Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Future of the Page

A story in Sunday’s New York Times brought me back to the idea of microfilm and the machines used to read it. Five years ago, I did a lot of research for an anthology of Latino Literature in the microfilm rooms of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Sterling has a full complement of microfilmed, Spanish-language southwestern newspapers from the United States Newspaper Project, where much Mexican-American literature was published between 1880 and 1910.

After holding my hand on the button for an hour, I discovered that I could put the machine on automatic and the pages would scroll by at the pace I had selected. I spent about twelve hours on two successive days reading poems, short stories and criticism. I could stop it when I wanted, print out an image, and then resume from where I had left off.

Unlike web pages, the new e-readers are based primarily on mimicking a book page, but this may not be necessary for certain types of reading in the future. Printed pages are static: the reader must add an active, internal movement to read and interpret the content (the making of what is absent—the images the words suggest—into something present: the images the reader supplies). But what if the new literature is written as continuous text, perhaps like Jack Kerouac’s scroll for On the Road? The e-reader could be set to a timed scrolling, and reading would become slightly more externally dynamic. The movies discovered this back in the thirties, when introductory and background information longer than a single screen would scroll or crawl. Perhaps the most famous of these is the opening to Star Wars, which embedded the movie in a printed story-telling tradition.

Such a device would bring reading closer to an oral tradition or half-way to an audiobook. Indeed, one could even add audio. The printed book (or the book-mimicking e-reader) and the scrolling e-reader would become very different reading experiences, even though the words would remain the same.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Whither Browsing?

Today’s announcement by Perseus Book Group that it is increasing its commitment to print-on-demand expands the number of publishers with access to the technology, particularly among independent presses, which Perseus distributes. Jason Epstein, he of the paperback revolution of the early 1950s and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, has been pushing this technology for years. It will expand the book market because of ease of use and limited need for space (one machine the size of a desk or dozens of bookshelves). It also acknowledges that the book continues to be a useful technology. Imagine book vending machines in every airport, with tens of thousands of available titles. Which would you prefer, digital download to your Apple iReader or a printed book from the Espresso Book Machine? Put in your credit card and out comes a printed copy of Lonely Planet Paris, just before you board your Air France flight.

Print-on-demand and digital downloads may, however, diminish the informational need to browse, which browsers in particular claim is an important element of book culture. Bookstores with wide aisles and coffee shops (and sometimes chairs) recreate the public space in which browsers could be alone with other like-minded people.

As shifts occur in the marketing of books and the number of dedicated bookstores decreases, browsing will change, as well. Bookstore browsing has always been fraught. In small, literary stores, one waited for the frosty clerk to look askance, turn up his or her nose, and sniff mightily. Superstore browsing includes the smell of Starbucks' coffee, one retail chain memorializing another, and the visuals of browsing are often dictated by coop fees. Supermarket, drugstore and big box browsing is limited to bestsellers, in most cases, thereby defeating the possible goal of discovery.

So ubi sunt bookstore browsers? The next generation browses on social networks such as Facebook, while dedicated book sites such as Shelfari vie for the social book network eye. Will they satisfy the traditional definition of browsing: 1) shifting one’s body and eyes along a myriad of selections, 2) choosing an individual item based on a variety of criteria, including graphics and words, 3) examining the item, based somewhat on the criteria of attraction, and 4) replacing the item in its place or purchasing it. This is, indeed, an active approach. Will social networks re-create the input of such an active approach? And does that matter to the selection and enjoyment of reading?

What is the purpose of bookstore browsing? Discovery? Information-gathering? Will print-on-demand, digital downloads, and social book networks serve those purposes? And, if not, what new-found results will they achieve in furthering a literary culture?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Intergeneric Questions

A recent interview in USA Today with Stephen King on his new book Duma Key again brings up the question about crossing the borders of literature. I mentioned Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions a few blog entries ago in the context of visual literariness and the new optics and David Markson’s “paragraph” structure and Google entry gathering. These are structural experiments.

But what of cross-generic questions? We have passed (are passing?) through a period of dominance by popular culture. “High culture” seems to have lost meaning, even to its creators. If a grizzled resignation pervades the last generation of literary lions and a feeling of toothlessness the next generation of cubs, borderlessness excites the next. Granted, literary conservatives still exist, as well as the formerly hip generation who fought against literary quietude, but cross-genre reading (and writing) holds the hip quotient of the day. The same person who reads Heidi Julavits can read Jane Austen and Alan Moore, without embarrassment. Dave Eggers can re-imagine the life of an African refugee without too many accusations of inauthenticity that dogged the earnest heels of the sixties generation. Perhaps this is the promise of Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy finally fulfilled. To paraphrase Duke Ellington (he of Black, Brown and Beige): if it reads good, it is good.

Back to the digital age: if I ran Amazon, and didn’t care about the possibility of offending my conservative, reading customers (fat chance), I would give Kindle software to 100 literary, visual and music artists and tell them to create digital literary works. Then I’d offer them as free downloads to all Kindle users, without digital copyright protection. I’d love to see what David Foster Wallace, Alice Sebold and Matt Groening come up with, and how fast it gets passed around the world.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Japan's Digital Novels

The article in this weekend’s New York Times about Japan’s cell phone novel craze is interesting for U.S. literary publishing. First, it confirms the ability of new media to test the market (call it a form of literary “sampling”). Second, it affirms the print publication of the novel after digital market research. So far, other than various experimental texts, such “novels” seem to be more like blogs or growing-up stories. Whether “substantive” literature can be composed on a cell phone is an open question.

The U.S. digital market is different from most others. The U.S. has embraced personal computers to a greater extent than most other countries. Other countries have embraced the use of cell phones more than in the U.S. As for literature, Japan has a history of piecemeal literature: in the mid-1990s the writer Banana Yoshimoto published the short story Newlywed exclusively on signage on commuter railways around Tokyo. Yet serialization doesn’t seem to have captured the U.S. imagination, at least not from what I can see. Stephen King’s The Plant online novel didn’t generate enough interest in serialized, digital form so he abandoned it. Despite its good reviews, Walter Kirn’s 2006 serialized, digital novel for, The Unbinding (and his subsequent Slate exchange with Gary Shteyngart) didn't make a big splash. Perhaps their time has not arrived and we are still awaiting an e-reader for such efforts.

On the other hand, short forms of literature downloaded to the personal computer have proliferated, though readership is limited compared to Japan’s cell phone genre. Narrative and Words Without Borders are two of the more well-known on-line literary magazines, but there are many others. The One Story publishing program seems to have succeeded in print and will most likely succeed when a good e-reader is widely available. When last I looked, Narrative had about 25,000 subscribers, not bad for a literary magazine. I'm a subscriber, but I don't read the stories. I would read a lot more journal-based literature if I could download it easily while sitting with my single producer espresso in Cafe Grumpy.

Poetry has also made inroads, though not to cell phones, from what I gather. The Writer's Almanac arrives in my inbox every morning, topped by a poem, and smart phones may be the next literary realm. Right now one would have to broadband The Writer’s Almanac, but a simple phone download to a smart phone would be a good way to start the day, especially since it can encompass both visual and sound. Short, short stories—the shorter ones from Symphony Space’s Selected Shorts, for example—would be a welcome direct download so I don’t have to haze through my computer beforehand to get it onto an iPod. Give it to me straight from the ether, I say.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Guest Blogger: Jeffrey Lependorf

Guest Blogger Jeffrey Lependorf is Executive Director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and Small Press Distribution.

I think small presses may be bucking a trend. In this time of declining readers, diminishing book reviews, and closing bookstores, independent literary publishers seem to be reaching more readers than ever before. The NEA recently released To Read or Not to Read, a follow-up to the its 2004 study Reading at Risk, providing additional data suggesting that fewer and fewer people now read for pleasure, if at all. A December 16th article by Los Angeles Times
Staff Writer Scott Timberg, titled A Dismal Year for Books? recounts a litany of bad news for book publishing, from closing bookstores, to the disappearance of book reviews in major newspapers, to overall declining sales in the book marketplace.

Despite how shaky the pedestal books sit upon would appear to be, independent literary publishers—small presses publishing fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction—have been experiencing a period of unparalleled growth. Data we've gathered at Small Press Distribution, the nation’s only non-profit distributor of literary books published by independent publishers, together with data from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, the national non-profit organization that provides technical assistance to independent literary publishers, suggests that while pleasure-reading on a national level may be declining overall, the number of readers of the literature produced by smaller press publishers has been growing. Percentage-wise, smaller publishers appear to be more successful in reaching greater numbers of readers.

By serving the literary sensibilities of focused communities of readers, works of high literary merit reach their readers effectively, and these readers then go on to read even more. The NEA reports, in its 2007 To Read or Not to Read, that average household spending on books in the USA declined approximately 14% between 1995 and 2005. During the same period the quantity of books sold by SPD—now in its 39th year—increased 41%, with an additional 14% increase in total sales over the past two years. Similarly, CLMP’s membership of independent literary publishers increased from fewer than 250 in 1995 to nearly 500 in 2005, and currently—as it enters its 40th anniversary year—to well over 500, a more than 50% increase. There are more independent literary publishers than ever before and more of their books are reaching readers than ever before. It’s the small tail phenomenon in action—perhaps the best way to reach more readers is to meet the needs of small groups of readers one group at a time. While large publishers struggle to figure out the literary taste of American readers as a large group, smaller literary publishers can take far more risks in what they publish toward books reaching their true potential readerships, and our culture is all the better for it. A lot of exceptional literature is coming out of the big houses as well, but the current vitality and health of the independent literary publishing community suggests that smaller may just keep getting bigger.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Medium and Message

At MacWorld yesterday, Apple introduced the new MacBook Air, an ultra-thin laptop that incorporates many features developed for the much smaller iPhone, including three that will easily have implications for any future iReader, particularly on the touchpad. First, it downloads and plays music and film. Second, Air is totally wireless (picture the Apple techies punning as they developed the device). Imagine downloading any of the 2 million books Google is now digitizing directly to an iReader. Third, the screen text, graphics and sound allow manipulation of text and graphics. To increase font size, you put your thumb and index finger on the touchpad and simply draw them apart. To reduce the size, you do the opposite. To move to the next page on a web site, you swipe a finger across the touchpad (imagine the ease of turning pages in a book: no need to lick your finger, like in the old days).

But will the future ebook have pages?, whose approach already seems outdated, included a transitional technology that made the electronic page seem as if it were turning like a traditional paper one, complete with the sound of rustling. We’re beyond the need for accommodation in transition. Even the discussion of whether ebooks are the wave of the future seems to be over. In ten years, what will have replaced e-ink?

With the domination of technology, for those who continue to read older books, everything from Homer to Steinbeck, written for the printed book (our versions of Homer were most likely changed when it was written down), how will the consumption of the book itself change when read on future devices? I used to lead discussions of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and when we neared the end, I would ask the participants how they knew they were getting to the end, after 3,300 pages. They suggested many text-based ideas, but the real reason was that there were no more pages or volumes. By approaching the end of the physical object, their reading of the story changed, even though they hadn’t realized it. How is a multimedia Iliad “read” differently from its oral or written versions?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

David Markson as Artistic Google

Our daily reading habits—and almost all literate people read something daily—will influence our literary reading habits, just as watching television, surfing the Internet, or playing video games affect our reading habits today, altering our visual and aural musculature and the parts of the brain trained to read. Automated collecting replaces browsing as a literary activity or research tool, which does not in itself diminish either experience. It does, however, alter the experience by presenting a different “interface”, generally a long list of possible and related bits of information. After reading Elizabeth Swanstrom’s discussion of reading as gathering on the Transliteracies site, I was struck my its relevance to the work of one of my favorite contemporary writers, David Markson.

Over the years, Markson has whittled his story line from single, disaffected, possible lone humans talking about their possible fictional relationship with great artists to one shadowy “narrator” who simply repeats (or perhaps creates) the work of great artists and thinkers of the past and present. His most recent work, The Last Novel, is purportedly a compendium of writings, sayings, quotations, and paraphrases put together by Author, who may or may not be Markson (probably not). The book’s layout: no entry more than five lines. In “googling” David Markson, I came up with 33,700 hits, none of which was more than five lines (full disclosure: I didn’t go beyond about five screens to check). In both cases—Markson and Google—many entry lines were of uneven length.

To create his book, Markson has “collected work” from dozens of well-known people from various centuries and given them to us, his readers, in what was to me an unrecognizable hierarchy (if there is one at all: anyone have any ideas?). Which quotation is more important than the other? After searching through the vast storehouses available to him does Markson as “gatherer” have a hierarchy? And what the heck is Google’s hierarchy when IT does its own gathering, in a matter of microseconds, rather than years? Markson’s Boolean may be more advanced than a simple Google search but is our comfort with (even affection for) his book a reflection of our love of search engines?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Literary Marketing

Question: how will literary books be marketed in the future? Marketing, for most literary publishers, is conservative and traditional, with small investment based on the expected small returns (or figments of large returns). Particularly for literary works, it’s often hard to see how the investment of, say, $25,000 or $50,000 could make a long-term difference in most literary books or authors, even though the book itself may have great literary merit. And where would such capital come from? A publisher once told me that his market research is “I publish the book and I figure out the market for that book when I see how many people buy it.” Not too many industries work this way, especially in the “long tail” era. Some of this has changed. The Literary Ventures Fund, where I am on the board, for example, is trying a few new measures. Both small and large publishing businesses have begun to embrace more contemporary market research and techniques since, although the initial investment of both financial and human capital may seem high, subsequent ones amortize them.
With the possibility now of targeted marketing, small marketing, guerrilla marketing, viral marketing, market research, and the vast opportunities to take advantage of the digital environment, perhaps the sensibility of the future will also shift from in-house publishing personnel making all the decisions to focus-group-based decisions, or even broader. If, as analysts suggest, the digital age brings with it a loss of personal autonomy, replaced perhaps by small-group autonomy, perhaps open source marketing campaigns could result. Yet if the literary novel in particular is the last bastion of the individual voice, can marketing based on a multiple perspective broaden its audience? And could the unthinkable happen: the editing (or even creation) of a literary novel based on early e-list feedback, the way one develops cars and edits movies? Forget print-on-demand. How about write-on-demand?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Past as Prologue

This is the first entry of the National Book Foundation’s blog on the future of literary reading. The blog’s purpose is to gather information and ideas in various fields that are having, or will have, an impact on literary reading: the sociology of (literary) reading, the neuroscience of (literary) reading, the marketing of literary work, delivery systems, educational approaches, and innovative projects that cultivate a passion for literature. I hope that, in the future, guest bloggers with expertise in a variety of fields will post to the blog, by their own suggestion or my invitation. In the end, we should achieve a cross-disciplinary digest.

Perhaps the best way to begin this type of broad-based discussion is to note the ongoing lament over literary reading’s decline. In the late December issue of The New Yorker, writer Caleb Crain outlined the various studies to that effect—an interesting acknowledgment since the magazine is, after all, printed matter to be read—as part of a review of Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and The Squid, a book-length analysis of the neuroscience of reading, a field that seems to grow in inverse proportion to the rate of literary reading. Proust also appeared in Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist, making Marcel 2007’s trade-book neuroscience hero, perhaps besting even brain-man Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia, ‘though not in sales.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, when the U.S. economy seemed to give way to the Japanese model, commentators generally fell into two camps, called “declinists” and “revivalists”, ‘though one would be hard-pressed to find any revivalists for literary reading, except perhaps for the evangelistic digital crowd. Decreased literary reading has been a topic of conversation for decades, and Wolf notes the various studies that reach back to the beginning of the century. The sociology of reading also took center stage last year with the publication in English of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which most reviewers took lightly, but which had a lot to say about the prestige of reading à Pierre Bourdieu. Then there were the studies. The National Endowment for the Arts produced its second study on reading in four years, entitled To Read or Not To Read, which, despite its limitations, focused attention on the subject. Last year Sony introduced the Sony Reader, which they claim has sold lots. Amazon recently introduced the Kindle, which is oversubscribed, and rumors abound that Apple will soon emerge with the iReader, especially since lots of people are reading literature on their iPhones. All the major publishers are digitizing their front- and backlists, awaiting the holy day of the great e-reader. Important blogs like If:Book foster discussion of technology and reading. In the end, perhaps our idea of literary reading (and writing) will have to change as the technologists and neuroscientists weigh in. Perhaps this has already begun. The pages of Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions are visually structured like web pages.

Please comment on any or all of this, since ideas for future posts will be culled from the comments section.