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A few miscellaneous bits. Starting with by far the most important thing, the minor frustrations of my life. Because that’s what really matters, right?

So, I’m going to talk to some students on the MLitt course at Stirling University today. Enthuse or dispirit them on the subject of the life of a published author; could go either way, I suspect. Naturally, given that appointment, today’s the day I wake up with a sore throat, cough and general feeling of mild grottiness. Typical. Harrumph. Does it affect the odds of the enthuse or dispirit outcome? Time will tell.

Raising my eyes (reluctantly) from my own travails, I see B&N is heading into turbulent waters. Looks like those hoping the Nook might save them from a slow fade into history might be disappointed. And for reasons that are mysterious to me, it seems the founder wants to break up the company, taking over the the bookselling bit and cutting adrift the digital/Nook bit. It all looks very much like decline to me, terminal or otherwise. Given they’ve already said they’re going to be closing stores, it’s the slow-motion chewing up of a formerly strong but now very definitely fragile company. I’m kind of sceptical, to put it extremely mildly, much of it’s going to be left intact by the time the mastication is over.

Creative destruction’s all very well, but the future of writing, publishing, selling and reading books does not look a hugely appealing place to me these days. Quasi-monopolistic dictatorships are rarely pretty. We’re all going to have to live there, though, so might as well try to make the best of it.  Enjoy your nearest bricks and mortar bookstore while you can.

And here’s The Miniature Earth. What the world would look like, numbers-wise, if it was a village of 100 souls. Not a great deal that’s hugely surprising, but it’s kind of interesting, and elegantly done.

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I like, and use Amazon, as much as any averagely active buyer of stuff over the internet.  That’s as a price-conscious consumer.  As a reader and writer, and as someone who is generally in favour of choice and competition in as many industries and retail sectors as possible, I find them … alarming, I suppose.  Not so long ago, I tended to use The Book Depository for most of my book purchases, in part specifically because they weren’t Amazon, but … oh, look.  Amazon bought them.  What a surprise.

So I’m a fan of anything that introduces more diversity into the online bookselling scene (because I think we can safely assume that nobody’s going to be introducing more diversity into the bricks and mortar bookselling scene any time soon).  The arrival of Bookish is therefore interesting.  It’s backed by three big publishers (including mine), and loads more are connected to it, so whatever anyone might say it’s undoubtedly at least in part an attempt to break Amazon’s growing stranglehold on their business.

But never mind why it’s (belatedly, since it’s been in the works for ages) here, or who’s behind it: putting my price-conscious consumer’s hat on for a second, Bookish looks like a good thing.  Competitive prices for both print and e-books, loads of social features, wide range of titles etc. etc.  It’s also a USA thing, so to any and all of you living on that side of the Atlantic I merely suggest: check it out, maybe give it a try.

Choice and competition matter, and they are not heading in a healthy direction at the moment.  To put it mildly.  Using Bookish might be one small way to nurture them.

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As previously noted, I’ve developed a minor fixation with finding interesting, good value stuff lurking in the recesses of the Kindle store since I acquired the e-reading habit.

Here’s an update on recent discoveries.  As before, these are treasures found in the UK Kindle store, which may or may not be similarly keenly-priced in the US (but probably are, I’d guess).

Having read and enjoyed Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi, I grabbed his Hardwired for a fairly modest £3.25.  It’s a cyberpunkish novel from 1986, and it’s good fun.  Didn’t wow me quite as much as Aristoi, but well worth the read.  The basic set-up, of a rather anarchic, balkanised Earth left behind by the all-powerful corporations who have relocated into orbit, is very strong, and a lot of the action sequences are done well.  Recommended.

Shadow Unit (currently a mere £0.72 for the first volume, rising to less than £2 for subsequent instalments) is utterly fascinating, and something that could only really be done through digital publishing, I suspect.  A team of authors, led by Emma Bull and in the first volume including Will Shetterly, Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, got together to produce tales of an elite team of FBI detectives who work on paranormal cases.  It’s a deliberate, meticulous attempt to reproduce the effect of a TV series in prose, and I was downright startled by how successful it is in that.  It borrows its structure and tropes straight from serialised crime drama, and is so absurdly perfect in mimicing the tone and feel that it’s almost disorientating.  Very, very clever.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is an online short story magazine, and probably my favourite source of podcast fantasy fiction.  Although the stories are enormously varied, it’s got a definite house style: high quality prose telling tales that are set in imaginary worlds and have definite beginning, middle and ends.  No ‘mood’ or snapshot pieces, on the whole; just well-told, imaginative stories in which stuff happens.  So although I haven’t read them all, I feel pretty confident in predicting that The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One, which contains fourteen stories for just £1.53, will be a safe purchase offering excellent value.

Leaving speculative fiction behind, here’s an example of the kind of thing I would never have stumbled across but for the advent of e-reading. Crossfire: An Australian Reconnaissance Unit in Vietnam is currently priced at £1.79, and worth checking out for anyone interested in getting another, subtly different angle on that whole messy war.  It’s main focus is on the experiences of a young man who had the misfortune to spend a lot of time, along with a small, tight-knit group of colleagues, doing advance reconnaissance in southern Vietnam.  The writing is competent, if unremarkable, and there’s not much that’s really revelatory, but it’s quite effective in conveying the day-to-day horrors and tedium of that kind of combat.  I was particularly struck by the horrific effect, both phsycial and psychological, of the ubiquitous mines and booby traps, which was eerily reminiscent of more recent and equally messy conflicts.

And finally, a freebie.  For the low, low price of absolutely nothing, you can get South, the amazing story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 expedition to Antarctica, written by the man himself.  Hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to say things go fairly spectacularly wrong for the expedition, and it becomes a tale of understated but nonetheless astonishing endurance and survival.  Adventuring and heroism from a bygone age.

 

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As previously noted, my Kindle and I are engaged in a mental tussle over the question of how much I should pay for an e-book.  In truth, only one of the factors mentioned in that post really affects my behaviour: the bottom line is that e-books don’t currently meet enough of my personal criteria for permanent, irrevocable, unconstrained and secure ‘ownership’ to make me enthusiastic about spending big chunks of my limited book budget on them.

That said, I’m enjoying reading stuff on the Kindle, and I continue to find the technology (hardware more than software) terrifically engaging and statisfying.  So I definitely want to use the thing, even if I don’t want to spend too much cash to do so.  Not a problem.  Bargains abound in e-book world.

The problem is finding them. It takes a bit of work, or luck, to excavate treasure.  There’s a distinct lack of reliable signposts to structure your explorations.

Here are a few of the treasures I’ve found so far, all available at the time of writing in the UK Kindle Store for less than the entirely arbirtray figure of £4.  (Can’t speak to the prices in the US Kindle Store, although the one or two I’ve cross-checked are pretty aggressively priced over there too).

Frankenstein will cost you not one penny, and as I’d call it one of the best sf books ever written that looks like a bargain.  I know some people struggle with the antiquated structure and pacing and language – which is fair enough; it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste – but to me that’s surface.  What lies beneath is, if you ask me, a work of visionary genius that puts much of the sf published in the subsequent 200 years to shame.

Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams is the most fun I’ve had on my Kindle since I got the thing, and it cost me just £3.21. It’s far future sf set in a hierarchical human society of nanotech, gene therapy, virtual realities and many other wonders. It’s not what you’d call action-packed – although when face-to-face violence does take place it’s lengthily detailed – and the reader’s not exactly spoon-fed everything about the setting or characters, but I found it pretty engaging. Williams explores the world, both outer and inner, of his human demi-gods with smooth writing and an open mind. It’s kind of like a less democratic, less AI-heavy version of Iain Banks’ Culture, with more ambiguity about the pros and cons of such a society. And the best thing is, there’s plenty more modestly priced WJW e-stuff available for follow-up.

The Hunger Games will currently cost you a modest £2.70.  Now, I’ve not read it, so what am I doing pointing it out?  Well, I’ve bought it for future consumption because, just as Frankenstein marks the origins of the sf genre, this marks its current apogee in terms of cultural ubiquity and popularity.  I’m naturally curious about one of the most successful books the genre has ever produced, and here it is at a bargain price.

Unpossible by Daryl Gregory just sneaks in beneath the cost ceiling I’ve imposed for this post at £3.97.  It’s a short story collection, and an eclectic one at that.  All speculative fiction, from what I’ve read of it so far, but encompassing a wide range beneath that heading.  The tone varies almost as much as the genres do, from the decidedly dark to the wryly humourous to the fabulistic.  All of it’s done with considerable style and wit and polish, though.

I mentioned the (free) Lost World in my last post, so can’t resist pointing out you can also get as much Sherlock Holmes as you could ever possibly want for prices varying from nothing to all of £0.77 for a properly e-bookized collection of the whole canon.

Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine offers a free digest edition, comprising one short story and all its non-fiction content (reviews, commentary etc.) delivered automatically to your reader every other month.  It’s a tempter for a full subscription, of course, (which only costs a couple of £ per issue, I think) but that’s no bad thing since it means they select a high quality story for inclusion.

Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 1 I include here because it’s kind of what e-book shopping should be all about, isn’t it?  The chance to discover something unexpected, unfamiliar and to broaden your horizons.  It offers fifteen short stories for just £0.77, and from the (relatively little) I’ve read of it so far it would be a bargain at twice, or three times, the price.  As with the Gregory collection, the stories are diverse in genre and tone.

And finally, another e-item I haven’t actually read yet, but which also seems to me to illustrate some of what the e-publishing thing should be all about.  The Desert of Souls, an Arabian historical fantasy by Howard Andrew Jones has been getting seriously excited reviews since it was published last year, and I look forward to (probably) reading it.  But first, I’m going to read The Waters of Eternity, a set of six short stories featuring the same characters and setting as that novel, which I bought for just £1.52.  A perfect way to sample the milieu at no great financial risk, and if I like it, a pretty much guaranteed sale of the novel.  Whether you’ve already read and enjoyed The Desert of Souls, or if – like me – you’re just curious, what could be better?

(And I feel compelled to point out that while my own most recent modest contribution to world literature, The Edinburgh Dead, doesn’t quite squeeze under the arbitrary £4 price point, at just £4.49 for the Kindle edition it is, I can absolutely assure you, excellent value.)

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So, I finally took the plunge a while back and joined the ranks of the e-reader army.

Kindle 4 (i.e. no keyboard, wi-fi only).

And sure enough, it changed my mind. Not in the sense that it substantially changed my opinion about anything to do with e-books etc. No, it changed – or at least is trying to change – my thought processes; my perceptions.

We’ll get to that in a bit, but first: do I like my Kindle?

Sure I do.  It’s a clever, effective bit of kit that does one thing – sell, deliver and display text for on-screen consumption – jolly well.  It’s what my parents, and hence I, would tend to call, approvingly, A Thing of Purpose.  It’s got a job to do, and it does it well.

And also: do I feel good about becoming a Kindle-owner?

Huh. What kind of a dumb question is that? Not quite as dumb as it sounds, if you were privy to my inner thoughts. Which approximate to: Amazon is not my friend. Neither as a reader nor a writer should I fall into the trap of imagining that Amazon is ‘on my side’. Amazon is on but one side, and that is its own. Charles Stross articulates my thoughts better than I could, right here.  Worth reading, especially if you’re under the illusion that the word ‘altriusm’ appears anywhere on Amazon’s agenda.

So, to rephrase, do I feel good about contributing, in my own entirely minuscule way, to Amazon’s advance towards monopoly and monopsony?  No, not especially.

But here’s the thing.  Amazon is going to determine – far more than any other single player – what the short and possibly medium term futures of the e-book look like.  I’m a writer, so I have a certain financial, creative and personal stake in this game.  So I got a Kindle, because I want to see what the biggest player and rule-maker is doing, how they’re doing it and how their system works.

I’ll probably do another post some time about what I actually make of some of the content I’ve loaded onto my Precious … ah, excuse me … my Kindle, and how I feel about the reading experience, but for now let’s just consider What my Kindle is doing to my brain.

It’s re-wiring it, that’s what.  It’s attempting to change my perceptions of what a book is, and what the value of a book is.  The second, unsurpisingly, is the interesting bit for me as an author.

Essentially, as I bimbled about online, wading through the swamps of the Kindle store, anything over £3 or £4 started looking expensive.  Now, I don’t actually believe that to be an entirely sensible conclusion to reach but nevertheless, for a whole load of reasons, I could all but feel the notion trying to take root in my brain.  Just a few of those reasons (not all of which I necessarily think are valid, but they were all there, feeding my unconscious thought processes):

  • There is no physical object for me to indisputably, irrevocably own on a permanent, unconstrained and transferable basis.  Without those fundamental components of ‘ownership’ I should not be expected to pay so much.
  • There is no physical object that has cost someone money to create.  Without those sunk costs, I should not be expected to pay so much.
  • There is a vast array of free or very cheap material on offer in the Kindle store; by comparison with it, more ‘traditionally’ priced items automatically start to appear expensive.
  • A virtual text feels inherently less consequential, considered and substantial (and therefore less valuable) than one that has been given physical form.
  • It’s sometimes hard to tell how long a text you’re being asked to pay for is, and there’s therefore a temptation to err on the side of caution when considering its value.
  • I don’t pay over £3 or £4 for hardly anything non-physical I acquire for entertainment purposes online (e.g. apps, renting a movie), indeed I pay nothing for a lot of it (e.g. podcasts, on-demand TV).

I could go on, but you get the idea.

To reiterate, I don’t think all of these kind of thoughts are either rational or reasonable, but that some part of my brain was busily processing them, out of the reach of my internal oversight, is indisputable.

It may be just me, of course.  I doubt it, though.  I fear I might be getting a glimpse of the future, just by peering into the muddy recesses of my own little head. And that future is cheap, but not necessarily in a good way.

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So, I had the pleasure of spending something in excess of ten hours as a guest of our splendid rail service over the weekend. Close to two hours more than I was supposed to spend, but that’s what happens when points and signals fail on a weekend.  I like travelling by train, as it happens, but only when they’re moving.  As soon as a train stops for longer than it’s supposed to, well then the anxiety starts.  If it’s stationary for long enough, the whole experience becomes a sort of slow existential torture as you powerlessly watch the minutes of your life tick by.

Anyway, both while the trains (two journeys involved) were moving and not, I occupied myself with some entirely unscientific surveying of the state of the written word in modern times.  Which is to say, I walked up and down the carriages being nosy about what people were reading.  Or more to the point, how they were reading what they were reading.  Now the sample size wasn’t very big, because I was only moving on a relatively short route from seat – buffet car – seat – toilet – seat etc.  You get the idea.  But I found it all mildly interesting nevertheless, even though my findings were … unremarkable.

I saw something like ten people reading actual books, of the ink on paper sort.  (None of them speculative fiction, as far as I could tell, but that’s neither here nor there).

I saw three people reading from Kindles.

I saw no one reading prose from any other electronic device (i.e. no tablets, Sony e-readers, whatever).

I saw more people than I could reasonably count doing one or more of the following: listening to mp3 players, fiddling about with laptops/netbooks, peering inscrutably at their mobile phones, and reading newspapers or maagzines.

I saw more people sleeping than reading books, whether of the paper or e- kind.  But I don’t blame them for that.  I did the same thing, when not marching purposefully up and down.

The sample size, for those who care about such things, was … oh, I have no idea.  I did say this was entirely unscientific, didn’t I?  Probably two or three hundred all together.

Not being bonkers, I don’t read anything much into these observations, beyond the degree to which they conform to my subjective impressions of where things are, and where they are going.

This is certainly the first time I’ve really noticed the e-reading contingent as a significant chunk of what was going on.  It’s also, I’m fairly sure, a much smaller number of people reading paper and ink books than would have been the case until really very recently.  That’s not down to the arrival of e-books so much as the ubiquity of mp3 players, wifi connections, cheap laptops/netbooks and phones that can and will do everything up to and including sing you a lullaby to send you off into a snooze.

In fact, on reflection I find it mildly surprising that  reading long form prose hasn’t already collapsed as a leisure habit under the onslaught of all these recently appeared alternative uses for what is allegedly our ever more pressurised free time.  I can only think that novels offer a distinct kind of pleasure that makes their appeal at least a little resistant to erosion.  There are (just) enough people who find something uniquely enjoyable about reading a book (and I’m talking both paper and e-books here) that they continue to prioritise it over all the other multitude of entertainment choices available to those stuck on a train.

Another completely non-revelatory truth on show in those carriages: Amazon owns the digital book space.  The Kindle outscored every other means of reading a book digitally 3-0.  Whatever the extent of the digital future for books (pretty enormous, I think everyone now agrees) it belongs, for the time being, to Amazon.

This is, to my way of thinking, Not a Good Thing, but I also think littering, global warming and sloppily privatized railway systems are Not Good Things and my disapproval doesn’t seem to have done much to stop them happening so … I’ve got nothing in particular against Amazon, I’m just not a big fan of quasi-monopolistic dominance of any industry.  This, for example, wouldn’t alarm me nearly so much as it does if it was being proposed by a pushy new upstart company rather than the Amazon-squid leviathan that already has a suckered arm scrabbling for a strangehold on every single element of the book publishing-distribution-retailing system.

What will I see when I’m stuck on an unmoving train four or five years hence? (And I surely will be, since there are few harder things to sort out than a sloppily privatized and horribly under-invested railway system).  Safe in the knowledge that no one will remember them when the time comes to call me to account, I am prepared to make bold and decisive predictions.  Here we go …

There will be at most one or two people reading paper books.  Possibly none, though I’d be mildly surprised if it happens quite that quickly.

There will be at least five or six people reading e-books, and at least half of them will be doing so on some iteration of the Kindle.

Even more people than the ‘more I could reasonably count’ I saw this time will be messing about in some non-book-related way with electronic devices.  Most of them will be smart phones.  Some will be tablets.  Some will be laptops.  None, or a close approximation thereof, will be netbooks.

At least 5% of those people will be doing something I – and indeed most of us – haven’t yet thought of with their electronic devices.  Knitting or something.  I don’t know; that’s the whole point.

There will be a dozen or so people reading hard-copy newspapers or magazines.  Less than today, but not extinct.

There will still be more people asleep than reading a book.  Because that, my friends, is just the way things always have been and always will be.  Probably.

Alert readers will notice that I’m predicting a potentially non-trivial decline in the total number of people reading books, irrespective of delivery system.  That’s one bit of my predictions I don’t feel entirely bold and decisive about, but I can certainly construct a vaguely plausible argument for ending up in that state.  Here’s hoping I’m wrong, eh?

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I was going to call this post ‘signposts’ on the journey into the future, but honestly: nobody needs signposts any more, right?  We all know roughly where this is heading, even if nobody knows the precise destination.  Now, it’s really just a question of ticking off the landmarks along the journey.

Borders finally bites the dust in the US (Borders UK, a separate company, expired a year or two ago).  No one was sufficiently insensitive to the way the wind is blowing to make a plausible offer for the company and its business.  Dedicated, generalist, large scale physical bookstores on the high street are going the way of the dinosaurs.  I guess the only question of any substance remaining is whether strategies of diversification (into fields other than hard copy books) or, conversely, specialization (as niche sellers of obscure, hardback and/or genre-specific books) will produce a viable future for some portion of the herd.  We’ll know in a few years, no doubt.

Amazon gobbles up The Book Depository.  This makes me downright despondent.  There goes by far the most credible competitor to Amazon in the field of online bookselling in the UK (and arguably anywhere, since one of The Book Depository’s most appealing offers was that of free shipping to almost anywhere in the world, and evidently three-quarters of its sales were outside the UK).  I suppose it’s possible regulators may still intervene to try to stifle this latest stage of Amazon’s incremental conquest of the entire world, but I won’t be holding my breath.

In the long run, it’s rarely healthy for any industry to see power and control consolidated into too few corporate hands, and Amazon’s position astride the entire business of publishing and selling books – in both e- and hard copy form – just makes me instinctively glum, even as I greatly admire the effectiveness and ambition with which they’ve constructed their behemoth.  There may not be much money left in selling physical books on the high street, but there’s undoubtedly a bit more in selling them online (for now, at least).

So there’s a possible outline of our future: radically fewer bricks and mortar bookstores, and Amazon dominating the sale (maybe the publishing, too) of both paper and e-books.  We can hope for stronger competition to emerge in the e-book field as time goes on, since the ecology of that area is still in flux, but Amazon’s proved itself an incredibly resourceful and assertive operator so far, so I don’t suppose they’ll concede any ground too easily.

Many folk celebrate the e-book revolution as a cathartic destruction of old-fashioned, restrictive practices and businesses, which is freeing up established and aspiring writers, small-scale publishers and even readers, and opening up huge new vistas of choice.  Which is at least partly true, and worth celebrating.  Choice is a fragile and sometimes illusory thing, though.  At the moment, we’re seeing the destruction pretty clearly, but the compensatory creation of diverse, viable and sustainable mechanisms for the production, distribution and sale of a healthy variety of high quality writing doesn’t seem to be proceeding with quite the same vigour (unless you’re Amazon, and in their case diversity – by which in this context I specifically mean competition – is very much not something they’re looking to foster).

That’s inevitable, and hopefully we’ll end up somewhere positive in the end, but there does seem to be a risk that here, in the middle of the messy process, good stuff might get torn down along with the bad and some new bad stuff might get built on the wreckage.  Such is life, and watching it all certainly makes for an interesting spectator sport.

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