It’s a story likely to make some readers queasy. Several British libraries have begun working with a direct marketing firm to stuff inserts into books at check out. “They’re going to be inserted right next to the panel with the return date on it, which means that everyone will look at them at least once,” said Mark Jackson of direct marketing company Jackson Howse. However, Guy Daines, the director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, however, is concerned about the “creeping commercialisation of library services.” I’ll second that.
When I was in my early-twenties, I made a new year’s resolution to stop looking at myself in the mirror so much. It didn’t work, of course–what else can one do with a reflection besides look at it? This year, in my late-twenties, I set a similar resolution: for four months, until April 1st, I would turn away from Facebook and Twitter. I had grown bored, obsessed, bothered, even–I admit it–enamored with my reflection there. And lord help me if I found myself at midnight yet again, drinking a glass a wine and scrolling through wedding photos of a friend of a friend of a friend, or, come morning, drinking a mug of coffee and vainly attempting to read and retweet one fascinating article after another. J. Alfred Prufrock may have measured out his life with coffee spoons; I had begun to measure mine with status updates.
So I prepared my friends, my “friends,” and my followers (man, the way I kept track of my followers, you’d think I was a cult leader!), and on January 2nd, a loved one changed my passwords for me. The whole internet seemed to collapse in a second, like the ocean knocking down an elaborate sand castle. I suddenly had no access to the two sites I’d grown accustomed to checking over and over during the course of my day. You see, I’m not internet savvy. I don’t have an RSS reader, and I have no idea how one might procure such a thing. Not that I want to. I like visiting my favorite websites on a whim to see if there’s something new; it feels a little like Christmas, reaching into my stocking to see if there’s just one more piece of candy hidden in the toe. The problem with Facebook and Twitter, I’ve realized, is that the Christmas stocking is infinite, and infinitely full. There is always another piece of candy to claw at. One piece is delicious, but one begets two, and three, and four, and, okay, five…it’s not long before you’ve made yourself sick.
The first week of my detox, I realized just how much I’d depended on those sites for community. Aside from the classes I teach a few nights a week, I work from home. Alone. Without my beloved internet family, the silence was frightening. I began to spend more time on goodreads, and I sometimes got sucked into g-chat. One night, exhausted from a day of reading and writing, I searched for entertainment online, and found The Bachelor. Now I’m convinced there’s a patch of dead grass in my brain–it simply cannot be brought to life!
I also noticed how I kept a running Twitter feed in my head: Oh, not my crazy neighbors again!, and, Wow, has anyone read so-and-so’s novel? Someone suggested I keep these in a notebook, to be broadcast at a later date. That might have been funny, but wasn’t the point of my detox to wrest myself away from this real-time cataloging of reactions, emotions, and experience? I felt very much like Laurel Snyder did in her days away from the site. In this Salon article, she sums up well the magnetism of Twitter (and, for me, the live update feed on Facebook as well):
Now I understand you don’t do things with Twitter. You become a part of it. That’s why it doesn’t work when people try to use it as a sporadic “marketing tool” or check in every three days. Twitter is unspooling in real time, and so what happened an hour ago is, well, in the past. Nobody will bother to read what you tweeted four hours ago any more than people at a get-together will overhear what happened before they got there. Like any party, if you duck in and out for a few minutes, you miss all the best parts.
The pain of missing “all the best parts” has been the hardest aspect of my detox. I admit, when it was Doppelganger Week on Facebook, I felt downright bereft. I wanted so badly to post as my profile picture a photo of Anthony Michael Hall circa Sixteen Candles! Or–wait–Chloe Sevigny in Kids! Or wait…! It felt like I was missing a class field trip to an amusement park.
I realized, too, how much news I was getting from Twitter. I have never read the newspaper on a daily basis; I’d much rather listen to NPR, or read long-form magazine articles, or, as I did increasingly over the last year, get linked to news from people I follow online, journalists and novelists and poets who keep up with current events far better than I ever could. A month into my detox, I was clueless–not just about the latest restaurant or movie, but about the new turn in the health care debate, for instance. I’d felt like this once before, when my husband and I got rid of cable, and effectively, television-watching. The level of my family’s discourse often centers around the best new television commercials (I always wanted to be raised by professors, discussing Marxism and whatnot, but as my father would say, “People in hell want ice water.”) In the post-television days, I remember feeling a vague alienation whenever these conversations began, my sister waxing poetic about the latest Volkswagen ad, everyone else nodding. During my internet detox, I began to feel this way a lot, and not just with my family, but with my friends, too. All conversations seemed to begin with, “Did you see on Facebook…” I was suddenly an outsider, and I felt equal parts annoyed, superior and wistful.
And also relieved. In his book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier decries the devaluation of individual thought and personhood in a Web 2.0 world. He writes:
Personal reductivism has always been present in information systems. You have to declare your status in reductive ways when you file a tax return. Your real life is represented by a silly, phony set of database entries in order for you to make use of a service in an appropriate way. Most people are aware of the difference between reality and database entries when they file taxes.
But the order is reversed when you perform the same kind of self-reduction in order to create a profile on a social networking site. You fill in the data: profession, marital status, and residence. But in this case digital reduction becomes a causal element, mediating contact between new friends.
I agree with Lanier here, though once your profile is set up, you can be quite creative. Many of my online friends are writers and artists, and the content they generate is by turns smart, funny, and distinct. If their status updates generate information for advertisers, well, then, fine. I’d rather “The Man” try to sell me novels and nice pens, rather than tires and thigh-masters. But Lanier makes a good point when he says, “Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality.” I’m not my Facebook profile, nor am I a series of Twitter updates. And the time I spend on these sites means I have less time to write fiction and converse with people in person, two things that make me feel most alive in the world.
At the opening of his book, Lanier suggests a few ways to use the internet to promote individual expression. Spend time developing your narrative voice online. (Check.) Don’t post anonymously. (Check–well, most of the time.) And, in a doozy of a sentence, he suggests that Twitter-users stop describing “trivial external events… to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would describe a machine.” Amen to that.
The problem of the internet–its power, and the way it’s changing how we live our lives–is a big topic these days. There’s The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand Year Journey to Your In-Box by John Freeman, and, forthcoming, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. The internet age is so young that we’re worried, and intrigued, by how it will shape us–we simply have no idea. The single most fascinating aspect of my detox was the number of people who wanted to talk to me about it. Almost everyone I spoke to said, “I wish I could do that!” Then they got this strained look in their eyes that meant, The internet is ruining my life! When I assured them a detox was easy to do, they weren’t convinced. Or they said, “Okay, yes, next month. I’ll try it.” And then they wouldn’t. It saddened me to see all these people, chained to their online lives, posting flattering photos of themselves, “liking” a funny status update, posting or retweeting a link. It’s a never-ending race to remind others that we’re here, that we exist. It reminds me of when I used to do dance routines and little plays for my mom. “Look!” I’d yell every few seconds. “You’re NOT watching! Look!” It gets exhausting. And it’s not really living.
So here we are. It’s now past April 1st, and I haven’t ended the detox. The truth is, I don’t miss the two sites much. These days, I feel no pull whatsoever toward Twitter, despite the number of fabulous people there. In my mind, it’s a crowded elevator where everyone’s talking over one another. They’re all saying interesting things, but who can keep track? Part of me is afraid to return to Facebook. Will it exert the power over me that it used to? I want to return, and I want to show restraint. And if I can’t, I will have to detach once again. That might be fine. Since January, I’ve enjoyed the injection of mystery and privacy into the world. I don’t need to broadcast my life on a daily basis. If I run into you at the grocery store, the question, “How are you?” will be genuine, and that will feel good.
[Image credit: Marcos Zerene]
After once being a hot topic, prompting many in publishing to vocally take sides, the dispute between Google and the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers simmered quietly in lawyers’ offices for more than two years. But this week Google’s book scanning effort was back in the news with the announcement of a $125 million settlement. What may have been lost in this news is that Google is suddenly poised to drive a massive change in the publishing marketplace, multiply by many times the number of books available at the fingertips of readers, and supercharge the market for online delivery of books.The original Google Book Search controversy erupted almost immediately after Google first launched the feature, then called Google Print. To many, it seemed like an almost impossible effort but somehow Google had the will and resources to deliver on an incredible promise: all of the world’s books – and therefore, some would say, all of the world’s knowledge – digitized, searchable, and preserved for future generations. But some publishers, many of them divisions of media conglomerates and made vigilant by the piracy that had ravaged the music industry, were wary of Google’s intentions and feared a frenzy of unfettered book-swapping.In part, the controversy stemmed from confusion about what Google was up to and the knee-jerk notion that digitized books would quickly be coursing across the internet, freely available to anyone who wanted them. Essentially, the search giant was dividing books into three categories. Google would work with publishers on in-print, copyrighted books via its “Partner Program,” which makes previews of the books available, provides “buy this book” links, and includes a revenue share for the ads displayed next to those books’ pages. Out-of-print, public domain books, meanwhile, were freely scanned and made fully available by Google. But it was the third category, out-of-print books that are still under copyright, that caused the most angst.This angst was compounded by Google’s methods; the search engine had gone around the copyright holders and brokered deals with universities to scan the contents of libraries containing millions of volumes. Google assured publishers that, by default, only snippets of these books would be displayed and that the snippets were protected by fair use, but this promise – and its legal justification – were not enough to soothe the publishers and the Authors Guild, so they sued. Publishers’ pique, however, seemed to go beyond the issue of fair use and instead seemed to be rooted in a desire to push back against what was viewed as Google’s arrogance and to exercise control, as absolutely as was possible, over their copyrighted works.This notion of control was a common thread through many of the responses of publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing’s Nigel Newton said “Publishers also have the responsibility to make sure that when it comes to hosting electronic content in future, it is their own websites that host the downloads and the scans of text and audio. There is no reason to hand this content to third-party websites.” This was echoed at the Association of American Publishers: “‘If Google can make…copies, then anyone can,’ Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, said in a phone interview. ‘Anybody could go into a library and start making digital copies of anything,’ she said.” And HarperCollins and others pushed their own digitizing efforts, resulting in widgets and beefed up publisher websites. These anti-Google voices were offset by a cacophony of authors and publishers who dissented and were open to Google’s experiment, including Richard Nash of Soft Skull and several others.But now, after after more than two years of negotiating, a resolution has emerged that, if approved by a US district court to resolve still pending lawsuits, could mark a major change in the availability of books.The big change comes in that nettlesome category: out-of-print, copyrighted books. Here’s how Google describes its proposed plan for those books:Until now, we’ve only been able to show a few snippets of text for most of the in-copyright books we’ve scanned through our Library Project. Since the vast majority of these books are out of print, to actually read them you’d have to hunt them down at a library or a used bookstore. This agreement will allow us to make many of these out-of-print books available for preview, reading and purchase in the U.S.And what’s key is how Google plans to make these books available: “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.” With those two sentences, the number of books available to readers – Google has estimated that 80% of the books in libraries are out of print – will increase substantially. In addition, by making these books available for sale, a new revenue stream will be opened for publishers (the books will also be available via institutional subscriptions offered to libraries and the like). There are no estimates on how big this number might be but it represents new money both for publishers and for writers whose books are out of print. Perhaps dislocated by this, meanwhile, are thousands of booksellers (not to mention Amazon), whose used book businesses are often times the easiest way for a person to get their hands on many out-of-print books. If a reader doesn’t need to own the physical book, Google will be an enticing option, particularly since it seems very likely that books offered through Google Book Search would be cheaper.The Association of American Publishers FAQ on the deal notes one of the ways the books will be priced: “Google will automatically set and adjust prices through an algorithm designed to maximize revenues for the book. This algorithm will be based on multiple factors.” So, as Google brings its algorithm magic to pricing out-of-print books, it seems sure to impact the pricing across the whole market. In addition, publishers and authors have long bemoaned that they are cut out of the revenue in a used book market that has only grown larger thanks to the internet. It would seem that the Google deal will now give them a way to reach out to at least a slice of those used book buyers.But perhaps more important than the new revenue for publishers will be the huge increase in access to a large new subset of books, in one stroke bringing back millions of out-of-print books from oblivion. While this may not excite the casual reader, it represents a great expansion of the amount of knowledge that is fully searchable and at our fingertips and it has the potential to be a great boon to scholars.Over the last decade, the internet has wrecked many old media business models. Despite my frustration at their initial recalcitrance, the publishers were right to protect their business model, and both Google and the publishers should be lauded if this agreement results in the creation of a new one.
One of last year’s big stories, the publishers’ battle with Google over control of digitized books, has been on the back burner in recent months, but an aggressive move by HarperCollins is pushing it back into the spotlightIn late 2005, Harper, already vocal about its displeasure with Google over the search engine giant’s digital book initiative, announced that it would take its own separate approach, building its own little island, as I wrote at the time.Since then, we haven’t gotten too many updates on Harper’s progress. On Thursday, however, the publisher announced that it would partner with LibreDigital, a division of newspaper digitizing firm NewsStand, while also making a “strategic investment” in NewsStand, with Harper president Brian Murray joining NewsStand’s board of directors.We also got an update on how far Harper has progressed over the last year in its efforts to digitize its books. The company’s press release announcing the deal indicates that it has digitized “more than 10,000 books and has enabled the ‘Browse Inside’ application for several thousand.” The WSJ in its writeup (Sub. Req.) puts that total number of books digitized at 12,000, with 2,000 of those being online now. Based on these numbers, the publisher is making progress, if not at the pace of Google, which based on its contract with the California state university library system could be capable of scanning as many as 3,000 books a day. Harper has a backlist of 20,000 books, with 3,500 new titles published each year, and this new effort will likely enable the publisher to finish its digitizing efforts sooner than it would have otherwise. In addition, LibreDigital’s technology will better enable Harper to store and manage these digital editions.In spite of being at odds with one another, to a certain extent the intentions and efforts of Google and the publishers don’t entirely overlap. As the technology has evolved to facilitate the scanning of large quantities of books, Harper and other publishers are desperate to exert control over the digital versions of their books, allowing them to add value to their catalog by either selling digital books or by using those digital books to entice readers to buy the hard copies. The publishers’ biggest fear is that Google will cannibalize their sales by giving the goods away for free.Google, meanwhile, is more interested in providing as complete a record of the world’s published work as possible. To be sure, there is a profit motive here – Google has made its billions by helping us navigate the information it organizes for us – but the upside, for readers (and society, even) would be the vast store of human knowledge at our fingertips. The fact that a number of university libraries have cooperated with Google (for the Library Project portion of Google Book Search) would seem to indicate that librarians, who know a thing or two about making information accessible, are enthusiastic about Google’s plan. And, as such, its fairly easy to argue that Google’s book scanning efforts would hurt publishers little more than libraries do. As exciting as Google’s book initiatives could be (and they certainly are pretty good already), it appears as though the dream of a universally accessible online library will be forever hamstrung by publishing companies and copyright law.
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.
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.