Monday, July 6, 2009
Speaking of libraries, I've been wanting to comment on this for a while. It's an article from the Library Journal about book editors and librarians--how their relationships with books and their goals for them meet and diverge. Predictably, perhaps, since it's from Library Journal, I ended up rooting for the librarian. Why can't publishers make digital borrowing (not to mention buying) easier? Why do they flood the market with mediocre titles that are half-assedly (pardon) marketed? Why don't they compile the sort of sales data that could help both them and libraries identify those present and future books most likely to appeal to certain audiences? Those poor librarians, toiling away without even the hope of profit, bringing the books to the masses, spreading the reading word.... And I envy them, also, because where they work people want to read. That's why the come. (Okay, some of them are lured by Wii tournaments and DVD rentals, but whatever.) Wouldn't it be nice to live in that world--where one's problems arise from readers wanting more and better, not from the desperate need to find readers in the first place? Still, we have roughly parallel goals. So here's an idea: let's work together.
There are already plenty of outlets for publishers to communicate to libraries--things like the Junior Library Guild, and of course review publications like Booklist. But I think it would be helpful for communication to go both ways, in more than just the buying practices of libraries. I assume this is once again part of publishing's reluctance to engage in market research. But librarians are out there, doing it already--they know what their patrons are asking for, or what they're checking out again and again. I think it's safe to assume that high library demand, in general, correlates to high retail demand--the most checked out library books have probably also been on the best-seller lists as well. So if there were some way, ranging from librarian consultants to elaborate reporting mechanisms a la Nielsen's BookScan that could report how much certain books were checked out, to take this already-existing market data into account, well that would be just swell.
I love this blog about outrageously-still-in-circulation library books, both for the kitsch factor of the books and the reminder it provides about how absurdly time-bound and short-lived many, many books are (the example to the left is a favorite). I don't suppose there's any practical take-away: even though many of-the-moment books are doomed to quick obscurity/absurdity, they make a quick buck and satisfy a present need or want. They're not going away, nor should they. But it is nice to be reminded, when such things seem all to ascendant, that someday they will be put in their place, possibly by these bloggers, while less heralded, smaller advance-earning, non-Daily Show-worthy books, may go on year after year and eventually out-earn them by leaps, because they provide something more endearing and valuable to the reader.
Monday, June 22, 2009
1) Probably most often mentioned is the way in which e-books, like mp3s, level the field a bit and allow indie artists to succeed where previously blocked by the bloated edifices of label stars. The change in medium alone didn't accomplish this, but the factors that contributed--the impact of internet reviewers and communities rising as the impact of store presence and traditional marketing wanes, perhaps a more indefinite culture shift--should apply to books as well. So maybe indie presses will have more time in the sun. I'm no would-be David--I read mostly big-press books, I like what they put out, and I have no Goliath-slaying wish--but I think this would be nice. And I don't see it, as it did with music, seriously diminishing big publishing's stake. It would just mean more selection, and a better chance for those scattered, overlooked geniuses.
2) Is is just me, or are there fewer carbon copy bands sprouting up? I remember a time when one successful band would immediately engender five lackluster knockoffs (Backstreet Boys-->O-Town), but now there seems to be more of a focus on finding the next totally weird, unique thing that turns into a huge hit. Even among the big labels. Maybe this is related to the changed culture of digital music, and would happen in a similar way with books. I can't say I'd miss the umpteenth celebrity bio, or the next not-so-intelligent DaVinci Code retread.
3) It seems likely that the switch from obtaining music in stores to obtaining it online encouraged the development of the online music community, and we all know how important the internet is going to be to the future of book publicity (and creation), so anything contributing to a more vibrant online presence must be good.
4) The world didn't end. Even though Napster existed, even though you can still get illegal free music all over the internet, just as I suppose you can or will be able to get pirated e-books, people continued to buy music, settling into the dollar-a-song mode. So I don't think GoogleBooks will kill publishing, and e-books don't have to mean utter destitution. I know there are massive differences--a song is nothing like a book, really. And yes, there will be contraction, painful contraction. But change rather than extinction.
Oh, how little caveats have tried to bubble up--the way one listens to a song being nothing like reading a book, and taking much more easily to the changed format; the fact that, even in the less patience-demanding arena of music, attention spans have been severely weakened and habits changed from whole-album listening to buying to obsessive leaping; the fact that musicians can rely on tour income besides album sales, which have decreased a lot, I know, even including digital sales, whereas authors don't usually have such an option, etc. But enough! Things will happen as they happen, and if there's one big thing to learn from the music industry, it's to not try to fight it and to get on board as soon as possible.
Of course digital music has had purely and partially negative effects, but I don't think we need to look to another industry to find doom and gloom with publishing's future.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
The question of books in a social context is an interesting one. Of course your stereotypical book person is not a model social being; she lives in her head and is cut off from the "real world." This image didn't come from nowhere, and I'm sure I'm reacting not just to its persistence but to it's underlying validity when I say that there is something wrong about Johnson's hyper-gregarious vision of the future. I differ here, too, with the New Yorker's assesment of why Johnson is wrong. I don't think the value of physical books as social signifiers--their "attractiveness"--is going to have much impact on the proliferation of e-books either. Bottom line, books are not primarily social things. Certainly they shouldn't be confined within an anti-social bubble. Book clubs, casual discussion with friends, the kind of reviewing and discussion that already goes on online--these can add a lot to the experience, and being a reader can add a lot to one's social self as well, despite the stereotypes. Also, the social context of books is vital to how they are marketed and to how they can potentially infiltrate the culture more than they currently do--the more you hear your friend twittering or blogging about a book, the more likely you might be to read it or to read at all; the more marketers are able to convince you that everyone reads or that cool people read, the more likely you are to do so; the more you're not fully culturally literate unless you've read this or that...etc. That's all as it may be. Still, I don't think the social side of them has over or will ever be the primary reason people read books, and therefore the primary way they react to the experience of doing so is not really based in social terms. When you're deciding what to read, when you want to talk about what you have read, nothing could be better than a community of people to share with. But the space between, the actual act of reading, this seems to exist--rightly--in an essentially private sphere. Johnson's idea isn't much more revolutionary than others who see books becoming integrated into our modern framework, but because his vision intrudes on this private space (the sub-head of the relevant section of his essay reads "You're Never Alone"), it strikes a distinctly unpleasant note. Our culture is a culture of hyper-sociality--in a perverse sort of way that doesn't require you to look anyone in the face, but constant interaction and engagement with the thoughts of others nonetheless. How in god's name would Twitter have made sense to anyone at an earlier point in time? But, and I've said it before, I don't think books can conform too much to this ethos while remaining themselves. When and if they do become blurby and commentable and disjointed and super hyperlinked enough to really fit in to the very social way we process other kinds of information via the internet nowadays, I don't think they will really be books anymore at all.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
This is very true. I've felt a very insistent need for plotty, neatly ending, easily digestable books as these tough times have become more real to me. I imagine it is the mental equivalent of needing sweet, fatty goodness in times of stress, and releases similar waves of dopamine or seratonin or whatever it is. Most recently read, for example--and these books are all exactly what they sound like:
Mistress of the Art of Death
An Unexpected Pleasure
The Curse of the Pharohs
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Friday, April 3, 2009
Saturday, February 21, 2009
This privileging of the writer at the expense of the reader is borne out by statistics showing the annual output of new titles in the US soaring towards half a million. At the same time a recent survey revealed that one in four Americans didn’t read a single book last year. Books have become detached from meaningful readerships. Writing itself is the victim in this shift. If anyone can publish, and the number of critical readers is diminishing, is it any wonder that non-writers – pop stars, chefs, sports personalities – are increasingly dominating the bestseller lists?"
But hopefully "The roles of editor and publicist, people who can guide the potential reader through the cacophony of background noise to words they’ll want to read, will become ever more important."
From the London Review of Books
Thursday, January 29, 2009
A line in a Slate article about all this clarified some of my fear. "Books are the new blog," they say: everyone can have one, but most shouldn't. Maybe this is what worries me most about the rise self-publishers: what does it say about the people who use them? It seems to me that an appreciation for truely well crafted books is slipping lower than ever. The ease of printing one's own, the sense that this is a common and appropriate thing, both reflects and reinforces a very casual attitude, even a disrespect, for the medium. I really doubt that most of the people commissioning these books are real readers. They're like that lady on Real Housewives of Atlanta, perfectly convinced that she was a great singer and deserved a record deal, without having ever done the slightest study or even really listened to her own voice. You can't be so confident in your horrible prose if you're in the habit of reading actual books. Of course this doesn't apply to all who self-publish. I'm sure there are some genuinely unfairly neglected geniuses out there. But, as the Times article quotes one bookseller as saying, “'For every thousand titles that get self-published, maybe there’s two that should have been published,'”
Like I mentioned in my last post, I worry about internet reading affecting book reading. And this trend towards seeing books as just a sort of physical blog, a medium of the people and open to all, confirms that worry in a slightly tangential way. Mabye it doesn't say anything directly about how or whether internet media-drenched people read books, but it does show a drift away from respect for book-reading and writing as a sort of institution. The very fact that self-publishing is on the rise just as publishers are selling fewer books and people are reading fewer of them confirms this. It reminds me of newspaper publishing and how it has declined. People cite, rightly I'm sure, the rise of the internet as a reason. With so many blogs and other sources online, why get an old-fashioned paper? Why rely on someone else to assemble the information and trivial entertainment stories you want, when you can assemble them for yourself online? But I don't think there has been anything like a direct transfer from newspaper reading to online reading. Something has been lost in the way that people look at the news. This is why papers can't be just as successful by transfering themselves to the internet. People want something different now. It seems that books are headed the same way. Perhaps everything will stabalize at some point far in the future when a generic media form will at last be reached, a sort of blog with a narrative, but not requiring too much sustained attention or loyalty, with options for shorter or longer reads. I don't look forward to it. I'm all for self-expression, and I think internet media are great within their own sphere (I'm not oblivious to the fact that I am, at present, BLOGGING), but these two individually commendable things seem to be seeping a little to far into something I want kept sacred. And I don't like it.
Monday, January 26, 2009
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
I was at the airport with my sister, looking for a last minute gift for her Irish boyfriend's parents. We went into a Brookstone-like store, maybe it was a Brookstone's, and I saw it. A Sony reader. Wuthering Heights was up on the screen, as if the express goal of this display was to draw someone like me in. And I liked it. A lot. I can say now that an e-reader, even for someone who loves books as objects as much as I do, is not out of the question for me. It didn't seem foreign or inconvenient in the least--it seemed like a perfectly natural way to read something, in fact it seemed like a great way to read something especially somewhere like the airport. In the spirit of this new openness to the technology, here is a list of reasons I think e-books are about to take off. In an honest nod to the drawbacks that still make me hesitant about the technolgy, and that probably inspire the sense of intertia and reluctance I have to talking about the topic, it is followed by a list of reasons why e-books and -readers still kind of suck.
Why I Love E-Books and Why They Will Take Over the Book World
1.Convenience: Having oodles of books at your command in one little book-shaped package can never be a bad thing. You can easily draw up a recent read to look at a particular passage, you can load enough books to have one ready no matter what mood you're in, you can amass a small library without cluttering up your house, you can buy "books" and have them in your possession instantaneously, and so on.
2.Tech Cred: Books are inherently old-fashioned, and they can never really be exactly in line with modern textual forms without completely losing their identity. A book is not an internet article is not a piece of fanfiction is not a series of text messages is not a blog. However, e-books are on a more level plane with these forms, and could make it easier for the tech-obsessed to cross over into the Wonderful World of Books. It seems a bit trivial, but this is probably the most important factor pushing e-books ahead. As people get used to consuming all of their other information in a certain way, it will only seem natural to bring books into the fold. As for what will help devoted techies develop the sort of attention span that books demand, I don't know.
3.Enriched Possibilities: Just because books are happy anacronisms doesn't mean they have to be completely walled off from technological development. They can retain their character while being enriched as e-books by such features as searchable text, hyperlinks, easy e-dictionary access, etc. The electronic medium, especially when combined with internet access, offers hosts of opportunites to make reading easier, deeper, more in touch. There is some danger here too--I can see excessive distractions interfering with the essentially private, concerted nature of book-reading, but there is good possibility.
4.Environmentally Friendly: I guess. As in no paper. And no planes and trains schlepping everything to bookstores. Though I'm not sure those batteries and microchips and such will be very landfill friendly.
As you might have noticed, I couldn't help myself from qualifying many of the positives above. In addition to those drawbacks, here are some sore points...
Why I Hate E-Books and Why They Will Never Succeed
1.Cost of Readers: During my little airport encounter I was probably equally struck by the insane price tag on the reader as I was by its loveliness. More, I guess, since the price tag overcame my appreciation for the object and caused me not to buy it. Readers are too expensive, period. I guess in theory it should be okay for them to cost about the same as an iPod, but somehow it's not. With the advent of e-reader apps for cell phones, this is becoming less of a problem, though. I have yet to see or be bowled over by an iPhone e-reader, but with the likes of Joe Wikert of Kindleville turning coat, and even though the iPhone is backlit, and isn't book-shaped or specifically designed to make e-book reading convenient, I think its a fair bet that such apps will solve the e-reader problem before we have to worry about Sony and Amazon slashing prices. Still, this might remain an obstacle to serious readers who'd prefer e-ink, features specially adapted to book reading, dedicated and safe hardrive space, etc. Combined with other book-lover qualms, this could sentence e-books to permanent casual-reading status. Which I guess is not a terrible thing.
2.Cost of Books: However, the cost of books will remain an issue. There's been a lot of talk about this at GalleyCat and TeleRead. I remember being offended when I learned that the average cost of an e-book was ten dollars, and just plain scornful when I saw that some publishers were trying to charge more than fifty. I don't care if it's a textbook! People are used to paying a dollar for an mp3. They are used to having a pretty physical book when they pay slightly more than ten dollars for it in a store. Ten dollars is not going to cut it. I don't know the reasoning behind this figure, and I don't really care. All I can think of is how you didn't have to pay to print and distribute the physical thing. Intuitively, this leads to a big price cut--whether or not you can come up with reasons why an ephemeral file is almost as expensive to get to me. My intuition tells me I don't like it. And I'm not going to buy your book.
3.It's Just a File: Like I said, it's ephemeral. I don't like the idea of paying solid money for something I can't touch. I don't have to pay for things I read on the internet. And while I won't have a physical book taking up space, I will have this digital one clogging my hardrive and likely bulking up my iPhone, so I will erase it soon, and then I'll have nothing. And I don't like that. Have you seen how big houses have become in this country? For a lot of people, eliminating book clutter is not a huge issue. And for many more, to lose it would be a sad thing. What could be better than a rich tapestry of book spines shelved on your wall? Pulling them down, loaning them to people, appreciating their feel while you read. I don't think this fetishism is an impenetrable barrier to e-books. I could see myself, as I toyed with the e-reader in the store, taking in my books this way while maintaining an appreciation for traditional books. On the other hand, I don't think the wish to elimiate book clutter is a big enough incentive to mass e-book acceptance as long as important drawbacks remain. Such as their dubious value over time and their troubling impermanence.
4.But My Books!: I'll just say it: they're not books! Strange as it seems to say, books are pretty amazing pieces of technology themselves. They're ideally sized, they couldn't be more intuitive to use, and they present their content in a highly efficient maner. And they're also pretty to look at and nice to hold. As I said before, books are old-fashioned. Maybe it's appropriate that they retain their old form, instead of trying pathetically to mimic the trappings of their flashy new cousins. You can read a book in short installments on the subway or while standing in line, but at bottom books aren't really meant to be consumed like the easily digestible blog posts and online articles that are more appropriate for such times. Books are special. They require commitment, perserverance, private reflection, and prolonged attention. These are valuable things to practice, and they could get lost if we try to make books fit in too well with modern media.
I have tried to make this list more than just a reactionary book person's cry for the past. I didn't succeed, entirely, but I doubt such objectivity is possible for me. I get all frazzled thinking about this, so I don't think I'll be saying much more about the topic, but this has been a good cathartic roundup of my various reactions to all those masses of articles I've read on the subject. I'm sure others will continue dissecting e-books, so I will leave them to it.
Monday, January 12, 2009
For once the NEA has some good reading-related news. Fiction reading is on the rise! Sort of! In a very limited way that may just be a statistical blip! And almost half the country apparently never reads at all. But hey. I don't know if I could have taken another gloom-and-doom report from them, on top of all the other hits books are taking these days, so I'll take this. (The cloud represents the masses of black news and bleak reports that made up 2008 In Books. The silver lining, though a very qualified lining, is the NEA's recent findings.)