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.
When I was in my early-twenties, I made a new year’s resolution to stop looking at myself in the mirror so much. It didn’t work, of course–what else can one do with a reflection besides look at it? This year, in my late-twenties, I set a similar resolution: for four months, until April 1st, I would turn away from Facebook and Twitter. I had grown bored, obsessed, bothered, even–I admit it–enamored with my reflection there. And lord help me if I found myself at midnight yet again, drinking a glass a wine and scrolling through wedding photos of a friend of a friend of a friend, or, come morning, drinking a mug of coffee and vainly attempting to read and retweet one fascinating article after another. J. Alfred Prufrock may have measured out his life with coffee spoons; I had begun to measure mine with status updates.
So I prepared my friends, my “friends,” and my followers (man, the way I kept track of my followers, you’d think I was a cult leader!), and on January 2nd, a loved one changed my passwords for me. The whole internet seemed to collapse in a second, like the ocean knocking down an elaborate sand castle. I suddenly had no access to the two sites I’d grown accustomed to checking over and over during the course of my day. You see, I’m not internet savvy. I don’t have an RSS reader, and I have no idea how one might procure such a thing. Not that I want to. I like visiting my favorite websites on a whim to see if there’s something new; it feels a little like Christmas, reaching into my stocking to see if there’s just one more piece of candy hidden in the toe. The problem with Facebook and Twitter, I’ve realized, is that the Christmas stocking is infinite, and infinitely full. There is always another piece of candy to claw at. One piece is delicious, but one begets two, and three, and four, and, okay, five…it’s not long before you’ve made yourself sick.
The first week of my detox, I realized just how much I’d depended on those sites for community. Aside from the classes I teach a few nights a week, I work from home. Alone. Without my beloved internet family, the silence was frightening. I began to spend more time on goodreads, and I sometimes got sucked into g-chat. One night, exhausted from a day of reading and writing, I searched for entertainment online, and found The Bachelor. Now I’m convinced there’s a patch of dead grass in my brain–it simply cannot be brought to life!
I also noticed how I kept a running Twitter feed in my head: Oh, not my crazy neighbors again!, and, Wow, has anyone read so-and-so’s novel? Someone suggested I keep these in a notebook, to be broadcast at a later date. That might have been funny, but wasn’t the point of my detox to wrest myself away from this real-time cataloging of reactions, emotions, and experience? I felt very much like Laurel Snyder did in her days away from the site. In this Salon article, she sums up well the magnetism of Twitter (and, for me, the live update feed on Facebook as well):
Now I understand you don’t do things with Twitter. You become a part of it. That’s why it doesn’t work when people try to use it as a sporadic “marketing tool” or check in every three days. Twitter is unspooling in real time, and so what happened an hour ago is, well, in the past. Nobody will bother to read what you tweeted four hours ago any more than people at a get-together will overhear what happened before they got there. Like any party, if you duck in and out for a few minutes, you miss all the best parts.
The pain of missing “all the best parts” has been the hardest aspect of my detox. I admit, when it was Doppelganger Week on Facebook, I felt downright bereft. I wanted so badly to post as my profile picture a photo of Anthony Michael Hall circa Sixteen Candles! Or–wait–Chloe Sevigny in Kids! Or wait…! It felt like I was missing a class field trip to an amusement park.
I realized, too, how much news I was getting from Twitter. I have never read the newspaper on a daily basis; I’d much rather listen to NPR, or read long-form magazine articles, or, as I did increasingly over the last year, get linked to news from people I follow online, journalists and novelists and poets who keep up with current events far better than I ever could. A month into my detox, I was clueless–not just about the latest restaurant or movie, but about the new turn in the health care debate, for instance. I’d felt like this once before, when my husband and I got rid of cable, and effectively, television-watching. The level of my family’s discourse often centers around the best new television commercials (I always wanted to be raised by professors, discussing Marxism and whatnot, but as my father would say, “People in hell want ice water.”) In the post-television days, I remember feeling a vague alienation whenever these conversations began, my sister waxing poetic about the latest Volkswagen ad, everyone else nodding. During my internet detox, I began to feel this way a lot, and not just with my family, but with my friends, too. All conversations seemed to begin with, “Did you see on Facebook…” I was suddenly an outsider, and I felt equal parts annoyed, superior and wistful.
And also relieved. In his book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier decries the devaluation of individual thought and personhood in a Web 2.0 world. He writes:
Personal reductivism has always been present in information systems. You have to declare your status in reductive ways when you file a tax return. Your real life is represented by a silly, phony set of database entries in order for you to make use of a service in an appropriate way. Most people are aware of the difference between reality and database entries when they file taxes.
But the order is reversed when you perform the same kind of self-reduction in order to create a profile on a social networking site. You fill in the data: profession, marital status, and residence. But in this case digital reduction becomes a causal element, mediating contact between new friends.
I agree with Lanier here, though once your profile is set up, you can be quite creative. Many of my online friends are writers and artists, and the content they generate is by turns smart, funny, and distinct. If their status updates generate information for advertisers, well, then, fine. I’d rather “The Man” try to sell me novels and nice pens, rather than tires and thigh-masters. But Lanier makes a good point when he says, “Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality.” I’m not my Facebook profile, nor am I a series of Twitter updates. And the time I spend on these sites means I have less time to write fiction and converse with people in person, two things that make me feel most alive in the world.
At the opening of his book, Lanier suggests a few ways to use the internet to promote individual expression. Spend time developing your narrative voice online. (Check.) Don’t post anonymously. (Check–well, most of the time.) And, in a doozy of a sentence, he suggests that Twitter-users stop describing “trivial external events… to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would describe a machine.” Amen to that.
The problem of the internet–its power, and the way it’s changing how we live our lives–is a big topic these days. There’s The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand Year Journey to Your In-Box by John Freeman, and, forthcoming, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. The internet age is so young that we’re worried, and intrigued, by how it will shape us–we simply have no idea. The single most fascinating aspect of my detox was the number of people who wanted to talk to me about it. Almost everyone I spoke to said, “I wish I could do that!” Then they got this strained look in their eyes that meant, The internet is ruining my life! When I assured them a detox was easy to do, they weren’t convinced. Or they said, “Okay, yes, next month. I’ll try it.” And then they wouldn’t. It saddened me to see all these people, chained to their online lives, posting flattering photos of themselves, “liking” a funny status update, posting or retweeting a link. It’s a never-ending race to remind others that we’re here, that we exist. It reminds me of when I used to do dance routines and little plays for my mom. “Look!” I’d yell every few seconds. “You’re NOT watching! Look!” It gets exhausting. And it’s not really living.
So here we are. It’s now past April 1st, and I haven’t ended the detox. The truth is, I don’t miss the two sites much. These days, I feel no pull whatsoever toward Twitter, despite the number of fabulous people there. In my mind, it’s a crowded elevator where everyone’s talking over one another. They’re all saying interesting things, but who can keep track? Part of me is afraid to return to Facebook. Will it exert the power over me that it used to? I want to return, and I want to show restraint. And if I can’t, I will have to detach once again. That might be fine. Since January, I’ve enjoyed the injection of mystery and privacy into the world. I don’t need to broadcast my life on a daily basis. If I run into you at the grocery store, the question, “How are you?” will be genuine, and that will feel good.
[Image credit: Marcos Zerene]
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.
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.)
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.
Over at the Vroman’s Bookstore blog, Millions contributor emeritus Patrick Brownweighs in on Oprah’s endorsement of the Kindle, saying, “I never thought Oprah was anything more than she is — a corporate shill.” Vroman’s president Allison Hill (a beloved and admired figure in the bookselling industry) also shares her thoughts:Oprah, if you’re reading this, forget about cashmere pashimas, spa-like shampoo, and new technology this holiday season, remind your fans what’s really important:A sense of community. Time honored traditions. Human contact. A neighborhood gathering place. Keeping money in the community. Passionate, personal book recommendations. Putting the right book in the right person’s hands to help change their life. The smell and feel of books. A destination where ideas and information and people’s stories are valued and honored.Your endorsement of a “gadget” has a ripple effect far greater than you may realize. Book lovers buying Kindles and digital content exclusively through Amazon means the further erosion of our sales, and a precarious future for many independent bookstores.Independent bookstores are protectors of freedom of speech, financial support for local charities, generators of tax dollars for communities, resources for entertainment and education, and insurance against the chainification of Main Street America. These contributions should not be taken for granted, and certainly not put in jeopardy.When you endorse this new “gadget”, what are you really endorsing? and is it worth it?What do you think of the Kindle? Is it the future of reading, or will it go the way of the oxygen bar?