Let me tell you something, folks -- the future of fiction is ebooks.
Yes, yes, I know: “You can't replace the feel of a real, physical volume! It's just not the same curling up with a digital device! I love the smell of old books! I love pulling books off of shelves to browse, I love my dog-eared copy of Harry Potter and remembering where I was when I first read it..." Blah blah blah.
Look, I love books too. But as someone who has had to move several times in the past few years, and who can fill the back of a U-Haul with my books alone, I wouldn't mind sacrificing a little bit of that precious tactile sensation for having to carry fewer boxes up a flight of stairs.
Seriously, it's the nostalgia and the emotional attachment to turning pages that is always cited as the reason why ebooks can never replace the dead tree version, and why bibliophiles insist they will always cling to their “real" books (most of which, let's face it, are crap paperback novels you could buy for a buck a bag at a garage sale).
Well, I'm sure for many people, that's true. There are people who will never adapt to ereaders. Most of them are my age or older. There are also people who express the same emotional attachment to vinyl records.
But just as there is now a generation of kids growing up who have never listened to, much less bought, a vinyl record (and soon there will be a generation of kids who have never listened to a CD, and not long after that, a generation of kids who have never watched a movie on DVD), I predict that ebooks will grow in popularity, they will be increasingly accepted by the younger generation, and eventually, printed hardcopies of books will become a small niche market.
We're not there yet. I like my Pocket Reader, but there are a number of physical and logistical problems that ereader manufacturers still have to work out before they'll gain the critical mass that has everyone buying Kindles and Nooks. But although today's generation of ereaders may still fall a bit short, they are much, much better than the ones that were available just two years ago. I expect to replace my Pocket Reader with a next-generation device, and I expect that within a few years, we'll have ereaders good enough that I'll buy one that I'll be content to keep for years and years.
Pros and Cons
I'm one of those people who always takes a book with me, wherever I go, just in case I get stuck somewhere and I'm bored. This has resulted in my buying lots and lots of books, and leaving them in various places in various states of completion. With an ereader, I have a single device that's almost as convenient to stick in my pocket as my wallet, and it can hold hundreds of books.
The Sony Pocket Reader is about as easy to read as a paperback; if you've never seen an ereader, they have “electronic ink" screens which aren't quite the same as your typical LCD cell phone or laptop screen. They don't have the same glare issue and they really do look almost like ink on paper.
You can of course bookmark what you're reading any time, but you don't even have to do that just to pick up where you left off. Whereas with a book you need a physical bookmark (or you can dog-ear it or lay it open face down – which parents and librarians hate), with an ereader, you just close it. Or turn it off. Or go back to the main screen and look at another book. It will keep track of where you were last in all of your stored books. Personally, I like not having to flip through pages to find my place after closing a book without bothering to grab a bookmark. I just open the ereader again, and there I am, right where I left off. And if you're one of those people like me who's started half a dozen novels at any one time and not quite finished any of them, you have them all in one device, and can easily pick which one you're going to try to finish off right now.
For convenience, ereaders beat books, period.
Now, the Sony Pocket Reader is a little small. I think I'd have preferred the Sony Touch Edition, which has a slightly larger screen, and allows you to turn pages by dragging a fingertip across the screen. (The Pocket Reader has a little iPod-like wheel for turning pages; I can hold it in one hand with my thumb on the “next page" button pretty easily, but it does require that you either grip it or have it lying on something to press the button.) More advanced readers have lots of other features like the ability to highlight, write notes, play music, automatically download books from an online bookstore, etc.
Screens still aren't completely ideal for reading in all situations under all lighting conditions. If you want a reader with backlighting that you can read in bed at night without turning on a light, you'll have glare issues; if you want one that you can read in full sunlight, you'll need to turn on a light inside to read it.
But I think the user interface is almost there. In my opinion, the big issues to be solved are price and distribution. Ereaders are still pretty pricey toys. Like most consumer electronics, they're coming down rapidly, but it will be a while before they'll be cheap enough to be near-disposable, which is what they'll need to be before you can start handing them to kids instead of textbooks.
More seriously, right now we have format wars going on. Every major bookseller is moving to ebooks, and at the moment, your choice for buying and reading ebooks is Amazon or everyone-but-Amazon. Amazon has its own proprietary format for its Kindle. It doesn't sell ebooks in any other format, and only the Kindle can read it. Everybody else is moving towards epub, an open-source format (which, naturally, the Kindle does not read).
Amazon has the most tightly-integrated ebookstore right now, which is why they're winning at the moment. You can go to Amazon.com and on the same page where a regular book is displayed, you can also find out whether or not it's available as an ebook, and download it if it is. Barnes & Noble and Borders aren't there yet; you can't do a “See! Want! Buy!" with an ereader while browsing their site.
For example, I'm currently reading Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson on my Sony Reader. Mistborn is not currently available as an ebook from the Sony Reader Store (which is partnered with Borders but not integrated with their site), though for some reason the next two books in the trilogy are. I had to go to Kobo books to buy it.
Prices on ebooks are now down to comparable or less than that of a paperback, but I think they'll have to go lower still before people are really willing to download them in huge numbers.
Now let's talk about fan fiction.
Right now, most fan fiction is posted in HTML format, and collecting all of the chapters of a book requires some kind of script. Some authors make their stories available as PDFs, but ereaders still don't do a great job of handling either HTML or PDF documents unless they're formatted for small screens.
I've been messing around a little bit with trying to convert my stories to epub format. The bottom line is: it's a pain. There are free software tools out there that can do it, but so far I've been unsuccessful in getting Open Office to export an XHTML document that an epub conversion tool doesn't turn into hash, and that's after downloading and installing several plug-ins. I'll have to actually learn more about the epub format and do considerable work – a lot more work than the average fan fiction author is going to be willing to do, especially for a small sliver of readers.
But – like all new technologies, it's going to get easier. A lot easier. As easy as, say, uploading a Word document to an archive that automatically converts it to HTML that anyone with a web browser can read.
Here's how fan fiction will work in the near future:
1. I write a chapter of my story and upload it to an archive. Either my word processor or the archive transparently converts it to epub (or some other format).
2. Everyone with an ereader who has subscribed to my story automatically gets it downloaded to their reader (which of course has a wireless connection, as some ereaders do now and soon all will).
3. You read it just like any other new chapter in an ebook, since it has in fact been added as a chapter to your copy of my story.
This has ramifications beyond fan fiction. Commercial authors are going to go this route. So are non-commercial authors (those who right now either self publish or post their original fiction for free on archives like FictionPress. We've already seen this trend with cell phone novels.
Having a hundred million stories available for free is going to take a big bite out of traditional publishing, which is why I'm not surprised that some professional authors are starting to lash back against fan fiction, self-publishers, and amateurs who post their work for free or who sell their stories to online publishers for a pittance. Obviously, the quality of all this free prose will range from unreadable to really good, with the vast majority clustering at the “unreadable" end of the scale, but even the most mediocre writer will be able to acquire a sizable following.
I don't think the new model will really change literature. You'll still have a rare few authors who are talented and/or lucky enough to make a living at it, a much larger number who can make money at it but still need a day job, and millions of hopefuls. The difference will be that those millions of hopefuls will find it easier to attract at least a handful of readers, maybe enough to give them the egoboo they need. What this will mean to the overall publishing economy, I don't know, but clearly the print industry is going to face the same challenges that the music and film industry is trying to deal with (badly, so far). The demise of used book stores and daily newspapers is just the beginning.
If you skipped the tl;dr above (or if you didn't), here's a poll:
What do you think of ebooks?
Do you own an ereader?