Posts about books

What a Lulu

I’m excited: I just ordered my first Lulu book and, best of all, it’s by David Weinberger: a novel my kids are sure to enjoy. You can always tell a good book by its first line. When I started Entertainment Weekly, an amazing editor I worked with, Joan Feeney, invented the book browser, reprinting the first lines of a handful of books every week. The start of this one:

I can’t say that Friday, April 13, was a good day even though that’s when I won the lottery.

Is writing the highest form of speech?

The problem with books, I’ve been saying, is that we give them too much respect. Because we treat them as holy objects, we are less likely to change and update the form — and that, sorry to say, leaves books behind as the rest of media must progress. I just read two pieces that speak to the question of whether writing is, indeed, our highest form of speech worthy of such worship.

In the first, blogger Tom Matrullo quotes Socrates. His context, coincidentally, is the silence of Columbia J-school’s Nick Lemann in the conversation he caused. Matrullo blogged:

As the flood of responses and comments to Nicholas Lemann’s “On the Internet, everybody is a millenarian” article in the New Yorker continues to flow, bend, ripple and eddy, one can’t help but notice how Lemann’s piece simply stands there, mute, defunct. Sans capacity to comment, respond, defend, link. It’s Plato’s old distinction in the Phaedrus: blogs are the speaking voice, alive and self-present. Lemann’s article belongs to the world of print, of writing.

Socrates talks about the written word as a lesser form of shared knowledge. He praises conversation, teaching, humanity. Here, he is speaking about the “propriety and impropriety of writing.” He tells of an old god, Theuth, who invented many arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, “but his great discovery was the use of letters.” Theuth extolled his creations for the god Thamus, king of Egypt.

But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.

Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. . . .

We believe today that when we put ideas in writing, they are thus preserved. But if the paper they are printed on disappears, so do the ideas. That is what I mean when I say that print is where words go to die. If, on the other hand, ideas are spread from person to person, implanted in their own thought, enhanced with questions and conversation, then they live. So the the written word can be a crutch, sometimes a feint. And now here is the Socratic kicker:

Socrates: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves. . . .

Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power — a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten? . . . I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.

Phaedrus:. You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which written word is properly no more than an image?

By George, he’s got it.

Socrates talks about sowing ideas:

Then he will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?

He talks about writing “for the sake of recreation and amusement; he will write them down as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age. . . .” Phaedrus calls this a noble pastime and Socrates agrees, then adds:

But nobler far is the serious pursuit of the dialectician, who, finding a congenial soul, by the help of science sows and plants therein words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, and are not unfruitful, but have in them a seed which others brought up in different soils render immortal, making the possessors of it happy to the utmost extent of human happiness.

And his thoughts are only stronger because others may question and challenge them:

But he who thinks that in the written word there is necessarily much which is not serious, and that neither poetry nor prose, spoken or written, is of any great value, if, like the compositions of the rhapsodes, they are only recited in order to be believed, and not with any view to criticism or instruction; and who thinks that even the best of writings are but a reminiscence of what we know, and that only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul, which is the true way of writing, is there clearness and perfection and seriousness, and that such principles are a man’s own and his legitimate offspring; — being, in the first place, the word which he finds in his own bosom; secondly, the brethren and descendants and relations of his others; — and who cares for them and no others — this is the right sort of man; and you and I, Phaedrus, would pray that we may become like him.

Who better to endorse conversation than Socrates?

* * *

And then Simon Jenkins in the Guardian writes about the allegedly suffering art of conversation.

We are said to be losing the art of conversation. It is dying in a hell’s kitchen of mobile phones, BlackBerrys, iPods, emails, soundbites, chatshows and drinks parties. There it joins other civilities regularly pronounced dead, such as well-mannered teenagers, the tomato and the novel. Nowadays no one converses. People shout and text.

He summarizes social historian Stephen Miller from his study Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. “Storytelling, however good, is only half of conversation,” says Jenkins.

Miller starts with Socrates, Plato and Cicero, who first noted that free conversation, because it is transient and uncensorable, is the essence of free speech. It was always a threat to authoritarianism. Hence its fascination for the Enlightenment. To Montaigne it was intellectual callisthenics, the “fruitful and natural exercise of the mind” as opposed to the “languid, feeble motion” of reading. . . .

Historians of culture saw this golden age as destroyed by intrusive innovation. Cheap books and newspapers discouraged talk.

Imagine that: books as barriers. Jenkins then turns this around and you can guess where this is going. Put on your sunglasses and protective gear: a blast of blog, internet, and technological triumphalism is coming:

Miller is not a total pessimist. He quotes Hume, that “the propensity to company and society is strong in all rational creatures”. I think he grossly underrates Hume’s insight. Who would have predicted a quarter century ago that the passive act of watching television would be supplanted by the more active one of electronic interchange. We seem to be in perpetual conversation. The zombie army wandering London’s streets mouthing into space is conversing. The phone is no longer what it was to my parents, the means for some rushed emergency message. It is conversation. And what is a blog but a digital coffee house, lacking only respect for Swift’s maxim that nothing kills conversation like a bore?

And the beauty of this age is that technology and connectivity allow us to bring books and the ideas in them back into the conversation, sharing them, challenging them, teaching and learning from them with links.

Exploding books II: Person v. paper

Authors are breaking free of paper.

Note: Harper Collins started changing the book yesterday, announcing that it would now create and sell audio content with and around authors and books. The publisher is also making it possible to browse inside books on its own site and elsewhere. “We want to reach consumers wherever they are, however they wish to experience our authors and their words,” said Jane Friedman, President and CEO of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide. Now that’s the ticket. Next add to this New York Times story about publishers making videos — trailers — about books and authors to promote them. And we start to hear authors’ voices beyond print.

The audio deal is with iAmplify. Yesterday its cofounder, Jack Hidary, called to talk about it. He said this is not yet about audio books but instead about hearing the authors in new ways — and making money from it. So when an author gives a lecture, you can now buy it. Or they will have stars — Blythe Danner, Meryl Streep, Jeff Goldblum — reading bits of authors’ work. Some of it will be promotional and free but Hidary said the primary goal is new revenue.

Now this may start to look like what Kevin Kelly proposed in the New York Times magazine — to which John Updike so strenuously objected: the notion that authors may make their money from performance over print, that books become — like CDs for some acts — the value-added that sells the tickets. Now I do understand Updike’s objection from his perspective: He worked hard to write a book and now he still has to sing for his supper?

But look at all this instead from the audience’s perspective: What if I do want to hear the author and what the author says but don’t necessarily want to read the book? Isn’t it good to have options? And isn’t it good for the author to be heard by more people — and make money from it?

This is not really new. The real reason I read much of what I do in book reviews is not to decide to buy the books but instead to find out enough about them that I don’t have to buy them. No, I’m not using reviews as cocktail-party CliffsNotes, avoiding books I’d otherwise read — cheating, in short. There are plenty of books I don’t want to read but I do want to know what they say, hear some of the ideas in them. Book reviews help answer that need.

Lectures do, too, and thanks to podcasts, I now get to hear more authors. I listened to lectures at the Hay Festival in the UK on my iPod — bought a half a dozen of them, even. I just described to a series of talks at the National Constitution Center and heard the author of American Gospel, Jon Meacham, talk about his ideas. If I had time, I’d certainly like to read his book. But frankly, my backlog is too great; I won’t get around to it. At least I have heard some of what he has to say and I’m glad.

So why not give the audience these options? Buy the book in print, if you like. Buy the book on demand or online. Buy the audio book. Or don’t buy the book and hear the author. Go to a lecture. Buy the lecture online. Listen to a podcast talk with the author. Read the author’s blog. Subscribe to the author’s feed. Watch the video.

If the ideas get out there, isn’t that the goal, no matter the medium? I think in our worship of the book, we end up valuing the form over the substance, the page over the ideas on it. So I am glad to hear authors’ voices and ideas in new ways. It’s not about the book. It’s about the knowledge.

: AND: This advice from Seth Godin:

Understand that a non-fiction book is a souvenir, just a vessel for the ideas themselves. You don’t want the ideas to get stuck in the book… you want them to spread. Which means that you shouldn’t hoard the idea! The more you give away, the better you will do.

Exploding books I: Everybody’s an author

I spoke yesterday with Eileen Gittins, founder of Blurb, a company that enables anyone to design and produce beautifully done books using software that makes your genius look good and that soon will be able to “slurp” blog posts and turn them into books.

Note that Blurb is not yet like Lulu, which is more about enabling authors to go around the publishing industry to create and sell books directly, a holy quest itself. Blurb is starting as more of a populist venture, bringing out the author in everyone. And that’s what makes it interesting. Blogger, to pick one, made everybody a writer; Flickr, everybody a photographer; GarageBand, everybody a radio star; iMovie, everybody a director. Becoming the author or publisher of a book, though, is harder because books are made of that damned, pesky paper. Atoms are hard.

So Blurb came along with software that lets you easily take your words or photos and put them in templates and then get them printed and shipped. It has been up and running since the spring and Gittins says they have produced about 1,000 titles so far.

What’s interesting about this is that people respect and revere the book — a good sign for the book business — and want their own. Now they can get them. None of these people is trying to get a bestseller; Blurb has yet to add its sales mechanism. They just want a book. And once enabled to publish them, it’s telling to see what they do create. A bigger part of the business than Gittins had guessed comes from businesses — photographers and architects producing slicker portfolios. A finance guy used Blurb to produce a business proposal, reasoning that we are so averse to throwing out books in this culture that it will stay on the shelf longer than a Kinko’s spiral thingie. Not surprisingly, there are recipe books. They’re doing a deal with a sport that lets you intersperse your own content with the pros (e.g., New York Yankees and Pleasantville Yankees: A World Series Year). I asked whether they had seen obituary books, tributes to lost loved ones (having worked in newspapers, I came to learn the power of the obit). No, she said, but they are seeing a fair number of printed tributes to dead pets. Oh, well.

Gittins also said — and I’ll pat her on the back for this — that the books also live online so they can be searched and found and even tagged. One of the complaints I have about the publishing industry’s Googlephobia is that they are cutting off their authors and their ideas and knowledge from the world by refusing to make books searchable. And because the books are printed on demand, by the way, they can be updated and corrected and need not be freeze-dried or die.

Next up is the blog slurper (with other slurpers after that). It will take your blog, grab the content, and let you edit it, publishing it as is (see Tony Pierce’s blook). I can also see using the blog as a writing and publishing tool for the express purpose of ending up with a book (something I’m thinking about doing with a book on books). And of course, see Tom Evslin’s, written as both a blog and a book.

All this liquifies the book, changing the form and the access to it.

Waking up the Brigadoon book business

The book business can be so exasperating. In today’s Times Book Review, an editor there, Rachel Donadio, writes about how book publishers just can’t figure out how to make money on the long tail…. even though book publishing is the long tail.

Sometimes, you just want to pick publishers up by the scruff of their J. Crew collars and shake some sense into them.

The first step, which the Times essay misses entirely, is that the internet lets new people find books that are relevant and necessary to them that they could not have found before, greatly expanding and extending the market for backlist books at no cost. But the people will find those books only if the books can be searched…. and only if they have permalinks allowing others to link directly to the interesting ideals and valuable information in them.

And then, as a few publishers points out, yes, it is tough to figure out how to stock all these books:

Books require storage, and it quickly becomes impractical for publishers to keep low numbers of thousands of titles in their warehouses. “The costs associated with printing small quantities of many different titles and of warehousing those many different titles and of fulfilling single-copy orders . . . are so onerous that it’s not a model that I feel works for publishing today,” said Terry Adams, the director of trade paperbacks at Little, Brown. Susan Moldow, the executive vice president and publisher of Scribner, agreed. “It only works if you’re employing some kind of print-on-demand,” she said, referring to a technology that allows publishers to print a few books at a time, as they are ordered.

Well, let me suggest a model, learning from both Amazon and eBay, where instant gratification costs more but patience pays off (which is also proven by So:

* Charge the most for immediate delivery, which is enabled because you either stock some number of books in inventory or use more expensive print-on-demand. This is the equivalent of eBay’s ‘buy it now!’ and of Amazon’s overnight shipping. Let’s say that costs the reader $25.

* Charge less if the reader is willing to wait — depending on demand — one to two weeks. Over that time, you collect more orders for the book and can print it in larger batches (especially as print technology improves). I wait two weeks or more to get stuff from Amazon with free shipping. Let’s say that costs the reader $20.

* Charge less again if the reader is willing to take the book as a PDF and read it in that mangled, inconvenient form or go to the expense of printing it themselves. Let’s say that costs the reader $15.

* Charge less again if the reader just wants access to read the book online — a subscription, in essence. Let’s say that costs the reader $10. There is also a growing market in book rentals. My father uses a Netflix for books called BooksFree. What if the publishers starting running such a service themselves, creating a subscription market for books in print or online. So rebuild the old book club business by selling subscriptions to authors, topics, bestsellers, and so on: Pay a flat monthly rate to read as much as you want! Or pay $100 for a lifetime subscription to Anne Tyler. You now have an annuity and pay-in-advance customers.

* And if you want to get fancy, involve your current channels of sale in the deal: Buy the copy of a book in the bookstore right now for $25 or get one delivered to you — with the bookstore getting its cut — for $20. Thus, the books on the bookstore shelves become retail samples and you don’t have to take the inventory risk and cost to fully stock those shelves. And the bookstores can stock more sample books, selling more titles. The tail grows.

* Get yet fancier and involve your long-tail partners — search engines and blogs — in your sales with affiliate deals that — shhhhh, don’t tell anyone — cut out the current retailing middlemen and give you higher margins.

* Now let’s get crazy and follow the model: Pay for a book that you wish someone would write. If enough people anty up and pledge to pay, say, $10 each, I’ll write my Dell Hell book (or perhaps some would pay me not to write it) or the Dummies guys would commission Dell Returns for Dummies only if they saw sufficient demand or Tom Evslin, capitalist that he is, would be motivated to write a sequel to or get it translated into French.

The Times essay also complains that the internet is making it easier to buy used books, which cuts into backlist purchases. Well, the answer to that is to follow methods such as the ones above to make original purchases easier, quicker, and in some cases cheaper. You will also cut used-book sales when you extend the in-print life of books by these methods. Obviously, today, the only way readers can get most book titles is by buying used books; the publishers create this market for used books by taking books off the market. That doesn’t have to be true anymore.

Why am I giving away this advice for free? Well, I was thinking about writing a book about this and the necessary upheaval in the book business as a poster child for the explosion of media. But my agent warned me, quite rightly that someone else is pitching a book about books. Well, with very roughly 100,000 new books a year in the U.S. and 200,000 in English, that should be no surprise. This is the long tail, damnit. There can and should be four different books with different viewpoints. But this is the way the book business works. This is how they do, indeed, think. And that is one of a hundred reasons why it seems to take a hundred years to publish one of the little suckers, only to live on a shelf in relative obscurity for four weeks before hitting the remainder tables and then the used-book store and then complete obscurity forever. So maybe I’ll just write it as an online manifesto and screed (or maybe you’ll pay me not to).

It doesn’t have to be that way anymore. The internet is not the enemy of books, authors, publishers, and ideas. The internet is your friend, damnit. As with other media, these guys think shrinkage when they see these new challenges because it affects their old business. They should be thinking expansion: what opportunities are created for new business.

But first, the publishing industry has to rethink what it is. When I spoke at the Guardian’s management offsite a year ago, they had in the president of Kodak UK to talk about what it was like to have to convert an analogue company into a digital company overnight — because the Guardian realized it must do that, too.

Well, publishers don’t need to decide to be all digital overnight…. yet. They can still print books, especially beloved blockbusters. But they do need to realize that they are long-tail companies, that the more content and the more demand they can create and satisfy for it in for more niches with longer life and greater efficiency, the better off they will be. Is the business the same as the one they have now? No, of course not. It’s not the same business it was 25 years ago, either. So stop trying to just protect the old and figure out how to invent the new.

: LATER: Add print-on-demand. Aka POD