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.”
Readers may discern a disconnect between the prevailing economic mood and the relentless innovation of online superstore Amazon. Even as whole segments of the economy crumble, Amazon is spearheading a whole new consumer electronics category with the Kindle, and as if that wasn’t audacious enough following it by releasing a bigger, more expensive version.Now Amazon is embarking on another bold effort. It’s entering the publishing business with a program called AmazonEncore, a program that leverages all of the myriad data Amazon can collect to find overlooked books with potential mass appeal, which it will then rerelease under the AmazonEncore imprint. The first AmazonEncore title, to be released in late August, is Legacy, a fantasy novel originally self published by 16-year-old writer Cayla Kluver. AmazonEncore is an intriguing idea that will no doubt send self-published authors’ hearts racing. It’s also worth noting that these books won’t be Amazon exclusives. Amazon is going head to head with traditional publishers with plans to make AmazonEncore books available in “national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers.”While it seems like Amazon is getting may from its core competencies with forays into consumer electronics and publishing, the online retail giant isn’t insane. Amazon is actually designed to do well in recessions, and with traditional book retailers and publishers facing challenges, Amazon is seizing the opportunity to grow its market share and enter new markets and businesses. BusinessWeek recently pointed out this dynamic: “Amazon continues to benefit disproportionately from the general shift to online commerce and the careful shopping behavior that consumers are exhibiting during the downturn. The breadth of the products it offers through independent merchants and its own expansion into new categories, along with low-priced shipping in the U.S. and abroad, continues to woo shoppers.”Amazon’s willingness to innovate and invest in book-focused initiatives during this downturn will leave it with a very big footprint in the industry when the economy begins to recover.
The sky is falling. The king is dead. And, oh, by the way, the barbarians are at the gates. Or at least, that’s what a recent spate of opinion pieces bemoaning the increasing morbidity of literary criticism would have you believe. Although the whinging and general hand wringing has been going on for years now, the trend seems to have picked up steam in the last few weeks (perhaps as a result of blogs celebrating their ten year anniversary?), with a panoply of blustering critics and journalists thundering to decry the downfall of civilization as they know it.Are the reports of literary criticism’s death an exaggeration? There is no question that the space devoted to book coverage in traditional print media is in decline. With a number of papers, including such stalwarts as the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reducing or entirely eliminating their book sections, it’s understandable that the old guard would set up a hue and cry about the fate of literary culture in the modern age. But the recent comments by critics Morris Dickstein at Critical Mass and Richard Schickel in the LA Times, rather than confront the real problems facing book reviews, amount to little more than a bitter rearguard action against the rise of literary culture on the Internet.The problems faced by book reviews are not unique. Rather, they are a manifestation of a problem confronting all forms of traditional media: the Internet as Shiva, creator and destroyer of business and cultural paradigms. Is it any coincidence that the recent spate of articles bemoaning the loss of book reviews across the country is paralleled by articles bemoaning the death of the music industry? As uber-producer Rick Rubin points out in a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “…the world has changed. And the industry has not.”Of course, old guard naysayers will continue to say their nays, unwilling, or unable, to accept the fact that the world is moving on without them. And no doubt, manufacturers of the horse-drawn buggy had a hard time coping with the advent of the automobile. But their objections didn’t serve to stay the tide of transformation, for better and worse, that cars brought with them.What the book review Cassandras, with their predictions of the death of American literary culture, seem to forget is that it is the traditional newspaper itself, not just the book review, that is fighting for its very existence. When complaining about the diminishing coverage of books in print media, book critics and reviewers (and writers) are simply fighting over the deck chair with the best view of the iceberg. As Max pointed out in an earlier post, it’s not what readers want that matters to today’s newspapers, it’s what shareholders want; and book reviews, for all of their merits, don’t add much to the bottom line.To the critics, however, this isn’t a sign of a changing economic reality, but an omen of literary apocalypse. Book culture in freefall. But writing on books has not dried up or disappeared. It has simply pulled up its stakes and moved to greener, electronic pastures. And this, to the critics, is precisely the problem. The Internet, as a medium for written expression, is in their minds inferior to the printed word.One would think that critics would welcome the advent of a medium where the cost of publication was not proportional to the amount of paper used. Yet many find it impossible to separate journalism, whether literary or otherwise, from the physical artifact of the newspaper or magazine. The success of popular online magazines like Slate and Salon (both of which publish frequent and useful book reviews) should prove that one can exist without the other, yet many critics see themselves locked in a Manichean struggle between “print journalism,” and the “Web.” On one hand, they concede the need for newspapers to find a new business model (and almost invariably insist this model must be electronic – although if not Web-based, then what, telegraph?), but on the other they see journalism as “mortally threatened by the Web.” How can the average person brook such cognitive dissonance? One can almost see the smoke billowing out of their ears as they write.Many old-guard critics, like Dickstein and Schickel and even writers (Richard Ford, with his dismissal of bloggers as “sitting in a basement in Terre Haute,” comes immediately to mind) don’t have much patience for new media. Shickel, for his part, declares blogs are not true writing, but mere “speech”:The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.What, I wonder, does he make of US Weekly? Or the book reviews in Maxim? Surely even a mind as “superior” and possessed of “disciplined taste” (and those quotation marks aren’t just for show) as Shickel’s can conceive of an online world where, as in the print world, good writing exists alongside bad. And what claim to permanence, I wonder, do his movie reviews for Time – Does Time even publish legitimate criticism? – and other print venues really have? No more, I would hazard, than the immortality conferred on a blogger’s writing by Google.These objections, however, only serve to direct attention away from the critics’ real complaint: the increasing democratization of criticism and the accompanying arrival of a new generation of literary gatekeepers. The problem for them is not that literary discourse has disappeared – if anything the Internet has served to deepen and expand it – but that anyone can participate. Certainly, as critics are quick to assert, all opinions are not equal (although one does wonder who has anointed their opinions superior), but it is unwise to mistake humble origins for lack of merit. Although not everyone has had the luxuries of upbringing and education that might have allowed them to become professional literary critics, humble origins do not necessarily denote a lack of discerning taste or cultivated knowledge. Content, as Steve Wasserman, former editor of the LA Times Book Review, very rightly points out in an excellent article about the mystery of the disappearing book reviews, is king. The beauty of the Internet, and the threat that it poses to the professional establishment, is that it allows readers access to that content regardless of whether it was written by a trained literary critic on paid assignment or by an auto mechanic who has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of Proust.And who serves as the gatekeepers to this kingdom? Increasingly, the answer is bloggers, who have come to serve as the Internet’s editors, directing readers to original content of note and, yes, importance. It would seem to go without saying that all blogs, as with newspapers, are not created equal, but many of the critics who are so quick to criticize them, seem to be under the mistaken impression that readers have no means of distinguishing one from the other and assign equal value to the ramblings of the proverbial subterranean Terra Hautean and a post by, oh, I don’t know, Morris Dickstein.Of course, critics will criticize. It is, as with Aesop’s fabled scorpion, in their nature, if not their best interests. By insulting web savvy consumers, after all, they only risk driving away potential readers, hastening that which they fear most: the waning importance of their own contributions to a conversation that is rapidly leaving them behind.
On Friday, as you may or may not have noticed, Amazon went down for about two hours. These days, we’re used to 100% uptime from the internet’s supersites – Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, et al – but the Amazon outage reminded me of the late 1990s when even the biggest dot-coms, struggling to scale to the explosive growth of the Web, suffered routine and sometimes prolonged outages. (Of course, some more recent start-ups still experience such growing pains).As Amazon returned to service on Friday afternoon, speculation kicked into high gear about just how much revenue the world’s largest Internet retailer had lost during the two-hour outage. A little back-of-the-envelope math gives a rough idea. When the company reported its first quarter numbers, it estimated that it would have net sales of between $3.875 billion and $4.075 billion in the second quarter of this year. The midpoint of that is $3.975 billion: $43,681,319 per day or $1,820,054 per hour. So, theoretically, the outage lost the company $3,640,109, with the caveat that this is just averaging the numbers out and not taking to account how busy mid-day Friday is, as opposed to other times of the week. Regardless, a decent chunk of change.Of course, as Silicon Alley Insider pointed out, “When customers who wanted to buy something from Amazon went to the site and found it down, the majority of them likely figured the glitch was temporary and decided to check back later this afternoon. And lo and behold–it was temporary. So they’re probably placing their orders right now.” So, in reality, the likely damage is probably minimal. It would take repeated outages for Amazon to start feeling the impact from downtime.
Over at the Vroman’s Bookstore blog, Millions contributor emeritus Patrick Brownweighs in on Oprah’s endorsement of the Kindle, saying, “I never thought Oprah was anything more than she is — a corporate shill.” Vroman’s president Allison Hill (a beloved and admired figure in the bookselling industry) also shares her thoughts:Oprah, if you’re reading this, forget about cashmere pashimas, spa-like shampoo, and new technology this holiday season, remind your fans what’s really important:A sense of community. Time honored traditions. Human contact. A neighborhood gathering place. Keeping money in the community. Passionate, personal book recommendations. Putting the right book in the right person’s hands to help change their life. The smell and feel of books. A destination where ideas and information and people’s stories are valued and honored.Your endorsement of a “gadget” has a ripple effect far greater than you may realize. Book lovers buying Kindles and digital content exclusively through Amazon means the further erosion of our sales, and a precarious future for many independent bookstores.Independent bookstores are protectors of freedom of speech, financial support for local charities, generators of tax dollars for communities, resources for entertainment and education, and insurance against the chainification of Main Street America. These contributions should not be taken for granted, and certainly not put in jeopardy.When you endorse this new “gadget”, what are you really endorsing? and is it worth it?What do you think of the Kindle? Is it the future of reading, or will it go the way of the oxygen bar?
John Updike’s off the cuff bashing of the ongoing efforts to digitize books has been reverberating across the media landscape. The Washington Post has an account of Updike’s remarks from BEA, where he singled out Kevin Kelly’s lengthy New York Times Magazine piece on the topic, calling Kelly’s view of the future a “grisly scenario.”For the record, I think Kelly overstated the promise of digitized books. As futurist-types so often do, Kelly purports to explain the wonders of technology but also revels in the idea that he can terrify the technophobes. For a little perspective on Kelly, Wired’s founding editor, read his piece “We Are the Web,” marking the tenth anniversary of the Netscape IPO and the start of the Internet era. It’s fascinating stuff, but what can you really do with it except be a little uneasy about what mankind might unleash in the future. It’s science fiction – good science fiction, even – disguised as journalism. When discussing the future of books, forecasting their demise is just an attempt to stir the pot.The real future of books will be a lot less startling. If I can restate what I’ve written in the brief conversation that has occurred in the comments of my previous post, in my opinion the digitization of books isn’t as exciting as those shouting for or against it would have you think, at least not in the near term. The types of books that will be better served by digitization – textbooks, reference books, and works in the technical realm – will thrive in this new medium, as it will allow for notetaking, searchabilty, and other features that will add to their value. At the same time, the threat of piracy is minimal. Books are not easily digitized like music and movies are. There’s no way around the hours of labor it would take to digitize just one shelf full. As a result, companies and institutions are doing the digitizing, and thus it’s highly unlikely that they will make it easy for the books to be used and traded outside of their walled systems. Finally, the digitizing of books is good for research – gathering a list of books that mention a particular person or thing – and for art. In this week’s Time, Sean Wilsey does a great job of explaining how the digitization of books furthers writing in that it allows writers to more easily discover books that can inform their writing. But neither research nor art are motivations to digitally plunder the book industry.Bringing us full circle, today’s New York Times arrived containing an interview with Updike, who discussed his new novel Terrorist, and interviewer Charles McGrath leads off with Updike’s aversion to the Internet, and his failed attempts to use it for research. I admire Updike, and I’m intrigued by his new book, but I think it’s fair to say that his opinions on the future of books won’t end up holding much weight down the line.
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.
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.