Buy the Book
By J.D. TUCCILLE
mostNEWYORK Senior Editor
love books. I love books by new authors, by established authors and by authors who've been gone for longer than sputtering candles and quill pens. I especially enjoy the feeling of discovery of stumbling across a work that I've never read before, that offers me something new.
But books are a luxury, and publishing is an expensive and risky venture. Many books don't come near to earning back their publishing costs let alone turn a profit. To minimize risk, many big publishing houses have focused on a core of established, profitable authors. Even some of the old classics are sold off or allowed to go out of print. And, of course, a few of us live in jurisdictions with strict ideas about appropriate literature. What's a reader to do?
Well, if nothing else, the Internet is an ideal medium for distributing information, and books, once stripped of pretty covers and fragile pages, are information. In electronic form, books can be transmitted to willing readers at relatively low cost. Old tomes that might fade with their dwindling audiences can live for ages as downloadable files. New works that might never have hurdled the barriers of printing and distribution costs can seek an audience in hypertext form.
The grand-daddy and best-known innovator in this new medium is the Gutenberg Project. Started (and still maintained) by volunteers, the project converts public domain works into raw electronic texts to be distributed as far and wide as possible the goal is to get 10,000 titles up on the Net by 2001 as a sort of literary Noah's Ark.
The Gutenberg Project is an earnest and workmanlike effort respectable, but hardly revolutionary.
No, Gutenberg himself changed the world, putting a lot of near-sighted monks out of business, and deserves worthier heirs. Two of these are Pure Fiction and Open Book Systems.
Open Book Systems is essentially a commercial vendor of electronic books, although they also handle Internet sales of the old-fashioned dead-tree items. OBS maintains a jam-packed multilingual site that is . . . well . . . very difficult to navigate. The proprietors of OBS are clearly aware of the power of the Net, but there's a sense that the site is more for the purpose of schmoozing the industry than reinventing publishing.
Pure Fiction, on the other hand, is a U.K.-based effort that focuses on the oft-neglected element in the publishing equation the author. Gaining notice is the largest hurdle for up-and-coming Hemingways, and manuscripts both brilliant and banal end up in the same slushpiles of unread submissions. Pure Fiction addresses this dilemma head on with its own well-organized collection of electronic manuscripts and it solicits new material.
Such showcasing is an interesting approach to raising a writer's profile. Readers can be courted with teasers or full texts, and publishers can (hopefully) be seduced by a presentation that's a bit sexier than a tottering stack of fraying pages.
Still, both OBS and Pure Fiction occupy a sort of middle ground, enhancing and correcting print publishing without transcending it sort of like strapping an outboard motor to a horse to get him around the corners a bit quicker.
What about purely electronic publishing? Anybody out there going for broke?
Well, yeah, as a matter of fact. That's why my favorite of these sites is the exuberant Pulpless Fiction. This site offers a small collection of works primarily science fiction by established authors. Currently featured is "Volk," a World War II novel by Piers Anthony. "Volk," the folks at Pulpless claim, is "too controversial" for big publishers to touch.
Well, maybe it is, and maybe it's (sniff . . . what's that smell?) that occasional stinker that even the best writers produce; but to find out you can read the first chapter for free before popping for $3.50 to buy the complete book.
But, let's say that "Volk" is controversial that it's a new "Satanic Verses" and that some localities' (maybe Cincinnati) versions of the ayatollah cast a jaundiced eye Volk-ward. Well, Pulpless Fiction can be accessed from any Net-connected computer, at any time of day, anywhere in the world.
And that's a revolution.
Already, in their infancy, these sites have become 24-hour services for readers, writers and publishers worldwide. Insomniacs like myself can purchase a 4 a.m. quick-read from OBS or Pulpless Fiction, or upload our latest masterpieces to Pure Fiction.
New books, low prices and no mother-may-I for the bluenoses. The future looks pretty good for readers.
And I can still indulge in my hardcover classics.