Pulp-Free Fiction

On March 14th 2000, trees in forests around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief as Stephen King released his latest work. The flora kingdom has long had a relationship with King not unlike the one the Christians had with the Romans as they stood waiting for the lion doors to open. Rapid-fire wordsmith King has typed out hundreds of thousands of pages of intentionally horrifying manuscript for our entertainment that have each climbed their way to the Best Sellers lists on the backs of our exploited bark-covered brethren. But this time, there’s no clear-cutting, no pulping, no evicted horned owls.His latest novella Riding the Bullet is a little different from his other releases. It did not hit the shelves at Chapters, Indigo, or Barnes and Noble. But the small independent bookshops-cum-latte-lounges can’t get smug at this point. They didn’t get copies either. Once you have a copy of the book, there is no way you can get it autographed. You can’t dog-ear the pages to keep your place. You can’t write your name in the front or doodle in the margins. Furthermore, if you want to pick this mini-opus up, you don’t have to travel to a mall, stand in line at the cashier, or wait for someone to courier it to you. You don’t even need money. All you need is a computer and a modem. Congratulations. You’ve just been strong-armed into the enforced future of e-books.Riding the Bullet is currently offered for free on Amazon.com. Not surprisingly, the first few days after the release swamped the site to the point of server crash. This IS Stephen King, after all. Potential downloaders entered the site to notice that the book was offered for Mac users in an Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF), typical for most files designed for the eye. PDFs typically read like published pages with nice clear fonts and a standardized format that allows the pages to be printed easily for portability. The print quality is characteristically excellent so you can hand out your hardcopy PDFs to all your Luddite friends who will think that they have Johann Gutenberg to thank and not John Warnock (he’s the CEO of Adobe, dontchaknow…). Sadly, PC users don’t get the already familiar PDF to play with. They have to read the book using something called Glassbook.

Don’t have Glassbook Reader yet?” the Amazon site asks impishly.

What’s a Glassbook?” I replied, feeling very much the paste-eating Ralph Wiggum.

Glassbook is an e-book reader that takes page formats from Adobe (InDesign, PageMaker, FrameMaker) or Quark Xpress and converts them to a book-like page format. Glassbook takes the downloaded book files and manages them in a library for you to pick, point, click, and read. Don’t worry about losing your spot. Glassbook automatically returns you to the page you left off at. Neat. Once the reader is downloaded from the Glassbook site, you are able to get the creepy story you’ve been looking for.

Truly, there couldn’t have been a better chosen author to throw a face of legitimacy onto the ignored (for now) genre of electronic literature. Whether he’s your cup of Orange Pekoe or not, King is renowned for his ability to churn out riveting “can’t…put…book…down…must…keep…reading…” yarns. Say what you want about tales of clowns in the sewers, Jenny-Craig-ish gypsies, and haunted cars, King is one of the most accessible authors that appeals to a wide spectrum of the populace. Even the most educated and pompous of the literate elite has read some snippet of King’s body of work (closing in on 60 books). His is the perfect fix for a casual vacation read or even a dark and stormy night curl-up with a “dark and stormy night” kind of book.

King himself has never been too shy in the literature innovation department. King is among those who have published audio-only books, and serial novels I assume for those among us who think, “You know, I loved that Stephen King novel. I just wish it were longer.” Publishing something solely for those who have a PC is not that far off his path. This is a path we knew we’d be taking anyway. King is merely giving our trip a bit more gas. Our first brush with the e-book came from the old episodes of Star Trek, where the medical examiners would read patient’s charts off of a hand-held digital clipboard. In the movies to follow, a bespectacled Kirk would read tome after tome of digital literature all the while keeping a stash of contraband hardcovers hoarded away for his primitive enjoyment. How could he enjoy those? The words are always the same every time you open them. Pesky humans. So illogical. With this tone set as the futuristic zeitgeist, we couldn’t have been surprised when e-books started popping up on the radar.

In terms of their evolution, our earliest experience with electronic literature came with the old readme.txt files you had to read off of disks before you installed anything on your machine. Next came downloadable White Papers telling you how to install the latest patch that will fix your broken software as you bide your time waiting for the next bug-fix with supporting White Paper. Guess it didn’t take long before someone waist-deep in techno-babble said, “Hey. Why can’t these be stories?”

As pleasant as getting a free book is, there is still a lingering “marketing bully and cocaine dealer” aftertaste left in all of this. Not that this is anything new. Every piece of new commerce technology introduced to the masses has carried with it some form of shove with its usage. By forcing people to use it, it creates an experiential starting line for comparison. Once the new technology is floated into the hands of the public, the merchants wait for customers to become comfortable with the new idea. Years ago, people would never think about giving their credit card information over the phone. Now, people get mad if they can’t. Volkswagen is pushing the sale of their new limited edition Beetles onto the web. And while your grandparents shake their heads in defiance warning of the dangers of buying a car over the Internet, (have you ever heard of such a thing?), we’ll soon be sending emails to Volkswagen saying “Yeah, and drop it off at my house at 5:00pm tomorrow.”

The current saga of Glassbook is not dissimilar. You want the book. You need a reader. In fact, you need our reader. And of course, the first hit is free. The rest, you gotta pay for. Well, some you do. Some books are still free and downloadable from the Glassbook site as they vie to get more hooks into more people. Perhaps there are those who would rather read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven or Jules Verne’s A Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes, they’re all there for the free-read. Glassbook also have books for sale, at considerable (and published) discount from conventional tactile texts. Figures like 40 and 50 percent discounts are bandied about. Gee, how can you afford not to get e-books? Indeed, there may not be much to pick from, title-wise, but like most new technologies, give it a year. The smartest move that Glassbook could do was to put the work of a well-known, well-published author into a format only available to them. Of course fans of Stephen King (and there are many, who’s kidding who) and anyone curious about the new technology will queue up for the new FTP-fiction. This move will command not only consumers, but producers of print to sit up and take notice. I mean, if STEPHEN KING is doing this…

It may be hard for most to picture themselves dressed in a smoking jacket and slippers sipping port, curling up at their desktop PC (similar to the one they spend 8 hours a day plus in front of) that they’ve moved beside the hearth, clicking through pages of A Tale Of Two Cities. Did I mention the dog curled up on the rug? There’s a dog there, too. Mmmm. Cozy. Glassbook appears to be taking a different tack in their product usage. Though it is usable on any desktop PC, it uses half of the screen only. Standard paperback page size notwithstanding, you still have the nagging feeling that you’re reading from a screen. On its website, Glassbook is seen in use on a laptop computer using its page-rotation functionality to turn the laptop on its side thus filling the entire screen with the book page. Yep, it’s almost a book now. There is a huge move to make the book aesthetic similar to what we’re used to. Include into this the development of a reader designed strictly for Glassbooks, priced around $200 US. Indeed, the e-book front is a bit quiet just now. That is until publishers see e-books as a viable distribution tool and folks like Microsoft realize that there’s money to be made at this.

As would be expected, much is being done to downplay the new vision of literature to come. Reviews of the e-book on the Amazon site still refer to its appearance and read as if it were a regular throw-it-in-the-knapsack type of read as opposed to save-it-in-My-Documents type of fare. In fact, the official review, though mentioning that this is exclusively published as in e-book, still refer redundantly to the book’s cover. There’s mention of a picture containing an “enormous moon”, “a hitchhiker’s thumb”, “the menacing twin beams of the approaching car headlights”. Book covers are a colourful way of protecting conventional books. For e-books, the cover is an extra JPEG you get for free. There is an obvious desire to anchor everything in the familiar as much as possible for the electronic literature neophytes. That being said, the new creation still remains in the present as plasticized as a theme park. Welcome to BookWorld, where you should never judge a book by its bitmap.

The challenge will be to convert the traditionalists to the new wave of digital literature. The work will be cut out for the creators of the new technology, but like it or not, the writing on e-books is on the wall. That is until it’s converted and saved on a floppy for easy storage and global access.

Todd Van Allen