Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Electronic Ephemera

Today it doesn't seem like it's a race, but a full-on stampede toward the promise of the future, at least as far as shiny technological toys are counted as "the future." In fifteen years, cell phones have gone from brick-sized tchotchkes that only high-powered Wall Street traders and styling West Coast agents carried around to things that make twenty-third century technology look outdated; soon traditional rabbit ears will be useless everywhere as television broadcasting switches from analog to digital - I only wish someone would explain why this is necessary; and electronic publication is slowly but surely starting to chip away at the print market.

I'm not so sure if this is the greatest thing, in the long run, even if the immediate news is good.

That good news is that in June 2010, Prime Books is launching Lightspeed, a new science fiction magazine that will "focus exclusively on science fiction... and push the envelope." After the recent announcement of Baen's Universe's imminent demise and the skin-of-teeth salvation of Realms of Fantasy earlier this year, the idea of a completely new venue for short science fiction appearing on the scene is energizing. If Lightspeed ends up publishing bound collections of the stories that appeared in it, as Baen's Universe did, it'd be even better - I have one of the Universe collections, and I'm glad of that, since it won't disappear into the aether when the online component goes dark.

To be honest, I'm not all that fired up about the prospects of electronic-only publication, particularly in the long-term. I know that right now they're on fire - given the massive potential audience of smartphone owners who are always looking for more distraction or stimulation on the go, and the overhead expense of electronic publication is considerably less than physically printing a magazine every month - but I think there should also be attention paid to circumstances beyond the immediate. What concerns me is the prospect that, if I ever was published in an electronic-only publication, if it ever folded and went offline I might not have anything to show for it but a check.

It's not unbelievable. Look at GeoCities. In 1999, that website was at the top of the world. People from around the Internet flooded there to set up personal sites full of frames and animated .gifs with MIDI background music. Six days from now, it is going to be turned off and shut down, and anything that is not rescued by the Internet Archive or squirreled away on some hard drive somewhere will be lost forever. It will be XOOM/NBCi all over again, which failed spectacularly in 2002; it's only fairly recently that I've noticed web searches not offering a platter full of hits from those shuttered sites. The disappearance of GeoCities will be even more substantial.

The way I see it, there is no security in electronic publication besides the host's willingness and capability to continue paying the server bills. If an online-only publication did fold, they sure as hell wouldn't be in a position to maintain its website and story archives as it was at the height of its glory. More likely it would all just disappear with an electronic poof, and don't think about saving and archiving its content elsewhere unless you're the author. I've never seen, let alone signed, an electronic-only publishing contract yet, but I doubt it would look kindly on that practice.

I own an issue of Amazing Stories from 1940. Looking at the shelf across the room, I can see at the top of one of the magazine piles issues of Astounding from May 1947 and May 1948. These require no active upkeep or maintenance, and as long as they're treated properly, they will last until the very paper they're printed on starts to disintegrate. They're windows into the history of the genre, and glimpses into the cultures within which they were written. A fundamental shift of the industry's orientation from physical to electronic publication would make that impossible. If Lightspeed shuts its doors in, say, 2040, it's not as if you'll be able to stumble across a back issue of it from December 2021 in a used bookstore.

Electronic publication is inexpensive and immediate. With those advantages alone, it's not much of a bet to guess that it will come to control a much more significant market share in the years ahead. Balanced against that, though, is its lack of permanance. If we're not careful, we may end up stumbling into the same void as the early days of television, when episodes and entire series were casually wiped from archived tapes because, of course, no one would ever want to watch the same episode twice, would they?

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