Polemic: how readers will discover books in future
– by Charlie Stross
In the future, readers will not go in search of books to read. Feral books will stalk readers, sneak into their ebook libraries, and leap out to ambush them. Readers will have to beat books off with a baseball bat; hold them at bay with a flaming torch: refuse to interact: and in extreme cases, feign dyslexia, blindness or locked-in syndrome to avoid being subjected to literature.
You think I’m exaggerating for effect, don’t you?
Today, roughly 40-50,000 books are published commercially each year in the English language. But the number is rapidly rising, as traditional barriers to entry are fading away. Meanwhile, the audience for these works remains stubbornly static. The limits to reading are imposed by its time-rivalrous nature, in conjunction with the size of the English-reading population and the number of hours in the day. Tools that make writing and publishing easier work to increase the volume of work because the creation of books is to some extent an exercise of ego: we are all convinced that we have something of value to communicate, after all. It therefore seems inevitable that in future, there will be more books — and with them, more authors who are convinced that the existence of their literary baby entitles them to prosper from the largesse of their readers.
A burgeoning supply of books and a finite number of reader-hours is a predictor of disaster, insofar as the average number of readers per book will dwindle. The competition for eyeballs will intensify by and by. Many writers will stick to the orthodox tools of their profession, to attractive covers and cozening cover copy. Some will engage in advertising, and others in search engine optimization strategies to improve their sales ranking. But some will take a road less well trodden.
Historically, publishers attempted to use cheap paperback novels as advertising sales vehicles. Books incorporated ads, as magazines and websites do today: they even experienced outbreaks of product placement, car chases interrupted so that the protagonists could settle down for half an hour to enjoy a warming dish of canned tomato soup. Authors and their agents put an end to this practice, for the most part, with a series of fierce lawsuits waged between the 1920s and 1940s that added boilerplate to standard publisher contracts forbidding such practices: for authors viewed their work as art, not raw material to deliver eyeballs to advertisements.
But we have been gulled into accepting advertising-funded television, and by extension an advertising-funded web. And as the traditional verities of publishing erode beneath the fire-hose force of the book as fungible data, it is only a matter of time before advertising creeps into books, and then books become a vehicle for advertising. And by advertising, I mean spam.
The first onset of bookspam went unnoticed, for it did not occur within the pages of the books themselves. Spam squirted its pink and fleshy presence into the discussion fora of Goodreads and the other community collaborative book reading and reviewing websites almost from the first. And we shrugged and took it for granted because, well, it’s *spam*. It’s pervasive, annoying, and it slithers in wherever there’s space for feedback or a discussion.
Once there is code there will be parasites, viral, battening on the code. It’s how life works: around 75% of known species are parasitic organisms. A large chunk of the human genome consists of endogenous retroviruses, viruses that have learned to propagate themselves by splicing themselves into our chromosomes and lazily allowing the host cells to replicate themselves whenever they divide. Spammers will discover book-to-book discussion threads just as flies flock to shit.
But then it gets worse. Much worse.
Authors, expecting a better reaction from the reading public than is perhaps justifiable in this age of plenty for all (and nothing for many) will eventually succumb to the urge to add malware to their ebooks in return for payment. The malware will target the readers’ ebook libraries. The act of reading an infected text will spread the payload, which will use its access to spread advertising extracts and favourable reviews throughout the reader communities. You may find your good reputation name taken in vain by a second-rate pulp novel that posts stilted hagiographies of its authors other books on the discussion sites of every book you have ever commented on (and a few you haven’t). Worse, the infested novels will invite free samples of all their friends to the party, downloading the complete works of their author just in case you feel like reading them. Works which will be replete with product placement and flashing animated banner ads, just in case you didn’t get the message.
Finally, in extremis, feral spambooks will deploy probabilistic text generators seeded with the contents of your own ebook library to write a thousand vacuous and superficially attractive nuisance texts that at a distance resemble your preferred reading. They’ll slide them into your ebook library disguised as free samples, with titles and author names that are random permutations of legitimate works, then sell advertising slots in these false texts to offshore spam marketplaces. And misanthropic failed authors in search of their due reward will buy the ad marquees from these exchanges, then use them to sell you books that explain how to become a bestselling author in only 72 hours.
Books are going to be like cockroaches, hiding and breeding in dark corners and keeping you awake at night with their chittering. There’s no need for you to go in search of them: rather, the problem will be how to keep them from overwhelming you.