Ebooks vs Web Fiction

There appears to be two competing systems for reading digital fiction today. The first, promoted by Amazon and Apple and countless others through their digital bookstores, is the ebook. You surf a vast collection of titles, download the ones you like, and choose others based on store-wide recommendations. It is a system that works.

The second system is web fiction. You upload a text on what is likely the most open, distributable format available: a website. You make purchasable editions (ebooks, POD paper versions) available to readers. You design your own online presence, craft your own books, and in turn you get loyal readers you can talk to, get to know; readers who will support you and may become benefactors of your work.

These two systems are currently competing for writer mindshare. Just as VHS fought for mindshare with Betamax, and SLRs and rangefinders fought for photographer adoption in the 90s, so is web fiction fighting for mindshare with eBooks. And web fiction is currently losing.

I believe this is bad for all of us.

How is Web Fiction Losing?

A cursory glance of the blogosphere suggests that most writers think the ebook/digital-bookstore/electronic-reader ecosystem to be the shape of the bookfuture. It’s easy to see how they may think this: that particular vision isn’t very different from the current paper-book/phsyical-bookstore/home-bookshelf manner of reading that we all know and love.

The truth is that independent writers today don’t think of posting their book in website form. They think instead of creating a pdf and uploading that to Smashwords, and then perhaps opening a writer blog and building a following around that. (A quick comparison: Smashwords has 15360 listings; Web Fiction Guide: 754). Web fiction is not an obvious choice for the new writer. Nor is it, currently, the default manner of thinking about digital publishing.

Now I must note that the web fiction model is compatible with the ebook one – you may both have your book on a website and sell that same book through ebook stores (e.g.: Amazon, Smashwords) at the same time. But what it also means is that more writers are likely to plug their books into the Kindle store, instead of starting their own web-based books.

Why this happens is simple: it’s easier, for one. Uploading to the Kindle store and waiting for the money to come in takes far less energy than setting up your own blog, designing your own book, and building your own audience. There is a technological barrier to web fiction that we have not yet overcome. The other bit of it is that it’s easier to understand the idea of a ‘digital bookstore’; as I’ve mentioned above, it’s not very different from what we have in the real world.

So then – why is this bad? Why is web fiction so important, if the ebook model works?

Pros and Cons

I’m going to go on a tangent for a bit here (forgive me this!) and run through the pros/cons of web fiction before I tackle that question proper. I think the context is important.

The advantages for web fiction are fairly obvious. Off the top of my head: you get to watch a book take shape, right in front of your eyes – week in, week out. You get to talk to the author while you’re reading, via book comments and Twitter. You get to be part of this crazy, rabid, fanboyish group of fellow readers who await the weekly update with barbed club in hand and then afterward gather together in the comments to speculate on plot development like Potter-maniacs on the eve of a book launch.

For many writers currently engaged in web fiction – writers who want most to write and to talk to fans – this is enough. And so web fiction is satisfying in a way that pushing your content via Kindle is not: you gain a following, a community of loyal readers.

The problem with this is that the model for web fiction isn’t working out. MCM wrote recently of how he has given up on relying on donations in the weblit sphere:

(…) But just looking at the numbers, and getting a sense they seem to hold true across the board, I think there’s at least a subtle trend towards NOT supporting weblit authors. Not in a vindictive way, but in a “I just can’t, right now” sort of way. And if enough people feel that way, weblit authors are looking at tough decisions about how to proceed.

And herein lies the danger, I think, for the weblit community: Kindle is easy for writers to use. It’s a massive crapshoot, but if you get a reader, you get a sale. Self-publishing used to require proofs and shipping and all that jazz, but now it’s just “upload a file and wait.” It’s like weblit, only with a searchable catalogue. And if the numbers in “free to access and depend on donations” continue the way they’re going, I think we’ll see a massive shift away from true weblit, into something akin to serialized e-book publishing.

These are the disadvantages, ones I suspect are crippling the medium: 1) there is no possibility of an impulse buy with the web fiction model. 2) There will be no reader cross-hopping between works, based on store recommendations. Those two things are possible only within the store model, and right now this means that there is a lack of attention (and therefore money) going to web fiction. And a withdrawal from web fiction would be a bad thing indeed.

More than mere melancholy

I should pause here to note that I’m very much involved in web fiction, having put together the first bits of the current community, and so may be the wrong person to be writing about this. I may also be completely mistaken – having spent the last three months programming under the proverbial rock.

But I firmly believe in this: if the primary model for digital publishing turns out to be the ebook one, we would have lost more than fond memories. We would have lost a brighter bookfuture.

Bookfuturist and blogger Craig Mod has argued that there is a great need for an open, web-based format for books. He thinks, as I do, that such a format makes for richer reading experiences. Mod says, in The Cornerstone of Digital Books:

(…) when a blogger — and Infinite Jest fanatic — wants to point out something he or she loves in the book, and that book has a digital edition, is it not mad that the digital text isn’t ‘publicly’ referable?

Openness is a big part of the discussion behind books in HTML5. Not openness in terms of ‘free’ books, but openness as books being free from the referenceability prisons of eReaders. Which is not to say that applications like Kindle or iBooks shouldn’t exist, or that the only way to do books is in HTML. But, one might go so far as to say that having a strong HTML based, publicly referable edition of a book is the cornerstone of a strong digital edition. (emphasis added)

The problem with this, of course, is that there are no natural forces acting to create such a ‘strong, HTML based, publicly referable edition’ of a book. Publishers are busy squabbling over ebook prices; writers seem perfectly happy with the mere ebook upload. They don’t really know what they’re missing – the fulfillment from writing to a live audience; the depth of the reading experience made possible only through the web, something that we as web fiction readers have had the luck to experience over the past couple of years.

This last point is one that I keep going back to, in my head. The reading experience with the ebook is solitary at best. It is no different from the reading of a paper-bound book – and I think its evolution will be limited by this. A web based book-future has more possibilities: imagine a central, online version of the book where your annotations appear as you read. The online version shows where you mark pages for quotes, or highlight specific passages for ideas that leap out at you. Now imagine what it would be like if you had access to everyone else’s annotations. What a difference that could make – to bibliographic knowledge, to literature!

Possibly the only way to force this change on them is to make it easy enough for writers to consider the weblit path. Part of it lies in making the technology of publishing a book online (hacking the blog software, designing the text) normal and boring. The other part lies in getting the word out. I am working on the former, and am thinking of the latter. There is much to do.

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Category: Publishing