Fiction in the Future

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The web has revolutionized business, and, I think, will continue to drastically alter the face of commerce. Amazon whooped brick-and-mortar stores, Chris Andersen now speculates on how creatives can utilize the long tail, and Cory Doctorow continues to argue that proprietary everything is in decline — and should be.

I want to focus on the ways the web affects us here at AT and in the web fiction community at large. To explore where we’re headed, we can go back to Cory Doctorow, or to David Wong, or David Wellington, or Alexandra Erin — all people who, one way or another, have made their living by writing fiction for the web. Erin writes web serials, most notably Tales of Mu, and makes her living from donations toward bonus stories, ad revenue, crowd patronage, and some low levels of merch. Her achievement is the most fascinating to me, but I don’t think it’s the most relevant. I think we can look to David Wellington for a better preview of what’s to come.

Wellington first published his novel Monster Island free on the web. Since then he has been picked up by a publisher, and has written a whole host of horror genre books, some of which are available free online. This, I think, will be the publishing model of the future. Publishers will scout those writers who have already developed a following. There’s nothing better than a sure thing, and nothing’s more sure in the publishing world than an author with an established fanbase.

Doctorow and Wong followed this model as well, but, unlike Wellington, they already had a measure of internet fame by virtue of their positions as bloggers. Wellington shows it can be done from scratch.

How, though, will these books of the future be published? Will they be physical or will they be digital? I’m not sure. I mean, if you give it long enough, the vast majority of books will be digital. In the near future, though, I’m not so sure. The ebook retailers are barking up the wrong tree, and that isn’t helping. They’ve got a product that is intended to replace a library of books, but is locked down with DRM that prevents you from doing what you want with what you’ve bought. My generation won’t buy into that. Hell, neither will the gen-Xers. The only thing ebook readers do well right now is travel. They have long battery lives, and save tons of space on a stack of books — plus you can bring an entire library.

The problem is, smartphones are becoming standard. They’re not really phones as much as a new generation of PDAs. Basically they’re the pocket computer of this decade, and this time around they’re more powerful and more popular. And they’re better for reading.

I can hear you now: “What? No way are phones better for reading than the kindle/nook/whatever! LCD screens are hard on the eyes, they’ve got no battery life, and the screens are tiny! If anything with an LCD screen gets used for reading, it’ll be the iPad.” Let me first reiterate — you are fooling yourself with this LCD business. The vast majority of the web is still text, and a huge portion of the population (including you and me) spend a lot of time reading on the web, and therefore on an LCD (or possibly CRT) screen. We don’t actually mind reading on them, we just don’t feel like long fiction belongs there. Also, poor layout choices make many sites much harder to read than they need to be.

The point is, screens are not the issue you think they are. Neither is battery life; people are pretty accustomed to keeping their phones charged. As to tiny… well, small enough to fit in your pocket is small enough to be wherever you are, and that means convenient. Furthermore, people don’t generally like lugging around lots of different devices. Once you’ve already got a decent text reader, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to carry another, slightly better (but much bigger) version.

So what am I saying? I contend that the reason readers seem so against fiction on other-purposed electronic devices is simple. Readers often have an emotional attachment to the idea of a physical book. All those wonderful memories are tied to the feeling of holding a book, turning the pages, the smell, the texture. Because the book is so emotionally charged, it is long fiction specifically that is scoffed at for the web or phone. And yet, already, fiction on the web is supporting a whole emerging class of writers. And yet, in Japan, it is common to see people on the train reading a book on their phone.

So. What will be the primary medium for long fiction in twenty years? I’ll lay down some money that it will be a personal computing device of some kind, probably small enough to fit in a pocket — the descendant of the iPhone and the Blackberry. There will be some kind of publisher distribution system, maybe periodical, that will serve as a gatekeeper for many readers. Novels may not be the standard length of fiction at that point, and if they are, they might be commonly released in serial format.

The web will be full of non-moderated attempts by writers to grab an audience, much like the web fiction community right now, and this creative pool will be the breeding ground for the big literary stars. The popular authors will get picked up for digital  distribution. The really popular authors or those critically accepted as literature will be physically published. POD will be used as a testing ground for many of these publications, but its primary role will be very similar to the niche it fills today — providing a service to those who have not been picked up by the industry.

What do you think of my vision of the internet-mediated literary culture of 2030? Are you buying what I’m selling, or do you think I’m the one barking up the wrong tree?

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