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editorial initiative laid claim to a new technology than some newer technology arrives, turning its predecessor into an outdated curio.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.
A number of interesting e-book related articles and news items came out over the past few days, and rather than try and make something coherent out of all this, I’m just going to post a smattering of links . . . So:
The big news this week was Jeff Bezos’s announcement that Amazon.com is now selling more e-books than hardcovers. From the Wall Street Journal:
Amazon.com Inc. said it reached a milestone, selling more e-books than hardbacks over the past three months. [. . .]
Amazon said Kindle device sales accelerated each month in the second quarter—both on a sequential month-over-month basis and on a year-over-year basis. But the statistics that Amazon shared were all relative—it didn’t share actual sales figures. The company has never said how many Kindle devices or e-books it has sold. [. . .]
Amazon painted a picture of accelerating growth in sales of e-books, which can be read on the Kindle and through software on a host of other devices, including Apple’s iPad and iPhone. The figures don’t include free e-books.
Over the past month, the Seattle retailer sold 180 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books it sold, it said.
At one of the independent bookstore I used to work for the owner would always give us data on the store’s performance in a series of ratios. This was always extremely aggravating, since he’d project a bar graph with no scale, no numbers, a sliver of profit (how much? A million dollars? Ten?) and a lecture about how we were all wasting too much time reading and not organizing the shelves.
So I get why everyone’s critical of this statement, and granted it would be nice to know what actual figures are. (Although this is the book business . . . Real hard data, like, how about actual print runs?, isn’t all that easy to come buy. Even when hard data seems to exist—such as BookScan—a lot of effort is put into debunking that so that everything can remain as murky as possible.) That said, it’s interesting to note that sales of hardcover books at Amazon.com increased last year, and unless the sales of paperbacks plummeted (unlikely) it sounds like ebook sales were more supplementary than cannibalistic. And that’s interesting.
What I’d be interested in finding out is ebook sales by genre. Even if given in ratio form (for every 1 ebook sold of literature in translation, 70,000 business ebooks were sold), this would be interesting to know. And would sort of clarify the current scene a bit. Cause maybe not all ebooks are epubbed equally. Or whatever.
Speaking of ebooks and their distribution, over at The Atlantic there’s a longish article on Google Editions and what it is:
So what does Google Editions add to the mix? The answer, based on conversations with Google representatives and bookseller—particularly among the independent stores—is that Google will be adding millions of digital titles for sale on any device with Internet access: smart phones, tablets, netbooks, desktops, and every digital reading device except Kindle, which for now at least continues to operate on a closed proprietary system. But Google and Amazon are continuing discussions, so that may yet change.
In preparation for its rollout, Google says that through its “Partnership Program” it has made deals with 35,000 publishers and scanned millions of titles. For now, if you go to Google Books, you can preview up to 20 percent of the title you select (go ahead and try it with a best-seller like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and then choose from available options for purchase of the printed book. Assuming the program works as planned, Google Editions will put up for sale a vast universe of trade e-books, plus technical and professional titles and out of copyright works (which will be free) for use when, where and how the consumer chooses. The consumer will put the books they buy on Google’s cloud (which means its enormous servers) and can access their personal library at will. Suppose you start reading on your iPhone and switch to your tablet or desktop—the book will pick up where you left off.
In effect, Google Editions seems poised to become the world’s largest seller of e-books. If you’ve followed this issue in recent years, it may seem confusing that Google will be selling books while still in litigation with the Association of American Publishers and the Author’s Guild over the right to display the texts of millions books Google has scanned through its library project. That case applies solely to books obtained from cooperating libraries that made their collections available to Google to, in effect, give away, which is why the publishers objected. The settlement under consideration now in the courts would require Google to pay royalties for books it displays and gives authors the right to opt out of the program if they choose to do so. In any event, the outcome of that case has no bearing on the Google Editions enterprise, according to Google’s spokesmen.
This should be interesting . . .
I still think it’s funny that the L.A. Times interviewed a twelve-year-old from a Rochester suburb for their future of reading piece, but this article is pretty interesting. Starting from the p.o.v. that digital will change everything (sure, sure, beliefs and qualifications and dissents all noted), Alex Pham and David Sarno list a number of interesting reading and writing related websites. Because of my obsession with how people find out about books, this is the part I like the best:
“We’ve pretty much reached the point where the supply has now shifted to infinite,” said Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press, a small New York publisher. “So the next question is: How do you make people want it?” Part of the answer may be found on Goodreads.com, a digital library and social networking site where millions of members can log in and chat about any book they want, including many that will never see print.
Lori Hettler of Tobyhanna, Pa., runs one of the largest book clubs on Goodreads, with nearly 7,000 members chiming in from all over the globe. Discussions can go on for hundreds of messages, with readers passionately championing — or eviscerating — the club’s latest selection.
I’ve really been getting into Goodreads over the past few months, especially now that it’s linked up with my Facebook account. It’s thanks to Goodreads that I found out about Albert Cossery.
And related to the series of posts I was writing about the future of reading, I mentioned Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, the way using the Internet reconfigures your brain, how hyperlinks make it hard to remember shit, et cetera, et cetera. This bit from the end of the L.A. Times piece sort of reflects on that:
Whereas printed texts often are linear paths paved by the author chapter by chapter, digital books encourage readers to click here or tap there, launching them on side journeys before they even reach the bottom of a page. Some scholars fear that this is breeding a generation of readers who won’t have the attention span to get through “The Catcher in the Rye,” let alone “Moby-Dick.”
“Reading well is like playing the piano or the violin,” said the poet and critic Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “It is a high-level cognitive ability that requires long-term practice. I worry that those mechanisms in our culture that used to take a child and have him or her learn more words and more complex syntax are breaking down.”
But Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said it was a mistake to conclude that young people learned less simply because “they are flitting around all over the place” as they read.
“Kids are reading and writing more than ever,” he said. “Their lives are all centered around words.”
Dr. Gary Small, director of the Center on Aging at UCLA and author of “iBrain,” said Internet use activated more parts of the brain than reading a book did.
On the other hand, online readers often demonstrate what Small calls “continuous partial attention” as they click from one link to the next. The risk is that we become mindless ants following endless crumbs of digital data. “People tend to ask whether this is good or bad,” he said. “My response is that the tech train is out of the station, and it’s impossible to stop.”
But simply making things digital and available and whatever isn’t necessarily enough. Over at the always fascinating (and very well-designed) Triple Canopy, Penguin’s Tom Roberge has an interesting post about the Internet, hierarchy, and design (scroll down to “Annotations” section and look for “At Swim in the Shallows” to read the whole thing):
In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks wrote, “The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian.” This is a long-standing claim, and is on one level true: Internet access offers (near) universal freedom to create and disseminate information, and to consume it on the other end. But on another level, this assertion is complete bullshit: We all know that the Internet has its own hierarchy, that the virtual equivalent of the crazy homeless man ranting about UFOs shouldn’t be—and, generally, is not—taken seriously.
Consider design. Books, for several hundred years, have not changed much at all. The paper is nicer. The covers last longer. And the evolution of printing technology has allowed for prettier pictures. But the format has remained static since the letterpress days: One reads from left to right, top to bottom, turning the pages to make progress. The Internet, on the other hand, is almost infinitely malleable—but you need a good blacksmith. Which has led to a hierarchy: the nicer, the more professional looking a site is, the more respected it is. Which sort of negates the egalitarianism.
The new issue of Triple Canopy is now online. (At least the first few pieces—the rest will be unveiled over the next few weeks.) This particular issue is all about New Orleans, to commemorate the anniversary of Katrina.
Not only are the pieces on there pretty interesting, but the design of this web publication is so superior compared to the typical book site that it’s worth checking out for that reason alone. The blend of pictures, audio, and text is a great illustration of what the internet has made possible for magazines.
The second issue of the very impressive web magazine Triple Canopy recently went live and features the first English translation of Roberto Bolano’s Caracas Speech, which he gave a few years before his death upon receiving the Rómulo Gallegos prize for The Savage Detectives.
It’s an interesting speech that’s very Bolano-ian, starting with a bit about his dyslexic difficulties with right and left (he kicked with his left foot playing futbol, but wrote with his right hand which gave him troubles) before extending this to his difficulty keeping the capitals of Venezuela and Colombia straight:
And with Venezuela I had, more or less around the same time—meaning until yesterday—a similar problem. The problem was its capital. For me, the most logical thing was for the capital of Venezuela to be Bogotá. And the capital of Colombia, Caracas. Why? Well, by a verbal logic, or a logic of letters. The v in Venezuela is similar, not to say related, to the b in Bogotá. And the c in Colombia is first cousin to the c in Caracas. This seems insubstantial, and it probably is, but for me it constituted a problem of the first order when, on a certain occasion, in Mexico, during a conference about the urban poets of Colombia, I showed up to talk about the potency of the poets of Caracas, and the people—people just as kind and educated as yourselves—remained silent, waiting for me to move beyond the digression about the poets from Caracas and start talking about the ones from Bogotá, but what I did was keep talking about the ones from Caracas, about their aesthetic of destruction. I even compared them to the Italian Futurists—differences notwithstanding, of course—and to the first Lettrists, the group founded by Isidore Isou and Maurice Lemaître, the group out of which the germ of Guy Debord’s Situationism would be born, and the people at this point began to conjecture. I think they must have thought that the poets from Bogotá had made a mass migration to Caracas, or that the poets from Caracas had played a defining role in the new group of poets from Bogotá, and when I finished the talk, abruptly, as I liked to finish any talk those days, the people stood up,applauded timidly, and ran off to consult the poster at the entrance. And as I was leaving, accompanied by the Mexican poet Mario Santiago, who always went around with me and who had surely noticed my mistake, though he didn’t say anything, because for Mario mistakes and errors and equivocations are like Baudelaire’s clouds drifting across the sky, that is to say something to look at but never to correct—on our way out, as I was saying, we ran into an old Venezuelan poet (and when I say “old,” I remember the moment and realize that the Venezuelan poet was probably younger than I am now), who told us with tears in his eyes that there must have been some kind of mistake, that he had never heard a single word about these mysterious poets from Caracas.
In addition to this piece, the other parts of Triple Canopy #2 sound great as well, especially the letter from Bosnia and the forthcoming “Only Connect” with Ed Park and Rachel Aviv.
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