Posts about Book

Updike Redux

Book legend Joni Evans eloquently answers John Updike’s bar-the-door screed about the digital world:

Updike does not have to join the revolution. Digitization is optional. The Internet operates in the world of Also, Either/Or, Not One Way. Updike’s intentions of privacy and intimacy are safe; his copyright thoroughly protects his choice to remain nonenhanced, nondigitized, nonhyperlinked and nonsearchable.

But what is good for John Updike is not necessarily good for the millions of authors the current system has locked out. Creativity does not flourish when books can’t find publishers or when audiences cannot be sustained. Those authors whose works remain unpublished, out of print, out of stock or out of date will be the ones to march in the digital revolution. Updike is a large, elite fish in a small pond. The digital pond is primarily for other species — smaller, less recognized, exotic fish that need the oxygen this new world provides.

The rights of the author

Nevermind copyright for the moment. I want to look instead at creators’ rights.

A federal judge just ruled against CleanFlicks’ sanitizing of movies, editing out the allegedly naughty bits and then selling cleansed copies. The judge said this was a violation of copyright. The Salt Lake Tribune’s coverage adds: “The ruling does not affect another Utah company, ClearPlay, which has developed technology in DVD players that edits movies on the fly as they play.” So this ruling does come down to copyright — the right to copy — yet it also raises other issues.

Out of this news comes to opposing views from two web authors. (I love it when that happens. The web should be a neverending Oxford debate; may the best argument win.) Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason, takes CleanFlicks’ side, arguing that it’s our right to remix. Infotainment rules, on the other hand, argues that in this case copyright is a good thing for it is keeping bad things from happening to creative work.

I’m not entirely sure where I come down (yes, mark this day in your history books). On the one hand, I’m encouraging media people to submit their creations to the great remix out there: If you’re remixed, you’re part of the conversation, I say, and the conversation is the new distribution. But on the other hand, I would hate it if something I created under my name were mangled: I hate editors; that’s why I blog.

So get past the rights of ownership to the rights of authorship. When you create something, what rights should you have — ethically and legally — to maintain your creation in its full form, to protect your ideas and thoughts from bastardization?

When I wrote for People magazine, way back when, I wrote a favorable review of Concealed Enemies, a PBS miniseries. As I told the story here, the then editor-in-chief of Time Inc. took it upon himself to change not just the words but the opinions in my review (to make it favorable to his friend and mentor, Whitaker Chambers). He tried to put opinions that were not mine under my name. I said I would resign rather than let that happen. I saw it as a journalistic and ethical right to protect my views and my reputation with them. I won, by the way.

So what if someone took something I wrote here and changed my opinions utterly? What if the so-called Parents Television Council took a post of mine and made me an enemy of the First Amendment and Howard Stern? What if Dell made me into a satisfied customer?

Steven Spielberg wouldn’t allow so much as one “fuck” to be taken out of his Saving Private Ryan and that’s why some stations refused to be caught in a vice between him and the threat of an FCC fine and so they didn’t air the movie. Was that Spielberg’s right? I’d say so. He would rather that his movie not be seen than mangled by someone else.

So in one sense, the CleanFlicks decision is just a copyright fight: You can’t copy and sell a movie. But it raises these issues of authors’ rights. And so does that other technology that takes out the dirty bits for you.

But on the other hand, if you bought a DVD of Private Ryan, don’t you have some rights of use and ownership? Couldn’t you hit a dump button every time the F bomb is dropped if your kids are in the room? How do your rights of ownership clash with Spielberg’s rights of authorship and ownership?

And what if you’re a TV station reporting on the controversy over Ryan and you go into the movie and compile all the scenes with no-no words but show it on the air with bleeps. You do this to avoid FCC fines. Or what if you’re a comedy news show and you take all the bleep words and turned them into jokes: “Motherflower… Goddogged…” You do this to make fair comment on something in the news.

All this is timely around here as I talk about the need to reinvent the book, not to mention the rest of media; the need to get into a conversation; the need to be collaborative, the benefit of the remix; the value of the direct link. And the question often is raised: What is the role of the author in this new world? In journalism, I say that the author becomes more of a moderator, and when you’re seeking facts and information, that makes sense.

But in art, the author is the creator and has rights surrounding that creation. But that may change, too, as art itself becomes more collaborative. So what are the rights of the author? Do copyright and Creative Commons protect those rights? And what are the ethics of the remix? Is linking to the original sufficient? Is permission required? Is fair use a license to quote and thus to comment? Aren’t selection and alteration forms of comment? What rights does the audience have to change? In an age of the permalink and the deep link and the ability to track and compile consumption, in an age when consumption becomes an act of creation, isn’t that ability to just get to the good bits the audience likes a form of editing?

Here’s what Gillespie says:

As a viewer, I am already acting as a “third-party editor” to Apted’s–and every other directors’–films. As a writer, I can sympathize with Apted’s sense of creative ownership and his fear of losing control of his work. . . .

But here’s the rub. There is only unauthorized editing whenever a piece of culture is put in front of an audience. The individuals watching in the darkened theater, the family room, or on a computer screen are constantly making choices, skipping over stuff, misinterpreting things, and more. The audience, alas, has a mind of its own, and that mind doesn’t care about the creator’s intentions. . . .

But the old model, in which a producer produces and an audience passively consumes culture, is over. To be completely honest, that old model was never the way culture worked anyway, but even the pretense of full artistic control is finished in today’s environment, in which individuals have an ever-increasing ability to produce and consume culture on their own terms.

And here is Infotainment’s argument:

In the conversation about the coming digital revolution in books, I argued that many authors will want to keep their books whole–not to cling to copyright for its own sake but rather because sometimes it is the integrity of the work that makes a particular book exceptional: it is of a piece, and every word is essential to making it what it is, so altering it takes something away from the work. Books like that exist. Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Others will have their own examples.

So too with films. Whether you’re colorizing them to get eyeballs not used to black-and-white or chopping them up to make them Palatable for the Pious, you’re destroying their integrity.

It’s a valid argument, and an argument we need to be clear on–and one we will need to stand up for–as the digital revolution continues apace and the Moral Marauders start to take advantage of it

What’s yours?

The future of the book is now

Rice University is bringing back its academic press — online.

Although the new press will solicit and edit manuscripts the old-fashioned way, it won’t produce traditional books. The publishing house will instead post works online at a new Web site, where people can read a full copy of the book free. They can also order a regular, bound copy from an on-demand printer, at a cost far less than picking up the book in a store. . . .

Because all books will be in digital form, authors can amend their tomes online, link to multimedia files elsewhere on the Internet, or even chat with readers. Books would never go out of print, and more might be published because of the press’s lower cost structure, Rice officials say. Rice officials are also considering asking authors whether they want to allow “derivatives” of their works to be created online. The Connexions site operates under an “open-source” model, letting readers update online course material.

Here is the Connexions site where all this will happen.

They come in peace

Media Guardian has a good roundup of the tussle between Google and book publishers. One tidbit therein affects us all if publishers’ complaints manage to set a precedent regarding the analysis vs. the display of content:

While books that are out of copyright are fully searchable, if a search request brings back information from a book under copyright, access is restricted. Users in the US, which has a “fair use” approach to copyright, get bibliographic data plus a few short sentences or “snippets” related to the search term. European users, however, get no more than the title of the book and its author.

The problem is that to compile the index Google uses for its search engine, it has to scan the entire book. Publishers claim this infringes copyright and want Google to ask permission for each book. The trouble is that only 20% or so of books are in print and because many titles are “orphaned” when publishers go out of business, finding out who to ask for permission could take years.

Extending this concept to the internet would mean search engines having to ask permission of the owner of a website before it could be included in an index, making search engines – the “atlases” of the internet – impossible to create.

The wise publishers are seeing that if their works and the ideas in them are not searchable, they’re not findable. One such wise publisher:

John Makinson, Penguin’s chief executive, believes digital publishing allows new sales wheezes such as selling books by the chapter or the page. He says: “The availability of traditional printed material in new formats and the emergence of new digital distribution channels is overwhelmingly positive for authors, for consumers and for us. Whenever the consumer is offered more choice … more content is sold.”

Convince your competitors, please, Mr. Makinson.

When I say jump

TV Guide just bought Jump the Shark and I think there’s a lesson in this for publishing: What started in 1997 as a web site that quickly found a community became a best-selling book and that helped drive the web site. Howard Stern took notice and so founder Jon Hein made frequent appearances on radio — finally moving there — and that helped drive the web site, which drove the book. More people, more content, more promotion, a bigger brand. And so now TV Guide will bring Jump the Shark to all its platforms, buying JtS for an undisclosed but apparently juicy sum. And round and round it goes (until, of course, it grows too big and jumps its own shark, but that’s another story).

This all started because a smart and funny guy had a good idea and the internet’s tools and connections allowed him to create a franchise with a community of contributors, not gatekeepers. And though the book brought in lots of bucks, in the end, the real franchise and value lived online because it could keep growing there. Print had an important role in this success story, but it’s not the whole story.

Dismissed

In the Wall Street Journal, Lee Gomes — who’s supposed to be writing about the wonders of the web and whose columns I usually like — writes your basic bar-the-door-against-the -future screed arguing that getting “users” to create “content” isn’t always a good thing because some of what they create is bad. There must be some Latin name for this flawed logic – reductio ad snottism: Because someone uses the tool badly, the tool is bad; because some content of a type is worthless, the type is worthless. Well, surprise, but lots of newspaper reporting is bad, though certainly not all. Lots of books are bad, though not all. Ditto movies, TV, music. Quark yielded lots of really ugly zines and pamphlets, though it also produces Conde Nast’s magazines. And so on, and so on. This argument is wearing. After going through the futurist absurdity of people supposedly wanting to remix movies with new endings — and I agree with him there; I don’t want to work at the movies — Gomes says of remixing:

This is most clearly occurring in books. Most of us were taught that reading books is synonymous with being civilized. But in certain tech circles, books have come to be regarded as akin to radios with vacuum tubes, a technology soon to make an unlamented journey into history’s dustbin.

The New York Times Magazine recently had a long essay on the future of books that gleefully predicted that bookshelves and libraries will cease to exist, to be supplanted by snippets of text linked to other snippets of text on computer hard drives. Comments from friends and others would be just as important as the original material being commented on; Keats, say.

Imagine a long email message with responses and earlier messages included. We’ll have those in lieu of “Middlemarch” or “The Corrections.”

Well, I’d say that The Corrections could be improved by links to fellow readers calling Franzen on his literary self-indulgence, or not. But you wouldn’t have to click on them.

Picking up on the theme, another writer suggested that traditional books “are where words go to die.”

That’s me.

It is an odd state of affairs when books or movies need defending, especially when the replacement proffered by certain Web-oriented companies and their apologists is so dismally inferior: chunks and links and other bits of evidence of epidemic ADD.

I, for one, am not suggesting that all books should be replaced by digital forms. I’m saying they should be augmented, improved, updated, corrected, linked, searched, found online and that then the whole would not be inferior to either half. Don’t want that? Fine, buy the paper versions…. as long as they exist, as long as the economics of publishing supports paper books after it kills paper newspapers. But why not add to the ability of people to find, recommend, understand, and correct information?

Reading some stray person’s comment on the text I happen to be reading is about as appealing as hearing what the people in the row behind me are saying about the movie I’m watching.

Stray person? What if that stray person is you? Or a critic you trust? Or your Mom? And the beauty of the link is that you don’t have to click on it. You don’t have to shush it, as much as you might want to.

In high school, we were required for social studies to take the lyrics of Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn (Turn),” the one with “a time for love, a time for hate,” and illustrate it with pictures clipped out of Time magazine.

It was a pre-Internet mash-up, and we got busy with our scissors and glue and had lots of fun. I’m not sure what we learned, though. Today’s mash-ups remind me of those Time magazine collages: all cutting and pasting, signifying nothing.

There’s the reductio ad sophomoric again: If a mashup he did was bad, all mashups are bad.

Another way that people describe mash-ups is “user-generated content,” referred to by the smart set as “UGC.”

Well, actually, must of this “content” that is “generated” by “users” is actually brand new, not a mashup.

Most of the time, when companies talk about user-generated content, they mean nothing grander than the pictures you store on Web sites or the pages that MySpace members spend hours fussing over.

That’s not what the “users” mean when they say it.

But for those preaching the glories of the new mash-up culture, UGC is bringing about a new golden age, with the Internet giving a platform to everyone, not just elite writers or filmmakers.

And who decides who the elite are? What happens if you lose this gig at the Journal? Are you no longer elite? Should someone take away your keyboard, your tools? And so on, and so on.

These aren’t all twee costume dramas. No. 1 is “Fawlty Towers.” No. 2 is “Cathy Come Home,” a Ken Loach drama about the homeless that first aired in 1966 but is still vividly remembered. The rest of the list includes dramas and sci-fi and talk shows and sitcoms, all of them, in their own way, weighty meals for the mind. You can watch them decade after decade, and never feel guilty at all.

: LATER: Michael Katcher sends a letter to Gomes, trying to set him straight:

Let’s assume 50 years from now, the book – as in printed pages bound between hard/soft cover – is gone. That doesn’t mean the only way to consume Shakespeare is to read every single comment made my every single idiot who has an opinion. There will still exist the discrete text of Hamlet, untouched by other’s words. Now while it is ridiculous to contend that the only copies that will exist on the Internet will be hyper-linked, tagged, and commented, even if that were true, you’re still free to ignore the links, tags, and comments. Links merely turn words blue and underline them. Comments and tags always appear after a text, not in the middle of it. Nothing will stop you from just reading Shakespeare and tuning out every other opinion on the planet…..

…the function of the Internet to provide options.

Yes, I’ve had trouble getting people to understand that, which means that I’ve had trouble expressing it.

Underline the last line: The internet provides options.

I’m not saying that you have to read linked comments or even see them. But if they do add to the value of a discourse, why not have the ability?

I’m not saying that I prefer to read everything on some newfangled e-bookish thing. But I do get frustrated that I don’t have the functionality I want on paper.

I’m not saying that books should die. But I do wonder how long the economic model of publishing will sustain printing most books.

When big enough is too big

Musician and author Susan Tomes has a wonderful post over at Comment is Free about my complaint that too many books are too damned long just so that they are long enough to be books. I hope she and CiF won’t mind that I quote at length here but, well, her post was just the right length:

It’s true that many publishers seem to have a fixed idea of how long a book must be, and it doesn’t have much to do with the content. The appearance of my first book was delayed for quite a while because it was “not long enough to be a book”. In its original form it was, in fact, a diary kept during certain years. The diary stopped when the project it described came to an end. Some time later, when it occurred to me that people might like to read it, I was told by everyone I consulted that it would have to be “made longer” because it was not book-length.

But there was no more to write without inventing stuff, which I didn’t want to do. So the book stayed unpublished until someone had the idea of adding other essays from later years, enlarging it into a kind of anthology. It became book-length, but whether it was better as a result is debatable. And I know many other writers and academics who’ve been forced to go on writing long after their original thought has been expressed, simply to make “a book” of it.

Yet many people’s favourite books are short ones. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is constantly mentioned, and that’s scarcely longer than a short story. Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince has been a cult favourite for years, and the astonishing Diving Bell and the Butterfly, dictated letter by letter by Jean-Domenique Bauby when paralysed, is cherished partly because of its brevity.

The internet will, as Jeff Jarvis pointed out, free us from conventional ideas of what is “the right length”. And hooray for that. Unlimited cyberspace will allow people to say as much as they need, or to publish a tiny poem which wings its way round the world in a moment without the need for 125 other poems to bulk up the volume.

The point is, surely, that the removal of “sizist” constraints should be liberating. In cyberspace, authors need not pad out, or cut down, what they want to say. It should be a welcome chance to use just the right number of words. Though whether we can find our readers without bookshops is another matter.

We can all think of books that were padded to be long enough to be books. For example, I enjoyed the first half of Tom Friedman’s World is Flat but two thirds of the way through I was starting mumble to myself, “ok, already, I get it, no need to beat me up over the head with it.” Other nominees for the too-long award?

Book.net

So Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks arrived from Amazon today. I started reading and on the first page, I found a quote I wanted to remember for use later and also blog for you. But damn that paper, it comes with no permalink, no cut-and-paste (without scissors and glue, that is). But thankfully, Yochai put his book up online. I used Del.icio.us to save the quote. And here it is:

The change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural. It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have coevolved for almost two centuries.

Now if only I could link you directly into that paragraph — that idea — in the book. That will come….

: MORE ON BOOKS…..

: Richard Charkin, blogging head of Macmillan in the UK, quotes a list of my points about the problems with books and then says:

Of course there are plenty of positives about books. We’d better make sure our marketplace understands – or we’d better address some of the book’s shortcomings using technology.

Now that’s the ticket.

And rajAT, an Indian blogger, quotes the same list and then says:

PS: It is a great opportunity for the entrepreneurs.

Exactly.

: Ben Vershbow of the Institute for the Future of the Book writes for Pubishers Weekly:

People today are reading vast amounts online, more and more each year, and they are reading in new ways, interested more in the linkages among texts and the discussions surrounding them than in the possession of individual copies. Yet while newspapers have felt this change acutely, books have largely been spared any growing pains. Until now, that is. …

Amid fears of piracy, publishers’ instinct is to lock down e-books in proprietary formats and protective enclosures, cutting them off from the complex links and social interactions that make the Net so rich. But this approach, predicated on the old one-copy-per-customer business model, will never succeed in creating a vibrant electronic publishing culture. Why should readers pay for these compromised creations when physical books are still, by comparison, much more versatile?

Jorge Luis Borges, a great spinner of metaphors for the information age, once said, “A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.” Publishers have an opportunity to reinvent their industry by plugging books fully into the new environment.

: Rob Hyndman asks the important question:

For those of us who spend a lot of time on the Web Jeff’s vision of the book’s future will seem an almost natural evolution. And that’s fine. But I’m willing to wager that many who spend a lot of time on the Web have already largely left the world of books behind them – and perhaps also even essay-oriented magazines – challenged by the pressures of time and the promise of the Web’s easier diversions to find the time to focus to the extent required to truly enjoy a good book or the latest New Yorker. I suspect that this raises one of the harder questions raised by Jeff’s vision: will books continue to be a place where immersive thought and extended time are required, or are they morphing into another channel in the always-on, million-channel universe, full of clicks and links and chats and tunes and videos; full of flashing lights and tinkling bells, an easy rest-stop for those who prefer to skim lightly over the surface of the world’s ideas? And of course, who decides?

: As Book Expo opens in Canada, the Globe & Mail reports similar fears of the future there.

: Scott Karp imagines book publishing 2.0 (or maybe that’s 3.0 by now).

: Rajat Gupta says the publisher is about to get squeezed out.