Waiting for the e-book bomb to drop

When I go out to read as a guest to writer’s groups these days, no one is really interested in hearing me read my work. Instead, everyone is interested at hearing of my adventures as a writer struggling to break into the big time. They want to know about my travails in the old self•publishing days, of the myriad rejection slips, of the near misses with publishers, of speed dating with agents, of trade publishing experiences, distribution woes, online marketing, where I get my ideas, how many ideas are left, social networking, blogging, radio and TV interviews, shameless self•promotion and…and… the liberating messiah they all hope it will be: the e•book.

Will the e•book finally become the mp3 of publishing, enabling writer•to•reader transactions off the former’s website, cutting out middlemen (publishers, publicists, distributors, retailers etc)? Could we build sufficient loyalty in our online readership platforms, feed them downloads of books and short stories in any e•book format, for a donation, and thereby recruit benefactors with financial contributions far in excess of what a provincial or federal arts council can provide us in subsidy, now that royalties from publishers are dwindling faster than ever? Will we finally be one•on•one with the readers whom we wrote these stories for in the first place? Politicians face their audiences when making public speeches, performing musicians do the same at concerts, stage actors too when they step out of the wings. But writers are like movie actors: they go through a multitude of arbitrary filters, before their work is exposed to their final arbiters. Would e•books solve that problem? When would the inflection point come when e•books outnumber traditional books? When am I going to launch an e•book?

These are the questions I get asked. And frankly, I wish I knew!

What I do know is that, with the pursuit of blockbuster•only titles by the traditional industry, that segment is going to shed even more writers, not assume new ones. The fringe is therefore open to the masses of writers coming on board, many with the notion of “I think I have a book in me,” and the e•book will be their entry point. How will one be noticed in this sea of wannabe ink? Would it mimic POD self•publishing that came out a decade ago? Would e•books be no different from the turbulent seas writers have traditionally cruised in over the centuries, in their makeshift rafts with tattered flags hoisted, in the hope of getting picked up by a glittering cruise ship—SS Publisher—full of thousands of readers?

Something tells me that we have played this record before.

Reading Books In Flight

I was dismayed when I read the revised air travel baggage regulations soon after Christmas and realized that I could take a laptop on board but not a handbag containing my books. I love to read on flights, forsaking the movie, the chatting with my neighbour, or the drinking and eating, just to catch up on my reading. Flights give me overt permission to read, my favourite pastime. I am unable to work, socialize or sleep while flying – so I read.

But now, some incompetent wannabe terrorist, who could not even ignite the bomb he stored inside his pants, has started an unanticipated vendetta against bookworms. For a moment I thought that this was a conspiracy by the e•book publishers who were secretly trying to get us conditioned to reading books off our laptops. Or perhaps it was a plan by those airport bookstores (who were quickly exempted from the book ban within days of the failed Christmas Day bomb scare) wanting to peddle all the New York Times bestsellers to us (that’s all they seem to carry these days, except for perhaps magazines, newspapers and chewing gum).

Then I realized that this dumb•ass terrorist had succeeded after all, by scaring the pants off the rest of us while burning his own. Books, not bombs, lead to enlightenment and peace. Greg Mortenson, the man behind the “The Three Cups of Tea” project, promotes this theory through his singular mission to build schools for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan so that those countries’ future citizens will learn to extend the olive branch and not the Kalashnikov. Bombs only lead to more bombs, lobbed in both directions, until the warring factions are exhausted, their assets destroyed, and fear and suspicion has taken firm root, never to be dislodged for generations.

Therefore, I wondered whether I should write to all the airport security organizations around the world asking them to scrap their plans to buy those intrusive super X ray machines that they are planning to install in airports shortly. Let them give those machines to hospitals and medical clinics instead, so that they can be used to detect hidden tumours and other cancerous foreign bodies growing inside us, and help get us timely remediation. Instead, pass a law that requires every passenger in an aircraft seat to be reading a book while in flight! In fact, add “book tax” to the many taxes on airline tickets these days and give each passenger his pre•ordered book at the departure gate – after all, if advance seat selection is possible, why not advance book selection? It could be all part of your “booking.” Just think of it – the publishing industry would enter a new renaissance. Airplanes would become the universities of the future, forcibly educating the teeming masses hurtling through the skies.

And as for those terrorists – I’d like to see one of those guys, with his face glued to a book in a cramped aircraft seat, try to stuff a bomb up his ass and light the fuse!

The invasion of our libraries – Fahrenheit 451 all over?

When I read the article about how an online retailer deleted a controversial book from its buyer’s e•book readers, without their knowledge, it shocked the hell out of me. Ironically, I was in the middle of reading Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 – a story about a dystopian future (Bradbury wrote the book in 1953 and projected 50 years forward – so it could be set in the present day, give or take a few years), in which books are banned and firemen go out regularly to burn libraries and other book repositories. The recent e•book deletion incident caught me up short. Heck, we did not need fireman running around with flame throwers, we had the Internet instead (Bradbury, in all his brilliance had not envisaged using cyber networks to effect the same carnage).

E•books now face a credibility crisis: not only do they possess intrusive deletion capability (oh, yes, that retailer apologized, swore never to do it again, offered refunds, yada yada) – but who trusts anyone, anymore, anyway? For e•books would now come loaded with advertizing that could be implanted, deleted, moved around, refreshed, multiplied, or appear in front of your nose the moment you flipped an electronic page (Ha, now you see me, now you don’t!). I thought video rentals were bad enough – the ones that come preloaded with trailers and commercials that you can’t skip past but must endure to get to the movie you paid money to see! And the mega cinemas that made their market entry offering the “better experience” of stadium seating, giant screens, great concessionaires (pricey!) and clean washrooms – well they bombed too, when they resorted to doping us on advertizing the moment we entered the auditorium before the main show began and stared at a screen that just rotated one commercial after another.

Will someone smart think of a “no•commercial, no•intrusion, no deletion” offering for e•books next? A “download, lock down, and then switch off the Internet” option for e•book readers? And will customers ever trust it? For once that cyber•conduit to the outside world is opened, one never knows what garbage will be sent down, or withdrawn through, the digital chutes by those wily retailers?

For now, I am sticking with my paper book from the library: dog•eared, with coffee stains and finger germs of past users still hugging its pages. Better still, when I can afford it, I’ll buy my paper book, read it, smell it, bend it, mark it, lend it, stack it in my personal library, and show it off to my friends as another notch on my road to gaining literary knowledge.

And as for the e•book, I will mourn its setback, although it is still my brightest hope for the future. But like an errant child, it did something it was not supposed to do, and has received punishment. I hope that it will learn from its mistakes, and mature, and that its next iteration will allow it to sit at the same table as the adults.