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BOOT UP A BOOK
ONLINE LITERATURE IS THE NEWEST CHAPTER IN PUBLISHING. BUT WILL READERS WARM UP TO IT?

A Friday night in February, home alone in Buffalo. It's snowing again, clumpy flakes so big you hear tiny thuds against the windowpane.

Not a night for driving. Television's offering the same old car crashes and laugh tracks. A night for curling up with a good book, wrapped in a quilt, maybe a beverage or two.

Reach inside your book bag, feel for the leather-bound cover. Pull it out -- and turn it on.

Jack into the Net, go book shopping. Download a dozen volumes after reading reviews and sample chapters online. Their titles are listed on the backlighted display. Slide a fingertip across the title of the latest Stephen King, and it opens at your touch.

Are you ready to cuddle up with an electronic book?

Electronics manufacturers are praying for you to say yes. At $250 and up, e-books do their best to mimic the curl-up-on-the-couch comforts of the common book. They're completely portable, about the same size and weight.

But for all the hoo-ha, so far most readers have turned a blind eye to e-books. For now, at least, technology has met its match: the humble book.

"Serious readers love books," said Stefan Fleischer, a University at Buffalo English professor. "You can crawl into bed with them."

Drop them, lend them, take them to the beach and forget them. Try that with your Star Trek gizmo, and it's game over.

But computers and the Internet already carry the potential seeds of a literary revolution. There are forms of literature being invented today that paper and ink cannot carry.

Poems that mutate slightly every time they're read, or send words scurrying for cover like cockroaches under the kitchen light.

Fiction that's read not by flipping pages, but by selecting words or phrases that whisk readers to another page. No thumbing to the end to see who did it, because there's no marked end. Readers have to explore and double back to learn the truth of the story.

Obscure stuff, for sure, and not ready for prime time. But the technology is in its infancy. What if publishers offered downloadable, interactive entertainment titles online -- some straight text, others including images, color, sound -- the way CD-quality audio singles are available today?

Twenty years from now, when the Nintendo generation arrives as adults with a billion collective hours of Game Boy play behind them, are hardcovers destined to follow the vinyl LP into obscurity?

"For me, personally, absolutely not," said Fleischer.

He has, he is quick to point out, a clear bias: "I spent my lifetime reading in black and white."

The people who love books will never give them up, he said. Unfortunately, there aren't that many of them. (Industry estimates put the number of habitual book readers at below 15 percent of the U.S. population.)

"The potential audience for serious literature is absolutely tiny compared to the potential audience for a rap song," said Fleischer. That's with a definition of "serious" wide enough to include popular fiction like Elmore Leonard.

As entertainment options continue to expand, Fleischer said, there's no doubt that "serious books are going to be much more difficult to market and sell at a profit."

Fleischer, 62, surfs the Web probably five hours a week. He hasn't made an exhaustive search of online literature, certainly, but what he has seen has been "99 percent garbage," Fleischer said.

The quality will certainly improve, given time, he said.

Last year, a novel available only over the Internet was nominated for the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award. Patricia le Roy's "The Angels of Russia," a historical romance, didn't win, but it was hailed by critics including the (London) Times Literary Supplement.

"The story," wrote the Times, "is . . . gripping and finally surprising; what, in other contexts, would be called a page-turner."

When traditional publishers raced to get le Roy's work between covers, her triumph over the paper-and-ink purists was complete.

Most electronic novels, whether from Online Originals or competitor 1stbooks, don't earn such praise. At least potential buyers can usually flip through the first chapter of the romance novels, historical fiction and action-adventure stories that make up the bulk of the electronic catalog.

A few aren't bad. But most run the gamut from mediocre to stinko. Try these opening paragraphs from 1stbooks offerings.

From "Allegheny Angels," an action-adventure by Joe DeCarl:

Jimmy Cosgrove and Jody Carlo crouched among thick bushes behind John Hay High School and peered into a window. The girls' locker room was empty. Jimmy frowned. "Maybe they're all in the shower. They're usually here this time of day."

From "The Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda," historical fiction by Stephen M. Taylor:

He opened his eyes slightly and squinted. What he was kissing didn't feel like a mouth. He moved the woman's lips apart with his fingers and saw that she was missing most of her front teeth and those he did see were partially black, in varying stages of decay. He looked at her eyes and noted the wrinkles about the edges. "God, she's at least 40," he thought.

It's historical fiction, not a love story. But it's enough to drive any halfway serious reader straight to the library.

Traditional publishers don't fear the Internet, at least not yet, said Jonathan Kurtz of Amherst's Prometheus Books.

"I'd say we're genuinely concerned with finding ways to use it to our advantage," said Kurtz, Prometheus' vice president for marketing.

Its online catalog, and the increasing popularity of Internet book-browsing, have helped electronic sales through sites like Amazon.com grow dramatically in the last year, accounting for about 15 percent of total sales.

But electronic, paperless titles aren't a lucrative niche yet, Kurtz said. "Its potential will be great, but right now it's a limited market."

Publishers have other concerns about plunging into electronic books, said Kurtz. On the Web, people expect to read stuff for free. With paper-and-ink versions, it's simple to make sure that readers pay first.

Once publishers sell electronic wares, they have to worry about protecting their intellectual property. If they can't, one computer could swamp the world with free copies. Electronic editions of best-selling print works, like Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," use encryption to protect against copiers.

Most publishers are sticking with paper and ink because they can make it pay, Kurtz said. A decent title in America sells an average of 8,000 to 10,000 copies -- tiny by best-seller standards or pop music figures, but enough to keep the presses rolling.

"I don't think this generation is ready for (electronic editions)," Kurtz said. "I think it's a generation or two away."

In Loss Pequeno Glazier's poetry, words don't lie there like roadkill, a still life in ink and paper.

Some of Glazier's words crawl, dance, flow like water and rearrange their collective form like a flock of birds. Another poem changes subtly every time someone reads it.

You won't find them in paperback, only on a computer screen.

The Internet made it possible, handing experimental poets like the 47-year-old UB lecturer software tools, such as Web browsers and Javascript, that made living, multimedia poetry possible.

It's not popular stuff. Nary a rhyme to be found. But even the poetry-ignorant can find themselves lured into Glazier's work, on a hunt for meaning.

"I think we're just beginning to see some of the possibilities," said Glazier, who is also director of the Electronic Poetry Center, named by the New Yorker among the five best poetry sites.

Literature can thank the computer for "hypertext fiction," a decades-old idea adapted on the Web.

In hypertext works, readers don't advance in the story by flipping pages. Using a cursor on their computer screen, readers choose between marked words and passages that will take them to another page at a mouse click.

Without a marked end, flipping to the last chapter to learn the murderer's name, for instance, becomes quite impossible. The struggle to understand what's going on energizes -- or frustrates -- normally passive readers.

"Some of my students find it disorienting," said Joseph Conte, a UB English professor who teaches a class in multimedia literature. "Others find it liberating."

Almost no one finds it commercially viable. One publisher, Eastgate Systems, sells disk-based hypertext works, including "afternoon: a story," by South Buffalo native Michael Joyce, who teaches at Amherst College.

"It forces you to make choices," Conte said. "Each reader's experience is different. Some would say that's the richness of this sort of work."

Neat-o. But until a breakthrough work demands the attention of a wider audience, neato is all it'll be. "I don't see anyone in New York (publishing) worrying about Eastgate taking away their business," Conte said.

Books are safe for now. After all, Conte said, in computer terms books offer a killer feature: that "really easy user interface."

Despite the challenges, Internet artists like Glazier will persist, trying to find new ways for literature and technology to form each other in the new millennium.

"It's opening up a lot of doors," Glazier said. "It's a great time to be alive in the writing world."

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