One of CLMP head Jeffrey Lependorf’s favorite sayings is that publishing is getting books to readers, without that, you’re just printing.
That’s not a perfect analogy for why “Spritz,” an app that’s going to be part of Samsung’s wearable technology, irks me, but it’s a good start. (And yes, I realize how awful the first half of that sentence is.)
You have to click on this article to see Spritz at work, but here’s a basic summary:
What Spritz does differently (and brilliantly) is manipulate the format of the words to more appropriately line them up with the eye’s natural motion of reading.
The “Optimal Recognition Point” (ORP) is slightly left of the center of each word, and is the precise point at which our brain deciphers each jumble of letters.
The unique aspect of Spritz is that it identifies the ORP of each word, makes that letter red and presents all of the ORPs at the same space on the screen.
In this way, our eyes don’t move at all as we see the words, and we can therefore process information instantaneously rather than spend time decoding each word.
Thanks to this app, which is conveniently part of your wearable technology, which, puke, people will now be able to read text faster—a whole lot faster. Average reading speed is just under 300 words a minute, but as you can see by clicking on the link above, it’s not very difficult to adjust to the 500 wpm speed. Not at all.
Which is great, right? Now we can read twice as fast! I WILL BE ABLE TO READ ALL OF TWITTER.
Seriously though, this is one of those things that terrifies and bugs me. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with reading faster, there is something off-putting about the idea that reading is a thing that needs to be optimized. Sure, maybe this will allow Randy to finally read all the notes in preparation for your weekly “How to Excel at Excel” meeting, but when it comes to anything other application (maybe even that one), a focus on input speed alone can warp the overall reading process.
I don’t doubt that one can become “comfortable” with reading a much faster rate, and can improve at retention the more they use an app like this, but reading, really reading, is as much about thought, about looping back, about making connections—all of which are hindered by a system that is premised upon optimization. READ FASTER, BETTER, MORE EFFICIENTLY.
I can’t wait to have my grandkids laugh at me when I tell them about the days when we read for fun, in our spare time, because we just liked to do it. And we even held the books in our hands!
The other day, a popular site on the Internet posted an article on True Detective and the various theories surrounding the show. I had a very bad reaction to this article, claiming on Twitter (the World’s Most Reliable Opinion Source!) that it was “anti-reading/anti-thought.” People got upset. Very upset. There was name-calling. It was so Twitter!
But, seeing that 140 characters isn’t really enough to explain what I meant—and why I think this particular article is both insulting and dangerous—I thought I’d use this space to expand on my original sentiments and try (maybe) to use this post about a hit HBO show to say something about reading culture in general.
First off, if you haven’t been watching True Detective, close this tab on your browser and download the first six episodes now.
For the rest of you, you know the basics: In 1995, two homicide detectives attempt to find a serial killer. Meanwhile, in 2012, thanks to a ritual killing with similarities to the earlier murders, those same two detectives are being questioned by two new cops about the events of 1995. (And 2002.)
Simple enough. More or less. But, as with any well-formed piece of art, there are references (primarily to weird fiction and The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers), there are visual and verbal hints at how the whole story fits together, there are interesting techniques (like the birds in the sky) that complicate the point of view and the way the story is being told . . . In other words, this is—at least through the first six episodes—a carefully put together piece of art opening itself up to be “read.”
Every spring I teach a World Literature & Translation course, and at least a couple of sessions revolve around the unanswerable question of “why we read in the first place.” (Which is further complicated when you ask “why we read literature in translation at all.”) There are many reasons to read—for entertainment, to be educated, etc.—and one thing I like to talk about is the difference between the way the brain works when you read neo-realistic, “cinematic” writing (e.g., if you read about walking across sticky linoleum, opening the refrigerator and feeling the cold air on your face, your brain fires in a way very similar to what happens when you do that in real life) versus more “puzzling” prose in which it isn’t immediately clear what exactly is going on (e.g., The Sound and Fury and many other books that beg for you to pay attention to something other than the immediate descriptions). “Reading,” as I’m defining it, is paying attention to, and making sense of, the things an artist does that aren’t just painting you a straightforward picture.
Bob’s Burgers is a fantastic show. My kids endlessly repeat its funniest lines. I don’t think it’s as entertaining as Archer, but it’s rock solid. It’s not a show that I feel like I need to “read.” For the most part, it’s all right there. Quick witted with predictable characters that you think you “know” and episodes that follow the “normal” sit-com structure.
But if someone got really into “reading” Bob’s Burgers, that’s great! That’s what makes art fun to experience. That’s why—and granted, Bob’s Burgers isn’t equivalent to Kubrick—Room 237 is so damn good. It’s a documentary on how people read. How they see and interpret patterns. That’s the best thing you can hope for as an artist. That someone will think about your work in a way that takes it from the “cold air of the refrigerator” to something grander.
That is not what the aforementioned article is about. In fact, the opening two paragraphs pretty much insult anyone who has approached True Detective in this way. And, in my opinion, that series of insults is dangerous.
Possibly you’ve noticed, but a lot of people on the internet are obsessing over True Detective. A great many of them seem to be either unemployed or underemployed, because they’re hanging out all day every day on Reddit or the True Detective Facebook page, offering frankly incredible levels of detail in their analyses of the show.
If you’re capable of understanding that words mean things, you already know where I’m going to take this. According to this author, anyone who is “obsessing” over True Detective is “unemployed or underemployed” (aka A LOSER) mainly because they are posting their incredibly detailed thoughts on Reddit (NERD!).
Basic Message: People who “read” True Detective and share their thoughts, ideas—you know, pretty much the shit that makes you excited about experiencing someting interesting—those people are nerdy unemployed losers.
The amount of intricacy involved in their interpretive work would impress some biblical scholars, I think.
Interpretation: In case you didn’t get my first set of insults, here’s one more.
There are a fair amount of places where it feels like people are departing significantly from the text to get to their theories, so to speak.
Not only are you spending too much time—you unemployed nerd!—talking about this show, but you’re essentially wrong.
As someone who’s been watching the show more for the languid beauty of it and the greatness of Matthew McConaughey’s acting,
What the hell is this? So, you watch the show for two reasons—it’s languid beauty and Matthew McConaughey—and are subtly implying that those who don’t are doing something wasteful and wrong?
I confess that reading all this stuff over the last two days has been a revelation. First of all, I discovered that people really . . . see a whole lot of layers here that I don’t.
In other words, you don’t believe in their “readings” and therefore, they are all wrong. And should just watch the show for Matthew McConaughey (who, admittedly, totally kills it).
I think of this as a good document of the journey of two troubled detectives through a years-long movie case, but the internet audience’s reaction seems to be conditioned by years of puzzle shows like Lost to expect an ulterior motive behind every plot development.
I’m not sure I follow this sentence at all, but leaving aside the “years-long movie case,” I just want to open up a bit of a gap between the “puzzle shows like Lost” and noticing motifs and deciphering hints and making connections in a very well-done TV show that involves three timelines and some mysterious symbols and a bunch of murders.
And boy oh boy, are they experts at dreaming those ulterior motives up.
There’s no way to see this line as anything but one last insult.
To sum up: Sharing ideas and theories about a well-crafted TV show means you’re unemployed and that you’re watching for all the wrong reasons. It’s just entertainment, man! Just watch Matthew McConaughey and leave the thinking alone!
This is not good. This is a bad message. This is not what we need.
Personally, I’m very invested in a future filled with people who love to read books that aren’t simply “escapes.” Not that they shouldn’t read “escapist” literature—in which you feel the refrigerator’s coldness—but that they can also enjoy books/movies/TV shows/music that provides your mind with enough space and images to think and puzzle and read and enjoy. Without that sort of art—and more importantly, an appreciation of that sort of art—I just don’t see the point.
What’s funny/sad is that the website in which this article appeared receives more than 3 million visits a month. That is WAY more than Three Percent. And INFINITE times more than the number of Twitter followers I have. So why exactly did my tweet—claiming this article is “anti-reading/anti-thought” for the unstated reasons described above—generate a couple dozen angry tweets from the writers and editors at this website? I’m not sure. I have some ideas, but I’ll keep them to myself.
But that’s it. That’s why that article irritated me. I would say the same thing if it appeared in the New York Times. Although I’m sure the editors at the New York Times wouldn’t be quite so defensive. On Twitter.
It’s no secret that I’m very anti-techtopian people. Anyone talking about Google Glass and how it’ll “solve all publishing problems ever!” is someone I want to run away from. All the industry focus on new “apps” that will “revamp and disrupt the creation, distribution, and monetization of creative content” makes me want to stab my eyes out. Yes, recent technological advances are cool, but I’m with Morozov—a lot of the rhetoric surrounding these advances is just wacky and deluded.
Like this piece from Rob Salkowitz’s PW article The Future of Reading: 10 Trends for 2014 and Beyond:
Machine translation these days is pretty good. It’s not quite good enough for literature, technical publications, or legal contracts, but it’s getting there. The combination of algorithms, data analytics, and crowdsourcing are teaching machines the subtleties of idiom and tone in a variety of languages. Very soon, instant text translation, combined with text recognition, will be available via augmented-reality applications for mobile devices, including smartphones, tablets, and wearables like Glass. No more waiting for translations of foreign editions to become available; no more foreign rights. Think that will disrupt the publishing and localization industries much?
Kaija’s comment on hearing me read this aloud: “Not quite good enough for literature, technical publications, or legal contracts—THAT’S EVERYTHING!”
Jan’s comment after finishing this: “That’s just fucking stupid.”
Seriously. The day we’re all reading instant translations of Mircea Cartarescu on our Google Glasses is the day I just simply quit.
Amazon made a couple of announcements yesterday that, as Amazon announcements tend to do, set the book world atwitter. They announced the next version of the Kindle, but the news that really generated the headlines was the announcement of “MatchBook.”1
Amazon has unveiled a new US initiative to bundle print and e-books, called Kindle MatchBook.
The online retailer is to offer customers the opportunity to buy Kindle editions of print books bought from Amazon.com for prices said to range typically from $2.99 down to completely free.
The offer will set to be available not only on newly published titles, but also titles bought as far back as 1995, where the books are signed up to the scheme.
Russ Grandinetti, vice-president of Kindle content, said: “If you logged onto your CompuServe account during the Clinton administration and bought a book like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus from Amazon, Kindle MatchBook now makes it possible for that purchase—18 years later—to be added to your Kindle library at a very low cost. In addition to being a great new benefit for customers, this is an easy choice for publishers and authors who will now be able to earn more from each book they publish.”
First of all, even if you did buy it when Clinton was in office do not buy the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus ebook no matter how cheaply Amazon makes it via this program. Please. Save yourself.
Now, there are a number of angles to this announcement, but let’s start with some obvious, pro-reader ones: FINALLY WE HAVE BUNDLING. This is something most people with an e-reader and a love of physical books have wanted for a while—and something that music labels have been offering. In terms of music, if makes total sense (to me) that if you buy the vinyl of an album, you get a code so that you can download the mp3 version as well, allowing you to listen to the music while sitting on your couch, or while running at the gym. Basically—and this is a very important point—the music manufacture is selling you the content not the container.
As things currently stand in the book world, if you bought a copy of Javier Marias’s The Infatuations because you love Marias and are willing to shell out $20 for the hardcover version, and then, say, you wanted to take this with you to read Iceland, but, due to the fact that you’re schlepping other stuff, you don’t necessarily have the room for more than your Kindle, you’d have to pay an additional $12+ to get the eversion. Essentially, publishers are treating these two different “containers” (the physical book, the ebook) as separate items to be purchased separately.
But that’s madness. Putting aside the fact that basically no one reads these days anyway, it’s crazy to put your customers in a position where they have to choose between buying either a print version or an e-version of a book when the fixed costs to you (the publisher) are accounted for in the purchase of either one of these. Instead, offer three options: the print book for $20, the ebook for $15, or both for $23. I’d probably choose $23, or maybe $15, but I would NEVER choose to pay $35 to get both. And when a customer has so many other entertainment options, it seems like the smartest thing to do is to make things simple and keep them happy.
Dustin at Melville House disagrees with me, pretty much disagrees with me:
We’ve discussed this before, and indeed, our own Dennis Johnson is less averse to the idea of bundling ebooks than I find myself. but it bears repeating: the problem with ebook bundling is that consumers have no real sense of what a book should cost. Readers don’t know what, specifically, they are paying for when they buy a book. If you tell them, as Amazon has repeatedly done, that ebooks are worth a dollar or less, of course they’ll believe that. After all, there is no paper to pay for.
Unlike the ever-astute readers of MobyLives, the general book buyer might not imagine, for instance, that the price of materials—the weighty stuff of a book, paper etc.—for an average hardcover book from a major publisher will rarely make up more than 15% of the eventual price of the book. Books cost what they do because the services to produce them are expensive, not the paper. Editors, designers, even marketers like myself, all cost money. And while people can and certainly have argued that publishing is broken and all of those professionals that make a book attractive or worth reading or help you find it in stores are essentially obsolete, it is impossible to argue that the value they add to a book is somehow moot if that book is digital. Ebooks from publishers benefit from the hand of an editor as much as their print editions, and that benefit is reflected in the price.
The problem I have with his logic is that he’s not taking into account the fact that this discounted ebook version is only available to customers who also buy the print version. If Amazon was reducing all ebooks to $2.99 or free, then he’d have a point. As things stand, there are like 10 gazillion $.99 books available on Amazon—the vast majority only slightly better than Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus—and that’s not even what we’re talking about. Instead we’re talking about Amazon providing a benefit that a lot of high-volume readers are going to value greatly.
Let’s look at this from a publisher point of view for a second though: We (meaning Open Letter) just looked at the royalty rates for signing our books up for this program. If you decide to enroll a title into MatchBook and sell it for $2.99 or less (with the purchase of the original), you the publisher receive either 70% or 35% of each sale depending on which royalty program the ebook is already enlisted in. That’s not bad at all . . . So, if we sell a copy of Inga Ābele’s High Tide, which retails for $15.95, and the Amazon customer decides to get the ebook for $2.99, we receive an additional $2, $.75 of which goes to the author/translator, and, more importantly, one more copy of the ebook is out there, and one reader is happy that they can read the Kindle version on the subway and the print version at home. (Or, because people are devious like this, that person could give away the print version as a gift, meaning that we lose a potential—emphasis on potential—sale and gain a second reader.)
There’s always an anti-Amazon tack to take on things like this, but personally, as a reader and a small press publisher, I’m totally on board. The one area in which I think this will have a negative impact is on independent bookstores and their agreement with Kobo.
Not too long ago, as a way of getting into the ebook and ereader market, the American Booksellers Association signed a deal with Kobo that let indie stores sell Kobo devices and receive a percentage of sales made through the devices they sold. I’ve heard good things about the devices and the small, but semi-significant, stream of money coming in from this. (I’ve also heard booksellers tell me that this has fuck all to do with their core business, and that indies should focus on their strengths instead of trying to get a piece of Amazon’s ebook pie.)
Anyway, unless Kobo works out something soon—be it an app or a special code or whatever—it’s going to be that much more difficult for your average reader to go with a device/system that doesn’t allow bundling, compared to a very ubiquitous one that does. Hopefully they will figure this out ASAP though, since it only makes sense that you could buy the book in person, pay a couple extra bucks at the register, and download it to your device immediately.
One last thought about “content” versus “containers”: Amazon is extremely good at viewing things from this angle and finding ways to integrate the reading experience in all of its forms. Starting this October, for some titles (I assume), you’ll be able to buy the print book, then add on the ebook for $2.99, and add on the Audible audiobook for an additional $2.99. Then you can listen while you exercise, have it sync with your Kindle version for the subway ride home, then pick up the physical book when you want that (superior, in my opinion) experience. All the same book, the same content, for one reasonable price, in contrast to having to buy three full priced versions (totaling what, $45?) for the opportunity to better integrate reading into parts of your daily life.
1 When I first saw this “MatchBook” terms showing up in my email, I thought that it was some new discovery tool, and if not that, some sort of Amazon dating service: “Seeing that you gave Death in Spring five stars on GoodReads, you might like to meet Carrie, who gave Satantango five stars. LOVE AT FIRST BOOK.”
A social media tool powered by Odyl, Riffle takes its name from the word for thumbing through a book.1 And that’s exactly the sense of discovery that Odyl founder and CEO Neil Baptista would like to re-create online. He wants to go beyond the current Internet phase where anybody can write a review. “We’re going to focus on bringing the audience to the table and curating the information. There’s a ton of online expertise, and we want people to push their content through Riffle,” says Baptista, who plans to work with book bloggers, booksellers, authors, and others to create a “distilled single feed” for books. [. . .]
Initially, Riffle is planning to invite avid readers, who Baptista believe are more likely to look to experts for book recommendations than casual readers. The platform also relies on checklists that convert well in Facebook, such as the 50 books to read before you die or the books you hope your soulmate has read. “Our whole perspective is that content will get people attracted to this,” says Baptista, who is following the Pinterest and Instagram models. “We want to invite people in and be part of its development.” One piece of that could include selling through online retailers.
I do have to admit that the phrase “Pinterest for Books” makes me vomit in my mouth, but I also have a borderline-compulsive obsession with online book discovery and how these things function, so, when I was contacted by the Riffle staff to sign up and
The first thing that I had to do was set up my profile, which is refreshingly sparse. Picture, short bio, link to Three Percent. You can see it by clicking here.
And while you’re there, you can explore the next level of Riffling. First off, you can choose to follow my Twitter feed (which is rather boring, since all I do on there is tweet my GoodReads stuff and offensive/funny comments about sporting events), or, if you’re a fellow Riffler, you can choose to follow me there. Which is what I really want you to do. That and click all over my lists.
The “lists” are the core of the Riffling Experience™. These are groupings of books that Rifflers put together to share with other people looking for a Riffling Good Read. So far I’ve made two: Books from the Iberian Peninsula and Some of My Favorite Open Letter Books.
And after making them, I shared them on Facebook, which is as simple to do as you’d expect in 2012, and as a result, at this exact moment, they’ve received 21 views (not bad?) and I have an “influence” score of 8!
This “influence” thing is interesting to me. First off, it’s basically just a “like” aggregation score. Eight people have “liked” my lists, WHICH IS UTTER BULLSHIT, since I think ALL 21 people who looked at my lists should’ve liked them.
But seriously, the thing this is kind of tapping into—although indirectly and in ways unaware—is our obsession with games and scoring. Follow me for a second: I would guess that around 20% of the posts I see on FB are status updates made solely to get “likes.” Shit, I do this myself sometimes. (“Look at me! LIKEMELIKEMELIKEME!”) Like a video game, “likes” and retweets function as the “score” signifying how well you’re doing at life. Or at least social networking.
When I see someone post something like an engagement or the birth of a new baby, and they only have a couple dozen “likes,” a small part of me dies on the inside. Which is sick and fucked because clearly FB is not a gauge of your importance or relevance or anything, but who doesn’t like seeing those little red circles in the upper right corner acting like little food pellets keeping us addicted to the whole FB game?
So yeah, I want a HUGE Influence score. I want to be The Most Influential of the “World Literature” Rifflers. (As long as it doesn’t require me to actually Riffle more than once a blue moon, cause I’ve got enough shit on my plate.)
What might be more interesting—theoretically—is if the “influence” wasn’t an actual number, but a percentage of people who “liked” your list. So if 8 of 21 people liked my lists, I would have a 38% influence score. WHICH BLOWS. But that would be a much more interesting way to judge the validity and usefulness of these lists. Under the current system, I could post 10,000 meaningless lists over the next 3 hours, and if one person was “influenced” by each one, I would be kicking some numerical ass. But if 500,000 people saw these, and the vast majority realized that I was just dicking around, that “influence” score would be 5%—a much more accurate way of determining the worthfulness of my lists. Just saying.
One last rant: The “questions” section of Riffle is AWFUL. This is one of the things that probably sounds good in a board meeting (“It’ll be like those questions on OKCupid! People love answering questions about themselves!”), but in practice is really kind of embarrassing. Here’s a sampling of questions you can answer to help build your Riffle profile (Riffle-file?):
What books remind you of the place(s) you grew up?
Name some books by your favorite author! (Exclamation point unnecessary, and please state in the form of a question, Riffle.)
What books have changed the course of your life?
Which books would you hope your soulmate has read? (A: Freedom. And the Bible. Natch.)
If you could only save a few books from a fire, which would they be?
I’m sure some people like these—I’m just a jaded cynical man. But really, I will never answer any of these. Ever. Never ever.
Anyway, at the moment you have to “request an invite,” unless you’re a Facebook friend of mine. (I think.) In which case, if you email me, I can send you an invite that (maybe) bypasses the request bit. So, go to it. RIFFLE AWAY.
1 OK, in my non-scientific polling, I think I’ve just identified a new Midwesternism. In Michigan, we always said that we were “rifling through a book” as you would rifle through a drawer to find matching socks. Even now, knowing that “riffle” is the appropriate term, I’m having a hard time saying, “hand me that 1Q84 I want to riffle through it” without feeling like a molester.
I’ve been predicting this for a while, and still think a Spotify for ebooks would be a $1million idea. (Or a $1million bankruptcy. Whatever.) Anyway, from today’s Publishing Perspectives:
Everything you can read in a month for just €9.99 sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it? That is what Booquo, the new digital venture of Circulo de Lectores — the book club owned by publishing giants Planeta and Bertelsmann — is offering, making them among the few brave enough to tread the forbidden path of access vs. ownership that frightens so many print publishers in this digital age. [. . .]
Booquo has two business models — conventional and subscription. The first allows you to rent movies (from a selection of 1,000) and buy e-books (some 10,000 titles are on offer) that is open to anybody who visits the site. This shop, which functions like any other e-retailer, has a partnership with Filmin for the movie rentals and uses the e-distributor Libranda (of which Planeta and Bertelsmann are main shareholders) for downloadable e-books, which are sold at the same fixed price that anybody will find at Amazon Spain or Casa del Libro. The second is the “club,” which offers a one month trial subscription of € 0,99 in an opt-out system that will charge your credit card €9,99 per month thereafter till the account is cancelled.
From this PW piece on BookExpo America and changes to the show:
Reed is already looking to bigger changes in 2013. In a blog post yesterday Rosato discussed a move to B2C, enabling publishers to connect directly with consumers. The show would move to Thursday to Saturday with the general public invited to attend author events and go on the show floor on the final day. “Nothing is baked,” he wrote, “and we have a ton of due diligence to conduct to insure that a BEA that includes consumers, is an event that serves the industry.”
Better late than never. And just wait for the Simon & Schuster rant about how “readers don’t belong at our day of books!” I’m sure their reaction will be priceless and as confused as all get out.
Spiegel Online has an interesting article about Readmill, a new start-up with the goal of making book reading a “more social” activity:
The goal is to transform book reading into a social activity, bringing together readers via their e-readers, and to grab a share of the booming E-book market. Other companies have their eye on social reading as well, such as the platform LovelyBooks. But Readmill, set to go live soon, wants to take the idea even further.
Both avid readers, Berggren and Kjelkerud have an ambivalent relationship with books. Kjelkerud calls them “somehow cold and unsocial.” Reading is solitary, and anyone who wants to discuss a passage must first shut their book, he explains. Berggren says that even digital books and the internet-connected reading devices haven’t changed things much. “There are many E-book services, but none of them are really social,” he explains. What was missing were good ideas to network books and readers with each other.
Readmill, an intelligent bookmark for e-books, is their answer. The program looks over the reader’s shoulder, keeping a protocol of their progress and showing sections that have been highlighted and commented upon by other readers. This way Readmill members create a semi-public reference list for their books, giving them the possibility of alerting friends to interesting passages for discussion.
Music fans will recognize this principle from Last.fm, a music website that analyzes listening patterns to develop new artist and concert suggestions, in addition to bringing users with similar tastes together. Like Last.fm, Readmill’s software operates on three levels: as a background process for reading applications, as a web service that processes reading habits, and as a reading app for the iPad, where members can upload e-books that aren’t copyright protected.
Also similar to Last.fm, Readmill gets interesting when as many other e-book reading programs and devices as possible feed the Readmill central server with data. By year’s end, Berggren told SPIEGEL ONLINE, the company hopes to be supporting enough reading programs so that it could, theoretically at least, be combined with 80 percent of all e-books.
As I’ve said before, and will likely say again, creating book discovery tools for this Age of Screens is a huge growth market and great opportunity for people looking to get into an exciting new part of the book industry.
In terms of Readmill, this sounds a lot like an automated GoodReads. Which has it’s appeal. Right now, you have to go into GoodReads, report on what you’re reading or about to read, and find friends, etc., etc. I’m a constant user of GoodReads (feel free to “friend” me! My username is simply chadwpost), but I do tend to spend a lot more time on Last.fm, since everything I listen to is automatically “scrobbled” there, thus generating a bunch of recommendations of other bands to check out, etc.
I still think this sort of game is more suited to music than books, since even though I read an absurd amount of stuff (over 80 books a year), I listen to more than 1,000 songs a month, providing way more data about what sorts of things I like, how often I go back to relisten to them, what my trends are over time, so on and forth. With books, I may think about or reread a section of a particular book every couple months, but this info doesn’t show up in GoodReads . . . Any book I give “4-stars” to is of equal weight as another 4-star book. But at Last.fm, I can “love” 100 songs, but of those 100, it knows that I listened to one of them 50 times over the past year, and another only once. It’s all about granularity . . .
I’ll be interested to see what Amazon’s table is all about when it comes out, but I have to admit, as someone who still reads and actually likes books, I’m a bit wary . . .
The New York Times has an interesting piece about this that highlights the contradictions surrounding this device. On the one hand:
The retailer is on the verge of introducing its own tablet, analysts predict, a souped-up color version of its Kindle e-reader that will undercut the iPad in price and aim to steal away a couple of million in unit sales by Christmas.
And on the other:
“The No. 1 thing consumers do on tablets is e-mail,” said Sarah Rotman Epps, a Forrester analyst. “The No. 2 thing is look up stuff on the Web. Then playing games and watching video. Amazon will offer all the tablet that many consumers need.” She estimated initial sales of as many as five million devices.
Based on the success of the iPad—which was supposed to “magically” save the publishing industry1—it’s more important that ereaders allow for simultaneous emailing, tweeting, and video watching for those times when, you know, you’re not doing anything but reading . . .
1 In a way it did. Not necessarily as a device or a way of making ebooks as popular as streaming movies or music, but in the way that Apple’s entrance into the market led to the adoption of the agency model and higher prices for most ebooks.
For those of you who listen to our (semi) weekly Three Percent podcast, you may remember a discussion Tom and I had a month or so ago about the idea of a “Spotify for books,” whereby someone could subscribe to have unlimited access to all ebooks available on a given platform. As with Spotify, you wouldn’t actually “own” these books—if you stopped paying your $10/month (or whatever) the ebooks in your “library” would become inaccessible, etc. (Critics of this model like to point out that the same thing would happen if this “unlimited subscription” service were to go bust at some point.)
This is a rather simple model, one that’s very much like Spotify and Netflix, and only really applicable to books now that ereaders are fairly affordable and a significant number of books have been digitized.
It’s also an idea that Amazon is trying to put into action:
Online retailer Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN: News ) is close to launching a digital book library and is in talks with book publishers, according to the Wall Street Journal on Sunday. The library will enable customers to access a digitized content by paying an annual subscription fee, similar to the service provided by Netflix, Inc. (NFLX). [. . .]
The launch of the digital library by Amazon could also further harm the print media and could lower the cost of print books and the demand for them.
Couple quick points:
1) I am a shitty capitalist. Not that I’m the only person to have ever thought about this, but it seems like one of those things that a smarter, more money hungry sort of person would’ve been proposing to a venture capitalist/Amazon a million months ago.
2) I actually think these services are good for print media (and the music industry). The issue of why you read/listen to what you read/listen to, and how you stay within your prescribed comfort zone, is a topic much to large for this ephemeral blog post, but if there’s ever a situation where readers/listeners are willing to “take a chance” on something out of the ordinary, it’s this sort of unlimited subscription model. Before Rhapsody (which I subscribed to for a decade before shunning them in favor of the younger, sexier Spotify), I bought maybe 6 CDs a year, listened to music occasionally, and would pirate things I maybe thought sounded OK, but wasn’t necessarily sold on. Rhapsody changed everything. This past weekend, I listened to tracks from at least 30 artists I had never before heard of, discovering a few I liked, and a number that were just meh. From a user’s perspective, this sort of noodling is essentially free, since you pay $10/month to check out any and everything you want. For presses like Open Letter, a service like this could be golden, since someone interested vaguely in international literature, but unwilling to spend $15 or even $9 on a book by an author with a strange name, would be able to start reading that book for a price that, within their mind at least, is basically $0. It’s like how you start watching strange shows on cable just because they’re there . . . There’s no risk in starting Museum of Eterna’s Novel and finding out if you think it’s the “First Good Novel.”
3) This service would convince me to buy an ereader. Not to replace my current book collecting obsession (on recent trip to New York I gave away 4 Open Letter books to reviewers and booksellers and bought 6 new titles), but to supplement it. There are things I don’t want to own, and books I’d like to just check out. It would be like a massive library right in your hand!
As we announced last week, for the rest of June, all nine of our ebooks will be available for $4.99/title—a pretty good bargain, especially since they’ll go back to the standard $9.99 on July 1st . . .
You can find info about all our available ebooks by clicking here here. (In case anyone’s interested, the best-selling ones from the last week are: The Golden Calf followed by The Pets, and then Guadalajara and Death in Spring.)
After making our pricing announcement, Ed Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives asked me to write a piece explaining our decision, some stuff about ebook pricing in general, and my problems with the $.99 ebook.
Here’s a link to Why Selling Ebooks at 99 Cents Destroys Minds, which includes this:
But what’s really at the top of the e-book best-seller lists? As of this very moment (10:10 pm on Wednesday, June 8th), here are the top five and their prices: A Little Death in Dixie by Lisa Turner, $0.99; My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler, $1.99; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, $5.00; Summer Secrets by Barbara Freethy, $4.99; and The Help by Kathryn Stockett, $9.99.
So aside from The Help, which is the 9th bestselling book in paperback, the top five are all $5 or less. And aside from The Help, none of these books are in the top 10 for Literary Fiction paperback sales. So what does this mean?
At BEA, Keith Gessen introduced me to the works of John Locke (probably not the one you’re thinking of), a best-selling Kindle author whose books are all sold for $0.99. He made over a hundred thousand of dollars in royalties last year — far exceeding the wildest dreams of most every mid-list (if John Locke is even midlist) author in the country. Having read the opening of one of his “Donovan Creed” novels, I can assure you that he’s not selling all these books due to his talent. No offense intended, but let’s be real about this — it leads to a much more interesting conundrum.
And goes on from there . . .
Ed wrote the daily “conversation piece” for Publishing Perspectives, which he entitled Can Affordable Literature Ever Compete with ‘Palatable Plonk?’
As discussed in today’s feature story, you can now buy any number of e-books for 99 cents or less on Amazon. Few would mistake what’s being sold so cheaply as high literature, but one has to acknowledge that it takes skill to craft something that a large audience of people will enjoy.
In the wine business, the fact that you can now buy drinkable box wine in your local gas station/supermarket has indeed expanded the audience for wine. The hope is that drinkers, as their palette becomes sophisticated, will move up the price scale to sample more challenging fare. [. . .]
Can the same be said for the book business? Certainly just think of fiction as red wine, and non-fiction as white, each goes with a mood, setting, circumstance.
Ultimately, the question is not whether inexpensively priced literature entice new readers and serve as a gateway for readers to discover new writers, but can it ever compete, at lower prices, with the John Locke’s and Amanda Hocking’s of the world? And, at the end of the day, does it matter so long as everyone’s needs get met?
In my opinion, the answer is no, not when — to go back to the wine analogy — the cheap stuff can get you just as drunk. Of course, you also have to remember that with the cheap stuff, once the buzz wears off the hangover is often much worse — and you’ll have an even harder time facing yourself in the harsh light of day.
Be sure to check out the comments—that’s where the real fun comes in . . .
As mentioned before, I’m
obsessed interested in the ways in which readers find books—especially in the New Digital Reality of Facebook comments and whatnot. The idea of a “Pandora for Books” (or maybe better, a “Last.fm for Books”) has been batted around for sometime now, and apparently a few of the big corporate publishers are putting some $$$$ into just this idea.
the main goal of Bookish is to make recommendations about books that will appeal to a reader’s particular taste. He compared the site to things like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes that mix information about movies with reviews and news. Editorial will include breaking news, author interviews, excerpts, reviews and other marketing materials that publishers feel will help readers pick a book, Lemgruber said. Although backed by Penguin, S&S and Hachette, Lemgruber stressed that Bookish will be editorially independent, covering books from all publishers (excluding vanity presses).
Penguin Group USA CEO David Shanks compared Bookish to Pandora and said unlike other sites that are driven by purchases, Bookish will make recommendations based on the information provided by consumers. “The more information readers provide the more customized the recommendations can be,” Shanks said, noting that Bookish is aimed at helping readers identify books they may like from the tens of thousands published annually. He said the three publishers came together after it became clear that their individual sites would never drive enough traffic to reach a critical mass of book buyers. As print media devotes less space to book coverage, the publishers felt they needed a way to raise the profile of their content, Shanks said.
As with the still not doing shit DiscoverReads, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. And without being able to check out whether it recommends Harry Potter or The Pale King, based on my muted post horn tattoo it’s hard to say whether this algorithm is worth its weight in silicon. So we’ll see.
I’m all about the idea of recommending software/websites/apps/etc, mainly because I feel that the real challenge for book people in our Age of Abundance (everyone’s a writer! everyone’s a publisher! a million books is year is nothing!) is going to be hooking up the right reader with the right book at the right time. Maybe this is a step in the right direction . . .
Also curious to see how book reviewers respond to something like this. In a sense, a site that automates recommendations takes away a bit from their importance. Rather than puzzle out from a 1,000 word review if I should or shouldn’t read a book, I could just ask Bookish how well it “fits my criteria.”
It will also be interesting to find out how dispersed the recommendations are. I know there’s a better, more accurate statistical term for this that I can’t think of, but basically, will this site end up recommending pretty much the same books you see on tables at Barnes & Noble, or will it end up pushing readers down the “long tail” toward niche publications and books that are outside of the mainstream. There’s a fine balance to be struck here, one that Pandora is only so-so at (in my opinion).
All very curious that the tide has shifted in the direction we (people like myself and Richard Nash) have been talking about for some time now . . . Kind of cool to see a prediction start to come true . . .
As written about in today’s New York Times GoodReads (which has come a bit of an obsession of mine) has just launched a new site called DiscoverReads that uses an algorithm to recommend books. (Book recommendations and how people choose what to read is another obsession of mine, so this announcement is like a double whammy of awesome.)
From the Times:
On Thursday, Goodreads will announce that it has acquired another start-up, Discovereads.com. It uses machine learning algorithms to analyze which books people might like, based on books they’ve liked in the past and books that people with similar tastes have liked.
Otis Chandler, Goodreads’s founder and chief executive, says the site has been an online version of walking into a friend’s living room and scanning the bookshelves to get recommendations. But readers need more than that, he said, particularly now that libraries, bookstores and some newspapers’ book review sections are disappearing and e-bookstores are inspiring more self-published authors.
“This will give the casual reader a quick answer to ‘What should I read first?’” he said. Once people have rated 10 books on a scale of five stars, Goodreads will be able to suggest books they might like.
All I want to do is try this out, but fucking hell, the site “isn’t accepting new members at this time.” OK, screw it: back to watching the Big East Tournament. Thanks for nothing GoodReads + NY Times. Teases!
it’s a commercial break I’m here, this does remind me of Quim Monzo’s short story “Books,” which is included in our forthcoming collection Guadalajara. (Which, if you want to buy it—and you should! it’s brilliant—you’ll have to do it at an indie bookstore or online, since B&N isn’t going to be stocking it . . . No, not bitter at all about yesterday’s sales call at B&N. Not a bit.)
Anyway, you can read the entirely of “Books” in PDF format by clicking here, and here’s a longish excerpt from the beginning of the story (translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush):
There are four books on the passionate reader’s table. All waiting to be read. He went to the bookshop this afternoon, and after spending an hour around the new releases tables and reviewing the covers of his favorite authors on the shelves, he chose four. One is a book of short stories by a French writer; he really enjoyed a novel of his years ago. He didn’t like the second novel he published that much (in fact, didn’t like it all) and has now bought this book of stories in the hope of re-discovering what had fired his imagination so many years ago. The second book is a novel by a Dutch writer whose two preceding novels he had tried to read, but with little success, because he’d had to put both of them down after a few lines. Strangely, this didn’t lead him to abandon the idea of a fresh attempt. Strangely, because usually, when he can’t stand twenty lines of the first book by a particular writer, he might try the second but never the third, unless the critics he trusts have singled it out for special praise, or a friend has recommended it particularly enthusiastically. But this wasn’t the case now. Why did he decide to give him another try? Perhaps it’s the beginning. The beginning that goes: “The bellhop rushed in shouting: “Mr. Kington! Mr. Kington, please!” Mr. Kington was reading the newspaper in the lobby of the Ambassade Hotel and was about to raise his hand when he realized that nobody, but nobody, knew he was there. He didn’t even look up when the bellhop walked by. It would be the most intelligent decision he had ever taken.”
The third book is also a novel, the first novel by an American author he has never heard of. He bought it because in spite of the initial quotation (“Oh, how the tiles glinted in the blossoming dawn, when the roosters’ cry broke the silence with the sound . . .”) he had leafed through it and felt drawn in. The fourth book is a book of short stories, also by a Dutch writer, one who had been unpublished to that point. What attracted him to that book? If he were to be sincere, it was the rich abundance of initials: there are three (A., F., Th.) before the three words that make up the surname. A total of six words: three for the surname and three for the forename. What’s more, the first word of the surname is “van.” He simply adores surnames that begin with “van.”
Why, out of the four books that the passionate reader has on his table, are two (50% exactly) Dutch? Because the Book Fair held in the city was this year devoted to Dutch literature, and that meant, on the one hand, that publishers have brought out more writers in that language recently and, on the other, that the main bookshops in the city have created special displays, piling tables up with these new books as well as books by Dutch and Flemish authors that had been published years ago, that are no longer new and were gathering dust in the distributors’ warehouses.
The passionate reader has all four books in front of him and can’t think where to begin. The stories by the French writer whose novel he liked several years ago? The novel by the young American about whom he knows nothing? That way, if (as is very likely) he finds it immediately disappointing, he will have eliminated one of the four at a stroke and will only have to choose from among the other three. Obviously the same may happen with the novel by the Dutch writer whom he has had to put down on two previous occasions, after merely one page. The reader opens the second book and leafs through. He opens the third and does exactly the same. And follows suit with the fourth. He could choose on the basis of the typeface or kind of paper . . . He tries to find another aspect of the books that could decide for him (an isolated sentence, a character’s name). Page layout. Or paragraphing, for example. He knows that many writers struggle to create frequent paragraphs, whether the text calls for it or not, because they think that when the reader sees the page isn’t too dense, he will feel better disposed toward the book. The same goes for dialogue. A serrated text, with lots of dialogue, is (according to current norms) a plus for most people. This may generally be the case, but has the opposite effect on this reader: he finds an abundance of new paragraphs irritating. He is prejudiced against, and mirrors the prejudice felt by lovers of abundant paragraphs, who find a lack of paragraphs extremely monotonous or arrogant.
Where should he begin? The solution might be to begin them all at once, as he often does. Not simultaneously, of course: but going from one to another, just as you never watch six TV channels at the same time but flick from one to another.
Now, it’s nothing new for Amazon.com to release sales information without any actual hard numbers (how many Kindles have been sold?), but this announcement in The Bookseller begs a explanation:
Amazon.com customers have bought more Kindle e-books than both hardback and paperback books combined for the top 10, 25, 100 and 1,000 bestselling books on Amazon.com over the last 30 days. [. . .]
Steve Kessel, senior vice-president of Amazon Kindle, said: “For the top 10 bestselling books on Amazon.com, customers are choosing Kindle books over hardcover and paperback books combined at a rate of greater than 2 to 1. Kindle books are also outselling print books for the top 25, 100, and 1,000 bestsellers—it’s across the board.”
As a good friend pointed out last night, with ebook sales making up less than 20% of a publisher’s total sales (probably much less than 20%), this seems not just inaccurate, but basically impossible. And to be honest, it just doesn’t feel right.
Which raises a few questions: Is there any mathematical explanation that could make these statements make sense? And if not, why release something like this?
My math skills are less than amazing, but these two perspectives (Amazon sold more ebooks than print one; Publishers sell four times more print books than e-versions) could be reconciled, if the great majority of print books were being sold by outlets other than Amazon, whereas almost all ebooks are going to the Kindle.
This does make some degree of sense. Since we’re talking about just bestsellers here (Kessel’s 2:1 statement only applies to the top 1,000 bestselling titles), Barnes & Noble, independents, and most crucially, non-bookstores (Costco, Sam’s Club, Target, etc.), will make up a much larger percentage of total print book sales than they would for a typical midlist title.
So, if we pretend for a moment that Amazon’s numbers aren’t bullshit, and that they control approx. 80% of the ebook market, this would mean that their market share for print book sales of bestsellers is less than 10%. (I think. Again, though I like math in theory, that theory is very abstract and far away from my life.)
To make this as concrete as possible, let’s pretend there’s a book that sells 1,000,000 copies total—both print and ebook version. Assuming ebook sales make up 20% of the total, this book sold 800,000 print versions, 200,000 ebook versions. And if Amazon controls 80% of the ebook market, then 160,000 of these ebooks were Kindle editions. And if the ebooks sold at a rate of 2:1 over print versions on Amazon, Amazon only sold 80,000 print editions, which is a pretty small portion of the print book market.
And if publishers are overestimating e-sales, and the real figure is closer to 10%, then Amazon accounts for even less of the print market.
Again, totally pulling these numbers out of my ass, and I’m probably miscalculating all over the place, but in trying to do whatever necessary to reconcile these two statements (ebooks 2:1 over print, ebooks are only 20% of a book’s total sales), Amazon looks a bit weaker than I would’ve expected.
So what does this mean? Well, one possible crack-pot interpretation is that Amazon is cannibalizing its own sales. That it would so much rather people buy the Kindle version (even at a loss), making money off of the device itself. (Digression: I was going to put “making money off of the device itself and complementary sales of other products,” but that’s a weird flaw in the Kindle-as-selling-tool argument. Amazon makes tons of cash off of spontaneous additional purchases: “I want Freedom . . . and a toaster!” But the Kindle is wedded to book purchases only. Interesting.)
And maybe this is a reflection on society itself. We’re so driving by instant satisfaction (I feel frustrated and delayed simply having to sign in to the U of R’s wifi every morning. Can’t this process be automatic so that I don’t have to wait 30 seconds to check my email?) that if we want a book, we want it now, meaning that we’ll buy it on our Kindle if we prefer the e-version, or in the checkout line of Wegmans if we’re print bound. Why wait for Amazon to ship it?
All this scares me deeply. For a Bulgarian novel contest that I’m judging (more on that later), I put a few of the pieces on our office Kindle and read them at home last night. It was fine, but to be honest, I mainly just wanted to check out what other books I could buy for the Kindle. (Especially since our Kindle is tied to Nate’s checking account.) I thought it sucked when the lines in the text were all jacked up, crankily complained via text messages about how this minor flaw made the sample feel even more ephemeral than it already did, etc., etc. In some ways, I feel like I’m all over this digital revolution or whatever, but in others I’m just as cranky and myopic as fricking Andy Rooney and think we should all slow down and spend more time actually reading rather than seeking out our next purchase.
As to the why of Amazon’s timing, that’s pretty obvious. Yesterday B&N announced the new version of the Nook which has a color touchscreen and is being positioned as a “reading tablet.” (Which is somewhere between a Kindle e-reader and an iPad tablet.) It does look pretty cool, and might actually satisfy the needs of a particular group of customers. Rather than compete on products, it does make more sense for Amazon to come out with a bad-ass statement about how many ebooks they’re selling.
Basically, I think they were scared of this super-lame chart from B&N’s presentation:
OK, so typically I like—or at least highly respect—Jeffrey Trachtenberg’s Wall Street Journal articles about publishing. He’s one of the better book reporters out there, and it’s nice that the WSJ covers our little industry. But his new piece, Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books, is a bit troubling.
There are two main points in here, both of which are valid and will play out over the ensuing years: 1) advances for literary novelists (especially debut writers) are down from the “golden days,” and 2) ebook sales are increasing while hardcover sales are decreasing, and the economics of this seem disadvantageous to everyone.
One of the interesting assumptions in here lies in that “golden age” crack above. As Trachtenberg points out, a lot of literary novelists receive “small” advances from their publishers:
In some cases, independent publishers are picking up the slack by signing promising literary-fiction writers. But they offer, on average, $1,000 to $5,000 for advances, a fraction of the $50,000 to $100,000 advances that established publishers typically paid in the past for debut literary fiction.
Let me try and break this down a bit: First off, within the past decade, the number of fiction titles being published has skyrocketed. Click on the top press release on this page to download a pdf of publishing stats from 2002 to 2009. As you can see, fiction has basically doubled, from 25,102 books published in 2002 to 53,058 in 2008, and a projected total of 45,181 in 2009.
In terms of opening the doors to more writers and making more forms of literary expression available to readers, this is a great thing. But unfortunately, book sales (regardless of format), don’t really keep pace with this. Apples to oranges here, admittedly, but the most recent stats from AAP indicate a decrease in net sales for publishers of $.4 billion.
It doesn’t take a MBA to see that with slow growth in sales and rapid expansion in offerings, something has to give.
For anyone who doesn’t know how advances works, here’s a brief overview: in the traditional publishing scheme, authors are offered an advance for the rights to their books. Although certain behavioral economics-based stuff comes into play here (reputation of the author, perceived bidding wars, friendships and loyalties), in the most pure economic sense, advances should be based on what an author is expected to earn back through sales. So, if you expect to sell 3,000 copies of a $15 book, and are planning on offering a 8% royalty rate, a $3,600 advance would be appropriate. Other things can figure into this, such as foreign rights or film sales, or whatever, but generally speaking, this is how this should work.
Just going with those numbers for a minute, in this case, the publisher would receive $45,000 in total revenue from these sales, which has to cover the author’s advance ($3,600), the printing costs (~$6,000), bookseller discounts ($22,500) and marketing expenses ($3,000). (Typical Digression: I’m taking a pricing class now in which one of the main tenets is that you don’t include fixed costs—salaries for salaried employees, sunk costs of overhead, etc.—when figuring out whether to take on a “project” or not. Most publishers will include these costs in order to demonstrate just how fucked they are when it comes to publishing books. I’m going to let these go for now, because it is impossible to figure fixed costs when analyzing what it costs to make a book. We operate with low overhead and next to no employees. Random House does things a bit differently.)
To pull this back to the article at hand, this is where I think Trachtenberg ends up focusing on the wrong thing. His main beef seems to be that it’s totally screwed that publishers aren’t keeping food on the plates of literary authors. And as someone who loves, loves, loves, writers and their books, I agree that this situation sucks. Do I wish all my writerly friends could get $200K every four years in order to live well (enough) and have the opportunity to write a genius work during this period? Absolutely. But for that to happen, from a semi-sane economic perspective, they’d have to sell 167,000 copies of each of their books. That’s quite possible if your name ends in Larsson or Franzen, but for most literary writers? Fuck. And. No. Five figure sales are decent for the majority of writers, with quite a few of those 50,000 works of fiction selling far, far fewer copies.
One could (has? will?) write a series of articles about why these sales are so low (blockbuster model, crappy distribution schemes, more attention paid to nonfiction than literary fiction, the Internet, etc., etc.), but the main point is that there’s a fairly direct correlation between sales and an author’s earnings.
And here’s the weird leap in the article: As Trachtenberg points out, royalties for hardcover sales are much higher than those for ebooks. (According to the graph, an author get $4.20 on the sales of a hardcover, $2.27 on an ebook.) This is absolutely true, but the thrust of the article seems to make this some sort of zero-sum game in which the growth of the ebook market will eventually overtake the sales of hardcovers, and suddenly everyone will be twice as poor as they used to be. (Not to sidetrack this already rambling post, but these royalties—15% for hardcover, 25% for ebooks—aren’t standard throughout the industry. Just saying.)
What he doesn’t mention is that a) this has been the case since the existence of paperbacks (numbers I work with: 10% royalties on hardcovers listing for around $25, 7.5% on paperbacks selling for $15, which means an author earns $2.50 for a hardcover sale, and $1.13 for each paperback unit), and that b) this is simply price discrimination with different customers buying different forms of the products at different prices. It’s really not all that uncommon or as catastrophic as it’s being portrayed.
The nagging assumption here is that no one will buy the hardcover if a cheaper ebook is available, thus screwing the entire payment system. That ebooks cannibalize sales. But there’s not a lot of evidence for this yet. I’ve heard a number of anecdotes contradicting this and stating that people who wouldn’t buy the hardcover are buying ebooks (thus expanding the audience), or more disruptive to the WSJ argument, that giving away free ebooks has led to increased sales of the title overall.
If anyone has hard data, send it along. The only thing cited in this piece is that “sales of consumer books peaked in 2008 at 1.63 billion units and is expected to decline to 1.47 this year and 1.43 billion by 2012.” Is the decrease in sales of hardcovers? Trade paperbacks? Mass market titles? And the insane growth in ebooks (estimates that these will make up 20-25% of total unit sales by 2012), is that reflecting only a decrease in sales of hardcovers? Or are these replacing the mass market romances people used to buy? All the data here seems weak and speculative.
I know this is longer than Clarrisa, but quickly, there are two final things I want to say . . . First off, rather than focus on ebook pricing and the
backwards slow-to-adapt struggling publishing industry, we should instead focus on audience development. We simply do not live in a culture that can support 50,000 works of fiction a year on sales alone. Period. If we all paid full price for 100+ novels a year, well then, maybe. [Insert witty joke about the total impossibility of that happening in a culture that still supports American Idol.]
Check this quote from Nan Talese:
“We aren’t seeing a generation of readers coming along that supports writers today the way that young people supported J. D. Salinger and Philip Roth when they were starting out.”
Yep. We aren’t. And probably won’t.
Also, this whole “author’s deserve $50K advances for simply putting words on paper” argument is weird to me. I don’t mean to sound like an elitist, but seriously, of the 50,000 works of fiction published in 2008, how many deserved to be? 20,000? 100? Somewhere in between, surely, but the point is, some books are simply printed, others are works of art that won’t appeal to everyone, and a select few are picked up by the mainstream culture and make tons of money.
I’m a bit touchy about this article because it seems to be attacking indie presses (“they only offered a $3,500 advance! Cheap bastards!”), which is misguided, and because it’s reinforcing a publishing system that is failing. And next week, there will probably be a piece about how Random House’s advances are way too high and that the blockbuster model is ruining our culture. There’s just nothing sane here.
To counteract the latent vituperative bent of this post, I think everyone should check out OR Books. Incredibly innovative, great authors, zero advances, quick turn around time for books, and only selling through their website. This is a different option. It runs counter to everything talked about above, and, if successful, could provide some ideas that other publishers could learn from. Learn and adapt. The answer isn’t always to freak out; sometimes topics deserve reflection and thought, and sometimes there’s a third way to do business.
Here’s the opening:
So, what can be done to accomplish the change in priority from “How do we pay for translated fiction?” into “How do we get more people interested in these books?”
First off, there’s the “publishers are sheep” problem. I once saw Scott Moyer (formerly of Random House and Penguin, currently working at the Andrew Wylie Agency) on a panel talking about Shadow of the Wind and how the success of that particular book caused editors to seek out the next Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Is this really what we need? Not that Zafon’s not talented, not that I don’t think people should read his books or books like them, but I’m pretty sure that publishers love imitation more than their audience does. Medium-hopping for a second, how many Lost-esque shows came out after the immediate success of Lost? I think about a billion, none of which are still on the air. Readers like similarities, not necessarily repetition. Publishers like sure things. There may be a problem here.
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.
People can read traditional printed books a good bit faster than eBooks on tablet computers, a new study has found.
The study tested peoples’ pace of reading on two popular e-reader tablets – Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle 2 – as well as a standard PC monitor and a plain ol’ regular book.
The test used some Hemingway stories, which took on average more than 17 minutes to read.
To make sure people did not just skim the stories, the participants were given a reading comprehension tests afterward.
Overall, the study revealed that people read text 6.2 percent slower on an iPad than on the printed page. With the Kindle, reading was 10.7 percent slower.
Nielsen noted that this difference between the e-readers was not statistically significant, however, so in the end the only fair statement is that “tablets still haven’t beaten the printed book,” Nielsen wrote.
So last week (was it really just last week?), Rochester Institute of Technology hosted a three-day (and four-night) conference on the “future of reading.” I meant to write about it after seeing Margaret Atwood’s speech (which was surprisingly funny—though the weird thing was, it actually seems funny to her as well in that “I’ve never heard this joke before” sort of way . . . which was also sort of charming), and then I planning on writing things up after seeing Chris Anderson and Johanna Drucker clash in intriguing ways (traditional marketplace vs. academia ways but ramped way the hell up), after seeing Molly Barton from Penguin talk about their plans and projects (also very intriguing), and especially after seeing N. Katherine Hayles’s talk about reading, Only Revolutions and all the studies feeding into Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows that point to our inability to concentrate and read in this era of multitasking, IMs, Twitter, and everything else.
I meant to write up each of these presentations, but didn’t . . . I got distracted.
Which is sort of the point, no? Everyone has a hard time positing a future in which straight long-form writing is enough to satisfy. Penguin goes all multimedia with The Pillars of the Earth; Jane Friedman is on about e-everything and videos and a circular feedback between creators and readers all facilitated by the internet and mobile devices (her line about how she like to “experiment with e” was a conference highlight for me); Chris Anderson is kinda sorta taking Wired off the web to pimp the super-awesome, and super-enhanced iPad app; and Johanna Drucker got lost in the distractions provided in the online version of the NY Times article about distraction.
As a whole the conference was excellent, really, truly excellent, and I want to do justice by it . . . But this feels like a launching event to really talk about reading . . . about how to think about reading and the so-called future of reading (and communication as a whole—which is a phrase I typed while responding to a very funny text about traveling and names . . . which is a phrase I typed while checking my e-mail for the 40th time this hour . . . which is a phrase I typed while restarting my iPhone Rhapsody app . . . which is a phrase I typed while watching the stream of recent tweets pop up in the lower right hand side of my screen . . . you get the picture), from the perspective of a publisher. I swear, I’ve been thinking about this off-and-on for the past few months, but within the past three weeks I’ve read probably a dozen articles about reading, the neurological impact of using Google, of how impossible it is for anyone to concentrate on anything (in the traditional sense).
There are a lot of threads coming together culturally at this time. And it’s all muddled and feels a bit like things are breaking down into opposing camps: the future is screwed because computers and instant communication ruin everything vs. the future is beautiful because we can finally put artists and audience in contact and everyone has access to everything all-the-time.
So. Next week (after a trip to Chicago, after a trip to D.C.) I’d like to revisit this conference and all the articles and speculate/summarize/think about some of these issues. I don’t know where this is going to go, but whatever. That’s generally the best sort of set-up for me to work through things.
In the meantime, I just want to encourage you to attend this conference next year (or in 2012?). It was fascinating. It covered a huge range of topics. It was loaded with interesting people. It was worthwhile and important in that cultural exchange of ideas sort of way. And I’ll say more about it next week. Promise. As long as I don’t get distracted.
The Rochester Institute of Technology’s conference on The Future of Reading kicks off tonight at 7pm with a presentation (and book signing) by Margaret Atwood. I’ll try and write this up thoughtfully tomorrow (the conference starts up again at 8:30 though, so don’t hold your breath), but since I recently decided to try and learn how to use Twitter (im)properly, I think I’m going to try and “tweet” the speech via my personal (chadwpost) Twitter account.
And every time she mentions the Long Pen everyone following has to do a shot.
Not sure how long this has been available online, but you can now download a lot of the presentations from the inaugural Tools of Change Frankfurt conference.
Lot of interesting ones, including:
Rob Walker—author of Buying In, one of the best marketing/business books of the past few years—just found a listing on Etsy for a hardcover copy of Buying In that “has been sealed and cut by hand to fit Amazon’s Kindle 6” Wireless Reading Device.”
Seriously. Here’s the full listing:
Love your Kindle but miss the feel of holding a real book?
Do you get a kick out of seeing objects being used in a way other than their intended purpose?
Then I bet you’ll enjoy carrying your Kindle hidden inside a book.
This hardcover copy of “Buying In” by Rob Walker has been sealed and cut by hand to fit Amazon’s Kindle 6” Wireless Reading Device.
(Please note that the Amazon Kindle seen in the picture is NOT included.)
This is an official Don’t Judge Me# piece.
Granted, this is kind of cool . . . And if it becomes really popular, Rob still gets his royalties . . . but there’s something perverse about having your work carved apart to cloak a Kindle. Although on the other hand, this could be the perfect solution for people who miss the tactile sense of reading a real book, and who want to show off to the world what it is they’re reading . . .
Today’s Publishing Perspectives piece is a great editorial by editor Ed Nawotka on e-books, specifically in relation to kids books:
My daughter loves to read. “Book, ook, ook,” she’ll say, trying to form the right word that will get my attention to plop onto a beanbag chair, pull her into my lap, and read to her from her growing library of small, square board books. There are some A-Z books, some “colors” and “shapes” books, some Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry. But most often, what she wants is something by Sandra Boynton — Barnyard Dance, Horns to Toes — books that are age-appropriate. These are books full of sing-songy prose and hippos, elephants, and dogs doing things like bathing, brushing their teeth, and pulling on pajamas — all the things she’s now learning to do herself. My daughter loves these books so much that she literally tries to climb inside them. Now that’s commitment.
But what I fear, as things go digital, is that a lot of the visceral love of reading will be lost. Not the romance of paper — although, there is that — but that physical connection one gets with books from an early age. That climbing into the book my daughter is doing, the way she can’t turn the page fast enough when she’s excited, the way she flips it aside when she’s done.
Of course, there will always be children’s board books. But the question is, as more and more parents spend more and more time with e-book readers and less with physical books, what kind of example does that serve? Don’t we spend enough time in front of screens as it is?
I know my daughter responds to books because, in part, as an infant she had to crawl through what must have looked like looming towers of review copies, threatening at a moment’s notice to topple over on her. She was both curious about and wary of these piles. Would the same have happened if all my galleys came via e-mail to my Kindle?
And over toward the other end of the spectrum, Steven Levingston laments Polymer Vision’s financial troubles, and the fact that this might kill the Readius e-reader they were developing. Collective shrug—if it ain’t Apple’s tablet, it ain’t worth a damn. Still, this did sound (and look) sort of cool:
In prototype, it is a pocket-sized gadget about the size of a pack of cigarettes. What sets it apart is the flexible, flip-out screen. Open the thing up, and you unfold a 5-inch display. Finish reading and fold it up again, clip it closed and stuff it back in your pocket. The company claimed it had tested the screen’s flexibility more than 25,000 times and discovered no degradation in readability.
Like the Kindle, the Readius would have a high-speed wireless connection for downloading books on the run. The screen uses high-resolution, low power E-Ink.
The device also was designed as a mobile phone.
If you’re interested, there’s a video at the bottom of the article demonstrating the flexibility—and cigarette-pack qualities—of the Readius.
And if you’re a venture capitalist looking to bail out Polymer Vision (is this an oxymoron?), I suggest you give all your money to Open Letter through the link below.
Just when you thought the Times had figured out how to correctly pair writers with appropriate topics . . . Kidding—the Times will never get that straight. Here’s some clips from today’s review of Lost‘s season finale:
[. . .] the producers of “Lost,” who have devoted the show’s fourth and penultimate season (which ends on Wednesday) to the more mind-bendingly nonsensical dimensions of its sci-fi-ness.
Uh, that would be the “fifth and penultimate season.” And a quick trip to Wikipedia or ABC.com could verify that fact. (I’m way more lenient with the Washington Times claiming a book was translated from Syrian than with the NY Times fucking up a simple pop culture reference. When you’re the “paper of record” you ought to be able to count.)
I don’t want to get into a long-winded defense of Lost — there are other things to complain about than this wildly off-the-mark review, which uses the word “limned” (! — is this Kakutani in disguise?) and seems to be written by someone pretty unfamiliar with the show.
(One last Lost comment: Will Leitch’s bit on Jack Shephard in his weekly Ten Humans of the Week column is way better: “Jack is just a drunk surgeon with daddy issues and a serious case of inflated self-importance, and the great joke about his character is that everyone keeps blindly following him into disaster even though his decisions are always, always wrong. Well, the big gimmick for the final episode is that Jack is trying to detonate a hydrogen bomb on the island, with the idea that it will change history and allow the original flight that crashed on the island to land as was initially scheduled. This is a terrible, awful, hilariously stupid idea — he is trying set off a hydrogen bomb!”)
In other Times goings on, this article by Motoko Rich on e-book piracy has attracted a lot of responses from the blogosphere, including posts from Moby Lives and Book Square, pointing out how incredibly late to the game the Times is with this “news.”
Rather than dump on the Times for being out of touch, I think it’s more interesting to look at all the infuriating, yet typical (and infuriating because they are typical), responses from publishers and mainstream authors about online book piracy.
First we get Ursula Le Guin getting all pissed off (“Why do they think they can violate my copyright and get away with it?”), followed by Hachette’s Sisyphean tactic of endless legal action (“Our legal department is spending an ever-increasing time policing sites where copyrighted material is being presented”), then Stephen King trying to be above it all, but instead taking pot shots at
bloggers internet users (“The question is, how much time and energy do I want to spend chasing these guys” [. . .] “And to what end? My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer”), and ending with Harlan Ellison’s out and out threat (“If you put your hand in my pocket, you’ll drag back six inches of bloody stump.”)
And buried amid all this sky is falling outrage from people who haven’t learned a damn thing from the movie or music industries, Motoko throws in a few moments of sanity:
“If iTunes started three years earlier, I’m not sure how big Napster and the subsequent piratical environments would have been, because people would have been in the habit of legitimately purchasing at pricing that wasn’t considered pernicious,” said Richard Sarnoff, a chairman of Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer titles.
Huh, who would’ve thunk?
And more to the point for non-mainstream writers:
Others view digital piracy as a way for new readers to discover writers. Cory Doctorow, a novelist whose young adult novel “Little Brother” spent seven weeks on the New York Times children’s chapter books best-seller list last year, offers free electronic versions of his books on the same day they are published in hardcover. He believes free versions, even unauthorized ones, entice new readers.
“I really feel like my problem isn’t piracy,” Mr. Doctorow said. “It’s obscurity.”
Speaking of which, Cory wrote a post at BoingBoing yesterday about a recent study on the impact of free online book releases on print version sales. From the Bloggasm’s coverage of the report from John Hilton, a doctoral candidate in Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University:
On March 4 of this year, Random House announced that it would release five books for free through its science fiction portal, all of which came in downloadable PDF files (among other formats). Hilton recorded the before and after book sales and found that “one of the five books has had zero sales in 2009. So no sales before or after the free version. But the other four books all saw significant sales increases after the free versions were released. In total, combined sales of the five books were up 11%. Together they sold 4,633 copies the 8 weeks prior to being released free and 5,155 copies the eight weeks after being released.”
There are more factors that muddy these results, and the e-releases that Tor did resulted in fewer sales for 20 of 24 titles, but based on these results, it’s clear that the impact of free e-versions of books (or even pirated versions) is much more complicated than most industry insiders and mainstream authors would have you believe.
The “Bookishness: The New Fate of Reading in the Digital Age” conference taking place at the University of Michigan on Friday, May 15th looks pretty amazing. There are two main panels: one on “New Reading Practices and Literacies in a Digital Age” and one on “New Institutions for the Digital Age.” Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times Book Review is on the second—very curious to hear what he has to say about this topic.
Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum (also know as “our man in Ann Arbor”) is planning on attending, and might write something up for us.
In the Guardian, Hirsh Sawhney has a piece about how independent publishers of the world are going to save literature:
Could literary culture really be breathing its last? Should readers and writers be running for cover? Of course not. But what, then, will save literature from economic disaster? Simple: independent publishing. Yes, independents – the ones who struggle to sell enough books to make payroll – will ensure that engaging, challenging books continue to be produced and consumed. It’s they who’ll safeguard literature through the dark economic days ahead. [. . .]
In an ironic twist of our times, however, these perpetually struggling entrepreneurs might just be able to weather the current financial crisis better than their behemoth corporate cousins. Why? They’re used to constantly innovating to generate revenue and to conducting the business of literature on a tight budget. They don’t expect unreasonable profit margins from good books. And when you’re independently owned, you’re somewhat insulated from the machinations of the market.
All this is true, and beyond weathering the current economic storm, independents play a vital role in book culture, publishing those titles that might not be profitable enough for a big house to do, but that are important nonetheless. And thanks to the nature of the beast, historically, it’s been a lot of indie presses that publish the more subversive, challenging books that shake up how we think about art, politics, life. Books that would appeal to college students who are out looking for something that’s not necessarily sanctioned by their professors or parents . . . Isn’t that what college is all about?
Well, apparently the days of college students reading cult novels that are flying under the collective media radar are long gone. From the “Washington Post“:
Forty years later, on today’s college campuses, you’re more likely to hear a werewolf howl than Allen Ginsberg, and Nin’s transgressive sexuality has been replaced by the fervent chastity of Bella Swan, the teenage heroine of Stephenie Meyer’s modern gothic “Twilight” series. It’s as though somebody stole Abbie Hoffman’s book — and a whole generation of radical lit along with it.
Last year Meyer sold more books than any other author — 22 million — and those copies weren’t all bought by middle-schoolers. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the best-selling titles on college campuses are mostly about hunky vampires or Barack Obama. Recently, Meyer and the president held six of the 10 top spots. In January, the most subversive book on the college bestseller list was “Our Dumb World,” a collection of gags from the Onion. The top title that month was “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” by J.K. Rowling. College kids’ favorite nonfiction book was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” about what makes successful individuals. And the only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” the choice of a million splendid book clubs.
Maybe I’m getting old, but I have to admit that I find this pretty disturbing. And some of the explanations for these reading habits are equally cringe-worthy:
Professor Eric Williamson — a card-carrying liberal in full tweed glory — argues that “the entire culture has become narcotized.” An English teacher at the University of Texas-Pan American, he places the blame for students’ dim reading squarely on the unfettered expansion of capitalism. “I have stood before classes,” he tells me, “and seen the students snicker when I said that Melville died poor because he couldn’t sell books. ‘Then why are we reading him if he wasn’t popular?’ “ Today’s graduate students were born when Ronald Reagan was elected, and their literary values, he claims, reflect our market economy. “There is nary a student in the classroom — and this goes for English majors, too — who wouldn’t pronounce Stephen King a better author than Donald Barthelme or William Vollmann. The students do not have any shame about reading inferior texts.”
How wonderful. I’m done for today . . .
The Guardian—which has self-admittedly entered the season of the “crap survey”—has an article today about a recent study on what reading material most attracts the other sex.
A survey commissioned by the National Year of Reading has found the top 10 reads to impress a woman. Top of the list is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. If you also drop in that you adore Shakespeare, poetry, and cookery books; are never off current affairs websites; and—sorry readers—that you take the Financial Times, then there may be queues.
Not sure I totally understand that, but at least women have some sense of taste . . . Not so with the teenage boys:
Over half of the 1,543 people surveyed were teenagers. Top of the list to impress a teenage boy are Facebook and MySpace followed by text messages, Harry Potter and song lyrics.
So, let me get this straight—teenage boys are smitten by girls who “read” Facebook? Or text messages? No wonder reading is “at risk.”
Robert McCrum can be pretty bitingly funny:
According to the Times, some clever people at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are setting up a $25m ‘laboratory’ to ‘save the story’.
You could hardly make it up. The Centre for Future Storytelling declares it is going to ask ‘the big question’. This, according to one David Kirkpatrick, is ‘Can the story survive?’ in the age of mobiles, internet and satellite television. While it is at it, MIT may like to consider some of the other pressing condundrums of our time, for instance: ‘Is the Moon made of green cheese?’
I agree with McCrum—storytelling really isn’t in peril. Advancements in technology haven’t killed storytelling, just changed the way we access and process stories. Maybe that $25m could’ve been spent propping up bookstores and publishers, since it’s really storytelling in books that MIT seems most concerned with . . .
According to a recent report from the University of Manchester, fiction can be just as powerful as facts in teaching people about the world.
The report — “The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge” — was written by David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers, and Michael Woolcock, and actually came out earlier this year. (I found out about it thanks to the Guardian.)
It’s steeped in academic, but the abstract lays it all out:
This article introduces and explores issues regarding the question of what constitute valid forms of development knowledge, focusing in particular on the relationship between fictional writing on development and more formal academic and policy-oriented representations about development issues. We challenge certain conventional notions about the nature of knowledge, narrative authority, and representational form, and explore these by comparing and contrasting selected works of recent literary fiction that touch on development issues with academic and policy related representations of the development process, thereby demonstrating the value of taking literary perspectives on development seriously. Not only are certain works of fiction “better” than academic or policy research in representing central issues relating to development, but they also frequently reach a wider audience and are therefore more influential. Moreover, the line between fact and fiction is a very fine one. The article also provides a list of relevant works of fiction that we hope academics and practitioners will find both useful and enjoyable.
They use some decent examples of how literary works can portray more about a culture than fact-based documents, such as Chinua Achebe and Naguib Mahfouz (and the list of recommended titles, which includes Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, and Frisch, is really quite good), and also focus on how the popularity of a work of fiction greatly amplifies its impact:
For example, the US invasion of Afghanistan and continuing “war on terror” have obviously played a significant role in the success of Khaled Hosseini’s extraordinarily popular novel The Kite Runner (2003), which has arguably done more to educate Western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan (under the Taliban and thereafter) than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research.
I’m no fan of The Kite Runner, but regardless, it’s nice to see a formal, reputable report documenting what many of us (editors, booksellers, readers) have believed for years: one of the best ways to learn about the world is to read great works in translation.
This project was announced a while back, but with the start date one week away, it’s worth mentioning once again. Sponsored by the Institute for the Future of the Book (with funding from the Arts Council England), The Golden Notebook Project is an online experiment in collaborative close reading:
The seven women listed below will read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and carry on a conversation in the margins. The seven readers will also record their reactions to the process in a group blog. There is also a public forum in which everyone who is reading along and following the conversation can post their comments on the book and the process itself.
According to Bob Stein:
The idea for the project arose out of my experience re-reading the novel in the summer of 2007 just before Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Golden Notebook was one of the two or three most influential books of my youth and I decided I wanted to “try it on” again after so many years. It turned out to be one of the most interesting reading experiences of my life. With an interval of thirty-seven years the lens of perception was so different; things that stood out the first-time around were now of lesser importance, and entire themes I missed the first time came front and center. When I told my younger colleagues what I was reading, I was surprised that not one of them had read it, not even the ones with degrees in English literature. It occurred to me that it would be very interesting to eavesdrop on a conversation between two readers, one under thirty, one over fifty or sixty, in which they react to the book and to each other’s reactions. And then of course I realized that we now actually have the technology to do just that.
This promises to be an interesting experiment in online collaboration. In the past Words Without Borders has sponsored many online book discussion groups (I’ve moderated a couple, as has Michael Orthofer and many others), but this is somewhat different. Having seven people signed up from the start makes a huge difference (one of the problems we ran into was getting readers to chime in with their own opinions), as will the fact that the site/blog is exclusively dedicated to The Golden Notebook. It’ll be interesting to see how this works out . . .
And worth noting: as mentioned on the site, this isn’t an experiment in reading online—if you plan on participating, you’ll want to buy a print copy of the book beforehand.
Today at DEMOfall 08, Plastic Logic revealed a pretty damn slick looking e-reader that could (in theory) end up competing with the Kindle—especially in terms of business users.
As you can see in this video the reader is a 8 1/2” x 11” full-sized reading touch-screen that’s about the size of a notebook. It’s much bigger and sleeker than the Kindle, and allows for easy transfer of all Office documents, PDFs, etc. You can even annotate documents by drawing with your fingers or using a pop-up keyboard. And when you do this, the file is automatically saved as a revised PDF or Word file or whatever . . .
For business functions, this actually seems pretty cool. Using Bluetooth someone at a meeting can provide everyone with a PowerPoint file or a different report. (Although there’s no word on whether this will help make PowerPoint demonstrations aesthetically palatable—probably not.)
In terms of regular readers though, this thing is miles away from supplanting the Kindle. Until it can wirelessly access hundreds of thousands of books, it’s actually a pretty awkward devise. Something that’s less convenient to carry than a book, that’s more difficult to read (at least in terms of fiction, because who really likes reading literature in a full-page format? Aside from slush pile reading interns, that is), and is primarily geared to only presenting your own files. . . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .