I always try to mix it up here on Litkicks, and I wrote about digital reading just yesterday. But this is an eventful week, so here's a quick wrap of some big new developments.
1. Amazon has announced the new Kindle, and I think it's finally a winner. I called the Kindle a "loser, loser, loser" the day it hit the streets, and I have explained my complaints with the device a few times since then. I saw three problems:
- At $400, it was way too expensive.
- It was too big to fit in a pocket.
- The Kindle format was proprietary.
Why do I call the new Kindle a winner? Because Amazon listened to me. They solved all three problems:
A little less than three years ago, Jeff Bezos of Amazon became the human face of the much-anticipated e-book revolution with the launch of the Kindle. The Kindle's launch was big news, but big sales did not follow, and the book industry gradually realized that software, not hardware, was the key to popular acceptance of digital reading. A complex equation of factors -- format, presentation, compatibility, pricing, DRM, rights and royalties -- would have to fall into place before the book publishing industry could revolutionize itself. Last week a well-known literary agent named Andrew Wylie made a big move to slash through the confusion and establish a new approach to e-book publishing. The reaction from industry insiders was swift and severe. Andrew Wylie is now the human face of the e-book revolution.
Many of the articles linked above vilify Wylie, for one big reason: his partnership with Amazon cuts traditional book publishers completely out of the equation. Wylie's company is a literary agency -- they represent writers directly, for a standard (usually 15%) agency fee. In the new arrangement, Wylie's own newly formed company Odyssey Editions will publish books directly with Amazon, using the Kindle format (which can be read not only on a Kindle device but also on computers, iPhones, Droid phones, etc.). There are exactly two parties in this venture: the literary agent (Wylie) and the bookseller (Amazon). The publisher has no place. No Random House, no Penguin, no Macmillan, no Simon & Schuster. Just an author, a store ... and, hopefully, a reader with money to spend. That's how the new system works.
1. I love it that the "Penguin paperback look" has become a design meme. BoingBoing points out that a set of album covers by Ty Lettau of Sound Of Design resembles the retro Penguin look. This calls to mind a more explicit recent implementation of the same idea by LittlePixel (great work, but there are way too many Simple Minds albums here).
2. Some of my friends in the book business think literary publishing is about to crash like a lead zeppelin. There was a tremendous uproar in the book world today: influential literary agent Andrew Wylie (Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, the estates of William S. Burroughs, John Cheever, John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov) has made a bold, unprecedented e-books deal with Amazon that will give Amazon and its Kindle format exclusive access to many important e-book titles. Exclusive access has (thankfully) never not part of the literary publishing industry tradition, and the major publishers don't like being cut out of the profit equation, which is why CEO John Sargent of Macmillan (who is emerging as an unofficial spokesman for the publishing industry when it battles with Amazon) and spokesperson Stuart Applebaum of Random House are planning to put up a fight. Many of my twitter friends seem to be lining up on the Macmillan/Random House side, objecting to Wylie and Amazon's audacious move. Me? I'll walk the line a little longer. I like audacity, and God knows the e-book marketplace can use a kick in the ass.
Worst of all was Jens Von Bretzel, a slim, unkempt guy with an army jacket, a luxuriant chabon of black hair, and a "to hell with this crap" demeanor that he barely concealed as he read from 'The Counter Life', his debut novel about a barista with a girlfriend who was too good for him, a future that was drifting towards oblivion, and a lousy attitude that kept getting him into trouble. The novel was based on the decade Von Bretzel had spent working at a Starbucks in Williamsburg. Von Bretzel's work was so much like the stories I was writing that I half suspected he had hacked into my computer and plagiarized my life. Except that Von Bretzel's work was more confident than mine, as if he considered his life worthy of committing to print, while to me, just about every aspect of my own existence seemed wholly unliterary -- how often had agents told me that my protagonists never did anything, that they always waited for things to happen to them?
Almost every character in Adam Langer's very funny, very expert satire The Thieves of Manhattan is either a frustrated writer or a successful one. The book's likable hero writes sensitive short stories that nobody cares to publish. He's bursting with jealousy over the success of a ridiculously popular memoirist who resembles James Frey, and he's so accustomed to defeat that he's barely surprised when his own girlfriend hits it big with a debut novel and leaves him for the memoirist. But literary striving is a complete, inescapable way of life to this character; even his vocabulary is riddled with references to the pantheon of popular and classic authors he yearns to join. A "chabon" (as in the quote above) is a wavy haircut, a "gogol" is an overcoat, and "franzens" and "eckleburgs" describe two different varieties of eyeglasses.
I see posters around New York City advertising "LEARN HOW TO GET PUBLISHED". This seems to me a rather indirect goal; a more useful advertisement would say "LEARN HOW TO GET READ".
Of course, a writer yearns to be published and widely read, but only an innocent writer believes that publishing a book guarantees a real readership, or a long-term career. A look at Bookscan or any other source for book sales statistics shows that most literary novels by new authors sell less than 1000 copies. You can spend years working to get that first book out, but if it fails to make a splash it may be quickly forgotten, along with your glorious future in the literary field.
There was a lot of excitement in the e-book world this week after both Barnes and Noble's Nook and Amazon's Kindle slashed their prices to help them compete against the iPad, and against each other. For some reason, this has also led a few book industry pundits to suddenly declare that the Kindle is the big winner in the e-book technology face-off.
Oh, how I wish I could short the Kindle's stock. (Yes, I know I could short-sell Amazon's stock, but that's not the same thing). In fact, I'd short any e-reader's stock. I've lived through this kind of technology/money hype before, and I know how hollow the hype can be. Like the famous dot-com boom of the 1990s, the current explosion of interest in e-book technology is not based on actual consumer interest, but rather on the hope for a financial bonanza. How can you tell when a great new trend is a bunch of hype? When more people write articles about a new product than actually use or buy the product, that's a pretty big sign.
New York City's Book Expo America conference, where thousands of publishing industry professionals gather each year, takes place on Manhattan's West Side riverfront. The smoked glass walls of the Jacob Javits Center seem to contain an entire bustling city, but those who step outside and walk behind the building to make a phone call or enjoy some fresh air see a different vista: the mighty Hudson River, the modest cliffs of Hoboken and Weehawken across the way in Jersey, and a series of picteresque rotted piers, the only reminder of a shipping industry that once dominated Manhattan's riverside. The Titanic would have anchored near here in 1912, if if it had completed its first voyage.
Pessimistic pundits like Garrison Keillor might see a metaphor for the future of book publishing in these fallen piers, but, thankfully, many other industry observers are rejecting this type of gloomy nonsense for the craven self-flattery it really is (all people like Garrison Keillor and Philip Roth are really saying, when they claim that literature has no future, is that their generation was more sensitive and refined than any future generation can possibly be). Myself, I relish Book Expo every year as a chance to see book publishing's living past and exciting future as a single vast swarm. The conference brings out the veterans and the journeymen along with the eager upstarts and interns. Staring at the river, I see a slender elderly man who, I fantasize, might have once bolted drinks with John O'Hara, negotiated contracts with Jacqueline Susann, sipped cocktails with Kurt Vonnegut. He looks maybe 70 or 75 years old, his craggy face ravaged by plastic surgery, his thin hair an improbable red against a pale sun-scorched scalp. He's wearing a robins-egg blue seersucker summer suit with a folded handkerchief in his pocket and a yellow tie.
According to the research, which examines eBook reading and purchase behavior from print book readers who recently purchased either an eBook reader or an eBook, eBook sales went from 1.5% of all book sales in Q1 2009 to 5% in Q1 2010, with 33% of eBook buyers entering the market in the last six months. "We are expecting exponential growth," said Gallagher.
I'm just throwing this out there, because I'm at Book Expo where everybody's buzzing about e-books and the impact they'll have on the always turbulent publishing industry. I'm going to do a full #BEA10 wrap-up later, and tell you about the all fun I'm having (and some new novelists I've enjoyed meeting) at this crazy annual convention. But for now I just want to repeat something I said to a friend on Tuesday, because I think this is an important point about the future of print and electronic book publishing.
I want e-books to succeed. I have always been an e-book advocate. But there's a big problem with the product model, and I don't understand why the book publishing industry is now twisting itself up into a state of hysteria about e-book pricing and piracy and distribution without addressing this big problem with the product model. The problem is this: consumers don't like e-books.
Behold: a thing. Whatever else it is in this world, it is a thing. It may or may not have a name, it may or may not be identifiably unique, but it is an object, an instance of a class. When we talk about the future of the book (and, well, a lot of people are talking about the future of the book) I like to mention a word that I encountered a few years ago when I worked for a company in the litigation sector that made advanced search software: "immutability".
My job was to be, boringly enough, this company's expert in the PDF format, and I know a whole lot about PDF files. One thing I know is that PDFs are immutable, which is to say that they can't be changed. You can share or save a PDF file, but you can't edit or modify one. You could hack one, if you really wanted to, but doing so violates the basic principle of the PDF format: it is an unchangeable thing. This is why PDFs (and not, say, Microsoft Word documents) are the standard format for legal contracts.
Books, I believe, are immutable. Many entrepreneurs are doing (or planning to do) exciting things with the basic structure of the book -- Richard Nash of Cursor and Hugh McGuire of BookOven come to mind. A recent display of a possible future issue of Sports Illustrated rendered in the emerging HTML5 standard shows similar ingenuity with the familiar structure of magazines. But an issue of a magazine, just like a book, must be immutable -- it is a distinct thing, an object, an instance of a class. As we zoom through time and space with the next generation of browsers, will the boundaries of a text's identity itself become fluid?
2. It's very weird that attempted Times Square terrorist Faisal Shahzad left a DVD of the anomie-striven movie Up In The Air to be found in his home. Novelist Walter Kirn, who we recently interviewed about the film of his book, wrote this on Twitter: "times sq. bomber leaving behind copy of 'up in the air' reminds me of chapman, lennon's killer, and catcher in the rye. icky feeling now."