EBook Monday: Steven Berlin Johnson, Google Books, and more

* Steven Berlin Johnson speculates on “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write: […] a future with more books, more distractions — and the end of reading alone.”

* I keep being tempted by the Amazon Kindle, despite my many posts on the Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and other problems with the device. Then I see a post like “Amazon has banned my account – my Kindle is now a (partial) brick” and all those bad feelings return. The poster in question apparently returned too many items to Amazon, causing them to suspend his account and causing his Kindle to stop working.

* In other electronic news, a warning: Google Book Search settlement gives Google a virtual monopoly over literature. What am, random joe, supposed to do about it besides joining the Electronic Frontier Foundation? I have no idea. Still, the headline might be more sensationalistic than it should be, as this paragraph shows:

But the real risk is that Google could end up as the sole source of ultimate power in book discovery, distribution and sales. As the only legal place where all books can be searched, Google gets enormous market power: the structure of their search algorithm can make bestsellers or banish books to obscurity. The leverage they attain over publishing and authors through this settlement is incalculable.

(Emphasis added.)

I added a comment pointing out that the real response to this should lie with Congress and copyright law: at the moment, virtually everything published after 1923 is effectively under copyright. The solution is to start rolling the copyright year forward, so that 86 years (2008 – 1923) after a work is published, it automatically enters the public domain. Actually, 70 years would be nice, but the various Senators from Disney passed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, making it seem unlikely to happen, so I stick to the (sightly) more pragmatic hope for 86 years as a possible reasonable length for copyright.

If the material in question isn’t in copyright, Google has no special power over it. Two problems solved at once.

* Speaking of all things Google, Nick Carr’s post “Google in the middle” has some brilliant parts and some absolutely wrong parts. Being the kind of person I am, I like to start with the wrong parts:

For much of the first decade of the Web’s existence, we were told that the Web, by efficiently connecting buyer and seller, or provider and user, would destroy middlemen. Middlemen were friction, and the Web was a friction-removing machine.

We were misinformed. The Web didn’t kill mediators. It made them stronger.

But Carr misses the fact that a) mediators are easier to replace than ever, since I only have to click on another one, and b) fact a has made other mediators ever-easier to find: Hacker News has become my chief aggregator, for example, and Google has nothing to do with them. Furthermore, if I want to use a different search engine, it’s only a click away.

The web still is a friction removing machine even if Google has an unusual amount of (probably temporary) power.

On the other hand, this bit is brilliant:

As I’ve written before, the essential problem facing the online news business is oversupply. The cure isn’t pretty. It requires, first, a massive reduction of production capacity – ie, the consolidation or disappearance of lots of news outlets. Second, and dependent on that reduction of production capacity, it requires news organizations to begin to impose controls on their content. By that, I don’t mean preventing bloggers from posting fair-use snippets of articles. I mean curbing the rampant syndication, authorized or not, of full-text articles. Syndication makes sense when articles remain on the paper they were printed on. It doesn’t make sense when articles float freely across the global web. (Take note, AP.)

Once the news business reduces supply, it can begin to consolidate traffic, which in turn consolidates ad revenues and, not least, opens opportunities to charge subscription fees of one sort or another – opportunities that today, given the structure of the industry, seem impossible. With less supply, the supplier gains market power at the expense of the middleman.

Newspapers are engaged in an almost Marxian race to the bottom in terms of production, and the more efficient the Internet makes news gathering and dissemination, the worse this race will become. It was obvious to me in 2002 (which I wrote about in Media myopia and the New Yorker), when I graduated from high school, that newspapers were bound to contract enormously (and catastrophically for those employed by newspapers); I was tempted to go to a big-time journalism school and try to make it as a journalist, but a rare bout of good sense stopped me. This is why.

(Incidentally, the New York Times has also noticed that J-Schools are Playing Catchup because of changes in journalism. Strangely enough, the Times seems to imply that journalism might become more like something akin to Grant Writing Confidential: people who find niches and then write the hell out of their subject.)

April Links: EBooks, Zombies, Writing, and more

* Terry Teachout’s prescience regarding e-books deserves to be noted and commended, despite my reservations.

* Speaking of ebooks, Randall Monroe describes how to read a Kindle while in bed. Personally, I prefer to just hold my forearms up with a book in front of me.

* It’s hard for me not to like this description, from Amazon’s review page, of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem.

* Although I disagree with the conclusions in Life On Venus: Europe’s Last Man, I find it fascinating:

Precisely because novels are not, and should not be, political documents, they offer a less guarded, more intuitive report on the inner life of a society. And when novelists from different European countries, writing in different languages and very different styles, all seem to corroborate one another’s intuitions, it is at least fair to wonder whether a real cultural shift is under way.

Kirsch cites three major novelists—Ian McEwan, who is one of my favorites, W.G. Sebold, and Michel Houellebecq—as major examples of modern European-ness, and then looks at a book by each:

Three more different writers could hardly be invented. Which makes it all the more suggestive, I think, that their portraits of the spiritual state of contemporary Europe are so powerfully complementary. They show us a Europe that is cosmopolitan, affluent, and tolerant, enjoying all the material blessings that human beings have always struggled for, and that the Europeans of seventy years ago would have thought unattainable. Yet these three books are also haunted by intimations of belatedness and decline, by the fear that Europe has too much history behind it to thrive. They suggest currents of rage and despair coursing beneath the calm surface of society, occasionally erupting into violence. And they worry about what will happen when a Europe, gorged on historical good fortune, must defend itself against an envious and resentful world.

This, however, could also describe a great deal of science fiction since the 1970s, or any number of major American writers, who often take it upon themselves to demystify the American dream—and here I’m thinking of Philip Roth’s later novels, much of much of Melville, and so on.

(Once again, I found this somewhere on the web and forgot to write down the original linker. Sorry!)

* William Zinsser on On Writing Well, a book I often recommend to those interested in, well, writing well:

I would write from my own convictions—take ’em or leave ’em—and I would illustrate my points with passages by writers I admired. I would treat the English language spaciously, as a gift waiting for anyone to unwrap, not as a narrow universe of grammar and syntax. Above all, I would try to enjoy the trip and to convey that enjoyment to my readers.

(Hap tip to somewhere, but I forgot where. Sorry!)

On Writing Well is, along with James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s How to Read Like a Writer, an important discovery in my own writing life. T.C. Boyle said you can’t teach writing, and maybe he’s right, but you can learn the principles that’ll make it easier to learn through experience and teaching yourself.

* Men, women, and reading:

A study of reading habits showed almost half of women are ‘page turners’ who finish a book soon after starting it compared to only 26 per cent of men.

The survey 2,000 adults also found those who take a long time to read books and only managed one or two a year were twice as likely to be male than female.

(For a really fun time, now debate whether this is cultural or biological.)

(Hat tip Marginal Revolution.)

* Although I’ve praised Amazon’s prices elsewhere, those prices come at, um, a price:

Is Amazon.co.uk targeting Britain’s indie publishers with an offer they have little choice but to accept? That’s what the trade group the Independent Publisher’s Guild is saying after a Friday meeting with Amazon in which the American internet retail giant refused to negotiate a new demand for greater discounts from the indies.

* Rouss Douthat on The Tough-On-Crime Trap.

* Regarding Literacy and Suicide, from Alan Jacobs:

Dr Andrej Maruai, a Slovene psychiatrist involved in organizing the conference, presented a paper called “Suicide in Europe: Genetics, Literacy and Poverty” which convincingly shows the links between the social factors of literacy and poverty, and suicidal behavior. . . .

According to Maruai’s theory, the higher any given country’s literacy rate and the lower that country’s GNP, the more likely the country is to have a high suicide rate. The theory can be convincingly applied to the countries with the highest suicide rates in Europe, namely the three Baltic states, Hungary and Slovenia, where literacy is at almost 100 percent and where the GNP and standard of living have been adversely affected by the transition process.

* I love this quote, provided courtesy of Daring Fireball: “My muse for the session was this quote from Walt Disney: “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” To me, that’s it. That’s the thing.”

* Alexander McCall Smith writes “Lost in Fiction” for the WSJ, saying that

This, and many other similar experiences, has made me think about the whole issue of the novelist’s freedom — and responsibility. The conclusion that I am increasingly drawn to is that the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and-blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent.

I don’t buy the moral act comment, or at least not in all cases (see additional comments here). As for Smith, he wrote “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” books, of which I read, or, rather, tried to read the first two, and I quit because they were tremendously boring and kitschy. I wonder if his political views on fiction are part of the reason; later in the same article, Smith writes, “It is one of the jobs of fiction to report on the sorrows and tragedies of this world. This must be done, though, from a morally acceptable standpoint.” That line could require an entire essay to refute, but I would say rather than part of what a novel does is a) explore what is and b) explore what “morally acceptable” means, rather than reinforcing what is already considered by most of society as morally acceptable. And a novel doesn’t have to accomplish a) and b) at once, and it could accomplish neither and still be an excellent novel. I would argue that Lolita is such a novel.

* Megan McArdle asks, Whither GM? Notice this:

As GM moves through its forecast period, its cash needs associated with legacy liabilities grow, reaching approximately $6 billion per year in 2013 and 2014. To meet this cash outflow, GM needs to sell 900,000 additional cars per year, creating a difficult burden that leaves it fighting to maximize volume rather than return on investment.

This seems, if not impossible, then at least very close to it. Someone is going to write The Reckoning for this time period.

* Check this out: “The School Edition:”

One way to see the difference between schoolbooks and real books like Moby Dick is to examine different procedures which separate librarians, the custodians of real books, from schoolteachers, the custodians of schoolbooks. To begin with, libraries are usually comfortable, clean, and quiet. They are orderly places where you can actually read instead of just pretending to read.

[…]

Real books conform to the private curriculum of each author, not to the invisible curriculum of a corporate bureaucracy. Real books transport us to an inner realm of solitude and unmonitored mental reflection in a way schoolbooks and computer programs can’t. If they were not devoid of such capacity, they would jeopardize school routines devised to control behavior. Real books conform to the private curriculum of particular authors, not to the demands of bureaucracy.

* On The Radical Honesty Movement:

Once again, I felt the thrill of inappropriate candor. And I felt something else, too. The paradoxical joy of being free from choice. I had no choice but to tell the truth. I didn’t have to rack my brain figuring out how to hedge it, spin it, massage it.

“Just being honest,” I shrug. Nice touch, I decide; helps take the edge off. She’s got a thick skin. She’ll be okay. And I’ll tell you this: I’ll never get a damn gift certificate from her again.

* Alain de Botton: Brilliant or poseur? I tend towards “brilliant” with a dash of “neither.” But I think he speaks to modernity better than many other writers, and you can expect a post on his novel On Love shortly.

(Hat tip Mark Sarvas.)

* Although I haven’t actually read any of the novels mentioned in this paragraph, I’ve read about all of them prior to reading further about them in Slate’s thoughtful “Readin’ Dirty: Wetlands is the ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ of novels.

Looking in the most obscure corner of the Grove/Atlantic library, you might notice that the publishing house has imported such hits as 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, an “erotic coming-of-age novel” crafted by a Sicilian authoress of jailbait age; The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a French art critic’s Foucauldian analysis of having many trains pulled upon her; and Baise-Moi, a revenge thriller that is somewhat an odd duck in this subgenre as it boasts an actual plot. While studies have shown that every boat on the sea will be floated by something, even Helen’s grill tools, these books don’t rate as erotica; seldom does anything like an Anaïs Nin fever shiver through them, except perhaps Catherine M., which is kind of hot. On the whole, these books do not intend to arouse but to titillate, and, in this respect, Wetlands is the epitome of the form.

* The battle against barbarism continues, per “Video of girl’s flogging as Taliban hand out justice: Mobile phone movie shows that militant influence is spreading deeper into Pakistan” from The Guardian. The horrific video attached is difficult to watch.

* That battle isn’t just far away, either, since the Phoenix police raid[ed the] home of [a] blogger whose writing is highly critical of them. Apparently no one can find out any specifics regarding the alleged reason the police raided Miller’s house, as this Arizona Republic article shows.

Buy a Kindle if you want to rent rather than buy books

Gizmodo tells us that we might or might not be able to resell “books” that have been “purchased” with the Kindle or Sony eBook reader. The scare quotes are intentional because whether the physical embodiment of words or the words themselves constitute a “book” hasn’t been decided, and whether one has actual control over a Kindle or eBook hasn’t been decided either. From my initial comments:

Furthermore, I know that I’ll be able to read my copy of A Farewell to Alms in ten years. Will Amazon still produce the Kindle or Kindle store in ten years? Maybe, maybe not. I have books printed a hundred years ago that have journeyed places I doubt their original owners could’ve fathomed. Most Kindles will end up in consumer electronic junk heaps in five years, just like most iPods.

Product Review: Kindle

Failures-waiting-to-happen like the Amazon Kindle electronic book are highly frustrating, especially because both it and the Sony eBook suffer from the same problem: how to get books and other material on to the device. In the press and on the web, comparisons to the iPod abound, but they fail because when the iPod was released lots of people already had mp3 files on their hard drives. It was easy to acquire more from existing collections by ripping CDs, so you could, with a minimal amount of effort, load the $500 or whatever you’ve already invested in CDs on the iPod. If you’re a scofflaw, you could load your friends’ CDs too. To most ears, music is nearly identical whether on a CD or compressed to an mp3 (audiophiles: I know you love vinyl for its fidelity or whatever, but I’m talking about everyone else here). Tons of material was already available for the iPod.

Contrast that situation with books. Since I don’t want to read books on my computer screen, I haven’t bothered becoming a digital ruffian and downloading books from peer-to-peer or Bittorrent networks, assuming they are even available. Even though I have a nice shiny iMac with a monitor crisper than 90% of those used in the industrial world I still don’t want to do it. There’s no easy way for me to transfer the 200-odd books Delicious Library tells me I have to a Kindle. They’re a mix of hardcover and paperback, new and used, but I’d be comfortable wagering that their average cost is about $10, and I’m not about to throw that out for a digital reader that, just to get the reader, costs as much as 40 books. Furthermore, I know that I’ll be able to read my copy of A Farewell to Alms in ten years. Will Amazon still produce the Kindle or Kindle store in ten years? Maybe, maybe not. I have books printed a hundred years ago that have journeyed places I doubt their original owners could’ve fathomed. Most Kindles will end up in consumer electronic junk heaps in five years, just like most iPods.

The Kindle functions a bit like public transportation in the sense that public transportation really works when it allows you to live without a car. Likewise, the more paper I need to keep, the worse the Kindle looks. Right now there’s no way for me to easily transfer my subscriptions to The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Amazon isn’t going to have every book I want available, and every book I want that I can’t find and have to buy or check out of the library represents another mark against the Kindle. If you want to read blogs, Amazon acts as a gatekeeper and charges you for the privilege; I like the iMac screen well enough to read blogs that otherwise cost money.

I feel slightly bad writing this, as it shows that I’m susceptible to the Amazon hype machine. But if the hype machine had substance underlying it, I’d be elated. Instead, I’m disappointed, but the Kindle does make me wonder how I’ll be reading thirty years from now; it seems improbable that I’ll use pulped trees. The remaining question is how and when the transition will happen. Maybe someone will come along and give me a free e-book of every regular book in my library. Amazon could do it, and I’d be much more inclined to like the Kindle. Maybe piracy networks will develop, although this seems unlikely given the number of books out there and the difficulty of converting them from bound paper to digital files. Or maybe environmental problems or commodity prices will make printing and shipping books so cost ineffective that we’ll convert to e-book devices for financial reasons. Whatever the cause, I don’t see it happening on a wide basis until a solution for the content problem arrives.

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