Young market problems: ebooks as clearing house for unpublishable content

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2011

Part of me really wants to get a decent ereader and start plunging into the brave new market of electronic books; as a writer, reader, some-time publisher and general technoforesight wonk, I feel I should be down in the trenches if I want to see how the campaign is really going. The other half of me is the half that’s been burned by classic early-adopter screw-ups ever since I acquired that tendency from my father; I’m waiting for either a universally accepted open format, a decent open platform, or both. (I doubt I’ll have much longer to wait; I expect I’ll be nailing myself an affordable Android-based tablet in the post-Xmas sales next year.)

So, perforce, I have to get my news about the actual content sloshing around in the ebook marketplace from other people… and while I’m not taking it as broadly representative, this post from James “Big Dumb Object” Bloomer highlights the state of play wherein creators and new middle-men/aggregator outfits are testing the water to see what will actually float. Or, to put it more plainly: everyone’s throwing shit at the wall in order to see what sticks:

The other day I bought How To Write Science Fiction by Paul Di Filippo, tempted by the price (69p) and the prospect of another author’s view on writing SF.

It’s an interesting read, containing thoughts on what maximalist SF is, how to (attempt to) write it and an essay on the creation of Di Filippo’s novel Ciphers. There’s a few interesting nuggets there for me to think about (plus, now, a need to read some Pynchon). However it’s not very long, not really a book and not really about how to write Science Fiction. It’s the sort of text I’d expect to be posted to a blog. It’s the sort of text that in physical form would be thin and flimsy, and I probably wouldn’t ever buy.

It’s going to take a while for pricing to settle down in line with customer expectations, but the nature of the content being sold is a big part of that. Perhaps it’s the case that no one’s gonna pay for a lengthy blog essay when there are umpteen thousand of the things – some of exceptional quality, others not so much – floating around out here on the unwalled web, just waiting to be read. But then again, Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better – my dead-tree version of which I’ve been greatly enjoying over the last week or so, incidentally – is essentially a collection of essays and articles, many of which either were or started out as blog posts or fanzine pieces; it’s retailing at $3.99 for a selection of electronic formats, and – had I been in possession of a decent ereader – I’d have considered that a damned good price for the material it contains. I don’t know how long the di Filippo piece is, exactly, but perhaps the problem here is the attempt to price a single essay fairly; meanwhile, Starve Better is a curation product, an act of filtering Mamatas’ prodigious output down to the best material devoted to a specific topic.

So perhaps we could say that Apex, by doing the old-school publisher thing, have added value to the raw material and thus earned their middle-man cut, while 40k – who, I should note, I think are one of the more interesting ebook ventures I’m aware of at the moment, and not just because they’re publishing a lot of stuff from sf authors – are just rolling chunks of content out of the door with a snappy title and hoping for the best. Maybe the latter would work at a lower price… but until someone sorts out a decent and widely-adopted micropayments system, pricing at under a buck will remain the province of big clearing houses like Amazon who can afford to eat up the transaction charges on a lot of tiny purchases. Economies of scale haven’t gone away just yet, it seems.

More musings from James:

Will this mean that buyers will tread ever more safely when buying books? Perhaps now people will only trust books from the bestseller top ten or those recommended by a high profile book club? It feels to me right now that the lack of physical form may actually hinder more experimental buying once the blush of the new fangled eBooks dies to the norm, the marketing departments have tried to pull a few fast ones and readers have been bitten by buying some dreadful self-published novels?

I think these are very real issues, and not just for publishing; a flattened media landscape means curation and aggregation are becoming at least as important as the traditional editorial roles, and the marketing/PR channel needs to become more focussed on finding the right niche vertical to pitch to, as opposed to the old model of making generalised statements of awesomeness about a piece of work and hoping some hack will cut’n’paste it verbatim. Interesting times ahead.

Bookstore futures from Shirky and Doctorow

Paul Raven @ 02-12-2009

bookstore signContinuing the increasingly ubiquitous discussion of the future of bookstores (in the wake of Borders in the UK going into receivership), two heavyweight thinkers have thrown their opinions out into the ring in the last few days. First of all, Clay Shirky, who notes that there are three basic groups of people arguing for bookstores to be rescued from what seems to be an unstoppable decline, and that it’s the one that treats bookstores as having in intrinsic community value that has the most hope of coming up with a workable model for the future:

[This] third group, though, is making the ‘access to literature’ argument without much real commitment to its truth or falsehood, because they aren’t actually worried about access to literature, they are worried about bookstores in and of themselves. This is a form of Burkean conservatism, in which the value built up over centuries in the existence of bookstores should be preserved, even though their previous function as the principal link between writers and readers is being displaced.

This sort of commitment to bookstores is a normative argument, an argument about how things ought to be. It is also an argument that might succeed, as long as it re-imagines what bookstores are for and how they are supported, rather than merely hoping that if enough nice people seem really concerned, the flow of time will reverse.

Then we get a response from Cory Doctorow, who can come at the question from multiple angles – as someone who has both frequented bookstores and been employed by them, and as someone whose creative output is sold through them. As always with Doctorow, out-of-the-box thinking comes as standard; for example, instead of seeing print-on-demand technology as a business-killer, why not look at how you can use it to add value to the bookstore experience?

At the Harvard Bookstore, they have someone who spends the day mousing around on Google Book Search, looking for weird and cool titles in the public domain to print and shelve around the store, as suggestions for the sort of thing you might have printed for yourself. This is a purely curatorial role, the classic thing that a great retailer does, and it’s one of the most exciting bookstore sections I’ve browsed in years. And even so, there’s lots of room for improvement: Google Books produces the blandest, most boring covers for its PD books, and there’s plenty of room for stores to add value with their own covers, with customer-supplied covers (the gift possibilities are bottomless), and so on. I can even imagine the profs across the street producing annotated versions — say, a treatise on Alice in Wonderland with reproductions of ten different editions’ illustrations and selling them through the store’s printer and shelf-space, restoring the ancient bookseller/book-publisher role.

Plenty of room for one-person middle-man businesses in there, as well… maybe the publishing houses should start thinking in this direction, too. What if they outsourced the physical side of book publishing – design, layout, so on and so forth – entirely to custom designers? You’d quickly get a range of services from the utilitarian to the luxurious, and add an element of individuality to a medium that has become increasingly homogenised… [image by jayniebell]

Blue-sky thinking aside, Doctorow and Shirkey make it plain that there’s no reason bookstores have to die off… but it’s up to the people that run them (and, to some extent, those who use them, too) to make some changes in the direction of sustainability.

Rushkoff on radical abundance and the economics of Web Cubed

Paul Raven @ 23-11-2009

I’ve mentioned Douglas Rushkoff here a few times before (both as a thinker and a writer of comics and fiction), and I’m also deeply interested in alternative economic structures, so the following video of Rushkoff’s swift fifteen-minute keynote speech to the O’Reilly Web 2.0 conference was like internet crack for me.

I strongly recommend you watch it; even if you don’t agree with all of his points, Rushkoff’s got a very coherent vision, and seems to be one of the few alternative currency advocates who’s thought beyond the basics. In a nutshell, he’s saying we need to shift paradigms, and move from extracting value to exchanging value. Take a look:

The road to post-scarcity

Paul Raven @ 15-04-2009

geodesic architectureIt seems that nothing can prevent Futurismic fiction regular Jason Stoddard from looking for the silver lining to every cloud – even beyond his fictional output. [image by dno1967]

Point in case: his recent article for transhumanist/futurist organ H+ Magazine, which glories in the sprawling title “First Steps Towards Post scarcity: or Why the Current Financial Crisis is the End of the World As We Know It (And Why You Should Feel Fine)“.

A lot of the ideas Stoddard raises will be familiar to science fiction readers, and many of his points are made by looking at the current situation from a different angle to the fashionable mode of doom and gloom. For example:

We’re also already starting to see some examples of near post-scarcity. Consider computers and communications. If you’re willing to use a computer that’s a couple of years old, you can probably find a hand-me-down for free, and then happily talk to your friends around the world on Skype using free public wi-fi.

Or consider that in the last Depression, the main worry was simply getting enough food. Today, the marketplace is more worried about maintaining the marketing budgets of 170 different kinds of toothpaste than about ensuring that everyone has toothpaste. There’s a lot of padding in the system. Couple a financial crisis with this overweight, inefficient system, and you have the stage set for the first transition to post-scarcity: a comprehensive rethink of our concept of value.

You could easily accuse the piece of being Panglossian, but I’m inclined to think that’s a deliberate rhetorical gambit on Stoddard’s part – countering an excess of negativity with a big slice of sf-nal optimism. I’m not that confident that we’ll end up in a nanotech-powered utopia devoid of all wants and needs within my lifetime, but then I’m also not convinced that we’re going to slouch our way into a scenario of global misery and decline. As usual, reality will probably end up somewhere in between the two idealised poles of punditry… but I’m not ashamed to admit I hope it ends up closer to Stoddard’s vision than many of the others.