Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Million Open Doors

One of the most exciting things about the digital publishing revolution is the sheer variety of publishing possibilities that are opening up for writers and readers alike. Science fiction has long imagined that the future would change the book, but it tended to be part of the "furniture" of the future world, background rather than the focus of the story. A character may read a "filmbook" or the like, but its mechanics are glossed over. It's just there to provide a sense that We're Not In Kansas Any More, rather than a serious extrapolation of the future of publishing.

When digital publishing first became a practical reality as a result of the growing popularity of the personal computer, the first forays were simultaneously excited and hesitant. Excited because it was seen as the realization of generations of science fiction readers' dreams. Hesitant because of the enormous uncertainty about how to translate the experience of the printed page into digital format.

Some of the problems were simply the immaturity of the technology. Physical media such as floppy disks and CD-ROM's required distribution networks, which imposed their own limitations, especially since there was no easy way to piggyback onto existing print book distribution. But even as more people gained access to the Internet and distribution of the intellectual good no longer required the movement of a physical object, problems remained. Concerns about digital piracy tended to be the most publicized, and led to a great number of counterproductive digital rights management schemes that effectively punished the legitimate user for the possible crimes that might be committed with the technology. But the real problem was that most people didn't want to read for pleasure on a computer screen. They wanted something they could carry with them and read during random bits of time here and there, something for which even the lightest laptop was too bulky and awkward.

Various companies produced dedicated e-book readers, but all of them were bulky and expensive, and their proprietary formats meant that you could only buy books from the company's bookstore, and if the company went out of business, you had an expensive, useless brick. Sure, you could keep reading and re-reading the books you had loaded on it until the device stopped working, but you couldn't get anything new for it. As a result, people were reluctant to buy these devices, ensuring they would fail in the market.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, several changes converged to finally realize the possibility of the e-book: Baen offering DRM-free e-books through their Webscriptions system, creating the Kindle e-book reader that wasn't entirely tied to their bookstore, Apple producing the iPad and iPhone (which opened the way for Google to offer the Android OS for other companies to produce tablet computers and smartphones). Suddenly readers had the possibility of an easily portable and relatively seamless reading experience, which made it easy to move from the familiar old paperback to digital format not just because of the cool factor, but because of utility considerations.

As a result, we have not only conventional e-books that are effectively digital versions of paper books, but also a wide variety of other formats. For short formats, publishers have been experimenting with e-zines ever since the Web really took off. Serialization is another distribution model that has come back into fashion through digital media.

Such a wide variety of possibilities can be overwhelming, but it can also be liberating. A writer who doesn't find success in one model of fiction distribution can try a different one. If serialization proves disheartening when readership dribbles off to nothing after the first several chapters, publishing whole novels via Kindle Direct or some other e-book publisher may reach a greater audience. Similarly, a reader who prefers bite-sized reading can find a wide variety of short-form and serialized novel formats, while a reader who wants the substance of a book can download full e-books onto a reader.

And it's quite probable that we're only seeing the beginning of the digital publishing revolution. The futures imagined by even the most innovative and imaginative writers may actually prove short of the mark, for the simple reason that they had to write a world comprehensible to their contemporary readers.

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