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…

So Amazon and Kobo want to be Publishers, eh?

The recent announcement by these players to advance up the book industry value chain from retailing to publishing comes as no surprise. In an industry which has many handoffs in its delivery process, and many players, each player muzzles for maximum turf over time. The ones upstream (i.e. the creators) try to advance down the chain like oil companies muzzling into retail gas stations. Those at the tail, retailers like Amazon and Kobo, try to move into the middle currently occupied by publishers, and those in the middle try to go both ways like departments stores that create loyalty programs at one end and private label merchandise at the other.

Success will depend on what value is provided. In the case of Amazon and Kobo, their original value proposition lay in their ability to provide the largest selection of books, globally, without the shopper having to leave the comfort of his home. In becoming a publisher, one has to be selective (also known by that dreaded term “editorial integrity”) and promote only “the selected.” This is a different stance from the presently held “come one, come all” position of these online retailers. So what would Amazon and Kobo do in their new roles as publishers? Provide two•tier distribution: a premium level for authors who self publish through them and a more basic level for all books coming from other publishers? Start a separate branded line for their own publishing streams of books? Cherry•pick the best•selling authors and offer lucrative one•shot deals? Or hire an army of interns to wade through miles of slush piles should every unpublished author want to self•publish through them? This new move is surely going to raise questions about the altered value propositions that these two players now bring to the reader, and to the author.

The danger when two or more bed mates jostle for elbow room on the same bed, especially if one has a lot of muscle, is that the muscular one gains at the expense of the others. The ones with less and less room, risk falling off the bed altogether and may leave to sleep elsewhere with other bedfellows. And there is no fun in sleeping in a bed with one big elephant – be that a major publisher, a retailer•turned publisher or a distributor turned one•stop•shop. In this incestuous game, many bed mates, each having equal space, is good – it’s also called competition, in case I was stirring orgiastic imagery in you!

The wild card for everyone is the technology that is making these moves possible. And technology, while enabling bigger and newer entrants to muzzle in for space, can also scuttle the best made plans plans. In this case, the new technology also allows the story•teller, (aka – the author) to reach his audience directly, for it is no big deal to publish a book these days, be it in trade book format or e•book format, if one is reasonably adept at word processing and has access to some conversion software. And it’s no bigger deal to distribute it directly from one’s website with no intermediary hand•offs. All the author needs is a facilitator who can help his audience find, sample and endorse him. The reader needs the facilitator too, to point him to good reading material. This facilitator role is the one going to be prized both by readers and writers in the future – not a big bully who keeps the lion’s share and offers poor quality in exchange, but a big brother who makes it happen for the writer and the reader.

I am keen to see whether Amazon and Kobo will truly transform into Big Brothers or lose both authors and readers because they ended up being Big Bullies.

The Economics of Greed and Fear

“Last year, crude oil prices were around $140 per barrel and the gas price at the pump was $1.35 per litre. Now, a barrel of crude is $98 and the pump price is at $1.41,” says our Industry Minister. What happened to this unregulated, open market industry where in a state of perfect competition, prices would adjust based on demand and supply? I am no economist, although I try hard to balance my home budget, but there are factors in play here that even old Adam Smith did not bank on: greed and its evil twin fear.

So let’s get down to $$$ and Sense: there is obviously something going on between cracking that barrel of crude open and serving it at the pump which is causing this cost increase, right? We can’t blame it on increased demand in China or on diminishing global supplies anymore because those developments are captured in the price of crude and we know that the price of a barrel of the black stuff has not recovered from its highs of 2008. Oh yes, there are those hapless refineries that got flooded in Louisiana some time ago (funny place to locate refineries, right in the middle of hurricane alley, as if the designer was praying to have his creations hit by catastrophe and put out of commission), but this time the flooding is elsewhere —in Graceland and Winnipeg—so you can’t blame it on the floods either. How about poor Gaddafi? No, he’s too small a player and has problems of his own to deal with. How about terrorism? Negative, Osama is dead and the troops will be coming home soon (we hope). Inefficiency in distribution passed down to the consumer? Hold that thought. How about paying for the spill in New Orleans? Hmm. Perhaps, I’m getting warmer. How about “Let’s get back to gouging, where we were back in 2008 before that minor blip called a Global Recession put a damper on things?” I like that one! And what about, “Let’s Tweet and Facebook this thing to hell and scare the pants off people, sending them kilometres out of their way to get gas just to save two cents on a litre. And while we are at it, let’s shut down production and re•tool those refineries so that they can be destroyed in prime condition when hurricane season rolls around again.” Ah, now we may be getting somewhere.

The lack of transparency in pricing, the precision with which prices are adjusted by all competitors almost instantaneously, several times a day if necessary, and the lack of logic to the price increases has even got our new right wing majority government embarrassed. Will this enquiry called for by our Industry Minister really be much ado about nothing, like all the previous ones? Why should the government care if a price reduction would result in valuable tax dollars being shaved away? The only guy with skin in this game is the consumer.

Could our beleaguered consumer take a last stand, like Custer? Cut fuel consumption—easy to do for those like me who stare into a computer screen all day and talk to people only via phone—work from home a few days a week, ride a bicycle, walk? And use social media for social good by spreading consumer resistance. Perhaps the worm might turn and tickle the elephant’s toe, sending the mammoth into a fit of giggles, making him fall on his ass and break his back? Perhaps not, for when the fear is gone, we forget and return to our consumerist ways.

I try to be hopeful and banish the image of a cynical me retreating into an off•grid cabin in the woods, with a gun and a dog and a large sign saying “Crooks—keep out!” It will be a lonely existence indeed.