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.
Readers may discern a disconnect between the prevailing economic mood and the relentless innovation of online superstore Amazon. Even as whole segments of the economy crumble, Amazon is spearheading a whole new consumer electronics category with the Kindle, and as if that wasn't audacious enough following it by releasing a bigger, more expensive version.Now Amazon is embarking on another bold effort. It's entering the publishing business with a program called AmazonEncore, a program that leverages all of the myriad data Amazon can collect to find overlooked books with potential mass appeal, which it will then rerelease under the AmazonEncore imprint. The first AmazonEncore title, to be released in late August, is Legacy, a fantasy novel originally self published by 16-year-old writer Cayla Kluver. AmazonEncore is an intriguing idea that will no doubt send self-published authors' hearts racing. It's also worth noting that these books won't be Amazon exclusives. Amazon is going head to head with traditional publishers with plans to make AmazonEncore books available in "national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers."While it seems like Amazon is getting may from its core competencies with forays into consumer electronics and publishing, the online retail giant isn't insane. Amazon is actually designed to do well in recessions, and with traditional book retailers and publishers facing challenges, Amazon is seizing the opportunity to grow its market share and enter new markets and businesses. BusinessWeek recently pointed out this dynamic: "Amazon continues to benefit disproportionately from the general shift to online commerce and the careful shopping behavior that consumers are exhibiting during the downturn. The breadth of the products it offers through independent merchants and its own expansion into new categories, along with low-priced shipping in the U.S. and abroad, continues to woo shoppers."Amazon's willingness to innovate and invest in book-focused initiatives during this downturn will leave it with a very big footprint in the industry when the economy begins to recover.
On Friday, as you may or may not have noticed, Amazon went down for about two hours. These days, we're used to 100% uptime from the internet's supersites - Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, et al - but the Amazon outage reminded me of the late 1990s when even the biggest dot-coms, struggling to scale to the explosive growth of the Web, suffered routine and sometimes prolonged outages. (Of course, some more recent start-ups still experience such growing pains).As Amazon returned to service on Friday afternoon, speculation kicked into high gear about just how much revenue the world's largest Internet retailer had lost during the two-hour outage. A little back-of-the-envelope math gives a rough idea. When the company reported its first quarter numbers, it estimated that it would have net sales of between $3.875 billion and $4.075 billion in the second quarter of this year. The midpoint of that is $3.975 billion: $43,681,319 per day or $1,820,054 per hour. So, theoretically, the outage lost the company $3,640,109, with the caveat that this is just averaging the numbers out and not taking to account how busy mid-day Friday is, as opposed to other times of the week. Regardless, a decent chunk of change.Of course, as Silicon Alley Insider pointed out, "When customers who wanted to buy something from Amazon went to the site and found it down, the majority of them likely figured the glitch was temporary and decided to check back later this afternoon. And lo and behold--it was temporary. So they're probably placing their orders right now." So, in reality, the likely damage is probably minimal. It would take repeated outages for Amazon to start feeling the impact from downtime.
Publishers Weekly has a very interesting article about newspaper book sections which points out that, with the exception of the New York Times, book review sections do not bring in enough ad revenue to cover their costs.Those of us who follow the newspaper industry are used to hearing all ills blamed on declining readership, but those quoted in the PW article essentially take the publishing houses to task for failing to support book sections outside of "their hometown paper, the New York Times." Of course, one could easily point out that if readership were to rebound, ad revenue would as well, but the article does make a compelling point.Publishers (who in many ways are just as endangered as newspapers) bemoan our dying literary culture, but then fail to support it in one of the last places where it is clinging to a foothold. I've never been a publishing industry insider, so I don't know if things are just bad all over (perhaps someone can enlighten us), but I wonder if publishers are to blame here, or if they have simply found that the dollars spent in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and LA Times, don't help sell many books.In the Comments: Jerome Weeks, the Dallas Morning News book columnist mentioned in the PW story, gives us some additional thoughts on this issue.
Amazon has further tangled and interconnected its product pages by adding comments to its customer reviews. Amazon also now allows you to search across Customer Reviews and "Listmania" lists.The comments on reviews up the interactivity quotient on Amazon pages by several notches, turning the comments into the equivalent of a topical blog with dozens of authors all writing about a particular book. It also alleviates the previously frustrating inability to correct or add to information posted in earlier reviews. I had to dig around to find some examples of the new comments in action. Just as political books are among the most frequently reviewed, they are also now getting the most comments (if troll-like.) For example, have a look at the dedicated page for a review of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival, currently in the news because Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez brandished it during his fiery Anti-Bush speech at the UN on Wednesday. Amazon has unleashed a free-for-all, but I applaud them for it. Why not let people communicate about individual books? Perhaps something good will come of it.The Customer Reviews search, meanwhile, probably has some value if you are either trying to drill deeper into what a particular book is all about - for example, a search for the word "Oprah" in the reviews of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections - or trying to dig up information across Amazon's whole catalog that may not be evident using the standard search - like this search for "desert island book."The Listmania search allows for similar fun, if less serendipity.
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In just a dozen or so paragraphs, Tim Parks's short piece in praise of ebooks -- titled "E-Books Can't Burn" -- on the NYRB blog is one of the more eloquent defenses I've read of digital reading from the side of literature, rather than, say, convenience or democracy. Some of his more offhand remarks don't hold up to much scrutiny (ebooks are indestructible? Their version of permanence is different than that of printed books, but no less vulnerable.), but the idea at the core of his piece is a fascinating one, and relatively underplayed in the ongoing conversation about our new ways of reading: that the ebook, by clearing away the physical and even fetishistic trappings of the printed book, strips reading down to its essence, "the words themselves and the order they appear in:" The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups. Now, I don't find that idea fascinating only because it was my own first reaction to the Kindle when I got to test drive one a few days before it debuted back in 2007 (second reaction, actually; my first was, "Gee, a book in 20 seconds!"). There is also a great deal of truth in it, and I still think the ebook is an ideal medium for evaluating literature: a neutral playing field like the orchestra auditions that now take place behind a curtain. Ideally, prize juries should read blind (both of authors' names as well as the works' physical attributes). But we don't only read to evaluate. We read to experience, to know, and to remember, and printed books are an aid, not a hindrance, toward those ends. One commenter on Parks's piece, before he goes off the deep end and ropes digital reading in with the soulless sexual promiscuity that's destroying our civilization, likens a relationship with a book to love: If this 'logic' is indeed true, then by extension, why commit to any woman or man? After all, strip away the aesthetic, the 'fetishistic', and leave us 'to more austere, direct engagement' with, well, any and every being. I'm not sure this "extension" entirely works (I'm certainly not a monogamist when it comes to reading.) but the comparison to an object of love is useful. However we might try to purify our love for someone down to its abstract essentials, that love is irretrievably (and wonderfully) contaminated by more quotidian, physical associations: a timbre of voice, a smell, an ear or a toe, a piece of clothing. Even a book your beloved once read. Those details might be said to merely evoke the love, but they also come to embody it, flesh it out. Your love has a body. Parks argues that it's a "core characteristic" of literature as an art form that it can exist as "pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself. Memorized, a poem is as surely a piece of literature in our minds as it is on the page." But if a memorized poem is the purest manifestation of literature, memory itself has a rather impure relationship to the wantonly associative materials that decorate our lives and thoughts. How do we best remember poems (and why are poems easier to memorize than prose, and song lyrics easier to remember than either)? Through details like rhythm and rhyme that bear only an apparently tangential relationship to the "pure mental material" that the words express. These sorts of secondary features of language, like alliteration and puns, sometimes feel like vestigial embarrassments to the austere quest for meaning, but they are the warp and woof of language, reminders that meaning is never separate from physical embodiment. And memory doesn't restrict its associative hunger to language. Memories survive longer, and are easier to access, when they are connected to other senses, to images, sounds, smells, tastes, and especially, as memory artists -- Joshua Foer and Tony Judt most recently among them--- have known for centuries, to spaces, to "memory palaces" that can house and organize them. Memory, in other words, thrives on fetishes, on objects that carry meaning less by essence than association. It covers the walls of its palaces with them. And so does reading. We make sensory associations -- arbitrary but meaningful -- to our reading that house the mental images it creates. This would hardly be a respectable literary essay if I didn't declare here that literature without its fetishes is like Proust without his memory-triggering madeleine -- a passage, by the way, that I first read in the 1989 Vintage International edition of Swann's Way, a book, by the way, that I associate with the warm springtime of my senior year in college, with standing in my kitchen, a place I'm sure I didn't actually read the book, but rather held on to it as an inward symbol of my control over my reading now that my last finals were done, and as an outward badge of what I thought of as the casual sophistication of my post-college self-education (yes, it's true that readers' "fetishistic gratifications" are often as shamefully self-serving and impure as Parks says -- that's part of what makes them so memorable). A physical book makes a house for its content, with pages like rooms we can pass through -- and return to -- in sequence, or jump among, taking shortcuts we can easily retrace because we hold the whole structure in our hands. It's true that a vivid piece of writing, read physically or digitally, creates its own mental spaces -- I have, for instance, a pretty extensive and durable image in my mind of Copper Canyon, the mine town ripe for the picking in Richard Stark's The Score, which I read last year on my phone -- but, perhaps because of its very tendency toward abstraction and austerity, reading thrives in the paper houses we build for it. These houses don't have to be lovely, by the way, although it helps. This isn't really an argument about beauty, about "quality paper" or "handsome masterpieces," in Parks's words. A beautiful, well-designed book is a good thing, and I am sure the pleasure of holding my smooth and nearly weightless little Avon paperback edition of The Moviegoer enhanced my headlong love affair with that novel when I read it a couple of decades ago, just as it still enhances my memory of it (at this point, I remember the cover better than the book; or, rather, my pleasure in the cover, easily recalled, has now become the repository for all the pleasure I took in the book, the specifics of which await a more thorough rereading). But I first read and loved Moby-Dick in an ugly Norton Critical Edition, and The Confidence-Man in an even uglier Meridian paperback, each of which has nevertheless proved an equally sturdy physical structure for my memories of reading. That's not to say that the works don't survive and transcend their material substrate. I could have read Melville anywhere -- even a Kindle -- and it would still have been Melville, though I'm not sure with quite as full a character in my mind as it has now. I've owned one of my favorite books, Housekeeping, in at least three editions (as well as on audio), and read it closely in all of them -- and it was, more or less, the same book each time, but the various editions gave it, and still give it, a place in my mind. When I recall Sylvie and Ruth burning their house -- and how breathtaking it was to read the first time -- I have an image in my mind of their wet, cluttered yard and the flaming curtains, but alongside I have an image of a page, and of an elongated, almost sprightly font that carried the good humor of the book even through its darker scenes. Can you get that from an ebook? I think in some ways you can, though not in the austere, neutral form that Parks celebrates. I don't mean to make a fetish out of printed books, and I'm not asking to burn (or delete) ebooks, or their devices. Maybe all I ask is that digital books be designed in ways that give them character, that help them live and survive individually in your mind, rather than being translated into a common, anonymous display that passes through your memory as quickly as you scroll. Or maybe I suggest that you read your digital books in a way that embeds them in your life and in your sensory memory: on a newly mown lawn, or in the stale surroundings of a passenger train, or with a cup of tea and a small cake for dipping, or while sitting with someone you love. Any way, really, that keeps your books from being entirely pure, gets them a little dirty and adulterated. And as for physical books: I'd just like them to survive, or at least be remembered, and not just as the playthings of a child. Image Credit: Flickr/Kodomut
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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.