The Still, Small Voice Of Writers

Continuing my view of the coming of ebooks, I’d like to go into the good things brought by ebooks first.

This is important. There’s a feeling of doom and gloom in the air. Publishers tell us daily they’re on the verge of collapse *because* of ebooks. (This is not exactly true, in my opinion. Look both at yesterday’s post here and at my Mad Genius Club Post on 1/5 for reasons that are pushing the collapse of publishing, reasons that are ushering in ebooks.)

This makes both readers and writers feel odd and insecure. We have people vowing never to read in electronic format, never, never, never, and others reading in electronic format only. We have strange movements in the used-book-sales field. We have people debating anew concepts of copyright and fair use.

For writers it is still more anxiety-making. Our publishers are convinced ebooks are bankrupting them, which has turned their publishing routines upside down and made our careers very precarious.

So, it’s good to remind oneself the coming change has many good features. Perhaps the most important is letting an author take charge of his/her career.

Here, I’d like to talk about Lloyd Biggle Jr’s book, The Still Small Voice of Trumpets. Why would I like to talk about it? You’ll see.

Biggle’s book was one of my favorites as a teen. It is a standard adventure science fiction with a shadowy “federation of planets” type setup. For a new world to be admitted to this federation, it must have a democratic government. However, Earth’s agents are forbidden from imposing democracy from outside. (In the seventies, I was greatly impressed by the motto “democracy imposed from the outside is the greatest of tyrannies.” This runs counter the history of Japan, for instance, but at the same age, I was also impressed by the sudden realization that we’re all naked under our clothes. There are miles and miles of twerpitude on the way to being a grown up – as Pratchett might say.)

The world that our main character – a member of Earth’s secret service, trying to bring about a revolution in this newly discovered planet – is sent to infiltrate is inhabited by a human breed that is absolutely enamored of beauty. In fact, the book starts with a peasant woman risking her life to keep something beautiful.

The mission goes wrong from the beginning, in ways I won’t detail. This post requires me to give away the ending, but even if you know that, the book is a pretty good read, full of fun and resonance.

The main problem the character faces is how to bring about a revolution from within – how to spur the natives, themselves, to revolution. Though the world is ruled by an absolute king, the public is pretty satisfied with his rule. He finally finds the way to make people aware of how tyrannical the king is.

You see, the king can – and does – send anyone who displeases him (or just happens to be in his vicinity when he has a toothache or whatever) to a village of the exiles. This is done by cutting off one of their arms, first. Now, most people sent to these villages are unknowns – the king’s chefs, physicians, servants and probably the occasional minister.

But one category sent there are musicians. The main instrument in this world is a sort of harp. (IIRC) You need both hands to play it. The king, as passionate about beauty as his subjects, loves art and has musicians play before him often. Which means, he has one of their arms cut off fairly often too.

These musicians are known and revered and have followings. But once their arm is cut off, they can no longer play, they go to these villages – they disappear. Their public forgets them.

The main character hits upon the idea of creating trumpets that the exiled ones can play, then has the musicians parade back into civilization playing their trumpets, reclaiming their public – thereby fomenting a coup.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the current state of affairs in publishing has anything to do with tyrannical anything. I mean, bookstores and distributors often seem tyrannical to readers, but I’m sure it’s simply because we don’t understand the imperatives of THEIR business.

We are, however, in the middle of a revolution, and one of the things the e-book tech revolution is doing (amid all the confusion and fear) is giving those writers who were consigned to exile through no fault of their own an instrument they can play, and a road back into civilization.

Writers whose fans forgot they existed; writers who spent years honing their craft only to disappear from view forever, will now be publishing again.

Even better, the books have the potential to be available forever, at no cost to the publisher and/or the writer. This means there is a chance for books that went relatively unnoticed but which deserve notice, to acquire it.

This is – to me, perhaps because I am a writer – the best part of this “revolution”. It gives us instruments we can play. It allows us to come down the road, our capes fluttering, playing our trumpets, allowing people to look at us.

There are many other points pro and con what is happening – many shoals on our way to a happy ending we might or might not read. The most important of these is how the reader will find us – and I do have ideas on how to do that. I’ll be covering those in daily posts probably for a week. But for now, think of the series that were interrupted that you’d like to see finished. Right off the top of my head, I can tell you I WANT to read more of the Lord Meren Egyptian Mysteries (written by Lynda Robinson.) I’m sure you can think of some yourself.

Stop and think – won’t it be lovely to hear again the still, small voice of vanished writers?

Crossposted at Classical Values. Related post at Mad Genius Club

3 responses to “The Still, Small Voice Of Writers

  1. I think the elephant in the room is the classics, out of copyright works.

    Publishers can make some money from selling a paper copy of, say, Shakespeare. They can also make money from selling a paper copy of modern author X, because even though Victorian author Y would be better, nobody can find Y in bookstores.

    However, with e-books you can download Shakespeare and Victorian author Y for free. This is really good from the reader perspective. It sucks for publishers. Arguably it is bad for modern authors too, they need to eat in contrast to Y.

    • Ori, sort of. I think being bookish and of an historical bend — as I am — you’re presuming too much on the appeal of the classics. I found when I wrote Shakespeare-fantasy that even going 1/4th of the way “there” in language meant ninety percent of the people found it hard to read. People who are more science than language oriented have told me HEYER is too difficult, because “of the language.” And then there’s the outmoded ways of being in the world. Young kids b*tch Heinlein is too weird because of the tech disconnect.
      There will always be a larger market for the up to date books than the classics, even if we’re not a patch on them in skill and presentation. For entertainment we’ll always be less work and the story easier to absorb.
      Yeah, publishers will lose some money on the classics — maybe. You know, I read a lot in ebooks, but nice, leather bound copies of Shakespeare or Jane Austen are things I still do buy. For one, the online-available material is often madeningly badly formated.
      Interestingly, wild-cat publishers are making money from this too, by charging 99cents for electronic copies of the classics that are better formatted or more accessible.

  2. Ori, I would have infinitely more sympathy for the major publishers on the public domain classics question, if I had not just heard that one of those major publishers and a PC lit crit have declared that “Huckleberry Finn” will from now on only be available in a bowdlerized form. Feed the elephant in the room some peanuts, while I read Huck Finn the way Twain wrote it. And read “Fahrenheit 451″ the way Bradbury wrote it, check Bradbury’s afterward to a recent edition on how we almost lost the original text to the interference of teacher’s union bluenoses.