.

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12 comment(s)

orstedAugust 22, 2007 10:02 EST

The iTome does exist already as an application for the iPhone.


Some hacking required.

Stan ScottAugust 28, 2007 20:26 EST

I have one qualification about why e-books have failed to achieve a substantial market share. The issue isn't just reading an e-book on an LCD screen. It's also the fact that no one has yet made a simple, easy-to-use electronic reader at the right price.

Sony's reader is way too expensive, and they've chosen to add a cumbersome and proprietary DRM (everyone remembers that this is the same company that used its CDs to secretly install tracking software on personal computers). We need a combined hardware/software solution for e-books similar to what Apple has done for downloadable music with the iPod, which integrates seamlessly with the Apple's iTunes music store.

That said, I've discovered several writers through e-books. After downloading and reading Stross's Accelerando, I went to Amazon and purchased two of his other novels. If Cory Doctorow hadn't made some of his writing available electronically, I probably wouldn't have read anything by him. "Try before you buy" can work, if it's used properly.

CthulhuAugust 30, 2007 20:24 EST

The SONY Reader is the best e-book device out to date. Electronic Ink is amazing. It is truly a technological wonder, and a joy to read. Like many others, I have been privileged to purchase a Reader for far below cost.

There are many formats available for the Reader, at least with some manipulation (some legal in "fair use," others perhaps not), and as Adlai Stephenson suggested in dim reading environments, illuminate, do no perseverate on your condition.
Buy a Reader, and support the coming revolution.

LeeSeptember 17, 2007 04:25 EST

I agree that all books will eventually - and probably in the not too distant future - be freely available. The 'try before you buy' in one model, but there are others.

And I'm waiting for a publisher to get savvy enough to offer reading plans like the mobile/cell phone companies did in much of Europe, i.e. give away an ereader if someone subscribes for a minimum length of time.

ChrisNovember 10, 2007 20:28 EST

The coming revolution in collaborative online writing (COW) and the direct profits that each author can make on sites like storymash.com, I can understand why the publishing world is afraid.

The online literary experiments will produce the first "Great Internet-nation Novel", available for everyone to print and read for free... THEN comes the first internet produced movie. Storymash and other self-publishing sites already allow anyone to pitch in and profit. I can see how this might be a solution for the striking Hollywood writers.

AnonymousJanuary 15, 2008 20:19 EST

The role of the publisher is not simply to deliver a writers words on paper. The relationship between publisher and writer is intertwined. A good publisher (within its many guises) should provide an objective view of the work, knowledge of the stages of book production, knowledge of page and book design, knowledge of the market, motivation and suggestions to the writer before, during and after writing, have an understanding of key promotional times and target markets etc. Many of these criteria will still be valid whether the work is published online or in print. If publishers are defunct as suggested and readers will buy directly from the writer then does this mean writers have to take on the publishers role as well? Surely this therefore compromises the content available if readers are only viewing material from writers either willing to take this on (and 'tech-savvy' enough to do so) or writers publishing work without this input (it may be good content but if it isn't easy to read in terms of design then many readers will disregard it).

Publishers bridge the gap between the information/content a writer holds and knowing what the market wants. Many new writers are not even aware they are capable of writing or have something the market wants to read. If all information is to be free in the digital age then publishers will still have a valuable role in sourcing this content, (to a greater or lesser degree) shaping it and making it available to all whether in a digital or print format.

This may mean a shift in percentages and fees between writer and publisher and most certainly will mean a large degree of adaptation for traditional publishers to take on board. However, in order to make all content accessible and allow the creativity of writers to prevail, publishers will still exist to deliver the content we want to read.

Jonathan BrunJanuary 18, 2008 11:51 EST

Printed books are dying. Though Mr. Jobs does not seem to have any intention of releasing an iTome, there is still hope. The Amazon Kindle, with it's wireless access to books (and newspapers and magazines) looks very promising.

Mr. Jobs recently commented on the Kindle, “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Alas, people still do read, and I hope that someone will make an ipod, for books.

AnonymousJanuary 18, 2008 18:57 EST

I think the author is right that the texts posted online can still draw a profit. _In Rainbows_ is presently no. 2 on the Billboard Album chart. But the price of an iTome will have to come down quite a bit before habitual readers will truly convert. I can accidentally leave on the train or drop in the bath a $15 paperback, or even a $36 hardback, without too much financial hardship. I can drop my book on the sidewalk, and it will still work. Furthermore, that small minority of us who still read books will probably want something we can underline, or highlight, or dog-ear before we'll truly convert. Oh, and we'll want some way to line our living rooms with the books we've read and the ones we hope to. Or maybe we can just have holograms of bookcases with the spines projected out of our iTome library like the iTunes cover-art. There is, after all, a case to be made for the physical world. The printed book is a technology the deficiencies of which are not self-evident; why the rush to replace it?

AnonymousJanuary 27, 2008 17:02 EST

Physical book has _a lot_ of deficiencies, compared to electronic. The ratio of size and weight to stored information amount is an instant win for books-in-bytes. Physical books are destructible, subject to tear and wear. You can't use search or copy-paste a quote. If on vacation you finish a book, you can't download another one from your library at home or an online shop. You can't change the font in the book if you don't like it. The list goes on.
Sorry, I hate the habit of dog-earing, so I consider it a win that my books will be free of that. But in electronic book you can have as much bookmarks as you like and give them descriptive names. As for notes and highlighting, I'm sure there'll be possibilities. Imagine also, how easier it'd be to write an article (or just a blog post) based on those notes.

Jeromey MartiniJanuary 31, 2008 07:35 EST

I wonder if Mr Evans gave the aesthetics of printed books too short shrift. There is a difference between experiencing music played on vinyl or electronically, but the experience is slight and remains only an auditory one. Paper books engage all the senses (well, few of us eat our books; but most of us have tasted paper, and memories of that taste inform our experience as we read books yellowed with age or books sharp, bright and chemical. We know the sound of turning pages and can visualize, without looking, a book's paper by the pitch of that sound). Book lovers participate in a longtime social convention of displaying their collections prominently all around the home - even devoting, as space permits, entire rooms to personal libraries. Libraries themselves are more ancient than the codex. Although we speak of 'cd libraries' these are purely functional; usually only the clear plastic spine of the cds are visible, and the collection is tucked away on a rack in the corner. Or we hide our cds in zip-up cases for easy portability. With music, it is the music itself that matters so that iTunes (etc.) gives the listener more of what is desired. Books, I think, satisfy more than simply our cognitive wants. The paperless book will need to take these additional wants into consideration before we see a complete revolution of the publishing industry.

AnonymousFebruary 03, 2008 13:51 EST

There was an interesting study in the UK which found that people were happy to access information electronically but for leisure reading they prefered an actual paper book. I personally think that not only is technology the issue but cost. There are a great many people the world over who, no matter how cheap an e-book reader becomes, will never be able to afford one. However, secondhand stores sell old books for cheap and libraries lend them (generally) for free. While libraries may be able to lend you the e-book, I cannot see lending the e-reader happening anytime soon - it's a money thing, again.

AnonymousJune 24, 2009 21:14 EST

Great article. It brings to mind another example of the flexibility of new media where authors are concerned - Narrative Magazine (www.narrativemagazine.com) is a free, online literary magazine that promotes new voices in fiction, non-fiction & poetry & uses donations & contest entry fees to pay those authors it chooses to publish. A solid model for the future, I think.

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