I’ve been distracted for the last few days. A story idea got into my head for one of the Internet fiction series I contribute to occasionally, and it’s been hard to concentrate on anything else until I could get it out of my head. Unfortunately, I’m still not happy with the end results. It’s one of the most frustrating things in the world, as a writer, when the idea that seemed so awesome in your head comes out on the page like, well, a steaming pile of words. Perhaps in a few days I’ll have a better perspective and can fix what I’m doing wrong.
The story idea I had was inspired in part by a number of works I’d read over the years, including half-remembered stories that just popped into my head at odd moments. I actually had to ask rec.arts.sf.written for help identifying a couple of them, since I realized I wanted to read them again. And I thought the fastest way to find them might be as e-books. Funnily enough, these two stories have ended up being a study in e-book contrasts.
One of them was a really short (only 2059 words) story by Stephen Goldin called “The Last Ghost”. It was a Nebula finalist for Best Short Story of 1971—one of the shorter pieces of SF I’d read in my youth, but one of the more (pardon the pun) haunting ones, to live in my memory all this time. It’s available in a story collection by Goldin that can be found as an e-book at the usual places for $9.99…everywhere. (Except at Sony, apparently. Amusingly enough, the E-Reads buy link for Sony links to an expired domain placeholder page.) So much for bargain-hunting!
Even Fictionwise has it. Adding insult to injury, they list a “club price” of $8.49 for it—but my club membership expired last year and can never be renewed. (But I guess they’re going to have to keep on showing the club price until multi-year memberships expire.)
I didn’t want to pay $9.99 for a whole book when I just wanted to read the one story again. While I expect the other stories are all great, I simply didn’t want them right now. But fortunately, a little more research led me to discover that Smashwords has that short story available by itself for 99 cents. That was cheap enough I could buy two copies and send one to the fellow whose shared universe my story idea was set in. (In contrast to Kobo’s and Amazon’s, Smashword’s “gifting” system is rather straightforward, and works not unlike a “coffee money” jar: they simply trust you to put money in for every copy you’re going to email to someone else.) This really helped me out, and is exemplary of what I want e-books to be.
But on the other hand, there’s a book by renowned SF editor and novelist Donald A. Wollheim, writing under the pseudonym David Grinnell, called Edge of Time. Written in 1958, about a team of scientists who manage to create their own universe in microcosm, it really captured my imagination, and has held onto it to this day. But it’s not available electronically anywhere.
Even Google Books doesn’t have it (or much else by Wollheim either), suggesting that either the libraries they’ve scanned so far haven’t had much in the way of SF, or (more likely) Wollheim’s estate or publisher requested the titles be pulled. Even though it’s written by one of the most famous SF editors, a man who helped shaped the course of modern SF and fantasy fandom to a remarkable extent (including being arguably responsible for the popularity of Lord of the Rings exploding due to his unauthorized paperback republication of the trilogy), the book isn’t available electronically—or even in a new print edition—at all.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s unavailable. Not as a pirated e-book (I did look, out of curiosity, but apparently it’s too obscure for any pirate scanners to bother with), but in another Internet marketing innovation: the Internet-ordered, snail-mail-shipped used paperback. I could (and in fact, just did) go into Amazon right now and order a “Used – Very Good” paperback copy for one penny plus $3.99 shipping—about the same amount as I paid for an Amazon mp3 download of Daft Punk’s new Tron: Legacy soundtrack last night. It won’t put it on my iPad, but it will at least let me read it again.
And Wollheim’s estate won’t see a penny of that…penny. Whereas if it were a $9.99 e-book on Amazon, which I would have been willing to buy, they’d have gotten $7. Like so many other orphan or backlist titles, the book is a Manx cat in a “long tail” world.
The fullest potential of e-books is to create a “celestial library” equivalent to the oft-touted “celestial jukebox” of the digital music revolution. That’s what Amazon has been trying to do with its Kindle. And when it works, it works: I was able to find a relatively obscure short story I wanted to read, at a price I found reasonable, with just a few minutes of Googling. But just as often it doesn’t, and Edge of Time is a frustrating reminder of just how far the library’s shelves are from being filled.