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.
Google Books has just unveiled a set of new features that should appeal both to digital bibliophiles and the academically minded.In my opinion, the coolest new feature is one called "popular passages." This feature does two very useful things. First, it cross-indexes and links books to relevant subject matter. So, when you run across a quote from Plato in the course of the reading, once click will take you straight to the relevant passage in The Republic. What may be even cooler, though, is that it tells readers how often and in what books a certain passage or quotation has occurred. Thus, one can, if so inclined, trace the intellectual heritage of an idea, or even a specific quote through the many books maintained in Google's library.Other features include the ability to create and share personal libraries and to take direct quotes from public domain books and add them to web paged and blogs. All in all, good stuff that any avid reader (and commentator) should find handy.
M. Ryan Calo is a residential fellow at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet & Society. He frequently appears in radio, press, and online to discuss new technology.Everyone knows Ray Bradbury's book Fahrenheit 451. First published in 1953, Bradbury imagined a world in which government "firemen" could enter your home at any time and burn your books "for the good of humanity." This deeply dystopic vision has, thankfully, not come to pass. Nor could it. In the U.S., the First and Fourth Amendments project against unreasonable government intrusion, especially where it implicates ideas. The state will never be able to enter your house and burn your books, even in an age of terrorism. I really believe that.That's why I was so disturbed to learn that Amazon has managed to "burn" two other famous dystopias, these ones by George Orwell, without implicating the Constitution. According to reports, people who had purchased Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm for the Kindle woke up to find that Amazon had erased the ebooks remotely.Jonathan Zittrain has warned about this phenomenon - which he calls "software as service" - wherein people no longer own what they buy. Digital products become evolving and hence unstable services that a company may alter or even destroy at whim. Like many things that happen first on the Internet, the death of ownership is also happening offline, as when car dealers leave GPS devices in vehicles so as to make it easier to repossess the vehicles later.Ebooks evoke dystopian novels in a second way. It is rapidly becoming impossible to peruse or buy a book without leaving a digital trail. Law enforcement has already reportedly asked Amazon to hand over customer purchase history; it is a matter of time before the government approaches Google Book Search. It is no accident that common to practically every dystopian novel is the abrogation of privacy. This is clearly true of Bradbury and Orwell. In Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, the buildings are all made of transparent glass. In Huxley's Brave New World, the biggest taboo is solitude. Bernard Marx tells us that an aversion to being alone is, of all state messages, repeated the most times during sleep conditioning.I don't mean to overstate. In many ways we live in a historic zenith of freedom. And Amazon zapping books for business reasons is a far cry from state sanctioned book burning. But we nevertheless must get a handle on the issues of ownership and privacy that ebooks raise, lest we wake up one day to find they have disappeared.
I happened to notice recently, in my daily online wanderings, that the nominees have been announced for "The Seventh Annual Weblog Awards." As usual, the organizers have listed a couple dozen categories, and as usual the same handful of blogs, more or less, are in the running. Many of the usual suspects are there, Boing Boing, PostSecret, Dooce, Gizmodo, Instapundit, Daily Kos, Lifehacker, and the rest - blogs that are now big business, some of which are owned by big businesses.The omission of "literary bloggers" from this long list of nominees naturally seemed glaring to me, having had a front row seat for the last four or so years as an amorphous and very loosely affiliated movement of bloggers has greatly expanded the realm of literary discourse in the U.S. and elsewhere. And though there has sometimes been an unhealthy "us against them" mentality between bloggers and professional critics, in many ways this friction has melted away as critics have become bloggers themselves and as a number of talented bloggers have begun to invade the book pages, providing a pool of talent and a new voice to book review sections that were shrinking and stultified.This is a big deal. Bloggers have helped create a new literary discourse that benefits readers, writers, and critics - a place where reading and discussing books for pleasure can augment the sometimes joyless drudgery that newspaper criticism has become. (Note how Jerome Weeks, now of book/daddy, jumped from his regular newspaper gig: "So it'll be a relief to read for pleasure again. One reason it's particularly appealing these days is that it's so counter-culture -- so counter to our prevailing techno-bully rapid-response profit-margin mindset.").Yet we need those sometimes bullying newspapers. As Kassia wrote in a post in the early days of the LBC, "Books don't have endless windows opening for them." This sentiment was echoed in an Orlando Sentinel essay by movie critic Roger Moore late last year: "Reviewers, in general, are canaries in the print journalism coal mine, the first to go. Classical music, books, visual arts and dance are dispensed with, or free-lanced off the bottom-line. That's happened everywhere I've ever worked." But as the big windows close, and criticism sections shrink or disappear, hundreds of smaller windows have opened.In Kassia's LBC essay, she went on to write, "It's interesting to me that readers are leading the charge to discover and promote new, often overlooked fiction. Traditional avenues of literary coverage are necessarily limited in scope, even with the Internet." I have come to believe, and I hope people agree with me, that book blogging is more than just a hobby. I say this not in a self-promotional or self-aggrandizing way (so many others are better book bloggers than I), but looking at how the public discourse about books has changed over the last few years. So, the truth is, having thought about it, I'm not disappointed that not a single book blog - not even some of the best (TEV, Ed, Bookslut, Conversational Reading... I could go on and on) - was singled out for recognition by the Weblog Awards. Litblogs have somehow gone too far down the path of assimilation to be considered for such distinctions, I think. Book blogs and traditional book criticism have intermingled sufficiently that they are now, except in a few remaining dusty corners, one.My declaring it doesn't make it so, but perhaps now, the us versus them mentality between the bloggers and the professional critics is mostly behind us. Which is good, because there are so many more books still to write about.
Bryan Gilmer of Durham, N.C., teaches newswriting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writes for institutional and corporate clients. Until 2003, he was a reporter at Florida's largest newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times. He has just independently published a crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz.Last week, I created a Kindle version of my indie crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz, using the tools at Amazon's Digital Text Platform. It took about nine minutes, a "why-not" side project alongside my trade paperback, which I published using Amazon's print-on-demand company, CreateSpace.My Kindle edition went live last Monday at $7.99, so I announced it on a couple of Kindle message boards online. By Wednesday, I'd sold one copy. One! Message board replies said, "If you want us to try a new author, give us a really low price. It'll generate sales and reviews." So I marked it down to $1.99 Thursday morning and posted the price change on the same boards. What happened next was remarkable:As of 5 p.m. Friday - about 36 hours later - Felonious Jazz was the No. 1 selling hard-boiled mystery on the Amazon Kindle Store and the 17th best-selling title in Mysteries & Thrillers - the only title not by huge names like John Sandford, Michael Connelly, and Elmore Leonard in the top 25. Its overall Kindle sales rank was as high as 133rd out of all the 283,000+ fiction and non-fiction titles available in the Kindle Store.I thought, now that I'm in the rankings, I shouldn't have to be so cheap. I bumped the price to $4.99. Sales continued, but at a slower pace, (and Felonious Jazz has slipped in the rankings. I probably should have stuck with $1.99 longer). I also drew in some people who just buy cheap Kindle offerings who don't normally read the genre, though they may have been less likely to enjoy it than fans of similar books.But overall, what a no-budget way to gain visibility. A few big lessons here: Readers expect Kindle books to be much cheaper than dead-tree books (because they know it costs less to publish them and they can't share them and worry they won't have them forever). A cheap price is enough to buy your way up the rankings among national names with a zero-dollar PR campaign. Now that there's a free Kindle app for iPhone, the potential audience for a Kindle title is not just the half million people who spent $359 for the device but many times that large. It's surprisingly comfortable to read book text on the Kindle iPhone app. If you haven't tried it yet, get the app and grab my free sample from Amazon, and you'll see what I mean. It's transformative to have a book you're reading (or several) on your phone to pull out whenever you have to wait in line or for an appointment.More worrying for conventional publishers is that Kindle board posters don't think big publishers are pricing their titles cheaply enough, and when prices get above $9.99 they get angry about it. I'm not sure whether the high prices are due to higher costs, more parties to share the revenue with, or the fear of cannibalization of paper-copy sales. (But the advantages! Near-zero production costs. No warehousing. No shipping. No returns. New edition at any moment. Never out of print. And the Kindle makes people read and buy more titles.) Could big publishers go from being at a tremendous advantage to competing for top-25 sales rankings - if not profits - with a guy in his home office? Will a Netflix-like company launch without the expensive legacy infrastructure of the big New York houses and take advantage of elasticity of demand at much lower price points? As I type this I realize - maybe that's Amazon.A bad side effect is that without barriers to entry, a lot of non-professional-quality content creates clutter. But to some degree, crowd sorting (via online reviews and such) can cope with that.
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With each new holiday season the reach of ereaders expands, as a new crop of Kindles, Nooks and iPads are fired up. The first thing to do is download a few books. Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, just over a third of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. Last year, it was one in four, and now this year one in three books bought by Millions readers were ebooks. So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going. For starters, here are the top-12 most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2012. You'll notice that these aren't all that different from the overall Millions favorites. Of course, this list also favors ebook originals, some of which appear in the "Kindle Single" format and are bite-size books available for lower prices. Meanwhile, publishers appear to still be having luck pricing ebooks pricing above the magic $9.99 number that has been a focus for many in the industry. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett ($2.51) A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava ($5.13) Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace ($3.99) Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan ($9.99) Train Dreams by Denis Johnson ($9.99) The Bathtub Spy by Tom Rachman ($1.99) This How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz ($12.99) Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max ($14.99) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn ($12.99) Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon ($9.99) The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt ($9.43) An Arrangement of Light by Nicole Krauss ($1.99) Other potentially useful ebook links: Editors' Picks Best of 2012 Top 100 Paid and Free Kindle Singles And in this fractured ebook landscape, you've also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don't forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years. Happy Reading!
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In order to promote its Google Book Search at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the search engine released a list of the most viewed books on the service from September 17th through 23rd, and it doesn't much resemble the bestseller lists that commonly appear in newspapers. The titles range from Diversity and Evolutionary Biology of Tropical Flowers to a translation of the Holy Qur'an to Build Your Own All-Terrain Robot.The quirky titles on the list highlight the different ways we interact with books. The New York Times and Amazon create lists based on books we buy, LibraryThing, as I mentioned yesterday, creates lists based on what we own, while Google's list is based on books we look at. I think these different ways in which we interact with books are sometimes forgotten by publishers who assume that books exist only to be part of a commercial transaction. In reality, our relationship with books is much more varied and complex than that.