Book, The writer, His Tools
by M.G. Smout
Without doubt the Internet has democratised publishing; the reader has a cornucopia of free to very cheap material to choose from and the author has a wide choice of on-line reviews with readerships that are far bigger than a print equivalent and/or the author can self-publish via his/her own website. The print triangle of Author-Publisher-Reader (I know the bookshop plays an important role but for the sake of argument Id prefer it seen here as the reader) has been disrupted and the established publishing industry is currently behaving like a spoilt brat who wasnt invited to the party. It is having considerable difficulty coming to grips with what its role is and, like a petulant party-pooper, is causing the odd, nasty ripple here and there. Quite a tussle ensued when RosettaBooks launched its electronic bookstore in American last February. As Artmedia reported, Random House immediately hit them with a lawsuit claiming ownership of the electronic rights for many of their most prominent titles. RosettaBooks claims it acquired the electronic rights to its titles through direct negotiation with the authors' agents, but Random House argues that "except in special circumstances, the print publisher, not the author, automaticallyowns the electronic rights." This brawl shows not only the overall confusion in theindustry, but the slowness with which these matters get resolved.
It is this sort of cross-wired confusion that may not only set dangerous precedents but might actually work against the publishers themselves in the future of e-publishing. Their aggressive stance and increasingly complex copyright laws show the desperate struggle of big-house publishers (and agents) as they scramble to seize control of Internet terrain and capitalise on the new market (sadly, often without much imagination or insight as to how to make use of it). They seem to have got off on the wrong foot, which is unfortunate because, believe it or not, authors and readers do need publishers. They are not such bad guys as they inadvertently make themselves out to be, and although the Internet and e-publishing can happily survive without them, the reality is that they offer a yardstick to measure standards by; they also offer an author invaluable backup in terms of editing and proof-reading as well as handling the time-consuming job of bringing his or her work to the general public. Sadly, again, the industry already seems to be messing up and the word greed rears its ugly head. The Net has given new, cheaper technology and formats for all to toy with and manipulate, but the big boys are, currently, giving no breaks to the reader: an e-book costs about the same as a hardcover, another rather aggressive and dumb stance to take when trying to create and develop a new market.
With a print run, after the manuscript, there are advanced reader copies to be made and sent (i.e., individually mailed - and books are not light) to critics and agencies around the globe. Then comes the print run, paper and ink costs, storage, the distribution and maybe the pulping of unsold disasters. There is also the once printed problem of not being able to correct errors until the next print run and also the sad, sad out of print.
With a 100% electronic run the publisher needs only two copies of the book (one as a backup). An average book of around 300 pages takes up about 400 to 500k of space so a 40GB hard drive normal on todays machines can easily handle all the system software and various programmes, and can hold about 6,000 uncompressed books. The backup files are on CDs in a shoe box in another place. A little extra hardware can make that computer a server, then one needs a scanner and a few more bits and bobs as added extras and the important bit of software to encrypt and secure money transactions, and, ah yes . . . a telephone line. So for not very much money (we're talking peanuts), you can have a complete publishing house with about 5,000 books running out of your garden shed or wherever, with a product that you can sell direct world-wide 24/7/52 (now theres a name for an on-line publishing house); you can collect information about the buyers' tastes for personal marketing/feedback, and you can have books that will never go out of print. The database and the secure credit card line are the major costs as they may involve expert programming, but a lot of the software and the web space could actually be free. On the subject of cost, Stephen King says he paid out nearly $103.000 for web hosting and maintenance. That seems a bit excessive to me, Was this just for a year as per norm? Has the man been robbed? But he made close to $464,000 clear profit in about six months with a book that isnt finished. A visit to his site (http://www.stephenking.com) is worthwhile as he has nicely put up arguments for and against The Plant as an e-publishing success or disaster.
More or less for the price of getting one book out to the shops, it seems one could set up a whole e-publishing enterprise. How can the industry then justify charging the same for an e-book as a hardcover? One answer given is that paper and distribution comprise only a tiny percentage of the cost. In Dave Howell's 1999 article "Why eBooks Will Never Be 'Way Cheap'" (http://www.ebooknet.com/story.jsp?id=369 ), he states that "for a typical supermarket-style paperback, the manufacturing cost is about thirty cents. Shipping is maybe another ten cents or so." It would therefore seem there just aren't significant savings with electronic versions. If you can swallow that then why isnt even that tiny percentage removed from the e-book cost? You have to remember that publishers are trying to build a new market for their product. With CDs, and now DVDs, the buyer was offered something extra, an additional track or more information about the film, clips of different endings or whatever. With e-books there seems to be nothing extra, no interview with the author, extra photos, free short story - nothing, nada, doodly-squat. This, thankfully, seems to be changing, and one big-boy, HarperCollins, will be producing e-books that arent just digitised versions of print ones, so they say. We need to wait and see what that means. It also seems that some effort has been made to pass on this extra money to the author. This is fine but the balance of the triangle is still off: its the reader losing out. If there is a healthy difference in costs then the benefits should be shared: more money for the authors creativity, a nice profit for the publisher for keeping the computer plugged in and for pushing the book, and a cheaper end product for the reader.
Microsoft reckons that 50% of publishing will be electronic within ten years. This possibly explains why they have joined battle and come up with a Reader to compete against Adobe because the company, as much as Gates likes to pretend otherwise, is not innovative and would only have invested time and money into a Reader if they saw a future market. To give them their due, however, it is Microsoft who are helping to generate interest in the market by offering a hefty $10,000 prize for e-literature. The publishing houses are in the very enviable position of being able to sit back and watch different software companies do the promotion and selling of their books for them as they battle it out for the Reader'.
At the moment all three formats have growing lists of books. Many classics are free as are short stories and excerpts. The Readers allow for bookmarking, fast keyword searches, note-taking; they can play an audio book, one can even draw on the page with a stylus (eBooks), but printing out a hard copy is a no-no. You can cut and paste a limited amount of text inMicrosofts Reader to a word-processing programme, but the idea, remember, is that the thing is a book not a computer editable file. Readers are a logical and practical step for all involved in the triangle and, I believe, this read-only format will become the true meaning of e-publishing. Other formats, HTML, etc., will become something like i-publishing (Internet).
Will there be a battle for the Reader? The programmes are currently quite small and free so there is no problem having both of the PC versions. Adobe has always been at the forefront with Acrobat, but for me it is forever going to be associated with tutorials that come with new programmes. I quite like Microsofts effort at the moment, but they are both missing something and that is the ability to swing the text round 90º in either direction so laptop readers can position their machines like an open book.
The hand-held reading devices, eBooks by Gemstar (try www.softbook.com or www.ebook-gemstar.com ) and manufactured by RCA, look like loads of fun and possibly have some potential. They are not available in Europe so I only have the rather good interactive Flash guide from their website (www.rca.com) to draw my conclusions from. They try to mimic a book rather than a computer and the text can be spun round so buttons, etc. are within easy reach (even for us left-handers) and does mean you can curl up with one. Depending on model and RAM they can hold quite a few books and magazines and a built-in modem takes you straight to the bookshop. Once read, books can be dumped onto your hard drive. As the concept is new, I thought that the logical marketing strategy for these devices would be school/college textbooks. A perfect, reasonably captive audience who have to carry a ton of books around here in Barcelona Ive seen kids with wheeled shopping trolleys - and who would grow up with the idea of reading from an e-book. But I was told by the powers that be that there is no intention to tap this market. I am a bit intrigued, therefore, as to why all the Readers have the ability to make notes, highlight, etc, when the books on offer are all bestsellers. Why would anyone want to scribble notes on a John Grisham novel? Another perfect place for these devices (and the other formats) is inside the publishing industry itself, to replace those infernal photocopied messes called manuscripts. As much as I like the idea of the reading devices, I feel that in the long run the ever-shrinking, more powerful, do-everything laptop serves the same purpose. To compete, I believe, Gemstar will have to make their Reader software available to work on PCs or develop machines that are a lot more powerful basically a book with a computer attached to challenge the laptops computer with book attached.
As I said, e-publishing is still very much in its infancy, even its name hasnt really been sorted out, so the print industrys fumblings in the medium havent quite tarnished it. At the moment their marketing is either directionless or ass-backwards. So, currently it is the small fry who are making Internet publishing fun for writer and reader and it is the computer that is, or could be, adding a twist to the way literature can be written and read in the future.
Enhancements, such as illustrations and adornments, have been added to texts for centuries. Their removal, in theory, wouldnt hurt a piece of literature one iota. I say in theory because Winnie-the-Pooh without the decorations by E.H. Shepard is to me just not Winnie-the-Pooh. (And something such as the beautifully illuminated Book of Kells, renowned for its 'enhancement', is a classic example of this timeless tradition.) Then there are the type of enhancements that can be very simple, italics and bold lettering, the choice of font and so on. It is only within a generation or so that an author can actually produce a manuscript of how he/she wants it to look including italics and bold - without having to resort to a printing press. Microsofts behemoth Word or Apples Appleworks (née Claris) could even be seen as enhancements as they enable the writer to dictate the story in the manner he/she wants the reader to see it. It, along with the machine that drives it, is the most powerful writing tool since pen and ink. The humble typewriter a stepping-stone on the way. (Interestingly, TBR still gets many typewritten submissions, and I mean the ribbon machines, not the golf-ball ones, so there are people out there who still clack away.)
In print, apart from the oddity or occasional illustration,
there are very few examples where enhancements are a crucial factor
to the story. There is only one internationally known author, Irvine
Welsh, who uses clever print enhancements to tell his stories. Remove
the enhancement and the story is no more. In his novel Filth
an enhancement is a main protagonist that slowly takes over the book,
and his short story The Acid House should stand as testament
to the fun an author can have with the printed word. Seeing that Welsh
was widely read by a young audience and highly influential in inspiring
many to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, it comes as a surprise
that so few, if any, writers continued the experiments. Welsh has
proved artistically and commercially that the printed word can have
an extra dimension, yet in the four years of The Barcelona Review
we have never been sent, or asked about, this type of writing. In
fact, in that time only once has an author even requested specific
artwork, and that was for some Spanish poetry in our last issue.
If the limitations of print didnt inspire the creative edge we have also never been asked about enhancements now made possible by the Internet. HTML (hypertext) at its most simple allows for colour pictures, animations, backgrounds and coloured text. The writer can manipulate the reader to make choices and click a link to a different storyline or ending or even to add to the story. With plug-ins, usually thrown in withthe browser, sound, movies and the awesome potential of Macromedias Flash are available.
The only story TBR has published that can be called enhanced was Slide Show by Matt Marinovich. It was our idea, not the authors (so dont blame him), to use a simple HTML page turner (refresh) to automatically go to the next slide as if the computer were the person with the hand control. Readers could, of course, use the buttons on the graphic hand control to go back or forward themselves. We have updated to a Flash version to accompany this article, which now includes sound and a more authentic animation as the slides - now solely controlled by the reader - change. Does our version help the original story? To be honest, no; it really is just an enhancement that actually might, because of the novelty, detract from the overall effect of the original. It would have been interesting to have worked with the author from the beginning so that the only version of Slide Show was an enhanced one and the only way to read it was by Flash via the Internet.
It was no surprise that when I went for a wander round the Internet looking for enhanced writing that any author capable of putting together a DHTML layered story or something in Flash was also going to have their own website with warnings as to the best browser and settings. I wasnt looking for anything in particular but had in mind to follow TBRs submission criteria of a piece having to be literarily sound. Great graphics, sounds and flashing lights do not make a story. Also, knowing that once you start searching the Net for something, you can be on-line for decades, I did more of a commando raid than a full campaign.
First stop was Alan Clays Artmedia (www.artmedia.com.au). His site nicely shows the wonderful diversity of the Internet and the commitment of an individual. For a start it is as much about circus clowns, possibly Clays first love, as it is about Art or e-publishing. Get on his mailing list and you receive a monthly update on the e-publishing world through his newsletter, an informative one which I have used in this piece to base some of my comments on and lead me in the right direction. The site also raises one or two points about e-publishing. Clay has three novels out: two in Microsoft Reader format and one as a CD-Rom. The site contains one enhancement writers have dreamed about a method of direct payment. I downloaded the free five chapters of Dance Sisters, the CD novel, and had a quick look. As enhancements go there isnt much here, various sorts of wallpaper backgrounds, a picture of TV sets, an animated blinking something, no instructions on how to get around (use the arrow keys), and the awful idea of removing quotation marks and having speech in different colours - for me, a big no on that enhancement. There is music or sound but it didnt come with the evaluation copy. So the enhancements here are really just cosmetic. He also has the first chapter in HTML which has a rather nasty background and is minus any layout no indents, line breaks, etc - except the text is justified which is not viewable on all browsers nor is the choice of fonts viewable on the two main platforms, so it doesnt look very good at all. As a freebie taster its fine but it is detrimental as possible buyers might consider the download to be the same quality. Next comes the content. Sadly, the writing was mired from the first short paragraph: "There was a roar of anger from the crowd, as the police baton-charged down the steps of the Opera House.They were pelted with cans of beer and other missiles, while helicopters buzzed overhead, spotlighting the troublemakers." Why that awkward punctuation? And a few lines further down: "And, every now and again, Moana would join her in a sequence of steps, however their voices sounded thin and hollow in the chaotic atmosphere." It draws attention to a major problem of self-published work no editor or proof-reader. Ok, get rid of the publisher, get rid of the clichéd money-grabbing agent, get rid of the bookshop but please leave the proof-reader (and, ideally, an able editor). To Clays defence I hasten to add that errors in print from major houses have been getting worse, some houses no longer edit the material, believing it to be the responsibility of the author and agent. Well, in self-publishing the responsibility and blame can only fall on one pair of shoulders, so extra care should be taken. MS Words grammar and spellchecker are not foolproof. Apart from that, Dance Sisters looked to be quite a complex affair with a street riot leading into a discussion on how Stonehenge was built, and although it didnt grab me, it might you. Reading what I did presented another problem which I will comment on later.
I followed a link of his to 'The Gogs' (www.thegogs.com ), a story by New Zealanders Roger Bays and Jane M. Bradbury with images by John W. Newcombe, about some mountains in the U.K. that go walkabout. The enhancement here was the traditional illustration, but with the Internet advantage of using .gif animation. Each episode, two at the time of writing, is only about 450 words which, in terms of man-hours, offered the conundrum of what is enhancing what? Am I looking at an animation with text or vice versa? (As for enhanced stories about mountains, there is always Frank Zappas dire spoken-word/musical Billy the Mountain whose basic message Dont fuck with a mountain wont get repeated in the kid-friendly 'Gogs'.) Seen here is the pub's scraggy old dog, Tiddles, proving two things: one, that Newcombe can do neat animations; two, you cant turn the damned .gifs off!
Time International built up Mark Amerikas 'Grammatron' as a must-see-future-of-publishing-thang so I paid a visit. I made the mistake of looking at the theory in his HTC (Hypertextual Consciousness) link before reading the story. What a load of pretentious claptrap. Heres a snippet; theres tons more and the links will take you there:
I wont pretend to even try and understand what his point is but I get the idea that he feels the book is restricted because it can only be contained in a fixed-sized environment. A hypertext document has no limit. Think again, buddy. Until text gets beamed into my room as a kind of free-floating hologram, I am restricted to the confines of my monitor, my electricity supply and the telephone line. I am also sick to my back teeth of this cyberspace crap unless its a joke. When will people understand cyberspace is not some strange mystical land but just another boring old computer at the end of some kind of telephony. Anyway, Mr Cyborg-narrator Amerika might want to run his material through a thing called a spellchecker and tidy up 'organically disseminated cyber-errors like heirarchy and 'Artifically'. As for the actual story. . . well, what I saw was the early part and was some short stabs of text on a refresh code that could have led somewhere, but I then came up with the problem for surfers and on-line readers outside the States: cost of continuing. I had hoped the thing was all nicely contained in a .zip file so I could peruse it at my leisure and give Amerika the benefit of the doubt, but if it was I couldnt find it to download. It is also a massive piece of work so might have taken a few hours to download anyway. This, sadly, was also the problem for the next place I visited.
Not too sure how I got to Sander Oords Domestic Violence on Kaliber 1000.(K10k.net - if you have problems you want issue 098) A sort of narrative piece in four separate Flash or Shockwave parts. Flash is one hell of an interesting tool for animating text, pictures and sound, but, for me at least, it is a bit of a beast to learn. And it can be slow to download. Domestic Violence shows a pretty simple use of it and is closer to a graphic novel (a comic to some) but it may serve as a trigger for some writer out there wanting that extra dimension. Oord also forgot to check his English spelling I am beginning to think that maybe the point of e-publishing is to use some computer tools and ignore others.
The final piece is also a Flash enhanced text. Judd Morriseys The Jews Daughter www.brown.edu/Courses/EL_7-03/jew/jew2.html will take over your screen so I suggest opening another window before going to it as it is a monster to get rid of. Once opened you are confronted with a page of text that seems to make sense and could be the start of a story. There is no navigation or scroll bar (a small square in the top right-hand corner can take you to various pages), so you obviously point your mouse at the traditional-looking link - a word in blue. The page then changes . . . er, sort of. About 60% of the text you read is still there but new text has appeared around it. Hit the next link and the same thing happens. The word organic comes to mind but what it reminded me of was trying to block a tiny stream with one hand and though youre half successful, to stop the water that is getting through your fingers you use the other hand, and once that dam fills and leaks you move the first hand and place it behind the other, and so on. Yes, there is possibly something horribly Freudian about all that. In short, it is both frustrating and beautiful. It doesnt fill my criteria for fiction but is an inspired and original use of words. Judd Morrisseys statement before you enter holds some interesting thoughts. He is an artist and:
Morrisey, like myself, is having trouble with finding nomenclature for whats happening. I like storyspace but with all the power the word "book has, I think its a bit sad to refer to its possible grandson as an "object" - a tired and pretty non-descriptive word if ever there was one, and "Hypertext Writing"? Sounds like its done fast. To sum up: The Jews Daughter may not be fiction but I do agree that there is a sort of narrative; it is a clever, but simple, blend of writing, art and computer enhancement and well worth checking out.
There is obviously a whole load of stuff out there, somewhere finding it is difficult as there is no such thing as Enhanced Writing to ask a search engine to look for and if you do, you end up with some Harvard thesis (with grammatical errors, tee hee) on using computers to teach children writing. We dont have Matt Marinovich's story down in a metatag saying something like HTML refresh fiction so nobody is going to find this either. So, please feel free to send TBR sites and/or stories. Id also like to hear of any terms for this type of literature, but have the nasty feeling it will contain the dreaded cyber. We have CAD (computer aided drawing) for drawin, so what about CAL for literature, which would cover print as well as Net? Its a shade better than Morriseys "Hypertext Writing".
What I did see (not all the sites visited are mentioned)
wasnt quite what I was after, which I guess is an enhancement
of the traditional idea of a story. Welsh does it to perfection in
print, but on the Internet? DollYoko (and, in some respects, Alan
Clay) apart, it was a little disappointing, with a predictable use
of hyperlinks. It is all still a bit of a gimmick. More importantly
though I think a lot of the material being produced is done more by
talented teckies and artists than by storytellers; it is good,
it is clever, it does get some points across, but it is not
literature nor is it the germ of a future type of literature. I avoided
interactive stories, by the way, where people add bits. What is the
point? Does anyone read one of these sprawling monsters from the start?
In many respects TBRs version of Slide
Show' is the best enhancement I have seen on the Net, but it is
important to remember that the story was already literarily sound
and stood well on its own; the enhancement in this case is only a
frou-frou, an added extra and not an integral part. (In case
you wonder, yes, as it would run at about seven to ten minutes, we
also supplied the piece as a downloadable .zip file.) The other thing
that came out of my search was the power of Macromedias Flash.
I saw some good stuff using Java applets but it was Flash that impressed
me time and again.
It was at about this point in my thoughts that the weird conclusion struck me. In fact it may not be that strange, and I bet that there are quite a few of you who are also having the same thoughts. Be it computer or reading device, to read the contents requires a light behind the text. Fair enough, but many people, with numbers growing everyday, spend a lot of time in front of computer screens at work or surfing. They then relax in front of a light-giving TV or go to a movie. To curl up with a book that also gives off light just seems another insult to one's already overtaxed eyes. To relax in front of something that is used at work also seems a trifle odd and unnatural. If anything, this was the big problem I had with Clays demo, not so much the story (its often difficult to get into the first pages of any book): I simply didnt want to sit in my computer chair reading for pleasure. In fact, I really don't think there is any way I can do it, and with the Reader formats denying print-out access to texts, I, for one, am not going to be downloading novels in the foreseeable future because I cant physically or mentally read them via this medium. The eBook at least offers a curl up possibility but is still a light source. The argument is, of course, that future generations will adapt to the screen in ways that the present generation of computer readers cannot. This could well be, but I would guess that that time is a long way away - and in that future there will undoubtedly be more dramatic methods of 'reading' texts than the computer.
As the publishing world tries to come to grips with the Internet and its possibilities, it may just be that there really isnt much of an audience; that, like me, people just cant read this way. The solution is already here and has, in some form, been around since at least the 1920s. Writing itself is an enhancement of the spoken word so maybe a full circle is inevitable. Audio books already do great business; with MP3 now a fact of life, bulky players and hissy tapes are a thing of the past. Think: to be able to close worn-out eyes and still have the chance to be taken to wherever, entertained and enthralled, titillated or horrified. Our technology has given us the chance to take us back to the days before the written word and to a new era of the storyteller. Audio is the Word . . . . and it doesnt begin with e.
further information on all aspects of e-publishing, Artmedia's links
) - although it has an Australasian bias - is not a bad place to start
and will give you the links to get the 'Readers' or to go direct to
any competitions/awards. The monthly newsletter contains a section
on e-publishing that, though not thorough, covers the ground and keeps
you up to date.
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