1 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ve only begun to explore the contents, but the new issue of Triple Canopy — subtitled “Unplaced Movements” — looks incredible. And right in the wheelhouse of my obsessions . . .

From the editors’ Note on Unplaced Movements:

Every innovative new-media publishing venture is born obsolescent. No sooner has an editorial initiative laid claim to a new technology than some newer technology arrives, turning its predecessor into an outdated curio. The numerous attempts to create alternatives to the print magazine using other forms of distributable media—cassettes, floppy disks, laser discs—are now considered with a combination of nostalgia and archaeological fascination. By the time Triple Canopy was founded three years ago, it had long been clear that the Internet is subject to the same cycle of novelty and anachronism. Nevertheless, it seemed equally clear to us that, amid the succession of short-lived formats, a tradition of new-media publishing had emerged that could inform our use of the Web.

Over the past several months, Triple Canopy has produced a series of public programs designed to investigate our own underlying assumptions about online publishing. The projects included in issue 9 are the outcome of talks, conversations, and performances that position Triple Canopy’s approach to the Web within a broader historical context. By charting a critical genealogy of new-media publishing, we hope to identify some of the undercurrents that have defined and enriched each successive “new” medium. Beyond exploring those properties specific to the Internet, the projects presented here gesture toward art practices and aesthetic strategies that will remain relevant long after the current iteration of the Web goes the way of dial-up.

There’s a ton of great stuff here, including the transcript of a conversation between Dan Visel and Bob Stein (founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book entitled Mao, King Kong, and the Future of the Book. In case you’re not familiar with Stein (and you should be, he’s an amazing thinker and doer), here’s a brief intro:

In 2004, Bob Stein founded the Institute for the Future of the Book, with the goal of finding new models for publishing as it moved from the page to the screen, from the enclosed world of the individual reader to the networked one of the Internet. While innovative for its own time, the Institute’s mission built on Stein’s decades of experience exploring the frontiers of electronic publishing, whether with Atari, the Criterion Collection, or Voyager. Long before the popularization of the Internet, the tools that Stein developed for publishing with floppy disks, CD-ROMS, and LaserDiscs laid the groundwork for dramatic shifts in how we interact with (formerly) printed media. Much of his work proposed hybrid formats, combining the referential nature of books with the visual appeal of films, using computers to turn texts into what Stein was already calling, in the mid-’80s, “user-driven media.” Today these hybrids seem natural, but the history of publishing and technology prior to the Web, which has largely gone unrecorded, suggests that the evolution of the medium was not prescribed, but rather spurred by the experiments of Stein and his cohorts.

Before getting into the publishing stuff (although it’s all kind of connected thought development-wise, no?), there’s this great bit about the creation of the Criterion Collection and the capabilities of new technologies:

DV: Did it seem at this point like LaserDiscs were about to take off?

BS: No. VHS was exploding. It was like being in the CD-ROM business when the Web was exploding. I was at a meeting one day with the president of RKO Home Video, and I said to him, “So, what’s the chance you would sell me the rights to Citizen Kane and King Kong for LaserDisc?” He said, “Well, they’re not worth anything to us. Of course I’ll sell them to you.” So I bought the rights to two of the most famous movies ever made. I had a choice: I could make stuff for the Apple II, but aesthetically I just couldn’t stomach it. (That was the age of pea-green text on a black screen.) So I went with LaserDiscs.

DV: And you started the Criterion Collection?

BS: Yes. It was just of one of those things where—I mean, I like movies, but I’m not a movie buff. I just knew I could do something interesting with them. You have to understand how much of this stuff is accidental. I knew the guy who was the curator of films at the LA County Museum of Art, and I brought him to New York to oversee color correction. He’s telling us all these amazing stories, particularly about King Kong, because it’s his favorite film. Someone said, “Gee, we’ve got this extra sound track on the LaserDisc, why don’t you tell these stories?” He was horrified at the idea, but we promised we’d get him superstoned if he did, and he gave this amazing discussion about the making of King Kong, which we released as the second sound track.

DV: And that was the start of what became DVD extras.

The Institute for the Future of the Book has some amazing projects, and for anyone working in the nonprofit world, its origins sound insanely ideal:

BS: Then, in a really sweet moment, the MacArthur Foundation called and said: “We loved the work you did at Voyager; how can we help you go back into publishing?” I said that I had no idea what it means to be a publisher right now, but if they gave me some money to start the Institute for the Future of the Book, I would think about it. And they gave me twice as much money as I asked for and no deliverables. That’s when I hired Ben Vershbow, Kim White, and you. That’s been a really interesting collaboration because you were all in your late twenties, had grown up with the Internet to some extent, and it was the beginning of Web 2.0, which you were very comfortable with. We spent a year sitting around a table having discussions about what we could do with books, and what books were, and what they could evolve into.

DV: I’m curious why, for so long, you’ve felt it necessary to develop new tools for publishing, and thought that what we have isn’t good enough.

BS: I was telling a programmer today that if I have one regret it’s that I never learned to program. And I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve wanted these tools.

DV: I’d always thought it was your great virtue that you didn’t know how computers worked: You ask dumb questions, and people have to explain things from the beginning. That process of explanation can be really fruitful.

Overall, great conversation, great issue.

20 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the weekend Bob Stein at the Institute for the Future of the Book blogged about the video below, calling it “the most exciting vision of the book of the future since Apple’s Knowledge Navigator in 1987,” and point out that “interestingly, the film also includes an elegant solution to the question of how (at least during this transitional period) bookstores might participate in the sales of ebooks. note this idea is more practical in Europe where Amazon and other online retailers are not allowed to compete on price.”

By the way, the video is entirely in French:

28 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

That was the name of the panel that I moderated at this year’s London Book Fair, and which featured Abby Blachly of LibraryThing, Lance Fensterman of Reed Exhibitions (in particular, BookExpo America and New York Comic Con), Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book, and Mark Thwaite of ReadySteadyBook.com, the Book Depository, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

By design, this panel was more about new methods and ideas about marketing, and about the evolving relationship between publishers and their readers, rather than about how to market a particular book. That said, a lot of the discussion—and the particular ideas presented—centered around more “niche” books and how to find a particular audience for these sorts of books via the internet, LibraryThing, etc.

Rather than recap the whole event (not that my memory of what happened last Monday is all that clear anyway), here are a few of the bigger points that came out of this:

  • Mark Thwaite emphasized the importance of publishers having a good website. Not one that’s a confusing mess like this. Or this. This seems super obvious, but the most successful publisher sites are clear, easy to navigate, have individual pages for each book (so that bloggers can link to them, right HMH?), and provide additional content about books and authors.
  • If you’re going to include a blog, publishers should keep a few things in mind: 1) you have to keep blogging on a regular basis, rather than just putting up a couple posts and forgetting about it; 2) linking to other blogs and having other blogs link to you, which ties into the even more crucial point 3) which is to not treat a blog like a place to make hard-sells. All of this can be summed up by thinking of a blog as part of a ongoing conversation—not a place for a publisher to make repeated hard sells.
  • Which was a sentiment echoed by Abby about publishers on LibraryThing. Publishers frequently open accounts on LT, add all of their own books to their library, and then give each one 5 stars. Not effective at all. Everyone can smell a self-promoter, and this sort of thing turns real participants off. That said, editors who have their personal libraries on LT and legitimately participate in conversations, forums, etc., are welcomed into the community, and end up naturally sharing information about their publishing house and its books. Readers outside of the industry think publishing is sexy and love to meet editors—just not editors who begin messages with: “Hi, it was great meeting you the other day. I have a new book I think you would like to purchase.” Read Buying In by Rob Walker for more info on this sort of “marketing.” It really is the new paradigm and anyone trying to use social networks for hard sells is going to run into problems.
  • The Early Reviewers program is f’ing effective at putting books into the hands of the right reader. LT uses a complicated algorithm to match books with people who might be interested in that particular title. For instance, if a publisher is offering up free copies of a book on the Berlin Wall, someone who only have romance titles in their library won’t win the drawing.
  • Although he considered it a bit of a failure (the women participating weren’t keen on the book), Bob Stein’s Golden Notebook Project did lead to some interesting findings. The Institute knew this going in, but one thing that I found really interesting is the finding that by putting the “comments” section right next to the post/original text (in contrast to putting comments at the bottom of the page, like below . . .) readers are much more likely to respond and the conversation develops rather quickly. Very curious how the physical layout so greatly impacts the overall conversation and experience.
  • Lance already wrote a long post about this, but in his opinion, trade shows are dead. He doesn’t mean that the LBF and BEA are about to vanish, but that the very idea of what constitutes “trade” needs to shift. Things are in a bad way when a book critic who writes a dozen reviews a year is allowed to attend the industry’s one and only trade show, but the top reviewer on Amazon, who writes more than 100 reviews a year, isn’t allowed access. The boundary between “trade” and “non-trade” is very blurry these days, and rather than try and restrict access to BookExpo, Lance believes (and I second this wholeheartedly) that the show needs to be opened up to include the enthusiasts who can be as effective in promoting literature as a traditional critic. For the publishing industry to really thrive, we need both of these groups coming to BEA and getting excited about future offerings. Forward-thinking publishers who realize that a passionate reader is your greatest ally no matter where she/he works already know this—it’s just the stodgy corporations who are strangling the show’s potential.

Overall, this was one of the best London Book Fair panels I’ve ever been on. Great presentations and wonderful questions from the audience. And hopefully we came up with some interesting ideas that are of some benefit to publishers large and small.

11 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The other day, Bob Stein posted a really interesting article at If:Book about his so-called “unified theory of publishing” which tries to address these particular questions:

  • What are the characteristics of a successful author in the era of the digital network?
  • Ditto for readers: how do you account for the range of behaviors that comprise reading in the era of the digital network?
  • What is the role of the publisher and the editor?
  • What is the relationship between the professional (author) and the amateur (reader)?
  • Do the answers to 1–4 afford a viable economic model?

His idea of a “dynamic network” allows for a number of possibilities, all with the goal of providing ways to “engage readers with the author’s conclusions at a deeper, more satisfying level.”

Stein goes on to describe some of the possibilities this idea allows, addressing the way this idea starts to lead to Wikipediaish sounding ideas by establishing the author’s role in tending a text of this sort over the long-term, rather than letting anyone and everyone take it over.

What I found most interesting was this anecdote about reading habits:

(an anecdotal report regarding reading in the networked era)

A mother in London recently described her ten-year old boy’s reading behavior: “He’ll be reading a (printed) book. He’ll put the book down and go to the book’s website. Then, he’ll check what other readers are writing in the forums, and maybe leave a message himself, then return to the book. He’ll put the book down again and google a query that’s occurred to him.” I’d like to suggest that we change our description of reading to include the full range of these activities, not just time spent looking at the printed page.

I find myself doing things like this quite frequently. (In part because I’m always frickin’ online. And even when I’m not, I’m checking my e-mail on my phone in a crippling OCD sort of way.) It’s interesting to me to think of ways in which, knowing that readers read like this, publishers can adjust and treat the internet as an active, vibrant addition to a published book. I’m not sure exactly how this would work, but at the current time, I think we mostly view printed books as the finished, complete product/work of art, which might not be the best way to look at things in the not-too-distant future.

Some of the implications Stein comes up with in relation to his main idea are pretty interesting:

f) So it turns out that far from becoming obsolete, publishers and editors in the networked era have a crucial role to play. The editor of the future is increasingly a producer, a role that includes signing up projects and overseeing all elements of production and distribution, and that of course includes building and nurturing communities of various demographics, size, and shape. Successful publishers will build brands around curatorial and community building know-how AND be really good at designing and developing the robust technical infrastructures that underlie a complex range of user experiences. [I know I’m using “publisher” to encompass an array of tasks and responsibilities, but I don’t think the short-hand does too much damage to the discussion].

In a way, that’s what we’ve been trying to do with this blog since the start. And in a way, community nurturing is what all good litblogs strive for.

g) Once there are roles for author/reader/editor/publisher, we can begin to assess who adds what kind of value, and when. From there we can begin to develop a business model. My sense is that this transitional period (5, 10, 50 years) will encompass a variety of monetizing schemes. People will buy subscriptions to works, to publishers, or to channels that aggregate works from different publishers. People might purchase access to specific titles for specific periods of time. We might see tiered access, where something is free in “read-only” form, but publishers charge for the links that take you OUT of the document or INTO the community. Smart experimenting and careful listening to users/readers/authors will be very important.

Monetization is always the big question and obstacle. This paragraph can be interpreted into a number of different actualities, but on a theoretical live, I’m attracted to the idea of a subscription sort of model. To me, subscriptions seem to favor small, well-branded publishers who have a strong vision, rather than the hodge-podge of books that large houses usually have to publish in order to survive.

The one area of his article that I don’t think is very cool is this part about the future of fiction:

When talking about some of these ideas with people, quite often the most passionate response is that “surely, you are not talking about fiction.” If by fiction we mean the four-hundred page novel then the answer is no, but in the long term arc of change I am imagining, novels will not continue to be the dominant form of fiction. My bet now is that to understand where fiction is going we should look at what’s happening with “video games.” World of Warcraft is an online game with ten million subscribers paying $15 per month to assemble themselves into guilds (teams) of thirty or more people who work together to accomplish the tasks and goals which make up the never-ending game. It’s not a big leap to think of the person who developed the game as an author whose art is conceiving, designing and building a virtual world in which players (readers) don’t merely watch or read the narrative as it unfolds — they construct it as they play. Indeed, from this perspective, extending the narrative is the essence of the game play.

No matter what happens with future technology and models and whatnot, I can’t imagine the bulk of readers ditching novels for videogames. (Or even more unlikely—authors deciding to stop writing novels.)

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