Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tech Talk and the Active Ebook

Let's talk about technology, specifically in conjunction with media.

There are a few absolutes we can work with.

1. New formats and vehicles are invented that will replace old formats and vehicles.

I'm using the word "vehicle" as a term for the delivery of media, and I'm labeling "media" as content in the form of information or entertainment.

Media can be a novel, a song, a movie. It exists via various formats. A "format" is the form a medium takes.

A song's format can be on a cassette tape, vinyl, CD, mp3, wma, flac, etc.

The vehicle used to play the song depends on its format. We can listen to vinyl on a turntable stereo, mp3s on an iPhone, flac on a computer.

Often formats and vehicles compete with each other until one dominates (vinyl vs. cd, cd vs. mps, VHS vs. Beta, BluRay vs. HD DVD.)

When new formats and vehicles are created, they usually allow a user to enjoy experience media in a superior way over previous formats and vehicles.

The mp3 format allowed for compression of large digital files, which was needed because years ago memory was more expensive. These digital files could then be stored, traded, and many could be carried portably on an mp3 player.

2. As formats and vehicles improve, so does media.

Formats and vehicles often evolve in tandem. For example, as computers improve, software improves, which requires better computers, which allows for better software.

In the case of music, we now have lossless files, which sound better. These files can also carry data other than the music itself; cover art, song title, liner notes, lyrics.

DVD didn't just have a better picture than VHS, it also allowed for extras. Commentary. Alternate endings. Different cuts.

3D is changing movies and video games, taking them in new directions.

3. Prices drop.

This always happens. Once upon a time, a VCR was $1000 (in 1981 dollars) and a copy of Wrath of Khan would set you back $39.99 on VHS. Now you can get a DVD player new for $30 and Khan for $4.99. Or you can stream Khan on Netflix and only pay $9.99 a month for unlimited films.

As prices drop, more people leave their old formats and vehicles and adopt the new, superior ones. Eventually, the old formats and vehicles become niche markets, and the new tech becomes mainstream.

Until another tech takes over and restarts the cycle.

So what does this mean for books?

For hundreds years, the format and vehicle for novels was the bound book.

Then the ebook came along.

The ebook was different than many other new types of technology, because it required users to have both a format and a vehicle for their media.

Readers were used to buying a book and being able to read it. Now they needed special ereaders, and had to buy their media in a specific format.

But the superiority of the technology eventually won out, and now ebooks outsell print. As ereader prices come down, and the technology improves, more and more readers will adopt it.

Being able to hold a thousand books on a single device, adjust font size, and buy ebooks instantly, are just a few of many advantages ebooks have over print.

I have no doubt we'll see $99 ereaders by the holiday season.

Those paying attention to the publishing world may have heard that my upcoming Jack Daniels thriller, Stirred (co-written with Blake Crouch) is being published by the Thomas & Mercer imprint of Amazon.

Amazon is pricing it competitively at $2.99--something no other publisher will do. (In fact, I pulled my second Timecaster book from Berkley because they wouldn't work with me on lowering the ebook price.)

But if prices are coming down, and vehicles are getting better, what about my second rule of tech?

So far, ebooks are just text, which isn't an enhancement over print.

There have been a few efforts to blend video with text, but these require even more expensive vehicles ($500 iPads rather than $140 Kindles) so I don't see these being widely adopted anytime soon. Plus, I don't think a video/text hybrid is what draws people to books.

So I spent some time pulling a Steve Jobs. Instead of guessing what the future holds, I looked at what people are currently doing.

Jobs, as you know, paid attention when music fans began converting and trading mp3s. While the music industry tried to fight it, Jobs created a user-friendly portable device (the iPod) that played mp3s. As a result, a computer company is now the biggest music retailer in the world. All because he watched what fans are doing with music and gave them something to make it easier for them.

That made me look at at what readers are doing with books.

On sites like Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Shelfari, Goodreads, and Librarything, readers are running book groups, reviewing, recommending, sharing what they've read (and how much they've read), and discussing books.

When a book is very popular, readers are writing their own fan fiction.

Readers often contact the author, to ask questions, or say how much they enjoyed a book, or demand a sequel.

It's important to note that readers are doing these things independently, without the author or publisher prompting them. This is what readers enjoy doing with book, above and beyond reading it.

Which makes me ask: why aren't we giving readers what they want?

Enter the Active Ebook.

I'll make an admission. It kills me that my print books are still owned by publishers, who are pricing them too high and sticking it to me with poor royalties.

Because my agent reserved the "interactive multimedia" clause in my contracts, I've been salivating to come up with a way to release these on my own.

So I thought about enhanced ebooks like the Big 6 did. Maybe I'd add some video and audio. Maybe an mp3 director's commentary at the end of each chapter, explaining things about why I wrote it. Linkable footnotes, pictures, and maybe even some games like word search.

But that wasn't evolution. That wasn't Ebook 2.0.

I was missing something. Something big.

User aggregated content.

I've talked about this before. Google is a billion dollar company because they allow users to navigate websites that other people created.

YouTube is all content created by uploaders, for free.

Most of the big internet successes of the last decade were because of users adding to the site.

And as I explained above, users are eager to add content concerning books. The want to do reviews and recommendations and talk to authors and even write fan fic.

All of this happens outside of a book.

What if it happened inside of a book?

What if you don't join a social network to discuss books, but instead you joined a book that was a social network?

Here's how this scenario plays out in my head:

I'm on my ereader, and I get an electronic invitation from a trusted friend to buy Whiskey Sour by J.A. Konrath. It's only $2.99, and the description looks good. Not only that, but it has a community of 12,393 people, so there will be plenty to do.

I buy the book with the click of a button. But rather than begin reading right away, I message my friend who is also in the book, and we decide to join the 4:00pm Whiskey Sour Book Club. There are eight other people signed up for that time slot, and we can all read and discuss the book together. There is also a 3pm slot open, but that's for fast readers, and my speed is moderate at best. The 4pm is a moderate speed club.

Since 4pm isn't until later, I browse the Whiskey Sour Forum, and read a few reviews. I also join a chat session and meet two of the other readers who are in my 4pm Book Club. One of them is a bit abrasive, but the bot monitoring the chat session warns him, then kicks him off. Typing on my keyboard becomes tedious, so I plug in my headphones and we voice chat for a bit, talking about thrillers we liked.

Four o'clock rolls around. I'm in the kitchen, making a sandwich, but my ereader calls my home phone to remind me of the start time.

I read a few pages, enjoy them, then let the ebook read to me until the chapter ends. There are already two people in the bookclub forum, discussing what they read. I join in. Others enter, and my friend links to the FAQ and Author Notes on Chapter 1, which we all discuss.

Whiskey Sour has a full length, author-read commentary, where Konrath explains where, why, and how he wrote certain scenes.

Some of the group wants to continue, but I'm curious to listen to the mp3 commentary, so I beg off and decide to join the 6pm Club for Chapter 2.

The commentary is interesting. Konrath is an entertaining guy, says a lot of funny things. But I realize I'd enjoy it more after I finish, so I pop into the next book club.

Me and another guy read straight through and discuss the book all night, and when we finish I write a review of it in the forum and recommend it to my friends via my ereader. I also notice that Konrath is having a live chat tomorrow, and sign up for it.

The next morning, I find I can't get some of the characters out of my head, so I pop into the forum again and read some of the user created stories. These are fans who have written about the characters in Whiskey Sour. Most of them suck. Some aren't bad. Some are even as good as Konrath. I rate a few, recommend a few, and vote for the top five.

I watch TV for a bit, until a screen comes up saying it is chat time. I sync my ereader with my TV and watch Konrath's talking head as he fields a Skype chat. Several people express that they wanted a longer ending. Konrath says he's working on one, as well as three new chapters which will be inserted into Whiskey Sour at the end of the week.

"Hemingway said that a book is never finished, it's simply due," Konrath says. "But now, books no longer have to be finished. They can continue to grow and improve for as long as the writer is alive. And beyond."

He says that the new additions will be marked as such. People can read the original, or the new version.

I get on my ereader, and ask it to call me when the new material is uploaded. I also ask for updates when people respond to my forum comments, or vote on my review.

Then I finish listening to the audio commentary, pop into the forum to discuss it, and wind up text chatting with Konrath, who is talking about his latest book.

Sounds pretty good. I click on the link to buy it.

Sure beats surfing the internet and watching TV.


Okay, some of the tech isn't there yet. But most of it is.

The idea of a book as a community (which is basically what a website is) makes complete sense if you look at what readers are already doing.

I also love the idea of a book that never ends, where the author can keep adding to it. That may not be for everyone, but there are dozens of books I wish had been longer. Some authors (Stephen King's The Stand, David Morrell's The Totem, my Trapped) have put out different versions of the same book. But if King wrote an extra chapter to Salem's Lot, I'd be the first in line.

Instead of books simply being static text, this scenario allows them to become active. Alive. Growing. Readers continually generate content about books they're read, in dozens of places. Why not centralize all of that content in the one place it should be; within the book itself.

With an Active Ebook, you would have more than a novel. You'd have an ongoing, regenerating, constantly biggering community that brings fans together, encourages user aggregated content, and allows the author to reach a lot of readers at once.

A book could be its own, miniature website, self-contained on an ereader.

Or you could ignore all of that and just read the book normally.

Either way, isn't it worth your $2.99?