activism ahead

February 7, 2014

fightback

It’s time to fight back – mass surveillance does not keep us safe.

Read more about it at ProPublica, The Guardian, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Security Archive or in the news.


the paranoid style in American literature

December 15, 2013

One of the reasons I enjoy crime fiction as a genre is that it serves as a mirror of our times through exploring the things that frighten us. These are not, of course, always the things we should be worried about, but it’s still interesting to know what gets our attention. I like to ponder what’s going on in society from a safe distance, and the crime fiction I enjoy most helps me figure difficult things out while also telling entertaining stories about people who I come to care about. George Pelecanos, Denise Mina, David Corbett, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis – they write these kinds of stories. There’s also the satisfaction of resolution. Not all crime stories have happy endings, but they do have endings, unlike most social problems. Some readers prefer to avoid stories “ripped from the headlines” – if they want news, they’ll pick up a newspaper, thanks all the same – but instead seek The Circleout stories about good and evil in more enduring (or even mythic) forms, without a lot of moral ambiguity. Bad guys do bad things, but good guys can show us how we wish we could be.

Whether you see the genre as a place where social issues get a workout or as a (for the most part) reassuring morality play, or even, in the case of noir, a stylish slalom toward a nasty end, fear is one of its pleasures. We get a kick out of being anxious: what will happen next? Wow, I didn’t see that coming! How will the hero get out of this scrape? No, really, you shouldn’t go down to the basement in your nightie to investigate that noise, bad idea, really bad idea. Fear is the crankshaft of the narrative.

But that’s not just a quality of mysteries. For whatever reason, I chose something other than crime fiction last month to crank my fear. I read The Circle, Dave Egger’s new dystopia about what our socially networked, data-mined world could look like if we aren’t careful, and two young adult books by Cory Doctorow, Little Brother and Homeland, which tackle technology and surveillance from another angle. They got me thinking about a lot of things, including the difference between calling out a warning and doing something about it, or perhaps a difference in genres – one of these dystopian worlds is not like the other.

Thinking about these books, I was moved to read Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, published in Harper’s back in November of 1964, reflecting on political rhetoric leading up to the 1964 election which at the time was associated with a far-right minority but which, he pointed out, could also be also found in late-19th-century populist rhetoric and by anti-Catholics of the mid-19th century. This paranoid style is a kind of story-telling that pulls together disparate things into evidence of a vast conspiracy of which only the minority is aware. It thrives on ethnic, religious, and class conflict and is particularly likely to flourish when a group of people feel shut out of the political process. “Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions,” he writes, “they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.” Being shut out of the system is a feeling familiar to members of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. And, let’s be real: in an era when those elected to office spend most of their time raising money for the next election, which will cost millions, hardly any of us feel truly enfranchised. In these situations, it’s weirdly comforting to find a narrative that explores what’s going on and which suggests good guys are those who see what others don’t, who are fighting to preserve something enduring that is threatened. They can also tell us what we have to lose.

That partly explains the pleasure I took in reading these three books. In The Circle, Dave Eggers gives us a story about a very recognizable near-future in which a Silicon Valley powerhouse (a cross between Google and Facebook) offers a worker’s paradise to a young, desperate woman who needs a job and who wants to help her parents, who are frazzled over medical bills they can’t pay. A friend gets her a position in everyone’s dream company, where all the cool kids work, where the perks are amazing. She’s grateful for the job and willing to work gruelling hours in what amounts to a tech sweatshop, one that expects here to keep up with an unendingly increasing workload, her performance constantly measured, her private life never private, never off the clock. She also is seduced by the company’s benevolent desire to make everything transparent, every thought shared, every impulse metered and tallied for the good of society. It’s a disturbing, funny, all-too-recognizable near future that extrapolates the way we live now into a society that is controlled by those who want to have ALL the data.

I wonder how Eggers felt about Edward Snowden’s bombshell – that everything we give to Google (and pretty much everything we share with other technology corporations, including where we go and who we communicate with) is rendered unto Caesar just in case the state decides it needs to investigate us. It’s like Google and Facebook and every other data-sucking tech company bureaucratized and made monolithic, incredibly arrogant in its ambition to have every piece of data captured and programs that can mine it in a variety of ways. In Egger’s dystopian vision the corporation essentially takes over the role of the state, but as things have unfolded since he turned his manuscript in, the state has embraced everything tech companies collect and, if thwarted, simply taps directly into the arteries of the Internet to suck out everything it wants – which seems to be everything. The NSA embraces the logic that infected the Internet – providing platforms for sharing that seem free but are actually fed by constant micropayments of personal information which can be aggregated, mined, used and sold – in order to know everything about anyone. It also can use these algorithms to predict, like targeted advertising’s evil twin, who might be a threat and should be stopped in advance of a crime. (This is a variation of an FBI practice of coaxing naive and gullible people into terrorist plots that they can foil.) I found Egger’s vision of a society that reduces itself to the insecure infantilism of middle school as a way of life incredibly disturbing, but what we’re learning about how all that personal information is being used by the state is far more worrying.

A lot of readers and critics have  faulted the book for being propaganda, treating social media with a lack of nuance, having shallow characters who are hard to sympathize with, and particularly for using as its primary narrator a young woman who not only doesn’t grow, but gets less and less reflective as time goes on. The other characters don’t get to provide much ballast, either, but it’s a cautionary tale rather than a realistic or novel or character study. And this is a deliberate choice. In terms of narrative arc, it’s backward – instead of self-discovery, we start with a naive narrator who like kayaking in the dark and is eager to join the culture of her workplace, but as she does that Eggers begins erasing the lines, making her less and less distinct, less a person with her own identity. The Circle will do that to you, he seems to be saying. His vision of the future is not optimistic.

Little Brother

Cory Doctorow’s two novels deal with surveillance in the context of post-9/11 America, but in a way that is equally disturbing but oddly much more enheartening. In Little Brother, he imagines how the state would react to terrorist attack on San Francisco and sees it through the eyes of a teenager who understands better than the adults around him what we have to lose when we give up privacy. He also has the tech skills to set up an alternative to the Internet using linked Xbox consoles, create a way to jam the GPS signals being used to track people’s movements, and launch a youthful resistance movement.

The power of the state is vast and blind. The narrator is picked up for no discernible reason, tortured, and scared out of his wits. He’s been issued a gag order, so can’t tell his parents what has happened to him. He’s impassioned, playful, absolutely sure of the importance of privacy and the Bill of Rights – but also frightened and traumatized. Overcoming his own terror (something all of his friends have to negotiate for themselves) is nicely depicted (and probably necessary, as without these moments of sheer terror and self-doubt, he might be a talented, overconfident and obnoxiously self-congratulatory geek). Homeland takes the story further. The fight isn’t over. The economy has collapsed. College is out of reach and debt is crippling young people before they start their lives. Our young hero gets a tech job for the campaign of an independent candidate he believes in, but he faces an ethical dilemma when he is given a trove of extraordinary documents about one of the contractors who detained and extracted confessions from teens during the events of the first book. The young woman who gave it to him asked him to release it if she is captured. When she is, he needs to weigh his own safety, the future of his promising candidate, and the need to get the truth out. It’s compelling stuff, and full of though-provoking dilemmas as well as high-tech adventure and a dash of YA romance, the kind that is as much about discovering one’s identity as it is about love.

These are not subtle books, and they don’t go out of their way to accommodate opinions that the authors don’t share. Eggers paints a frighteningly possible extension of the way we live now, and it’s a bleak place. Doctorow offers a dystopian take on our present political and legal situation and a spirited call to activism. Unlike Egger’s critique of our tech-saturated lives, in Doctorow’s world technology can be used for oppression, but also can be the hand-tools for building liberation. It’s an empowering, geeky, fun vision about how ordinary people can stand up to totalitarian impulses.

Homeland

I do worry a bit when I read this kind of story about Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” It’s so satisfying to see patterns in what otherwise seems disordered, to attach a narrative complete with good guys and bad guys to a series of troubling events. Eggers addresses this problem by making us think. Isn’t transparency in government a good thing? Isn’t sharing valuable? I found the book most interesting when it engaged my critical faculties, not just my already pretty well-established anxiety about the collection of personal information as a business model and my reservations about making ourselves into brands, always anxious for more attention. Doctorow’s books don’t hold back on the fear factor – the bad guys are really bad, and really powerful – but he adds enough food for thought to make it interesting. His hero is on a journey to becoming an activist, but he has to keep overcoming obstacles. What’s the moral thing to do when there’s no obvious right path? What if something you do hurts someone you care about? How can you avoid the trap of making your activism an ego-trip? Where do you get your courage?

These three books do appeal to my paranoid style of reading – but in a manner that I found both thought-provoking and entertaining.


happy independence day

July 4, 2013

Like independence? Do something about it.

fourth amendment


sabbatical dreams

March 9, 2013

socialcollider_003

So, if my sabbatical proposal is accepted, it won’t happen until the 2014-15 academic year, but I had fun outlining a project that I’m actually excited about (and think I may still be excited about 18 months from now). I want to immerse myself in online reading communities.

But you already do that, you say? Yes, I do. But this would be my excuse to do more of it, and to look a bit more closely at how readers talk about books on a variety of platforms and think about what this means for readers, authors, libraries, and publishers in a world where reading is global (and publishing contracts remain local). It ties into my resistance to algorithmic marketing messages and the commodification of our identities in a socially networked, hyper-commercialized world. It’s also my opportunity to highlight how savvy crime fiction readers are and how that deep communal knowledge base can tell scholars something wise about literature and the reading experience.

Also, I want to experiment with the ways scholars could communicate now that we don’t have to rely on traditional mechanisms. I think scholarship is valuable, and not just of interest to a tiny sliver of like-minded specialists (or, if it is only that, those specialists shouldn’t expect the rest of us to foot the bill for their inward-gazing research written up for an audience of six or ten; you all can hash it out amongst yourselves, okay?) So fair warning: I’m going to be all exhibitionist and post stuff here and elsewhere in case anyone else is interested. If you aren’t – no worries. I am not in this for the “likes.”

One thing that makes me sad is that I originally imagined flying over to the UK to meet Maxine Clarke, because what she did to promote online discussion of mysteries was one of the inspirations for this project, and her extraordinary background in scientific publishing would have made her a terrific cultural informant. Unhappily, I waited too long – but her presence in our global reading community has been a major influence on this project of mine.

Anyway, here’s the proposal I’m sending in, in case anyone is interested. Wish me luck.

—–

Sabbatical Proposal
Barbara Fister
March 11, 2013

I would like to spend my next sabbatical working on a digital humanities project with two purposes: (1) to conduct research into online reading communities and (2) to present my findings in ways that explore alternatives to traditional scholarly publishing.

(1)    Social Reading Practices Online

There hasn’t been much research to date on online communities of avid readers that have formed to discuss books and the reading experience together. Their existence has become more visible with the advent of the GoodReads social network, which currently has over 14 million members, as well as its older, geekier cousin LibraryThing (1.5 million members). The rise of Amazon as a vertically-integrated book industry powerhouse is also an example of a platform that mixes commerce and voluntary book discussion and interaction between readers and authors, though controversies erupt periodically over review sock-puppetry and reviewer rankings (e.g. Pinch & Kessler 2011, Steitfeld 2012).

However, online reading communities date back to the early days of the Internet, with Usenet groups such as rec.arts.mystery (formed in the 1980s), Listserv groups, such as Dorothy-L (founded at Kent State University in 1990), and thousands of Yahoo and Google groups devoted to books that have formed in the past three decades. Such communities provide intriguing sites for researchers to explore what group members get out of reading for pleasure, observe the social aspects of reading, and witness how informal critical communities participate in the formation of cultural tastes around books. They also are places to observe social interactions in a digital space, including the negotiation of difference and the evolution of group social norms. Finally, they provide a vantage point for observing the ways people integrate their online and IRL (in real life) identities and can offer opportunities to consider cultural attitudes about digital versus face to face social interactions.

It will also be interesting to explore the emergence of new social platforms and their effect on online communities. Web 2.0 – the interactive web that includes blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other media – contains contradictory impulses. On the one hand, these platforms provide “free” spaces for interactivity and self-expression. On the other, they are designed around the self as a commodity. Personal information about habits, tastes, and interpersonal connections becomes valuable raw material platforms gather for data aggregation, mining, and resale. Individuals participating in these networks, in turn, are encouraged to market themselves and measure their social capital through the attraction of friends, likes, comments, retweets, and other quantitative analytics build into the platforms. I am curious about how these built-in analytics, which encourage self-representation in terms of marketing and promotion, influence reader group formation and social regulation. I am also interested in the role authors play in this space which is a mix of social interaction and self-promotional marketing work.

I plan to focus my study on readers of crime fiction, primarily because I am already a long-term participant in a number of online groups focused on that genre. I expect to use interviews, surveys, participant-observation and other primarily qualitative research methods. In addition to submitting my research plans to the IRB, I will refer to the recommendations for ethical research developed by the Association of Internet Researchers (2012) to ensure that I gather and use information ethically. I anticipate addressing an interlocking set of questions which will likely include the following lines of inquiry.

  • What are the social dimensions of reading and how does online reading group participation compare to the groups studied by Elizabeth Long (2003)?
  • Do the experiences of avid readers who participate in online groups confirm or depart from Catherine Sheldrick Ross’s findings (1999)?
  • How does online group participation enhance the reading experience for participants? How do those benefits compare to face-to-face reading groups?
  • What are the demographics of online reading groups? Who participates? How does age and gender figure in group composition? Are there some platforms that younger readers prefer, and if so, why?
  • What social rules emerge within a group? Are they explicit and is the group moderated? If not, how does the group handle trolls or heated disagreements? What kinds of relationship work do members perform to overcome a breach of group norms? How do they welcome new members?
  • How do members of online reading groups learn about new books that might interest them? “Discovery” is a compelling problem for publishers, who in the past relied on physical distribution to reach markets with sales reps and booksellers playing a key role. What can readers online tell us about the discovery process in a world saturated with choices?
  • How do authors and readers interact in these groups and how do readers and authors negotiate  the difference between peer relationships and commercial relationships?
  • Is the author-reader relationship changing authorship itself (as Stephanie Moody has suggested)? How does what Henry Jenkins calls “convergence culture” affect writers who interact regularly with their reading base?
  • How are avid readers reading today? What affordances contribute to the choices they make about print versus e-books or among e-book platforms?  How device-agnostic are they? What do they think about the rights issues articulated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (2010)?
  • Given that reader communities are borderless, what does membership in these communities contribute to greater understanding of other cultures?
  • How do readers experience rights restrictions, territorial sales, and (in cases such as the Australian book market) protectionist policies that limit access to books across borders? As discovery outpaces access, what are the implications for the book business?How do avid readers tap into local book culture? Does online engagement with books parallel local patronage of bookstores, libraries, author events, and other book-related cultural practices?
  • What are the advantages and constraints facing avid readers in different countries? (I will likely focus primarily on readers in the US, UK, and Australia, but may also study the experience of readers in Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, since their economic, cultural, linguistic, and social situations make for distinctive book cultures – and they all have a lively presence in online communities.)
  • What roles do brick-and-mortar bookstores, public libraries, and fan conventions play in the lives of genre readers?
  • For readers who engage in multiple social media platforms, what distinctions do they draw between them? What features appeal to them as readers, or are seen as drawbacks?
  • What is the history of discussing books online? How have the platforms for interaction changed, and what impact have those changes had on participants?
  • In an era of dwindling review space in traditional media, how have these reading communities, (including online review sites and book bloggers) provided an alternative? How well do these alternative media work for those making reading choices?
  • How does the kind of criticism performed in these public places intersect with literary criticism, if at all? Do avid readers provide a depth of knowledge about genres that has critical value? What do scholars of literature have to learn from fan culture?
  • What contribution can this work make to the ongoing debates about digital culture enjoined by critics of technophilia such as Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, Sherry Turkle, and Evgeny Morozov, as well as more utopian views of digital networks found in the work of David Weinberger, Yochai Benkler, and Clay Shirky? What can the study of online reading communities contribute to our understanding of the interplay between digital culture and culture in general?

(2)    New Approaches to Sharing Scholarship

This project, because of its digital focus and its multiple potential audiences, would provide a good opportunity to play with new ways of communicating scholarship. I propose making this a totally open project, with the questions that arise, speculations, dead ends, and conclusions available publicly and open for comment at every step of the way. I see the audience for this work to be not just other scholars (though I hope it will make a contribution to the scholarship around popular literacy, genre fiction, reading, and digital culture) but a cross-section of readers, publishers, writers, fans, and anyone interested in the book and its future.

Toward that end, I want to make this work accessible to these various audiences, both in terms of how I express myself (blending my scholarly interests with more vernacular approaches to genre literature and the act of reading) and in terms of who has actual access. For the past few years, I have been actively involved in the open access movement. In recent years I have only published my scholarship in venues which are open to all, either because there are no fees for access or because the publishers’ contracts allow self-archiving. (In fact, my entire department pledged in 2009 to make our work open access; we were the first liberal arts college to pass a departmental open access mandate.) Free access means more than a low, low price. It is an approach to scholarship that is open to discussion and available for others to repurpose. (See Suber, 2012, for a clear discussion of the distinction between gratis and libre open access.) I have followed and participated in experiments in open peer review such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence with interest. I would like to make this project public from the start and invite contributions and comments from members of my multiple communities:  readers, writers, publishers, critics, digital humanists, librarians. I am not sure at this point exactly what form this public work will take, but if this sabbatical project is approved, I envision beginning a series of interactions using social media such as Twitter (which is home to a lively digital humanities community) FriendFeed, old-school online reading networks that use groups and listservs, single-author platforms which invite comments (blogging), a public web archive of any relevant documents, a public bibliography via Zotero, and perhaps ultimately a book-length anthology or compilation of findings. If I create such a culminating document, I will likely use an open source platform such as PressBooks. I plan to use the most open Creative Commons license available for all of this work to invite remixing and reuse.

In many ways, the two parts of this project knit together my various interests in a satisfyingly complementary way. Knowing how communities of readers interact online will have implications for the lifelong learning goals we have for our students, who tend to see research as a set of academic tasks to be completed according to spec rather than as participation in an ongoing conversation. I have been trying, with mixed success, to introduce students to using blogs and other social media for invention, curation, discovery, and expression. I worry that we introduce them to only a piece of what it means to do research. They can find and use sources when needed, but they are not necessarily prepared to follow up on new developments in an area of interest, participate in professional digital communities, or apply their writing skills and intellectual training to public expression using social media. I have used blogs in classes for eight years and have not seen much increase in students’ familiarity with the technological and design capabilities of social platforms or in students’ ability or inclination to keep their eyes open for interesting things going on in the world. They are much happier if given a prompt to respond to rather than being asked to look around for something intriguing to write about. I’m sure time pressures contribute to this aversion for frequent informal and improvisatory invention, but being curious and able to develop personal filters to scan and sort through new information is a skill worth cultivating that is largely neglected in our pedagogy.

I’m also invested in the future of trade and scholarly publishing. We’re on the cusp of sweeping changes, and librarians need to step up and be part of the solution. Trade publishing matters because books are a significant record of our culture. Leaving its future in the hands of major publishers or Amazon – corporations more focused market share than on sharing or preserving culture – would be a betrayal of library values and a serious problem for future scholars who may have no public cultural record to consult. Scholarly publishing is ripe for new models and repurposing library resources and skills to help with the transition seems more important than finding yet new ways to wring more temporary licensed access to knowledge out of shrinking budgets. Finally, as the humanities face challenges from public figures who are hostile to education that is not firmly tethered to workforce readiness (and who fail to see how very much the humanities do, in fact, prepare their future hires to think, communicate, organize, and lead), I am committed to making research public and to do what I can to break down the barriers between academia and “the real world.” I’m hoping this project might help me discover some models for sharing and inviting participation in scholarship as it develops that others may find useful.

Though it may seem arcane to study readers’ responses to a particular slice of genre fiction, a case could be made that it’s in these cultural environs that we can find common ground between everyday readers and scholarly approaches to culture. We might even discover that they’re not as separate as we may think.

Works cited

Association of Internet Researchers. (2012). Ethical decision-making and Internet research: Version 2.0. Retrieved from http://aoir.org/reports/ethics2.pdf

Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press. This book can be retrieved from http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/wealth_of_networks/

Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.

Electronic Frontier Foundation. (2010, February 16). Digital books and your rights: A checklist for readers. Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.eff.org/wp/digital-books-and-your-rights

Fitzpatrick, K. (2011). Planned obsolescence. New York: New York University Press. The Media Commons version of the crowd-reviewed manuscript can be retrieved from http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence/

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: A manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Long, E. (2003). Book clubs: Women and the uses of reading in everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moody, S. (2011) Virtual relations: Exploring the literary practices of ecommunities. Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication Annual Conference, Atlanta, April 2011.

Morozov, E. (2013). To save everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism. New York: PublicAffairs.

Pinch, T. & Kesler, F. (2011). How Aunt Ammy got her free lunch. Retrieved from http://www.freelunch.me/filecabinet

Sheldrick Ross, C. (1999). Finding without seeking: The information encounter in the context of reading for pleasure. Information Processing & Management,35(6), 783-799.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: Penguin Press.

Streitfeld, D. (2012, December 22). Giving mom’s book five stars? Amazon may cull your review. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/technology/amazon-book-reviews-deleted-in-a-purge-aimed-at-manipulation.html?smid=pl-share

Suber, P. (2012). Open access. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. New York: Times Books.

Selected past publications related to this project

On student learning

The library’s role in learning: Information literacy revisited,” Library Issues  (March 2013): 33.4.

Wikipedia and the challenge of read/write culture.” (2007, January). Library Issues 27.3

The Devil in the Details: Media Representation of ‘Ritual Abuse’ and Evaluation of Sources.” (2003, May). SIMILE: Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education 3.2.

Teaching the rhetorical dimensions of research.” (Fall 1993). Research Strategies 11.4: 211-219.

On reading

Reading, risk, and reality: Undergraduates and reading for pleasure,” with Julie Gilbert, College & Research Libraries 72.5 (September 2011): 474-495.

“‘Reading as a contact sport’: Online book groups and the social dimensions of reading.” Reference and User Services Quarterly, 44.4 (Summer 2005): 303-309.

On publishing

The public versus publishers: How scholars and activists are occupying the library.” Anthropologies 12 (March 2012).

Liberating Knowledge: A Librarian’s Manifesto for Change.” Thought & Action (Fall 2010): 83-90.

Trade publishing: A report from the front.” (2001). portal: Libraries and the Academy 1.4: 509-523.

On crime fiction

The millennium trilogy and the American serial killer narrative: Investigating protagonists of men who write women” (2012). In Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond: Contemporary Scandinavian and Anglophone Crime Fiction edited by Berit Åström, Katarina Gregersdotter and Tanya HoreckLondon: Palgrave: 34-50. 

Copycat Crimes: Crime Fiction and the Marketplace of Anxieties.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 23.3 (Spring 2005): 43-56.

image courtesy of Social Collider – a screenshot of some of my Twitter connections in the past month. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s pretty.


book discovery outside the (big) box

January 12, 2013

A blog post at Passive Voice which was an excerpt of a longer essay by Melville House’s Dennis Johnson sparked a lot of discussion about Barnes & Nobles and what its weakened market position might mean for writers and readers among Sisters in Crime members. I started to respond, then realized my email had gotten too long for any reasonable person to read, so decided to stash it here instead.

Dennis Johnson’s essay argued that all book sales suffer, regardless of format or channel, when it gets harder for people to browse a large selection of printed books, an experience uniquely offered (at least for most people, who had never before had access to a large bookstore) by Borders and B&N, that the chain stores promoted books in a way that indies will have trouble providing because they can’t afford to carry the variety of titles the big box chains did. Johnson says the showroom nature of the big box stores provided important exposure to the market that drove sales of ebooks as well as print books – but since B&N couldn’t direct that exposure exclusively to their own platform, and because they started stripping their shelves to redirect their liquid capital and force more consumer attention on their devices, this showroomishness didn’t translate into sufficient ebook sales to keep B&N balance sheets healthy.

But what is the cost of that kind of showroom? It may be hard to find new ways of browsing that work as well as the big box bookstores, but that operation was enormously expensive. Publishers loved the exposure but hated the returns, which were far quicker and extensive with a vast automated system organizing the process. Customers loved the variety and sense of abundance, but books were there to create the illusion of choice; a huge percentage were returned so new book wallpaper could go up regularly. And the number and size of stores grew impossible to support when the real estate bill came due. (Some argue bad investments in overpriced real estate and the resulting debt service is what sank Borders.)

The number of books on the market has risen enormously. Even if B&N continued to fill big stores with a variety of books, they couldn’t possibly all stock the roughly 350,000 books published traditionally in the US last year, let alone the 1.5 million total, once you add in self-published titles with ISBNs. Amazon can, because it doesn’t need to actually have real estate to provide exposure. They just have to have a vast database. (Yes, they have warehouses full of stuff, but their showroom is the virtual sales platform.)

Public libraries argue they are showrooms and great engines for growing the market for books, but they too have limited real estate and budgets, and publishers by and large don’t believe libraries are a value proposition  (read for free? how can that be good?)  so are asking libraries to either pay extraordinary prices for one-reader-at-a-time ebooks or are making them unavailable altogether. Libraries’ potential role in discovery is being limited by design.

What does this mean for book discovery?

I think networked curation is the next logical step. Word of mouth is the most frequent means of discovering new authors, and it is abundant online, so finding a way to aggregate and personalize that flow of information and present it in some easy to explore format (so that people can get a good feel for a book before they decide to read it) is important. If what’s on offer is too diffuse, it’s too unfocused, so not personalized; too narrow, and it’s idiosyncratic and personalized only for the curator. Amazon has tried to create this personalization by algorithm, but it has the clunky results that happen when recommendations are based on purchases made for a wide variety of reasons other than personal reading decisions. (You just bought a Lawrence Block burglar book. You may also want to buy an alarm system! Uh, no.) Besides, people grow distrustful quickly if the recommendation has any whiff of marketing or advertising attached to it.

For me, the best reading suggestions comes from like-minded readers who I hang out with in neutral spaces online. There is some cost associated with this method. I have to spend enough time in these communities to know which people have tastes like mine and which love books I don’t. I have to contribute to these communities, or the flow of recommendations might cease. They depend on reader interaction. I often get interested in books that aren’t available in the US market and certainly aren’t available in any local bookstore, and that can be frustrating.

But it’s far, far better than nothing, and nothing is the alternative. I live in a small town without a well-stocked bookstore and a very small public library, so physical browsing opportunities are frustratingly limited for avid readers.  There aren’t enough mystery fanatics in my face to face circles to learn from them (though I can get decent recommendations for other kinds of fiction). This makes for an interesting dilemma: my taste-shaping circles are borderless self-created communities. Amazon is, likewise, a borderless retail operation that doesn’t have to limit itself to physical geography and that can quickly provide almost anything I have identified as something I want. It works well if discovery happens somewhere else.

Not many brick and mortar bookstores will have in stock what I’m seeking, and though they can order it, the instant gratification a store can offer by anticipating my interests in advance is more than ever likely to turn into instant dissatisfaction. (The exception is Once Upon a Crime, a genre-focused store that almost always has what I want, but since I live quite far away, they have to mail books to me. I can live with that.) Readers who don’t think about what booksellers are up against – the rental cost per square foot of shelf space, the difficulty of tying up cash in inventory that may not sell for months if at all, the difficulty of choosing among the tens of thousands of titles available which ones might turn out to be in high demand – are likely to conclude Amazon works better.

The kind of discovery a physical store offers is quite different than online communities or online retail algorithms. It’s built out of the intersection of a local reading community, a knowledgeable staff, and visiting authors, book clubs, and other events that offer an occasion to gather and experience something with others. It won’t easily satisfy the reader who only wants to stop in long enough to buy a particular book. It depends on investments in time and personal interaction that create a sense of belonging and common cause. Bookstores that thrive (and many do) are not just providing books, and are not just serving as a place to see what’s been published. They become a place where people share a love of books at a local level – because they discover neighbors who share the same passions. And they accept the limited stock as lovingly selected to match local interests, much as a local food coop may have fewer products on their grocery shelves but nobody feels the selection is meager, it’s merely more thoughtful and reflects the coop members’ shared interests.

To some extent, book reviewing is going through a similar discover crisis. Fewer newspapers carry book reviews than in the past, and there are more outlets for reviews, but they reach smaller audiences. (Amazon customer reviews are a special case because they have a peculiar status  as consumer feedback mixed in with reviews mixed in with sock puppetry and are usually encountered after a book has been discovered, not as a discovery tool.) Sisters in Crime has been monitoring the gender breakdown of authors reviewed in the media since the 1980s, a project I’m currently coordinating. We’re now covering born-digital reader-focused publications (a selection of book blogs and online-only review sources). The ones we are examining publish nearly as many reviews in aggregate as the four main pre-pub review sources (Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly).  The shift to online, amateur, and social reviewing of books has interesting potential which hasn’t yet found the kind of mass audience large chain stores did, but which could become a significant channel for tailored word of mouth.

I’m not sure what to conclude from these ramblings of mine, other than that I understand Dennis Johnson’s point, but am not so concerned about the future of discovery. For those lucky enough to live near good independent bookstores, local reading communities and the stores that provide a home for them fill the gap. Public libraries are available to a large percentage of Americans, and a large percentage of Americans use them, providing another valuable site for developing a democracy of reading tastes. If B&N follows Borders, publishers will have a serious distribution problem to deal with, with Amazon left standing as the major mass sales outlet, but like our fabled fiscal cliff, it’s not really a cliff, it’s a slope, and we’re well down it already.

As for readers – we’ll find our communities, locally and online, and word of mouth will continue to be a healthy means of discovering a wide variety of books. We just have to find our way to the right conversations and settle in as active members of communities, both local and virtual, who can’t wait to share news about books you just have to read.

 

photos courtesy of ~dgies


a random thought about love and work

January 4, 2013

I am often thinking about the ways that marketing and branding and the hustle of selling your identity deforms our social interactions (and our identites), which came into focus when reading an essay, “How to Do What You Love” by Paul Graham, which I found via Brain Pickings, which I found via Readlists which I found thanks to Josh Hadro at Library Journal. Which is probably more than you want to know.

Anyway, here’s what I liked:

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

That’s what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you’re going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration.

After more discussion of what leads people astray – including money, which is particularly problematic when it gets combined with prestige, he adds this:

The test of whether people love what they do is whether they’d do it even if they weren’t paid for it.

I know a lot of writers who say “I can’t not write!” Some of them get up super-early to give themselves time to immerse themselves in this thing they love, or have an itch to get something on paper in the middle of the night and get up and do it. People who tend to stare into the distance a lot because they’re with their characters.

Graham points out that this doesn’t mean loving every minute of the work, because there are times when it’s just a slog, but the work will help you figure out what you love to do most. Where I see a lot of unhappiness in writing circles (and in academic circles, for that matter) is when you forget what you love because you’re trying desperately to make people notice (often in a crowded room where nearly everyone is doing the same thing), or you’re noticed and it’s not the kind of notice you want and it makes you squirm, or you’re awaiting notice from a first reader or an editor or reviewers and the anxiety is eating you up.

It’s a truism these days that writing is half marketing and self-promotion. If so, it’s not the kind of life I want to have. In reality, money and attention is not a terribly good measure of a writer’s worth. Lots of fantastic writers can’t make a living from writing and promoting their books. Even those who do seem perennially uncertain how the next book will be received. I’m always amazed by how insecure even the most successful writers can be.

The fact is, we can’t live a happy life through the prestige our work brings us, any more than we can live through the lives of our children. We have to pay attention to what we love, whether it’s our kids or our work. If I have a new year’s resolution, it’s to be more aware of what I really care about and let that shape my daily choices of what to do with my energies.

love, dream, smilephoto courtesy of Joe Philipson

Edited to add: I just read a great talk by Bethany Nowviskie, a digital humanities scholar and brilliant blogger, who cites a line from William Morris that suddenly seemed to fill a gap in this post. Doing what you love doesn’t mean always enjoying what you’re doing. It can be frustrating, discouraging, head::desk inducing and sometimes repetitively so. Knowing the difference between something you are doing because you think you ought to even though you hate it and doing something difficult because the work you love and are trying to do well demands it is sometimes a challenge. Morris said “you can’t have art without resistance in the material.” So next time I bang my head against something, I’ll try to remember this and figure out if it’s external influences that are driving my activities or if it’s the material itself putting up a fight.

 


choose your own adventure

March 28, 2011

My friend Larry posts a lot of weird stuff to his Facebook page. Not weird as in “how unusual” but weird as in “seriously? how can that be?” yet sadly far from unusual these days. The other day he posted a recent news story link – one on an Alaska politician who believes people who have sex outside of marriage should be criminally prosecuted by the state (a politician who, of course, belongs to the party of small government) and I responded that I wanted to wake up from this dream because it’s getting too weird.

And that’s so often how it feels; like one of those dreams you have in the hour before the alarm goes off, the nightmares that feel so real and so very wrong, the ones where normal life has become warped and looks just like normal, only totally off kilter. It’s scary precisely because everyone else in the dream seems to think it’s how things should be. Because it feels impossible, but inevitable.

I felt the same way this morning, reading two stories from the publishing world, courtesy of Shelf Awareness. One fit neatly right next to the recent story in the New York Times that pointed out G.E. has paid no taxes in the past two years, even though they made $5 billion in profits in the US (and over $14 billion worldwide.)

Here’s the book world business-as-usual weirdness: Apparently top officials in the failed Borders bookstore chain stand to earn over 8 billion in bonuses if the company pulls off its latest fantasy business league restructuring plan. These are not people of the book. They are businessmen who jumped aboard a sinking ship and pretended to steer as it broke up. Yet an unnamed publishing executive at a major house thinks they should get that bonus, telling a WSJ reporter “I want to see Borders come out of this. If they don’t have these guys, I don’t see a chance.”

Reader, with these captains of industry steering the ship we don’t stand a chance.

But there are alternatives. Here is one – and sweet, sweet irony, it’s temporarily occupying the shell of a Borders store in Pittsburgh. Karen the Small Press Librarian points out that Fleeting Pages will move in for a month to provide alternative and indy books, book arts events, workshops, and projects. You’ve heard of pop-up books. This is a pop-up book future, DIY, hand-on, and without executives who require big bonuses. But feel free to volunteer. This may not be the future, and it doesn’t pretend to be. But it sure as hell is better than the current Billionaires in Bizarro World storyline we’re living in.

Because there’s one thing that transcends money, big salaries, business strategies, and corporate goals. It’s simple, and it’s been around for a long time: people telling stories to each other. People creating. People sharing. As the captains of industry squabble over who gets to hold the wheel of the ship, not noticing that an iceberg of greed has already ripped a hole in your hull, we’ll keep sharing our stories.

This intriguing picture comes from a Wreck This Journal set by The Shopping Sherpa. In fact, there's a whole Wreck This Journal group at Flickr. Beautiful!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 96 other followers