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.
Too often, as we look at the impact of new media on publishing, we are relgated to trading in hypotheticals. “If all the books in the world were searchable…” This week’s article in The New Yorker on digitizing books covers that ground (though the article’s writer Anthony Grafton is aiming mainly to deflate the hype surrounding the issue rather than to build it up).With this in mind, it was refreshing to see Dilbert-creator Scott Adams’ column in the Wall Street Journal about the real-life consequences of giving content away for free. I’m not sure if the column is visible to non-subscribers, so I’ll just go ahead and quote liberally.His main topic is his new book, Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!, a large portion of which is culled from his very popular blog. In the process of putting the book together, however, he learned a lesson:As part of the book deal, my publisher asked me to delete the parts of my blog archive that would be included in the book. The archives didn’t get much traffic, so I didn’t think much about deleting them. This turned out to be a major blunder in the “how people think” category.A surprising number of my readers were personally offended that I would remove material from the Internet that had once been free, even after they read it. It was as if I had broken into their homes and ripped the books off their shelves. They felt violated. And boy, I heard about it.Free is a powerful thing as it turns out. An earlier experiment with free content had also confounded his expectations:A few years ago I tried an experiment where I put the entire text of my book, God’s Debris, on the Internet for free, after sales of the hard copy and its sequel, The Religion War slowed. My hope was that the people who liked the free e-book would buy the sequel. According to my fan mail, people loved the free book. I know they loved it because they emailed to ask when the sequel would also be available for free. For readers of my non-Dilbert books, I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops.Adams goes on to tie this into the music industry and Radiohead’s recent pricing experiment in particular.So I’ve been watching with great interest as the band Radiohead pursues its experiment with pay-what-you-want downloads on the Internet. In the near term, the goodwill has inspired lots of people to pay. But I suspect many of them are placing a bet that paying a few bucks now will inspire all of their favorite bands to offer similar deals. That’s when the market value of music will approach zero.But it’s not all dire. Adams’ interactions with his readers through blogging have been “unexpected and wonderful,” while putting Dilbert online for free years ago has yielded mixed though mostly positive results. It “gave a huge boost to the newspaper sales and licensing. The ad income was good too. Giving away the Dilbert comic for free continues to work well, although it cannibalizes my reprint book sales to some extent, and a fast-growing percentage of readers bypass the online ads with widgets, unauthorized RSS feeds and other workarounds.”As to the lessons to be learned from all this, Adams’ conclusion is as good as anybody’s, “Free is more complicated than you’d think.”
Like a lot of the people I know these days who grew up wanting to be writers, I learned how to write by reading the Internet. I graduated from college with a degree in capital-L Literature, but by the time I was 23, my major sources of inspiration were blogs and online fiction magazines. I found my voice (or at least a voice) by imitating bloggers no one had ever heard of, and publishing on websites few people would ever read. This suited me — I liked the isolated weirdness of writing into the infinite void of the web. It didn’t matter to me that no one answered back.
Some time between then and now, businesses with real money caught on to writing on the Internet, discovered it could be made scaleable, and everything changed. For many of my writer friends, this change was a net positive. Suddenly there was money in writing; in some cases, lots of it. The possibility of a “piece” going viral also meant the possibility of a job for pay at a real publication, or a book deal, or a mention in The New York Times, or any number of other writerly blessings. At the same time, wanting to make a career in letters and not being on Twitter and Facebook — that is, not wanting to share your work constantly with the strangers you met on airplanes and in restaurants and people you hadn’t seen since seventh grade — became the equivalent of not actually wanting to be a writer at all. For extroverts and writers with surplus self-assurance this didn’t pose a problem. For those of us drawn to writing because it was the one job that wouldn’t require us to talk to people regularly, it was a nightmare.
“Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life,” wrote Leon Wieseltier last month in his call to arms against the threat technology poses to humanism. “Among the Disrupted” sparked a heated debate among its readers, or at least, as heated as can reasonably be expected in the letters section of the New York Times Book Review. As one critic pointed out, there are plenty of more urgent issues for all of us to ponder, child poverty and the pay gap among them. What struck me, though, wasn’t the essay’s hyperbole, but the inaccuracy of its target.
The problem facing writers now isn’t the growing prominence of tech, but the question of how deeply the two fields are intertwined, and what that relationship means. Most of the notable works of fiction published in recent years (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven spring immediately to mind) present thoughtful considerations of the evolving relationship between the self and technology, and a lot of the people who read these books probably read them on the Kindle app. The same people who subscribe to Harpers read work published by the Atavist and curated by Longform. I’m writing right now in the notepad app on my iPhone, and you’re reading on your computer or your iPad or your own phone. How many writers do you know at this point who don’t have their own websites, Tumblrs, or blogs? For that matter, how many do you know who aren’t on Twitter?
Still, it’s true that while the Internet augmented journalism, creating jobs for newcomers and inventing new forms for them to occupy, it didn’t do the same for fiction. Atavist Books confirmed last fall that it would no longer be taking new submissions, and Byliner was folded into Vook last September. Amazon’s e-books are popular, but more innovative forms of digital literature don’t seem to be. Meanwhile, more and more often, walking into library near the office building where I work in Los Angeles feels like walking into a museum. Untouched contemporary novels line the shelves, positions unchanged. The few people in the reading room are, to a person, on laptops or on their phones.
“Only connect,” E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End. We’ve taken his directive and run with it, to the point where we talk about disconnecting — going off Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Venmo, whatever — in the same wistful tones we once used to talk about going on vacation. Social media, like literary fiction, allows us briefly, to inhabit a consciousness outside our own: on Facebook, we experience the highs and lows of strangers in real time through the same lens of authenticity that marks work by writers like Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti. If these platforms give every one of us both an audience and a show on demand, at any given moment, and for free, then what is there left for fiction to do?
Curious about how all of this was affecting those most likely to suffer from its consequences, I reached out to novelists in my Twitter timeline to find out what they thought about the role of social media — specifically Twitter — in their own writing lives. I expected all three of them to share my own anxieties — my view of the world has more in common with Wieseltier’s than I am, perhaps, ready to accept — and I was surprised when not one of them did.
Roxane Gay contributes reviews and cultural criticism to high-profile outlets regularly, edits multiple literary journals, and works as a professor at Purdue. She tweets prolifically to her 54,000 and counting followers, and engages with many of them directly. Last year, her essay collection, Bad Feminist, and her novel, An Untamed State, both dropped at the same time, to widespread acclaim.
“Many of my essays begin as conversations on Twitter, where I am thinking through something that’s happening in our culture,” Gay wrote me, adding that she uses Twitter “to be alone while feeling less lonely.”
“Ninety percent of the time,” Gay wrote, “I’m having delightful conversations and interactions on Twitter. There’s little to dislike.”
Amelia Gray, author of Threats and the forthcoming Gutshot, responded that Twitter “has been more beneficial to my creativity than most theory,” adding, “It’s a little corner of the world that is a pure ball-pit.” She went on, “My tweets and my fiction ideally share the same precision. They share a sense of character too, though rarely the same character. I use different social media towards different ends, and in that way I have different Internet personas and also a real persona which is different here and there.”
Porochista Khakpour is an essayist and fiction writer and the author of, most recently, The Last Illusion. Last year one of her tweets caught the attention of Slate, landing her timeline a mention in The New York Times Book Review. She often writes, more or less jokingly (I think?), about being enslaved to Twitter, but when I wrote to ask her about the relationship between the site and her work, she wrote back, “I think I am beneficial and destructive to my own creativity and ability to be productive. I am the problem!” She described her relationship to Twitter as, “Love/hate, but tbh mostly love. And we all know love hurts, love bleeds, love kills, love is a battlefield, etc.”
A blogger friend of mine once called social media a loneliness eliminator and I have to admit that definition makes me uneasy. What about those of us who like being lonely? What if loneliness is, in some ways, necessary? It’s true though, that, soon enough, this conversation will likely be irrelevant. Twitter and Facebook will dissolve into the digital slurry, only to be replaced by some other technology as incomprehensible to us as texting once was to our grandparents. Consider Vine, currently churning out new waves of celebrities that no one over 27 has ever heard of. Maybe six-second videos will become the new Twitter, which is the new Facebook, which was the new books. Or maybe, by this time next year, we’ll be having this same conversation about yet another new technology we can never remember how we lived without. Meanwhile, as these writers make clear, fiction writers will continue to adapt, and books, while they may be still hanging on by a thread, will hang on nonetheless.
Something I’m starting to suspect is that it’s everything I worry will make books obsolete — their slowness, the investment of time they require, and their inability to do anything other than the singular purpose for which they’ve been created — that has allowed them to survive for this long. Social media lends itself best to chronicling discrete instances: bursts of anger, flashes of surprise. Built on the notion, even on a micro scale, of constant disruption, our feeds and streams can’t cohere for long enough to bleed seamlessly into one another the way actual sentences do. Twitter and Facebook are great for quick blasts of dopamine or adrenaline, but not for creating sustained waves of happiness or fear or maintaining the kind of cumulative tension upon which good stories rely.
“Only connect!” Forster wrote, but he also wrote, “Live in fragments no longer.” Human experience is like a Georges Seurat in that it only comes into focus the further away you get from it. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram regurgitate the present back to us in easily manageable pieces that delight, spark envy, disdain, boredom, revulsion, or inspiration. What they can’t do, however, is take a wider scope. Its novels we depend on to reorganize those scattered fragments into something whole.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
There’s been much discussion lately, some of it bordering on hysterical, about radio-frequency identification devices or RFIDs. The idea is that the barcode will be replaced by a tiny radio transmitter that will allow computers to monitor inventory in real time as it sits on the shelves. It would also make things more efficient at the cash register. Since hundreds of the transmitters can be “scanned” at once, the checkout process can be completed almost instantaneously. RFIDs are meant to streamline the retail process and prevent theft. Walmart has already begun requiring its suppliers to include them in certain products, and privacy advocates have been registering their concern. If an all-seeing computer inside the Walmart can track the tennis racket that you’re carrying around, what’s to stop them, or anyone, from tracking that tennis racket home with you? I don’t know why anyone would want to track a tennis racket to your home, but still, the idea of all your belongings being embedded with trackable transmitters is a bit unsettling. Privacy concerns aside, anyone responsible for a large and complicated inventory has to look at RFIDs as the holy grail of inventory management. And that includes librarians. Librarians have, especially in recent years, been vigilant about monitoring privacy issues, but in the case of RFIDs, it appears as though the convenience outweighs the risks. On Thursday the San Francisco Library Commission approved the use of RFIDs, and the deciding factors seem to be ease of use and lessening the risk of injuries to library workers. According to this San Francisco Chronicle article, “San Francisco librarian Susan Hildreth has said the technology will make it easier for library staff to check books out to library patrons. She said the chips would also cut the cost of repetitive stress injuries, which have totaled $265,000 at the library in the past three years.” (An open letter from Hildreth was published in the Chronicle on Thursday to allay the fears of San Francisco’s library patrons.)The BiographerYesterday I met Ron Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton is receiving praise from all corners these days. As we discussed the promising sales of the new book, Chernow expressed concern about the many headline-grabbing political books that threaten to drown out his new biography. According to Chernow, the folks at Penguin, navigating the crowded release calendar, deliberated over the “street date” and took special care to avoid overlapping with Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack. Before there was any release date to worry about, Chernow spent years researching the book and sifting through the voluminous papers of the prolific writer. He even uncovered some previously undiscovered writing that Hamilton had done as a stringer for newspapers in New York. I asked Chernow what he’s reading at the moment, and he said, almost sheepishly, that these days he feels obligated to keep up with books about Hamilton’s era because he is always asked about this or that new book at his many speaking engagements. Among his favorites from the recent crop are An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America by Henry Wiencek and “Negro President” : Jefferson and the Slave Power by Garry Wills.It Begins AgainIt was inevitable. It looks like The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason may succeed The Da Vinci Code as the next pseudo-religious, conspiracy theory, mega-blockbuster bestseller.
In December, I wrote about HarperCollins’ plan to host digitized copies of their books on their own Web site rather than make them available to Google’s book search. Now the AP is reporting that HarperCollins has unleashed its first offering in this format, Go It Alone, a business book by Bruce Judson. The book is available, in its entirety, at Judson’s Web site. As Google does with its book search, HarperCollins has surrounded the book with contextual ads and provided a link to buy the book. The article points out the supposed irony of using Google ads, but I see Yahoo ads in there too and anyway, HarperCollins isn’t trying to screw over Google, they’re trying to maintain control over the process. HarperCollins has mostly gotten good reviews for their efforts primarily because they’re not using any sort of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to “protect” their intellectual property. To some, this approach is nothing new. As is noted in the article, marketing guru Seth Godin and science fiction author Cory Doctorow (to give two examples), have both made their books available in this way. The news here is that a major publisher is doing it.Based on this article, though, HarperCollins doesn’t seem to understand that by allowing easy, free access to the book, they are, in effect, using the book as marketing for itself in much the same way that one can flip through a book at bookstore before buying. Instead they view the ads displayed next to the book’s pages as a “new revenue stream.” That’s why you shouldn’t expect to see any fiction as a part of this program. According to Brian Murray, group president of HarperCollins, “I don’t think advertisers are clamoring to place ads around literary fiction.” Hence, no literary fiction.
Last year, we took a look at the affinity for Twitter in certain quarters of the literary world. A handful of well-known authors have acquired big followings on the platform, a result not just of their name recognition but of their mastery of the tweet, as well. Readers now also turn to twitter for book news and comment from a number of sources who are active on Twitter. Our previous piece looked at the very first tweets of these now-popular practitioners. Nearly all were halting “Hello World” efforts, and none seemed likely to win over those unconverted to the various (and admittedly sometimes maddening) wonders of Twitter.
So, to present literary Twitter in its best possible light, we are returning again to those most widely followed on literary Twitter, but this time, looking at which Tweets got the most favorites, we are highlighting each literary Twitterer’s best tweet. Here you’ll find much wry humor, gossip, lots of politics, Margaret Atwood flirting with a Twitter-famous comedian, and even a surprising amount of insight crammed into 140 characters. They may be enough to win over some fresh converts.
(For the Twitter regulars out there, we found that tweets with more RTs tended to be more about disseminating news to fans, while tweets with more favs captured some essence of the Twitterer, so we went with the latter when compiling this list. Also, if you find tweets by these folks with more favorites than the ones we’ve listed, let us know and we’ll swap them in.)
Every 60 seconds in Africa, a minute passes. We can put a stop to this. Please retweet.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) May 9, 2012
Fox is now like, "What if we took states that Obama has already won and gave them to Romney – how would that change the map?"— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) November 7, 2012
Ironic that I am a judge for the Truman Capote award when Capote in a druggy interview said he hated me & that I should be executed. LOL.— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 14, 2013
For those curious about the mystery event that happened in my parlor last night, here's a clue. http://yfrog.com/gy3ugpj— Ayelet Waldman (@ayeletw) January 3, 2011
On a positive note, both can pronounce the word "nuclear".— Dani Shapiro (@danijshapiro) October 23, 2012
Kid at our door in a suit and tie. "What are you?" we asked. Him: "The 1 percent."— Dwight Garner (@DwightGarner) November 1, 2011
Next Schoolhouse Rock song is called "How a Bill Becomes a Law and Then Gets Held Hostage by Sore Losers Willing to Destroy Our Economy."— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) October 1, 2013
Thomas Pynchon's new novel BLEEDING EDGE will be published on September 17, deals with Silicon Alley between dotcom boom collapse and 9/11.— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) February 25, 2013
Wouldn't it be fun to just totally ignore Ann Coulter? It would drive her crazy.— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) October 23, 2012
Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops. Christopher Hitchens, April 13, 1949-December 15, 2011.— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) December 16, 2011
Sad day, man. I never really understood how sad the book is until now. Why did I make it so sad? Why have so many people read it?— John Green (@realjohngreen) September 25, 2013
Found this genius quote on Reddit today: Getting offended is a great way to avoid answering questions that make you sound dumb.— Doug Coupland (@DougCoupland) September 2, 2012
Affordable Care Act means health care for artists, writers, poets, dancers, filmmakers, and others in the arts without insurance now.— Amy Tan (@AmyTan) October 1, 2013
The gorgeous and talented Charlie Hunnam will be Christian Grey in the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.— E L James (@E_L_James) September 2, 2013
Whitney Houston: Yes, somewhere tonight Patrick Bateman is weeping, shocked but not surprised, and ordering three hookers instead of two…— Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) February 12, 2012
People who feel safer with a gun than with guaranteed medical insurance don't yet have a fully adult concept of scary.— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) October 2, 2013
Want to become a better writer? Then read this free essay: 'Developing a Theme' by Chuck Palahniuk – http://bit.ly/aNRUqk— Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) October 12, 2010
I'm going to wash Joe Biden's car tomorrow. With my tears of gratitude.— Gary Shteyngart (@Shteyngart) October 12, 2012
o no i mistook mascara for concealer again! My eye sockets are black and greasy also idk what's going on in Eritrea. Can a website help plz— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) August 14, 2013
Little, Brown to publish JK Rowling adult novel— Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) February 23, 2012
The New Yorker brings back Haruki Murakami story for Japan issue http://lat.ms/h0rix6— L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) March 21, 2011
Library acquires ENTIRE Twitter archive. ALL tweets. More info here http://go.usa.gov/ik4— Library of Congress (@librarycongress) April 14, 2010
An unpublished shorty story by David Foster Wallace has been posted on tumblr: http://bit.ly/aa7B38— The Rumpus (@The_Rumpus) October 29, 2010
(•_•) <) )╯I've actually / \ \(•_•) ( (> Read / \ (•_•) <) )> Infinite Jest / \— The Millions (@The_Millions) January 9, 2014