Remember the fear that Google would start a print on demand business and put all the publishers out of business? Well, Google appears to be getting into the bookselling business, but there’s no printing involved, nor are they cutting out publishers. Google’s new service will allow publishers to set their own price for online access to books. Readers won’t be able to save copies of the books on their computers nor will they be able to copy text from the books, and the books will only be viewable within the browser window. This looks like a great opportunity for publishers to provide online access to their books without having to set up their own systems. (via)
That sounds like a recipe for a bunch of crap, for the crowdsourced Frankenstein's monster novel of the future, for bad writing and bad storytelling. But the opposite has somehow happened. The site has in fact attracted extremely talented writers, illustrators, musicians, animators, photographers, and video editors, all of whom are collaborating online -- and getting paid for it. In the case of hitRECord, incredibly, the cream really is rising to the top.
● ● ●
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?
Amazon has been notoriously vague about sales of Kindle ebooks and of the Kindles themselves, but looking at the Amazon stats at The Millions, we can see that Kindle ebook sales have jumped by an order of magnitude since the launch of the new version.When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the second iteration of the Kindle in February, he confused lots of folks when he said "More than 10% of the units we sell are Kindle book sales." It was later clarified that he meant that, when looking at the 230,000 titles available for the Kindle, Kindle ebook sales account for 10% of the sales of those titles. Meanwhile, analysts have been trying all along to wrap their heads around what the Kindle means for the still nascent ebook market. To give an example, one analyst last year suggested that Kindle ebook sales could hit $2.5 billion by 2012.Nonetheless, in the wake of all the hoopla surrounding the Kindle launch in February, it was hard to get a clear picture of whether we were seeing a lot of media hype from gadget-obsessed tech writers or a real watershed moment in how people will read. If our numbers (which are, admittedly, a very small sample size) are any indication, the launch of the Kindle in 2007 raised awareness of ebooks, but the launch of the Kindle 2, this past February, brought ebooks to the mass market.In early 2008, with the first Kindle a few months old, we had anecdotal evidence from an ebook publisher saying that the Kindle wasn't posting impressive sales. More recently, as the Kindle 2 hype was ramping up, a pair of established book bloggers noted that their Amazon stats didn't show much interest at all in Kindle ebook sales. Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review wrote "only one out every 726 items purchased at Amazon after reaching it from our site in 2008 was a Kindle download." Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading had similar findings: "While a few readers have purchased Kindle ebooks through my links, the vast majority have been sticking to the print editions."For The Millions, Kindle ebook sales through late February of this year were similarly underwhelming. To use Orthofer's metric, Kindle ebooks sales from November 19, 2007, to February 21, 2009, the day before the Kindle 2 started shipping, amounted to one out every 99 items purchased at Amazon after reaching it from The Millions. So, a good deal better than what Orthofer was seeing but still not exactly an impressive number. (Incidentally, pre-Kindle ebook sales - presumably ebooks meant for devices that predate the Kindle - amounted to one out of every 272 from the start of The Millions to November 18, 2007)But what's interesting is what's happened since the Kindle 2 started shipping on February 22. From that point until today, even though we still only link to the physical editions of books, Kindle ebooks have accounted for an incredible one out of every six items purchased at Amazon after reaching it from The Millions. Again, I have to stress that the sample size isn't huge and that this is just one data point, but it certainly seems that with version 2, the Kindle has gone from a novelty to something much closer to the mainstream.
● ● ●
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.
A few months ago, I wrote about some of the oddities of Amazon's customer review system. I suggested that certain of Amazon's "Top Reviewers" had become semi-professionalized, and that some five-star customer reviews reach readers the same way reviews in the Times (and on blogs) do: as part of a well-organized press push. A story that appeared in Galleycat last week revealed something surprising (to me anyway): the Amazon push may work in the opposite direction, to keep an unwanted review from surfacing. Apparently, Deborah MacGillivray, a romance novelist, convinced Amazon to expunge the reviews and comments of a reviewer who had been critical of her work.Again, it appears that Amazon's customer review system is evolving beyond "helpful, tell-it-like-it-is product information" into an extension of the publishing demimonde. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with the American review system, in which publicists send advance copies of books to influential readers in an attempt to get press; it is, rather, to argue that Amazon should take a good hard look at its system. On one hand, it could work harder to protect the disinterestedness of customer reviews (by not kowtowing to authors, for example, or by getting rid of the reviewer rankings). On the other, it might recast the review system as less of an aw-shucks, communitarian forum.
It's no secret that newspaper book sections are endangered. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Journal Constitution eliminated its book editor position, placing the fate of the paper's well regarded book section in question. Many are assuming the worst, that the newspaper will eliminate the section entirely. There's even a petition to protect the AJC book review.With newspapers increasingly under fire from investors as once robust profit margins sag due to unprecedented competition from the Web and other forms of media and entertainment, many of these companies are looking to trim their operations in order to cut down on the costs of newsprint and personnel. Viewed in this light, book sections are dead weight.The problem is that the book section business model is broken. As The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) last month, publishers, the natural advertisers for book sections, don't spend much on ads because they find the ads to be too expensive or ineffective. This fact puts book sections at a big disadvantage as compared to other parts of the newspaper, all of which must pull their weight. Business sections, for example, do well because the financial profile of their readers inspires a willingness among advertisers to spend big bucks to reach them.The broken business model of book sections has led a number of newspapers to take drastic steps. To this end, the LA Times recently unveiled a combined books/opinion section. The Chicago Tribune, the LA Times' sister paper, has taken a different tack, announcing that it will move its book section from Sunday to Saturday. The Tribune says that this move will "usher in a new era of the Tribune's coverage of books, expanding our coverage of books, ideas and the written word throughout the newspaper and across the week." In addition, "moving the section to Saturday will separate it from the Sunday newspaper, which already is bursting at the seams with essential reading, and make a prominent place for it on a new day of the week." This is all well and good - and certainly better than eliminating the book section altogether - but as the Chicago Reader noted over a year ago, when the book section switch was originally floated, "Saturday's press run is some 400,000 copies smaller than Sunday's. The annual savings in newsprint alone would reach half a million dollars." When the Tribune realized that stuffing an extra section into the Saturday paper would require them to pay their distributors more, they backed off, and converted the section to tabloid format, another newsprint saver. Seventeen months later, the paper appears to have realized that a switch to Saturday makes financial sense after all.Ultimately, however, none of these measures will be satisfying to book section readers, and the fact is, except perhaps at the New York Times, there is little future for book sections showing up with our Sunday papers. The future of newspapers isn't in paper, and the same is doubly so for book sections.I've been surprised that the many blogs that have decried the disappearance of book sections are the same ones that point out the obsolescence of newspapers - particularly their cultural coverage - in the face of a wealth of online alternatives. If our newspapers are going to be obsolete, our book sections will become obsolete as well. The tricky solution to all of this, of course, is the very medium that continues to beguile newspapers: online. There are still challenges here - as yet online ads don't pay nearly as well as print - but as book blogs have in some respects shown, there is a big audience for online book coverage, and online allows the discussion of books to break out of the "review" mold that may be contributing to the decline in the viability of newspaper book sections. The important thing to remember, I think, is that the disappearance of book sections isn't a book section problem, it's a newspaper industry problem, and the solution to book section woes will come with the solutions to the larger newspaper industry problems.
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.