Posts about books

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]