Has science fiction gone future-blind?

Cory Doctorow’s latest column for Locus Online discusses the topical hot potato of copyright, in the context of a world where the electronic distribution of entertainment media is becoming increasingly commonplace; his previous piece had a similar remit. The thing that astonished me most about these two columns was this: the utter lack of public reaction to them from the online sf community.

The predictions and ideas Doctorow is discussing are no news to a library employee and technology nerd like myself, and hence I can’t imagine that they are too unfamiliar to anyone working in the publishing industry – especially that of sf, which has always had a high percentage of tech-loving readers and writers. So, why this deafening silence?

These are issues that are going to be inescapable soon, probably in less time than we’d imagine. After all, it didn’t take long for technology to get the jump on the music industry, which is struggling to roll with the punches from peer-to-peer technology, and injuring itself with poor blocking in the form of DRM and other restrictive technologies. It’s not pretty watching a business model try to save itself by biting the hands that feed it.

With the prominent launches of eBook readers from major players in the electronics world (plus a new entry to the race from a brand already associated with the sale of books, in the form of Amazon’s Kindle prototype), the future is eyeing the publishing industry from across a crowded room, and thinking of strolling over for ‘a quiet word’. As a serious book junkie, I don’t want to see the sf publishers run into trouble at the hands of scientific and economic progress, and I’m sure the publishers, writers and other readers are right here with me in that feeling.

So what can they do? I’m not going to claim to have a solution to the dilemma, because I’d be a liar if I did. What I will say is that, by looking at the lessons the music industry is learning the hard way, releasing electronic versions of books with crippling DRM code laced into them isn’t going to do much good at all. After all, as Bruce Schneier has said, “trying to make digital files uncopyable is like trying to make water not wet”.

If there is a rule of cyberspace, it might well be that ‘everything can (and will) be hacked’ – DRM will always be seen as a challenge to some people, and there will be a small subset of them who aren’t afraid to distribute the results of their tinkering to the hungry masses. Therefore DRM is pointless; if it’s going to be hacked and shared anyway, there’s no point in restricting the product that you give to the users who are actually willing to pay.

Now, it’s going to take a while for print media to die out, eBooks or no eBooks – books as artefacts are such a large part of the pleasurable psychological enjoyment of reading that eBooks will have a hard time getting a grip at first. But sf must be the most wary, being as it is the literary genre with arguably the highest quotient of ‘early adopters’ and gadget freaks.

So, in the meantime, perhaps priming the market for the idea of downloadable electronic fiction is the right idea. After all, Doctorow himself certainly doesn’t seem to have suffered terribly from giving away free electronic versions of his fiction, and nor has Charlie Stross. Baen Books have been surprisingly successful at shifting physical units, despite the large archive of free material available on their website.

While people still prefer to read ‘actual’ books, it would seem that giving away free content is a great marketing ploy. Of course, the actual results are rather hard to quantify without access to the relevant facts and figures, as Robert Sawyer has pointed out. But this emphasises the overall point I’m trying to make – the industry needs answers, and to get them it needs to start sharing information and assessing the options. It strikes me that this is a situation where inter-publisher competition will probably be left aside in face of a potentially lethal universal enemy. But I worry at seeing little sign of it happening.

Of course, for all I know there’s lots of discussion going on behind the scenes – as much as my life may give the opposite impression, things do actually occur that don’t occur on the internet (cough). But as an sf reader and book reviewer, as a library worker, and as a technology obsessive and internet denizen, I want to know what’s going on with my favourite genre’s future. I imagine there are a few other people starting to think the same way (though that may just be megalomania on my part, granted).

It seems obvious to me that the music industry’s mistake was to not consult its market, the actual people who paid for albums, before it was too late. Once that point came, they started pointing the fingers and launching the lawsuits. I believe if they had looked to the future and listened to the wants of their users, they could have made the right moves before it all started getting messy. Hence it is my belief that this would be the best course of action for the publishing industry to be taking, and sf in particular.

I’m positive that the publishers aren’t just covering their ears and singing the ‘nah nah nah’ song. But in a networked world, silence does few favours to an industry, and sf would be wise to leverage the uniquely close relationship it has with its consumers while it can still gain clear advantages from doing so. Time and technology, as we all know, doesn’t wait for old business models to catch it up. As one of the genre’s alumni has said, and has been quoted as saying many times:

“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

6 thoughts on “Has science fiction gone future-blind?”

  1. I went to the 1992 Worldcon in Orlando and there was an employee of a burgeoning e publisher issuing statements of “traditional publishers are dinosaurs!” at every panel he went to.
    Here we are 14 years later and we’ve seen wave after wave of e publishing ventures emerge and then turn to dust. People involved in SF publishing have not been ignoring e publishing, they’ve had their ears talked off about it for over 15 years now.

    It’ll come eventually but it’s not sneaking up on anyone. When it does arrive I think SF authors will be at the forefront of adapting to it and probably capitalizing on it.

  2. The possible, cruel answer is that the music industry made no mistakes – that this is a “Kobiyashi Maru Scenario” for all forms of the professional copyright-content biz; there are and were no winning options. Art must become amateur. Artists will have day jobs.

    Aside: I’ve heard people praise the paper book, in the belief that aesthetics will guarantee its’ continuance. I couldn’t disagree more. I say this as a man with a small library of my own – the paper book is bulky, heavy, smelly, unsearchable, inconvenient to index and completely unavailable to data mining. It can’t be backed up, it can’t be duplicated, it can’t be emailed or posted to reddit. Its only advantages are durability and a reflective rather than radiative viewing area. Can you be certain electronics won’t match that? I certainly am not.

    What it will be replaced with, if anything, is the idea of the printed book as a transient instantiation of a digital datum. “Print it out”, peruse, discard. You have the file and you can re-create it whenever you see the need.

  3. Hello, this is The Hermit from the SF carnival come to check out the other links.

    All that I can really add to this is that I think just about every paper book I’ve purchased recently, has also been downloaded and added to my pocket pc. With the exception of some Sherlock Holmes and Lovecraft, these have all been new publications that I’d gladly pay for a download of instead of a paper copy of.

    As a student at a rather good tech school, Case Western Reserve, I’m surrounded by the bleeding edge of early adopters, and ebooks on computers or pocket pc’s are fairly common. I don’t know if that means they’ll trickle into the mainstream market place soon or not.

    One problem with that is that there’s no need to go buy new hardware like an ipod. A computer monitor does the trick just fine for most ebook readers.

  4. Maybe there’s been no reaction from the online SF community because they’ve heard it all before. Doctorow has been going on about this for years, on BoingBoing and elsewhere. He isn’t saying anything new in his pieces for Locus Online; he’s just recycling his standard material. Whether they agree or disagree with him, everyone already knows where he stands on the issue.

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