Douglas Adams, the Rocket and me

When US book industry blogger Kassia Kroszer told me she’d been writing about digital publishing since 1998, I got to thinking about when I’d first contemplated, and written about, the ebook concept.

Reading the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as a teenager no doubt helped my thinking on the subject along. What a tragedy that its Mac-mad author, Douglas Adams, wasn’t around to see Steve Jobs launch the iPad. He would have been beside himself (like Zaphod Beeblebrox) with excitement.

I interviewed Adams in April 1998 for The Sydney Morning Herald’s Icon section. He came to Australia to promote his Starship Titanic computer game at that year’s Sydney Writers Festival. Our discussion inevitably came around to the future of the book.

I asked Adams whether he thought the book was under threat from new media.

“No. No more than it was from films, TV and radio. Each of these had an impact on the book, and indeed on each other, but it’s mostly a question of adjustment,” he said.

“Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. I’d be interested to know how many books will still be printed on paper in 10 years’ time and how many will be printed electronically.

“But the idea of the book, in its form if you like, in other words 100,000 words arranged into a story, will persist, whatever other forms come to exist alongside it.”

Adams died three years later, but his predictions have played out. By 2008, major publishers’ titles were available (in the US at least, it was later here and in the UK) for the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader among other devices. In Australia, as many as 5 per cent of book sales are now digital, but we trail the UK (11 per cent) and US (20 per cent).

What do you think he would’ve made of the iPhone and iPad? I suspect he’d have started an app business, creating enhanced ebooks that would have made our minds boggle.

I wish for his sake and for ours that he’d lived on to be a part of all this.

That profile wasn’t my first writing on the ebook.

There was plenty of talk (and writing) on ebooks in the late 1990s.
In October 1997, Icon’s editor, Tony Sarno, published a joint print and digital project called The Online Book Fair. As Icon’s web site producer, I helped coordinate the online publication of extracts from 15 new Australian books (including a couple by authors who became all time favourites: Madeleine St John and Linda Jaivin), and an interactive online novella started by Bryce Courtenay with contributions by our readers. I interviewed Jaivin and two more of the authors, Emma Tom and Richard Ryan, on camera to produce short video clips for Icon’s Net TV section.

I remember being incredibly jealous of my colleague Sue Lowe, who wrote the main feature for the print edition. She interviewed local and international booksellers, who were just starting to sell their physical books online; authors who were thrilled at the prospect of their work reaching new audiences via the web; and publishers who even then were wrangling with the complex issues around digital publication.

Lowe spoke to Allen & Unwin publisher Elizabeth Weiss, who remains one of industry experts on digital in Australia, for the 1997 story. Weiss said Allen & Unwin was hoping to start publishing online late in 1998, allowing sections of text to be downloaded and charged for separately.

“We’re not talking about entire novels, but [a service for] people who want a single chapter of a book and are willing to pay to have it immediately available at home,” she said.

Back then, the online experiments were limited because people didn’t want to read large amounts of text on computer screens, which were tiring on the eyes and not portable.

Fast forward to 2011, and readers are increasingly taking advantage of “chunking” to buy novellas, individual short stories and long form journalism in ebook form on their handheld smartphones, ereaders and tablets.

Lowe’s piece ended with a reference to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology experiment in ereader production. Their prototype of a leather-bound book with electronic pages would allow its users to “be alerted the day the manuscript is finished and download it from the publisher – or even the author. No printing, distribution, no territorial licensing, no expensive inventory and no returns”.

These were more predictions that have proven to be spot on, then, particularly the move to self-publishing for authors, though territorial rights continue to exist and confound in our 2011 ebook world, and few are publishing raw, unedited manuscripts.

By 1999, when Penguin published my little green book about the Internet, Weird Wild Web, online bookshopping was such a big deal I devoted two pages to it. The last couple of lines?

“Eventually, of course, you’ll be able to download novels to groovy little electronic book viewers, like the Rocket eBook (check out www.nuvomedia.com for more).”

I had forgotten all about the Rocket until I thumbed through the book last week, and that link no longer exists because NuvoMedia has long since been swallowed by a bigger fish, but here’s some info on the device from a press release on launch that same year:

“The Rocket eBook and future Rocket eBook-enabled readers will allow users to easily carry a small library with them, wherever they go. This 22-oz. (627 grams) hand-held information appliance can hold at least 4,000 pages (about 10 novels) of text and graphics at a time. Its user interface is designed for reading with optimised screen technology that is easy to read in all lighting situations. A battery life of 17 hours with the backlight on and 33 hours with the backlight off will provide users uninterrupted reading whether in the office, at home or on the go. Being digital, books read on the Rocket eBook can be browsed, searched, annotated, highlighted, bookmarked, linked and indexed in ways impossible with a paper book.”

Ten novels, eh? Compare that to the 1000+ books we can load onto an e-ink reader these days and it’s no wonder the Rocket didn’t take off.

Charlotte’s posts on books, digital publishing and social media also appear on Twitter (@ebookish), Facebook (www.facebook.com/ebookish) and at ebookish.com.au.

Do you know where your towel is?

One of the nice things about being in Australia is living in the future, and getting to celebrate occasions before everyone else. My friends in Ireland are currently 9 hours behind, and people I know in the States are up to seventeen hours behind me.

This means that they all have to wait for May 25th to roll around in their own country while we get to start celebrating Towel Day right now.

Towel Day, for those of you wondering what the obsession with all things fluffy and drying in an annual celebration, held on the 25th of May, as a tribute to the late and extremely great Douglas Adams, a man of many talents. He was not only a writer for books, radio and the screen, he was an environmental activist (he climbed Kilimanjaro in a rhino suit for Save the Rhinos and wrote Last Chance to See) and musician. Adams loved also technology and his essay – DNA/How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love The Internet – published in 1999, demonstrates he was a visionary thinker, who saw the amazing potential in the future that he is, sadly, not here to share with us.

Why a towel? Well, as any reader of the Hitchhiker’s Guide (referred to as H2G2 by some fans) can tell you, being someone who knows where their towel is marks you out as both a lover of his books and a person of forethought, gumption and organisational skills even – in fact, especially – if you are not in possession of any of those things.

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet,: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

From Chapter 3 of the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

For those of you who would like to join in, you will find events over Australia and further afield on the Towel Day site. Venues in Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney are offering discounts for people who wear a towel and the internet will celebrating too. It’s also an excellent excuse to curl up with your battered and beloved Adams’s books. Settle into your favourite comfy chair, with that cup of tea that Arthur Dent so longed for, and sink back into the worlds that he created. Just remember to keep your towel on while you do it.

Who will be your Valentine? The Romance Top 10

I don’t normally do the Valentine’s thing, so it was a bit of a surprise when the doorbell rang this morning. Whatever could it be?

On seeing the large lump in the postie’s hands it became obvious it wasn’t a huge bundle of flowers or a carefully gift-wrapped pony (a girl can hope) but my latest delivery of books from Boomerang. Despite the day that’s in it, the contents of my package weren’t very lovey-dovey. If I had fancied something a little more romantic though, I would have had some excellent guidance. According to the list of the Boomerang Top 1,000 books in 2010 that I recently got my paws on, many of you have been dipping your noses into books of love, lust and just perhaps a little period drama. The most sold Romance novels by Boomerang in 2010 were:

  1. Master Player, The
  2. Stormy Greek Marriage
  3. Country Midwife, Christmas Bride
  4. Quarterback Daddy / Valentine Bride
  5. Mavericks Virgin Mistress / Unbridled, The: Mills & Boon Desire
  6. Australian Boss: Diamond Ring
  7. Going Down Hard / Once A Rebel
  8. Charade / Imminent Affair
  9. Wedding At King’s Convenience
  10. From Russia, with Love / Scent of a Woman

I can’t link to most as they are sadly no longer available (romance books have a faster turn-over than Warnie’s dates) but just look at that list.  I’m fascinated by the descriptions – for example the intriguing Quarterback Daddy/Valentine Bride combo.  The second book in the pair, Valentine Bride tells the story of beautiful Irina who enters into a green card marriage so she won’t have to return to her war-torn homeland.

I’ve been known to enjoy a romantic interlude occasionally but sadly Irina’s story will no longer ring true for me, as will no book that uses the “marriage as a quick and easy way to get a visa” plot. As someone who has actually gone this route, I can tell you that partner visas are neither quick nor easy. My green card resulted from beating the Department of Immigration around the head with approximately 3 kilos of legal statements and affadavits until they cried Uncle.

How do I love thee? Here is the 300 pages of forms, certified documents, statutory declarations and accompanying appendices. Oh, and a huge processing fee.

It must be love. I have the paperwork to prove it, if not the gift-wrapped pony.

My package included Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth, a dissection of modern stereotypes of female beauty and the societal and personal obsession with that beauty, and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, which explores meat-eating and the ethics of it. Nothing says romance like examining theories of consuming and shaping human and animal flesh. Mmm hmm.

On a slightly lighter, or at least more comedic note, there is Last Chance to See; Douglas Adams’s journey across the world in search of its most endangered creatures (hence the title), and On Writing by Stephen King, which I have finally decided to upgrade from my e-version to a real book as it is just that brilliant.

So, not exactly a package spilling forth with romance and all things torrid and bodice-ripping. But, as I got it on Valentine’s Day, I’ve decided that makes it official. Boomerang Books, I will be your Valentine!

Now, where is that gift-wrapped pony?

Autographs

Lots of people collect autographs — books signed by their authors, photographs signed by famous people, etc. I’ve even seen some people getting body parts signed. Sometimes even a fleeting association with fame is enough for someone to want your autograph. I remember attending a Star Trek convention many years ago and watching dozens of people lining up to get the autograph of an extra who also doubled for Data’s hands in close-up on Star Trek: The Next Generation. There certainly seems to be a high demand for autographs. Check out eBay to see how many autographs there are on sale. Expos like Armageddon are chock full of people standing in line to get an autograph, or trawling the dealers’ tables for signed photos of their favourite TV/movie star.

Although I do not collect autographs as such, I do like to get books that I’ve read and liked, or am about to read, signed by the author. Especially if I am attending a book launch. It makes a nice memento of having met the person. I don’t often get signatures from actors, as these days most of them charge for autographs. I’ve been attending science fiction conventions since the mid-1980s, and this trend for paid autographs seemed to slowly take hold in the late 80s/early 90s, as Star Wars actors discovered they were having difficulty getting acting work and turned to the convention circuit as a way of earning a crust. Now days it appears that most actors charge for their autograph (or will only sign photos purchased from them) even if they are still working actors. The days of autograph signing as promotion for actors, rather than income, are long gone.

Authors, on the other hand, still seem happy enough to sign things for free. Granted, in most cases they are signing copies of their books, which have been purchased. But they also often sign programme books and other publicity material.

Over the years, I’ve had quite a lot of books signed. Since becoming an author myself, this has increased as I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of my favourite authors at launches and other writing/reading events. I have two particular signing highlights…

Many years ago I had the good fortune to attend an Age Literary Luncheon, where Douglas Adams was the guest speaker. He was in Australia at the time, promoting Last Chance to See. I remember him being a very witty and thoroughly charming speaker. After the luncheon, he stuck around for quite a long time, signing books and chatting to people. I got to meet him, although I have no memory of what I actually said to him. Probably some stupidly incoherent fan-boyish comment. But I still have the large hardcover edition of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts, which he signed for me on the day.

Quite a number of years ago I attended a science fiction convention where William Gibson was guest of honour. I’d never read any of his books before, but after hearing him speak, I rushed into the dealers’ room, purchased a copy of Neuromancer and went to stand in line for an autograph. Oddly, he signed my book with the words: “Thanks for helping me stick up that 7-11!”

Being on the other end of a signing is rather surreal. I’ve been a reader way longer than an author, so I’m much more comfortable asking for an autograph than being asked. But signing books is part of the whole promotion thing, and it is rather nice knowing that there are people out there who like my writing enough to want me to scribble my name onto their property. I particularly like doing school signings. I’ve signed all sorts of things at these events, from actual copies of my books, to proper autograph books filled with the signatures of people more famous than I; from notebooks and school exercise books to tattered scraps of paper.

Anyone out there collect autographs? Anyone have any interesting signing anecdotes they’d like to share? Leave a comment!

And tune in next time for… something!

Catch ya later,  George

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