Digital Fiction 2.0: No iPod of books

While digital technology has indeed revolutionised other entertainment industries even at the consumer level—from photography, to music, to film and television—book publishing in 2009 has remained steadfastly analogue. Authors have described a ‘rhetoric of resistance’ to the idea of electronic books, perhaps fuelled by the slow take up of the technology to read and dsitribute fiction and entertainment texts.

Where authors have waded into the debate around electronic books, the focus has been on dismissals of the technology from established authors, such as E. Annie Proulx’s sneer at the ‘twitchy little screen’. Fifteen years on, her statement retains currency in the popular imagination. Although the screens are nowhere near as ‘twitchy’ today, most people assume that reading text on an e-reader could never live up to the experience of a book.

But, despite the rhetoric of resistance, manusfacturers continue to develop e-readers under the belief that the technology will eventually gain wider, if not universal, acceptance.

Several dedicated e-book readers are still available, with more models to arriving on the market. Other portable handheld devices are also capable of displaying e-book files. Reading applications and books are already available for the iPhone. With its 3.5-inch backlit display, the device itself hardly makes for great reading, but its popularity and flexibility make it a good platform for e-books to gain wider appeal. The iPhone app store in Australia had more than 1,200 books earlier this year (and far more now) in a variety of formats ready to purchase. Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro is available as a package of audio book, e-book, and other multimedia.

But the most significant recent development in e-readers has come not from the features of the device itself, but rather from the identity and intentions of its manufacturer. In November 2007, Amazon.com launched its Kindle e-reader, sparking a deluge of breathless ‘news’ stories: approximately six hundred in a matter of hours and, by July 2008, Kindle e-books accounted for six per cent of Amazon’s electronic sales. The Kindle 2, this year, repeated the success and has established the device as the frontrunner of the e-book market, in visibility if nothing else.

Even in its new incarnation, the Kindle is a rather clunky-looking device that offers little more than any contemporary electronic reader: an easy-on-the-eye ‘e-paper’ screen, a high-resolution black and white display, large portable storage for texts, and wireless connectivity to online content. What really sets the Kindle apart is Amazon’s adoption of a so-called ‘vertical business’: a model where a single company controls the production and means of access; from the acquisition from authors to the delivery of text to readers.

At the moment, the readers can purchase texts for a Kindle via a standard web browser or wirelessly directly onto the device. Content for the Kindle can be purchased only through Amazon itself. Wireless content leans heavily toward regularly-updated news and magazine content rather than fiction or other book-length works. Publishers have made Kindle versions available of both fiction and non-fiction titles, some launched on the Kindle platform print. There were some suspicious reports that the Kindle version of Dan Brown's new thriller-by-numbers was outselling its paper counterpart. By all accounts, the Kindle has been a quietly successful venture in a difficult marketplace. But Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos has indicated his company’s desire to use the Kindle as a means of changing the way people buy and consume texts.

Their inspiration, in part, is Apple Inc’s iTunes Music Store, which now dominates music sales throughout the world in partnership with the iPod. But Amazon also intends to seek and publish authors directly to the Kindle, bypassing the need to negotiate with publishers at all.

Who needs publishers? Or booksellers for that matter?

The implication for writers seeking publication would probably be minimal. Should Amazon forge headlong into publishing, it would likely adopt the same guarded curiosity towards new writers familiar to anyone who has submitted a manuscript. But how a writer, once accepted by Amazon-the-publisher, could confidently negotiate with a single publisher/marketer/seller would depend entirely on how open and transparent Amazon decides to implement its ‘vertical business’.

So far, Amazon has been about as transparent as a freak Australian dust storm.

But, while the impact of such a business model on writers is unclear at this stage, the implication for readers is potentially profound.

Aside from locking readers into a single point of purchase, Amazon has also adopted a proprietary format for Kindle texts using digital rights management (DRM) to lock the files to a single authorised device. Many worry that, by adopting DRM, Amazon wishes to reduce reading to an atomised, private activity, without the messiness and unprofitability of readers sharing with friends, borrowing from a library, or selling their books to the second-hand market.

Is that a legitimate concern or just a guess at what might be Amazon’s fantasy world?

The real danger of DRM is that, by attempting to address a real or perceived threat of piracy, publishers will place needlessly punitive and restrictive measures on the very readers they need to remain in business. This is the lesson of the disastrous impact of DRM on the music industry.

In waging a war against piracy, record companies entered into a debate over the ownership of recorded music. With ownership comes implied control over when, where, how, and even with whom the product will be ‘consumed’. At its lowest point, the Recording Industry Association of America found itself in a blizzard of crushing lawsuits against individuals throughout the United States while every attempt at DRM succeeded only in annoying legitimate listeners. And all the while sales continued to fall in every territory: 14.3 per cent in 2006 and 10.8 per cent in 2007.

In the music industry today, the long discussion over DRM seems to have reached its end with the recent announcement that the RIAA has agreed to drop DRM from all digital music sales through iTunes.

Perhaps there will be no ‘iPod of books’. Perhaps the future of digital publishing resides not so much in any single device, but in the format used to download, share, borrow, or otherwise use texts. Entirely open and universal formats for reading texts and illustrations already exist such as the PDF or portable document format (don't let Adobe fool you into thinking they own PDF—they don't) and HTML or hypertext markup language. Both formats are created and almost universally accessible on any device. PDF has the edge on consistent layout and maintains the look of text on paper, while HTML, the language of the World Wide Web, has both ubiquity and the extensibility to incorporate multimedia, potentially opening new avenues for storytelling.

Digital Fiction 3.0: Everybody panic! NOW! to come...

Digital Fiction 1.0: Hardly prophetic is back here.

My own shop for digital fiction is over here. Artist owned and operated since 2006.