Thursday, July 7, 2011

The REAL Cultural Revolution In Ebooks

Over in my other blog, Rick Cook's Notebook, I've been talking about the revolution ebooks are producing in publishing. Because I'm an author and naturally I'm concerned about financial matters affecting authors I've (naturally) concentrated on the economic bonanza things like 70 percent royalty rates and a potential market of tens of millions of ebook reader owners will produce for us poor, starveling ink-stained wretches. (Joke, sorta.) However there are enormous cultural implications in the ebook revolution as well. Since this blog is more about the social effects of new media, including ebooks, I decided to move the cultural implications over here.

First, let's note that in cultural history giant oaks from little acorns grow. Something that's obscure today is likely to become a commonplace tomorrow. And such things often have totally unexpected results.

Case in point: The automobile and the sexual revolution. The automobile didn't start the sexual revolution -- if anything did, it was the wide availability of birth control pills -- but it gave it an enormous boost even before The Pill arrived. The car became a bedroom on wheels and the availability of cheap cars meant that millions of horny American teenagers were able to obey their raging hormones with a minimum of complications (after The Pill arrived, anyway). It can safely be said that if you came of age in a certain era, if you hadn't made it in a car you hadn't made it.

Now this was emphatically NOT what people like Henry Ford had in mind when they invented the automobile. Henry, in particular, would have been offended to the depths of his strait-laced soul. But once the technology was available, people used it for what they wanted and moralists and inventors be damned.

Actually it was kind of a nice combination of Heresy, Pornography and Treason all rolled into one invention.

In the case of ebooks, the critical cultural factor isn't the high royalties paid authors, or the wide availability of cheap books. The thing that is really revolutionary is simply this: With ebooks, gatekeepers effectively vanish!

Yep. Gone. Nonexistent. The equivalent of an ex-parrot.

The implications of this are huge. Effectively anyone can now say anything they want (barring such things as libel) by publishing it in an ebook.

This is a huge change from the situation which has existed up to now. Even the most fanatic publisher has been limited by economic considerations. Books were expensive to produce and the money had to come from somewhere. That limited the number of tracts that even the nuttiest publisher could put out.

Guess what? With ebooks there are effectively no more limits. If you want to publish the equivalent of a 600 page magnum opus and sell it at the Kindle Store for a penny a copy, there's nothing to stop you and you instantly reach a world-wide audience. Or, if you're a little more savvy, you can boost the price of your screed to Amazon's cutoff point of $2.99 and make just over $2 a copy on whatever you're peddling.

This means that every alternative view from the most staid and sober to the most virulent nutballery can be made available to everyone for almost nothing.

This first reaction to this realization is likely to be (in the best Jonathan Qualye Higgins voice ) "Oh. My. God."

The amount of stuff out there -- badly written, mostly illiterate and generally reaching a level of indescribable awfulness that is, well, indescribable -- that is going to descend on us is almost beyond comprehension. It's like browsing in a peculiar used bookstore where almost everything on the shelves is terrible but there are occasional nuggets of really good stuff tucked in here and there.

Remember, no censorship. No copy reading. No proof reading. And editing? That's like, so 20th Century. And remember, no gatekeepers built into the process.

To give you an idea of what that means, I still have a copy of a self-published book titled Eight Days With Hitler In Yellowstone Park that was put out in the 70's, before ebooks. The poor author actually paid thousands of dollars to have it published and yes, it is truly as awful as you imagine.

It could have been worse. This was apparently a fragment of a much longer work about Hitler's secret trip to the United States in the 30s. I gather there were thousands and thousands of pages of it which the author couldn't afford to publish.

(As an aside: Hitler, of course, did not visit the United States in the 30s. At least not in our universe. I've given up wondering what color the sky was on that planet, but I'd still kinda like to know the Ricci Tensor for that universe.)

So what's the compensation to justify this outpouring of terribleness? The fact that mixed in with it you also get a fair amount of good stuff that would otherwise go unpublished. Perhaps it didn't appeal to publishers (think Harry Potter), perhaps it is incomprehensible to the average reader (think Einstein's Theory of Relativity) or perhaps it is so politically and socially unpopular that it risks getting the publisher's office burned down (think the abolitionist tracts of the early 19th century in the south.)

In other words, just from the law of averages, we can expect that some fair proportion of this stuff will be quite good, and some of it will be vitally important to our world. Now personally I think that's a pretty good trade. But it really doesn't matter what I think. It's coming and coming fast.


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