Listing entries tagged with publishing
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e-book developments at amazon, google (and rambly thoughts thereon) 09.07.2007, 1:40 PM
The NY Times reported yesterday that the Kindle, Amazon's much speculated-about e-book reading device, is due out next month. No one's seen it yet and Amazon has been tight-lipped about specs, but it presumably has an e-ink screen, a small keyboard and scroll wheel, and most significantly, wireless connectivity. This of course means that Amazon will have a direct pipeline between its store and its device, giving readers access an electronic library (and the Web) while on the go. If they'd just come down a bit on the price (the Times says it'll run between four and five hundred bucks), I can actually see this gaining more traction than past e-book devices, though I'm still not convinced by the idea of a dedicated book reader, especially when smart phones are edging ever closer toward being a credible reading environment. A big part of the problem with e-readers to date has been the missing internet connection and the lack of a good store. The wireless capability of the Kindle, coupled with a greater range of digital titles (not to mention news and blog feeds and other Web content) and the sophisticated browsing mechanisms of the Amazon library could add up to the first more-than-abortive entry into the e-book business. But it still strikes me as transitional - ?a red herring in the larger plot.
A big minus is that the Kindle uses a proprietary file format (based on Mobipocket), meaning that readers get locked into the Amazon system, much as iPod users got shackled to iTunes (before they started moving away from DRM). Of course this means that folks who bought the cheaper (and from what I can tell, inferior) Sony Reader won't be able to read Amazon e-books.
But blech... enough about ebook readers. The Times also reports (though does little to differentiate between the two rather dissimilar bits of news) on Google's plans to begin selling full online access to certain titles in Book Search. Works scanned from library collections, still the bone of contention in two major lawsuits, won't be included here. Only titles formally sanctioned through publisher deals. The implications here are rather different from the Amazon news since Google has no disclosed plans for developing its own reading hardware. The online access model seems to be geared more as a reference and research tool -? a powerful supplement to print reading.
But project forward a few years... this could develop into a huge money-maker for Google: paid access (licensed through publishers) not only on a per-title basis, but to the whole collection - ?all the world's books. Royalties could be distributed from subscription revenues in proportion to access. Each time a book is opened, a penny could drop in the cup of that publisher or author. By then a good reading device will almost certainly exist (more likely a next generation iPhone than a Kindle) and people may actually be reading books through this system, directly on the network. Google and Amazon will then in effect be the digital infrastructure for the publishing industry, perhaps even taking on what remains of the print market through on-demand services purveyed through their digital stores. What will publishers then be? Disembodied imprints, free-floating editorial organs, publicity directors...?
Recent attempts to develop their identities online through their own websites seem hopelessly misguided. A publisher's website is like their office building. Unless you have some direct stake in the industry, there's little reason to bother know where it is. Readers are interested in books not publishers. They go to a bookseller, on foot or online, and they certainly don't browse by publisher. Who really pays attention to who publishes the books they read anyway, especially in this corporatized era where the difference between imprints is increasingly cosmetic, like the range of brands, from dish soap to potato chips, under Proctor & Gamble's aegis? The digital storefront model needs serious rethinking.
The future of distribution channels (Googlezon) is ultimately less interesting than this last question of identity. How will today's publishers establish and maintain their authority as filterers and curators of the electronic word? Will they learn how to develop and nurture literate communities on the social Web? Will they be able to carry their distinguished imprints into a new terrain that operates under entirely different rules? So far, the legacy publishers have proved unable to grasp the way these things work in the new network culture and in the long run this could mean their downfall as nascent online communities (blog networks, webzines, political groups, activist networks, research portals, social media sites, list-servers, libraries, art collectives) emerge as the new imprints: publishing, filtering and linking in various forms and time signatures (books being only one) to highly activated, focused readerships.
The prospect of atomization here (a million publishing tribes and sub-tribes) is no doubt troubling, but the thought of renewed diversity in publishing after decades of shrinking horizons through corporate consolidation is just as, if not more, exciting. But the question of a mass audience does linger, and perhaps this is how certain of today's publishers will survive, as the purveyors of mass market fare. But with digital distribution and print on demand, the economies of scale rationale for big publishers' existence takes a big hit, and with self-publishing services like Amazon CreateSpace and Lulu.com, and the emergence of more accessible authoring tools like Sophie (still a ways away, but coming along), traditional publishers' services (designing, packaging, distributing) are suddenly less special. What will really be important in a chaotic jumble of niche publishers are the critics, filterers and the context-generating communities that reliably draw attention to the things of value and link them meaningfully to the rest of the network. These can be big companies or light-weight garage operations that work on the back of third-party infrastructure like Google, Amazon, YouTube or whatever else. These will be the new publishers, or perhaps its more accurate to say, since publishing is now so trivial an act, the new editors.
Of course social filtering and tastemaking is what's been happening on the Web for years, but over time it could actually supplant the publishing establishment as we currently know it, and not just the distribution channels, but the real heart of things: the imprimaturs, the filtering, the building of community. And I would guess that even as the digital business models sort themselves out (and it's worth keeping an eye on interesting experiments like Content Syndicate, covered here yesterday, and on subscription and ad-based models), that there will be a great deal of free content flying around, publishers having finally come to realize (or having gone extinct with their old conceits) that controlling content is a lost cause and out of synch with the way info naturally circulates on the net. Increasingly it will be the filtering, curating, archiving, linking, commenting and community-building -? in other words, the network around the content -? that will be the thing of value. Expect Amazon and Google (Google, btw, having recently rolled out a bunch of impressive new social tools for Book Search, about which more soon) to move into this area in a big way.
content syndicate 09.06.2007, 1:02 PM
While Andrew Keen laments the decline of professionalised content production, and Publishing2.0 fuels the debate about whether there's a distinction between 'citizen journalism' and the old-fashioned sort, I've spent the morning at Seedcamp talking with a Dubai-based entrepreur who's blurring the distinction even further.
Content Syndicate is a distributed marketplace for buying, selling and commissioning content (By that they mean writing). Submitted content is quality-assessed first automatically and then by human editors, and can be translated by the company staff if required. They've grown since starting a year or so ago to 30 staff and a decent turnover.
This enterprise interests me because it picks up on some recurring themes around the the changes digitisation brings to what a writer is, and what he or she does. In some respects, this system commodifies content to an extent traditionalists will find horrifying - what writer, starting out (as many do) wanting to change the world, will feel happy having their work fed through a semiautomatic system in which they are a 'content producer'? But while it may be helping to dismantle - in practice - the distinction between professional and amateur writers, and thus risking helping us towards Keen's much-lamented mulch of unprofessionalised blah, but at least people are getting paid for their efforts. And you can rebut this last fear of unprofessionalised blah by saying that at least there's some quality control going on. (The nature of the quality control is interesting too, as it's a hybrid of automated assessment and human idiot-checking; this bears some thinking about as we consider the future of the book.)
So this enterprise points towards some ways in which we're learning to manage, filter and also monetise this world of increasingly-pervasive 'content everywhere', and suggests some of the realities in which writers increasingly work. I'll be interested to see how we adapt to this: will the erstwhile privileged position of 'writers' give way as these become mere grunts producing 'content' for the maw of the market? Or will some subtler and more nuanced bottom-up hierarchy of writing excellence emerge?
books and the man i sing 09.01.2007, 6:36 PM
I've been reading failed Web1.0 entrepreneur Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur. For those who haven't hurled it out of the window already, this is a vitriolic denouncement of the ways in which Web2.0 technology is supplanting 'expert' cultural agents with poor-quality 'amateur' content, and how this is destroying our culture.
In vehemence (if, perhaps, not in eloquence), Keen's philippic reminded me of Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Pope was one of the first writers to popularize the notion of a 'critic' - and also, significantly, one of the first to make an independent living through sales of his own copyrighted works. There are some intriguing similarities in their complaints.
In the Dunciad Variorum (1738), a lengthy poem responding to the recent print boom with parodies of poor writers, information overload and a babble of voices (sound familiar, anyone?) Pope writes of 'Martinus Scriblerus', the supposed author of the work
He lived in those days, when (after providence had permitted the Invention of Printing as a scourge for the Sins of the learned) Paper also became so cheap, and printers so numerous, that a deluge of authors cover'd the land: Whereby not only the peace of the honest unwriting subject was daily molested, but unmerciful demands were made of his applause, yea of his money, by such as would neither earn the one, or deserve the other.
The shattered 'peace of the honest unwriting subject', lamented by Pope in the eighteenth century when faced with a boom in printed words, is echoed by Keen when he complains that "the Web2.0 gives us is an infinitely fragmented culture in which we are hopelessly lost as to how to focus our attention and spend our limited time." Bemoaning our gullibility, Keen wants us to return to an imagined prelapsarian state in which we dutifully consume work that has been as "professionally selected, edited and published".
In Keen's ideal, this selection, editing and publication ought (one presumes) to left in the hands of 'proper' critics - whose aesthetic in many ways still owes much to (to name but a few) Pope's Essay On Criticism (1711), or the satirical work The Art of Sinking In Poetry (1727). But faith in these critics is collapsing. Instead, new tools that enable books to be linked give us "a hypertextual confusion of unedited, unreadable rubbish", while publish-on-demand services swamp us in "a tidal wave of amateurish work".
So what? you might ask. So the first explosion in the volume of published text created some of the same anxieties as this current one. But this isn't a narrative of relentless evolutionary progress towards a utopia where everything is written, linked and searchable. The two events don't exist on a linear trajectory; the links between Pope's critical writings and Keen's Canute-like protest against Web2.0 are more complex than that.
Pope's response to the print boom was not simply to wish things could return to their previous state; rather, he popularized a critical vocabulary that both helped others to deal with it, and also - conveniently - positioned himself at the tip of the writerly hierarchy. His extensive critical writings, promoting the notions of 'high' and 'low' quality writing and lambasting the less talented, served to position Pope himself as an expert. It is no coincidence that he was one of the first writers to break free of the literary patronage model and make a living out of selling his published works. The print boom that he critiqued so scatologically was the same boom that helped him to the economic independence that enabled him to criticize as he saw fit.
But where Pope's approach to the print boom was critical engagement, Keen offers only nostalgic blustering. Where Pope was crucial in developing a language with which to deal with the print boom, Keen wishes only to preserve Pope's approach. So, while you can choose to read the two voices, some three centuries apart, as part of a linear evolution, it's also possible to see them as bookends (ahem) to the beginning and end of a literary era.
This era is characterized by a conceptual and practical nexus that shackles together copyright, authorship and a homogenized discourse (or 'common high culture', as Keen has it), delivers it through top-down and semi-monopolistic channels, and proposes always a hierarchy therein whilst tending ever more towards proliferating mass culture. In this ecology, copyright, elitism and mass populism form inseparable aspects of the same activity: publications and, by extension, writers, all busy 'molesting' the 'peace of the honest unwriting subject' with competing demands on 'his applause, yea [on] his money'.
The grading of writing by quality - the invention of a 'high culture' not merely determined by whichever ruler chose to praise a piece - is inextricable from the birth of the literary marketplace, new opportunities as a writer to turn oneself into a brand. In a word, the notion of 'high culture' is intimately bound up in the until-recently-uncontested economics of survival as a writer.
Again, so what? Well, if Keen is right and the new Web2.0 is undermining 'high culture', it is interesting to speculate whether this is the case because it is undermining writers' established business model, or whether the business model is suffering because the 'high' concept is tottering. Either way, if Keen should be lambasted for anything it is not his puerile prose style, or for taking a stand against the often queasy techno-utopianism of some of Web2.0's champions, but because he has, to date, demonstrated little of Pope's nous in positioning himself to take advantage of the new economics of publishing.
Others have been more wily, though, in working out exactly what these economics might be. While researching this piece, I emailed Chris Anderson, Wired editor, Long Tail author, sometime sparring partner for Keen and vocal proponent of new, post-digital business models for writers. He told me that
"For what I do speaking is about 10x more lucrative than selling books [...]. For me, it would make sense to give away the book to market my personal appearances, much as bands give away their music on MySpace to market their concerts. Thus the title of my next book, FREE, which we will try to give away in every way possible."
Thus, for Anderson, there is life beyond copyright. It just doesn't work the same way. And while Keen claims that Web2.0 is turning us into "a nation so digitally fragmented it's no longer capable of informed debate" - or, in other words, that we have abandoned shared discourse and the respected authorities that arbitrate it in favor of a mulch of cultural white noise, it's worth noting that Anderson is an example of an authority that has emerged from within this white noise. And who is making a decent living as such.
Anderson did acknowledge, though, that this might not apply to every kind of writer - "it's just that my particular speaking niche is much in demand these days". Anderson's approach is all very well for 'Big Ideas' writers; but what, one wonders, is a poet supposed to do? A playwright? My previous post gives an example of just such a writer, though Doctorow's podcast touches only briefly on the economics of fiction in a free-distribution model. I've argued elsewhere that 'fiction' is a complex concept and severely in need of a rethink in the context of the Web; my hunch is that while for nonfiction writers the Web requires an adjustment of distribution channels and little more, or creative work - stories - the implications are much more drastic.
I have this suspicion that, for poets and storytellers, the price of leaving copyright behind is that 'high art' goes with it. And, further, that perhaps that's not as terrible as the Keens of this world might think. But that's another article.
the place of blogs in the academy 08.26.2007, 5:40 PM
danah boyd has written a response to all the conversation generated by her 24 june blog post in which she tried to interpret usage patterns of facebook and myspace in terms of class. i'm not particuarly interested in the original post or her substantive responses but she makes some interesting comments about the difference between traditional academic writing and blogging.
as i see it, danah sadly bends over backward to distinguish the blog post from serious academic writing. she says, "In academic writing, I write for posterity. In my blog, I write to get an issue off my chest and to work things out while they are still raw." what i find significant though is that this blog post has, according to danah, generated thousands of quotes and references. either the blogosphere is just filled with meaningless back and forth banter or the blog post launched what could be or could have been (if handled better) a significant public debate. for argument sake, let's assume the latter, in which case, it seems a shame that there is such a strong tendency to devalue a new form of writing which is proving to be such a powerful engine of serious discussion.
yes, blogs are not the same as formal academic papers, but i'm not sure that is the same as saying that they can't be as valuable within the universe of scholarly discourse.
can we imagine a universe where blogging is not automatically put into a "not-really-up-to-par-for-the-academy" category.
call for papers: the internet, publishing, and the future of literature 08.24.2007, 4:19 PM
John Holbo just along this exciting CFP for a seminar he's convening on "e-publishing/intertubes stuff" at the ALSC conference this October in Chicago. An excerpt:
What role will the Internet play in publishing, scholarly research, cultural journalism, and literary commentary in general? Do bloggers have a role to play in cultural and literary discussion comparable to their developing importance in political reporting and argument? How will e-publishing affect scholarship, university presses, promotion and tenure? What will become of the book?
Read more at The Valve.
ithaka university publishing report in commentpress 08.22.2007, 4:55 PM
The Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library has just released an interactive, CommentPress-powered edition of "University Publishing In A Digital Age," the Ithaka report that in recent weeks has sent ripples through the scholarly publishing community. Please spread the word and take part in the discussion that hopefully will unfold there:
Incidentally, this site uses the just-released version 1.3 of CommentPress, which I'll talk more about tomorrow. Here's the intro from the good folks at Michigan (thanks especially to Maria Bonn and Shana Kimball for taking the initiative on this):
On July 26, 2007, Ithaka released "University Publishing In A Digital Age." The report has been met with great interest by the academic community and has already engendered a great deal of lively discussion.
Coincidentally, that same week, the Institute For the Future of the Book released CommentPress, an online textual annotation tool with great promise for promoting scholarly discussion and collaboration.
At the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library we have watched both of these developments with keen interest. Our work as online scholarly publishers, our role as publisher of the Journal of Electronic Publishing and our close affiliation with the University of Michigan Press through our joint initiative, digitalculturebooks, directs us to paying close attention to both the conditions and tools of scholarly publishing.
The happy simultaneity of the release of the Ithaka Report and CommentPress prompted us to view the report as ideal material with which to experiment with CommentPress. With the gracious cooperation of the authors of the report, we have created a version of "University Publishing In A Digital Age" which invites public commentary and which we hope will serve as a basis for further discussions in our community.
In the words of the authors, "this paper argues that a renewed commitment to publishing in its broadest sense can enable universities to more fully realize the potential global impact of their academic programs, enhance the reputations of their institutions, maintain a strong voice in determining what constitutes important scholarship, and in some cases reduce costs." We welcome you to engage in that argument in this space.
SciVee: web video for the sciences 08.20.2007, 2:25 PM
Via Slashdot, I just came across what could be a major innovation in science publishing. The National Science Foundation, the Public Library of Science and the San Diego Supercomputing Center have joined forces to launch, SciVee, an experimental media sharing platform that allows scientists to synch short video lectures with paper outlines:
SciVee, created for scientists, by scientists, moves science beyond the printed word and lecture theater taking advantage of the internet as a communication medium where scientists young and old have a place and a voice.
The site is in alpha and has only a handful of community submissions, but it's enough to give a sense of how profoundly useful this could become. Video entries can be navigated internally by topic segments, and are accompanied by a link to the full paper, jpegs of figures, tags, a reader rating system and a comment area.
Peer networking functions are supposedly also in the works, although this seems geared solely as a dissimenation and access tool for already vetted papers, not a peer-to-peer review forum. It would be great within this model to open submissions to material other than papers such as documentaries, simulations, teaching modules etc. It has the potential to grow into a resource not just for research but for pedagogy and open access curriculum building.
It's very encouraging to see web video technologies evolving beyond the generalized, distractoid culture of YouTube and being adapted to the needs of particular communities. Scholars in the humanities, film and media studies especially, should take note. Imagine a more advanced version of the In Media Res feature we have running over at MediaCommons, where in addition to basic blog-like commenting you could have audio narration of clips, video annotation with time code precision, football commentator-style drawing over the action, editing tools and easy mashup capabilities - ?all of it built on robust archival infrastructure of the kind that underlies SciVee.