Just Arrived, 10/14/10

All this talk of electronic books today makes me want to tell you about the physical books which have arrived at my house in the last week. And here we go:

* The Wonderful Future That Never Was, Gregory Benford and the Editors of Popular Mechanics (Hearst Books): Or, hey, this is where your flying car went. The picture-heavy book looks at all the breathless predictions about the future that Popular Mechanics has made over its century-long publishing history and tells you all about the ones that didn’t quite show up — at least not in the form shown here. Well, at least we don’t have to all wear silvery tunics. I was slipped an early version of the book to see if I would blurb it, and had so much fun with it that I did. If you’re a big future nerd like I am (or alternately, a retro science fiction writer who needs reference material for when steampunk burns out), this is going be a book you’ll want. It’s out now, and ironically one for which getting the print version is definitely the way to go.

* Echo, Jack McDevitt (Ace): Nebula Award winner McDevitt adds to the Alex Benedict saga, and this time the galaxy’s foremost antiquities collector is hot on the trails of clues that point to evidence of a whole new alien civilization — only the second ever found. This hits on November 2.

* The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, edited by Robin Harve and Stephanie Meyers (Harper Perrenial): No, not  Stephenie Meyer, although how amusing would that be? This is a collection of Christmas-related essays from A-list atheists like Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Neal Pollack, my personal pal Phil Plait, and others, including Simon Le Bon, which is a name that pretty much pops the “bwuh?” button for me, but, hey, welcome to the party, Simon. The front matter of the book says the book is “an atheist book it’s safe to leave around your grandmother,” which certainly sounds like a dare to me.  This is also out on November 2.

* The Fallen Blade, Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Orbit): Grimwood, who writes dark, twisty science fiction, is trying his hand at fantasy this time around. Is it dark and twisty? Well, with vampires skulking around the Renaissance, all signs point to oh, my, yes. I’m a fan of Grimwood’s work, so this is definitely in my “to read” pile. For all y’all, however, you’ll have to wait until January.

* Kris Longknife: Redoubtable, Mike Shepard (Ace): The latest chapter of the long-running Kris Longknife saga has our heroine fighting slavers and pirates while trying to stay clear of a powerful rival power. But then it gets personal. As it always will, sooner or later. This one lands October 26.

* Gilded Latten Bones, Glen Cook (Roc): Cook adds another installment to his fantasy private investigator series, and this time Garrett’s trying to break away from the P.I. lifestyle and settle down. But then someone tries to kidnap his love! And beats up his best friend! Hey, remember when I said it gets personal in the last paragraph? Well, guess what? It gets personal here, too. This is out in November.

* Enemies and Allies, Kevin J. Anderson (Harper): Superman! Batman! Cold war! And so on and so forth. This is the paperback edition, and is out now.

Reading Electronically: A Review

A few months ago I was given a Nook by a friend, who thought it would be something I could use. I appreciated the gesture; I wasn’t going to go out of my way to buy a dedicated eBook reader, but if one was going to be given to me, I’m sure I could find a way to use it. And so I have. In the months since, in addition to the Nook, I’ve also been reading off the iPad, the iPod Touch and off my Droid X (all of which have Nook, Kindle and other eBook reader software installed). I’ve been reading off these now for enough time to formulate some thoughts on the subject.

The first is that in fact I like reading books electronically just fine. In particular I do like reading them with the Nook, which is about the right size for my hand and has the passive “E-Ink” screen, which as it turns out really is a whole lot more comfortable to read off of than the lighted screens of the iPod, Ipad and Droid. I don’t find reading off my primary computer to be a problem, and quite like opening up a pdf file and reading it two pages at a time. But the secret there is that I have a big-ass monitor, which means I don’t have to jam it right up into my face to read stuff. That reduces eye strain quite a bit. With the iPad, iPod and Droid X, I have to get them pretty close up and after a while the eyes go screwy and want a break. With the Nook this is not a problem.

It’s not to say the Nook is perfect — its UI could use work, and the page contrast and screen refresh could be better — but if I’m reading an entire book electronically, it’s the reader I have I prefer. I’ll use the other readers for short duration reads (for example, I’ll read off the Droid when I’m taking Athena to Tae Kwon Do practice), but for a long haul reading session, it’s the E-Ink screen for me.

In terms of books, I’m not finding electronic reading is cutting into either my interest in or propensity to buy print books. As it happens, when I buy books, I tend to buy hardcovers (and occasionally trade paperbacks), and I buy them because I want to have them as much as I want to read them. For the having impulse, eBooks don’t do it for me, so I expect I’ll be buying hardcovers for some time to come. I think makes the proprietors of my local bookstore very happy.

What I find, however, is that eBooks are replacing (and this is important) increasing what would be the equivalent of my paperback purchases. I tend to buy paperbacks for travel or to replace books that have been lost/ruined, or to buy backlists of authors who I have recently discovered. But I would only do so fitfully, in part because it’s not like I don’t have a flood of new books coming through my door on a daily basis. With the eBooks, it’s a lot easier to give into that replacement/completist urge, especially when it’s coupled with travel.

When I went to AussieCon4, for example, I purchased and downloaded nine books into the Nook, including books by Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg and Matthew Woodring Stover, which I wouldn’t have been able to find in the local bookstore, because it does naturally tend to focus on newer works. Without the electronic book option, I would likely have bought those books used, which I prefer not to do with authors who are still living and desiring on occasion to eat. So in getting the electronic versions, they got royalties and I got their books to read on an insanely long plane rise across the planet, in a format that did not cause me bursitis lugging them about. As they say, everyone wins.

My own anecdotal experience as a reader is one reason why I as an author am not exactly freaking out about eBooks. I’m a writer for whom eBooks will probably be a good thing because a) I write in a genre filled with tech-friendly readers, b) I write in a genre filled with completist readers. The guy who just discovered Old Man’s War and wants to get everything else I have ever possibly written in the history of ever can do it in five minutes or less. This is not bad for me.

(Yes, that same person probably could search the Internets and find unauthorized OCR’d copies of everything I’ve written, but book retailers and publishers have made it really easy for them not to do that, and enough readers actually buy through those easy retail channels — thank you, folks — that I’m optimistic the “hey, let’s feed the author” impulse will continue for at least another generation. Heck, as I was writing this, someone just tweeted that they had finished one of my books and was now downloading another one for the Kindle. Good for them. Good for me, too.)

For me, then, eBooks are just another format I can use as an author to give people what they want, and for me as a reader to get what I want. Will they supplant hardcovers? I don’t think so, because people like physical things, and like giving them (and getting them) as gifts and having them on shelves. Will they supplant paperbacks? Not completely, because some people will still only read a couple of books a year, on airplanes or at the beach, and they’re not going to buy an eBook reader for that, even if the price comes way, way down.

Will I as a reader read and buy more because I have an eBook reader? I already do, and given the amount I travel these days, and how easy it is to travel with lots and lots of books now, I suspect I will continue to for some time to come. I don’t imagine I’ll be alone in this.

Shorts and Singles

I’ve been asked if I have any thoughts about the newly announced “Kindle Singles” thing from Amazon. The idea would be to publish shorter works via Amazon — 10k to 30k words is the range I hear batted about — and price them commensurately. The question then becomes whether there is a sufficient market for such things, and whether it will Save Short Fiction, etc. So here are some thoughts on that.

1. I think it’s reasonable that short fiction (or other short work) will sell electronically, and I have some real-world experience for that, because short fiction of mine has sold reasonably well. The God Engines is selling solidly as an electronic release, both on Amazon and elsewhere, as is “After the Coup,” the short story I wrote for Tor.com. And of course Clash of the Geeks, which is a short anthology of very short works, performed admirably just off this site alone. I acknowledge I may be an outlier due to my personal level of microfame in science fiction/writing circles. Even so, I suspect that there’s no real bar to selling shorts, as long as they’re reasonably priced for their length, and the writer in question has an established base of readers to flog.

Philosophically, I would love it if a work could be its most effective length and not a length required by publication necessities, and to the extent that electronic publication can help that, bring it on.

2. That said, there’s no guarantee that Amazon is going to be the one to effectively exploit this particular market. Amazon’s gone to this well before; some of you may remember the “Amazon Shorts” program which launched from the retailer more than five years ago. If you don’t remember it, that might also tell you something. It ended up not working particularly well.

2010 is not 2005, in no small part because rather more people now have eBook readers and are otherwise more used to reading electronically. But in many ways the issue isn’t consumer trends in reading, the issue is whether Amazon (or whomever) is committed to making its short works market viable. Part of that will be editorial selection and part of that will be marketing. If the “Kindle Singles” program ends up being yet another avenue flooded with marginally-edited, really-shouldn’t-be-published material, and people have to work to find things worth reading, then it’ll pretty much die on the vine.

Authors can be as much of a problem here as Amazon, incidentally — I suspect the “Kindle Singles” program will be an excuse for some of us to trek to the trunk and pull out the stuff we couldn’t sell elsewhere, so why not throw it up against the wall here and see if it finally sticks. But, you know. Trunk stories are very often trunk stories for a reason.

3. As with everything, the devil will be in the details — I’ll be wanting to see how Amazon plans to administer rights and divvy up payment and so on. I would expect that Amazon would also be wanting some sort of exclusive window on the material (i.e., on Kindle only) and that would have to be factored in as well.

Absent of any information at all from Amazon about the details, I’d say the first question I would have as a writer is what does this program offer that I can’t do for myself or can’t be done with one of the publishers I already have a relationship with. If I write a novella, for example, would it be better for me to release it as an Amazon Kindle, or to see if Subterranean Press wants it, because it would release it first as a lovely printed book and then electronically in all the major formats and outlets? If I write a novelette, might I not be better trying Tor.com first, with its established presence and marketing apparatus and its non-insulting per-word payment, which I am paid up front?

Alternately, I might choose to keep my options open and publish it myself, and use Amazon as an agent rather than as a publisher (just like the big boys!). It’s probably more work for me, but then it would also probably be more direct income to me as well. I’m not unknown; I could probably do just fine. Now, again, my situation is different than the situation of some other writers, although I know other writers of my acquaintance who are in a similar place. But every writer should be asking him or herself the question above. Just because Amazon (or whomever) offers a program doesn’t mean it’s a smart fit for what you do, or that it’s better then how you could do elsewise.

In sum: I think shorter works could sell electronically; I’m not 100% convinced Amazon knows how to do it based on past experience; I’m waiting to see the contracts for the details; I think it’s smart to know all your options. And there we are.