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.
Amazon made a small acquisition this week, picking up Michigan-based audio books publisher Brilliance Audio. The move shows the increasing potential for the audio format in this era of digital distribution — after all, you don’t see Amazon making an effort to buy any traditional publishing houses. And digitally distributed or not, sales of audio books are growing much faster than the industry as a whole. In 2006, sales of audio books were up 11.4%, while sales of all books were down 0.2%, according to the Association of American Publishers.I suspect that the growing popularity of audio books has more to do with the proliferation of iPods and and two-hours-each-way commutes than any decline in appreciation for the written word. It’s also likely that in response to these trends there are more titles than ever available in the audio format. As someone who’s about to become a commuter after working from home for a while, I may soon join the growing percentage of the reading public who are audio book consumers.
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.
In a new commercial for the Amazon Kindle, a man and a woman lie on beach chairs, glazing beneath the sun. The tragically average man is trying to read his iPad; due to the glare, he can no longer follow his Patterson. The woman, Kindle in hand, has no problem with the sun; by the looks of her, she has no problems at all. The man’s shortcomings are plain, and the message is equally clear: the Kindle will make you sexier and resist the sun.
I find the ad faintly comical. In an effort to fend off Apple—which builds sex straight into its products—Amazon is grasping at whatever straw lies near. But for me, the fun ends there. After years of rising dread—the prophesied End of Books, the Bezos Newsweek cover—“it” is finally here. No longer are books being pitted against pixels; pointing out that paper isn’t reflective either seems very 2007. The war is now between tablets, as if the book never existed at all.
In recent years, grief for such losses—music stores, newsrooms, this tradition or that—has become so common and compressed that it’s become a cultural given. We now swallow our objections, lest they later seem absurd. A few years ago, I stood in Tower Records, praising its stock to a friend: You can hold a compact disc; buying an album is a genuine act. And just look at Bitches Brew: don’t you want to have it?
Of course, that Tower Records—along with most of its kind—is gone now; a jazz Pandora station is playing as I write. The transition was far less wrenching than I’d previously expected; in fact, there was really no pain at all. While I may miss aimless browsing, thoughts consumed by music, the process now seems needless, like baking bread from scratch.
I might say we’re at a moment when we face this choice as readers—the decision to climb into the boat or stay on familiar shores. But the decision is not truly ours. Time and again, these choices are made for us, by a collective sweep and push. One day, everyone holds an iPod, and the next day, so do you. Those who resist—the pipe smokers and vinyl hounds, stubborn to the end—come to seem affected, or possibly insane. The rest of us seem modern, and eventually commonplace.
The prospect of our wonders used to bring excitement. In the early nineties, after seeing Dick Tracy, I dreamed of his two-way radio. How cool would that be? I thought. Incredibly, I found out: as two-way radios came to market, then gripped every inch of our lives, they became not cool at all. Awe gave way to grabbiness: digitize everything, please. Books are the latest items to be forced into the hole.
So I should probably shrug at progress and enjoy a digital Roth. But—and at this stage, I know the pointlessness of saying it—books feel different to me. Everywhere I’ve lived, they’ve surrounded me; nearly every night since childhood, I’ve held one in my hands. My mother was a librarian; my father sat me on his lap and read Tom Sawyer aloud. I now do the same with my son, though he isn’t quite ready for Twain. Everyone, to some degree, has a variation of this history.
So here is the dilemma: you love your books, with their meaning and their warmth, but you’re not some weepy sap. You find romance in the object, yet none in being an outlier, unreasonably clinging to relics. Do you get on the boat—with its gorgeous women and glare-free screens—or ignore it and hold on? Had I asked myself this question around the time of my Tower trip, I would have flared out my response: I’ll never switch, you Logan’s Run drone. Books are too vital to trade for some overmarketed whim.
But in the time since, I’ve given myself over to plenty of similar whims—and against all odds, they haven’t ravaged my soul. Electric books hold no appeal to me; they feel like viral death. But so did music taken from a set of coiled wires. The sounds were what was important. So my answer now, however reluctant, is this: I’ll hold on to books for as long as I can. I’ll read them, lend them, fall asleep with them. I’ll hope they hold their own, that novelty will wane. And if it doesn’t—when it doesn’t—I’ll find myself among a crowd that I’d never hoped to join.
(Image: circuit board, from botheredbybees’s photostream)
Google has put together a special page on its “Books” site devoted to frequently banned books in recognition of “Banned Books Week,” the American Library Association initiative to protect intellectual freedom and raise awareness about attempts to ban books. This year, the event takes place from September 23 to 30.The Google tie in to this, I think, illuminates the importance of the company’s efforts to digitize books and make them accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. In this way, even if a frequently challenged book like Lolita or Beloved is made inaccessible to a curious reader, it will always be available online. (via)
If you visit a book-focused startup online these days, chances are Amazon owns a part of it. On August 1st, the online bookselling behemoth snapped up yet another, the online used book marketplace AbeBooks, perhaps the service most widely used by online booksellers putting their wares online, also bringing into the fold two smaller and very visible book-related sites that AbeBooks owns.It’s a very smart move by Amazon, whose profit margins are higher for its Marketplace third-party sales as compared to its traditional business. While it may seem counter-intuitive that Amazon happily lets used book sellers “compete” with it by offering cheaper copies of almost every book it sells, it’s actually an amazing business. Whenever a used book sells on the site, Amazon gets 15% of the selling price plus additional fees amounting to a bit more than two dollars (and less if you sell a lot). The only thing Amazon has to do is kick back a “shipping credit” to the seller, $3.99 for standard domestic shipping. (Incidentally, this is how people get away with selling used books for a penny on Amazon; what profit there is in that case comes from the shipping credit.) What this means is that Amazon uses its existing infrastructure to let people sell books on the site. All that extra revenue comes at very minimal cost – in fact, less cost (and thus more profit) than if Amazon sold you the book itself. The purchase of AbeBooks brings as many as 110 million books from AbeBooks into Amazon (though in practice, probably a fair amount fewer, since many used booksellers listed their inventories on both sites.) All in all, a very shrewd buy for Amazon.But Amazon doesn’t just get AbeBooks. AbeBooks also owns bookfinder.com, easily the most comprehensive used book search out there, aggregating results from dozens of used book listing services. Perhaps even more interesting, AbeBooks was also a minority investor in LibraryThing, the very successful book cataloging community, and that stake will pass on to Amazon. Like many in the online world of books, LibraryThing, its founder, and its users have aften looked somewhat warily at the bookselling giant, and so it will be interesting to see how LibraryThing adjusts to its new big investor (if it adjusts at all).One of the big selling points of LibraryThing is its impressive recommendation system, which plumbs the community’s vast array of individual libraries to come up with book suggestions. The unique element of LibraryThing’s recommendations has been that they are based on what you own versus Amazon’s, which are based on what you buy, which can be very different things. I would imagine that Amazon would be very curious to dig into those recommendations, and it will be very interesting to see if it ever has the opportunity to do so. For the time being, it won’t, and it may never. LibraryThing founder Tim Spalding wrote on the LibraryThing blog, ” Abe gets only anonymized and aggregate data, like recommendations, and they can only use it on Abebooks sites. Nothing has changed here.”Amazon’s reach doesn’t stop there, it is also an investor in LibraryThing rival Shelfari.Finally, while we’re on the topic of Amazon, there has been much speculation on how many Kindles the company has sold, blog TechCrunch did some digging and was able to come up with a number, 240,000.Doing a little back of the envelope math, that brings total sales of the device so far to between $86 million and $96 million (the price of the device was reduced to $360 from $400 last May). Then add the amounts spent on digital books, newspapers, and blogs purchased to read on the device, and you get a business that has easily brought in above $100 million so far. (Each $25 worth of digital reading material purchased per Kindle, add $6 million in total revenues).