Monday, November 30, 2009

Loscon: Books and Nooks

Amy and I spent Friday-Sunday at the 36th annual Loscon science fiction convention, held this year at the LAX Marriott. Loscon tends to focus more on books than on movies or other SF media; and as usual, there were several booksellers in the dealers' room, including mail-order house Cargo Cult books. Cargo Cult is one of the few mail-order places that actually mails out a periodic circular of books and videos -- a rarity in a day when even Sears doesn't mail out a catalog any more.

The Nook e-reader that I have on order has changed my approach to such sellers. Previously, I'd browse the tables, see what SF books looked interesting (cover and interiors), and then calculate (a) how much I'd like to spend and (b) how much space a new book would take up. This time, I found myself browsing the tables to find books that I might potentially download as e-books. The nasty part of that, of course, is that I would be cutting the bookseller out of the deal.

I'm aware that as e-readers grow in popularity, this attitude will likely become a trend that will threaten the already tenuous position of independent booksellers. The folks who buy books -- a shrinking part of the population -- will gravitate toward e-books, which are sold either by the big-box websites or directly by the publisher. The same phemomenon we've seen with iPods and music sellers may play out. Sure, there will always be folks who prefer the heft, look and smell of a physical book -- just like there are those who would not dream of listening to anything except a 33 1/3 LP. But in a way, such habits are self-defeating: the folks who most treasure books likely have the most books, and thus will benefit most from those space-saving e-readers.

Other dangers loom. Print is a medium that outlasts formats. Already we are seeing a format war, with Amazon using a proprietary format for its e-books that no one else can use, and the Nook able to read various formats the Amazon Kindle can't touch. If you can read, and can open a book (or have someone open it for you), you're set, no matter the state of technology. But imagine if the crucial works of the 20th century were recorded on 5 1/2" floppies, or 8-track tapes. Think of the COWBOY BEBOP episode in which folks in the future are trying to watch a videotape -- and worse, a Beta videotape.

Despite such dire possibilities, I'm getting the Nook. I don't think I can single-handedly bring about the death of print.


Donald Burr of Borg said...

You draw an interesting parallel there. Devices such as the Kindle and the Nook are indeed (IMHO) the iPod of the book publishing world. And similar to what the iTunes Music Store (and stores like it) did to the corner record store, we will (sad to say) see some casualties in the bookseller department as well. I doubt the world will miss a few Borders or Barnes and Noble locations (just as how the world seems to be getting by without Tower Records or The Wherehouse), but it's the loss of the corner record store that many people are lamenting. Still, even in this era of digital music downloads, there are some smaller, more independent/eclectic record stores that still survive, so hopefully the same will be true of booksellers.

At the same time, this world of e-readers presents an interesting opportunity for authors to more directly reach their readership - by publishing their own ebooks. This is especially true for devices such as the Nook that support more of the open standards/file formats out there, although even the Kindle can read PDF and epubs which are more or less open standards now. Those authors that use a computer to write are literally a couple mouse clicks away from publishing high-quality ebooks, as the tools for doing so are out there and most of them are free or real cheap. This is also a way for them to potentially make more money (my understanding is that, similar to the way music labels reap most of the money from music sales, authors make comparatively little on book royalties - if I am wrong then please correct me!) In the music world, we've already seen some examples of this, with many indie artists selling their own CDs and digital downloads, and even larger bands experimenting with their own sales and pricing models, such as Radiohead's "you pay what you feel it's worth to you" approach for their recent album "In Rainbows." I am aware of at least one sci-fi author - Michael McCollum and his Sci-Fi Arizona website - who offers his sci-fi novels in a variety of formats, both traditional print as well as a variety of electronic formats including audiobook, PDF, and epub. And I'm sure there will be more.

Certainly food for thought!

Danny Barer said...

My cousin Lee is publishing Kindle and e-pub versions of books of his that went out of print (with the rights reverting to him). The royalties from the electronic sales aren't very big -- but they beat what he would have made from the books if they had stayed out of print, which is zero.