Reading into the world of online books

0808_rhv_woolBy RANDAL SMATHERS

So I talked a little bit last column about the medium being part of the message with books and e-books.

For those who read mostly paper-and-ink, there’s a temptation to think of e-books as the latest iteration of the same-old, same-old — like the switch in music from LP to 8-track, cassette, CD and now MP3 (for the record, I’ve owned Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” in every format but MP3 and each format cost me two bucks more than the last). But the final, digital format switch also opened up vast new worlds of music, with downloads of individual songs (pirate or legit), indie artists able to get their work out broadly without recording companies and so on.

It’s the same magnitude of change in digital books, where e-reading has introduced a much bigger difference than that between, say, paperback and hard cover.

For instance, I just finished reading a couple of books that started out as chapters offered to readers online, whose authors eventually built up big enough followings to attract traditional publishing houses and they are in print alongside authors who followed more traditional paths.

One of them is “Wool,” by Hugh Howey, which is still sometimes listed online as the “Wool Omnibus,” comprising parts 1-5 of his online output.

It’s a fast-paced, post-apocalyptic thriller with the best female heroine since Ripley, memorably played by Sigourney Weaver, was serving roast egg of Alien on the half-shell. Highly recommended.
Howey’s website also includes a section devoted to fan fiction, where readers submit, for better or worse, their own plots set within the world Howey has created.

0808_rhv_ancestorAnother book issued in this online format is “Ancestor,” by Scott Sigler, which come to think of it, would be a good double bill with “Alien” if it is ever made into a movie — and apparently Ridley Scott agrees, as he has purchased the film rights. “Ancestor” also started out for free on the Web, as a series of self-recorded podcasts.

It’s a modern sci-fi thriller about some bioengineering gone really, really wrong. Along the way, Sigler pokes a little middle-schoolish fun at his naysayers by having one of his characters mocked for writing an online novel while working as a security guard. Another character wants to know who would ever buy a book they could get for free on the interwebs. Oh, the forced irony.

Overall, it’s a decent, if gory, beach read.

At the other end of the publishing scale are works by established authors that are now only available as e-books.

This started as an experiment by Stephen King, who tried selling “The Plant” as an online serial in 2000. When sales didn’t meet his regular, lofty targets, King announced the whole thing a failure. That proved premature.

Today, sales are largely driven by Amazon’s proprietary Kindle reader and monopolistic market share, so you can download an e-book, an audiobook or have any of the print formats delivered to your home. But when one reader asked for “The Seventh Month,” the latest work by Lisa Gardner, who has 20-odd titles in print, I was surprised not to find it available for us to buy or borrow. A little extra sleuthing (we librarians are persistent) dug up an Amazon-only edition, for Kindle or generic e-book download. It’s her first published short story, and is being offered as a standalone. So we bought the e-story, downloaded it onto one of our readers and lent that to our borrower (hey, I said we are persistent).

0808_rhv_seventhWhile the Amazon e-book option does offer a way for a new author to find a market — many are offered as free downloads by authors in search of an audience — a lot of writers are concerned about selling the rights to their work to somebody who controls the content, the hardware, the store and the means of distribution, and who insists on exclusivity. Folks in Proctor with long memories can tell you stories about owing your soul to the company store, or in Amazon’s case, to the corporate e-marketplace.

I spent some time a while back with one of the e-readers we loan out to cardholders, and discovered another online variant: the omnibus.

In the case of “Wool,” the content was Hugh Howey’s work compiled into one edition, but when I downloaded the “Detective Megapack” from the state library site, I discovered it was largely a collection of out-of-copyright stuff that wasn’t all that good, aside from a Sherlock Holmes and a couple of Dashiell Hammett’s lesser short stories.

It’s also for sale on Amazon for 99 cents, although personally I would save my almost-a-buck for coffee and find the same stuff for free on or at, you know, my local public library.

But the same batch of downloads that brought me the bloated Megapack also introduced me to “Day by Day,” an online-only and altogether engaging short story by Dani and Etyan Kollin in which the Mayan apocalypse puts the whole world into a “Groundhog Day” cycle, so it wasn’t all bad.

As always, all the reading mentioned in the column is available — in at least one format — from the Rutland Free Library, where Randal Smathers works as assistant director. Contact him at