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SHOW YOUR WORK
by Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories
“Show your work.” These three little words have probably changed the entire trajectory of my life—repeatedly—mostly because I so often skip this step. It’s not because I don’t want to do it, but rather because of the way my mind works. I’m constantly drawing oblique inferences and making unusual connections. I don’t work by luck, guess, or intuitive leaps; there is a clear (if often non-linear) path from Point A to Point E. But by the time I’m ready to charge off and do something, I’m usually too enthused about what I’m going to do to slow down long enough to explain why I’m doing it.
In previous editorials I’ve touched lightly on my history as a musician and my involvement in the electronic music scene of the 1970s and the development of MIDI 1.0. Force me to slow down too much and I’ll start telling you all about Bartolomeo Cristofori, the instruments in the Schubert Club Museum, and the evolution of the piano, the gramophone, radio broadcasting, the tape recorder, musique concrète, multi-track recording, analog and digital synthesizers, etc., etc., etc....
Never mind that now. The important point is, each of these things democratized music. Each one of these developments took power out of the hands of those who had previously held it and put it into the hands of those who understood and embraced the new technology. Over time what once required a small army of impressarios, opera house owners, and well-trained musicians to do became something that could be done by a guy in his basement, or a girl in her dorm room.
And—this is the very tip of the most important point—each time a technology-driven transition happened, it led to an efflorescence of creativity, because the new kids didn’t know what couldn’t be done.
We are now in the early stages of seeing just the same sort of evolutionary and revolutionary change in the publishing business. The publishing industry used to be controlled by the people who owned the printing presses. Then, by the people who controlled the distribution channels.
That industry is dead. It just hasn’t stopped twitching yet. We’re already hanging ten on the leading edge of the first wave in the next set.*
But this is only the first wave.
People keep asking me, “Why e-books only? Aren’t you limiting your readership by only releasing e-books on Kindle, Nook, and iPad?” My answer is that e-books are merely a transitional stage. Fond as I am of my Kindle, dedicated e-readers are an early form and most likely an evolutionary dead-end. They’re already giving way to e-reader apps on tablets and smart phones. Within the year I expect the current generation of Kindle- and Nook-type devices to be almost completely supplanted, not by any single product, but by a continuum of devices ranging from smart phones on one end to print-on-demand books on the other.
The real breakthough will come when somene makes the leap from thinking in terms of “a book” to thinking in terms of reflowable content.
In the not-too-distant future, you won’t buy a book any more: you’ll buy a license to use the content, and then how you use it will depend on where you happen to be when you want to use it. You’ll be able to read the same book on your tablet at home; on your phone when you’re on the go; maybe stream it to your car’s radio if they ever get text-to-speech really debugged; and if you decide you really like it and want a copy to take with you when you’re out of wi-fi range, you can get a printed and bound hardcopy delivered right to your door, with your choice of binding, cover art, page size and paper, font face and size—and probably even a range of auto-bowdlerization options, to make certain your copy of the book includes only the stuff you’re sure to like, and doesn’t include anything that might potentially upset or offend you.**
After all, it’s just a matter of markup language. I expect to see this future begining to creep in well before the end of 2014.
Who will be the first to embrace this?
Not Apple: they’re too busy doing what they always do, which is trying to take an open standard and make it proprietary. Perhaps Amazon: they have the resources and market reach to make it work, and they’re almost there with their Kindle Cloud Reader and their WhisperSync, which lets you sync your Kindle to Audible-brand audio books. But to really do it right they’d have to give up their absolute dedication to the .mobi format and Kindle-brand devices and begin selling device-agnostic .epub files for use on non-Kindle devices, and I just can’t see them doing that.
It certainly won’t be us. Rampant Loon Press is far too under-capitalized to bring this idea to market, and I’m getting too old to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the kind of funding that would be needed.
But Point E is: this is the future that is coming, and all of our experiments thus far—the things we’ve done and the things we’ve chosen not to do—are all aimed at helping us to develop the skills and experience we will need to have, if we’re to ride this wave when it arrives.
Hang on. Three years in, we’re just getting started.
* My God, is that a mixed metaphor or what?
** For example, imagine you’re a writer who has a story in a magazine. Wouldn’t you be willing to pay a premium to send your Mom a copy with a cover that shows your name and story title in pride of place? If this sounds ridiculous to you, you need to pay more attention to what’s already happening in the world of amateur athletics.
Or how about the “Build Your Own Anthology” idea? Imagine being able to go into, say, the Analog archives, and pick just the stories you want and the order in which you want them. Or imagine being an author and having a plug-in on your website that lets your fans mix-and-match stories from your catalog, to build their own personal “best of” anthologies.
Sadly, the ultimate expression of this will probably be a “Phantom Edit” function that lets your readers build their own private versions of your books and stories, by including or excluding text right down to the paragraph, line, and word level, cutting out the boring parts and including only the sex scenes. Sorry, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it is coming.
Bruce Bethke is best known for either his genre-naming 1980 short story, “Cyberpunk,” his award-winning 1995 novel, Headcrash, or lately, as the editor and publisher of Stupefying Stories. What very few readers have known about him until recently is that he actually started out in the music industry, as a member of the design team that developed the MIDI standard and Finale music notation engine (among other things), but he now works in supercomputer software development, doing stuff that is absolutely fascinating but almost impossible to explain to anyone not already well-grounded in massively parallel processor architectures and Fourier transformations.
Bruce has a long-neglected personal web site at brucebethke.com, but if you’re looking for more information about him you’re better off reading the interviews at Strange Horizons, Wag the Fox, or Six Questions For. You can try to reach him through facebook.com/bruce.bethke, and that sometimes works, but you’ll have better luck going through facebook.com/StupefyingStories or the feedback email address elsewhere on this page.