Sunday, August 19, 2007

A publishing phenomenon in China

Aventurina King at Wired is reporting on a publishing phenomenon in China, where free web access to novels has spurred record sales of printed books.

Literary sites like Source of Chinese and Magic Sword invite authors to upload their novels onto the web, where they might get noticed by an avid audience of young readers and eventually by publishers. King tells the history of Zhang Muye's serialized novel Ghost Blows out the Light, which has been "viewed more than 6 million times online" and has "sold 600,000 in print," and of another novel titled Killing Immortals that was launched online before selling over a million copies.

This is a collaboration of media that provides opportunities for emerging writers, increases revenues for the sites and for the publishers, and broadens readership. King mentions that "writing and reading novels has become the hobby of an estimated 10 million youth." The trend also strikes a balance between the "wisdom of the crowd" in determining pop-culture merit and old-fashioned editorial gatekeeping, since site publishers can identify the best novels to present only on their for-pay "VIP section."

The trend even contains a hint of throwback to the Victorian age, with its rage for serialized epic-length stories:

In the print world, book length is limited by the cost of paper, printing and distribution. On the Internet, where production costs are close to zero, length equals profit. VIP readers pay a couple of cents for every thousand characters (a print novel generally has 250,000 characters). Contracted authors are paid seven to 12 dollars per thousand characters, depending on their clout.

I've been arguing for years that hypertext does not represent any threat to the book. Here's a case of the web's influence to preserve a traditional aesthetic in writing while revolutionizing the economics of publishing, for the benefit of writers and publishers and the public.

Nor is it in the least surprising that the audience is willing to buy the books they can acquire at a lower price or even for free online. The pleasure of reading, especially fiction and poetry, continues to require the physical page. In his essay "Visible and Invisible Books" that appeared in The Future of the Page, University of Virginia's Jerome McGann points out that:

The history of the book medium and the development of fictional conventions within that medium have evolved an extraordinarily nuanced and flexible set of tools for the imagination. The truth is that the 'hyper' media powers of the book, in this area of expression if not prima facie, far outstrip the available resources of digital instruments.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On the Road for 50 years

I've been following the NY Times open forum on the 50th anniversary of On the Road, which has racked up almost 300 comments so far (just before noon, Wednesday).

More praise than criticism, I'm pleased to see. Much of the condemnation of the book amounts to an ad hominem against Kerouac himself for his treatment of women, drug addiction, alcoholism, etc. Much of the praise amounts to lyrical affirmations of the counter-culture movement. But nowhere, so far, has there been any mention of the typewriter's role in that novel.

The book that Truman Capote dismissed as "typing, not writing'' is the quintessential typewritten novel, and the story of its making is the stuff of legend: Kerouac, pumped up on coffee and amphetamines, composed On the Road during a 20-day marathon in April 1951. To avoid having to stop repeatedly and insert paper, he stitched together a 120-foot scroll beforehand and fed it into the platen.

Kerouac could thus type as he had traveled, the pages rolling through the typewriter like the road rolling under the wheels of cars on their way west. On the Road couldn't have been written any other way. The typescript sold for $2.4 million in a 2001 auction.

Today we write with whispering keyboards on electronic screens. We run spell-checkers, move blocks of text around at will and print perfect copies that never have to be marred by an eraser or a handwritten correction. Fifty years ago, Kerouac created the prototype for one part of the modern technology: Word processors provide a "virtual'' scroll that allows us to glide along without interruption, from page to page, on a spotless white road that stretches to the vanishing point of an imaginary highway.

The Kerouac scroll was a rough, two-lane Rt. 66.

The major drawback of our modern word processors is that they make editing and revising too easy. They distract writers with limitless opportunities to second-guess themselves, to tinker with every sentence, to rethink and revisit everything they write. That writers get anything accomplished is a wonder.

His scroll compelled Kerouac to move relentlessly forward, along with the momentum of the work. It moved in one direction only, through the story and out of it, with no way to retrace his steps or reconsider his course. The lack of an opportunity for second thoughts set him free.

I think the immediacy of blogging is a healthy correction to the impulse for always producing faultless copy. In the rush to continue this freeforall online conversation, we publish errors and infelicitous phrasing. That in itself is a healthy, humbling discipline.

I think that if Jack Kerouac were alive today -- and sober -- he'd be blogging with the rest of us.

(Note: Parts of today's entry are re-cast from a 2001 article I wrote for the Columbus Dispatch.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Summertime blues

This is the summer of overload. I'm juggling six writing courses (two sections of business communication, two of technical writing, and one each of web and creative writing), in addition to a course in linguistics that wrapped up last week.

In addition, I'm trying to score an agent for my recent novel Entanglement and complete a few early chapters of my new piece.

This blog has suffered as a consequence, even though I daily run across stories I'd love to comment on at length, including John Tierney's piece in today's NYTimes about the possibilities that we're living in a computer simulation -- about a 20% possibility, according to Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom.

If we're characters on the hard drive of some higher intelligence's supercomputer, our best survival strategy is "to be as interesting as possible, on the theory that the designer is more likely to keep you around for the next simulation," suggests Robin Hanson at George Mason University.

I find the idea of life as a kind of hyperfiction oddly comforting right now, though it does concern me that my character has become more than a little boring with the repetitious acts of delivering lectures, grading papers, and riding the bus back and forth between home and campus. I need a better life if I hope to stay in the plot.