I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Future of Books

Picking back up where I left off a month ago on my predictions, today I'm going to talk about what books might look like five years, ten years, a hundred years out.

E-book growth has recently leveled off and print books are showing resilience, for now. Still, print books do face one major obstacle, which is the continued struggle of brick and mortar bookstores. Best sellers will continue to appear in big box stores like Walmart and Target, and romance and mystery novels can still be found in grocery stores and bookstores. But less popular genres, and books without proven track records, are going to struggle to find shelf space in print.

E-books will never replace print books, but e-books will become the launching platform for most new authors. Publisher's will likely grow conservative as shelf space becomes more precious, and rather than taking a gamble on a complete unknown, they'll be looking for indy authors who've built a fan base online to move into the mainstream.

The good news is that indy authors have tools available to them that big publisher's lack. While I originally published Bitterwood through a mainstream publisher, I retained the e-book rights, and have been managing them myself. Sales were pretty good for a while, then okay, then terrible. When sales of Bitterwood fell into single digits at Amazon, I figured, oh well, I guess I might as well give it away. So, I set the price to free, and in a one month period gave away almost 45,000 copies of the e-book. This has greatly revived the sales of the other books in the series, so that in one month I've sold more copies than I had for all the previous year. Mainstream publishers, in my experience, are reluctant to chase pricing to the bottom. Once you get to free, where's the profit? But for me, the boost in readership and reviews that comes from giving away my work leads to greater sales down the line.

Of course, I know I'm not the only author discovering that there's a vast pool of readers eager to read free books. Over the next few years, I think you'll see tremendous downward pressure on the price of ebooks, especially the first books in series. You see it already in music--Amazon Prime now lets me download thousands of albums for free (or, rather, for a one time annual fee.) I'm discovering new artists I hadn't tried before who I'm now willing to pay money for. Authors will soon have a similar mix of free and paid catalogs.

Which brings me to a prediction: Within five years, you'll start seeing in-text purchases available in books. You'll be reading a free murder mystery, get involved with a character who is obviously lying, and at the end of the chapter there will be a link saying, "Want to find out what Jack was really up to when he told his wife he was working late? Read his story for only 25 cents!" Just as gamers are willing to shell out micro payments for extra lives, I predict readers will be willing to pay small amounts to get bonus material, especially on popular series.

And publishers will know with great detail the material you want to read. Many smartphones and tablets already have sensors that can detect a viewers eye movements. Amazon already knows which sections of Kindle books readers zip through, and where they get bogged down, or abandon a book altogether. Soon, e-readers tracking readers eyes will be able to report what most engages readers, and what loses their attention. Eventually, I can foresee books that rewrite themselves automatically to match the tastes of the reader. Suppose you're reading a book on quantum mechanics written for a general audience. The book sees that you're skimming over all the passages with a lot of math or highly technical terms. So, the book suppresses the math and the specialized language and explains things in more general terms. Conversely, it might sense you're bored, and know from your reading history you prefer denser, difficult prose. Moving forward, it could present you with the most advanced version of the book in it's data base.

In the future, maybe as little as ten years out, readers will read books, and the books will read them back.

But what about the more distant future? Will it still be necessary to read? Or, if I want to know the text of Beowulf, will I just be able to place a mental request to a virtual library and have the book instantly streamed into my brain? I'll be able to remember every word of the manuscript without ever having my eyes gaze upon a single line of text, either on paper or on screen. But will instant delivery of knowledge equate to learning the material, or knowing it? Or will we just be recording media, able to recite back any bit of trivia we've absorbed without actually comprehending its deeper meaning?

It's almost scary to think about. But, it was probably scary for the monks copying manuscripts with quills the first time they saw a printed book. The printed word has been quick to adapt new technologies. I can't imagine that the paper book is mankind's final, best technology for storing and spreading stories.


Den said...

Hi James,
I'm a H-bro too, and I saw you as listed on the Hillsborough Coolest Town site by a fan.
I apologize, I haven't read your fiction, but your blog here is quite interesting in many ways.

"more distant future? Will it still be necessary to read? Or, if I want to know the text of Beowulf, will I just be able to place a mental request to a virtual library and have the book instantly streamed into my brain? I'll be able to remember every word of the manuscript without ever having my eyes gaze upon a single line of text, either on paper or on screen. "

I don't see that as happening, since Wet Ware can't be tampered with (except psychedelicate...ly, which sometimes ain't delicate at all) ... I'm just thinking that controlled, or calculated memory will be a frontier that's harder than outer space to conquer. It's true that we've mapped the territory, and we can go there and discover the motor mechanisms, but I predict or feel, let's say, that really making memory work... that is, be accessible by the patron or patient, won't be very easy, and ultimately, it's the HOLY GRAIL of consciousness.

That's what I feel.

dennis hermanson

James Maxey said...

Well, howdy, neighbor!

I'm broadly in agreement that we probably won't be able to directly implant memories into actual brain tissue. What I have in mind is more of a wireless connection to a database of all recorded knowledge, and some sort of internal interface that would allow you to scan through that information rapidly. Scientists have already been able to create virtual screens in people's minds, and people have been trained to manipulate joysticks, artificial limbs, etc. with nothing but their minds. If you've ever watched a teenager playing a video game you know that people can be trained to process visual information at amazing speeds. So, what I have in mind is a data feed where you "see" the text in your mind's eye. Perhaps you couldn't absorb a book instantly, but future readers could potentially scan through mental text at a rapid clip. Maybe they wouldn't remember all the details, but that wouldn't be necessary. With future search tools, AI's could help you "remember" relevant passages should the need arise, or perhaps just in response to certain contextual cues. It's debatable whether that would be learning, however, any more than I've "learned" a hundred or more phone numbers by programming them into my phone. (Or, in many cases, by having my phone automatically program them.) But to an outside observer, would it matter whether a person's knowledge was organic or digital?

Den said...

Thanks for the quick reply, and well taken. We're talking date transmission, not memory in the pre-digital sense of personal retention of information.
We agree on that.

As dreams (that which we do asleep) as content of consciousness is real, and memorable, but little understood, so is personal consciousness.

I think that we will be able to retrieve distant information as bio or mental implants, sure, that may be, and the scientist will be able to fire or not fire emotional content (as in mental patients, or athletes) in the future (Manchurian candidates will become very real, I am imagining, implanted, not just proped up) but individual memories, dreams and reflections (Jung title) will potentially alway remain separate, tho equal. (like Marriage).

Best, and Happy Thankgiving for whatever you've (we've) been given, or give thanks for. Also, let's reflect on the fact (seeming to me) that religion never makes you not take land from others. (well, maybe Buddhism, I guess. I can't remember Buddhist conquering hordes... oh well, thanks to the web, I'm remembering...

Hey, thanks for the fun. and hope to see you in person sometime soon.

Best wishes,

Dennis of Hillsborough

Den said...


James, this guy is into design, but he's done a book where other authors are invited to crowd-source additional material for the book.

I'm thinking this is the advent (although, of course, Letters to the Editor were print vehicles crowd-sourcing all along)...
the social-novel, and we're not talking Thackery here.


Ron Simpson said...

Baen books has had a free library for years that the authors choose the books to be given away. They proved internally that they made money by giving away free e-books. It provided lesser known authors the chance to be read and gather followings and it did boost books sales.

On another note, I read that you are writing a Wizard of Oz inspired book. I look forward to it. I am writing a book....slowly but surely (college has gotten in my way but I am about to graduate in two weeks). I had an idea in a writing class taught by an author name Mel Odom from Oklahoma. He said that the bad guy is always the hero of his own story and it made me think. I would love to see the story of Robin Hood told from the Sheriff of Nottingham's point of view. What if he was oathbound to follow the Prince's orders but secretly agreed with Robin? His failures to catch Robin would then be kind of heroic in their own way, right?

James Maxey said...

Den, I don't see why there can't be user editable novels if there are user editable encyclopedias.

Ron, I've talked to a lot of Baen authors who feel like the Baen free library really boosts their careers. It's one reason I always plan to have at least one of my novels free at all time. (Right now, my freebie is Bitterwood.)

As for my Oz novel, it's called Bad Wizard, and it's already available as a print book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine retailers. As an ebook, it's currently exclusive to Amazon, but a bargain at $5.99.

As for your Robin Hood novel, I'd be careful about how you handle the idea that secretly disobeying orders is heroic. Saying one thing to your superior, then doing another thing behind his back is more creepy than honorable unless you really build up the world and the characters to allow it to be seen as the best available bad option. For instance, suppose you had a character who was in Stalin's inner circle, but had grown horrified by Stalin's actions. Speaking out would get him killed or exiled. Pretending to obey Stalin's orders but secretly subverting them would also likely prove fatal once Stalin grew angry at your incompetence. So, one heroic option would be outright defiance--you try to assassinate him. But, of course, what happens to your family then? So, another heroic option would be escape. But, again, it's not just you that needs to get out of the country, it's everyone you love or they'll be punished for your leaving. So, the last noble option would be to remain loyal to Stalin's face and carry out his orders with efficiency... but at the same time acting as a spy for enemy powers acting to bring down Stalin.

Of course, I totally think that telling the story of a heroic Sheriff of Nottingham is completely doable also if you fully immerse yourself in his world and what he's trying to protect. Robin Hood is a force of chaos, a threat to the God given order of the world. Opposing him wouldn't be villainy, but the very essence of honorable duty.