The Novel of the Future

I’ve tried to imagine what the novel of the future would be like. “Novel” means “new” and the form has been evolving since its invention. In fact, I am still trying to figure out who invented the novel; was it the Greeks, the Icelanders, the English, or the Japanese? Depending on which source you read, all of the above nations make that claim, due in part to the novel’s amorphous and ever-evolving form that fits any work having some kind of a narrative. But the future novel? A daunting task to conceive, yet one that every novelist tries to invent, if he is to gain immortality.

I looked at trend lines. Readers are consuming the following in plenty these days: feel-good stories, short works, long works, fantasy, crime (the puzzle), female themes, teen romances, and series (the latter, thanks to Netflix, I think). Weighty literary tomes, where the accent is on lyricism not brevity, character not plot, are attracting shrinking audiences, despite best efforts by arts organizations to elevate literary fiction with prizes, grants, and snob value. How do readers want novels to be presented; i.e. in prose, pictures, video, on paper, or electronically? Even though e-books were once touted as the emerging standard, their first iteration has not gained much ground, for three reasons: (a) their audience has come from a paper background and is required to change, (b) the devices and content are still pretty “old world”—our first generation of e-book is just another mousetrap, not necessarily better (c) publishers and e-tailers have gotten greedy and are pricing e-books closer to that of paper books to subsidize the paper that they are dumping at fire sales.

From the above I concluded that the novel of the future (and I’m talking 10-plus years from now, when the first kids to get an iPad on their fifth birthday become serious book buyers) would have to be story-driven, fast-paced, eventful, continuous, loaded with pictures and interactive video—and delivered electronically, of course.

And what would happen to the current crop of writers? Would they phase out like silent movie stars after sound entered the film industry? Or would they collaborate with illustrators, videographers, and techies to produce composite works, like the movies? Would the cost of a book therefore increase? After all, illustrations, video and sound must cost money. And these new collaborators will want a slice of the creator’s royalty pie as well, wouldn’t they ? Would we therefore have to be selective in the production and consumption of new literature due to its high cost of creation? Would advertizing become a standard appearance in novels to defray expenses? Would sponsorships be de-rigueur? And wouldn’t the older reader (i.e. my demographic) also gravitate to this new novel out of necessity as eyesight deteriorates, and a manipulatable book with the assistance of pictures, audio and video become more accessible? Too many questions…

There are more: Would I still play in this new environment? Me, who came of age reading words and conjuring up the rest (pictures, video and sound) in my imagination? Would I be happy being just a scriptwriter, for that’s what I would be reduced to (movie script-writers, please do not be offended, but novelists are the masters of their universe, editors notwithstanding)? Or would I continue writing my novels in the traditional manner and morph into an epicurean artist, like a calligrapher or a hypnotist?

Or could I depend on teachers and parents to continue reading to their children before these future readers are bestowed with iPads on their fifth birthday, thus ensuring that the tactile connection with books is still paper for generations to come? There are more questions than answers at this time when it comes to envisioning the novel of the future. And there is hope too, I think. In the meantime, we continue to write…

Is the e-book going to stall without standards?

Let’s see, a hard cover is a hard cover no matter which bookstore you buy it from, and a trade paperback is the same. But an e•book? At the technology end, there are formats as diverse as Kindles and .epubs and PDFs and PDPs. On the distribution side, separate distribution agreements are required for Nook, Apple and B&N, and of course Amazon is an enclave unto itself. On the device end, e•readers have already ceded to tablets and the innovation of non•glitter screens are losing out to the old laptop•style back•lit screen variety

How does one find an e•book that is readable on any device and purchasable universally? Not yet, is the answer, because this industry is so young, and its leaders are struggling for supremacy, just like VHS and Betamax duked it out once upon a time until one fell and left a lot of us holding redundant equipment. But what if the dust settles on perhaps two, or three e•book platforms, like it did in the software industry with Microsoft, Apple and Linux? Then, which one would you buy? Or would you just shrug and go back to buying a trusty old tree•book and let the electronic varieties kill each other off a bit more until only one is left standing (and hopefully not too bruised to also succumb shortly thereafter)?

Standards eventually evolve when an industry matures, and I was heartened when that proprietary behemoth Microsoft signalled a truce and ditched its .lit format and embraced what could be the industry standard, .epub. Will that other proprietary monolithic hold•out of the book industry, Amazon, also send the same signal, turf its kindle standard, embrace .epub and bring e•books into prime time? Time will tell. In the meantime, we wait and watch and buy platform•agnostic tablets, hedging our bets. And we desperately hope that a savvy middle•man, one who can marry the fragmented ends of supply and demand of this emerging channel, does not emerge to siphon away the bulk of the shrinking revenues, holding us all to ransom, just like history has played out in the past in other once•emergent industries.

This saga continues to evolve…by the hour…stay tuned.