Aliske Webb has been an unpublished author, a self-published author, a NYC published author and is now the Publisher of Bookmice.com, a royalty-paying electronic publisher of quality fiction and nonfiction. Her email address is: aliskewebb@bookmice.com

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This month: On Moving Ground - Aliske pilots her way to the Rocket Book conference and shares her observations of the rapidly changing landscape.
I recently attended the ReBa Con in San Francisco, NuvoMedia's first annual conference of Rocket eBook Afficionados. For a first time event, it was well attended by Rocket fans, industry insiders, e-publishers, e-authors as well as journalists and encompassed a keynote address by founder Martin Eberhard, panel discussions and small focused break-out groups.

One of the things that struck me, in the post mortem following the day, was just how the whole new industry of ebooks is fraught with issues, with divided camps firmly entrenched on either side. The last big issues to concern the paper publishing industry was the advent of free public libraries and the proliferation of television - both heralded as the death knell to book reading - which of course didn't happen. No wonder paper publishing sometimes appears to us to be like the sleeping giant while e-publishing is a hotbed of activity.

In the first instance, there is the primary technology issue of PDF format versus HTML with strong proponents for each and with apparently no happy medium between the two - unless Adobe comes out with a fully flow-through text format that can be read on the variety of handheld devices that have emerged to date and will be developed, or unless publishers begin to use HTML (or OeB variants) more creatively and fully to mimic the presentation and "nice look" possible with PDF. The debate centers on whether people want content or format, or both.

The whole idea of ebooks being read either on a PC (a Microsoft favoring thrust) versus the handheld devices (such as Rocket and Softbook or even Palm Pilot) is another area of intense debate. It's this generation's version of the Beta-VCR wars we went through thirty years ago only this time with consumers more wary of investing in a new technology until it is clear who the leaders are going to be. (I'm still holding onto my music cassettes even though they are never played in favor of CDs and I wonder how long it will be before I finally relinquish my hold on that outdated technology.)

Even within the handheld device camp there are those who fervently believe that an ebook reader should be a dedicated device that only does one thing - display an ebook for reading; while others equally firmly believe the future lies in multi-function devices such as the already popular PalmPilots. The dedicated device proponents say, "Do you really need a book to be a telephone, too?" whereas the everything-in-one fans love the Star Trek-esque ability to carry their entire life in their hands, literally. (Someone commented facetiously to me recently that their analysis of the market so far indicates that this issue may fall on gender lines, with women favoring the dedicated devices and men favoring the multi-tasking gadgets - which would seem ironic given that stereotypically men tend to be linear thinkers and women more often are the holistic multi-taskers; and may explain why we are attracted to the qualities of the opposite sex, ipso facto men look to women to be multi-taskers and in their handheld devices are looking for the equivalent of an electronic wife!)

Pricing continues to be an issue with diametrically opposed positions - the NYC high priced ebooks against the small independent ebook pioneers' low "affordable" prices. This is one area where the market may in fact decide the issue for us with some sort of compromise between the two. At least within the small e-publishing community there seems to be some agreement that NYC prices are too high and that most of the small e-publishers are charging too little. Unfortunately both sides are afraid to move on this one - NYC is afraid of diluting its hardcover market for new releases (we won't mention the greed factor that the higher margins on ebooks provides them), and the small independents are afraid of alienating and losing the small customer base it has worked so hard to develop.

Copyright and "copyleft" has become a huge issue, not so much in the form of debate, but rather as a deep concern about how we control, and do we control, the floodgate that the Internet and piracy has opened. What does copyright mean anymore? And who are we trying to protect, the authors, the publishers or the public's right to access knowledge? Everyone has a different demand on the copyright system and the laws aren't able to keep up with the lobbyists. The entire book publishing industry is afraid that what has happened in the music industry will happen to books. And rightly so.

Free on the 'Net is an issue I've written about extensively before and one that continues to concern authors and publishers alike - the music industry has given us a clear example of what happens when people begin to make the assumption that if it's accessible on the Internet it should be free and whatever happens with copyright law, the practical reality of the situation is that it will be harder and harder to police copyright in any realistic manner (and by the way, one of the strong advantages of the handheld device versus the PC-read ebooks is the ability to encrypt them in ways that are not subject to hack-attacks).

What IS a "good book"?

We all complain about the trashy content that perennially appears in the paper publishing industry yet we seem to take this as a matter of course - or with the somewhat blind faith that at least what we are reading has been "properly edited" by a "real editor". The issue leveled again and again at ebooks is the fear that they are somehow of lesser quality and more poorly produced editorially. The facts don't bear up the allegation that opening up access to getting published via the Internet to every Tom, Dick and Wannabe writer will degrade the quality of books. Perhaps we will be making a decision as a society whether we would rather read a fresh, innovative and creative author that has been (perhaps) poorly edited, or read the same old same old in a nice, well-promoted package. (I suppose my predilections are pretty obvious.)

I recently had an interesting conversation with a foundation, which puts books into the hands of disadvantaged children. They were curious about ebooks but because of the "digital divide" that separates people from the very technology they need, weren't sure how they could tap into this new industry. Our ideal of creating true global literacy through the reach of the Internet, may be further in the future than we would hope. After all, people said the same thing about free public libraries but somehow our literacy rate has gone down rather than up - and this in one of the most advantaged countries in the world. Perhaps not due to the failure of libraries but due more to the disintegration of our educational system and the advent of alternative attention-grabbers like television.

In the same conversation, the fundamental idea of "what is a book?" came up repeatedly. Does the vehicle you use to get words to people, really matter? Our how concept of what constitutes a book is about to change radically due to the technology -- perhaps for the first time since Gutenberg. Some of our most brilliant and avant-garde authors are creating non-linear texts, which represents a whole new way of looking at a "story". We normally read a book from page one to page two hundred. In a non-linear text, the use of hyper-linking and embedding text or annotations allows the reader to control which way they move through the text, not necessarily in a sequential manner. Plotlines may follow several different avenues and have a multitude of possible "endings" - somewhat akin to the game "Clue" where every time you play, the combination of who did it, where, and with what, changes. As an author, I have trouble getting my head around the complexity of how you go about creating these layered, multi-directional works, but then I was trained to read sequentially, like most of us are.

In "normal" books, reading from first page to last, everyone has the same experience of reading the book - it is author driven. In a non-linear book, because there are so many linked "jumping off points" throughout, everyone's experience of reading it becomes their own and unique -- it is reader driven (which I suppose would lead to some very interesting book club discussions). This approach to writing is only possible when you "lift" a book off a printed paper page and literally into the three-dimensionality of cyberspace -- which interestingly enough, more closely mimics the way the human brain actually functions. For centuries we have "driven" our perceptions and information intake along the narrow lines defined by words on paper. For the first time now, we may actually begin to read and learn in a whole new way.

I digress. But only slightly, since each of these areas I mentioned are newborn and still developing, yet significant. It's somewhat predictable that the public hasn't caught on to ebooks in a huge way as yet. It's too much like looking into a swamp and seeing quicksand-- the ground is still moving too much for the general population to feel comfortable with what is going on in electronic publishing. When we sort out our own "internal" problems on these issues, we stand a better chance of catching the imagination of the public... after all, we ended up with VCRs and now CDs in our homes... eventually these issues will be resolved and then we can all get on with the business at hand -- putting authors' words and ideas into the hands of people who want to read.


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