Not much news here, but a BBC story suggests that, as part of its digital book initiative, Google may sell e-books sometime in the future. CEO Eric Schmidt – being extra careful in this area it seems – said “that this would depend on permission from copyright holders.” Google already provides links to online booksellers from its book pages, but, as far as I can tell, this would be the first time that Google was selling books directly.
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.”
On Wednesday, five publishers, McGraw-Hill Cos. Inc., Pearson Plc’s Pearson Education and Penguin Group (USA) units, Viacom Inc.’s Simon & Schuster and John Wiley & Sons Inc., filed suit for copyright infringement against Google’s Google Print service. What is Google Print? Google has scanned the full text of thousands of books and made them searchable, and as the database of included titles becomes larger and larger, one can imagine that future Web users will find answers to their questions not just on the world’s Web pages but in the world’s books. If a given book is under copyright, Google Print will only show a small excerpt – perhaps a few pages or a few paragraphs. Books not under copyright can be perused in full. Google is working with some publishers as they do this, but they are also working to scan the contents of some of the country’s major libraries. It is the interaction with the libraries, which circumvents the publishers, that has the publishers so angry. At the heart of this controversy, though, the publishers are suing Google Print for the same reasons that other big media companies have fought to retain control over their content: ignorance and fear. From a recent Reuters article via the Washington Post:”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.It sounds pretty scary, but is this a realistic concern? Google or not, the technology currently exists for anyone to start digitizing the books in the library or in their own homes, but I don’t see this happening, and it’s not because people are afraid of lawsuits from publishers, it’s because people aren’t that interested in digitized copies of books. Google, on the other hand, is attempting to do something constructive by scanning all of these books. They have the ability to make the world’s text (read: knowledge) searchable.What’s even more outrageous about publishers’ opposition to Google Print is that they actually stand to benefit financially from it. This isn’t anything like “stealing” music, this is Google marketing and selling their books for them. Google even explains how this works on their information page for publishers. In fact, it’s so simple it only takes one sentence for Google to sell it:Sign up for the Google Print publisher program to attract new readers and boost book sales, earn new revenue from Google contextual ads, and interact more closely with your customers through direct ‘Buy this Book’ links back to your website. Publishers are turning down the opportunity to earn – for the first time ever – advertising dollars based on the content of their books. Publishers are also keeping readers from sampling books before they buy them and publishers are turning down Google’s offer to send these potential customers right to their online doorsteps (or the doorsteps of other booksellers.) All because they are irrationally afraid that readers are going to go broke buying paper and ink trying to set up their own bootleg bookshops.Just as musicians have come out against the music industry in the debate on file sharing, at least one author is speaking out against the publishing industry’s fight against Google Print. After Meghann Marco, author of the humorous Field Guide to the Apocalypse: Movie Survival Skills for the End of the World, was told by her publisher, Simon & Schuster, that they wouldn’t allow her book to be a part of Google Print, she wrote a letter to Jason Kottke. From there, Marco’s plight has been publicized on dozens of blogs including big guys like Boing Boing and GalleyCat, and now – if you read some of the comments on the Kottke post, you’ll see – readers everywhere are scratching their heads wondering why in the world publishers are going down this path.
M. Ryan Calo is a residential fellow at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet & Society. He frequently appears in radio, press, and online to discuss new technology.Everyone knows Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. First published in 1953, Bradbury imagined a world in which government “firemen” could enter your home at any time and burn your books “for the good of humanity.” This deeply dystopic vision has, thankfully, not come to pass. Nor could it. In the U.S., the First and Fourth Amendments project against unreasonable government intrusion, especially where it implicates ideas. The state will never be able to enter your house and burn your books, even in an age of terrorism. I really believe that.That’s why I was so disturbed to learn that Amazon has managed to “burn” two other famous dystopias, these ones by George Orwell, without implicating the Constitution. According to reports, people who had purchased Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm for the Kindle woke up to find that Amazon had erased the ebooks remotely.Jonathan Zittrain has warned about this phenomenon – which he calls “software as service” – wherein people no longer own what they buy. Digital products become evolving and hence unstable services that a company may alter or even destroy at whim. Like many things that happen first on the Internet, the death of ownership is also happening offline, as when car dealers leave GPS devices in vehicles so as to make it easier to repossess the vehicles later.Ebooks evoke dystopian novels in a second way. It is rapidly becoming impossible to peruse or buy a book without leaving a digital trail. Law enforcement has already reportedly asked Amazon to hand over customer purchase history; it is a matter of time before the government approaches Google Book Search. It is no accident that common to practically every dystopian novel is the abrogation of privacy. This is clearly true of Bradbury and Orwell. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the buildings are all made of transparent glass. In Huxley’s Brave New World, the biggest taboo is solitude. Bernard Marx tells us that an aversion to being alone is, of all state messages, repeated the most times during sleep conditioning.I don’t mean to overstate. In many ways we live in a historic zenith of freedom. And Amazon zapping books for business reasons is a far cry from state sanctioned book burning. But we nevertheless must get a handle on the issues of ownership and privacy that ebooks raise, lest we wake up one day to find they have disappeared.
A few years ago, a woman I hardly know and whose name I’ve now forgotten invited me to become her friend on Goodreads, a social-networking site on which users log the books they’re reading (or have read, or intend to read), and in some cases write casual reviews of these books and rate them on a scale of one to five stars. I thanked the woman but told her I didn’t participate in social-networking websites. Because, I didn’t elaborate, I found them more estranging than connecting, or suspected I would, and because I didn’t want to turn myself into some kind of product (not true: in my huffing, protracted climb from anonymity to obscurity, I’ve attempted quite a lot of that), and because I was very tired, and finally because I couldn’t afford another distraction from my writing or from checking my email forty times a day. I’ve since softened my position on all this and now have an impressive though not obscene number of friends on Facebook. Sometimes these nominal friendships bring into depressing relief my paucity of substantive friendships, but on the whole I’d say I’m slightly less lonely and no less productive (which is to say: not terribly productive) than I was before I joined Facebook. But this essay, if that’s what it is, isn’t about Facebook (boring), it’s about Goodreads (sort of).
So some night this past winter—it was very late; I’d been having trouble sleeping—I found myself Googling a minor figure in the publishing industry, and in doing so came across his Goodreads page, which he allows to be viewed by friends and non-friends alike. His tastes were impeccable and strikingly similar to my own, which is odd because my tastes aren’t impeccable. I studied this man’s picture; he seemed elegant, loyal, athletic. I imagined him as my literal, that is, non-internet friend, and also as my champion, my Colonel Tom, imagined our spandexed bike rides together, our shared energy bars, our semicolon debates. I joined Goodreads but didn’t send this man a friend request, not wanting to seem like some scheming gnat, nor did I elect to follow him (as one follows a Twitter feed), not wanting to seem like some mousy sycophant. I spent another hour or so snooping around the site, but didn’t do anything with my own just-established Goodreads page, mostly because I was very tired. Then I avoided the site for about six months, during which period I was mainly dealing with a bat infestation in our old and porous house.
Recently some other internet research of dubious value led me back to Goodreads, where I discovered that, during my absence, I’d received three friend requests. That seemed flattering, three is more than two after all, and in the embrace of my small public I finally put some information on my Goodreads page. First I noted the book I was currently reading, which I won’t note here, and then I considered adding my picture to the page, though in the end that seemed like too much work. Satisfied, I turned off the computer and read more of the book I’d just advertised while advertising myself on Goodreads. As I was reading, I sometimes paused to think of a pithy, even poetic comment I might post on Goodreads after finishing the book. I sometimes review books professionally, and in fact have a few books I should be reviewing now, so I didn’t want to write anything on Goodreads that might resemble a book review; I don’t mind procrastinating on writing book reviews, it’s one of my specialties, but it seemed foolish to put off writing a paying (barely remunerative) book review in order to write a volunteer one. But as I said, I thought I could come up with commentary of a different stripe, something terse and poetic—more and more I was thinking of something poetic. Such as: But I couldn’t come up with anything, or nothing good, even after I’d actually finished the book. I wrote and revised, took a walk, revised further. All junk. And even if I were to come up with something good, I thought, it might set an overhigh standard, and then, driven to routinely meet or exceed that standard, I’d devote altogether too much time to my Goodreads poems, distracting me from more serious writing as well as from checking my email and humanely (all in all) removing bats. The bats were just one of the things keeping me up at night; I blamed fatigue, in part, for my failure to write even one presentable Goodreads poem. I decided to ignore the comments box and just give the book a star rating.
All my favorite books are four-star books: great (or very good) books that here and there bore, vex, or disgust me. “Might I confess to finding that it is exquisite to be of two minds regarding works or art?” Robert Walser wrote in a four-star short story. “To find fault with something that I welcome on the whole, how nice I find it is!” Exactly, and I suppose there was no avoiding that frothy exclamation point. Although no artwork is perfect, some are perfecter than others, and whenever a book offers too few opportunities for fault-finding, flirts too brazenly with perfection, with five-starness, I lose interest. For me to give a book five stars would be to insult it, would be more or less the same as giving it three stars. Still, it would look sophomoric to give a close-but-no-cigar four stars to, say, Don Quixote, a book I love, even though parts of it bore, vex, or disgust me. Especially because at some point, for instance when a friend publishes a book, I’m going to trot out all five of those stars. I don’t have many writer friends, or many non-writer friends, my Facebook account notwithstanding, but I have a few, and the next time one of them publishes a book, I’d be inclined to give that book the maximum rating on Goodreads, even though none of my friends—I can just tell—are capable of writing a five-star book (which by my lights is a good thing), and no doubt some of them will write two-star books. And to those two-star books, fair books, neither good nor bad, I’d happily fill in five stars on Goodreads and hope that my friends would do the same for me if and when my two-star book quietly hits tens or even dozens of shelves. But that would make the four stars I gave Don Quixote look even dumber, and then everyone—all my friends, my three Goodreads friends—would know that either my judgment is unreliable or my rating system is a sham. I could refuse to treat my friends’ books on Goodreads, and inform them, my friends, of this policy so they wouldn’t wonder why I was neglecting their books, their mostly as-yet-unpublished books. But I fear my Goodreads friend numbers, already low, might suffer as a result. The whole pursuit seemed doomed. Better, I decided, to skip the star rating along with the commentary, simply let the book speak for itself.
This would be my clean, disinterested procedure: no clever (yet moving) poetic fragments, no reductive star ratings, just a log of the books I’ve read, or skimmed. Many people, including Art Garfunkel, keep such records. If you go to Garfunkel’s website, as I sometimes do, you can see every book he’s read since 1968. In April of ’72 he read Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity; in June of that year, when he and Simon reunited for a McGovern fundraiser at Madison Square Garden, he read no books (or finished up the Watts); last July he read Cicero’s On the Good Life, followed by Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. He was On. Of course I’m not famous and interesting like Art Garfunkel is, nor can I sing harmony, but my book log, I thought, might nonetheless be of interest to my three Goodreads friends, one of whom I’ve never actually met, or might at least be of interest to a future version of myself. Twenty years from now I would know that in June of 2010 I reread (skimmed) a book about insomnia, among others.
Having worked through these dilemmas, I needed to start a new book. This is one of my favorite things to do, to choose and start a new book. I try to really concentrate on my emotional conditions and intellectual acuity at that moment, and consider what plans I have over the next few days or weeks, and then home in on the one book, of all the books I know, or that I happen to find in my bat-ridden home or at the nearest bookstore (where I believe I’ve also seen bat droppings), that I most want, most need, to read, so that I won’t put the book at a disadvantage by reading it at the wrong time. These pains notwithstanding, I often choose the wrong book. It may be that I like to choose and start books more than I like to finish them. Probably I abandon sixty percent of the books I start. Sometimes I fail the book (and set it aside with some shame); sometimes the book fails me (and I hurl it away with some relish). As it happens, the book I was thinking about reading next was one I’d left unfinished several years ago, too many years ago to start from where I’d marked page 122 with the business card of a sleep therapist, it may have been, or a bus transfer (I threw out the bookmark without studying it). But starting again at page one is fine, since, as I just explained, I love to start books. As it also happens, I’d once, over ice cream with a friend I’m almost certain, claimed to have read and enjoyed this book—not entirely false, I’d read and enjoyed part of the book, and I’d read three other books by the same writer, so perhaps I had the right to fudge. Besides, I’d read all the books years ago—not twenty years ago, granted, but six, seven, or eight—long enough for memory to do its destructive, distorting work, to the point where the three wholly read books were about as hazy to me as the mostly unread one. Still, I didn’t want to indicate to my Goodreads friends that I was currently reading the book as if it were brand new to me, since after all I’d had the sense to start the book ages or at least seven years ago, when its author was a bit less fashionable, and furthermore I didn’t want my ice-cream buddy to discover and friend me on the site (I would have to accept), then call my bluff, humiliating me in front of the others, and yet I didn’t want to heap lies on lies in the comments section: “What a delight to revisit this longtime favorite,” or the like. I would have to start some other book, I decided. And probably it would be best, as long as I was on Goodreads, not to read any book I had earlier started but not finished, or any book I’d ever directly or obliquely but either way falsely claimed to have read in its entirety, or any book that I feel I should have read long ago, but didn’t, partly because I was so tired.
The next book I wanted to read was a famously difficult work of philosophy that, to judge from my previous experience with the same book, I would understand only sporadically and almost certainly not finish. Undoubtedly it would look pretentious to list this book on Goodreads; perhaps it would even be pretentious. But I might, I thought, be able to clear the air of some pomposity by reading the philosophy book in tandem with something breezy, even utilitarian (in the non-philosophical sense)—Psyching Up for Tennis or something like that. But I wasn’t about to read Psyching Up for Tennis or tell more lies. I decided to look for another book, but each one I settled on was wrong for Goodreads: too fancy, too populist, too hip, too square, too predictable, too self-consciously curve bally. I would have to give up Goodreads or give up reading.
I deleted my account, but felt no relief. Last night, disturbed by anxieties only tangentially related to Goodreads, I had trouble falling asleep again, and eventually got up at three-thirty, ate a bowl of cereal, and started a new book, a smart, soulful little book of poetry, a book that might, I thought, cast a becoming light on its public readers and even in some small way boost the poet’s career. I thought I could give Goodreads another go, and that this time I would relax and let the site link me to kindred spirits, let it give me fizzy blips of communitarian joy, let it alert me to overlooked books that I too might come to cherish. And it was these optimistic thoughts, and the book of poetry, which started to drag, that finally allowed me to close my eyes, make heavy my limbs, and settle into what I believe were the most restful three hours of non-postcoital adult sleep I have ever known.
[Image credit: pachakku]
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.