Yesterday, Scott posted the good news that six Bay Area libraries are making audiobooks available as downloads that readers can listen to on their digital devices. At least one other library appears to be jumping on the digital download bandwagon, but this one is providing the mp3 player as part of the deal. The South Huntington Public Library in Suffolk County, New York, is lending out iPod Shuffles preloaded with audiobooks. Right now the selection is pretty limited, but I think the news that libraries are beginning to digitally distribute audiobooks could point towards a burgeoning revolution in the audiobook business. Goodbye CDs 1 through 28, hello davincicode.mp3. (This is especially exciting news for me since this happens to be the childhood library of Mrs. Millions. I’ll have to look for the iPods next time I stop by.)
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.
Various book blogs have been pointing to the vnunet.com story, which says that Google Book Search is causing people to buy books. The story points to data from Hitwise, a research firm, which shows that 15.93% of Google Book Search UK users click through to book store sites from Google's site, with Amazon UK being the most popular destination. The article, and a Hitwise blog post, imply that this data means that Google Books is, despite the fears of publishers to the contrary, helping to sell books. Of course we can't really know if that's true. What seems more likely is that people researching particular books will do so at Google Books and they will click through to the book store sites as they try to seek out more information - user reviews, for example - on the books that interest them. Occasionally, of course they may buy some books this way.But the point, as I see it, isn't that people are using Google Book Search to buy books, it's that they're using it like a library - after all, only 15.93% of users click through to book stores, and some small fraction of those go on to buy books. The additional data collected by Hitwise for the study seems to bear this out. Hitwise is capable of dividing users into dozens of thinly sliced demographic groups. Of all those groups, here are the three biggest users of Google Books UK, according to Hitwise:Low Income Elderly: Elderly people living in low rise council housing, often on low incomes.University Challenge: Undergraduate students living in halls of residence or close to universities.Sepia Memories. Very elderly people of independent means who have moved to modest apartments suitable for their needs.Bearing in mind that the Hitwise data should be taken with a grain of salt, these groups are probably among the most heavy users of brick and mortar libraries. And while college students certainly fit the profile of pirated media swappers, the other two demographic groups do not. To me, this data confirms that in the minds of the casual user, Google Book Search is a research tool, an online variety of the library - not meant to replace libraries, mind you, but meant to fill in the gaps libraries' current online offering, namely full text search - a fact that explains Google's cozy relationship with a number of library systems, as opposed to its acrimonious relationship with a number of publishers.
The launch of the Sony Reader is drawing nearer, and it has garnered another mostly positive review, this time from the Washington Post. The Reader gets high marks for its look and feel, as well as its ability to increase the font size for readers with vision trouble. With "twice the pixel density of most conventional LCDs, and on a par with the resolution of newsprint," eye strain isn't a problemThe device's battery lasts for "7500 page turns," and its memory can store 80 average length books. Sony has set up a store similar to Apple's iTunes where readers can buy the books, and 10,000 titles are expected to be available at launch. Judging by the titles available for sale, the ebooks appear to fetch the same price as their paper counterparts. The device generally gets high marks, but not enough to make it worth the price tag for everyone, according to the reviewer: "Is the Reader worth $350? Only if you want to trim your luggage, stop collecting dead trees, or use the large-font feature for easier reading."Given how impressed many have been with the technology, I suspect those reasons will be enough to make the Sony Reader reasonable successful, especially if it can keep expanding its library of titles. More broadly speaking, books - the old-fashioned paper kind - are far from an endangered species, but the Reader may appeal to people for whom lugging around a bunch of books has gotten to be a pain. Were Sony to add the ability to download newspaper and magazine articles (perhaps this is in the works, I don't know), it would up the usefulness of this device considerably.According to the Web site, it looks like the Reader has begun shipping already, and is proving popular: "Due to overwhelming demand, new Sony Portable Reader orders may ship as late as mid-November," reads a notice on the site.Bonus Links: I've written about the Sony Reader and ebooks a couple of times before: The digital future of the book and The Possibility of an eBook Summer.
This week at The Millions, we're attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the transformation of book coverage in the digital age. Yesterday, Garth looked at the death of the newspaper book review section. Today, Max considers the revenue problems facing literary websites... and the vices and virtues of one of the solutions. On Friday, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book reader.I.There's been no bigger story on the book pages in recent weeks than #Amazonfail. The furor itself hardly needs to be rehashed here (briefly: a supposed classification "glitch" caused thousands of books with gay themes to be removed from Amazon's bestseller lists and search results, making the books very difficult for readers to find), but the episode has entered into our evolving thinking about book coverage in the digital age. As Edan touched on in her #Amazonfail roundup, some might experience cognitive dissonance reading about the Amazon "glitch" on sites like The Millions.To understand this dissonance, you have to first know something about Amazon's stakeholders. Yesterday, in considering the fate of newspaper book sections we tried to conduct a similar stakeholder analysis of The New York Times Book Review. We argued that readers, writers, publishers, and critics all have a stake in the NYTBR. Depending on whether you agree with our analysis, you may feel that the NYTBR is overserving or underserving one or more of those parties. Luckily for those who find the NYTBR falling short of their needs, there are plenty of easily accessible alternatives.Like the Times, Amazon occupies a unique niche in the literary ecology (though its footprint is more massive than the NYTBR's ever was). Also like the Times, Amazon can serve as a sort of proxy for a larger set of players - in this case, for the New Economy businesses that increasingly mediate book coverage. And Amazon shares some of the Times' stakeholders: readers (shoppers), writers, and publishers. Critics wouldn't seem to play a role, except that Amazon has an important "hidden" stakeholder: the thousands of websites across a spectrum of topics and categories that participate in Amazon's Associates Program. This program pays site owners referral fees when they send readers to Amazon and those readers then make a purchase. As many of our readers know, The Millions is a participant; readers support our site when they start here before shopping at Amazon. Thus the peculiar sense of a feedback loop generated by our coverage of the #Amazonfail story.II.So, how did small, eclectic sites like The Millions become the "hidden stakeholders" in "the world's largest bookstore?" It's all part of a now 15-year-old story: Internet content providers looking for a business model. Particularly for smaller sites without an easily classifiable or marketable focus, Amazon's Associates Program has proven to be a good (and sometimes the only) alternative to an advertising model that simply doesn't pay off. (And that, lest we forget, is increasingly not paying off for the print analogs to these sites.) Book coverage has become decreasingly viable in print, and it may be that online book coverage can only avoid the same fate via "alternative" revenue sources like Amazon's program and others like it. For a website that has a tight focus and occupies a lucrative niche, revenue opportunities are comparatively plentiful. A visitor to a photography site probably likes cameras, and cameras are expensive enough that camera companies will be willing to pay good money to advertise to those readers. In a less lucrative niche (like, say, books), there may be far fewer advertising dollars to go around. Meanwhile, for sites with a broader focus, advertisers are often worried about not getting enough bang for their buck. (Why advertise cameras on a general interest site, when you can advertise to photographers?)The advantages that accrue to the hypothetical photography site in the search for advertising dollars extends to programs like Amazon's. Plenty of enterprising website owners have made a small fortune writing about lucrative niches and earning commissions when their readers click through to Amazon to buy those big ticket items. But an interesting consequence of the Amazon program is that it has also provided a meaningful revenue stream for a diverse array of sites that might otherwise struggle to pay the bills.To take one example: For the eclectic mega-blog Boing Boing, covering diverse subject matter and appealing to readers from all over the map, there is no obvious target demographic. Boing Boing likely can't command the ad rates that a more focused site of similar size could. But when Boing Boing has occasion to cover books, it links to Amazon, and it picks up some revenue whenever people click through the links and shop. Boing Boing gets enough traffic that Amazon affiliation is merely one of a number of different revenue opportunities open to it. For smaller sites, the opportunities available are few. (Read Levi Asher's "Modest Success Story" on Litkicks and the ensuing comments for a taste of what the advertising landscape is like for small culture-focused sites.) And so Amazon can provide a business model, or at least an element of one. At its simplest, the model is as follows: get a lot of traffic by writing compelling content and then throw in the occasional Amazon link when applicable. In this way, Amazon's Associates Program has helped breathe life into thousands of websites. Eclectic, mom-and-pop publications get a shot at making some money in a fairly unobtrusive fashion. And those publications, adapting to the altered terrain, allow Amazon to expand its presence across the Internet.In theory, a variation of this model could be pursued by all manner of sites. With their broad focus and high traffic, newspaper websites are decent but not ideal venues for advertisers. Were it not so likely to give their omsbudsmen coronaries, newspapers might be willing to augment their advertising revenues with "affiliation," and dire economic times may yet force their hands. Indeed, The Times (UK) includes a link to "buy the book" with every review, and operates its very own online bookstore.III.Despite all of the above, our partnership with Amazon is an ad hoc one, and the interests of Amazon and its Associates aren't always aligned. We've been doing this long enough to know that Amazon isn't the only game in town. We've been asked more than a few times why we don't link instead to big independent bookstore Powell's or to the smaller independents now collectively represented by IndieBound - those sites having been deemed more palatable by some.There's no reason to dismiss those options out of hand, but right now an Amazon affiliation makes the most sense for many sites offering book coverage. There are several reasons for this, and we share them here - maybe to some small degree to justify our choice, but also to offer a roadmap that current or future players might follow in order to compete with the Amazon juggernaut.For starters, viewed purely as a database, Amazon is a remarkable resource. It has innovated tremendously in this area over the years and currently offers by far the best book pages out there. To borrow an example from the previous post in this series, take a look at Amazon's page for 2666 and find "search inside the book," outside reviews, book recommendations, all manner of meta-data, and vibrant discussion among and opinions from readers. Powell's offers some of these features (including, in some cases, book scans from Google Books), but not quite all. IndieBound has not much at all in the way of book information. When it is suggested that we link to an "indie" when we link to books, the implication is that The Millions is a shopping site and that we can by our linking policy direct people where to shop. But the reality is that The Millions, like many sites that affiliate with Amazon, has an editorial rather than an "advertorial" mission, and one reason we link to Amazon is because it offers the most information about the books we write about, whether we recommend them or deplore them. As long-time blogger Matthew Cheney put it recently, "I want a link to give you the most information and options with the fewest clicks."There are several more practical factors. Amazon's tools, reports, and ease of linking are superior to those offered by other stores, and Amazon has a long enough track record that affiliates have little concern that those links may one day stop working properly. Without delving into the boring details, let's just say that creating the book links for The Millions is not an effortless task, and that the ecosystem of tools that has grown up around the Amazon program lets us spend more time on the stuff our readers care about - namely writing about books. More importantly, other outfits simply don't have Amazon's track record in providing an affiliate program. Site owners participating in such programs have to feel comfortable knowing that their links are tracking properly, that the accounting is occurring properly, and that the program won't change or even disappear. While Amazon isn't perfect in this regard, it is the affiliation many sites are right now most comfortable using.While indie bookstores are typically seen as being at odds with Amazon, many do business with it. In fact, your favorite used bookstore is almost guaranteed to be selling books using Amazon's platform. Amazon's platform, particularly since its purchase of abebooks.com last year, is an essential tool for used booksellers. Authors and publishers may not like how easy it is for Amazon shoppers to click and buy a used copy over a new one, but from the standpoint of bookstores, Amazon gives thousands of local shops a global reach. Money-conscious readers, meanwhile, nearly always have cheaper, used copies to chose from. I don't buy books all that often from Amazon, but sometimes when I do, I'll opt for a used copy, and it can be startling to see the book arrive with a bookmark or a card bearing the info of the far flung shop that sold me the book. It's a tiny personal connection facilitated by the giant Amazon.Both Amazon's affiliates and used book vendors share the customer conviction that has given Amazon its formidable market share. Over the years, for The Millions and other website projects, I've done a great deal of research about different online business models, and, as far as affiliate programs go, the general consensus is that Amazon "converts" at the highest rate - that is, thanks to Amazon's brand recognition and widespread familiarity with how to use and navigate the site, readers are more likely to buy from it than from other sites. This point is a purely monetary consideration, sure, but it also addresses something else that concerns purveyors of online book coverage. We want to get more books into more peoples' hands - wherever they buy them from - and linking to Amazon seems likely to do that.While indie bookstores might someday soon surpass Amazon on many of the above points, there is a final element of the Amazon program that will be difficult for the indies to match. When you click from an affiliate site to Amazon and buy something, the affiliate gets a commission (with a few exceptions) no matter what it is. If someone clicks on a link to 2666 and in wending his way through Amazon, ends up buying a $1,700 grill, The Millions gets a commission on that grill. As you can imagine, this doesn't happen very often. However, the open secret of literature and culture sites that get a modest amount of traffic is that the commissions earned on books alone are not all that impressive (though for sites that earn commissions on a lot of book sales, they can add up). Instead it is the big ticket items that sometimes get bought that help make Amazon's program more worthwhile than others from a financial standpoint. The grills pay the bills. This is another gray area in an a revenue discussion that is sometimes portrayed in black and white. Amazon sells books at prices that undercut many small players in order to draw people in who will buy big-ticket items with bigger profit margins. For many people, the discussion ends there, but the truth is that the commissions on those big ticket items help subsidize the very same literary and cultural coverage that is having so much trouble finding a workable business model in newspapers and other traditional media. Amazon in some small way, and likely not intentionally, is helping to fund small online publications like The Millions. And there are other well-respected book sites that seem to have come to the same conclusions that we have.IV.In the end, the Amazon question is not one of pricing or sourcing, but one of financial viability. If the future of book coverage is truly online, profit expectations will have to be low (were they ever anything else?), but a world in which writers and editors can be compensated for their labor is a better one for readers. There aren't many meaningful revenue options for book sites, and some do without entirely, but Amazon offers a model that can go a long way toward supporting a small publication.That said, affiliation raises two problems. One is the potential editorial conflict inherent in affiliate programs in the first place, the notion that the presence of these links will tempt writers and editors into becoming shills rather than dispassionate critics. Despite this, participation in affiliate programs hasn't been met with much concern. And though these programs are sometimes described as a threat to readers, in an online marketplace with thousands of places to read about books, it's unlikely that disingenuously positive book reviews written just to sell books would garner much of a following, nor would the effort make anyone very rich.The other, bigger problem with Amazon is one of size and control. Is it a good thing for us to give more power to this behemoth link by link, post by post? This will be the focus of the final installment of this series, as we examine Amazon's heft and how it has been able to make its own rules in an emerging market - rules that could have big implications for publishing and the future of book coverage online.Part 1: Garth looks at the death of the newspaper book review section.Part 3: Max hazards some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism.[Image credits: Rachel Kramer Bussel, spcbrass, mccun934]
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I recently made the mistake of confessing a fantasy to a friend. I told him I dreamed of being a reclusive writer. Tame, I know, given the whole point of a fantasy is to go whole hog. Yet isn’t there something incredibly seductive about those mysterious figures who hide away? We imagine them toiling away in a remote mountain cabin or a Manhattan apartment and only rarely, and with much fanfare, releasing dispatches through an intricate web of agents and lawyers, dispatches that allow an anxiously waiting reading public to make sense of the chaos that has become our world. A guru who bursts forth every thirteen or seventeen years like a cicada. Hermit, Thoreau wrote. I wonder what the world is doing now. My friend cut to the chase. “You’re not famous enough to be reclusive,” he said. “Actually, you’re not famous at all. Maybe you’ll get some traction after you’re dead?” Apart from the obvious -- i.e., there’s always death and the possibility of posthumous resurrection -- my wise friend might also be right that a person might need a certain amount of celebrity in order to be known for having disappeared. And to my discredit, deep down, I admit this is pretty attractive. I want to retreat from the world and think and write in solitude. At the same time I wouldn’t mind a few readers knowing I’m out here being all mysterious. Orner? Wait, didn’t he kick for the Vikings? No, no I’m talking about the writer, you know the dude that vanished… A genuine recluse, of course, wouldn’t give a damn. Lately, I've wondered if this odd fantasy is rooted in my uneasy relationship with how connected we all are with each other these days. Not long ago I was at a Literary Festival (so much for being reclusive) and I attended a panel discussion about the future of the book as the book. The prognosis, I learned, is inconclusive. Might have a few actual physical books in the future, might not. Only one thing didn’t seem in doubt at all, and that is the future of the writer of these inconclusive books. This future, we were told, is directly tied to having a personal online presence. A writer, one panelist declared, who doesn’t personally reach out to readers via social media is DOA. This was alarming for several reasons. One is that I’ve tried it. I’m never quite sure what to say. I’ve shared things my friends are doing. “Teddy Finkel just got back from the trip of a lifetime in Banff!” I’ve also posted a few things I’m up to as well. But each time I’ve done so, there's this dread. The impulse -- now an industry -- to spread good news about oneself far and wide has become soul-crushing. It makes me want to retreat into the garage (where the Wifi can’t find me) with my outmoded books and unfinished manuscripts. Maybe I’m just not that good at being myself. I’ve come to see social media as a skill like anything else. Some are talented at it; others, less so. I’m a mediocre interior decorator also. Nor can I cook, change the oil, or dance. And yet if I don’t I’m DOA? There is, though, a larger issue at stake. For me, the whole point of fiction has always been to forget about me. To paraphrase Eudora Welty, the most elemental aspect of the art of fiction is the challenge of seeing the world through another person’s eyes. I spend much of my life trying to live up to Welty’s gauntlet. There is something about the increased demand that fiction writers speak as themselves that feels like a violation of what I used to hold so sacred, the tenet that it is not about me but about the characters I create. I’ve always considered inventing people and introducing them into an already crowded, indifferent world to be an act of faith. The only faith I’ve got. It’s my way of saying that I love this planet and its people in spite of everything we do every day to kill it -- and each other. Obviously, social media itself isn’t the trouble. The crux, as I see it, is that lately the substance of what we create is often considered almost incidental to the way that we writers, personally, market our product. We now must sell our books like we sell ourselves. During the panel discussion on the future of the book, for instance, what goes inside the books in question received passing, almost grudging mention. It isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this trend. Just yesterday I read a piece about pricing in self-published e-books. Apparently $3.99 is the sweet spot? Sweet spot? Am I a dinosaur to wonder what this $3.99-dollar book is actually about? And yet, paradoxically, I find that this almost fanatical focus on sales over content might provide the alternate route of escape. No need to flee to the cabin in the Bitteroot just yet, as appealing as this sounds. Maybe I can live out my reclusive dream by hiding in plain sight, by choosing not to engage personally on-line, to declare myself, on my own terms, DOA. Don’t do it, the experts cry. Besides being a recluse has been out since Cormac McCarthy went on Oprah. Forget it, you want to be read, you got to sell baby sell. But do we? Really? When for so many of us out here have a hard enough time inventing lives that aren’t our own? It may say too much about me that I take my life not only from Eudora Welty, but also from the beautifully goofy movie Say Anything. I’m a child of the 80s, what can I say? You remember Lloyd Dobler? I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed... I take solace in the example of writers who, in spite of all trends, have gone another direction. On my desk, right now, I have a book of poetry by a man named Herbert Morris. Aside from his six books, the fact that he attended Brooklyn College, and the date of his birth (1928) and death (2001), almost nothing, as far as I can tell, is publicly known about him. The man clearly wanted it this way. On the jacket of What Was Lost, his last book, published in 2000, there is no author photo, no biographical information, and no acknowledgements. Richard Howard deepens the mystery with a quote: “Always the dark stranger at Poetry’s feast of lights, Herbert Morris has returned to haunt the banquet with these fifteen notional ekphrases, surely the most generous creations American culture has produced since Morris’s own Little Voices of the Pears.” It took me three dictionaries to track down the word ekphrases. A gorgeous word, it means a concentrated description of an object, often artwork. Apt as it applies to Morris whose poems are all about paying attention – truly seeing. I may have found my recluse, minus any fame, in this dark stranger. I only have his poems, not his personality, but they are exactly what I need. For me it takes great concentration to read What Was Lost, and thus, I slow way, way down as I follow the tangled, meandering thoughts of his intensely lonely characters. Morris may be a poet, but he is also, to my mind, among the most hypnotic fiction writers in contemporary literature. I fall into a Morris poem the way I do into a Sebald novel. It is a whole immersion into the intensity of a moment. Morris writes of other people, sometimes well-known people, such as Henry James or James Joyce, in moments of profound isolation. One utterly breathtaking poem “History, Weather, Loss, the Children, Georgia” is about a photograph taken of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as they sit in a car before a group of schoolchildren. The photo was snapped just before the children began to serenade the president. The poem begins slowly, exquisitely, as Morris constructs the scene through the smallest of details about the children. They’ve been rehearsing all week for this occasion. Their mouths are poised, frozen forever in little O’s. Even the threads of their clothes receive attention. As does the hand printed banner, Welcome Mister President. Only toward the very last lines does the poem zero in on Franklin and Eleanor themselves. These two icons may be long dead, as is this haunted moment in Warm Springs, Georgia in 1938. And yet, and this is where the poem aches, Franklin and Eleanor are not historical props but rather two vulnerable human beings sitting together -- apart -- in the back of an open car. The poem delicately, yet vehemently, chastises Franklin for “his wholly crucial failure” to do something pretty simple and that’s touch his wife. or once, once, whisper to her intimacies any man might well whisper on the brink of the heartbreak of the Thirties (the voiceless poised to sing, air strangled, sultry, the music teacher’s cue not yet quite given… I imagine Morris, whoever he was, staring at this photograph so long and with such absorption that Frankin and Eleanor began to sweat in the humid air. And still Franklin’s fingers don’t reach for her. The poem mourns the loss of so many things, including this touch that never happened. Ultimately this is not only what I crave as a writer, but as a reader of fiction. I want living, breathing, flawed characters on the page. Now more than ever I want to know about private failures not publically shared triumphs. Herbert Morris gives us the miracle of other people in their intimate, unguarded moments. He may not have trumpeted himself when he was alive. He kept himself apart, and the details of his own life out of the equation. Perhaps as a consequence he may not have sold many books, but even so he found his way to my desk. I dug him out of the free bin outside Dog Ear Books in San Francisco. How can I express my gratitude to a man who never sought it, who only wanted me to know his creations, not their creator? And think about it, how many others might be out there, somewhere, under all this noise, telling us things we need to hear? Photo courtesy of the author.
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