Quick Hits, The Future of the Book

Tina Brown, Goin’ Rogue, and the Limits of Timeliness

In a recent issue of The New York Times, Tina Brown explained the rationale behind her nascent Book Beast project thusly: There is a real window of interest when people want to know something. . . . And that window slams shut pretty quickly in the media cycle. As a diagnosis, this is accurate - there is a real window (or at least a figurative one) - but it begs a number of relevant questions. For instance: Isn't the erstwhile "Queen of Buzz" part of the problem of dwindling attention spans, rather than part of the solution? (I suppose you can't unslam a window any more than you can unring a bell, but still...) Ms. Brown's remedy is, characteristically, to get books out there even faster, publishing topical e-books and paperbacks "on a much shorter schedule than traditional books." However, the imminent arrival of Going Rogue - whose gestation period was shorter than a goat's - would seem to suggest that Beast Books will differ from today's "traditional books" more in degree than in kind. (On the other hand, from a marketing standpoint, I suppose Ms. Brown was right: six months was long enough for me to realize I'm tired of reading about Sarah Palin. If it had been available in March, I might have bought the sucker.) Now, at The New Republic, Damon Linker has blogged a pretty succinct summation of Beast Books' weird commingling of the redundant, the oxymoronic, and the inevitable: Opining is fun, and so is ideological combat. But a book is, or should be, something different: A chance to slow down. An opportunity to raise one’s sights a little higher. . . . To reflect instead of react. What Beast Books is proposing . . . is (in Truman Capote’s words) the reduction of writing to typing. Presumably, this is just the sort of "something" that might merit book-length treatment...were the whole subject not so last week. Bonus link: The Art of Fashionable Lateness
The Future of the Book

Bringing Book Scanning Home

If Dan Reetz didn't exist, it would be necessary for Cory Doctorow to invent him. I met Reetz at New York Law School's D is for Digitize conference over the weekend -- two days devoted to the Google Books settlement and its future. It was a room filled mostly with lawyers and professors, along with librarians, publishers, a contingent of students... and Dan Reetz. I have to paint the picture. He comes into the conference room -- big, beautiful and brand-new, almost antiseptic -- in a dark coat, hefting a huge black duffel bag. Out of the bag comes a flat, mechanical-looking form of no recognizable use. It's mutant Ikea. It's a transformer. In a flurry of twists and clicks, Reetz folds it out and snaps it together -- -- and when it's finally assembled, it looks something like this: It's pure 21st-century ingenuity. Reetz designed his first book scanner because, as a grad student at North Dakota State, he was appalled by textbook prices. Then he built it, in two days, from old digital cameras, cardboard, and scrap parts; a friend wrote the page-processing software. Reetz's latest model, the one pictured above, is built not from junk but from laser-cut plywood, and it folds down and fits into an overhead luggage bin. It's perfect for book-scanning special ops. As important as the scanner itself is the community around it. It's small, but growing: engineers, developers, academics, and even the occasional intellectual property lawyer. Now, line Dan Reetz up with the other Dan at the conference: Dan Clancy, who directs Google Books. To review: Google has scanned more than 10 million books, the many of them still copyrighted but long out-of-print, and therefore unavailable unless you can get to a big university library. The Google Books settlement provides one path to make those books available to everyone, online. So at one end of the spectrum, we have Google's ambition and scale: the vision of a complete digital library and the unique ability to actually pull it off. At the other end, we have Dan Reetz's ingenuity and openness: the delight of a $200 book scanner and a PDF parts list ready for printing if you want to make your own. Although there was plenty of teeth-gnashing in that conference room -- and truly, there's a lot not to like about the Google Books settlement -- I think the Reetz-Clancy continuum augurs good things for the future of books. On one end, the recognition that books have to live online now, and that publishing has to operate at internet scale. On the other, the passion for (obsession with?) independence and the cottage-industry craftiness that's been the best part of book publishing for so long already. It was encouraging to have both ends in the same room -- part of the same conversation.
The Future of the Book

Adventures in Machine Translation

It's not uncommon for a website based in Russia or Italy or Venezuela to link to The Millions. Keeping up with these mentions and trying to figure out how somebody in Milan or Caracas is reacting to an essay or review of ours has made me a frequent user of Google Translate, which lets you drop in a block of text and press "translate." In ever magical Google fashion, a passable English translation appears. What's interesting to me is that over the last few years the translation seems to have become more passable and it's now easier than ever for me to glean meaning and intent from the product of Google's machinations. If one assumes that the improvement in quality of these translations might continue in a linear fashion, then it follows that I might be reading a machine translated book one of these days. It's a liberating notion. I have no affinity for languages but I have often wished I could dig into to the untranslated oeuvres of favorites like Alvaro Mutis or Ryszard Kapuscinski or read their translated books in their original forms. But then again, the idea might inspire fear that some essentially human quality of the literature would, literally, be lost in translation. And certainly for translators, who would be replaced by stacks of processors in a climate-controlled warehouse somewhere, such a development would be devastating. Even if computers never approach the craftsmanship of Natasha Wimmer and Edith Grossman, Google or something like might get good enough at doing the heavy lifting and letting the reader clean up the language here and there. And indeed that might be fine for some applications even today, but using Google to create a passable translation of the blog posts of a Spanish or German blogger is one thing, using it to translate a work of literature is quite another. A translated novel needs to be perfect and Google's success in completing undemanding translation tasks was no guarantee that it would be able to manage the nuanced language of a literary master. An experiment was in order. In the interest of seeing how close we are to this brave new world of machine translation, I decided to give a recent work of fiction, written originally in Spanish, the Google test. I chose Roberto Bolaño's 2666 because I haven't read it and because I was able to find the same excerpt in both English and Spanish. I began with the Spanish: La primera vez que Jean-Claude Pelletier leyó a Benno von Archimboldi fue en la Navidad de 1980, en París, en donde cursaba estudios universitarios de literatura alemana, a la edad de diecinueve años. El libro en cuestión era D'Arsonval. El joven Pelletier ignoraba entonces que esa novela era parte de una trilogía (compuesta por El jardín, de tema inglés, La máscara de cuero, de tema polaco, así como D'Arsonval era, evidentemente, de tema francés), pero esa ignorancia o ese vacío o esa dejadez bibliográfica, que sólo podía ser achacada a su extrema juventud, no restó un ápice del deslumbramiento y de la admiración que le produjo la novela. I plugged that passage into Google and it spit out: The first time Jean-Claude Pelletier to read Benno von Archimboldi was at Christmas 1980 in Paris, where a university student of German literature at the age of nineteen. The book in question was D'Arsonval. The young Pelletier knew then that this novel was part of a trilogy (consisting of the garden, full English, leather mask, Polish theme and D'Arsonval was obviously French theme), but that ignorance or the vacuum or the neglect literature, which could only be blamed on his extreme youth, it detracts from glare and admiration that led to the novel. The result is hardly poetry, but it seemed surprisingly decipherable. There are some issues with sentence structure, and trying to figure out the antecedents of the various pronouns is difficult. So, and this wasn't an entirely unpleasant exercise, I jumped in and attempted to clean it up myself, knowing that I might be skewing the meaning of the passage badly, but interested in at least applying a certain degree of polish: The first time Jean-Claude Pelletier read to Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980 in Paris, where he was a nineteen-year-old university student of German literature. The book in question was D'Arsonval. The young Pelletier knew then that this novel was part of a trilogy (consisting of the garden, full English, leather mask, Polish themes and, obviously, French themes as well), but beyond that his ignorance or a vacuum or neglect for literature, which could only be blamed on his extreme youth, detracted from glare and admiration that he would have for the novel. I decided that Pelletier is the nineteen year old and that Google's muddled translation was trying to tell me that the young Pelletier is reading to this Archimboldi and though Pelletier had some rote understanding of the book D'Arsonval, he was too immature to appreciate it as he one day would. Then I looked at Natasha Wimmer's translation, and I saw what Google and I got right and what we got very wrong: The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature. The book in question was D'Arsonval. The young Pelletier didn’t realize at the time that the novel was part of a trilogy (made up of the English-themed The Garden and the Polish-themed The Leather Mask, together with the clearly French-themed D'Arsonval), but this ignorance or lapse or bibliographical lacuna, attributable only to his extreme youth, did nothing to diminish the wonder and admiration that the novel stirred in him. Pelletier is indeed the youth here, but he didn't read to Archimboldi, he read a book by Archimboldi. Worse, Google and I totally misread Pelletier's reaction to the book. We find that Pelletier, despite his youth, indeed appreciated D'Arsonval on a gut level, but did not yet appreciate its literary context, essentially the reverse of what the machine translation came up with. And Google and I totally flubbed the idea that the parenthetical list was a list of titles and not descriptors for D'Arsonval. Natasha Wimmer, your job is safe. Despite my failed experiment, machine translation might one day be able to figure out how to properly align those pronouns and antecedents and it might make short work of that complicated list of book titles, but would a machine ever, as Wimmer has, be able to convey the urgency in Pelletier's literary discovery? If a machine could one day do that, we might no longer think of it as a machine. It would have passed the Turing test (which tells us a machine has demonstrated intelligence when you can no longer distinguish a machine's actions from those of a human). J.M. Cohen, a prolific translator whose efforts included Don Quixote and Rousseau's The Confessions, put it another way: "It is impossible... to imagine a literary-translation machine less complex than the human brain itself." [Image credit: Jared Tarbell]
The Future of the Book

The Post-Kindle World

Today represented some kind of personal tipping point. As if by prearrangement - or super-stealthy guerilla marketing plan? - the Kindle was everywhere I went. First: a faculty meeting. More than one colleague praising the seductions of the e-Reader, as opposed to the good old book. Except who am I kidding? They didn't use the term e-Reader. They used the term Kindle. Then: the subway. I fell into the pleasurable habit of scanning the titles being read by my fellow travelers. The Economist. The New Yorker. Last Evenings on Earth. Kindle. Something in Chinese. The Raw Shark Texts. Another Kindle. Lush Life. Something by Donna Leon. Something by Daniel Silva. Something by Stephen L. Carter. Yup: Kindle #3. (The woman reading Bolaño switched halfway through my ride to a Kindle, on which she may or may not have continued reading Bolaño . I'm not making this up.) Finally: Bryant Park. Right behind the New York Public Library. Summer Associates getting their drink on. Kindle. Abandoned newspaper. Coddled Kindle. Homeless man with obscenity scrawled on jacket. Kindle in handy Kindle carrier. Outdoor library. Outdoor Kindle. I began to imagine a day where outdoor libraries won't exist. Nor will my beloved newsstands (already struggling with cigarettes at $10 a pack). Indoor libraries will struggle even harder than they already do to justify their existence; everyone will be carrying her own. Well, everyone but the guy with the obscenity scrawled on his jacket. And Nosy Parkers such as myself will be unable to tell what anyone's reading on mass transit. Except that they're all reading on e-Readers. This day is doubtless drawing ever closer, but as a lover of newsstands, libraries, and ubiquitous dustjackets (remember, MTA riders, the month when everyone was reading Absurdistan? Remember the autumn of Oscar Wao?), I realized today that I'm not looking forward to it. Nor do I believe my life will be improved when putting down The Magic Mountain to check TMZ.com is as simple as clicking a button. Which is to say: I won't make it past page 2 of The Magic Mountain. And also: I believe reading The Magic Mountain will improve my life. But the Kindle is just a tool! my colleagues insist. I want to remind them: when you're carrying a hammer, everything starts to look like a Kindle. Er...nail.
The Future of the Book

Revisiting a Literary Throwdown: Zombie Books for Free

It was a battle between an evangelizing visionary and a sage defender of the past, perhaps the first big tussle in the great sorting out of publishing's new look in the digital age.This was 2006, when Wired Magazine technology evangelist Kevin Kelly wrote about the helter skelter future of books in the digital age. In the New York Times Magazine, Kelly looked at then still nascent book scanning efforts, and extrapolated a future that sent a shiver through writers, editors, publishers, and many readers:Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.Later he added:[Authors] can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions - in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the "discovery tool" that markets these other intangible valuables.At the annual Book Expo, keynote speaker John Updike responded, heaping scorn: The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding.Everyone reveled in the literary throwdown at the time (Gawker called it a Crossover Nerdfight). There was no "winner," however, and neither Kelly nor Updike was proven right, but there are some interesting new developments to contemplate.When Kelly wrote of "remixed" books, many were aghast, envisioning zombified, soulless collages, based on the desecrated works that had been co-opted for profit. They may have been right about the zombie part: At least one book remix has caused quite a stir this year. According to Publishers Weekly, there are "more than 600,000 copies in print of... Jane Austen mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." A graphic novel version is in the works, as is a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Even though this recent example looms large, when you start thinking about it there is a rich history of literary remixes. At the Vromans Bookstore Blog, Patrick Brown recently compiled a thorough exploration of the topic in response to J.D. Salinger's lawsuit over an unauthorized sequel to his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Though that remix is not looking particularly auspicious, Patrick notes the many venerable and successful remixes that have come before it, from James Joyce's Ulysses to Gregory Maguire's Wicked to a pair of recent books by Maile Meloy. Brown doesn't mention it, but you can even go all the way back to the "first" novel, and look at Don Quixote's second part as an inspired calling out of unauthorized "copycat" versions of the book. It's entirely plausible to make the case that literary history is in many ways a history of literary "remixes," and, as Kelly has suggested, current, ever-stricter copyright regimes are an artificial impediment to this free flow of ideas.Returning to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, silly as it may be, one wonders if the book's success doesn't prove there is an appetite - in our heavily remixed, mashed up culture - for freer rein to be afforded writers who want to experiment in this vein. It's also clear that the public domain offers an unending font of material for those inclined to use it (for a more highbrow example, think of the relationship between Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare). Meanwhile, the Salinger case would seem to indicate that when it comes to books under copyright and the cross-linking, clustering, and reassembling that Kelly prophesied, we are still very much at the whim of the copyright holder.Kelly's other point - that of a new business model for writers that relies not on selling the book but on using the book to sell "access" to the writer, has been taken up enthusiastically by another Wired guy, Chris Anderson, who has written an entire book on this topic, Free. Anderson is "selling" (read: giving away) the book under this model and his ideas have caused media types quite a bit of heartburn.Interestingly, the backlash to Anderson's book seems to be resonating (to me, anyway) much more than the book itself. The unfortunate revelation that Anderson had lifted substantial passages for the book from Wikipedia suggests that in a world where writers don't get paid for writing and information wants to be free, the writing itself is almost beside the point as compared to the ancillary, profit-making schemes that can surround the "author as brand" idea. This criticism would only seem to be confirmed by Anderson's explanation that there was an oversight in citing the copied passages properly.With a new novel coming soon from our greatest literary recluse, I wonder too whether a flourishing of the idea that authors make money from selling "access" and not books would mean that we could never have another Pynchon or McCarthy or DeLillo whose works alone tower above any notion that they might experiment with alternative revenue models.In the end, there are some elements out of the Kelly/Anderson view of the future of publishing that remain compelling. The remixed book is an important idea that need not be villainized or trivialized, particularly as digitization provides new opportunities for experimentation. The notion of "free," meanwhile, seems far more potentially damaging in that whole swathes of literary culture are not particularly compatible with the "authors selling access" model. However, if you believe that good writing is always worth something to somebody, you don't have much to worry about.
The Future of the Book

Amazon’s Orwell Repo an Orwellian Move

M. Ryan Calo is a residential fellow at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet & Society. He frequently appears in radio, press, and online to discuss new technology.Everyone knows Ray Bradbury's book Fahrenheit 451. First published in 1953, Bradbury imagined a world in which government "firemen" could enter your home at any time and burn your books "for the good of humanity." This deeply dystopic vision has, thankfully, not come to pass. Nor could it. In the U.S., the First and Fourth Amendments project against unreasonable government intrusion, especially where it implicates ideas. The state will never be able to enter your house and burn your books, even in an age of terrorism. I really believe that.That's why I was so disturbed to learn that Amazon has managed to "burn" two other famous dystopias, these ones by George Orwell, without implicating the Constitution. According to reports, people who had purchased Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm for the Kindle woke up to find that Amazon had erased the ebooks remotely.Jonathan Zittrain has warned about this phenomenon - which he calls "software as service" - wherein people no longer own what they buy. Digital products become evolving and hence unstable services that a company may alter or even destroy at whim. Like many things that happen first on the Internet, the death of ownership is also happening offline, as when car dealers leave GPS devices in vehicles so as to make it easier to repossess the vehicles later.Ebooks evoke dystopian novels in a second way. It is rapidly becoming impossible to peruse or buy a book without leaving a digital trail. Law enforcement has already reportedly asked Amazon to hand over customer purchase history; it is a matter of time before the government approaches Google Book Search. It is no accident that common to practically every dystopian novel is the abrogation of privacy. This is clearly true of Bradbury and Orwell. In Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, the buildings are all made of transparent glass. In Huxley's Brave New World, the biggest taboo is solitude. Bernard Marx tells us that an aversion to being alone is, of all state messages, repeated the most times during sleep conditioning.I don't mean to overstate. In many ways we live in a historic zenith of freedom. And Amazon zapping books for business reasons is a far cry from state sanctioned book burning. But we nevertheless must get a handle on the issues of ownership and privacy that ebooks raise, lest we wake up one day to find they have disappeared.
The Future of the Book

Ether Between the Covers: Gifting Books in a Digital Age

I.The other day, while looking for books to buy my future nephew, I recalled The Real Mother Goose, a classic I had loved as a kid. I could conjure the cover, with its illustration of a witch and a baby, riding a giant, flying bird (a goose, I guess). And the border was checkered - the squares were black and white. I remembered the size of the book in my small hands, and the texture of its cover, and the thickness of the pages inside. It thrilled me to think that my sister's son might hold this book, and love it, like I had.For a period, novelist Katherine Taylor brought The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier to dinner parties. "Wine is boring," she told me. "Books last longer." Later, she took to giving everyone Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, which, she said, "is not as dinner-party appropriate, but it was a gorgeous and largely overlooked book I thought my clever friends should read." Now Ms. Taylor has moved onto handing out Maurice Sendak's The Nutshell Library.My husband and I met and became friends in the summer of 2000 as coworkers at Book Soup. At the end of the summer, when I was due to return to Oberlin College in Ohio, he gave me a copy of Goodbye Columbus. On the first page, he had written a note: "Edan - For the summer. Thanks. Patrick." Of course we got married.I love giving and getting books as gifts, and I've been wondering lately how the digital age will alter this ritual. Don't get me wrong: I am not against the electronic book. As others have pointed out, ebooks will most likely inspire consumers to be more adventurous in their reading tastes. Nothing will go out of print, and the convenience is obvious. (I kind of want to read Infinite Jest on my iPhone - imagine how light it would be. Wait a minute... I don't have an iPhone!) Once DRM goes away, and it will, the pass-it-on aspect of books will just explode. Book as mp3. Book as gossip. (If only that sexual astrology paperback we passed around in ninth grade had been digital...) In general, the ebook is a good thing for readers and writers. I prefer reading paperback novels, but if someone wants to read the book I'm writing on a fancy device, that sounds okay.So, let me make this clear: I'm not announcing the purity of print books over their digital brethren. I don't want to wax poetic (not too much, anyway) about the sensual pleasures of print books, how they feel and smell, the weight of them - although that must account for something, because what fun will it be to receive an ebook for your birthday? Will anyone even bother? The emergence of a new technology implies the death of another, and the rise of the ebook could mean that no one will ever again give you a novel for hosting a dinner party. I think I'm in mourning.II.Why do people give books as gifts, anyway? I don't mean just any book, but a specific book. Why did Patrick give me that copy of Philip Roth's first novel? What did it imply?Last week, a woman came into the bookstore to get a copy of A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. She said she always gives it as a gift to people she's getting to know. Those who love the novel as much as she does become her friends for life.I have a friend who likes to give Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being to women he's interested in romantically. I told him he shouldn't be dating anyone who hasn't already read it.For many of us, books are cultural signifiers: if you like this, you will like that, and I will like you. A book serves as an aesthetic litmus test, a conversation starter, a way to understand one another through a third party. The act of giving someone a book is an important performance; it's not just the book, but the exchange itself, and that's why a digital copy won't mean as much. You could email someone a love letter, but if you write it by hand... Well then.So, this: Reading is both a public and private act. It's private in the sense that no amount of discourse can mirror or capture the intimate experience a reader has with a book and its author. But that discourse is precisely why it's public - the blog posts, the reviews, the conversations over coffee, all of that affects and informs your reading experience. When you give someone a book you love, you're inviting them to understand a private encounter you had with a text. It's the fusing of the public and the private, the social and the intimate.III.I've recently realized that I'm also mourning reading in public, because e-readers will change that game as well. If a book is a cultural signifier, then the act of reading a book in public conveys important information to other readers. I always check out what people are reading: in coffee houses, at the beach, in bars, on airplanes. I am taking note, I am building a reader's identity. It's like - what kind of jeans is your soul wearing? It saddens me deeply to think about how this kind of signal will be lost with the popularity of ebook devices. What can an anonymous Kindle tell me about your inner life, and about what entertains you?Of course, the privacy of an e-reader is appealing, too. There are times when I want my private experience of reading to be just that - private. With a Kindle, I could read Stephenie Meyer on the bus without embarrassment. When I'm reading David Foster Wallace on my (nonexistent) iPhone, I won't have to worry about some geeky douchebag hitting on me.Again, I see the value of this new technology. I get it. I just can't seem to let go of what will be lost...
The Future of the Book

Follow the Money: The ebook Pricing Wars

Last week, self-published author Bryan Gilmer struck a chord with his guest post about using discount pricing to generate ebook sales. By dropping the price of his book to $1.99, Gilmer was able to tempt many new readers to buy his book, which, in the process, catapulted it up Amazon's rankings, generating even more visibility. Gilmer's experiment is compelling, but it's also just the story of one book by one self-published author who happens to be creative about marketing. Even as smaller players make headway with creative pricing, the data indicate that major publishers still hold the upper hand.Gilmer's post also threw into sharp relief how much ebook pricing is an issue for Kindle owners. You've likely heard about Kindle owners who have balked at the idea of spending more than $9.99 for an ebook. With the Kindle going for $359, many Kindle owners have decided that their willingness to pony up the big bucks for the device was their side of an implicit bargain. In return, there is an expectation that ebooks will come at a discount to their physical counterparts, allowing Kindle owners to recoup their investment in the device over time. Any sign that this bargain is falling apart has been met with resistance by Kindle owners (and likely helps account for their receptiveness to experiments like Gilmer's)Beyond the Kindle, there is the notion that ebooks should cost less because they are intrinsically worth less. There are no materials, printing, and distribution costs to worry about, and furthermore, an ebook offers less utility than a real book. As an anonymous commenter on Gilmer's post pointed out, and I'm paraphrasing here, If I have ten books, I and nine of my friends can read all them at the same time, passing them around (and I can give them away or sell them to a second-hand bookstore when I am tired of reading them). Buying ten ebooks acquires them for me to read. No one else can read them without having my device, which deprives me of its use for the other books stored on it, and I am unable to pass the copy onto anyone else. An ebook is therefore of much lesser utility as part of a library of books than printed editions of those books are, so being expected to pay the same (or, in some cases, a higher) price for the ebook is perceived as price gouging.Publishers appear to have gotten this message as nearly all ebooks cost less than their physical editions. Meanwhile, Gilmer's experiment offered some insight into buying habits, but by looking at The Millions' data we can see what a wider group of readers are paying for a diverse array of titles.As I pointed out recently, Millions readers have bought a surprising number of Kindle ebooks after visiting The Millions, and while the total number isn't large enough to provide the basis for any iron-clad assumptions, we can observe some pricing trends.For starters, the single most expensive ebook purchased by a Millions reader during the 18-month existence of the Kindle was a technical book, Dojo: Using the Dojo JavaScript Library to Build Ajax Applications, coming in at $17.49. The cheapest, meanwhile, was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The mean price for all ebooks sold was just $7.45 and the median $9.33. By far the most common price point is $9.99. There has also clearly been some pricing experimentation going on, as many prices have changed and there have been ebooks sold for $1 that now go for $9.99.It also seemed useful to break the books down our list into some categories to see how pricing trends might be different. We looked at ebook pricing for major publishers, independent publishers, genre books, classic (public domain) books, and self-published books. The results reflect the unique economics facing each of these market segments:Major Publishers:Mean: $9.39Median: $9.99Most Expensive: $14.30 (Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean)Least Expensive: $1.75 (Revolutionary Road)Independent Publishers:Mean: $9.26Median: $9.40Most Expensive: $14.27 (My Father's Paradise)Least Expensive: $8.76 (two titles)Genre Books:Mean: $7.51Median: $7.98Most Expensive: $9.99 (seven titles)Least Expensive: $1.00 (Use of Weapons)Self-Published:Mean: $2.56Median: $2.49Most Expensive: $4.99 (Felonious Jazz)Least Expensive: $0.80 (Chloe's ABCs in B&W)Classics (public domain):Mean: $2.25Median: $1.29Most Expensive: $6.40 (Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary)Least Expensive: $0.50 (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)For now, at least, it appears pricing power remains with the big players. The self-published, meanwhile, must offer big discounts to level the playing field. The question is whether the success of the latter will cause the prices demanded by the two groups to edge closer to one another over time.
The Future of the Book

Finding Indie Opportunity on The Kindle

Bryan Gilmer of Durham, N.C., teaches newswriting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writes for institutional and corporate clients. Until 2003, he was a reporter at Florida's largest newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times. He has just independently published a crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz.Last week, I created a Kindle version of my indie crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz, using the tools at Amazon's Digital Text Platform. It took about nine minutes, a "why-not" side project alongside my trade paperback, which I published using Amazon's print-on-demand company, CreateSpace.My Kindle edition went live last Monday at $7.99, so I announced it on a couple of Kindle message boards online. By Wednesday, I'd sold one copy. One! Message board replies said, "If you want us to try a new author, give us a really low price. It'll generate sales and reviews." So I marked it down to $1.99 Thursday morning and posted the price change on the same boards. What happened next was remarkable:As of 5 p.m. Friday - about 36 hours later - Felonious Jazz was the No. 1 selling hard-boiled mystery on the Amazon Kindle Store and the 17th best-selling title in Mysteries & Thrillers - the only title not by huge names like John Sandford, Michael Connelly, and Elmore Leonard in the top 25. Its overall Kindle sales rank was as high as 133rd out of all the 283,000+ fiction and non-fiction titles available in the Kindle Store.I thought, now that I'm in the rankings, I shouldn't have to be so cheap. I bumped the price to $4.99. Sales continued, but at a slower pace, (and Felonious Jazz has slipped in the rankings. I probably should have stuck with $1.99 longer). I also drew in some people who just buy cheap Kindle offerings who don't normally read the genre, though they may have been less likely to enjoy it than fans of similar books.But overall, what a no-budget way to gain visibility. A few big lessons here: Readers expect Kindle books to be much cheaper than dead-tree books (because they know it costs less to publish them and they can't share them and worry they won't have them forever). A cheap price is enough to buy your way up the rankings among national names with a zero-dollar PR campaign. Now that there's a free Kindle app for iPhone, the potential audience for a Kindle title is not just the half million people who spent $359 for the device but many times that large. It's surprisingly comfortable to read book text on the Kindle iPhone app. If you haven't tried it yet, get the app and grab my free sample from Amazon, and you'll see what I mean. It's transformative to have a book you're reading (or several) on your phone to pull out whenever you have to wait in line or for an appointment.More worrying for conventional publishers is that Kindle board posters don't think big publishers are pricing their titles cheaply enough, and when prices get above $9.99 they get angry about it. I'm not sure whether the high prices are due to higher costs, more parties to share the revenue with, or the fear of cannibalization of paper-copy sales. (But the advantages! Near-zero production costs. No warehousing. No shipping. No returns. New edition at any moment. Never out of print. And the Kindle makes people read and buy more titles.) Could big publishers go from being at a tremendous advantage to competing for top-25 sales rankings - if not profits - with a guy in his home office? Will a Netflix-like company launch without the expensive legacy infrastructure of the big New York houses and take advantage of elasticity of demand at much lower price points? As I type this I realize - maybe that's Amazon.A bad side effect is that without barriers to entry, a lot of non-professional-quality content creates clutter. But to some degree, crowd sorting (via online reviews and such) can cope with that.
The Future of the Book

Amazon Gets Into Publishing

Readers may discern a disconnect between the prevailing economic mood and the relentless innovation of online superstore Amazon. Even as whole segments of the economy crumble, Amazon is spearheading a whole new consumer electronics category with the Kindle, and as if that wasn't audacious enough following it by releasing a bigger, more expensive version.Now Amazon is embarking on another bold effort. It's entering the publishing business with a program called AmazonEncore, a program that leverages all of the myriad data Amazon can collect to find overlooked books with potential mass appeal, which it will then rerelease under the AmazonEncore imprint. The first AmazonEncore title, to be released in late August, is Legacy, a fantasy novel originally self published by 16-year-old writer Cayla Kluver. AmazonEncore is an intriguing idea that will no doubt send self-published authors' hearts racing. It's also worth noting that these books won't be Amazon exclusives. Amazon is going head to head with traditional publishers with plans to make AmazonEncore books available in "national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers."While it seems like Amazon is getting may from its core competencies with forays into consumer electronics and publishing, the online retail giant isn't insane. Amazon is actually designed to do well in recessions, and with traditional book retailers and publishers facing challenges, Amazon is seizing the opportunity to grow its market share and enter new markets and businesses. BusinessWeek recently pointed out this dynamic: "Amazon continues to benefit disproportionately from the general shift to online commerce and the careful shopping behavior that consumers are exhibiting during the downturn. The breadth of the products it offers through independent merchants and its own expansion into new categories, along with low-priced shipping in the U.S. and abroad, continues to woo shoppers."Amazon's willingness to innovate and invest in book-focused initiatives during this downturn will leave it with a very big footprint in the industry when the economy begins to recover.