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.
The book world’s big news today was Amazon’s unveiling of the latest iteration of its eBook reading device, the Kindle 2. You’ll see that the device itself is now remarkably thin (even to those of us who now take tininess in devices for granted). As the promo copy says, “just over 1/3 of an inch, as thin as most magazines.” There are also a number of other incremental advances to the hardware and interface, though nothing earth-shattering. The real news, to this observer, is that the Kindle remains a key element in the slow and fragmented (when compared to other media) but inexorable shift in how people read. I’ll have more on this topic in a few days. In the meantime, Kindle fans (I know there are quite a few of you) commence rejoicing, and Kindle curmudgeons commence grumbling.The new Kindle starts shipping in two weeks. Kindle 1 owners who order by midnight get to jump to the front of the line.Bonus Link: Kindle: Amazon’s New Firestarter
Today, the Publishers Lunch newsletter pointed to a post at Engadget indicating that Apple might make eBooks available through its iTunes Music Store.How would this work? Well, it wouldn’t work on current iPods, but speculation is rampant that the next generation of iPods, likely out in time for the holiday season, will have a much larger screen, one that takes up the entire face of the device. (There’s a mocked-up image of what it might look like in the post linked above.) When turned horizontally, the iPod would allow for a screen four inches wide and almost two and a half inches high, not a lot of real estate, but then again, people watch movies on video iPod screens even smaller than that. Some further details:A separate trusted source let us know that the next iPod will have a substantial amount of screen real estate (as we’d all suspected), as well as a book reading mode that pumps up the contrast and drops into monochrome for easy reading. It’s no e-ink, sure, but a widescreen iPod would be well suited for the purpose, and according to our source, the books you’d buy (presumably through iTunes) won’t have an expiration — kind of like Apple-bought musicNow, I know from previous posts on the topic of eBooks, that this news will likely make many readers of The Millions say that they will never read books this way and that they would miss the look and feel that books offer, but I’m curious as to whether this effort would take off amongst the less-discerning broader public.What interests me in particular is that this offering would differ from previous eBooks that I’ve talked about. In earlier posts (here, here, and here) about various incarnations of eBooks, I’ve talked about how useful they might be for textbooks and technical books but also how challenging it might be to get customers to embrace them.The iPod, however, as it has in other realms, would change the rules. Some thoughts (sorry, but I’m thinking in bullet points today):By offering books through iTunes, publishers would suddenly be able to put their books in front of young readers who perhaps never go to book storesThe marriage of the book and the iPod would launch old-fashioned books into the twenty-first century. The iPod association would up the cool-factor for books big time.One of the problems with eBooks is that nobody owns the devices to read them. Obviously that would no longer be an issue.Apple already has a distribution system in place, iTunes, that lots of folks are already comfortable using.Anyway, I’d love to hear thoughts anyone might have on this. I don’t own an iPod and probably won’t get one any time soon, nor can I imagine myself ever being a serious consumer of ebooks, but I still think it would be cool to see kids (and adults) walking around reading books on their iPods. Actually, maybe I will get an iPod after all.
Is there a “crisis in reading?” Last quarter’s Barnes & Noble conference call; the well-publicized demise of certain book review supplements and independent bookstores; the gripes of our editor friends; and a whiff of desperation around the marketing of literary fiction (typically referred to as “so tough” or “a hard sell”) would seem to confirm the encroachment of electronic reading matter – email, Facebook feeds, blogs – on the territory of print. Many of my students, ten years younger than I am, do not read books for pleasure. Sometimes, they don’t even read for school.On the other hand, a literary author, Jhumpa Lahiri, last week stood athwart the New York Times bestseller list. And huge chain bookstores apparently find it profitable to operate in towns like the one I grew up in, where previously you bought what K-Mart was selling, or you got bupkis.A recent study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts raised some alarms. “Fewer than half of all American adults now [read] literature,” the NEA reported. But, as many among the commentariat were quick to point out, the NEA was methodologically hamstrung by its insistence on defining literature as fiction and poetry; does our weekly New Yorker binge count for nothing? And so the “Death of Reading” metanarrative receded, for a time, into the murk that birthed it.Receded, that is, until Ursula K. Le Guin insisted on rousing it, via an essay in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine. The thrust of Le Guin’s argument was that readers weren’t the problem, exactly; that pessimism about reading can be blamed on the conglomerates that have, in the last two decades, swallowed most of New York’s most esteemed publishing houses. With its modest margins and arcane payment schedules, book publishing is more a labor of love than a maximizer of shareholder value, Le Guin pointed out; for every Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter, a thousand midlist authors languish in the wings. To the News Corps of the world, she posed the question, “Why don’t you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?”But responses to Le Guin’s piece have inadvertently suggested an alternative explanation for the angst about the health of reading: the publishing world’s formidable self-regard. The editors whose letters grace Harper’s April issue are talented and admirable people (without them, some of my favorite books would not have found me), but none of them seem able to see in Le Guin’s essay anything other than a reflection of their own personal accomplishments.On one hand, Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press and a vociferous critic of the publishing conglomerates, pronounces Le Guin “right on.” After describing how his quondam employer, Bertelesmann-controlled Random House purged staff and backlists, “leaving only a hollowed-out label that can be affixed to any new book the group acquires,” Schiffrin declares, “Literary publishing is insufficiently profitable to meet corporate expectations…. One solution to this problem,” he suggests, “is to create not-for-profit firms as we did in starting The New Press.”On the other hand, Lorin Stein, Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, finds Le Guin’s essay “so depressing, in its knee-jerk snobbery and thoughtlessness, one hardly knows where to start.” Le Guin’s heroic readers of yore, he argues, “were part of a mass market, created by ‘moneymaking entities’ in the business of selling books.” Without profit-motivated publishers (such as Holtzbrinck-backed FSG), writing becomes a pastime for the few who can afford to write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory beyond the cozy ring of ‘our own people.’ Fewer readers means lower stakes, lower standards, and more crap getting passed off as the real thing.Barbara Epler, Editor-in-Chief of the independent press New Directions, quite naturally defines the stakes more modestly. “Readers will always be here,” she writes, agreeing with one of Le Guin’s propositions. “That’s how writers like W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño [both published by New Directions] catch on like wildfire. There have never been so many thriving, struggling, astonishingly nimble small literary presses busy making beautiful books.”And, of course, a reader affiliated with Columbia University sees an industrial strategy to rule the world through publishing – which is even more whimsical in its premises than Mr. Stein’s notion that writers under the current dispensation aren’t already people who more or less “write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory.” (Or his parallel conceit that the nature of the book business remains substantially unchanged from the era of the “Ivanhoe-reading cowboy.”)Is there a crisis in reading? Impossible to say, when “our own people,” the arbiters of literary culture, decline one of its most valuable functions: self-criticism. To be fair to the editors quoted above, their enthusiasm on behalf of their respective projects is evidence of a laudable commitment to the culture of the book; as Lorin Stein puts it, “This is a business I believe in passionately.” And if we are to blame someone for changing the subject from the state of reading to the state of publishing, it should be Le Guin herself. Still, in aggregate, these responses work to confound, rather than to clarify. Their diagnostic power is that of the Rorschach blot.
After three years of wrangling, Google is pushing closer to a digitized future for books. Even as the U.S. Justice Department continues to review a newly released, modified version of a settlement with groups representing authors and publishers, Google’s plans still contain within them the blueprint for a seismic shift in how we consume and interact with books.
By way of backstory, the settlement explains, “Three years ago, the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and a handful of authors and publishers filed a class action lawsuit against Google Books.” Beginning with that lawsuit, there have been several roadblocks on the way to a final settlement. Some have been cleared, but as the Wall Street Journal points out, “the issue of whether it is fair for the settlement to let Google distribute books whose legal rights owners haven’t been identified—known as orphan works—is still drawing criticism.”
Meanwhile, in the newest version of the settlement, the central elements of Google’s digitization plan are mostly unchanged from a year ago when the settlement was initially announced.
We outlined a year ago what is most likely to matter to readers, a massive expansion in the access to books still under copyright, but out-of-print, including the so-called orphan works. Google’s plan paves the way for a huge expansion in the access to this massive class of books — 80% of the books in libraries, according to Google.
More important, however, is how these books will be made available. As Google has outlined in its breakdown of the new agreement, “Once this agreement has been approved, you’ll be able to purchase full online access to millions of books. This means you can read an entire book from any Internet-connected computer, simply by logging in to your Book Search account, and it will remain on your electronic bookshelf, so you can come back and access it whenever you want in the future.” This means that millions of books that were once available only in library stacks or through used book dealers or, more likely, that were essentially invisible to all but the most motivated buyers and researchers, will suddenly be as ubiquitous and easily accessible as Google itself.
It is hard to overstate how big this change could be. You might liken it to the creation of the internet itself, when a critical mass of interconnections gave rise to the sharing and spread of information on a massive scale. Even as the internet has changed how we think about the accessibility of knowledge and data, a massive, “dark” cache of human knowledge has remained largely untouched, many millions of physical volumes whose copyright status doomed them to the analog world. With a finalized settlement, these volumes will become plugged into the internet as we know it, available for purchase, and accessible to anyone with an internet connection and a willingness to pay.
The ripple effects of this development may be hard to predict, but it seems likely to bring further into the mainstream the notion of buying a digitized, format-agnostic book. The impact of this will be amplified by the recent news that Google will not be the only seller of the books it has scanned. As a Publishers Marketplace overview of the newest version of the settlement points out, “any book retailer — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, local bookstores, or other retailers — will be able to sell consumers online access to the out-of-print books covered by the settlement.” In this way, the settlement heralds a whole new category of books being sold by book retailers.
Meanwhile, the settlement has been scaled back in one significant way from a year ago. It will only apply to books published or copyrighted in the U.S., U.K., Australia, or Canada. The legal intricacies of including books from other countries apparently proved too challenging to overcome.
But ultimately, at least for the English-speaking world, this reining in of Google’s effort will hardly limit its potential consequences.