The Future of the Book

The Paper-Reader’s Dilemma

In a new commercial for the Amazon Kindle, a man and a woman lie on beach chairs, glazing beneath the sun.  The tragically average man is trying to read his iPad; due to the glare, he can no longer follow his Patterson.  The woman, Kindle in hand, has no problem with the sun; by the looks of her, she has no problems at all.  The man’s shortcomings are plain, and the message is equally clear: the Kindle will make you sexier and resist the sun. I find the ad faintly comical.  In an effort to fend off Apple—which builds sex straight into its products—Amazon is grasping at whatever straw lies near.  But for me, the fun ends there.  After years of rising dread—the prophesied End of Books, the Bezos Newsweek cover—“it” is finally here.  No longer are books being pitted against pixels; pointing out that paper isn't reflective either seems very 2007.  The war is now between tablets, as if the book never existed at all. In recent years, grief for such losses—music stores, newsrooms, this tradition or that—has become so common and compressed that it’s become a cultural given.  We now swallow our objections, lest they later seem absurd.  A few years ago, I stood in Tower Records, praising its stock to a friend: You can hold a compact disc; buying an album is a genuine act.  And just look at Bitches Brew: don’t you want to have it? Of course, that Tower Records—along with most of its kind—is gone now; a jazz Pandora station is playing as I write.  The transition was far less wrenching than I’d previously expected; in fact, there was really no pain at all.  While I may miss aimless browsing, thoughts consumed by music, the process now seems needless, like baking bread from scratch. I might say we’re at a moment when we face this choice as readers—the decision to climb into the boat or stay on familiar shores.  But the decision is not truly ours.  Time and again, these choices are made for us, by a collective sweep and push.  One day, everyone holds an iPod, and the next day, so do you.  Those who resist—the pipe smokers and vinyl hounds, stubborn to the end—come to seem affected, or possibly insane.  The rest of us seem modern, and eventually commonplace. The prospect of our wonders used to bring excitement.  In the early nineties, after seeing Dick Tracy, I dreamed of his two-way radio.  How cool would that be?  I thought.  Incredibly, I found out: as two-way radios came to market, then gripped every inch of our lives, they became not cool at all.  Awe gave way to grabbiness: digitize everything, please.  Books are the latest items to be forced into the hole. So I should probably shrug at progress and enjoy a digital Roth.  But—and at this stage, I know the pointlessness of saying it—books feel different to me.  Everywhere I’ve lived, they’ve surrounded me; nearly every night since childhood, I’ve held one in my hands.  My mother was a librarian; my father sat me on his lap and read Tom Sawyer aloud.  I now do the same with my son, though he isn’t quite ready for Twain.  Everyone, to some degree, has a variation of this history. So here is the dilemma: you love your books, with their meaning and their warmth, but you’re not some weepy sap.  You find romance in the object, yet none in being an outlier, unreasonably clinging to relics.  Do you get on the boat—with its gorgeous women and glare-free screens—or ignore it and hold on?  Had I asked myself this question around the time of my Tower trip, I would have flared out my response: I’ll never switch, you Logan’s Run drone.  Books are too vital to trade for some overmarketed whim. But in the time since, I’ve given myself over to plenty of similar whims—and against all odds, they haven’t ravaged my soul.  Electric books hold no appeal to me; they feel like viral death.  But so did music taken from a set of coiled wires.  The sounds were what was important.  So my answer now, however reluctant, is this: I’ll hold on to books for as long as I can.  I’ll read them, lend them, fall asleep with them.  I’ll hope they hold their own, that novelty will wane.  And if it doesn’t—when it doesn’t—I’ll find myself among a crowd that I'd never hoped to join. (Image: circuit board, from botheredbybees's photostream)
The Future of the Book

Comparing Apples to BMWs: What Does it Mean to be a “Best Bookstore” Anyway?

Flavorwire’s list of the Top Ten Bookstores in the US was not supposed to piss me off, but that’s exactly what it did. It was supposed to be the sort of article you read and then forget about until someone else runs it again next year. Instead, being the disagreeable sort, I found myself dwelling on the thing and, well, getting pissed off. The list angered me for several reasons.  For one thing, it began with the obligatory opening gambit, “Bookstores are dying.” This is the default commentary-of-the-moment regarding bookstores (independent or otherwise).  It follows from the idea that bookstores, like record stores, will be a thing of the past before you have time to finish Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.  Of course, this line of reasoning assumes that books are just like CDs and that record stores are, indeed, gone. Though neither of these statements is true, I will concede that bookstores are somewhat imperiled at the moment. Okay, maybe there are fewer bookstores in existence now than there were ten or twenty years ago, but to say that bookstores are dying is an oversimplification.  It’s not so much that they’re all dying, but that a certain kind of bookstore is on its way out. The closure of the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble, a superstore, for instance, represents the shifting tide in the book retail world.  That store opened in 1995, and as we all know by now, a lot has changed in the media business since then.  The days of requiring a 60,000 square foot storefront to sell books are coming to an end, if they aren’t already over.  Make no mistake, the B&N closure was an epoch-defining one, even if it was a rent hike that made it happen. The superstore made a lot of sense in the pre-internet era.  In order to offer the largest possible selection, you needed a lot of space.  Initially, independent stores like Powell’s in Portland, Oregon and The Tattered Cover in Denver opened huge storefronts carrying tens of thousands of titles.  The chain stores – especially Barnes & Noble – mimicked the open space, the big comfy chairs, and the air of bookish intellect of these stores. They took the concept of the superstore national, and in the process, they leveraged their size, scale, and efficiency to secure favorable deals from distributors.  In short, they were able to sell books for less, which enabled them to sell more books. But Amazon and the rest of the ecommerce stores made the issue of selection and scale largely moot.  How do you compete with a store that claims to offer every book in print?  Still, having a physical location with a lot of books was valuable; if someone wanted the book that day, these stores were there for them, and they offered a large enough selection to satisfy all but the most esoteric needs.  But what would happen to these stores if the need for the physical book were suddenly removed?  With the rising popularity of ebooks – set to consume anywhere from 15% to 50% of the book market in the next five years, depending on who you believe – we are about to find out the answer to that question. Barnes & Noble and Borders both know first-hand what it’s like to be suddenly left with a product that no one needs.  In the 1990s and early 2000s, both dedicated significant floor space to CDs and DVDs.  The book industry even had a term for this – “sidelines,” a term they later revised to the much catchier “non-book products.” But digitization and the internet came quickly for CDs, gutting that business in just a few years.  As broadband speeds increase, streaming video will eventually kill off the DVD, as well.  In response, the big stores turned to products that couldn’t be so easily digitized.  Almost every big store now has a cafe, creating a “third place” where people could congregate and discuss the books and periodicals they’ve purchased.  Many stores have converted an area into a permanent events section, giving them a seating capacity that rivals some small theaters and attracting big name authors for readings and parties. A few weeks ago, Borders announced it will be selling custom-made teddy bears in its stores.  But despite their best efforts, the large stores face a daunting and dismal future. Hence the elegiac mood of the Flavorwire piece, and its imploring “buy some books, you lousy ingrates” call to action.  Another pet peeve of mine is when people consider their local independent bookstore a charity. Unless your store is a non-profit, it should succeed or fail based on how well it does as a business, not because of noblesse oblige on the part of your municipality. Allowing people to treat your for-profit business like a charity can have some unwanted side-effects. I’ve worked for stores that would occasionally charge admission to a reading.  Typically, the price was purchasing a copy of the book, which seemed perfectly reasonable to me – you’re there to see the author, you buy the book, the store makes some money, the author makes some money, everybody wins!  But all too often, people would look at me as if I’d just told them air was no longer free.  “You shouldn’t be charging for these events,” they’d say. “They’re good for the community.” In other words, they were looking for an evening of free entertainment. Well, this isn’t the library, ma’am. We have to pay the bills somehow. But despite all of this, there are some reasons to be excited about bookstores.  The Flavorwire article came to my attention because of the efforts of two New York City independent bookstores – Housing Works and McNally-Jackson – who had posted the article to their Tumblr blogs.  Housing Works pointed out that most of the best indie bookstores in New York had opened in the last ten years, not closed.  They were talking about Greenlight Bookstore, WORD, McNally-Jackson, Idlewild, Powerhouse, and Desert Island.  In Los Angeles, where we’ve had some substantial bookstore attrition in recent years, several new stores have opened, including Metropolis, Family, Stories, The Secret Headquarters, and the Brentwood Diesel store.  On top of that, Vroman’s Bookstore, my former employer, was doing enough business to buy fellow LA indie outpost Book Soup (also a former employer) and Skylight Bookstore expanded, annexing a neighboring storefront. These stores are succeeding not because they are the biggest stores, but because they are the right stores for their areas.  We’re seeing a resurgence of the neighborhood bookstore, something many had considered dead in the heyday of the super stores.  Technology has actually leveled the playing field between big stores and small stores; anyone with enough capital and the space for a large copy machine can have a Book Espresso Machine, giving them access to hundreds of thousands of titles, as well as custom-printed books. And web applications like Foursquare and Facebook Locations don’t discriminate between businesses based on size; anybody with a good hook can lure people to their store and capitalize. Which brings me to the second thing I hated about the Flavorwire piece:  What does it mean to say “These are the best bookstores,” after all? Any list that includes Powell’s, The Strand (a store that sells mostly remainders and used books), and Secret Headquarters is comparing apples to BMWs to gym memberships.  Making a list like this is akin to asking, “What’s the best place to buy food in Los Angeles?” and then listing Whole Foods, The Cheese Store of Silver Lake, and Animal as your answer.  Sure they all sell prosciutto, but that’s more or less where the similarities end. Please don’t think the stores on Flavorwire’s list aren’t great – they are – but the stores they chose reveal the futility of the whole process.  What makes a “great bookstore” and what do the stores on the list have in common with one another, other than that they all sell books?  The truth is, I can teach you to write a “Best Bookstore” list right now.  Nearly every “Best Bookstore” list pulls five or six stores from the following list of venerable indies:  Powell’s, Tattered Cover, Vroman’s, Book People (in Austin, TX), Elliott Bay (Seattle, WA), and Books and Books (South Florida, the Cayman Islands & now Long Island).  Those are the remaining indie super stores, and they rightly deserve praise, but there are so many tremendous smaller stores that are equally deserving of recognition.  There are too many, in fact, to make a list (Believe me, I tried).  And what makes so many of these stores incredible, what many of the chain stores could never mimic, is the staff.  A better list might be one that names the top 10 booksellers in America (I could take a crack at that:  Stephanie Anderson from WORD, Emily Pullen from Skylight, Michele Filgate from Riverrun, Rachel Fershleiser from Housing Works…Well, I could go on). In the end, it’s irrelevant, as the only bookstore that anybody cares about is the one near them, the one whose staff knows their tastes, the one that hosts your favorite author when he or she comes to town.  For some of you, that's no doubt a chain store.  I grew up outside Syracuse, NY, and I will absolutely shed a tear the day the Borders in the Carousel Center Mall closes, as it was place I remember visiting when I was in high school and just discovering the pleasure of reading.  The rest of the stores, though – the big, nationally known bookstores – exist for you, unless you live around the corner from one of them, more as monuments than as businesses.  They’re kind of like those iconic bars and restaurants that people make a point of stopping at every time they’re in New York or LA – they’re the McSorley’s or the Musso & Frank’s or the Rendezvous of bookstores. If they went away, you’d read about it in the paper.  It would be an “important moment,” but its impact on your life would be minimal unless they are your store. It’s the proverbial store around the corner that you care about, and if that store continues to serve you well, I think it will survive.  If it doesn’t, well, hopefully someone will put it on some sort of “best of” list before it goes.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to celebrate the fact that my local bookstore is still kicking.  Maybe you should do the same. (Image: Abbey Bookstore image from poisonbabyfood's photostream)
The Future of the Book

Bats in the Bookshelves: The Perils of Literary Social Networking

A few years ago, a woman I hardly know and whose name I’ve now forgotten invited me to become her friend on Goodreads, a social-networking site on which users log the books they’re reading (or have read, or intend to read), and in some cases write casual reviews of these books and rate them on a scale of one to five stars. I thanked the woman but told her I didn’t participate in social-networking websites. Because, I didn’t elaborate, I found them more estranging than connecting, or suspected I would, and because I didn’t want to turn myself into some kind of product (not true: in my huffing, protracted climb from anonymity to obscurity, I’ve attempted quite a lot of that), and because I was very tired, and finally because I couldn’t afford another distraction from my writing or from checking my email forty times a day. I’ve since softened my position on all this and now have an impressive though not obscene number of friends on Facebook. Sometimes these nominal friendships bring into depressing relief my paucity of substantive friendships, but on the whole I’d say I’m slightly less lonely and no less productive (which is to say: not terribly productive) than I was before I joined Facebook. But this essay, if that’s what it is, isn’t about Facebook (boring), it’s about Goodreads (sort of). So some night this past winter—it was very late; I’d been having trouble sleeping—I found myself Googling a minor figure in the publishing industry, and in doing so came across his Goodreads page, which he allows to be viewed by friends and non-friends alike. His tastes were impeccable and strikingly similar to my own, which is odd because my tastes aren’t impeccable. I studied this man’s picture; he seemed elegant, loyal, athletic. I imagined him as my literal, that is, non-internet friend, and also as my champion, my Colonel Tom, imagined our spandexed bike rides together, our shared energy bars, our semicolon debates. I joined Goodreads but didn’t send this man a friend request, not wanting to seem like some scheming gnat, nor did I elect to follow him (as one follows a Twitter feed), not wanting to seem like some mousy sycophant. I spent another hour or so snooping around the site, but didn’t do anything with my own just-established Goodreads page, mostly because I was very tired. Then I avoided the site for about six months, during which period I was mainly dealing with a bat infestation in our old and porous house. Recently some other internet research of dubious value led me back to Goodreads, where I discovered that, during my absence, I’d received three friend requests. That seemed flattering, three is more than two after all, and in the embrace of my small public I finally put some information on my Goodreads page. First I noted the book I was currently reading, which I won’t note here, and then I considered adding my picture to the page, though in the end that seemed like too much work. Satisfied, I turned off the computer and read more of the book I’d just advertised while advertising myself on Goodreads. As I was reading, I sometimes paused to think of a pithy, even poetic comment I might post on Goodreads after finishing the book. I sometimes review books professionally, and in fact have a few books I should be reviewing now, so I didn’t want to write anything on Goodreads that might resemble a book review; I don’t mind procrastinating on writing book reviews, it’s one of my specialties, but it seemed foolish to put off writing a paying (barely remunerative) book review in order to write a volunteer one. But as I said, I thought I could come up with commentary of a different stripe, something terse and poetic—more and more I was thinking of something poetic. Such as: But I couldn’t come up with anything, or nothing good, even after I’d actually finished the book. I wrote and revised, took a walk, revised further. All junk. And even if I were to come up with something good, I thought, it might set an overhigh standard, and then, driven to routinely meet or exceed that standard, I’d devote altogether too much time to my Goodreads poems, distracting me from more serious writing as well as from checking my email and humanely (all in all) removing bats. The bats were just one of the things keeping me up at night; I blamed fatigue, in part, for my failure to write even one presentable Goodreads poem. I decided to ignore the comments box and just give the book a star rating. All my favorite books are four-star books: great (or very good) books that here and there bore, vex, or disgust me. “Might I confess to finding that it is exquisite to be of two minds regarding works or art?” Robert Walser wrote in a four-star short story. “To find fault with something that I welcome on the whole, how nice I find it is!” Exactly, and I suppose there was no avoiding that frothy exclamation point. Although no artwork is perfect, some are perfecter than others, and whenever a book offers too few opportunities for fault-finding, flirts too brazenly with perfection, with five-starness, I lose interest. For me to give a book five stars would be to insult it, would be more or less the same as giving it three stars. Still, it would look sophomoric to give a close-but-no-cigar four stars to, say, Don Quixote, a book I love, even though parts of it bore, vex, or disgust me. Especially because at some point, for instance when a friend publishes a book, I’m going to trot out all five of those stars. I don’t have many writer friends, or many non-writer friends, my Facebook account notwithstanding, but I have a few, and the next time one of them publishes a book, I’d be inclined to give that book the maximum rating on Goodreads, even though none of my friends—I can just tell—are capable of writing a five-star book (which by my lights is a good thing), and no doubt some of them will write two-star books. And to those two-star books, fair books, neither good nor bad, I’d happily fill in five stars on Goodreads and hope that my friends would do the same for me if and when my two-star book quietly hits tens or even dozens of shelves. But that would make the four stars I gave Don Quixote look even dumber, and then everyone—all my friends, my three Goodreads friends—would know that either my judgment is unreliable or my rating system is a sham. I could refuse to treat my friends’ books on Goodreads, and inform them, my friends, of this policy so they wouldn’t wonder why I was neglecting their books, their mostly as-yet-unpublished books. But I fear my Goodreads friend numbers, already low, might suffer as a result. The whole pursuit seemed doomed. Better, I decided, to skip the star rating along with the commentary, simply let the book speak for itself. This would be my clean, disinterested procedure: no clever (yet moving) poetic fragments, no reductive star ratings, just a log of the books I’ve read, or skimmed. Many people, including Art Garfunkel, keep such records. If you go to Garfunkel’s website, as I sometimes do, you can see every book he’s read since 1968. In April of ’72 he read Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity; in June of that year, when he and Simon reunited for a McGovern fundraiser at Madison Square Garden, he read no books (or finished up the Watts); last July he read Cicero’s On the Good Life, followed by Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. He was On. Of course I’m not famous and interesting like Art Garfunkel is, nor can I sing harmony, but my book log, I thought, might nonetheless be of interest to my three Goodreads friends, one of whom I’ve never actually met, or might at least be of interest to a future version of myself. Twenty years from now I would know that in June of 2010 I reread (skimmed) a book about insomnia, among others. Having worked through these dilemmas, I needed to start a new book. This is one of my favorite things to do, to choose and start a new book. I try to really concentrate on my emotional conditions and intellectual acuity at that moment, and consider what plans I have over the next few days or weeks, and then home in on the one book, of all the books I know, or that I happen to find in my bat-ridden home or at the nearest bookstore (where I believe I’ve also seen bat droppings), that I most want, most need, to read, so that I won’t put the book at a disadvantage by reading it at the wrong time. These pains notwithstanding, I often choose the wrong book. It may be that I like to choose and start books more than I like to finish them. Probably I abandon sixty percent of the books I start. Sometimes I fail the book (and set it aside with some shame); sometimes the book fails me (and I hurl it away with some relish). As it happens, the book I was thinking about reading next was one I’d left unfinished several years ago, too many years ago to start from where I’d marked page 122 with the business card of a sleep therapist, it may have been, or a bus transfer (I threw out the bookmark without studying it). But starting again at page one is fine, since, as I just explained, I love to start books. As it also happens, I’d once, over ice cream with a friend I’m almost certain, claimed to have read and enjoyed this book—not entirely false, I’d read and enjoyed part of the book, and I’d read three other books by the same writer, so perhaps I had the right to fudge. Besides, I’d read all the books years ago—not twenty years ago, granted, but six, seven, or eight—long enough for memory to do its destructive, distorting work, to the point where the three wholly read books were about as hazy to me as the mostly unread one. Still, I didn’t want to indicate to my Goodreads friends that I was currently reading the book as if it were brand new to me, since after all I’d had the sense to start the book ages or at least seven years ago, when its author was a bit less fashionable, and furthermore I didn’t want my ice-cream buddy to discover and friend me on the site (I would have to accept), then call my bluff, humiliating me in front of the others, and yet I didn’t want to heap lies on lies in the comments section: “What a delight to revisit this longtime favorite,” or the like. I would have to start some other book, I decided. And probably it would be best, as long as I was on Goodreads, not to read any book I had earlier started but not finished, or any book I’d ever directly or obliquely but either way falsely claimed to have read in its entirety, or any book that I feel I should have read long ago, but didn’t, partly because I was so tired. The next book I wanted to read was a famously difficult work of philosophy that, to judge from my previous experience with the same book, I would understand only sporadically and almost certainly not finish. Undoubtedly it would look pretentious to list this book on Goodreads; perhaps it would even be pretentious. But I might, I thought, be able to clear the air of some pomposity by reading the philosophy book in tandem with something breezy, even utilitarian (in the non-philosophical sense)—Psyching Up for Tennis or something like that. But I wasn’t about to read Psyching Up for Tennis or tell more lies. I decided to look for another book, but each one I settled on was wrong for Goodreads: too fancy, too populist, too hip, too square, too predictable, too self-consciously curve bally. I would have to give up Goodreads or give up reading. I deleted my account, but felt no relief. Last night, disturbed by anxieties only tangentially related to Goodreads, I had trouble falling asleep again, and eventually got up at three-thirty, ate a bowl of cereal, and started a new book, a smart, soulful little book of poetry, a book that might, I thought, cast a becoming light on its public readers and even in some small way boost the poet’s career. I thought I could give Goodreads another go, and that this time I would relax and let the site link me to kindred spirits, let it give me fizzy blips of communitarian joy, let it alert me to overlooked books that I too might come to cherish. And it was these optimistic thoughts, and the book of poetry, which started to drag, that finally allowed me to close my eyes, make heavy my limbs, and settle into what I believe were the most restful three hours of non-postcoital adult sleep I have ever known. [Image credit: pachakku]
From the Newsstand, The Future of the Book

Connecting Readers in the Cloud

With the launch of Apple's iPad, some of the literary web is focusing on the impending doom and loss that the e-book revolution will bring. Though some of the major publishing houses have welcomed the iPad with open arms, others are less eager to sign on. Yet beyond the publishing houses, there's a whole group -- the consumers of books -- that is very much concerned with the way in which e-readers will change how we read. It's the readers of books, after all, that will be affected most by a switch from print to digital. Lost will be the days of curling up with a yellowed and musty book adopted from your local library. Farewell to those nights when you, on an impulse, run to your local bookstore and return with more than you ever intended to purchase and sit up reading until the wee-hours. Adios to those cookbooks with grandmama's annotations, sprinkled with splotches of her world famous pasta sauce. While these moments have the potential to be lost to modernity, they will be replaced by new experiences with the written word -- albeit, perhaps less fragrant And yet still, there are those who are now, as in Mokoto Rich's article in the New York Times, lamenting another loss, the culture of reading. You know the scenario, but here's my anecdote. I'm sitting on the shuttle to my gym. The girl sitting across from me is about my age, she's dressed similarly to me, wearing glasses, and she has a yoga mat strapped to her bag. In other words -- she could or could not be my future best friend. In her lap is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I think to myself, "I wonder if that book is any good." Maybe I go home and read reviews of the book. Maybe I take a leap of faith and purchase it right away. But regardless, I'm now seeing the book as something of interest to me because I see myself in its readers. These types of encounters happen all of the time in the culture of reading, and yet as e-books are clearly the way of the future, the likelihood of the scenario happening will certainly decrease. Years (maybe even months) from now, the others on the shuttle will be immersed in their e-readers -- much in the same way that many of them are currently focused on their iPhones or Blackberries. And I, looking at each of them, won't have the slightest idea of what they are reading or looking at. The yoga mat will be there, and the clothes will still be similar, but the only cue I will gather is that I too should be looking down at a device. But of course, we don't just get our book recommendations from random people on public transportation. Amazon has virtually changed the way we can browse and buy books, and online communities such as Goodreads have sprouted up to connect forlorn readers to other like-minded folks on the internet. If you are a supporter of the independent bookstore movement, you know that a good bookstore is like a great wine store -- its shelves are curated by experts (or maybe just people with a lot of time to read) you trust. And there will always be the world of web reviews. "Yes," you say, "all of this is true. But what about when I am on a bus?" With some certainty I'll say that we can look to the iPhone to get an idea of the possibility for the iPad. Though there are far too many applications available for the iPhone than one could ever keep track of, one category has been getting lots of attention -- location-based social networking apps. Gowalla, Foursquare and Whrrl are the big three, but I'm sure there are others out there. What these apps all provide is the ability to know where your friends are and let others know where you are by "checking in" to restaurants, bars, bookstores, etc. The apps also identify your location and then tell you "What's Trending" near you. Right now, for instance, the coffee shop up the street from my office is trending (10 people have checked in). So what does all of this have to do with the iPad and the culture of reading? Currently, when I search 'Literature' or 'Books' or 'Reading' in the App Store, I come up with pages and pages of apps. Many of them help you read e-books or listen to audio books. Some of them are actual compilations of certain types of literature (Classics, Shakespeare, etc.). And there are others, such as Electric Literature or Small Chair that operate like magazines, feeding subscribers weekly or monthly exclusive bits. From my cursory view, only one of the apps, the Goodreads app, actually has a community element baked into it. There is potential here and I'm not a product person so I can only imagine a sliver of the myriad, though I will try. What if there were a way to know what people near me were reading? What if I could find out what other books they've read to know better if they're a compatible recommender of books? What if I couldn't judge a book by a yoga mat? Would I find better matches, or perhaps more accurate ones? Because though the girl across from me might look like my type of friend, I may actually hate The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and let's be honest, what 20-something girl in San Francisco doesn't practice yoga. Certainly not all of them share my literary tastes. Perhaps, even, my taste in literature is more compatible with the quinquagenarian sitting at the back of the shuttle. While it sounds like a huge invasion of privacy to know that someone near me named Ed is reading the Twilight Saga, if Ed wants me to know, then I could potentially learn from Ed by knowing that not just is he reading New Moon, but he's also a huge fan of Poe and just finished a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates that I didn't even know existed. By not judging Ed for the fact that he is a fifty-five-year-old male wearing tube socks, I transcend the shackles of whom I imagine I can identify with -- as a reader and beyond. I can identify with anyone, and that's really the point of technology: to open up the world. We are social creatures by nature and we like to observe the people around us -- public transportation sometimes gives us no other choice. But just because technology will change the way we read does not mean that a new culture of reading won't be born of it. Indeed, our constant has always been change. Though seemingly scary now, I'm confident that whatever amount of visual transparency we lose from going digital we will gain in learning a bit more about ourselves and the world outside of our walls of judgment. [Image credit:Bruce Clay]
Notable Articles, The Future of the Book

Ceasing to Exist: Three Months in the Social Media Detox Ward

When I was in my early-twenties, I made a new year's resolution to stop looking at myself in the mirror so much.   It didn't work, of course--what else can one do with a reflection besides look at it?   This year, in my late-twenties, I set a similar resolution: for four months, until April 1st, I would turn away from Facebook and Twitter.  I had grown bored, obsessed, bothered, even--I admit it--enamored with my reflection there.  And lord help me if I found myself at midnight yet again, drinking a glass a wine and scrolling through wedding photos of a friend of a friend of a friend, or, come morning, drinking a mug of coffee and vainly attempting to read and retweet one fascinating article after another.  J. Alfred Prufrock may have measured out his life with coffee spoons; I had begun to measure mine with status updates. So I prepared my friends, my "friends," and my followers (man, the way I kept track of my followers, you'd think I was a cult leader!), and on January 2nd, a loved one changed my passwords for me.  The whole internet seemed to collapse in a second, like the ocean knocking down an elaborate sand castle.  I suddenly had no access to the two sites I'd grown accustomed to checking over and over during the course of my day.  You see, I'm not internet savvy.  I don't have an RSS reader, and I have no idea how one might procure such a thing.  Not that I want to.  I like visiting my favorite websites on a whim to see if there's something new; it feels a little like Christmas, reaching into my stocking to see if there's just one more piece of candy hidden in the toe.  The problem with Facebook and Twitter, I've realized, is that the Christmas stocking is infinite, and infinitely full.  There is always another piece of candy to claw at.  One piece is delicious, but one begets two, and three, and four, and, okay,'s not long before you've made yourself sick. The first week of my detox, I realized just how much I'd depended on those sites for community.  Aside from the classes I teach a few nights a week, I work from home.  Alone.   Without my beloved internet family, the silence was frightening. I began to spend more time on goodreads, and I sometimes got sucked into g-chat.  One night, exhausted from a day of reading and writing, I searched for entertainment online, and found The Bachelor.  Now I'm convinced there's a patch of dead grass in my brain--it simply cannot be brought to life! I also noticed how I kept a running Twitter feed in my head: Oh, not my crazy neighbors again!, and, Wow, has anyone read so-and-so's novel? Someone suggested I keep these in a notebook, to be broadcast at a later date.  That might have been funny, but wasn't the point of my detox to wrest myself away from this real-time cataloging of reactions, emotions, and experience?  I felt very much like Laurel Snyder did in her days away from the site.  In this Salon article, she sums up well the magnetism of Twitter (and, for me, the live update feed on Facebook as well): Now I understand you don’t do things with Twitter. You become a part of it. That’s why it doesn’t work when people try to use it as a sporadic "marketing tool" or check in every three days. Twitter is unspooling in real time, and so what happened an hour ago is, well, in the past. Nobody will bother to read what you tweeted four hours ago any more than people at a get-together will overhear what happened before they got there. Like any party, if you duck in and out for a few minutes, you miss all the best parts. The pain of missing "all the best parts" has been the hardest aspect of my detox.  I admit, when it was Doppelganger Week on Facebook, I felt downright bereft.  I wanted so badly to post as my profile picture a photo of Anthony Michael Hall circa Sixteen Candles! Or--wait--Chloe Sevigny in Kids!  Or wait...!  It felt like I was missing a class field trip to an amusement park. I realized, too, how much news I was getting from Twitter.  I have never read the newspaper on a daily basis; I'd much rather listen to NPR, or read long-form magazine articles, or, as I did increasingly over the last year, get linked to news from people I follow online, journalists and novelists and poets who keep up with current events far better than I ever could.  A month into my detox, I was clueless--not just about the latest restaurant or movie, but about the new turn in the health care debate, for instance.  I'd felt like this once before, when my husband and I got rid of  cable, and effectively, television-watching.   The level of my family's discourse often centers around the best new television commercials (I always wanted to be raised by professors, discussing Marxism and whatnot, but as my father would say, "People in hell want ice water.")  In the post-television days, I remember feeling a vague alienation whenever these conversations began, my sister waxing poetic about the latest Volkswagen ad, everyone else nodding.   During my internet detox, I began to feel this way a lot, and not just with my family, but with my friends, too.  All conversations seemed to begin with, "Did you see on Facebook..."   I was suddenly an outsider, and I felt equal parts annoyed, superior and wistful. And also relieved. In his book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier decries the devaluation of individual thought and personhood in a Web 2.0 world.  He writes: Personal reductivism has always been present in information systems. You have to declare your status in reductive ways when you file a tax return.  Your real life is represented by a silly, phony set of database entries in order for you to make use of a service in an appropriate way.  Most people are aware of the difference between reality and database entries when they file taxes. But the order is reversed when you perform the same kind of self-reduction in order to create a profile on a social networking site.  You fill in the data: profession, marital status, and residence.  But in this case digital reduction becomes a causal element, mediating contact between new friends. I agree with Lanier here, though once your profile is set up, you can be quite creative.  Many of my online friends are writers and artists, and the content they generate is by turns smart, funny, and distinct.   If their status updates generate information for advertisers, well, then, fine.  I'd rather "The Man" try to sell me novels and nice pens, rather than tires and thigh-masters.  But Lanier makes a good point when he says,  "Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality."   I'm not my Facebook profile, nor am I a series of Twitter updates.  And the time I spend on these sites means I have less time to write fiction and converse with people in person, two things that make me feel most alive in the world. At the opening of his book, Lanier suggests a few ways to use the internet to promote individual expression.  Spend time developing your narrative voice online.  (Check.)  Don't post anonymously. (Check--well, most of the time.)  And, in a doozy of a sentence, he  suggests that Twitter-users stop describing "trivial external events... to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would describe a machine."   Amen to that. The problem of the internet--its power, and the way it's changing how we live our lives--is a big topic these days.    There's The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand Year Journey to Your In-Box by John Freeman, and, forthcoming, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.  The internet age is so young that we're worried, and intrigued, by how it will shape us--we simply have no idea.  The single most fascinating aspect of my detox was the number of people who wanted to talk to me about it.  Almost everyone I spoke to said, "I wish I could do that!"  Then they got this strained look in their eyes that meant, The internet is ruining my life! When I assured them a detox was easy to do, they weren't convinced.  Or they said, "Okay, yes, next month. I'll try it."  And then they wouldn't.  It saddened me to see all these people, chained to their online lives, posting flattering  photos of themselves, "liking" a funny status update, posting or retweeting a link. It's a never-ending race to remind others that we're here, that we exist.  It reminds me of when I used to do dance routines and little plays for my mom.  "Look!"  I'd yell every few seconds.  "You're NOT watching! Look!"  It gets exhausting.  And it's not really living. So here we are.  It's now past April 1st, and I haven't ended the detox.  The truth is, I don't miss the two sites much.   These days, I feel no pull whatsoever toward Twitter, despite the number of fabulous people there.  In my mind, it's a crowded elevator where everyone's talking over one another.  They're all saying interesting things, but who can keep track?  Part of me is afraid to return to Facebook. Will it exert the power over me that it used to?  I want to return, and I want to show restraint.  And if I can't, I will have to detach once again.  That might be fine.  Since January, I've enjoyed the injection of mystery and privacy into the world.  I don't need to broadcast my life on a daily basis.  If I run into you at the grocery store, the question, "How are you?" will be genuine, and that will feel good. [Image credit: Marcos Zerene]
The Future of the Book

Cooped up in a Bookstore, Just to Stop Reading

The rustle of textbook pages turning, the hasty unzipping of oversized book bags hardly disrupts this venue’s overflowing intellectual energy. The pounding clatter of fingers pressed against greasy laptop keyboards – a soothing symphony to knowledge, it seems – fills the second-floor air, redolent of fresh Starbucks coffee. College students donning the ubiquitous ‘H’ logo, tourists doing likewise, a few bums clad in sweatpants, and the other denizens of Cambridge flock here, traveling up the cascading staircase past the stack of Malcolm Gladwell books to check out all three floors of the establishment. It is June 2009 and I take my place among the overstressed, sleepless, and nascent literati at the Harvard Coop, a popular bookstore just outside the campus of one of the nation's most prestigious universities. School is never out here. A seventeen-year-old high school student, I wasn't researching a thesis. However, I had enrolled in two creative writing classes for the summer and desperately needed to begin on my final project: a piece of creative non-fiction of up to fifteen pages. Hours had flown by in my dorm room in Harvard Yard’s Thayer Hall without progress. Instead, I had voraciously consumed my eclectic – and completely electronic – literary diet of news, soccer blogs, and The New Yorker online. Reading was, and still is, my favorite tool of procrastination – and how easy it is thanks to the Internet! I am loathe to brand my online perusing a “waste” of time – in fact, I’ve probably learned more about writing this way than I have in school – but, for all the putative benefits of this side-reading, it gets me off track. Fast. I’m not alone though. According to a new Kaiser Family Foundation study, kids ages 8-18 spend over seven and a half hours a day glued to computers, cell phones, televisions, or other electronic media. What is more, the authors of the study note that today’s youth actually get 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content through multitasking. Any teenager will tell you this isn’t remotely surprising – and, for me, it instantly recalls the image of my friends instinctively whipping out their cell phones to furiously text, even during a conversation or while watching TV. Still, I’m a bit of an outlier. According to the study, only one in ten young people reported reading newspapers or magazines online; for those who did read online, the average time spent on this activity was a mere 21 minutes. It’s just so easy to get immersed in a piece. A mere click on my IBM laptop opens up the Chrome browser, and from there, the stories, videos, and links tantalize me thanks to the myriad gadgets on my iGoogle page. I really want to finish writing the overture, the introduction to my piece – but what if Nick Kristof posts a new blog entry, what if that famous soccer player tweets me back, or what if someone wrote on my Facebook wall? I can’t resist. It takes less than a second, so I just hit the “F” key and “Enter” to check the ubiquitous social-networking site once more. Three notifications. But I had to get my assignment done: a four to fifteen page piece for my creative nonfiction class. And as they say, desperate for one to cut off the Internet. So I planted myself firming at the place with the spottiest wireless reception on campus: The Harvard Coop bookstore. There, I thought, I could focus, motivated by a collegiate atmosphere teeming with brilliance, students tapping away at their literary masterpieces on pearl white Macbooks or furiously scribbling proofs of theorems belonging to esoteric branches of mathematics. Buoyed by my change of milieu (and lack of Internet), I sat, ordered a coffee, wrote – and actually got several pages done in a few hours. But never at the Coop did I realize the obvious irony of my situation. A student, who procrastinates by reading (of all things), must hole himself up at none other than a bookstore… in order to do his work and stop reading. Perfect sense, right? It was my professor who had to point this irony out to me as we conferenced over the writing process and the piece. My myopia speaks to the differences between my peer group (dubbed Gen M^2 by the Kaiser Family Foundation study) and those only just slightly older. Despite the fact that I had, on many occasions, spent several hours reading books off the shelves at the Coop, I paradoxically saw it, a comprehensive bookstore, as the only place where I would not succumb to my proclivity for procrastination – the only place where I would not read. In hindsight, it seems that Harvard’s cavernous Widener library would be the only place more inane for me to go at the time. But why didn’t I realize my folly? Perhaps it’s just the incipient laziness of my generation. Reading something online – a blog post, a news story, a feature article – is downright quicker than pulling out a book. You can scan, highlight – and if you lose interest – move on to another work in a matter of seconds. While this raises the question of whether “reading” online is tantamount to just leafing and scanning through a print copy, it’s efficient and easy. And with high-speed Internet essentially universal, I see no logical reason to physically use a book when everything is more conveniently online, on a screen. In fact, I could have theoretically completed all of my assigned readings for my two classes using the Internet in lieu of in my expensive textbooks; in many cases, I still did that regardless of the fact that I had bought the book. My peers would likely do the same; the Kaiser study reveals that the only media activity that actually failed to increase among young people over the past ten years is traditional print media. Indeed, the study indicates a roughly 25% drop in print newspaper and magazine readership since 1999. Why? The answer lies in said convenience, as well as the Internet-saturated, online-only culture in which I have grown up. Mine is the generation of the Kindle – er, iPad. Apart from the little remaining sentiment felt for the hard copy, we are inexorably moving entirely online. And as for those last remnants of nostalgia, our inherent resistance to change? They are the life support to which current print media clings. The problem is, sooner rather than later, the support will wither, wane, and expire as the online revolution – one which I experienced on a Cambridge summer day at the Coop, one which lives each time a teen types a text message – tweets on.
The Future of the Book

Amazon eBook Pricing Battle Gets Ugly

Apple's launch last week of the iPad has ushered in a new era of competition in the publishing industry as tech giants expand their footprint in the oldest of old media, books. Interestingly, at least among serious readers and industry watchers, a skirmish on the margins has taken the spotlight. On Friday, Amazon unilaterally and without any explanatory public announcement, removed all books by publisher Macmillan from its virtual shelves. This included both ebook and paper editions and impacted books as varied as Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto. At the heart of Amazon's move was a dispute over pricing. Essentially, Amazon, with its massive footprint in the publishing industry, is continually trying to dictate terms to publishers in order to maximize profits. Macmillan, seeing Apple (and therefore competition for Amazon) on the horizon, decided to hold its ground and retaliated. As a result, two models are now in play. Under Amazon's current model, it utilizes its near monopoly position to take an extremely steep wholesalers' discount (up to 70%) when it buys books from publishers, and it sets prices where it wants, often offering books at bargain prices in order to draw shoppers into Amazon while still eking out a profit. The opposing model is the agency model that treats Amazon not as a wholesaler but merely a sales force. The publisher sets the prices, and Amazon takes a 30% commission of whatever that price is. As best I can tell, the push for the agency model only applies to ebooks. Apple is touting this model with the iBook offering on the new iPad, and MacMillan intends to extend these terms to all outlets that sell its ebooks. (For more on how all this works, check out Charles Stross's informative piece.) For Amazon, it's clear why the current model is preferred. The only way it can differentiate (and lure new customers into its Kindle ecosystem) is based on price. If the agency model succeeds, technically any other player out there with the wherewithal could come along and sell ebooks on exactly the same terms that Amazon does. This is probably good news for readers. In the long-term it will spur competition in the ebook and ereader space that will inevitably push away from DRM, closed ecosystems, and expensive hardware. In the short term, however, those readers demanding that ebooks be priced at $9.99 or less are going to be frustrated. If publishers can set pricing, they are going to set it higher than Amazon would (In a memo obtained by Publishers Lunch, Macmillan has said it aims to price its ebook new releases between $12.99 and $14.99). These higher prices could definitely slow the growth of the ebook market, something I suspect may mainstream publishers wouldn't be too upset about. On the other hand, publishers would have the ability to adjust prices, and if lowering prices ends up increasing volume and maximizing profits, they'll undoubtedly do it. It's worth noting as well how Amazon has responded to Macmillan in this case and how a pattern of behavior is emerging. We noted nearly a year ago, when dicussing both
Notable Articles, The Future of the Book, The Millions Interview

Confessions of a Book Pirate

For several years, it seemed as though the book industry was getting a reprieve. As the music industry was ravaged by file sharing, and the film and TV industry were increasingly targeted by downloaders, book piracy was but a quaint cul de sac in the vast file sharing ecology. The tide, however, may be changing. Ereaders have become mainstream, making reading ebooks palatable to many more readers. Meanwhile, technology for scanning physical books and breaking the DRM on ebooks has continued to advance. A recent study by Attributor, a firm that specializes in monitoring content online, came to some spectacular conclusions, including the headline claim that book piracy costs the industry nearly $3 billion, or over 10% of total revenue. Of all the conclusions in the Attributor study, this one seemed the most outlandish, and the study itself might be met with some skepticism since Attributor is in the business of charging companies to protect their content from the threat of piracy. Nonetheless, the study, which monitored 913 titles on several popular file hosting sites, did point to a level of activity that suggested illegal downloading of books was becoming more than just a niche pastime. Even if the various extrapolations that led to the $3-billion figure are easy to poke holes in, Attributor still directly counted 3.2 million downloaded books. For some, however, the study may inspire more questions than answers. Who are the people downloading these books? How are they doing it and where is it happening? And, perhaps most critical for the publishing industry, why are people deciding to download books and why now? I decided to find out, and after a few hours of searching - stalled by a number dead links and password protected sites - I found, on an online forum focused on sharing books via BitTorrent, someone willing to talk. He lives in the Midwest, he's in his mid-30s and is a computer programmer by trade. By some measures, he's the publishing industry's ideal customer, an avid reader who buys dozens of books a year and enthusiastically recommends his favorites to friends. But he's also uploaded hundreds of books to file sharing sites and he's downloaded thousands. We discussed his file sharing activity over the course of a weekend, via email, and in his answers lie a critical challenge facing the publishing industry: how to quash the emerging piracy threat without alienating their most enthusiastic customers. As is typical of anonymous online communities, he has a peculiar handle: "The Real Caterpillar." This is what he told me: The Millions: How active are you. How many books have you uploaded or downloaded? The Real Caterpillar: In the past month, I have uploaded approximately 50 books to the torrent site where you contacted me. I am much less active then I once was. I used to scan many books, but in the past two years I have only done a few. Between 2002-2005 I created around 200 ebooks by scanning the physical copy, OCRing and proofing the output, and uploading them to USENET. I generally only upload content that I have scanned, with some exceptions. I have been out of the book scene for a while, concentrating on rare and out of print movies instead of books because it is much easier to rip a movie from VHS or DVD than to scan and proof a book. I have downloaded a couple thousand ebooks via USENET and private torrent sites. TM: Do you typically see scanned physical books or ebooks where the DRM has been broken? TRC: Most of what I have seen is scanned physical books. Stephen King's Under the Dome was the first DRM-broken book I downloaded knowingly. TM: Why have you gone this route as opposed to using a library or buying books? Do you consider this "stealing" or is it a gray area? TRC: I own around 1,600 physical books, maybe a third of which were bought new, the rest used. I buy many hardcovers in a given year and generally purchase more books than I end up reading, so I have not chosen to collect electronic books as opposed to paper books but in addition to them. My electronic library has about a 50% crossover with my physical library, so that I can read the book on my electronic reader, "loan" the book without endangering my physical copy, or eventually rid myself of the paper copy if it is a book I do not have strong feelings about. I do not buy DRM'd ebooks that are priced at more than a few dollars, but would pay up to $10 for a clean file if it was a new release. I do not pretend that uploading or downloading unpurchased electronic books is morally correct, but I do think it is more of a grey area than some of your readers may. Perhaps this will change as the Kindle and other e-ink readers make electronic books more convenient, but the Baen Free Library is an interesting experiment that proves that at least in that case, their business was actually enhanced by giving away their product free. That is probably not a business model that will work for everyone, but what is shows is that as a company they have their ear to the ground and are willing to think in new directions and take chances instead of putting their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, and railing against their customers, as the music industry is doing. The world is changing and business models have to change with it. Three additional points: 1) With digital copies, what is "stolen" is not as clear as with physical copies. With physical copies, you can assign a cost to the physical product, and each unit costs x dollars to create. Therefore, if the product is stolen, it is easy to say that an object was stolen that was worth x dollars. With digital copies, it is more difficult to assign cost. The initial file costs x dollars to create, but you can make a million copies of that file for no cost. Therefore, it is hard to assign a specific value to a digital copy of a work except as it relates to lost sales. 2) Just because someone downloads a file, it does not mean they would have bought the product I think this is the key fact that many people in the music industry ignore - a download does not translate to a lost sale. I own hundreds of paper copies of books I have e-copies of, many of which were bought after downloading the e-copy. In other cases I have downloaded books I would never have purchased, simply because they were recommended or sounded interesting. 3) Just because someone downloads a file, it doesn't mean they will read it. I realize that buying a book doesn't mean someone is going to read it either, but clicking a link and paying $10-$30 is very different - many more people will download a book and not read it than buy a book and not read it. In truth, I think it is clear that morally, the act of pirating a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing... although that nagging question of what the person who has been stolen from is missing still lingers. Realistically and financially, however, I feel the impact of e-piracy is overrated, at least in terms of ebooks. TM: How easy is it to go online and find a book you're looking for? How long does it take to download and how much technical expertise is required? TRC: I have specific tastes, so it is usually not very easy to find specifically what I am looking for. The dearth of material I was interested in is what prompted me to scan in the past, in order to share some of my favorite, less popular authors with as many people as possible. It does not take much time to download once something you want has been found, however, and little technical experience is required. Since books are generally very small files, they can be downloaded in minutes. You can then convert the file using one of many applications, for instance Mobipocket Creator, to PRC or another format that works with your reader. You can then plug your Kindle into your computer and copy the file over. The entire process typically takes 5-10 minutes. BitTorrent technology is easy to install and use, and just about anyone can install the basic software needed and begin downloading their first torrent in less than an hour. However, discovering and gaining access to private torrent sites (invite only) can take a lot of time - and of course, that is where the good stuff is. Public sites (no account needed) and semi-private sites (sites that require an account, but usually have open enrollment) have a limited selection, but are easily accessible and anyone with basic computer skills can find and download very popular novels. Usenet is an older technology, and is considered a safer place to pirate files. For older users like me who were around at the beginning of the internet it seems very simple, but to newer computer users it may seem unnecessarily complex, and more expensive because you need an account separate from your regular internet connection to access it. TM: Once you've downloaded a book, what format is it in and how do you read it? On you computer? Printed out? TRC: My preferred format for distribution is RTF because it holds metadata such as italics, boldfaces, and special characters that TXT does not, is easily converted to other formats using Word, cannot contain a virus, and is an open format that will be readable forever. Other popular formats are DOC, HTML, PDF, LIT (Microsoft Reader), PRC (Palm), MOBI (Palm), CBR (rar'd image files) - and there is a new format with each new reader that is released. Most formats can be converted to your preferred format with enough ingenuity or the correct software. To read, I convert to PRC and load the books onto my Kindle. Before I got that, I read on my Palm or laptop. TM: How long does it take you to scan a physical book? TRC: The scanning process takes about 1 hour per 100 scans. Mass market paperbacks can be scanned two pages at a time flat on the scanner bed, while large trades and hardcovers usually need to be scanned one page at a time. I'm sure that some of the more hardcore scanners disassemble the book and run it through an automatic feeder or something, but I prefer the manual approach because I'd like to save the book, and don't want to invest in the tools. Usually I can scan a book while watching a movie or two. Once scanned, the output needs to be OCR'd - this is a fairly quick process using a tool like ABBYY FineReader. The final step is the longest and most grueling. I've spent anywhere from 5 to 40 hours proofing the OCR output, depending on the size of the book and the quality of type in the original. This can be done in your OCR tool side-by-side with the scan of the original image or separately in your final output type (RTF, DOC, HTML, etc.). If there are few errors on the first few pages of text my preference is to proof in RTF, otherwise I do the proof within Finereader itself. TM: What types of books do you look for? What is generally available? Is any fiction or popular non-fiction available? TRC: I restrict my downloads to books I will likely read - this includes some popular novels, literary novels, and general non-fiction such as humor, biography, science, sociology, etc. Unlike DVD rips, the newest releases are not typically available two weeks before the product is released, if at all. I'm assuming that this is due to the smaller devoted audience books have, as well as the increased difficulty of sharing a book. TM: Do you have a sense of where these books are coming from and who is putting them online? TRC: I assume they are primarily produced by individuals like me - bibliophiles who want to share their favorite books with others. They likely own hundreds of books, and when asked what their favorite book is look at you like you are crazy before rattling of 10-15 authors, and then emailing you later with several more. The next time you see them, they have a bag of 5-10 books for you to borrow. I'm sure that there are others - the compulsive collectors who download and re-share without ever reading one, the habitual pirates who want to be the first to upload a new release, and people with some other weird agenda that only they understand. TM: Is it your sense that a lot of people are out there looking to get books this way? Or is it just a tiny group? TRC: I would say that there is a small unaffiliated "group" of people responsible for sourcing the material. Also, keep in mind that everything I'm saying applies mostly to fiction and general-interest non-fiction. Textbook, programming and technical manuals are all over the place and its very easy to obtain almost anything you want. I assume there are more sources for that material, and that their high price is a larger factor in people deciding to pirate them. Similarly, there are many communities creating comic, graphic novel and magazine content of whom I am only vaguely aware. TM: Do you worry at all about getting in trouble for scanning and uploading ebooks? TRC: A little, but the books I do are typically not bestsellers and are rarely new. I figure I have a bit of a buffer if trouble comes down because the Stephen King or Nora Roberts or "whoever the latest bestseller is" scanners would be the ones to get hit first. I've done a lot of out-of-print stuff, and when it is not out of print it's books by authors like John Barth - someone who no longer sells very well, I imagine. I've debated doing some newer authors and books, but I would need to protect myself better and resolve the moral dilemma of actually causing noticeable financial harm to the author whose work I love enough to spend so much time working on getting a nice e-copy if I were to do so. TM: What changes in the ebook industry would inspire you to stop participating in ebook file sharing? TRC: This is a tough question. I guess if every book was available in electronic format with no DRM for reasonable prices ($10 max for new/bestseller/omnibus, scaling downwards for popularity and value) it just wouldn't be worth the time, effort, and risk to find, download, convert and load the book when the same thing could be accomplished with a single click on your Kindle. Even in this situation, I would probably still grab a book if I stumbled across the file and thought it might interest me - or if I wanted to check it out before buying a paper copy. I was impressed by the Indie filmmakers of the movie "Ink" - when their movie leaked before the DVD was released, they put a donation button on their site I donated even though I haven't watched the movie yet, just because of their thoughtfulness and sincerity. This didn't seem to work for King's "The Plant", but I think that had a lot to do with the lack of reading technology at the time. I would like to see the experiment tried again by someone like Eggers or Murakami - someone with a very devoted fanbase. Perhaps if readers were more confident that the majority of the money went to the author, people would feel more guilty about depriving the author of payment. I think most of the filesharing community feels that the record industry is a vestigal organ that will slowly fall off and die - I don't know to what extent that feeling would extend to publishing houses since they are to some extent a different animal. In the end, I think that regular people will never feel very guilty "stealing" from a faceless corporation, or to a lesser extent, a multi-millionaire like King. One thing that will definitely not change anyone's mind or inspire them to stop are polemics from people like Mark Helprin and Harlan Ellison - attitudes like that ensure that all of their works are available online all of the time. [Image credit: Patrick Feller]
The Future of the Book

In Tablet Battle, Amazon and Apple Could Slight Readers

I. Apple's tablet will be unveiled to the planet via a special event on January 27. Industry watchers and gadget hounds have been tracking news of an Apple tablet for years now and will likely incite a frenzy of analysis as they attempt to parse the meaning of the new device. In the wildest scenarios, the Apple tablet, some hybrid of the iPhone and the MacBook, is, through Apple's formidable interface design expertise, a revolutionary device that utterly transforms how people compute and connect. The pessimistic view is that the device fails to generate widespread interest from consumers already happy enough with their iPhones and MacBooks and ends up having limited niche appeal. Given Apple's track record in recent years, I'd wager the outcome will be closer to the former case. The tablet certainly has the potential to further revolutionize how people consume music, TV, and movies on the go, but the implications for the book, newspaper, and magazine industries are potentially much greater. For all the Kindle's success, it remains in many ways a niche product, aimed at consumers who fit a certain narrow profile, namely avid readers. In 2007, the Associated Press reported that a quarter of Americans hadn't read a single book in the prior year. And among those who did read that year, the average number of books read was seven. Even considering that you can get some non-book content on the Kindle, these numbers alone suggest that the market for the Kindle is limited. Meanwhile, the Kindle is siphoning off some of the book industry's best customers into this new format controlled by Amazon and with profit margins that seem to be constrained at best. The Kindle may get avid readers to read more (and maybe that increased volume will make up for the low profit margins), but the Kindle, with its high price tag (relative to not using an e-reader at all) and limited functionality, is not likely on the wish list of non-readers. However, while the Kindle isn't turning those non-readers into readers, Apple's tablet might. II. In the technology world, "unitaskers" don't last long. In the last few years alone, we've seen cellphones acquire ever more features and functions. There's now no reason to carry with you a separate PDA, camera, address book, or music player. Standalone GPS devices are on their way out too and laptops could one day be largely cannibalized by handheld devices. The Kindle, on the other hand, performs a single function and does it well, but no matter how good it is at being an e-reader, in the mass market, it's always going to lose out to a device that can do more things. Owning a device that can do more things is cheaper than owning a bunch of separate devices and a single device takes up less space in a backpack or pocket. Beyond that, a device that can do more things is going to appeal to a much wider group of people. Therein lies the potential promise of an Apple tablet with a robust e-reader built in. If Apple does the tablet right, it will be purchased by an order of magnitude more people than have purchased the Kindle, even with its likely $1000 price tag. Since launching the device, Amazon has likely sold somewhere between 2.5 and 3 million Kindles. Analysts are predicting that Apple sold more than 11 million iPhones in the fourth quarter of 2009 alone and will sell over 37 million in 2010. Looking farther out, analysts believe Apple could sell 50 million iPhones in 2011 and 80 million in 2012. The bottom line is that an Apple tablet with e-reader capabilities, if it sells at even a fraction of the volume that the iPhone has, will quickly dwarf the reach of the Kindle. More importantly, it will be owned by thousands of people who are not a part of the Kindle demographic, and will therefore put an e-reader in the hands of millions of people who would not have otherwise bought one and will put e-books at the fingertips of those who might otherwise read less. III. The big question mark here is just how good an e-reader the Apple tablet will be. We can already assume based on reports of talks between Apple and publishers that Apple plans on making a big move into the e-reader space, but the tablet is unlikely to have some characteristics that have made the Kindle a hit among serious readers. The Kindle's non-backlit screen is easy on the eyes, a long battery life allows for uninterrupted reading sessions, and a dead simple interface keeps the focus on the book. Apple's tablet, meanwhile, may not have a non-backlit reading setting, is likely to have a far shorter battery life than the Kindle, and will likely be packed with so many enticing distractions that it's hard to imagine getting much reading done. And, though consumers will likely buy the Apple tablet by the millions, the expected price tag of around $1,000 may turn off those who are primarily interested in the tablet for its e-reader capabilities, such as they are. Interestingly, in the face of impending competition from Apple, Amazon is pushing the Kindle to become more of multitasker rather than focusing on the e-reader aspect of the device. This week the company announced that it will allow developers to create apps for the device, meaning that Kindle owners may sometime soon be able to access "a wide range of programs, including utilities like calculators, stock tickers and casual video games." So much for finishing Proust. If you've used a Kindle, you're likely wondering why anyone would bother with a video game on that low-tech screen, and how the Kindle, in its current form, could possibly be good for anything beyond reading. Amazon is likely thinking the same thing, and as time goes on - and prodded by competition from Apple - the Kindle will be able to do more and more, the screen will get more high-tech, buttons will proliferate. And so one wonders if, in the desire to create a mass market device, e-readers and tablets will be laden with ever more bells and whistles, to the detriment of their capabilities as e-readers. If that's the case, a niche market for an e-reader that is focused on providing a good reading experience - and that alone - may thrive. In the best case scenario multitasker tablets of all kinds thrive, don't lose sight of providing a good reading experience, and integrate reading books, magazines, and newspapers back into our lives. If that happens, wherever we go, we are reading. Previously: eBook Evolution: Amazon and Google on Different Paths, eBook Paths Converge [Image credit: Mike McCaffrey]
The Future of the Book

Google’s Future for Books Inches Closer

After three years of wrangling, Google is pushing closer to a digitized future for books. Even as the U.S. Justice Department continues to review a newly released, modified version of a settlement with groups representing authors and publishers, Google's plans still contain within them the blueprint for a seismic shift in how we consume and interact with books. By way of backstory, the settlement explains, "Three years ago, the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and a handful of authors and publishers filed a class action lawsuit against Google Books." Beginning with that lawsuit, there have been several roadblocks on the way to a final settlement. Some have been cleared, but as the Wall Street Journal points out, "the issue of whether it is fair for the settlement to let Google distribute books whose legal rights owners haven't been identified—known as orphan works—is still drawing criticism." Meanwhile, in the newest version of the settlement, the central elements of Google's digitization plan are mostly unchanged from a year ago when the settlement was initially announced. We outlined a year ago what is most likely to matter to readers, a massive expansion in the access to books still under copyright, but out-of-print, including the so-called orphan works. Google's plan paves the way for a huge expansion in the access to this massive class of books -- 80% of the books in libraries, according to Google. More important, however, is how these books will be made available. As Google has outlined in its breakdown of the new agreement, "Once this agreement has been approved, you'll be able to purchase full online access to millions of books. This means you can read an entire book from any Internet-connected computer, simply by logging in to your Book Search account, and it will remain on your electronic bookshelf, so you can come back and access it whenever you want in the future." This means that millions of books that were once available only in library stacks or through used book dealers or, more likely, that were essentially invisible to all but the most motivated buyers and researchers, will suddenly be as ubiquitous and easily accessible as Google itself. It is hard to overstate how big this change could be. You might liken it to the creation of the internet itself, when a critical mass of interconnections gave rise to the sharing and spread of information on a massive scale. Even as the internet has changed how we think about the accessibility of knowledge and data, a massive, "dark" cache of human knowledge has remained largely untouched, many millions of physical volumes whose copyright status doomed them to the analog world. With a finalized settlement, these volumes will become plugged into the internet as we know it, available for purchase, and accessible to anyone with an internet connection and a willingness to pay. The ripple effects of this development may be hard to predict, but it seems likely to bring further into the mainstream the notion of buying a digitized, format-agnostic book. The impact of this will be amplified by the recent news that Google will not be the only seller of the books it has scanned. As a Publishers Marketplace overview of the newest version of the settlement points out, "any book retailer -- Amazon, Barnes & Noble, local bookstores, or other retailers -- will be able to sell consumers online access to the out-of-print books covered by the settlement." In this way, the settlement heralds a whole new category of books being sold by book retailers. Meanwhile, the settlement has been scaled back in one significant way from a year ago. It will only apply to books published or copyrighted in the U.S., U.K., Australia, or Canada. The legal intricacies of including books from other countries apparently proved too challenging to overcome. But ultimately, at least for the English-speaking world, this reining in of Google's effort will hardly limit its potential consequences.