Archives for posts with tag: BookGlutton

A good reason to go digital?

Bed Bugs at the NY Public Library

I moved to NYC four months ago, and not a week goes by without a warning about the bed bug epidemic. Beware movie theaters! Avoid used-book stores! Leave abandoned furniture where it lies! I hear all these warnings, and I often think of the library.

I’m a library person. Growing up, I spent rainy Saturdays wandering the poorly lit stacks of vintage sci-fi. I loved it. When I was planning my move, I specifically thought about the New York Public Library. I imagined myself beating the summer heat in a cool corner, flipping though a book I surreptitiously happened upon.

With all the hype, I haven’t visited the library at all. It’s a shame. I’m sure the library is doing everything it can to combat the outbreak. Maybe all my information is hearsay and conjecture. Either way, considering my options has made me aware of one benefit digital books have over their print counterparts: they’re bug-free. (Well, at least the infectious-kind.)

One last note: since I work in the start-up world, I’m obligated to break my moratorium on movie theaters this weekend, in order to see The Social Network (even if I have to stand up the whole time). I’d imagine the library is only a matter of time.

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Add this into the mix as one more theory on the future of the Book. Following the evolution of current distribution channels along to an interesting and somewhat sustainable outcome, and forgetting the notion that printed paper pages will somehow endure, let’s suppose that “bird books” and landlocked books continue to exist in harmony, except with landlocked books being essentially shells of what we think of as paper books.

Propelled along by Moore’s Law, the landlocked book sheds its paper interior, which is also the bulk that makes it so costly to ship and produce, and gains instead a slim flat panel display, mounted on a cardboard structure to give it a certain width. This may be the day such a display becomes cheaper to produce than its packaging — 7 cents, to be inexact.

The system contained on the chip in such a device is harder to predict. Perhaps it will be KindleOS, or iPhoneOS, or Android. It doesn’t matter to anyone, because you won’t download other books onto it, or jump on the web, or even be online. It will be engineered to deal with one specific book. If that book has video, it will be compiled to handle that, or if it needs to pull in web feeds, it will have basic network capability. Etcetera.

The binding, hard cover, and jacket will look and feel just exactly as book readers would expect it to look — and no print book designers will be harmed in this evolution, they will all just become jacket designers. The thickness of the packaging will even allow for a spine, so you can continue to clutter your shelves with these shiny objects, and when you want to read, select your title by looking at spines, pull one out and sit down and read in your cozy chair just as if you were reading an old fashioned print book, sans Kindle, sans iPad, sans anything that remotely feels like a “device.”

So the Holdout Theory posits that, since publishers and hardware manufacturers both have enough vested interest in distribution methods they already understand, rather than ones they can’t seem to figure out, that creating a future like this is a matter of deliberately holding back the evolution of the ethereal, un-landlocked, “bird book” in favor of one that ships and sits on retail shelves and feels like an object and not an intangible bunch of data.

I have to admit, it’s not too bleak a picture, to imagine that one day we will have both the iTunes or the Netflix of digital books as well as an option to buy something very object-like, even if it’s just a package with a machine inside. After all, it’s working pretty well for software manufacturers.

Those who follow the tech world probably spent yesterday afternoon anticipating the big announcement at Twitter, which turned out to be a few new features, slightly different UI, and a bunch of improvements on the back end that no one can really see.

Ninety million tweets a day is nothing to cough at, but it’s no surprise we’re seeing major feature-convergence between Twitter and Facebook. The one thing in common seems to be the experience of sharing and talking about media. From links to videos to pictures, anything and everything we come across online can now have a near real-time stream of global conversation associated with it. Except books.

Twitter got on this trend by adding a pane on the right hand side of the tweet stream where embedded media can be viewed without ever leaving the site or missing new posts to the stream itself. The only thing missing, which most tech people probably don’t notice or care about, is books. You can see excerpts from articles and web pages, or watch videos pulled in from YouTube, or see shared images, but it seems odd that one of our most interesting, vibrant and compelling forms of media is missing. Why can’t we embed an excerpt from a book in our tweets, and have it display in the right hand pane for our associates to comment on? What do we blame for this omission? Lack of user demand? DRM? Formats? Lack of available content?

It’s not true that book content is lacking online. Amazon’s Look Inside preview, Google Books, Feedbooks, the list of sites with full and partial books available in browsers goes on. And plenty of small technology companies (like us) are making books fully integrated with the Web, giving each paragraph its own URL. Smart people have built software that unpacks and renders Epub files right in the browser. Epub itself is an encapsulation of Web technology. So why should books lag so pitifully far behind other forms of media, to the point that they’re completely ignored by one of the most important communication tools we’ve invented in recent years?

People may not know that they want book content to be seamlessly integrated with the rest of the Web, but once it’s there, they’ll see a new dimension to what the Web actually can be, and they’ll never want it to go away. The permanence of books is something entirely fresh among the billions of temporary URLs meant to last only a short time. How useful it would be to allow them to start accruing social capital in the form of Twitter and Facebook discussions, the way we’re already doing with other forms of media! That kind of data, built up over time, will stay relevant much longer than the latest Tweet stream about the latest YouTube meme.

The answer seems to require an entire book to explain. My gut feeling, after having struggled through discussions with publishers, is that not enough important authors, agents, and publishers want to see this happen. They see no value in it, and are simply afraid of the consequences. Publishing is an old and powerful empire in decline, and stupidity reigns supreme among the top decision makers. Couple that with a willful ignorance and contempt of Web technology, and you have a deliberate sabotage of an almost perfect container for human thought, while in the meantime other media and technology advance in step to further the irrelevance of our beloved Book.

It’s quite possible that we’ll see, over the next fifty years, a strain of thinking we could call “Web thought” overtake what might be called “Book thought,” eventually eliminating it completely. The idea that any work created by an individual needs to be monumental and self-contained is already under attack, and generations to come might consider it a fairly primitive concept worth ignoring in the name of progress. Some people, especially among Web-savvy communities, already think this way.

Someday the majority of authors might simply consider themselves “Web authors” who don’t want to be contained and aren’t concerned with the permanence of their own work as much as they are concerned about making a lasting contribution to the hive. As an aspiring author myself who has completed many short stories, two novels, and other works I consider things that stand on their own, attributable only to me, and as a reader who appreciates great writing that also stands on its own, I don’t want to see this happen, and I think I speak for a lot of people on that point. But as a technically savvy person, a programmer and web designer, I see it happening already. And I see it manifested in the rapid advance of companies like Facebook and Twitter. Ultimately, I think the responsibility falls into the hands of the users of these services: if they don’t see books as a potentially vital and important part of the Web, the Web will replace them with something else. And if publishers continue to assert that books can remain relevant while disconnected from the rest of the flow of human thought, discourse and experience, then they too will be replaced.

There’s a new service out there that allows anyone to send in their paper books, whole boxes of them, and get them fully digitized and OCRed, where they can then be accessed in a personal archive in a multitude of digital formats.

Doesn’t this sound great? I’ve got these old Bantam Classic paperbacks–pages yellowed, glue desiccated–and I’d love to send those in and have them forever as files in the cloud, transferrable to any device I want. There’s something inviting about shipping out all that silverfish food and a week later seeing it pop up in the cloud.

The only problem is that this service is not for consumers, it’s for publishers. And it’s not likely that Google will offer it to us, ever. The likely outcome will be that eventually every mouldering tome in our decrepit paper collections will already have been scanned and available — and we’ll have to pay for it again to get it that way. We’ll still have all this decaying paper and not know exactly what to do with it.

If there was any sense in the publishing industry at all, there would be some big publisher or distributor who marketed permanent backups of your paper in the cloud. With all the rights, plates, and digital masters, there would be no laborious unbinding and scanning to cut into profits. And surely there are enough people feeding a $50B sector to ensure a pretty large number of lifetime subscribers. This would be a new, renewable source of revenue for thirsty giants. And unlike the pulping of newly minted titles, this would be some kind of sweet vengeance on the first sale doctrine, as used copies were destroyed and taken off secondhand markets forever.

But the problem with that scenario is that big publishing, when it comes to digital distribution, tries to force the print process and model on it, over and over.

Which is why they’re like the kid on the playground who loses a fight slowly, getting up every time and blindly trying the same moves that got him knocked down. This is despite the fact that they’re outnumbered: Google is punching them in the face while Amazon holds them and Apple gives them a wedgie, and still they don’t seem to learn. How much more milk money will be lost? How much longer do we have watch this happen?

This week Mashable posted an article “Social Experience is the Future of Online Content

What really stands out is the phrase “Content acquisition alone can’t be the final answer.” This is true, and something you’ll hear us saying frequently at BookGlutton. Don’t get me wrong, we spend quite a lot of time in meetings acquiring content for our readers – it’s important to have the right books. But that will never be a major differentiating factor. Publishers want to sell through multiple channels in order to reach the maximum number of users.

For free books this is already obvious. You can download Winnie the Pooh from almost any online reading system or bookstore (it even comes pre-packaged with Apple’s iBookstore). No one seeks out the store that has this specific book. As time goes on no one will be going to a particular store to get Random House books or Penguin Classics just because that’s the only place to get them. Instead they’ll be available almost anywhere, and you’ll be going for the experience. The user interface, the animation, the ability to connect with others and share your thoughts, will be what really matters.

That said, I have to caution: don’t confuse experience with features. In many reading systems, features can be the equivalent of Photoshop filters, cool to play with but only really used on occasion. Many reviewers like to tally up features, as if the program with the most wins (one only needs to look at the success of Apple’s software to see simplicity and alignment with user needs can win out). After all, the ability to make your font purple is nice, but most users are more about utility and connection than customization. I know there are some that may disagree – I have a friend who would read everything in Adobe Jenson Pro if he could (though I often wonder if he would bother to change every application he installs to do so). But in the end the most successful tools in life are ones that fit in with how you live your life. And that’s something we’ve believed in for some time.

At BookGlutton we spend a lot of time thinking about what the future will look like. We’ve been building the current site for a few years now, and have pretty serious ideas about where that future is going. Like all prognosticators, we can’t take into account every surprise, but we’re sure about a few things.

1. The web is the future.
2. Connections to social networks are a significant, serious piece of our lives. They will continue to be important (Ze Frank had a great presentation at Internet Week New York on this point).
3. Books are an enduring way we transfer big ideas. They may become digital, but they’re not going away.

Last week Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, posted this video about what he’d like to see in the future of reading. For users of BookGlutton, many of the points may sound a little familiar (parts of 2, 3, and 5 are alive and well at BookGlutton). Good to know some great minds are in agreement.

You can use BookGlutton by opening Safari and heading to http://www.bookglutton.com.

Great news! BookGlutton has been named a Webby Award Honoree in the Community Category. They tell us out of a whopping 10,000 entries submitted to the 14th Annual Webby Awards, less than 15% are awarded the status of Official Honoree. Entries came from all 50 states and over 60 countries worldwide. It’s a big deal, and we’re humbled by it. Moreover, there are only two book sites listed this year – our partner Goodreads is the only other one we found. Represent!

This isn’t the first time BG has gotten a little Webby Love. In 2008 we were a bona fide finalist in the same Category (Community), against some of the heavyweights that are up there again: Flickr and COLOURlovers. We wrote about it here and here.

What else can we say, except THANK YOU! to our USERS and the folks at the WEBBYS.