I was listening to an obscure band, playing music in a relatively obscure musical subgenre last night on my MP3 player when I realized that before the age of digital music, I would never have heard either this band or this type of music. It was simply too different, too outside the mainstream, and too risky for any music producer to take a chance on. But the rise of digital music has led to the evolution of many new musical subgenres and I can’t help wondering if something similar might not be happening for fiction.
I think it may. One bit of advice I saw recently for writers of e-books seemed counterintuitive at first but it reinforces this idea. The advice? – Don’t try to appeal to a broad audience. Focus on your core group, those likely to be strong fans and don’t worry about pissing off those who aren’t, even if that’s the majority of people on the planet.
I’m not entirely sure, but this might not be bad advice. It happened with music. It split into a great number of subgenres and I doubt many of them appeal to more than a relatively small group — but those who like them, really like them.
So what does this mean for fiction? Well, possibly the same kinds of things it meant for music but possibly even more so because almost everyone listens to music of one type or another but fiction readers are already a subset of the population and possibly more discriminating about what they read than most music listeners are about what they listen to. Fiction readers are more like the audiophile subset of music listeners.
Here are a few possible impacts of the e-book revolution that come to mind. Most of this is idle speculation, of course, but since the batteries in my crystal ball died, my prognostication abilities are somewhat limited. Still, these seem to make sense to me.
Specialization – More books that focus on specific themes, tones, and moods within each genre will become available. What this means for readers, as it did for music listeners, is that there will be works more likely to really appeal to them. If you like science fiction novels with an introspective protagonist, told in a satirical tone, conveying a hopeful mood, and a humanistic theme, well, there just may eventually be a subgenre for that.
Genre melding – This is already happening. There are fantasy detective stories, science fiction westerns, horror romances, etc. Digital books, I think, are likely to fertilize such cross breeding and give rise to new subgenres mainly because it will be less risky to explore such mutations.
More books – More books will be published simply because authors can bypass the traditional gateways (agents and publishers) and publish their work for little or no money.
More variable quality – The downside of letting anyone in means, well, anyone can come in. A lot of what gets e-published may do so with inadequate editing or review, meaning the reader can’t assume a minimal level of quality. A lot of what becomes available may be overly verbose, deadly dull, full of errors, or even incomprehensible.
Smaller audiences – Highly specialized subgenres will appeal to fewer people so individual books and authors may have few readers. The plus side, of course, is that these books and authors will be available to those readers where they were not before.
Larger audiences – No, this isn’t a contraction. It is quite possible that the total number of people who read may increase as more books that appeal to them become available. Most e-published books may have few readers but a lot more books will be out there.
Disdain for works with broad appeal – At one time there was a sentiment that if a song was played on the radio, especially AM radio, it could not be good. It was “popular” or “pop” music, which, almost by definition, no serious music listener would bother with. You sometimes come across this with books, although not as frequently. The reason bibliophiles don’t normally disdain best seller lists, I think, is because, as I said before, book readers are already an elite group. But if authors feel free to explore their art with less concern over popularity, you may see popular books being looked at the same way as pop music once was; it represents the lowest common denominator and appeals to those without cultured taste or much knowledge of the art form. I personally think this is somewhat elitist because when all is said and done, different people like different things. Taste in music or literature is a personal matter. It’s like food in that way. If you like beer better than champagne, who is to tell you you’re wrong?
Harder to find – With more books available, it may be harder to find things you really want. First there is the quality issue as stated above. The reader will have more to choose from, but much of it may be dreadful. This can make the good stuff hard to find. But even if you could weed out all of the stinkers, there will still be a lot of choices. It’s like going to a Chinese restaurant with a huge menu. It’s hard to decide because so much looks good but you can only pick one thing. Deciding what you want most is difficult because there are so many options that sound good. Unlike with the menu though, a lot of the book options, as is true now with music, are not obvious. It’s like there are a bunch of addendums and footnotes with really fine print on the menu so you may have to search a lot more. The most popular stuff will still be in big print on the first page, metaphorically speaking, but what you would like most may only found written in Mandarin on the back of the napkin under the soy sauce. On the plus side, it is available somewhere.
There does not seem to be a lot of consensus on the benefits and drawbacks of e-publishing right now. There are obvious issues, quality and piracy probably being the most troubling. But I think, overall, the e-book revolution will certainly be good for readers. I think it will also good for authors and for agents and publishers but not without some paradigm shifts. Sometimes more is less but in this more is better. More books, more published authors, more perspectives, more diversity, and more choices for readers. Problems exist and I hope they are resolvable, but as both a reader and writer, I see the rise of digital books and e-publishing as a very good thing.
Oh–The band I was listening to was Magion, a progressive rock band in the subgenre of female fronted symphonic metal with Gothic metal influences — not as symphonic as say Epica or Nightwish — but I digress. What can I say? I like it. You won’t hear it on the radio and you can’t dance to it but I like this stuff and yes, I did buy the MP3 album from Amazon and I don’t care that they will never make it on anyone’s top ten lists.