Posts about books

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.


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?

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 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….


: 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.


: 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 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.