May 19th, 2013
I think Charlie Stross may have been lightly traumatised by his latest book signing tour:
I am going to have this recurring nightmare for the next few years … I'm trapped in a reality TV show after the model of "The Apprentice", in which the marketing folks at a publisher responsible a bunch of aspiring authors are gifted with the marketing and promotion budget of a best-seller to spend on their pool of newbies, in a gruesome elimination match to see who can survive the signing tour. Sort of like "The Hunger Games" for authors.
How can we make a reality TV show out of this?
Here's my idea: first, we need a Publisher. Preferably a charismatic, intense, skinny English guy with a posh accent. (Hello, Tim!) We also need a Production Company, a TV content maker, with a budget. As TV programming costs on the order of a megabuck per hour, and signing tours cost maybe a kilobuck per author per day (including travel, hotels, guides, and so on), they can afford to front the cost of about a dozen signing tours for first-time authors. No publisher in their right mind will turn down that sort of free marketing money (in exchange for allowing a camera crew to shadow the authors), and the hapless midlist grunts are of course not going to turn down a marketing budget a bazillion times bigger than their book advances (plus, the chance to look good on TV). [...]
Neal Stephenson's forthcoming collection of essays and interviews, Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing by Neal Stephenson looks like being the first Stephenson book I've bought in more than a decade:1
Stephenson ponders a wealth of subjects, from movies and politics to David Foster Wallace and the Midwestern American College Town; video games to classics-based sci-fi; how geekdom has become cool and how science fiction has become mainstream (whether people admit it or not); the future of publishing and the origins of his novels. Playful and provocative, Some Remarks displays Stephenson's opinions and ideas on:
- The Internet, our dwindling national attention span, and the cultural importance of books and bookishness
- Waco, religion, and the cluelessness of secular society
- Metaphysics and the battle between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
- The laying of the longest wire on Earth – and why it matters to you
- Technology, freedom, commerce, and the Chinese
- How Star Wars and 300 mirror who we are today and what that spells for our future
- Modern Jedi knights, a.k.a. scientists and technologists, and why they are admired and feared by both the left and the right
[Via Memex 1.1]
James Bridle, on Amazon's seductively convenient mix of books and infrastructure:
The great fear of the Internet is that we will be washed away in a tide of information, that the sheer scale of everything will overwhelm us, and that that everything is inferior, condemning us to wallow in the mud at the foot of an ever-receding Parnassus. And yet one of the many things the Internet has taught us is that surface quality of media comes a poor second to access, whether it's typographically inhibited self-published fan fiction or barely discernible YouTube camera-phone films.
What makes the Kindle unique is what makes Amazon unique: its physical presence is a mere avatar for a stream of digital services. In the spirit of its parent, it is more infrastructure than device. And it is as infrastructure that it disrupts, as its biblioclastic name intends.
John Dupuis reviews Nine algorithms that changed the future by John MacCormick:
John MacCormick's new book, Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers, is very good. You should buy it and read it.
Among all the debates about whether or not absolutely everybody must without question learn to program [...] it's perhaps a good idea to pause and take a look at exactly what programs do.
Which is what this book does. It starts from the premise that people love computers and what they can do but don't have much of an idea about what goes on inside the little black box. And then, what MacCormick does is take nine general types of high level functions that computer perform and explain first what those functions really mean and second a general idea of how software developers have approached solving the initial problems. [...]
Sounds like something I'd enjoy. The Kindle edition1 is quite expensive so I'm not going to rush and buy it now, but I'll certainly be interested in picking up a copy at a reasonable price once it shows up in paperback.
Charlie Stross sees one bright side to Amazon's current domination of the ebook market: it could just be that publishers not wanting to be beholden to Amazon will have little alternative but to abandon the use of DRM software in the interests of breaking the Kindle's stranglehold on the consumer ebook market.
This would require a touch of corporate schizophrenia on the part of some of the corporations involved, what with their book publishing business deciding piracy is a price worth paying even as their music, film and TV divisions insist on totting up the1 value of all the sales they'd lose if they dropped DRM, but perhaps the dire straits they're in will finally push them into giving it a try.
I just hope the publishers realise that the abandonment of DRM is a necessary but by no means sufficient step. They need to make the process of buying a DRM-free ebook and transferring it to the device of your choice as painless as possible – not for the sort of techies who would happily use Calibre, but for normal people who have neither the time nor the inclination to learn three different bits of software from three different publishing houses. I'll believe it when I see it.
I only got 5 out of 20. Pretty poor, really, considering that I reckon 4 out of the 20 are blindingly obvious or easily guessable.1
The Joy of Books. I'll bet you don't get that sort of unruly after hours behaviour in Amazon's warehouses.
[Via The Awl]
Andrew Kolb on his David Bowie Children's Book:
Have you ever listened to a song and your mind's eye is immediately filled with visuals?
David Bowie's classic space epic is one such song for me. Every lyric paints such a vivid picture that I figured "Oh hey, I guess I'll make that into a children's book!" Yes, I talk like this. [...]
My first thought upon reading National Public Radio's list of the Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books was that they desperately needed to impose a one-book/series-per-author rule. I like Neal Stephenson's and Neil Gaiman's work as much as the next man, but I'm pretty sure that between them they haven't written eight1 of the 100 best science fiction and fantasy books of all time.
I genuinely admire the sentiment behind Unbound, but there's been a real lack of understanding of what makes for successful crowdfunding. I hope they can fix it soon.
I think that it's far too soon to dismiss the Unbound model. The relatively slow start has caused them to re-think the deadlines they've set for projects, but better that than to drop all the partially-funded projects and start again.
I'm not too bothered about the fact that the Unbound model is a little different, a bit more corporate and perhaps even impersonal that the Kickstarter approach. Unbound is providing a crowdfunding service for a particular type of client. A year or two from now it'll be clearer whether the public are willing to pay for books in this way.
As I observed when I wrote about Unbound the one big difference between Unbound and Kickstarter is that the authors using Unbound were mostly published authors already, with the real test being whether the service is used again by authors after they've managed to get one book crowdfunded. If authors use Unbound primarily to prove the commercial viability of their work so as to snag a deal from a publishing house next time round then Unbound will probably fail. If authors come back for a second or third book then Unbound and Kickstarter could happily coexist for years to come.
Excerpts from the index to Samuel Butler's Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino:
Absolute, we would have an absolute standard if we could, 196
Absolutely, nothing is anything, 196
Bullocks, how I lost my, 154
Evolution and illusion, 43
– essence of, consists in not shocking too much, 110
Maoris on white men's fires, 117
Professions should be hereditary, 155
Rhinoceros grunts a fourth, 233
Toeless men, 129
Undertakers' blinds and art, 145
[Via Making Light (Particles)]
Novelist Alex Shakar remembers The Year of Wonders:
"We're closing in on a deal," my agent told me on the phone. "I'm just turning him upside-down now and shaking him for loose change."
It was midday on a Monday in early August of the year 2000. The Nasdaq, rested from its breather in the spring, was sprinting back up over 4,000 toward its March peak. Vice President Gore, demolishing the Bush son's early lead, was pulling even in the polls. TV commercials depicted placid investors being wheeled on gurneys into operating rooms, stern-faced doctors diagnosing their patients with dire cases of money coming out the wazoo.
The previous Friday, bidding on my first novel had reached six figures, then paused for people to track down more cash. I'd later learn one editor spent the weekend trying to reach her boss on his Tanzanian vacation, finally getting through via the satellite phone of a safari boat on the Rufiji river, but that he wouldn't OK a higher bid because he couldn't get the manuscript in time.
I was 32. I'd never made over $12,000 in a year. [...]
A comment to the last post mentioned that if you search the word "biotechnology" in Google's Ngram search engine, something odd happens. There's the expected rise in the 1970s and 80s, but there's also a bump in the early 1900s, for no apparent reason. Curious about this, I ran several other high-tech phrases through and found the exact same effect.Here's a good example, with some modern physics phrases. And you get the same thing if you search "nanotechnology", "ribosome", "atomic force microscope", "RNA interference", "laser", "gene transfer", "mass spectrometer" or "nuclear magnetic resonance". There's always a jump back in exactly the same period on the early 1900s. [...]
The brief fashion amongst Victorians for writing articles about string theory and dark matter could be the result of '1999+1=1900'. Perhaps. But how likely is that really, a decade past Y2K? Is it not more plausible that today's students remain unaware of results in dusty journals on library stacks that are not easily available on-line yet?
The Higgs boson was found was in Prague in 1925. It just hasn't got through peer review yet.
[Via The RISKS Digest]
Unbound is essentially a UK-based version of Kickstarter aimed at writers. Pay £10, and if enough of you subscribe you get the promise of an ebook edition of the book, your name listed alongside the other supporters in the back of the book, and the opportunity to read progress updates from the author and perhaps get some sneak peeks of the work in progress. Pay £20, and you get a hardback copy of the book too. Pay more, and you get goodie bags and/or an invitation to the launch party.
The biggest difference between Unbound and Kickstarter is that so far all of the writers seeking money through Unbound are published authors:
Not that there's anything wrong with people with a track record turning to Unbound. Given the long, slow death of the midlist, I think it's a positive sign that established authors are turning to the micropatronage model rather than being lost to publishing completely.
I suppose the real test for the system will come as authors successfully complete their first Unbound project. Will they use Unbound to fund their next book, or will it turn out to be a way to convince publishers that they're worth a contract/a decent advance for their next book?
[Via Word Magazine Blog]
Kevin Charles Redmon wonders whether the rise of the e-book means the end of marginalia:
[Sam Anderson...], master practitioner of literary journalism, used the Times Sunday Magazine's new Riff column to observe that marking up a book's pages gave him "a way to not just passively read but to fully enter a text, to collaborate with it, to mingle with an author on some kind of primary textual plane." [...]
At present, annotating an e-book with a stylus is about as handy as marking up a Norton anthology with a Crayola. The amount of clicking required to two-finger type a note using the Kindle's mini keyboard is even worse. But as technology (and perhaps our patience) improves, Anderson envisions a kind of free global bazaar of e-marginalia, so that you can read Hemingway, while also reading–in the margins – Gary Shteyngart's thoughts on reading Hemingway. Or your sister's. Or Michiko Kakutani's. [...]
"I want, in short, marginalia, everywhere, all the time," Anderson concludes. Welcome to the twenty-first century, kids, where even reading is social, networked activity.
Anderson is among the literary vanguard's optimists, though. [...]
The argument against Anderson's position suggests that marginalia are inherently part of an individual reader's dialogue with the text and are distinctly unsuited to the sort of 'sharing' that Kindle readers are treated to when their e-reader underlines passages in a text that have been highlighted by other Kindle users.
I think it's important to remember that it's still very early days for the mass-market e-book. Over time, if the trend of sharing your preferences across your social network and beyond continues, we'll almost certainly see greater granularity built into the software used in e-readers to share marginalia, allowing you to decide whose comments you want to subscribe to and/or limiting the extent to which your own margin notes are shared with others.
I'd say the bigger problem is that with so many different e-reader platforms and DRM schemes it'll be harder than it needs to be to standardise a cross-platform means of sharing this sort of data, unless Amazon or Apple or whoever manages to dominate the market to the point that they can impose their standard on everyone else. Amazon probably have the best chance of establishing a critical mass of e-book readers, but look again in a couple of years, when the iPad has some real competition and the tablet computer market segment has filled out a bit, and the picture could look very different.
[Via The Browser]
Julia Yu's Goodnight Dune.
Somehow, the word "cute" is simultaneously entirely fitting and utterly inappropriate.
[Via Ghost in the Machine]
I like this Push and Store Cabinet a lot.
I can imagine it being especially useful as a bedside 'bookshelf.' Place it within an arm's length of your bedside, then when you're finished with your night's reading and are too drowsy to faff around placing your book neatly back on its shelf you need only close the book and thrust out your arm in more or less the general direction of the push and store cabinet: the cabinet 'grabs' the book no matter what orientation you're holding it, and you're done.
[Via Bookshelf Porn]
An even stronger counter-example [to banking's culture of risk] is aviation. I am terrified of flying, but I have to admit that airlines have been extraordinarily effective at generating a culture of safety, in which that value is unquestionedly paramount. This is allied to an impressive degree of transparency … That is partly because the industry has learnt, in the words of Easyjet's founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou (who learnt this lesson in the oil-tanker business): "If you think safety is expensive, try having an accident." But the culture of modern banking is not like that; in fact it's close to the opposite of that. The bankers' slogan is something closer to "We're not that fussed about safety, because if we have an accident, it's you who pays."
Just what I need: another book on my to-read list!