Digital Publishing vs. the Gutenberg press

I remember a fascinating article. Three years ago, a legendary magazine editor tracked down 10 professional authors, and asked them a simple question: “Is the net good for writers?”

“Over a billion people can deliver their text to a very broad public,” he wrote at the time — but how does it affect those people who actually sell their writing for a living? “Writing as a special talent became obsolete in the 19th century,” one writer had told him in 2002. “The bottleneck was publishing…”

With the popularity of the Kindle, it’s an even better question, since writers are not just competing with the internet, but with the self-published ebooks of amateurs. Author Erik Davis (also a writer for Wired, Bookforum, and The Village Voice) had remembered that in the mid-90s, “I got paid pretty good for a youngster — generally much better than I get paid now, when my career sometimes looks more and more like a hobby…” But he also noted that his career is “less driven by external measures of what a ‘successful’ writing career looks like,” and he’d enjoyed spending his time writing about off-beat topics like mystical and counter-cultural threads in both technology and the media.

But he also thinks technology is changing the kinds of things we end up reading, creating a bigger demand for smaller articles — and a much bigger market for “opinion”. And author Mark Dery, author of Cyberculture at the End of the Century, also seemed to agree about the shorter article sizes, complaining that today, “information overload and time famine encourage a sort of flat, depthless style, indebted to online blurblets, that’s spreading like kudzu across the landscape of American prose.” Yes, things are more democratic now, Dery believes, but that’s brought good changes as well as bad.

“Skimming reader comments on Amazon, I never cease to be amazed by the arcane expertise lurking in the crowd; somebody, somewhere, knows everything about something, no matter how mind-twistingly obscure. But this sea change — and it’s an extraordinary one — is counterbalanced by the unhappy fact that off-the-shelf blogware and the comment thread make everyone a critic or, more accurately, make everyone think they’re a critic, to a minus effect.

We’re drowning in yak, and it’s getting harder and harder to hear the insightful voices through all the media cacophony. Oscar Wilde would be just another forlorn blogger out on the media asteroid belt in our day, constantly checking his SiteMeter’s Average Hits Per Day and Average Visit Length.”

Dery’s ultimate conclusion? In these complicated and chaotic times, “the future of writing and reading is deeply uncertain.” And some of his thoughts were echoed by Adam Parfrey, the publisher at Feral House books (and the author of Apocalypse Culture). “I like the internet and computers for their ability to make writers of nearly everyone,” Parfrey writes. “I don’t like the internet and computers for their ability to make sloppy and thoughtless writers of nearly everyone.”

But at the end of the day, Parfrey seems to reach a more positive view. “Overall, it’s an exciting world,” he writes. “I’m glad to be alive at this time.”

If I could, I’d print out the article and send it in a time capsule to the year 2110 — since each author had an interesting but subtly different perspective. Douglas Rushkoff wrote that “The book industry isn’t what it used to be, but I don’t blame that on the internet. It’s really the fault of media conglomeration. Authors are no longer respected in the same way, books are treated more like magazines with firm expiration dates, and writers who simply write really well don’t get deals as quickly as disgraced celebrities or get-rich-quick gurus…”

And John Shirley, author of The Eclipse Trilogy, noted that in today’s book publishing industry, “Editors are no longer permitted to make decisions on their own. They must consult marketing departments before buying a book. Book production has become ever more like television production: subordinate to trendiness, and the anxiety of executives.”

But Shirley also added that “in my opinion this is partly because a generation intellectually concussed by the impact of the internet and other hyperactive, attention-deficit media, is assumed, probably rightly, to want superficial reading.” And he wasn’t the only author who had unkind thoughts for technology itself. Michael Simmons, a former editor for The National Lampoon, wrote “We’re a planet of marks getting our bank accounts skimmed by Bill Gates and Steven Jobs… Furthermore, I get nauseous thinking of the days, weeks, months I’ve spent on the phone with tech support.”

It’s one of the meatiest articles I’ve ever read about writing, publishing, and the state of the modern author. But having said that, I still thought that Edward Champion had perhaps the ultimate comeback.

“If the internet was committing some kind of cultural genocide for any piece of writing that was over twenty pages, why then has the number of books published increased over the past fifteen years?”

Advertisements

The Day the Kindle Died

April 19, 2010

I’d been reading a free Charles Dickens novel — Hard Times — and realized I was more interested in learning some details about Charles Dickens’ life. Charles Dickens died in 1870. My Kindle died on April 18, 2010…

I’d pressed the search button on my Kindle, and then used my favorite shortcut — typing @wiki to begin a search on Wikipedia. And soon I was reading another page of trivia about Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop straight from Wikipedia.


Dickens fans were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who may have read the last installment in Britain), “Is Little Nell alive?”

In 2007, many newspapers claimed the excitement at the release of the last volume The Old Curiosity Shop was the only historical comparison that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I hit the back button, but my wireless connection had blipped out. The Kindle wasn’t even able to reload the page about Charles Dickens (which I’d already been reading). Frustrated, I pressed the Back key, and the Home key, but nothing happened. I even tried pressing Alt-P — to at least see if I could make it play music!

“She’s not answering my helm,” I told my girlfriend — doing my best impersonation of either Captain Kirk or an old British sailing captain. I turned my Kindle off, but even that didn’t affect its screen. It continued displaying the blank beginning of the Wikipedia page which it hadn’t been able to download.

My beloved Kindle…was dead.

Come back tomorrow to find out what happened next!


(Oh boy. My first blog post with a cliff-hanger ending…)

By the way, there’s a fascinating bit of trivia about the “Author You Can’t Read on Your Kindle.”

An author you won't see on your Kindle screensaver

William Saroyan was a first-generation Armenian-American, who have a custom of “inviting over relatives and friends, and providing them with a generously overflowing table of fruits, nuts, seeds, and other foods” (according to Wikipedia). There’s even a scene in a movie that Saroyan later helped to write — “The Human Comedy” — in which an Armenian woman offers the same courtesy to young Mickey Rooney when he comes to her house to deliver a telegram. I think she even says, “I give-a you candy.”

If you recognize that line, it’s because it’s also used in a famous song by Rosemary Clooney — which was based on the same Armenian-American custom.

Come on-a my house, my house
I’m gonna give you…candy.
Come on-a my house, my house
I’m gonna give you everything.

Coincidence? Hardly. William Saroyan co-wrote the lyrics in 1939 (though it didn’t become a hit until Rosemary Clooney recorded it nearly 12 years later in 1951.) And his co-author on the song was his cousin, a man named Ross Bagdadsarian, who 19 years later…created Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Interestingly, 1939 was the year that William Saroyan declined a Pulitzer Prize. That same year, he and his cousin were writing these lyrics.

Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house I’m gonna give a you
Peach and pear and I love your hair ah
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you Easta-egg

An author you won't see on your Kindle screensaver
Ever read an old novel, and realize how different its style is?

Maybe it’s a romantic novel from the 1800s, or a rambling post-modern narrative from Ernest Hemingway. But around the 1940s, you get what I think of as “The Great American Novelists”. That is, people who were consciously setting out to write glorious, high-stakes pageants about life itself.

I was a big fan of Thomas Wolfe, and finally got around to the watching a breathtaking production of a Thornton Wilder play. But this all brings me back to the man I now think of as “the lost novelist”.

Because you can’t buy his books for the Kindle.

William Saroyan grew up in Central California, and later depicted all the joys and dramas of small-town life in “The Human Comedy,” a devastating, bittersweet look at one family during World War II. He was always creating rich settings for touching stories about simple people facing an extraordinary crisis. The jacket of one book calls him “one of the permanently significant names in modern American fiction.”

Today I went to a public library about three hours from where Saroyan grew up, and I pulled one of his books off the shelf. It was published in 1951, and I’d never heard of it. (It’s called Rock Wagram – the story of a Fresno bartender who later in life struggles with the unexpected pitfalls of success.) As I held the book in my hand, I thought: this is something you can’t do on a Kindle.

You can’t read this.

Every man is a good man in a bad world. No man changes the world. Every man himself changes from good to bad or from bad to good, back and forth, all his life, and then dies. But no matter how or why or when a man changes, he remains a good man in a bad world, as he himself knows. All his life a man fights death, and then at last loses the fight, always having known he would. Loneliness is every man’s portion, and failure. The man who seeks to escape from loneliness is a lunatic. The man who does not laugh at these things is a bore. But the lunatic is a good man, and so is the fool, and so is the bore, as each of them knows. Every man is innocent, and in the end a lonely lunatic, a lonely fool, or a lonely bore.

But there is meaning to a man. There is meaning to the life every man lives.

Saroyan goes on to say it’s “a secret meaning.”

And then the novel begins…

That’s the second time in a row that’s happened! The screensaver is of an author whose books I’m reading on the Kindle!

This time, it was Alexandar Dumas. (I’m reading The Three Musketeers). And boy, does he look happy about it…

Yes, I’m looking up more ways to hack the Kindle’s screensaver images. And yes, I want to replace them with my own favorite authors. But as January 1 rolls away, it reminds me that this isn’t the first time I’ve done this. In fact, I hacked another set of author images 10 years ago — before the Kindle was even invented.

And I think the two experiences sprang from the exact same impulse…

Everyone has their own personal favorite authors. But when you’re selling a device — whether it’s a Kindle or a calendar — you just have to guess. The Kindle guessed Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austin, and Emily Dickinson (among others). And in 2000 I’d bought a “Great Names In Literature” calendar that had made — pretty much the same choices.

But they’d left out my favorite authors. (Where was William Faulkner? And how about Norman Mailer? Man, that guy was a hoot…) I also wished they’d included Jack Kerouac on my calendar. And then, I did something about it.

I went to the public library and photocopied giant pictures of my favorite authors — including Faulkner, Kerouac, and Mailer. And then I pasted them directly into my calendar — over pictures of my own least-favorite authors. (Don’t ask who!) I take my calendar far too seriously — I believe it’s a January ritual consecrating hopes for the year to come — or something like that. So I was hoping I’d end up writing my own book that year — and I wanted the right authors looking down from my calendar!

I could always do that to the Kindle’s screensaver images, but I won’t — because I really like the Kindle’s screensaver images. But I still might add a couple of my personal favorites into the mix as well.

What a nice moment. I’ve been reading Around the World in 80 Days — Jules Verne’s original novel. In the next chapter Phileas Fogg launches his trip, so I pick up my Kindle, but its screen-saver’s on.

And it’s showing me Jules Verne!

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. One of Verne’s other books is #46 on the Kindle best-seller list. (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – written in 1870.) It’s been in the top 100 for 268 days.

But I’m guessing that’s not the reason Amazon included his picture as a Kindle screensaver. Jules Verne is one of those authors who symbolizes the reach of literature (since he famously wrote about submarines and space travel before either of those things was actually invented!) I’m guessing Amazon chose his image as a Kindle screensaver before they’d realized just how popular Verne would be for their digital editions.

But also, Jules Verne just looks like a novelist. (Wild French hair brushed back like he’s facing a gale — plus an old-timey bow tie and a classy 19th-century suit.)

But it got me thinking about just how exactly does Amazon pick the authors for their screensavers. So far I’ve also seen Emily Dickinson. I felt kind of sad. I remembered that she’d lived a lonely life — never left the village where she lived, and often never even leaving her house. (And I was surprised they’d used a picture of young Emily Dickinson. Or maybe she just looked young…)

And, yeah, when Oscar Wilde came up, I just assumed that my Kindle was haunted…

Sometimes it’s not an author — sometimes it’s just a cool image And sometimes, it’s a tip – which are actually pretty useful. (I didn’t know I could type my way to selections on the home page if I sorted the books by title…) 

And yes, there is a way to change your Kindle screensaver