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Naughty Bits:

The Erotogeek's Guide for the Technologically Challenged Author
by Lisabet Sarai

The Scary Future


The Scary Future by Lisabet Sarai

2013 is fast approaching, so I thought for my final installment of Naughty Bits, I'd indulge in a bit of the prognostication that's so popular at this time of year. In the other columns in this series, I've tried to demystify various aspects of today's information technology that are important to authors. In this column, the Erotogeek's swan song (at least for now), I consider how the technologies of writing, publishing and marketing might develop in the future. My predictions are based mostly on intensification of current trends, this year's hot tech taken to its (in some cases absurd) limits.

Multimedia Mania

Words on a page are boring. Mind you, that's not my opinion – to me the words are wondrous and transparent, a window into new worlds – but I believe that many younger readers feel that way.

Today's text to speech technology makes it possible to “read” a book without ever looking at it. Over time I think books will become less and less about written words processed visually, and more about other modalities.

In the future, I expect that visual, auditory, perhaps even tactile, taste or olfactory stimuli, will be integrated into electronic books. Today's standard computing devices already have the capabilities necessary to deliver all but taste and smell. It won't be long until somebody adds those specialized effectors to the mix. (Research on such topics is already underway.)

The experience of “reading” such a multimedia book may be more akin to watching a movie, or maybe playing a video game, than to what we now call reading. I also expect that this experience will be highly customizable. A particular reader (like me) who prefers not to be distracted by audio/video or other ancillary inputs will (hopefully) be able to turn them off. A younger, more visual (less imaginative? But I'm betraying my prejudice here...) reader might accept every modality by default.

Most likely, such multimedia books will also provide hypertext capabilities, allowing a reader to choose his or her own path through the story, rather like Julio Cortazar's famous multi-threaded novel Hopscotch.

As an author, how do you conceptualize a non-sequential tale, in which events could occur in different orders, and the story might end at different points in the characters' lives?

I wonder, too, how this will change the practice of writing, quite aside from the conceptual issues. Someone who wants to produce a multimedia ebook will need new authoring tools, with the ability to create non-verbal multimedia content and incorporate it into the final product. Alternatively, authors may purchase multimedia development services from companies or consultants who specialize in producing particular content modalities, just as you can hire someone now to create video trailers for your books. 
And what will happen to the words? Will the verbal component of our books become abbreviated, as other senses take over the role of painting pictures for the reader? Will the words disappear entirely,  as they become redundant to more direct sensory impressions? If they do – can we still call this artifact a book?

Hackers, Fakers, Fools and Pirates

I don't need a crystal ball to predict one unfortunate trend. Scams, plagiarism, identity theft (or mimicry), piracy, and malware will all become more common as writers and readers increasingly depend on digital formats and sources. I personally know one popular author who discovered someone else was using the same pen name as she employs, selling books with titles that are only slight variants of her own. She contacted the individual, asking the other author to cease and desist, with zero success. You can't copyright either a pen name or a book title, and clearly this copycat knew that.

I've already written about email hacks. I expect this to become far more sophisticated and targeted. Most current email hacks are somewhat random, simply taking advantage of weak spots to cull addresses for spam or criminal purposes. In the future, though, hackers will be able to focus on specific individuals – including authors. It will be possible, for instance, for an unscrupulous wannabee author to steal another author's reader list and use it for his own marketing. After all, wouldn't you like to have E.L. James' list of fans? 

Fake reviews are already so prevalent that Amazon has begun deleting any review that even hints of a relationship between the author and the reviewer. (This means that Amazon has software that can analyze the semantic content of reviews – a scary thought in itself.) I'm certain this won't stop greedy or ambitious authors from trying to game the system. The digital marketing ecology utilizes sophisticated algorithms for ranking, linking, forwarding, and displaying information, but people who have a stake in cracking these algorithms in order to take (unfair?) advantage are equally sophisticated.

Viruses, trojans and botnets, already a huge problem on traditional computers, are now targeting new mobile platforms, which (unfortunately) have paid far too little attention to security. What might such malware do to hurt an author? Delete your books from the reader's device. Send messages (perhaps insulting or threatening) through your author app, purporting to be from you. Make it impossible for your readers to contact you through your author app. I'm not even considering the general havoc that such invaders can produce, such as stealing sensitive data or spoofing to gain access to your bank accounts. And to be honest, I don't see any good solution to this problem, aside from constant vigilance on the part of every user (reader and author).

Then there's piracy. As I think I've noted in an earlier article, I don't believe there is a technological cure for the problem of piracy. Each time publishers deploy a new DRM (Digital Rights Management) scheme, pirates promptly crack it. Meanwhile, honest readers who buy legitimate content are inconvenienced by the constraints of DRM.

In short, the digitalization of publishing and reading has made everything a lot easier for the bad guys, and I foresee the situation getting a lot worse in the future. Be warned!

Pervasive Personalization
When you log in to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, the site suggests books you might enjoy, based on what you've previously viewed or ordered. When you search on Google, the links that get top position are filtered according to what you've looked at recently, while the advertisements that appear depend on your search history, your physical location, and a variety of other factors. I routinely get email notifications from Goodreads, telling me about new books by authors I've read or reviewed.

These are examples of personalization, an attempt to predict your future interests and actions by analyzing information about you, which may be gathered from many sources. In the majority of cases, the goal of personalization is to increase the probability that you'll make a purchase, by offering products that match your needs or desires.

I predict that personalization will become more widespread, more intense, and yet, at the same time, more subtle. A book-selling site where you browse or purchase will base suggestions for new reads not only on superficial data like author, genre or tags, as it does now, but also using additional personal data such as the content of your reviews, what your friends have bought, the current season and current time of day where you're located, your gender, when you were born, where you live, your marital status, where you went on your last vacation, the fact that you recently had Lasik surgery or had a baby... How will the personalization system know so much about you? See my Naughty Bits article from August (I Want to be Alone: Safeguarding Your Identity, Your Privacy and Your Sanity in the Digital Age), about how powerful forces are working to integrate your publicly posted information in order to build a consumer profile.

I am not being paranoid. There are companies that openly provide these data mining and integration services (there's nothing illegal about it, at least not now) for other organizations. Digital behemoths like Amazon, Google and Facebook employ legions of PhD computer scientists who are working to make personalization more pervasive and more effective.

But personalization is a good thing, isn't it? If a site suggests books that are a good match to my interests, that will save me time and effort. When readers have liked books similar to the ones I write, don't I want the online bookstore to suggest they should purchase my books?

Aside from the privacy issues (which I've considered earlier), the problem with personalization is that it confirms and strengthens readers' existing preferences and prejudices rather than tempting them to try something new. A reader who purchases many paranormal erotic romances will be offered the opportunity to buy more of the same – she won't be confronted with my contemporary BDSM novel. Of course, she might not like my novel, given her past history – but how will she ever know, if her book-buying is limited to the books the site so conveniently offers her?

Some of the best books I've ever read were those I just happened to pick up while browsing in a physical book store. In some cases these books were wildly different from anything I'd read previously, by authors I'd never heard of. A personalization system would never have suggested them to me. (I sometimes find the books Amazon offers me amusing anyway.  A recent check of my “recommendations” page included Gordon Dahlquist's The Dark Volume, Professional Javascript for Web Developers, and  several Cleis anthologies in which I have stories.)

Furthermore, I see personalization of books potentially taking a new direction, given the probable future of electronic publishing technology. What if the content of books were personalized to suit the reader? Imagine multiple versions of a single erotic novel – the same characters and initial premise, but with different possible instantiations depending on the preferences of the reader. One purchaser with a history of buying happily-ending romance would get a version in which the characters end up together and married. Another, who in the past has purchased more edgy erotica, might see the hero leaving the heroine alone after they enjoyed a period of joint passion - having a psychiatric episode, or becoming an alcoholic, or going back to his first wife. The book delivery software would customize the book content to suit the reader – who might never know there were other stories, other endings, embedded in the book.

Think about writing that kind of customizable novel! The perfect thing for those of us who can't decide on a single genre! Write interwoven variants in multiple genres, and let the software assemble different books for different readers.

On the other hand, for authors who have difficulty keeping consistency and connectivity across a single narrative arc, this might be a nightmare.

You might view this level of personalization as far-fetched, but in fact it's only a small step beyond the notion of the hyperbook discussed earlier – and such books already exist. The fundamental difference is that the narrative path is determined by a personalization algorithm, rather than explicitly chosen by the reader.

Streaming, Serialization, and Real-time Reader/Writer Connections

The final trend I see becoming more important relates to the “mobile madness” I discussed last month. Currently, when reader purchases an ebook, the content is transferred as a single file to his or her device (ereader, tablet, etc.). After that point, book resides in local storage on the device, until the reader removes it.

In the future, I expect that more ebook content will be streamed, that is, delivered dynamically to readers in a “just in time” manner. For instance, when I finish one chapter, the book vendor will automatically send the next to my device. This is conceptually similar to streaming video or music content. The entire book never resides on the device. However, the streaming server remembers what each reader has seen already, so you can stop reading and then pick up where you left off.

Why would streaming ebooks be desirable? From the readers point of view, there are three possible advantages that I can see. First, streamed books might be easier and more convenient – like picking a radio channel as opposed to selecting a book from a very crowded shelf. Presumably a reader would be in the midst of perusing only a few books at any one time. Second, streaming would reduce the need for a large amount of local storage. Although both volatile memory and persistent storage continue to drop in price, the space required to store the kind of multimedia books I described earlier will be likely be hundreds of times larger than what's needed for today's text-based books. Third, I think that, like streamed music and movies, streamed books would be cheaper than books purchased via the download-and-own model. (They'd have to be, I think, to compete.)

Publishers, and advertisers, would love streaming (which is why I predict it will become popular relatively soon). For one thing, streaming reduces the risk of piracy. The complete book never leaves the server. It's simply delivered in pieces. So there's no single PDF or mobi file that can be archived and made available for download by the pirates. Of course, I'm sure someone would invent tools for capturing the stream and saving it – you can't stop pirates. But you can slow them down. In additiona, the book stream offers an ideal medium for delivering advertisements. Streamed books might be priced cheaper for readers who accept ads. 

Of course mobile network providers would love streaming ebooks, especially if they include multimedia. More bandwidth usage means higher profits.

What, if any benefits, would streaming provide for authors? One interesting possibility is a revival of the serial novel. Many of the classics in the canon (Dickens, Dumas, Conan Doyle, etc.) were written in installments which were published over a period of time. Serials were wildly popular. Readers waited eagerly for the next chapter, to see what would happen to the characters they'd been following.

Some current authors do serials, but usually as free content, since the current ebook publishing model doesn't support serials very well. It's inconvenient to purchase many small mini-books. Streaming ebooks, though, would be a perfect fit to serialization. Authors could capitalize on the excitement of readers awaiting the next episode, and could also realize revenue from the parts of the book they'd already written, before the book was complete.

On the other hand, serial publishing requires that an author be able to write “on demand” (unless, of course, the entire book is completed before the serialization begins). This could be a problem for some of us.

If you're anywhere close to my age, you've probably noticed how the world just keeps getting faster. The time between submission of a manuscript and its release has dropped from a year and a half  when I first began publishing, to a matter of a few months or even weeks. Instead of writing one book a year, we need to write two, or three, or ten.

Given this universal acceleration, I think that the next step after streaming books will be real-time book creation. That is, readers would get the book in pieces – as the author was writing it!

Whoa! What about editing? Would this really work?

Not for multimedia content, but for text, for some authors – maybe. Consider the effect – a real-time connection between the author and her readers! How thrilling! Readers get to see the author's vision, fresh from her imagination. Obviously, the delivery system would capture the text for later, delayed delivery to readers who couldn't be present “at the creation” (and maybe for editing), but think about the intimacy of the experience. Real-time streaming of stories would move authorship into the realm of performance. Personally, I think this could be both popular and profitable. Furthermore, for authors who could pull it off, it would be a distinguishing factor, a way to stand out from the crowd.

Personally, I find this notion fascinating. Because the net effect would be to bring authors full circle to our origins – sitting around the campfire, surrounded by rapt listeners, telling stories.

Happy holidays to you all, and thanks for accompanying me on this digital journey!

Lisabet Sarai, the Erotogeek
December '12 - January '13

Visit Lisabet at Lisabet Sarai's Fantasy Factory or her blog Beyond Romance
Read more of Lisabet's Naughty Bits in ERWA 2012 Archive

"Naughty Bits: The Erotogeek's Guide for the Technologically Challenged Author" © 2012 Lisabet Sarai. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written

About the Author: More than a decade ago LISABET SARAI experienced a serendipitous fusion of her love of writing and her fascination with sex. Since then she has published four single author short story collections and six erotic novels, including the BDSM classic Raw Silk. Dozens of her shorter works have been released as ebooks and in print anthologies. She has also edited several acclaimed anthologies and is currently responsible for the altruistic erotica series COMING TOGETHER PRESENTS.
Lisabet holds more degrees than anyone needs from prestigious universities who would no doubt be embarrassed by her chosen genre. She loves to travel and currently lives in Southeast Asia with her highly tolerant husband and two cosmopolitan felines. For more information on Lisabet and her writing visit Lisabet Sarai's Fantasy Factory or her blog Beyond Romance.

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