Posts about books

Books as makers of publics

Here’s my talk to the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in Frankfurt before the Book Fair there, in which I argue that books are tools for making publics and now that we all have presses publishers must ask how they can play a role in helping us make publics — and how they can protect our tools of publicness.

I’m having trouble setting the width of the player, so go to the “more” link and you can watch the videos.

Don’t fragment books (or other content)

I agree with Devin Coldewey at CrunchGear that Andrew Wylie’s deal to publish big authors’ backlists exclusively on the Amazon Kindle is bad for readers (and for authors and for the industry).

Fragmenting content such that one has to buy one device to read one author and another to read another is blind to the needs and realities of the market. It’s dealmaking for dealmaking’s sake.

If I were one of those authors, I’d squeal like a columnist put behind a Times paywall (either one). Random House is right to stick it back to Wylie and refuse to do business with the now-niche agency. And Amazon is putting itself in a dangerous position to be the enemy, not the friend, of writers, publishers, and readers. But Amazon’s no fool. It is driving a wedge into the heart of the industry.

The real upshot of this deal, I think, is that agents and publishers alike will find themselves locked out as big authors make deals directly with Amazon.

Yes, the Kindle reader is available on laptops and phones and iPads and coming Android tablets. But it won’t be available on other eBooks, and that’s going to hurt the eBook market’s growth, which could affect Amazon, even as it announces that its Kindle book sales exceeded hardback sales last month.

This is the same fear I have about the appification of content with magazine editors gleefully slapping their stories onto iPad apps in the belief that it returns control of the experience and business model to them when, in fact, it cuts them off from every browser user around the world. Nose. Face. Where’s my knife?

In the early days of content on mobile, we saw this game play out: Carriers made exclusive deals to get content in hopes that would get users to buy their phones instead of the other guys’. Didn’t work. A phone’s a phone. A browser’s a browser. A book’s a book.

And an e-book better damned well be an e-book, or books and authors and publishers and agents are all screwed.


One of my great joys researching Public Parts, my book about the benefits of publicness, is finding parallels between today and the early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries (aka the renaissance) with the introduction of tools — the press, the stage, music, art, maps, markets — that enabled people to create publics and how that changed how the world operated (the way we are changing it again today).

Here’s one example from Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (recommended by Clay Shirky) about how errata in printed books led to collaboration.

In their early days of printing, books — and other publications — were not treated as temples of perfection, as they are today (which is why their contemporary producers — authors, editors, journalists, publishers — look down so on the ever-imperfect internet). Indeed, before Gutenberg, scribes had long entered errors into books as they were copied and recopied. Printing, Eisenstein says, both multiplied errors in so many more copies and also represented a “great leap” toward standardization because the errors were easier to find.

early printing press

Print, at first, did not step toward perfection but away from it. “[A]n age-old process of corruption was aggravated and accelerated after print,” Eisenstein says. Errors could spread farther faster (sound familiar?). It was because of the fear of what this new technology could cause that printers were fined for publishing the “wicked Bible” of 1631 (which omitted the “not” from the Seventh Commandment … look it up).

But this process of error was turned to advantage by some. Sixteenth-century editors and publishers, Eisentein says, “created vast networks of correspondents, solicited criticism of each edition, sometimes publicly promising to mention the names of readers who sent in new information or who spotted the errors which would be weeded out.” So publishing became collaborative; that’s what printing allowed.

Eisenstein quotes Lloyd A. Brown from The Story of Maps about map publisher Ortelius:

By the simple expedient of being honest with his readers and inviting criticism and suggestions, Ortelius made his Theatrum a sort of cooperative enterprise on an international basis. He received helpful suggestions from far and wide and cartographers stumbled over themselves to send him their latest maps of regions not covered in the Theatrum.

We call that transparency and collaboration now.

Eisenstein goes farther. She says that publishers “often encouraged readers to launch their own research projects and field trips…. Thus a knowledge explosion was set off. The ‘fall-out’ from Ortelius’ editions, for example, encompassed treatises on topography and local history ranging from Muscovy to Wales.” (My emphasis) She argues, according to James A. Dewar and Peng Hwa Ang in Agent of Change (a book of essays on Eisenstein), that “this feedback reversed the slow degradation of recorded thought and ushered in the era of accumulation of thought on which the Scientific Revolution was built.” Says Eisenstein: “The closed sphere or single corpus passed down from generation to generation, was replaced by an open-ended investigatory process pressing against every advancing frontiers.”

Demonstrating that there’s nothing new that’s not old, when Cory Doctorow spoke to executives of Holtzbrinck in Berlin a few weeks ago (I also spoke), he told how he is doing similar things with his latest book, giving credit to readers who find errors and constantly making the book better thanks to them. And, of course, Cory’s BoingBoing is the product of sharing and collaboration.

This attitude — from the 16th century and from Cory — changes the way we look at books and media, not as sculpture cut out of rock but as still-wet clay. The problem we’ve had in recent history — from the industrial age to today — is that we made mistakes too expensive to admit and that cut us off from correction and collaboration with our public and from the free explosion of knowledge Eisenstein talks about. But the internet — always wet — begins to fix that, doesn’t it? We go back to the future.

In fact, Eisenstein argues that the printing press fixed this exact same problem vis a vis its predecessor technologies. “The sequence of improved editions and ever-expanding reference-works was a sequence without limits — unlike the great library collections amassed by Alexandrian rulers and Renaissance princes.” Their books were static, finished and done. Printed books had editions and readers who could improve them. We lost that advantage — and attitude — over the centuries.

We also lost the openness to collaboration that this new flexibility brought. It’s not just about technology, though. It’s about a worldview, a different relationship between producer and public. Eisenstein quotes David Hume writing to his publisher: “The Power which Printing gives us of continually improving and correcting our Works in successive Editions appears to me the chief Advantage of that art.”

This cultural attitude in the early days could have just as easily gone the other way (as eventually it did anyway). Ann Blair writes in Agents of Change that in the early modern period a few “humanists called for a system of censorship, never implemented, to guarantee that only high-quality editions be printed.” How often do we hear today suggestions to license or at least anoint quality in our new, uncontrolled press?

I don’t want to make it seem as if early books were all temporary and changeable. As Eisenstein next points out, the advantage of printing was that it made permanent knowledge that had been diffuse and was all too easily lost in a few hand-made copies that could be destroyed. It was printing, she said, that enabled Thomas Jefferson to collect all the laws of Virginia, adding (my emphases):

It seems in character for Jefferson to stress the democratizing aspect of the preservative powers of print which secured precious documents not by putting them under lock and key but by removing them from chests and vaults and duplicating them for all to see.”

Bringing knowledge together and making it public is what enables the public to add to it, to correct it, to be inspired by it.

Sound familiar?

Me and my Kindle

I was wrong about the Kindle. When I unboxed it two nights ago, I excitedly bought my own book to feel all cyber and tweeted about it. But the book wouldn’t show up. “Opening,” it said forever. Two hours went by and I called Amazon (which – new for them – made the phone number easy to find and answered it in a minute). The lady said the modem had to be fully charged. That made no sense; it would mean essentially that it would never work unless plugged in. But, fine, I waited for the green light. Still no book. Two hours more. I called Amazon again. The man said it must be a defective unit and he nicely said he’s ship a replacement (this is why I am happy I have Amazon stock). I chronicled my frustration on Twitter, and word passed around there.

The next day, I tried the Kindle in Manhattan and it worked fine. Two more tests verified that the problem was not the Kindle but Sprint, which was never great at home when I had a Sprint Treo but would at least work. Now, it took more than four hours to download a book and even going to a new store menu page takes minutes. I confessed my mistake on Twitter and shifted blame to the phone company. Sprint monitors Twitter – that’s the good news – but they might as well not, as the Sprint guy merely tried to sidestep responsibility, saying that there wasn’t a network outage (I didn’t say there was) and shifting blame back to Amazon: “Spoke 2 @Sprint Care, Retail. Kindle issues should go 2 Amazon customer care.” Amazon should learn to pick its partners more wisely in the future. And I need to learn to cram caveats into tweets when I have problems.

So now I have a Kindle that works in some places, not others – and not working at home may be a killer. This is why I wish it came with wi-fi, or at least the option (especially for when I travel overseas). I prefer my control of communications on my iPhone. But then the problem with the iPhone is also that it has to be connected; I’d like to download content – such as the New York Times – to it so I could read the paper on the train.

The iPhone and Kindle are a study in contrasts. The biggest is, of course, the business model: One may buy books on either, but current content on the iPhone will, in most cases, be ad-supported; on the Kindle, it is paid for by the reader. The iPhone UI, right down to its flowing scrolling on its touchscreen, is elegant and happy; the Kindle is klunky and irritating. The Kindle lets me download and read anywhere; I like that; the iPhone won’t let me download The New York Times to read on the subway and that’s too bad. The iPhone lets me control my communications better. The Kindle screen is larger, yes, but the iPhone isn’t that much smaller:

kindle iphone comparison

So I’m undecided about the Kindle. Its organization is still inelegant to say the least. For example, when reading the Times, it wants me to go story-by-story – that’s bookthink. I want to see the menu of articles in a section. But when I then go to an article and page through it, to get back to that section listing, I have to go back to the top and then back to the section. When reading a book on either device, I miss easy ways to thumb through.

If I traveled a great deal and took books with me everywhere – which I don’t – the Kindle would clearly be a godsend. And maybe it will make me start traveling with books – and reading them – more often, as the web has been bad for my book reading habits. But I’m still not sure.

I also wish that the business model of book publishing were different: that I could buy the contents of a book and get it in any and all media: I could read it on paper when I’m home and on Kindle when I’m on the road and listen to it on my iPhone when I’m driving. I disagree strongly with Roy Blount Jr.’s assertion on behalf of authors (other than me) that the Kindle shouldn’t be reading books aloud to readers because it would cannibalize audio-book sales. This assumes that people who buy the print book also buy the audiobook in great numbers and that having a book read by the computerized and irritating voice of a Kindle will hurt sales. No, I think a book should be sold as a package: buy access to the ideas and get them however you like. I think that would spur greater sales. The next step is to move past selling books as a product, frozen in time, and start selling them as a process. But that’s a post for another day.

I’m holding onto my Kindle for now. I was wrong about it at first blush and so I need to give it more of a chance.

WWGD: The video book

HarperCollins, my publisher for What Would Google Do?, just released a video version of the book, a 23-minute synopsis delivered by me, sans script, on camera. It’s for sale on Amazon here. And here‘s a Wall Street Journal story about it and here‘s PaidContent.

The point of this is that the publisher is trying to find new ways to release books and the ideas in them. This is their first video book; if it works, they say in the Journal they’ll make another half-dozen. The definition of “works”? Who knows?

It’s hard for me to watch myself. But you’re welcome to. Here’s a snippet: