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)
1. A few weeks ago, I spent several afternoons at a book morgue, otherwise known as The Monkey’s Paw secondhand bookshop in Toronto. It was a refuge of sorts. I had been feeling slightly down about writing and wanted to linger in a place of pure bibliophilia. Like many novelists, I tend to experience an existential crisis every time I finish a book. Why bother? Why engage in such an intangible and self-involved vocation when I could be doing something more tangibly and socially useful? (i.e., stopping a pipeline, regrouting the bathroom.) Why write longform narrative in a world that prefers to live swiftly and episodically? In the past, this soul searching has lodged itself in the personal-neurotic realm. But lately it has ballooned into a broader crisis about how much less novels matter to the mainstream than when I started writing. I don’t want to sound self-pitying or ungrateful (I’ve been very fortunate) but the work of writing novels — literary fiction no less — just seems an increasingly weird and arcane thing to be doing with my time. It’s fairly obvious when I look around that fewer and fewer people I know and love are reading books. (And, here, I’m not referring to people who are opting to read books on screen over print — I’m talking about reading books period.) They don’t see the point. They’d rather be watching Downton Abbey or clicking through obscure indie news sites. They would prefer to be resting in Supta Baddhakonasana or sitting on a meditation cushion at their neighborhood Sangha. Or hanging out with circus friends in the park or blogging at their local coffee joint. You get the idea. They are drawn to culture, just not the culture of reading books. And to my dismay, this lack of books does not seem to have left a yawning void in their lives. 2. So, I went to spend time at The Monkey’s Paw, feeling disgruntled about the ailing state of the literary novel; grieving somewhat for myself and my forthcoming effort (what a way for a new book to begin, intubated, on precious life support); and grieving for my children (what are the “soul effects” of choosing Angry Birds over Lewis Carroll?) What compounded my disgruntlement and despair was the feeling that it needed to be borne stoically, in silence. Of course, I was silent. Any novelist with her head screwed on properly knows better than to announce publicly that the novel is doomed. As Jonathan Franzen cautions in his book How to Be Alone: However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that it’s infectious...In publishing circles, confessions of doubt are commonly referred to as "whining" -- the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don’t sell, ungracious in writers who do. In other words, no unseemly griping, no joyless defenses of publishing, no intellectual shaming of non-readers, etc. No matter what misgivings may flicker beneath the surface, the smart writer knows to present herself as a polished and sanguine human. This posture of dissimulation started me thinking about the tradition of non-disclosure in Japanese hospitals. I have had two uncles die without knowing they were terminally ill. One thought he had appendicitis. The other thought he had lower back pain. I began to wonder: What if the book was a patient in a Japanese hospital? What if it was actually doing more poorly than anyone would admit? I know what you’re thinking. We’ve heard people say that the “book is dead” forever and each time we’ve seen cultural attempts to make the book matter again. But what if it was really bad this time? What if the book was truly and irrevocably dead? 3. Cue: Stephen Fowler, owner of The Monkey’s Paw. It was while chatting with Fowler in his beautiful shop that I had an epiphany. At any given time, his bookshop is packed with over 6,000 dead titles on everything ranging from terrestrial slugs to false hair. Rows of books rest in peaceful repose on tables: gorgeous idiosyncratic corpses that would excite any literary necrophile. These books are unquestionably deceased. I don’t think a single title in Fowler’s collection would be considered commercially viable if published today. (Some are barely readable. One can only imagine the prose challenges of a book called Carp: How to Catch Them.) Yet, oddly, it’s one of the least depressing bookshops I know. Even the bad books are not bad in the usual — vapid, trite, cynically formulaic — way. They are uniquely, bizarrely, captivatingly bad. (e.g., Vans and The Truckin’ Life, The World of Clowns, The Problem of Being An Icelander: Past, Present and Future.) A sense of strange beauty and calm pervades the shop. Fowler who describes himself as “the youngest person to come out of the old book trade,” and who was recently invited to join the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, has created a genuine Mecca for booklovers. He has done this not by championing literature’s survival. Not at all. Fowler had accepted the book’s demise. In fact, having passed through the customary stages of grief, he may be the only person I know who can openly say, and with a smile on his face, that the book is dead. Dead as a doornail. 4. I was there one afternoon when he had just returned from a buying trip in the Niagara area. Sitting there, I watched as he went through his newly acquired stack, thoughtfully penciling in a price and sometimes a word or two (“quaint,” “uncommon,” “macabre,” “obsessive!”) A man browsed through the “Ego Annihilation” section (books on sex, drugs and death.) A woman flipped through an old copy of Creative Wood Craft (a store bestseller). These were not calls of condolence. These customers were not looking for scented candles, bath salts or other non-literary tchotchkes. They had come to engage in the primordial, timeworn practice of pulling books at random from bookshelves. Inspired by what I saw, I also browsed. I browsed through the slowly aged Penguin paperbacks and the bird book that cracked audibly when I opened it. I looked through the poetry and film sections. I bought a book by Igor Stravinsky and a copy of Amerika by Kafka exquisitely illustrated by Edward Gorey. By the time I left, I felt buoyant. It dawned on me that this is what happens when you are done with mourning. This is what is left when you pass through denial, rage, wallowing, when you lose the desperate edge of your grief: you free yourself up for other emotions, including curiosity and love. 5. I’ve heard some people say that as the publishing industry rapidly realigns to meet the digital age, antiquarian books and fine press books will thrive. I don’t know if The Monkey’s Paw is the bookstore of the future but, for me, on those cold February afternoons, it was a nice place to spend time; a place to befriend the dead. As writers, perhaps the best we can hope for is that our books leave beautiful corpses, that they will be loved for what they are, visited occasionally, tenderly maintained. I realize that this may not be your definition of a successful life but it’s enough for me. Photo courtesy of Stephen Fowler
“The Short Story is Not Dead.” This headline appeared in The Nervous Breakdown in January above an essay written by my friend Alex Chee in which he discussed the ways that technology was making the short story more accessible, and specifically, accessible on his iPhone. The assertion of the negative – not dead – seemed to me an odd way for the copy editor to introduce an article on good news for short story reading. I wondered what he meant by the possible ‘death’ of the story. I find that when someone asserts that a thing (the story), or an idea (God), is not dead, they usually mean that a nostalgic version of the thing has lapsed and not been replaced by something comparably satisfying. What has changed with the story? Not the writing. Short story writing is alive and well. The evidence: Three of five of the New York Times’ notable works of fiction in 2010 are short fiction collections (counting Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad). And consider all the print and online journals that survive on paid contest submissions, which is evidence of the large number of writers who aspire to be published authors. The human impulse to tell stories has not diminished. What then? Short story reading has declined. With few exceptions (The New Yorker is one), mass circulation general interest magazines no longer publish short stories. And, editors and agents blanche at the prospect of debut story collections, and often publish an author’s collection only with the promise of a follow-on novel. The popular wisdom – and commercial reality – is that story collections don’t sell. What to make of this conundrum? Is today’s short fiction not as good? Hardly. Why aren’t readers holding up their part of the bargain? The answer, let me suggest, is related to how readers are given the opportunity to read – distribution, in commercial terms. The short story became one of the great 20th century art forms when inexpensive publishing technology gave rise to mass market general interest magazines. Oral story telling is a deeply human tradition, but it was only with the blitzkrieg of 19th century mass publishing that the written short story became a specific art form. Magazines served up stories as snacks for readers, and did so with relish. The Saturday Evening Post, and other widely circulated magazines, provided outlets for stories by writers with now-household names, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, There were more than 25 mass market magazines in the 1920s and 1930s that published one short story each week. When Life magazine published Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in 1952, that issue sold 5.3 million copies. Stories in magazines could be read in one sitting. And, story collections became the publishing industry’s way to capitalize on already popular works when they were repackaged in compilations. Poe’s, Chekhov’s, Hawthorne’s, Gallant’s, Updike’s, and Cheever’s great stories all first appeared in periodicals. Only later in books. The decline in short story reading is, I suggest, linked to the precipitous decline in mass market magazine readership. Magazines’ sales decline began in during the 1960s when consumers shifted their entertainment and news interest to television, but the decline recently accelerated with the explosive growth of online and mobile real-time access to news and information. The story, which was popularized by new printing and distribution technologies, has slowly become a victim of the displacement of those technologies. To be sure, stories themselves also suffer from the crushing competition for consumer’s attention posed by TV, video games, and the Internet. But, without mass market distribution outlets, readers entertain themselves in other ways. Literary journals continue to publish stories, but they come out seasonally, or occasionally, and the months’ long gap between issues doesn’t serve a creature of time-worn habit, accustomed to weekly soap operas, weekly television dramas, or the weekly story in The New Yorker. Consumers like predictable engagement. There are hundreds of online literary journals that publish bi-weekly, or monthly. Many -- and there are a great many for readers to discover -- are better suited to launch new voices than to publish top authors. And the seductive distractions of Facebook and Twitter make literary reading on a computer a difficult act of will. What’s a reader to do? Technology gave rise to the flowering of the short story, contributed to its decline, and technology will, in my opinion, again solve the problem of connecting readers and stories. Like the song, the short story is perfectly suited for mobile consumption. The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owner all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create. Poe’s definition of the short story remains as true today as when he wrote it: “a story is a thing that can be read in one sitting.” If he were writing today he might rephrase it: “…in one hour on the tread mill.” So, how many Americans actually read short stories? How large is the market? There are no accurate answers to the question, but there are ways of approximating the number who read, which of course, is reduced by the fact that many people who might like to read stories don’t know where to find them. A few facts: 9 million adult Americans annually read more than 50 works of fiction (NEA study, 2008). 2 million adult American publish personal creative writing (NEA study, 2002; writers are usually also readers.) 1.1 million: the subscription rate base for The New Yorker in 2009 150,000: the graduates of creative writing MFA programs in the past 20 years (all of whom learn to write and read short stories). 50,000-100,000: the estimated annual sales of The Pushcart Prize collections of stories (my estimate). These population snapshots overlap, of course, but suggest that there are 500,000-to-1.5 million American adults who are frequent readers of short stories. Stories are meant to be read one at a time, savored individually, taken in, and reflected upon. Collections are ways of repackaging known works. Publishing executives today don’t expect collections to sell (because they haven’t in the past), so they aren’t marketed, and this cycle of low expectations and insufficient care creates a self-fulfilling outcome: collections don’t sell. Web connected devices, like the iPad and the iPhone, can connect readers of short fiction with the best writing in the market. Mobile and web technologies reduce friction in markets. Storytelling is a deep human need, and readers of stories are entertained and instructed by clever plots, sympathetic characters, and artful writing. Words create imaginary worlds that provide readers with an experience that is similar to, but different from, the worlds of movies and television. Technology provides a new way to connect story tellers and fans. We’re all ears. (Image: 732 - Power Grid - Pattern image from zooboing's photostream)
As Google stokes controversy with its Google Print service, Amazon has unveiled its own digital book offering, one that's sure to make the publishers happy. Amazon is launching two services, Amazon Pages and Amazon Upgrade. According to an AP story on the new products: With its new Amazon Pages service, Amazon.com Inc. plans to let customers to buy portions of a book - even just one page - for online viewing. A second program, Amazon Upgrade, will offer full online access when a traditional text is purchased. Both services are expected to begin next year.CEO Jeff Bezos shared some addition details as well: For Amazon Pages ... the cost for most books would be a few cents per page, although readers would likely be charged more for specialized reference works. Under Amazon Upgrade, anybody purchasing a paper book could also look at the entire text online, at any time, for a "small" additional charge, Bezos said. For instance, a $20 book might cost an extra $1.99. And Bezos offered up a quote that was most certainly directed at Google's recent run ins with publishers: "We see this as a win-win-win situation: good for readers, good for publishers and good for authors." The story is also filled with positive comments from different publishers and an Authors Guild representative. Random House released a statement saying it plans to "work with online booksellers, search engines, entertainment portals and other appropriate vendors to offer the contents of its books to consumers for online viewing on a pay-per-page-view basis."So, it seems to me that a showdown between Amazon and Google may be shaping up in the digital books market. Will publishers opt out of Google Print en masse and back Amazon, who, in their eyes, seems to be offering a more secure revenue stream? More importantly, are people ready to pay for books by the page, and will they turn their backs on Amazon for trying to spoil Google's free books party?Meanwhile, at the Official Google Blog, the Googlers are extolling the virtues of the public domain books that have recently been made available at Google Print. The post links to a number of searches that show some of the breadth of material that is now available at Google Print. Note that they are positioning this as "Preserving Public Domain Books."Previously: The publishers' big blunder
What's the pedigree of a bestseller? That's the question the New York Times asked last week in an article that, despite the endless waves of political scandal, remained on their most viewed list for the better part of a week. The article reveals the seamy side of publishing: publishers have foresworn the metrics used by marketers to study their audiences' buying habits, because they, much like Creationists, "don't believe in them," leading to an industry where million dollar advances are gambled on the Flying Spaghetti Monster of editors' intuition. So is it any surprise that an article about the billion-dollar, high-stakes world of publishing, with its talk of big bets and horse racing, comes off sounding like a description of a Gambler's Anonymous meeting? Won't someone stop the insanity? (Very nicely summed up here, btw.)Enter Macmillan New Writing, the controversial imprint of the British publishing house Macmillan. New Writing was founded to promote works by unpublished writers, particularly writers who have produced the kind of experimental, unclassifiable or controversial books that are worth publishing, but might not have what it takes to become best sellers, in other words, books that don't have mass market appeal. The imprint publishes one book a month and currently comprises twenty titles, all of which are prominently featured in Macmillan's catalog. No agents are involved, the publishing house accepts direct submissions, and writers get no advance, but earn 20% royalties.Sounds good, no? But it's not all upside. Not only are the writers' contracts non-negotiable, but Macmillan receives all subsidiary rights to the book and a first look at the author's second book. Critics have reacted strongly, calling the imprint "literary slave drivers" and "vanity publishers," and indulging in apocalyptic predictions of the end of publishing as we know it. (As if that would be a bad thing. The submissions, at least, are entirely electronic.) The negative press was so strong that the founder of the imprint, Michael Barnard, felt compelled to write Transparent Imprint, a book defending his idea. (Which the imprint, of course, published. See how that works?)Why all the consternation? Sure, novelists lose their right to film rights, translations, and licensed merchandise (Ignatius J. Reilly trebuchets, anyone?), but is that so bad? Without an agent, they wouldn't be able to sell them anyway, and apparently Macmillan has been doing a good job so far, bagging a movie deal for the thriller The Manuscript and a decent advance on a German edition of the fantasy novel The Secret War. What's really at stake, it would seem, is the publishing industry's ego. Despite the fact that their best work is guesswork, they like to believe they know what they're doing when they get into a bidding war over a total unknown. The novelist Giles Foden, quoted by the Guardian, put it like this, New Writing's list is like "putting a bet on every horse in the race - but without paying for any of the bets." And that doesn't make us feel very special, does it?But, if the New York Times is right, isn't that what publishers are doing anyway? If advances are the big gambles everyone says they are, then they only serve to make publishers risk averse. Much like Hollywood, which instead of looking for fresh material, increasingly hedges its bets by turning out retreads of once popular comic books and old TV shows, the publishing industry is in a rut. Bestsellers are inherently unpredictable, and yet, if a publishing exec had to choose between a cutting edge novel and another Harry Potter knockoff, you can bet that "Parry Hotter and The Sorcerer's Merkin" would be the one stacked on the front tables of Barnes and Nobles nationwide. By not giving writers advances, New Writing has found a way around this problem, allowing them to take a chance on a book, while reducing the considerable overhead attached. This system should be a boon for mid-list writers who, it's often said, are not nurtured by publishing houses in the way they once were. Sure, you'll hear writers grousing about being unable to make a living from their work, but, with the exception of the biggest literary stars, isn't that's how it's always been? For my part, I'd much rather have my books in print, giving my readership a chance to grow with me. After all, readers will seek out a good writer's backlist, and every book that sees print should increase royalties from previous efforts. And what a boon for those writers who don't have the savvy, connections, or good luck to get an agent. Hell, some writers, John Kennedy Toole comes to mind, are literally dying to get published.It's been over a year since New Writing put out its first book, and the imprint's list of well-reviewed books seem to be proving the naysayers wrong. The writers' seem satisfied with the deal (here and here), and if Roger Morris's Taking Comfort (recently reviewed here at The Millions) is any indication of the quality of the books New Writing has on offer, they're doing the literary community a real service. It might be time for the rest of the publishing industry to put down their dice and take notice.Bonus Link: The MacMillan New Writing titles currently available in the U.S.
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In truth, I think it is clear that morally, the act of pirating a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing... although that nagging question of what the person who has been stolen from is missing still lingers.