I finally bit the bullet.

In one of my very first posts I wrote of the long tail. The  old dogma that twenty percent of the products generate eighty percent of the sales treads on shifting sands. They say you can’t teach an old dogma new tricks, but in this case, the internet blazes a fresh trail. If there’s one thing the web has truly achieved, it’s the empowerment of minorities.

And not just minorities, but often oppressed majorities, those that could never have a voice. The elements of control remained constant for millenia, and they were just two.

Control the borders, limit travel

In Salazar’s Portugal, a wife needed her husband’s written permission to travel abroad. In Mao’s China, a passport was required to travel out of your area of residence. Special hotels, stores, and restaurants existed for foreigners only. Remnants of such establishments were still around in the late nineties in parts of China—I stayed in one such hotel near Yueqing Bay; condoms were part of the general bathroom accessories, rubbing shoulders with the bath gel and a shampoo of dubious provenance.

Use censorship, restrict freedom of expression

The first child of  a totalitarian regime, from either end of the spectrum, is a well organized, scary, and ubiquitous secret police. In the excellent movie ‘The Lives of Others’, a glimpse is offered into the DDR, the Orwellian German Democratic Republic. You can use descriptive names in this way. If you went to MacPatty and were confronted with a Wonderburger, you might legitimately wonder whether the name matched the content.

The film is based on the Stasi, which at one point had over fifteen percent of the population of East Germany on its books as full or part-time informants—called unofficial mitarbeiters, or ‘with workers’, i.e. collaborators.

My Rabbit worked in a department that mirrors the movie—everyone knew which members of staff were informants of the wondeburgerly named Policia Internacional de Defesa do Estado. The PIDE terrified the good people of Portugal for forty-eight years, incarcerating, torturing, and murdering in pretence of  law.

Without communication, thought is autistic. All totalitarian regimes depend on censoring inconvenient truths, screening books, newspapers, radio, and television. And movies. Now that China is becoming a blockbuster market, the Hollywood villains have become North Korean, the evildoer flavor du jour. Even so, parts of James Bond’s Skyfall ended up on the cutting room floor, courtesy of Chinese censors, upset by some of the scenes filmed in Shanghai.

In Mandarin, 007 translates to lingling qi (pronounced chee), which sounds like an Asian Bond girl. In Thai it’s zun zun chet. Now my curiosity is picqued, I’m on a mission to discover the most bizarre translations of the ageing commander. The internet is depressingly short of this vital information.

Because the web is almost impossible to censor, it opened the floodgates of information to the places that need it most. It’s wonderful to know you can defeat the secret police with a bunch of bits and bytes. I love the irony that the inventors of this most powerful weapon are exactly the kind of prople who are most targeted.

Many youngsters in the big urban areas of China have already seen integral pirated copies of Skyfall. What used to change hands as snake DVDs now circulates on USB sticks or falls from internet heaven as a torrent of ones and zeroes. Sometimes the illegal copies have hilarious moments, when one of the movie patrons sitting downstream from the pirate gets up and goes to the restroom.

But the end of the 80/20 rule, which imposed a commercial dictatorship on minorities, has opened doors to would-be singers, poets, and cellphone movie makers. It really is a mass movement. Grass roots, by definition. Multiculture. Multimedia. Multilanguage.

I thought three years ago the book revolution would take longer. I no longer think it will. With a number of books, most recently fifty grades of shag, digital publishing has gone mainstream. I confess that even though I’ve drunk from the poisoned cup, I still don’t own a chalice of my own.

Atmos Fear - Kindle style. Another hitchhiker takes to the digital highway.

Atmos Fear – Kindle style. Another hitchhiker takes to the digital highway.

Most of us don’t realize Amazon used books as a way into the digital marketplace. Bezos succeeded beyond his wildest dreams—Amazon isn’t a company that sells books, it’s a giant that also sells books. Because it pioneered digital sales and distribution, it has an immense network—it sells everything.

Becauae of its distributed computing needs, it has leveraged in-house solutions to become a huge player in the cloud market. And the cloud market is colossal. After all, no one thinks a server farm looks nice in the living room.

What has Amazon done with books? It catapulted digital publishing into mainstream. And spooked publishers and literary agents alike—it shattered the paradigm of print. Whether you read on an iPad, a Galaxy Tab, or a Kindle, the analog book is not making a comeback. Ever.

But don’t worry—like the hunter-gatherer, or the fisher, it will always be there. For those of us who like bookcases, love the smell of an old book, and the sensual delight of turning the pages. Yes, we are a tactile species, but now people are finding the gestures of modern computing digitally appealing too. Stroking a screen suddenly became sensual.

I haven’t researched it, but I bet there’s a fair amount of touch-screen porn out there, or (excuse me) coming soon. Ok, ok, I had a look for you. Of course there is—a truckload. The site I’ve chosen contains another link, suggestively called Vivid, with a warning that ‘it’s not safe for work’. Guess that depends what you do for a living.

Anyhow, to cut a long story short, I’m convinced. I learnt a good deal about desktop publishing during my preparations, and all told it’s been a month since I started. Writing books is hard work, and editing and preparing them for publication is no walk in the park. Already there are dozens of specialty houses out there that will take your manuscript and perform Word wizardry on it—DTP geeks who’ll pluck a couple hundred bucks off a desperate person to cover that last mile. I dispensed with all that.

In a spirit of digital democracy, and universal access, I priced my new book at $2.99. With 35% royalties, rather than the greedy 70% option. No rentals. I was amazed at how mature the whole business model is.

Amazon published Atmos Fear within a few days, and stuck a $6.14 pricetag on it. I don’t know why, and they didn’t tell me. Maybe it’s done by weight. How much do ninety thousand words of ones and zeroes weigh? Please be advised that this is not a historical novel. But it is a novel, and there’s plenty of history in it. And geography. Don’t let that put you off. I hope you like it—right now Amazon is the only platform I selected. But uncle Jeff has it all sorted out. There’s a Kindle app for the iPad, and another for Android. He’s selling Kindles, but he’s also selling books.

Killer apps define paltforms. Visicalc, the granddaddy of all spreadsheets, established the Apple II. Wordstar and Lotus 123 defined the IBM PC. Music and video made the Mac. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the killer app on the iPad is touchscreen porn? Multitouch will take on a whole new moaning.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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