Tag Archives: Greg Bear

E-readers: musings on publishing and the word (part 3 of 3)

Let’s add a comment from a writer, notably William Gibson in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) prior to the launch of his latest book, Zero History.

William Gibson in a Sept.6, 2010 interview with Steven Kurutz for the WSJ blog, Speakeasy,

Will you mourn the loss of the physical book if eBooks become the dominant format?

It doesn’t fill me with quite the degree of horror and sorrow that it seems to fill many of my friends. For one thing, I don’t think that physical books will cease to be produced. But the ecological impact of book manufacture and traditional book marketing –- I think that should really be considered. We have this industry in which we cut down trees to make the paper that we then use enormous amounts of electricity to turn into books that weigh a great deal and are then shipped enormous distances to point-of-sale retail. Often times they are remained or returned, using double the carbon footprint. And more electricity is used to pulp them and turn them into more books. If you look at it from a purely ecological point of view, it’s crazy.

Gibson goes on to suggest that the perfect scenario would feature bookstores displaying one copy of each book being offered for sale. Prospective readers would be able to view the book and purchase their own copy through a print-on-demand system. He does not speculate about any possible role for e-books.

For a contrasting approach from writers, let’s take Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and other members of the Mongoliad novel/project which is being written/conducted online.  I’m inferring from the publicity and written material on the Mongoliad website that these writers, artists, and others are experimenting with new business and storytelling models in the face of a rapidly changing publishing and reading environment. I’ve posted about Mongoliad here (Sept.7,2010) and here (May 31,2010).

Edward Picot at The Hyperliterature Exchange has written a substantive essay, It’s Literature Jim… but not as we know i: Publishing and the Digital Revolution, which explores this topic from the perspective of someone who’s been heavily involved in the debate for many years. From the Picot essay,

It seems we may finally be reaching the point where ebooks are going to pose a genuine challenge to print-and-paper. Amazon have just announced that Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become the first ebook to sell more than a million copies; and also that they are now selling more copies of ebooks than books in hardcover. [emphasis mine]

As for more proof as to how much things are changing, the folks who produce the Oxford English Dictionary (the 20 volume version) have announced that the 1989 edition may have been the last print edition. From Dan Nosowitz’s article on the Fast Company website,

The Oxford English Dictionary, currently a 20 volume, 750-pound monstrosity, has been the authoritative word on the words of the English language for 126 years. The OED3, the first new edition since 1989, may also be the first to forgo print entirely, reports the AP.

Nigel Portwood, chief executive of the Oxford University Press (isn’t that the perfect name for him?), says online revenue has been so high that it is highly unlikely that the third edition of the OED will be physically printed. The full 20-volume set costs $995 at Amazon, and of course it requires supplementals regularly to account for valuable words like “bootylicious.”

Meanwhile the Shifted Librarian weighs in by comparing her Kindle experience with a print book in a September 7, 2010 posting,

I knew my desire to share con­tent was the prime dri­ver of the for­mat I was choos­ing, but I didn’t real­ize how quickly it was shift­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion. I now want to share one-to-many, not one-to-one, and I just don’t have the time or resources to tran­scribe every­thing I want to share. It makes me sad to look at that long list of print books I’ve read over the past year that I likely won’t share here because I can’t copy and paste.

Jenny (The Shifted Librarian) ends her essay with this,

Of course, your mileage may vary, but I think I’ve finally crossed over to the ebook side. I’ll have to go to book­stores and the library just to touch new books for old time’s sake. Only time will tell if there’s a “fea­ture” of print books that can draw me back. My rea­sons for con­vert­ing are def­i­nitely an edge case, and I haven’t been a heavy user of print resources in libraries in quite some time, but I can’t help but won­der how this type of shift will affect libraries. I see more and more eread­ers on my com­mute every day.

I was on the bus today and was struck by how many people were reading books and newspapers but I’m not drawing any serious conclusions from my informal survey. I think the lack of e-books, tablets and their ilk may be a consequence of the Canadian market where we tend to get digital devices after they’ve been on the US market for a while and when we get them, we pay more.

Despite all the discussion about e-books and tablets, I think what it comes down to is whether or not people are going to continue reading and, if we do , whether we”ll be reading the same way. Personally, I think there’ll be less reading. After all, literacy isn’t a given and with more and more icons (e.g., signage in airports, pedestrian walk signals, your software programmes, etc.) taking the place that once was occupied by written words then, why would we need to learn to read? In the last year, I’ve seen science journal abstracts (which used to be text only) that are graphical, i.e.,  text illustrated with images.  Plus there’s been a resurgence of radio online and other audio products (rap, spoken word poets, podcasts, etc.) which hints at a greater investment in oral culture in the future.

These occurrences and others suggest to me that a massive change is underway. If you need any more proof, there’s Arthur Sulzburger Jr.’s admission at the recent International Newsroom Summit held in London England (from the Sept.8, 2010 article by Steve Huff in the New York Observer Daily Transom),

During a talk at the International Newsroom Summit held in London, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. admitted that “we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future,” but, said Sulzberger, that date is “TBD.”

In the foreseeable future, we might need to read (although we may find ourselves moving to a more orally-based culture) but not as extensively as before. We won’t spend quite as much time learning to read and will better use the training time to learn about such topics as physics or coding computers or something. Knowledge, scientific and otherwise, is going to be transmitted and received via many channels and I don’t believe that the written word will be as privileged as it is today.

In the meantime, there are any number of avenues for writers and readers to pursue. One that I find personally fascinating is the subculture of literary tattoos (from The Word Made Flesh [Thanks to @ruthseeley for tweeting about the website.]),

It says “It rained for four years, eleven months and two days.” in portuguese. The illustration and phrase are from “100 years of solitude” by G.G. Márquez. That book means a lot to me. This picture was takes the same day i got the tattoo, so it’s a little bloody. It was very cold that day.

Given that I live in an area known for its rainy weather, this particular tattoo was a no-brainer choice.

Mongoliad launch

I made mention of the Mongoliad writing project when it was first announced in late spring (my May 31, 2010 posting). The project features Neal Stepheonson and Greg Bear, both well known science fiction writers (in fact, both have written novels that incorporate nanotechnology), amongst a cast of other writers, artists, techno types, and others. They’re forging into 21st century publishing with a model that is lifted in part from the 19th century, stories produced serially and available by subscription, but made available with contemporary technology, the interrnet. I guess you could call it ‘steam punk publishing’.

Last week, a free preview was made available and registration was opened. Here’s the view from Andrew Leonard at Salon.com,

Behold the power of branding! Chapter I of “The Mongoliad” launched online this week, and I plunked down $9.99 for a year’s subscription, sight unseen, simply because Neal Stephenson’s name was attached. …

But after spending some time with the site and reading the first chapter, it is not exactly clear to me exactly how much Stephenson is baked into this project. He is the co-founder and chairman of Subutai, the start-up that is producing “The Mongoliad.” But the content-creation is a group effort. This serial digital novel is being produced online by a team of writers , artists, hackers and sword-fighting geeks — another big name involved is Greg Bear, also a veteran science fiction author. …

“The Mongoliad” is supposed to be more than “just” a book. Eventually the intention is to incorporate multimedia offerings, along with the hypertext-branching contributions of a user community extending far beyond the core team.

Leonard goes on to express his hope that Mongoliad will be a grand adventure. He really is a Stephenson fan and seems to be genuinely looking forward to reading this experiment in publishing/social media enhancing/serializing a novel. Kit Eaton at Fast Company (Neal Stephenson’s Novel-Redefining Novel, “The Mongoliad,” Launches, Online)  is another fan,

Ghengis Khan shook up the world in the 12th Century, and now in the 21st Century Neal Stephenson’s novel about him may shake up the publishing world: It’s partly interactive, partly social media, and wholly digital.

The Mongoliad promises to be unlike any other book ever written. For starters it’s written, in part, by Neal Stephenson, whose ideas in earlier novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age have contributed to many modern marvels like Google Earth and augmented reality. When you learn sci-fi writer Greg Bear is contributing to the team effort too, it makes the whole thing even more promising.

The innovation in The Mongoliad isn’t in its team writing effort, however: It’s in the entire concept of a serialized, dynamic, digital “book” that includes video, imagery, music, and background articles among the text of the storyline and comes with a social media companion, with which fans/readers can comment and interact.

In fact it looks as if they are incorporating fan fiction into their overall plan. If you go to the Mongoliad website, you are encouraged to add your stories and artwork to the site.  This is from their ‘terms of service’,

Contributor Submissions

1. Policy. We welcome the submission of text, stories, vignettes, paragraphs, concepts, characters, ideas, poems, songs, images, animations, or interactive features submitted by registered contributors for potential publication on the Site (“Contributor Submissions”). Subutai grants you a limited, non-exclusive, non-transferable and revocable license to modify, broadcast, and transmit Content solely in order to create and submit Contributor Submissions to Subutai.

You understand that whether or not such Contributor Submissions are published, Subutai cannot guarantee proper attribution with respect to any submissions because of the interactive nature of the Site.

It’ll be interesting to see whether or not this works purely from the perspective of its business model. As for the story itself, I’m not loving it so far.  First, a précis. It’s the thirteenth century in Europe and the Mongolians have a conquered a chunk of it. (Apparently, they did conquer a good chunk by 1241 and were about to conquer the rest when Ögedei Khan, then current Mongol ruler, died and their general,  Subitai, according to custom had to return to Mongolis.  See: Wikipedia essay)

In Mongoliad, there is no withdrawal of the Mongol forces and they are poised to sweep Europe meanwhile a small band of European knights gather to fight (from the Mongoliad Welcome page),

It’s spring of 1241, and the West is shitting its pants (that’s “bewraying its kecks” for you medieval time-travelers).

The Mongol takeover of Europe is almost complete. The hordes commanded by the sons of Genghis Khan have swept out of their immense grassy plains and ravaged Russia, Poland, and Hungary… and now seem poised to sweep west to Paris and south to Rome. King and pope and peasant alike face a bleak future—until a small band of warriors, inheritors of a millennium-old secret tradition, set out to probe the enemy.

Their leader, the greatest knight of their order, will set his small group of specially trained warriors on a perilous eastern journey. They will be guided by an agile, elusive, and sharp-witted adolescent girl, who believes the master’s plan is insane. But this small band is the West’s last, best hope to turn aside the floodtide of the violent genius of the Steppes kingdoms.

In the preview chapter (which is free), we meet Haakon who’s obviously one of the small band of warriors fighting for Europe. At this point,  he’s engaging in some sort of sword fighting duel in a Mongol arena while the crowds roar for blood.  We never learn much more about him or any of the other characters we’re introduced to as the preview is designed to draw us into buying a subscription so we can find out more.  I’m not a big fan of the writing that I see in the preview,

Haakon wanted to roar with anger, but it came out as a strangled laugh. “I am about to do battle with a demon,” he complained, “and you want me to–”

“It’s no demon,” Brother Rutger said, and spat on the loose ocher ground that had been tracked down the tunnel on the boots of surviving combatants. “It’s a man dressed as one.” He rammed the helm down onto Haakon’s head and slapped him on the ass. Even through surcoat, chain mail, gambeson, and drawers, the impact came through solidly. “Oh yes,” he added, “and the Red Veil. We would also like to know what is on the other side.”

Haakon grunted as he adjusted the helmet to suit him. The mysterious Veil. He might have seen it several weeks ago when a group led by the physician Raphael had been sent to retrieve Illarion, the ailing Ruthenian.

Now, their party had divided again, and Feronantus and his team were off on their secret mission–while Haakon and the rest of the Shield-Brethren remained to compete against the champions of the Mongol Empire.

Rutger put his hand on Haakon’s shoulder. They regarded each other silently. Saying goodbye would be worse than useless, since Rutger and the others would see it as a premature admission of defeat, and it might demoralize them. Haakon knew he would be back among them in less time than it took to run out to the gutter and take a shit.

I also have some questions about the politics of it all. Here are a couple pictures from the site, Haakon first,

Art by Jamie Jones (from Mongoliad site)

And here’s one of the two Mongolian thug images currently available,

Concept art from Aleksi Briclot (from Mongoliad site)

This is just the beginning of the series and I’m hoping they head away from seems to be a pretty standard storyline where pretty, blond, white people struggle and eventually turn the tide against a demonic, dark-haired and darker-skinned people.

Mongoliad, nanotech novelists: Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear, and e-lit futures

Kit Eaton at Fast Company recently featured  some information about a ‘new’ novel (both in form, it’s an app and in content, it’s being written by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and others). From Eaton’s May 26, 2010 article,

Late yesterday in San Francisco, at the SF App Showcase, a sneaky little startup company called Subutai demonstrated some of the tech that’ll be going into the Mongoliad app. This oddly-named creature is actually what we’re interested in–a reinvention of the novel as a serialized publication through a dedicated app. Stephenson isn’t the only one taking part, as both Greg Bear and Nicole Galland will be writing too, but Stephenson is really the core of the project.

This is exciting, as anyone who’s familiar with his [Stephenson] Diamond Age novel will attest: This book imagines a future where a super-smart, partially artificial intelligent book is created, and acts as a young girl’s life guide. The hope is, obviously, that Stephenson uses his imagination to leverage novel and unexpected aspects of smartphone or tablet PC tech to transform the resulting publication into something surprisingly new … possibly even more of a transformation than paper-based magazine publishers are attempting as they rejig their content models towards the iPad. Words like “para-narrative,” “nontextual,” and “extra-narrative” certainly suggest this.

Both Stephenson (Diamond Age, 1995) and Bear (Blood Music, 1988) wrote, at a fairly early stage,  stories/novels that featured nanotechnology. For example, Diamond Age’s  ‘partially artificial intelligent book’ is made possible with nanotechnology. Unfortunately, no details about the novel’s content were revealed either in Eaton’s article or on the company’s, Subutai, website. Eaton’s article does offer this,

Speaking at the SF event yesterday Subutai’s CE Jeremy Bornstein revealed that there would be gaming and social media events wrapped around and inside the novel, and even demoed a user profile page that included a measure of a user’s “standing” in the Mongoliad community. There was also scope for users to “rate” portions of the story as it progresses. And while it seems that user interaction won’t play a role in the actual text of the publication, it’s going to be such a blended-media thing that this means user’s inputs still affect the overall performance.

This doesn’t sound like anything outside of the ordinary community-building exercise that many authors and media publishers are engaged in these days but, as you can see in the first excerpt from Eaton’s article, they’re hoping Stephenson will come up with an unexpected way to exploit the capabilities of mobile technology.

As for the show where Mongoliad was announced, here’s a little more information about it (from an article by Daniel Terdiman on CNET’s geek gestalt blog,)

On Tuesday night, Socolow and Dale Larson, his partner in a consulting firm called SF App Studio, hosted the sixth iteration of their app showcase, the SF AppShow. And before a packed house of more than 200 people–their biggest crowd so far–at the famous 111 Minna Gallery here, the two gave a series of app developers the chance to get up on stage and take six minutes to explain their projects.

Part DiggNation, part Demo, and part real-world App Store front end, the SF AppShow seems to have a growing influence in the world of app development–be it for Apple’s iPad or iPhone, Google’s Android, or the BlackBerry–and the people who create the mobile products and evangelize them.

This all brought to mind Kate Pullinger, a writer who works both in the traditional media (she won the 2009 Governor General’s [in Canada] award for literature, The Mistress of Nothing) and is well-known for digital novels such as Inanimate Alice. This is from her April 29, 2010, posting titled, A Writer’s View of the Future of Publishing,

Over the past ten years I’ve been deeply enmeshed in discussions about the future of writing, and the myriad ways in which the new technologies have the potential to change literature. My interest is in text, and what happens to text when you put it on a screen alongside the full range of media computing offers. I write ‘digital fiction’, works that are not digital conversions but are ‘born digital’, using text and multimedia to tell a story that is meant to be viewed on a screen.

However, as well as digital fiction, I also write books – novels and short stories – and have been functioning as a writer within the traditional publishing industry for more than twenty years. I’ve watched as the publishing and bookselling industries have struggled to come to terms with the new technologies and what they have to offer to both readers and writers. I’ve had many discussions with agents and publishers about what the future will hold. I’ve stumbled down my share of blind alleys, waking up to discover that last night’s certainty (fiction for UK mobile phones!) is this morning’s well-that-was-a-dumb-idea (fiction for UK mobile phones!).

Kate first wrote this piece for The Literary Platform (from their About page),

The Literary Platform is dedicated to showcasing projects experimenting with literature and technology. It brings together comment from industry figures and key thinkers, and encourages debate.

The key word circulating in book publishing at the moment is ‘experiment’. The showcase will demonstrate how traditional publishers and developers are experimenting with multimedia formats, how established authors are going it alone, how first-time novelists are bypassing publishers and how niche literary magazines are finding wider audiences.

Getting back to Mongoliad, I look forward to following the project’s progress especially in light of Kate’s comments about fiction for mobile phones, “last night’s certainty (fiction for UK mobile phones!) is this morning’s well-that-was-a-dumb-idea (fiction for UK mobile phones!).”

Two final comments. First, I was a student of Kate Pullinger’s at De Montfort University’s Masters of Creative Writing and New Media programme, which is now defunct. Second, I got curious about Subutai and it turns out it’s the name for a Mongolian general (from the essay on New World Encyclopedia which, in turn, has been modified from an essay originally found on Wikipedia)

Subutai (Subetei, Subetai, Sübeedei; Classic Mongolian: Sübügätäi or Sübü’ätäi) (1176–1248), also known as Subetai the Valiant, was the primary strategist and general of Genghis Khan (Temüjin) and Ögedei Khan. The son of a blacksmith, he rose through the ranks and directed more than 20 campaigns during which he conquered (or overran) more territory than any other commander in history. He gained victory by means of imaginative and sophisticated strategies and routinely coordinated movements of armies that were more than 300 miles away from each other. He is most remembered for devising the battle plan that destroyed the armies of Hungary and Poland within two days of each other, by forces almost a thousand miles apart.

I am amazed that someone who didn’t have telephones, telegraphs, or any other form of communication (pony express?) that could have traversed 1000 miles within two days to give updates and deal with changing conditions managed to destroy two armies at that distance from each other.