The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

One of my favourite authors is Ted Chiang. I’m not entirely sure what Ted does with his time, since over the course of seventeen years, he’s written fewer than a dozen short stories, the sum of which would easily fit into a typical novel. Of course, this has nothing to do with the quality of his writing, which contains such beautifully-wrought ideas and language that they remind me of Borges and Murakami put together.

Some of the stories have more of a scientific spin than others, and it probably eases the cognitive dissonance of journalists to call him a sci-fi writer, but if that were the case, it would only be so much as Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy could be described as the same; in other words, they’ve all written sci-fi, but not as most people would know it.

Until this year, Ted had published only had one collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. This was a sad state of affairs for his fans, who were left hanging following his 2001 short story ‘Hell is the Absence of God’, which won pretty much every award available.

This year, a new collection finally emerged, called The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. Published by Subterranean Press, a specialist in limited-run books, the collection is Ted’s first ‘novel’. At sixty pages, I would disagree with that classification, but all the same, it was a new story. Knowing exactly what it had in its hands, Subterranean sold two versions of the novel; one was a cloth-bound hardback trade edition, which is now sold out, and the other was a limited edition edition of 200 copies, at $45.

I mulled over which edition to buy for a little while, but eventually my desire to own a piece of true Chiang memorabilia – and the weak dollar – conspired to make me order the limited edition. It arrived a few weeks ago, and I feel I made the right choice.

The book itself is a series of four intertwined stories set in medieval Baghdad, about the nature of fate and our acceptance of it. While it’s arguably a sci-fi novel, given that it concerns itself with time-travel, most agree that it’s more in the vein of Arabian Nights than anything else. I liken it to a perfectly crafted gourmet meal; small in size, yet containing a real variety of subtle flavours.

You might think that buying a sixty page book for $45 is slightly out of character for someone who believes in The Death of Publishers and the inexorable rise of free or cheap eBooks – but I don’t think this is contradictory. If my copy of The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate was the same as a bog-standard paperback, I would have been disappointed. The reason why I spent $45 was to get something special – and that’s what I received.

The book comes bound in red leather, with a beautifully drawn dust jacket. The paper is of a high quality and feels like parchment. My copy is signed and numbered 24 out of 200. There are several lavish full-page illustrations, and dotted throughout are a number of smaller drawings that reflect details in the stories. It feels as if the physical book was designed hand-in-hand with the author, and the resulting product is that of a work of art. I’m going to hold on to this book for a long time, and unlike my other books, I’m not about to trade or sell it online. So why wouldn’t I spend $45 on it?

Publishers are beginning to catch on to this trend. Authors that have a particularly loyal following, such as JRR Tolkein and Haruki Murakami, are having their novels republished in increasingly elaborate editions. While at Borders today, I saw a £100 gilt-edged, leather-bound edition of Lord of the Rings, and a £30 cloth-bound edition of After Dark, with a hard case. I see both editions as being a rip-off in the sense that the quality of the physical product is in no way commensurate with the price they’re being sold at – especially when The Merchant at the Alchemist’s Gate is a mere £23 – but ultimately it shows that people are not merely buying these books for the words inside, but for the physical objects themselves.

This is particularly true for books that are out of copyright. Given that all of the classics are already available free from Project Gutenberg, and in a few years there’ll be affordable eBook readers that are pleasant to read from, publishers are keen on improving the cover illustrations, adding special introductions and trying out all sorts of gimmicks like Penguin’s ‘Design Your Own Cover’. Otherwise why else buy them?

If the content of novels becomes divorced from physical books, and can be made available more quickly and cheaply on eBooks, the only way for physical books to survive will be to emphasise their virtues – namely, their very physicality! The very advantages of eBooks precludes them from competing with true signed copies, limited editions, leather binding and the feel of high quality paper. This is a smaller business, but for those publishers who fixate on the primacy of physical books, it may be all that’s on offer in the future.

Yet even then, these publishers may do well to make at least some of their authors’ books available online for free. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, a growing number of genre authors are putting short stories and entire books online in the hope of increasing book sales. Two well-publicised attempts were made by Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow, who both made available their books online:

Lessig said that convincing his publisher to allow the free release of the book was difficult at first.

Lessig presented two numbers to the publishing company, Penguin Press. The first was the estimated number of people who would decide not to buy the book due to its availability on the Internet. The second number, what Lessig called the “commercial interest,” was the number of people who would have had no interest in the book under regular circumstances, but due to the fact that a free copy was available online, would begin reading it and eventually buy a hard copy.

It’s unclear whether sales really did increase, and how representative these examples are for a future where eBook readers are commonplace, but other authors are steaming ahead anyway based on more robust evidence.

In late 2000, one of Eric Flint’s fantasy novels, An Oblique Approach, had been out for two years. Eric Flint, was the co-founder of the Baen Free Library, and so he decided to make An Oblique Approach available for free on his website. In less than a year, sales had increased by almost 250%. Flint tells this story better than I could, but the point is clear; making books available for free can increase sales, sometimes dramatically. It doesn’t work for every book and there are many other factors involved, but it can work.

(Digression: I have a theory about this. Flint’s sales may have increased 250%, but that’s only from 795 to 1904 copies. That increase matters a lot to him, but it’s hardly worth the effort for a publisher, who would rather just find another book to publish. Since he happens to be both the publisher and the author in this case, he can make it happen. For other authors, it isn’t as easy… until they figure out how to put their books online themselves, and make them available for sale even while out of physical print. The same sort of thing applies to movies – why bother spending money on squeezing sales from old movies when you can just make a new one? It took the ability to watch movies at home in high quality – namely, DVDs – to change matters)

It’s tempting to dismiss these experiments as mere curiosities. After all, they’re not mass-market authors, are they? What I find interesting, though, are the authors who put their books online without any fanfare. Ted Chiang has three of his short stories online (Division by Zero, Understand, What’s Expected Of Us). One of the best-selling SF authors, Vernor Vinge, put his latest novel, Rainbows End, online; this is astonishing given that the paperback version has only just been released. I can only assume that he felt having the book online would help its chances in winning awards and selling more physical copies.

For now, the purpose of putting a book online is to sell more physical copies; it’s just a rather generous form of marketing. What’s important is that they show that some people are willing to read extended stories on media other than physical books; the advent of good eBook readers will only increase that number. What’s more, making these books available online for free did not make the world come crashing down. These guys are still making money – maybe even more money.

No, things will really start crashing down when eBook readers gain many of the advantages of physical books. That’s when this stops being about marketing, and starts being about sales. That’s when people might stop buying bog-standard paperbacks and simply buy – or pirate – eBooks, and on rare occasions, buy limited edition physical books. The question is, where do publishers want to be? Are they going to make buying eBooks easier than pirating them, at a price that won’t alienate readers? Or will they be relegated to the shrinking market of physical books?

I saw this demo of a next-generation eBook reader earlier this week; apparently it could take as many as five years to become commercialised:

Whatever you may think about eBook readers today, they’re going to look very different, very soon. I’m very happy with my copy of The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, but I can count on one hand the number of limited edition books I own.

Most people wouldn’t need to count at all.

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