The Future of Fiction

In college I was naïvely optimistic. I had a poem published in my school’s creative writing journal, I got a job as an opinion columnist handed to me because I knew the assistant editor, and I showed up to open mic nights like I was the James Dean of poetry. Naturally, because of these minor achievements, I was certain it was only a matter of time until I was awarded the Pulitzer. But since poetry and opinions weren’t going to pay the bills, I thought, Hey Steven, you know what would be great? If you wrote fiction and, before collecting all your well-deserved awards, were totally published so you could light your cigars with hundred dollar bills.

If I could go back in time and guide former me along the path of life, one thing I’d explain is that it’d be wise to start writing fiction before the age of 22. It’s not as easy as it looks and it takes a long time to learn. After eight years I’m still not all that great at it. So as far as career moves goes, it’s not one of the best. And I might also mention the whole thing about how writers don’t make money.

In fact, according to this article, the writer’s market has gotten so bad that “We, as fiction writers, are collectively depressed.” Many of us feared the ebook revolution, watched in horror as Borders went bankrupt and Barnes & Noble teeters on the precipice, and despaired in the cosmic clusterfuck that is Amazon self-publishing. Tangible books, we fear, are going the way of the dodo bird or buffalo. Of course, the flip side is that, now that we have ebooks and anyone can toss their self-described masterpiece to the wolves, there are plenty of opportunities, but our work could end up like the onions at the bottom of a pile in a plentiful harvest–rotting in obscurity.

Now, I’m not a fan of self-publishing, but that’s a topic for another day. But what may come as a surprise is that I am a fan of the oft feared ebook revolution. There are a number of reasons why people may be fans of digital books, but my number one is environmental. After working in a bookstore and seeing first hand the boxes and boxes of stripped books thrown into the garbage, it feels quite good to know that, at the very least, the amount of waste we produce will be decreased. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bibliophilic sentimental thing. If you gave me a first edition of Farenheit 451 and a match, there’s a good chance that I’d burn it and love every minute of it. This is because I value the words, but not the pages that hold them. I can go just go get another copy. No big deal.

Ebooks require no shipping and no paper. But their ease of production and distribution does not mean that we should abandoned hard copies of books. I just think there should be less of them. Much less. Nearly everything we tossed out at Borders were romance and mystery novels, which, while perhaps a fun read, don’t exactly add much to the world of contemporary literature. Why print all these cheap books and ship them out if most of them aren’t going to sell and they’ll end up in the dumpster anyway?

Lately I’ve heard encouraging reports of returning to the days of the small, independent bookstore. Hopefully a trend will take place where people sell books not because of the deals they’ve made with publishers, but because they genuinely believe in an author’s writing and want others to enjoy it as well. These are the types of books I get sentimental about–the ones that start small and perhaps stay small, but have a huge impact on their reader.

Perhaps some of my old naïveté still exists, because I sometimes picture myself driving throughout the midwest with a trunk full of my own books which were printed by a small press. I go into a brick and mortar bookstore and give them a free copy and try to convince them, one-on-one that my book is worth the read. They take it and read it, and maybe they like it. Maybe they buy a couple and they sell those to other readers. Sure, I’m no James Dean and it’s no Pulitzer, but at least I feel as if I’m traveling in the right direction.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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