Sunday, 9 January 2011

Pages covered by eReaders

Pages covered by eReaders 

Chris Henderson

Wrapped in blanket, the secure tactile touch of cloth and paper of a  hardbound volume caressing  your hands, fingers flicking the page as the eyes rushes over the last few lines, the comforting sound of the sheet whipping across the silent air as a leaf is turned. The last few minutes of the day when the eyelids droop even as you fight sleep to read just a few more words – then the thud of the book landing on the ground wakes you up with a start, the dreams enmeshed with the tale you were reading try to disentangle as you raise your hand to turn off the bedside lamp.

The romance of reading continues on the settee, in the train, leafing through the volumes in the homely or the big chain bookstores, the smell of the freshly unpacked pages, the allure of the printed black on fine grained white.

Die hard bookworms look askance at the modern and marauding mediums. Reading soft copies online, scrolling down instead of turning pages, feeling cold shiny metal instead of the fine textured paper as one navigates across screens on eReaders and, worse still, on the nex-gen phones –each act of modern day readership tantamount to sacrilege.  The decay and modernisation of our sacred passion, the symbol of the fickle, flitting minds more concerned with gizmo than crystallised thought spread out on paper.

If we try to work off our disgust at the prevailing winds of change, attempt to cleanse our souls with a stroll to revel in the comfort amidst sanctity of paperbacks in the McNally Jackson bookstore of Manhattan, we may discover two authors at a standard book reading session. To our horror,   one of them may happen to be reading his short fiction off an iPad. Indeed Jim Hanas did just that some days back, prompting Brian Joseph Davis to tweet, "First fiction reading off an iPad ever?" Davis, by the way, is the managing editor of Joyland Fiction, a site that publishes short fiction. One of his staunch beliefs is that short fiction is native to the internet.

So, it is not only the readers who are migrating across the rapidly changing seasonal time-scape to embrace new reading formats –and thereby material – on offer away from the time tested monopoly of the printed press. So are many writers.

While the past decade has tempered the culture shock and oxymoronic implications initially associated with eReading, and has accelerated the activity through the internet, kindle, iPad, Sony eReader and hundreds of other gizmos, an e-book is still considered a "deprecated version" of a print volume.

Well, centuries back, water colours may have had hinted at the decay of aesthetics to the primordial artist who etched bisons on the cave wall. Mandelbrot inspired fractal art may still seem atrophy of the finer senses to the ones who swear by the Impressionists. Steinbeck may have taken an interested look at word processors before resuming his writing in trusted long hand. But, times change. With our preoccupation with books in the published form, we sometimes forget that the printed press is a relatively recent development in the chequered history of telling tales. The medium has always changed. Probably it is time.

The truth is that the place of writing in the electronic medium is not just limited to short fiction.  Digital formats are being embraced by many writers, who weren't getting paid much for their printed work anyhow. Hanas says, if you give a writer a choice between $10,000 and 10,000 readers, the writer will always choose the latter.

With more people trapped in the web than ever, especially in these days of social networking, the chances of finding 10,000 online readers look more promising than ever. On the other hand, winning the battle for shelf space with the emerging literary sensations – in the form of super models, WWF wrestlers, linguistically challenged MBAs with a flair for connections, society pin up girls, wives of industrialists, political activists, ex Tory politicians and so on – and making $10000 from writing akin to a game of remorselessly rigged Russian roulette. Hanas has been published in several respected journals and admits he has been paid a total of $250 in 10 years for this body of work. To paraphrase Nicholas Taleb, when we look at some new Nobel prize winning sensation,  we tend to forget that most of the more talented authors are still making ends meet serving coffee in Starbucks.

Publishing still remains a tiny industry perched atop a massive hobby. It's still a hobby today because people at the top of the publishing industry are obsessed with controlling access to the passionate pastime. And judging by the enormous amount of inane semi-formed crap that seem to drip from the popular shelves today, the controllers are not really doing a good job at ensuring quality. After all, a craft that is a passion for a major proportion of humanity surely produces enough excellent material to keep unreadable tripe away from bookstores. Sadly, the prevalent system for zeroing in on great writing is like trying to hit an unknown target in blindfolds.

The major activity of a writer today, more often than not, boils down to the task of getting through the intricate, often impenetrable, maze of agents, publishers, booksellers, distributors, stores, royalties, reviewers and the rest. If their wares reach the limited space on the shelves, the remainder of their famous lives are spent in appearing on political debates, reality shows,  controversies, judging talent contestants - various vehicles for their books to ride the few feet into  the best seller area - till the fickle flicker of fame extinguishes and they fade into the immense expanse of oblivion under the superficial surface of instant popularity.

Through all these dynamics, the trash that often nestles in the best seller sections, sometimes arranged in various three dimensional shapes more suited for confectionery, perhaps to ensure sales similar to hot cakes, makes one wonders how many of the talents are forever caught in the claustrophobic chaos that is the labyrinth of middlemen. There are a lot of writers who are fast waking up to realise that life is too short to turn out Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes and synopses by the bulk, that will be respectively posted promptly and returned unread by the semi literate drones of an industry that thrive on recommendation and networks. In any decent educational institution, any solicitation merits a cancellation of candidature. But, in publishing, unsolicited manuscripts are openly discouraged, are returned unopened, unread or are relegated to the lower layers of the proverbial slushpile. This has gone on far too long for the thousands with the writing itch to sit back and keep playing into the hands of a defunct system that produces unreadable books sometimes topping best seller charts and winning acclaimed awards.

Steven Arnold auctioned all his books and shelves of his vast library at his house off the 17th Street, Whitestone Road, Clermont, Ohio.People there conversed in hushed tones that Mr. Arnold had actually bought an eReader.

Right now, one requires masterly skills to solve one’s way through the complex equations of connectivity posed by elusive agents, domineering publishers, politically correct drivel, New York Times Bestsellers and all the other layers up to Oprah Winfrey , but those are not really proficiency correlated to producing great literature. So if one is talking about a new business model for publishing the written word, from the perspective of many writers, it would be welcome. Authors are embracing the opportunity to be read by the crowd migrating to the internet, to communicate with the readers directly, away from the smug isolation of ivory towers, to do away with the middlemen who, in several real life experiments, have refused to publish works of noble prize and booker winners when submitted under pseudonyms.

Getting published by Print On Demand companies or electronic magazines  and even having one’s own popular blog ensure much more. Through Amazon and other online retailers, devices such as Kindle and other eReaders, search engines catering to their keywords, the writing can be instantly available over the networks to virtually the entire world, to anyone with an internet connection or a cell phone. They are not limited to the select few stores that carry a few copies and run out of stock when two get sold in a month. There is no such thing as the terrifying fate that awaits most authors after their first exciting advance – that of being pulped and going out of print. The books are available for print or electronic delivery on demand, ensuring that they are accessible from anywhere in the world anytime one wants one. None of the local bestsellers in countries other than where Amazon has set up its corporate base can actually boast such absolute availability.

POD companies are service providers who take a chunk of the sales profits. The transactions with most of them are transparent and timely. Hence, one need not politely clear one’s throat and painstakingly remind the publisher, monoliths and insignificant alike, that it is three months since they were supposed to send the royalty check.

And then there is the small thing of exercising the literary freedom of not building sizeable novels around the rambling of spastic kids or the excellence of the US policy in Afghanistan to ensure adequate representation.

During a discussion on eBooks, Richard Nash, editorial director of Soft Skull Press from 2001 to 2007, heralded the e-book for its potential to "end the endless shitification of the book." He said Soft Skull's first books were printed on 55-pound paper. By 2004, they were printed on 50-pound ones. And in 2009, they were printed on 45-pound counterparts, which turned yellow within weeks if exposed to excessive sunlight. Across the book world today, leather bound volumes disappear and pages are more often gummed together rather than bound.

"You cannot tell me that that is better than a pdf," Nash remarks. Digital formats free books from the burden of being a mass-market product, he points out, and restores them to a pre-industrial state, that of a "tribal fetish."

eReaders on the other hand getting cheaper by the day, becoming more user friendly, enhancing themselves to replicate the touch and even the sound of a turning page. Just as the authors who started out writing with an elegant fountain pen in the nineties discovered that laptops and word processors do not necessarily compromise creativity, the readers who swore by the pleasures of thumbing through a paperback are finding their modernisation Kindled by a sparkling set of positives. Looking up the previous occurrence of Semyon Zaharovitch Marmeladov in a 500 page novel may be a tedious task of flipping through pages, but a simple find function does wonders. And while carrying the four volumes of Quite Flows The Don or the entire Remembrance of Things Past on a holiday can be quite a handful, an eReader can take your entire library and manage to look sleek. Add the features of looking up words, names, terms and so on without having to take a couple of flights of stairs and reaching for the Encyclopedia. This is a generation who loves to get newspapers to weather to music on one single device which can also be used to talk to friends and family on the other side of the world. Figure it for yourself.

Publishers do cling on to the hope that unlike digital music or video, eReaders demand that the consumers change their consumption habit. However, the new generation is used to the computer and other screens, and absorb faster from flexible information of electronic format than the constancy of text. Books have changed little in the past half a millennium or so. The time is ripe for an upheaval. 

Finally there is the relentless lure of the consumer. The Amazon is unique in its appeal because, unless and until one looks for the rarest of rare, it is always available. Brick and mortar stores are limited by space in an age where the three dimensions have become unlimited by being cramped into electronic screens. Demand for unlimited stock is inevitable. As I predict in The Best Seller, in a not too distant future, bookshops will switch to the hybrid mode where electronic searchable stocks will be lined with the paperbacks and hardbounds, with the facility to print, bind and package on demand and within seconds whatever the customer finds interesting. Similar set ups are already available for Newspapers in stalls in big cities.

POD stand for Newspapers
in Press and Book Store, Zurich Hauptbahnhof

The world has to bow to the demands. Libraries are already lending out books on eReaders - and this carries the added in-built insurance against dog ears, loss, damage, overdue and missing pages.

Publishing houses today do far too little to connect writers with readers, something that digital formats can enable. They take too many liberties with the authors, something that the digital format can correct. They sit smug and satisfied in their ivory towers, something that the tentacles of the fibre optic cables are fast encroaching and circumventing.

There are lots of interesting and useful changes that are being brought about by technology. During an era when a book is a corporate produced marketable unit product, the trend of serialisation has been considered passé. However, with digital formats,  the endearing episodes, with to be continued at the bottom trailed by a promising ellipsis, is making a comeback. A striking example is a firm called DailyLit that divides e-books into small chunks for drip-feeding by e-mail. Harlequin, a Canadian publisher of romantic fiction, sells short-fiction e-books for reading on PCs or other devices to be consumed with quick sandwiches during the lunch hour.

Changes take place. The cart drops a t to make way for the car, the telegram is beaten at the wire by the email. The costs of printing and shipping paper and cardboard are rising. POD is now cheaper than standard printing for runs of fewer than 1,200 copies, and the threshold is rising quickly. If consumers become more price-sensitive, as they inevitably will, e-books will become more appealing. Publishing is sure to be hit like the music industry has been. And as a curious poetic justice, even the environment will benefit with less books being sold in the printed format, less space being hogged for storage of countless volumes.

And, in the modern world of spoiled net browsing readers, the features of embedding pictures, movies and sound clips into the electronic copy of the book open up new horizons which will surely be explored.

Ultimately the book world consists of two indispensible stakeholders – the authors and the readers. Any technology which reduces the gap will be welcomed by both, but will prove a menace to the entities that currently exist and feed on the distance between the two.

Chris Henderson is a fictitious character who appears in Arunabha Sengupta's The Best Seller.  He is an aspiring author and lives in Pasadena, California

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