Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Future Thoughts (Part 2)

Welcome to The Flat World.

There simply is no overstating the global impact that the Internet has had, and presumably will continue to have, on the book business, particularly in the areas of marketing and distribution. A book is a uniquely suitable product, that way. It's small; lightweight; doesn't require refrigeration; is quite unlikely to spoil in shipment; and won't arrive intact only to have the customer discover that it's incompatible with the local power grid, has the wrong Zone code, or is NTSC when she actually needed PAL.

So suddenly, The Little Bookstore That Went Internet is finding it isn't just selling to whoever happens to wander by the storefront; it's selling to the world. And overnight, the concept of U.S. rights, U.K. editions, Australian distribution, etc., etc., become meaningless. When a single book can be shipped anywhere in the world — quickly — for under $10 USD, there certainly is no point in having a Manhattan retail location, and probably not much more point in having printing shops, binding plants, static inventories, or distribution warehouses located in countries with high labor costs. Instead, the world divides along linguistic lines, and national borders became irrelevant, except in regard to the types of export paperwork that must be filled out. The bookseller who can find an unfulfilled need — say, for a certain book that's not available in an Australian edition, and yet is inexplicably popular on the University of Queensland's Gatton campus — and who can react quickly to meet that need, can be very successful.

As a writer, the positive aspect to all this is that suddenly the market for your writing has gone worldwide, as well. You're no longer restricted to dealing with only the New York publishers. My old friend John Sladek sold most of his novels to U.K. publishers first, then got U.S. reprint deals if he could; in this as in so many other ways, he was just a little bit ahead of his time.

The negative aspect is, as a writer, you're now competing with every other English-speaking writer in the world, as well. And as our young friend Alexandru Lovin proves on a regular basis, there are a lot of intelligent, articulate, and literate people out there, just as eager to get published as you are.

The aspect that scares the willies out of me is the growing and baffling entanglement of international commerce law and its imminent collision with local "hate speech" laws. If a customer in Germany buys a verboten book from an American bookseller, can the American bookseller be prosecuted in The Hague for violating E.U. laws? Can the American author be prosecuted for committing hate speech in Germany? Likewise, if we ship a copy of Ibn Warraq's excellent book, Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out to a customer in Saudi Arabia, might we suddenly find ourselves under fatwa, as the author has? Will we suddenly find that we have to spend the rest of our lives being very wary of possibly coming within the reach of sharia, say, by visiting Detroit, buying something in a 7-11, or getting into a cab at the Minneapolis airport?

One thing is for sure. This new Flat World: it's going to be a very interesting place.