Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Interview with Chamber Four--Part I

Fringe has been collaborating with Chamber Four on an interview swap to exchange information about digital literature. It's been an interesting dialogue--the interview with Fringe's Editor-in-Chief Lizzie Stark can be found here. Now it's Chamber Four's turn to answer some questions! Lizzie sat down with Chamber Four founders Sean Clark and Nico Vreeland (Eric Markowsky wasn't available, due to a little thing called his thesis) to talk about writing and reading in the digital revolution.

Part I now, Part II will be published tomorrow.

Why did you decide to start this site? How did you come up with the name? Who are its founding members and how long did it take you to get the site up?

Sean: The three of us (Eric, Nico, and Sean--all from Emerson College's MFA program) came up with the idea while discussing books and Nico's new Sony e-reader. We actually got the first build put together after a long week of work, but some of our planned improvements are still being worked on. I think an enormous disconnect seems to exist between readers (and to an extent writers) and publishing as a business. Since finishing school, I've longed for a better way to discuss and share good books. The name references William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Nico: I had a whole lot of trouble finding good information about e-readers, especially the Kindle. After a lot of research, I found out that the Kindle has a lot of downsides: you can't borrow digital library books with it, you can't buy any book not sold through Amazon, and you can't buy much of anything that isn't crippled with DRM. So a big part of Chamber Four is detangling the mess of e-reader information out there. The other parts, like our book reviews, evolved out of that desire to inform readers, and our frustration as readers ourselves with the publishing and e-publishing industries.

There is endless debate about the role of e-books in literature. How does Chamber Four contribute to this dialogue?

Nico: We all like ebooks. We try to analyze how readers will be affected by the digital publishing revolution. A lot of sites and organizations look out for authors and publishers and publishing professionals, but very few honestly break down the effects all of this will have on readers. For example, a lot of publishers tell you that digital rights management (DRM) is necessary to protect their investments or stop piracy. But DRM drastically limits the way people can use ebooks compared to paper books, and there's no research to support claims that DRM actually prevents piracy.
Sean: The less difference people see between books and ebooks, the better. In any format, literature is words placed together in a precise order by a writer. However, there are a lot of opportunities for books and book distribution to flourish and improve in a digital environment, and readers will have unprecedented access to everything ever written. Basically, our stance is that people should read more, and in what manner they choose to read is secondary to that.

E-readers are slowly becoming more mainstream, but don't seem to be there quite yet. What do you think will be the tipping point?

Nico: It's important for ereader skeptics to actually see one. That said, the technology isn't quite there yet. Another few years of development will do wonders. Other than that, I'm not sure there will be a tipping point, exactly. Ebook readership picks up every year, and I think that will continue until basically everybody reads ebooks.

Sean: The term we (well, Nico) coined for this moment is the Great eReader Adoption. And Nico's right about actually seeing and manipulating an ereader. I still do most of my reading on paper books, but I actually find reading on an ereader quite comfortable. For me the turn off is the DRM. The tipping point for ereaders will likely be most evident when schools and textbooks make the switch. Younger readers will lead the push towards these devices being an everyday necessity.

Nico: Yeah, getting rid of DRM is one of the drums we bang. There are already horror stories of Amazon locking people out of the books they paid for and they can do that because almost everything they sell you is crippled with DRM, which means that you don't own it, you only license it.

Is DRM really all that bad? In this media market, where the demand for books, and for literary fiction in particular, have been dropping, when fewer people than ever are willing to shell out $25-50 for a hardback, why should publishing companies (and authors) give the public an infinitely replicable file for less than $10? Wouldn't doing so make the already not-very-lucrative profession of book writing even less appealing? Authors need royalties in order to continue writing.

Nico: Yes, it's that bad. First of all, DRM does not prevent piracy, which is ostensibly the whole reason it exists. What DRM does do is cripple media by locking music and books to specific machines by brute force. There are also horror stories about Kindle users getting locked out from their books and music buyers losing the DRM keys to their music.

Essentially, DRM means that you don't own the music or ebooks you buy; you only license them, and at some point that license will expire. I've personally had a lot of trouble trying to put old DRMed music onto new computers, or different mp3 players—and I've had trouble moving ebooks from one ereader to another. And you can forget about borrowing a friend's book like we're all used to.

DRM exists because media companies see every illegal download as a lost purchase. But I don't believe that's true. As Neil Gaiman said in a talk a while ago there's a long history of people discovering new writers or artists by borrowing books and music from their friends. There has to be a lot of experimental downloading—people trying new music or movies that they would not purchase otherwise—which is a good thing for authors and musicians, especially struggling ones for whom notoriety is of the highest importance. Plus there's new research out that suggests downloaders buy more media than non-downloaders.

Sean: I'm the type who obsessively organizes iTunes, makes sure every album has cover art, a genre, etc. A big reason why I haven't made the shift to a digital library is that DRM prevents me from doing this with my ebooks. A lot of DRM systems also feed into proprietary formatting, which is especially frustrating, and fragments the market in a way that isn't good for readers or writers. DRM forces a situation where nobody wins besides the guys selling machines for twice the cost of production. And don't forget, right now anyone can read any book they want, totally free and legally: just walk into a library. DRM does nothing to help authors (exposure helps them more than anything); it merely perpetuates a failing business model.

Do you see a place for ebooks in bookstores, or will bookstore giants suffer for the cause?

Nico: My heart doesn't quite bleed for Borders. When big corporate bookstores try to dictate which books readers buy, the whole publishing industry suffers. I sincerely hope ebooks reduce the power those bookstore chains have.
Sean: If Amazon, Borders, and other big corporate bookstores strong arm their way to exclusive deals (both ebook and deadtree) and forgo the publishing houses altogether, I think we'll see a real decline in quality publication, as good literature makes for risky sales.

We're already seeing bookstores set up digital kiosks for selling ebooks. E-books can provide publishers the opportunity to produce more great titles at a fraction of the cost. My hope is that ebooks help them produce and sell stuff we want to read that will also make them the money to keep in the ring with the big boys.

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