Online Publishing — The Future of the Novel?

I don’t know why I bothered with that question mark. Of course the internet is the future of the novel. It’s the future of almost everything. We have to remind ourselves that the web is not much more than ten years old, and that the revolution has only just begun. Think of where the automobile was after just ten years of existence, or the aeroplane, or moving pictures. And think of how far they’ve come since. We have seen, so far, only a tiny fraction of what the internet can and will do. But I’ve already seen more than enough to conclude that in my own field of interest, literature, the writing is on the wall for the traditional paper book.

I don’t say this in a spirit of glee or provocation. In fact I would be much happier if it were not the case. I love books. I love the way you can read them anywhere — on the bus, the plane, over dinner, in bed, racked out on the couch. I love the way you can flick ahead through them if you get bored, or flick back to check on stuff you missed. I love the way new ones smell different from old ones. Yet it isn’t hard to see how most of these things — with the exception of the odor thing — could be replicated electronically, with some kind of I-Pod-like device for downloaded text. Perhaps such a device exists already and I don’t yet know about it. In any case, those of us brought up on paper books, those of us with a sentimental attachment to them, will not be around forever.

Pretty soon we’ll have to yield the floor to a generation of people for whom it’s at least as natural to read things off a screen as off a page. To them, the whole print thing, the whole concept of the hard copy, is likely to seem superfluous. One day our grandchildren will look back on the daily newspaper — that great wasteful slab of pulped flora that turns obsolete a mere day after its creation — the way we look back on such quaint historical objects as the penny-farthing, or the sheep-gut condom.

If the internet is not the future of the printed word, and therefore of the novel, then my name’s not Kirk Kinbote. In fact, I’ll go one step further: the novelist should want the internet to be the future of the novel. After all, what the novelist craves above anything else is control. And publishing your own stuff on your own site gives you unqualified control over it. There is, first of all, an absolute guarantee of publication. There will be no intermediaries. Nobody will alter a word of what you have written. No grinning editor will propose “working with you” on the text. Debates regarding punctuation need not be entered into. Nobody will insert any redundant comma, or remove any necessary one. Apostrophes will not be relocated from where they belong to where they don’t. You can control line-length, font, point-size. Any genuine writer is bound to be tantalized by these possibilities. Of course, there’s the burning question of how you’re going to make money out of the thing. This is a serious question, and I’ll get back to it eventually. But apart from that gargantuan caveat, web publication looks in many ways like a novelist’s paradise.

But hang on. Isn’t there an important sense in which the rise of web publication would spell disaster for the novel? Because a published novel, in the traditional sense, isn’t just a novel that’s been printed on paper, is it? It’s a novel that’s been vetted, that’s passed muster. The publisher, the gatekeeper, has lovingly hand-selected it from a chaotic bale of far lesser manuscripts. Quality control has been exerted. And without quality control, all we’d have would be an undifferentiated sludge of material, about 99% of which is bound to be worthless, right? Isn’t that all the web is? An unsifted mass of largely valueless information, with nobody in authority to guide us through it?