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)
(Image: New York Public Library/Estate of Stella Sampas Kerouac) In April 1951, when Jack Kerouac fed the first pieces of what would become a 120-foot scroll of paper into his Underwood portable to write the famous first draft of his novel, On the Road, he was, in one sense, blowing up the typewriter to make his own primitive homemade word processor. Sixty years later, Kerouac’s publisher, Penguin Books, is, in its own quiet way, blowing up the book to make – what, exactly? For now, they are calling it a book app, and even to my mildly technophobic eyes, the results offer a glimpse onto a potentially brave new world of publishing. I’ll admit I was suspicious when I first heard about a “book app” for On the Road, assuming I would be subjected to some tech geek’s notion of what the book of the future should look like – that is, that it would be all future and no book. So you can imagine my relief when I took the app, now for sale on iTunes, for a test drive on a borrowed iPad, and found it to be an informative, even tasteful, accessory to Kerouac’s book, not an attempt to bury the text under a blaring, technophiliac mess of gadgetry and special effects. That said, the real star of the show is the technology itself, which promises not just a slew of new apps for beloved classic texts, but also, it seems to me, a new, richer way to make books. By now, of course, e-books are old hat, and even book apps have been around at least since the advent of the iPhone, but this most recent riff on the book app takes the technology in a new, intriguing direction. Publishers have designed apps around comic books and children’s texts, and have even built a few original book apps for nonfiction takes on the periodic table and the solar system, but On the Road is among the first wave of apps designed for the adult trade fiction and poetry markets, following on the heels of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the app for which recently startled the digerati when it knocked Marvel Comics from the #1 spot on the list of top-grossing book apps on iTunes. It isn’t hard to see why Penguin is using On the Road to launch its adult trade fiction apps category. For one, it is a canonical classic appealing to everyone from nostalgic Boomers getting their first iPad for Father’s Day to tech-savvy teenage boys who love their digital devices almost as much as they love smoking “tea” and driving fast cars. At the same time, Kerouac’s book has a long and involved back story that begins with that famous 120-foot scroll and extends to the incestuous pack of Columbia grads and assorted hangers-on who made up the Beat Generation. It is here, in providing the clef for the real-life figures behind the characters in Kerouac’s roman à clef and in drawing a detailed map of Kerouac’s long road to writing On the Road, that this app shines. Chris Russell, editorial director for the project at Penguin, calls the app “a virtual museum” of the book, but to my eyes it comes closer to being a refreshing take on the standard critical edition, with primary sources replacing scholarly essays. The central feature of the app is a digital copy of the published version of the book that comes with tabs readers can tap to see bios of the main characters as well background on some of the people and places Kerouac visited on his travels. Zipping around the app, one can also find maps detailing Kerouac’s travel itinerary, Kerouac’s own maps and writing notes, as well as photos of the major players and original documents from the publisher’s archives showing the book’s tortured road to publication. Much of this added content is either pedestrian, as in the potted bios of the characters, or familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a biography of Kerouac or a history of the Beats. Some elements, though, such as the maps, do add real texture to the experience of reading the book. I read On the Road the first time twenty-some years ago when I was taking the first of several long road trips around the U.S. and I would have loved to have the graphical aid of the map of his journey to compare to my own. The app allows you to tap a location on the map and go directly to the page in the novel when Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise arrives there. I also enjoyed the audio clips of Kerouac reading from On the Road, which, for me, were like seeing the Grateful Dead in concert for the first time after listening only to their studio albums: a cult phenomenon that had never really clicked for me suddenly made a new kind of sense as I listened to Kerouac’s husky, sensual voice make music of prose. Thus, while the concept is exciting, in this case the execution isn’t always as strong as it could be, especially given the app’s $16.99 retail price ($12.99 for the first two weeks). So it’s a good thing the app can be expanded at no new cost to the buyer. At the least, Penguin needs to make the experience more genuinely interactive by adding a talk-back or comment feature so fans can compare reactions to the novel and offer analyses of favorite passages. Even better would be a wiki-like feature to let readers add to the commentary provided by the publishers. For instance, one of the maps in the app shows “Mill City,” just north of San Francisco, as one of Kerouac’s stops on his journey. I happen to be from Mill Valley, Calif., which is next door to Marin City, where Kerouac briefly lived in barracks built for the World War II-era Marinship plant in Sausalito. It adds little to one’s reading of the book to know that Kerouac combined the two city names, but given his obsession with African-American culture, it does add context to know that, when he lived in Marin City, those barracks – now public housing, famous for being the home of rapper Tupac Shakur – were among the only truly racially integrated housing in the United States. But even with added interactivity, there is little here you couldn’t find on a well curated website devoted to On the Road, and cynics will suggest that Penguin is only trying to push sales of a popular backlist title by forcing fans to buy a new digital edition just to see a few cool bits of memorabilia from the archives. And, of course, the cynics would have a point. That is no doubt part of what is driving this sudden interest in putting out “enhanced” digital editions of titles like On the Road and The Waste Land, and if these new iPad apps do no more than draw in a few old Kerouac and Eliot heads, this will prove to be a pointless exercise. If, on the other hand, it draws in new readers, wired iKids who love wriggling down the hypertextual wormholes of the web, then book apps of classic texts will serve a valuable, if somewhat limited, purpose. As I dipped into On the Road’s digital archives, I couldn’t help thinking of other classics that would benefit from similar treatment. Wouldn’t you love to peek into the files that famous pack rat, Hunter S. Thompson, kept on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? (See my recent essay on Fear and Loathing here.) Or what about a book app for Tim O’Brien’s metafictional Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried, with maps and photos and bios of the real people behind O’Brien’s characters? But, again, if the book app phenomenon ends there, as virtual attics for the houses of a few great books, then I doubt the book app will draw many iPad users away from their treasured GarageBand and iMovie apps. The real promise here, as I see it, is the underlying technology, which, with any luck, will some day allow a kid now sitting in his eighth-grade English class playing Spider-Man: Total Mayhem HD to write an original literary app: a truly interactive novel that not only combines text with hypertext, but also with sound and images and reader responses, all at the swipe of a finger. This notion has been the holy grail of a certain school of digitally avant garde writers since the days of dial-up connections, but the technology has always been clunky, and the stories, at least in my own admittedly limited experience, damnably dull. Two factors suggest the lackluster track record of the interactive novel may be due for a change. First, it takes only a few minutes on an iPad to see that this sleek hand-held device, with its gleaming touch screen and seemingly bottomless array of multi-media features, is a quantum leap forward in terms of flexibility and user friendliness. Second, until very recently, the minds of the people creating interactive novels have been as old school as their equipment. If the central building block of most interactive novels has until now been the codex text – otherwise known as the book – that’s because most of the people making them were raised on codex texts. Every day, as more toddlers read The Little Engine That Could on their parents’ iPads and Skype their grandparents on their smart phones, this is becoming less true, and soon a young writer whose brain is more supple than mine may well take this technology and bend it to uses that my mind, hopelessly mired in the linear, cannot even imagine. In the meantime, old fogies like me can happily potter around in the virtual attics of classic novels like On the Road and recall a day when blowing up a venerable piece of technology took only a big stack of paper and some tape.
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After three years of wrangling, Google is pushing closer to a digitized future for books. Even as the U.S. Justice Department continues to review a newly released, modified version of a settlement with groups representing authors and publishers, Google's plans still contain within them the blueprint for a seismic shift in how we consume and interact with books. By way of backstory, the settlement explains, "Three years ago, the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and a handful of authors and publishers filed a class action lawsuit against Google Books." Beginning with that lawsuit, there have been several roadblocks on the way to a final settlement. Some have been cleared, but as the Wall Street Journal points out, "the issue of whether it is fair for the settlement to let Google distribute books whose legal rights owners haven't been identified—known as orphan works—is still drawing criticism." Meanwhile, in the newest version of the settlement, the central elements of Google's digitization plan are mostly unchanged from a year ago when the settlement was initially announced. We outlined a year ago what is most likely to matter to readers, a massive expansion in the access to books still under copyright, but out-of-print, including the so-called orphan works. Google's plan paves the way for a huge expansion in the access to this massive class of books -- 80% of the books in libraries, according to Google. More important, however, is how these books will be made available. As Google has outlined in its breakdown of the new agreement, "Once this agreement has been approved, you'll be able to purchase full online access to millions of books. This means you can read an entire book from any Internet-connected computer, simply by logging in to your Book Search account, and it will remain on your electronic bookshelf, so you can come back and access it whenever you want in the future." This means that millions of books that were once available only in library stacks or through used book dealers or, more likely, that were essentially invisible to all but the most motivated buyers and researchers, will suddenly be as ubiquitous and easily accessible as Google itself. It is hard to overstate how big this change could be. You might liken it to the creation of the internet itself, when a critical mass of interconnections gave rise to the sharing and spread of information on a massive scale. Even as the internet has changed how we think about the accessibility of knowledge and data, a massive, "dark" cache of human knowledge has remained largely untouched, many millions of physical volumes whose copyright status doomed them to the analog world. With a finalized settlement, these volumes will become plugged into the internet as we know it, available for purchase, and accessible to anyone with an internet connection and a willingness to pay. The ripple effects of this development may be hard to predict, but it seems likely to bring further into the mainstream the notion of buying a digitized, format-agnostic book. The impact of this will be amplified by the recent news that Google will not be the only seller of the books it has scanned. As a Publishers Marketplace overview of the newest version of the settlement points out, "any book retailer -- Amazon, Barnes & Noble, local bookstores, or other retailers -- will be able to sell consumers online access to the out-of-print books covered by the settlement." In this way, the settlement heralds a whole new category of books being sold by book retailers. Meanwhile, the settlement has been scaled back in one significant way from a year ago. It will only apply to books published or copyrighted in the U.S., U.K., Australia, or Canada. The legal intricacies of including books from other countries apparently proved too challenging to overcome. But ultimately, at least for the English-speaking world, this reining in of Google's effort will hardly limit its potential consequences.
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This week at The Millions, we're attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the transformation of book coverage in the digital age. Yesterday, Garth looked at the death of the newspaper book review section. Today, Max considers the revenue problems facing literary websites... and the vices and virtues of one of the solutions. On Friday, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book reader.I.There's been no bigger story on the book pages in recent weeks than #Amazonfail. The furor itself hardly needs to be rehashed here (briefly: a supposed classification "glitch" caused thousands of books with gay themes to be removed from Amazon's bestseller lists and search results, making the books very difficult for readers to find), but the episode has entered into our evolving thinking about book coverage in the digital age. As Edan touched on in her #Amazonfail roundup, some might experience cognitive dissonance reading about the Amazon "glitch" on sites like The Millions.To understand this dissonance, you have to first know something about Amazon's stakeholders. Yesterday, in considering the fate of newspaper book sections we tried to conduct a similar stakeholder analysis of The New York Times Book Review. We argued that readers, writers, publishers, and critics all have a stake in the NYTBR. Depending on whether you agree with our analysis, you may feel that the NYTBR is overserving or underserving one or more of those parties. Luckily for those who find the NYTBR falling short of their needs, there are plenty of easily accessible alternatives.Like the Times, Amazon occupies a unique niche in the literary ecology (though its footprint is more massive than the NYTBR's ever was). Also like the Times, Amazon can serve as a sort of proxy for a larger set of players - in this case, for the New Economy businesses that increasingly mediate book coverage. And Amazon shares some of the Times' stakeholders: readers (shoppers), writers, and publishers. Critics wouldn't seem to play a role, except that Amazon has an important "hidden" stakeholder: the thousands of websites across a spectrum of topics and categories that participate in Amazon's Associates Program. This program pays site owners referral fees when they send readers to Amazon and those readers then make a purchase. As many of our readers know, The Millions is a participant; readers support our site when they start here before shopping at Amazon. Thus the peculiar sense of a feedback loop generated by our coverage of the #Amazonfail story.II.So, how did small, eclectic sites like The Millions become the "hidden stakeholders" in "the world's largest bookstore?" It's all part of a now 15-year-old story: Internet content providers looking for a business model. Particularly for smaller sites without an easily classifiable or marketable focus, Amazon's Associates Program has proven to be a good (and sometimes the only) alternative to an advertising model that simply doesn't pay off. (And that, lest we forget, is increasingly not paying off for the print analogs to these sites.) Book coverage has become decreasingly viable in print, and it may be that online book coverage can only avoid the same fate via "alternative" revenue sources like Amazon's program and others like it. For a website that has a tight focus and occupies a lucrative niche, revenue opportunities are comparatively plentiful. A visitor to a photography site probably likes cameras, and cameras are expensive enough that camera companies will be willing to pay good money to advertise to those readers. In a less lucrative niche (like, say, books), there may be far fewer advertising dollars to go around. Meanwhile, for sites with a broader focus, advertisers are often worried about not getting enough bang for their buck. (Why advertise cameras on a general interest site, when you can advertise to photographers?)The advantages that accrue to the hypothetical photography site in the search for advertising dollars extends to programs like Amazon's. Plenty of enterprising website owners have made a small fortune writing about lucrative niches and earning commissions when their readers click through to Amazon to buy those big ticket items. But an interesting consequence of the Amazon program is that it has also provided a meaningful revenue stream for a diverse array of sites that might otherwise struggle to pay the bills.To take one example: For the eclectic mega-blog Boing Boing, covering diverse subject matter and appealing to readers from all over the map, there is no obvious target demographic. Boing Boing likely can't command the ad rates that a more focused site of similar size could. But when Boing Boing has occasion to cover books, it links to Amazon, and it picks up some revenue whenever people click through the links and shop. Boing Boing gets enough traffic that Amazon affiliation is merely one of a number of different revenue opportunities open to it. For smaller sites, the opportunities available are few. (Read Levi Asher's "Modest Success Story" on Litkicks and the ensuing comments for a taste of what the advertising landscape is like for small culture-focused sites.) And so Amazon can provide a business model, or at least an element of one. At its simplest, the model is as follows: get a lot of traffic by writing compelling content and then throw in the occasional Amazon link when applicable. In this way, Amazon's Associates Program has helped breathe life into thousands of websites. Eclectic, mom-and-pop publications get a shot at making some money in a fairly unobtrusive fashion. And those publications, adapting to the altered terrain, allow Amazon to expand its presence across the Internet.In theory, a variation of this model could be pursued by all manner of sites. With their broad focus and high traffic, newspaper websites are decent but not ideal venues for advertisers. Were it not so likely to give their omsbudsmen coronaries, newspapers might be willing to augment their advertising revenues with "affiliation," and dire economic times may yet force their hands. Indeed, The Times (UK) includes a link to "buy the book" with every review, and operates its very own online bookstore.III.Despite all of the above, our partnership with Amazon is an ad hoc one, and the interests of Amazon and its Associates aren't always aligned. We've been doing this long enough to know that Amazon isn't the only game in town. We've been asked more than a few times why we don't link instead to big independent bookstore Powell's or to the smaller independents now collectively represented by IndieBound - those sites having been deemed more palatable by some.There's no reason to dismiss those options out of hand, but right now an Amazon affiliation makes the most sense for many sites offering book coverage. There are several reasons for this, and we share them here - maybe to some small degree to justify our choice, but also to offer a roadmap that current or future players might follow in order to compete with the Amazon juggernaut.For starters, viewed purely as a database, Amazon is a remarkable resource. It has innovated tremendously in this area over the years and currently offers by far the best book pages out there. To borrow an example from the previous post in this series, take a look at Amazon's page for 2666 and find "search inside the book," outside reviews, book recommendations, all manner of meta-data, and vibrant discussion among and opinions from readers. Powell's offers some of these features (including, in some cases, book scans from Google Books), but not quite all. IndieBound has not much at all in the way of book information. When it is suggested that we link to an "indie" when we link to books, the implication is that The Millions is a shopping site and that we can by our linking policy direct people where to shop. But the reality is that The Millions, like many sites that affiliate with Amazon, has an editorial rather than an "advertorial" mission, and one reason we link to Amazon is because it offers the most information about the books we write about, whether we recommend them or deplore them. As long-time blogger Matthew Cheney put it recently, "I want a link to give you the most information and options with the fewest clicks."There are several more practical factors. Amazon's tools, reports, and ease of linking are superior to those offered by other stores, and Amazon has a long enough track record that affiliates have little concern that those links may one day stop working properly. Without delving into the boring details, let's just say that creating the book links for The Millions is not an effortless task, and that the ecosystem of tools that has grown up around the Amazon program lets us spend more time on the stuff our readers care about - namely writing about books. More importantly, other outfits simply don't have Amazon's track record in providing an affiliate program. Site owners participating in such programs have to feel comfortable knowing that their links are tracking properly, that the accounting is occurring properly, and that the program won't change or even disappear. While Amazon isn't perfect in this regard, it is the affiliation many sites are right now most comfortable using.While indie bookstores are typically seen as being at odds with Amazon, many do business with it. In fact, your favorite used bookstore is almost guaranteed to be selling books using Amazon's platform. Amazon's platform, particularly since its purchase of abebooks.com last year, is an essential tool for used booksellers. Authors and publishers may not like how easy it is for Amazon shoppers to click and buy a used copy over a new one, but from the standpoint of bookstores, Amazon gives thousands of local shops a global reach. Money-conscious readers, meanwhile, nearly always have cheaper, used copies to chose from. I don't buy books all that often from Amazon, but sometimes when I do, I'll opt for a used copy, and it can be startling to see the book arrive with a bookmark or a card bearing the info of the far flung shop that sold me the book. It's a tiny personal connection facilitated by the giant Amazon.Both Amazon's affiliates and used book vendors share the customer conviction that has given Amazon its formidable market share. Over the years, for The Millions and other website projects, I've done a great deal of research about different online business models, and, as far as affiliate programs go, the general consensus is that Amazon "converts" at the highest rate - that is, thanks to Amazon's brand recognition and widespread familiarity with how to use and navigate the site, readers are more likely to buy from it than from other sites. This point is a purely monetary consideration, sure, but it also addresses something else that concerns purveyors of online book coverage. We want to get more books into more peoples' hands - wherever they buy them from - and linking to Amazon seems likely to do that.While indie bookstores might someday soon surpass Amazon on many of the above points, there is a final element of the Amazon program that will be difficult for the indies to match. When you click from an affiliate site to Amazon and buy something, the affiliate gets a commission (with a few exceptions) no matter what it is. If someone clicks on a link to 2666 and in wending his way through Amazon, ends up buying a $1,700 grill, The Millions gets a commission on that grill. As you can imagine, this doesn't happen very often. However, the open secret of literature and culture sites that get a modest amount of traffic is that the commissions earned on books alone are not all that impressive (though for sites that earn commissions on a lot of book sales, they can add up). Instead it is the big ticket items that sometimes get bought that help make Amazon's program more worthwhile than others from a financial standpoint. The grills pay the bills. This is another gray area in an a revenue discussion that is sometimes portrayed in black and white. Amazon sells books at prices that undercut many small players in order to draw people in who will buy big-ticket items with bigger profit margins. For many people, the discussion ends there, but the truth is that the commissions on those big ticket items help subsidize the very same literary and cultural coverage that is having so much trouble finding a workable business model in newspapers and other traditional media. Amazon in some small way, and likely not intentionally, is helping to fund small online publications like The Millions. And there are other well-respected book sites that seem to have come to the same conclusions that we have.IV.In the end, the Amazon question is not one of pricing or sourcing, but one of financial viability. If the future of book coverage is truly online, profit expectations will have to be low (were they ever anything else?), but a world in which writers and editors can be compensated for their labor is a better one for readers. There aren't many meaningful revenue options for book sites, and some do without entirely, but Amazon offers a model that can go a long way toward supporting a small publication.That said, affiliation raises two problems. One is the potential editorial conflict inherent in affiliate programs in the first place, the notion that the presence of these links will tempt writers and editors into becoming shills rather than dispassionate critics. Despite this, participation in affiliate programs hasn't been met with much concern. And though these programs are sometimes described as a threat to readers, in an online marketplace with thousands of places to read about books, it's unlikely that disingenuously positive book reviews written just to sell books would garner much of a following, nor would the effort make anyone very rich.The other, bigger problem with Amazon is one of size and control. Is it a good thing for us to give more power to this behemoth link by link, post by post? This will be the focus of the final installment of this series, as we examine Amazon's heft and how it has been able to make its own rules in an emerging market - rules that could have big implications for publishing and the future of book coverage online.Part 1: Garth looks at the death of the newspaper book review section.Part 3: Max hazards some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism.[Image credits: Rachel Kramer Bussel, spcbrass, mccun934]
In a short piece at silicon.com "futurist" Peter Cochrane talks about a potential business idea that I'm surprised doesn't already exist: digitizing personal book collections. As I've said in the past, I support the various book digitization efforts from Google and others for these projects' potential to make the sharing of knowledge easier, not because I want to read all my books (for free or otherwise) from my computer. However, I am intrigued by the option of digitizing at least some of the books I own - perhaps books I've read and don't intend to read in full again. It would be nice to have searchable, digital copies of these books to refer back to, but there are some books that I could never trade in for digital doppelgangers.
The book world's big news today was Amazon's unveiling of the latest iteration of its eBook reading device, the Kindle 2. You'll see that the device itself is now remarkably thin (even to those of us who now take tininess in devices for granted). As the promo copy says, "just over 1/3 of an inch, as thin as most magazines." There are also a number of other incremental advances to the hardware and interface, though nothing earth-shattering. The real news, to this observer, is that the Kindle remains a key element in the slow and fragmented (when compared to other media) but inexorable shift in how people read. I'll have more on this topic in a few days. In the meantime, Kindle fans (I know there are quite a few of you) commence rejoicing, and Kindle curmudgeons commence grumbling.The new Kindle starts shipping in two weeks. Kindle 1 owners who order by midnight get to jump to the front of the line.Bonus Link: Kindle: Amazon's New Firestarter
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