The Future of the Book from IDEO
The Wall Street Journal the other day ran a rather alarmist (at least if you're an author) article on what e-books mean for the future of writing, literary fiction in particular. The short answer was, less money. The longer answer was, less money for a whole bunch of reasons: New York publishers don't want to spend it on unknown novelists, small publishers don't have it to spend, young readers are too busy on Facebook to support authors, retailers are giving them less space, and e-books pay less money to authors because they sell for so little.
The sad fate of the literary novelist is one of those dog-bites-man stories that reappear periodically, this time with a trendy e-spin. And with publishing in turmoil, major publishers do seem more inclined to place a massive wager on some celebrity tome than to take a small chance on a young novelist with potential. But it's not at all true that new novelists are being ignored. Quite the opposite: Last year, for example, a Long Island woman named Helen Simonson sold the novel she'd written for her MFA thesis in a major six-figure deal with Random House. This year, 25-year-old Lauren DeStefano sold her first novel in a six-figure deal with Simon & Schuster. Typical? No. But hardly unheard-of.
Whatever the anecdotal evidence, one would expect from the Journal a sophisticated economic analysis. But this too was lacking. The article reports that "a new $28 hardcover book returns half, or $14, to the publisher, and 15%, or $4.20, to the author. Under many e-book deals currently, a digital book sells for $12.99, returning 70%, or $9.09, to the publisher and typically 25% of that, or $2.27, to the author. The upshot: From an e-book sale, an author makes a little more than half what he or she makes from a hardcover sale."
In fact, however, e-book royalties are typically 25 percent of the net sales price, not of the publisher's cut. And the rates are very much in flux, with some authors reportedly getting as much as 40 percent. That means the writer would get $3.25 on an e-book sale, not $2.27, and possibly as much as $5.20.
Then you have to consider how easy it is to purchase an e-book, along with the likelihood that a lower price point will increase sales—especially for a first-time novelist. A few years ago, for example, I gave Nick Laird's Utterly Monkey a try because I'd read a good review and it was published as a paperback original at half the customary hardcover price. (It's a terrific novel, by the way.) But the royalty on paperbacks is typically only 7.5 percent, which means that Laird likely got $1.05 on my purchase. Too bad for him I didn't buy the e-book.
But it isn't just money. What's really intriguing about electronic publishing is its potential for changing the way stories are told. Last week, the design firm IDEO posted the video above to demonstrate three possible futures for the e-book. The first, dubbed "Nelson," is a digital book file that's accompanied by reality check material, so you can determine if what you're reading is pure agit-prop or if it has some basis in fact. (This does beg the question of who checks the reality check.) Then there's "Coupland," which is supposed to help you stay on top of what everybody else in your company is reading.
The truly remarkable prototype, however, is the third. "Alice" offers a template for interactive fiction, inviting readers "to engage in the storytelling process," as the video puts it. Now, this is an iffy proposition, and I expect a lot of truly awful experimentation will take place before people start to figure out how it ought to work. The video suggests such options as communicating with characters in the stories (let's IM Leopold Bloom!), unlocking parallel chapters by geo-location, or actually making your own contributions to the stories. "In time a nonlinear narrative emerges," the voiceover notes, "allowing the reader to immerse themselves in the story from multiple angles."
IDEO offers only a few hints of how this might develop, but it's fascinating to think what someone like Joyce could have made of the possibilities. It's also worth noting that this won't be the first time readers have been invited in. Nineteenth-century serial fiction, of which Dickens was the acknowledged master, involved a constant back-and-forth between author and readers. In his classic 1969 study Charles Dickens: An Introduction to His Novels, E.D.H. Johnson wrote, “The drawbacks of adhering to a rigorous schedule ... were for Dickens more than counterbalanced by the sense of immediate audience participation.” Dickens's readers didn't have geo-location, of course, but imagine if they did? I can hardly wait to read Oliver Twist in London with a little augmented reality thrown in.