The Shadow Of the E-Book

Almost any author, publisher, editor and agent in the United States has gone recently through some intriguing moments when they have heard of the markets of the e-book. At over four hundred dollars, locked into encryption, proprietary notions, linked only to books selling at the normal steep hard cover prices, immersed in every way in the strange world of paper publishing. this hit of hardware was not going to survive its own  hunger for shelf space, much less change the course of world cultural history.

It was an extension of the thoughts of several computer mavins I know who had been trying to sell encryption key devices to publishers to market books these itinerant rogues had put in ASCII.

Yet this parody of the e-book we want, announces the closeness to the advent of the e-book we have all been waiting for: the one that has no keys, no encryption, deals with ASCII and the beautifully laid out PDF files with ease, probably is manufactured in Asia where American publishing companies can’t get at it, and costs about fifty to a hundred dollars.

With such a device one will be able to download or keep any book at all. The public domain ones may come largely from the Gutenberg collections, the post 1920s ones will come from private and pirated collections individually scanned by enthusiasts; a third group will be harvested from Web Sites of authors both extant and offering them for free.

The maker of this e-book will make its profit on the sale of the hardware. Given the quality of contemporary books, nearly all of us would be happier reading public domain or niche market books for free than what is purveyed at a high price and tainted by meretricious substance. Few authors have made money from direct sale of novels since the last century.

Their income has come from newspaper serializing, magazines, and now, movie options. Web Sties from offshore, foreign countries or outer space will bypass all copyright laws. We are looking at the collapse of a publishing industry that has been defunct for a while but not buried.

People have produced books from various reasons besides money. The Gutenberg Bible and other such translations were printed to promote ideas and notions of reality; the people who translated the Bible were often martyred for their efforts. Our own publishers would find these motives laughable and perverse, even though authors have classically written books for these very reasons. This is why publishers think authors are fools and authors are equally certain publishers are scoundrels.

About a decade ago while shopping for an agent for one of my novels I was told by one of these operatives: ‘You’ve got a good book but it’s not for everybody; with the same labor I can sell a much less well written book with a bigger potential for sales. I’m a businessman and that’s what I’m going to do.’

When I did find an agent, as a type a parasite of commerce never needed by any author anywhere till around 1930 , I was struck as he regaled me with stories of sleazy deals, how I had no desire to read even one of the thousands of books he had shepherded into print that decorated his walls.

He too suggested tat I write something banal and empty, that I do it deliberately, to make us both the optimal amount of money. Both these men thought I was an idiot for writing the best book I could, for valuing excellence at all. Authors struggle to salvage what one can from the shears of such people.

Excellence to publishers, agents and editors means less sales, and books to them are only about making money. One can think of both the e-book and the Gutenberg invention as tools that become manifest in a very specific set of agendas for as idiosyncratic a society, central of which was the garnering of wealth to avoid poverty, and the stabilization of the means of generating income by promoting large collective enterprises that were, like elephants, too big to be attacked and devoured easily.               The e-book isn’t an elephant; like cyberspace itself, it’s a firefly that is everywhere and nowhere, with different resources for survival.

Could the e-book be one of the advents of a new way of thinking abort survival’ The gains and losses of elephantine thinking have certainly been discussed for over two centuries. The riding an elephant is an inevitable swing from riding a tiger in the past who stifled, enslaved and murdered the many for the caprice of the few. We have been wiling to endure the excesses of elephant; only some of us can remember the tiger.

In the 1890s Henry Adams was one of many feeling the inevitability of the collective and mourning the loss at the top of human potential at the top that such thinking necessarily gave up for a middle range of efficiency, egalitarian justice, and optimal achievement in whatever human beings can do in groups.

After Adams’ death much of the evidence came in about elephant that showed that very probably the elephant was not was going to be the messiah of the century. World War One and Two, fascism, communism, were spectacular failures of elephantine action that produced what Adams could not have predicted: a worldwide generation like a tidal wave of rogues who were not recognizable as slaves, a middle class or anything else.

During this same time the very central tool of the 1950s elephant, the computer, was beginning to evolve the tools that would lead both individuals and business into a world beyond the definition and analysis of many elephant watchers.

Millions of Internet users building their individual Web Sites have had to ask themselves not only where but who they are, secondly why anybody might be interested in visiting their watering place. Nothing about the Internet demands they connect themselves to a collective notion of land, race, or even an unfashionable but communal disease.

Yet the Intent isn’t asking anybody to dismiss their collective reality if it exists either. Obviously some of us are more interesting, more idiosyncratic, less a cell of an elephant to some than others. Since there is no finite space to place these attractions, we don’t have to do what business has done: eliminate the will of the wisps that will appeal to the few and promote the elephants who will amuse the many.

There are reasons for visiting a Web Site to share our experience as well as to be enriched by what is unknown to us. On the Internet one can have both the firefly and elephantine experience.

The effect of the Internet in business has been no less a realm where there is room fore fireflies as well as elephants. Products that were not profitable with old technologies have suddenly become viable. Niche markets instead of general ones have long spread to the  book business itself; ninety percent of all publishing companies in Writers Market have specific limited markets and ask for unagented books.

The two agents I mentioned at the top of this article are now fast becoming fossils. Perhaps soon they will make their classical way to an elephant boneyard. In the interim Organizations like Amazon can list an infinite number of books, videos, anything at all that would interest those who came to their Web Site. Unlike Barnes and Noble, Amazon doesn’t have to worry about shelf space. As soon as somebody form Asia comes up with a cheap dedicated e-book, books, the computer world will free literature from the current elephantine industry altogether.

This is not an unhappy prospect for authors. Most people read their books in libraries. Novelists almost never make a living on book sales. From the days of Dickens through Dreiser and Hemingway, they have paid their bills from journalism. Now many novels are made from the get-go to be movies. A publishing company will buy a book if they can smell big bucks if the lead is played by Tom Hanks.

The first time a movie buys an option on a computer published book, there is going to be a big whoosh as the authors move into Web Sites where they make 100%, not 6%, on their efforts, and everybody makes a living including the maintenance crew swabbing the latrines in the publisher’s building.

Anything that is information, any media product at all from movies to records, are going to move into the Internet. They will utterly change the property laws. Even physical products like cars will develop distribution systems independent from the old ones if one will probably never be able to download on Oldsmobile.

Internet sales is going to pass on some of the higher profit margin in their prices to undersell their competitors. We should not only consider the cheapness of the products; they are almost certainly going to be better as well as more diverse.

Competition always produces excellence and durability as a selling point. One can see how computers will drive many people who for many reason to take up what they have never taken up before. The international market of information will and has produced companies that can flout all national laws, provides non-union labor that will eventually organized to form planetary trade unions.

Web sites from satellites in outer space would till be able to ignore any laws of property and do what they want in free trade. These changes are occurring where the elephant is weakest and the firefly dramatically superior, such as the e-book.