Posts about books

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.

Guardian column: The future of books?

My Media Guardian column this week distills many of the posts here about the future of books. (Nonregistration version here.) Excerpt:

We need to kill the book to save books. Now relax. I’m not suggesting burning books, nor replacing them with electronic gizmos in some paperless future of fable and fantasy. Instead, I’m merely arguing that the book is an outdated means of communicating information. And thanks to the searchable, connected internet, books could be so much more.

Yet efforts to update the book are hampered because, culturally, we give extreme reverence to the form for the form’s sake. We hold books holy: children are taught there is no better use of time than reading a book. Academics perish if they do not publish. We tolerate censors regulating and snipping television but would never allow them to black out books. We even ignore the undeniable truth that too many books, and far too many bestsellers, are pap or crap. All this might seem to be the medium’s greatest advantage: respect. But that is what is holding books back from the progress that could save and spread the gospel of the written word.

When I wrote this on my blog, defenders of the printed faith came after me with pitchforks and cries of, “Philistine!”

: LATER: Motoko Rich in The NY Times today writes about the digital revolution coming to publishing, whether publishing wants it or not:

Hovering above the discussion of all these technologies is the fear that the publishing industry could be subject to the same upheaval that has plagued the music industry…

That seems to assume that there’s a chance publishing can avoid the digital revolution. That horse is over the horizon already.

As a researcher and scholar, Anne Fadiman, author of “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” and “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader,” thinks a digital library of all books would be a “godsend” during research, allowing her to “sniff out all the paragraphs” on a given topic. But, she said: “That’s not reading. For reading, you have to read a book in its entirety and I think there’s no substitute for the look and feel and smell of a real book — the magic of the paper and thread and glue.”

How silly — and ultimately restrictive and damaging — to have an orthodoxy defining “reading.” But that’s where we are.

And let’s deal with that smell meme now: There is nothing in the smell of books that adds to the learning and enjoyment. We associate that smell with reading the way we associate the smell of vinyl with a new car. I’ll be our children have the same association of wonder and enrichment with the sight of a white screen or the smell of a laptop overheating.

On Kevin Kelly’s ode to the connected book in the Times Magazine:

“Does that mean ‘Anna Karenina’ goes hand in hand with my niece’s blog of her trip to Las Vegas?” asked Jane Hamilton, author of “The Book of Ruth” and a forthcoming novel, “When Madeline Was Young.” “It sounds absolutely deadly.” Reading books as isolated works is precisely what she wants to do, she said. “When I read someone like Willa Cather, I feel like I’m in the presence of the divine,” Ms. Hamilton said. “I don’t want her mixed up with anybody else. And I certainly don’t want to go to her Web site.”

How fatuous. Listen, Willa Cather is on the shelves now next to Danielle Steel. But don’t worry: Willa won’t get any on her.

I pick on the lead-type Luddite moments in the story, but it also does a very good job pointing to the enthusiasts and success stories, including Yochi Benkler’s new book on networks (which, irony, o irony, i just ordered from Amazon). And this:

For unknown authors struggling to capture the attention of busy readers, however, the Web offers an unprecedented way to catapult out of obscurity. Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer who started a political blog, “Unclaimed Territory,” just eight months ago, was recruited by a foundation financed by Working Assets, a credit card issuer and telecommunications company, to write a book this spring. Mr. Greenwald promoted the result, called “How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values From a President Run Amok,” on his own blog and his publisher e-mailed digital galleys to seven other influential bloggers, who helped to send it to the No. 1 spot on Amazon.com before it was even published. This Sunday it will hit No. 11 on the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list. “I think people who are sort of on the outside of the institutions and new voices entering will be a lot more excited about this technology,” Mr. Greenwald said. “That’s one of the effects that technology always has. It democratizes things and brings in new readers and new authors.”

Say amen.

Of course, what this all comes down to is money. I do not blame authors for wanting to get paid — any more than I blame journalists, musicians, or TV producers. But trying to make money by stopping people from what they want to do, preventing them from enjoying your work the way they want to enjoy it, won’t work.

Mr. Benkler, the Yale professor and author, argues that people will continue to pay for books if the price is low enough. “Even in music, price can compete with free,” Mr. Benkler said. “The service has to be sufficiently better and the moral culture needs to be one where, as an act of respect, when the price is reasonable, you pay. Its not clear to me why, if people are willing to pay 99 cents for a song they won’t be willing to pay $3 for a book.”

And some needed context:

In the context of history, the changes that today’s technology will impose on literary society may not be as earth-shattering as some may think. In fact, books themselves are a relatively new construct, inheritors of a longstanding oral storytelling culture. Mass-produced books are an even newer phenomenon, enabled by the invention of the printing press that likely put legions of calligraphers and bookbinders out of business.

: LATER: Here are comments on the column on Comment is Free.

The new role of authors and publishers

Ben Vershbow from the amazing Institute for the Future of the Book responds to some of my recent posts on the future of the tome and suggests I look at the experience they’ve had with GAM3R 7H30RY, an online book where the people are part of the process.

Since the site launched, discussion here at the Institute keeps gravitating back to the shifting role of the author. Integrating the text with the discussion as we’ve done, we’ve orchestrated a new relationship between author and reader, merging their activities within a single organ (like the systole-diastole action of a heart). Both activities are altered. The text, previously undisturbed except by the author’s hand, is suddenly clamorous with other voices, and McKenzie finds himself thrust into the role of moderator, collaborating with the reader on the development of the book….

Eventually, if selections from the comments are integrated in a subsequent version — either directly in the text or in some sort of appending critical section — Ken could find himself performing the role of editor, or curator. A curator of discussion…

Or perhaps that will be our job, the Institute. The shifting role of the editor/publisher.

See also this post quoting the head of Gruner + Jahr on the notion of the journalist becoming a moderator.

The book thing

I thought I was writing about the fates of books only lately. Then — like Dave Winer digging into the archives — I found this post from four years ago as I was doing research on a book proposal on books (irony acknowledged).

Blog or perish

Prof. Susan Crawford wonders whether blogging is a professorial endeavor — that is, whether it should count for the final exam of the teaching set: tenure. In an interview with fellow profs, she said:

I took a “law professors are people too” approach to the questions we were asked. I see scholarship and blogging as separate endeavors, and I enjoy getting the chance to speak here without footnotes. I feel as if I’m part of an enormous collaborative and creative endeavor online. I don’t expect for a moment that my colleagues will consider my posts when I’m up for tenure.

Ah, but isn’t the link the new and improved footnote? Doesn’t Technorati provide a new and open form of peer review? And isn’t it wonderful to get a professorial perspective in a timely manner? I was grateful the other day when I could go to Prof. Jack Balkin’s blog soon after the Supreme Court’s whistlestopping decision and get his learned analysis.

No — surprise — I am not suggesting that blogging should replace traditional scholarship and publishing; there is, of course, a need for research, consideration, review, and publishing (digitally, too!). But I’ll argue here — as I do in the discussion about books and in the discussion about journalists blogging — that we are better off with both. Now that the internet gives us this new opportunity to talk with and listen to the public from our perches, why wouldn’t we grab it?

If professors blog as professors, they bring their scholarship and perspective to a larger world. That is good for their scholarship — conversation yields learning as people question and challenge and add to what you say — and, presumably, it is good for the world if they contribute knowledge and perspective to the public discussion. Professors need to come down from the tower and peek through the ivy; they need to return to the public square, just as my blogging friend and teacher Prof. Jay Rosen says that journalists should end the separation they put between themselves and the public they serve. In fact, I will argue that when the restructuring that is coming to every other profession thanks to the internet inevitably comes to the academe — when people will find the learning they want in more places and the role of universities and their faculties goes through upheaval just like the role of journalists and newspapers — then the academics and the institutions that are open to the world will be in a better position to survive and prosper and matter. So MIT is right to put its curriculum online. And professors are right to blog.

I’ve been thinking about this not only in the context of journalists who blog but academics who blog because I’ll soon be — or will attempt to be — both, when I start teaching at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism in September. My own blog will continue to be me — that is, a mix of blatherings about media and journalism but also rants about Dell and personal notes about 9/11 and Howard Stern moments like the post directly below. Think of it as my end of a college cocktail party: some collegial debate about professional topics and some personal chatter, the more of the latter the later the night gets. I would not require students to read my blog (though I suppose that’s not much different from making them buy your own book for a class). But I will be aware that they may see what I say here and if they do, I hope they challenge me on it. I’ll also be aware that fellow faculty may read it and may have cause to argue with it. I’d relish that, and I’d bet the students would … if that were a discussion via links among mutual blogs.

So, yes, I think that journalists should blog because it is good for them to open the process of journalism, to meet and respond to the public they serve, and to invite that public into that process to improve it.

And I think that professors should blog — should take advantage of this new form of publication, that is, if it’s appropriate to their specialties and styles — because they should be generous with their knowledge and they would benefit from the conversation and because their institutions would benefit from building a new relationship with the public. So, yes, I think that blogging can and should count toward tenure, if universities are smart.

And I say that not just because I despair at finding the time to write one of those old-fashioned things called books.

: LATER: See, too, Ryan Sholin.

Humbug

John Updike, old fart, is turning out to be no ally of modernity. Last week, he took to the podium at BookExpo and railed against the mere notion of making books digital.

Today, he tells the the Times about understanding a cuddly Islamic terrorist in his new book:

When Mr. Updike switched the protagonist’s religion to Islam, he explained, it was because he “thought he had something to say from the standpoint of a terrorist.”

He went on: “I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system. Nobody’s trying to see it from that point of view. I guess I have stuck my neck out here in a number of ways, but that’s what writers are for, maybe.”

He laughed and added: “I sometimes think, ‘Why did I do this?’ I’m delving into what can be a very sore subject for some people. But when those shadows would cross my mind, I’d say, ‘They can’t ask for a more sympathetic and, in a way, more loving portrait of a terrorist.’ ”

Ahmad is lovable, or at least appealing; he’s in many ways the most moral and thoughtful character in the entire book, and he gains in vividness from being pictured in that familiar Updikean setting, the American high school….

“Terrorist” even includes some Koran passages in Arabic transliteration; Shady Nasser, a graduate student, helped Mr. Updike on those sections. “My conscience was pricked by the notion that I was putting into the book something that I can’t pronounce,” he said, but he added: “Arabic is very twisting, very beautiful. The call to prayer is quite haunting; it almost makes you a believer on the spot. My feeling was, ‘This is God’s language, and the fact that you don’t understand it means you don’t know enough about God.’ “

The end of booksellers. Long live, uh, Wal-mart?

Iain Dale writes that the continuing consolidation in the British bookselling business — which has long-since happened here — means:

The only way publishers can give this discount is to concentrate their efforts on bestsellers and to put all their marketing resources behind comparatively few books. The publishing sector has reflected its bookselling counterpart and seen many smaller publishing houses gobbled up by the bigger ones, as they struggle to compete. In turn this has meant fewer books being publishing and a contraction in range. So although the consumer wins on cover price, it loses out on choice. Some independent booksellers don’t even bother to sell Harry Potter books because Tesco is selling it more cheaply than the bookseller can buy it from the publisher. It’s not uncommon to see small independent booksellers piling up their supermarket trollies down at Asda, looking slightly sheepish as they do so. This is because the publisher gives Asda a 60-65% discount, while the small bookseller will get 40% if he’s lucky. And on top of that Asda is likely to sell the book as a loss leader.

Amazon offers a standard 30-40% discount on most non-academic titles, so it has been able to establish a dominant market position in online bookselling. It has been so successful that 80% of people who buy anything online, buy from Amazon at some point. So there’s the background – now for the prediction. I foresee that within ten years the independent bookshop will have disappeared from our town centres, all bar a few retired individuals who have got money to throw down the drain. Even second hand bookshops are disappearing at a fair old rate, as most people now buy their used books through Abebooks.

All the more reason for all the more writing to come online. [via Clive Davis]

Irony is not dead

I quote in full from Ironic Sans:

This cliché is dead. Long live this cliché!

Things that are proclaimed dead yet hailed to be long living:

Devo • The book • The internet • DEC • The Designer • Economics • Java • Email • Eminent Domain • The Human Rights Council • Layout • Clint the chimpanzee • Grokster • Environmentalism • Tax reform • Television • The Assessor • The peace process • The wolf • Yahoo! • PageRank • The kiosk • Microsoft Bob • Robin Hood • Camper Van Beethoven • Internet radio • Romanticism • Firefox Help • Wikipedia • DVD • PGP • Microsoft • AllofMP3 • Documentary • The King

And irony.