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)
Twitter had its big moment last week, but unlike so many other technology start-ups in the seeming parade of millionaire-makers over the last two decades (with the obvious exception of Amazon.com), Twitter has developed a special following in the literary community, from high-brow to low. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Writers revel in words, and Twitter, nearly alone among hot technology start-ups, is mostly about words, crafting them to meet the medium’s peculiar restraints and sending them out into the world to be engaged with or ignored. Twitter is like some atomized version of the writer’s process. With Twitter, ideas go out piecemeal, the whole process taking a millionth the amount of time it would if you were to glom all those ideas together into one big whole and turn it into something as unlikely-seeming by comparison as a book. This speed, then, may be deeply satisfying — even addictive — as writers bypass so much of the toil of getting a book out of their brains and off to readers (New York’s Kathryn Schulz elaborated smartly on this idea last week.)
There is no uniform stance on Twitter in the literary community, of course. Some, like Teju Cole and Colson Whitehead, find it vital; many others — led by a certain one-time Time coverboy from the Midwest, do not. Some writers have more prosaic feelings about Twitter. Novelist Peter Orner wrote, “Some are talented at it; others, less so.”
Zadie Smith is not on Twitter. Nor are Jeffrey Eugenides (though his vest once was), Michael Chabon (not really, though his writer wife Ayelet Waldman is), George Saunders, or David Mitchell. Jennifer Egan is, but just a little bit.
Nonetheless, Twitter appears to be here to stay, for a while anyway. And it will remain a pastime for writers looking for book news, inspiration, distraction, literary puns, and every other thing they might want. But it wasn’t always that way. In the not too distant past, the literary lights of Twitter pecked out their first 140 characters and waited to see what Twitter would bring.
Curious, I dug back into the Twitter archive to see how these writers took their first steps into Twitter. What follows are the very first tweets of some of Twitter’s well-known practitioners from the literary world.
Finishing the website entries for my fall novel The Year of the Flood.
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) July 8, 2009
How does a petty trader come by N30 million worth of cars? Police hope Israel Ubatuegwu, of Ajah, has a good explanation.
— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) March 15, 2009
Preparing for Book Expo America in the office in Dumbo. The last time we’ve to schlap boxes ourselves. Next year we pay the Teamsters…
— Richard Nash (@R_Nash) May 30, 2007
Last night at the Norman Mailer Award Ceremony in NYC, Oliver Stone said beautifully: “A serious writer is a rebel.”
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 5, 2012
trying to figure out if someone does a decent MP3 workout, which will magically transform my iphone and my body at the same time.
— Dani Shapiro (@danijshapiro) April 24, 2009
Slaughtered by Sam A. and Jefffery Y. at post-diner breakfast ping-pong. Licking wounds.
— Dwight Garner (@DwightGarner) February 13, 2009
Here’s a video of my speech at the NBCC in NYC last week: http://tinyurl.com/dfe8rt
— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) March 17, 2009
— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) April 24, 2007
— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) December 23, 2007
doesn’t want to be an editor. oops, too late.
— Emma Straub (@emmastraub) December 3, 2008
I just opened my present from Dave McKean, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. Heavy as a stone and beautiful. “See?” he said. “I do read your blog.”
— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) September 15, 2011
Fine, then. I’ll twitter.
— John Green (@realjohngreen) December 11, 2008
No matter what I do there are always 5 emails in my inbox that I am avoiding.
— Doug Coupland (@DougCoupland) April 1, 2009
I’ve reached the limit on how many Facebook friends I can add. So here is a new page.
— Amy Tan (@AmyTan) August 12, 2010
— E L James (@E_L_James) April 12, 2011
First Tweet ever, prompted by Jeff Howe’s essay in Sunday’s NYTBR. Velly interesting. Helloooooo?
— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) April 1, 2009
coveting Susan Lewis’ hair.
— Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) January 28, 2009
Becoming far more wired than I probably really need to be.
— Gary Shteyngart (@Shteyngart) December 1, 2011
I’m going to do it right this time.
— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) May 21, 2009
today felt like the unabomber but i wasn’t plotting anything or planning anything or trying to bomb anything and i was wearing 4-inch heels
— Kate Zambreno (@daughteroffury) June 29, 2012
Wessex Man http://tinyurl.com/yw93xb
— New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks) March 18, 2007
News: Netherland wins PEN/Faulkner award: It was overlooked for the Booker prize and the prestigious US Nat.. http://bit.ly/AufPL
— Guardian Books (@GuardianBooks) February 26, 2009
— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) July 2, 2008
Check out our feature on the best audiobooks coming this spring.
— Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) January 31, 2009
Mario Bros. meets Macbeth: What do a pixelated plumber and a murderous king have in common? Nintendo DS — in En.. http://tinyurl.com/5gr5m4
— L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) December 10, 2008
Hello, world! Official Library of Congress Twitter feed here. So nice to see 215 followers before so much as a single tweet!
— Library of Congress (@librarycongress) January 27, 2009
Welcome to the new GalleyCat Twitter feed, regularly collecting tweets from Senior Editor Ron Hogan, Editor Jason Boog, and Jeff Rivera.
— NPR Books (@nprbooks) January 8, 2010
We noticed lots of sites use Twitter for feedback. We created this account as a placeholder, but please visit our Feedback Group anytime!
— goodreads (@goodreads) August 19, 2008
56 years after William Styron warned us about chasing the zeitgeist, The Paris Review is now on twitter. From issue 1: http://bit.ly/BCnnE
— The Paris Review (@parisreview) September 4, 2009
Culling together work for Electric Literature no.2, planning events for October, spinning splendidly through another day at the office.
— Electric Literature (@ElectricLit) August 31, 2009
Rick Moody on running out of luck: http://tinyurl.com/ckno8d
— The Rumpus (@The_Rumpus) January 29, 2009
What will be named top book of the decade? http://bit.ly/AMgq8 What’s your pick?
— The Millions (@The_Millions) September 21, 2009
What’s the best part of B.G.’s “Bling Bling” video? Pre-tattoo’d Wayne, zooming red VW Beetles, or the crew’s outdoor fine china picnic?
— Nick Moran (@nemoran3) February 2, 2011
NPR’s On the Media ran a feature recently on entrepreneur Joshua Karp’s new startup the Printed Blog (TPB), a web aggregator that takes the best online content and… puts it on paper. Karp plans to print TPB twice a day and hand it out for free in major urban outlets. Content and advertising will be localized, and readers can go online to discuss and recommend articles and content they would like to see.The timing of the announcement coming, as it does, close on the heels of the Atlantic Monthly’s (hopefully) exaggerated reports of the NYT’s demise seemed almost comical. My initial reaction was to check the calendar. Having confirmed that it wasn’t April, I became incredulous, made snarky comments to the radio, and finally accepted the idea.Although at first glance Karp’s project seems endearingly quixotic, it does have one thing going for it: depending on how the content is selected, it could be an excellent tool for encouraging the development of a sense of physical community. Although the web has successfully connected people with similar interests, it hasn’t done the same for people with similar addresses. TBP could be a great tool for making highly visible, localized announcements. Having a block party? Print an ad in TBP’s morning edition. Canceled because of rain? An announcement in the evening edition will come out just in time to catch commuters on their way home. If done in the right way, TBP has the potential to provide a legitimate and much needed public service. Not to mention it will be a great way to expose less web savvy members of the community to some of the fantastic writing that’s being done on blogs today.On the downside, it will have to overcome several major obstacles. First, iPhones and similar technology have already made the web portable. I assume the target demographic is web savvy young professionals between the ages of 22-30, a hunch confirmed by the web site’s blog (yes, they have a blog). This is precisely the group that is most likely to already have the Internet in their pocket, delivering their favorite blogs to them at the speed of inanity. TPB might introduce them to new content, but isn’t that what Digg and Delicious are for? And as for the reader suggested content… If the readers don’t access blogs offline, what makes Karp think they’ll log on to share their opinion? To make matters worse, the people for whom this service would be most useful, those without the means or knowledge to use computers, won’t be able to vote. A mismatch between the content and the audience seems inevitable.The second issue is cost. Karp estimates that his initial venture will cost $15,000. He anticipates selling ads for $25 apiece, meaning he’ll have to sell 600 to cover his overhead. Because the publication is intended to be “hyper-localized,” I assume he’s going to be targeting local businesses for ad revenue. I’m not sure how many of them will shell out that kind of money for a daily ad, but as a point of comparison, Google ads are free as long as no one clicks on them (and very cheap even then), run indefinitely, and are guaranteed to reach your target audience, regardless of their geographic location (a concern if you’re trying to advertise to tourists). Hard to beat that deal. And besides, isn’t the lack of willing advertisers print media’s biggest problem? I’d love to have seen Karp pitch that business model to potential investors. Granted, local free papers, like the San Francisco Guardian, seem to be doing well.The experiment begins on January 27th in Chicago and San Francisco, but if successful I suppose the model can be easily rolled out at minimal cost nationwide. Although, I’m still skeptical, The Millions never turns down free publicity. Why don’t you suggest they include us in their first issue?
Amazon has further tangled and interconnected its product pages by adding comments to its customer reviews. Amazon also now allows you to search across Customer Reviews and “Listmania” lists.The comments on reviews up the interactivity quotient on Amazon pages by several notches, turning the comments into the equivalent of a topical blog with dozens of authors all writing about a particular book. It also alleviates the previously frustrating inability to correct or add to information posted in earlier reviews. I had to dig around to find some examples of the new comments in action. Just as political books are among the most frequently reviewed, they are also now getting the most comments (if troll-like.) For example, have a look at the dedicated page for a review of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, currently in the news because Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez brandished it during his fiery Anti-Bush speech at the UN on Wednesday. Amazon has unleashed a free-for-all, but I applaud them for it. Why not let people communicate about individual books? Perhaps something good will come of it.The Customer Reviews search, meanwhile, probably has some value if you are either trying to drill deeper into what a particular book is all about – for example, a search for the word “Oprah” in the reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – or trying to dig up information across Amazon’s whole catalog that may not be evident using the standard search – like this search for “desert island book.”The Listmania search allows for similar fun, if less serendipity.
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.
So, think about this: In the last 5 to 10 years the way we consume all sorts of media has changed drastically, everything, essentially, except books. From a new Business Week article:”Every other form of media has gone digital — music, newspapers, movies,” says Joni Evans, a top literary agent who just left the William Morris Agency to start her own company that will focus on books and technology. “We’re the only industry that hasn’t lived up to the pace of technology. A revolution is around the corner.”The idea here is that a confluence of improving hardware, reader readiness and the prevalence of digitized books are setting the stage for the digital revolution to finally reach the world of books.In a minimal sense, the hardware already exists in the form of Treos and similar handhelds which some people find comfortable enough to use as a book delivery device, but just around the corner is “digital ink” and “e paper.” I had once thought that such technology only existed in the realm of science fiction but was surprised to find during my graduate new media journalism studies that these technologies are not far off and are much anticipated by some (and dreaded by others) in the journalism business. Between current handhelds and the “e paper” future are dedicated reader devices set to come out this year. The Business Week article references the Sony Reader, which I’ve heard is astounding in its ability to make reading off of a screen feel like reading off of a page. Last spring, Jason Kottke tried out a Sony device that presumably uses similar technology and was quite taken with it. But even this will be a far cry from “e paper.” For a peek at that technology, take a look at the slideshow that accompanies the Business Week article.The other two pieces of the puzzle – reader readiness and digitized books – are already in place. People are used to consuming their media on handheld devices and I think many, especially younger folks, would like to be able to do this more. Meanwhile, between Google and the publishing companies trying to compete with it, it seems like we’re approaching a future when all books will be available digitally.An obvious response to all of this is to wonder whether or not the book as we know it will die. I don’t think that question is as pertinent as it seems. In all likelihood, books, like magazines and newspapers, will be marginalized somewhat, still available in their current forms, but not necessarily thought of as tethered to paper and bindings. The content, of course, will live on, and these new ways of reading books will allow them to evolve as they have evolved since words were first written on papyrus.One side note. From the article referenced above:George Saunders, a short story author and professor of English at Syracuse University, says he’d like a way to get his work out to readers more quickly. After the scandal broke over James Frey’s falsehoods in his hit book A Million Little Pieces, Saunders penned a humorous essay stemming from the events. It was a confession to Oprah Winfrey that all of the fiction he’d written had, in fact, been true. But Saunders had a hard time getting the piece published quickly, and now it feels dated. “There might be a different model for a literary community that’s quicker, more real-time, and involves more spontaneity,” he says.George! Such a thing already exists. If you had a blog, you could have posted it there. (And how awesome would a blog by George Saunders be). If you don’t want to start a blog yourself, feel free to send your spur of the moment pieces my way and I’ll happily post them here for (potentially) millions and millions to see.Update: George Saunders responds via email:George Saunders here. Just wanted to thank you for the mention at The Millions. Great site. I’ve considered a blog but knowing how obsessive I am, worried that I might get consumed by it and my family would expire and my house crumble to dust. Plus I worry about how much I would have to pay myself to keep my blog supplied with content. My fear is that, knowing I was working for myself, I would start cheating myself, only submitting my worst pieces, then get into a labor dispute with myself and never speak to me again.