If you’ve ever been to a speculative fiction-themed convention, you will probably be familiar with the scenario. You open up your copy of the programme. You become three parts excited and one part depressed, the depressed part coming from the realisation that many of the panels you are interested in are scheduled simultaneously. You try not to swoon at the thought of seeing and listening to your favourite authors. You get out your pen or your highlighter and mark which ones you are going to attend. You wonder when, in this jam-packed schedule of delights, you are going to find time to eat.
Then comes the really fun part of comparing the promise of each panel with the reality. Some veer off in unexpected, yet still informative, directions. Some leave you wondering if you have blundered into the wrong room by mistake. A few get jettisoned in the dark corners of your memory banks as the convention experience overwhelms you.
And then there is the panel that simply blows you away.
For me, that panel at WHC 2011 was The Future of the Book. The panellists were authors Sarah Langan, Fred Venturini and Joe Hill, author and editor Jeff Burk and literary agent Robert Fleck. I hope you will forgive me for the incomplete nature of my recollections – even although it was the stand-out panel for me for the weekend, and even although I took notes, I can’t be 100% sure of who said what, and exactly how it was said.
Of course, the hot topic was the impact of the e-book. The general feeling amongst the panellists was – don’t get your knickers in a knot over e-books, print books are not about to go away any time soon, if ever. Jeff Burk made an interesting observation; he asked us to put up our hand if we had an e-reader, and almost everybody in the audience raised their hand. He said that it is only those in the industry who are obsessed with e-books (Joe Hill said he bought one of every type of e-reader available on the market, just so he could be across his readers’ experiences). That same question asked at a fan convention would elicit only a few raised hands.
Another panellist compared the e-reader to the microwave. When the microwave first came onto the market, pundits predicted that in the near future, microwave ovens would completely replace conventional ovens. Yet now, most kitchens contain both appliances. The invention of the e-reader does not mean the end of paperbacks, he opined, it only means that consumers now have more choices.
Speaking of choices, Jeff Burk said that the small press is leading the way in publishing. Many small publishing companies are paying their authors a 50/50 royalty split, making them an attractive option for authors seeking publication. They are also able to take more risks than the major publishing houses, thus delivering more choice to readers. Jeff edits and writes for Eraserhead Press, and some of their titles, such as “Ass Goblins of Auschwitz” and “The Baby Jesus Butt Plug”, would never have had a look-in in mainstream publishing, yet have sold well.
Sarah Langan thought that the e-book was of particular benefit to horror and erotica fans because the e-reader renders their choice of reading material anonymous, unlike the sometimes lurid covers of genre paperbacks. I found this comment somewhat bemusing – not wanting your fellow passengers to see you reading erotica on the train, yeah, I get that, but it had never before occurred to me to be ashamed of reading horror. But then, I’m not reading “The Baby Jesus Butt Plug”…
Everyone seemed in agreement, however, that e-books will supplant the mass market paperback, and physical books will become more valued as objects, collector’s items and artefacts. Joe Hill predicted a return to traditional values, with printers crafting their products with care, love and pride. Illustrations will return to prominence in the print book. Meanwhile, as e-readers get more sophisticated, we might see book reading becoming more of a multimedia experience. Joe Hill also predicted the rising popularity of episodic fiction, with books being released in instalments and readers downloading each instalment for 99 cents a pop. He also mentioned crowdsourcing, taking it to the amusing extreme of publishing blank pages, inviting the public to fill them in, putting his name on it and selling it for $19.99 a copy (at least, I think he was joking…)
From there the topic turned to advertising and product placement. The panellists were unconcerned with the prospect of having advertising in e-readers. Already one can purchase a lower-priced Kindle containing advertisements on the screensaver, and they saw it as no different than flicking past advertisements in your favourite magazine. The price of e-readers is steadily dropping, and if selling advertising space on e-readers takes off, the devices might even eventually become free. Product placement, on the other hand… well, now, as Joe Hill hilariously illustrated (you had to be there), that’s just silly.
The discussion was not only on the changing nature of books themselves, but on how they will be marketed. Fred Venturini expressed not so much a prediction as a wish for book stores to step up and become the best place to read and find books. If Amazon can automatically recommend to shoppers titles in which they might be interested, then book stores need to be able to do at least as much, and then some. Book stores need to find creative ways to enhance the shopping experience for their customers and give them a reason to go there.
Authors, too, need to get creative with their self-promotion, particularly now that many authors are being published through small presses with non-existent marketing budgets. Fred spoke of becoming a ‘regional superstar’. He generates interest in his work by organising signings, not in traditional venues such as book stores or libraries, but in bars. This creates a buzz around the author and draws in bar patrons who might otherwise never have heard of him (after hearing this, I’m looking forward to staging book signings in the local pub. If nobody buys my book, then at least solace is near at hand).
The people we look to for good advice on books is changing, too. No longer are traditional media reviewers the main fount of knowledge. These days, anybody can put in their two cents worth on Amazon, and it’s getting harder to distinguish good advice from bad (or biased). In the near future, it is the online critics who will have the fan base and the followers as particular review blogs distinguish themselves from the masses and prove their worth.