Interlude: Really, Reading Off a Screen Sucks

I have to say that I’m not particularly surprised to learn that Eli at Novelr and no less than Cory Doctorow tend to agree with me that presenting novels online is going to be an uphill battle against most people’s reading preferences.  (Eli’s latest guest post indicates that there are certainly exceptions, but until I see hard data otherwise, I’m going to continue to believe that these are exceptions.  Cuddly, huggable, make-my-writer’s-heart-flutter exceptions, yes, but exceptions nonetheless.)

In the Locus article linked above, Doctorow argues fairly effectively that this is both a problem of medium and attention span — or more accurately, it’s a reflection of the way we’ve become socialized to use our Internet tools.  Reading long form fiction is a focused activity.  It’s something we do in solid chunks of time and with active attention.  The internet is about short bursts of time and multi-tasking.  The internet has also taught us to do more scanning than reading and to dig out the kernals of information we’re seeking rather than digesting large tracts of text or applying those nifty critical reading skills we paid so much to learn in college.

(In case you were curious, I printed out both Eli’s blog post and Doctorow’s article to scribble notes in the margins as I prepared to write this piece.  I did the same thing yesterday with Kembrew McLeod’s essay.  So yeah, they’re preaching to the choir.)

There are adherents to the digital form (else, Fictionwise would have gone under a long time ago), but as I read around the net, observe my own habits and talk to other readers, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that digital fiction, at least at this point in its evolution, is a long tail phenomenon.  In other words, we’re likely to see lots of people reading terabytes of online narrative, but the distribution is going to be so spread out that we’re not likely to see the sort of cohesion that would routinely produce “bestseller” numbers any time soon.  (Though, as Tess Gerritsen has famously pointed out, producing bestseller numbers from week to week may not be as impressive a feat as you have assumed.  We’re not talking about Platinum album sales here.)

And given that our primary metric for determining a “bestseller” in online fiction would be an amalgamation of downloads and page hits, would we really know what those numbers mean in terms of cultural impact?  I mean, we tend to understand a print novel’s cultural impact in terms of sales, book club discussions, articles written, screenplays written, etc.  None of those mechanisms really exist for purely digital fiction.  If I can claim, for instance, that my blog gets 2,000 hits a week (which it doesn’t) what does that even mean?

Maybe it means that 2,000 people really dig my novels.   Maybe it means that 100 people read all twenty chapters.  Maybe it means that 100 people just clicked on all twenty chapters.  Maybe it means that four people reloaded my front page 500 times.  Maybe it means that 1,999 people read the first chapter, said Urk! and moved on to something more appealing (with the 2,000th person being my mom, and she would read all twenty chapters straight through because she loves me.  I’m firmly convinced that more metrics should take my mom’s opinion into account.).

To some extent, these are all tangential questions, and they’re not limited solely to digital books.  Hell, I’ve got something like seven million paperbacks littering my bookshelves and I haven’t read a tenth of them.  But I did buy them — through the agency of my wife having possession of my debit card, at least — and those beans count on somebody’s accounting sheet.  I’m pretty sure that most of those writers would be just as happy to have my admiration and deep love for their story as they are with my money.

What I’m trying to get at is that we’re not really going to know what works for blogged fiction until we start seeing come cohesion (or some “buzz”) on what some writers are doing that is actually working, and this buzz can’t come from other writers of online fiction.  We’ve all got an investment in the medium outside of the I like this; I think I’ll read it impetus that drives most consumer entertainment phenomena, so we can theorize and rhapsodize all we want, but we’re really just experimenting (okay, guessing) until we get a concrete trend that we can analyze in retrospect.

(Alternatively, we can also jerk each other off and say we’re not going to compromise our artistic vision to the technological banalities of a plebian medium.  Which is the sort of excuse writers come up with when no one is reading and we want to pretend like we don’t give a shit.)

To get that sort of cohesion, we’re going to need a mechanism (and no, I’m not looking at you, Blooker Prize, and your slutty pimping for Lulu’s corporate coffers) that critically examines blooks, blog novels and digital fiction and that carries sufficient respectability and audience to engender authentic word of mouth buzz.  At the very least, we’re going to need what we haven’t seen yet, which is a breakout title that operates completely independently of the traditional publishing track.  (Don’t expect me to be a firebrand on the topic of digital exclusivity, though.  I would seriously doubt the veracity and/or sanity of any writer who said he’d rather publish on a blog than sign a print publishing contract.  None of us woke up one morning and said to ourselves, “You know what?  I really want to become a rock star of blog fiction.  That’s what I’ve always wanted.  Why did I never see this before?”  We would all kill to have Stephen King’s writing and publishing life.  Some of us already have.)

I have no idea how to build this mechanism or even what it should look like, but what I do know is that it’s going to have to work pretty damned hard to overcome the elephant in the room that I haven’t talked much about, which is that by and large, most of us harbor the secret belief (me included) that the bulk of free digital online fiction sucks.  That, however, is a discussion that we’ll save for a later date.

In the meantime, all we can do is write the stories we want to write, write them well and let the cards fall where they may.


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