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.
Last week, HarperCollins unveiled its new online strategy, which centers on Amazon-like “Browse Inside” functionality, while also pushing new ways of promoting books and authors online. The New York Times wrote up the new initiative. “Browse Inside” allows visitors to “flip through” books on HarperCollins’ Web site, using an interface similar to the Amazon Online Reader (profiled here) and Google Book Search, though without any notable bells and whistles. With “Browse Inside,” HarperCollins’ goal seems to be to let readers get a real look at its books, while also controlling the environment.This is not, however, an answer to Google Book Search, as HarperCollins implied it would be when it first went down this path at the end of last year. A New York Times article at the time had HarperCollins CEO, Jane Friedman saying, “Rather than give copies of books to search services like Google for those companies to scan as it currently does, HarperCollins would keep the material on its own computers, and users would be pointed there by the search engine.”As I wrote at the time, by going this route, HarperCollins builds its own little island, separate from an aggregator like Google Book Search and it encourages other publishers to do the same. The power of something like Google Book Search is that it puts all book content in one place and enables people to search the world of books. HarperCollins claim that its content would be just as accessible via the main Google search engine, while not being as simple as it sounds, is sort of a moot point. It’s like HarperCollins has decided to scatter its books haphazardly around a Wal-Mart rather than putting them in the local library with rest of the books.It’s laudable that HarperCollins, perhaps prodded by its MySpace-owning parent News Corp, is dipping its toe in the digital waters, and stepping up its efforts to use the Internet to promote and sell books. But Google’s initiative is a separate effort altogether that would neither infringe upon HarperCollins’ strategy nor lead to piracy of any sort.For more, here are a few of my many posts on the topic: The publishers’ big blunder, More Google Book hysteria, and Richard Nash of Soft Skull on Google Print
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.
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
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.
Over at the Vroman’s Bookstore blog, Millions contributor emeritus Patrick Brownweighs in on Oprah’s endorsement of the Kindle, saying, “I never thought Oprah was anything more than she is — a corporate shill.” Vroman’s president Allison Hill (a beloved and admired figure in the bookselling industry) also shares her thoughts:Oprah, if you’re reading this, forget about cashmere pashimas, spa-like shampoo, and new technology this holiday season, remind your fans what’s really important:A sense of community. Time honored traditions. Human contact. A neighborhood gathering place. Keeping money in the community. Passionate, personal book recommendations. Putting the right book in the right person’s hands to help change their life. The smell and feel of books. A destination where ideas and information and people’s stories are valued and honored.Your endorsement of a “gadget” has a ripple effect far greater than you may realize. Book lovers buying Kindles and digital content exclusively through Amazon means the further erosion of our sales, and a precarious future for many independent bookstores.Independent bookstores are protectors of freedom of speech, financial support for local charities, generators of tax dollars for communities, resources for entertainment and education, and insurance against the chainification of Main Street America. These contributions should not be taken for granted, and certainly not put in jeopardy.When you endorse this new “gadget”, what are you really endorsing? and is it worth it?What do you think of the Kindle? Is it the future of reading, or will it go the way of the oxygen bar?
The book tech beat is busy lately, with big developments on both the dedicated device side and the device agnostic side. (For more about the two ebook paths, check out our post on ebook evolution.)In recent weeks, its been Amazon making all the noise. Today the company unveiled a new Kindle, the larger Kindle DX. The DX is 77% bigger and 36% more expensive, and everyone is falling all over themselves to explain why it won’t save newspapers.Of course the Kindle alone won’t save newspapers – the problems there run deep – but it might be a passable way to read the paper (if you’re the kind of person who spends $489 on a newfangled newspaper reading device). The new larger screen, 9.7 inches on the diagonal, certainly helps, as does the “auto-rotating” screen, which lets you flip from portrait to landscape. The bigger display and other features like the ability to “clip and save” articles are all designed for what Amazon is calling an “Enhanced Newspaper Reading Experience.” It also occurs to me that the Kindle demographic might align with what’s left of the newspaper demographic in a way that will offer a small ray of sunshine during these otherwise dark times. But it’s also true, as Patrick noted at his Vroman’s blog today, that the iPhone is a quite capable for reading the news (as are most other smartphones; that’s the whole point of a smartphone).What’s much more interesting than the newspaper angle – and somewhat frightening in fact – is that Jeff Bezos today announced that among books that are available for the Kindle, 35% of the copies Amazon sells are Kindle editions. This is a surprising number (at the Kindle 2 unveiling in February it was 10%) and is further proof of the huge land grab that Amazon is now enacting. Only slightly mitigating those sales figures is news that the DX will support the commonplace PDF format, leaving the door open for a future in which most ebooks sold can be read on any reader, no matter what company manufactures it.Amazon has also been making waves on the device agnostic side of things with last month’s purchase of Stanza, the popular free ebook application for the iPhone. Amazon had already unveiled a Kindle app for the iPhone, and this move further solidifies its presence there (and presumably in the app-centric ecosystems of future smartphones). The Kindle itself, of course, is the main focus. The longer that Amazon can keep its hands on the ebook market (a market that will eventually embrace open formats, one has to assume), the longer Amazon can rake in its monopoly profits. The iPhone moves, as well as the decision to support PDFs on the DX, meanwhile, are a smart hedge and a tacit acknowledgment that ebooks will one day be predominantly sold in formats that aren’t tied to any one device.Update: The Kindle is really not going to save any newspapers: “the best deal Amazon will give the Dallas Morning News – and we’ve negotiated this up to the last two weeks – they want 70 percent of the subscriptions revenue. I get 30 percent, they get 70 percent. On top of that they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device. Now is that a business model that is going to work for newspapers? I get 30 percent and they get the right to license my content to any portable device – not just ones made by Amazon? That, to me, is not a model.”
This week at The Millions, we’re attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the transformation of book coverage in the digital age. On Wednesday, Garth looked at the death of the newspaper book review section. Yesterday, Max considered the revenue problems facing literary websites… and the vices and virtues of one of the solutions. And in today’s final installment, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book reader.
Yesterday, we looked at some of the revenue sources available for literary sites and why Amazon’s affiliate program, despite its flaws, is often a better option than standard advertising and affiliate programs run by other booksellers. But Amazon links – and the implied endorsement that comes with them – present new problems, making Amazon ever bigger and more central to a book industry that for readers and writers may be better off fragmented. What’s now known as #Amazonfail offers a perfect example of what readers and writers have to lose from an Amazon-dominated book industry. Patrick recently outlined on his Vroman’s Blog why the threat that Amazon poses is one of control and not censorship per se. Ultimately, the Amazon experiment may prove unsustainable, and the viability of online book coverage may come to rest on a more robust and more serious advertising model than is currently available.
In the world of books, Amazon has a massive footprint. Even as other book retailers – chain and indie – have struggled to stay afloat, Amazon has used its heft in other product categories to treat books as a loss leader and consolidate its hold on that market. A pair of surveys in 2008 put online book sales at between 21%-30% of total U.S. book sales, with the assumption being that the lion’s share of those online sales belonged to Amazon. In a market as fragmented as books, that’s a big number. And as Patrick points out, monoculture (or as we used to call it in econ class, monopoly) can cause problems for those stakeholders we discussed yesterday. The NYTBR’s stakeholders can publicize, read about, and review books elsewhere, but amid tough times for bookstore chains and many indies, Amazon may be the only viable option for many readers. For authors, readers, and publishers of the books impacted by the recent “glitch,” the potential dangers of Amazon’s outsized position became glaringly obvious. Regardless of whether the “glitch” was intentional, the result of a poorly constructed classification system, or just plain bad luck, it is the sort of thing that can all too easily waylay stakeholders in a market controlled by a single giant.
From the standpoint of readers and those concerned with freedom of expression, last week’s “glitch” was alarming, but from the standpoint of someone tracking the role played by Amazon’s Associates Program in the business model of book- and culture-focused sites, another effect of Amazon’s large footprint has become a source of even more consternation.
We’ve written at length about the Kindle here at The Millions over the last two years. To the extent that there is a debate about the experience the device offers, we haven’t taken sides, but as we have observed how Amazon has treated the device within the Associates program, we have come to understand the huge land-grab the Kindle represents.
In short, by making it possible for Kindle users to buy Kindle ebooks via the device itself, Amazon has cut middlemen out of the picture. The Associate’s commission depends on a click in a browser. For ebooks bought via Kindle, there is no click. And, just to be certain that intermediaries are cut out of the Kindle food chain, Amazon recently made another, symptomatic adjustment to its Associates Program. In February, the same month that Amazon launched the Kindle 2, Amazon quietly stopped paying Associates commissions on Kindle ebooks bought via the web. (Unsurprisingly, Amazon still pays a healthy bounty on Kindles sold. The calculus is clear. Sell more Kindles and sell more books via a vertically integrated system that only Amazon controls.) Like Apple’s iTunes ecosystem in the era of digital rights management, Amazon’s Kindle represents a bid to control distribution of a new and closed digital format that is only compatible with Amazon-approved devices. If, as has largely been the case with music, books are increasingly distributed digitally, Amazon’s position in that market could become huge. [Update: Subsequent to the publication of this piece, Amazon resumed paying commissions on Kindle books bought through the website, though commissions are not earned on ebooks bought through the Kindle device.]
The company’s early move to lock Associates out of commissions on ebooks is just a taste of what Amazon could do with a dominant position in the emerging ebook market. (Consider, for example, the recent news that a banned Amazon account also disables the Kindle. And separately, after cornering the market on ebooks, Amazon can set the prices it wants to charge for them.) For book sites pursuing affiliation as a revenue option, it also offers a scary prospect: that the revenue earned from Amazon’s program will slowly dwindle in inverse proportion to the popularity of Kindle ebooks.
Some will argue that the Kindle ebook market is currently too small to matter, but the Kindle may be rapidly gaining steam. We recently observed the massive ramp up in Kindle ebooks bought by readers of The Millions since the launch of the Kindle 2. And TechCrunch recently reported that Amazon may have sold 300,000 Kindle 2s in a little over two months since the Kindle 2 was unveiled – a stunning rate in comparison to the 400,000 Kindles sold during the 15-month lifespan of the first generation device.
As all of this has come into focus for us, it’s become easier to envision a time when it would no longer make sense for The Millions to link to Amazon. If it comes to pass that people who shop at Amazon for books tend to prefer Kindle ebooks, it would be pretty silly for us to keep linking to the Amazon pages for the physical copies of books. And why link to the Kindle ebook page when we could link to a commission-generating page at Powell’s or IndieBound? Even considering the point we made yesterday about big-ticket items, we are a site that covers books and appeals to avid readers, and most of the commissions The Millions earns via the Amazon program are earned on books. There are many other literary and culture-oriented sites that fit this same profile and link to Amazon. If Amazon’s evolution closes the door on these sites, it will make it all the more difficult for these sites to become economically viable and it will be a blow to literary and culture discussion on the web. On the other hand, it will be an opportunity for indies to compete with Amazon.
One of the key points tucked away in yesterday’s installment was that, even as the business model of book coverage in print fails and online coverage rushes to fill the void, there’s nothing keeping online coverage from the fate that has beset print coverage.
In light of everything that’s going on with the Kindle, a decentralized alternative to Amazon’s Associates program, like the one that IndieBound has been ramping up, becomes more intriguing, but such alternatives have a long way to go before they can offer a value proposition that can compete with the incumbent.
A better, far more realistic, and completely obvious solution for supporting book coverage online is advertising – whose current inefficacy, you may remember, was what made Amazon attractive in the first place. In theory, two factors recommend online advertising to potential advertisers and marketers. The infrastructure is already there – building an affiliate program from scratch is no easy task nor is it a sensible option for many advertisers – and it’s much cheaper than trying to reach a similar audience via print advertising.
If the email inboxes of Millions contributors are any indication, there is currently plenty of interest in reaching a readership like that of The Millions, but not much interest in paying for it. There are always going to be books that don’t jibe with our editorial focus, but we have no such restrictions on advertisements. (This isn’t to say that any serious book journalist doesn’t welcome a well-targeted email.)
In his part one of this series, Garth noted how the conglomerated publishing industry has shelled out less and less money for the advertisements that support The New York Times Book Review and other, now defunct, book review sections. Perhaps part of that same cash-saving strategy has been to make scattershot pitches to bloggers in order generate some free publicity. But as Garth also discussed, the quality and readership of book coverage offered by the top bloggers and a number of impressive new online magazines is only increasing. Meanwhile, no longer the new kids on the block, as these sites professionalize further and their own editorial voices mature, they rely less on these pitches to shape coverage. The publishing industry can either try to reach the readers of these sites through advertising, or it can allocate money and time trying to cajole coverage out of increasingly inundated writers and editors. (Our own biggest advertiser, via the blogads at right, is Xlibris, the self-publishing outfit.) By getting serious about supporting book coverage online as it once did in print, publishers can hope to enjoy the same symbiotic relationship that Amazon now has with thousands of small sites.
However, we shouldn’t expect an increasingly struggling publishing industry to shoulder the load. When I worked with Bud Parr on the short-lived literary blog ad network Brainiads, the holy grail was securing advertisers from outside the publishing industry. Brainiads wasn’t able to meet this goal. So far, this development hasn’t materialized elsewhere and, in all likelihood, will be delayed by the current economic downturn. This isn’t to say it can’t happen, however. The audience for online book coverage is actually quite attractive for many advertisers, generally well educated and well off, and in the most likely scenario, some enterprise will make good on what Brainiads hoped to do (it occurs to me that the NYT would be an intriguing candidate), and, with a dedicated sales force, will reach out to companies to offer ads on a basket of book- and culture-focused sites with an attractive readership.
Until that day, book coverage online will remain rather precarious, for better as well as for worse. For smaller blogs, it is often largely a labor of love. For mid-sized, independent sites, the business model rests on flawed options like Amazon’s program and piecemeal revenue via existing ad networks. At the largest sites, including the online arms of venerable institutions like the NYTBR, book coverage depends on the dwindling profitability of news corporations as a whole.
Even 15 years in, the web is still the wild west. There aren’t a lot of rules, and literary sites have adapted and experimented in order to find a model that works. Now, even as much of the literary ecosystem endures a period of severe distress, one of the sustaining revenue sources, Amazon, is big enough to make a huge play, opening a whole new market, but raising plenty of red flags along the way. In many ways, this is representative of the historically uneasy relationship between commerce and culture. The hope is that book coverage, struggling mightily in print, can enact a land grab of its own online and find a niche that may ultimately prove secure.
Science fiction author and Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow explains why science fiction writers should be excited that theirs is the “only literature people care enough about to steal on the Internet.” Doctorow has made his books freely available on the Internet – while also selling copies through traditional channels – and has been impressed by the results:I’ve discovered what many authors have also discovered: releasing electronic texts of books drives sales of the print editions. An SF writer’s biggest problem is obscurity, not piracy. Of all the people who chose not to spend their discretionary time and cash on our works today, the great bulk of them did so because they didn’t know they existed, not because someone handed them a free e-book version.The full column is available at Locus Online. For my thoughts on these topics a good place to start is here.