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Bewildering Stories

E-Publishing: Islands on the Net

by Don Webb

To paraphrase an ancient authority, “You may buy what you like, but you will become attached to what you buy.” The moral: “Be careful where you put your money.” Now, time is money, according to the English proverb, but the converse is not necessarily true: money is not time. Let’s see where the lessons lead us...

I’ve always been a little disappointed that print on demand did not take off faster than it did. It was ready to fly 25 years ago. But it needed some things that were just beginning to develop: sleek, user-friendly software; fast printers; ubiquitous computers; and broadband Internet. In short: efficient means of production and distribution.

Okay, we have that now. As much has been accomplished in one generation as in the century after Gutenberg. The pace of change has been normal under the circumstances but not exceptionally rapid.

Much more marked is the shift in perspective from content to context. To illustrate what that means I’ll borrow an example from an information-technology theorist: Ask school children to find Iraq on an unmarked map. They probably can’t do it. Has their education been neglected? Consider: those same children can probably tell you what the traffic is like in Baghdad and throw in anything you might like to know about Kurds, Marsh Arabs and Babylon, for starters.

Some 250 years ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was incensed that children were expected to memorize maps; rather, he applauded research motivated by curiosity. Educational theorists have seldom understood him, but children do. He was talking about context, and today children, who are natural innovators, can use the Internet to demonstrate his principle.

Another example: academic researchers have historically spent more of their time in searching for and acquiring sources than in reading them. What if you no longer have to worry much where something is? You can concentrate on what it is.

What does that have to do with publishing? I’ll summarize the situation bluntly: When anything and everything is at arm’s length, what are you going to choose? And what do you need it for?

“What do you need it for?” is easy to answer: individuals must decide for themselves according to their own circumstances. The harder question is: What will you choose?

Like any form of writing, whatever the medium, the Internet is a democratizing force par excellence. Witness a certain Asian government’s recent desperate and ultimately pathetic attempts to bar Internet access — information control reminiscent of Louis XIV’s absolute monarchy.

Now as then, peace and prosperity have a way of making totalitarian regimes irrelevant. Sooner or later they will either emerge into the 21st century or outlaw electricity. If they progress, their citizens will face the same problem as other Internet users today: What to choose?

At its origin, Bewildering Stories provided a choice by responding to a literary culture dominated by a handful of print magazines in the field of science fiction; Bewildering Press did likewise in the context of “brick and mortar” publishers. And they were timely in those contexts. But times change.

Technology has proceeded inexorably and, in this case, foreseeably. In the last ten years, the Internet has not made print publishing irrelevant, far from it, but it has made production and distribution almost absurdly easy. Today, writers can create their own websites and put on line anything they want. And if readers want hardcopy, they can print out whatever they choose.

As long as readers have computers in some form, do they really need expensive specialized hardware such as Amazon’s Kindle? No. Do writers really need self-publishers like Lulu or Smashwords, etc.? No, such things are a convenience, not a necessity. At Bewildering Stories anything can be read on line, or downloaded, or printed out at leisure. And titles at Bewildering Press can be ordered in print or read on download. What are BwS and BwP good for, then?

The term “social media” currently refers to synchronous communication between two or more individuals on the Internet. It’s no stretch to extend the term to include asynchronous — “store and search” — content, and that makes the entire Internet a social medium. As such it’s an ocean of information. But people are not fish; they seek landfall and context. That is the continuing role of Bewildering Stories and Bewildering Press: navigators on the Net can find in them an island where the natives are friendly and the environment is lush.

Copyright © 2012 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories

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