Cyberbooks ~ Ben Bova

  • Title: Cyberbooks
  • Author: Ben Bova
  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Own
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:  A futuristic satire on the fate of the publishing industry after the invention of “cyberbooks”, electronic books which eliminate the need for paper, printers, salesmen, distributors and even booksellers.

Review:  When this book was published in 1989, it was clearly a science fiction. Now, in 2013, only 14 years later, it became a widespread reality, with deviation in only tiny details. Rarely a sci-fi novel can boast such a fate, especially when its focus is so far from science. Cyberbooks is a sci-fi satire on the publishing industry, a mockery of every aspect of publishing: from editing to technology to royalties.
Some phrases in the book jump at the reader, demanding a comment, a rebuttal, or an agreement. Or a laugh.

Here a character contemplates the need for human editors vs. a computer:

Computers can check a manuscript’s spelling and grammar much more thoroughly than any human being can. What do editors do that computers can’t?  

Two editors discuss the latest horror novel and its selling potential:

“It’s the same old tripe,” she said… “Blood, devil-worship, blood, supernatural doings, blood, and more blood. It’s awful.”
“But it sells,” said Ashley Elton.

And what do the publishers think of good literature:

“No New York publisher would touch it. It’s a thousand manuscript pages long. It’s not category. It’s literature. That’s the kiss of death for a commercial publishing house. They don’t publish literature because literature doesn’t make money.”
“But if it’s so good…”
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” Lori said, almost crying.

But thrashing the publishing community is not enough to make a book, at least not a sci-fi book. The author went one step further. His hero, a young engineer Carl, creates a Cyberbook – an eReader – which he claims is the greatest invention since Gutenberg. This electronic gadget the size of a mass market paperback will revolutionize the publishing world. In the following snippet, Carl rhapsodizes about his creation:

“Who would buy a hardcover or a paperback,” Carl retorted, “when an electronic books will cost pennies?”
Malzone grunted, just as if someone had whacked him in the gut with a pool cue.
“Pennies?”
“Sure, the reader—this device, here—is going to cost more than a half-dozen books. But once you own one you can get your books electronically. Over the phone if you like. The most expensive books there are will cost less than a dollar!”
“Now wait a minute. You mean…”
“No paper!” Carl exulted. “You don’t have to chop down trees and make paper and haul tons of the stuff to the printing presses and then haul the printed books to the stores. You move electrons and photons instead of paper! It’s cheap and efficient.”
For a long moment Malzone said nothing. Then he sighed a very heavy sigh. “You’re saying that a publisher won’t need printers, paper, ink, wholesalers, route salesmen, district managers, truck drivers—not even bookstores?”
“The whole thing can be done electronically,” Carl enthused. “Shop for books by TV. Buy them over the phone. Transmit them anywhere on Earth almost instantaneously, straight to the customer.”
Malzone glanced around the shadows of the clean room uneasily. In a near whisper, he told Carl, “Jesus Christ, kid, you’re going to get both of us killed.”  

Unfortunately for Carl, his friend Malzone was right. Hardly anyone in the novel wanted a publishing revolution. The printers and the warehouse workers, the truck drivers and the bookstores, the salespeople and the lumber industry – none of them wanted to be eliminated by cyberbooks, so they buried Carl’s invention – in fiction.

Not in the real world though, where 14 years later, a publishing revolution arrived willy-nilly, and Carl’s fictional dream became an everyday purchase – a Sony or a Kindle, a Kobo or a Nook. Except that the writer didn’t predict the Internet, the rest is practically the same. He said digital books would be cheap – and it came true. He said the bookstores would die – and it’s coming true, sadly enough. He said nobody would buy a hardcover – I think we’re moving in that direction. He even predicted DRM – his electronic book wafers are protected against copying, damn his clever notions. I think Amazon used Bova’s ideas as a blueprint for their Kindle.

While the concepts behind this book are fascinating, the execution is uninspiring. The plot is banal, and the characters plastic. It would’ve been a pretty forgettable book if not for its sheer prophetic power. I read it and I thought: Oh, yeah!

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