Today represented some kind of personal tipping point. As if by prearrangement – or super-stealthy guerilla marketing plan? – the Kindle was everywhere I went.
First: a faculty meeting. More than one colleague praising the seductions of the e-Reader, as opposed to the good old book. Except who am I kidding? They didn’t use the term e-Reader. They used the term Kindle.
Then: the subway. I fell into the pleasurable habit of scanning the titles being read by my fellow travelers.
The New Yorker.
Last Evenings on Earth.
Something in Chinese.
The Raw Shark Texts.
Something by Donna Leon.
Something by Daniel Silva.
Something by Stephen L. Carter.
Yup: Kindle #3.
(The woman reading Bolaño switched halfway through my ride to a Kindle, on which she may or may not have continued reading Bolaño . I’m not making this up.)
Finally: Bryant Park. Right behind the New York Public Library. Summer Associates getting their drink on. Kindle. Abandoned newspaper. Coddled Kindle. Homeless man with obscenity scrawled on jacket. Kindle in handy Kindle carrier. Outdoor library. Outdoor Kindle.
I began to imagine a day where outdoor libraries won’t exist. Nor will my beloved newsstands (already struggling with cigarettes at $10 a pack). Indoor libraries will struggle even harder than they already do to justify their existence; everyone will be carrying her own. Well, everyone but the guy with the obscenity scrawled on his jacket. And Nosy Parkers such as myself will be unable to tell what anyone’s reading on mass transit. Except that they’re all reading on e-Readers.
This day is doubtless drawing ever closer, but as a lover of newsstands, libraries, and ubiquitous dustjackets (remember, MTA riders, the month when everyone was reading Absurdistan? Remember the autumn of Oscar Wao?), I realized today that I’m not looking forward to it. Nor do I believe my life will be improved when putting down The Magic Mountain to check TMZ.com is as simple as clicking a button. Which is to say: I won’t make it past page 2 of The Magic Mountain. And also: I believe reading The Magic Mountain will improve my life. But the Kindle is just a tool! my colleagues insist. I want to remind them: when you’re carrying a hammer, everything starts to look like a Kindle. Er…nail.
E-book pricing wars continue. Sony tries to hit the Kindle where it hurts by offering cheaper e-books. Meanwhile, $0 is becoming an important price point at the Kindle store.Sam Anderson hates Thomas Pynchon.An indie bookstore fan uses our bookstore tour as a jumping-off point for a literary day in Manhattan. You can too.
The August issue of Open Letters is available. Nestled amidst the literary fare are early Oscar nominations from Sarah Hudson and a piece on the video game The Sims by Phillip A. Lobo.Electric Literature teamed up with animator Jonathan Ashley and musician Nick DeWitt to produce an animated trailer for Jim Shepard’s “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You,” a story which appeared in the literary magazine’s first issue.BOMB Magazine has a conversation between poker buddies Nam Le and Charles D’Ambrosio.Years ago, we wrote about La Porte, Indiana, a nifty book with a connection to Found Magazine chronicling a cache of found photographs from a small town. Now the book is being made into a documentary.Nicholson Baker has written the funniest piece yet about the Kindle. Ed initially takes umbrage (and gets comments from Baker and recants somewhat). YPTR weighs in as well.Spoiler Alert: neojapansme, a provider (along with our own Ben Dooley) of quite a bit of insight into Murakami’s new (and untranslated) novel 1Q84 has published a review of the book.Millions Fans: The Millions Facebook group now has over 400 members. We’ll be asking group members to help us with some upcoming special features, so join up (if you’re into that sort of thing.)Shatner… Palin… Twitter… bongos… need we say more?
M. Ryan Calo is a residential fellow at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet & Society. He frequently appears in radio, press, and online to discuss new technology.Everyone knows Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. First published in 1953, Bradbury imagined a world in which government “firemen” could enter your home at any time and burn your books “for the good of humanity.” This deeply dystopic vision has, thankfully, not come to pass. Nor could it. In the U.S., the First and Fourth Amendments project against unreasonable government intrusion, especially where it implicates ideas. The state will never be able to enter your house and burn your books, even in an age of terrorism. I really believe that.That’s why I was so disturbed to learn that Amazon has managed to “burn” two other famous dystopias, these ones by George Orwell, without implicating the Constitution. According to reports, people who had purchased Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm for the Kindle woke up to find that Amazon had erased the ebooks remotely.Jonathan Zittrain has warned about this phenomenon – which he calls “software as service” – wherein people no longer own what they buy. Digital products become evolving and hence unstable services that a company may alter or even destroy at whim. Like many things that happen first on the Internet, the death of ownership is also happening offline, as when car dealers leave GPS devices in vehicles so as to make it easier to repossess the vehicles later.Ebooks evoke dystopian novels in a second way. It is rapidly becoming impossible to peruse or buy a book without leaving a digital trail. Law enforcement has already reportedly asked Amazon to hand over customer purchase history; it is a matter of time before the government approaches Google Book Search. It is no accident that common to practically every dystopian novel is the abrogation of privacy. This is clearly true of Bradbury and Orwell. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the buildings are all made of transparent glass. In Huxley’s Brave New World, the biggest taboo is solitude. Bernard Marx tells us that an aversion to being alone is, of all state messages, repeated the most times during sleep conditioning.I don’t mean to overstate. In many ways we live in a historic zenith of freedom. And Amazon zapping books for business reasons is a far cry from state sanctioned book burning. But we nevertheless must get a handle on the issues of ownership and privacy that ebooks raise, lest we wake up one day to find they have disappeared.
Jonathan Evison talks with independent publicist Lauren Cerand about promoting books.Kindle shenanigans: “This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers.”Marking the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, Kottke puts together a huge post of photos, videos, and links in commemoration.Our recent item rounded up all the “big” books coming out in the latter half of the year. PW alerts readers to “10 promising fiction debuts” coming this fall.Jacket Copy concludes its Pomo Month with an annotated list of “61 essential postmodern reads.”New uses for card catalogs. (via)The second issue of online literary journal The Critical Flame has arrived.Mark Sarvas offers a four-part interview with Joseph O’Neill. “I think I start with one idea. In Netherland, it was cricket in New York. Then there is an accumulation of sentences, and often just single words. Words that interest me. And I sort of build it up like a poem.”Amazon names the “Best Books of the Year… So Far.”
History’s 10 best prison breaks.A Paid Content column argues that the true genius of the Kindle is that it breaks the trend toward multi-tasking……But there is still a huge amount of confusion surrounding the Kindle’s DRM policies.AbeBooks aggregates some summer reading lists.VQR compiles a brief reading list for those following the post-election protests in Iran.Bay Area readers: Conversational Reading is taking a page from The Millions playbook and hosting a San Francisco indie bookstore walking tour. Sounds fun!
Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com.I.When a friend admits to me – usually a bit sheepishly, knowing that I am a literary writer and reader – that she is reading a paperback romance novel, or, even “worse,” a series of them, I laugh it off and say, as sincerely as I can muster, Good for you, I’m sure you need the relaxation and escape, and we move on to the next topic.In my fiction classes, I always ask students to fill out a brief survey on the first day of class so I can get a feel for their reading interests; invariably, a number of students list Dean Koontz or Dan Brown or Nora Roberts or (most recently and markedly) Stephenie Meyer as their touchstones. When I see these writers’ names or hear them mentioned in class, something goes thud in my stomach and a low-grade dread begins to buzz in my head.II.Am I just an insufferable snob? Possibly. If you think so, feel free to stop reading now; we may be at an impasse.III.A spiritual war rages between art and entertainment, elitism and populism, the difficult pleasure and the mindless escape, complex meaning and convention-driven predictability… literary fiction and genre fiction.Or not. On the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, a new “Summer Thriller” series – featuring, this past Sunday, a story (or serial installment?) by Dean Koontz. The protagonist is a whipsmart hostage negotiator who faces off with a Hannibal Lecter/Buffalo Bill-esque psychopath (he “displays” his dead [raped] female victims after dipping them in polyurethane). In a zippy plot twist (SPOILER alert), the hostage (ah coincidence!) turns out to be the negotiator’s savvy wife; the revelation elicits a “gasp” from the psychopath.In The New Yorker this week, a profile by staff writer Lauren Collins on prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts. I haven’t read the full profile, but it’s got Slate’s XX Factor blogger Willa Paskin (presumably not currently a romance reader) ready to pick up a Roberts novel – “Collins makes the case, without ever overselling, that Roberts’ books might not be totally devoid of artistic merit” – and eager to hang out with Roberts herself, who “comes across as a down-to-earth, foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, extremely grounded, extremely disciplined woman.”IV.What is going on here? Are we in the literary and genre camps laying down our arms and reaching across the proverbial aisle to hold hands and work together? More importantly, is “not totally devoid of artistic merit” some kind of newly-acceptable standard for reading selection? (Like how the standards for “organic” loosen to near-meaninglessness as big farming corps get into the business?)To anyone feeling ready to click away from this post in a huff: I feel a little like Sherman Alexie, who said last week in a follow-up to his feather-ruffling comments about the Kindle being elitist that he felt like David being mistook for Goliath.With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction. Which is another way of saying that more people buy books and spend time with the words in them to evade the (messy, complicated) world as it is than to see it more truly – in all its mystery, pain, complexity, and beauty. Resistance – perhaps opposition is not too strong a word – to genre fiction for a writer and reader of literary fiction is, in my opinion, a literary ecosystem imperative.V.Why do The New Yorker and The New York Times want me to rethink my dividing lines? Are my soul or my artistic integrity at risk of atrophying if I don’t see the light and embrace a new political correctness that’s deemed formulaic genre writing and literary writing more alike than they are different?Let me, for the sake of this essay and the ensuing discussion, take a (overstated, survival-driven) hardliner’s position: pure genre writing invites and indulges engagement and validation of our lesser, lazier, unthinking, hedonistic selves; well-wrought literary fiction affords, in the critic Harold Bloom’s words, a difficult pleasure and illuminates the truths of the human soul, for better or for worse, thus opening the engaged reader to the possibility of courage, intellectual and emotional honesty, wisdom. Popular genre writing and literary writing represent diametrically opposed visions of the value and necessity of reading books; they are as different as lust and love, band-aids and surgery. To imply otherwise is to cop to hysterical anti-intellectualism and give credence to the same sorts of “elitist!” cries that sought to make Barack and Michelle Obama appear out of touch and John McCain a man of the people.There are real stakes here. What you read matters.VI. But enjoy your genre books, I say. Life is tough, we all seek ways to effectively distract and soothe ourselves. Consume your genre series with gusto and pleasure, like a drippy, juicy bacon burger; kick back and let them carry you away weightlessly, like an after-midnight Wii session. But do not imagine or attempt to argue that they play a vital role in augmenting the human experience. They allow for, are designed for, reader passivity and thus do not do what Joe Meno described eloquently in Edan Lepucki’s profile this week:Books have a different place in our society than other media. Books are different from television or film because they ask you to finish the project. You have to be actively engaged to read a book. It’s more like a blueprint. What it really is, is an opportunity… A book is a place where you’re forced to use your imagination.VII.So with Roberts and Koontz now occupying prized real estate in the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, it’s fight or flight as far as I can tell. Recently, I’ve been developing a list of what I call “bait n switch” books – books that bring together the strengths of both the genre and literary forms: suspense, sexual tension, absorbing dialogue, compelling plots, characters you come to love like your favorite pets; and fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery. I’ve given these as gifts or recommended them to people who tend to read only genre fiction or little fiction at all; with good response. My ultimate mission: to convert the unbelieving to the (crucial, soul-shaping) fact that you needn’t ingest bad or “not that bad” writing in order to be entertained and/or absorbed by a book. For anyone who’d like to suit up for the battle:Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (for erotic thriller lovers)Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help (for chic lit readers)Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Pet Dog,” and really anything by Henry James (for romance readers)E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair and Ragtime (for Harry Potter and other boy-adventure fans)Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (for manly men who are into horror)Poetry by Jane Kenyon and Rilke (for people “intimidated” by poetry)The following two are a little riskier, but I’d like to try inflicting one or both of them on a poor unsuspecting soul one of these days:Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees (a simple, universal story of love/breakup/love again)Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth (pure storytelling, you hardly know what hit you)And, if all else fails, well: there’s always “The Wire.”[Image Credit: Randen Pederson]
You may have noticed that the search box on Amazon recently added an “auto-complete” feature. So if you start typing in letters, it starts suggesting things that begin with those letters. It’s probably safe to assume that it suggests the most frequently searched words, so, if we look at Amazon’s book section we can type in letters and discover, for each letter of the alphabet, the most popular searches on Amazon. Or, if you like, the ABCs of Amazon (a peek into the reading habits of America and, like it or not, a primer for what’s popular in the world of books):Angels & DemonsBreaking Dawn (The first of several Stephenie Meyer appearances)Charlaine HarrisDan Brown (no surprise here)Eclipse (Another for Meyer)FreakonomicsGREHarry Potter (as if there was any doubt)ISBN number search (funny because ISBNs work in the search box)James PattersonKindle (natch)Lora LeighMy Sister’s Keeper (by Jodi Picoult)Nora RobertsOutliers (by Malcolm Gladwell)Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Zombies!)QuiltingRenegadeStephenie MeyerTwilight (more Meyer)UgliesVampire (You can chalk this one up to Meyer too)WickedX-MenYogaZane(Amazon has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your Amazon alphabet may vary.)
One way to go green: the San Francisco Public Library is making library cards from corn.The New York Times mines the data from its integrated dictionary feature to find the words its readers most frequently look up: sui generis, solipsistic, louche…Bill Simmons talks basketball with The New Yorker (via)Inspired by the attention surrounding J.D. Salinger’s lawsuit to block an unauthorized sequel to The Catcher in the Rye, Patrick Brown at Vroman’s has put together an impressive, involved post cataloging and discussing literary remixes.It’s not too late to get in on TMN’s “Infinte Summer,” a summer-long group read of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.For those ebook fans who miss that “new book smell.”Speaking of enhancing ebooks, what happens to book signings in the age of the ebook? Sign the Kindle?!Sonya Chung’s thoughtful take on Dan Baum’s Twitter essay about being fired from The New Yorker, including a comment from Baum himself.Mark Sarvas says don’t fear the Kindle at HuffPoCarolyn Kellogg shares some satire for the bookish set.The Millions’ Collaborative Atlas of Book Stores and Literary Places has now been viewed over 500,000 times!From TMN, “A Terrifically Bad Idea: 10 cafes, 10 macchiatos, one morning, by bike.”High concept fun from The Washington Post: “We asked authors which book character they would like to accompany them for a day on the beach.” (thanks Arna)Wikipedia find of the week: List of child prodigies.Further Reading: Jeff Hobbes’ “Open Letter to Kanye West” generated many supportive comments from other proud readers.
Lots of action with the online mags: There’s a new issue of The Hipster Book Club, with a review of Aleksander Hemon’s Love and Other Obstacles, and an interview with Glen David Gold. There’s a new Quarterly Conversation, which includes Scott Esposito’s thoughtful consideration of Cormac McCarthy. Issue 3 of N1BR is out. And the first issue of The Point includes a piece on David Foster Wallace’s legacy.Brooklyn gets a new bookstore: Greenlight!Corpus Librus, the BEA editionIn an interview with Ed Champion, Sherman Alexie clarifies his comments about the Kindle being elitist.Tibor Fischer shares a first look at Thomas Pynchon’s forthcoming Inherent Vice.The seven types of bookstore customers. (via)An incredible collection of pocket paperback colophons.Coming soon from The Onion, Inventory, a collection of “obsessively specific pop-culture lists.”The Ask Metafilter crowd suggests what to read after 2666.For fans of style guides, here’s one from The EconomistFOUND Magazine founder Davy Rothbart is crazy about vintage NBA jerseys. (via)Further Reading: Edan’s post on gifting books in a digital age generated a bunch of interesting comments. Be sure to check them out. On a related note, in PopMatters, Michael Antman bemoans the disappearance of the “physical manifestations of contemporary culture.”
I.The other day, while looking for books to buy my future nephew, I recalled The Real Mother Goose, a classic I had loved as a kid. I could conjure the cover, with its illustration of a witch and a baby, riding a giant, flying bird (a goose, I guess). And the border was checkered – the squares were black and white. I remembered the size of the book in my small hands, and the texture of its cover, and the thickness of the pages inside. It thrilled me to think that my sister’s son might hold this book, and love it, like I had.For a period, novelist Katherine Taylor brought The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier to dinner parties. “Wine is boring,” she told me. “Books last longer.” Later, she took to giving everyone Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, which, she said, “is not as dinner-party appropriate, but it was a gorgeous and largely overlooked book I thought my clever friends should read.” Now Ms. Taylor has moved onto handing out Maurice Sendak’s The Nutshell Library.My husband and I met and became friends in the summer of 2000 as coworkers at Book Soup. At the end of the summer, when I was due to return to Oberlin College in Ohio, he gave me a copy of Goodbye Columbus. On the first page, he had written a note: “Edan – For the summer. Thanks. Patrick.” Of course we got married.I love giving and getting books as gifts, and I’ve been wondering lately how the digital age will alter this ritual. Don’t get me wrong: I am not against the electronic book. As others have pointed out, ebooks will most likely inspire consumers to be more adventurous in their reading tastes. Nothing will go out of print, and the convenience is obvious. (I kind of want to read Infinite Jest on my iPhone – imagine how light it would be. Wait a minute… I don’t have an iPhone!) Once DRM goes away, and it will, the pass-it-on aspect of books will just explode. Book as mp3. Book as gossip. (If only that sexual astrology paperback we passed around in ninth grade had been digital…) In general, the ebook is a good thing for readers and writers. I prefer reading paperback novels, but if someone wants to read the book I’m writing on a fancy device, that sounds okay.So, let me make this clear: I’m not announcing the purity of print books over their digital brethren. I don’t want to wax poetic (not too much, anyway) about the sensual pleasures of print books, how they feel and smell, the weight of them – although that must account for something, because what fun will it be to receive an ebook for your birthday? Will anyone even bother? The emergence of a new technology implies the death of another, and the rise of the ebook could mean that no one will ever again give you a novel for hosting a dinner party. I think I’m in mourning.II.Why do people give books as gifts, anyway? I don’t mean just any book, but a specific book. Why did Patrick give me that copy of Philip Roth’s first novel? What did it imply?Last week, a woman came into the bookstore to get a copy of A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. She said she always gives it as a gift to people she’s getting to know. Those who love the novel as much as she does become her friends for life.I have a friend who likes to give Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being to women he’s interested in romantically. I told him he shouldn’t be dating anyone who hasn’t already read it.For many of us, books are cultural signifiers: if you like this, you will like that, and I will like you. A book serves as an aesthetic litmus test, a conversation starter, a way to understand one another through a third party. The act of giving someone a book is an important performance; it’s not just the book, but the exchange itself, and that’s why a digital copy won’t mean as much. You could email someone a love letter, but if you write it by hand… Well then.So, this: Reading is both a public and private act. It’s private in the sense that no amount of discourse can mirror or capture the intimate experience a reader has with a book and its author. But that discourse is precisely why it’s public – the blog posts, the reviews, the conversations over coffee, all of that affects and informs your reading experience. When you give someone a book you love, you’re inviting them to understand a private encounter you had with a text. It’s the fusing of the public and the private, the social and the intimate.III.I’ve recently realized that I’m also mourning reading in public, because e-readers will change that game as well. If a book is a cultural signifier, then the act of reading a book in public conveys important information to other readers. I always check out what people are reading: in coffee houses, at the beach, in bars, on airplanes. I am taking note, I am building a reader’s identity. It’s like – what kind of jeans is your soul wearing? It saddens me deeply to think about how this kind of signal will be lost with the popularity of ebook devices. What can an anonymous Kindle tell me about your inner life, and about what entertains you?Of course, the privacy of an e-reader is appealing, too. There are times when I want my private experience of reading to be just that – private. With a Kindle, I could read Stephenie Meyer on the bus without embarrassment. When I’m reading David Foster Wallace on my (nonexistent) iPhone, I won’t have to worry about some geeky douchebag hitting on me.Again, I see the value of this new technology. I get it. I just can’t seem to let go of what will be lost…
Bryan Gilmer of Durham, N.C., teaches newswriting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writes for institutional and corporate clients. Until 2003, he was a reporter at Florida’s largest newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times. He has just independently published a crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz.Last week, I created a Kindle version of my indie crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz, using the tools at Amazon’s Digital Text Platform. It took about nine minutes, a “why-not” side project alongside my trade paperback, which I published using Amazon’s print-on-demand company, CreateSpace.My Kindle edition went live last Monday at $7.99, so I announced it on a couple of Kindle message boards online. By Wednesday, I’d sold one copy. One! Message board replies said, “If you want us to try a new author, give us a really low price. It’ll generate sales and reviews.” So I marked it down to $1.99 Thursday morning and posted the price change on the same boards. What happened next was remarkable:As of 5 p.m. Friday – about 36 hours later – Felonious Jazz was the No. 1 selling hard-boiled mystery on the Amazon Kindle Store and the 17th best-selling title in Mysteries & Thrillers – the only title not by huge names like John Sandford, Michael Connelly, and Elmore Leonard in the top 25. Its overall Kindle sales rank was as high as 133rd out of all the 283,000+ fiction and non-fiction titles available in the Kindle Store.I thought, now that I’m in the rankings, I shouldn’t have to be so cheap. I bumped the price to $4.99. Sales continued, but at a slower pace, (and Felonious Jazz has slipped in the rankings. I probably should have stuck with $1.99 longer). I also drew in some people who just buy cheap Kindle offerings who don’t normally read the genre, though they may have been less likely to enjoy it than fans of similar books.But overall, what a no-budget way to gain visibility. A few big lessons here: Readers expect Kindle books to be much cheaper than dead-tree books (because they know it costs less to publish them and they can’t share them and worry they won’t have them forever). A cheap price is enough to buy your way up the rankings among national names with a zero-dollar PR campaign. Now that there’s a free Kindle app for iPhone, the potential audience for a Kindle title is not just the half million people who spent $359 for the device but many times that large. It’s surprisingly comfortable to read book text on the Kindle iPhone app. If you haven’t tried it yet, get the app and grab my free sample from Amazon, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s transformative to have a book you’re reading (or several) on your phone to pull out whenever you have to wait in line or for an appointment.More worrying for conventional publishers is that Kindle board posters don’t think big publishers are pricing their titles cheaply enough, and when prices get above $9.99 they get angry about it. I’m not sure whether the high prices are due to higher costs, more parties to share the revenue with, or the fear of cannibalization of paper-copy sales. (But the advantages! Near-zero production costs. No warehousing. No shipping. No returns. New edition at any moment. Never out of print. And the Kindle makes people read and buy more titles.) Could big publishers go from being at a tremendous advantage to competing for top-25 sales rankings – if not profits – with a guy in his home office? Will a Netflix-like company launch without the expensive legacy infrastructure of the big New York houses and take advantage of elasticity of demand at much lower price points? As I type this I realize – maybe that’s Amazon.A bad side effect is that without barriers to entry, a lot of non-professional-quality content creates clutter. But to some degree, crowd sorting (via online reviews and such) can cope with that.
Readers may discern a disconnect between the prevailing economic mood and the relentless innovation of online superstore Amazon. Even as whole segments of the economy crumble, Amazon is spearheading a whole new consumer electronics category with the Kindle, and as if that wasn’t audacious enough following it by releasing a bigger, more expensive version.Now Amazon is embarking on another bold effort. It’s entering the publishing business with a program called AmazonEncore, a program that leverages all of the myriad data Amazon can collect to find overlooked books with potential mass appeal, which it will then rerelease under the AmazonEncore imprint. The first AmazonEncore title, to be released in late August, is Legacy, a fantasy novel originally self published by 16-year-old writer Cayla Kluver. AmazonEncore is an intriguing idea that will no doubt send self-published authors’ hearts racing. It’s also worth noting that these books won’t be Amazon exclusives. Amazon is going head to head with traditional publishers with plans to make AmazonEncore books available in “national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers.”While it seems like Amazon is getting may from its core competencies with forays into consumer electronics and publishing, the online retail giant isn’t insane. Amazon is actually designed to do well in recessions, and with traditional book retailers and publishers facing challenges, Amazon is seizing the opportunity to grow its market share and enter new markets and businesses. BusinessWeek recently pointed out this dynamic: “Amazon continues to benefit disproportionately from the general shift to online commerce and the careful shopping behavior that consumers are exhibiting during the downturn. The breadth of the products it offers through independent merchants and its own expansion into new categories, along with low-priced shipping in the U.S. and abroad, continues to woo shoppers.”Amazon’s willingness to innovate and invest in book-focused initiatives during this downturn will leave it with a very big footprint in the industry when the economy begins to recover.
Our ambivalence about the Kindle has been on full display of late. Still, when Amazon recently opened up its Kindle blog subscription program to all blogs it seemed worth trying, if only to satiate our curiosity about what it entails.With The Millions freely available for all readers, its hard to imagine why someone might be compelled to pay $1.99 to subscribe just to be able to read it on the Kindle, but now you have the option. (We only get 30%, which, as TechCrunch points out, is rather paltry.) If anyone tries subscribing, let us know. We’d be interested to hear how the experience is.Update: TechCrunch discovers a huge, embarrassing flaw in Amazon’s Kindle Publishing for Blogs Beta, that allows you to steal other people’s blogs and charge readers for them. Wow, that’s bad.
This week at The Millions, we’re attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the transformation of book coverage in the digital age. On Wednesday, Garth looked at the death of the newspaper book review section. Yesterday, Max considered the revenue problems facing literary websites… and the vices and virtues of one of the solutions. And in today’s final installment, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book reader.
Yesterday, we looked at some of the revenue sources available for literary sites and why Amazon’s affiliate program, despite its flaws, is often a better option than standard advertising and affiliate programs run by other booksellers. But Amazon links – and the implied endorsement that comes with them – present new problems, making Amazon ever bigger and more central to a book industry that for readers and writers may be better off fragmented. What’s now known as #Amazonfail offers a perfect example of what readers and writers have to lose from an Amazon-dominated book industry. Patrick recently outlined on his Vroman’s Blog why the threat that Amazon poses is one of control and not censorship per se. Ultimately, the Amazon experiment may prove unsustainable, and the viability of online book coverage may come to rest on a more robust and more serious advertising model than is currently available.
In the world of books, Amazon has a massive footprint. Even as other book retailers – chain and indie – have struggled to stay afloat, Amazon has used its heft in other product categories to treat books as a loss leader and consolidate its hold on that market. A pair of surveys in 2008 put online book sales at between 21%-30% of total U.S. book sales, with the assumption being that the lion’s share of those online sales belonged to Amazon. In a market as fragmented as books, that’s a big number. And as Patrick points out, monoculture (or as we used to call it in econ class, monopoly) can cause problems for those stakeholders we discussed yesterday. The NYTBR’s stakeholders can publicize, read about, and review books elsewhere, but amid tough times for bookstore chains and many indies, Amazon may be the only viable option for many readers. For authors, readers, and publishers of the books impacted by the recent “glitch,” the potential dangers of Amazon’s outsized position became glaringly obvious. Regardless of whether the “glitch” was intentional, the result of a poorly constructed classification system, or just plain bad luck, it is the sort of thing that can all too easily waylay stakeholders in a market controlled by a single giant.
From the standpoint of readers and those concerned with freedom of expression, last week’s “glitch” was alarming, but from the standpoint of someone tracking the role played by Amazon’s Associates Program in the business model of book- and culture-focused sites, another effect of Amazon’s large footprint has become a source of even more consternation.
We’ve written at length about the Kindle here at The Millions over the last two years. To the extent that there is a debate about the experience the device offers, we haven’t taken sides, but as we have observed how Amazon has treated the device within the Associates program, we have come to understand the huge land-grab the Kindle represents.
In short, by making it possible for Kindle users to buy Kindle ebooks via the device itself, Amazon has cut middlemen out of the picture. The Associate’s commission depends on a click in a browser. For ebooks bought via Kindle, there is no click. And, just to be certain that intermediaries are cut out of the Kindle food chain, Amazon recently made another, symptomatic adjustment to its Associates Program. In February, the same month that Amazon launched the Kindle 2, Amazon quietly stopped paying Associates commissions on Kindle ebooks bought via the web. (Unsurprisingly, Amazon still pays a healthy bounty on Kindles sold. The calculus is clear. Sell more Kindles and sell more books via a vertically integrated system that only Amazon controls.) Like Apple’s iTunes ecosystem in the era of digital rights management, Amazon’s Kindle represents a bid to control distribution of a new and closed digital format that is only compatible with Amazon-approved devices. If, as has largely been the case with music, books are increasingly distributed digitally, Amazon’s position in that market could become huge. [Update: Subsequent to the publication of this piece, Amazon resumed paying commissions on Kindle books bought through the website, though commissions are not earned on ebooks bought through the Kindle device.]
The company’s early move to lock Associates out of commissions on ebooks is just a taste of what Amazon could do with a dominant position in the emerging ebook market. (Consider, for example, the recent news that a banned Amazon account also disables the Kindle. And separately, after cornering the market on ebooks, Amazon can set the prices it wants to charge for them.) For book sites pursuing affiliation as a revenue option, it also offers a scary prospect: that the revenue earned from Amazon’s program will slowly dwindle in inverse proportion to the popularity of Kindle ebooks.
Some will argue that the Kindle ebook market is currently too small to matter, but the Kindle may be rapidly gaining steam. We recently observed the massive ramp up in Kindle ebooks bought by readers of The Millions since the launch of the Kindle 2. And TechCrunch recently reported that Amazon may have sold 300,000 Kindle 2s in a little over two months since the Kindle 2 was unveiled – a stunning rate in comparison to the 400,000 Kindles sold during the 15-month lifespan of the first generation device.
As all of this has come into focus for us, it’s become easier to envision a time when it would no longer make sense for The Millions to link to Amazon. If it comes to pass that people who shop at Amazon for books tend to prefer Kindle ebooks, it would be pretty silly for us to keep linking to the Amazon pages for the physical copies of books. And why link to the Kindle ebook page when we could link to a commission-generating page at Powell’s or IndieBound? Even considering the point we made yesterday about big-ticket items, we are a site that covers books and appeals to avid readers, and most of the commissions The Millions earns via the Amazon program are earned on books. There are many other literary and culture-oriented sites that fit this same profile and link to Amazon. If Amazon’s evolution closes the door on these sites, it will make it all the more difficult for these sites to become economically viable and it will be a blow to literary and culture discussion on the web. On the other hand, it will be an opportunity for indies to compete with Amazon.
One of the key points tucked away in yesterday’s installment was that, even as the business model of book coverage in print fails and online coverage rushes to fill the void, there’s nothing keeping online coverage from the fate that has beset print coverage.
In light of everything that’s going on with the Kindle, a decentralized alternative to Amazon’s Associates program, like the one that IndieBound has been ramping up, becomes more intriguing, but such alternatives have a long way to go before they can offer a value proposition that can compete with the incumbent.
A better, far more realistic, and completely obvious solution for supporting book coverage online is advertising – whose current inefficacy, you may remember, was what made Amazon attractive in the first place. In theory, two factors recommend online advertising to potential advertisers and marketers. The infrastructure is already there – building an affiliate program from scratch is no easy task nor is it a sensible option for many advertisers – and it’s much cheaper than trying to reach a similar audience via print advertising.
If the email inboxes of Millions contributors are any indication, there is currently plenty of interest in reaching a readership like that of The Millions, but not much interest in paying for it. There are always going to be books that don’t jibe with our editorial focus, but we have no such restrictions on advertisements. (This isn’t to say that any serious book journalist doesn’t welcome a well-targeted email.)
In his part one of this series, Garth noted how the conglomerated publishing industry has shelled out less and less money for the advertisements that support The New York Times Book Review and other, now defunct, book review sections. Perhaps part of that same cash-saving strategy has been to make scattershot pitches to bloggers in order generate some free publicity. But as Garth also discussed, the quality and readership of book coverage offered by the top bloggers and a number of impressive new online magazines is only increasing. Meanwhile, no longer the new kids on the block, as these sites professionalize further and their own editorial voices mature, they rely less on these pitches to shape coverage. The publishing industry can either try to reach the readers of these sites through advertising, or it can allocate money and time trying to cajole coverage out of increasingly inundated writers and editors. (Our own biggest advertiser, via the blogads at right, is Xlibris, the self-publishing outfit.) By getting serious about supporting book coverage online as it once did in print, publishers can hope to enjoy the same symbiotic relationship that Amazon now has with thousands of small sites.
However, we shouldn’t expect an increasingly struggling publishing industry to shoulder the load. When I worked with Bud Parr on the short-lived literary blog ad network Brainiads, the holy grail was securing advertisers from outside the publishing industry. Brainiads wasn’t able to meet this goal. So far, this development hasn’t materialized elsewhere and, in all likelihood, will be delayed by the current economic downturn. This isn’t to say it can’t happen, however. The audience for online book coverage is actually quite attractive for many advertisers, generally well educated and well off, and in the most likely scenario, some enterprise will make good on what Brainiads hoped to do (it occurs to me that the NYT would be an intriguing candidate), and, with a dedicated sales force, will reach out to companies to offer ads on a basket of book- and culture-focused sites with an attractive readership.
Until that day, book coverage online will remain rather precarious, for better as well as for worse. For smaller blogs, it is often largely a labor of love. For mid-sized, independent sites, the business model rests on flawed options like Amazon’s program and piecemeal revenue via existing ad networks. At the largest sites, including the online arms of venerable institutions like the NYTBR, book coverage depends on the dwindling profitability of news corporations as a whole.
Even 15 years in, the web is still the wild west. There aren’t a lot of rules, and literary sites have adapted and experimented in order to find a model that works. Now, even as much of the literary ecosystem endures a period of severe distress, one of the sustaining revenue sources, Amazon, is big enough to make a huge play, opening a whole new market, but raising plenty of red flags along the way. In many ways, this is representative of the historically uneasy relationship between commerce and culture. The hope is that book coverage, struggling mightily in print, can enact a land grab of its own online and find a niche that may ultimately prove secure.
Amazon has been notoriously vague about sales of Kindle ebooks and of the Kindles themselves, but looking at the Amazon stats at The Millions, we can see that Kindle ebook sales have jumped by an order of magnitude since the launch of the new version.When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the second iteration of the Kindle in February, he confused lots of folks when he said “More than 10% of the units we sell are Kindle book sales.” It was later clarified that he meant that, when looking at the 230,000 titles available for the Kindle, Kindle ebook sales account for 10% of the sales of those titles. Meanwhile, analysts have been trying all along to wrap their heads around what the Kindle means for the still nascent ebook market. To give an example, one analyst last year suggested that Kindle ebook sales could hit $2.5 billion by 2012.Nonetheless, in the wake of all the hoopla surrounding the Kindle launch in February, it was hard to get a clear picture of whether we were seeing a lot of media hype from gadget-obsessed tech writers or a real watershed moment in how people will read. If our numbers (which are, admittedly, a very small sample size) are any indication, the launch of the Kindle in 2007 raised awareness of ebooks, but the launch of the Kindle 2, this past February, brought ebooks to the mass market.In early 2008, with the first Kindle a few months old, we had anecdotal evidence from an ebook publisher saying that the Kindle wasn’t posting impressive sales. More recently, as the Kindle 2 hype was ramping up, a pair of established book bloggers noted that their Amazon stats didn’t show much interest at all in Kindle ebook sales. Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review wrote “only one out every 726 items purchased at Amazon after reaching it from our site in 2008 was a Kindle download.” Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading had similar findings: “While a few readers have purchased Kindle ebooks through my links, the vast majority have been sticking to the print editions.”For The Millions, Kindle ebook sales through late February of this year were similarly underwhelming. To use Orthofer’s metric, Kindle ebooks sales from November 19, 2007, to February 21, 2009, the day before the Kindle 2 started shipping, amounted to one out every 99 items purchased at Amazon after reaching it from The Millions. So, a good deal better than what Orthofer was seeing but still not exactly an impressive number. (Incidentally, pre-Kindle ebook sales – presumably ebooks meant for devices that predate the Kindle – amounted to one out of every 272 from the start of The Millions to November 18, 2007)But what’s interesting is what’s happened since the Kindle 2 started shipping on February 22. From that point until today, even though we still only link to the physical editions of books, Kindle ebooks have accounted for an incredible one out of every six items purchased at Amazon after reaching it from The Millions. Again, I have to stress that the sample size isn’t huge and that this is just one data point, but it certainly seems that with version 2, the Kindle has gone from a novelty to something much closer to the mainstream.
As we have every quarter for the last several, we’re looking at Barnes & Noble’s recent quarterly report to gauge the trends that are impacting the book industry – which books were big over the last few months and what’s expected for the months ahead.For the 4th quarter ended January 31st, it wasn’t pretty. Sales fell by -7.3% compared to the quarter a year ago. Barnes & Noble said that a drop in store traffic, not average ticket (the average amount spent by each shopper), was primarily responsible for the decline.What follows are insights gleaned from Barnes and Noble CEO Steve Riggio’s comments on the conference call discussing Q4 results. (Transcript provided by Seeking Alpha.)The original impetus for this regular feature was my noticing that Riggio liked, when laying out B&N’s results to Wall Street analysts, to share some details on which books had been flying off the shelves and which books he expected to be big sellers in the coming months. Direct from the mouth of the guy running the biggest brick and mortar bookstore chain in the world, it was some insider insight into what stories would soon be buzzing around the industry. However, over the last few quarters, Riggio has essentially stopped talking about books during these quarterly calls. It’s quite possible that he’s just trying to speed things along, but I can’t help but wonder if the enthusiastic talk of individual titles falls by the wayside as the retail environment gets more and more dire.Riggio called 2008 “by far the most challenging retail environment we’ve ever experienced.”It sounds like B&N is feeling the digital itch as Amazon gets aggrssive with the Kindle: “We also plan to return to the business of offering customers digital content inclusive of eBooks, newspapers and magazines. We have a large number of assets in place to enable us to sell digital content, our ecommerce platform is solid and scalable.” Riggio didn’t give further specifics but said, “we do have a wide range of initiatives in development.”
Book lists galore: The Believer announces its annual book award winner, along with the always eclectic reader survey results; Forty of Nick Hornby’s favorite books – he thinks you’ll like at least a few; You may not be able to register for Zadie Smith’s fiction seminar, but you can read the same books.Rushdie considers the art of the adaptation.And so it came to pass: the “pay what you want” eBook.A comic-book map of New York.Emily Bobrow digs Leanne Shapton’s brains……where certain other reviewers the VQR could name might get hung up on her jacket photo.Whose tweets are these? I think I know.Tom McCarthy and the lovable lads of the International Necronautical Society are at it again.The Reagan diaries offer “scrupulous, concise, often remarkably good reading,” says Open Letters Monthly.Anne Trubek at Good Magazine (and Oberlin College professor!) on “What is a Book?“Paul Maliszewski at Bookslut on “What is a Fake?“New features for the Kindle.We’re digging the cover for Colson Whitehead’s forthcoming novel, Sag Harbor.Wikipedia find of the week: Fakelore: “Fakelore is inauthentic, manufactured folklore presented as if it were genuinely traditional.”Murakami’s uneasy relationship with Japan: “He has been seen, and to some degree positioned himself, as a literary pariah in Japan, in part because of its tepid-to-negative critical reception of his work.”Further reading: Check out the interesting Kindle pro and con in the comments of Max’s Kindle/iPhone post this week; And check out the interesting discussion of the New Yorker’s commitment (or lack thereof) to international literature in the comments of Garth’s DFW post.And finally, a concrete step toward breaking our addiction to foreign oil.
When Amazon unveiled its new Kindle recently, I wrote about the twin paths that ebooks seemed to be taking as they gained market acceptance. On Amazon’s path, they would be tethered to the Kindle, while on the Google path, ebooks would be read on iphones and any other similar devices, whether on applications devised by Google or by independent ebook application developers.With the announcement this week, however, that Amazon has created its own Kindle application for the iPhone, the online book giant is clearly hedging its bets, while offering the free iPhone app as a taste of what Amazon can offer in the hopes that readers will graduate to a Kindle.
Rumors of John Cheever’s death? Greatly exaggerated.HarperCollins sets out to test the proposition that there really is no such thing as bad publicity.BHL rips Valkyrie and Tom Cruise.Maud lauds Marlon James, author of The Book of Night Women.The New York Public Library names Millions guest contributor Sana Krasikov a finalist for its Young Lions award. Congratulations, Sana!More Intelligent Life interviews Jon Fasman, another Young Lion in waiting and author of The Unpossessed CityAlso at MiL: Lorin Stein wants a stimulus plan for book critics. (Hear! Hear!)Millions-fave Paul Theroux interviewed by the Boston Globe: “People say to me: How can I become a writer? I always say: one, leave home; two, tell the truth.”xkcd takes on the Kindle.”Jack Kerouac’s ‘lost’ novel The Sea is My Brother, which he wrote during his years as a merchant seaman, is to be published in its entirety for the first time.”Soon there will be a literary prize for everyone: “The St. Francis College Literary Prize is designed for a fourth published book of fiction.” ($50,000!)The strangest title shortlistVia Gwenda, the Wikipedia find of the week: “A book curse was the most widely-employed and effective method of discouraging the thievery of manuscripts during the medieval period.”The best reasoning yet for why the Kindle/”Text-to-Speech” uproar is dumb. Meanwhile, Amazon backs down.”I”, “we”, “two” and “three” the oldest English words.A resourceful group of Chinese enthusiasts creates bootleg translations of every issue of The Economist.Shark-jumping: “HarperCollins Pays Big Advance For A Book Of… Tweets“Stuff White Readers Should Like
Amazon sucked the all the air out of the literary room this week with its announcement of the new iteration of its Kindle reading device. That the announcement was coming had been no big secret to anyone paying attention and pictures of the device had been floating around online for at least five months, but nobody seemed to mind. The Kindle is just about the only game in town when it comes to sexy new gadgets for the book club set.With Kindles hitting doorsteps in less than two weeks’ time, however, and hands on reviews generally positive, if not glowing, it may be time once again to assess the ebook landscape.Interestingly, while a watershed event in the evolutions of ebooks has likely occurred this month, the Kindle 2 unveiling is only one of the nominees for that honor. Also in the running is Google’s “1.5 Million Books in Your Pocket” announcement last week. For those who missed it, Google has engineered a mobile version of Google Books, for use on iPhones and phones running Google’s own mobile operating system. Right now it lets people access the public domain books that Google has scanned and automatically converts the scanned pages into standardized fonts for ease of reading on mobile devices.Looking at the Amazon option and the Google option, you can begin to see two separate, though not necessarily mutually exclusive paths that ebook evolution will follow. The Kindle path is one of verisimilitude with the printed page, a uni-tasker that wants to provide an experience as close to that of being a book as possible while using technology to improve upon the book by, for example, being lighter and letting you carry multiple titles in one small package. Somewhat surprisingly, the early reviews of the Kindle from the gadget-hounds at venues like Gizmodo eschew their usual demands for “smaller” and “slicker” in wishing that the Kindle were more book-like not less, asking for things like a bigger screen and a sturdier rubber backing rather than “slick aluminum and plastic.” Moreover:Before they address the needs of some hypothetical super weakling who has the aesthetic sense of [Apple designer] Jon Ive, the cerebral voracity of Rain Man and the vision of Mr. Magoo, Amazon must address the needs of very real readers who read only a few books and magazines at a time, who like to download classic non-copyrighted lit and work-related documents for free, and who like to leaf through pages randomly. This last thing is important, though it may be insurmountable: Airport-friendly page turners don’t really require non-linear random-access reading, but everything smart from Harry Potter to Infinite Jest does, and that’s one concern that the Kindle, or any ebook reader, still does not address well.If the Kindle will evolve to become more and more book-like, Google’s path is much simpler. As our handheld gadgets have added ever more features – cameras, email, music and video playing capabilities – they have become ravenous multi-taskers, seeking out new functions to devour and turn into must-have features. If we are to be a society that reads its books on little electronic devices, one can sensibly argue, then this device will also be my cell phone, camera, mp3 player, and everything else. After all, we only have so many pockets. The Kindle may become the preferred device of the discerning and prolific reader, but the iPhone, or something like it, will do just fine for everyone else.Even as ebook evolution follows both paths, the expanding capabilities of the devices will open up huge opportunities for newspapers and magazines to blend print and electronic publishing, and who knows what new media business models may blossom out of this new hybrid medium.The final, and maybe most important piece, of the dual path ebook story, is the content. As has been the case with all “format wars” – VHS vs. Beta, HD DVD vs. Blu ray – the format that is able to attract the content is the format that wins. But in this case, the two formats may be able to exist and mature side by side because both have incredible access to the content for their devices. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says that the vision for Kindle is “Every book ever printed in any language, available in under 60 seconds.” The Google Book search vision is “We see a world where all books are online and searchable.” Both companies have the technical muscle and have built the relationships (and, in Google’s case, the legal foundation) with publishers to make good on these claims. With no clear edge in content for either format, both formats have the capacity to survive and thrive.This, of course, leaves out a third format – the physical book. As long as there is demand for books, they will survive as well. And with publishers and copyright holders maintaining a firm grip on their digital rights (and digital book piracy nonexistent) the new ebook formats represent new revenue streams for publishers that should exist comfortably alongside the old dead-tree model.
The book world’s big news today was Amazon’s unveiling of the latest iteration of its eBook reading device, the Kindle 2. You’ll see that the device itself is now remarkably thin (even to those of us who now take tininess in devices for granted). As the promo copy says, “just over 1/3 of an inch, as thin as most magazines.” There are also a number of other incremental advances to the hardware and interface, though nothing earth-shattering. The real news, to this observer, is that the Kindle remains a key element in the slow and fragmented (when compared to other media) but inexorable shift in how people read. I’ll have more on this topic in a few days. In the meantime, Kindle fans (I know there are quite a few of you) commence rejoicing, and Kindle curmudgeons commence grumbling.The new Kindle starts shipping in two weeks. Kindle 1 owners who order by midnight get to jump to the front of the line.Bonus Link: Kindle: Amazon’s New Firestarter