Don't you find it fascinating that the lowest-bandwidth media there is—the written word—is the last to find its true expression in digital distribution? We've been trading music files since the last century, and people are ripping and trading DVDs as well...but books? Well, there's just not much call for eBooks yet.
No matter that you can fit the entire archive of Project Gutenberg on your hard drive, and that it takes a couple of seconds to download a book on most contemporary Internet connections. The experience of reading the eBook just ain't great.
But things are changing.
More people are reading eBooks every week. Although the numbers are still small, they are steadily increasing, and this is without the "killer app" for reading digital text. The simple fact of the matter is that people are more accustomed to the generally poor experience of reading on surfaces like computer monitors and palm pilots than they used to be, and web pages are getting the job done. Poorly, from the perspective of most fiction readers who like to curl up with a good book, but it works. It works for news publishers, and for bloggers, and for a universe of academic publishers; pretty soon it's going to work for bestsellers, too.
The technology is close. Of course, it's been close for years now...it's just too expensive. I remember when the first Franklin Digital Books came out in the mid-90's: small, low-contrast grey-and-black lcd screens were used for some special-purpose non-fiction books, like language dictionaries and reference books. These days digital paper and electronic ink are delivering resolution and contrast as good as traditional paper—in direct sunlight. Early products with these technologies were too expensive and hampered by other design flaws. But most observers think that really cool digital books are going to take off this year, or possibly next.
Digital Rights Management (DRM) is better. Thanks to years of music industry screw-ups, and almost as many years of Big Hollywood Studio stupidity, the field of digital rights management has been a slow-moving beast burdened by bad ideas, unrealistic expectations, and a general hostility between manufacturer and consumer. However, we're getting to the place where DRM doesn't need to be roadblock anymore. Enough smart people have done enough smart work that it's at least possible for good devices with user-friendly piracy deterrence to actually give people what they want—as the profusion of iPods attests.
We here at IROSF are tracking the eBook phenomenon with great interest, and not just because we are a digital publication ourselves.
Here's a little history. In 2002 I set up Quintamid LLC to be a company devoted to putting together technologies at the service of the genre community—i.e., services for authors, for publishers, and for readers in the science fiction and fantasy genres. One important aspect of that is digital publishing, and IROSF was our first (and to date, only) experiment in this line. The original founders of IROSF liked the idea of the New York Review of Science Fiction but wanted something more accessible to a wider audience. Sometimes people think of us as the "International" Review of Science Fiction, rather than the "Internet" ROSF, and that's just fine with us.
In previous columns, I have sketched out some of the ways we expect IROSF to grow this year. Yes, eBook formats will be part of that growth.
But IROSF is just the beginning of things. Quintamid is teaming up with Scorpius Digital, a Seattle-based publisher of eBooks known not only for their book catalog, but also as publisher of Aeon Speculative Fiction, probably the finest magazine publishing exclusively in eBook formats.
The upside to digital publishing is that the cost of putting together a publication is much, much lower than traditional books which have costs attached to both materials and manufacturing, and then the whole cost of distribution. In theory, this should mean that in digital publishing more money can go to authors, and more money to publishers, with the reader still getting a great product at a (much) lower price.
The downside is that any teenager with Microsoft Word and a little spare time can suddenly go into "publishing."
What makes Scorpius different is the commitment to hand-crafted books that are as well-written, well-edited, well-designed, and well-manufactured as any traditional medium, as good as or (preferably) better than the products of the big New York houses. This very much fits into the philosophy of Quintamid, and now, together, we are watching for the release of these reading surfaces that work as well as paper with the hope that there will be well-engineered devices to go with them.
Don't think that this means our focus will shift away from IROSF. IROSF was inspired by a backwater dead-tree publication, but the ambitions here are no less than they were. Indeed, as we move into the digital age, as print becomes a part of the digital world, we expect IROSF to be at the heart of new developments.