fight path 02.28.2008, 10:47 AM
"Writers of the world arise! It's time to throw off the shackles of traditional publishing contracts and face a brand new digital future with a brand new set of priorities." So starts an article on the Guardian 'Comment Is Free' blogs by Kate Pullinger, writer of fictions in media old and new. Kate argues forcefully that authors are in danger of being short changed by publishers as they rush to secure digital rights before anyone susses how different the dissemination of a digital text is to publishing the printed word.
student designer envisions a more credible kindle 02.27.2008, 6:02 PM
"Interaction happens via a thin capacitive touch screen mounted on top of an electronic paper screen ('eINK'). Browsing pages happens by striking the screen from right bottom corner towards the centre of page to go forward or from the left hand corner to go backwards. Doing that using one finger will browse one page, two will browse ten pages and three will browse fifty pages at a time."
If simple reenactment of basic black-and-white, illustration-light print reading is your goal, I'd say that this is a far more viable proposition than Amazon's clunky gadget. (Thanks, Peter Brantley, for the link!)
channel 4 goes cross-platform 02.27.2008, 2:29 PM
On the subject of major traditional media entities and cross-platform experimentation. Over in London last night Chris and I went to the launch event for Bow Street Runner, an online game launched by UK TV broadcaster Channel 4 to coincide with a major historical TV drama. Players explore 1754 London as one of the city's first police officers, solving crimes and - it is hoped - picking up some historical brownie points along the way.
It's interesting because Bow Street Runner is the first game to be launched by the channel, and represents a significant change in strategic direction. Channel 4's public service obligations were hitherto tackled with the production of 'educational' (daytime) TV aimed at 14-19-year-olds and very occasionally, it seems, recorded by teachers for use in classrooms. Having realised that this approach was generating little interest, the channel's Head of Education, Janey Walker, decided last year to shift the entire commissioning budget for educational material into cross-platform offerings.
Along with showing trailers for the game and introducing us to its creators, commissioning editor Matt Locke described how the channel's new approach will in many cases reverse the typical 360-degree media approach - create some TV content, then tack on an ARG - opting instead to create cross-platform offerings with TV outputs as one element only. A number of ARGs and other offerings are scheduled for release later in the year.
Though it's hardly the first time an ARG has been deployed by a major 'traditional' media company - after all, the first ARG to have any impact was intended as a trailer for the film AI - this entry into the space by a major TV channel promises to raise the profile (not to mention some much-needed financial backing) for the still very young world of cross-platform entertainment.
It's early days yet, and Locke was frank about the experimental nature of this new approach. But it hints at a sea-change in mainstream recognition of the relative significances of online and other media - and, maybe, the potential for a wave of new, profoundly net-native entertainment.
penguin of forking paths 02.26.2008, 4:55 PM
...in a few weeks Penguin will be embarking on an experiment in storytelling (yes, another one, I hear you sigh). We've teamed up with some interesting folk and challenged some of our top authors to write brand new stories that take full advantage of the functionalities that the internet has to offer - this will be great writing, but writing in a form that would not have been possible 200, 20 or even 2 years ago. If you want to be alerted when this project launches sign up here - all will be revealed in March.
The "interesting folk" link goes to Unfiction, the main forum for the alternative reality gaming community. Intriguing...
art of compression: barry yourgrau's keitai fictions 02.25.2008, 1:33 PM
The Millions has an interesting interview with the South African-born, New York-resident writer Barry Yourgrau, who recently published a collection of "keitai" (cell phone) fiction in Japan. Known for bite-sized surrealist fables (as here), the hyper-compression of the cell phone display seemed like a natural challenge for Yourgrau, and he is now, to my knowledge, the first foreign writer to write successfully in Japan for the tiny screen. You can read a number of his keitai stories (which average about 350 words) on his blog, and hear him give a reading of the delightfully malevolent "Houndstooth," which tells of a deadly fashion plague ravaging the Burberry-obsessed youth of Japan, on NPR.
Yourgrau believes that the popularity of keitai fiction in Japan, especially among younger readers, is due primarily to the fact that most young Japanese access the Internet through their phones (which are a generation more advanced than what's available in the US) rather than on desktop computers. Kids don't have a lot of privacy in their homes, he explains further, so they spend most of their time out and about on the streets, using keitai for entertainment and social navigation.
And the fictions are as mobile as their users, migrating fluidly from one technological context to another. Many keitai novels, Yourgrau explains, frequently "emerge from pools of people on web pages" before migrating onto keitai screens. Upon scoring a success on phones, they then frequently make their way onto the bestseller list in print form (the image is the print edition of Yourgrau's recent keitai cycle). A few have even been made into films.
Western publishers would do well to study this free-flowing model. A story need not be bound to one particular delivery mechanism, be it a cell phone, web page (or book). In fact, the ecology of forms can make a more comprehensive narrative universe. This is not only the accepted wisdom of cross-media marketing franchisers and brand blizzardeers (Spiderman the comic, Spiderman the action figure, the lunchbox, the movie, the game, the Halloween costume etc.), but an age-old principle underlying the transmission of culture. The Arthurian legends, for instance, weren't spun in one single authoritative text, but in many different textual itertations over time, a plethora of visual depictions, oral storytelling, songs, objets d'art etc.
In the case of keitai fiction, there's seems to be a relation between compression of form and expansiveness of transmission. Interestingly, Yourgrau writes his phone stories longhand with a pencil, then types them up on a computer:
I write my fiction longhand first. I need the pencil/pen in hand to connect to emotions. I then type up. For the first several books I used a typewriter, now I'm (late) on computer. But I find the computer too suited to Flow, not the weight of the individual word. I've half a mind to switch back to a typewriter.....
There's an interesting paradox here: that the compression that makes for good Web or cell phone writing is not afforded by the actual tools of electronic composition, which much more favor a kind of verbal sprawl. With that in mind, it's not surprising that several of the most successful keitai novels were composed entirely on phones, one carpal tunnel syndrome-inducing keypad stroke at a time. To digress... one wonders whether the bloat of much contemporary fiction is a direct effect of word processors and the ease of Inernet research. That would support the broader observation that the net, far from killing off books, seems to have acted like a bellows, greatly boosting (at least for the time being) the number of pages produced in print.
In any case, I can readily imagine why Yourgrau's surreal miniatures fit so well in the keitai form, both as random time-fillers and as little social cherry bombs to detonate among friends -? stories plucked out of the air. I'll conclude this not so compressed ramble with one of Yourgrau's concise keitai hauntings:
EDGAR ALLAN POE RICE BALL (MEDIEVAL LANDSCAPE)
Disease strikes a distant town. The victims develop loathsome sores all over their bodies; at the same time they're maddened by extreme lascivious impulses. Down street after street door after door is splashed with a crude red cross: inside, the lunatic disfigured coupling rages on nonstop - ?men, women, even children - ?until exhausted dawn, until death.
In the hills beyond town, a monk makes his way along a darkening road. He chews a stale rice ball for his supper as he goes, so as not to interrupt his march. His sandaled feet move one in front of the other inexorably. His staff leaves a trail of dots behind him in the dusty distances. At last he comes around the side of a hill and he stops. The prospect of the dim town spreads before him. A look of disturbance moves over his face, as he slowly chews the last of his rice ball. Even here the uneasy wind carries the grisly minglings of lamentation and carnal grunting The monk becomes watchful; he looks uneasily around him and grips his staff in both hands. Two figures are moving feverishly in the darkness ahead. They seem to prance toward him, half-naked, hideous, moaning hoarse endearments. The monk calls to his god as he raises his staff and prepares to meet them.
he do the police in different voices 02.23.2008, 7:08 PM
In a sense, Graham Rawle's novel Woman's World, just out in the United States from Counterpoint, is made for the internet. It's the sort of thing that you expect to see on Digg or Reddit: artist spends several years cutting up old women's magazines and laboriously constructs a 400-page novel out of the collaged shards of text. If the internet loves anything, it's novelty, and Rawle's work is certainly that. Every spread of the book is beautiful – here's one chosen at random:
I show one spread, though I could as easily have shown 200 others. Rawle's work is supremely visual, and invites the reader to appreciate in that way. In a sense, it puts off serious readings: it's constructed from women's magazines of the 1950s and 60s, which society accords little value to: magazines are ephemeral, fashion magazines inherently so. But such readings, inevitable as they may be, are unjust to Rawle's book, which deserves to be read as a novel. While emphatically a work of print, the way Rawle uses text can shed light on the way we use text online.
What goes on in Woman's World? Rawle's raw materials suggest his subject matter: it's a novel about clothes, specifically women's clothes. It's not a stretch to imagine that his working method suggested his plot: Rawle, a mail artist, uses women's words to construct a book; his male protagonist garbs himself in women's clothes. Clothes become language: Rawle stitches words and phrases together to make something new. (A parallel might be drawn to Georges Perec's use of constraint in La Disparition/A Void, a work of art not because it does away with the letter e – that had been done before – but because Perec's technique informs his narrative; the informed reader sees the novel's themes of disappearance and loss as Perec's method of indirectly writing about the disappearance of his parents in the Holocaust.)
It's worth paying close attention to how the creator works. Rawle generally cuts on the phrase level, going down to the word level. Occasionally a suffix is added (-s, -ed). It's only once in a great while that he edits inside the word. On p. 307 (below left), the eye is drawn to word "realising", where the American spelling "realizing" has been changed to the British "realising" by pasting an s over a z. (From the spelling, Rawle seems to be mining British magazines, another reason for this word to stand out.) It's hard not to take this as a sign pointing to to another narrative about transvestites where things end badly, Honoré de Balzac's "Sarrasine", a short story best known to English readers from its appearance as an appendix in Roland Barthes's book-length reading of it, S/Z. In that book, Barthes dissected "Sarrasine" into 561 narrative units he called "lexias" in which he discovered five different codes underlying and structuring the text. Balzac's story appears twice in S/Z: once interpolated with Barthes's notations over 220 pages, and again in an appendix to the book, interpolated by the numerals numbering the lexias Barthes found in the story. Displayed on the page like this – an example is below right – "Sarrasine" feels like Frankenstein's monster, constructed from numbered parts of language; a great-uncle, perhaps, of Rawle's text. There's at least a faint family resemblance:
Just as Barthes finds structures by which to decipher what the reader experiences in "Sarrasine", there can be found structures to decipher what the reader experiences when reading Woman's World. At one level, there is the story - a sequence of words that could be put into a .TXT file and be exactly the same. At another level, there's the presentation. This is something that's hard to precisely pin down, but it's best explained by pointing out the difference between reading a plain text version of Rawle's story and the collaged version of the same. Try looking at Rawle's p. 307 and my neutral typesetting of it (click on each for a better view):
Something is lost in my translation, though most don't have the vocabulary to describe what that is. (Tom Phillips, no stranger to this sort of thing, gives the book a close reading in his Guardian review that suggests that such a thing is possible with a background in graphic design.) But try to read these two versions of the same page aloud and note the difference: the first full sentence in Rawle's version has a front-loaded stress ("HE looked at her") that isn't apparent from the words alone. The same sentence feels choppy because it's cut into individual words at first; it seems to speed up when it gets to "and just then found," a whole phrase. An eye more attuned to the nuances of type is bound to notice more of these connotations; and certainly this seems conscious on Rawle's part.
On a third level, there's the apparent history of Rawle's bits of text: its referentiality. Every letter of Rawle's text clearly comes from somewhere else; sometimes he takes as many as several sentences. The original context isn't always clear, though it can quite often be guessed. (Extended excerpts aren't always needed to do this: sometimes a single decorative letter is enough to suggest that it originally served as an ad.) Rawle's language is explicitly secondhand. In a sense, though, it's no more secondhand than any other language. We use words and phrases because others have used those words and phrases before us (or, more pretentiously, we hope that others will use ours) and those words and phrases suggest our previous conversations, reading, and cultural contexts. Language carries its history with it.
(Perhaps I didn't need to go to Barthes to point this out: one remembers the best moment in The Devil Wears Prada is a scene in which Meryl Streep, playing Anna Wintour, upbraids the movie's idiotic anti-hero Anne Hathaway, for declaring that fashion is meaningless and that her constant demands are similarly petty and meaningless. Streep responds fluently in the language of fashion, spinning off a history of color, texture, and cut, proceeding from designer to designer, through connotations and denotations, until she reaches the nameless maker of Hathaway's rather non-descript blue cardigan, which carries a world of associations even if worn by the unaware.)
Language is a complicated thing that we tend to take for granted. Looking at Rawle's novel suggests how loaded simple text can be. It's worth considering how comparatively limited reading on the Internet seems to be. Consider this text: I'm writing it in black 14 point Avenir Roman, though when it appears on the blog, my best guess is that you'll see it in 13 point Verdana in a dark gray. That could be, of course, entirely wrong: the browser environment (and RSS readers) give viewers a great deal of freedom in defining how their text looks. But that's a small point in comparison with the third code I find in Rawle, the referentiality of his pieces of text. For all the interlarding of scans in this post, it appears to be a seamless whole – you, the reader, have no reason for not thinking that I didn't start at the first sentence and write furiously until I came to the last sentence, and I would be more than happy not to disabuse you of the notion. Had this piece been written as a Wikipedia article, you might have some notion of how this was created, though it's still very difficult to visualize exactly where a Wikipedia article comes from: while the prose of a typical Wikipedia article is lumpy, it has nowhere near the eloquent texture of Rawle's pages.
Could an electronic Woman's World be made? Another parallel could be drawn, to Ted Nelson's idea of transclusion, the concept of keeping quoted texts connected to their original sources. Transclusion was an early hypertext hope, though results so far have been generally disappointing; it's not quite so easy as cutting and pasting, though Nelson's appealingly low-tech diagrams might suggest this. There's a way to go yet.
borders self-publishing and the idea of vanity 02.21.2008, 2:16 PM
Borders, in partnership with Lulu.com, has launched a comprehensive personal publishing platform, enabling anyone to design and publish their own (print) book and have it distributed throughout the Borders physical and online retail chain. Beyond the basic self-publishing tools, authors can opt for a number of service packages: simple ISBN registration (49 bucks), the basic package ($299), in which someone designs and formats your book for you, and the premium ($499), in which you get all the afore-mentioned plus "editorial evaluation." According to the demo, you can even pay to have your own book tour and readings in actual Borders stores, bringing vanity publishing to a whole new level of fantasy role-playing. Writing and publishing, as the Borders site proclaims in its top banner, is now a "lifestyle."
A side thought. It's curious how "vanity publishing" as a cultural category seems to have a very clear relationship with the print book but a far more ambiguous one with the digital. Of course the Web as a whole could be viewed as one enormous vanity press, overflowing with amateur publishers and self-appointed authors, yet for some reason the vanity label is seldom applied -? though a range of other, comparable disparagements ("cult of the amateur", "the electronic mob" etc.) sometimes are. But these new labels tend to be issued in a reactionary way, not with the confident, sneering self-satisfaction that has usually accompanied noses snobbishly upturned at the self-published.
In the realm of print, there is (or traditionally has been) something vain, pretentious, even delusional, in the laying out of cash to simulate a kind of publication that is normally granted, by the forces of economics and cultural arbitration, to a talented or lucky few. Of course, so-called vanity publishing can also come from a pure impulse to get something out into the world that no one is willing to pay for, but generally speaking, it is something we've looked down on. Blogs, MySpace, personal web pages and the like arise out of a different set of socio-economic conditions. The barriers to publication are incredibly low (digital divide notwithstanding), and so authorship online is perceived differently than in print, even if it still arises out of the same basic need to communicate. It feels more like simply taking part in a conversation, participating in a commons. One is not immediately suspicious of the author's credibility in quite the same way as when the self-financed publication is in print.
This is not to suggest that veracity, trust and quality control are no longer concerns on the Web. Quite the contrary. In fact we must develop better and more sensitive instruments of bullshit detection than ever before to navigate a landscape that lacks the comfortingly comprehensive systems of filtering and quality control that the publishing industry traditionally provided. But "vanity publishing" as a damning label, designed to consign certain types of books to a fixed cultural underclass, loses much of its withering power online. Electronic authorship comes with the possibility of social mobility. What starts as a vanity operation can, with time, become legitimized and respected through complex social processes that we are only beginning to be able to track. Self-publishing is simply a convenient starter mechanism, not a last resort for the excluded.
And with services like Lulu and the new Borders program, we're seeing some of that social mobility reflected back onto print. New affordances of digital production and the flexibility of print on demand have radically lowered the barriers to publishing in print as well as in bits, and so what was once dismissed categorically as vanity is now transforming into a complex topography of niche markets where unmet readerly demands can finally be satisfied by hitherto untapped authorial supplies.
All the world's a vanity press and we have to learn to make sense of what it produces.
"naked in the 'nonopticon'" 02.19.2008, 3:52 PM
If you haven't already, check out Siva Vaidhyanathan's excellent Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on privacy and surveillance: a review of several new books treating various aspects of the topic, but a great all-around thought piece. A taste:
Certainly the Stasi in East Germany exploited the controlling power generated from public knowledge of constant surveillance and the potential for brutal punishment for thought crimes. But that is not our environment in the United States. Basically, the Panopticon must be visible and ubiquitous, or it cannot influence behavior as Bentham and Foucault assumed it would.
...what we have at work in America today is the opposite of a Panopticon: what has been called a "Nonopticon" (for lack of a better word). The Nonopticon describes a state of being watched without knowing it, or at least the extent of it. The most pervasive surveillance does not reveal itself or remains completely clandestine (barring leaks to The New York Times). We don't know all the ways we are being recorded or profiled. We are not supposed to understand that we are the product of marketers as much as we are the market. And we are not supposed to consider the extent to which the state tracks our behavior and considers us all suspects in crimes yet to be imagined, let alone committed.
In fact, companies like ChoicePoint, Facebook, Google, and Amazon.com want us to relax and be ourselves. They have an interest in exploiting niches that our consumer choices generate. They are devoted to tracking our eccentricities because they understand that the ways we set ourselves apart from the mass are the things about which we are most passionate. Our passions, predilections, fancies, and fetishes are what we are likely to spend our surplus cash on.
And so these concerns extend to the realm of online reading. With networked texts, a book (or whatever other document form) may be reading you while you're reading it. This creates a major ethical quandary for libraries of course, who, to take advantage of social networking, collaborative filtering and other powerful affordances of digital technologies must radically revise their traditional stance on privacy: i.e. retain as little user data as possible.
conversation, revision, trust... 02.18.2008, 1:07 PM
A thought-provoking "meta-post" from Noah Wardrip-Fruin on Grand Text Auto reflecting on the blog-based review of his new book manuscript four chapters (and weeks) into the process. Really interesting stuff, so I'm quoting at length:
This week, when I was talking with Jessica Bell about her story for the Daily Pennsylvanian, I realized one of the most important things, for me, about the blog-based peer review form. In most cases, when I get back the traditional, blind peer review comments on my papers and book proposals and conference submissions, I don't know who to believe. Most issues are only raised by one reviewer. I find myself wondering, "Is this a general issue that I need to fix, or just something that rubbed one particular person the wrong way?" I try to look back at the piece with fresh eyes, using myself as a check on the review, or sometimes seek the advice of someone else involved in the process (e.g., the papers chair of the conference).
But with this blog-based review it's been a quite different experience. This is most clear to me around the discussion of "process intensity" in section 1.2. If I recall correctly, this began with Nick's comment on paragraph 14. Nick would be a perfect candidate for traditional peer review of my manuscript -? well-versed in the subject, articulate, and active in many of the same communities I hope will enjoy the book. But faced with just his comment, in anonymous form, I might have made only a small change. The same is true of Barry's comment on the same paragraph, left later the same day. However, once they started the conversation rolling, others agreed with their points and expanded beyond a focus on The Sims -? and people also engaged me as I started thinking aloud about how to fix things -? and the results made it clear that the larger discussion of process intensity was problematic, not just my treatment of one example. In other words, the blog-based review form not only brings in more voices (which may identify more potential issues), and not only provides some "review of the reviews" (with reviewers weighing in on the issues raised by others), but is also, crucially, a conversation (my proposals for a quick fix to the discussion of one example helped unearth the breadth and seriousness of the larger issues with the section).
On some level, all this might be seen as implied with the initial proposal of bringing together manuscript review and blog commenting (or already clear in the discussions, by Kathleen Fitzpatrick and others, of "peer to peer review"). But, personally, I didn't foresee it. I expected to compare the recommendation of commenters on the blog and the anonymous, press-solicited reviewers -? treating the two basically the same way. But it turns out that the blog commentaries will have been through a social process that, in some ways, will probably make me trust them more.
e-read all about it 02.15.2008, 5:14 AM
An article in Publishing News this week suggests that UK publishers are bracing themselves for the arrival on these shores of the Kindle or a rival to it soon. Much discussion of e-royalties is going on; HarperCollins and Random House US are putting some whole works on line for free; meanwhile Francis Bennett, the consultant who has been gazing into the crystal ball for the booktrade re digitisation, admits to being "baffled by Amazon - they never do what you expect them to."
Consultant (and ex-Penguin boss) Anthony Forbes Watson is more definite (maybe): "The competition will be between the best of the closed networks. Perhaps Amazon will rope in Abebooks. Perhaps Barnes & Noble will join up with a partner to combat Amazon, perhaps Amazon will develop something with Apple. But I don't think the market will be that big. I'd be surprised if it goes above 3%, or 10% tops."
Well, nothing to worry about there then. Meanwhile we've been talking to friends in the booktrade who point out how little publishers will do for their huge slice of the cake these digital days, once printing and physical distribution are out of the picture. Do the e-royalties being offered reflect these changes? Do they hell.
danah boyd's closed journal boycott 02.15.2008, 12:46 AM
I meant to blog this earlier but it's still quite relevant, especially in light of other recent activity on the open access front. Last week, Danah Boyd announced that henceforth she would only publish in open access journals and urged others -? especially tenured faculty, who are secure in their status and have little to lose -? to do the same.
I'd be sad to see some of the academic publishers go, but if they can't evolve to figure out new market options, I have no interest in supporting their silencing practices. I think that scholars have a responsibility to make their work available as a public good. I believe that scholars should be valued for publishing influential material that can be consumed by anyone who might find it relevant to their interests. I believe that the product of our labor should be a public good. I do not believe that scholars should be encouraged to follow stupid rules for the sake of maintaining norms. Given that we do the bulk of the labor behind journals, I think that we can do it without academic publishers...
harvard faculty votes overwhelmingly for open access 02.15.2008, 12:28 AM
The motion, which passed easily at yesterday's Faculty meeting, grants Harvard a non-exclusive copyright over all articles produced by any current Faculty member, allowing for the creation of an online repository that would be "available to other services such as web harvesters, Google Scholar, and the like."
...English professor Stephen Greenblatt, the editor of what he described as a journal with "a decent reputation and a quite anemic subscription base," advocated for the motion because he doubted it would accelerate the death of his journal, and because he said he was worried about the currently high cost of many monographs.
"This is one of the only ways we can break the backs of the monopolists who are currently seriously damaging our fields," he said.
"The chorus of 'yeas' was thunderous," Robert Darnton, the director of the University Library, wrote in an e-mail message. "I hope this marks a turning point in the way communications operate in the world of scholarship."
harvard faculty cast vote on open access 02.12.2008, 10:45 AM
The U.S. presidential primaries in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. are not the only votes to watch today. The New York Times reports that arts and sciences faculty at Harvard are weighing in today on a proposed measure that would make all scholarly articles available in a free open access repository run by the library immediately following publication.
"In place of a closed, privileged and costly system, it will help open up the world of learning to everyone who wants to learn," said Robert Darnton, director of the university library. "It will be a first step toward freeing scholarship from the stranglehold of commercial publishers by making it freely available on our own university repository."
Under the proposal Harvard would deposit finished papers in an open-access repository run by the library that would instantly make them available on the Internet. Authors would still retain their copyright and could publish anywhere they pleased -? including at a high-priced journal, if the journal would have them.
What distinguishes this plan from current practice, said Stuart Shieber, a professor of computer science who is sponsoring the faculty motion, is that it would create an "opt-out" system: an article would be included unless the author specifically requested it not be. Mr. Shieber was the chairman of a committee set up by Harvard's provost to investigate scholarly publishing; this proposal grew out of one of the recommendations, he said.
My fingers are crossed that this vote will go the way of openness. A vote for open access from Harvard would be a huge boost for the movement. Change is more likely to come if people at the top of the heap, whose personal incentive for reform is far less obvious, start making the move on principle -? saying, essentially, that it's not the job of scholars to prop up the journal business.
a brief history of book 02.12.2008, 9:57 AM
In the Institute's London office we've been talking about how to get across the message that the book has been through permanent change throughout its history, to knock on the head the simplistic argument of good old page v bad new screen. Here's my first stab at a beginner's guide.
at o'reilly 02.11.2008, 9:36 AM
Over the next couple of days I'll be filling up my brain at the O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference -? taking place, conveniently, here in New York. I'm giving a talk today called Books as Conversations, and participating in a panel, Are New Devices Breathing New Life into e-Books?, tomorrow. Many fascinating presentations. More soon.
harpercollins offers free ebooks 02.11.2008, 9:20 AM
In an attempt to increase book sales, HarperCollins Publishers will begin offering free electronic editions of some of its books on its Web site, including a novel by Paulo Coelho and a cookbook by the Food Network star Robert Irvine.
The idea is to give readers the opportunity to sample the books online in the same way that prospective buyers can flip through books in a bookstore.
digital livings 02.08.2008, 10:09 AM
Alongside our research for Arts Council England, I'm also looking at how how new media writers earn their livings and make their way in the world.
The Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University is so innovative that there isn't an obvious career path for its graduates nor an established group of successful role models for students to look to in the UK for inspiration. The Digital Livings project is finding out how writers are carving out professional careers, starting with a survey of UK writers and expanding worldwide later in the year.
Which skills do new media writers possess? Where do they sell their work? What advice do they have to offer those wishing to follow in their footsteps? Is the market for digital fiction growing or not? I'll report back on our findings.
book machine 02.07.2008, 6:34 PM
Philip M. Parker, a professor at Insead, the international business school based in Fontainebleau, France, has written 85,000 books and counting. He's like a machine. In fact, he has a machine that writes them for him. The Guardian has more.
Most, if not all, of these books can be found on Amazon. Sifting through them felt like a bad riff on "The Library of Babel." I felt like I'd stumbled upon a weird new form of bibliographic spam -? thousands of machine-generated titles gumming up the works, jamming the signal, eroding the utility of the library. Matt Kirschenbaum, who forwarded the link, said it recalled the book machines in Italo Calvino's great meta-novel, If On A Winter's Night a Traveler:
He has you taken into the machine room. "Allow me to introduce our programmer, Sheila."
Before you, in a white smock buttoned up to the neck, you see Corinna-Gertrude-Alfonsina, who is tending a battery of smooth metallic appliances, like dishwashers. "These are the memory units that have stored the whole text of Around an empty grave. The terminal is a printing apparatus that, as you see, can reproduce the novel word for word from the beginning to the end," the officer says. A long sheet unrolls from a kind of typewriter which, with machine-gun speed, is covering it with cold capital letters.
Prices are often absurdly inflated, up to the many hundreds of dollars. While, on Amazon, you can't peek inside any of the books, the product descriptions read like prose recycled from free government business or health leaflets (stuff that usually feels like it was written by a machine anyway). There seem to be a few dozen tropes which are repeated with slight variations ad nauseum. A few sample titles:
-? The 2007 Report on Wood Toilet Seats: World Market Segmentation by City (330pp., $795)
-? The 2007-2012 Outlook for Lemon-Flavored Bottled Water in Japan (140pp., $495)
-? Avocados: A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide (108pp., $28.95)
-? Brain Injuries - A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide to Internet References (244pp., $28.95)
In fact, there's a whole trope of titles that are guides to "internet references," which makes me wonder if Parker's machine is just scraping the entire Web for content.
biblical interweave 02.06.2008, 1:52 PM
The image below shows every cross-references in the Bible. Definitely more the eye candy variety of information visualization, but I thought it was pretty.
Chris Harrison, the creator, explains: "Different colors are used for various arc lengths, creating a rainbow like effect. The bar graph running along the bottom shows every chapter in the Bible and their respective lengths (in verses). Books alternate in color between white and light gray."
(Via Information Aesthetics)
robert frost's digital disciple 02.05.2008, 9:58 AM
Via Ron Silliman, an interesting profile of Edmund Skellings, poet laureate of Florida since 1980 and newly appointed professor of humanities at Florida Tech. A New Englander, Skellings started off as a poet in the Robert Frost mould, and even studied under Frost at the University of Iowa in the late 50s. Around that time, however, he started experimenting with sound recordings on magnetic tape and later published a book of poems, Duels and Duets, whose covers were two vinyl recordings of Skellings voice. In 1978, Skellings discovered computers and thence embarked on a long career as an electro-poetic experimenter, combining audio recordings with digital animations of imagery and text, all the while retaining a poetic style as accessible and unadorned as Frost's (or so the Florida Today article asserts). You can view some of digital creations on his web site. Skellings isn't necessarily the electronic poet (or animator) for me, but his life is an interesting case study of literary and technological flux.
developing books in networked communities: a conversation with don waters 02.04.2008, 2:22 AM
Two weeks ago, when the blog-based peer review of Noah Wardrip-Fruin's Expressive Processing began on Grand Text Auto, Bob sent a note about the project to Don Waters, the program officer for scholarly communications at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation -? someone very much at the forefront of developments in the digital publishing arena. He wrote back intrigued but slightly puzzled as to the goals, scope and definitions of the experiment. We forwarded the note to Noah and to Doug Sery, Noah's editor at MIT Press, and decided each to write some clarifying responses from our different perspectives: book author/blogger (Noah), book editor (Doug), and web editor (myself). The result is an interesting exchange about networked publishing and useful meta-document about the project. As our various responses, and Don's subsequent reply, help to articulate, playing with new forms of peer review is only one aspect of this experiment, and maybe not even the most interesting one. The exchange is reproduced below (a couple of names mentioned have been made anonymous).
Don Waters (Mellon Foundation):
Thanks, Bob. This is a very interesting idea. In reading through the materials, however, I did not really understand how, if at all, this "experiment" would affect MIT Press behavior. What are the hypotheses being tested in that regard? I can see, from one perspective, that this "experiment" would result purely in more work for everyone. The author would get the benefit of the "crowd" commenting on his work, and revise accordingly, and then the Press would still send the final product out for peer review and copy editing prior to final publication.
Ben Vershbow (Institute for the Future of the Book):
There are a number of things we set out to learn here. First, can an open, Web-based review process make a book better? Given the inherently inter-disciplinary nature of Noah's book, and the diversity of the Grand Text Auto readership, it seems fairly likely that exposing the manuscript to a broader range of critical first-responders will bring new things to light and help Noah to hone his argument. As can be seen in his recap of discussions around the first chapter, there have already been a number of incisive critiques that will almost certainly impact subsequent revisions.
Second, how can we use available web technologies to build community around a book, or to bring existing communities into a book's orbit? "Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it," writes Ursula K. Le Guin in a provocative essay in the latest issue of Harper's. For the past three years, the Institute for the Future of the Book's mission has been to push beyond the comfort zone of traditional publishers, exploring the potential of networked technologies to enlarge the social dimensions of books. By building a highly interactive Web component to a text, where the author and his closest peers are present and actively engaged, and where the entire text is accessible with mechanisms for feedback and discussion, we believe the book will occupy a more lively and relevant place in the intellectual ecology of the Internet and probably do better overall in the offline arena as well.
The print book may have some life left in it yet, but it now functions within a larger networked commons. To deny this could prove fatal for publishers in the long run. Print books today need dynamic windows into the Web and publishers need to start experimenting with the different forms those windows could take or else retreat further into marginality. Having direct contact with the author -? being part of the making of the book -? is a compelling prospect for the book's core audience and their enthusiasm is likely to spread. Certainly, it's too early to make a definitive assessment about the efficacy of this Web outreach strategy, but initial indicators are very positive. Looked at one way, it certainly does create more work for everyone, but this is work that has to be done. At the bare minimum, we are building marketing networks and generating general excitement about the book. Already, the book has received a great deal of attention around the blogosphere, not just because of its novelty as a publishing experiment, but out of genuine interest in the subject matter and author. I would say that this is effort well spent.
It's important to note that, despite CHE's lovely but slightly sensational coverage of this experiment as a kind of mortal combat between traditional blind peer review and the new blog-based approach, we view the two review processes as complementary, not competitive. At the end, we plan to compare the different sorts of feedback the two processes generate. Our instinct is that it will suggest hybrid models rather than a wholesale replacement of one system with another.
That being said, our instincts tell us that open blog-based review (or other related forms) will become increasingly common practice among the next generation of academic writers in the humanities. The question for publishers is how best to engage with, and ideally incorporate, these new practices. Already, we see a thriving culture of pre-publication peer review in the sciences, and major publishers such as Nature are beginning to build robust online community infrastructures so as to host these kinds of interactions within their own virtual walls. Humanities publishers should be thinking along the same lines, and partnerships with respected blogging communities like GTxA are a good way to start experimenting. In a way, the MIT-GTxA collab represents an interface not just of two ideas of peer review but between two kinds of publishing imprints. Both have built a trusted name and become known for a particular editorial vision in their respective (and overlapping) communities. Each excels in a different sort of publishing, one print-based, the other online community-based. Together they are greater than the sum of their parts and suggest a new idea of publishing that treats books as extended processes rather than products. MIT may regard this as an interesting but not terribly significant side project for now, but it could end up having a greater impact on the press (and hopefully on other presses) than they expect.
All the best,
Noah Wardrip-Fruin (author, UC San Diego):
Hi Bob -
Yesterday I went to meet some people at a game company. There's a lot of expertise there - and actually quite a bit of reflection on what they're doing, how to think about it, and so on. But they don't participate in academic peer review. They don't even read academic books. But they do read blogs, and sometimes comment on them, and I was pleased to hear that there are some Grand Text Auto readers there.
If they comment on the Expressive Processing manuscript, it will create more work for me in one sense. I'll have to think about what they say, perhaps respond, and perhaps have to revise my text. But, from my perspective, this work is far outweighed by the potential benefits: making a better book, deepening my thinking, and broadening the group that feels academic writing and publishing is potentially relevant to them.
What makes this an experiment, from my point of view, is the opportunity to also compare what I learn from the blog-based peer review to what I learn from the traditional peer review. However, this will only be one data point. We'll need to do a number of these, all using blogs that are already read by the audience we hope will participate in the peer review. When we have enough data points perhaps we'll start to be able to answer some interesting questions. For example, is this form of review more useful in some cases than others? Is the feedback from the two types of review generally overlapping or divergent? Hopefully we'll learn some lessons that presses like MITP can put into practice - suggesting blog-based review when it is most appropriate, for example. With those lessons learned, it will be time to design the next experiment.
Doug Sery (MIT Press):
I know Don's work in digital libraries and preservation, so I'm not surprised at the questions. While I don't know the breadth of the discussions Noah and Ben had around this project, I do know that Noah and I approached this in a very casual manner. Noah has expressed his interest in "open communication" any number of times and when he mentioned that he'd like to "crowd-source" "Expressive Processing" on Grand Text Auto I agreed to it with little hesitation, so I'm not sure I'd call it an experiment. There are no metrics in place to determine whether this will affect sales or produce a better book. I don't see this affecting the way The MIT Press will approach his book or publishing in general, at least for the time being.
This is not competing with the traditional academic press peer-review, although the CHE article would lead the reader to believe otherwise (Jeff obviously knows how to generate interest in a topic, which is fine, but even a games studies scholar, in a conversation I had with him today, laughingly called the headline "tabloidesque.") . While Noah is posting chapters on his blog, I'm having the first draft peer-reviewed. After the peer-reviews come in, Noah and I will sit down to discuss them to see if any revisions to the manuscript need to be made. I don't plan on going over the GTxA comments with Noah, unless I happen to see something that piques my interest, so I don't see any additional work having to be done on the part of MITP. It's a nice way for Noah to engage with the potential audience for his ideas, which I think is his primary goal for all of this. So, I'm thinking of this more as an exercise to see what kind of interest people have in these new tools and/or mechanisms. Hopefully, it will be a learning experience that MITP can use as we explore new models of publishing.
Hope this helps and that all's well.
Thanks, Bob (and friends) for this helpful and informative feedback.
As I understand the explanations, there is a sense in which the experiment is not aimed at "peer review" at all in the sense that peer review assesses the qualities of a work to help the publisher determine whether or not to publish it. What the exposure of the work-in-progress to the community does, besides the extremely useful community-building activity, is provide a mechanism for a function that is now all but lost in scholarly publishing, namely "developmental editing." It is a side benefit of current peer review practice that an author gets some feedback on the work that might improve it, but what really helps an author is close, careful reading by friends who offer substantive criticism and editorial comments. Most accomplished authors seek out such feedback in a variety of informal ways, such as sending out manuscripts in various stages of completion to their colleagues and friends. The software that facilitates annotation and the use of the network, as demonstrated in this experiment, promise to extend this informal practice to authors more generally. I may have the distinction between peer review and developmental editing wrong, or you all may view the distinction as mere quibbling, but I think it helps explain why CHE got it so wrong in reporting the experiment as struggle between peer review and the blog-based approach. Two very different functions are being served, and as you all point out, these are complementary rather than competing functions.
I am very intrigued by the suggestions that scholarly presses need to engage in this approach more generally, and am eagerly learning from this and related experiments, such as those at Nature and elsewhere, more about the potential benefits of this kind of approach.
Great work and many thanks for the wonderful (and kind) responses.
"books are social vectors" 02.01.2008, 4:48 PM
Some choice quotes from Ursula K. Le Guin's terrific new Harper's essay, "Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading" (unfortunately behind pay wall):
Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it. They barely even noticed book clubs until Oprah goosed them. But then the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.
...I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism. Elements of publishing are, or can be forced to be, successfully capitalistic: the textbook industry is all too clear a proof of that. How-to books and the like have some market predictability. But inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature -? art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage.
the id of writing 02.01.2008, 10:15 AM
The intensely homoerotic Buffy and Faith storyline in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was developed partly as a direct response to fanfic writers' interpretations of the show in this light
As an undergraduate I read English Language and Literature at one of the oldest and most traditional universities in the world. Even the non-canonical texts came from a canon of the non-canonical - hence, by definition, whatever our course declared to be literature, ipso facto, was such. Recently, though, in the course of our Arts Council research I've browsed a fair amount of creative writing online - and found myself increasingly unsure about notions of the canonical or literary in the context of the net.
In search of some perspective, I met up with Roz Kaveney, an expert on one type of creative writing both quintessentially internet-based, and also quintessentially non-'literary'. Fanfic - or fan fiction - is any story written using the characters, settings and conventions of a fictional universe - 'fandom' - such as that of Star Trek.
I learned from Roz that fanfic proper appeared with the Trekkies. The internet made it a mass phenomenon, as fans took advantage of low digital barriers to self-publication to evolve this new way of engaging with a fictional world. These days, while keen fanfic writers maintain their own archives, Livejournal is the hub of fan activity. Across the net, fans of particular shows, characters or fandoms gravitate in online communities, share work, commission stories about particular fandoms or pairings in 'ficathons', proof-read and critique one another's stories and collaboratively generate massive archives of often elaborate, imaginative, well-written - and sometimes disturbing - narratives inspired by existing fictional universes.
Fanfic works through peer-to-peer commissioning and editing, and repurposing of others' imaginative works as the springboard for its own 'transformative' endeavors. And this collaborative and (by the standards to which the 'literary' tradition of writing holds itself) 'derivative' nature contrasts intriguingly with the fixation on originality so inseparable from literary fiction. This fixation with originality and identifiable authorship is, in turn, inseparable from the economics that have underpinned the print industry for the last three centuries.
So, predictably, in this world of fanfic money is something of a contested issue. Keen to avoid rocking the copyright boat and alienate the creators of the fandoms they love, fanfic writers self-police strictly: attempting to monetize your work is frowned upon. "Printing out a few copies for friends is one thing," Roz says, "but flogging your work at conventions just isn't done." Rather, it recalls Chris Anderson et al's theories of the internet as a peer-to-peer economy of abundance. Fans write it because they love the fandoms, identify with particular characters, and enjoy exchanging these nuggets of narrative passion with others of the same persuasion. Stories become transactional units in a gift economy driven by the ludic desire to requite a free gift of pleasure with a return in kind.
If the literary is the critical and isolationist superego of writing, then, fanfic is the id: messy, pleasure-driven, reluctant to censor its proclivities. existing fictional universes. It's always been transgressive, genderbending, complicatedly queer. Slashfic (erotic fanfic) appeared at the same time as fanfic, and slash stories often see heterosexual fans penning homoerotic slash; any taboo can be the subject of a slash story.
I've argued elsewhere that the net follows a fairly consistent pattern not of replicating, but of inverting the tradition of the book: boundedness becomes boundlessness, authority becomes unreliable opinion, fixity becomes fluidity, physicality becomes virtuality, the presumption of universality becomes an awareness of the contextual nature of everything written there. So I did a speculative compare and contrast between the mainstream literary world and that of fanfic. And the principle seems to hold for this most popular internet writing form: take the literary world, and turn it inside-out.
Fanfic is 90-95% female, in contrast with the canon of authors I studied at college. It's often collaborative, and engages with an existing fictional universe, while - say - literary fiction is generally written by single individuals and is fixated on the idea of originality "without realising", Roz says, "how overrated this concept has been since the Romantic era". Fanfic is structured socially around a gift economy of stories, and money is frowned upon; literature writers usuall aspire to earning a living from their work. Fanfic is pleasure-oriented; literature intellectual; fanfic is non-hierarchical and networked, while literature tends towards canons.
And last, but not least, fanfic in its current state evolved online, and is impressively well-supported in that space by its communities - a stark contrast to the modest successses of more 'literary' outputs online. Perhaps, with a long tradition of print publishing, the literary world has simply not yet paid much attention to the internet, and this will change as it becomes more familiar and pervasive. Or, perhaps, more of the attributes that constitute what we think of as 'literary' content are more inseparable from meatspace than might be immediately apparent.
I'll write more about all this as our research goes on. But meanwhile this cursory glance at fan fiction invites many questions about the forms natural to the internet and to print, about the social and cultural assumptions that underpin these two, and about the implications of each for the economics and value-systems of cultural production.