Posts about books

(Terre) Haute Culture

The Times today had a quite predictable piece wringing hands over local newspapers getting rid of book critics and editors. A few things they didn’t say:

Most times, when I read local book reviews, I end up unimpressed. The Times tried to sniff at book bloggers, but lots of them are well written, considered, and passionate, and the lot of them together is more comprehensive. I’d say a paper would do well to link to the best of them.

And what makes book reviews necessarily local, unless the books are local? Do we need a review of Harry Potter from that unique Cleveland perspective? No. Just as movies and TV shows are not local, neither are most books.

Finally, the story goes after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which “has recently eliminated the job of its book editor, leading many fans to worry that book coverage will soon be provided mostly by wire services and reprints from national papers.” But let me ask: In a time of shrinking newspaper revenue and budgets, which would you rather keep: a book editor or a local reporter or editor? You can now link to lots of book reviews — more than ever — but if the AJC doesn’t give you local reporting, who will? If it doesn’t give its readers local news and reporting, then what is its real value?

You have to love the open-minded curiosity of novelist Richard Ford, quoted at the end:

Mr. Ford, who has never looked at a literary blog, said he wanted the judgment and filter that he believed a newspaper book editor could provide. “Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership,” Mr. Ford said, “in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”

Another conference

Tim O’Reilly announces a new conference: Tools of Change for Publishing. That’s a good idea; publishing needs to better grapple with and embrace these new tools and the new architecture of information and media. But I have two reactions: First, most of the tools that matter are lite and open and easy and the people who create them, use them, and know them best are not the big-iron technocrats of the media industry. How will you get them to share what they know on and off the stage? They’re not going to pay thousands to come to a conference to do that. Second, I was stuck by the West-Coast hubris of the announcement: “We’re the originator of the term Web 2.0.” I think the time has come when I wouldn’t brag about that. And: “San Jose? Why not New York? Because we think that Silicon Valley, not New York, is the epicenter of the changes that are driving publishing.” No, there is no epicenter. The internet obsoletes epicenters.

: LATER: Tim O’Reilly tried to post a comment and my damned spam filter zapped him and then zapped me when I tried to do it in his place. So here is his comment. Sorry for the delay, Tim…

Jeff —

A couple of responses:

1. I completely agree that “most of the tools that matter are lite and open and easy,” but I explicitly noted in my post (and in our thinking about the conference) that many of the things that seem so obvious to those of us in the tech industry are actually NOT obvious and easy to people in publishing. At the Stanford Publishing Course, I had a debate about the Google Library book scanning project with a big name literary agent, and in the course of our debate, as I was trying to explain how a book search index was just like a web search index, I discovered that not only did she not know what an index was, she had never even tried Google! Now that’s an extreme, but in my dealing with people in publishing, I have found that many of them fall into two camps: the *very* clued in (like Brian Murray at Harpers or Timo Hannay at Nature) or “confused and slightly dazed.” Even those in the middle are looking for best practices. In fact, part of the reason I do a conference like this is to learn myself. If you’ve ever heard Mitch Kapor’s talk on what works about Wikipedia, you realize that there’s far more to wikis than you realized. They may be quick and simple, but the reason most wikis don’t work as well as people hope is that people don’t really understand some of the social and architectural factors that make the best wikis work. Ditto blogs. There *are* best practices, and a lot of cool new tools that have been applied on the web but not to more traditional areas of publishing. (For example, I bet even you haven’t thought through all the implications of SEO on book search — that’s still a story in the making, and nobody has figured out a lot of what will be common practice a few years from now.)

I also agree that “the people who create [these tools], use them, and know them best are not the big-iron technocrats of the media industry,” which is why I find it puzzling that your very next point is “Why San Jose and not New York?” You just gave the reason.

And as to “getting [the innovators] to share what they know,” that’s what O’Reilly events are known for. Anyone who’s been to a conference like OSCON or etech knows that we’re darn good at that.

I’m not saying it’s a slam dunk to get established publishers and the new breed of publishing technologists and publishing innovators together and make magic happen, but it’s definitely worth trying, for all the reasons I cite in my original post.

I’m sorry you’re a skeptic, but I’d love to have a chance to convince you. Let’s talk, and I hope to get you involved.

P.S. You say that you wouldn’t brag about being the originator of the term “Web 2.0?” I don’t consider it bragging to mention it in the context that I did. But in any event, why not? In 2003, we set out to reignite enthusiasm in the computer industry, which was still reeling from the dotcom bust, by doing some storytelling about why we were still bullish on technology. It worked. A lot of people have benefited. Yes, there’s been some hype, but I think the good far outweighs the bad. And I’ve heard from a lot of entrepreneurs that the ideas at the heart of my What is Web 2.0? paper have been incredibly useful to them.

Exploding books

Forbes has a very impressive package on the state of the book with pieces by Ben Vershbow of the Institute for the Future of the Book and Cory Doctorow. I was following the topic not long ago.

Exploding books

A UK journalist turned publisher had to go back for a second printing of his first book because the blog on which it is based got so much buzz. Blog power.

Exploding books: Decaf prose

I missed the announcement that the print-on-demand Espresso machine — backed by publishing veteran Jason Epstein and former Dean & DeLuca president Dane Neller — is now being tested at the World Bank, where digital books can be printed, trimmed and bound in 8 minutes.

“Our goal is to preserve the economic and ergonomic simplicity of the physical book,” said Epstein, who laments the disappearance of backlist and ready access to books in other languages. By printing from digital files, ODB hopes to make warehousing–and much of today’s distribution model–obsolete. “In theory,” said Epstein, “every book printed will be digitized, which means the market will be radically decentralized. A bookstore with this technology, without any expense to themselves [other than the machine] can increase their footprint.” Of course, that also means that Kinko’s or Wal-Mart can transform themselves into mini-bookstores, especially given the machine’s affordability. Neller anticipates that it will retail for less than $100,000.

From a World Bank story:

The Bank works with approximately 100 commercial distributors worldwide, who struggle to have a few of these publications in stock and sell them locally. The Bank also supplies nearly 100 public information centers and roughly 250 depository libraries worldwide with free copies of Bank publications for local distribution.

“To maintain this infrastructure, we spend almost $1 million annually on shipping alone. And still, all too often, customers and clients don’t find exactly the document they want at the location they want it at the time they need it,” said Koehler. “And all too often we have books sitting in warehouses overseas and nobody wants them. This is a bigger problem for us than it is for the typical academic publishing house because our books are supposed to reach developing countries and to be affordable there.” . . .

Jason Epstein, former Editorial Director of Random House and a main supporter of the Espresso, called the book machine “the future of publishing.”

“By the time all books are digitized over the next few years, we will have replaced the 500-year- old Gutenberg system,” said the publishing industry icon. “Everyone will have access to the machine and will be able to download any book ever printed,” saving thousands of dollars in inventory losses from unsold books.

See this post on the role of print-on-demand in the business. [via Hal Halladay]