First, a little something seasonal. We are having a lot of fun this month at Far Sector SFFH, looking forward to the U.S. version of the Harvest Festival, which is called Hallow E'en which probably translates into something like "Holy Evening," reflecting the traditional All Hallows or All Saints coming on the next day. On the upper (Christian) layer of it, this dates back to the Feast of All Souls, which traditionally is celebrated the day before All Saints (All Hallows?). On the lower (pagan) layer of it, we can only imagine the rich layers of Celtic and other mythology (like the Irish tradition of Jack o' Lantern) that continues to reside under that veneer of Romanitas imposed on much of Europe by those amazing Mediterranean conquerors. I'm sitting here in San Diego, enjoying the first subtle hints of fall amid the generally subtle seasons here, while recalling avidly the brusque and unabashed seasons of New England where I grew up, and Europe (particularly Luxembourg, France, and Germany) where I spent my childhood and later 5 years as a U.S. "army man." (That's Kid for those cheap little green plastic guys that come in a crinkly cellophane bag for a buck fifty; had a lot of fun with those as a kid). Like Hostess sno-balls (sorry, gotta plug 'em) those are all part of our modern traditions in the US, so hated by the medieval clerics of Islam. Can you imagine a thousand years from now, when people are in a new dark age, and nobody can read, and America is nothing more than a long-ago dream in some nightmare Andre Norton landscape (Daybreak 2245 or whatever A.D.), people sitting around campfires and recalling the quick and easy mercantile mythology of our day? Think Terminator instead of Iliad. Think Dean Koontz instead of Homer. Think Rock Around The Clock instead of the Song of Roland. Think cupcakes instead of... well, you get the idea. It's fall, and when I was a kid you could smell burning leaves in the air for miles around New Haven (can't do it today because our atmosphere has become a giant fart of toxic chemicals). Fall is a season of mystery, of mystique, of change, of stowing acorns away with a promise of comfort during the long hard winter. Hallow E'en is no longer a time to cower in fear under the bed, while the dead and the demons walk the night just outside our shuttered windows and doors. Or is it?
New buzzword in digital publishing. According to Frank Green of The San Diego Union-Tribune (9/25/2003), e-books are by far the fastest growing (and almost only growing) segment in an otherwise stagnant book publishing industry. I've been avidly predicting the gigantic quantum shift from horses to automobiles...oops, errr, make that paper to digital...since my first editorial (April 1998) in this magazine. Progress on the grand scale, aside from being like watching trees grow, reminds one of the St. Willibrord Procession in Echternach, Luxembourg: three steps forward, two steps backward, but we'll get there eventually. Being less partisan than you might expect of me, I would argue that other promising segments might include comics (up and down from year to year) and audio books (growing). In fact, I'll bet that game-related books probably pace or outgrow any growth category.
One exciting and interesting news item from Royal Philips, a Dutch company, published in a recent article as "Performing pixels: Moving images on electronic paper."An article in the respected journal Nature (25 Sep 2003) declares: "Within a year the first products to use electronic paper, combining the ease of manipulation of electronics with the convenience of paper, should be on the market. Displays are being developed for handheld devices, wearable displays and more. One of the first approaches reported exploited the electrophoretic motion of particles inside small capsules, but its utility is limited by the speed of motion of the particles. Now, a faster new generation of electronic paper is under development."
Why do we care (part 1)? Publishing today, in all of its aspects from acquisition to distribution, is an ossified, arthritic process that is visibly breaking down before our eyes. Consolidation and conglomeration have left us with fewer publishers, fewer venues, fewer opportunities for new voices to be heard. This seems to be a feature of modern capitalism, most visible in the prevalance in any market of a very limited number of dominant franchises (think Starbucks or Microsoft, for example). Whatever the economies of scale and other real benefits, there lies great danger in this mode for business and for democracy. A mere fifty years ago, there were at least 25 major commercial publishers in Manhattan and environs. Today there are approximately six (and, to the woe of Populists, most are not American-owned). Writer's Market tries to keep an annual tally of who's who in that zoo. My latest take counted two or three German companies (Bertelsmann, Holtzbrinck, Springer), one Australian conglom (Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.), one British firm (Penguin USA), and one U.S.-owned firm (TimeWarner, formerly AOL-TimeWarner) in the mix. These guys have gobbled up all the venerable old publishers (Simon & Schuster, Knopf, Random House, Doubleday, Houghton Mifflin, et al. Distribution is largely owned by Ingram, with Baker & Taylor in far-back second fiddle (and cooperating in Ingram's electronic distribution network at some level) and then a dozen or so smaller wholesalers. The bookstore business is dominated by Barnes & Noble (which includes Bookstar and B.Dalton) and Borders. Online, Barnes & Noble plays weak second fiddle to giant book pixelators Amazon. Amazon, in turn, has partnered across media with Borders. The situation for small independent bookstores is so pressing that bestselling author Stephen King and other literary (you guessed it, franchises/icons/what have you) a few years ago organized a motorcycle and rock band tour across the USA on behalf of indies). You can even ratchet this phenom to the ultimate and compare it with the extinction of major species (lions, tigers, and many other major species will be extinct in our lifetimes) in favor of that Starbucks of primates, the Yuman Been. And I remember from undergraduate biology that bacteria in a petrie dish will flourish explosively until they run out of agar to eat, and then you wind up with a lifeless, blackened wasteland in miniature. So maybe that's a harbinger of things to come for our planet, as those pesky folks with glasses and pens have been saying since the 1960s. Meanwhile, our reading is shaped by a dozen or so best-selling authors (King, Koontz, Steele, Grisham, Clancy, et al). Our thinking, what's left of it if there ever was any, seems to be shaped by a similarly tiny franchise of cynical, vapid dispensers of hatred and misinformation (Savage, Limbaugh, et al, and their microbial clones in every community across the USA with a radio tower, or every little community with more beefs than barbecues). Forget your rage; forget the content; just look at the pattern: one or two bugs are eating all the sugar in the petrie dish. And, for my money, the USA is starting to sound and act more and more like Italy or Germany in the 1930s. Give us one good economic depression, and the sound of marching boots won't be far behind. It's not paranoia. It's history. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it (Santayana). Kristallnacht for that hated group of people the unsmart call "Liberals." Who are they? Anyone you don't agree with. In Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, that meant someone with eyeglasses or someone with a pen in his pocket exemplars of the hated bourgeoisie. It is precisely the narrow-gauge media that will decide which people shall be lynched by roving gangs on the basis of such innocent and meaningless criteria. Goebbels owned the Medium in Germany on behalf of the Nazi Party. Notice that "Medium" is the singular of "Media." As long as we have "Media" we are still halfway safe. But down from 25 to six? Time for concern. That's the global rant; the macro-rant if you will; now the micro-rant.
Why do we care (part 2)? The advent of a new way of publishing, a new way of distributing, a new way of readingthese things should be exciting to readers, writers, and publishing professionals. Let's bypass the naive souls who may think that digital publishing will alleviate the need for good solid writing, and those who cling to the odoriferous Webbie notion that all things including your neighbor's (intellectual) goods must be free for the taking. Let's bypass those persons lacking in vision or motivation who forever hate the notion of progress, like a few poor sods who still lie awake at night hating Amazon for selling books via their online catalog; or those poor Luddites who feel that some word (e.g., "kumquat") is somehow a vastly superior intellectual achievement in printed form vs. the same word ("kumquat") sold online in an e-book; or those self-diminished Backwardians at a certain Futurian Writers' Klubb who are being dragged kicking and screaming into the future (which they once claimed as their intellectual fiefdom) in that they have treated digital publishing like toe rot. None of these people matter. They are pimples on the railroad track. The train roaring into the future will hardly notice them. So we bypass them, and we find a lovely vista opening for all of us, not in the future, but already nowwriters have more places to publish, editors more places to work, publishers more opportunities to make money, and readers more good stuff to read. Sure, that spells it all out in simplistic terms, and nothing is ever that simple. Ask James Joyce, William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens among the many writers who failed to make the franchise in their day and had to strike out on their own, despite the ill will lavished on them by history's losers (of whom only Ned Ludd is actually remembered by name). We find that the expensive and cumbersome process of killing trees, slathering toxic ink on strips of paper made from them, and gluing these strips together with the hooves of dead horses goes away, replaced by ASCII characters and pixels. That cumbersome print book you thought was so great to curl up with becomes a lifeless and slightly moldy artifact, hard to hold and lacking its own source of light, in contrast with an illumined and searchable e-book device containing your entire library on a storage device about the size of one fingernail. No more warehouses, no more trucks, no more typesetting, no more printing presses, no more binding, no more inventory, no more damaged goods, no more lots of stuff. The reading experience can be your clothing, your bedsheet, your wallpaper, your headboard, your coffee cup, your desktop. The same medium will be paper-thin and can come in any size, hang on any wall, show you any movie, download any book, or be your newspaper on demand. You'll love curling up with it and wonder what you ever saw in those whatchamacallums. For writers, the prospects are particularly good. This has been a slash-and-burn industry, which has nurtured about a dozen franchise names (the twelve bestseller apostles mentioned above) to the exclusion all else. It's an industry that, while increasingly paralyzed by high stakes and fear of failure, has been prone to gambling on a few high rollers. How many midlist author careers could be nurtured for the price of one failed million dollar advance? The incineration of the midlist in particular has been a notorious byproduct of publishing's self-immolation. Corporate rather than literate ownership, the bottom line, all the usual suspects are at fault here. All the lemming-like, unreasoning factors creating a descent into oblivion, with the few getting richer and the vast majority going through not one but a series of dot-com vaporware busts. Bottom line for authors: we hope to see a day when it is no longer true, as with the current industy, that for every author they permit into the system and nurture, a thousand talented stars will never shine in the sky because they may spend a lifetime writing and sacrificing for their art, but will never be permitted to reach their readers. For God's sake, that alone makes the move to e-books a step out of the dark ages.
Forward, Backward: Interestingly, one of the early pioneers in downloadable digital books has called it quits, at least temporarily. Barnes & Noble, that Starbucks of Starbooks, has bought back all of its equity from Bertelsmann and has stopped selling e-books. I predict they will be back. They also sold their Print on Demand (POD) facility to Ingram's LightningSource division, but B&N announced (to counter some hysteria) that they will continue selling POD books on line. They just won't manufacture them anymore. I'd like to point out that several major New York publishers became the world's largest vanity presses a la iUniverse model, providing the same sort of questionable services for which they castigated and reviled any human being who would even think about paying to have his own book published. Presumably that included the above-mentioned Shakespeare, Chaucer, Joyce, et al. I point this out for two reasons. First, we have from the start felt that POD is nothing more than a band-aid. We feel that, just as AOL is sinking under the weight of its own absurdity (frequent disconnects, slow connections, etc) now that customers are getting smarter and realizing they can do better, so POD will turn out to be the Edsel of publishing history. Is it going to be more cost-effective to mass-produce a cheap and wonderful electronic reading device, or to create a $40,000 monstrosity to put in stores so that people can pay to have print books manufactured for them on the spot as they wait? think about it this way: once the mindless minions actually invest billions in this kludge technology, and put the machines in the stores, customers will most likely be expected to pay around $900.00 per book because of the maintenance and upkeep. How many technicians will be required to keep such a monstrosity functioning? What does a technician earn? What does it cost to train a technician? Who teaches the technicians? etc etc. Clearly, the e-book is going to steamroller over all these pimples and I feel sorry for the poor souls who invest money in such Frankenstein creations. Think digital. It's the "plastics" of the future. One last thought: As my friend Brian Callahan once pointed out in his quietly brilliant manner: forget CDs and other portable media. Those are about carrying information (or in its raw state, "data") from one readable device to another. Think of a wireless (or at least wired) future in which you can go to any data spigot and fill your cup (or reading device) with as much Kontent as you need. Digital...download...e-book...the mantra will catch on, don't worry. This is a future that nobody can stop, and we see it coming.
Not to forget the spoken book: According to Publishers Weekly, Bertelsmann and others are continuing to invest in the future of another book industry, spoken books. Audible.com may be worth a visit from you, just to explore another alternative to traditional slash and burn publishing.
More on American ownership of American publishing: In "Publishing: A Leap from Mind to Mind (Fulcrum)," Harold Miller, the former Houghton Mifflin chairman, raises grave concerns about the state of U.S. publishing (as belabored by me in a paragraph above). He points out that, although Canadian firms are heavily foreign-owned, there are laws that limit such ownership to minority status (not more than 49% max) whereas the American mindset of globalism (my terminology) opens the door wide in a sort of boundless, drunken optimism that one can give the store away and yet everything will be just fine. Miller particularly voices concern about foreign meddling in textbooks. Do we really need Saudi kleriks [or North Korean generals or French Anglophobes (a la Vivendi?) or for that matter the terrorist dictator of Libya who happens also to be the current United Nations committee chair on human rights??? ha ha ha ha ha....the laughter never stops] influencing how American minds are shaped? Sounds paranoid, I know, but look how Rupert Murdoch, a singleminded Australian fundamentalist of confused and unintelligible aims, has come to own so much of the U.S. media market (HarperCollins, Fox, lots of big players). FOX was the one network that relentlessly hammered away day and night in favor of a war with Saddam at any cost, with or without reason or justification. I do not classify Fox as a news channel. In our house, we refer to them as The Sleaze Channel, not only because they are warmongers but because they trumpet ultra-conservatism a la Imam on the one hand, and yet produce shows of a Jerry Springer-like bouquet. They have tried to purchase the exclusive right to words like "Fair and Balanced" (shot down in court recently) but they are at best a sleazy tabloid on the order of The National Enquirer in the US or Springer's Bild in Germany...pandering to a combination of people who either have let their intellect become clouded by rage and hate against immigrants and "liberals," who apparently are just about anything you can hit with your SUV; or people who in the first place lack much intellect (in the tradition of Dan Quayle's "what a terrible thing it is to lose your mind; or worse yet, never to have had one"...he being John the Baptist heralding the arrival of that modern day Caligula who now squats gloating in the Oval Orifice). I'm not sure that Harold Miller says any of these things. He does, however, address the question of who really needs to own the companies that produce America's textbooks.
Health Insurance for Published Writers: "The Authors Guild offers discounted health insurance plans to authors and journalists. Guild plans from Oxford, CIGNA and other major carriers cover much of CA, CT, FL, GA, IL, NJ and NY. First-year dues are $90 and follow a sliding scale after that (most members continue to pay $90). Details & Application: www.authorsguild.org or email@example.com." Sad that the United States is still the only major industrialized country that does not offer universal health insurance as a fundamental human right. Equally sad or in any case puzzling, if we correctly read the above ad that appeared recently in Publishers Weekly, that the Authors Guild would discriminate against struggling authors (or are such vermin really "authors?" horrors!) who haven't yet joined the twelve bestselling authors whose works constitute almost the entire output of New York commercial publishing for the past 40 years. Someone ought to really think about this, if anyone much thinks at all any more. More than ever, ultra-conservative low wattage dominates the political landscape, so healthcare for children and pregnant mothers is the last thing on the political agenda in all three Republican-owned branches of Government, while at the same time extravagant piety and mega-decibels are being broadcast regarding the supposed Christian heritage of this country (and damn you, just damn you, if you ain't one of them!). It just seems rather evident that Jesus would favor universal healthcare...whether you are rich or not; whether you are a "published" writer or not as defined by the six mostly foreign-owned conglomerates of NY. Huh? I don't care, personally. I get mine from various sources, including the VAbecause, unlike almost our entire ra-ra rightwing Government of hypocrites, I actually did bother to serve in the military. Before Bush and Delay and their did-not-bother-to-serve-but-never-stop-ranting-about-our-patriotism cronies remove the last of Veterans' entitlements, I can still hopefully get my annual flu shot in that hotbed of communism and socialism known as the VA.
Web Commerce Update 2003: Back in 1996, when Brian Callahan and I were dreaming of the day, far off, when people might actually be able to "buy" things on line (as oppposed to downloading and reading free fiction), little did we realize how fast and how furious this obvious new marketplace would begin to explode. The key is demand. People certainly still enjoy a trip to the mall, and wallets loosen at the sight of attractive merchandise seen in person, but online retail sales will reportedly soon approach a quarter trillion dollars. That's a sizeable chunk of the U.S. economy. As Jim Miliot of Publishers Weekly put it, "Only a few years ago, printed books held a seemingly counterintuitive distinction: the 50-year-old medium that some said had no future was one of the most popular products sold on the Internet. Not any more." Miliot quoted a Forrester Research study that said by 2008, online retail sales will top $230 billion and represent approximately 10% of total retail sales. Ironically, books will no longer be one of the most significant categories online; although books accounted for as much of 14% of online sales in 2000, they will fall to just 3% of overall sales by 2008. Food and sporting goods are expectded to be the fastest-growing categories. I think this article was written without much thought to a new industry that I predict will be the most natural and lucrative on line and maybe in the world: downloading games, music, and movies. According to long-standing Publishers Weekly research, the percentage of U.S. population who are avid readers (a book a month or more, by some standards) has remained fairly steady since 1945 at 7%. If that sort of number remains constant, then one would probably expect the percentage of book sales on line to level out eventually around 7% (including gift books, both electronic and print), while Games, Books, Movies, and Music (GBMM) will constitute a vast chunk of digital commerce. Remember the cosmological Big Bang? We are in the first nanosecond of web commerce, trust me. We have not yet begun to see the galaxie and nebulas form, much less life evolve on rocky worlds. The real question is: will people still be reading at all a few decades from now?
Chinese Taikonauts waiting in the wings: As I mentioned in a recent column, time waits for no Backwardian. Whether that means print-based technophobes clinging to the past, or a U.S. Government possessing brain cells in inverse proportion to the inflationary pressure of the fake money they are about to start printing to counteract Tush's tax cutsthe fact is that China will shortly roll the dice and send up its first astronaut. CNN offered this coverage recently. Will there be consternation in the U.S. if the guy comes back alive? Will there be investigations? Or more creationist blather that global warming doesn't exist, we're not in the middle of a mass extinction largely caused by munching humans and farting cows, and we must never trust reason unless it has been thoroughly marinated in the really hot hot hot sauce of cultish zealotry?
I've observed a phenom I call "the Pearl Harbor syndrome." We always seem to be asleep at the switch until some tree decides to jump in our rushing train's path. Whether it's Pearl Harbor popping us into a new industrial revolution, or Sputnik 1 goosing us to put guys on the moon in the next decade, or medieval mass murderers destroying half of New York, we seem to need that kick-start to help us rediscover our enormous potential. Once we get going, we are a force to be reckoned with. Europeans, by the way, just launched their first unmanned moon shot. For some reason, the gadget will require a huge amount of time to get theresurprising because one would think that the way Europeans drive, they would be to the moon in back by supper time. Must be some cheap gas they are using; or else the revolutionary new ion drive engine just takes a while to warm up. Will we go from super power to stupor power? Time will soon tell. Just for the record: I don't worry about the Arab people. I worry about terrorists everywhere, be they bin Laden or Timothy McVey, or for that matter the comical midget in North Korea (I just suggested to my wife the CIA ought to invent a secret weapon that makes medals explode, killing those wearing them; that would take care of those million elderly men wearing all that fruit salad at Kim Jong Il's side; or poison Kim's caviarthat deprivation alone would drive him into exile, maybe in a bordello in Bangkok). I'm half European, and I don't worry about either Europe or China. Europe is mired in Brussels sprout bureaucracy and they'll fight to death over whether Londoners can sell bananas by the pound or the kilotrust me, these people are at the last Maslow stage before vanishing into Nirvana. I am a great China fan. I applaud the fact that one fifth of the human race might join the mainstream (the New World Odor). I worry more about our one-twenty-fifth of the human race in the U.S. losing our mind, or worse yet, never having had a mind. Wherever Chinese starfarers go, embarrassed U.S. space officials and apoplectic Congressional investigatorlators (that's Tush-Texan for "sheee-yit!") won't be far behind; talk about quickly relocating our compass, as we did after Sputnik 1! Eeeee-haw! Go, Taikonauts!
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SFRevu September Issue Online: Yes, they spammed me and this is one case where I don't really mind. SFRevu September Issue Online SFRevu. Content includes a Sharon Lee / Steve Miller Interview, Michael Swanwick's "A User's Guide to the Postmoderns", More Worldcon photos and coverage than we knew what to do with, and a dozen reviews, including Lois Bujold's Paladin of Souls, Hal Clement's Noise and Nancy Kress's Nothing Human. Might be well worth a look.
Received: The Holy Land. At first blush, easily mistaken for a neo-Christian end-times fantasy. Turns out to be an entirely different sort of fictional tome written by Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Mars. In case you don't know, Zubrin is a much-quoted advocate for a sensible but aggressive let's go to Mars policy that includes practical recipes for creating our own food, drinking water, and return fuel from materials already on the Red Planet's surface. The book blurb says it all: "A renowned space engineer, visionary, and author, Robert Zubrin is the winner of the prestigious Robert A. Heinlein award. In The Holy Land, he takes us on a wild madcap exploration of a world crazy enough to be our own." (Polaris Books, 2003, 298 pages, $14.95). Amazon catalog: Robert Zubrin: The Holy Land