/ / A Place So Foreign and Eight More, News

Welcome to the site for A Place So Foreign and Eight More, my first collection of short stories. This is the place to come for the latest news about the book, reviews and blurbs, ways to buy it, and, of course, I’ve made the text of six of the nine stories available as free downloads (they’re up as ASCII files now — you’re invited to convert them to your favorite format and make them available to others).

I’ve adapted the design for this site from the brilliant site that Mena Trott built for my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and I’ve used Movable Type, the wonderful blogging tool that Mena co-authored, to run the back-end for this site. Movable Type is hands-down the most flexible, most versatile blogging tool on the market.

This site is intended to raise an interesting question: Why the hell should an author make his work available for free to the public?

It’s a good question. Here’s the deal. I believe that the electronic publishing models that have been tried — especially those that rely on restricting readers’ freedom with “Digital Rights Management” software — are dead ends. There are lots of ways that electronic texts are inferior to paper (every discussion of “e-books” has to involve at least one paen to the smell of old books and another to the wonder of reading a book in the tub), but there are also lots of ways in which they are superior. You can carry a lot of them around in a small device. You can back them up. You can email them to friends. You can convert them to your favorite file-formats, you can search them, you can copy-and-paste them. When we turn to use-restriction technology, we foreclose the possibilities that make electronic text superior to printed text.

Well, who cares about electronic text? I do. I care because there are more words being read off of screens today than are being read off of paper. That doesn’t mean that books are going to die, but it does mean that they’re going to dwindle in relevance — just as live music performance dwindled in relevance when radio took off: even though more live music than ever is being performed today, it’s such a fringe activity when compared to radio and recordings that it seems quaint and anachronistic.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the same thing is happening to books. Fewer and fewer of us read fewer and fewer books with each passing day, even though more and more of us read more and more words every day off of a computer monitor (anyone who tells you that computer screens aren’t high-enough resolution to stand in for books has somehow missed the fact that virtually anyone with any disposable income — i.e., anyone in a position to buy a book — spends 6-18 hours a day staring at one). If writers are going to be relevant and successful in the twenty-first century, we’re going to have to figure out the model for electronic publishing.

One thing I’m pretty sure of is that making an free electronic text available doesn’t hurt sales of books. I released my last novel online as a free download, and at least a couple hundred thousand people downloaded it. One or two jerks wrote to say, “Neener neener, I downloaded your book instead of buying it,” but hundreds wrote to say, “I tried your book out online and decided to buy it.”

Far more interesting, though, was the response from readers who bought the hardcopy book first and then downloaded a copy. Some of them made weird Dadaist art out of the text. Some non-Anglo readers wrote to say that they ran difficult sections of the text through an automated translation engine to get the sense of the meaning. One guy wrote to say that he read half the book in hardcover and took the rest to the beach printed out on the back of sheets he’d already run through his printer once, crumpling them up and tossing them in his beach bag as he read ’em (yes, the environmentalist in me shudders at this, but the futurist in me gets shivers up and down my spine at the thought).

This free release business is politics, of course — it’s a big, extended middle finger to the copyright dinosaurs who are trashing our civil liberties and social order rather than adapting to the new technical reality. But it’s more than that: it’s science.

Yes, science. Science starts with doing something and observing what happens. Releasing these electronic texts takes the discussion of “e-books” (God, I hate that word!) out of the theoretical realm and into the actual. Here is an e-book. Here are some readers. Here’s what happens. Eventually, I expect that I’ll get some useful insights out of this, and when I do, I expect that I’ll be able to turn them into craploads of money and recognition and whuffie — all the stuff that a writer craves.

In other words, I don’t know how to make a living on electronic text, but one thing I’m 100 percent sure of is that I won’t make a penny by treating my readers like crooks, or by stamping my foot and demanding that the Internet cease to exist, or by pretending that it’s still the golden age of print publishing. I expect that acting in those ways is how I’ll go fucking broke.

So, welcome to my experiment. You’re an integral part of it. Use the Comments link at the end of this post to tell me — and other people who happen by — how you’re interacting with the text.