Amazon’s “Kindle Singles”: saviour of the genre short fiction scene?

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2010

Hard to say for sure, really, given that it hasn’t even launched yet, but Amazon’s plans for the “Kindle Singles” service – which in essence appears to be ebooks of the long short-story to novella length – certainly has the potential to put money in the pockets of genre fiction’s clade of short story writers. The shrinking circulations of the Dead-Tree Big Three aren’t looking like a long-term prospect for the short form’s survival, and hell knows that recent experiences right here have demonstrated that making the free-to-read webzine model sustainable is no picnic, either (though I hold hope for better-funded projects such as Lightspeed and going the distance, alongside established non-profit outfits like Strange Horizons).

The real (and as yet unanswered) question is whether people would read (and pay for) short stories if they knew where to find them; the search-term browsability of a platform like Amazon certainly offers the potential to put short stories by known names in front of potential readers who might otherwise be ignorant of the form, and there’s plenty of good (albeit as yet entirely theoretical) arguments that short stories are better suited to the when-you-get-a-moment reading habits of the modern reader. I suspect the most important factor will be pricing, with a splash of gatekeepering and/or curating to filter for quality; if a writer hits the right price point and has a bit of luck with word-of-mouth, the potential is there to cut out the magazine middle-men and reach an untapped audience.

My concern (as a fussy reader and a critic) is that the market’s definition of quality will probably differ wildly from my own; the success of Dan Brown is a clear indication that this is inevitable. But if big digital sales of awful literature support an ecosystem that lets the little guys make a living, well, I think I’ll be able to live with it. Plus ça change, non?

Probabilistic processing: the analogue computer waits in the wings

Paul Raven @ 19-08-2010

Digital processing has the advantage of versatility – the utter ubiquity of computer technology is a testament to that. But digital logic has to use lots of bits to represent large ranges of values; perhaps some applications – spam filtering, for instance, or pattern analysis – would run better and faster on a system that allowed for analogue values “in the raw”, so to speak?

Lyric’s innovation is to use analogue signals instead of digital ones, to allow probabilities to be encoded directly as voltages. Their probability gates represent zero probability as 0 V, and certainty as VDD. But unlike digital logic, for which these are the only options, Lyric’s technology allows probabilities between 0 and 1 to use voltages between 0 and VDD. Each probabilistic bit (“pbit”) stores not an exact value, but rather, the probability that the value is 1. The technology allows a resolution of about 8 bits; that is, they can discriminate between about 28 = 256 different values (different probabilities) between 0 and VDD.

By creating circuits that can operate directly on probabilities, much of the extra complexity of digital circuits can be eliminated. Probabilistic processors can perform useful computations with just a handful of pbits, with a drastic reduction in the number of transistors and circuit complexity as a result.

This could so easily be an excerpt from a Rudy Rucker story… or a Neal Stephenson novel, for that matter.

Living with less: digital lifestyles versus consumer materialism

Paul Raven @ 17-08-2010

Seems like you can’t have a good idea these days without it turning into some sort of cult or movement… maybe that’s always been the case, but 24/7 journalism and social media certainly speeds up the process. Aaaaaaanyways, here’s a BBC article on technohipster types who’re shedding the majority of their material possessions in favour of computer hardware and cloud-based communications and data storage.

It’s kind of romantic, in a somewhat smug and self-aware po-mo kind of way: the New Nomadism! A reaction to the consumerist lust-for-stuff that helped bring us to global financial collapse, etc etc. What it fails to take into account is that there are hundreds of thousands living just as nomadic a lifestyle, only without the luxuries of a fresh Macbook Air and a custom-built fixie; having too much stuff is very much a #firstworldproblem, and as much as it’s satisfying to see a turn away from that, it’s frustrating to see how, already, it’s destined to be repackaged and sold as a lifestyle trend.

If I was in the cloud computing business right now, I’d be thinking real hard about how to market (and mark up!) my tools and services to precisely these sorts of people: people who are financially and geographically fortunate enough to see sparse living as something worth paying for (as opposed to being the only game in town, as it is for most folks living out of a couple of bags).

That said, I can see the benefits… hell, I’ve even experienced some of them. My own recent relocation saw me sell off my entire music collection, for instance; I realised I never played my CDs in a player, so I just ripped them all to a hard drive and sold them off. There were nearly a thousand of them, and do you know what the biggest surprise was? How hard it was to get people to buy them, even priced at just £1 each. Another couple of years (or even less), and you’ll have to give physical music media away. Even now, as new promos keep pouring through my letterbox, I increasingly view them as an imposition on my space… like a meatspace version of bacn, I guess.

It would have been much more pragmatic of me to replace my books with an ereader, but there I drew the line; my library is my major fetish, the last real outlet for my deeply-ingrained middle-class collector’s impulse, and while I may have culled a lot of crap from it, there’s a lot of books that I simply can’t bear to part with. It’s irrational, but I don’t think a bit of irrationality is all that harmful to anything other than my own bank balance… though ask me again after the next time I have to move house. Close to a thousand books is a whole lot of heavy boxes to shift, and they take up a lot of space.

What the BBC piece (and the technomad quotes that prop it up) skips over is the infrastructre that makes such a nomadic lifestyle possible. Ubiquitous wireless broadband, for instance; I’m guessing these people wouldn’t be so keen on living the way they do if they couldn’t remain connected to the world from wherever they’re currently laying their hat. And there’s a whole bunch of unexamined Western privilege beneath the surface: safe places to crash or couch-surf, cheap places to rent over short periods, comparatively low incidences of property theft, kitchen utensils cheap enough to throw out or give away each time you move… these hidden costs are carried by the societies these people live in. Which isn’t to portray these people as parasites (far from it!), but it’s worth bearing in mind to counteract some of the digital_Beatnik utopian vibe of the thing.

Going back to my own downsizing, I found that necessity was the motivator… I inherited a real packrat mindset from my late father, and it dies hard. But now I’ve started, it’s easier to see other things that I know (rationally) I could (and indeed should) get rid of. But emotional attachments are very powerful things; whatever you might think of Buddhism as a religion, that’s one aspect of human psychology it really nails. It can be done, though; Futurismic‘s very own peripatetic columnist Sven Johnson tells me his possessions consist of a desk, a decent ergonomic chair, a computer and a duffle full of clothes. As a freelance industrial designer, he doesn’t really need much else – and it means moving to where the work is becomes a much less painful process.

What would it take to make you give up the majority of your physical possessions? And what’s the one thing you really couldn’t bear to part with, even though you know you don’t need it?

More on the Orbit digital short fiction offer

Paul Raven @ 16-04-2010

In the wake of yesterday’s announcement that Orbit US will be publishing short genre fiction in a digital format, The Scalzi weighs in with some pertinent questions from the authorial side of the fence:

As I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, I’ll refrain from saying anything about this particular proposed program until I do. However, in a very general sense I can say that proposing writers offer up work uncompensated save for rosy promises of back-end glory is something one shouldn’t tolerate in poorly-funded start-ups done in apartment living rooms. If such a thing were proposed from, say, an arm of the second-largest publisher on the planet, itself an arm of a huge multinational corporation with roughly ten billion dollars in revenue and $180 million in profit in 2009, it should be tolerated even less.

And gets answers, straight from the horse’s mouth. Or rather, from the keyboard of Tim Holman, Orbit Publisher:

The program is likely to be royalty-only. This might not be attractive to some, but I believe it may well be beneficial to authors. Again, perhaps not all authors, but that’s what can happen in a marketplace. I like the principle of creating a direct relationship between the popularity of a story and the revenues received by author and publisher. I also like the idea of giving readers the opportunity to pay for short fiction if they are prepared to do so, and think that doing so adds an interesting dimension to the short fiction market.

Orbit will be handling editorial and marketing for the stories. We like to work with our authors on some aspects of marketing, but there will be no onus on any author to provide any service related to this publishing program.

DRM-free is unlikely.


It wasn’t asked, but I can also say that we’re expecting individual stories to be priced at $1.99.

Not as pretty a picture as many might like, but Holman’s being refreshingly open about it all; if Orbit are wise, they’ll keep the conversation public and listen to feedback, even if they’re determined to go with their existing plan.

At any rate, I think we’re looking at the new genre lit blogosphere topic de la semaine here.

Content is a public good: the abundance economics of digital media

Paul Raven @ 15-04-2010

In the absence of Charlie Stross (who is out in Japan, the fortunate devil), guest posts are appearing on his blog… and today’s is a little something different, namely a 101 guide to the economics of digital media from one Milena Popova:

So, to recap, for pure private goods, the market is both a practical and efficient way of allocating resources, and that’s what we do most of the time. As soon as we move away from the pure private good paradigm, either because our good is non-rival or non-excludable or both, the market ceases to look like a good idea. In practice, what happens is that we try to use technical and/or legislative means to help us approximate private goods when dealing with any type of not purely private good. We can, for instance, make it a crime to overfish the seas, or put fences around our golf course to stop people from overrunning it without paying; we can make it a crime not to pay the tax that contributes to running the armed forces. (Oh and, incidentally, using a public-type good without paying your dues is called “free-riding”. It’s something economists are obsessed with stopping.)

Okay, enough with the theory. Let’s look at content in practice. Remember that little clip at the start of your legally purchased DVD that delays your enjoyment of the film you’ve paid to see to tell you about how you wouldn’t steal a handbag and thus should not steal a movie either? If you’ve been paying attention you should by now have spotted that these two things (the handbag and the movie) are not alike. If I steal a handbag it stops you from having it; if I download a movie from Piratebay, there is nothing that stops you from enjoying that same movie (either by getting it from Piratebay yourself or by forking out 20 quid at HMV or a fiver at Tesco’s). In other words, while handbags are rival, movies aren’t.

Go read the whole thing; valuable straight-talking information.

And while we’re talking economics and new paradigms of consumption and ownership, here’s a post that suggests (rather plausibly) that a whole new generation of lawyers will be needed in a world where sharing and cooperation among communities becomes a stronger economic force [via Chairman Bruce]:

The evolving nature of our transactions has created the need for a new area of law practice. We are entering an age of innovative transactions, collaborative transactions, crowd transactions, micro-transactions, sharing transactions – transactions that the legal field hasn’t caught up with, like: Bartering. Sharing. Cooperatives. Buying clubs. Community currencies. Time banks. Microlending. Crowdsourcing. Crowdfunding. Open source. Community supported agriculture. Fair trade. Consensus decision-making. Cohousing. Intentional Communities. Community Gardens. Copyleft.

At present, there is not much literature explaining the legal implications of these kinds of transactions. To those of us who have made this our area of practice, many of the legal questions in this new field sit unanswered on our giant to-do lists. One-by-one, client-by-client, we are making headway. As the ground swells with people adopting more sharing and cooperative work and lifestyles, we can look forward to a growing body of law and literature on the subject.

At the same time, the answers will never be clear cut, and lines we have grown accustomed to will be increasingly blurred.

Until we evolve a new set of legal definitions, we’ll dance uncertainly around the lines between “income” and “gifts,” between “own” and “rent,” between “employees” and “volunteers,” between “work” and “hobby,” between “nonprofit” and “for-profit,” between “invest” and “donate,” and so on. Our clients may have outside-the-box livelihoods and organizations, but it’ll still be the job of lawyers to help them fit into boxes that are traditional enough to comply with the law.

Well, there goes my naive hope for a future where there are no lawyers at all. Guess we really do take the lord of the flies with us everywhere we go, after all… 😉

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