A funny thing happens on the way to a Pynchon novel

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice, will be released on August 4th. A strange thing happens to me before his novels appear. I can’t read.

In contrast to other nights, when I sit down to read for three to five hours before going to sleep, in the weeks before a Pynchon novel comes out I find I can’t read at all. Last night, I went through a few pages of ten books, putting them all down and, finally, turning to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Pepys’ Diary for a while before giving up to fidgeting and wondering about the new Pynchon. A detective novel. All Pynchon novels are a mystery at heart, one that will never provide an answer, just myriad perspectives into the truth.

EFF seeking authors concerned about reading privacy

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is recruiting authors for a class action intervention in the Google Book Settlement, because the titles offered by Google under the agreement have no protections for the privacy of readers. This is a pressing concern, one the consequences of which were demonstrated by the recent Amazon Orwell debacle, which I discussed here. A book is or, rather, can be used to police the limits of citizens’ thought by linking reading of words with endorsement of the ideas those words represent. Here’s the nut of the EFF challenge:

The agreement has no protections in it for reader privacy or anonymity. None. Neither the Author’s Guild, the publishers nor Google has taken any steps in the context of this landmark agreement for the future of books, to ensure that the fundamental right of readers to privacy and anonymity of their reading habits are preserved. Our goal is to remedy that by asking Google and the others to enter into an enforceable agreement to implement those protections, or if that attempt fails, to ask the court to disapprove the settlement until it has sufficient protections for authors and their readers.

For years, the FBI and other national police forces in other nations have attempted to, and have, collected reading records from bookstores and libraries when seeking nonconformist and radical citizens. What we read becomes a brand of shame used by the police and government, as well as institutions like the church, to justify punishment. If Google’s book search and display technology creates a record of one’s personal reading, it can be subpoenaed. That represents a grave new threat to personal privacy and freedom of thought, for if we cannot explore ideas without becoming wed to them by police judgments of our reading, we can no longer safely explore controversies and decide for ourselves.

If you are a rights holder, consider joining the action.

UPDATE: Inside Google Books blog responded to the EFF call with a privacy-related posting. The Google privacy policy is inadequate in a variety of ways, because it allows Google to build very deep personal portfolios on which it builds ad-placement profiles for individuals. The posting is correct that a library terminal user would not be exposing any data, if they did not log into their own Google Books account, but the fact remains the service will constantly encourage logins in order to provide personalized services and access to one’s own library of books. The company’s data can also be subpoenaed by governments and, in some cases, Google has business agreements in place with governments limiting what information it may display and, conversely, it must be assumed, what information it must share with the government.

Pricing guru: “price cannibalization should be the least of a book publisher’s worries.”

Rafi Mohammed, a specialist in pricing, has an interesting posting at TheWrap about the reasoning behind the pricing of e-books. Well worth a read. A critical statement, one that points to changes needed in publisher thinking is Mohammed’s comment that “Since e-book sales were somewhat of an afterthought, in most book contracts today, authors receive a lower royalty for an e-book compared to a hardcover sale.”

E-books cannot be an afterthought. The publisher needs to be engaged with the author’s interests, as well. If more can be made from e-books, because the production and returns costs are so much lower, it is time that this new format and channel become the focus of profit-making decisions. Price the e-book to sell profitably, make deals with authors that move physical books based on actual demand, which can be impacted by the availability of e-book versions.

Typically, publishers and authors think of e-books as cannibalizing trade paper and hardcover books, but Mohammed points out that the resale of hardcover books, which does cannibalize sales, is not an issue with e-books. Therefore, you can price an e-book lower without diminishing sales. Instead, those early readers can become evangelists without simultaneously competing with new sales of the book.

I continue to believe that, once the e-book is established, a wide range of prices will be acceptable, based on the audience for information and the services that can be embedded in books that raise their value to readers over time.

PW to host Google Settlement webinar

I’ll be listening in when Publishers Weekly‘s Jim Milliot, AAP board members Richard Sarnoff (Bertelsmann) and John Sargeant (MacMillan), and the Authors Guild talk turkey about the Google Books Settlement on July 29 at 2 PM Eastern time. The conference call will be held online, you can sign up here.

Amazon and Apophenia

TeleRead‘s Paul Biba has a useful critique of Amazon’s repeated poor handling of e-book and Kindle-related customer issues. I think, though, that he has gone from suggesting improvements to exercising the tendency people have toward apophenia. His conclusion that Amazon’s failure to staff its organization with publishing industry veterans is the cause of all these issues results from aggregating disparate events and imposing an overriding pattern to explain them. It’s not an accurate portrayal of Amazon’s organization. While few on the team have previous experience with e-books and e-readers few of those people exist (though Amazon hasn’t hired several legitimate e-book vets I know who have applied), the company’s problem is not that there is no publishing industry savvy on board.

However, the teams that run the Kindle business are split between the book sales side of the company, the book acquisition team and the Kindle development team. Contending perspectives and responsibilities that seem to be at cross-purposes sometimes result in the isolated and apparently boneheaded decisions Biba correctly identifies, all of which Amazon ultimately learns from and generally does not repeat.

Amazon could use some more experience with rapid innovation and publishing generally, but that’s the same challenge faced by every company that has stepped into a yawning chasm of opportunity to find early success.

Making a paper book e-lectric: Selected great histories of the book

Bill Hill, who has been part of the digital publishing world for decades now, tells about his reading of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, one of the definitive texts about the evolution of books. Throughout his studious reading, he turned to his computer to find more information:

In other words, my printed book became an interactive multimedia experience which was far bigger and richer than the original. It took me a lot longer to read – but it made the book come to life, and I learned a lot more.

This raises some interesting questions. For instance, I would have liked to have had Eisenstein as an eBook on my Kindle. It’s such a heavy, awkward monster to handle – especially when reading in bed.

However, on Kindle as it is today, that would have made for a much poorer experience – no Web browsing for links… And I’d have hated to see the mess that Kindle’s small screen and poor graphics would have made of the title page of De Fabrica…

Not only the small pages, but the lack of citable references within the book (word location is relative) and the poor graphics, among other features, would make the book less than it is in paper if forced into the Kindle. Yet, this is exactly what a great e-book will be, something that, while enclosed within the logical arrangement we call a “page” has pathways to deeper and contradictory studies, so that the book becomes an argument and extended discussion. Eisenstein’s challenge to traditional scholarship is vastly engaging and impressive, as Hill notes, but reading only within her perspective becomes, to paraphrase Albert Camus, a trip within the writer’s efforts to justify their limits.

Eisenstein’s book, particularly the two volume version, is excellent. Also consider these titles as must-reads for, combined with Eisenstein’s astute analysis, a fuller picture of the evolution of the book:

Writing improv as service

Name Your Tale, a site operated by writers Nick Faber, Jeremy S. Griffin and Jenny Nicholson, introduces a novel approach to engaging readers: They write stories in response to suggested titles submitted by the audience. It’s improv performance brought to the (Web) page.

The group writes 100-word stories for audience titles including, at this writing, “I’m Banging a Chinese Chick,” “Her Hair Always smelled of Crayons,” and “Laser Heart.” The writers also promote “microfiction” and “flash fiction” at the site. I’m not a fan of the “flash” label for fiction or groups, since they are simply forms of improvisation brought to new media and venues, but they can call it whatever they want.

It is easy to imagine on-demand books generated by a session at the site or by readers who assemble their favorites, including titles they suggested, for permanent collection in a paper book. I’ll be writing more about this “event publishing” this afternoon.

Clever idea. I think they can grow this into an interesting and strange imprint.

via GalleyCat

Dissing the e-reader

While reading a very thoughtful article on the economics of education in the Kindle edition of The Atlantic, I ran across the following mangled phrase:

The conventional wisdom is that you get what you pay for.that the larger the price tag, the better the product. But that.s not true in higher education.

The electronic version of the magazine isn’t being copy edited for errors after conversion from the files used to create the paper publication.

Poor quality copy is not going to help publishers solve the problems presented by the transformation of media. Treating the digital text as a quick, cheap copy only denigrates the reader, who is paying for quality writing, the writers who contribute the work, and the staff’s efforts to make a good product. All these are obvious reasons to make the same effort to proofread published material for errors before sending it to Kindle (or any e-reader) owners. The economics of poor quality lead only one way: downward.

The myth of the perfect copy and the future of publishing

There’s a powerful myth in publishing: A copy of a book can be perfect every time. The transition from scribal reproduction to printed books, for example, is supposed to mark a break in the history of knowledge, when “perfect copies” became ensured each time a book went to print. However, it turns out that print compositors, the people (both men and women were active as compositors even in the 16th century) who laid out type, made mistakes or “corrections” to the author’s text quite frequently—at approximately the same rate scribes introduced changes into their texts. Not only from edition to edition, but within editions, because proofing went on while printing continued. The same “book” from one copy to the next, might have different versions of the text because error-correction got out of synch with printing and pagination.

In that context, the ongoing discussion of poorly edited copy and lousy, lazy layouts in e-books takes on a new, but familiar, cast: One of the ways publishers will eventually find a reliable business is by solving the problem of “authority,” the standard on which printed book publishing emerged from the “pyratical practices” of the early print era, when pages were badly copied or simply stolen from the printers by employees and assembled into cheap and usually corrupted editions.

By authority, I do not mean what most of the amateur vs. professional journalism debaters mean: The power or right to declare reality is as they see it. Rather, I mean it in the sense of “speaking with authority,” building a reputation for reliability and accuracy, for service to the reader and authors, in order to make the product you sell—a book—the desirable first choice by a potential buyer. In the 1500s, publishers did this by adding their “mark,” the most famous of which is Aldus Manutius’ anchor-and-dolphin mark, to the frontispiece of their editions.

Unfortunately, marks were easy to copy and discerning buyers had to learn to recognize the quality of a work based on everything from the quality of the paper and binding to the choices in typeface and design that they had come to expect. Those more nuanced details of a book were hard to counterfeit. Ultimately, a combination of guild-enforced “self-regulation” (the true meaning of “self-regulation” that free marketers mean when speaking of the virtues of industries that police themselves—they ensure business conditions are nominal) and persistent dedication to improving the quality of printed works yielded a recognizable set of expectations among readers. We’re now living through a renegotiation of the same magnitude.

Books have always been products judged by quality, consistency, binding, informativeness and the enjoyment provided. Any book manipulated by someone to hide, obscure or falsify its provenance is a less-than-perfect copy, even in digital publishing.

Unfortunately, badly converted texts have become the standard in e-books, because the only variable any talks about today is price. I agree with Joe Wikert, writing at TeleRead, that as long as readers view e-books as only cheap copies of printed books, the problem will continue.

The answer? Better editing is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for publishing success. The simple answer: Invest in something that makes the book more useful than the print edition. Pagination mapping, for example, so that e-books could be used for academic and scholarly citations, would be a good first step. Shoot for making the book a conduit for communication, not just a channel for distribution.

Authority will reassert itself when it has been earned. As long as just putting a different version (one of more than 70 currently) of Pride and Prejudice up on Amazon is considered “publishing an e-book,” readers are doomed to download some really bad copies.