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.)
Random House has decided to take a bold move this week, making one of its hottest titles available for free download for a limited time. Charles Bock’s debut effort Beautiful Children has set the literary world aflame, attracting glowing notices from the New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere, and nosing onto the NYT Bestseller List.The download went live last night at midnight and is up until Friday night at midnight. The pdf of the book is also being hosted at Amazon for a limited time.We got in touch with Jynne Martin, the book’s publicist, to find out more about Random House’s move to offer the book for free.The Millions: Though big publishers are embracing technology in many ways, for Random House, releasing a new and popular book for free download seems like quite a leap. Why now and why Beautiful Children?Jynne Martin: If it’s good enough for Radiohead it’s good enough for us! The online landscape is changing quickly, and we must take risks to find new ways to bring people to books. In this case we have a book we think is unique, fearless, and brilliant. Giving this book away for free online is a way to offer everyone a chance to read as much of the book as they want, and if readers love Beautiful Children as much as we do (and as many critics and early readers do), this will spread the word as widely as possible.The Millions: Do you expect this to boost sales of Beautiful Children? Or is it simply an experiment to see what happens?JM: We see this as win-win-win for everyone involved – readers, the publisher, and Charles. Of course we hope readers will love what they read, and want to own an old-world copy of the book for their shelf. But if they read it for free and don’t like it and don’t buy a copy, that’s fine; it’s no different than if they’d gone into Barnes & Noble and read the book in the cafe section and decided they didn’t want to get it.The Millions: What was Charles Bock’s role in making this happen? Was it his idea?JM: It was Random House’s idea but Charles embraced it right away. After ten years typing in his basement with just his computer, coffee maker, and Axl Rose albums, wondering if any other human would ever read his book at all, he’s more than thrilled to get his book out to the widest possible readership.The Millions: Can we expect Random House to do this again in the future?JM: It’s certainly possible. We’ll have to see how this one goes.
A pair of interesting addenda to my post on Amazon from earlier in the month:The online bookselling giant went ahead and snapped up the piece of book cataloging site Shelfari that it didn’t already own.As we had noted, after buying AbeBooks, Amazon suddenly owned the two big rivals in the book cataloging space, Shelfari and LibraryThing, and since, to this observer, it seemed like combining the two sites would be a non-starter, Amazon was likely to throw its weight behind one or the other. Unsurprisingly, Amazon picked Shelfari, as Tim Spalding, LibraryThing’s founder, has long been wary of Amazon (though not hostile towards it). As TechCrunch speculates, Amazon may divest its shares of LibraryThing, and I’d guess that Spalding wouldn’t mind that too much.Secondly, bookfinder.com, the extremely comprehensive used book search engine (now owned by Amazon via its purchase of AbeBooks), has released its annual report on the most sought after out-of-print and hard-to-find books over the last year. Once again, Madonna’s relic from the 1990s, Sex, tops the list. But from there the list gets very eclectic and interesting, with books like Bob Dylan’s Drawn Blank, The Jerusalem Bible illustrated by Salvador Dali, and Bruce Davidson’s photo book Subway. The report also has lists by genre and offers up a little background on some of the more interesting titles.
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.
It was a battle between an evangelizing visionary and a sage defender of the past, perhaps the first big tussle in the great sorting out of publishing’s new look in the digital age.This was 2006, when Wired Magazine technology evangelist Kevin Kelly wrote about the helter skelter future of books in the digital age. In the New York Times Magazine, Kelly looked at then still nascent book scanning efforts, and extrapolated a future that sent a shiver through writers, editors, publishers, and many readers:Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.Later he added:[Authors] can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions – in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the “discovery tool” that markets these other intangible valuables.At the annual Book Expo, keynote speaker John Updike responded, heaping scorn: The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding.Everyone reveled in the literary throwdown at the time (Gawker called it a Crossover Nerdfight). There was no “winner,” however, and neither Kelly nor Updike was proven right, but there are some interesting new developments to contemplate.When Kelly wrote of “remixed” books, many were aghast, envisioning zombified, soulless collages, based on the desecrated works that had been co-opted for profit. They may have been right about the zombie part: At least one book remix has caused quite a stir this year. According to Publishers Weekly, there are “more than 600,000 copies in print of… Jane Austen mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” A graphic novel version is in the works, as is a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Even though this recent example looms large, when you start thinking about it there is a rich history of literary remixes. At the Vromans Bookstore Blog, Patrick Brown recently compiled a thorough exploration of the topic in response to J.D. Salinger’s lawsuit over an unauthorized sequel to his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Though that remix is not looking particularly auspicious, Patrick notes the many venerable and successful remixes that have come before it, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked to a pair of recent books by Maile Meloy. Brown doesn’t mention it, but you can even go all the way back to the “first” novel, and look at Don Quixote’s second part as an inspired calling out of unauthorized “copycat” versions of the book. It’s entirely plausible to make the case that literary history is in many ways a history of literary “remixes,” and, as Kelly has suggested, current, ever-stricter copyright regimes are an artificial impediment to this free flow of ideas.Returning to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, silly as it may be, one wonders if the book’s success doesn’t prove there is an appetite – in our heavily remixed, mashed up culture – for freer rein to be afforded writers who want to experiment in this vein. It’s also clear that the public domain offers an unending font of material for those inclined to use it (for a more highbrow example, think of the relationship between Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare). Meanwhile, the Salinger case would seem to indicate that when it comes to books under copyright and the cross-linking, clustering, and reassembling that Kelly prophesied, we are still very much at the whim of the copyright holder.Kelly’s other point – that of a new business model for writers that relies not on selling the book but on using the book to sell “access” to the writer, has been taken up enthusiastically by another Wired guy, Chris Anderson, who has written an entire book on this topic, Free. Anderson is “selling” (read: giving away) the book under this model and his ideas have caused media types quite a bit of heartburn.Interestingly, the backlash to Anderson’s book seems to be resonating (to me, anyway) much more than the book itself. The unfortunate revelation that Anderson had lifted substantial passages for the book from Wikipedia suggests that in a world where writers don’t get paid for writing and information wants to be free, the writing itself is almost beside the point as compared to the ancillary, profit-making schemes that can surround the “author as brand” idea. This criticism would only seem to be confirmed by Anderson’s explanation that there was an oversight in citing the copied passages properly.With a new novel coming soon from our greatest literary recluse, I wonder too whether a flourishing of the idea that authors make money from selling “access” and not books would mean that we could never have another Pynchon or McCarthy or DeLillo whose works alone tower above any notion that they might experiment with alternative revenue models.In the end, there are some elements out of the Kelly/Anderson view of the future of publishing that remain compelling. The remixed book is an important idea that need not be villainized or trivialized, particularly as digitization provides new opportunities for experimentation. The notion of “free,” meanwhile, seems far more potentially damaging in that whole swathes of literary culture are not particularly compatible with the “authors selling access” model. However, if you believe that good writing is always worth something to somebody, you don’t have much to worry about.
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.
Using the words “advertising” and “books” in the same sentence seems to cause panic among fans of literature. Recall when Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, lashed out at Google Books for the “predation” of their “silly ads” over a year ago. In the intervening time, our favorite works of literature have not been overrun by ads, but some publishers, aware of the value of their Web presence, have begun to experiment with advertising, according to the Wall Street Journal.The WSJ article takes Frommers.com as a case study. The travel imprint of John Wiley & Sons drew at least 728,000 unique visitors in May and, along with the Web sites for its Dummies do-it-yourself series and CliffsNotes educational books, brings in $10 million to $15 million annually.For publishers of reference books, guides, and manuals, the compatibility with advertising is pretty obvious. After all, newspapers and magazines have loads of this sort of content – particularly in the form of reviews of films, music, restaurants, travel destinations, etc. – and they do quite well selling advertising against it. With loads of original content, there’s no reason why a site like Frommers.com shouldn’t experiment with making more of that content free to readers and ad supported.Moving away from the more utilitarian publishing categories, however, the questions become a bit more challenging, a fact that I think is betrayed by the confused identity of many publisher Web sites. Typically they offer what seems to be a hybrid of a catalog and original content, though neither end up being terribly useful. On the Web, people want access to all the available information. Why would readers browse for a book on the HarperCollins Web site when they could go to Amazon or Google Books (or even the library) and see everything that’s available on a particular topic. Likewise, there is plenty of free, ad supported, quality original content available online from magazines and newspapers.While selling ads against an excerpt from the latest Philip Roth novel is not likely to be a winning proposition (though the New Yorker manages just fine), publishers could ratchet up their original content offerings in order to promote their own products as well as to bring in ad revenue and highlight their brands.Publishers have dabbled in this sort of thing before. Random House once had an online literary magazine called Boldtype, but cut it loose in 2003, and the site has enjoyed a second life as a part of the Flavorpill Network of sites. Bold Type in its current incarnation may not be the perfect model for publishers looking to create a new revenue stream on the Web, but the point for publishers to remember, I think, is that they are purveyors of content, and with a little creativity publishers could easily extend their expertise in this area to the Web.