BEA 2011: Seven Years of Google Books

Seven Years of Google Books: The Next Chapter
Presenter: James Crawford, Engineering Director, Google Books

On Thursday morning, a crowd of forty, sprouting into about seventy as the aspirin and hangover cures kicked in, listened to a engineer with a Spartan mien. Like many crunchers from Mountain View, James Crawford had the warmth and physique of an Eames lounge chair. He liked to explain things. He was confident he knew all the answers. He did, after all, work at Google.

“Google’s mission was and continues to be to organize information and make it accessible,” said Crawford early in his run. There were many sentences phrased like that. Had I known Crawford was going to speak like this, I would never have imbibed so much gratis scotch the night before.

The sense I got was that Crawford had delivered this speech many times. He ran down the stats. More than 15 million books had been scanned. That’s over 5 billion pages and 2 trillion words in 478 languages (including three books in Klingon, 82 titles in Kalaallisut, and none in Kutenal), with the earliest going back to 1473. Library partners include Stanford and the University of Michigan.

“For a lot of these books, we can simply chop off the spine and scan the pages.” For a moment, I feared that Crawford was some digital Robespierre who had recently discovered the guillotine. But I was reassured when Crawford pointed out that Google was “required to scan nondestructively.” Thank goodness for libraries and their preservation policies. To accomplish this scanning, Google holds the books down with cradles. The images are then put “through fairly sophisticated series of image algorithms,” with the curve of the pages flattened through software. Every word on the page is indexed. There is also a system of ranking algorithms to ensure, for example, that the right Hamlet rises to the top.

Crawford pointed out a “cluster problem” with the metadata. If you go to the Library of Congress, The Fellowship of the Ring (listed this way in Books in Print) will be listed as “Lord of the Rings, Vol. 1.” And J.R.R. Tolkien will be listed as “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.”

But the biggest problem was, by far, digital rights. There are three million books in the public domain: those published before 1928. “So they’re not exactly the latest and greatest pageturners,” said Crawford, who revealed himself with such statements to be more interested in digitizing books rather than reading them. Less than a million books have clear ownership. Two and a half million books are available though partnership programs with publishers. “And then there’s all the rest in the middle: out of print but under copyright.”

The Google eBookstore, launched in December, aims to fix some of these problems. “We view the ebook as a thing you purchased,” said Crawford. “Once you’ve bought it, we feel you should read it on any device.” But what about the device known as the printed book? Crawford didn’t mention this. He was on a roll.

“We have the only really serious web reader in the business,” boasted Crawford. And it suddenly occurred to me that Crawford was referring to these Google tools as “an ebook ecosystem.” This seemed a bit Napoleonic to me, almost like insisting that one automobile plant was singlehandedly responsible for the car industry.

Crawford also brought up Google Cloud Sync, which collected a surprising amount of personal information. “We have in the cloud both the content of the book and we store the databases of what people have bought and what pages you are reading on.” In other words, if you shop at Google, they know all the books that you’ve bought. Crawford didn’t specify the degree to which this information is shared to other vendors. But he did point out that retailers had much of this intel at their disposal.

I was also troubled by Google’s tendency to dictate to the market what it wanted. “We want to help the independent bookstores do well in the digital age and not be hurt by digital.” Now I happen to share Google’s view that bringing in independent bookstores into its eBookstore is one method of preserving independent business. On the other hand, why should Google decide what’s right? Isn’t that the job of the FTC or an antitrust legislator? And what’s not to suggest that the Google eBookstore could prove harmful towards independent bookstores? On Tuesday, Tom Turvey — another Google Books representative — had said that he had “some of his best engineers working” on the experience of replicating a bookstore. Google may say that they are trying to help the indies now. But what’s to stop them from changing their policy if the books market shifts direction? This affiliate program for this is presently invitation only, but there are plans to open it up.

Crawford also revealed how libraries, faced with limited budgets, had relied on Google’s viewer for electronic versions of books. “They can take our viewer and put it on their website.” I don’t think it occurred to many in the crowd that commingling public and private resources may not necessarily be the most ethical solution. Wasn’t it vaguely predatory? Such questions had led the European Union to develop Europeana.

Crawford pointed out that many books published in the 16th and the 17th century were now available through Google in full color. But I was dubious when he said, “You can see them as if you’re the librarian.” Until we are able to touch these tomes, this statement will never be true. When Crawford brought up L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, observing “there are all these chapters that didn’t make it into the movie,” it was evident that he was on boilerplate and had not tailored his speech too much for the publishing crowd.

Google had recently signed an agreement with Hachette to work together on out-of-print titles in France. This would be the model for further uplift contracts. Google had also been experimenting with maps for books. Crawford brought up this interactive map for Around the World in Eighty Days. Google Books has also been used to chart how irregular verbs turn regular over time (e.g., “spoilt” transforming into “spoiled”) and, of course, the infamous Ngram Viewer, in which you can (for example) compare “The United States is” against “The United States are” over the course of time. But Crawford was disingenuous when he suggested that the dropoff of books referencing the start of a decade (as seen through the Ngram viewer) demonstrated “scientifically” that memories are getting shorter. Before making such a statement, one must account for the number of books published over the years, the speed of life in 1900 vs. the speed of life in subsequent decades, and any number of independent variables. Unfortunately, that kind of rigorous consideration isn’t always compatible with a slick Powerpoint presentation that must be delivered in nanoseconds.

Crawford also had a rather naive faith in international titles. One of his slides championed how “cross-boarder [sic] sales increased access to content,” but didn’t account for the territorial restrictions that Andrew Savikas and Evan Schnittman duked it out over on Tuesday. “As long as the publisher has worldwide rights,” said Crawford, “they should be able to move around the world.” Right. As long as I wake up tomorrow with wings on my back, I’ll be able to fly. In other words, that qualifier was a big if. If this was the type of vision that Google Books was promulgating, I wondered if Crawford’s work was clunkier and less state of the art than he realized.

BEA 2011: The Future of Ebooks Publishing Executive Panel

The Future of eBooks Publishing Executive Panel

Participants: Tom Turvey (Google Books – moderator), Andrew Savikas (O’Reilly/Safari Books Online), Evan Schnittman (Bloomsbury), Amanda Close (Random House), and David Steinberger (Perseus)

If you were an industry type giving a half goddam about the future of publishing on a late Tuesday afternoon in New York, you had two venues at BEA to deposit your worries. If you were a squeaky kidult wishing to rah rah rah rather than stare into hard reality, there was the 7x20x21 series of self-congrulatory dispatches competing with the floor’s mad transactional noise. But if you were an adult and if you understood why the maxim “follow the money” is not one to blithely ignore, then you headed downstairs into a spacious room, where corporate executives discussed the future of ebooks.

It was a packed house attracting no specific type. Italians chatted behind me. There were guys in the back finding ideal standing positions to make a quick escape if the panel went bust. But nearly every seat was filled through the end. I suppose that when you promise an audience some glimpse of the future, it’s a guaranteed draw. Except for the young people too busy with the collective adulation upstairs.

“The book business is a very long tail business,” began moderator Tom Turvey. I knew he was with Google even before he even said “long tail.” For not more than a minute before heading to the lectern, he checked his phone: one final hit from the electronic communications crack pipe.

As one of the Google People, Turvey had the nerdy nihilism you’d expect from a director of strategic partnerships. He was careful not to express too much enthusiasm, but he did seem to relish the idea of print being as dead as the gramophone, especially midway through the discussion when he asked three of the panelists (excluding Amanda Close) if the agency model was a feature or a bug. “Personally I think it’s a bug, not a feature,” replied O’Reilly’s Andrew Savikas. “It was a moment in time,” replied Bloomsbury’s Evan Schnittman. Perseus’s David Steinberger was the most practical of the four: “I would just say it’s too early. I think we’re overexcited about this issue.”

But Steinberger’s wise response didn’t stop Turvey from pushing further on the topic. Indeed, there is little doubt in my mind that the man spends many evenings in hotel rooms wiping the gushing drool from his chin after marinating his mind in some Bradbury-like vision of a world without books. (When asked by an audience member if Google was working on replicating the experience of a bookstore, Turvey replied, “We have some of our best engineers working on this very topic.” Never mind that the panel demonstrated that ebooks have created problems for consumers that these five corporate titans didn’t really wish to address.)

“Publishing does not know how to market ebooks yet,” said Schnittman. “You’re looking at bestsellers tracking with bestsellers. Everything that we’re marketing in the stores is selling just as well.” I became skeptical of Schnittman when he started clenching his left hand, a gesture reminding me of some dodgy villain from a melodrama. Schnittman liked to talk quite a bit.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” continued Schnittman. “We’ve never marketed backlist before.”

These rather assumptive generalizations had me wondering if Schnittman had ever settled his precious hands onto the raw joys of genre or contemplated the way in which an author winning an award often results in backlist titles being repackaged. And what about presses like the University of Chicago Press, finding new life for Anthony Powell and Richard Stark?

“The big challenge that we’re all facing is the digital world,” said David Steinberger. Steinberger was more interested in the way in which consumers discovered books. “Digital is very good for hunters and not so for gatherers.” These were metaphors that a male computer geek could understand, but when he presented specific data about the bottom 50% of Perseus’s titles earning 2% of the print revenue and 12% of the ebook revenue, these statistics helped steer the conversation away from Turvey’s regrettable Gladwellian terminology.

“Those books are not easily found in the physical world,” continued Steinberger. He brought up Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, which had very poor distribution, but managed to nab 62% in ebook revenue. The same went for Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Not a sexy title for the Grisham crowd, but the book managed to secure 60% in ebook revenue. “I think you are seeing a lift in the tail,” said Steinberger. “If you’re publishing John Grisham or Tom Clancy, you have another set of rules.”

Random House’s Amanda Close didn’t close the deal upon her turn at the mike. Overly general in her answers and needlessly self-congratulatory in tone (though not haughty like Schnittman, of which more anon), Close wallowed in general corporatese. “I would argue that it’s early days in retail and that we are working with our partners every day to collaboratively work on that browsing experience. That discoverability is really coming through online to replace certain things.” But if Close admitted her desire to argue, it was all for naught. For she brought no argument to the table. “Things in the physical world can reiterate things in the digital world.” You can probably say this about getting lucky after a long dry spell downloading porn. “Our challenge is to deeply understand the dynamics of the marketplace.” Close’s challenge was to deeply understand that a panel of this ilk requires something a bit more than reductionist statements. From the perspective of this observer, she failed. It didn’t help that she smiled brightly and nodded her head after spouting off some of this malarkey.

“Digital distribution is extremely efficient at meeting demand,” offered Andrew Savikas. Yet he also conceded that much of the demand is due to consumers discovering the books. He was right to note the “popularity within the store which generates the feedback loop,” but he wasn’t willing to distinguish the differences between discoverability in a physical bookstore (accompanied by a skilled bookseller) and an e-bookstore. Perhaps it was because he preferred to hawk Safari Books, which has “both lengthened and fattened the tail.”

“While I do expect there to continue to be perhaps a need for the biggest players to focus on those hot titles,” continued Savikas, “I think this ecosystem offers an opportunity for smaller players to find a niche.”

But who are these smaller players? Safari Books? Authors who self-publish at the Kindle Store? Much as yesterday’s panel failed to establish terms, I kept wondering why a thoughtful if somewhat long-winded guy like Savikas couldn’t espouse the pragmatism offered by Steinberger. Savikas was holistic enough to consider Netflix’s current domination of bandwidth, but does this even apply to books, which are an entirely different medium requiring an entirely different commitment?

“I think everybody starts seeing the phenomenon where something hits the list and it becomes self-perpetuating, you know?” responded Close on a question relating to bestseller lists. “I actually look forward to the retail experience evolving so that we can see some segmentation.”

But how can you have an evolving retail experience when there’s a reluctance to experiment? Turvey questioned Close minutes later when he asked her, quite fairly, if Random House’s organizational attitude had changed in light of the fact that more self-published authors had entered the ebook arena.

“Um, you know the way I would actually answer that is we are always testing things with our new authors.” But how? “It’s not a phenomenon that has been driven by the self-publishing platform.” I’m guessing that Amanda Hocking would disagree with this.

Steinberger brought up Go the Fuck to Sleep as an example of online conversation translating into sales. He then quoted The Cluetrain Manifesto: “A market is not me telling you something. A market is a conversation.” But while it’s undeniable that some conversation has started with Go the Fuck to Sleep, nobody on the panel wanted to admit that this was a bit of a fluke. But it did cause Schnittman to reveal more than a bit of resentment towards the consumer.

“Consumers need help,” he said. “We throw at them how many thousands of books?” He then hunched forward. “What matters is there’s an authority. It’s the free market, baby.”

When Turvey asked why all the book recommendation engines sucked, he allowed Schnittman to fall into his Socratic trap. (The unvoiced assumption: what is a bookseller but the ultimate book recommendation engine?)

“I think people do use it,” huffed Schnittman, when Turvey brought up the failed Genius feature in iTunes. “You use it with a caveat that it sucks.”

Then he got a little defensive. “You in the world of algorithms, you’ll figure out something theoretically better and better.” He then suggested that “the tail was wagging the dog,” before attempting to retract this because he had “used it yesterday. Nobody quote me on that one.”

I kept wondering why this apparent professional was more concerned with l’esprit de l’escalier rather than legitimate ideas. But at least he wasn’t as bad as Close, who again declared her willingness to argue in lieu of a legitimate argument: “I would argue we have always cared deeply about our consumers.” But for Close, that care has more to do with “buzz meters” and point-of-sale data.

Schnitmann got very riled up about territorial sales, which has presented many ebook customers from accessing certain titles. “Where we see the Internet as a world that doesn’t respect any borders, we’ve actually set up the system to present consumes to buy.”

This caused Savikas to question the wisdom of such an approach: “The notion that we can or should enforce geographic restrictions on web-generated content is a lost cause. And I feel sorry for your customers.”

“I don’t have the rights to them though!” whimpered Schnittman.

“I don’t believe territorial restrictions make sense in relation to content.”

Savikas elaborated on this, believing that electronic sales would eventually become the primary way of doing business and that territorial restrictions don’t reflect the fabric of the Web. Schnittman countered, with more Palpatine-like hand cluthing gestures, by suggesting that “different economies have different needs.” Savikas replied, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong in adjusting the pricing geographically.”

Territorial copyright is certainly an issue. But when a woman approached the mike and declared herself a “frustrated customer,” explaining quite pasionately to Schnittman, “I don’t think that you’re respecting the consumer at all,” it became clear that the panel didn’t want to discuss the real issue: the customer is always right. “Do you have a question?” sneered Turvey from the podium. “Why don’t you think more about the consumer?” said the woman, not missing a beat.

Schnittman did not offer an answer. Nor did any of the other four. And their silence spoke volumes about their collective comprehension of business-customer relations.

BEA 2011: “The E-Book Era is Now”

The E-Book Era is Now: What Does It Look Like From the Consumer Perspective? And What Do We Do About It?

Participants: Kelly Gallagher, RR Bowker; Angela Bole, Book Industry Study Group

On Monday morning, approximately one hundred besuited souls assembled in a large conference room without a single distinguishing architectural feature. Like much of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, it was an ideal place to commit suicide if you were having second thoughts.

But the occasion on Monday morning was slightly cheerier. After Angela Bole, an executive director at the Book Industry Study Group announced, “Shrinkage is not an option,” leaving me to wonder whether there was some detumescent publishing commodity comparable to cold water, a man with a speaking style somewhere between a regular guy and one of those obnoxious autistic types who fly in from Mountain View and walk into a room as if they own the place prepared to discuss a “most unique” [sic] situation.

Kelly Gallagher, a vice president at R.R. Bowker, delivered a presentation called “The E-Book Era is Now.” I didn’t realize you could call a two year period an “era,” but I was curious to learn how this “looked like from the consumer perspective.” I also wondered if Harry Selfridge’s maxim was applicable in the Internet age. Was the customer right? Or were much of the players full of hot air? As it turned out, it was a little of both.

Five minutes before the panel began, I was handed a flyer announcing a study conducted by the Book Industry Study Group. Some of the cited results: print customers who have download ebooks have jumped from 5% of the total in October 2010 to almost 13% in January 2011. Fiction has dominated downloads as a whole. Free samples and low prices win customers. There are “power buyers.”

What the hell was a power buyer? Well, as our somewhat suspicious friend from RR Bowker informed us, it was a catch-all term not unlike “artificial sweetener.” You could call a power buyer (as Gallagher did) a 44-year-old woman who made $77,000 a year who sits on a beach buying predominantly fiction (mostly romance). Or you could settle for a more general idea: the power buyer as someone who purchases an e-book every week. As a Powerpoint slide later revealed, that definition wasn’t entirely right either. I was told that, in March 2011, about 18% of power buyers acquired ebooks weekly, that about 52% purchased ebooks once or twice a month, and that about 28% “rarely/sporadically buy.” I suppose that if you fall into that latter category, everybody with a portable reading device can be called a “power buyer.” So if you happen to own an e-reader, feel free to shout “I’m a power buyer!” just after the Romans nail you to the cross. Either that or someone in the Bowker office had that catchy Snap! song on repeat.

When Gallagher opened his presentation with an awkward metaphor about the blue people from Avatar, it was clear that he hadn’t quite studied the film’s imperialistic message – even if he did close with a slide suggesting a sunny if somewhat backhanded multiculturalism. But he did offer some information about the state of ebooks that was helpful for today’s digital movers and shakers.

“That’s what we call the hockey stick,” said Gallagher as he presented a line plotted by rising percentage points with a noticeable dive last month. In April 2011, ebooks had fallen to about 11% of the market. This was the first dip that ebooks had seen and the closest thing this Gallagher had to a Sledge-O-Matic. But Gallagher was careful to suggest that this had more to do with “fluctuations” of a nebulous nature.

“The e-buyer today is really moving the market,” said Gallagher. But he didn’t quite say how. He did note that “power buyers” were very dedicated to their personal devices and had largely abandoned their PCs. And the power buyer, whether a 44-year-old woman or a guy wearing nothing but his underwear in a dark room compulsively hitting a one click button, was different from the core e-textbook buyer, who is a 23-year-old male grad student (or distance learner) who was more likely to pirate than underclassmen and who purchased 17% of his textbooks in “e.” (Wild stab in the dark, but I’m guessing that Gallagher didn’t attend a lot of raves back in the day.) This textbook buyer, whoever she may be, does not have a clear sense of download. Unlike ebooks, there are certain barriers with e-textbooks — namely the fact that e-textbooks cannot compete with physical textbooks — that prevent the e-textbook from growing. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that the laptop (51%) and the desktop (20%) reflect the top shares of the e-textbook market, with dedicated devices not really fitting the bill. Students want highlighting, note taking, and searchability. But the e-textbook market isn’t giving it to them. 75% of students still want the physical textbook.

But on the trade front, Kindle is the dominant source, still growing in market share. It is estimated that Kindle reflects about 65% of the ebook market. Dedicated e-readers have replaced the PC, which was once the #1 device for the ebook market in 2009.

Gallagher presented some interesting stats on price. For both ebooks and e-textbooks, price comes in as the sixth most compelling reason (behind portability and convenience) for why people purchase them. Topping the wishlist of wants on ebooks? “Give or lend ebook after you’re one with it.” This suggests very highly that present DRM factors are not the way to win your customers. What was especially interesting about Gallagher’s presentation is that the Kindle has only just recently reached a 50% customer satisfaction rate. And the Nook hasn’t made that much of a customer satisfaction dent at all. Gallagher didn’t elaborate on whether this was the tendency for customers to complain or a closet loathing for portable readers. But as he put it, “We still haven’t delivered the ultimate experience for the consumer if they’re not operating over 50%.” (One also wonders how e-readers would stack up against smartphones. This seems like a pivotal customer satisfaction comparison to run if one is to talk about being in “the e-book era.”)

Gallagher brought up “digital fatigue” as one explanation for the poor performance of e-textbooks. “They are continually wired in their lives,” he said. “Many are indicating they just don’t want to go there with books.” On the other hand, another slide informed the audience that it was “too early to tell” about the effect that digital fatigue is having.

While some “power buyers” were still buying print books, the numbers suggested that 45% of “power buyers” were buying a decreased number of hardcovers and 50% were buying a decreased number of paperbacks. If this sounds gloomy for print acolytes, the other side of the coin is that ebooks have greatly helped to expand the total market. Gallagher didn’t have specific numbers or dollar figures on this front to offer. I presume that one will have to cough up the dough to buy his report. But near his conclusion, he did say, “We need to understand which part of the market we’re really talking about. Are we focusing on the right power buyer?” That’s a good question. But if a “power buyer” is such a plastic idea, shouldn’t the ebook industry focus on solidifying that before talking about “focus?” Especially when it comes from a guy who claimed that authors can “manage their own destiny” online. While Gallagher’s data was mostly useful, I felt at times that the audience was collectively reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel rather than seriously considering the future of publishing.

James Tracy, Our Digital Martyr

Dear Comrades:

James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing Academy, has a vision. While the academy has acquired a library of some 200,000 volumes over its 144-year history, Mr. Tracy believes that the future is digital. There is no need for the books.

To those who would deny the human species these bold and seemingly thoughtless steps forward in the name of progress, I submit that James Tracy is only scratching the surface. As someone who has been recognized by Wikipedia as “an expert in digital transition,” I have assembled a Committee to examine the purpose of James Tracy. The Committee has spent several hours paying continuous partial attention. It has illegally downloaded torrents, played several rounds of Left 4 Dead, and studied Mr. Tracy’s present life and sinecure. We are experts here. More importantly, we are correct. Do not argue with us. The Committee has multitasked and, in so doing, determined many viable solutions to the James Tracy problem. After some thought, we have concluded that there are presently very few reasons for the analog unit known as James Tracy to continue inhabiting this planet in his present form. We propose the following digital augmentations:

1. The removal of Mr. Tracy’s penis: The penis has served humanity quite well for thousands of years. But when I look upon the penis today, I see an outdated technology. I don’t wish to discourage Mr. Tracy from fucking his wife, if that is his choice. But this is an outdated form of sexuality. And our conversations with Mrs. Tracy, which were conducted in a sleazy motel room, indicate that she too is hoping to march forward with new digital possibilities. Moreover, there is a considerable hypocrisy to Mr. Tracy removing outdated books from the Cushing library while simultaneously maintaining his outdated penis. And the Committee recognizes that digital forms of sexual intercourse do not require anything as messy or as indecent as ejaculation. There is, of course, the problem of used condoms and Kleenex getting in the way of sleek digital efficiency. Since the machines (along with the Committee) have insisted that trivial feelings such as passion and lust often get in the way of the noble pursuits of knowledge and erudition, we must therefore conclude that Mr. Tracy should set an example and remove his penis. Furthermore, the Committee wishes to spend nearly $500,000 to create a “digital sexuality center,” whereby students and faculty members of Cushing will receive voluntary castrations and purge any lingering sexual instincts through flat-screen TVs projecting pornography from the Internet. These outdated forms of sexuality will be upgraded during the digital revolution.

2. An end to Mr. Tracy’s salary: It is now commonly accepted by the digerati that “the information wants to be free.” Therefore, why should Mr. Tracy expect money for his services? As Chris Anderson has suggested, a machine wouldn’t expect to be paid. No, let Mr. Tracy serve as headmaster on his own time and look upon his Cushing duties in the same manner that a hobbyist takes up stamp collecting. It is frankly insulting for Mr. Tracy to expect money for his human services, when he has clearly set himself up for the efficient and inhuman tasks that will be necessary in the new digital age. Let him find other ways to pay his mortgage. Our committee suggests that he take up a perch at an Arby’s drive-thru window.

3. An iPod permanently welded to Mr. Tracy’s brain. We want to ensure that Mr. Tracy continues to learn. And since those dusty analog books will no longer be available, we believe we can now control the precise conditions in which Mr. Tracy approaches literature. Therefore, the Committee allocates $15,000 to drill two eco-friendly holes into Mr. Tracy’s head so that we can transmit books in audio form and control the precise manner in which he engages with books. One of the Committee’s members had considered electrocuting Mr. Tracy should he fail to understand the audio piped into his head, but we were reminded of the unethical nature of Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies. Fortunately, when Mr. Tracy was hired as Cushing headmaster, he forfeited all of his individual rights, giving Cushing complete surgical control for a new digital tomorrow. We also plan to allocate $30,000 a year to employ two part-time students to beam books into Mr. Tracy’s brain 24/7, which will ensure that at least two bucking lads from Cushing don’t go hungry.

4. Burning all of Mr. Tracy’s books, papers, and mementos. It is unacceptable for Mr. Tracy to maintain analog books and papers in his office. It is also unsightly for family photographs and other needless personal trinkets to infect the forthcoming digital sterility. The Committee therefore recommends the complete incineration of any form of paper found in Mr. Tracy’s office. If Mr. Tracy is seen opening an unfolded piece of paper from his pocket, we will have the newly formed Cushing Fire Brigade incinerate it on sight. We realize that these steps may cause Mr. Tracy to obtain third-degree burns. But let’s not let a little collateral damage impede our necessary progress. You can’t have revolution without risk.

5. Legally changing Mr Tracy’s name. Let’s face it. The name “James Tracy” sounds like one of those outmoded characters from a Frank Capra film. And nobody who participates on a social network believes in Frank Capra anymore. Fortunately, the Committee has consulted a branding firm and we have decided that “Jimbo” — no James, no Tracy, just one name: Jimbo — is a better appellation with which Mr. Tracy can “get down with the kids.” The Committee has already confiscated the nameplate in Mr. Tracy’s office and replaced it with the $15,000 Jimbo logo that will make Cushing a standout among all East Coast prep schools. This will be followed by a legal name change. Any student or faculty member caught using “James” or “Mr. Tracy” will be instantly expelled from the academy.

We trust that these digital augmentations will be executed at the earliest possible opportunity.


James Fennimore Coupland
Acting President, The Cushing Academy Committee

(Image: Mark Wilson)

BEA 2009: The Truth About Book Piracy

At BookExpo America, Wet Asphalt’s Eric Rosenfield entered into a lengthy conversation with Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media. And it became necessary to capture their quasi-caffeinated colloquy for reasons that will soon become apparent.

I had seen O’Leary earlier in the year at the “Challenging Notions of Free” panel at Tools of Change, along with O’Reilly’s Mac Slocum and Random House’s director of business development Chelsea Vaughan. O’Reilly and Random House had agreed to participate in a study hoping to pinpoint the effects of P2P distribution — namely, the impact of digital books, both in pirated and legitimate form, on print book sales. And they were standing in a conference room in February to present Magellan’s results to the public.

The results were a bit surprising. According to O’Leary’s subsequent report, “Impact of P2P and Free Distribution on Book Sales,” book piracy wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as some had suggested. While O’Leary’s report had only O’Reilly and Random House as participants, it appeared that some of the publishers’ fears about piracy were unsubstantiated. Only eight frontlist titles published by O’Reilly in 2008 could be located as torrent files. When these books did become available as torrents, the torrents were uploaded to the Internet far later than expected: some 20 weeks after publication date on average. Furthermore, for the titles available as torrents, on average, sales were 6.5% higher for these books during the four weeks after they were uploaded.

Despite the braying of New York Times guest bloggers, book piracy was hardly the Manichean scenario that some of the DRM advocates had implied. And the chances of Stephen King and Toni Morrison riding on motorcycles appeared to be unlikely. In his report, O’Leary suggested “a less binary model to evaluate the use of free” — one doing away with the parallel experiences from music and movies and accounting for tangible interface realities.

But before the “information must be free” acolytes begin offering a Nelson-like “Ha Ha,” it’s important to note that this isn’t a scenario in which a partisan can dance a jig jig one way or another. O’Leary is pointing out quite rightly that both publishers and open source advocates are making statements about piracy without specific correlative data to draw from. O’Leary’s results are a great step forward, but with Amazon offering a new version of the Kindle seemingly every two months and publishers remaining understandably mum about sales data, it isn’t exactly possible to locate the theory of everything.

In the interview, O’Leary pointed out that not only were there differences in book piracy between fiction and O’Reilly books, but even within specific types of fiction. And getting publishers to participate in ongoing efforts to study this unexamined issue might allow reliable correlations to be formed. O’Leary also alluded to additional studies conducted by John Hilton that involved studying the effect of free digital books on print sales. Hilton was surprised to learn that Tor Books gave 24 of its books away, but saw 20 of the titles with decreasing sales. Random House’s ebook experiments, by contrast, had seen increased print sales for all four titles that it had used for the experiment. But was it the type of books? The specific titles? The way the free ebooks were introduced?

“Certainly when you see that big a swing, you want to look at the type of book or the type of genre or the type of test,” said O’Leary. “I mean, keep in mind that not all digital tests are the same. If you’re using digital content on the first book in a science fiction series to promote the tenth book, it’s different from using digital content to promote the current book. So you want to capture all those things and then start to mix and match over time.”

But with only O’Reilly and Random House willing to use the machines in O’Leary’s laundry room, one wonders if anyone can iron out all the wrinkles.

BEA 2009: The Cool-Er Reader

As widely reported over the past week, BookExpo America featured several $249 e-readers. And while I certainly observed many people salivating over e-readers as a whole, a good deal of drool congealed around the edges of Interead’s Cool-Er Reader. Teleread’s Paul Biba reported that the Cool-Er is “very light and feels good on the hand.” (The Interread people did not allow me to corroborate Mr. Biba’s findings. While I don’t desire to undermine Mr. Biba’s understandable excitement, I would not be doing my duty if I didn’t point out that the same words might be said of a freshly washed and folded beach towel.) Wet Asphalt’s Eric Rosenfield reported that the Cool-Er people were very defensive when their device was compared with other e-readers. And I suppose that companies are indeed prone to getting a little defensive when are greeted with legitimate questions instead of marketing opportunities.

On Sunday, May 31, 2009, I was more or less off-duty and somewhat hungover. I had devoted the morning to baking cookies and alotted the afternoon to my theatrical appearance at the Firebrand blogger signing. Under such conditions, the only apparel you can really wear is a Cocaine Fiends t-shirt. Nevertheless, I felt it necessary to check the Cool-Er Reader out for myself. I talked with marketing director Phil Wood and did my best to separate the booth’s beach imagery from all the hype.

Sherman Alexie Clarifies “Elitist” Charges

As noted by Kassia Kroszer and others, Sherman Alexie recently expressed some controversial remarks in relation to the eReader. At a BookExpo panel, Alexie called the Amazon Kindle “elitist” and said that he wanted to hit a woman sitting on a plane who was using a Kindle on her flight to New York.

Now since I’m a man known to make extraordinary statements myself, I recognized Alexie’s pugilistic promise as the conversational theater he intended. Nevertheless, I was baffled by Alexie’s position. So I took it upon myself to contact Alexie to figure out where the guy was coming from. I didn’t believe the boilerplate message on his website was enough. Alexie was very gracious to respond to my questions.

alexieWhy do you consider the Kindle “elitist?”

I consider the Kindle elitist because it’s too expensive. I also consider it elitist because, right now, one company is making all the rules. I am also worried about Jeff Bezos’ comments about wanting to change the way we read books. That’s rather imperial. Having grown up poor, I’m also highly aware that there’s always a massive technology gap between rich and poor kids. I haven’t yet heard what Amazon plans to do about this potential technology gap. And that’s a vital question considering that Bezos wants to change the way we read books. How does he plan to change the way that poor kids read books? How does he plan to make sure that poor kids have access to the technology? Poor kids all over the country don’t have access to current textbooks, so will they have access to Kindle?

Have you ever used a Kindle? What has been your experience?

I’ve played with a Kindle. Didn’t emotionally connect with it like I immediately did with my iPod. That’s been the fascinating thing for me. I’m not even remotely a Luddite. I love all of my tech toys (and I love, but I have a visceral negative reaction to eBooks. I recognize that it is partly irrational and that’s why it was easy to be influenced by some of the powerful letters of dissent I read from Kindle lovers.

Several eReaders were introduced at BEA with a $249 price point. If your objections to the Kindle involve price point, would you consider the Kindle (or any eReader) to be elitist if everybody could afford it?

Is there an ideal price point? Capitalism decides that. But I do want to know about Amazon’s social commitments to literacy and other social issues. If eBooks do take over the market, then dozens more independent bookstores will close, and all sorts of communities will lose a vital social force. Does Amazon have any plans to fill the social gaps left by those closed stores?

If more people wanted to read your books in digital form than in print form, would you still refuse to make your books available in digital? Why?

I have to make my books available electronically. I have held out on the matter for as long as possible, but I have no author allies in this fight, so I have to submit. I have to sign contracts for eBook rights. I’m doing this in the blind because none of us know what’s going to happen. The last screenwriters’ strike in Hollywood was largely the result of this same issue. The legal issues regarding the Internet and copyrights and revenue are still unclear. And I don’t think I’m so crazy to worry that large corporations may not have my best interests in mind when they are offering me deals. I guess this is the thing that amazes me most. I am taking a very tiny stand against many large corporations. I am asking what I think are serious, tough questions and all sorts of people are vilifying me for it. When it comes to this, many people are taking the side of massive corporations over one writer trying to get answers. They’re treating me like I’m Goliath. It reminds me of the way people think of professional athletes and their salaries. All sorts of middle-class folks agree with the billionaire owners of sports teams that the millionaire players make too much money.

Isn’t it reverse elitism to be against those who use eReaders?

And I’m not against eBook readers. I’m worried about the eBook’s influence on the whole culture. And while I certainly insulted Kindle lovers, I meant to tease and razz the Kindle itself. I meant to razz Amazon.

What makes a digital copy of your book any different from a book on tape? Surely, a recorded version of your book is just as much of a corruptible form.

I am in control of my audio books. And, as you will notice, I have only done three audio books, and have not been happy with that process, either, for various reasons. But when it comes to subrights, it seems that the farther one gets from the original writer and publisher, the more likely it is that the subrights licenser thinks of the books as product and not as art. The author of the original work becomes less and less important. And at every step off the way, the original artist makes far less money and has far less power than any of the companies profiting from the work.

In what manner are you embracing digital media? What is your present familiarity with technology? Can you say anything positive about e-books?

I am also worried about what effect our video screen culture is having on us and our children. We all spend so much time looking at screens-TVs, computers, video games, cell phones, PDAs, and now eBooks-but we don’t know yet much about the negative effects of this technology on us. I seem to recall plenty of times when human beings rushed to use a certain technology because it was incredibly effective and convenient, and only later learned about the minor and major negative effects of that technology. A friend said something interesting to me and this is a paraphrase, “Those eBooks are like a gold rush, and people get irrational during gold rushes. Sherman, you’re being negatively irrational about the technology, but lots of people are being positively irrational.”

I love my iPod, my cell phone, my computer, and my HDTV. I have and enjoy a strong Internet presence with a great website and I have published poems and stories all over the web. In fact, I just published a poem that’s in the current online and print versions of the New Yorker. People are eager to portray me as being anti-technology, but that’s not the case at all. I think the iPod is as vital as the fork and wheel. So I’m not even sure why I have this strange, subterranean fear and loathing of the Kindle and its kind. I think it’s really about childhood. Books saved my life, Edward. I rose out of poverty and incredible social dysfunction because of books. And all of my senses-sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste-come into play when I think and read about books. Books are tactile and eccentric. An eBook will always be a gorgeous but anonymous box. It will also be just a tool–perhaps an amazing and useful tool-but I don’t want it to replace the book. And I’m worried that many people don’t care about the book itself, and see the eBook as a replacement. And I’m worried that Amazon and other eBook distributors will completely replace bookstores. The careers of nearly every successful writer are based on the amazing human interaction between bookstore employees and readers. I enjoy an amazing career because, over the last seventeen years, bookstore employees, librarians, and book lovers have handed a copy of my book to another person and said, “You have to read this.” That face-to-face interaction will become more and more rare. Sure, the Internet can launch careers, but there is a loss of intimacy that should be acknowledged and mourned.