Books

Looking forward to discussing this

I wonder if offering an appropriate photo helps stimulate the juices?  How about this one?

Who needs some fokking buk?

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23683

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19 replies »

  1. See, Don, I was all prepared to make an intelligent comment, and now you short-circuited it.

    I had two reactions to this article:

    1) I like how upbeat it was. This is generally how I look at the future of things. Like the printing press only much, much larger. Those cultures that reject, or try to shut out the advances of the internet, will be left to flounder, as ultimately was China (then, not now). Insofar as publishing is a culture, it can either imperiously reject what’s oncoming, or try and adjust. My hope is obviously the latter, but, with not much stake in the present industry, I have to say that if they don’t, they will get what they got coming to ’em. Whatever that may be.

    2) While we’re being upbeat, I liked that it was speculated that the cut going to the author will increase. How about all your older books, Don, the ones that are currently out of print? If you digitized all those and sold them for, say, $5 – at a cost of essentially nothing to you, once they were digitized – you’d be making 100% more than you are now with people only being able to buy used copies, even if you only sold 10 copies. I bet you’d sell a lot more than that. Someone who read your two fine books now in print might, like me, like to read some more of what you wrote. I can tell you that if your earlier books were Kindle-ized, they’d be loaded up on my Kindle right now.

    As Yogi said, it’s a bad idea to make predictions, especially about the future. (Pardon me if I’ve said this before to you – it’s one of my favorite quotes.) So who knows what this brave new world will look like. With that in mind, a few months back I went ahead and speculated anyway, on the Espresso Book Machine, also mentioned in the link you’ve given:

    http://courtmerrigan.wordpress.com/2009/04/29/an-atm-machine-for-books/

    I don’t know how a writer who isn’t already famous makes a living under such a model as I speculated at here. Probably he doesn’t.

    I’d like to think, though, that out of the frothing mash of the internet, where pictures of Aunt May’s cats are next to Huckleberry Finn, quality will, eventually, somehow, rise to the top.

    How, I have no idea.

    • To channel Yogi, in my link I give a link to someone who predicted that Borders would be out of business by the end of 2009. Um, nope.

    • I feel at risk of becoming a one trick performer on the nostalgia express.

      In some ways, important ways, Epstein is the icon of 20th century book publishers, so he carries a lot of weight around with him on these matters. He is also somewhat better at facing up to the inevitabilities of the future than I am.

      I am thinking more of dilution and commonality (being an old elitist) as the harm of how the Internet works — and this is also a partial response to Rose below. Yes, art and entertainment have always contained schlock. In my day, in terms of books, I called it “drugstore paperbacks,” because that’s mostly what you found on tall spinning (creakily) racks near the cash register. I think that is also the sarcastic joke implied in The Beatles song, Paperback Writer. Or television: there were no-brainer sitcoms and embarrassing game giveaways, but there were always PBS, Playhouse 90, 60 Minutes. One of my favorite TV programs in younger days was something Steve Allen (one of the most intelligent, intellectual members of TV land) did that I have forgotten the name of. It was an hour where Allen brought together three or four historical figures and they sat around a table with cocktails and talked, just talked. He might have Plato at the table with Napoleon and Ben Franklin, or Seneca with Sartre and Abraham Lincoln. In costume. That’s all that happened, these four people sat around a round table with drinks and talked with each other before a static camera with maybe an occasional close up for variety. I watched it religiously. And then, there was also Days of Our Lives or Growing Pains.

      So yes, Auntie Apple’s chapbook of quatrains can be found in the same section of the store as Rilke, just as PBS shares the airwaves with Fox.

      The Internet runs this to the outer limits (another show I liked). Here’s the analogy for me: You sneak your Dad’s bottle of whisky from the cabinet and drink a quarter of it, then attempt to disguise the act by filling the space with water. That is what book publishing mostly did, fill some space with schlock. What the Internet does is empty the whole frigging bottle and refill it with water, so that all that’s left is a hard to find hint of the aroma on the cap of the whisky that used to be there.

      In book publishing it was always easy to find plenty of whiskey to drink your fill. In the Internet world, you have to suck your way through a lot of mildly flavored water before you notice what’s left of the aroma on the cap.

      This seems not to bother people who have no significant memories of what scotch really tastes like. They have gotten used to the water in the bottle and have come to think of it as what scotch is supposed to taste like. But they are wrong. It’s water, and all you know of quality is the hint of the aroma left behind.

      I know the full flavor of the whisky and I am not ever going to think that some residual aroma in a bottle of water is going to ever be as good. But then, for those who have never tasted undiluted whisky …

      Regarding my 5 (so far) out of print books, yes, Brad brought this up specifically in an email, pointing out some article about a woman who put some of her old books on Kindle for free and ended up selling some extra thousands of the book in print. I don’t mind this. Hell, I’d even do what she did and give them away free as ebook downloads, hoping it would generate a wider readership for the books in print that I do want to see sell more copies.

      Ah, but … I have bumped up against the wall of progressing technology. There are no digital or electronic versions of those books, and Kindle uploads them from a Word file. Those 5 books were written before I had ever seen a word processor or computer. All were written first by hand (as usual), then typed with my old Royal manual with a carbon, and that’s what went to the publisher. All this was done on paper in those days. So to do this, I would actually have to sit down at the computer and RE-TYPE word for word all those books into the word processor. I might do that if I have a lot of free time in my leisurely senior citizen years. But by then the technology will have moved on and there will probably be some entirely other way of doing it, like maybe injecting the words through a fine needle directly into the brain … .

      I think the Espresso Book Machine is a great idea — it makes a book. I don’t think books need to be printed up in thousands and stored in warehouses; print on demand works for me. I just want a book in my hands. I don’t care if it was printed last month or an hour ago.

      Finally, Border’s has been on the verge of bankruptcy for much of the past year.

      Finally, finally, Epstein is right about the demise of all those small little bookshops scattered all over our cities. Books began their death spiral when publishers saw themselves (via the chains) as purveyors of just another whatchmacallit rather than makers of books.

      Thanks, Court. As always.

      • Don – you need not retype your novels. You can use an OCR (optical character recognition) scanner. This the preferred method, I understand, book pirates. (Hard to believe there are such folks.) From what I’ve read, you have to do some quality-control, as the scanners are not 100% accurate, but it’d certainly be a lot less work than re-typing the things.

        You’d probably also have to do some work re-formatting and so forth, but I don’t think it would be any thing too extremely arduous. But I’ve never actually used an OCR scanner, so I don’t know.

        I imagine there are commercial services that would do this for you, too, and render your shiny new e-books in a variety of formats. The Kindle format is not universal, after all, and why not get them out there in as many ways possible?

        I mentioned Smashwords on your old mandala – it’s another way to get your e-books out there, in addition to Amazon. Scribd is another.

        I’m certainly no expert. I tell you what, though. That site TeleRead, where I contribute occasionally, is chock full of them. They’re full-on e-book utopians over there, and, more to the point, they’ve got lots of technical know-how. I bet I could arrange for you to do a guest post – “E-Book Me!”, or something more artful, or I could do a post on your behalf.

        What do you think?

        • Brad talked about this, too. He is far more techie savvy than I am. I would just as soon type it into Word, which gives me an opportunity to sneak in some revisions, than sit in front of some scanner for however long it would take to scan page by page hundreds of pages, more than 1500 pages accumulating all five novels. If it came to that, yes, I would pay somebody to do it — if the price was worth the result.

          I am partial toward the idea of sneaking in some revisions. I am a much better writer today than I was 25-30 years ago. I do own the unshared copyrights to those out of print books, I can do anything I like. Regardless, I am not likely to do anything at all about it until I come to the end of current projects and find myself with nothing better to do. I have a completed novel I want to revise — change from 1st person to 3rd — after finishing the novel I am now working on.

          No wonder the spell checker would only let me use Mandela if I capitalized it. I will have my hippie guru credentials revoked.

          I asked Tom C to paste here as a comment his blog post on the subject at hand … it is below somewhere.

      • That’s a very eloquent description of the diluting effect of the internet on quality, Donigan. Nonetheless, I would say wait. The internet is still in its infancy. It took many years (over a century?) after the invention of printing for fiction as we know it to appear. I suspect that some sort of mediating filter will emerge for the internet in the course of time, and quality will find a way of rising. It always does.

  2. I don’t even remember now where I came across that picture, but it’s been on one of my computers at least since 2000, waiting for this place to use it.

    I responded to your first paragraph in some detail in my response to Court; do you mind reading it there? Also, what I wrote to Court about diluting the whisky is the analogy I would offer to you, as well. As for biases, which in this case is used to mean influencing unfairly someone else’s opinions, I think, I confess to my biases, but if there is any unfairness in my attempts to influence the opinions of others, it is probably just because I am pretty good at arguing — one of my wife’s chief complaints, which she states is unfair.

    I am an elitist and I am biased in favor of intellect and quality, and I know what both of them are when I see them. These are my filters: intelligence, beauty (even terrible beauty), and quality. I gleefully filter out all that don’t fit those parameters. Much, no, most, no, almost all of what I encounter on the Internet pretending to be the result of some literary activity does not make the cut. Which is not to say that I have not from time to time come across a pretty good whiff of the whisky that has been replaced by Internet water.

    Rose, you cannot with logical consistency say that you have “no” desire to hold your own book in your hands and then immediately follow that with “that would be good too.” If you have no desire, that means explicitly that you do not think it’s a good thing. We desire the good and reject the bad, even those times we are mistaken about which is which. You may say that holding your own book in your hands is not important enough to make the kind of effort it takes for it to happen, but that is not the same as having no desire to see your book in print. You would probably be happy to do it were it made easy.

    So there is no reason why you should do anything more with your writing that put it up in pieces, as you have done from time to time, on your blog and then try to get as many blog readers as you can. Or try to get a PDF file of your work located in as many places around the Internet that will host it. Which you have also more or less done.

    There is big difference, a chasm, between traditional book publishing and distribution and posting things on the Internet, and not just that one produces an object of substance that may be held in the hand, carried in a bag, decorate shelves in a stark room, and all that, but it is also substantial because people have jobs and get paid and pay money to make that object and put it into the marketplace. None of this happens on the Internet, and there is no there there, as the saying goes; no physical existence of this work, of this art. In your Mandela sense, it is made and then it is wiped away.

    My books are printed on acid free paper and there are thousands of them in libraries both public and private, and they will exist in this useable format for at least a thousand years. Where will this blog be next year? Where will all this pixel writing be in ten or twenty or a hundred years? It fascinates me that the possibility exists that someone will take one of my books from a shelf five hundred years from now, quite long after I am like pixel dust, and read and be entertained to some degree by what came from my sweated imagination.

    Finally, about getting paid. Epstein was unequivocal about what happens to art when it is not financially supported, and by extension, what happens to civilization … it disappears. Humans make art, and humans have human needs, like shelter, food, and a little whiskey from time to time. I have always wondered why it is that so many people hold the opinion that artists do not need to be paid for their work (maybe they think making art is not really work), and yet act as if it is all right for accountants, doctors, lawyers, bus drivers, ditch diggers, store clerks, ad infinitum, to get paid for their work. Why is this?

    I believe that countless people believe that writers are indulging a hobby, they are not actually “working.” So it is okay to steal their product (music, book) or use it without compensation. Art is the only field of endeavor where that is the case.

    That was rant # 149 in the old Mandela-dusted blog of mine.

    Spoons are more useful, so I’d rather come to a spoon in the road.

    Thank you, Rose. It is always a pleasure for me to be with you.

  3. Hi Donigan

    This is what I wrote on my blog, after you directed me to the article:

    My thanks to Donigan for pointing me in the direction of this fascinating article by Jason Epstein on the revolutionary future of publishing. Donigan and I have debated this before, and it’s probably fair to say that I’m more confident about the future than Donigan. But even I’m not as hopeful as Epstein.

    Epstein sees the shift to digital publishing as a new revolution comparable to Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type. I would agree. I think the invention of printing is probably the single most significant technological development in our history, because it led to the secularisation of learning and knowledge and opened up the world of education to the masses. Without the (relatively) easy and cheap access to books that printing provided, we would still be run by men in cloisters. Epstein, though, makes the prescient point:

    Though Gutenberg’s invention made possible our modern world with all its wonders and woes, no one, much less Gutenberg himself, could have foreseen that his press would have this effect. And no one today can foresee except in broad and sketchy outline the far greater impact that digitization will have on our own future.

    That is indeed true, and I think I have certainly been guilty of underestimating what the impact might be of the digital revolution. I see it as a wholly good thing. I look at how easy it is for me now to retrieve articles for my studies, for example, and remember how hard it was back in the 80s when I was an undergraduate. No question – digital access is more convenient.

    But I can be a terrible idealist at times. Epstein points to the recent case of Amazon deleting the e-version of 1984 after complaints. Much digital content has an inbuilt auto-destruct after a certain period has elapsed. What can be digitised can easily be undigitised. This leaves a worrying degree of power in the hands of those who disseminate it. And also, as Epstein notes: ‘But [Gutenberg’s] technology also gave us The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and the nonsense that turned Pol Pot in Paris from a mere fool into a mass murderer. Digitization will amplify our better nature but also its diabolic opposite.’ He concludes, however, that ‘Censorship is not the answer to these evils.’ Hear, hear!

    He also makes the point that digitisation will help publishers maintain backlists. In recent years it has become increasingly difficult for publishers to maintain backlists, with the result that many, many good books become unavailable. And with our public libraries (at least in the UK) in terminal decline through lack of any effective leadership, we can’t even rely on them to provide out-of-print material: they’re discarding it all to make way for multiple copies of current writing in a suicidal attempt to compete with Waterstones. However, print-on-demand means that texts will never really go out of print. Again, access to literature will be enhanced.

    I think Epstein rather glosses over the copyright issue and that of recompense for authors, however. This was an area where Donigan and I came unstuck. As an author, Donigan rightly points out that he deserves to be paid for his work – and that includes every copy of it purchased. That becomes increasingly difficult in an electronic world, and I don’t think a satisfactory solution has been found yet.

    Overall, though, his article is highly positive. And yet, he maintains, the role of the physical book will remain: ‘but actual books printed and bound will continue to be the irreplaceable repository of our collective wisdom.’

    A very worthwhile article.

    • Thank you very much, Tom.

      I have responded to the Epstein article in various ways while responding to comments preceding this, so I won’t repeat myself (too much) here. I wanted your astute and interesting perspective to be here for the people I converse with on this site, although I think that most of them also read your site and have probably already seen it there.

      One repeat. Artists, like everyone else, eat or die. If they are not paid enough to sustain life, they stop making art and start pumping gas or selling shoes or pretending to teach other people how to engage in art as a hobby. As some wag pointed out during the Vietnam War, you cannot sell philosophy to an empty stomach. Ho Chi Minh knew fully well that he had to feed the people first, and then they could listen to his philosophy.

      Thanks again for posting this here.

  4. Until the devices to read e-books become cheaper, there won’t be a huge shift in the market. I wouldn’t mind having a Kindle, but they’re currently too expensive for me to justify buying one, especially since I expect newer, smaller, better readers to reach the market soon.

    Phone landlines have long been rumored to disappear because of cell phones, but it’s only lately that this has really begun. The publishing world can not make a shift to digital publishing until nearly everyone had an electronic reader.

    The change could happen quickly if one major publishing company or distributor (Amazon) were to give away (or charge very little for) their device and perhaps start charging subscription plans. It’s the cell phone business model. Such a structure could radically alter publishing and make it sustainable.

    I don’t think it’s sustainable now, but it’ll be a long time withering.

    I do have the Kindle software on my phone and will use it to read while I’m waiting in line or whatnot, but it’s not what I turn to under the lamp late at night. For that, I still crack spines, but a larger format screen is something I’d try, just not for $260.

    • That typewriter icon picture is great.

      If I were in the future prognostication business, I would bet that the Apple ipad will make Kindles and Sony readers obsolete PDQ. My wife is not as opposed to the digital and electronic world as I am, and the moment she saw the ipad she became desperate to have one, and will probably buy one when she is in the States on business this June. It is closer to the size of a book, the pages turn like a book, the formatting and (the thing that irritates the crap out of me with her Kindle) pagination is like a book. She can read the NY Times where what she sees on the screen looks exactly like what she would see holding the real thing in her hand.

      Poor stupid ass old me seems pretty much stuck with the real, real thing. What I read I read on paper, whether book, magazine, or newspaper.

      Cell phones where they are prolific have indeed made land lines obsolete.

      Cheaper is relative. A phone-reader-message machine that costs the price of a really nice dinner out for two, and lasts a lot longer, can seem pretty cheap.

      But I am not defending these bastardized pseudo readers. Books, only books.

    • Interesting post from Maudie.

      I think the main difference overlooked in her remark is the difference between looking something up, needing some bit of data, some particular information, and then moving on, and being immersed in the story. I use Internet encyclopedias and dictionaries all the time. I use Google maps and various search engines to find out what the hell the name of that song Chubby Checker did in 1962. All that is cursory and fleeting, you just need some titbit.

      Entering the dream of the story is an altogether different thing. There may be a new generation who has no trouble becoming mesmerized by electronic, pixelated story-telling, but I am not capable of doing it.

      But this series of posts is about something else. It is, does the medium change the message? And, who will create the art that sustains civilization when it is all so diluted (and free) that you can’t tell one from another, this from that?

      It is not Kindle versus iPad. It is what exists on paper versus what “exists” as (what John refers to in the post on nostalgia rant below) electronic ones and zeros existing at the mercy of sunspot activity.

  5. I think it’s interesting and thank you, Rose, for giving me the link.

    I know … well have met a few times, Wideman, and I especially enjoyed his book “Brothers and Keepers.” I suspect, but don’t know of course, that this decision of his may be as much rooted in the now notorious difficulties facing all mid-list writers in seeing their new work continue to be published, as the idea of “control.” This is purely a guess, but I suspect that John had a book for which no one would make an offer, thus … .

    I am slowly coming around to the facts, the whacked upside the head with a board jolt of reality, that what I have known and understood about writing, being an author, book publishing, editors and agents, is as much in the past as my nostalgic reveries about telegrams and front porches. I have the luxury of reverie. You, and my conversational friends here, do not have that luxury and must realize the reality of the present.

    I read things like this that illustrate the new world and it strikes me like a diagnosis of a fatal disease, and I start going through the standard litany of responses.

    I do not doubt (any longer) that what I think of as traditional book publishing, the act of authorship, the relations that have in the best of times existed between writers and their editors and their agents is terminal.

    My advice to you and our conversational friends here is to stop trying to ride an old dying horse.

    I believe that print on demand and services like the one in the link you sent are the future for writers, even the most serious ones — no, not even, but especially the most serious ones — and you should not spend any of your time waiting for a telegram.

    I plan to post more extensively about this later.