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.
“The Short Story is Not Dead.” This headline appeared in The Nervous Breakdown in January above an essay written by my friend Alex Chee in which he discussed the ways that technology was making the short story more accessible, and specifically, accessible on his iPhone. The assertion of the negative – not dead – seemed to me an odd way for the copy editor to introduce an article on good news for short story reading. I wondered what he meant by the possible ‘death’ of the story. I find that when someone asserts that a thing (the story), or an idea (God), is not dead, they usually mean that a nostalgic version of the thing has lapsed and not been replaced by something comparably satisfying.
What has changed with the story? Not the writing. Short story writing is alive and well. The evidence: Three of five of the New York Times’ notable works of fiction in 2010 are short fiction collections (counting Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad). And consider all the print and online journals that survive on paid contest submissions, which is evidence of the large number of writers who aspire to be published authors. The human impulse to tell stories has not diminished.
What then? Short story reading has declined. With few exceptions (The New Yorker is one), mass circulation general interest magazines no longer publish short stories. And, editors and agents blanche at the prospect of debut story collections, and often publish an author’s collection only with the promise of a follow-on novel. The popular wisdom – and commercial reality – is that story collections don’t sell.
What to make of this conundrum? Is today’s short fiction not as good? Hardly. Why aren’t readers holding up their part of the bargain? The answer, let me suggest, is related to how readers are given the opportunity to read – distribution, in commercial terms. The short story became one of the great 20th century art forms when inexpensive publishing technology gave rise to mass market general interest magazines. Oral story telling is a deeply human tradition, but it was only with the blitzkrieg of 19th century mass publishing that the written short story became a specific art form. Magazines served up stories as snacks for readers, and did so with relish.
The Saturday Evening Post, and other widely circulated magazines, provided outlets for stories by writers with now-household names, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, There were more than 25 mass market magazines in the 1920s and 1930s that published one short story each week. When Life magazine published Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in 1952, that issue sold 5.3 million copies.
Stories in magazines could be read in one sitting. And, story collections became the publishing industry’s way to capitalize on already popular works when they were repackaged in compilations. Poe’s, Chekhov’s, Hawthorne’s, Gallant’s, Updike’s, and Cheever’s great stories all first appeared in periodicals. Only later in books.
The decline in short story reading is, I suggest, linked to the precipitous decline in mass market magazine readership. Magazines’ sales decline began in during the 1960s when consumers shifted their entertainment and news interest to television, but the decline recently accelerated with the explosive growth of online and mobile real-time access to news and information. The story, which was popularized by new printing and distribution technologies, has slowly become a victim of the displacement of those technologies. To be sure, stories themselves also suffer from the crushing competition for consumer’s attention posed by TV, video games, and the Internet. But, without mass market distribution outlets, readers entertain themselves in other ways.
Literary journals continue to publish stories, but they come out seasonally, or occasionally, and the months’ long gap between issues doesn’t serve a creature of time-worn habit, accustomed to weekly soap operas, weekly television dramas, or the weekly story in The New Yorker. Consumers like predictable engagement. There are hundreds of online literary journals that publish bi-weekly, or monthly. Many — and there are a great many for readers to discover — are better suited to launch new voices than to publish top authors. And the seductive distractions of Facebook and Twitter make literary reading on a computer a difficult act of will. What’s a reader to do? Technology gave rise to the flowering of the short story, contributed to its decline, and technology will, in my opinion, again solve the problem of connecting readers and stories.
Like the song, the short story is perfectly suited for mobile consumption. The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owner all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create. Poe’s definition of the short story remains as true today as when he wrote it: “a story is a thing that can be read in one sitting.” If he were writing today he might rephrase it: “…in one hour on the tread mill.”
So, how many Americans actually read short stories? How large is the market? There are no accurate answers to the question, but there are ways of approximating the number who read, which of course, is reduced by the fact that many people who might like to read stories don’t know where to find them. A few facts:
9 million adult Americans annually read more than 50 works of fiction (NEA study, 2008).
2 million adult American publish personal creative writing (NEA study, 2002; writers are usually also readers.)
1.1 million: the subscription rate base for The New Yorker in 2009
150,000: the graduates of creative writing MFA programs in the past 20 years (all of whom learn to write and read short stories).
50,000-100,000: the estimated annual sales of The Pushcart Prize collections of stories (my estimate).
These population snapshots overlap, of course, but suggest that there are 500,000-to-1.5 million American adults who are frequent readers of short stories.
Stories are meant to be read one at a time, savored individually, taken in, and reflected upon. Collections are ways of repackaging known works. Publishing executives today don’t expect collections to sell (because they haven’t in the past), so they aren’t marketed, and this cycle of low expectations and insufficient care creates a self-fulfilling outcome: collections don’t sell.
Web connected devices, like the iPad and the iPhone, can connect readers of short fiction with the best writing in the market. Mobile and web technologies reduce friction in markets. Storytelling is a deep human need, and readers of stories are entertained and instructed by clever plots, sympathetic characters, and artful writing. Words create imaginary worlds that provide readers with an experience that is similar to, but different from, the worlds of movies and television. Technology provides a new way to connect story tellers and fans. We’re all ears.
(Image: 732 – Power Grid – Pattern image from zooboing’s photostream)
At Slate, Paul Collins points out that Google Book Search heralds a new era of outing plagiarists. The searchable database of many thousands of books is a boon to researchers, but it also greatly eases the discovery of co-opted passages. Collins mentions a couple of examples and posits that “given the popularity of plagiarism-seeking software services for academics, it may be only a matter of time before some enterprising scholar yokes Google Book Search and plagiarism-detection software together into a massive literary dragnet, scooping out hundreds of years’ worth of plagiarists – giants and forgotten hacks alike – who have all escaped detection until now.” He also predicts that “in the next decade at least one major literary work [will get] busted.”
Too often, as we look at the impact of new media on publishing, we are relgated to trading in hypotheticals. “If all the books in the world were searchable…” This week’s article in The New Yorker on digitizing books covers that ground (though the article’s writer Anthony Grafton is aiming mainly to deflate the hype surrounding the issue rather than to build it up).With this in mind, it was refreshing to see Dilbert-creator Scott Adams’ column in the Wall Street Journal about the real-life consequences of giving content away for free. I’m not sure if the column is visible to non-subscribers, so I’ll just go ahead and quote liberally.His main topic is his new book, Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!, a large portion of which is culled from his very popular blog. In the process of putting the book together, however, he learned a lesson:As part of the book deal, my publisher asked me to delete the parts of my blog archive that would be included in the book. The archives didn’t get much traffic, so I didn’t think much about deleting them. This turned out to be a major blunder in the “how people think” category.A surprising number of my readers were personally offended that I would remove material from the Internet that had once been free, even after they read it. It was as if I had broken into their homes and ripped the books off their shelves. They felt violated. And boy, I heard about it.Free is a powerful thing as it turns out. An earlier experiment with free content had also confounded his expectations:A few years ago I tried an experiment where I put the entire text of my book, God’s Debris, on the Internet for free, after sales of the hard copy and its sequel, The Religion War slowed. My hope was that the people who liked the free e-book would buy the sequel. According to my fan mail, people loved the free book. I know they loved it because they emailed to ask when the sequel would also be available for free. For readers of my non-Dilbert books, I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops.Adams goes on to tie this into the music industry and Radiohead’s recent pricing experiment in particular.So I’ve been watching with great interest as the band Radiohead pursues its experiment with pay-what-you-want downloads on the Internet. In the near term, the goodwill has inspired lots of people to pay. But I suspect many of them are placing a bet that paying a few bucks now will inspire all of their favorite bands to offer similar deals. That’s when the market value of music will approach zero.But it’s not all dire. Adams’ interactions with his readers through blogging have been “unexpected and wonderful,” while putting Dilbert online for free years ago has yielded mixed though mostly positive results. It “gave a huge boost to the newspaper sales and licensing. The ad income was good too. Giving away the Dilbert comic for free continues to work well, although it cannibalizes my reprint book sales to some extent, and a fast-growing percentage of readers bypass the online ads with widgets, unauthorized RSS feeds and other workarounds.”As to the lessons to be learned from all this, Adams’ conclusion is as good as anybody’s, “Free is more complicated than you’d think.”
After once being a hot topic, prompting many in publishing to vocally take sides, the dispute between Google and the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers simmered quietly in lawyers’ offices for more than two years. But this week Google’s book scanning effort was back in the news with the announcement of a $125 million settlement. What may have been lost in this news is that Google is suddenly poised to drive a massive change in the publishing marketplace, multiply by many times the number of books available at the fingertips of readers, and supercharge the market for online delivery of books.The original Google Book Search controversy erupted almost immediately after Google first launched the feature, then called Google Print. To many, it seemed like an almost impossible effort but somehow Google had the will and resources to deliver on an incredible promise: all of the world’s books – and therefore, some would say, all of the world’s knowledge – digitized, searchable, and preserved for future generations. But some publishers, many of them divisions of media conglomerates and made vigilant by the piracy that had ravaged the music industry, were wary of Google’s intentions and feared a frenzy of unfettered book-swapping.In part, the controversy stemmed from confusion about what Google was up to and the knee-jerk notion that digitized books would quickly be coursing across the internet, freely available to anyone who wanted them. Essentially, the search giant was dividing books into three categories. Google would work with publishers on in-print, copyrighted books via its “Partner Program,” which makes previews of the books available, provides “buy this book” links, and includes a revenue share for the ads displayed next to those books’ pages. Out-of-print, public domain books, meanwhile, were freely scanned and made fully available by Google. But it was the third category, out-of-print books that are still under copyright, that caused the most angst.This angst was compounded by Google’s methods; the search engine had gone around the copyright holders and brokered deals with universities to scan the contents of libraries containing millions of volumes. Google assured publishers that, by default, only snippets of these books would be displayed and that the snippets were protected by fair use, but this promise – and its legal justification – were not enough to soothe the publishers and the Authors Guild, so they sued. Publishers’ pique, however, seemed to go beyond the issue of fair use and instead seemed to be rooted in a desire to push back against what was viewed as Google’s arrogance and to exercise control, as absolutely as was possible, over their copyrighted works.This notion of control was a common thread through many of the responses of publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing’s Nigel Newton said “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.” This was echoed at the Association of American Publishers: “‘If Google can make…copies, then anyone can,’ Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, said in a phone interview. ‘Anybody could go into a library and start making digital copies of anything,’ she said.” And HarperCollins and others pushed their own digitizing efforts, resulting in widgets and beefed up publisher websites. These anti-Google voices were offset by a cacophony of authors and publishers who dissented and were open to Google’s experiment, including Richard Nash of Soft Skull and several others.But now, after after more than two years of negotiating, a resolution has emerged that, if approved by a US district court to resolve still pending lawsuits, could mark a major change in the availability of books.The big change comes in that nettlesome category: out-of-print, copyrighted books. Here’s how Google describes its proposed plan for those books:Until now, we’ve only been able to show a few snippets of text for most of the in-copyright books we’ve scanned through our Library Project. Since the vast majority of these books are out of print, to actually read them you’d have to hunt them down at a library or a used bookstore. This agreement will allow us to make many of these out-of-print books available for preview, reading and purchase in the U.S.And what’s key is how Google plans to make these books available: “Once this agreement has been approved, you’ll be able to purchase full online access to millions of books. This means you can read an entire book from any Internet-connected computer, simply by logging in to your Book Search account, and it will remain on your electronic bookshelf, so you can come back and access it whenever you want in the future.” With those two sentences, the number of books available to readers – Google has estimated that 80% of the books in libraries are out of print – will increase substantially. In addition, by making these books available for sale, a new revenue stream will be opened for publishers (the books will also be available via institutional subscriptions offered to libraries and the like). There are no estimates on how big this number might be but it represents new money both for publishers and for writers whose books are out of print. Perhaps dislocated by this, meanwhile, are thousands of booksellers (not to mention Amazon), whose used book businesses are often times the easiest way for a person to get their hands on many out-of-print books. If a reader doesn’t need to own the physical book, Google will be an enticing option, particularly since it seems very likely that books offered through Google Book Search would be cheaper.The Association of American Publishers FAQ on the deal notes one of the ways the books will be priced: “Google will automatically set and adjust prices through an algorithm designed to maximize revenues for the book. This algorithm will be based on multiple factors.” So, as Google brings its algorithm magic to pricing out-of-print books, it seems sure to impact the pricing across the whole market. In addition, publishers and authors have long bemoaned that they are cut out of the revenue in a used book market that has only grown larger thanks to the internet. It would seem that the Google deal will now give them a way to reach out to at least a slice of those used book buyers.But perhaps more important than the new revenue for publishers will be the huge increase in access to a large new subset of books, in one stroke bringing back millions of out-of-print books from oblivion. While this may not excite the casual reader, it represents a great expansion of the amount of knowledge that is fully searchable and at our fingertips and it has the potential to be a great boon to scholars.Over the last decade, the internet has wrecked many old media business models. Despite my frustration at their initial recalcitrance, the publishers were right to protect their business model, and both Google and the publishers should be lauded if this agreement results in the creation of a new one.
With each new holiday season the reach of ereaders expands, as a new crop of Kindles, Nooks and iPads are fired up. The first thing to do is download a few books.
Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, just over a third of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. Last year, it was one in four, and now this year one in three books bought by Millions readers were ebooks.
So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.
For starters, here are the top-12 most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2012. You’ll notice that these aren’t all that different from the overall Millions favorites. Of course, this list also favors ebook originals, some of which appear in the “Kindle Single” format and are bite-size books available for lower prices. Meanwhile, publishers appear to still be having luck pricing ebooks pricing above the magic $9.99 number that has been a focus for many in the industry.
The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett ($2.51)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava ($5.13)
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace ($3.99)
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan ($9.99)
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson ($9.99)
The Bathtub Spy by Tom Rachman ($1.99)
This How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz ($12.99)
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max ($14.99)
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn ($12.99)
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon ($9.99)
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt ($9.43)
An Arrangement of Light by Nicole Krauss ($1.99)
Other potentially useful ebook links:
And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don’t forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years.