Book and Reading News The Reading World

140 Characters Conference video—watch now

Several great book- and publishing-related talks and panels at Jeff Pulver‘s 140 Characters Conference worth watching:

Tim O’Reilly on what he’s learned from Twitter

The Reading World

Noted Opinion, June 21, 2009

A couple of articles crossed my radar today. Some thoughts….

Zombie Publishers, a nice philippic by Morris Rosenthal with a video interview with Harlan Ellison that’s worth the link alone. I’ve been approached about writing the kind of slap-dash book by “contributors” that he describes by a surprisingly wide range of well-known publishers, it’s not a feature of “bad” publishers, it’s becoming the norm. Like Rosenthal, I don’t like the trend. Ultimately, he’s making the argument that paying a writer to write well is a worthwhile investment or, if you are contemplating self-publishing, writing well is worth the effort. Yes!

Democracy’s tough, but Amazon’s role isn’t pure as switch11 argues over at iReader Review. First off, I agree with the initial points made in the article, that Google v. Amazon, Kindle v. Sony Reader, Plastic Logic v. Kindle DX are all distractions from the real transformation of the publishing market. They are sideshows, as I wrote yesterday. However, the article then veers into the ideologically charged topic of “democratizing publishing” an identifies enemies of progress. The author throws unfocused charges about misinformation from publishers and “other sites, and bizarrely characterizes Scribd as an enemy of democratization, apparently because it will “let Publishers determine pricing.” “People who are stuck in the past” are also enemies of progress; I’d argue they are barriers to, but more likely poised to become victims of, progress. There is also discussion about misinformation, which is rampant in this market, though it seems to me to be coming from many different sources, not just the enemies identified in the posting.

Stay grounded during an industrys evolution
Stay grounded during an industry's evolution

Switch11 goes on to say that Amazon’s position in the market is essentially “democratic,” even though it acts as a pricing arbitrator. Governments that set pricing ruin economies. Amazon is making useful early suggestions about pricing but is smart enough to know it must let prices find their own level. Building on the Amazon qua democratizing hero, Switch11’s argument goes: “Publishers are used to the status quo i.e. they control what gets published, they make the lion’s share of the profits, we read what they decide we should read, and so forth.” There is also the standard “we are at the beginning of a revolution” rhetoric, but really, it’s an evolution. Revolution is what is happening in Iran. In publishing the krill shrimp that were authors and small publishers suddenly are equals in the food chain with industrial publishing whales. The big question now is what to do with all the blubber in the old system, and that’s Switch11’s point, though it is buried in a lot of finger-pointing.

Kindle didn’t start this change, desktop publishing and cheap printing exploded the economics of the publishing industry in the 80s, as did the Web in the 90s. Self-publishing innovation has dramatically expanded the number of titles published in paper each year, with more than 10 times as many titles published in 2008 than in 1990 (a link to this coming, in the growing BooksAhead statistics pages). That’s an order-of-magnitude change in paper titles published. You won’t see one often. We’re early in a long change, but not a competition between aristocratic publishers and the reading public, rather it’s a rising tide of competition within publishing, from all corners of the map, that cannot be accommodated by existing distribution and marketing infrastructures.

Putatively, anyone can reach an audience with a book, in either paper or electronic form. The reality is that it is hard to reach a large market, but the economics continue to change. For this market to develop most efficiently, a distributor like Amazon cannot be setting prices. Instead, all publishers should be free to set prices and let the market work out what the right price is for each intellectual product out there. My guess is that Simon and Schuster’s price experimentation with Scribd will be useful as an exercise in facing reality, as Amazon has set the market’s expectations at $9.99 for a recent bestseller. But even Amazon doesn’t enforce a single price point. One price doesn’t fit all, and it’s good that we’re seeing price-based competition in the market. What we really need, in addition to that, is more innovation in the idea of what a book is. We haven’t even scratched the surface of how texts and culture will change as a result of innovation.

Switch11 writes that “by 2012 we’ll be living in a world where the majority of the power and benefits lie with readers and authors.” With publishing margins in low single digits, it’s clear we live in that world now. What will continue to change is the number of people and companies that will be publishing for a profit, as well we’ll see a flood of quality free publishing efforts that seek other compensation, such as social influence, political power and commercial relationships with an audience. If we’re going to measure the success of this “revolution” by the shuttering of publishing house offices, that is the mistake.

There is no enemy, and no need for enemies, just for more participation.

The Reading World

Reconstructing Dialogue: Publishers’ new jobs

The 140 Characters Conference this week, hosted by Jeff Pulver and attended by many of my friends, spawned a lot of discussion about the nature of communication, even though it was often cast in the terms of economics, both monetarily so and in relation to intellectual brevity. Publishers Weekly observed a conflict between long- and short-form discussion as well as the potential poisoning of the economic well because of too much commercialization of Twitter.

We do love competition
We do love competition

This is simply another variant on the professional/amateur, journalist/blogger arguments of earlier years, but it has legs, because it frames a debate about which side should “win,” which is excellent fodder for conferences and columns, blogs and short statements on Twitter or Friendfeed. It misses the point that all media blends over time, rather than one media appearing and replacing another. These conflicts are sideshows, albeit apparently enjoyable sideshows, to the larger, subtle changes that are altering our world.

It is not the case that all thought can be reduced to 140 characters, as it is fashionable to claim these days, so the challenge—one that is going to be partially addressed through the evolution of books and social software, is to create a consilience of long- and short-form dialogue, so that ideas that are explained at length in one venue, such as a book or Web page, can be extended and discussed in shorter forms that gracefully integrate with the long-form. Also, the short form needs to be artfully connected to long-form thinking, so that the two experiences are not separate, as they are today, which creates false dichotomy between the parts of discussions.

Hashmarks and search don’t heal this rift, they simply organize the boundary between long- and short-form parts of human communication.

Many worlds in a view
Many worlds in a view

Practices of the mind and social behaviors that “bridge” this gap are helpful, but remind me of the guard towers along the Berlin Wall—everyone on both sides spoke German (and a different second language, ideologically charged, which was the real communications problem). The fact that there is dialogue across these boundaries is the exception that proves the rule of opposition between long and short forms.

We need flow (see Jerry Michalski‘s declaration of a desire to be accessible and useful from the early blogging days), we need consilience. Formats need to be completely permeable, semantically connected and, wherever you are, on a page, in a book, in Twitter and IM, to serve as channels out of one place and its ideas to others. That’s what the Semantic Web will look like, and we haven’t seen even a glimmer of how vastly different that will really be.

We’re adding channels, which is not a zero-sum game. It’s not necessary for one mode of communication to defeat another. The current e-book format wars are yet another example of a useless conflict, because none of the formats supports real dialogue. They are just replicating the close experience of paper books, with barriers to sharing ideas, annotations and conversations (note: the plural is necessary) within the text.

When this argument about the “best” channel for all communication gives way to reasonable discussions about all channels, we’ll be making progress toward a semantic infrastructure that doesn’t trap people and their ideas in a single format.

Bonus Reading: Tom Foremski offers this assessment of the Internet, it “devalues everything it touches, anything that can be digitized.” Yet, that doesn’t mean there’s no value on anything on the Internet, only that the traditional services and processes for gathering and distributing value in information need to change. Tom writes, “Is this a bad thing? No, it is just what it is, just as gravity just —neither good or bad.” It also means, I might add, that the old ways weren’t necessarily bad or good, just what happened to evolve in response to technology and human culture. Highly recommended.

The Reading World

Financial Times: Google’s railroading cartel

The Financial Times‘ Lex column (registration at site required, but free) makes the rhetorical point:

Imagine that in the 19th century the company furthest advanced laying US railroads was given the right to build all future rail lines. The public might have gained from the new services, but ultimately been left at the whim of a powerful monopoly. Now take the deal between Google and the publishing industry to create a digital market for out-of-print books – some 40 per cent of all those ever published. However laudable such a goal that may be, it raises anticompetitive issues too.

The article lays out clearly and simply why the Google Books deal with libraries is flawed. Rather than creating and exception to existing copyright and intellectual property restrictions, the outcome of the legal confrontation should be a general and open system for any company that wishes to scan books under terms acceptable to authors or other rights holders.

The deal is based on a scenario that is too good to be true. Google is only here to help, the company says, yet is it sweeping up rights that could be abused. Readers face a potential future where, because it is impractical to compete with Google, other e-book providers simply don’t try, giving Google free reign to raise prices on access to books, whether one at a time or through an all-you-can-read subscription service. It could choke off libraries’ access to these books, because Google circumvents their relationship with the reader or raises institutional prices too high.

For free culture activists, it should be clear that the settlement in effect grants Google a degree of control over access to library collections it has scanned that is functionally similar to holding a renewed and extended copyright on the works.

It is also questionable whether the potential for advertising in library-accessed books is a good idea, since it commercializes what had been a public good and, potentially, creates a commercial filter based on advertisers preferences for certain ideas and information. If faced with reading an uncontroversial history of, say, the Iraq War, which is free at the library through Google Books and one that, because it has no ad revenue support carries a fee, the least-privileged in society would probably opt for the free choice. That’s a kind of commercial Big Brotherism we need to engineer out of e-libraries.

The takeaway: Google is being granted a cartel position in the intellectual marketplace, which the FT believes is bad for competition. “Google’s ingenuity does not give it the right to surround itself with an impregnable digital moat,” the column concludes.