Digital writers... or readers?
By MOTOKO RICH
From NYTimes, june 5
When Mark Z. Danielewski's second novel, "Only Revolutions," is published in September, it will include hundreds of margin notes listing moments in history suggested online by fans of his work. Nearly 60 of his contributors have already received galleys of the experimental book, which they're commenting about in a private forum at Mr. Danielewski's Web site, www.onlyrevolutions.com.
Yochai Benkler, a Yale University law professor and author of the new book "The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom" (Yale University Press), has gone even farther: his entire book is available — free — as a download from his Web site. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people have accessed the book electronically, with some of them adding comments and links to the online version.
Mr. Benkler said he saw the project as "simply an experiment of how books might be in the future." That is one of the hottest debates in the book world right now, as publishers, editors and writers grapple with the Web's ability to connect readers and writers more quickly and intimately, new technologies that make it easier to search books electronically and the advent of digital devices that promise to do for books what the iPod has done for music: making them easily downloadable and completely portable.
Not surprisingly, writers have greeted these measures with a mixture of enthusiasm and dread. The dread was perhaps most eloquently crystallized last month in Washington at BookExpo, the publishing industry's annual convention, when the novelist John Updike forcefully decried a digital future composed of free downloads of books and the mixing and matching of "snippets" of text, calling it a "grisly scenario."
Hovering above the discussion of all these technologies is the fear that the publishing industry could be subject to the same upheaval that has plagued the music industry, where digitalization has started to displace the traditional artistic and economic model of the record album with 99-cent song downloads and personalized playlists. Total album sales are down 19 percent since 2001, while CD sales have dropped 16 percent during the same period, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Sales of single digital music tracks have jumped more than 1,700 percent in just two years. What writers think about technological developments in the literary world has a lot to do with where they are sitting at the moment. As a researcher and scholar, Anne Fadiman, author of "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" and "Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader," thinks a digital library of all books would be a "godsend" during research, allowing her to "sniff out all the paragraphs" on a given topic. But, she said: "That's not reading. For reading, you have to read a book in its entirety and I think there's no substitute for the look and feel and smell of a real book — the magic of the paper and thread and glue."
Others have a much less fixed notion of books. Lisa Scottoline, the author of 13 thrillers, the most recent of which, "Dirty Blonde," spent four weeks on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list earlier this spring, offers the first chapter or two of each book on her Web site; and her publisher, HarperCollins, hands out "samplers" of a few chapters of her titles in bookstores. Any of these formats are fine with her, she says. Whether its "paper, pulp, gold rimmed or digitized, I don't think you can take away from the best stories," she said.
Liberating books from their physical contexts could make it easier for them to blend into one another, a concept heralded by Kevin Kelly in an article in The New York Times Magazine last month. "Once text is digital, books seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together," wrote Mr. Kelly in an article that was derided by Mr. Updike in his BookExpo polemic. "The collective intelligence of a library allows us to see things we can't see in a single, isolated book."
"Does that mean 'Anna Karenina' goes hand in hand with my niece's blog of her trip to Las Vegas?" asked Jane Hamilton, author of "The Book of Ruth" and a forthcoming novel, "When Madeline Was Young." "It sounds absolutely deadly." Reading books as isolated works is precisely what she wants to do, she said. "When I read someone like Willa Cather, I feel like I'm in the presence of the divine," Ms. Hamilton said. "I don't want her mixed up with anybody else. And I certainly don't want to go to her Web site."
For unknown authors struggling to capture the attention of busy readers, however, the Web offers an unprecedented way to catapult out of obscurity. Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer who started a political blog, "Unclaimed Territory," just eight months ago, was recruited by a foundation financed by Working Assets, a credit card issuer and telecommunications company, to write a book this spring. Mr. Greenwald promoted the result, called "How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values From a President Run Amok," on his own blog and his publisher e-mailed digital galleys to seven other influential bloggers, who helped to send it to the No. 1 spot on Amazon.com before it was even published. This Sunday it will hit No. 11 on the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list. "I think people who are sort of on the outside of the institutions and new voices entering will be a lot more excited about this technology," Mr. Greenwald said. "That's one of the effects that technology always has. It democratizes things and brings in new readers and new authors."
For many authors, the question of how technology will shape book publishing inevitably leads to the question of how writers will be paid. Currently, publishers pay authors an advance against royalties, which are conventionally earned at the rate of 15 percent of the cover price of each copy sold.
But the Internet makes it a lot easier to spread work free. "I've had pieces put up on Web sites legally and otherwise that get hundreds of thousands of hits, and believe me I sit around thinking 'Boy, if I got a dollar every time that somebody posted an op-ed that I wrote, I'd be a very happy writer,' " said Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the forthcoming book "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million," a memoir about his hunt to discover what happened to relatives who were killed in the Holocaust.
Mr. Mendelsohn said he understood that technological shakeups take time to play out, and that he can't bemoan every lost penny. "But as an author who creates texts that people consume, I want my authorship to be recognized and I want to get compensated," he said.
Mr. Benkler, the Yale professor and author, argues that people will continue to pay for books if the price is low enough. "Even in music, price can compete with free," Mr. Benkler said. "The service has to be sufficiently better and the moral culture needs to be one where, as an act of respect, when the price is reasonable, you pay. Its not clear to me why, if people are willing to pay 99 cents for a song they won't be willing to pay $3 for a book."
He argues that without the costs of paper and physical book production, publishers could afford to give authors a higher cut of the sale price as royalties.
In the context of history, the changes that today's technology will impose on literary society may not be as earth-shattering as some may think. In fact, books themselves are a relatively new construct, inheritors of a longstanding oral storytelling culture. Mass-produced books are an even newer phenomenon, enabled by the invention of the printing press that likely put legions of calligraphers and bookbinders out of business.
That history gives great comfort to writers like Vikram Chandra, whose 1,000-page novel, "Sacred Games," will be published in January. Mr. Chandra, a former computer programmer who already reads e-books downloaded to his pocket personal computer, said he saw no point in resisting technology. "I think circling the wagons and defending the fortress metaphors are a little misplaced," he said. "The barbarians at the gate are usually willing to negotiate a little, and the guys in the fort usually end up yelling that 'we are the only good things in the world and you guys don't understand it,' at which point the barbarians shrug, knock down your walls with their amazingly powerful weapons, and put a parking lot over your sacred grounds.
"If they are in a really good mood," he added, "they put up a pyramid of skulls."
Mr. Danielewski said that the physical book would persist as long as authors figure out ways to stretch the format in new ways. "Only Revolutions," he pointed out, tracks the experiences of two intersecting characters, whose narratives begin at different ends of the book, requiring readers to turn it upside down every eight pages to get both of their stories. "As excited as I am by technology, I'm ultimately creating a book that can't exist online," he said. "The experience of starting at either end of the book and feeling the space close between the characters until you're exactly at the halfway point is not something you could experience online. I think that's the bar that the Internet is driving towards: how to further emphasize what is different and exceptional about books."