I did something a little different last night: I read a book in bed on a laptop. Yeah yeah - I'm a dork. But I'm a sucker for good science fiction, and I just couldn't stop reading.
There's a lot of good fiction available on the internet. But very little of it is portable enough to be able to view while offline. Enter the Baen Free Library. They've published a number of their books online for free. Not only that, but they've done it right: no silly banner ads mucking up the display, and they present the option of downloading the stories in several formats, so you can read the books on your preferred platform.
Way to go, Baen! You've increased the number of people likely to pay for your books by at least one. I respect the effort it took to make these works available, and I plan on supporting their efforts. Not only that, but it's introduced me to a number of new authors I'd probably never have read otherwise.
When I go to the bookstore, I rarely just grab an unknown author and start reading. I stick with the stuff I'm familiar with: Clive Barker, Piers Anthony, Neal Stephenson, and a few others. I've received as gifts books from authors I've never heard of, and I usually quite enjoy them. Two recent such treasures were Vernor Vinge's 'A Fire Upon The Deep' and Ricardo Pinto's 'The Chosen'. I can safely say that I'd never have read either of these had they not been given to me as gifts.
I like to read a good story. I don't like that good story being interrupted by advertising. I don't like to wade past annoying animated graphics down a sidebar as I scroll through a great story. The content is what is important to me. Thus, Baen gets high marks from me because they gave me a great story and allowed me to enjoy it. I downloaded the HTML version, curled up in bed, and devoured the story.
It was kind of an odd experience. I felt like I was reading a lot faster than normal - it seemed like scrolling through the chapters in Internet Explorer was some how less time-consuming than turning pages. The eye strain didn't seem quite as intense as reading the smaller print of a book, and my wrists didn't cramp from holding a book upright. My lap did get a good bit warmer, and my cats were none too pleased that they couldn't snuggle up on me as easily. Had the story not been so engaging for me, I might have put off finishing it until today.
I know I won't be downloading any stories to my Palm any time soon. I just don't like looking at that cramped display for long periods of time. It's not my preferred vehicle for reading e-texts. A nice laptop with a 15" display, and a built in CD player makes for a much better experience.
I can't harp on it enough how much I valued the lack of advertising. Lowtax, of Something Awful, has written an interesting commentary entitled The State of the Internet, in which he talks about the nature of internet advertising. His site is wildly popular, and serves millions of banner ads per month, so you'd think that the money would be rolling in. But he's been screwed over by the advertising networks that he's partnered with because they all seem to be going out of business.
There's no solid answer, unfortunately. Bandwidth isn't free. It's quite expensive. The more popular a site becomes, the more bandwidth it requires to satisfy its growing fan base. The costs keep going up and up. Somehow, though, I think that banner and pop-up ads are a pipe dream - it's a shotgun approach to advertising. You launch a wide spray, and hope you hit something. Even directed advertising is not likely to succeed too well online. I think, perhaps, we ought to consider a subtle shift to the business models of the internet.
It strikes me that there are only two dominant business models: a subscription-based system, or an advertising-based system. Each is fairly self-explanatory, and each has its comparative strengths and weaknesses. Questia is a great service, and they even offer a sampling of that service for free, but the resources needed to pull something like that off require that they charge for their services. I can accept that.
But surely there's got to be an alternative. Some way to maintain a successful web site without succumbing to either extreme of the two dominant internet business models. Unfortunately, there's only so much we can do, given the nature of the technology of the internet. Anyone have the answers?