Okay, it’s time to get serious about online science fiction. New and reprint sites are popping up like mushrooms after a monsoon. Hardware and software companies are offering new, or at least improved, technologies to ease the strain of eyeballing print on screens. And of course, with his phenomenally-successful Riding the Bullet, Stephen King would single-handedly seem to have legitimized the entire e-publishing industry -- and not just our own little corner of it. Or has he? King’s second foray into ebooks, a serial called The Plant, is under a cloud as I type on this bright September afternoon. Should he shut it down, as he is currently threatening to do, he may well slow public acceptance of ebooks.
But nothing will stop it.
You see, more important than the King phenomena is the Evil Empire’s release of Microsoft Reader , yours free for the downloading. Its Clear Type technology is supposed to “deliver the look and feel of high resolution printing to on-screen reading.” Well, maybe. Even the large typeface looks pretty small to these middle-aged eyes on a fifteen inch monitor. Heaven forbid that I’ll ever have to plough though a book of Dune-ish proportions on a laptop, Clear Type or no. But Microsoft Reader is a signal from Our Kindly Uncle Bill to print publishers and cyber-entrepreneurs alike: this market is now open for serious business.
If the truth be told, I’d rather access content with the Glassbook Reader which can also read Adobe Acrobat PDF files, mostly because it is much more flexible than Microsoft Reader with regards to sizing typeface. For those visionaries reading stories on a Palm or Handspring’s Visor , or one of the Windows CE handhelds, there is the Peanut Reader . Yet another hardware/software platform for ebooks is the relaunch of the Rocket ebook and the Softbook Reader . These, you may recall, are the much-ballyhooed devices that were supposed to replace paper books. They did not exactly take the marketplace by storm, in part because they cost too damn much. The two companies that produced them were subsequently gobbled up by Gemstar, which has the deep pockets to give them a second chance. I’ve played some with the Rocket eBook and I have to say that it has serious technogeek appeal, but I’m still worried that it doesn’t hit the price point most cheapskates – me, for instance -- are willing to pay.
But what is an ebook, anyway? According to eBookAd.com , “The term ebook refers to an electronic book. A good ebook consists of much more than the textual contents of a book. It preserves the style, page layout, fonts and graphics of a publication.” It’s worth noting that the term ebook does not necessarily imply that the work is of “book length.” A short story can be an ebook. Now, not all science fiction online is in an ebook format. Several of the most important new sf sites present their wares in good old HTML. The problem with HTML is that it is plug ugly. There are no indents at the start of a paragraph and all paragraphs have a space in between them. I suppose I might get used to these quirks eventually -- perhaps the day after the heat death of the universe. There has been talk for some time of a revision to HTML that will offer the look and feel of print. It can’t come soon enough for me, since I find reading stories in a browser window to be ever so slightly distracting, sort of like walking around with a shoe untied.
Another important difference between ebooks and website-based fiction is that, for the most part, the good ebooks are going to cost you, while much of the best website-based fiction is free. For the rest of this column, I’m going to focus on ebooks. Next time out, I’ll point you at some of the new fiction websites.
When I searched eBookAd.com, it turned up 592 science fiction titles. Here are some of the major players in ebook publishing.
Baen Books Webscriptions is “A web based re-creation of the serialized novel using Science Fiction published by Baen Books .” For ten dollars a month, subscribers will have access to a directory containing serialized segments of books from the frontlist of Baen Books. Over the course of three months, the entire book will appear on the site. What interesting about this deal is that subscribers will have the opportunity to read these books prior to print publication. In fact, the site includes a disclaimer stating that what will be posted before publication will be “un-proofed copy similar to galley copies.” Once the book is released in print, all segments will be replaced with proofed copy. Of course, now that I’ve told you that an ebook preserves the look of print, I must contradict myself: Webscription ebooks will be posted in HTML. Despite this drawback, Webscriptions is the boldest foray any major sf publisher has made onto the net.
Byron Preiss’s imprint ibooks , inc.launched in September '99. Ibooks are published simultaneously on the net and in paper, where they are distributed by Simon and Schuster. The ibooks list concentrates on the backlist of such old masters as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Alfred Bester and Harry Harrison and franchise work, with a particular concentration in novels derived from Isaac’s work. Prices range between eight and twelve dollars. The ibooks site has an ambitious offshoot at The SciFiVine where you’ll find a community of science fiction fans busily posting messages and chatting about the genre.
Back in May, Melisa and Richard Michaels started Embiid Publishing . “Part of our goal,” writes Melisa, "was to get electronic publishing started in a more author-and-reader-friendly direction than paper publishing has gone.” Between the two of them, they have a winning combination of talent and experience. Melisa, for example, is the author of ten novels and, until recently, was the webmaster and driving force behind one of the best science fiction sites on the web, that of the Science Fiction Writers of America . Thus far they have produced eighteen previously published books by an eclectic list of writers like Avram Davidson, William Sanders, Modean Moon and Melisa herself. All their ebooks are encrypted for a proprietary Embiid Reader , freeware which can be used to read text files in any size up to 48 points. Also supported is the Rocket eBook format. Prices range from three to five dollars.
ElectricStory.com is another brand new reprint site. Its list isn’t that long yet, but it is choice, including novels and short story collections by Lucius Shepard, Terry Bisson, Tony Daniel and Michael Bishop. Wonderful books by Howard Waldrop, Rudy Rucker and Paul Park are soon to follow. The list price is $7.99 for each title but you may find them at a discount. You can’t actually buy books at the site; instead you have to click to Powells.com or Barnes&Noble.com . But the ElectricStory site is well worth a visit for the freebies they offer. At this writing they include three stories from different collections on the list and Lucius Shepard’s idiosyncratic and often hilarious movie reviews.
A friendly word of warning before I commend Fictionwise to your attention. I have a financial relationship with this reprint short fiction site; you can buy some of my stories there. So where do I get off mentioning it? Here are ten good reasons, in alphabetical order: Gardner Dozois, Karen Haber, John Kessel, Damon Knight, Nancy Kress, Mike Resnick, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Robert Silverberg, Michael Swanwick and Kate Wilhelm. Fictionwise has managed to entice some of our most accomplished short fiction practitioners to post stories. And most are represented not with just a story or two, but with ten or more. Prices range from sixty cents to two dollars for individual stories; “bundles” of stories, collected either by theme or by individual writer, range from ten to twenty dollars. The simple fact is that nowhere else on the web is there a larger collection of award-winning and award-nominated science fiction than at Fictionwise. So I apologize to those who think I’m using this space to flog my own product. Just skip my stuff and go for the Malzberg.
I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with e-reads.com . None of the links on their site are active. It could be that I just arrived before they were ready to do business. But their slogan “Bringing back the books you love by authors you remember,” has a certain ring, don’t you think. And some of their product is available now, even though their site isn’t, with capable authors like Fritz Leiber, R. A. McAvoy and Susan Schwartz.
At the start of the twenty-first century, editors and publishers may well feel as though they are laboring under the famous Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” It seems clear that the once staid publishing industry is in the midst of a revolution. As in any revolution, casualties are inevitable. It's likely that some of the new e-publishers may not survive. Similarly it may be that some of the dinosaurs of print may go extinct, if they do not adapt to the changing digital environment.
Perhaps the most difficult problem e-publishers will face is finding a way to make money selling fiction on the net. Information wants to be free, or so they say. And if it isn’t free, any number of netizens are willing to find ways to set it free. Hackers and data pirates have some print publishers scared silly. Sure you can xerox a novel if you have a copier and a couple of hours, but who is going to go to all that trouble? But in a matter of minutes you can burn the complete works of Shakespeare onto a CD-ROM or send it through your broadband connection to Osaka, Oslo and Oshkosh.
Writers too will face challenges. Will we see a kinder, gentler online publishing industry, one that is less driven by a best seller mentality? A publisher of ebooks has no need of a warehouse or a distribution system that deals with moving atoms from here to there. She can afford patience with a book, giving it time to find its audience. But then how will ebooks find their audiences? Even if only a fraction of the greatest hits of the science fiction backlist becomes available, it will flood a market which already offers far, far too many choices. Is a new writer, promising but not yet in full cry, going to be able to compete against the collected works of Robert A. Heinlein?
What? You weren't expecting me to come up with the answers to these Big Questions, were you? If you were, it's a good thing I'm just about out of room for this installment. Besides, I'm better at reporting than punditry.
I'm just sitting here with my fingers curled over the keyboard, waiting for the next interesting site to jump off the screen.
© 2001 by James Patrick Kelly. First Published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, March, 2001.