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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
When Amazon unveiled its new Kindle recently, I wrote about the twin paths that ebooks seemed to be taking as they gained market acceptance. On Amazon’s path, they would be tethered to the Kindle, while on the Google path, ebooks would be read on iphones and any other similar devices, whether on applications devised by Google or by independent ebook application developers.With the announcement this week, however, that Amazon has created its own Kindle application for the iPhone, the online book giant is clearly hedging its bets, while offering the free iPhone app as a taste of what Amazon can offer in the hopes that readers will graduate to a Kindle.
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.