Death of the Novel... Sort Of

The book as we know it is probably doomed.

It might come as a surprise to hear me say that; after all, I posted on why we all need publishers just a couple of months ago. I stand by that post and everything I've said in it, but I've been doing a lot of thinking about the future of publishing, and I do believe I fell into a bit of a logical trap. I'd like to correct that here.

The Arguments

Bear with me as I rehash the conventional wisdom for one sec.

There are people arguing that the ebook will never achieve mainstream adoption. I think we can safely assume, for reasons logistical, economic and environmental, that this isn't the case. The Kindle has ushered in an age of increasingly cheap e-readers, and if you don't think people like to read on screens, I'm wondering what it is you're doing right now. Hell, that's what I do all day long; it might be blog posts, correspondence, and chat, but it's still reading words on a screen. That war is over already.

Prognosticators see two primary ways that this eBook revolution will go down. One of them is the open source model, in which writers, freed from the long oppression of the publishing gatekeepers, sell their books directly to readers, possibly obtaining a la carte editing and marketing services along the way. I've previously explained why, as a writer, I find this outcome both undesirable and unlikely. 

The other prediction is that publishers will adapt their existing mechanisms to function in a digital world. Books will still be printed as a specialty marke, but the bulk of fiction will be eBooks, sold online for a to-be-determined price point. 

There are a lot of unspoken assumptions in both of these scenarios on what reading habits and market pressures will do. Notably, all of this conversation about books -- or at least fiction books -- assumes that the item itself, a novel-length story, will remain exactly the thing that we know and love today. 

I'm pretty sure that's wrong. 

Once our books are consumed in significant proportion by people reading on the screen, people are going to want to interact with their books the way they do other content. And that pressure is going to fundamentally change what books are, and how they're written, sold, and read.

How Much Should A Book Cost?

One of the pressures acting upon writers as we transition to an eBook world is the price point. While $8 for a 600-page epic fantasy is a pretty great deal in terms of entertainment minutes-per-dollar, there is a certain resistance that comes into play when you translate that to a digital item. You can't feel the heft of it. You can't really measure how good a value it is. All you know is that you're spending $12. The value proposition is fundamentally the same, but the perception of it has shifted.

People don't want to pay $12 for something not measurably different from a very long web page or a PDF document. Among the die-hard Kindle community, you will notice that a significant fraction of people feel like they should be spending 99 cents for a book. Mayyyyybe $1.99. Certainly nothing higher than five dollars. That's because the price we're used to spending for a unit of entertainment online is about a buck (for music) or free (for, say, Flash games and blogs.)

The precise economics of book production have been covered extensively elsewhere, so I won't repeat it here. I will say that if the income earned from each book is likely to be lower, this puts pressure on the writer to sink less overhead into any one book. The biggest investment a writer makes is, of course, time. And what happens when a writer spends less time on a book? Either it's poorer quality, or else the book is much shorter. ...I'll get back to that in a minute.

Cost to the Reader

The writer isn't the only one who loses time in a book. Another reason that our imaginary reader is resistant to spending $8 on a paperback is because they are committing, not just money, but also hours of time into the author's care. This is what crowdsourced reviews are good for; you know what clips to watch, what blogs to read, which Twitter users to follow -- because the crowd has discovered them for you already. 

But the problem with crowdsourcing is that at some point, somebody has to be the first one. The numbers of reviews on a 3-minute YouTube clip are always going to be an order of magnitude greater than the numbers of reviews on a 30-minute one because of that time investment. 

Crowdsourcing reviews of book-length works is, for this reason, structurally nonfunctional.

But people still like reading book-length fiction... so how's that going to work?

The Future of Fiction

Welcome, one and all, to the rebirth of short and serialized fiction. Short fiction has been dead for a long time. And by "dead" I mean there's been very little market for it, which means there's been very little money for writing it. That's going to be changing. 

We have the pressure of writers not wanting to commit a year of their life to a single thing that may sell for 99 cents. We have the pressure of readers not wanting to commit hours to reading a book of uncertain quality. We have a shift to screen-reading, wherein the length of the work you're reading is of markedly decreased prominence.

But the most important reason short fiction is going to come back is because it's uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between a reader's desire for free entertainment, and a reader's desire for entertainment of guaranteed quality. You don't want to spend $12 on a novel of uncertain quality... but you might try the free first chapter, which, because it's both free and short, has a ton of crowdsourced reviews. And then when you like it, you'll spend 99 cents for the next chapter, and the next one, and then... screw it, let's just buy the whole thing. (Writers, this means keeping your pace snappy is going to be very, very important.)

The coming generation of books may even be structured in a completely modular fashion. The first chapter, especially, will have the strength to stand on its own feet as a work of short fiction. But later chapters will, too, and authors will release select chapters as short stories -- a marketing plot,  in order to lure readers into ponying up their 99 cents to get the other chapters, too. For prime marketing value, you'll see novels written in episodic format; each chapter functioning both on its own, and as a part of an overarching story.

Hey, it works for TV, why do books have to be so special?

I bet we'll also see endless serial novels; you arguably have this now from authors like Charlaine Harris, Sue Grafton, David Weber, and Laurell K. Hamilton, who have all written extensive series in the same world and featuring the same main character. 

The three-act novel as we know it will still exist, I'm sure, but mostly as the vehicle for artists with a significant and well-established fanbase, who have the liberty to experiment more.

The times, they are a-changing, and changing fast. Now excuse me, I've got to go dust off my short-fiction skills. I'll be needing them.

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