Lists, Notable Articles, The Future of the Book

Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List

In a previous essay, I interviewed four self-published authors I admire, and I examined some of the benefits of that career path. Midway through writing the piece, I realized I'd have to continue the discussion in a second essay in order to fully explore my feelings (complicated) on the topic (multifaceted). You see, Reader, I still don't plan on self-publishing my first novel, though I don't deny the positive aspects of that choice. Below I've outlined a few reasons behind my decision, informed by our contemporary moment. I can't predict the future, though I'm sure I'll remain comfortable with my opinions for at least another thirteen months. It's in a list format, the pet genre of the blogosphere. How else was I to keep my head from imploding? 1. I Guess I'm Not a Hater People love to talk about how traditional publishing is dying, but is that actually true? According to The New York Times, the industry has seen a 5.8% increase in net revenue since 2008. E-books are "another bright spot" in the industry, and the revenue of adult fiction grew by 8.8% in three years. (Take that, Twilight!) Of course, the industry has troubles. The slim profit margins of books; the problems of bookstore returns; the quandary of Borders closing and Amazon forever selling books as a loss-leader; how to make people actually pay for content, and so on. Furthermore, the gamble of the large advance strikes me as ridiculous -- and reckless, considering that editors and marketing teams have no real clue which books will be hits and which ones won't. (Still, what writer is going to kick half-a-million out of bed?) And there's the always-chilling question: With mounting pressure to turn a profit, how do editors justify publishing an amazing book that might not speak to a large audience? Talented authors -- new and mid-list -- are bound to get lost in this system. And yet. And yet. I read good books by large publishing houses all the time, books that take my breath away, make me laugh and cry and wonder at the brilliance of humanity. I trust publishers. They don't always get it right, but more often than not, they do. As I said in the piece that started me off on this whole investigation: "I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to." 2. I Write Literary Fiction Before you get your talons out, let me clarify: I don't consider literary fiction superior to other kinds of fiction, just different; to me, it's simply another genre, subject-wise and/or marketing-wise. Many of the writers who have found success in self-publishing are writers of straightforward genre fiction. Amanda Hocking writes young adult fantasy, dwarfs and all. Valerie Forster, who published traditionally before setting out on her own, writes legal thrillers. Romance, too, often does just fine without a publisher. Aside from Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann, I can't think of another literary novel that enjoyed critical praise and healthy sales when self-published. That's not to say that it can't -- and shouldn't -- happen, it's only to point out that it's a tougher road for writers of certain sorts of stories. Readers like me aren't seeking out self-published books. Why not? That's for another essay. (Please, can someone else write that one?) Until the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides and Alice Munro begin publishing their work via CreateSpace, I don't see the landscape for literary fiction changing anytime soon. 3. I'd Prefer a Small Press to a Vanity Press The conversation about self-publishing too often ignores the role of independent publishing houses in this shifting reading landscape. Whether it be larger independents like Algonquin and Graywolf, or small gems like Featherproof and Two Dollar Radio, or university presses like Lookout Books, the imprint at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, which recently published Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision (nominated for this year's National Book Award), independent presses offer diversity to readers, and provide yet another professional option for authors. These presses are run and curated by well-read, talented people, and they provide readers with the same services that a large press provides: namely, a vote of confidence in a writer the public might have never heard of. Smaller presses, too, enjoy a specificity of brand and identity that too often eludes a larger house. In this terrific interview, publisher Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books puts it this way: I believe that the iron grip that large publishers and their marketing partners have had on readers' attention since the 1990s has slipped quite a bit with the arrival of online retailers and opinion-makers. Obviously patrons of online booksellers can see the breadth of reading options - "Others who bought this item also bought...." Patrons of independent bookstores know of those options, too, and depend on the recommendations of their booksellers. The few "designated" titles from the big house are still dominant, of course, even in independent stores. But if you are an author in one of those corporations whose book has not been "designated" your reality can become pretty stark. Independent presses can offer a real chance to a talented writer who might not fit the formulas of the big house. Yes, I know that each conglomerate has a few imprints and a good many editors dedicated to the best of books -- to maintaining the course of American letters. Those are the prestigious imprints that aren't always required to pretend the sales of a prior book predict the performance of the next book. (I'm often astounded at how willing the industry is to act as though it believes that. We all know it isn't true.) But independent presses are all dedicated to finding and presenting the best of books, dedicated to the books in and of themselves and to the promise of the authors. A year ago, I published my novella If You're Not Yet Like Me with a tiny press called Flatmancrooked, and I consider it the highlight of my career so far. Not only did I get to work with a sharp and talented editor, Deena Drewis, and have my book designed by the press's risk-taking founder Elijah Jenkins, I also had so much fun participating in the press's LAUNCH program, where the limited first-edition went on pre-order for just a week. My book sold out in three days, and getting that first paycheck was exhilarating. My tiny book got me on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a few awesome readings, and it even found its way to two different editors at larger houses. It became my literary calling card. When readers received my book in the mail, it was signed and numbered by me. It also came with a condom. Flatmancrooked, sadly, closed its doors earlier this year, but Drewis has continued the LAUNCH program with her new press, Nouvella. The success of Flatmancrooked showed me that small can mean flexible and daring in its editorial and marketing choices. Small presses try things that large, established houses are too huge, and possibly too chickenshit, to even consider. The fact that Flatmancrooked is now defunct showed me that a labor of love is still a labor (especially when its laborers have other full-time jobs to go to), and that instability is unavoidable in the small press (or the small, small, small press) game. Some writers are forever wed to the small press landscape. Others, like Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Benjamin Percy, and Emma Straub first published with smaller outfits and have since moved onto larger houses. Perhaps the small press world is becoming the real proving ground for literary writers. 4. Self-Publishing is Better for the Already-Published Perhaps the smarter, and far more seductive, path is the one where the writer begins his career with a traditional publisher, and then, once he's built a base of loyal readers, sets off on his own. The man who loves to talk smack about the publishing industry, J.A. Konrath, already had an audience from his traditionally-published books by the time he decided to take matters into his own hands. It's much harder to create a readership out of nothing. I'm interested to see how Neal Pollack's latest novel, Jewball, does as a self-published book. Short story writer Tod Goldberg is also trying this approach with his new mini-collection, Where You Lived, self-published as an e-book. I don't need an intermediary to tell me about these writers because their previously published books speak for them. 5. I Value the Publishing Community I decided to ask the most famous writer I know, Peter Straub, if he's ever considered leaving the world of big publishing and putting out a book all by his lonesome. After all, he's a bestselling author and editor of more than 25 books (18 novels alone!), and he's a horror writer beloved by genre geeks and snobby literary types alike. A few of his fans probably sport tattoos of his bespectacled face on their pecs. (Or: Peter Straub tramp stamps! Yes!) In an email response, Straub acknowledged how quickly the publishing world and our reading habits are changing, and he said he just might experiment with self-publishing short fiction in the coming years. He told me: True self-publication means writers upload content themselves, and plenty already do it. I'm not quite sure how you then publicize the work in question, or get it reviewed, but that I am unsure about these elements is part of the reason I seek always, at least for the present, to have my work published in book form by an old-style trade publisher. The trade publisher, which has contracted for the right to do so, then brings the book out in e-form and as an audiobook, so I am not ignoring that audience. What he went on to say gave me a special kind of hope: Most of the editors I have worked with over the past thirty-five years have made crucial contributions to the books entrusted to them, and the copy-editors have always, in every case, done exactly the same. They have enriched the books that came into their hands. Can you have good, thoughtful, creative editing and precise, accurate, immaculate copy-editing if you self-publish? And if you can't, what is being said about the status or role of selflessness before the final form of the fiction as accepted by the audience, I mean the willingness of the author to submerge his ego to produce the novel that is truest to itself? This -- this! -- I get. Even though my first novel was rejected by traditional publishers, one assistant editor's notes on it -- notes that were thorough, thoughtful, challenging, and compassionate -- were enough to show me that these professionals are valuable to the process of book-making. I know you can hire experienced editors and copy-editors, but how is that role affected when the person paying is the writer himself? What if the hired editor told you not to publish? Would that even happen? 6. The E-Reading Conundrum; or, I don't want to be Amazon's Bitch Many self-published authors have gone totally electronic, eschewing print versions of their work altogether. I can't see myself taking that route, however, because I don't own an e-reader, and I don't have plans to buy one (not yet, anyway... I read a lot in the bath, etc., etc.). It seems odd that I wouldn't be able to buy my own book -- I mean, shouldn't I be my own ideal reader? I also prefer to shop at independent bookstores, and in fact, I pay full price for my books all the time. The thought of Amazon being the only place to purchase my novel shivers my timbers. I don't mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don't mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I'm simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape. Self-publishing has certainly offered an alternative path for writers, but it's naive to believe that a self-published author is "fighting the system" if that self-published book is produced and made available by a single monolithic corporation. In effect, they've rejected "The Big 6" for "The Big 1." 7. Is it Best for Readers? In September, when my brother-in-law learned that my book still hadn't sold, he said, "Please don't self-publish!" He was actually wincing. If I did self-publish, he said, he'd buy it because we were family, but otherwise, he'd happily ignore my novel in search of something he'd read about on The Millions, or heard about on NPR, or had a friend recommend. There are simply too many books out there as it is. Our conversation reminded me of Laura Miller's humorous and perspicacious essay, "When Anyone Can be a Published Author," in which she reminds us that the people who celebrate self-publishing often overlook what it means for book buyers and readers. She writes: Readers themselves rarely complain that there isn’t enough of a selection on Amazon or in their local superstore; they’re more likely to ask for help in narrowing down their choices. So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile? As a member of the reading public, I am not prepared, or willing, to wade through all that unfiltered literature. As a writer, I must put my head back to the grindstone and write a book that more than a handful of readers can fall in love with. 8. I'm Busy. Writing. Today I wrote two pages of my new novel while my mother took my five-month-old son to the mall. I get twelve hours of childcare a week, and six of those are dedicated to preparing for my classes and running a private writing school. The other six hours I devote to my new novel. The old one, the one that traditional editors didn't go nuts for, is in the drawer. Some might say I've given up; I say, I'm just getting warmed up. I'm still writing, aren't I? My career isn't one book, but many. And like every other writer out there, I decide what road I want to travel.   Image credit: purplesmog/Flickr
The Future of the Book

Do it Yourself: Self-Published Authors Take Matters Into Their Own Hands

1. More than a few times, my father has waxed lyrical about my future appearance on David Letterman. "You'll tell him how your dear dad is your greatest influence." In this fantasy, I'm not an movie star, or even someone with a talented pet. I'm a novelist. "Dad," I say, "why would Letterman have me -- a writer -- on his show?" My father doesn't have an answer. He just shrugs, as if to say, Why not? My father also believes Oprah would take his call. And that he can hand-sell a thousand copies of my (as yet unpublished) novel to people who owe him favors. "Make it ten thousand," he says. "Show those numbers to your agent." Sure, Dad. Okay. But wait. If my father can make good on his promise, and actually sell a decent number of copies of my book -- over the phone, from the trunk of his car -- then why not do what so many other writers have done recently, and self-publish? In August, droves of self-published authors commented on my essay, "Shutting the Drawer: What Happens When a Book Doesn't Sell?" about the death of my first book. There was that clichéd rallying cry: "Traditional publishing is on its last legs," as well as cheerful exhortations for me to take matters into my own hands. E-publishing and print-on-demand, commenters assured me, has made D.I.Y. publishing affordable and easy. After receiving all this feedback, I decided to talk with a few self-published authors to find out why they went that route, and what its benefits and drawbacks have been. I first corresponded with two of my high school English teachers who have used CreateSpace, Amazon's self-publishing wing. Daniel D. Victor self-published his novel A Study in Synchronicity after he'd queried agents for some time without success. Victor has already published one novel; in 1992, St. Martin's put out The Seventh Bullet, which was recently re-released in England by Titan Books. Both of Victor's novels are inspired by the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the former is a "Sherlock Holmes pastiche" while the new one intertwines a Victorian-era whodunit with a modern-day mystery -- it's a clever tale of fiction-coming-to-life. Victor told me he's been very happy with CreateSpace, both in the process and the results. "People have told me how great my book looks, how professional. And the procedures, once I got the hang of them, were straightforward." When I asked him about readers' response, he said, "People have been very receptive and complimentary. Of course, most all of the books have been bought by people I know. What else would I expect them to say?" Victor's colleague and friend, Barry Smolin, has self-published two manuscripts: Wake Up in the Dream House, an image-driven book of prose, and Always Be Madly in Love, a poetry collection. Aside from teaching high school, Smolin hosts a radio show on KPFK and makes music under the moniker Mr. Smolin. After self-producing albums for so long, self-publishing made sense. He didn't even attempt the traditional route. Like Victor, he found CreateSpace user-friendly. (Or, in Smolin-parlance: "I ended up digging it.") When I asked how readers had responded, he said he hasn't received any feedback. "But, then again," he added, "I didn't publish them for feedback." Smolin later sent me a second email, in which he described his life as an artist: I... have spent the last 35 years making art (music, poetry, fiction) that absolutely nobody cares about. For whatever reason, it just doesn't resonate with folks. It saddened me more when I was younger; now I just accept it. That reality has had no effect on my creative output whatsoever. I can't stop doing it. It's just a burning need in me. It's who I am. I am an artist even if nobody else on earth thinks so. I'd be miserable if I was not sitting down each night to write or make music. So, I've learned to create without the need for any kind of audience. It has just been a survival mechanism I guess. I can't NOT write, I can't NOT compose and record music, but I also can't just create all this stuff 24/7 and stick it in a drawer... I like knowing it's "out there" whatever that means, that it's in the cosmos and available to be received if any are interested. It's an intriguing contradiction: the desire to publish a book without an expectation for readers. Neither Victor nor Smolin seemed to anticipate an audience when they decided to self-publish -- at least not a large one. Unlike many other self-published authors, they haven't been tirelessly (some might even say obnoxiously) promoting their work. And yet, both Victor and Smolin maintain a hope for readership. In this regard, self-publishing provides the manuscript with a liminal existence -- it's technically available to the world, even if hardly anyone in the world is aware of it. There is potential, and that's what matters. Neither of my former-teachers approached the topic of self-publishing from the perspective of platform-building or money-earning, as I've seen other self-published writers do. They were both quite noble about the process, actually, and their quiet belief in their own work made me want to read their books. I realized, talking to them, that self-publishing provided a conclusion to their artistic projects. Victor and Smolin are writing other books now; their previous ones have been brought to the world, and are thus finished. 2. Okay, I'm just going to go ahead and say it: At this point in time, self-publishing lacks the cool factor. It's... dorky. Go ahead, call me a snob (check), call me the mean girl (check). You can also call me someone who loves a well-made, beautifully designed book that makes me shiver with desire. To me, a good-looking book implies an understanding of the marketplace and how to maneuver within it. Most (though not all) self-published novels look, well, self-published. I've met enough self-published authors at festivals and conferences to know most of them aren't doing things right. Don't wear a baggy T-shirt with the cover of your book screen-printed across the chest. Don't wear a cape made of crushed velvet. Don't refer to your "fiction-novel." And don't pay some questionable publicity company to spam staff writers of The Millions with press releases. There are, of course, self-published authors who actively market themselves, and do it well. Two of my peers -- Los Angeles-based writer Matthew Allard, and my former classmate at Iowa, Jason Lewis -- have both published their own fiction, and made it seem hip to do so. I've actually never met Allard; he and I are friends on Tumblr, where he maintains a thoughtful and amusing blog. Last year, he self-published a collection of short stories, To Slow Down the Time, illustrated by the artist Ian Dingman. Allard produced two versions of the book: a limited edition hand-bound hardcover, and a print-on-demand paperback (published by CreateSpace), and made them both available for pre-order. The limited edition sold out in a week, and these sales financed the production costs. "To be honest, we had profit immediately," Allard told me. "I didn't make enough money to quit my day job, but I made more than drinking money. I used some of my money to buy a nice new MacBook Pro (to write another book with). I was very surprised." I own the paperback version of Allard's book, and it's lovely. Many a visitor has picked it up and asked me about it, which proves that you don't need the letters FSG on your book's spine to woo a reader. Allard did not submit To Slow Down the Time to agents and traditional publishers. "I am impatient," he said, "and I liked the idea of turning it around and of having full control over our project." He will most likely self-publish a second collection of stories, which are notoriously difficult to sell these days. Again, he mentioned the swift turn-around time between finishing the manuscript, and presenting it to readers. Clearly, this aspect of self-publishing is seductive: readers get your work while you're still passionate about it. After meeting a handful of writers who can't stand their books by the time they're released, I can understand the appeal of a faster timeline. However, I worry what that acceleration might do to my own work. For instance, there's a difference between this blog post and the novel I'm writing now, and that difference is time: to ponder, to revise, and to receive feedback. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. When I asked Allard about his self-publishing experience, he said: I learned that this is absolutely a viable option for intrepid, Internet-savvy authors. Self-publishing levels the playing field a bit. There is certainly not the same kind of cachet attached to self-publishing as the traditional route. Maybe there's no pleasure of saying, "Random House is publishing my book in the fall," but self-publishing does offer the same quality product (providing your product is quality to begin with) and you get to be in charge. The absence of a marketing budget is the other drawback. You made a book! It's real! Getting it into readers' hands is a whole other ballgame. In my case, I was lucky to have amassed a decent Internet following that was interested in what I was working on. Self-publishing is simply cutting a corner and taking charge of your work from start to finish. You don't have to sit around waiting for a publisher or agent to notice you and believe in your project. If you believe in it, you can make it. There's less glamour or paycheck attached, though. I'm struck by how clear-eyed Allard is about the process. He understood self-publishing's limitations, and the work required of him to render the book a success. He'll be in fine shape if he sells a book to a publishing house down the line. The publicity budget for a traditional published book usually isn't huge, and nowadays the writer is expected not only to be an artist, but also a talented promoter of that art. Allard already knows how to tap-dance for his dinner, and to do it gracefully. Like Allard, Jason Lewis has published an atypical book. His novel, The Fourteenth Colony, comes with an album of songs written from the perspective of John Martin, the book's main character, a musician who returns to his hometown in West Virginia to try to put his life back together. Lewis wrote and produced all the music, and funded the project via Kickstarter. As with Allard's, Lewis's book was financed by readers, and he has a guarantee of an audience, however modest, by the time the book goes to press this month. Any copies he sells on top of this will be profit. This is in contrast to the traditional publishing model which puts money up front in the form of an advance, and sets about building an audience for a work that's already created. It's not hard to see which model offers greater risk. Lewis used to have an agent, but she left the business a few years ago, and he had trouble finding representation for The Fourteenth Colony. He began writing new work as he sent out the manuscript to agencies, but he couldn't get his first novel out of his head. "In another era, that might just have been the itch I couldn't scratch while I moved on," he said. "But in this era, indie publishing has really very quickly become a viable option." Notice that Lewis uses the phrase "indie publishing" -- a smart move, in this fraught moment in books. Although Lewis has enjoyed the outpouring of support from family and friends, and from strangers who are simply enthusiastic about his unique project, he admits, "It would still be great to have someone else to take care of a lot of what I'm doing for myself." Allard, too, envisions publishing a novel traditionally some day. "For me and my career as an author, it is a goal to have a publisher take interest in my work and back it. There is a different sense of accomplishment in selling a book that way, obviously. I want that." This intrigued me, though I wasn't surprised. Even writers who self-publish well, who successfully produce books that don't fit into the publishing industry's rubric of what's marketable, let alone categorizable, still want entrance into the established world they initially turned away from. If only for assistance with production. If only to say, "My book's for sale on the front table at Barnes and Noble." Even in 2011 that value can't be denied. 3. For some self-published authors, the traditional industry may be dying, superfluous to their needs and success as authors. But many of the self-published authors who commented on my initial essay suggested that I publish my own book as a means to get the industry's attention. They seem to be saying: Screw the industry... that is, until they recognize my genius! Matthew Allard self-published a book that probably couldn't have been produced by a large house, but the story of that book, and the attention it's received, could no doubt help him get representation and sell another book down the road. Daniel D. Victor might amass a following for his second novel, proving to those gun-shy agents that his subject matter is indeed of interest to a wide readership. In my estimate, self-publishing won't replace traditional publishing, but it might supplement and influence it. There's another trajectory for an author's success; alongside the debut novelist who's an MFA graduate with publishing credits in The Missouri Review and Your Mom's Journal,  there's the writer who proved herself with self-publishing and now has a book deal with Random House. But to think every self-published author makes it big is as foolish as thinking every MFA grad does. In a recent New York Times article, Amazon executive Russell Grandinetti said, "The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.” It's a good point. Self-publishers essentially cut out the middle man (except, of course, outfits like Amazon...), and in shouldering the burdens of editing, design, publicity, and so on, they stand to reap all the benefits of that work. It's how Amanda Hocking made her millions. It's also how many, many other self-published writers spent a lot of time (if not money) putting out a book that no one bought. With my first novel, I suffered rejection from editors. The writer who self-publishes sidesteps that rejection, only to face possible rejection in the form of readers' silence. If you self-publish a book and it doesn't do as well as you'd hoped, does it hurt your chances to sell a novel to a traditional publisher in the future? Maybe in an industry that's changing so rapidly, it's too early to answer that question. Talking to these self-published writers certainly opened my eyes to the various reasons why one might try it, and how gratifying it can be. These are writers I admire; how their books came to me doesn't matter. That was an important lesson for me to learn. Even so, I'm not running to the press with my first book. In a second essay, I'll further explore why not. I'll also examine what self-publishing means for readers, and what traditionally published authors think of all these D.I.Y. developments.
Books as Objects, Notable Articles, The Future of the Book

The E-Reader of Sand: The Kindle and the Inner Conflict Between Consumer and Booklover

"I can show you a sacred book that might interest a man such as yourself" – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Book of Sand” 1. Like many people who love to read, I exist in a paradoxical state of having both far too many books and far too few. I probably don’t have many more than the average literature lover of my age, but I live in a smallish apartment, and it often feels hazardously, almost maniacally overcrowded with books. A precarious obelisk of partially read paperbacks rises from my bedside table, coated in a thin film of dust. My shelves are all two rows deep, stuffed with a Tetris-like emphasis on space-optimization, and pretty much every horizontal surface holds some or other type of reading material. I haven’t read nearly all of these books (many of them I haven’t even made a serious attempt to get started on) but that doesn’t stop me from accumulating more at a rate that neither my income nor my living space can reasonably be expected to sustain. This is, on occasion, a source of mild tension between my wife and me. She’s a reader too, and likes having a lot of books about the place, but she also likes to have space for all those other objects that you need to have around if you want your home to look like a home, and not a drastically mismanaged second-hand bookshop. Every time I come through the door with a couple of new purchases, or carefully rip open a padded envelope from Amazon, I can’t help being aware that I am engaging in a small act of domestic colonization, claiming another few cubic inches in the name of the printed page, in the struggle of Lesensraum against Lebensraum. The situation has been deteriorating for years now and, up until very recently, wasn’t showing any signs of potential resolution. Then a friend gave me a gift of a Kindle, slyly mentioning that he was doing so, at least in part, as a benevolent intervention into my shelf space situation. I’m not sure I would necessarily have chosen to buy an e-reader myself. I am more or less your typical bibliophile, in that I have always loved books almost as much for their physical properties as for their intellectual ones. I like the way a well-made paperback flops open in the hand, the briskly authoritative slap of its pages as it closes. I enjoy the feel of a hardback, its solidity and self-enclosure, its sober weight, the whispering creak of its stretching spine. I like the way they smell, too: the slightly chemical tang of new books and the soft, woody scent of old ones. (If you’re picturing me crouched in a corner of your local bookstore like some sort of mental case, a Library of America edition of Pale Fire pressed to my face, you can stop right there: it’s an incidental pleasure, not something I pursue with any kind of monomaniacal intensity). My point is that I, like a lot of other people, enjoy books as objects. Despite the difficulties that can arise from their accumulation, I like that they occupy physical as well as mental space. In fact, I quietly entertained the futile hope that the whole idea of e-books and e-readers would prove to be a transitory fad, that everyone would just somehow forget that books were cumbersome and comparatively expensive to produce and not especially good for the environment and that they could very easily be replaced by small clusters of electronic data that could be beamed across the world in seconds without ever taking up any actual space. I did not want what happened to CDs to happen to books. But then I took this small, smoothly utilitarian rectangle of grey plastic out of its box and fired it up. Within minutes, I was beginning to understand its crazy potential. In no time at all, I had downloaded a small library of free, out-of copyright classics. There is, obviously, something to be said for being able to walk around with the complete works of Tolstoy on your person at all times without fear of collapsed vertebrae or public ridicule. There is also, just as obviously, something to be said for having immediate access to a vast, intangible warehouse of books from which you can choose, on a whim, to purchase anything and begin reading it straight away. It occurred to me that Borges would have been thrilled and horrified in equal measure by the Kindle. In fact, in a weird way, he sort of invented it (in the same way that Leonardo “invented” the helicopter and various other gadgets). 2. At the beginning of his story “The Book of Sand,” the unnamed bibliophile narrator — like Borges himself, a retired librarian at the Argentine National Library — hears a knock on the door of his apartment. At the door is a Scottish Bible salesman. When the narrator informs him, somewhat superciliously, that he has more than enough Bibles to be getting on with, and in more than enough rare editions, the salesman replies that he is also in possession of a strange volume he bought for a few rupees and a Bible from an illiterate untouchable in Bombay (“people could not so much as step on his shadow,” we are informed, “without being defiled”). He shows the narrator this clothbound octavo volume and, as he examines it, “the unusual heft of it” surprises him. The Bible salesman tells the narrator that the illiterate from whom he bought the volume “told me his book was called the Book of Sand because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end.” The narrator then tries to find the book’s first page, and quickly realizes that this is impossible, because it is as though the pages “grew from the very book.” He encounters the same problem in trying to find its final page, and stammers his disbelief at the impossible object he holds in his hands: “It can’t be, yet it is,” the Bible peddler said, his voice little more than a whisper. “The number of pages in this book is literally infinite. No page is the first page; no page is the last.” The narrator realizes that he has to have the book, and offers the salesman the entirety of his pension along with an extremely rare edition of Wyclif’s black-letter Bible (thus repeating the salesman’s previous symbolic exchange of holy scripture for this impossible text that seems at once to encompass and to blaspheme against the natural, Godly order). The Book of Sand now in his possession, the narrator spends his days and nights in contemplation of its mysteries, gorging himself at its inexhaustible font of texts. Before long, he begins to realize that the book itself is “monstrous,” and that his possession of it — and its possession of him — has made him somehow monstrous too. “I felt it was a nightmare thing,” he tells us, “an obscene thing, and that it defiled and corrupted reality.” He considers burning it, but fears that “the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke.” He decides that “the best place to hide a leaf is in the forest,” and the story ends with his discarding the Book of Sand on a shelf of damp periodicals in the basement of the library, taking care not to take note of where he’s hidden it so that it is effectively lost to him and, he hopes, the world. I’m very fond of my Kindle. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, I think it’s an ingenious little gadget. But in my more hysterically Borgesian moments, I also think that there is something obscene about it, something that defiles and corrupts a reality I don’t want to see defiled and corrupted. It’s a tiny thing, really — smaller, in fact, than my paperback Penguin Classics edition of The Book of Sand. And yet the number of pages it contains is, if not quite “literally infinite,” at least potentially infinite. No page is its first page; no page is its last. If I place it on one of my shelves, if I slip it between, say, two creased and dog-eared volumes of Borges’ stories, it sits there unobtrusively, slimmer than any of the books around it. And yet it has the uncanny, shape-shifting potential to encompass all of them, to embody them all both individually and as a whole. Unsettlingly, it makes all those other books appear suddenly unnecessary, superfluous, seeming to haunt them with the imminent prospect of their own redundancy. It’s an elegant coincidence that the microprocessors that facilitate its mysterious magic are made from silicon, which is extracted from the silica contained in sand. The Kindle is therefore, in an oddly literal sense, a book of sand. What I think gives Borges the jitters about his Book of Sand is the way in which it — like the Aleph in his earlier story “The Aleph” — paradoxically contains an infinity within a finite space. Like so many of the uncanny objects in his work, it exerts a terrible, transformative pressure on reality. And the Kindle exerts its own transformative pressure, albeit in a more banal fashion. I don’t mean to imply that e-readers frighten me, because they don’t. They are no more monstrous or evil than any other example of a new technology replacing an old one (and the book itself is, after all, a piece of technology: a gadget of ink and paper and glue). But their ascendency does make me a little sad, because I know when I use my Kindle that, even though there are important ways in which it can’t even hope to compete with civilization's greatest invention, there are equally important ways in which it effortlessly surpasses it, and that these are the reasons why the e-reader will end up replacing the bound book. 3. This was brought home to me recently when I received a copy of Adam Levin’s colossal debut novel The Instructions, which I recklessly agreed to review for a newspaper. The thing is over a thousand pages and is, in its hardback edition, considerably larger and heavier than any other book I currently possess (including a Norton Complete Shakespeare that, until The Instructions arrived, did bestride its narrow shelf like a Colossus, and ruled it with an iron fist). By way of illustrating the physical magnitude of Levin’s novel, let me make the following peculiar admission: during a moment of whimsical distraction one day last week, I discovered that it was possible to insert into the generous space between the book’s spine and its inner binding not one but two standard-sized mouth organs that happened to be lying on my desk as I read it. Whatever obscure advantage might be gained from being able to secrete two wind instruments inside the binding of a book, any object of that size is going to be difficult to carry around (with or without mouth organs). And if you’re reading a 1,030 page novel to a reviewing deadline, you’re faced with a tricky conflict of practicalities: in order to get it read, you want to be able to take it with you if you have to leave the house, but lugging the thing around on a train or a bus is no joke, given that its volume and weight are roughly comparable to that of a hotel minibar. So I did the obvious thing, and decided to see whether I could download The Instructions from the Kindle Store. When I found that the e-book version wasn’t yet available, I was briefly seized by that most contemporary (and stupid) of irritations: that of being denied a convenience that didn’t even exist until very recently. Granted, Levin’s novel is an extreme example, but it got me thinking about the unassuageable forces that the book as an object, as a cultural artifact, is up against. The history of what we call progress is a catalogue of ways in which the desire for convenience has trumped almost every other concern. As I’ve said already (and perhaps even overstated to a suspicious degree), I love books, and I would rather not live in a world where they might end up as little more than interior décor affectations or, like vinyl records, fetish objects for a small but dedicated coterie of analogue cultists. E-books are not perfect, and the experience of reading them is, I think, still inferior enough to that of reading a real book that, all things being equal, I’d almost always choose the former. But the CD, as any audiophile will gladly tell you, is a far superior format to the MP3 in terms of sound quality and fidelity, and when was the last time you bought a CD? When was the last time anyone you know even bought a CD? Even my dad gets his music from iTunes now. I still have a small bookcase filled with CDs, but I haven’t added to it for years at this stage and, because I don’t even have a CD player anymore, they basically just sit there reminding me of a rapidly receding past in which recorded music used to have a physical presence. No matter how badly I want to, I can’t quite imagine a possible future in which ink and paper books might somehow avoid the same fate. The insatiable desire for ever more and ever newer forms of convenience that drives our global economy and our technological culture leaves a scattered trail of obsolescence in its wake. As much as I don’t want my bookshelves to become part of this trail of obsolescence, I can already see early warning signs of my own desire for convenience — for instantly getting what I want, for not having to deal with mere objects in all their cumbersome actuality — beginning to outrank my love of the book as a physical thing. I don’t want my identity as a consumer, as a ruthless pursuer of the most user-friendly and cost-effective option, to supersede my identity as a booklover. I don’t look forward to a future in which my Kindle (or whatever device inevitably succeeds it) is the only book on the shelf. But it’s a future I’m fairly convinced is awaiting us, and it’s one that I, as a consumer, am playing my part in advancing us toward. There are moments when I wish I could follow the lead of Borges’ retired librarian and bury my book of sand on some obscure shelf in a library basement and just forget all about it. But then I realize that the thing is just too useful, too crazily convenient a tool to not embrace. And then I tell myself that it’s not possible, anyway, to shelve the advance of technology, and that history is filled with examples of beautiful things being supplanted by more efficient versions of those things. Ultimately, you’re never going to win an argument against convenience, no matter how much you love the anachronistic, heavy, unwieldy, and beautiful thing you want to save.   Image via the author
The Future of the Book

Cleaning Out the Virtual Attic: On The Road, the Book App

(Image: New York Public Library/Estate of Stella Sampas Kerouac) In April 1951, when Jack Kerouac fed the first pieces of what would become a 120-foot scroll of paper into his Underwood portable to write the famous first draft of his novel, On the Road, he was, in one sense, blowing up the typewriter to make his own primitive homemade word processor. Sixty years later, Kerouac’s publisher, Penguin Books, is, in its own quiet way, blowing up the book to make – what, exactly? For now, they are calling it a book app, and even to my mildly technophobic eyes, the results offer a glimpse onto a potentially brave new world of publishing. I’ll admit I was suspicious when I first heard about a “book app” for On the Road, assuming I would be subjected to some tech geek’s notion of what the book of the future should look like – that is, that it would be all future and no book. So you can imagine my relief when I took the app, now for sale on iTunes, for a test drive on a borrowed iPad, and found it to be an informative, even tasteful, accessory to Kerouac’s book, not an attempt to bury the text under a blaring, technophiliac mess of gadgetry and special effects. That said, the real star of the show is the technology itself, which promises not just a slew of new apps for beloved classic texts, but also, it seems to me, a new, richer way to make books. By now, of course, e-books are old hat, and even book apps have been around at least since the advent of the iPhone, but this most recent riff on the book app takes the technology in a new, intriguing direction. Publishers have designed apps around comic books and children’s texts, and have even built a few original book apps for nonfiction takes on the periodic table and the solar system, but On the Road is among the first wave of apps designed for the adult trade fiction and poetry markets, following on the heels of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the app for which recently startled the digerati when it knocked Marvel Comics from the #1 spot on the list of top-grossing book apps on iTunes. It isn’t hard to see why Penguin is using On the Road to launch its adult trade fiction apps category. For one, it is a canonical classic appealing to everyone from nostalgic Boomers getting their first iPad for Father’s Day to tech-savvy teenage boys who love their digital devices almost as much as they love smoking “tea” and driving fast cars. At the same time, Kerouac’s book has a long and involved back story that begins with that famous 120-foot scroll and extends to the incestuous pack of Columbia grads and assorted hangers-on who made up the Beat Generation.   It is here, in providing the clef for the real-life figures behind the characters in Kerouac’s roman à clef and in drawing a detailed map of Kerouac’s long road to writing On the Road, that this app shines. Chris Russell, editorial director for the project at Penguin, calls the app “a virtual museum” of the book, but to my eyes it comes closer to being a refreshing take on the standard critical edition, with primary sources replacing scholarly essays. The central feature of the app is a digital copy of the published version of the book that comes with tabs readers can tap to see bios of the main characters as well background on some of the people and places Kerouac visited on his travels. Zipping around the app, one can also find maps detailing Kerouac’s travel itinerary, Kerouac’s own maps and writing notes, as well as photos of the major players and original documents from the publisher’s archives showing the book’s tortured road to publication.  Much of this added content is either pedestrian, as in the potted bios of the characters, or familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a biography of Kerouac or a history of the Beats. Some elements, though, such as the maps, do add real texture to the experience of reading the book. I read On the Road the first time twenty-some years ago when I was taking the first of several long road trips around the U.S. and I would have loved to have the graphical aid of the map of his journey to compare to my own. The app allows you to tap a location on the map and go directly to the page in the novel when Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise arrives there. I also enjoyed the audio clips of Kerouac reading from On the Road, which, for me, were like seeing the Grateful Dead in concert for the first time after listening only to their studio albums: a cult phenomenon that had never really clicked for me suddenly made a new kind of sense as I listened to Kerouac’s husky, sensual voice make music of prose. Thus, while the concept is exciting, in this case the execution isn’t always as strong as it could be, especially given the app’s $16.99 retail price ($12.99 for the first two weeks). So it’s a good thing the app can be expanded at no new cost to the buyer. At the least, Penguin needs to make the experience more genuinely interactive by adding a talk-back or comment feature so fans can compare reactions to the novel and offer analyses of favorite passages. Even better would be a wiki-like feature to let readers add to the commentary provided by the publishers. For instance, one of the maps in the app shows “Mill City,” just north of San Francisco, as one of Kerouac’s stops on his journey. I happen to be from Mill Valley, Calif., which is next door to Marin City, where Kerouac briefly lived in barracks built for the World War II-era Marinship plant in Sausalito. It adds little to one’s reading of the book to know that Kerouac combined the two city names, but given his obsession with African-American culture, it does add context to know that, when he lived in Marin City, those barracks – now public housing, famous for being the home of rapper Tupac Shakur – were among the only truly racially integrated housing in the United States.     But even with added interactivity, there is little here you couldn’t find on a well curated website devoted to On the Road, and cynics will suggest that Penguin is only trying to push sales of a popular backlist title by forcing fans to buy a new digital edition just to see a few cool bits of memorabilia from the archives. And, of course, the cynics would have a point. That is no doubt part of what is driving this sudden interest in putting out “enhanced” digital editions of titles like On the Road and The Waste Land, and if these new iPad apps do no more than draw in a few old Kerouac and Eliot heads, this will prove to be a pointless exercise. If, on the other hand, it draws in new readers, wired iKids who love wriggling down the hypertextual wormholes of the web, then book apps of classic texts will serve a valuable, if somewhat limited, purpose. As I dipped into On the Road’s digital archives, I couldn’t help thinking of other classics that would benefit from similar treatment. Wouldn’t you love to peek into the files that famous pack rat, Hunter S. Thompson, kept on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? (See my recent essay on Fear and Loathing here.) Or what about a book app for Tim O’Brien’s metafictional Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried, with maps and photos and bios of the real people behind O’Brien’s characters? But, again, if the book app phenomenon ends there, as virtual attics for the houses of a few great books, then I doubt the book app will draw many iPad users away from their treasured GarageBand and iMovie apps. The real promise here, as I see it, is the underlying technology, which, with any luck, will some day allow a kid now sitting in his eighth-grade English class playing Spider-Man: Total Mayhem HD to write an original literary app: a truly interactive novel that not only combines text with hypertext, but also with sound and images and reader responses, all at the swipe of a finger. This notion has been the holy grail of a certain school of digitally avant garde writers since the days of dial-up connections, but the technology has always been clunky, and the stories, at least in my own admittedly limited experience, damnably dull. Two factors suggest the lackluster track record of the interactive novel may be due for a change. First, it takes only a few minutes on an iPad to see that this sleek hand-held device, with its gleaming touch screen and seemingly bottomless array of multi-media features, is a quantum leap forward in terms of flexibility and user friendliness. Second, until very recently, the minds of the people creating interactive novels have been as old school as their equipment. If the central building block of most interactive novels has until now been the codex text – otherwise known as the book – that’s because most of the people making them were raised on codex texts. Every day, as more toddlers read The Little Engine That Could on their parents’ iPads and Skype their grandparents on their smart phones, this is becoming less true, and soon a young writer whose brain is more supple than mine may well take this technology and bend it to uses that my mind, hopelessly mired in the linear, cannot even imagine. In the meantime, old fogies like me can happily potter around in the virtual attics of classic novels like On the Road and recall a day when blowing up a venerable piece of technology took only a big stack of paper and some tape.
Lists, Notable Articles, The Future of the Book

Kindle-Proof Your Book in Seven Easy Steps!

A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I'd been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an "illustrated fiction" into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with "the future of the book." In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and '70s "experimental" literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out - replete with color photography and typographic mayhem - Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I'd just published would never work on it. Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac's for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions: At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses.... [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest... In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the "provincial" Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for "sellout." (Not to mention - horrors - a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon - not with Field Guide, anyway. To "sell out," you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the "beautiful" book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce. Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are: Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book Step 1. Use Color The iPad and Barnes & Noble's NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet.  As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn't it cool...in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould's Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it's good enough for a Nobelist, isn't it good enough for you? Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that "photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen" of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy ("glossy"?) magazine readers are apparently "flocking" to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it's worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we're seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it's the literary equivalent of abstract painting's retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations - as in Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring - or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams' Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader. Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle's remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski's House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel or William H. Gass' The Tunnel - difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass' lead in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there's white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler's There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It's available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don't think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds "the 'powerpoint' chapter...extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.") Step 4. Run With Scissors The opening story of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It's a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn't - and couldn't - exist. Step 5. Go Aleatory Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar's Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau's "A Story As You Like It." But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn't matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover's "deck of cards" story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates... Step 6. Put It In A Box Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, "pile of pages" aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can't be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney's, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman's archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition. Step 7. Pile on the End Matter This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren't palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren't you likely to hit "The End" and think: I'm done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I'm thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text. Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books: 1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object. 2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book...though, given the $35 cover price, I can't imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it. 3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I'll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov's and Jonathan Safran Foer's. There. I've done it. 4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel's conclusion rises...and falls. 5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen? 6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a "male version" and a (slightly different) "female version," bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon! 7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text - which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further - to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can't blame a guy for trying. 8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan "poetry machine" is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you'd just have to build in a "shuffle" function) - though by equivalence rather than reproduction. 9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I'd bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann's detractors would argue that's a good thing. I'm not so sure... 10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children's librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what's called a full-bleed)...and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book's explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen...but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can't, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad...perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.
The Future of the Book

Publish or Perish: The Short Story

“The Short Story is Not Dead.”  This headline appeared in The Nervous Breakdown in January above an essay written by my friend Alex Chee in which he discussed the ways that technology was making the short story more accessible, and specifically, accessible on his iPhone.  The assertion of the negative – not dead – seemed to me an odd way for the copy editor to introduce an article on good news for short story reading.  I wondered what he meant by the possible ‘death’ of the story.  I find that when someone asserts that a thing (the story), or an idea (God), is not dead, they usually mean that a nostalgic version of the thing has lapsed and not been replaced by something comparably satisfying. What has changed with the story?  Not the writing.  Short story writing is alive and well.  The evidence:  Three of five of the New York Times’ notable works of fiction in 2010 are short fiction collections (counting Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad).  And consider all the print and online journals that survive on paid contest submissions, which is evidence of the large number of writers who aspire to be published authors.  The human impulse to tell stories has not diminished. What then?  Short story reading has declined.  With few exceptions (The New Yorker is one), mass circulation general interest magazines no longer publish short stories.  And, editors and agents blanche at the prospect of debut story collections, and often publish an author’s collection only with the promise of a follow-on novel.  The popular wisdom – and commercial reality – is that story collections don’t sell. What to make of this conundrum?  Is today’s short fiction not as good?  Hardly.  Why aren’t readers holding up their part of the bargain?  The answer, let me suggest, is related to how readers are given the opportunity to read – distribution, in commercial terms.  The short story became one of the great 20th century art forms when inexpensive publishing technology gave rise to mass market general interest magazines.  Oral story telling is a deeply human tradition, but it was only with the blitzkrieg of 19th century mass publishing that the written short story became a specific art form.  Magazines served up stories as snacks for readers, and did so with relish. The Saturday Evening Post, and other widely circulated magazines, provided outlets for stories by writers with now-household names, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton,   There were more than 25 mass market magazines in the 1920s and 1930s that published one short story each week.  When Life magazine published Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in 1952, that issue sold 5.3 million copies. Stories in magazines could be read in one sitting.  And, story collections became the publishing industry’s way to capitalize on already popular works when they were repackaged in compilations.  Poe’s, Chekhov’s, Hawthorne’s, Gallant’s, Updike’s, and Cheever’s great stories all first appeared in periodicals.  Only later in books. The decline in short story reading is, I suggest, linked to the precipitous decline in mass market magazine readership. Magazines’ sales decline began in during the 1960s when consumers shifted their entertainment and news interest to television, but the decline recently accelerated with the explosive growth of online and mobile real-time access to news and information. The story, which was popularized by new printing and distribution technologies, has slowly become a victim of the displacement of those technologies.  To be sure, stories themselves also suffer from the crushing competition for consumer’s attention posed by TV, video games, and the Internet.  But, without mass market distribution outlets, readers entertain themselves in other ways. Literary journals continue to publish stories, but they come out seasonally, or occasionally, and the months’ long gap between issues doesn’t serve a creature of time-worn habit, accustomed to weekly soap operas, weekly television dramas, or the weekly story in The New Yorker.  Consumers like predictable engagement.  There are hundreds of online literary journals that publish bi-weekly, or monthly.  Many -- and there are a great many for readers to discover -- are better suited to launch new voices than to publish top authors.  And the seductive distractions of Facebook and Twitter make literary reading on a computer a difficult act of will. What’s a reader to do? Technology gave rise to the flowering of the short story, contributed to its decline, and technology will, in my opinion, again solve the problem of connecting readers and stories. Like the song, the short story is perfectly suited for mobile consumption.  The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owner all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create.  Poe’s definition of the short story remains as true today as when he wrote it: “a story is a thing that can be read in one sitting.”  If he were writing today he might rephrase it: “…in one hour on the tread mill.” So, how many Americans actually read short stories?  How large is the market?  There are no accurate answers to the question, but there are ways of approximating the number who read, which of course, is reduced by the fact that many people who might like to read stories don’t know where to find them.  A few facts: 9 million adult Americans annually read more than 50 works of fiction (NEA study, 2008). 2 million adult American publish personal creative writing (NEA study, 2002; writers are usually also readers.) 1.1 million: the subscription rate base for The New Yorker in 2009 150,000: the graduates of creative writing MFA programs in the past 20 years (all of whom learn to write and read short stories). 50,000-100,000: the estimated annual sales of The Pushcart Prize collections of stories (my estimate). These population snapshots overlap, of course, but suggest that there are 500,000-to-1.5 million American adults who are frequent readers of short stories. Stories are meant to be read one at a time, savored individually, taken in, and reflected upon.  Collections are ways of repackaging known works.  Publishing executives today don’t expect collections to sell (because they haven’t in the past), so they aren’t marketed, and this cycle of low expectations and insufficient care creates a self-fulfilling outcome: collections don’t sell. Web connected devices, like the iPad and the iPhone, can connect readers of short fiction with the best writing in the market.  Mobile and web technologies reduce friction in markets.  Storytelling is a deep human need, and readers of stories are entertained and instructed by clever plots, sympathetic characters, and artful writing.  Words create imaginary worlds that provide readers with an experience that is similar to, but different from, the worlds of movies and television.  Technology provides a new way to connect story tellers and fans.  We’re all ears. (Image: 732 - Power Grid - Pattern image from zooboing's photostream)
The Future of the Book

Double Fold, Double Jeopardy

1. Ten years ago this month, the novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker published an oddball of a book: a non-fiction jeremiad about library policy in the United States called Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. One wonders how Baker sold his publishers on a book about libraries, but he had written a few essays for the New Yorker and other magazines on topics like card catalogs and "books as furniture" that no doubt found a following. Still, library policy? Preservation techniques? Bor-ing. Well, boring to most people; thrilling to me, a bespectacled grad student who had worked in both publishing and in a library and was still trying to figure out how to carve a career out of old books. At the time, I was enrolled in a graduate course called The Social History of Collecting, and my professor, a curator of rare books at one of the most prestigious libraries in the country, assigned it as a class text. Glancing over my copy of the book now, my spare marginalia belies the power this book has had on me. In it, Baker describes the widespread demolition of newspapers and books in America’s research libraries, particularly during the 1950s-1990s, when so-called preservation librarians convinced the government, granting agencies, and most importantly, each other that printed materials were disintegrating and the only way to save civilization was to microfilm everything, which often required disbinding and destroying the originals. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote of the book, “It is a blistering, and thoroughly idiosyncratic, exposé of how libraries are destroying our historical records in order to ‘save’ them.” Baker also recounts his own improbable foray into librarianship, after he successfully purchased thousands of bound American newspapers that the British Library decided to sell to the highest bidder in 1999. In many cases, these sets are—amazingly—the only extant copies of the newspapers in actual paper. Joseph Pulitzer’s World, for example. I don’t recall ruminating about Baker’s book after the semester ended, but when I dug deeper into my thesis research that summer, it became clear that I was a perfect example of those in the scholarly community who have lost much in the microfilm mania of the mid-twentieth century. I was researching the publishing history of classic reprints—reprint editions of so-called classic books, e.g. Penguin, Modern Library, Everyman’s Library, etc.—in the twentieth century. I became aware of a series of articles written by Johan J. Smertenko and published in the New York Herald-Tribune sometime during the 1920s. His column was titled “Twice-Told Tales,” and it focused on newly published editions of classic books, which seemed like something I ought to get my hands on. Without specific dates, though, it was going to require flipping through possibly a decade’s worth of the Herald-Trib. The problem: all the Herald-Tribunes have been discarded (that means thrown out in library parlance). Could the articles be found on microfilm? Theoretically they could, with another year and an extra set of eyes, if whoever had microfilmed it had done a decent job in the first place. Then I remembered Baker and his list of rescued newspapers. Wouldn’t you know it, he did have the Herald-Trib, a run consisting of 1866-1966, and one, I might add, that is the longest paper run of that newspaper available anywhere. The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library – they only have it on film. So I emailed Baker, of Vox fame, and asked if I could visit. On July 27, 2001, I drove up to Rollinsford, New Hampshire, to an abandoned mill where Baker was storing thousands of bound volumes of antique newsprint. It took about an hour to find my first Smertenko article; in all, three of his articles were used directly in my thesis. All this and lunch with Baker added up to a perfect day for a bookish grad student. 2. Beyond that, Baker’s words, or maybe more precisely, his actions, stayed with me. Still trying to find my calling in the book world, I look a position in a university library’s preservation department. The only library experience I had before this was as a reference page at my hometown public library. The new job involved preparing books for circulation and assessing minor preservation needs, although it later morphed into a position that entailed assisting researchers with special collections and rare books, organizing archival collections, and writing finding aids. There was much I loved about this job, and one thing I didn’t: discards, a.k.a. deaccessioning. I had seen discards at the public library, was even allowed to take one home, which still sits on my shelves today: an awful buckram-bound edition of Departmental Ditties and Ballads and Barrack-Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling, with library stamping all over the place. What attracted me to it—it seems strange to admit—was a swastika. I thought it intensely interesting that Kipling had used this symbol before it had accrued so much evil meaning. So I understood the basics of library “weeding;” that brittle or under-used books are methodically divested, sometimes for cash, sometimes for shelf space. Baker discusses this to some extent, estimating that library administrators withdrew approximately 975,000 books from our national libraries, many tossed merely because they were now available on microfilm, and libraries needed the space. Then I experienced first hand what some libraries are (still) scrapping: An association copy (inscribed by the author to a friend) of a Victorian-era history of New York; an imprint from Ithaca, New York, in its original binding, four decades before Cornell put it on the map; but it was the French-language editions of Oeuvres Completes De Voltaire (1785) that really shocked me. Here are volumes of Voltaire, printed only seven years after his death, four years before the Revolution that his words helped to spark. Yes, some had been rebound, and yes, we were missing a few in the set, but these books had scholarly value. I made inquiries and found that Princeton also had that set in its rare book library, also incomplete. Why would we pitch something that Princeton was keeping in a vault? I emailed Princeton, and the curator there was grateful to take a few of the volumes and complete their set. I took three volumes home myself—vols. 1 & 2 on Theatre and vol. 12 Poemes et Discours en Vers, for no other reason than I couldn’t bear to send them to the guillotine (or, in this case, the landfill). And even though I was low man on the library ladder, I complained to the director about the deaccessioning. A sympathetic book lover, he nevertheless explained that a professional had done the weeding, and that was that. But each library’s deaccession policy is dependent on the proficiency of individual librarians. Larger institutions may have librarians with real subject expertise, others may not, and many are unaware or hostile to the value of the book as an artifact. So they rely on circulation rates—which seems to me always a bad idea, for tastes seem to skip generations—or tag older books with words like “crumbling” or “fragile” or “acidic paper” in order to hasten their demise, when a good archival folder or box would preserve it well enough. There is actually little on the art of deaccessioning in the professional literature. The title of one that a reference librarian recently sent to me intimates that discarding is something to be ashamed, or at least, wary of: “When Weeding Hits the Headlines: How to Stop Your Library from Making (That Kind of) News,” (2008). I found another, from 2006, published in Library Student Journal, titled “Selection, deaccessioning, and the public image of information professionals: Learning from the mistakes of the past.” 3. I acquired about twenty ex-lib books from that stage of my career, mostly in good or fair condition – the bindings are rubbed, having been on and off shelves for more than a hundred years in most cases. Nonetheless, they are amazing to consider closely, for example an 1852 pamphlet written by Daniel Webster, An Address Delivered Before the New York Historical Society, on the tattered cover of which James Duane Doty, territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for Utah under Abraham Lincoln, had signed and dated, noting that Webster had sent it to him. Though it is available in both microfilm and as an e-book, according to WorldCat, only about seventy institutions still own the original. Does that make it rare? Maybe not, but perhaps “semi-rare” or “medium rare,” as some institutions now call books of artifactual value that are not quite white-glove worthy. Others in my “collection” are just interesting pieces of print culture, such as annual registers from early nineteenth-century New York and a palm-sized New Testament belonging to one Drusilla Dashiell, who decorated the endpapers with her personal stamp. I didn’t set out to create a collection of discards, per se, but others have. Michael Zinman, a major book collector, has occasionally come across discarded material from the New York Public Library or the New Jersey Historical Society to add to his collection of early American imprints (now at the Library Company of Philadelphia). The lore surrounding the NYPL is particularly unflattering – its dumpsters were once considered a gold mine for book scouts. And, sadly, this continues in the nation’s libraries. In 2005, the Birmingham Public Library found itself in a public relations morass when one of its most devoted patrons blew the whistle after seeing historical pamphlets and books from the Tutwiler Collection of Southern History and Literature stacked up in the library’s garbage bins. The library stated that they were duplicates, and they may well have been, but why chuck them? I’ve witnessed the same scenario on another institution’s loading dock. Of course, it’s not about a possible jackpot in the dumpster. It is—to get back to Baker—about preservation of originals, which should be the first goal of research libraries. An institution can’t provide access to something it no longer has, and let’s face it, providing access to grainy, distorted, cropped microfilm is no badge of honor. Providing access to a photocopy or an electronic version of the Oeuvres Completes De Voltaire is admirable, but not at the expense of the eighteenth-century volume. And if the library cannot perform its preservation duty, allow another institution or person the chance. Baker suggests this on the very last page of Double Fold, recommending that public institutions post a list of discards so that other institutions (or dealers or collectors for that matter) have the chance to save them. That was ten years ago. I know of no such resource today, even though listservs and web-based databases would make quick work of it. I have seen book carts with “Free to a good home” signs in some university libraries and attended once-a-year library book sales at others. Some years ago, my undergraduate alma mater, Syracuse University, actually held a book auction featuring discards and donations that they didn’t want. It was both a fundraising and public relations success. I happily over-paid for a two-volume set of Wraxall’s Historical Memoirs and Helen Campbell’s Darkness and Daylight; or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life (1897). I take heart in the fact that Baker saved such an important trove of newspapers and that Duke University eventually took the collection to care for it “in perpetuity,” thanks due to David S. Ferriero, then university librarian at Duke, now the archivist of the United States. If he understands why a bulky collection like that is worth keeping, we’re in good hands. Because even though a small renaissance in book arts and book history has occurred in the past decade, as well as a small uptick in the number of library science degree programs that have rare books and archives specialties, one has to wonder where the discards are going, as electronic editions (i.e., Google Books) begin to dominate the academic library in a second wave of preservation re-formatting. I have the feeling that deaccessioned books are still shushed out the back door of American’s libraries, when collectors and readers are quite willing to treasure someone else’s trash.
The Future of the Book

The Chameleon Machine

The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available now on Amazon and in all good bookstores. 1. There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me. Consider, for a moment, the ebook/paperbook divide. On the one side, the traditionalists, with their—okay, our—love of the objects that we call books. The texture of the paper, the beautiful dust jackets. Being able to see how much of a book remains to be read, as pages stack up on the left and diminish on the right. The ability to see two pages at once and have a sense of what’s coming. Writing in the margins. On the other side stand the gadgeteers with their cold slim readers, packing entire libraries into a volume the size of a novella, flipping pages on a touchscreen. I don’t own a digital reader, but I understand why other people do. Aside from the natural joy of owning a shiny new gadget, there’s an undeniable appeal from a purely minimalist standpoint—why agonize over which two books to cram into your suitcase, when you can bring your entire library with you?—and I have to imagine that ebook aficionados have a much easier time of moving than I do. When I move to a new apartment, it’s a Herculean task involving towering mountains of impossibly heavy small boxes with labels like Fiction: Ames - Bellow and Theatre Books: Box 1 of 10. It isn’t pretty. Digital readers and paper books have little in common. But both objects have considerable merit, and this is why I think we should combine the two. The future of the book that I imagine involves an object that looks, in every detail, like a high-quality hardcover. The difference is that there’s no title visible on either the cover or the spine. When you first open the book, all the pages are blank. Hundreds of pages of high-quality paper—a slight sheen might hint at the underlying circuitry—with nothing on them. The cover is blank too. You might mistake the object for a blank notebook, except for the discreet touchscreen on the inside of the front cover. Here you scroll through your library, and select the book you want to read. For old time’s sake, let’s say The Catcher in the Rye. Once you’ve made your selection the pages remain blank for just a heartbeat—the process taking place in the heart of the book’s machinery is, after all, quite complex—but then the famous orange carousel horse of the first edition dust jacket rises slowly out of the blankness of the front cover, like an image rising out of Polaroid film. JD Salinger's name appears on the spine above the publisher’s logo, and then all at once the pages begin to fill. The book is typesetting itself. The first page is no longer blank. Beneath the Chapter One heading, the famous and incorrigible opener has appeared: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born…" The object in your hands looks and feels like a book. The pages feel like paper. You flip through them, and all the words are there waiting for you; there’s no waiting for a screen to refresh. The object might even be made, with a judicious dash of library-scented accord from my favorite perfume shop, to smell like the books you grew up with. You can make notes on the pages if you wish, provided you use the special digital pen attached by means of a thin ribbon to the spine. But suppose you get tired of reading Salinger after awhile, or you finish the book. You go back to your touchscreen just inside the front cover, and flip through your library until you find something that appeals to you. Select the new volume, and the process begins again. Just a moment of blankness, while Salinger’s carousel horse fades out. The notes you took in the margins have vanished, but they’ll be there again the next time you want to read The Catcher in the Rye. And then, Leo Tolstoy's name on the spine. Turn the first page and the text of Salinger’s book has dissolved. The first line of the novel now reads as follows: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The book in your hands is now Anna Karenina. 2. It only sounds like magic. Electronic paper—flexible sheets of paper-like material, comprised in various versions of polymer, microcapsules of oil, arrays of electrodes—has been around since the ‘70s, when Nick Shelton at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center created the first sheet of the stuff. Research continued in the decades that followed, and in early 2010 LG debuted a new prototype: a sheet of electronic paper with the dimensions of a newspaper page, weighing only 130 grams. In the photographs that accompanied the press release, the material holds a glassy patina; a man and a woman hold sheets of LG’s new paper in what looks like the Tokyo subway system, and the sheets hold the front page of a daily newspaper. It doesn’t quite look like paper, but it’s close. It’s so close. Is there any reason why, a few years from now, when the technology’s become lighter and better and less expensive, we couldn’t make entire books out of this stuff? There are of course logistical problems to consider—how to manage the display of a 600-page novel on a device that only has 350 pages, for instance—but this sort of thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly insurmountable. It seems to me that the failing of our digital readers to date is that the focus has been almost entirely on the content. Our earliest books were sublimely executed works of art, years and decades and entire lifetimes poured into the lettering and ornamentation of medieval manuscripts. The printing press changed all of this, of course, but the ghost of that early obsession with beauty has lingered. Beautiful books have remained with us, in ever-changing form, through all the seasons of publishing: gorgeous book jackets, impeccably designed interiors, gilt lettering on cloth. But digital readers have been focused solely on finding the best possible means of presenting the book’s words, of inventing the ideal flatscreen to display them on. I fear we’re nearing a point of forgetting the idea of books as objects, as works of art whose form, not just whose content, we might consider preserving. 3. The book in your hands has transformed itself into Anna Karenina, but why stop there? One of the major problems of reading is the difficulty of ignoring the chaotic world around you. We’ve all been stuck in airplanes with screaming small children. Because blocking out this sort of thing by sheer willpower alone can be impossible, I wonder if perhaps our books might be enlisted to help us out. I read a fascinating article a few years back about directed-sound technology, and its potential for in use in museums. One of the aural problems of museums is that some patrons want to hear information about what they’re standing on front of, whereas others would vastly prefer to contemplate in silence. The idea with the directed-sound technology is that if you’d like to learn more about a particular display, you step into a specific location in the room—perhaps indicated by a circle of light projected onto the floor—and there, only there, at that particular point, in a projected column of ultrasonic sound, you hear a recorded voice explaining the nuances of 16th-century Chinese calligraphy or the finer details of the Battle of Brooklyn. Directed-sound technology has advanced to the point where beams of sound can be directed at an individual in such a way that the people sitting on either side of them will hear nothing. All of this makes me think that the book, once the technology advances a little further and can be easily embedded without adding too much weight, should have a noise-canceling button. Click it and step into the circle of light; you’d be cast, all at once, into your own private aural landscape. Perhaps it might enable silence, or some sort of soothing ambient noise. Care would have to be taken not to zone out completely at, say, airport departure gates, but I think the concept has promise. I was thinking the other day of sound-enabled picture books. It would be a strange and dazzling new form. Page upon page of gorgeous illustrations, with music, with text and spoken word that no one but the reader could hear. An interactive art project. Or imagine the more practical applications for travel books: on the page listing useful phrases for the country you’re traveling in, you could hear the pronunciation before you spoke, so as to avoid making a fool of yourself when you’re trying to order coffee in Slovakia. 4. For all my love of the electronic innovations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are certain tactile experiences that I’m not willing to surrender. The experience of turning pages is one of them. I love machines, but I want the book I hold in my hands fifty years from now to look like the books I remember from childhood. I want to be able to see two pages at a time, I want to take notes in the margins, I want to flip backward to see what I missed. Most importantly, I want the bookstores I love to still exist in the future. The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable. I’ve never really liked grocery shopping; it’s nice that now I can do it online at midnight. I feel the same way about buying shoes. But books? That’s something else entirely. I imagine the bookstores of the future. They’d look very much like the bookstores of now, except it’s possible that they might be a little smaller; if most people are downloading books to machines, they’d need much less stock. A few people might still want to buy the old kind of book, the kind made out of paper, especially at author events. Those of us with the new books, the ones made out of electronic paper that can transform into other books in our hands, will browse for a while and then perhaps, if we happen to be carrying our new books with us, pay for and download the volumes we want to buy. Or perhaps we’ll buy books on a volume the size of a flash drive, to be downloaded to our new books when we get home later. And then we’ll sit in parks and subways and on sofas, the same as we have since the invention of the printing press, and we’ll flip through the pages of our beautiful machines.
Lists, The Future of the Book

A Special Note for All You New Kindle (And Other Ereader) Owners

The New York Times has been highlighting a new trend. With all the Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and whatnot being unwrapped on Christmas day, (to home in on just one of those devices, they say Amazon may have sold over 8 million Kindles this year), what was once a day of rest from shopping is likely to be a booming day for ebook sales. Some in the publishing industry are even beginning to see the ebook emergence as a ray of light in a stagnant industry. It's pretty clear by now that ebooks and ereaders are a fully mainstream technology. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, life-long readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are surprisingly popular. in fact, looking at the statastics that Amazon provides us, about 15% of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links were Kindle ebooks. Put another way, that's about one out of every seven books. So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going. For starters, here are the top-ten most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2010. You'll notice that these aren't all that different from the overall Millions favorites -- to the extent that they are different from other books popular with our readers, these books tend to skew towards the page-turner (Tolstoy notwithstanding) and the cheaper (all but one are, as of this writing, at or below the $9.99 magic ebook price point). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson ($5.20) Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell ($7.66) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan ($9.34) The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky ($4.46) Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart ($9.10) Faithful Place by Tana French ($12.99) The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen ($9.99) The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson ($7.57) The Passage by Justin Cronin ($9.45) Tinkers by Paul Harding ($5.68) Other potentially useful ebook links: Editors' Picks Best of 2010 Top 100 Paid and Free And in this fractured ebook landscape, you've also got your NookBooks, Borders ebooks, Google ebooks, and Apple ibooks. All of these purveyors happen to do a brisk "business" in "selling" free, out-of-copyright ebooks, but readers may prefer Project Gutenberg, an unaffiliated site that's been making free ebooks available for years. Happy Reading!
In Person, The Future of the Book

Report from the Future of Reading: The Books in Browsers Conference

Does a reader who lists all the books he reads on the internet still care about privacy? Should an ebook be an app on its own or one of many books available through an ebookstore? Do readers also want to be writers? And what, if anything, is the publisher’s role in all of this? These and many more questions were the subject of discussion at the second annual Books in Browsers conference at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. Sponsored by O’Reilly Media and planned by the IA’s Peter Brantley, the event brought together publishing and technology professionals from around the world (presenters flew from as far as Japan, Singapore, and Australia to speak) to discuss the consequences and opportunities of books becoming digital. The talks ranged from the highly conceptual to the very specific. Some presenters discussed the history of publishing stretching back before the industrial revolution while others more or less demonstrated their software. This kind of dual-personality is a product of the confusing landscape those of us in the book business face today. Nowhere was this more evident than when the IA’s founder Brewster Kahle gathered those of us in attendance together to take a group photo. Wanting to take a sort of general census of attendees, he asked anyone who considered himself or herself a publisher to raise his or her hand. When someone asked for clarification of what a publisher was, he more or less said “anyone who facilitates production and distribution of the written word.” As an employee of Goodreads, I felt compelled to raise my hand. Then he asked those of us who were authors to raise our hands. As a blogger, both here and elsewhere, I felt I should raise my hand again. I also claimed the title of bookseller, as Goodreads does sell ebooks. If I’d wanted to, I might even have been able to claim I was a librarian, but I didn’t. Lastly, every one of us was, of course, a reader. Nevertheless, clearly the old lines of demarcation in the publishing industry don’t really apply anymore. If there was an overarching theme to the conference it was “social reading,” so much so that several presenters, including Goodreads founder Otis Chandler, who was there to announce the Goodreads Social Reading API, apologized for discussing the topic yet again. Michael Tamblyn from Kobo books proudly announced that his speech was free of any and all things social. “Hell is other readers,” one of his slides proclaimed. But sharing the reading experience was clearly on many people’s minds. In presentation after presentation, speakers discussed their vision for what a social reading experience – and in some cases, a social writing experience – might be. In Thursday’s dazzling keynote address, Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media Partners urged publishers to move beyond the “container model of publishing” and to look instead to create context first: [B]ook, magazine and newspaper publishing is unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information.  Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring that which cannot or does not fit. Worse, the process of filling the container strips out context – the critical admixture of tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, even good old title-level metadata – that is a luxury in the physical world, but a critical asset in digital ones.  In our evolving, networked world – the world of “books in browsers” – we are no longer selling content, or at least not content alone.  We compete on context. But moving from containers to something infinitely less contained creates problems, as well. Nicole Ozer of the Northern California ACLU spoke eloquently on the dangers of gathering data on what people read. “If you build it, someone will come calling, asking for information.” Other speakers, though, argued that many readers will trade some amount of privacy in exchange for more features and greater possibilities. If a website helps you find the next book you want to read, perhaps giving it your reading history or some portion thereof is a price worth paying. Day two of the conference kicked off with back-to-back talks from two publishing iconoclasts – Bob Stein from the Institute for the Future of the Book and Richard Nash, former editor of Soft Skull Press and founder of the publishing start up Cursor. Stein presented a call to create a Taxonomy of Social Reading. Stein aims to provide a framework to discuss all the various ways in which we do read socially in the hopes that the publishers might band together to create an open platform for sharing notations and comments across all texts. It’s only through seizing the social reading moment, so to speak, that the publishers can hope to wrestle some measure of control back from the tech companies that have come to dominate their industry. Stein’s taxonomy is well worth examining in depth, and at the risk of simplifying a complex idea, I will summarize it here. He breaks social reading into four main categories: category one: in-person informal discussion of a book; category two: discussion of a book online; category three:  formal discussion of a book in a classroom or book club; and category four: online, synchronous discussion of a book in the margins of the book itself (A few examples of this are the Commentpress platform in which Stein’s piece appears and the website BookGlutton). This concept – of group annotation and community reading – was arguably the most controversial idea of the conference. Does the average reader even want to mark up a text, much less share their annotations with others? Would this idea apply equally to fiction and non-fiction? Or would people prefer to keep the actual reading experience private, to remain immersed in a narrative rather than constantly checking the margins of the text? Richard Nash followed Stein’s presentation with a thought-provoking talk about the ways in which authors are also readers and, perhaps more importantly, vise versa. His new venture Cursor aims to cultivate a community of writer-readers. Whether he is successful or not will not hinge on whether many readers also fancy themselves writers -- that much seems self-evident -- but instead on exactly what people are willing to pay to be a part of a community of like-minded folks. Both Stein and Nash argued that the way most of us read now – alone with the text – has only been the way we read for the past two hundred or so years, a product of the industrial revolution. Prior to that, reading was something done in a small group, typically the family, and discussion was a natural and essential component of it. Whether that desire – to experience a text as a part of a group – has been thwarted by the past couple hundred years and consequently liberated by the connectivity of the net is at the very heart of the matter. Fittingly, the debate about the issue spilled out from the conference itself and onto the Read 2.0 email list, which discusses issues pertinent to the future of the book business. Skeptics argued that shared marginalia was innovation for innovation’s sake, or that it might be applicable to academic environments and certain kinds of book clubs, but that it had little future as a commercially viable project for commercial publishers. While it’s easy to see why many are skeptical, one can’t help but wonder how many people knew ten years ago that they wanted to write a blog? How many could have explained their desire to connect with other readers on sites like Goodreads? And yet there are millions of bloggers and Goodreads has four million members and counting. The text has been an isolated thing for so many years and decades that it’s difficult to imagine it as something different, as one part of a community and a conversation, rather than a thing unto itself. We want to interact with some texts, it seems, but whether we want that to extend to our long-form narratives remains somewhat in doubt. Another thing very much in doubt is the publisher’s role in this changing world. It is telling that at a conference so focused on the future of reading, there was only a single representative of any of the six major publishers in attendance. The leadership, it seems, comes not from New York, but from the startups and thinkers on the fringes of the industry proper. People like Eli James, whose website Novelr has been covering the world of online fiction for some time, and Matthew Bernius from RIT, who closed the conference with the presentation of a canon of publishing, continue to lead a vanguard that increasingly has less and less to do with what’s happening in Manhattan. Leaving the conference, I couldn’t help but be excited for the future. Simply being at the Internet Archive – one of the few places on earth actually digitizing books – was an exhilarating experience. On the second day of the conference, the attendees all banded together to form a "box brigade" to help the Internet Archive move a few dozen boxes from the first floor of their building to the second. The boxes contained hard drives capable of storing 2.8 petabytes of data, or 2 billion books. This is an incredible time to be a reader, even if it’s a terrifying time for traditional publishing. I will admit to getting chills thinking about what the 2020 meeting of Books in Browsers will be like. The only things I’m comfortable predicting that far in the future are that people will be writing long-form narratives, people will be reading them, and they will be dying to talk about it.