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.)
Amazon has further tangled and interconnected its product pages by adding comments to its customer reviews. Amazon also now allows you to search across Customer Reviews and “Listmania” lists.The comments on reviews up the interactivity quotient on Amazon pages by several notches, turning the comments into the equivalent of a topical blog with dozens of authors all writing about a particular book. It also alleviates the previously frustrating inability to correct or add to information posted in earlier reviews. I had to dig around to find some examples of the new comments in action. Just as political books are among the most frequently reviewed, they are also now getting the most comments (if troll-like.) For example, have a look at the dedicated page for a review of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, currently in the news because Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez brandished it during his fiery Anti-Bush speech at the UN on Wednesday. Amazon has unleashed a free-for-all, but I applaud them for it. Why not let people communicate about individual books? Perhaps something good will come of it.The Customer Reviews search, meanwhile, probably has some value if you are either trying to drill deeper into what a particular book is all about – for example, a search for the word “Oprah” in the reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – or trying to dig up information across Amazon’s whole catalog that may not be evident using the standard search – like this search for “desert island book.”The Listmania search allows for similar fun, if less serendipity.
You may have heard the news that Google is embarking on a new venture to digitize the collections of several university libraries. According to Google this venture “a part of our mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Though I have heard some naysayers discussing this on the radio today, I agree with the folks who are saying that this could represent a great leap forward for the written word. In the centuries before the internet, mankind generated millions and millions of words. So much knowledge is “locked up” on the pages of books. If Google succeeds in digitizing the world’s books, people will suddenly be able to manipulate all that “locked up” information, finding hidden patterns or bringing to light details that have been tucked away in the dusty stacks, all with a few keystrokes. This is all still a few years out as Google gets to work, but it might be time to start thinking about what you’ll do with all of this information once it’s at your fingertips.Related:Coverage at CS Monitor.PC Magazine puts this development in the context of Google’s recent unveilings of Google Print and Google Scholar.Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine asks: What’s next?
Publishers Weekly has a very interesting article about newspaper book sections which points out that, with the exception of the New York Times, book review sections do not bring in enough ad revenue to cover their costs.Those of us who follow the newspaper industry are used to hearing all ills blamed on declining readership, but those quoted in the PW article essentially take the publishing houses to task for failing to support book sections outside of “their hometown paper, the New York Times.” Of course, one could easily point out that if readership were to rebound, ad revenue would as well, but the article does make a compelling point.Publishers (who in many ways are just as endangered as newspapers) bemoan our dying literary culture, but then fail to support it in one of the last places where it is clinging to a foothold. I’ve never been a publishing industry insider, so I don’t know if things are just bad all over (perhaps someone can enlighten us), but I wonder if publishers are to blame here, or if they have simply found that the dollars spent in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and LA Times, don’t help sell many books.In the Comments: Jerome Weeks, the Dallas Morning News book columnist mentioned in the PW story, gives us some additional thoughts on this issue.
Today represented some kind of personal tipping point. As if by prearrangement – or super-stealthy guerilla marketing plan? – the Kindle was everywhere I went.
First: a faculty meeting. More than one colleague praising the seductions of the e-Reader, as opposed to the good old book. Except who am I kidding? They didn’t use the term e-Reader. They used the term Kindle.
Then: the subway. I fell into the pleasurable habit of scanning the titles being read by my fellow travelers.
The New Yorker.
Last Evenings on Earth.
Something in Chinese.
The Raw Shark Texts.
Something by Donna Leon.
Something by Daniel Silva.
Something by Stephen L. Carter.
Yup: Kindle #3.
(The woman reading Bolaño switched halfway through my ride to a Kindle, on which she may or may not have continued reading Bolaño . I’m not making this up.)
Finally: Bryant Park. Right behind the New York Public Library. Summer Associates getting their drink on. Kindle. Abandoned newspaper. Coddled Kindle. Homeless man with obscenity scrawled on jacket. Kindle in handy Kindle carrier. Outdoor library. Outdoor Kindle.
I began to imagine a day where outdoor libraries won’t exist. Nor will my beloved newsstands (already struggling with cigarettes at $10 a pack). Indoor libraries will struggle even harder than they already do to justify their existence; everyone will be carrying her own. Well, everyone but the guy with the obscenity scrawled on his jacket. And Nosy Parkers such as myself will be unable to tell what anyone’s reading on mass transit. Except that they’re all reading on e-Readers.
This day is doubtless drawing ever closer, but as a lover of newsstands, libraries, and ubiquitous dustjackets (remember, MTA riders, the month when everyone was reading Absurdistan? Remember the autumn of Oscar Wao?), I realized today that I’m not looking forward to it. Nor do I believe my life will be improved when putting down The Magic Mountain to check TMZ.com is as simple as clicking a button. Which is to say: I won’t make it past page 2 of The Magic Mountain. And also: I believe reading The Magic Mountain will improve my life. But the Kindle is just a tool! my colleagues insist. I want to remind them: when you’re carrying a hammer, everything starts to look like a Kindle. Er…nail.
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.
This week, there were a pair of updates on the copyright cases against Google that are being brought by publishers and authors.Initially, the two groups had been pursuing two separate complaints against Google, but this week Judge John Sprizzo consolidated the two cases into one. According to MarketWatch: “Sprizzo’s streamlining was inevitable because the authors and publishers accuse Google of virtually the same thing, and plan to use the same kind of evidence.” It sounds like that news is probably good for the authors and publishers if not terribly consequential.The other bit of new news, that the case won’t be decided until early 2008, is undoubtedly bad for the anti-Google Books camp, both because it means the authors and publishers will have to spend more money going up against deep-pocketed Google, and because Google Books will continue operating unfettered for over a year until the case is handed down, as eWeek explains.Now that we know that Google Books turns searchers into buyers, not stealers, perhaps it’s a good time for the authors and publishers to broker a compromise with Google.
Publishers want to be the only ones allowed to make digital copies of books, and what does the reading public get for it? Widgets. These self-contained online readers are meant to provide an anywhere-on-the-Web presence for books, especially on blogs and even, god forbid, on MySpace. But before we get to the merits of this initiative, lets look at what we’re working with.Earlier this week, HarperCollins unveiled its “Browse Inside” widget, and Random House followed soon after with its “Browse & Search” widget (announcing it to the world with a somewhat breathless “Breaking News” email alert). Both widgets have two components, a smaller interface that, when clicked, launches a larger digital reader. Here’s an example of HarperCollins’ widget (click it to launch the reader). And here’s Random House’s (It’s at the right. Once again, click on the widget to launch the reader.) Right now, Random House has more than 5,000 books in the program while HarperCollins has nearly 2,000, though both publishers intend to make more titles available by widget. At a glance, the Random House offering is much nicer to look at, faster to load pages, and offers additional functions like search. So, if you want to know who winds the first round of the “Widget Wars,” Random House does.But who cares. Publishers have exerted a tremendous amount of effort to wrest control of their books from third-party digitizers like Google, and the apparent goal of this effort is to spawn viral campaigns for their books and little more. While somewhat nifty to look at, these widgets offer little more in terms of functionality than the Amazon “Look Inside” feature. The only real innovation is the ability to place these readers on any Web pages. Frankly, however, I fail to see how this serves anyone but the publishers looking to “virally” spread the word about their books.As a book blogger, I am presumably an ideal candidate to place these widgets all over my Web site, but I have other, better ways to point people to info about books. A link to Amazon (or Powell’s) makes it easy for my readers to find out most anything they might want to know about a book, from its physical dimensions, to reviews from critics and readers, to, in many cases, a peek inside the book. It’s also important to note that both Amazon and Powell’s actually provide an incentive for linking to them, offering a small commission, should site owners decide to take it, for sales that result from click-throughs to their sites. These online bookstores also let the site owner control the interaction, so that appearance of the links and images add to, rather than distract from the content of the site they are on.These widgets, on the other hand, are akin to putting a big billboard on the side of your house and getting nothing in return.At the same time, from the perspective of readers, I fail to see usefulness of these widgets. Offering a dozen or so pages is fine. Readers can get a taste of a book if they want, but in this context the widgets again serve as little more than ads. we are meant to stumble across them on blogs or at MySpace and be enticed to make an impulse buy. They do not, however, harness the power of the Web to approximate any sort of useful experience. There’s a reason why you don’t see any bookstores selling only Random House books or only HarperCollins books. People want access to a bigger chunk of the universe of books when they are researching, browsing, or buying. This is why third parties (book stores) handle the selling, and, they more I think about it, this is why third parties should handle the online experience as well. And right now, Google Book Search does this the best. They have a widget, too, and as you may have realized I’m not a fan of widgets, but at least Google’s widget points to a useful service, where readers can discover (and if they want to, buy) books that interest them.Regardless of what I think, though, the age of the widget is here. Plenty of companies want a piece of our blogs and MySpace pages, and publishers are just jumping on the bandwagon.Update: I should add that Random House’s broader offering, “Insight,” is open to other publishers who want to sign on (for a fee, I’m guessing), and extends beyond the widget to potentially partnering with online retailers and making the contents of books accessible to search engines.Also, as Bookblog.net points out, I missed that Random House lets people allows you to customize the “Buy” button to point to your preferred online bookstore and supports affiliate links. Based on this new info, I think Random House has actually put together a pretty compelling tool. (Though I still won’t be likely to use it since I’d rather just point people off my site if they want to peek inside a book.)