Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Nature of Books and Business - A Tour of the Books In My Bedroom - Part 1

I'm going to write about books and fame and authorship and the publishing industry and the identity of being a reader.

I can write about this with a simulacrum of authority, and I think it might be some variant of important since I'm really one of the little people, but I can approach it a bit differently due to things I used to be.

I used to be kind of a big deal.

But not in any special kind of way that matters.

Some Background:

It was pre-internet, although I was using it, so its closest modern equivalent is "internet famous". I used to call it psuedo-semi famous. If I walked in anywhere that touched the world where I was sort-of-famous people who knew me and I did not know them would come up to tell me where they met me or saw me, or if I helped them. ( Or sometimes if I hurt them).

I am not by nature a kind person, but I did my level best not to hurt anyone. It's important to remember that people see you as something other than what you know yourself to be Both good and bad. And with any kind of status you get some power. As Steven Moffat made the Doctor say last week "Good men don't need rules." I too have a lot of rules. Truly good people will be good regardless of race creed color or religion. I'm religious so that I can at least check myself against what a truly good person might do.

These pieces of information are important because you are about to see the books in my bedroom and what they mean, and what it means for the publishing industry. While I'm showing you, I'm pretty sure I'll drop a fan or miss a step in this burlesque show and you'll see me nakedly struggling with the fact that I'm working hard to decide what I want to be when I grow up and the past is informing the present.

It's what the past does. No one should be really surprised.

Some present-round with pitches for very nice writers:

Two weeks ago, I was somewhere in that world where I used to be kind of a big deal - but I went away. Now almost no one knows anything about me. All fame is fleeting, niche fame more than most. It makes me happy in a kind of subversive way. I do something different there now. I am an enabler, not an event anymore . I like it. It's very useful. I am happiest when I am useful.

People who write books and publish things are there too. For various reasons we end up talking. I almost look like "the public" to them so I am representational. I usually have not read their work. This is because I am out of touch, not any failing on their part. Sometimes when I meet them I will then read their work. This surprises me when I think about it because it used to go the other way : I will have read their work, and then I would meet them, and then sometimes it would change the way I viewed their work. I developed a theory back then that you should never meet anyone who's work literally changed the way you think or look at the world, because there is almost no way for it not to change something about you, or them, or the work.

There is a very good book about discovering things like that written by Laura Miller, you'll see it later.

But now I almost never hear about a new genre writer unless, due to the oddities of my life I meet them.

So I have met Paolo Bacigalupi, who is very cool and whom I enjoy hanging out with but whose books I have yet to read. There are two of them in my house. You will see them too. I confessed that after an entire year of his winning every SF award in sight I was possibly the only person left on the planet who hadn't read it - but at least he knew I liked him for himself.

Paolo is really the reason for this blog entry, and perhaps James Knapp, who won the Compton Crook Award for State of Decay which is being marketed as a Zombie Genre thing but it isn't one. It's traditional hard SF. I would never have looked at it if he hadn't won the award putting him in a position where I was facilitating a podcast interview reading of his first chapter. ( I don't know if it's posted yet but I'll update if there is a link.)

Perhaps this is where I need to admit what I was fairly semi-famous for. Once upon a time I created and edited a magazine. This was when publishing opened up because of new tech, the closest thing I could compare it to is the way podcasting works now.

Some Nostalgia:

So I ran a writer's group, which was very different than contemporaneous writers groups, as it was focused on things other than getting published and it wasn't juried. It was exploration and craft based. And I hosted and ran workshops, and I wrote a bit. Thus when I started the magazine, which was a non-profit kind of incubator thing - I promoted the hell out of it. So people saw me pretty much everywhere on panels, as a guest, and with people who were much, much, more famous than me.

(It doesn't matter which one . . . those days are over and you're all way too young to remember something that would in effect be hipster like from that era anyway . . .)

What that does mean, is I used to know a lot about the publishing industry, all of the pieces of it not just genre stuff, because I was deeply involved in trying to get the publishing industry to distribute my magazine, which was dedicated to giving writers a chance to write, take chances and possibly fail without having to publish a novel first. Because that was the way it was then. I was consciously recreating a John Campbell style environment in order to try to get writers to be more creative and less focused only on getting published. I was good enough at it to get a real distribution deal. I was in Walden and Borders. However 14 years is a long time.

16 years ago ( maybe longer, it's fuzzy now ) when electronic books were still fiction and the convention hall was packed with people who hoarded their books like dragons hoard gold, I was on a panel where every single person on it was the equivalent of Madonna famous and I was something equivalent to say . . . Moonshine Willy. The panel was on whether or not people would buy electronic books, and the bibliophiles in the room all of whom embraced science fiction with the passion that fueled real world rocket ships to Mars were saying "No, bloody hell no!! We will not go!! To the last musty page we will defend our books!!"

And I was saying something along the lines of this: we grew up with books, but access to paper at this level is new, books are a form of wealth once, but there were penny dreadfuls and dimestore novels and pamphlets. We love our books because that's what we held in our hands when we discovered our worlds and that attachment is sentiment, not necessarily ergonomics, economics or comfort. We will always have some physical books, but they will once again be objects of wealth, education or eccentricity. The reality will be when the form factor becomes usable, children will remember their electronic books and their teenage discoveries of literature with the same fondness we have for our pulp art covers.

At this point I should perhaps mention I was the youngest person on the panel being a mere 24 years or so old and I now shockingly recall the only female. And at least two of the Really Big Deals conceded the point and when it ended everyone had agreed with me that the tech wasn't anywhere close to being pleasant to read now so we weren't in any danger of having to figure out where it was going to go. ( In the late 80s/early 90's).

I was invited to be on a lot of panels about the future of books after that. Reflected starshine. I'll bet hardly anyone remembers that was a really big deal 20 years ago.

What Happened in the Bar - With That Guy:

So flash forward to now - We were talking about reading a book vs reading on the e-readers with Paolo checking out my iPad and me explaining that the Kindle on iPad is what I'd been waiting for and we were cross comparing iBooks and Kindle for stores, sorting and readability.

I showed him my Kindle library - and he looked at me and said "You're willing to show me that you read Kelley Armstrong?". And there, in that moment; was the moment others said we were going to lose when books went electronic. That moment when you know something about someone because of what's in their library just by seeing it. A social signifier. In Slate there was an article called Judging a Girl by Her Cover. It used to be what you saw the stranger reading created the intimacy or the shared knowledge, but now sharing what I was reading was an act of trust and therefore intimacy.

Here an author ( a good one! I have read his journalism) was now looking at something very real about me, knowing I hadn't gotten to his book yet, seeing what was sitting there instead. And he immediately saw Kelley Armstrong; author of Dime Store Magic, the title that made me buy her books. And he also immediately teased me about it, and I immediately told him the truth. They're light, they're popcorn and not particularly brilliant but they are filled with female characters that make rational choices in unnatural situations making them one of the very few "supernatural" series with female characters who don't make me want to kill myself or someone else.

It was just as if he'd seen it on my bookshelf.

The iPad mostly gets read in my bedroom. So the books inside it count for the tour. Here were the other books in my Kindle for iPad, their covers floating at him in glorious color:

  • The Jeeves Collection by PG Wodehouse
  • At Home by Bill Bryson
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Seder K'Riat Haftorah - My People's Prayerbook
  • Cleopatra a Biography - Duane W. Roller
  • Hobson's Choice - Harold Brighouse
  • The Great Transformation - Karen Armstrong
  • The Magicians: A Novel - Lev Grossman
  • The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia - Laura Miller
  • Son of a Witch - Gregory Maguire and two other books by him
  • All of the Stieg Larsson novels - I had read them exclusively on e-formats
  • Living with the Dead - was the Kelley Armstrong he saw initially - I have three of her others on the iPad Kindle
  • A whole bunch of Mercedes Lackey - because she almost always tells a good consistent story that doesn't leave me hanging
  • And the Regency Dragon series by Naomi Novik because they gave me the first one free I bought the other two.
  • Troll's Eye View - edited by Ellen Datlow
  • Fall of the Roman Republic - Plutarch the Rex Warner translation
  • Buried Child - Sam Shepard
  • Pride and Pejudice - Jane Austen
  • Aesop's Fables - the George Fyler Townsend translation

But of them all honestly, Kelly Armstrong's have the most striking lurid covers recalling modernized pulp fiction infused sensibility. Of course he's going to focus on that instead of the strange religious book and the philosophy and history stuff. But really all he got to see was the new cyber effect of "what's in my purse". Does it show anything about me? Well yes.

I read history, I read about the nature of God through a lens other than my own, I tried Bill Bryson's book and it was awesome, his book reads like my brain thinks but it's non-fiction. I read plays and translations and when I read fantasy I obviously read it frothy - or at least I do when it's on my Kindle app.

There is nothing there to indicate whether I would be a target market for Paolo's book - The Windup Girl. But we had a fantastic conversation about female characterization, the nature of ebooks and whether or not it was going to change things.

It was a funny full circle thing - but much reduced. Paolo is now maybe Adele level famous ( to keep with the music analogy) and I'm practically unknown. We were at a table in a bar instead of a convention lecture room and I believe, although I am not sure, that I am older than him. But it's the same conversation with the primary difference being the e-book is in my hand instead of being imagined.

And truth be told right now I am far more likely to buy an ebook than a physical one.

But there is a caveat- those books on my Kindle were books I bought when it was on my iPhone. I just got the pad, they were transfers. The iPhone is a 4 inch screen. I specifically bought books that I knew no one in the house will be interested in besides me ( until the announcement of iCloud there was no way I would have anticipated being able to even share them with family members). So these were books that I COULD read on a 4 inch screen and my "serious" books in that collection "At Home", the Plutarch, the Karen Armstrongs, the Cleopatra, were otherwise large and expensive books that only I would be reading. I made the effort to read them on my tiny 4 inch screen but I longed for a Kindle sized electronic format to read them in. I hate unitaskers. I needed an eReader that had other uses, I am not personally fond of the electronic ink for reading - although it is a preferred tech for many and I did buy a Kindle for my mother - it's not to my preference ( this is not a holy war, there are lots of different kinds of paper and bindings too).

So by default the things I was sharing with him were my "light" things and my selfish reading indulgences. On reflection it was very personal indeed.

And now, of course, I felt guilty. I still hadn't read The Windup Girl. When I started it back in November in our dead tree oversized trade edition I realized that I wanted to take my time with it. It wasn't something I wanted to read like disposable popcorn. After we returned from the trip two weeks ago I broke open the book again. I have taken some time off and it was a perfect opportunity.

I came to a horrible realization. It would be much better for me right now to read this on my iPad. It's more comfortable, it's more portable. The physical book is beautiful, the print is easy on the eyes but it's not readily available without me making special effort and time for uninterrupted physical space. Whereas the electronic version is readable late at night without keeping lights on disrupting the Perfectly Normal Husband, I can't just lean over and pull up the Windup Girl or read it on a six hour jag start to finish. Which is the way I prefer to read books. But I can only read electronic books that way now. Physical books are taking up space and lend themselves to interruption far more than ebooks.

Even back when I was sure ebooks would be a given (I can carry a library in my purse!) I didn't predict this.

But I can't justify spending money on the electronic version of something I already have.

So that got me thinking about books and how I use them. The way I relate to them. The tipping point between hoarding and cherishing. They are meaningful to me, ebooks are simply interesting to me, but I haven't bought any eBooks that are "Important" yet.

So in the context of the other things that have happened over the last two weeks, I started wondering how to sort out all of that thinking. I realized that if Paolo interacting with my ebooks was a sort of "what do you know about who you are moment" that the books in my bedroom are perhaps a better indicator of how I relate to books now and in the future.

It's a microcosm of book culture, and desire and market. So the next few entries will be an experiment, much like the ones I used to give the writer's group. I will describe the books in my bedroom and why they are there. And ponder things like "what does it mean to Farenheight 451 if the screens are the books too". Because frankly, I believe that's what's really going to happen.

But the publishing industry counts on the me from 20 years ago behaving the same way today. And that endangers authors. The model underneath is changing, but the people in that room with the Madonna famous writers love their books and the culture of books, and the handling and smell of books.

I'm pretty sure of one thing:

If the books become the screens, when the Firemen come -we'll still be the first against the wall.

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