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.
On Wednesday, five publishers, McGraw-Hill Cos. Inc., Pearson Plc's Pearson Education and Penguin Group (USA) units, Viacom Inc.'s Simon & Schuster and John Wiley & Sons Inc., filed suit for copyright infringement against Google's Google Print service. What is Google Print? Google has scanned the full text of thousands of books and made them searchable, and as the database of included titles becomes larger and larger, one can imagine that future Web users will find answers to their questions not just on the world's Web pages but in the world's books. If a given book is under copyright, Google Print will only show a small excerpt - perhaps a few pages or a few paragraphs. Books not under copyright can be perused in full. Google is working with some publishers as they do this, but they are also working to scan the contents of some of the country's major libraries. It is the interaction with the libraries, which circumvents the publishers, that has the publishers so angry. At the heart of this controversy, though, the publishers are suing Google Print for the same reasons that other big media companies have fought to retain control over their content: ignorance and fear. From a recent Reuters article via the Washington Post:"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.It sounds pretty scary, but is this a realistic concern? Google or not, the technology currently exists for anyone to start digitizing the books in the library or in their own homes, but I don't see this happening, and it's not because people are afraid of lawsuits from publishers, it's because people aren't that interested in digitized copies of books. Google, on the other hand, is attempting to do something constructive by scanning all of these books. They have the ability to make the world's text (read: knowledge) searchable.What's even more outrageous about publishers' opposition to Google Print is that they actually stand to benefit financially from it. This isn't anything like "stealing" music, this is Google marketing and selling their books for them. Google even explains how this works on their information page for publishers. In fact, it's so simple it only takes one sentence for Google to sell it:Sign up for the Google Print publisher program to attract new readers and boost book sales, earn new revenue from Google contextual ads, and interact more closely with your customers through direct 'Buy this Book' links back to your website. Publishers are turning down the opportunity to earn - for the first time ever - advertising dollars based on the content of their books. Publishers are also keeping readers from sampling books before they buy them and publishers are turning down Google's offer to send these potential customers right to their online doorsteps (or the doorsteps of other booksellers.) All because they are irrationally afraid that readers are going to go broke buying paper and ink trying to set up their own bootleg bookshops.Just as musicians have come out against the music industry in the debate on file sharing, at least one author is speaking out against the publishing industry's fight against Google Print. After Meghann Marco, author of the humorous Field Guide to the Apocalypse: Movie Survival Skills for the End of the World, was told by her publisher, Simon & Schuster, that they wouldn't allow her book to be a part of Google Print, she wrote a letter to Jason Kottke. From there, Marco's plight has been publicized on dozens of blogs including big guys like Boing Boing and GalleyCat, and now - if you read some of the comments on the Kottke post, you'll see - readers everywhere are scratching their heads wondering why in the world publishers are going down this path.
Is there a "crisis in reading?" Last quarter's Barnes & Noble conference call; the well-publicized demise of certain book review supplements and independent bookstores; the gripes of our editor friends; and a whiff of desperation around the marketing of literary fiction (typically referred to as "so tough" or "a hard sell") would seem to confirm the encroachment of electronic reading matter - email, Facebook feeds, blogs - on the territory of print. Many of my students, ten years younger than I am, do not read books for pleasure. Sometimes, they don't even read for school.On the other hand, a literary author, Jhumpa Lahiri, last week stood athwart the New York Times bestseller list. And huge chain bookstores apparently find it profitable to operate in towns like the one I grew up in, where previously you bought what K-Mart was selling, or you got bupkis.A recent study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts raised some alarms. "Fewer than half of all American adults now [read] literature," the NEA reported. But, as many among the commentariat were quick to point out, the NEA was methodologically hamstrung by its insistence on defining literature as fiction and poetry; does our weekly New Yorker binge count for nothing? And so the "Death of Reading" metanarrative receded, for a time, into the murk that birthed it.Receded, that is, until Ursula K. Le Guin insisted on rousing it, via an essay in the February issue of Harper's Magazine. The thrust of Le Guin's argument was that readers weren't the problem, exactly; that pessimism about reading can be blamed on the conglomerates that have, in the last two decades, swallowed most of New York's most esteemed publishing houses. With its modest margins and arcane payment schedules, book publishing is more a labor of love than a maximizer of shareholder value, Le Guin pointed out; for every Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter, a thousand midlist authors languish in the wings. To the News Corps of the world, she posed the question, "Why don't you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?"But responses to Le Guin's piece have inadvertently suggested an alternative explanation for the angst about the health of reading: the publishing world's formidable self-regard. The editors whose letters grace Harper's April issue are talented and admirable people (without them, some of my favorite books would not have found me), but none of them seem able to see in Le Guin's essay anything other than a reflection of their own personal accomplishments.On one hand, Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press and a vociferous critic of the publishing conglomerates, pronounces Le Guin "right on." After describing how his quondam employer, Bertelesmann-controlled Random House purged staff and backlists, "leaving only a hollowed-out label that can be affixed to any new book the group acquires," Schiffrin declares, "Literary publishing is insufficiently profitable to meet corporate expectations.... One solution to this problem," he suggests, "is to create not-for-profit firms as we did in starting The New Press."On the other hand, Lorin Stein, Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, finds Le Guin's essay "so depressing, in its knee-jerk snobbery and thoughtlessness, one hardly knows where to start." Le Guin's heroic readers of yore, he argues, "were part of a mass market, created by 'moneymaking entities' in the business of selling books." Without profit-motivated publishers (such as Holtzbrinck-backed FSG), writing becomes a pastime for the few who can afford to write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory beyond the cozy ring of 'our own people.' Fewer readers means lower stakes, lower standards, and more crap getting passed off as the real thing.Barbara Epler, Editor-in-Chief of the independent press New Directions, quite naturally defines the stakes more modestly. "Readers will always be here," she writes, agreeing with one of Le Guin's propositions. "That's how writers like W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño [both published by New Directions] catch on like wildfire. There have never been so many thriving, struggling, astonishingly nimble small literary presses busy making beautiful books."And, of course, a reader affiliated with Columbia University sees an industrial strategy to rule the world through publishing - which is even more whimsical in its premises than Mr. Stein's notion that writers under the current dispensation aren't already people who more or less "write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory." (Or his parallel conceit that the nature of the book business remains substantially unchanged from the era of the "Ivanhoe-reading cowboy.")Is there a crisis in reading? Impossible to say, when "our own people," the arbiters of literary culture, decline one of its most valuable functions: self-criticism. To be fair to the editors quoted above, their enthusiasm on behalf of their respective projects is evidence of a laudable commitment to the culture of the book; as Lorin Stein puts it, "This is a business I believe in passionately." And if we are to blame someone for changing the subject from the state of reading to the state of publishing, it should be Le Guin herself. Still, in aggregate, these responses work to confound, rather than to clarify. Their diagnostic power is that of the Rorschach blot.
The result isn't that flashy, but Google's addition of Maps to its Google Book Search points to the promise of digitizing books. As we have seen with the layers of data that Amazon has added to its database - things like Statistically Improbable Phrases and Capitalized Phrases - digitization of books makes it easy for people to draw connections between books. But digitization also allows for layers of explanatory and reference data to be made easily accessible.Of course, there have long been annotated editions of many books, but in those cases we are limited by the editors' decisions on what material deserves greater explanation and what material stands on its own. With the Internet placing a universe of information at our fingertips, it is now easy for readers and scholars (especially those with access to library databases) to supplement their reading with background information and to find related texts. But sites like Google Books promise to make this process even easier and more fruitful by allowing the books themselves, in their digitized form, to be analyzed and enhanced.In its own modest way, adding Maps to Google Books is an example of this. Have a look at the Google Books page for Around the World in 80 Days (scroll down to see the map). Having the map there adds something to the experience of this geography-centric novel, and it's not much of leap to wonder if a similar system might be able to pull in related images (say, hot air balloons of that era) or contemporary newspaper reviews of the book. The possibilities are almost endless, and, though one must always make the point that such technology is meant to enhance and not replace our beloved paper books, further exploration down this road would be a great thing for literature and learning.On the subject of maps, specifically, as a map lover, I'm excited to see Google trying this out because, like Jerome Weeks, I believe that nearly every book would benefit from the addition of a map or two.
It's no secret that newspaper book sections are endangered. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Journal Constitution eliminated its book editor position, placing the fate of the paper's well regarded book section in question. Many are assuming the worst, that the newspaper will eliminate the section entirely. There's even a petition to protect the AJC book review.With newspapers increasingly under fire from investors as once robust profit margins sag due to unprecedented competition from the Web and other forms of media and entertainment, many of these companies are looking to trim their operations in order to cut down on the costs of newsprint and personnel. Viewed in this light, book sections are dead weight.The problem is that the book section business model is broken. As The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) last month, publishers, the natural advertisers for book sections, don't spend much on ads because they find the ads to be too expensive or ineffective. This fact puts book sections at a big disadvantage as compared to other parts of the newspaper, all of which must pull their weight. Business sections, for example, do well because the financial profile of their readers inspires a willingness among advertisers to spend big bucks to reach them.The broken business model of book sections has led a number of newspapers to take drastic steps. To this end, the LA Times recently unveiled a combined books/opinion section. The Chicago Tribune, the LA Times' sister paper, has taken a different tack, announcing that it will move its book section from Sunday to Saturday. The Tribune says that this move will "usher in a new era of the Tribune's coverage of books, expanding our coverage of books, ideas and the written word throughout the newspaper and across the week." In addition, "moving the section to Saturday will separate it from the Sunday newspaper, which already is bursting at the seams with essential reading, and make a prominent place for it on a new day of the week." This is all well and good - and certainly better than eliminating the book section altogether - but as the Chicago Reader noted over a year ago, when the book section switch was originally floated, "Saturday's press run is some 400,000 copies smaller than Sunday's. The annual savings in newsprint alone would reach half a million dollars." When the Tribune realized that stuffing an extra section into the Saturday paper would require them to pay their distributors more, they backed off, and converted the section to tabloid format, another newsprint saver. Seventeen months later, the paper appears to have realized that a switch to Saturday makes financial sense after all.Ultimately, however, none of these measures will be satisfying to book section readers, and the fact is, except perhaps at the New York Times, there is little future for book sections showing up with our Sunday papers. The future of newspapers isn't in paper, and the same is doubly so for book sections.I've been surprised that the many blogs that have decried the disappearance of book sections are the same ones that point out the obsolescence of newspapers - particularly their cultural coverage - in the face of a wealth of online alternatives. If our newspapers are going to be obsolete, our book sections will become obsolete as well. The tricky solution to all of this, of course, is the very medium that continues to beguile newspapers: online. There are still challenges here - as yet online ads don't pay nearly as well as print - but as book blogs have in some respects shown, there is a big audience for online book coverage, and online allows the discussion of books to break out of the "review" mold that may be contributing to the decline in the viability of newspaper book sections. The important thing to remember, I think, is that the disappearance of book sections isn't a book section problem, it's a newspaper industry problem, and the solution to book section woes will come with the solutions to the larger newspaper industry problems.
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.