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France vs. Google, Amazon, and Apple

posted January 21, 2010

Posted by Thomas Riggs in Bookselling E-books books publishing technology world literature

Nicolas Sarkozy - Meeting in Toulouse for the ...

French President Nicolas Sarkozy; image by guillaumepaumier via Flickr

Imagine the plight of the French. They want to protect their language and culture. They have what many consider to be one of the most beautiful languages, and their literary history is rich. From Molière to Flaubert to Sartre, the French have given much to the world.

Unfortunately for those who think literature is more than mere Internet “content” to attract advertising dollars, the times are changing quickly. Google is in the process of digitizing every book it can (admittedly to the great benefit of people who don’t have the resources otherwise to obtain certain texts), and soon Google and other American companies, such as Amazon and Apple, might dictate the publishing terms of books both old and new worldwide.

Faced with the possibility of losing control of its literary heritage, the French are mulling over possibilities. Even the conservative French president Nicolas Sarkozy—who has been called “Sarko l’Américain” for his pro-American sentiments—is concerned. He recently said of Google, “We won’t let ourselves be stripped of our heritage to the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is.” He said France would finance its own book digitization program.

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What’s That Smell?

posted November 23, 2009

Posted by Erin Brown in books

As the digital revamp of our reading lives surges remorselessly forward, defenders of “the old technology” inevitably cite the tactile, or sensuous, quality of paper books as a pleasure that cannot be quantified, much less duplicated by an e-reader. The physicality of a paper book, especially an old one, they say, carries with it a certain mystique, having passed through the hands of generations of readers, its pages becoming weathered and worn.


And what is the most evocative aspect of this sensory allure, the hallmark of a book’s longevity and import? It’s the smell, of course—that musty, dusty, indescribable funk that wafts out of the open tome to remind you: these ideas were forged in another time; you, dear reader, are but a single traveler over the vast continent of human intellectual history.

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The Latest in Library Science

posted September 8, 2009

Posted by Erin Brown in books technology trends

 Cushing Academy, a prep school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, has decided that its traditional library is way too yesterday. As reported by the Boston Globe, Headmaster James Tracy believes paper books have become antiquated, in the way that scrolls once became obsolete with the advent of the printing press. What’s more, books take up too much space. So the 144-year-old institution is getting rid of its collection of more than 20,000 books, becoming one of the first schools in the nation to convert almost completely to digital media resources. “We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology,” Tracy said.

The Cushing library will be replaced by a $500,000 “learning center” that includes three large flat-screen TVs for projecting Internet-based information ($42,000); laptop-compatible study carrels ($20,000); and 18 electronic readers from Amazon and Sony ($10,000). Learning will also be facilitated by a $50,000 coffee shop (to be built in the spot where that old dinosaur, the reference desk, used to be) featuring a $12,000 espresso machine.

empty shelves

Outcry is not just from bibliophiles. Even many Kindle enthusiasts and other techy types are chagrined by the sweeping nature of the Cushing decision, wondering why the school could not have struck a balance between books and new media.

Notable among those who see the book purge as “a tremendous loss for students” is William Powers, media critic for the National Journal and author of “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal” (a 75-page position paper written in 2006, when Powers was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy).  In it he argues that paper is not just a vessel for content, or an old human habit, but rather a sophisticated technology that fosters a cognitive reading experience not available through electronic media. According to Powers,

There are modes of learning and thinking that at the moment are only available from actual books. There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that’s almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author’s ideas.

I’m inclined to agree, but then I think you can hear music better on vinyl, too—while you sit on the couch admiring the artwork on the gatefold cover.

The Kindle and a Talking Head

posted September 4, 2009

Posted by Mariko Fujinaka in E-books books technology textbook publishing

David Byrne speaking at the 2006 Future of Mus...
Image via Wikipedia

I have long been a fan of David Byrne. Not only do I consider him to be a genius artist and musician but he also seems to be a thoughtful and keen observer. I was thus quite curious when I discovered he tried out the Amazon Kindle DX and blogged about his experiences.

It appears my assessment of Byrne as “thoughtful” may have been correct, as he goes into a lot of detail about features on the Kindle DX he liked and didn’t like so much. There are no extremes, either; he didn’t think the Kindle DX was the most incredible invention ever, and he didn’t think it was a piece of garbage. Byrne also seems to know quite a bit about other ereaders on the market, and he comments with authority about the available formats.

All in all, Byrne enjoyed using the Kindle DX. Things he didn’t particularly care for, such as the absence of a backlight or its inability to display newspaper or magazine photos well, were not deal breakers. In fact, he offered positive spins on these points: the sacrifice of a backlight means you get an impressive battery life, and if you load your Kindle DX primarily with text, who cares if the graphics don’t look red hot?

Byrne also imagines how the future of publishing will change as ereaders become more commonplace. For the Kindle DX, which offers a larger screen than the regular Kindle and is designed to accommodate textbooks, Byrne muses, “If those textbooks can be sold as weightless $10 downloads the students and their parents will cheer, and the chiropractors will cry.” Again, though, Byrne is positive. Though he believes publishers will grumble at the lower prices ebook readers will demand, he says publishers will benefit from the reduction in distribution costs.

An eBook Reality Check

posted September 3, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in E-books books publishing technology trends

So much talk these days about ebooks. So much speculation, in both despair and excitement. Do we need a reality check?

Here are a few facts to keep in mind.

According to Bowker, in 2008 ebooks represented only 0.6 percent of all books sold in the United States. The majority of buyers were men, and more than half were between the ages of 18 and 34. This year ebook sales will still be less than 2 percent of the U.S. book market.

Here’s something else to ponder.

Most people prefer paper. According to a recent survey, only 37 percent of Americans are interested in buying an ereader. Here in France I’m often at the beach and see one person after another stetched out in the sun reading a paperback. Not an ereader in sight.

Yes, ebooks are likely a big part of publishing’s future, but for now dead-tree books, as some people disparagingly call them, are how almost everyone reads novels, biographies, cookbooks, self-help books, and titles in every other publishing category, and that’s not going to change overnight. For many people the battle between Amazon and Sony (and other smaller manufacturers) is taking place on some sparsely populated island of technogeeks.

Not to be insulting. I’m about to buy an ereader myself, and I’ve already picked out the first book I want to read on it (L’élégance du hérisson by Muriel Barbery, published by Les Editions Gallimard; in the United States The Elegance of a Hedgehog published by Europe Editions). But when I think of ebooks, I’m often reminded of this video, the funniest in my opinion of the mock battles produced by Green Apple Books.

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