EBooks Mean the Ascendency of Whom or What?

Quo Vadis the Book?

If the eBook is ascendent, who or what else is also ascendent?
The excessively simple narrative of the history of book publishing goes sort of like this: writers hired printing presses to bring their work into the world in book or other form. To protect writers from unscrupulous printers, there arose publishers who would pay the writers a fair rate and also make money. But the scruple-less roamed the land and so came literary agents to protect writers from unscrupulous publishers, and also make a buck.
And this model worked reasonably well for a while until hypertext came along and screwed up everything.

But it’s a way slo-mo earth quake, this screwing up of things that hypertext hath wrought.
So now comes the electronic book, and while the thing—if indeed it can be called a thing—is up and running in different incarnations, seems to me still very much in its nascence. Which is to say that I’m not entirely certain that we know exactly what an ebook is quite yet. There are very smart people who have been calculating the demise of the traditional publishing model for a long time. Back in 1992, Robert Coover may well have framed the discussion in his essay “The End of Books” long before most readers ever knew there was a discussion.
In that essay he names Michael Joyce’s “landmark ‘Afternoon,’ first released on floppy disk in 1987 and moved into a new Storyspace ‘reader'” in 1990, as the granddaddy of full-length hypertext fictions.” He goes on to say that “it is still so radically new it is hard to be certain just what it is.” And that was 1992.

Now Comes the Kindle
Here we are, in 2008, and now comes the Amazon Kindle. Yes, there are other readers, and there is on the horizon epaper.

The Kindle is the first ereader to shall we say kindle much interest, and Amazon seems to have done pretty well with it. But it ain’t cheap. But it is being adopted by reading business travelers who can read their favorite newspaper or carry a whole bunch of hefty or not so hefty managerial tomes plus a few thrillers, plus magazines and documents and so forth in a nice, neat little package.

It is also being adopted by editors and agents who can now be freed from having to lug 20 pounds of manuscript home to Brooklyn or out to Sag Harbor.

This is how Mike Shatzkin put it in a speech on the future of books publishing:

At current count, three major publishers — Hachette, Random House, and Simon & Schuster — have bought large numbers of Sony Ereaders, the Kindle’s most direct competitor, as working tools for their staff. The readers will be used to reduce the intra-company use of printed galleys and to make it easier for editors to carry around manuscripts.

The beauty of the ereader, as best as I can tell, is that you can or will be able to download and start reading any and all of the great or not so great books of the world within moments. Which in principle sounds to me like a great thing.


It seems to me that we are still talking about books. A linear construct. What Coover called the power of the line, “that compulsory author-directed movement from the beginning of a sentence to its period, from the top of the page to the bottom, from the first page to the last.”

And in the time between 1992 and 2008 people have been born, learned to read, and perhaps to drive–possibly both at the same time–learned to text as a transitive verb and, we are told, sort of eschewed the book (with perhaps the uncertain exception of the “Harry Potter” series) for other forms of entertainment, such as video games, a category that in a lot of ways seems to have more of the character of what Coover talked about as hypertext fiction, with its fairly indistinct boundaries than any sort of electrified “bourgeois” novel. Very talented people who in the 19th century might have written novels or read them have gravitated towards other entertainments.

This passage in Coover’s essay struck me back when I first saw it as it strikes me now–with a brutal sense of hope and horror:

The most radical new element that comes to the fore in hypertext is the system of multidirectional and often labyrinthine linkages we are invited or obliged to create. Indeed the creative imagination often becomes more preoccupied with linkage, routing and mapping than with statement or style, or with what we would call character or plot (two traditional narrative elements that are decidedly in jeopardy).

This passage freaks me out in its pregnancy of possibilities, but it also freaks me out because I can spend so much time on the Web in a total ADD pinball ping-a-thon following those labyrinthine linkages, stumbling across one interesting factette after another and doing absolutely nothing. And the two things are absolutely of a piece. Because while I’m trying to get things done, this is as often a curse as it is a blessing, and but because when I’m actually getting things done, or trying, it’s also usually in front of my computer.

So there’s a platform question, because a computer, even my wonderful laptop, isn’t the most shall we say welcoming platform for kicking back and reading a good book. From my perspective, there are lots of issues with the laptop, but the major thing is its heft and decidedly two-hand configuration, and the consequent possibility that you could, kicked back in your easy chair, spill your Maker’s Mark or Grey Goose on it.

Here Comes the Platform
And to go back to the editors and agents that have adopted the Kindle and/or other ereaders, this portability thing is not something they really had to wait for the Kindle to acquire. They, too, could have done it on their laptops, but didn’t. Likely for similar reasons.

But I do love this idea—or at least I have a pretty serious crush on it—of a kind of writing, if that is even the proper nomenclature—a “novel” in which one could get lost in the maze of someone’s invention and really fall in love with its nonhierarchical contextual contingencies. I’ve ghosted some nonfiction, health-oriented books, and I think they, too, would benefit really being electronic, though in a completely different way.

Except for one thing. Insofar as it’s already happened, which is to say it has happened on the Web and in video games, which, if I’m not mistaken, now rake in more money that all other forms of entertainment. And it is continually happening, I don’t think it’s actually going to happen. Yet.

By it, I mean a real and true electronic book. Not just the shuffle of the conventional book into an electronically readable format. But the transformation of the book by electronic means into something sort of book-like, but also sort of Web-like. To the best of my knowledge, there’s still a huge gap between the nonhierarchical “narrative” that Coover posited (and others executed) and the bourgeois novel.

Parenthetically, I’d say at least part of this is because human beings are hardwired for narrative. A narrative can go all over the place—and can elide a whole lot more than it could a couple of centuries ago—but we have a tendency to want it to make sense. I think we have an evolutionary need to have things make sense. I suppose you could argue that “sense” is a tentative proposition, but if we didn’t want so much for things to make sense, there would be no such thing as a conspiracy theory. We tend to like the sensation of finding out what comes next. And we have that thrill of discovery at the end of the particularly inventive and diabolical plot when the author masterly pulls it all together. I have often argued that narrative, and the ability to step outside the self and imagine the narrative, is the original and perhaps the only really real virtual reality.
And but so. Yes, there are hypertext fiction “books” out there. And in blogs we have book-like and Web-like entities. But they still remain in search of a viable platform, which is to say a platform that is as accommodating and flexible as the book. Storyspace reader is software you have to download and install on your computer, and I would suggest that it’s probably pretty much OBE. Or overtaken not so much by events as by HTML.

Now comes the iPhone, and perhaps the larger tablet computer Apple is constantly rumored to be developing. Or the iPod Touch. Or other such devices that already exist or are in development. So imagine a device, about the surface dimensions of a trade hardcover book (6×9-ish), weighs less than a pound, can be tucked into an envelope or jacket pocket, has a color screen that’s easily legible in daylight and can handle anything the most robust browser can handle, and then we can start to go places.

According to Stephen Abrams of Sirsidynix, by 2012, an iPod will be able to hold a year’s worth of video. By 2015, all of the commercial music ever created, and by 2020 all the “content ever created (in all media) by 2020.” (Click here to find the slides from his presentation at the O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change Conference 2008.)

Add to that “cloud computing” in which the browser is in many ways more important than the operating system—at least for now—and you have the putative game-changing paradigm.

So Many Possibilities
So with such a platform, you have the compelling possibility that at last an ebook will really be electronic, that with browser-like technology, we can have those labyrinthine (or not so labyrinthine) linkages that have always been the promise and also the failure (in my view) of the ebook.

On the nonfiction side, let’s say you buy my friend Dr. Richard K. Bernstein’s book, Diabetes Solution, but buy it in electronic form. To the best of my knowledge, his book has been through at least three editions.

First thing that comes to mind is that there could be a sort of subscription model, in which there is no need for editions. Let’s say the book exists in the cloud, always updated as Dr. Bernstein refines his technique. And let’s say that in cutting out the expense of delivery of the paper book all along the putative supply chain, Dr. Bernstein can charge something like the actual cover price for a book that’s updated every time you are in the cloud.

And let’s also say that since the book is truly electronic, which means that it can be linked—for example to a place to buy his recommended products for foot care or blood sugar control, or to studies he’s cited to prove a particular point, or to a video of his method for painless insulin injection—all of which barely scrapes the surface.

(I prefer to use the nonfiction example here for the same reason that publisher’s sales reps do, it’s way easier to describe. But the possibilities for novels are endless, except there’s also an element of expense if you want to add video or sound or whatever to your fiction creation that simply didn’t obtain in the days when these things were done with quills and papyrus or even my old Selectric. And because of that, it’s not hard to imagine ebooks being produced by production companies more than individual authors.)

So Who Ascends?
And so back to the original question at the top of this disquisition: Who (meaning what sort of commercial enterprise) is ascendent in the transformation from book to ebook?

There is a fundamental assumption inherent in that question that people will always want books, electronic or otherwise. And that assumption is being made here by a-soon-to-be-50-year-old while male of diminishing hair and increasing waistline who is also a writer of books.

And it may not exactly be a valid assumption, or an entirely valid assumption. Because along with all of this comes the ascendence of Web 2.0, or Web 3.0, and such things as Second Life or Facebook and all its many brothers and sisters and cousins. Not to mention the blogosphere and other spheres. And these matter because, according to Abram, “context is king, not content.” Which I don’t think means that content is unimportant, but good content without the right context—if I understand this proposition—is a name with no face.

And this is where the idea of the vertical market comes in. For those, like me, not versed particularly well in MBA-speak, to the best of my ability to grapple with the notion, the vertical market is sort of an aggregation of interest around a single interest. The New York Times Book Review is horizontal in the sense that it covers books in pretty much every category. A bookstore like Murder by the Book is vertical in that it specializes in mysteries.

And the vertical market matters because increasingly these 2.0 tools, if you will, are where content—that tender stuff between the putative covers—is discovered and promoted, given context, and these tools enable the vertical market.

Parenthetically, it astonishes me that while it’s now easier than ever to “publish” book reviews newspapers are cutting back on their book staffs. There are so many good literary blogs with well written reviews, that it would seem like a no-brainer to work with them somehow to license their content.
No, So, Really, Who Ascends?

The short answer is that I have no idea. Unless it rapidly and significantly evolves (with at the very least a color touch screen and way more computer-like capabilities), I would say that the expensive Kindle will not last very long.

And I would say that while certain types of media (and by media, I mean methods of storing information) do die—the eight-track tape comes to mind—I don’t see that happening any time soon for the book. My son, a post-millenial, 10-year-old, loves his books. And loves the library. And as long as older guys like me are around, there will be a market, unless something so disruptive comes along (like the iPod and iTunes Store).
And so publishers will not exactly die, it seems to me, but they are probably way far behind people who grew up with the Web and are doing something that feels more comfortable to them than what publishers are doing.
And so if publishers don’t exactly die, then literary agents won’t, either.

It’s not very hard to imagine ebook production companies building electronic narratives that are hybrids of the novel and the video game, but compact enough to work in a browser. It’s also not hard to imagine inventive and multitalented (and probably young) “writers” creating compelling narratives that use all of the tools available to them in a single package.

The real question on ascendence, though, is (it seems to me) is there a publisher-like entity that will stamp its imprimatur on an ebook in the future and promote it, etc.? And I think the answer is yes and no. Those boundaries are already breaking down. But I do think that the “writers” mentioned above will need some kind of help–whether it’s good editing or good Web design—and perhaps brand management to help them make their creation rise to the top of the search.

I don’t find it that hard to imagine some smart enterprising young person out there with a whole lot of time on his/her hands, designing his/her “book” to sparkle on an ereader. How s/he is doing this, I don’t have any idea, but when an agent or editor gets the submission—if that step in the process even happens—s/he is going to be blown away.

But it may be that it never makes it to an agent or editor. It may be that it gets picked up on a blog somewhere, or sold as an application on the iPhone App Store, and bang, something new and wholly disruptive begins.

This entry was posted in Geekery, Literature and tagged , , , , , by Steve, i.e., him. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

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