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Amazon Locks Down Classics with its eBooks Odyssey

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Amazon has partnered with the Wylie Agency to acquire exclusive ebook rights to 20th century classics by the likes of Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Louise Erdrich, John Cheever, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs, Orhan Pamuk, V.S. Naipaul, Martin Amis, and Jorge Luis Borges. The venture is called Odyssey Editions. These books will be available in ebook form exclusively on the Kindle for the next two years.

Report from Paris: Kicking around at the Shakespeare and Company Festival

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In certain bus stops around Paris, there’s an ad up for for Sex and the City 2: a glittery stiletto heel crushes a soccer ball, while the caption reads: “In theaters during the World Cup.”

With slight modification it could have been the poster for the fourth biannual Shakespeare and Company literary festival, which also took place in Paris this weekend during the World Cup, except instead of watching the game we were listening to Martin Amis declare himself a “millenarian feminist.” Always on the periphery of the festival, the Cup provided the ambient background (cars driving by on the quai, honking and flag-waving; crowds cheering in front of Notre Dame and in nearby bars) as well as a ready metaphor for many of the panels. The theme of the festival was “Storytelling and Politics,” and over three days, 6,000 people gathered in a tent in a small park across the river from Notre Dame to hear writers like Will Self, Martin Amis, Fatima Bhutto, Ian Jack, Breyten Breytenbach, Philip Pullman, Hanif Kureishi, Nam Le, Petina Gappah, and Jeanette Winterson talk through the relationship between the storyteller and his political context. But the World Cup was on everyone’s mind; in nearly every session I attended, someone tossed off a reference to it…

National literatures are like national teams
…an unstable notion in our cosmopolitan world, where half the Algerian team was born in France and half the French team was born in Algeria, as Breyten Breytenbach pointed out on a panel on the World Cup. “Our societies all over the world are far more complex and hybridized than they used to be,” he said. “A few years ago I saw an exhibit, Magiciens de la terre, at the Pompidou, and it was African artists doing African work, but many of them were actually living outside Africa, and some of them were even born outside Africa. The one point I’m trying to make is that while there has been far more movement from one continent to another, there is still something that endures. Why would someone of African descendance born in Britain define himself as an African artist, or an African soccer player?”

“My influences are transnational,” the Botswana poet TJ Dema said in an interview for the Festival and Co Gazette, a daily broadsheet circulated to catch festival-goers up on what they might have missed the previous day. “My generation has been accused of being heavily influenced by the American arts landscape, which is not wholly incorrect. But I feel you are a product of your environment. If you’re growing up not listening to your grandmother telling stories around the fireside, but instead in front of the television, and there are American people on that television, there is no way that isn’t going to be a part of your mindscape.”

“I’m a child of the universe,” she said. “Everywhere I go I pick and choose what I want to become part of my work.”

Except writers don’t play on teams
Repeatedly the writers at the festival sought to distance themselves from any kind of group identity. “I didn’t want to be a part of a communality,” Martin Amis said on foiling Christopher Hitchens’s attempts to get him to join the Trotskyists when they worked together at the New Statesman.  “I was very committed to not being part of a group.”

The South African writer Njabulo Ndebele wore the yellow South African football jersey to his panel. “But I wouldn’t wear it at home,” he explained. “I have an inclination that when the crowd goes one way, I want to go another.”

Mark Gevisser, another South African writer, commented that one of the things that has struck him about the World Cup is the tension between the ways people are making their own national identities and they way they are decided for them — “how they choose to put a flag on their car — how you pimp your vehicle, by flying flags, or those funny little socks that people put on their rearview mirrors in South Africa, or those amazing hats that are a feature of South Africa football — and how on the other hand you  might become subject to the flag that’s put in your hands by the leader.  It seems they’re two different ways of belonging to a nation.” This idea was echoed throughout the festival by writers like Ian Jack, Nam Le, and Hanif Kureishi, who each discussed the complicated relationship they feel as writers to their own ethnic or national identities: “You don’t just play for one team,” someone might have said, but didn’t.

Sports bring people together, and can even help avoid civil wars, kind of like the rugby World Cup in that movie Invictus

Ndebele first spoke on a panel entitled “Biography as Political Storytelling in South Africa”; he read from his 2004 book The Cry of Winnie Mandela, which is an essayistic, fictionalized biography of the former first lady of South Africa — he explained that he chose to concentrate not on the drama of the relationship between the Mandelas, nor on their political moment, but on the everyday intimacy he imagines existed between them.

There is a subversiveness to writing about normality, he said; it “could be one of the most radical ways of fighting the system, because the system has to respond to complex individuals, rather than cardboard boxes.” But under apartheid, writing even about unspectacular things was “a very risky thing to do, because you could be accused of being blind to the suffering. […] reclaiming an experience of regular life. Even under apartheid, people still fell in love, they had uncles who visit.”

When asked about the possibilities of recuperating from apartheid, Ndebele evoked two great moments in South African sporting history: first, the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when Mandela appeared at the stadium wearing jersey number 6, the number of the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar.  “Rugby was very much a white South African’s game, and for Mandela to actually stand there on that particular day was an extremely radical move, and of course, he made all those people who were in that stadium at that particular moment identify with him in a very special way.”

Second, Ndebele referred to a recent rugby match between Cape Town and Victoria, which couldn’t be held in the usual stadium because it’s currently occupied by the World Cup, and it worked out that the newly renovated stadium they were assigned to play in was in a mainly black area. “There was a lot of excitement about the fact that white South Africans — particularly the Afrikaaner kind — were going to play in a black township for the first time in a major game. Thousands of white fans went to see it. It was extraordinary, because for over the time of 80 or 90 minutes of the game, the fears that white South Africans had about black people (despite the fact that we’ve been all free since 1994) ceased operating. It was so good that many of them ended up having drinks afterward in [the neighborhood], in the places associated with violence and terror. Some of them forgot where they had parked their cars, and the locals took them to look for their cars. No one was molested, not a single car was stolen, and nothing disappeared, but the common memory was of a day of great fun an reconciliation.”

Ndebele stressed the fact that it is in the “unplanned interactions that in the end resonate much more deeply than political declarations. It is interesting that it is sporting events that do this, rather than the political rallies.”

Having the World Cup in South Africa promised redemption and recognition, kind of like the rugby World Cup in that movie Invictus, except this time for the entire African continent

Ndebele spoke again about this moment with Mandela the next day, on a panel with Breyten Breytenbach and Petina Gappah — “What the World Cup Means For Africa: Four Writers Kick the Ball Around.” The panel kicked off with Gappah’s son blowing the vuvuzela, and with a discussion of France’s shameful loss the previous evening, and Algeria’s win the evening before.

Mark Gevisser said that from what he had observed in the streets of Paris after the games, this dual defeat/win had prompted some feelings of rebellion amongst the Algerian population in France, that it provided at the very least “a moment of redemptive joy.”

“The possibility that the colonial masters are going to be sent home, and that Algeria and Ghana are going to make it to the next round on African soil I think is very exciting,” he said. “This world cup is not just about football. The former president, Thabo Mbeki, whose grand projet the World Cup was, said that it would be a moment when Africa would stand tall, and resolutely turn the tide of centuries of poverty and conflict.”

This seems a pretty tall order for a ball game, but we listen on:

“It has been called as important to Africa as the election of Obama was, and one of the most interesting moments of the last few days has been when the current president of South Africa Jacob Zulu went to wish the Bafana Bafana, which is the South African team, good luck (which didn’t do them any good), he was saying to them: bring home the cup, and he was very self-consciously imitating what Nelson Mandela did in 1995, with rugby, and as those of you who saw the Clint Eastwood movie know, that 1995 rugby cup was something of a redemptive moment when the Springboks, an all-white team, won the World Cup and South Africa was saved from civil war, because Nelson Mandela managed to seduce white Afrikaaners.

“And I think that the current World Cup holds a similar redemptive quality. Will this current World Cup do for South Africa and Africa economically, spiritually, psychologically, what the 1995 World Cup did?”

Ndebele and Gappah lamented the shortcomings of South Africa’s performance in the cup. Ndebele said this is linked to the social reality in South Africa, which is still being created. “Bafana Bafana,” on the other hand, “represent the story of South Africa, which is still in the process of being made.”

Petina Gappah confessed to being “a lot more pessimistic because the only reason the World Cup is being held in South Africa is because South Africa has become a brand — it’s something very specific, the rainbow nation, Mandela, and so on. I’m not sure that any other African country would have the same success of bidding for the World Cup. And so to me, the World Cup being held in South Africa is […] a story of South African’s inclusion in this moment of globalization. South Africa is part of the machine now, like it or not.” Gappah, being from Zimbabwe, lamented her own country’s exclusion, in spirit because of the human rights abuses of the country’s long-term leader, Robert Mugabe, and in practice because, well — they lost in the qualifying rounds.

Finally, Gappah concluded, if the World Cup will not ultimately do much for South Africa, much less the entirety of African, it is “because Bafana Bafana are not very good, they’re not the team that’s going to inspire South Africa and bring the country together in some kind of happy momentum.”

Sports are like books: they bring people together through a common idea… except no one ever said “the sporting industry is in crisis.”

André Schiffrin, Philip Pullman, and Olivier Postel-Vinay, editor-in-chief of the French magazine Books (yes that’s what it’s called in French, too) gathered for a panel led by Ian Jack called “Do Books Change Things? Are Things Changing Books?” Philip Pullman took the anti-technology stance, on the grounds that e-books and the Internet are not “self-sufficient, you can’t do them on your own. It depends on an enormous infrastructure that you can’t see in order to get it done at all.”  You could make a book if you really wanted to, but it takes Amazon to make a Kindle.

“Books as books will survive until the last leaf of paper decays on the last book on the last shelf,” he asserted. “Books will decay, as do all human inventions, but the idea of the narrative of some length will last as long as human beings themselves do.”

Andre Schiffrin took a broader view. “There’s nothing wrong with the technology,” he said; it’s the way it limits what’s available to the reading public. “The problem is the conflict between form and content, there is the question of whether the new forms will change the content, and in what way.”

The changes in the publishing landscape, he said, “came more in the structure than in the technology — it changed by the fact of ownership, by the fact that large conglomerates recently bought up all the publishing and determined that it should be much more profitable than it had been, historically.”

“How can we afford to allow these monopolies to be established? Because of course once you have a monopoly, you can determine what’s going to be available, and a lot of what is being written will not be available on these machines. The idea that if you have a Kindle or an iPad you can get anything in the world is mythology. The books that are going to be available are the very same books that are on the bestseller list or the classics that can be had for free, but they’re not going to include the wide choice that you need.  I say ‘need’ because in any democracy the ideas that come in books are an essential part of any debate.”

The point Shiffrin was making is that a bottom-line driven publishing industry means that the books that are most widely available are the ones with the most economic potential. Which, he argued, limits the field of options for readers; moreover, the conglomeration of the publishing houses leads to less editorial variety. Of course, more publishers would lead to more competition, but only if they’re each getting an equal shot at a share of the market; the larger publishers with more money have more of a chance at getting their books into things like the Kindle under the most favorable terms and onto the front tables of Barnes and Noble than a small independent publisher.  A bottom-line oriented publishing industry ends up narrowing down the field, rather than becoming more inclusive; what readers want to read may not be available to them on their new electronic readers. It’s a little like if you’re a Zimbabawe fan but your team didn’t make it through the qualifying rounds so you have to content yourself with rooting for South Africa.

Countries are like people. Male people. But they should be run by female people. This idea = Amisian feminism

Countries are like people, Martin Amis proclaimed in his talk with Will Self, “and not very nice people. Very touchy, vain, obsessed by appearances, by face. There’s a tremendous anomaly in historiography, at least in Anglophone historiography, and that is countries used to be referred to as ‘she.’ [But] if we change it to ‘he’ then it all makes sense.the  aggression, the unappeasable nature of state leaders is highly masculine.”

“Uh-oh,” the friend I came with said. “Here we go. Women are gentle, they are never violent…”

“I now am a millenarian feminist in that I believe what we have to evolve towards with some urgency is women heads of state who bring feminine qualities to government.”

At this, a few confused people applauded. “Stop clapping!” I hissed.

“The trouble with feminism as I see it now is that it’s founded on this idea that pole-dancing is empowering, and empowers women. What feminism has to do is not think that it’s emerging from Victorian values, it has to go back much further than that. Patriarchy [at this point I can’t understand what he said on my recorder as I am laughing too hard and a siren is going by]… for five million years. The idea that you could rise above that and really change things in a generation is an illusion. You’ve got to feel the weight of the past. But we have to be able to envisage a future — science has shown that there are certain basic differences between a male brain and a female brain; there are massive differences in acculturation, that women are kinder and gentler, and less close to violence than men, and this idea has to be reflected on the international scale.”

My friend the illustrator Joanna Walsh, who did all the drawings for the festival, sketched three journalists sitting in the front row grimacing. But the crowd is pleased. It has been told many funny jokes. And we all know what feminism really is — who cares if Amis has it a bit convoluted? We’re here to enjoy ourselves, not to theorize.

Still.  For the rest of the festival Amis’s remarks were a touchstone of every conversation between  female attendees.

While half the world goes nuts over a soccer ball, we sit under a tent talking about books.

Jeanette Winterson took the stage while the sound system blasted Pink’s single “Please Don’t Leave Me” and the audience — a full house spilling into the park on all sides — went nuts, as if they actually were at a rock concert.

She began. “So Europe’s in economic crisis, and the Third World is in poverty, the Middle East’s a warzone, the USA is dealing with political unrest and a huge environmental disaster, and China is set to become the world’s leading trade nation, and will do so at the expense of the environment. So the human race on planet Earth could easily manage a Gotterdammerung of a meltdown, and here we are, you me, at a literary festival. [Big laughs from the audience.] So. Are we crazy? What on earth have books and art got to do with the present state of the world? The money’s run out and nobody’s got time to do anything except survive! But Shakespeare and Company has got up a tent to celebrate books and ideas.”

The impact of the work of art, she maintained, is that it makes us “conscious and awake, frees up our own energy so that we can think clearly and feel honestly and act accordingly. There’s nothing passive about a work of art. And when we engage with it we throw off our own passivity. We realize that there’s always something that we can do, always someone that we can be, and we move, probably diagonally, like a chess piece, a little bit closer to being a human being, instead of a by-product of consumer culture.” She quoted Sontag’s Against Interpretation, reminding us that a work of art is not about something, it is something.

“I believe that artists should be politically engaged,” she said. “This is our world, and we have to fight for our values. But if the only art that’s important is the art that deals directly with contemporary issues, then we could have no relationship with the art of the past. […]Art doesn’t have to struggle to be up to date with its subject matter. Because its real subject is humanity. Its territory is us, now, and in the past, and in the future. To remember Calvino’s first novel, it was a political novel. And after that he wanted to write very differently. And his friends in the Communist Party thought that he was betraying the cause. But he had the courage to honor his imagination, and that’s why we still read him. Because anyone who will follow their imagination helps the rest of us to follow ours.”

Where would a World Cup be without death threats?

Nigerian midfielder Sani Kaita received death threats on Sunday after receiving a red card, which led to his team’s loss to Greece.

Meanwhile here in Paris, there were rumors that Fatima Bhutto and Emma Larkin had both received death threats. For Bhutto, niece of Benazir, whose uncles, aunt, grandfather, and father were all assassinated, this is nothing new. She doesn’t even have a bodyguard; she tells the audience she doesn’t want one.  Security is beefed up anyway.

Emma Larkin writes about Burma from inside Burma and apparently that isn’t allowed in Burma. She’s the only writer in the program not to have a sexy black and white author photo; instead there’s a photo of her book. Emma Larkin is an assumed name, too.

No one did any tailgating, but there was plenty of champagne

On Friday night after the last panel, over at the at the Refectoire des Cordeliers near Odéon, Paper Cinema presented their curious storytelling project: drawings projected onto a screen, wordless stories told to music. There are people actually moving the drawings around in front of a camera to create the story on the screen. Joanna is transfixed. But the music is foreboding and the drawings kind of macabre and freaky, so I don’t stay for it. There is food and champagne and lovely weather outside in the courtyard. I get so wrapped up in conversation out there I almost miss the Beth Orton concert which follows the freaky puppet show.[1]

Saturday night, we headed to the very exclusive private party at an hotel particulier in the 7th.  Kristin Scott Thomas is there, in sky-high Louboutins.  Jeanette Winterson wears a dress. All the big writers and big sponsors are here.  We underlings are thrilled to be at this kind of event: everyone is nervous; everyone is on their best behavior.  Some of us congregate outside in spite of the unseasonable chill.

“What is this place?” Nam Le asked, fresh off a plane from Italy, looking up at the house.

The girl who fetched him from the airport took this as a sign of Nam’s unfamiliarity with Parisian geography, and launched into an explanation. “Well you see if someone were to frown” — she frowned — “then the frown is the Seine, it goes like this, see?” and she began to point out all the monuments of Paris on her face. “So we’re here,” she said, indicating a point right under the middle of her frown.

“Oh,” Nam said. “I was actually wondering about the history of the mansion.”

Kristin Scott Thomas sat on the floor while Natalie Clein gave a transcendental cello performance; meanwhile the kids in the crowd passed around a piece of wood on which someone had painted the words “post-cello dance party!” Natalie eventually finished playing but no one danced.

11:30 rolled around and we were bodily kicked out of the space. We lingered in the courtyard until we were chased from there too. Half of us headed to an after-party at the flat of one of the people who work in the shop. The other half (my half) went home.

Sunday night was the closing party on the patio in front of the shop.  There were piles of crushed lavender on the ground outside in front of the champagne station. It looked, and smelled, like an aromatherapy litter box.  Storyteller Jack Lynch climbed up on a bench and launched into a story about a Scottish giant.

The party inside the shop was private, while the one on the patio was public. I was not aware of this until I wandered into the shop, where I had heard there was more champagne, and was stopped at the door and looked over. “You look familiar. You know someone or something. Come on in.” I went in and found various friends who also knew someone. We are a group of “know someones.” At least it’s a step up from “know nobodies.”

George Whitman, the 94 year-old founder of the bookshop, came down to the party around 9:30 and was given a special blue felt chair. His daughter Sylvia, who now runs the bookshop, sat with him for awhile, Tumbleweeds[2] gathering at their feet.

Dozens of people milled around until after midnight, while the staff closed up the shop for the night — they’re the only ones who are waiting for the party to end, as they have to have the shop open as usual at 11am the next day.  The alcohol was finished and rumors of an extra bottle of champagne forgotten by Jeanette Winterson were dashed when the empty bottle was found in the green room, along with a couple of Tumbleweeds holding plastic cups of champagne in their hands, looking abashed, but happy.

Back | 1. To be fair this is one woman’s narrow-minded opinion. Everyone else really did love Paper Cinema.

Back | 2. Shakespeare and Company slang for the writers who stay at the shop for free in exchange for an hour of work per day (they have to read one book a day in addition to their bookselling duties).

[Image credits: Badaude]

Will the iPad Change Publishing? Ask The Atlantic

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For those who stay abreast of such matters, the last few months of the Atlantic’s forays into fiction have been positively nail-biting. In November, the magazine announced it would be offering a subscription of two stories a month exclusively on the Kindle. As if to quell a possible uprising of the deviceless, they turned around and released the yearly print fiction issue to the entire subscriber base. This June, they’ll convene two panels on the topic of Fiction in the Age of E-books at Toronto’s Luminato Festival—presumably, one hopes, to settle the matter.

How far we’ve come since 2005’s dark days, when Atlantic editors winnowed fiction down to a yearly newsstand-only digest! The now-quaint rationale was, “Reporting consumes a lot of space.” But in fiscal year 2009, when book review sections shriveled and houses purged editors and authors alike, dreamy fabulists, note: the Atlantic moved forward to find space for fiction again. And we should watch what they do closely. Because, in the past five years, while other news mags stumbled to find a way to get readers to consume their space—the Atlantic’s so-sensible-it’s-revolutionary strategy has made them a model for how print and online can survive side-by-side.

You may by now have noticed I have a little Atlantic problem. By this I don’t mean I have a problem with the Atlantic. (Though I often have a problem with the Atlantic.) My problem is more along the lines of the New Yorker enthusiast who wallpapers his bathroom with covers, or the public radio supporter who accepts the free tote though clearly informed this has diminished her pledge. Like these other fans, my outlet of choice has passed beyond pastime: it has become manifest as some previously inexpressible part of myself, one best revealed through a convenient duck hat or fashionable messenger bag—though part of the Atlantic’s appeal is that instead of redesigning its tote bags, it convenes a panel discussion.

How well I remember each small but strategic move! First, there was 2006’s “tech” column, in which James Fallows gamely chin-stroked over such wonders as Microsoft OneNote (“What makes some software ‘interesting,’ as opposed to merely usable?”). Next came “Print” and “Send to a friend” options. (Standard now, of course. But they were on it.) They linked subscriber accounts to an online profile, and, when blogging began its rise, immediately hired five famous bloggers—and let them blog.) Harper’s continues to plague us with subscriber-only PDFs—annoying in hard copy, unusable by device—and the New Yorker’s doorstop of a CD-ROM has become a series of clunky scans one must select page-by-page to print. (If one can read the hazy type at all.) Meanwhile, the Atlantic has had its Twain and Nabokov up and accessible to all for years.

Now, while the New York Times futzes around with photo galleries and “followers” and Slate piles still more boxes into its ancient maroon masthead, the Atlantic (excuse me—AtlanticWire) is on its umpteenth web redesign, a go-to online entity that has, if anything, cannibalized the magazine. While bloggers Megan McArdle and Ta-Nehisi Coates crank out high-concept cover pieces, P.J. O’Rourke and critic Mark Steyn, the golden mean of the magazine’s original libertarian readership, have been gently phased out. Welcome to newer hires Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan—the original Tipsy Belden and Nancy Shrew—who duel it out almost every issue, the better to draw women everywhere by offending all of them.

Immediately hiring bloggers when blogging began its rise seems like an obvious way to stay above water – but it was so obvious almost no one else did it. (See Conde Nast’s Flip.) Until recently, numerous publications that will remain nameless still preferred to push their reporters into blogging rather than hiring reporters who already blog. But the Atlantic has never been saddled with delusions of grandeur. Even their poetry—it’s “poetry”!—rhymes.

Now that e-publishing has hit even the books world with the online equivalent of a sucker punch, I am poised to absorb what the Atlantic sees to come.

The cover of Fiction 2010 offers, to say the least, a provocative vision. To our left glides a gentleman in pegged red pants holding an honest-to-God—positively florid—paper-and-ink book. To our right saunters a young lady fixed on the lambent square of her Kindle. They are shortly to meet cute—heads bent, dogs lightly leashed—near a mailbox at the corner of Publishing 3.0. The attractive pair is surrounded by blooms, sunlight, even a deli’s beckoning door. Their future is plentiful and bright—and there is not an iPad in sight.

If you are swayed by certain unimpeachable sources, this vision is akin to blasphemy. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta recently depicted that same future as a battle epic and brutal, the upstart iPad flashing its pretty UI and 60,000 titles against a staid Kindle, its inkless jabs a pathetic defense. Acknowledging that Amazon got a jump by getting Kindles into readers’ hands first, Auletta reasons that device-based argument is nonetheless is limited: “The analogy of the music business goes only so far. What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy an entire album to get the song you really wanted, you could buy just the single track. But no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books.”

That’s two assumptions, both incorrect. (This is why you don’t listen to writers whose publications slap up stories in teeny Times Roman.) 1) That all readers read alike, and 2) that whatever device prevails will accommodate books—not that books will change to accommodate the device.

Because, while a chemistry textbook or history of Rome must eventually be delivered somehow in entire, readers of fiction have been buying “tracks” of books for centuries. They’re called short stories – coincidentally, exactly the item the Atlantic is currently offering in an exclusive curated series on the Kindle. It’s just a start, but it’s a nod to an important distinction between fiction and other kinds of writing that must hew more closely to their form of delivery. Even poor poetry is hampered by its linebreaks, but fiction is the original mutable source, one that encourages authors to flex their muscles and tackle it in different media, now deliverable anywhere in any form. Forget your weekly Dickens. Fiction in variant array has bloomed on the internet from the beginning, from Darcy Steinke’s blind/spot to Rick Moody’s Twitter story to Japan’s booming mobile-fiction market.

Of course, your average person sometimes likes to just sit in the bathroom and read a real-life book, too. (Kindles don’t play well with the Charmin.) When it came to news, the Atlantic was the first to realize that, though online news would change to accommodate its new host into blog, comment, tweet, and update, that didn’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This means, when offering fiction, it’s wise to partner with someone who can deliver it in a dog-earable form, too—like, I don’t know, Amazon. “Neither Amazon, Apple, nor Google has experience in recruiting, nurturing, editing, and marketing writers,” Auletta argues. I’m not sure if Auletta has been on Amazon since 1997, but it actually owns every title, reviewer, reader, crank and author online. His claim makes sense only if you define Amazon’s actions against those traditional publishers—and I think even then most authors would tell you their publishers don’t really recruit, nurture, edit or market their writers, either.

I don’t know how the Atlantic, Apple, Amazon, or Auletta’s collected works will fare in the coming years (though they will certainly be called on first in class). But it seems important to check the hype when a newbie goes up against the mightiest bookstore in the land and a publication that’s remained robust in print, set the pace online, all while trying to see how fiction can fit in the mix. Steve Jobs is banking on my wanting to read on a prettier screen. But fictive folks read in different ways, and I don’t mean being able to turn my screen around and have the type adjust 180 degrees. An iPad is pretty, but it only has 60,000 titles, I can’t take it into my bathroom, and it doesn’t seem to be delivering the Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest. So it’s not that Amazon and the Atlantic got there first. They have always been here—figuring out how to deliver their authors to readers in every conceivable form. Looking at the cover of Fiction 2010 again, I might go so far as to say the real reason they’re the future of fiction and the iPad isn’t is that, unlike Apple, they both have a dog in this fight.

Bonus Links: On The Atlantic’s Redesign, My Political Blog Hangover and the Virtues of Finitude

In Our Parents’ Bookshelves

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In late 2001 among the people I knew, cellphones went from being a gadget of the technorati to something that everyone had.  I was living in a dorm with five roommates at the time and one consequence of the change was that we no longer ever spoke with each other’s parents.  Previously parents had called the room line and whoever was around would pick up.  I enjoyed shooting the breeze with my friends’ moms (it was mostly moms who called) and I regretted that there was no longer much opportunity to do that once cellphones allowed our parents to call each of us directly.

Ereaders today feel somewhat like cellphones just before 2001.  They are not yet ubiquitous, but they are well past the early-adopter stage and their growth seems poised to go geometric.  When the Kindle came out in 2007 I poopooed it as the future face of reading; the hyperactivity of the Internet just seemed like a bad match with the meditative experience of reading a book.  But the other day while watching my eight-month-old son knock around a pile of books, I knew suddenly and viscerally that I was wrong.  The clunky objects he was playing with seemed like relics.

The Millions has written previously about the externalities of e-readers.  Edan has commented on how they portend a drawing down of the public space in which we read—with the Kindle you don’t know what the person next to you is reading, or how far along in it they are, or whether their copy of the book is dog-eared or brand new (because it’s neither).

One of the most prominent losses in this regard stands to be the loss of bookshelves.  A chief virtue of digital books is said to be their economical size—they take up no space at all!—but even a megabyte seems bulky compared to what can be conveyed in the few cubic feet of a bookshelf.  What other vessel is able to hold with such precision, intricacy, and economy, all the facets of your life: that you bake bread, vacationed in China, fetishize Melville, aspire to read Shakespeare, have coped with loss, and still tote around a copy of The Missing Piece as a totem of your childhood.  And what by contrast can a Kindle tell you about yourself or say to those who visit your house?  All it offers is blithe reassurance that there is progress in the world, and that you are a part of it.

Of the bookshelves I’ve inspected in my life, two stand out as particularly consequential.  The first was my mother’s, which was built into the wall of the bedroom where she grew up.  When I would visit my grandparents in the summer I would spend hours inspecting that bookshelf.  The books were yellowed and jammed tightly together, as though my mother had known it was time to leave home once she no longer had any room left on her shelves.  In the 1960s novels, the Victorian classics, and the freshman year sociology textbooks fossilized on the bookshelf, I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be.

And then there was my wife, whose bookshelves I first inspected in a humid DC summer, while her parents were away at work.  The shelves were stuffed full of novels—Little House on the Prairie, The Andromeda Strain, One Hundred Years of Solitude—that described an arc of discovery I had followed too.  At the time we met, her books still quivered from recent use and still radiated traces of the adolescent wonder they’d prompted.  In the years since, on visits home for the holidays and to celebrate engagements and births, I’ve watched her bookshelves dim and settle.  Lately they’ve begun to resemble a type of monument I recognize from my mother’s room.  They sit there waiting for the day when our son will be old enough to spend his own afternoons puzzling out a picture of his mother in the books she left behind.

It remains to be seen how many more generations will have the adventure of getting to know their parents in just this way.  One for sure, and maybe two, but not much beyond that I wouldn’t think.  To the extent that bookshelves persist, it will be in self-conscious form, as display cases filled with only the books we valued enough to acquire and preserve in hard copy.  The more interesting story, however, the open-ended, undirected progression of a life defined by books will surely be lost to a digital world in which there is no such thing as time at all.

[Image source: David Goehring]

Cooped up in a Bookstore, Just to Stop Reading

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The rustle of textbook pages turning, the hasty unzipping of oversized book bags hardly disrupts this venue’s overflowing intellectual energy. The pounding clatter of fingers pressed against greasy laptop keyboards – a soothing symphony to knowledge, it seems – fills the second-floor air, redolent of fresh Starbucks coffee. College students donning the ubiquitous ‘H’ logo, tourists doing likewise, a few bums clad in sweatpants, and the other denizens of Cambridge flock here, traveling up the cascading staircase past the stack of Malcolm Gladwell books to check out all three floors of the establishment.

It is June 2009 and I take my place among the overstressed, sleepless, and nascent literati at the Harvard Coop, a popular bookstore just outside the campus of one of the nation’s most prestigious universities. School is never out here. A seventeen-year-old high school student, I wasn’t researching a thesis. However, I had enrolled in two creative writing classes for the summer and desperately needed to begin on my final project: a piece of creative non-fiction of up to fifteen pages.

Hours had flown by in my dorm room in Harvard Yard’s Thayer Hall without progress. Instead, I had voraciously consumed my eclectic – and completely electronic – literary diet of news, soccer blogs, and The New Yorker online. Reading was, and still is, my favorite tool of procrastination – and how easy it is thanks to the Internet! I am loathe to brand my online perusing a “waste” of time – in fact, I’ve probably learned more about writing this way than I have in school – but, for all the putative benefits of this side-reading, it gets me off track. Fast.

I’m not alone though. According to a new Kaiser Family Foundation study, kids ages 8-18 spend over seven and a half hours a day glued to computers, cell phones, televisions, or other electronic media. What is more, the authors of the study note that today’s youth actually get 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content through multitasking. Any teenager will tell you this isn’t remotely surprising – and, for me, it instantly recalls the image of my friends instinctively whipping out their cell phones to furiously text, even during a conversation or while watching TV.

Still, I’m a bit of an outlier. According to the study, only one in ten young people reported reading newspapers or magazines online; for those who did read online, the average time spent on this activity was a mere 21 minutes.

It’s just so easy to get immersed in a piece. A mere click on my IBM laptop opens up the Chrome browser, and from there, the stories, videos, and links tantalize me thanks to the myriad gadgets on my iGoogle page. I really want to finish writing the overture, the introduction to my piece – but what if Nick Kristof posts a new blog entry, what if that famous soccer player tweets me back, or what if someone wrote on my Facebook wall? I can’t resist. It takes less than a second, so I just hit the “F” key and “Enter” to check the ubiquitous social-networking site once more.

Three notifications.

But I had to get my assignment done: a four to fifteen page piece for my creative nonfiction class. And as they say, desperate times…call for one to cut off the Internet.

So I planted myself firming at the place with the spottiest wireless reception on campus: The Harvard Coop bookstore.

There, I thought, I could focus, motivated by a collegiate atmosphere teeming with brilliance, students tapping away at their literary masterpieces on pearl white Macbooks or furiously scribbling proofs of theorems belonging to esoteric branches of mathematics.

Buoyed by my change of milieu (and lack of Internet), I sat, ordered a coffee, wrote – and actually got several pages done in a few hours.

But never at the Coop did I realize the obvious irony of my situation. A student, who procrastinates by reading (of all things), must hole himself up at none other than a bookstore… in order to do his work and stop reading. Perfect sense, right?

It was my professor who had to point this irony out to me as we conferenced over the writing process and the piece.

My myopia speaks to the differences between my peer group (dubbed Gen M^2 by the Kaiser Family Foundation study) and those only just slightly older. Despite the fact that I had, on many occasions, spent several hours reading books off the shelves at the Coop, I paradoxically saw it, a comprehensive bookstore, as the only place where I would not succumb to my proclivity for procrastination – the only place where I would not read. In hindsight, it seems that Harvard’s cavernous Widener library would be the only place more inane for me to go at the time.

But why didn’t I realize my folly?

Perhaps it’s just the incipient laziness of my generation. Reading something online – a blog post, a news story, a feature article – is downright quicker than pulling out a book. You can scan, highlight – and if you lose interest – move on to another work in a matter of seconds. While this raises the question of whether “reading” online is tantamount to just leafing and scanning through a print copy, it’s efficient and easy.

And with high-speed Internet essentially universal, I see no logical reason to physically use a book when everything is more conveniently online, on a screen. In fact, I could have theoretically completed all of my assigned readings for my two classes using the Internet in lieu of in my expensive textbooks; in many cases, I still did that regardless of the fact that I had bought the book. My peers would likely do the same; the Kaiser study reveals that the only media activity that actually failed to increase among young people over the past ten years is traditional print media. Indeed, the study indicates a roughly 25% drop in print newspaper and magazine readership since 1999. Why? The answer lies in said convenience, as well as the Internet-saturated, online-only culture in which I have grown up.

Mine is the generation of the Kindle – er, iPad. Apart from the little remaining sentiment felt for the hard copy, we are inexorably moving entirely online. And as for those last remnants of nostalgia, our inherent resistance to change? They are the life support to which current print media clings. The problem is, sooner rather than later, the support will wither, wane, and expire as the online revolution – one which I experienced on a Cambridge summer day at the Coop, one which lives each time a teen types a text message – tweets on.

Amazon eBook Pricing Battle Gets Ugly

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Apple’s launch last week of the iPad has ushered in a new era of competition in the publishing industry as tech giants expand their footprint in the oldest of old media, books.

Interestingly, at least among serious readers and industry watchers, a skirmish on the margins has taken the spotlight. On Friday, Amazon unilaterally and without any explanatory public announcement, removed all books by publisher Macmillan from its virtual shelves. This included both ebook and paper editions and impacted books as varied as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto.

At the heart of Amazon’s move was a dispute over pricing. Essentially, Amazon, with its massive footprint in the publishing industry, is continually trying to dictate terms to publishers in order to maximize profits. Macmillan, seeing Apple (and therefore competition for Amazon) on the horizon, decided to hold its ground and retaliated.

As a result, two models are now in play. Under Amazon’s current model, it utilizes its near monopoly position to take an extremely steep wholesalers’ discount (up to 70%) when it buys books from publishers, and it sets prices where it wants, often offering books at bargain prices in order to draw shoppers into Amazon while still eking out a profit.

The opposing model is the agency model that treats Amazon not as a wholesaler but merely a sales force. The publisher sets the prices, and Amazon takes a 30% commission of whatever that price is. As best I can tell, the push for the agency model only applies to ebooks. Apple is touting this model with the iBook offering on the new iPad, and MacMillan intends to extend these terms to all outlets that sell its ebooks. (For more on how all this works, check out Charles Stross’s informative piece.)

For Amazon, it’s clear why the current model is preferred. The only way it can differentiate (and lure new customers into its Kindle ecosystem) is based on price. If the agency model succeeds, technically any other player out there with the wherewithal could come along and sell ebooks on exactly the same terms that Amazon does.

This is probably good news for readers. In the long-term it will spur competition in the ebook and ereader space that will inevitably push away from DRM, closed ecosystems, and expensive hardware. In the short term, however, those readers demanding that ebooks be priced at $9.99 or less are going to be frustrated. If publishers can set pricing, they are going to set it higher than Amazon would (In a memo obtained by Publishers Lunch, Macmillan has said it aims to price its ebook new releases between $12.99 and $14.99). These higher prices could definitely slow the growth of the ebook market, something I suspect may mainstream publishers wouldn’t be too upset about. On the other hand, publishers would have the ability to adjust prices, and if lowering prices ends up increasing volume and maximizing profits, they’ll undoubtedly do it.

It’s worth noting as well how Amazon has responded to Macmillan in this case and how a pattern of behavior is emerging. We noted nearly a year ago, when dicussing both

Confessions of a Book Pirate

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For several years, it seemed as though the book industry was getting a reprieve. As the music industry was ravaged by file sharing, and the film and TV industry were increasingly targeted by downloaders, book piracy was but a quaint cul de sac in the vast file sharing ecology. The tide, however, may be changing. Ereaders have become mainstream, making reading ebooks palatable to many more readers. Meanwhile, technology for scanning physical books and breaking the DRM on ebooks has continued to advance.

A recent study by Attributor, a firm that specializes in monitoring content online, came to some spectacular conclusions, including the headline claim that book piracy costs the industry nearly $3 billion, or over 10% of total revenue. Of all the conclusions in the Attributor study, this one seemed the most outlandish, and the study itself might be met with some skepticism since Attributor is in the business of charging companies to protect their content from the threat of piracy.

Nonetheless, the study, which monitored 913 titles on several popular file hosting sites, did point to a level of activity that suggested illegal downloading of books was becoming more than just a niche pastime. Even if the various extrapolations that led to the $3-billion figure are easy to poke holes in, Attributor still directly counted 3.2 million downloaded books.

For some, however, the study may inspire more questions than answers. Who are the people downloading these books? How are they doing it and where is it happening? And, perhaps most critical for the publishing industry, why are people deciding to download books and why now? I decided to find out, and after a few hours of searching – stalled by a number dead links and password protected sites – I found, on an online forum focused on sharing books via BitTorrent, someone willing to talk.

He lives in the Midwest, he’s in his mid-30s and is a computer programmer by trade. By some measures, he’s the publishing industry’s ideal customer, an avid reader who buys dozens of books a year and enthusiastically recommends his favorites to friends. But he’s also uploaded hundreds of books to file sharing sites and he’s downloaded thousands. We discussed his file sharing activity over the course of a weekend, via email, and in his answers lie a critical challenge facing the publishing industry: how to quash the emerging piracy threat without alienating their most enthusiastic customers. As is typical of anonymous online communities, he has a peculiar handle: “The Real Caterpillar.” This is what he told me:

The Millions: How active are you. How many books have you uploaded or downloaded?

The Real Caterpillar: In the past month, I have uploaded approximately 50 books to the torrent site where you contacted me. I am much less active then I once was. I used to scan many books, but in the past two years I have only done a few. Between 2002-2005 I created around 200 ebooks by scanning the physical copy, OCRing and proofing the output, and uploading them to USENET. I generally only upload content that I have scanned, with some exceptions. I have been out of the book scene for a while, concentrating on rare and out of print movies instead of books because it is much easier to rip a movie from VHS or DVD than to scan and proof a book.

I have downloaded a couple thousand ebooks via USENET and private torrent sites.

TM: Do you typically see scanned physical books or ebooks where the DRM has been broken?

TRC: Most of what I have seen is scanned physical books. Stephen King’s Under the Dome was the first DRM-broken book I downloaded knowingly.

TM: Why have you gone this route as opposed to using a library or buying books? Do you consider this “stealing” or is it a gray area?

TRC: I own around 1,600 physical books, maybe a third of which were bought new, the rest used. I buy many hardcovers in a given year and generally purchase more books than I end up reading, so I have not chosen to collect electronic books as opposed to paper books but in addition to them. My electronic library has about a 50% crossover with my physical library, so that I can read the book on my electronic reader, “loan” the book without endangering my physical copy, or eventually rid myself of the paper copy if it is a book I do not have strong feelings about.

I do not buy DRM’d ebooks that are priced at more than a few dollars, but would pay up to $10 for a clean file if it was a new release.

I do not pretend that uploading or downloading unpurchased electronic books is morally correct, but I do think it is more of a grey area than some of your readers may. Perhaps this will change as the Kindle and other e-ink readers make electronic books more convenient, but the Baen Free Library is an interesting experiment that proves that at least in that case, their business was actually enhanced by giving away their product free. That is probably not a business model that will work for everyone, but what is shows is that as a company they have their ear to the ground and are willing to think in new directions and take chances instead of putting their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, and railing against their customers, as the
music industry is doing. The world is changing and business models have to change with it.

Three additional points:

1) With digital copies, what is “stolen” is not as clear as with physical copies. With physical copies, you can assign a cost to the physical product, and each unit costs x dollars to create. Therefore, if the product is stolen, it is easy to say that an object was stolen that was worth x dollars. With digital copies, it is more difficult to assign cost. The initial file costs x dollars to create, but you can make a million copies of that file for no cost. Therefore, it is hard to assign a specific value to a digital copy of a work except as it relates to lost sales.

2) Just because someone downloads a file, it does not mean they would have bought the product I think this is the key fact that many people in the music industry ignore – a download does not translate to a lost sale. I own hundreds of paper copies of books I have e-copies of, many of which were bought after downloading the e-copy. In other cases I have downloaded books I would never have purchased, simply because they were recommended or sounded interesting.

3) Just because someone downloads a file, it doesn’t mean they will read it. I realize that buying a book doesn’t mean someone is going to read it either, but clicking a link and paying $10-$30 is very different – many more people will download a book and not read it than buy a book and not read it.

In truth, I think it is clear that morally, the act of pirating a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing… although that nagging question of what the person who has been stolen from is missing still lingers. Realistically and financially, however, I feel the impact of e-piracy is overrated, at least in terms of ebooks.

TM: How easy is it to go online and find a book you’re looking for? How long does it take to download and how much technical expertise is required?

TRC: I have specific tastes, so it is usually not very easy to find specifically what I am looking for. The dearth of material I was interested in is what prompted me to scan in the past, in order to share some of my favorite, less popular authors with as many people as possible. It does not take much time to download once something you want has been found, however, and little technical experience is required.

Since books are generally very small files, they can be downloaded in minutes. You can then convert the file using one of many applications, for instance Mobipocket Creator, to PRC or another format that works with your reader. You can then plug your Kindle into your computer and copy the file over. The entire process typically takes 5-10 minutes.

BitTorrent technology is easy to install and use, and just about anyone can install the basic software needed and begin downloading their first torrent in less than an hour. However, discovering and gaining access to private torrent sites (invite only) can take a lot of time – and of course, that is where the good stuff is. Public sites (no account needed) and semi-private sites (sites that require an account, but usually have open enrollment) have a limited selection, but are easily accessible and anyone with basic computer skills can find and download very popular novels.

Usenet is an older technology, and is considered a safer place to pirate files. For older users like me who were around at the beginning of the internet it seems very simple, but to newer computer users it may seem unnecessarily complex, and more expensive because you need an account separate from your regular internet connection to access it.

TM: Once you’ve downloaded a book, what format is it in and how do you read it? On you computer? Printed out?

TRC: My preferred format for distribution is RTF because it holds metadata such as italics, boldfaces, and special characters that TXT does not, is easily converted to other formats using Word, cannot contain a virus, and is an open format that will be readable forever. Other popular formats are DOC, HTML, PDF, LIT (Microsoft Reader), PRC (Palm), MOBI (Palm), CBR (rar’d image files) – and there is a new format with each new reader that is released. Most formats can be converted to your preferred format with enough ingenuity or the
correct software.

To read, I convert to PRC and load the books onto my Kindle. Before I got that, I read on my Palm or laptop.

TM: How long does it take you to scan a physical book?

TRC: The scanning process takes about 1 hour per 100 scans. Mass market paperbacks can be scanned two pages at a time flat on the scanner bed, while large trades and hardcovers usually need to be scanned one page at a time. I’m sure that some of the more hardcore scanners disassemble the book and run it through an automatic feeder or something, but I prefer the manual approach because I’d like to save the book, and don’t want to invest in the tools. Usually I can scan a book while watching a movie or two.

Once scanned, the output needs to be OCR’d – this is a fairly quick process using a tool like ABBYY FineReader.

The final step is the longest and most grueling. I’ve spent anywhere from 5 to 40 hours proofing the OCR output, depending on the size of the book and the quality of type in the original. This can be done in your OCR tool side-by-side with the scan of the original image or separately in your final output type (RTF, DOC, HTML, etc.). If there are few errors on the first few pages of text my preference is to proof in RTF, otherwise I do the proof within Finereader itself.

TM: What types of books do you look for? What is generally available? Is any fiction or popular non-fiction available?

TRC: I restrict my downloads to books I will likely read – this includes some popular novels, literary novels, and general non-fiction such as humor, biography, science, sociology, etc. Unlike DVD rips, the newest releases are not typically available two weeks before the product is released, if at all. I’m assuming that this is due to the smaller devoted audience books have, as well as the increased difficulty of sharing a book.

TM: Do you have a sense of where these books are coming from and who is putting them online?

TRC: I assume they are primarily produced by individuals like me – bibliophiles who want to share their favorite books with others. They likely own hundreds of books, and when asked what their favorite book is look at you like you are crazy before rattling of 10-15 authors, and then emailing you later with several more. The next time you see them, they have a bag of 5-10 books for you to borrow.

I’m sure that there are others – the compulsive collectors who download and re-share without ever reading one, the habitual pirates who want to be the first to upload a new release, and people with some other weird agenda that only they understand.

TM: Is it your sense that a lot of people are out there looking to get books this way? Or is it just a tiny group?

TRC: I would say that there is a small unaffiliated “group” of people responsible for sourcing the material.

Also, keep in mind that everything I’m saying applies mostly to fiction and general-interest non-fiction.

Textbook, programming and technical manuals are all over the place and its very easy to obtain almost anything you want. I assume there are more sources for that material, and that their high price is a larger factor in people deciding to pirate them. Similarly, there are many communities creating comic, graphic novel and magazine content of whom I am only vaguely aware.

TM: Do you worry at all about getting in trouble for scanning and uploading ebooks?

TRC: A little, but the books I do are typically not bestsellers and are rarely new. I figure I have a bit of a buffer if trouble comes down because the Stephen King or Nora Roberts or “whoever the latest bestseller is” scanners would be the ones to get hit first. I’ve done a lot of out-of-print stuff, and when it is not out of print it’s books by authors like John Barth – someone who no longer sells very well, I imagine.

I’ve debated doing some newer authors and books, but I would need to protect myself better and resolve the moral dilemma of actually causing noticeable financial harm to the author whose work I love enough to spend so much time working on getting a nice e-copy if I were to do so.

TM: What changes in the ebook industry would inspire you to stop participating in ebook file sharing?

TRC: This is a tough question. I guess if every book was available in electronic format with no DRM for reasonable prices ($10 max for new/bestseller/omnibus, scaling downwards for popularity and value) it just wouldn’t be worth the time, effort, and risk to find, download, convert and load the book when the same thing could be accomplished with a single click on your Kindle. Even in this situation, I would probably still grab a book if I stumbled across the file and thought it might interest me – or if I wanted to check it out before buying a paper copy.

I was impressed by the Indie filmmakers of the movie “Ink” – when their movie leaked before the DVD was released, they put a donation button on their site doubleedgefilms.com. I donated even though I haven’t watched the movie yet, just because of their thoughtfulness and sincerity. This didn’t seem to work for King’s “The Plant“, but I think that had a lot to do with the lack of reading technology at the time. I would like to see the experiment tried again by someone like Eggers or Murakami – someone with a very devoted fanbase.

Perhaps if readers were more confident that the majority of the money went to the author, people would feel more guilty about depriving the author of payment. I think most of the filesharing community feels that the record industry is a vestigal organ that will slowly fall off and die – I don’t know to what extent that feeling would extend to publishing houses since they are to some extent a different animal. In the end, I think that regular people will never feel very guilty “stealing” from a faceless corporation, or to a lesser extent, a multi-millionaire like King.

One thing that will definitely not change anyone’s mind or inspire them to stop are polemics from people like Mark Helprin and Harlan Ellison – attitudes like that ensure that all of their works are available online all of the time.

[Image credit: Patrick Feller]

In Tablet Battle, Amazon and Apple Could Slight Readers

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Apple’s tablet will be unveiled to the planet via a special event on January 27. Industry watchers and gadget hounds have been tracking news of an Apple tablet for years now and will likely incite a frenzy of analysis as they attempt to parse the meaning of the new device.

In the wildest scenarios, the Apple tablet, some hybrid of the iPhone and the MacBook, is, through Apple’s formidable interface design expertise, a revolutionary device that utterly transforms how people compute and connect. The pessimistic view is that the device fails to generate widespread interest from consumers already happy enough with their iPhones and MacBooks and ends up having limited niche appeal. Given Apple’s track record in recent years, I’d wager the outcome will be closer to the former case.

The tablet certainly has the potential to further revolutionize how people consume music, TV, and movies on the go, but the implications for the book, newspaper, and magazine industries are potentially much greater.

For all the Kindle’s success, it remains in many ways a niche product, aimed at consumers who fit a certain narrow profile, namely avid readers. In 2007, the Associated Press reported that a quarter of Americans hadn’t read a single book in the prior year. And among those who did read that year, the average number of books read was seven. Even considering that you can get some non-book content on the Kindle, these numbers alone suggest that the market for the Kindle is limited.

Meanwhile, the Kindle is siphoning off some of the book industry’s best customers into this new format controlled by Amazon and with profit margins that seem to be constrained at best. The Kindle may get avid readers to read more (and maybe that increased volume will make up for the low profit margins), but the Kindle, with its high price tag (relative to not using an e-reader at all) and limited functionality, is not likely on the wish list of non-readers. However, while the Kindle isn’t turning those non-readers into readers, Apple’s tablet might.

In the technology world, “unitaskers” don’t last long. In the last few years alone, we’ve seen cellphones acquire ever more features and functions. There’s now no reason to carry with you a separate PDA, camera, address book, or music player. Standalone GPS devices are on their way out too and laptops could one day be largely cannibalized by handheld devices.

The Kindle, on the other hand, performs a single function and does it well, but no matter how good it is at being an e-reader, in the mass market, it’s always going to lose out to a device that can do more things. Owning a device that can do more things is cheaper than owning a bunch of separate devices and a single device takes up less space in a backpack or pocket. Beyond that, a device that can do more things is going to appeal to a much wider group of people.

Therein lies the potential promise of an Apple tablet with a robust e-reader built in. If Apple does the tablet right, it will be purchased by an order of magnitude more people than have purchased the Kindle, even with its likely $1000 price tag. Since launching the device, Amazon has likely sold somewhere between 2.5 and 3 million Kindles. Analysts are predicting that Apple sold more than 11 million iPhones in the fourth quarter of 2009 alone and will sell over 37 million in 2010. Looking farther out, analysts believe Apple could sell 50 million iPhones in 2011 and 80 million in 2012.

The bottom line is that an Apple tablet with e-reader capabilities, if it sells at even a fraction of the volume that the iPhone has, will quickly dwarf the reach of the Kindle. More importantly, it will be owned by thousands of people who are not a part of the Kindle demographic, and will therefore put an e-reader in the hands of millions of people who would not have otherwise bought one and will put e-books at the fingertips of those who might otherwise read less.

The big question mark here is just how good an e-reader the Apple tablet will be. We can already assume based on reports of talks between Apple and publishers that Apple plans on making a big move into the e-reader space, but the tablet is unlikely to have some characteristics that have made the Kindle a hit among serious readers. The Kindle’s non-backlit screen is easy on the eyes, a long battery life allows for uninterrupted reading sessions, and a dead simple interface keeps the focus on the book.

Apple’s tablet, meanwhile, may not have a non-backlit reading setting, is likely to have a far shorter battery life than the Kindle, and will likely be packed with so many enticing distractions that it’s hard to imagine getting much reading done. And, though consumers will likely buy the Apple tablet by the millions, the expected price tag of around $1,000 may turn off those who are primarily interested in the tablet for its e-reader capabilities, such as they are.

Interestingly, in the face of impending competition from Apple, Amazon is pushing the Kindle to become more of multitasker rather than focusing on the e-reader aspect of the device. This week the company announced that it will allow developers to create apps for the device, meaning that Kindle owners may sometime soon be able to access “a wide range of programs, including utilities like calculators, stock tickers and casual video games.” So much for finishing Proust.

If you’ve used a Kindle, you’re likely wondering why anyone would bother with a video game on that low-tech screen, and how the Kindle, in its current form, could possibly be good for anything beyond reading. Amazon is likely thinking the same thing, and as time goes on – and prodded by competition from Apple – the Kindle will be able to do more and more, the screen will get more high-tech, buttons will proliferate.

And so one wonders if, in the desire to create a mass market device, e-readers and tablets will be laden with ever more bells and whistles, to the detriment of their capabilities as e-readers. If that’s the case, a niche market for an e-reader that is focused on providing a good reading experience – and that alone – may thrive.

In the best case scenario multitasker tablets of all kinds thrive, don’t lose sight of providing a good reading experience, and integrate reading books, magazines, and newspapers back into our lives. If that happens, wherever we go, we are reading.

Previously: eBook Evolution: Amazon and Google on Different Paths, eBook Paths Converge

[Image credit: Mike McCaffrey]

Millions Meta-Data 2009


Before we get too far into 2010, let’s take a look at what was keeping readers interested on The Millions in 2009. To start, we’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, and we’ll begin with the “evergreens,” posts that went up before 2010 but continued to interest readers over the last year:

1. Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: Three years on, our “definitive” literary pronunciation guide is still a favorite The Millions. There must be a lot of people name-dropping Goethe out there. The initial, aborted attempt remains popular as well.

2. A Year in Reading 2008: 2008’s series stayed popular in 2009, as did 2007’s, the first year we did the series in the now familiar expanded format.

3. The Best Sports Journalism Ever (According to Bill Simmons): Sports fans love this collection of links to some of the best sports writing of all time.

4. Food Fight: Anthony Bourdain Slams Rachael Ray: This rare dalliance for The Millions into celebrity gossip suggests an enduring interest in the bad blood between these two food (and publishing) superstars.

5. On Our Shelves: 45 Favorite Short Story Collections: A terrific list that will keep the short story fan busy for quite a long time.

6. The World’s Longest Novel: Ben’s profile of this work of record-breaking performance art has continued to intrigue curious readers.

7. Reading List: World War 2 Fiction: There are a few books still on my wish list as a result of this three-year-old list.

8: Big in Japan: A Cellphone Novel For You, the Reader: Lots of folks were talking about the Japanese trend of cell phone novels, but Ben was the first to offer a translation.

9. Haruki Murakami in Berkeley: Murakami fans continue to flock to this collection of wisdom compiled by Ben at a Murakami reading. An earlier piece by Ben has proved popular among readers looking to get their hands on a lost Murakami work.

10. Why Bolaño Matters: Roberto Bolaño has become a literary sensation over the last two years, but Garth’s 2007 piece helped set the stage.

And now for the top pieces written in 2009:

1. The Best of the Millennium (So Far): This list would be dominated by our Best of the Millennium series, so we’ll just go ahead and mention the introduction to the series here.

2. Diagramming the Obama Sentence: In the aftermath of Obama’s victory, Garth’s analysis of our new president’s rhetorical skills got picked up on a number of political sites.

3. Our pair of Most Anticipated posts were popular among readers looking for something new to read.

4. A Year in Reading: New Yorker Fiction 2008: My ridiculous attempt to catalog all the New Yorker fiction in 2008. Will I ever do it again? Probably not this year.

5. Islands in the Stream: Our “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Bookstores,” Revised and Expanded: In 2009, we joined readers for a walking tour of indie bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

6. A Bolaño Syllabus: Garth’s instructive piece helped readers make sense of the late Chilean’s ever-growing oeuvre.

7. About the Author: Readers got a kick out of Edan’s take on author photos.

8. eBook Paths Converge: This brief item, pointing to some of our more extensive coverage of “the future of the book,” proved a popular entry point into the discussion.

9. Finding Indie Opportunity on The Kindle: This piece by guest contributor Bryan Gilmer showed how one indie author took advantage of the Kindle’s pricing structure to market his book.

10. Working the Double Shift: Guest contributor Emily St. John Mandel struck a chord with this exploration of writers and their day jobs.

Where did all these readers come from? Google (and Facebook and Twitter and StumbleUpon) sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers came from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2009:

1. Andrew Sullivan
2. Kottke.org
3. The Elegant Variation
4. ScienceBlogs
5. The Complete Review
6. Lenta.ru
7. MetaFilter
8. The New Yorker
9. The Morning News
10. boingboing

A Year in Reading: Jeff Martin

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Gold Medal

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton: I’ve seen the future of books, and it has nothing to do with Amazon. Well, let me back up a little. 2009, as far as books are concerned, may go down as the Year of the Kindle. Good, bad, or otherwise, they were everywhere. I don‘t use a Kindle and haven‘t quite made my mind up about them. But over the past year I‘ve made a point to talk to everyone I see using one. And aside from Nicholson Baker, who curiously prefers reading on his iPod touch, I would say that over 90% of the responses I got were positive, ebullient even. The guy on the plane to Nashville loved reading his Vince Flynn novels on a Kindle. The girl at the sandwich shop was electronically advancing through the Stephenie Meyer books at breakneck speed. But there was one book I read this year that I could never imagine reading on a Kindle. Written, or perhaps I should say designed as an auction catalog, this slim volume from Leanne Shapton made me question the meaning of narrative and how stories are told. I heard recently that it‘s being adapted for the silver screen. Honestly, I have no idea how that will work. But I do know that I’ll be there when it opens.

Silver Medal

X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking by Jeff Gordinier: I was a couple of months past my 11th birthday when I first heard Nirvana. Singles was far from my favorite movie, partly because I didn’t get it, but mostly because it wasn’t very good. And a couple of years later when Reality Bites was encouraging less showers, I was much more interested in films and music that frankly I’m still too ashamed to admit. Let’s just say one rhymes with Boyz II Men. Okay, it was Boyz II Men. My point? I was a little bit too young to really take part in the real Generation X experience. And to tell the truth, I always felt that I’d missed out on something. On the whole I’m not really into putting labels on generations, but if I were, I’m not sure that “Generation X” was even proper name to begin with (damn you, Douglas Coupland). I think “Late Bloomers” might be more appropriate. And that gives me hope for the future.

Bronze Medal (3-way-tie)

Hand To Mouth by Paul Auster: The best book I’ve ever read on why we write.

Snark by David Denby: Funny. True. Usually both at the same time.

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon: Going into this one I hoped it would suck. No one should be this good in every format.

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