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.)
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.
It's a story likely to make some readers queasy. Several British libraries have begun working with a direct marketing firm to stuff inserts into books at check out. "They're going to be inserted right next to the panel with the return date on it, which means that everyone will look at them at least once," said Mark Jackson of direct marketing company Jackson Howse. However, Guy Daines, the director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, however, is concerned about the "creeping commercialisation of library services." I'll second that.
I happened to notice recently, in my daily online wanderings, that the nominees have been announced for "The Seventh Annual Weblog Awards." As usual, the organizers have listed a couple dozen categories, and as usual the same handful of blogs, more or less, are in the running. Many of the usual suspects are there, Boing Boing, PostSecret, Dooce, Gizmodo, Instapundit, Daily Kos, Lifehacker, and the rest - blogs that are now big business, some of which are owned by big businesses.The omission of "literary bloggers" from this long list of nominees naturally seemed glaring to me, having had a front row seat for the last four or so years as an amorphous and very loosely affiliated movement of bloggers has greatly expanded the realm of literary discourse in the U.S. and elsewhere. And though there has sometimes been an unhealthy "us against them" mentality between bloggers and professional critics, in many ways this friction has melted away as critics have become bloggers themselves and as a number of talented bloggers have begun to invade the book pages, providing a pool of talent and a new voice to book review sections that were shrinking and stultified.This is a big deal. Bloggers have helped create a new literary discourse that benefits readers, writers, and critics - a place where reading and discussing books for pleasure can augment the sometimes joyless drudgery that newspaper criticism has become. (Note how Jerome Weeks, now of book/daddy, jumped from his regular newspaper gig: "So it'll be a relief to read for pleasure again. One reason it's particularly appealing these days is that it's so counter-culture -- so counter to our prevailing techno-bully rapid-response profit-margin mindset.").Yet we need those sometimes bullying newspapers. As Kassia wrote in a post in the early days of the LBC, "Books don't have endless windows opening for them." This sentiment was echoed in an Orlando Sentinel essay by movie critic Roger Moore late last year: "Reviewers, in general, are canaries in the print journalism coal mine, the first to go. Classical music, books, visual arts and dance are dispensed with, or free-lanced off the bottom-line. That's happened everywhere I've ever worked." But as the big windows close, and criticism sections shrink or disappear, hundreds of smaller windows have opened.In Kassia's LBC essay, she went on to write, "It's interesting to me that readers are leading the charge to discover and promote new, often overlooked fiction. Traditional avenues of literary coverage are necessarily limited in scope, even with the Internet." I have come to believe, and I hope people agree with me, that book blogging is more than just a hobby. I say this not in a self-promotional or self-aggrandizing way (so many others are better book bloggers than I), but looking at how the public discourse about books has changed over the last few years. So, the truth is, having thought about it, I'm not disappointed that not a single book blog - not even some of the best (TEV, Ed, Bookslut, Conversational Reading... I could go on and on) - was singled out for recognition by the Weblog Awards. Litblogs have somehow gone too far down the path of assimilation to be considered for such distinctions, I think. Book blogs and traditional book criticism have intermingled sufficiently that they are now, except in a few remaining dusty corners, one.My declaring it doesn't make it so, but perhaps now, the us versus them mentality between the bloggers and the professional critics is mostly behind us. Which is good, because there are so many more books still to write about.
NPR's On the Media ran a feature recently on entrepreneur Joshua Karp's new startup the Printed Blog (TPB), a web aggregator that takes the best online content and... puts it on paper. Karp plans to print TPB twice a day and hand it out for free in major urban outlets. Content and advertising will be localized, and readers can go online to discuss and recommend articles and content they would like to see.The timing of the announcement coming, as it does, close on the heels of the Atlantic Monthly's (hopefully) exaggerated reports of the NYT's demise seemed almost comical. My initial reaction was to check the calendar. Having confirmed that it wasn't April, I became incredulous, made snarky comments to the radio, and finally accepted the idea.Although at first glance Karp's project seems endearingly quixotic, it does have one thing going for it: depending on how the content is selected, it could be an excellent tool for encouraging the development of a sense of physical community. Although the web has successfully connected people with similar interests, it hasn't done the same for people with similar addresses. TBP could be a great tool for making highly visible, localized announcements. Having a block party? Print an ad in TBP's morning edition. Canceled because of rain? An announcement in the evening edition will come out just in time to catch commuters on their way home. If done in the right way, TBP has the potential to provide a legitimate and much needed public service. Not to mention it will be a great way to expose less web savvy members of the community to some of the fantastic writing that's being done on blogs today.On the downside, it will have to overcome several major obstacles. First, iPhones and similar technology have already made the web portable. I assume the target demographic is web savvy young professionals between the ages of 22-30, a hunch confirmed by the web site's blog (yes, they have a blog). This is precisely the group that is most likely to already have the Internet in their pocket, delivering their favorite blogs to them at the speed of inanity. TPB might introduce them to new content, but isn't that what Digg and Delicious are for? And as for the reader suggested content... If the readers don't access blogs offline, what makes Karp think they'll log on to share their opinion? To make matters worse, the people for whom this service would be most useful, those without the means or knowledge to use computers, won't be able to vote. A mismatch between the content and the audience seems inevitable.The second issue is cost. Karp estimates that his initial venture will cost $15,000. He anticipates selling ads for $25 apiece, meaning he'll have to sell 600 to cover his overhead. Because the publication is intended to be "hyper-localized," I assume he's going to be targeting local businesses for ad revenue. I'm not sure how many of them will shell out that kind of money for a daily ad, but as a point of comparison, Google ads are free as long as no one clicks on them (and very cheap even then), run indefinitely, and are guaranteed to reach your target audience, regardless of their geographic location (a concern if you're trying to advertise to tourists). Hard to beat that deal. And besides, isn't the lack of willing advertisers print media's biggest problem? I'd love to have seen Karp pitch that business model to potential investors. Granted, local free papers, like the San Francisco Guardian, seem to be doing well.The experiment begins on January 27th in Chicago and San Francisco, but if successful I suppose the model can be easily rolled out at minimal cost nationwide. Although, I'm still skeptical, The Millions never turns down free publicity. Why don't you suggest they include us in their first issue?
Amazon made a small acquisition this week, picking up Michigan-based audio books publisher Brilliance Audio. The move shows the increasing potential for the audio format in this era of digital distribution -- after all, you don't see Amazon making an effort to buy any traditional publishing houses. And digitally distributed or not, sales of audio books are growing much faster than the industry as a whole. In 2006, sales of audio books were up 11.4%, while sales of all books were down 0.2%, according to the Association of American Publishers.I suspect that the growing popularity of audio books has more to do with the proliferation of iPods and and two-hours-each-way commutes than any decline in appreciation for the written word. It's also likely that in response to these trends there are more titles than ever available in the audio format. As someone who's about to become a commuter after working from home for a while, I may soon join the growing percentage of the reading public who are audio book consumers.