News & Politics

Is Paperback Extinction Looming? Reading and Writing in the Transition Era

If books in traditional book form die, it's not the end of the world

The world keeps changing. My eye was caught by a recent story in the New York Times: The Dog-Eared Paperback, Newly Endangered in an E-Book Age. Julie Bosman takes a look at how shelf space for paperbacks in stores is shrinking or disappearing, and how the composition of what does make it to the shelves is changing.

It's something I've been noticing for some time. I predate the rise of giant brick and mortar bookstores - which themselves are now facing extinction - and I can remember when drug stores, grocery stores, news stands and such used to have a much bigger and more varied array of paperbacks promising entertaining reads at a modest price. While they were and are semi-disposable, that didn't mean there weren't gems among the offerings, or that they didn't serve a greater purpose in their way.

It's a seemingly inevitable consequence of the rise of e-books and so many other forms of entertainment competing for spare time and spare change. Is it going to turn out like Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi? - "Don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you've got till it's gone." Sorting through my own reactions to this development, I've ended up putting together some observations and tentative conclusions about the larger context here. There's a lot happening - and now's as good a time as any to take a look because it's not going to settle down any time soon. It's like living in a slow-motion avalanche. 

Take telephones. I can remember when phone numbers included letters, for the local exchange. Rotary dials, phone booths, and nothing but landlines. And you didn't own your own phone - you just rented it from Ma Bell. It was amazing to watch Captain Kirk flip open a communicator and talk to people in orbit; Spock operate a tri-corder and obtain all kinds of information. Today I walk around with a smart phone.

Radio - people freaked out when transistor radios first appeared. You could suddenly carry music and news around in your pocket; listen to major league baseball games (back when they still played in the afternoons on weekdays.) Then FM radio showed up, stereo Hi Fi. LP records. Eight track tapes. Cassettes. The Walkman. Compact Discs. Quadraphonic sound (briefly). Laser discs. Betamax - then VHS. Quartz watches. Digital Watches.

Two, then three major TV networks. Black and White TV - then color. Comm Sats. UHF - and PBS. Then cable, satellite TV. Now digital, High Def, over the net. Jet airliners. The SST. The Jumbo Jet. Then the end of the SST. Sputnik. Vanguard. Gagarin. Mercury. Gemini, Apollo. The moon. Skylab... then it fell from the skies. The Shuttle. The Hubble Space Telescope. The I.S.S. The end of the shuttle.

Computers programmed by punch cards. Slide rules. The Apple II. the TRS-80, the Commodore C-64. The IBM PC. Handheld electronic calculators. Dial-up modems; running a BBS. The original Macintosh. Delphi. AOL. Darpanet....

 And don't even think about all the changes in popular culture in that time span.

My point is, all of the above changes didn't happen overnight or in isolation. The layout of the computer keyboard reflects the ancient mechanical typewriter - and carries over to the touch screen of the iPad. Would the iPod have taken off as quickly if the Walkman hadn't broken that trail? There were periods of transition while the old was fading and the new hadn't taken a final shape yet. The biggest, fastest, cheapest, best didn't always win out - or it did and then was itself replaced by something newer. Where we are today is a much a product of timing and synergy as it is of intent.

       The pending demise of the paperback book section in stores is the latest ripple in the river of time, sliding over and around the rocks of history and events, sometimes in flood, sometimes barely moving. So, what's happening - and what are the implications? From the NY Times.

Mass-market paperback sales have been sliding since giant bookstore chains and later started heavily discounting hardcovers in the 1980s and 1990s. The decline has deepened in the last two years, said Kelly Gallagher, the vice president of publishing services for Bowker, a research organization for the publishing industry.

“You can’t list a single thing that has caused its demise,” he said. “But as e-books become more affordable and better aligned to the mass-market reader, I would have to say that I don’t think there are encouraging signs that print mass-market books will rise again. When all these things align against a certain format or category, it’s hard to recover.”

Ms. de Guzman said that Barnes & Noble used to keep a large display solely for mass-market paperbacks in the front of its stores, but that has disappeared. Borders, once a strong seller of mass-market paperbacks, especially romance, is in the process of liquidating all of its stores.

Several publishers said Wal-Mart, a major seller of mass-market paperbacks, has been quietly revamping its book selection to include fewer mass-market paperbacks and more trade paperbacks, which have higher production values: better-quality paper and larger covers.

Even airport stores, traditionally a mainstay retailer of mass-market paperbacks, are shunning them more frequently in favor of hardcovers and trade paperbacks.

     I'm going to rattle off a few points that occur to me. I'll freely admit I don't know to what extent those points correspond to what's actually happening, but they seem of concern to me. Are e-books the big factor behind the decline of mass market paperbacks, or is more going on? We're living through a real change in the way we deal with the 'printed' word and there are a lot of things to look at. Consider them starting points for discussion.

    • Access Denied? How many people are reading these days, reading for pleasure or diversion? Although hardcover books are getting discounted, they're still more expensive - and a lot less portable. You can throw a couple of paperbacks in a backpack or a bag without too much trouble - and not worry if they get wet, lost, etc. because the cost is not that high. You can pull them out anywhere there's enough light and conditions permit reading. Once the book is in your hands, that's all you need.

   E-books? You have to make investments up front to even begin - if you have the money. You need a reader of some kind, maybe an internet connection - and then you have to worry about incompatible formats, storage space, battery life... How do you  book mark them? Underline a favorite passage? Some readers allow this after a fashion, but there's no consistent way of doing so. E-books on your smart phone? Okay - if you can live with the small screen and don't mind having to keep recharging it - or don't mind going nuts trying to read in bright sunlight. It's a different experience than holding a paperback. Good or bad? That's still being worked out, but the preliminary answer is Yes/No/Maybe. YMMV.

Can You See What I Hear? Audio books are a problem of a different sort. Again as with e-books, how do you mark your place? I've gone through two audio books that came on CDs. The track listings were just numbers; no chapter headings, nothing corresponding to a page number, no index. Maybe it's not easy to figure how to do those things in a audio format - but really?  It makes listening to them a pain if you lose track of where you were, or want to go back to a section. (I've found I can read a book a lot faster than I can listen to it, too.)

   • The Exposure Factor. What happens when the publishing industry increasingly relies on big-name best-selling authors for their product line? What happens when they simply aren't putting out as many titles in a year? How likely are they to invest in a new writer? This is an old problem, but the decline of mass market paperbacks makes it worse. Potential readers are presented with fewer and fewer choices. Writers face higher odds against making it into print, and becoming that 'big name'.

      I'll admit to being a huge fan of science fiction. I got into the habit long ago of checking out the book racks to see if any of my favorite authors had anything new out, or if there was something interesting looking by an author I wasn't familiar with. I could just pick up the book, thumb through it, and get an idea if it was worth buying. Half the fun was just looking at the artwork on the cover and reading the blurb on the back.

      That's not as much fun anymore - there's a smaller selection these days, and a lot of space is taken up by 'franchise' books - books that are big on vampires, werewolves, latest movies in novel form, 'classics' that have been around forever... There's any number of novels I've enjoyed that were never meant for the hardcover market, that were not intended to be anything but light entertainment. That's what the mass market is all about, right?

     Some were written by people who were just trying to make a living; some were big name authors taking a break from their regular material, branching out in a new direction. Not all writers do series works, where there's a central character or characters in book after book; some used to create whole new worlds from scratch every time. With the decline of paperbacks, how much of that is going to be possible?

      Science Fiction as a genre may have declined in popularity lately (or not - feel free to argue in comments), which is one reason why there doesn't seem to be as many titles out for view. I'll admit to going through a long patch where it seemed like the whole Sci Fi section was nothing but Star Trek or Star Wars spin offs. I expect the same has happened with Fantasy fans after LOTR hit the big screen, not to mention He Who Made J.K. Rich... Still, I have to wonder how much a problem a shrinking selection is across all genres these days, as paperbacks fight for shelf space.

    • The Collectibles. Mass market paperbacks offer another option: story collections. Some writers publish in magazines, not full-length epics. Paperback collections allow them to bundle all of those disparate works together in one place, letting the writer and the publisher A) reach an audience beyond the magazine readership, B) get more money out of the same works, and C) give fans something to read while waiting for the next full-length novel. For writers who don't do full length novels, story collections are the only way to go.

    AND... collections can also be put together featuring a variety of writers. Throwing in a few established big names can draw in readers who then get exposed to other writers that they may not encounter otherwise. It can be a win-win.

      Does this work in e-books? It can - but it depends on the pricing model the publishers want to follow. instead of buying an entire collection, readers might opt to buy only the stories by writers they know, or that they think they'll like. (It's similar to the way Albums sales have been cannibalized by digital music stores where people can buy individual tracks.) Or, the publisher may simply not choose to 'bundle' stories together.

    • Economic concerns and the integrity of the time line. Publishing dead tree editions of anything is a gamble; so many have to be printed up to make a printing run achieve economies of scale - but if they don't sell well, it doesn't pay. Inventory has to be shipped, stocked, tracked, disposed of in the bricks and mortar world. All of that adds to publisher costs.

       E-books cost nothing to duplicate once all the editing is done. So, how do they get priced? Same as the hardcover edition, with instant delivery when a book is first released, discounting as time goes by? Low pricing, to sell more e-readers, reach a wider market? What about copies - suppose you have more than one way to read it, or a friend wants' to 'borrow' it? Who owns what when you don't have something you can hold in your hands? It's not an academic question.

     And when there's no physical copy of a book, who's going to know if it gets revised, rewritten or otherwise altered down the road with none the wiser? It's not like it hasn'talready happened - but it's going to be a lot easier.

    • The Battle for Eyeballs. The same technology that makes e-books possible is also capable of providing alternatives. Movies on demand; television shows both current and from the past; video games; blogging; reading blogs; social media. Who needs to read when there are so many other ways to spend time? Well, one answer is: anyone who wants to keep their imagination and visualizing skills sharp, or for that matter, the skill of reading and comprehending what's on the page.

        I have not seen all of the Harry Potter movies or any of the LOTR movies. It's not because I don't like going to theaters or the expense - though that is a factor. It's that if I really enjoy a book, the experience on screen seldom can match the experience in the theater of my mind. A good writer can evoke sights, smells, sounds, images - and I can draw on my own inner universe to make it happen and expand on it. Reading may look like a passive activity from the outside, but it can engender a lot of mental activity. And my budget for effects, etc. is limited only by my imagination.  Watching a screen version of a book I've read... just doesn't give me the same experience.

          It cuts both ways of course - some movies don't translate well into print. This isn't really an argument against e-books; for this purpose reading on paper or reading on screen is interchangeable...up to a point. A key element is that the technology not be intrusive. One reason the iPad works with books is that it's large enough to display a good sized page of text and/or pictures, in color if need be. Having to scroll, work through menus, etc. - well it's the difference between simply reading, or operating a reader. The more transparent the process, the more attention that can be given to the text.

    Am I completely dissing digital media and e-books? No. There are things that traditional dead tree works can't do, and this isn't a Luddite anti-techno screed. (Considering I'm typing on a laptop through a web browser to write this, it would be beyond ironic.) What I'm really looking at here at this moment in time, is how a change is occurring which will have lasting effects. We can't really appreciate where we're going if we don't understand where we're coming from.

   • More Than Physical  Paperback books have advantages which I've touched on above - but they also have disadvantages. They wear out, get damaged, fall apart. They take up shelf space to store. A digital library will always appear fresh - and you can carry it around with you given network access or sufficient digital storage.

       I have a large collection of paperbacks and hardcover books. Keeping them organized, keeping track of them takes a certain amount of effort - which is not helped by other family members who regard them as dust collectors, a waste of space, and a mystery since they can't understand why anyone would need to read a book more than once. Why keep them around? Sigh.

       Digital books also offer flexibility. It's possible to scale pages up or down in size, to cope with failing eyesight. Including color artwork/photos is no big deal in e-formats given the right reader - but just not economically practical for mass-market paperbacks. An e-book can be as long or as short as needed to tell a story - there's no need to figure in how many pages need to be set in type, printed, and bound, or how big a press run is practical.

    • The Great Divide The difference between then, now, and tomorrow is that we're in the middle of a sea change. We have a centuries of titles that came out before the introduction of e-books; we have books today being published in both formats; in the future we may have fewer and fewer books being put on paper.

       Some of those legacy titles are important enough, or in enough demand that they're being converted to digital format. Some of them aren't, and never will be. One reason I hang on to some pretty battered old paperbacks is that they'd be impossible to replace - but they're still enjoyable. It's not a new problem either; there are many, many books that have gone out of print and are effectively lost without a trace. While mass-market works may seem inconsequential, they have worth in other areas. They capture a sense of the times in which they were written, a slice of the culture they appealed to - and perhaps attitudes and knowledge that has been lost along with the passing of their readers who lived in that milieu. Those books are a window into their times.

       Now, efforts like the Gutenburg Project and Google Books are addressing that issue - though not without controversy. Copyright issues, arguments about the commercialization, etc. mean that although the technology is available to digitize books on a large scale, the social and economic issues are still being hashed out. Who pays, who profits in other words.

      And, who decides which books get converted? That's still an evolving situation. Does anyone know of an affordable, accurate system for home use? That wouldn't take days to process a book or risk damaging it to scan it? Anyone involved in running a library has to be giving a lot of thought to this too.

      It's not unlike the problem of having a big collection of vinyl LPs - what do you do with them? There are recordings that will never be released in digital form, either because those with control over them don't want to do so, don't think they can make enough money to justify it, have trashed the original masters, or can't sort out ownership issues.

    • Mining the Past Still, some things lend them selves to digital conversion. Kalmbach Publishing is making the complete set of 70 years of Trains magazine available on DVD. That represents a set of historical writings and images that gain added value from being collected in one place. A specialty publication, it already has a potential market ready and waiting - the question is, have they hit the right price point? What if they also make it available on-line, on some kind of subscription basis? The subscription model hasn't been all that popular to date, but that doesn't mean it can't be made viable.

      For my own part, I'd love to see someone assemble all of the adventures of The Saint in some kind of digital collection. Leslie Charteris, the creator of Simon Templar, had an active writing career that spanned decades. He put out short stories, novels, and multi-volume tales. One of the things I enjoy about the series is not just the characters and the writing, but the way Charteris managed to keep updating the Saint over the years while still maintaining continuity.

      I suspect that there's a potentially viable business model here, in locating works that would appeal to specialized audiences collected together, complete sets of favorite authors, complete adventures of, etc. etc. While a lot of this material - like mass market paperbacks - may have initially been published essentially as a throw-away item, enough of them collected together just might be enough to achieve a literary "critical mass". The complete Doc Savage, the Shadow or other pulp classics anyone?

        One thing I would like to see happen is a project to make sure something like theLibrary of Congress is fully vested in keeping on top of all these projects and given the resources to maintain a collection of them as they become available. It looks like the effort is being made - but it would be nice if we someday ended up with the equivalent of Gordon Dickson's The Final Encyclopedia. It's a little too important to leave to the random chance of market forces.

       • Betamax Anyone? Let's consider the format problem while we're at it. There's still a battle going on over what kind of e-formats best serve translating books into digital form. What extra features are worth adding, what are distractions?

Trouble rather the tiger in his lair than the sage amongst his books. For to you Kingdoms and their armies are things mighty and enduring, but to him they are but toys of the moment, to be overturned by the flicking of a finger....

                           Lessons: Anonymous

    I was able to go to a bookshelf, open a book (Tactics of Mistake by Gordon R. Dickson) , and find the above quote to amplify my point above - because I remembered the book and about where it was. Now, I can find that quote on the net with a search too - but how many e-books allow searching for text? Suppose you have an entire library of e-books - would it be possible to search through them all as well?

      Or suppose you want additional features, like adding audio or video footnotes to a work? Select a word and have it pronounced, explained with a dictionary listing? Hypertext links to other material? Suppose you resize text to make it more readable - does that shift all your page numbers, indexes, table of contents as well? At what point does feature creep start to over-burden the material? TANSTAAFL - the more things you want in an e-book format, the more complicated it'll be to implement, the bigger the burden on the hardware needed to run it, and the greater the difficulty of agreeing on common standards.

      And let's not forget the not so minor problem of paying for all this. Along with feature loaded formats, there's usually copyright issues, ownership issues, and costs for licensing/supporting formats. Depending on what kind of e-reader a person is using, all of the above makes getting books onto it in a format it can handle an interesting challenge. How'd you like to be in charge of getting e-book readers for a school system, or a business? Getting it wrong could be expensive - and leave you in a bad place down the road if new formats appear that are incompatible, or your installed base gets left behind. And then there's an old problem.

   The organization I work for got a new head honcho several months ago. He's deliberately paper-phobic; wants all reports, messages electronically and just won't look at anything on paper. But.... it's not like he's going to see the thousands of other employees in the organization all get smart phones, laptops, or iPads, not when we're facing layoffs, budget cuts, and salary concessions.  Funny how that works, hmm? (And of course, I'd be thinking scurrilous thoughts if I contemplated how much easier it is to make electronic communications 'disappear' in the unlikely event of discovery motions, subpoenas, and the like.

    • Remember WYSIWYG? The advent of the original Macintosh and the Apple Laserwriter, along with Pagemaker way back in the dark ages of the 1980s started a revolution in the printing/publishing business. It allowed an individual to create printed works of a quality that used to require a full-fledged print shop staffed by full time professionals. Desktop publishing is now so common, it's largely invisible - but at the time it created an entire new publishing niche. Authors could write, edit, and publish books on demand - and print shops that wanted to survive had to adopt the new technology and be ready to accommodate customers using it.

      The newspaper business got turned around as electronic publishing took over - you no longer needed huge, complicated machines and skills to put together a credible newspaper, with the right computer technology and software. The trend has continued on steroids(blatant commercial plug) into the internet age, to the point where traditional dead tree newspapers are finding it harder and harder to compete with the net. Those without a viable net presence and a strategy for making money from it are in real trouble - and that includes some big names. It's also had some serious consequences for others in the publishing food chain as their ecosystem has been disrupted. Tom Tomorrow captures the dilemma in this timely work.

Swimming in the Digital Sea

        As the digital world of literature expands and evolves, there are new opportunities to counter some of the downside effects. As desktop publishing expanded the possibilities for a writer to get their work into print, the internet and e-publishing continues the trend. In theory, it's no longer necessary for a writer to sign a book deal with a publishing house to get into print; without the need to put text on paper, a web site will do. Of course, there's still the not inconsiderable hurdle of Heinlein's rules for becoming a successful writer. The short version is:

    • 2) You must sell what you write.

   How, of course, is the rub, especially #2. Paypal buttons, merchandise sales, ads - these are all ways writers are trying to make writing pay. I believe it was Tom Tomorrow who responded to the oft-heard statement "Information wants to be free" with the observation "But the rent wants to be paid." Getting paid - especially when there is so much for 'free' on the net is problematic.

     • They Do It With Pictures

   For my own part, I'm not all that aware of a lot of new novels by new writers appearing on the web - but that may reflect my own tastes. One thing I have noticed however, is that the visual nature of the web allows people creating illustrated works a  much lower barrier to getting 'published' and seen. Scott McCloud is both a practicing and theoretical cartoonist, who has given a lot of thought to the infinite canvas of digital media and the web. (He's also put out some thought-provoking dead tree books on the subject.)

       For McCloud and others, the internet is not just about what the technology offers, it's also about past history and current economics in the dead tree publishing world. Scott McCloud and others attempted to formulate a Creators Bill of Rights. It's impact is debatable, but it does illuminate the issues. The Internet has attracted cartoonists in large numbers in part because of a long history of creators getting seriously shafted by publishers.

       There's plenty of new cartooning talent that will never make it into your local newspaper - if you still have one - simply because there is only so much space available, and for a newbie to break in, it usually means an old favorite must be sacrificed. Or comics just disappear altogether. (Again, see Tom Tomorrow.) Moving to the internet isn't just about opportunity. In some cases it's about survival.

        Nonetheless, some creators are finding ways to prosper.There's some amazing work to be found out there. (Also some pretty awful stuff - but that's Sturgeon's Law for you.) Call them graphic novels, call them comic books, or comic strips - they're out there, and breaking out of the print-on-paper push-through-stores channel is allowing creators to do so pretty amazing stuff, some of which simply wouldn't happen because it'd never find a large enough audience or didn't fit a standard sales category.

   • Creators At Work:

     Several years ago, Scott Christian Sava embarked on an ambitious web project: The Dreamland Chronicles. An all ages fantasy in beautiful CGI art, Sava has already put up over 1300 pages in his ongoing story. He supports his efforts by a combination of ad revenue from people clicking through ads on the TDC homepage, merchandise sales including books, iPhone apps related to his work, and donations through Kickstarter. The Dreamland Chronicles isn't everything Sava has going - but it's still a major effort.

     Another on-going saga is Girl Genius, the story of Agatha Heterodyne struggling to reclaim her heritage and realize her full potential in an alternate universe pretty firmly steam-punk flavored. The story has won numerous awards for the creative team behind it, and spawned a merchandising empire of trinkets, books, art work, audio books, and more. Additional income is generated by donate buttons and ads.

       Schlock Mercenary by Howard Tayler follows the adventures of a company of galactic mercenaries in the distant future. It's now Tayler's full time gig. Again, ads, merchandise, book sales, iApps, etc. help keep the home fires burning.

        • They Do It With Words

        One largely word-powered effort I've run across is The Airship Flying Cloud, by Paul Gazis. It takes the form of a weekly serial text adventure, with a single illustration. Running for over two years now, it's an engaging slightly tongue in cheek romp through an alternate past:

It is a world much like our own, except that the Great War ended in 1916. As the Powers recoiled, exhausted, from the tragedies of Verdun and the Sommes, Woodrow Wilson was able to negotiate an Armistice that returned Europe to its pre-War borders. (For this accomplishment, he was honored with the Nobel Prize, though this was later tarnished by the failure of his long-sought League of Nations.) With the forcing ground of military need removed, aircraft development took a different path from the one it followed in our world, and effort that might have been wasted on developing glamorous but impractical aeroplanes was spent perfecting the far more capable airships. As the 1920's drew to a close, the world was peaceful and prosperous, linked by fleets of mighty lighter-than-air vessels from many nations.

      The above selections are just a few out of the vast amounts to be found on the web these days - feel free to share your favorites in comments.

   • e-Authorship

      Serials have a long tradition - many of Charles Dickens books appeared in serial form. People could get a fix of their favorite author in installments, the author could get a steady income - and resell the material in complete book form at the end of the tale.  Modern authors continue the practice - and using the internet makes it easier. Stephen King has experimented with putting novels out via the web with some success. And that's part of a larger trend.

      Where once writers would maybe do book tours, appear on talk shows, etc. to sell books, meet and greet fans, and so forth, these days the Internet, social media, and the like make it possible to interact with fans to a much greater degree. And vice versa. The literary ecosystem has gotten more complex than ever. Chances are, if you have a favorite author, there's some kind of web presence to keep up with what they're doing, look at their bibliography, chat, blog, email, or whatever, not to mention fan fics, fan art, etc. The word I'm looking for to encompass this is community.

      Some writers have embraced it on their own, some of it is fan driven, and some of it is powered by publishers staking out territory on the web. It's an inevitable response to the need to market to new audiences and grow existing ones. Baen Books is one I check out from time to time - they have a number of my favorite authors there, make stories and selected chapters from novels available for free (to entice readers), and quite a bit more. They try to cover all the bases. The last Vorkosigan series novel they put out in hardcover, Cryoburn, had a bonus CD included with text versions of nearly all the previous books in the saga, art work, interviews with author Lois McMaster Bujold, and more on the web. Much more.

    Some forms of traditional dead tree publishing will continue with hardly a twitch. The coffee table book format is one, in which the book itself becomes a work of art. The bindings, cover art, quality paper, illustrations - it's all a package that simply doesn't translate to digital form. But that doesn't mean it won't be marketed digitally. The Science Fiction Book Clubroutinely offers new titles in science fiction, fantasy and other genres - and the equivalent of coffee table books, calendars, etc.

  • The Age of Digital Enlightenment

     The scientific community literally can not function without publishing. Doing science means getting it out to other scientists, so knowledge can be reviewed, challenged, built on, recorded... Scientific publishing is a specialized niche, with contradictory impulses. Science can't be done without the free exchange of information - but control of that information determines priority, credit, and standing. That free exchange still has to be paid for some how. The current system is not pretty.

     Scientists have to work really hard at submitting papers for publication. There's the question of finding a journal that will be receptive to the work, one rated high enough to make the effort worth it. Then there's getting it past peer review (typically three other researchers in the same field, one of whom will like it, one who may not really understand it, and one who hates with a passion the underlying principles of the work. There's also the problem of reviewers using that advance look at a paper to 'enhance' their own work.) There's writing and re-writing. There's the long wait to get it into print - during which the scientist can't talk about the work to anyone. And they have to hope no other journal runs a paper by someone else on the same discoveries while they wait for their paper to appear...

     After publication, the author's control over the publication is limited - as is access by others unless they have a subscription to the journal, or are willing to pay for every article they want/need to read. Considering that science papers generally have list of all the papers referred to in the publication, and the researcher needs to have copies of those papers in turn... Well it all adds up. A number of scientists are not happy with this situation, and are taking steps to change it to an open access model. It's still developing, and there areseveral variants out there.

   But, as with traditional dead tree newspapers, print media savvyness is no longer sufficient to communicate. Some things simply can't be reduced to printed words on a page, like thistime-lapse movie of star formation from years of HST photos. (After you watch a commercial first!) New Scientist routinely features science videos on its website. The Scientist is doing what it can to encourage scientists to spiff up their communications with the information tech now available. And why shouldn't they? The science print publications have been moving to the internet for some time now.

     • Position Report

   So, where does all this leave us now? The decline of the mass market paperback is occurring as a plethora of new ways ways come into use to let authors create works, find an audience, and broaden the experience beyond words on a page. Is this a good thing? How many new readers will there be in the future, when the threshold to readership entry is obtaining a device of some kind? What kind of barriers to entry will there be for novice authors - and how will they get started? Will traditional publishing houses be able to keep a secure foothold in the dead tree world while expanding into the e-world? Yes/No/Maybe - take your pick.

       There's a broader spectrum of opportunity here; a wider range of economic niches to seek and occupy. There are plenty of amateurs, creating for just the pleasure of the experience, sharing their works freely. There's the equivalent of freelancers, going it largely alone at whatever level of profit/loss they're willing to tolerate/surmount. There are new mechanisms of support, web-based services and such, online merchandising, online communities. There are still the more traditional artists, working with publishers offering editors to nurture new talent, publicity, financial advances, etc. It all overlaps, competes, and otherwise concatenates in ways that are still evolving. You can't beat Sturgeon's Law, but if there's a large enough pool of talent at work, that 10% can add up to quite a bit - especially as people each have their own criteria for sifting out that 10%.

    • Keeping the Tubes Open

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