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)
Google Books has just unveiled a set of new features that should appeal both to digital bibliophiles and the academically minded.In my opinion, the coolest new feature is one called “popular passages.” This feature does two very useful things. First, it cross-indexes and links books to relevant subject matter. So, when you run across a quote from Plato in the course of the reading, once click will take you straight to the relevant passage in The Republic. What may be even cooler, though, is that it tells readers how often and in what books a certain passage or quotation has occurred. Thus, one can, if so inclined, trace the intellectual heritage of an idea, or even a specific quote through the many books maintained in Google’s library.Other features include the ability to create and share personal libraries and to take direct quotes from public domain books and add them to web paged and blogs. All in all, good stuff that any avid reader (and commentator) should find handy.
Various book blogs have been pointing to the vnunet.com story, which says that Google Book Search is causing people to buy books. The story points to data from Hitwise, a research firm, which shows that 15.93% of Google Book Search UK users click through to book store sites from Google’s site, with Amazon UK being the most popular destination. The article, and a Hitwise blog post, imply that this data means that Google Books is, despite the fears of publishers to the contrary, helping to sell books. Of course we can’t really know if that’s true. What seems more likely is that people researching particular books will do so at Google Books and they will click through to the book store sites as they try to seek out more information – user reviews, for example – on the books that interest them. Occasionally, of course they may buy some books this way.But the point, as I see it, isn’t that people are using Google Book Search to buy books, it’s that they’re using it like a library – after all, only 15.93% of users click through to book stores, and some small fraction of those go on to buy books. The additional data collected by Hitwise for the study seems to bear this out. Hitwise is capable of dividing users into dozens of thinly sliced demographic groups. Of all those groups, here are the three biggest users of Google Books UK, according to Hitwise:Low Income Elderly: Elderly people living in low rise council housing, often on low incomes.University Challenge: Undergraduate students living in halls of residence or close to universities.Sepia Memories. Very elderly people of independent means who have moved to modest apartments suitable for their needs.Bearing in mind that the Hitwise data should be taken with a grain of salt, these groups are probably among the most heavy users of brick and mortar libraries. And while college students certainly fit the profile of pirated media swappers, the other two demographic groups do not. To me, this data confirms that in the minds of the casual user, Google Book Search is a research tool, an online variety of the library – not meant to replace libraries, mind you, but meant to fill in the gaps libraries’ current online offering, namely full text search – a fact that explains Google’s cozy relationship with a number of library systems, as opposed to its acrimonious relationship with a number of publishers.
Is there a “crisis in reading?” Last quarter’s Barnes & Noble conference call; the well-publicized demise of certain book review supplements and independent bookstores; the gripes of our editor friends; and a whiff of desperation around the marketing of literary fiction (typically referred to as “so tough” or “a hard sell”) would seem to confirm the encroachment of electronic reading matter – email, Facebook feeds, blogs – on the territory of print. Many of my students, ten years younger than I am, do not read books for pleasure. Sometimes, they don’t even read for school.On the other hand, a literary author, Jhumpa Lahiri, last week stood athwart the New York Times bestseller list. And huge chain bookstores apparently find it profitable to operate in towns like the one I grew up in, where previously you bought what K-Mart was selling, or you got bupkis.A recent study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts raised some alarms. “Fewer than half of all American adults now [read] literature,” the NEA reported. But, as many among the commentariat were quick to point out, the NEA was methodologically hamstrung by its insistence on defining literature as fiction and poetry; does our weekly New Yorker binge count for nothing? And so the “Death of Reading” metanarrative receded, for a time, into the murk that birthed it.Receded, that is, until Ursula K. Le Guin insisted on rousing it, via an essay in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine. The thrust of Le Guin’s argument was that readers weren’t the problem, exactly; that pessimism about reading can be blamed on the conglomerates that have, in the last two decades, swallowed most of New York’s most esteemed publishing houses. With its modest margins and arcane payment schedules, book publishing is more a labor of love than a maximizer of shareholder value, Le Guin pointed out; for every Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter, a thousand midlist authors languish in the wings. To the News Corps of the world, she posed the question, “Why don’t you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?”But responses to Le Guin’s piece have inadvertently suggested an alternative explanation for the angst about the health of reading: the publishing world’s formidable self-regard. The editors whose letters grace Harper’s April issue are talented and admirable people (without them, some of my favorite books would not have found me), but none of them seem able to see in Le Guin’s essay anything other than a reflection of their own personal accomplishments.On one hand, Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press and a vociferous critic of the publishing conglomerates, pronounces Le Guin “right on.” After describing how his quondam employer, Bertelesmann-controlled Random House purged staff and backlists, “leaving only a hollowed-out label that can be affixed to any new book the group acquires,” Schiffrin declares, “Literary publishing is insufficiently profitable to meet corporate expectations…. One solution to this problem,” he suggests, “is to create not-for-profit firms as we did in starting The New Press.”On the other hand, Lorin Stein, Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, finds Le Guin’s essay “so depressing, in its knee-jerk snobbery and thoughtlessness, one hardly knows where to start.” Le Guin’s heroic readers of yore, he argues, “were part of a mass market, created by ‘moneymaking entities’ in the business of selling books.” Without profit-motivated publishers (such as Holtzbrinck-backed FSG), writing becomes a pastime for the few who can afford to write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory beyond the cozy ring of ‘our own people.’ Fewer readers means lower stakes, lower standards, and more crap getting passed off as the real thing.Barbara Epler, Editor-in-Chief of the independent press New Directions, quite naturally defines the stakes more modestly. “Readers will always be here,” she writes, agreeing with one of Le Guin’s propositions. “That’s how writers like W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño [both published by New Directions] catch on like wildfire. There have never been so many thriving, struggling, astonishingly nimble small literary presses busy making beautiful books.”And, of course, a reader affiliated with Columbia University sees an industrial strategy to rule the world through publishing – which is even more whimsical in its premises than Mr. Stein’s notion that writers under the current dispensation aren’t already people who more or less “write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory.” (Or his parallel conceit that the nature of the book business remains substantially unchanged from the era of the “Ivanhoe-reading cowboy.”)Is there a crisis in reading? Impossible to say, when “our own people,” the arbiters of literary culture, decline one of its most valuable functions: self-criticism. To be fair to the editors quoted above, their enthusiasm on behalf of their respective projects is evidence of a laudable commitment to the culture of the book; as Lorin Stein puts it, “This is a business I believe in passionately.” And if we are to blame someone for changing the subject from the state of reading to the state of publishing, it should be Le Guin herself. Still, in aggregate, these responses work to confound, rather than to clarify. Their diagnostic power is that of the Rorschach blot.
The book tech beat is busy lately, with big developments on both the dedicated device side and the device agnostic side. (For more about the two ebook paths, check out our post on ebook evolution.)In recent weeks, its been Amazon making all the noise. Today the company unveiled a new Kindle, the larger Kindle DX. The DX is 77% bigger and 36% more expensive, and everyone is falling all over themselves to explain why it won’t save newspapers.Of course the Kindle alone won’t save newspapers – the problems there run deep – but it might be a passable way to read the paper (if you’re the kind of person who spends $489 on a newfangled newspaper reading device). The new larger screen, 9.7 inches on the diagonal, certainly helps, as does the “auto-rotating” screen, which lets you flip from portrait to landscape. The bigger display and other features like the ability to “clip and save” articles are all designed for what Amazon is calling an “Enhanced Newspaper Reading Experience.” It also occurs to me that the Kindle demographic might align with what’s left of the newspaper demographic in a way that will offer a small ray of sunshine during these otherwise dark times. But it’s also true, as Patrick noted at his Vroman’s blog today, that the iPhone is a quite capable for reading the news (as are most other smartphones; that’s the whole point of a smartphone).What’s much more interesting than the newspaper angle – and somewhat frightening in fact – is that Jeff Bezos today announced that among books that are available for the Kindle, 35% of the copies Amazon sells are Kindle editions. This is a surprising number (at the Kindle 2 unveiling in February it was 10%) and is further proof of the huge land grab that Amazon is now enacting. Only slightly mitigating those sales figures is news that the DX will support the commonplace PDF format, leaving the door open for a future in which most ebooks sold can be read on any reader, no matter what company manufactures it.Amazon has also been making waves on the device agnostic side of things with last month’s purchase of Stanza, the popular free ebook application for the iPhone. Amazon had already unveiled a Kindle app for the iPhone, and this move further solidifies its presence there (and presumably in the app-centric ecosystems of future smartphones). The Kindle itself, of course, is the main focus. The longer that Amazon can keep its hands on the ebook market (a market that will eventually embrace open formats, one has to assume), the longer Amazon can rake in its monopoly profits. The iPhone moves, as well as the decision to support PDFs on the DX, meanwhile, are a smart hedge and a tacit acknowledgment that ebooks will one day be predominantly sold in formats that aren’t tied to any one device.Update: The Kindle is really not going to save any newspapers: “the best deal Amazon will give the Dallas Morning News – and we’ve negotiated this up to the last two weeks – they want 70 percent of the subscriptions revenue. I get 30 percent, they get 70 percent. On top of that they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device. Now is that a business model that is going to work for newspapers? I get 30 percent and they get the right to license my content to any portable device – not just ones made by Amazon? That, to me, is not a model.”
Amazon isn’t content just to get your online shopping dollars. Now it wants to travel with you, untethered. Amazon’s recently unveiled TextBuyIt lets you buy stuff from the online store with a few keystrokes on any old mobile phone.The implications here are interesting. Shopping by text message seems clunky, especially in the age of the iPhone, but my guess is that Amazon is trying to build the mobile shopping habit for when everybody has iPhone-caliber browsing abilities at their fingertips. This era likely isn’t far off. This means that folks will be able to walk around their local Barnes & Noble or Best Buy, handle the goods, and then punch up a purchase with Amazon at a better price.Certainly mobile shopping may represent yet another threat to brick and mortar book retailers, but I suspect the companies that should be really nervous are electronics chains, where the potential savings to be had are much greater. Good bookstores will always be able to offer a pleasant atmosphere and knowledgeable staff that Amazon is unable to match.
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?