culture shock: when Goodreads and LibraryThing collide

March 30, 2013

It has been fascinating to see people respond to the acquisition of the largest book-focused social network, GoodReads, by Amazon, the largest book-focused anything. (In fact, it’s so large, books are just one of the many, many products the company sells, but bookselling was its first focus; the company has had a huge impact on both book culture and book commerce. This acquisition is one of many that have consolidated Amazon’s influence in the publishing world.)


If you are deciding which site to use, Book Riot published a thorough and smart comparison of the two sites last July (see part 1 and part 2). I have been a LibraryThing member since about 2007 and started using it primarily to replace a kludgy homemade website where I had been posting book reviews. I tried out Goodreads soon after it launched, but didn’t want to maintain catalogs on two sites, and preferred the familiar layout and the business model of LibraryThing. (Rather than rely on targeted advertising and magic venture capital dust, it charges a small lifetime membership fee of $25.00 and repackages reviews and tags as an enhancement for library catalogs. The terms of service is actually very similar to Goodreads’, but I don’t think Tim Spalding would sell his company to Amazon, and I trust him not to turn my reading tastes into marketing opportunities.)


For many Goodreads members, the acquisition came as a rude surprise and many who are concerned about the growing power of Amazon began to explore competitors. The response is very like the way people reacted when Google announced it was mothballing its RSS feed Reader: betrayal, outrage, anxiety about the size and power of a single corporation, and a crowdsourced scramble to find alternatives.  Once people have invested their own creative labor into a site, have woven it into their daily routine, and have established social relationships there, it’s a rude shock to realize that it’s not actually theirs at all.

This scramble to test alternatives has also exposed many of the things people want in a platform built around sharing a love of books – and what happens when groups and their established cultures collide.  Tim Spalding, LibraryThing’s founder and owner of a majority share, started a discussion about what the acquisition means for LibraryThing. Along the way, many feathers were ruffled and some were soothed. Spalding wrote “I find Goodreads too pushy on the social side, too cavalier about user data and–on average–not as intellectual as LibraryThing can be.” Not surprisingly, some Goodreads members who were checking out the site took offense. In the ensuing discussion, some LibraryThing loyalists dug the hole deeper, while others tried to repair the damage. I’ve seen similar behavior in an online book discussion group in which members sometimes disparage another group in order to express what they like about the group they are in. Since these groups include overlapping memberships, feelings get hurt and members feel torn between the social codes of one group and those of another.

Both Goodreads and LibraryThing are a wonderful antidote to the claim that nobody reads and the book is dead. Both sites attract avid readers – millions of them – and offer opportunities to create personal book collections and share reviews. Both sites have extensive social features and ongoing conversations around books. Both involve members in volunteer work that improves the site.

But they have significantly different flavors. LibraryThing is more focused on individual members’ catalogs, drawing on book metadata from many sources, making it useful for those who collect pre-ISBN books or non-US, non-English titles. (There are over 700 bibliographic databases from which to draw data, including national libraries across the globe.)  Goodreads is much more social and contemporary and is designed to enable Facebook-like group formation and socializing around books.

Within each site, communities coalesce and thrive, but the threaded discussion at LibraryThing takes a back seat visually to the cataloging of books. LibraryThing is more like a library, with a major focus on cataloging, less on finding the next book to read (or purchase) – though it has a sturdy recommendation engine. The company also shares with libraries a healthy respect for privacy, a fairly knee-jerk attitude to freedom of speech, and a culture of transparency (up to a point, given it is a privately-held company with no interest in making its code open source). Goodreads is more like Facebook – funded by venture capital, very large, and reliant on the data its users provide to serve up targeted advertising and to gather a spectacularly large and detailed set of book-related data to monetize.

One other distinction that seems to have cropped up as these cultures collide is where authors and publishers fit in. Goodreads tolerates a lot of marketing and is much more attractive to publishers, authors, and … well, Amazon. LibraryThing has a welcome mat for authors and publishers, but there are distinct social boundaries that the community has set beyond which marketing and promotion is unwelcome. The terms of service states clearly, “”Do not use LibraryThing as an advertising medium. Egregious commercial solicitation is forbidden. No matter how great your novel, this does apply to authors.”

The discussions at LibraryThing about what the Goodreads sale means have been eye-opening, both because I’ve learned a lot about what other members get out of the site and what features it offers that I’ve never stumbled across, but also because of what readers say about their sense of community and what they want from a social reading experience. Some of these desires are technical (a mobile version, for example) and some are functional (preferring one type of social interaction over another) or aesthetic (with “dead salmon color” coming up a lot, but also graphics versus text and other design preferences).

But some of the differences are tribal, and those are the ones that are the most interesting to me.

EDITED to add: This LibraryThing blog post articulates what makes LibraryThing LibraryThing. The way it was composed is very consistent with the company’s nature – it was open to all members to contribute ideas (on a non-personal-data-gobbling site), and Tim Spalding did the final edit.


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

Making Books in 1947

October 1, 2011

As a footnote to my posts on the Sisters in Crime workshop on the nitty-gritty of publishing in a disrupted age, this 1947 video from our friends at the Internet Archive and those glorious hoarders of the Prelinger Library shows how books were made. (I ended up embedding the one on YouTube since I couldn’t figure out how to embed the Internet Archive version.)

The narration seems to be aimed at the Dick and Jane crowd. “This man is an author. He writes stories. He’s just finished writing a story.” The gender roles in the film are interesting – men write and use machines to build and cut things, “girls” work on the part of the process that involves moving paper around and sewing it together. There’s nothing about how it goes from the author to the printer, or from printers to readers – it’s all about the machines. But what’s really fascinating is how very different the process was not too many years ago. When the type is hammered flat I was reminded of the craft work involved in letter press printing turned into an industrial process.

Hat tip to Library Link of the Day.

SinC into Great Writing, #3 (final)

September 30, 2011

Ellen Hart spoke next, giving a practical outline of what is involved in putting a book online, steps she had to figure out when she decided to convert her backlist titles of the Jane Lawless series into ebooks.

  • First, you need to be sure you have the publication rights or work to get rights reverted from the original publisher. This can take some time. She found that dealing directly with the publisher was the most efficient way.
  • You need to get the printed book scanned (she had hers done by a company that does this using a device that looks like “a tiny tanning bed for books”) – or you can work from a digital file. Make sure any editorial changes that were made are reflected in the digital file. If you use a company to do this step, you’ll want to get the scanned files back in mobi, ePub, and pdf formats. Mobi is the format Amazon uses; most other ebook vendors use ePub. Among such companies are 52novels, BookBaby, and Booknook. (Ellen was very happy with Kimberly Hitchens at Booknook.)
  • Cover design  is important. Ellen said that words have to be relatively HUGE and graphic has to be simple and sharp in order to stand out when only postage-stamp size. She recommends The Book Designer as an interesting blog on the topic of cover art.
  • She recommends giving each book an ISBN, which can be purchased at This is expensive, so buy in blocks if you plan to do more than one book. Because an ISBN is so commonly used to identify books, it’s extremely important for distribution. (NB: This is the key to why Amazon started selling books. There was no other widely-used consumer product with a standard inventory control system. I forget where I read that. Maybe it was just something I dreamed.) You can’t use the ISBN of a book already published, because it’s specific to the edition.
  • Metadata will help people discover your books. Make a list of all the words that people might be searching for – setting, subject matter, genre, etc.  Before you get ready to upload, also be sure to have review quotes and blurbs on hand, because these will be entered as you upload and will help readers make up their mind about your book.
  • DRM (digital rights management) is optional. It makes copying difficult and is designed to discourage people from sharing your book. Unfortunately it can frustrate users and is easily cracked, so Ellen prefers to go without it. This will be a choice you’ll be asked to make as you upload your book.
  • Pricing is complicated. It’s easy to lower a price, but hard to go up—because customers get irate. Amazon’s royalty structure encourages prices at $2.99 and up. Low prices may be harmful for the business in the long run (and your percentage is much lower). Good job, Ellen!

Marcia Talley followed , giving detailed step-by-step instructions on how to clean  up and upload a document to Amazon and other ebook platforms. She had a lot of examples; here are some random notes (I was getting tired):

  • Need to have a Word document – scanning may be best if you have been edited; otherwise you need to work every edit into your original manuscript. Even so, you need to proofread scanned text, because the OCR (optical character recognition) can go wrong. She showed some amusingly garbled phrases to illustrate this point.
  • In Word, use the “show” icon to tidy up the invisible problems of  extra spaces or tabs or hard returns where they don’t belong. (Do you still put two spaces after a period, just like you were taught in typing class. Don’t do that!! Your typing teacher lied. You’ll have to delete that extra space.) Take out all of the contents of headers and footers, including page numbers.
  • Ctrl+A and make sure the format is consistent throughout – with properly indented paragraphs, etc. Use standard fonts and avoid any fussy special fonts; they won’t work in ebooks. (A short editorial comment here: the absolute lack of design is one of the things I despise about ebooks.) Use find/replace to take out double spaces – need to be one space between sentences only. Yeah, that typing teacher was a sadist. Set your manuscript to have curly, not straight, quotes. Use page breaks rather than section breaks.
  • Have your bank account info ready – it will be needed to set up your account – not to spend money, but to earn it.
  • Make sure the cover art is 72 dpi – if the upload doesn’t work, it won’t tell you why it didn’t work, but chances are your cover wasn’t 72 dpi.

There was a lot more detail in her presentation slides.

The dinner speaker was Meg Gardiner. Her talk was followed by a panel on marketing and consisted of a self-published author, an agent, and a staffer from Open Road Media. I didn’t take notes for this, but the message was “use technology to build personal relationships with readers” and the tools are twitter and interactive websites that tie into the story.

The writer suggested writers look for readers outside the usual genre circles; connect with interesting people and then let them know what you’ve published. Traditional publishing gives you visibility only briefly, when the book is newly released, which doesn’t give it time to build buzz; Open Road does this for authors, continuing marketing campaigns long after the launch. The speaker from Open Road said they don’t see any reason to have book trailers, but they do use video more in a documentary sense – filming short pieces that tie a book into current events or hot issues. The agent sketched out a way for an author to build an interactive website that invites readers into a character’s world, an alternate universe where the site acts like a “wormhole” between the real world and the fictional one, creating a stronger bond of intimacy between the reader and characters. All agreed that authors need to develop an ongoing relationship with readers, which may not take a lot of money but does take time. Although each one described work that could be material for two full-time jobs, they all agreed that writers need to find a balance between market-oriented relationship-building and writing.

All in all, it made for a very interesting day. Eventually there will be some video highlights of the sessions available, so you can see all the bits I left out.

photo courtesy of jm3

SinC into Great Writing, #2

September 28, 2011

Libby Hellmann was the second speaker at the Sisters in Crime pre-Bouchercon workshop and the catchy title of her talk was “To E or not to E.”

Libby thinks the way publishers are behaving with electronic rights is ignorant and blundering.  But don’t rush out to make your own ebooks until you have considered the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing.

Advantages of traditional publishing: don’t underestimate their marketing support. Though they may not offer much personal support except for a small number of books they are promoting heavily, they do send out advanced reader copies and their distribution channels are strong and broad. Having physical books on retailers’ shelves helps get the word out in a different way than online chatter can do. Contrary to rumor, publishers still perform editing. Booksellers are valuable for the handselling they do, and traditional publishers get books into those stores. Awards tend to go to traditionally published books, though that is changing. Reviews, which tend to favor traditional publications, also give authors a valuable third party endorsement. It’s much hard to get reviewed by influential reviewers if you’re self-published.

Disadvantages: the percentage of ebook sales offered to authors is too small. Publishers tend to be inflexible. They are slow in reporting sales and royalties and slow in paying them. The marketing they’re good at is very short-lived – no more than six weeks for a new book, after which the next group of newly-published books is given the spotlight and your book is no longer promoted at all.

Advantages of self-publishing ebooks: control is in the hands of the author. This is attractive to a lot of writers. There is no need to go through intermediaries – agents and publishers. Libby recommends paying for critical services: cover art (which is different than traditional cover art because it is small and has to “pop”); editing – either copyediting or copyediting plus a developmental editor who can help shape a book. Conversion is a cost. Amazon is where her books sell most strongly, but they have so much control in the industry that it’s worrying.

Disadvantages: Amazon is bad when it is bad – which is often (meaning frequent technical problems when uploading ebooks and their associated files and metadata). There is little available at the moment in the way of third-party recommendation mechanisms (such as respected and widely-read reviews). Since there are no gatekeepers, every ebook has to distinguish itself while in the company of some awful dreck. It’s very difficult to know what works for marketing and very hard for readers to discover what’s good. Pricing is tricky – it’s a buyer’s market right now and Libby’s experience is that low is the most powerful price point. She pointed out that you can’t easily move up in pricing without sales plummeting. Moving down in price is another matter. However be aware that you pay a steep price for going low; Amazon pays a much larger percentage on books priced at $2.99 and up in order to discourage the 99 cent book price point expectation.

She also spoke a bit about marketing and the changing role of agents, who can’t make the income they did when advances are dropping so low. Incidentally, she’s a good speaker – very relaxed, yet energetic.

Next, there was a conversation between author Cathy Pickens and bookseller/publisher Jim Huang. Cathy made the scandalous announcement that Jim actually has read ebooks. (He’s a well-known defender of printed books.) That, of course, gave him an opportunity to talk about why he loves print, which was a good addition to the mix. Jim then made the point that authors don’t have to choose between agent and Big Six publishers and self-publishing; small houses offer a third way. Small publishers have the same distribution potential as major publishers so long as they are represented in the Ingram distribution system. What you need to know in choosing a small publisher is its “access  to market” – and that means the terms of sale are critical. These conditions for retailers (in this case, booksellers) have to match the industry standard (including discount and returnability) and be advantageous enough for booksellers to carry them; that’s what access to market means for authors. Beware of small publishers that can’t provide retailers the conditions that they need to make selling their books a realistic business proposition; you will lose a major advantage of having someone publish your book. Jim also argued that .99 cent pricing is bad for business, not just because the revenue is low but because it makes it seem all books are fungable – when each is actually unique and each choice should be based on the book, not the price of it.

photo courtesy of BMeunier and  MorBCN

the loneliness of the unshared e-book

May 30, 2010

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Oh, Mr. Klinkenborg- we are on the same page.

New York Times contributor Verlyn Klinkenborg (who visited my place of work once and was overwhelmed by the “deep-keeled Minnesotan politeness that states, as a life proposition, that you should not put yourself forward, not even to the raising of a hand in class” – and used it to write an interesting piece on young women’s hesitance to claim authority as writers) reflects on reading on an iPad. And he has exactly the same reservations about the experience as I do.

“All the e-books I’ve read have been ugly,” he writes. There is no design of the words on the page, no distinction among books. They all look alike, and every at every page you feel as if you’re in the same place in the text, somewhere in the middle. It’s impossible to get a sense of how old the book is, what makes the book visually distinctive, or where you are in the text. There’s  a profusion of editions of classics and translations, but because they’re all dressed in the same burlap duds, it’s hard to tell which is newer, which is more authoritative, which is more accurate. This seeming democracy of words has made every book wear the same drab, ill-fitting uniform.

But I am particularly pleased that he ends with this point that will have the greatest impact on our reading culture.

I already have a personal library. But most of the books I’ve ever read have come from lending libraries. Barnes & Noble has released an e-reader that allows short-term borrowing of some books. [ed. note: many major publishers have insisted this feature be disabled for their books.] The entire impulse behind Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBooks assumes that you cannot read a book unless you own it first — and only you can read it unless you want to pass on your device.

That goes against the social value of reading, the collective knowledge and collaborative discourse that comes from access to shared libraries. That is not a good thing for readers, authors, publishers or our culture.

photo courtesy of Jemsweb.

tragical-comical, pastoral-tragical…

May 2, 2010

I feel a column coming on. This is a little like the itchiness that you feel just behind your cheekbones when you’re getting a cold, only it’s a little itchy spot behind my eyes where randomly-accessed ideas are bumping into each other.  Not quite sure where it will go, but they seem connected in a weird way.

It started with two articles in this morning’s New York Times Magazine. There’s an amazingly unsnarky profile of Charlaine Harris by Deborah Solomon. After saying smart things about Vampire stories and sexuality, Charlaine’s simple writing advice is “read everything you can and then put your butt in the chair and write. That’s all there is to it.”

Which … well, yes, that is all there is to it. But what most people who as for writing advice really want to know is “how can get I published so I be fulfilled and famous and rich and quit my day job and be on Oprah?” which is another question altogether.

On the very next page, there’s an article by technology columnist Virginia Heffernan about self-publishing platforms. She points out that self published books outnumber traditionally published titles by a significant number, that these books look good and, having picked up some Web 2.0 cred as well as being cheaper to produce, no longer make the author feel foolish. She writes “Book publishing is becoming self-publishing. ”

Ah . . . no. First, a lot of what is going on is better described as printing, not publishing. Print on demand is a printing process, and printing is a small part of publishing. But she’s right in that now that the expense of printing technology is no longer a barrier, the supply of storytellers is greater than the supply of those who want to read stories, and the whole distribution system is teetering. But . . .

We still need people who can pluck a worthwhile book out of a pile and make it better. We still need bookstores and libraries that can help people find books when they aren’t sure what they want to read–and to nurture reading and to be a gathering place for a community of readers. The value of those things isn’t erased just because the economic model that currently supports book publishing (barely) is being disrupted.

This seems an interesting parallel, in a weird way, to a letter sent from some publishers to Congress saying “Don’t pass the Federal Research Public Access Act! It will destroy our economic model peer review! How dare government interfere with business? Yeah, we know you’re the ones who funded the research that the authors gave us for nothing, unless they paid page charges, in which case less than nothing, but – how dare you!!

Again, lots of supply, a distribution system that’s broken, and the rallying cry will is “without us, there won’t be any quality.” Well, baloney. All of this can still happen; the flood of undifferentiated stuff won’t snuff out the need for people to sort out the good from the bad, the significant from the trivial. It’s just that the printing and distribution is cheaper now, can be done on a different scale, and we don’t have to rely on a few big companies to pat us on the heads and tell us they’re in charge.  Somewhere in all this, I think there must be a column . . .  unless I do something else. (UPDATE: This is what I ended up writing; it turned out the FRPAA letter had plenty of material all on its ownsome.)

But first – just for the heck of it – here’s a link to a photo that librarian Miriam Bobkoff pointed me to: a stranded dredger is approached by a runabout, The Bar Fly – which is (for reasons lost in the mists of time) is my nickname in some circles. Miriam reads books on a shore so beautiful I don’t know how she can focus on the page.

Now, off to watch David Tennant play Hamlet on the tube – oh, what great casting, and much fun business being made with surveillance cameras.

what is lost

December 26, 2009

I bought and read my first e-book on a phone this year using an iPhone app. I don’t plan to repeat the experience, not because it was horrible but because I know too many booksellers personally and until it’s easy to buy from them I’m not planning to purchase e-books. But I felt as if I needed some experience with e-books.

The good side? It didn’t weigh much when traveling and I could read it in the dark on the long shuttle ride from the airport. The bad side?

Let me count the ways.

First, the pages look ugly. There’s no other way to put it. There is no page design, just letters poured into a mechanical box, no art in the chapter headings, no thought given to initial capitals, words broken in the wrong place, justified lines full of gaps like bad teeth. And of course no page numbers. The design of a page in a printed book is a nearly invisible pleasure. Page design is something I appreciate more since seeing what is lost when it’s absent.

Second, reading on a phone is fine for e-mail and  for short form texts on a web page, but it’s hard to get lost in a book when you have to turn pages every paragraph or so. I also found it strangely disorienting to have only a bar at the bottom of the page telling me where I was in the book. A sense of place, of orientation in the arc of the story is harder to grasp. (I found this also true when I held my most recently published book in my hands for the first time. The last chapters felt different when measured between the thumb and fingers and the growing weight of the left side than when I was scrolling to the end of a document. Though I did read the galleys on paper, I shifted the pages to the back of the stack as I read and so was surprised by how profoundly the anticipation of an ending affects the reading experience.)

Third – I don’t like a future for the book in which sharing is disabled and ownership of an immutable copy no longer exists. It bothers me that a corporation could reach into my personal library and pluck a book back or alter it. I don’t like the fact that there is no such thing as fair use in a world of licensed content and that I can’t give a friend or family member a book I read and loved. Sure, I could buy them a second e-book version, but it’s not the same as handing on the book I read.

Fourth – this post from the Electronic Frontier Foundation spells out just how much we give away to Google and Amazon when we let them be our “bookstore” and “library.” Real booksellers and librarians have stood up for reader privacy. Personal information is a valuable commodity to these corporations. I don’t like the idea of my reading habits becoming a commodity and I don’t like the aggregation of readers’ behavior becoming a huge data mine of our minds.

Google’s new Google Book Search Project has the ability to track reading habits at an unprecedented level of granularity. In particular, according to the proposed Google Books Privacy Policy, web servers will automatically “log” each book and page you searched for and read, how long you viewed it for, and what book or page you continued onto next . . . your Kindle will periodically send information about you to Amazon. But exactly what information is sent? Amazon’s wording — “information related to the content on your Device and your use of it” — reads so broadly that it appears to allow Amazon to track all content that users put on the device, regardless of whether that content is purchased from Amazon. Some security researchers have indicated that the Kindle may even be tracking its users’ GPS locations. Is this the future of reading?

God, I hope not. Cory Doctorow has put some of this in sharp perspective in “How to Destroy the Book” in which he argues that the true pirates are the corporations who are remaking our book culture so that they can be in the center of it, controlling books for the sake of profits. He contrasts this perspective with that of “people of the book” who love books, want to fill their houses with them, and pass favorites on to their children.

Anyone who claims that readers can’t and won’t and shouldn’t own their books are bent on the destruction of the book, the destruction of publishing, and the destruction of authorship itself. We must stop them from being allowed to do it. The library of tomorrow should be better than the library of today. The ability to loan our books to more than one person at once is a feature, not a bug. We all know this. It’s time we stop pretending that the pirates of copyright are right. These people were readers before they were publishers before they were writers before they worked in the legal department before they were agents before they were salespeople and marketers. We are the people of the book, and we need to start acting like it.

What he said.

photos courtesy of brewbooks and Josh Bancroft.

smackdown! the final thriathlon

August 14, 2009

As I was away for a few days, meeting a large number of grasshoppers, prairie dogs, and buffalo in the South Dakota Badlands, I had to wait for the thrilling conclusion to Green Apple Book’s Smackdown! between books and the Kindle. Clearly, the guys got a little excited and began to take the brand name seriously. First – round eight: the staff picks shelf goes up against Kindle availability. Even Nobel Prize winners are not Kindled.

Round nine: a book dropped on the ground comes out of the accident unscathed. A dropped Kindle leads to a major catastrophe (wherein the imagination decides to head for the high ground and bring fire trucks and airplanes)

And finally, round ten: in which Lemony Snicket, when asked to sign a Kindle, encounters an unforunate event that seems to have been scripted by a major Hollywood committee.

All in all, good clean and completely over-the-top fun. Thanks, Green Apple!

smackdown! storytime

August 7, 2009

My favorite so far in the book v. Kindle battle of the giants. Green Apple books is having fun making an entirely one-sided and shamelessly partisan argument for books. This round gets the “cutest smackdown ever” award.