You may have heard. Google has just launched a service called Google Print. Like Amazon, Google’s service allows people to search through books. Google announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair that are adding a lot of major publishers and they will be adding many titles. As with Amazon, there is a limit to how many pages you can view. And, at this stage anyway, it’s not possible to search the book database exclusively. I’ve found that the best way to get a Google Print result to show up is to type the word “book” and then whatever it is you’re searching for. It’ll be interesting to see if this develops further.
As Google stokes controversy with its Google Print service, Amazon has unveiled its own digital book offering, one that’s sure to make the publishers happy. Amazon is launching two services, Amazon Pages and Amazon Upgrade. According to an AP story on the new products: With its new Amazon Pages service, Amazon.com Inc. plans to let customers to buy portions of a book – even just one page – for online viewing. A second program, Amazon Upgrade, will offer full online access when a traditional text is purchased. Both services are expected to begin next year.CEO Jeff Bezos shared some addition details as well: For Amazon Pages … the cost for most books would be a few cents per page, although readers would likely be charged more for specialized reference works. Under Amazon Upgrade, anybody purchasing a paper book could also look at the entire text online, at any time, for a “small” additional charge, Bezos said. For instance, a $20 book might cost an extra $1.99. And Bezos offered up a quote that was most certainly directed at Google’s recent run ins with publishers: “We see this as a win-win-win situation: good for readers, good for publishers and good for authors.” The story is also filled with positive comments from different publishers and an Authors Guild representative. Random House released a statement saying it plans to “work with online booksellers, search engines, entertainment portals and other appropriate vendors to offer the contents of its books to consumers for online viewing on a pay-per-page-view basis.”So, it seems to me that a showdown between Amazon and Google may be shaping up in the digital books market. Will publishers opt out of Google Print en masse and back Amazon, who, in their eyes, seems to be offering a more secure revenue stream? More importantly, are people ready to pay for books by the page, and will they turn their backs on Amazon for trying to spoil Google’s free books party?Meanwhile, at the Official Google Blog, the Googlers are extolling the virtues of the public domain books that have recently been made available at Google Print. The post links to a number of searches that show some of the breadth of material that is now available at Google Print. Note that they are positioning this as “Preserving Public Domain Books.”Previously: The publishers’ big blunder
The sky is falling. The king is dead. And, oh, by the way, the barbarians are at the gates. Or at least, that’s what a recent spate of opinion pieces bemoaning the increasing morbidity of literary criticism would have you believe. Although the whinging and general hand wringing has been going on for years now, the trend seems to have picked up steam in the last few weeks (perhaps as a result of blogs celebrating their ten year anniversary?), with a panoply of blustering critics and journalists thundering to decry the downfall of civilization as they know it.Are the reports of literary criticism’s death an exaggeration? There is no question that the space devoted to book coverage in traditional print media is in decline. With a number of papers, including such stalwarts as the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reducing or entirely eliminating their book sections, it’s understandable that the old guard would set up a hue and cry about the fate of literary culture in the modern age. But the recent comments by critics Morris Dickstein at Critical Mass and Richard Schickel in the LA Times, rather than confront the real problems facing book reviews, amount to little more than a bitter rearguard action against the rise of literary culture on the Internet.The problems faced by book reviews are not unique. Rather, they are a manifestation of a problem confronting all forms of traditional media: the Internet as Shiva, creator and destroyer of business and cultural paradigms. Is it any coincidence that the recent spate of articles bemoaning the loss of book reviews across the country is paralleled by articles bemoaning the death of the music industry? As uber-producer Rick Rubin points out in a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “…the world has changed. And the industry has not.”Of course, old guard naysayers will continue to say their nays, unwilling, or unable, to accept the fact that the world is moving on without them. And no doubt, manufacturers of the horse-drawn buggy had a hard time coping with the advent of the automobile. But their objections didn’t serve to stay the tide of transformation, for better and worse, that cars brought with them.What the book review Cassandras, with their predictions of the death of American literary culture, seem to forget is that it is the traditional newspaper itself, not just the book review, that is fighting for its very existence. When complaining about the diminishing coverage of books in print media, book critics and reviewers (and writers) are simply fighting over the deck chair with the best view of the iceberg. As Max pointed out in an earlier post, it’s not what readers want that matters to today’s newspapers, it’s what shareholders want; and book reviews, for all of their merits, don’t add much to the bottom line.To the critics, however, this isn’t a sign of a changing economic reality, but an omen of literary apocalypse. Book culture in freefall. But writing on books has not dried up or disappeared. It has simply pulled up its stakes and moved to greener, electronic pastures. And this, to the critics, is precisely the problem. The Internet, as a medium for written expression, is in their minds inferior to the printed word.One would think that critics would welcome the advent of a medium where the cost of publication was not proportional to the amount of paper used. Yet many find it impossible to separate journalism, whether literary or otherwise, from the physical artifact of the newspaper or magazine. The success of popular online magazines like Slate and Salon (both of which publish frequent and useful book reviews) should prove that one can exist without the other, yet many critics see themselves locked in a Manichean struggle between “print journalism,” and the “Web.” On one hand, they concede the need for newspapers to find a new business model (and almost invariably insist this model must be electronic – although if not Web-based, then what, telegraph?), but on the other they see journalism as “mortally threatened by the Web.” How can the average person brook such cognitive dissonance? One can almost see the smoke billowing out of their ears as they write.Many old-guard critics, like Dickstein and Schickel and even writers (Richard Ford, with his dismissal of bloggers as “sitting in a basement in Terre Haute,” comes immediately to mind) don’t have much patience for new media. Shickel, for his part, declares blogs are not true writing, but mere “speech”:The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.What, I wonder, does he make of US Weekly? Or the book reviews in Maxim? Surely even a mind as “superior” and possessed of “disciplined taste” (and those quotation marks aren’t just for show) as Shickel’s can conceive of an online world where, as in the print world, good writing exists alongside bad. And what claim to permanence, I wonder, do his movie reviews for Time – Does Time even publish legitimate criticism? – and other print venues really have? No more, I would hazard, than the immortality conferred on a blogger’s writing by Google.These objections, however, only serve to direct attention away from the critics’ real complaint: the increasing democratization of criticism and the accompanying arrival of a new generation of literary gatekeepers. The problem for them is not that literary discourse has disappeared – if anything the Internet has served to deepen and expand it – but that anyone can participate. Certainly, as critics are quick to assert, all opinions are not equal (although one does wonder who has anointed their opinions superior), but it is unwise to mistake humble origins for lack of merit. Although not everyone has had the luxuries of upbringing and education that might have allowed them to become professional literary critics, humble origins do not necessarily denote a lack of discerning taste or cultivated knowledge. Content, as Steve Wasserman, former editor of the LA Times Book Review, very rightly points out in an excellent article about the mystery of the disappearing book reviews, is king. The beauty of the Internet, and the threat that it poses to the professional establishment, is that it allows readers access to that content regardless of whether it was written by a trained literary critic on paid assignment or by an auto mechanic who has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of Proust.And who serves as the gatekeepers to this kingdom? Increasingly, the answer is bloggers, who have come to serve as the Internet’s editors, directing readers to original content of note and, yes, importance. It would seem to go without saying that all blogs, as with newspapers, are not created equal, but many of the critics who are so quick to criticize them, seem to be under the mistaken impression that readers have no means of distinguishing one from the other and assign equal value to the ramblings of the proverbial subterranean Terra Hautean and a post by, oh, I don’t know, Morris Dickstein.Of course, critics will criticize. It is, as with Aesop’s fabled scorpion, in their nature, if not their best interests. By insulting web savvy consumers, after all, they only risk driving away potential readers, hastening that which they fear most: the waning importance of their own contributions to a conversation that is rapidly leaving them behind.
Paidcontent.com pointed out that the New Yorker has unveiled a new digital edition of the magazine. It’s basically a replica of the magazine — ads, cartoons, and everything — that you can “page through” using a special interface. This is pretty nifty and probably useful for New Yorker obsessives who want to get the full New Yorker experience at work without having the magazine in plain view, but what’s really cool is that if you sign up, you get every issue going all the way back to 1925 in this format. In addition, you get the digital edition first thing on Monday, so you don’t have to wait until Wednesday or Thursday for the magazine to show up in the mail.Subscribers can set it up here. It’s a little confusing. Once you’ve logged in, there’s a link at the lower right to activate the digital edition site. You need to go through a couple more prompts (they email you a password) and then you have full access. Non-subscribers can try it out free for four weeks here.
In today’s Guardian Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, rants about the danger presented by Google’s ongoing endeavor to digitize the world’s books. I’m sorry, but I just cannot understand the vehemence of the opposition to Google’s plan. Newton tries to catch our attention by invoking the spirit of Charles Dickens, which he claims is being denigrated by the small ads that Google places near the text of the books it scans, but really, for Newton and other publishers who oppose Google, this is about protecting their bottom line and it has nothing to do with the best interests of authors, Dickens or otherwise.He begins by decrying Google’s “inappropriate” advertising. It’s very true that advertising can and does get out of hand in our modern world, but Newton is taking a particularly Draconian line to prove his point. Advertisements run in all of the world’s most prestigious magazines and newspapers, and we don’t call this “predation.” In fact it’s particularly amusing to me that Newton selects Dickens to focus on because many of Dickens’ novels first appeared in installments in magazines like Harper’s, which contained – surprise – advertisements for things like pianos and carpets and shirts. Scroll through the images of old issues of Harper’s on this page and you’ll catch glimpses of them on the margins, not all that different from the way Google does it.But it’s not long before Newton gets to the real issue, money:At one level all this is quite funny. At another, it is shocking. The worst thing is that the actual money paid to authors and publishers for these silly ads is negligible. So is the number of book purchases arising directly from these links (certainly they were when Google’s representative came to see me last autumn). Authors are being ripped off however you look at it. They need to say something about it, loudly.This betrays how little Newton knows about what Google is doing. Google takes a cut of the revenues generated by those “silly ads” and the rest goes to the copyright holder. If the copyright holder’s take for a particular book is “negligible,” so is Google’s. Beyond the money, this is also about Old Media’s desire for control versus New Media’s push for openness. Newton can’t see the potential monetary benefit of making his books more accessible to the public. If it were up to him, we’d have to drop a coin in before flipping through a book at a bookstore. Newton’s real motives become clear when he reveals that he’s not really against digitizing books and making money off of them, he’s just against someone else doing it:Publishers also have the responsibility to make sure that when it comes to hosting electronic content in future, it is their own websites that host the downloads and the scans of text and audio. There is no reason to hand this content to third-party websites.What I would say to Newton is go for it, no one is stopping you, and while you are fretting over your books being stolen, Google is digitizing the world’s knowledge so that future generations will have easy access to it – well, unless it was published by Bloomsbury, apparently. The point of Newton’s diatribe, which is “an edited version of a speech given on Thursday to the Guardian Review’s World Book Day forum,” is that we should boycott Google to get them back for their trespasses. Good luck with that.Before I close this, I want to clarify one thing. Newton implies that what Google is doing is bad for authors and not just publishers. I don’t think that’s true at all. Google’s effort – in the absence of a viable effort by publishers – can introduce readers to books and allow authors explore new ways of getting their books to readers and new ways of making money from their writing. The Internet has shaken the foundations of the music, film and news businesses and changed them all – for the better, I think – and there’s no reason why the publishing industry should be exempt from this.See also: The publishers’ big blunder, Richard Nash of Soft Skull on Google Print, HarperCollins starts its own little islandUpdate: Just spotted Hissy Cat’s post which goes even further in picking apart Nigel Newton’s ridiculous speech. It’s worth reading.
Lately, critics have been swift to announce the death of print culture, and thus pronounce the end of literacy. Even two technology critics whose opinions usually reside on opposite ends of the spectrum – Kevin Kelly of Wired and Christine Rosen of The New Atlantis – agree that culturally, we are now “people of the screen.” True to Kelly’s technocrat leanings, he embraces the screen’s omnipresence in his recent essay in the Screen Issue of The New York Times Magazine. In Kelly’s opinion, the hegemony of the screen will oust the word from its dominance and replace it with the visual image. He contends, “We are now in the middle of the second Gutenberg shift – from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality.” Rosen agrees with Kelly, though where he celebrates a new visual literacy, she laments. Rosen’s New Atlantis essay “People of the Screen” admonishes Kelly’s enthusiasm in a previous Times Magazine essay for the possibilities of mashing up and remixing texts (a glorified cut and paste), but she ends by echoing his recent sentiments and committing literacy to its deathbed, “Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen-savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information.”What’s most audacious about their prediction that a screen-based society will stifle literacy, is that they equate a redefinition of form with an end, and in doing so discount the ways that the screen could expand the possibilities of disseminating literature, providing greater access and a more portable form, as well as saving a few trees, to boot. If reading is in decline, then writing is experiencing a resurgence – emails, IMs, and text messages, however inglorious their usual state, show that people are writing prolifically. And the text message, whose condensation would seem a more apt medium for poetry, is now being used to write cell phone novels, which are wildly popular in Japan (an excerpt of one was translated here by Ben last year). There’s no dearth of writers and aspiring writers, either, proven by the increasing number of MFA applicants, who are often willing to pay high fees for instruction, and don’t even mention the millions of blogs, this one included. I have never heard a literary magazine wax nostalgic for the days when they were overwhelmed by submissions. The point is, even if reading long-form narratives or poetry is in decline, writing is robust and print will linger regardless.Will screen culture redefine literacy? Of course. But does this merit the doomsday proclamations issued by Rosen and Kelly? I think not. Rosen writes of her experience reading Dickens on a Kindle, and the inherent difficulties, including her “restless” eyes that “jumped around,” which is the way many people read on a screen, scanning for nuggets of information in an F-shaped pattern. But is this a reaction to the screen itself or to the material that we most frequently find online? If problems with focus and concentration are related to the characteristics of the screen, then perhaps there are ways to make future versions more reader friendly. Surely, the users of the first generation of personal computers could have made similar arguments about portability if arguing against word processing. But modifications and improvements have made the three-pound laptop a reality. And as for complaints about slower reading, you have to take into account habit and custom, and the ways we are educated. Perhaps it’s impossible for some thirty-five year olds to feel as comfortable with reading text on a screen as young children who are now growing up reading online. I, personally, despised attempting to comprehend and analyze the GRE’s reading comprehension passages online and I still prefer to print out long articles, and I find the heft of a book in my hand pleasurable, but children who grow up with e-books and online reading may think nothing of it. Which is much of Rosen’s issue – that screen fluency will end reading as we know it. Rosen seems more preoccupied with the changing conventions and how this will shape culture than technology hastening the true end of reading. The shift from the book to the digital file is more akin to the shift from the LP to the MP3, and although a shift may not be free of consequence, it’s not the great erosion that Rosen and Kelly presage. And such is the predicament for many types of long-form artistic work: the novel, the film, the album. Digital culture allows for greater plasticity and user interaction, while providing a platform for an unprecedented number of voices. The fear that the background noise will make it more difficult to pinpoint specific voices, and that we will become lost in information a la Oedipa Maas, may be more warranted. If we can agree that the future of reading is onscreen, instead of sullenly balking or calling this the end of literacy, we should consider and plan for the possibilities.
Readers may discern a disconnect between the prevailing economic mood and the relentless innovation of online superstore Amazon. Even as whole segments of the economy crumble, Amazon is spearheading a whole new consumer electronics category with the Kindle, and as if that wasn’t audacious enough following it by releasing a bigger, more expensive version.Now Amazon is embarking on another bold effort. It’s entering the publishing business with a program called AmazonEncore, a program that leverages all of the myriad data Amazon can collect to find overlooked books with potential mass appeal, which it will then rerelease under the AmazonEncore imprint. The first AmazonEncore title, to be released in late August, is Legacy, a fantasy novel originally self published by 16-year-old writer Cayla Kluver. AmazonEncore is an intriguing idea that will no doubt send self-published authors’ hearts racing. It’s also worth noting that these books won’t be Amazon exclusives. Amazon is going head to head with traditional publishers with plans to make AmazonEncore books available in “national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers.”While it seems like Amazon is getting may from its core competencies with forays into consumer electronics and publishing, the online retail giant isn’t insane. Amazon is actually designed to do well in recessions, and with traditional book retailers and publishers facing challenges, Amazon is seizing the opportunity to grow its market share and enter new markets and businesses. BusinessWeek recently pointed out this dynamic: “Amazon continues to benefit disproportionately from the general shift to online commerce and the careful shopping behavior that consumers are exhibiting during the downturn. The breadth of the products it offers through independent merchants and its own expansion into new categories, along with low-priced shipping in the U.S. and abroad, continues to woo shoppers.”Amazon’s willingness to innovate and invest in book-focused initiatives during this downturn will leave it with a very big footprint in the industry when the economy begins to recover.
As the book digitizing story continues to get more complex and fragmented, HarperCollins announced yesterday that it will host its copies of digitized books on its own servers rather than Google’s. The books will still be accessible via Google search, but they will not be displayed by Google.HarperCollins deserves some praise for pushing to make its books widely accessible online, but I think a lot depends on how HarperCollins decides to implement this program. The danger here is that dozens of publishers follow HarperCollins’ lead and all set up their own digital fiefdoms with different standards and different rules (and different pricing schemes if publishers decide to charge.) Depending on how well integrated these publisher sites are with Google search (read: how much power publishers decide to let Google have), finding and using these digitized books could become unnecessarily time-consuming. However, if HarperCollins decides to stay closely integrated with Google Book Search, retaining control in a way that is invisible to the reader, then the likelihood of a cumbersome, unnecessarily complex system arising is diminished. I think readers benefit a lot from a system that is unified.Reaction has been mostly positive – primarily because HarperCollins’ rhetoric has been about “openness”:Prometheus 6 thinks HarperCollins is approaching this the right way.Booksquare applauds the move.Sarah at GalleyCat is looking forward to getting her hands on the HarperCollins archives.