At Slate, Paul Collins points out that Google Book Search heralds a new era of outing plagiarists. The searchable database of many thousands of books is a boon to researchers, but it also greatly eases the discovery of co-opted passages. Collins mentions a couple of examples and posits that “given the popularity of plagiarism-seeking software services for academics, it may be only a matter of time before some enterprising scholar yokes Google Book Search and plagiarism-detection software together into a massive literary dragnet, scooping out hundreds of years’ worth of plagiarists – giants and forgotten hacks alike – who have all escaped detection until now.” He also predicts that “in the next decade at least one major literary work [will get] busted.”
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.
After years of fearmongering and borderline hysteria, the anti-Internet rhetoric of the publishing companies is softening considerably, according to Reuters. In 2005, we saw publishers banding together to go up against Google Books (then called Google Print). Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, epitomized the prevailing thought at the time: “If Google can make…copies, then anyone can. Anybody could go into a library and start making digital copies of anything.” A few months later, Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, attempted to inspire a boycott against Google. “Authors are being ripped off however you look at it,” he declared.But, of course, none of this ever came to pass. As I said at the time:Google or not, the technology currently exists for anyone to start digitizing the books in the library or in their own homes, but I don’t see this happening, and it’s not because people are afraid of lawsuits from publishers, it’s because people aren’t that interested in digitized copies of books.These same thoughts are now being echoed by Penguin’s top executive John Makinson: “There is a lot going on in the music publishing industry that is not going on in the book industry. Consumers don’t want albums they want tracks and in publishing people want books not chapters” – a perfectly sensible assessment that should have been made a long time ago.I think, though, that publishers are fully awakening to the fact that opportunities on the Internet to raise awareness about their books far outweigh the threats. Even used books, which have a huge market on the Internet, are not eating into profits as feared.From a publicity and marketing standpoint, publishers are clearly on board with the Internet. Regardless of where the disappearance of newspaper book review sections registers on your fear meter, publishers are hedging their bets and spreading their efforts well beyond print, with creative author websites, outreach to online communities of readers, and a proliferation of all sorts of online writing contests and publisher blogs. Some publishers have learned to play nice with Google, while others have made legitimate efforts to digitize their books on their own. As a sign of how far we’ve come, two years ago making the entire Booker Prize shortlist available online was unthinkable. But publishers have come to the perfectly sensible realization that “if readers like a novel tasted on the internet, they may just be inspired to buy the actual book.”It may be too soon to close the book on this saga, but I think it’s safe to say that reason has triumphed. Publishers are finally realizing that, while the internet has forced great change upon their industry, the threats faced have been far less dire than those faced by the music and film industries. At the same time, in a world where cultural content has been elbowed out of newspapers and magazines, the Internet offers easier access to the many people who do care about books but are underserved by traditional media. With fear behind them, publishers are stepping out bravely into a new world.
I learned about the Amazon de-ranking debacle on Twitter (follow me @EdanL, y’all). People love to argue that Twitter is a time-wasting site for people to announce what they’re doing: They’re doing their taxes, or they’re drinking the best beer ever, man, or they’re on the toilet. And it’s that, certainly, but it’s also an incredible way to spread information and start a dialogue. Most of the people I know on Twitter are other writers, or editors, critics, or publishers. I’ve learned a lot about the book world since signing up.But I digress.I was by turns upset and confused by the Amazon story (known on Twitter as #amazonfail) and I still am. What am I to believe, and what will it mean, in the long run, even after the “glitch” has been fixed? Am I simply being paranoid? Is mine simply the blanket distate-for-Amazon of an independent bookseller? Maybe. I don’t know. I do know there’s been a lot of valuable dialogue on this “ham-fisted cataloging error,” and I thought I’d highlight some of it here.Mark Probst’s Live Journal post started it all, and Carolyn Kellogg’s reporting at the Los Angeles Times book blog Jacket Copy helped me track the story as it evolved.There’s this thought-provoking post from Richard Nash, who argues that we can’t give Amazon the benefit of the doubt because, …in a world where whiteness and straightness are ‘norms’ and males benefit from our patriarchal history, it is always the GLBTQ books, the queer books, the non-normative books that get caught in the glitches, the ham-fisted errors. As a contrast, here is Sara Nelson’s (of The Daily Beast) interpretation of the reaction on Twitter and the blogosphere: That book lovers seized on this recent de-listing scandal as a vehicle through which to vent their frustration and rage at big bad Amazon makes perfect sense; to have a politically correct hook on which to hang one’s argument makes whatever revenge one might wreak all the sweeter. Meanwhile, Clay Shirky had another angle about the Amazon fury: Whatever stupidities Amazon is guilty of, none of them are hanging offenses. The problems they have with labeling and handling contested categories is a problem with all categorization systems since the world began.At the Vromans Bookstore Blog Patrick used #amazonfail to talk about the danger of putting our faith (and dollars) into one company, and drew a connection to our shift to monoculture farming: It’s taken us some thirty years (since the passage of Earl Butz’s “Get Big or Get Out” Farm Bill in the 1970s) to realize that having a few corporations control our food supply was a really bad idea. (This post, actually, reminded me of these posts Patrick penned for the Millions almost two years ago.)There are many other posts and reports on #amazonfail, including this one from the New York Times. And there is a petition to boycott Amazon, which, at the time of this writing, has collected over 26,000 signatures.It feels funny reporting all this on The Millions, which links to Amazon. This is not my choice, but one I understand and accept. We also have our Collaborative Atlas of Bookstores and Literary Places, and an upcoming walking tour of indie bookstores in NYC (Can we do one for LA next year? Maybe by bus/metro?). It’s this diversity, and our excellent content, that I admire, and why I’m proud to write for this blog, links or not.And, before I go… In the spirit of Twitter/Blog culture, I would love to hear your responses to #amazonfail in the comments.
If you visit a book-focused startup online these days, chances are Amazon owns a part of it. On August 1st, the online bookselling behemoth snapped up yet another, the online used book marketplace AbeBooks, perhaps the service most widely used by online booksellers putting their wares online, also bringing into the fold two smaller and very visible book-related sites that AbeBooks owns.It’s a very smart move by Amazon, whose profit margins are higher for its Marketplace third-party sales as compared to its traditional business. While it may seem counter-intuitive that Amazon happily lets used book sellers “compete” with it by offering cheaper copies of almost every book it sells, it’s actually an amazing business. Whenever a used book sells on the site, Amazon gets 15% of the selling price plus additional fees amounting to a bit more than two dollars (and less if you sell a lot). The only thing Amazon has to do is kick back a “shipping credit” to the seller, $3.99 for standard domestic shipping. (Incidentally, this is how people get away with selling used books for a penny on Amazon; what profit there is in that case comes from the shipping credit.) What this means is that Amazon uses its existing infrastructure to let people sell books on the site. All that extra revenue comes at very minimal cost – in fact, less cost (and thus more profit) than if Amazon sold you the book itself. The purchase of AbeBooks brings as many as 110 million books from AbeBooks into Amazon (though in practice, probably a fair amount fewer, since many used booksellers listed their inventories on both sites.) All in all, a very shrewd buy for Amazon.But Amazon doesn’t just get AbeBooks. AbeBooks also owns bookfinder.com, easily the most comprehensive used book search out there, aggregating results from dozens of used book listing services. Perhaps even more interesting, AbeBooks was also a minority investor in LibraryThing, the very successful book cataloging community, and that stake will pass on to Amazon. Like many in the online world of books, LibraryThing, its founder, and its users have aften looked somewhat warily at the bookselling giant, and so it will be interesting to see how LibraryThing adjusts to its new big investor (if it adjusts at all).One of the big selling points of LibraryThing is its impressive recommendation system, which plumbs the community’s vast array of individual libraries to come up with book suggestions. The unique element of LibraryThing’s recommendations has been that they are based on what you own versus Amazon’s, which are based on what you buy, which can be very different things. I would imagine that Amazon would be very curious to dig into those recommendations, and it will be very interesting to see if it ever has the opportunity to do so. For the time being, it won’t, and it may never. LibraryThing founder Tim Spalding wrote on the LibraryThing blog, ” Abe gets only anonymized and aggregate data, like recommendations, and they can only use it on Abebooks sites. Nothing has changed here.”Amazon’s reach doesn’t stop there, it is also an investor in LibraryThing rival Shelfari.Finally, while we’re on the topic of Amazon, there has been much speculation on how many Kindles the company has sold, blog TechCrunch did some digging and was able to come up with a number, 240,000.Doing a little back of the envelope math, that brings total sales of the device so far to between $86 million and $96 million (the price of the device was reduced to $360 from $400 last May). Then add the amounts spent on digital books, newspapers, and blogs purchased to read on the device, and you get a business that has easily brought in above $100 million so far. (Each $25 worth of digital reading material purchased per Kindle, add $6 million in total revenues).
Hillel Italie, the AP’s publishing beat reporter, has a story about how a couple of major book stores aren’t getting behind the impending release of the Sony Reader. According to Italie, both Barnes & Noble and Amazon won’t be carrying the device when it comes out this summer, while Borders will be carrying it. In a post from a couple of months ago, I mentioned the Sony Reader, which had gotten rave reviews from people who’d tried it out. Sony now has the Reader up on its Web site, and I have to say, even in the pictures, it looks a lot more usable than I expected. It’s small and relatively elegant looking, but the quality of the text on the screen is most impressive. There is certainly a paper-like quality to the display. Despite all this, I don’t think I’ll be pulping my books anytime soon. I simply enjoy all the non-textual aspects of books too much. I do think, however, that if this device is as pleasant to use as people have described it to be, then surely there will be some use for it, and certainly some categories of books will be ripe for transition to this format. Textbooks come to mind.Truthfully, I’m really not all that surprised that Barnes & Noble isn’t carrying the Sony Reader because I would imagine that the transaction of buying books for the device and the act of reading books on the device won’t have any real connection to the typical brick and mortar book store experience. Not unlike how the way many people now buy and listen to music doesn’t have much of a connection to the Tower Records down the street, and Tower Records (probably to its detriment) isn’t in the “eMusic business.” As for Amazon sitting this one out, that’s a little harder to understand, but I’d imagine it’ll jump on board if there’s any inkling in the early going that the Sony Reader is taking off. Ultimately, I think the Sony Reader will be a success if Sony manages to sell it as a comfortable reading device and not a replacement for books. There are a few other issues, of course. It’s expensive, set to retail for $300 to $400, and there are many handheld devices, and many more on the way, that can function as “eReaders,” though without Sony’s special, paper-like display, while also doing a lot of other stuff – I’m talking Palms and the like here. Regardless, though, 2006 should be an interesting year to watch the ongoing digital future of books.Supplemental Links: Another pic of the device at Gizmodo; Kevin 2.0 asks if dedicated eBook readers are really needed; Bookninja, on the other hand, calls it the “iPod for nerds.”
Science fiction author and Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow explains why science fiction writers should be excited that theirs is the “only literature people care enough about to steal on the Internet.” Doctorow has made his books freely available on the Internet – while also selling copies through traditional channels – and has been impressed by the results:I’ve discovered what many authors have also discovered: releasing electronic texts of books drives sales of the print editions. An SF writer’s biggest problem is obscurity, not piracy. Of all the people who chose not to spend their discretionary time and cash on our works today, the great bulk of them did so because they didn’t know they existed, not because someone handed them a free e-book version.The full column is available at Locus Online. For my thoughts on these topics a good place to start is here.