An interview with Chris Dolley

Chris Dolley

Book View Café is a cooperative site created by a group of writers - including internationally renowned authors Katharine Kerr, Ursula Le Guin and Vonda N. McIntyre - who want to take advantage of the internet's possibilities for reaching a wider audience and to distribute their work directly to their readers. The Book View Café is a place where you can find free, original fiction plus the authors' best and out-of-print work for a fee. Fantasy Book Review spoke to Book View Cafe member, science fiction author and memoirist Chris Dolley in February 2010.

Authors are using Book View Café to take advantage of the internet's possibilities for reaching a wider audience and to distribute their work directly to their readers. eBooks are arguably the best example of this but what other ways are there in which can you achieve your objectives?

We're still discovering new ways. We serialise our work online for free at www.bookviewcafe.com, posting one chapter per week. Every day there's at least one new chapter from someone. Plus we post complete short stories, novellas and screenplays.

Then there's our blog at http://blog.bookviewcafe.com/ where we talk about writing, books, life and anything that takes our fancy. We also have a monthly newsletter stuffed full of news, interviews and fun pictures.

What else? Oh yes, there's twitter where we hold the occasional contest offering books for prizes. And this week we've been experimenting with a chat lounge hour where anyone can drop in and have a chat.

Lastly, and most importantly, we listen to our readers. We're all authors and at the beginning we knew very little about eReaders and eBook formats so we canvassed widely, read widely and listened. Readers didn't want DRM so none of our books have it. They wanted a choice of eBook formats so that's what we produce. We listened to them over price too. The average price of our novels is $4.99. And we often run promotional weekends when we'll drop the price of a books to $2.99.

The Google Book Settlement has recently been causing great concern and debate. Is The Book View Café a way in which an author can retain control over the digital rights to their work?

Book View Cafe has been in the forefront of the debate thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin's much publicised campaign against the Google Book Settlement.

As for Book View Cafe helping authors retain control over digital rights, that's more of an agent's job, but BVC can certainly help indirectly by making members more aware of electronic rights and who owns them. Some of our older books were written before electronic rights were mentioned in book contracts and a few publishers have attempted to retrospectively add them.

The start of 2010 saw The Book View Café team up with Smashwords with the aim of growing its eBook catalogue. Are you beginning to see results from this partnership?

Well last time I checked we were the most viewed publisher on Smashwords. And we are selling a fair number of books there but Smashwords is more than an online bookstore it's also a distributor to places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Sony.  So it's a handy way for us, as publishers, to gain access to those markets.

Are you surprised at how quickly the eBook has been embraced when many believed that nothing could ever replace the feel of a hardback or paperback in one's hand?

Ebooks have been around for years. The difference now is that they're being taken seriously. EReaders are no longer niche gadgets but mainstream products. Why the sudden change? It's a combination of technology coming up with improved screens – E Ink, larger, brighter back-lit displays etc – so you can read a book for an hour or more without developing eyestrain or a headache. And large corporations (Amazon and Apple) moving into the eReader business in a big way. Amazon have been discounting eBooks for their Kindle to push Kindle hardware sales for some time. Now Apple's launching their much-hyped iPad.

Will this mark the death of the paper book? Definitely not. But it will provide an alternative. And, over the next decade, I think they will begin to diverge. At the moment eBooks are digital versions of paper books. But they have the ability to be so much more. By adding hyperlinks to text you can give the reader the ability to navigate outside the book or to particular pages within the book. One example I can see for Fantasy books is to have the ability to access and zoom in on a large scale map whenever you want to or click on a character's name and have a pop up reminder of who they are. I tend to read in bed so it can take quite a long time to read one of those fat fantasies with a cast list of hundreds and I often come across a character name I can't remember. But if I could click on the person's name – instant memory refresh. And very simple to do. Many books already include a cast list.

Video is another extra that will be added to eBooks soon. Instead of having a map at the beginning of a book there could be a video sequence or an interactive 3D map so the reader could fly over the landscape of the map, walk the town streets, circumnavigate the tower and peer into the caves. The technology to do this already exists. All it takes is a little imagination.

Over recent years the path to publication has become rather easier than it once was with self-publishing a now very popular pastime/hobby. Do you think that this has been a good or bad thing for the literature world?

I think the jury's still out. If self-publishing had been as cheap and easy to do in 1994 as it is today then I would have self-published my first novel, Shift. And it would have been a terrible mistake. Why? Because I wasn't ready. It takes years to learn a craft and the writer is the worst person to judge when they're ready. No one sets out to write a bad book. Everyone aims to write the best book they can and – at the time it's written, it is the best book the author could have written. But 2, 3, 10 years later it could have been so much better. The version of Shift that Baen released in 2007 was far superior to the 1994 version.

So how do you know when your book is ready? The traditional way has been to let the publishers decide. It's never been perfect but if an author has talent and perseverance they usually succeed. Over the past twenty years or so the publisher model has started to crack. Book retailers have become more like supermarkets, concentrating on the books that sell well and offering them at lower and lower prices. Publishers have reacted to this by taking fewer risks, dropping authors quicker than they used to and concentrating their marketing effort on their top authors.

Which is when having a cheap and easy alternative to the publisher gatekeeper model becomes advantageous. There are books and authors that publishers overlook or deem uncommercial. The problem the reader has is finding these gems from the large amount of unpolished gravel.

At Book View Cafe we have a membership rule - to join the co-operative you have to have at least one novel published by a major print publisher.

What would be the effect on the Book View Café if JK Rowling and Dan Brown came on board at the same time?

We'd have a party. And then we might have to get a new server or two. But otherwise no problem. Do you want to start a rumour?

Will this be a great opportunity for authors to get out-of-print works available once again?

This is one of the biggest bonuses. Books go out of print so quickly these days as it's not in the publisher's financial interest to keep a long tail in print. The big chains want books that fly off the shelves and soon return the ones that don't.

So, releasing the books again via Book View Cafe makes eminent sense.

What has been Book View Café's most downloaded title?

That would be The Shadow Conspiracy, an original steampunk anthology of short stories written by various BVC authors set in a shared alternate earth, a place powered by steam and magic. A world of dreamers, experimenters and engineers, soulless humans and ensouled machines born of most unlikely parents: four poets who gathered one cold summer on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816. Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley and Dr. Polidori.

The stories explore the unfolding consequences of that gathering — and how it changed everything we thought we knew about science and ourselves.

Do you have a newsletter that can be subscribed to so that people can keep updated on news and events?

We do. All you have to do is go to www.bookviewcafe and register your username, password and email address. The newsletter is sent out every month.