Thursday, January 12, 2012

So... Why Pulp?



Paper Or Pixels?


You hear it everywhere these days.

“Books are going away!”

Now, as a long time reader and writer, that sweeping declaration sends chills up my spine. Books were always my closest companions, my best friends, my comfort and solace. They took me places I could never otherwise go, and got me through trying times when I had little else to look forward to. My dad always said, “If you want to find Nancy, look behind a book.” I read at the dinner table. I read in bed. I read in the bathroom, in the living room, under trees in the yard, and any place I had to sit and wait for a while. I read when I was happy, when I was sad, bored, unsettled, moody, in pain, heartbroken—you name it. I read everything written by some authors, and reread them years later just to see if I still liked them. I read encyclopedias and dictionaries, opening them to random pages and just absorbing that content like a sponge. I read newspapers, cereal boxes, catalogs, whatever I could get my hands on. A gift of a book—even something used and tattered—always made me smile. I couldn’t wait until my sons were old enough to be read to. I read to my grandson now too. I love books with a passion that I usually reserve for people or pets. Both my homes are bursting with them.

So don’t tell me books are going away! I still have both Junior and Senior editions of 1968 Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as several volumes of Yearbook and Science updates, that my dad bought for us way back when I was in elementary school. I’ll never part with them; they’re like old friends. Besides, I haven’t read everything in there yet. I also have a very old black cloth covered Winston Dictionary that my dad had in high school, with pages that have a thumb inset for each letter of the alphabet. I seldom use it because it’s becoming brittle, but now and then I will pick it up and remember how it felt to lay on the bed and pore through those pages, learning new words. Is it any wonder I wound up a writer? I love books so much I had to learn how to create them.

Things are changing, though. We’re in this electronic age where you can have an entire library of material on a small portable device that is easy to carry around. Today’s phones can do infinitely more than the big mainframes in my high school’s computer lab where the geek kids seemed to spend all their time. There are so many other devices around now that allow us to read, search for things, even shop while sitting in the dentist’s office. It boggles the mind. I can only imagine what the future holds in store. Perhaps all the technology we see now will lead to appliances that dispense food and drink and then read aloud a story or the evening paper while we chow down. Remember, you heard that here first!

Oh yes, I have shelves, boxes, tubs, and crates full of books, as well as stacks here and there. I still subscribe to some magazines, and I buy books, both new and used. Print on paper requires no power source to enjoy, other than good light. There’s a ‘homey’ feeling to snuggling up under a blanket in a comfortable old chair with a good book. They’re far safer to take the beach than those electronic devices, where wet salty wind and sand are antagonists to delicate circuitry. A book works even in an extended power outage, as long as you have a sunny window or a candle nearby. Books are cheerfully low tech, and you won’t get interrupted by an incoming call if you stay away from the phone.

I also have a Kindle II, something my kids gave me for Christmas a few years back. At this point, it’s a bit dated, but I still enjoy it very much for what it does so well. I’ve downloaded a whole bunch of free or very modestly priced books to it; classics that I always wanted on the shelf, but never had the room for. I’ve read A Princess of Mars by Burroughs, some Lovecraft thrillers, and am still working my way through Treasure Island by Stevenson. My Kindle is stuffed with goodies like that. I could fill half a room with what’s in there, wall to ceiling. I’d never be able to reach most of them, and forget about dusting. So the electronics do have their place.

As a reader, I have mixed feelings about this age of E-books. Change is harsh. It was sad watching first the demise of the friendly neighborhood independent book store, and then the big glitzy mega-book chains that replaced them. Even the drugstores and supermarkets seldom have those wire spinner racks of pocket size paperbacks that we’re being told are going the way of the dinosaur. Those were once cheap reads that you could splurge on and get a whole lot of entertainment from. That price however has crept up considerably over the years to the point where even I rarely buy a new paperback. Now, there is one place where the E-books now have it all over print: many (but not all!) of them are relatively inexpensive compared to their ink and paper versions. Get enough low cost or free copies and it quickly pays for the machine.

The same sort of mortality is happening in the magazine market, which has been steadily shrinking since the 80s. The costs of color printing on glossy paper and mailing have skyrocketed, forcing magazines to downsize page counts, have fewer issues per year, and fill the interior with big 2 page ads and pull cards. Staff writers have been replaced largely by freelance gypsies who tend to move around, and editorial heads roll often as the publication reinvents itself once more, losing focus and longtime loyal fans. Newsstand prices are outrageous, and with fewer subscribers, subscription fees have skyrocketed too. Just in the last 15 years I’ve lost through attrition or decided to cancel subscriptions to a good dozen periodicals. I currently subscribe to three magazines, one of which I’ve had in some form or another since I was a teenager. The death knell is sounding in that part of the mainstream publishing market too, for costs are beginning to exceed content and the internet is replacing magazines as a source of inspiration, information, and entertainment.

The big book retailers are in such paroxysms of decline that I can’t help but think that the huge publishing companies that supply them won’t be far behind if this trend continues. Even our libraries are becoming more mixed media and community centers that rent or show movies, loan equipment, offer internet and copy machine services, or even host lectures and craft classes. Some of the more forward thinking and well equipped libraries with solid budgets offer E-book rentals. It’s a whole new world when you walk inside, and while the stacks are still there, they’re not as busy as some of the other areas of the library are these days.

All of this reminds me very much of the music industry and its move from vinyl through tapes, compact discs, and now MP3s. Musicians have had to adapt long before writers, and while some embraced the new technologies as a way to connect more closely with the public, others have complained over it being mainly unregulated. In the end though, MP3 players and downloadable music are here to stay, and even my oh-so modern portable CD unit is antiquated. I rip most of my music to my computer, and listen to it there, mixing tracks to my heart’s content. Any CDs I own are archived, and my vinyl albums have been given a nostalgic place in storage. Some music is still hard to find in a digital cut, but little by little, the demand is opening supply channels. There are also some lesser known, independent artists who have greatly benefitted from having an international digital audience via MP3 samples on websites and internet pulse centers like Youtube.

Yep, it’s a whole new world! Even I have an MP3 player now.

Now as a writer, I have learned not to fear these things, but to embrace them. The times they are a-changing once again, and the way we look at reading and writing is going to change too. The reason I’ve managed to get published at all is because with the electronic transfer system we call email, I can send a message and a manuscript to someone halfway across the country in seconds and expect a personal reply within a reasonable amount of time. The electronic world has been a boon to independent publishers looking for niche audiences and frustrated writers like me who could never quite figure out how to beat the odds and get stories out of the slush pile and into someone’s hands. Without all these newfangled devices, things like Print On Demand (POD) paperbacks, and inexpensive electronic books (E-books), would never have happened. You have to either accept the changes as they become the norm, or be swept aside by them.

Just look at Fortune’s Pawn for instance. That book started some 12 years ago as a much bigger tome aimed at the mainstream fantasy market. In the 4 years I was writing it, several publishers I targeted were bought out and consolidated under the wings of larger companies. Most stopped taking unsolicited manuscripts or un-agented work, a Catch-22 situation for the newbie writer, who can’t snag a reputable agent with solid industry connections unless she has a contract in hand. By the time I was shopping the finished manuscript around, my choices were quite limited.

The traditional way of gaining publication chops was through fiction magazines, which had also condensed to 2-3 still printing in my genre. I spun my wheels for years, and if not for networking online, I never would have met the human chain that led me to Pro Se Press and seeing my hard work and long time dreams make it into print. Since I typed that opening chapter on my laptop back in January 2000, I’ve written hundreds of beginnings like it, some which are just finding an audience now. This particular book was written by me here in Connecticut, edited by a transplanted Texan, set up by a patient and painstaking fellow in sunny California, published by two farseeing gentlemen in Arkansas, printed in Florida, with cover art by a talented guy in Ohio with distribution all over the globe. So I am patently aware that if I didn’t work with the changing technology, none of this would have come about, and I’d likely have never seen my name on a cover in the hands of a delighted fan asking for me to sign it. Whew!

Next time we pull up this subject, I will have some predictions of my own for you about where the book publishing market is going. Until then… keep reading and writing!

7 comments:

  1. Well said, Nancy. That last bit about how we've come to use the network to produce our dreams is vital for people to hear. There would be no Pro Se or Airship 27 etc. if it weren't for new technology. Amen.

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  2. As the transplanted Texan in question, I can totally agree and to a point sympathize with everything you said Nancy.
    I have quite a book collection myself that I would not trade for anything, although it is sadly incomplete in some areas.
    It is nice to know that such classics like Ellery Queen, Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc. will never become totally inaccessible to readers.

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    1. Indeed. Thanks to the network and stufflike Project Gutenberg i was ableto enjoy plenty of pulp goodness!

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  3. Couldn't agree more gentlemen. The fact that all of us here in very different parts of the country—let alone across the ocean and time zones—can share an opinion on one page is nothing short of a miracle. Here is the 'global village' the experts were talking about.

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  4. Thanks to my Kindle I've been able to read and enjoy a whole truckload of books that have been long out of print or too expensive for me to purchase. Your comparing books and ebooks to vinyl records/cassettes/CDs and Mp3's is an excellent one. While I think the cassette tape is indeed dead (well, to me at least as I got rid of all my cassette tapes five years ago) I think the CD is going to be around for awhile longer and vinyl never really went away.

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  5. It does take a while for technology to catch on D. I know a few people who still view CD players with suspicion and have no use for a computer. What usually converts them is the higher price and more scarce availability of replacement equipment. You can find new turntables for vinyl, but they tend to be pretty pricey. You're going to have to hunt for needles to fit a specific tonearm, and they aren't cheap either. A lot easier to find them online rather than hunting locally, but if you don't have a computer or access to one... It's definitely something that has moved into the realm of aficionado rather than practical use. I loved my vinyl too, and I've had CDs for quite a while, but most of mine are now burned to my PC so it cuts down on wear.

    I figure books will always be around in some form, but fiction is rapidly moving toward being more widely available on the E-spectrum And technology is giving us lots of choices. Just saw that article this week where Harper Collins is going with The Expresso POD machine for their backlist books, actually putting the machines in their retail locations. Since backlist books support the big companies, that's a bold and forward thinking move. Less warehouse space involved and perhaps more of an availability list. Time will tell how it plays out and I'm sure the other publishing giants are watching with interest.

    I think you will see a similar device for the music industry, where you can go 'plug in' your MP3 player and download an album or mix of your choice for a fee. Amazon is now offering downloadable movies. The cable companies have DVR. It's a brand new world!

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    1. Another thing that is making things difficult ... cost of shipping and handling. I see thousands of paperbacks for sale on eBay -- from the 1950s to the present -- for a mere one to five dollars each. Often, shipping is just as much as the book. That will probably be a major factor is pushing eSales.

      Someone remarked to me, years ago, that the only people profiting from comics books stores are UPS and the utility companies. I suppose the same can be said for bookstores -- anyone who owns their building is fine. Any bookstore paying rent to a landlord usually throws in the towel after a few months.

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