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PUBLISHING fiction electronically poses special challenges not faced by nonfiction authors. Nevertheless, e-books are becoming viable media for a few fiction writers. Novels, short stories, and other fiction will increasingly be available electronically as portable hardware, particularly PDAs, stimulate the acceptability of recreational reading from a screen.
Of course, as thousands of frustrated, unpublished novelists and short-story writers release their works into cyberspace, it will be necessary for all writers going electronic to woo readers more assiduously. As Oliver Goldsmith pointed out for an earlier age of literature, "As writers become more numerous, it is natural for readers to become more indolent."
Science fiction attracts many readers on-line because enthusiasts for the genre include an unusually high proportion of computer users interested in participating in new technological developments. An outstanding example of publishing contemporary science fiction electronically is the ClariNet CD Hugo and Nebula Anthology. The 1993 edition comprises five complete novels and the Hugo and Nebula Award nominated short fiction works, all on one disk costing under $30. The equivalent printed versions would cost over $230 at publishers' list prices.
That's not all in this remarkable package of fiction writing. The disk also contains a wealth of background information, artworks nominated for the Hugo awards, and video and sound clips of authors.
Mass-market fiction is not going into e-book format so quickly or successfully because the large market for it is not developed yet. But that could change. FloppyBook's Paul Peacock confidently forecasts that the mass-market fiction blockbusters will do well with disk
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releases, particularly when the fast-moving software publishers start shaking up the traditional print publishers.
"The PC software industry is moving faster than a speeding bullet, while the print publishing industry is sitting on its hands," says Paul. "Imagine if Microsoft released Stephen King's next novel on CD-ROM. They could offer him high royalties per copy, the best editors and marketing effort that money can buy, and the ability to augment his words with scary noises and special visual and audio effects. They could coordinate the release of the book onto different platforms: CD-ROM, Franklin and pop-in-cards, floppies, paper and hard cover books, etc. The potential earnings would be far higher than conventional publishing."
King has, as mentioned in an earlier chapter, already experimented with promotional releases on-line. Such experiments with on-line marketing, however, do not address the problem of creating a fiction work that is more attractive electronically than it is in print, and then getting readers to pay for it.
"Write an electronic book that gets the story started, introduces the characters, tells a complete story, but leaves more to be told," is one of author and electronic publisher Steve Hudgik's suggestions for fiction writers tackling these practical problems. "The reader can then call an on-line service, perhaps using a 900 number, and download more of the book."
Steve also suggests writing fictional works that can be adapted to changing political or economic situations. For example, provide an incentive for readers to call an on-line service to download updates that expand or change the book so that, when it is read again, the story is different. Such a facility would be fascinating if, for example, it had been applied to the Cold War spy novels of John Le Carre.
"Some people just do not want to wait," Steve says. "Once they get into reading something, they'll want to finish it. The ability to have a story change with changing current events can be a great hook. You might build a base of regular readers who'll call anytime a significant event happens in the world--such as the 1993 American bombing of Iraq--just to see how those events have affected the story."
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"What is required is more than an interactive story, but a structure requiring skill on the part of the reader in order to actually set the direction that the story takes," he continues. "I don't think that interactive stories in which the reader just has a choice in which direction the story moves have much of a market because part of the fun of reading fiction is not knowing what is going to happen. However, another way to take advantage of the power of a computer--and to differentiate electronic from printed works--is to create stories that develop differently each time that they are read."
A breakthrough electronic book worth studying by fiction writers that uses some of these techniques is The Madness of Roland, by Greg Roach, published by Hyperbole Studios on CD-ROM. Available for both Macintosh and Windows platforms, it could well establish a new fictional genre.
This novel, based on a medieval French legend, describes how the central character, the noble Roland, descends into madness. The story can be read from the different viewpoints of five other characters. Each of them is represented graphically by a Tarot card, providing gateways through which readers can move at will to view the development of the story from these different viewpoints.
You can also read the book in a conventional linear way, or click the mouse button to get historical, intellectual, and visual commentaries on what is happening. It is a radio play as well as a book and a movie because the story can also be accessed through audio files of professional actors reading it aloud as the text flows by on screen.
Such high production values as those in The Madness of Roland, are difficult to achieve, but remember that some of the most successful movies have not had any extravagant special effects. It is possible for individual authors to create interactive multimedia novels from their own desktops with quite modest resources. A good story, effectively told, is still the key to successful fiction publishing in any medium.
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Computer games on-line are tending to move away from pure text to become more visual, like the multimedia video games marketed by Nintendo and Sega. However, there are large numbers of hackers and word-oriented intellectuals in the cyberspace community who do not need pretty pictures to stimulate their brain cells. Opportunities still exist, therefore, to create imaginative textual fiction; just don't expect to earn much from it.
The MUD (multi-user dungeon or dimension) phenomenon is still evolving on-line. MUDs and their derivatives include virtual communities created by their participants, offering many challenges to the fiction writers who participate. However, to make money from electronic fiction, the best bet at present is to create storylines and write scripts for multimedia games. These are a multibillion-dollar publishing business already, with new hardware and the information highways promising to continue fueling growth and consequent demand for new creative input.
Perhaps the most important contribution that electronic publishing will make to fiction is to keep alive and available the classics and worthwhile contemporary works not available in printed form. As a fiction author, you can ensure that there are always copies of your works available, and you can duplicate and distribute them as you will.
Certainly classical fiction is being kept alive by such ventures as the Reading for Pleasure shareware service on disks. "We're trying to provide an affordable library of cyberbooks, without requiring a lot of extra hardware," managing editor Cindy Bartorillo explains. They are among many independent publishing ventures willing to consider
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worthy fictional works from contemporary fiction writers. The contact address is
Reading for Pleasure 103 Baughman's Lane, Suite 303 Frederick, MD 21702
On a larger scale, World Library, Inc. (800-443-0238) has made a major contribution to preserving the greatest fictional literary works in portable, searchable, and economical form. Its "Library of the Future, 3rd Edition" CD is a treasure trove of over 3,500 books, stories, plays, poems, religious works, historical documents, and scientific papers.
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