Tag Archive for Barnes & Noble

NYT on Amazon’s Prices

Just a quick post to direct your attention to an article by David Streitfeld, published on Friday, July 5th in the physical edition of the New York Times (and published online a day earlier).  It concerns Amazon.com’s prices, specifically with respect to independent and university press books.

I’m calling attention to the piece for several reasons.  First, it raises important questions about Amazon’s role as a cultural intermediary in the wake of Borders’ demise,  Barnes & Noble’s slide, and the ongoing shakeout of independent bookstores.  Second, I happen to be quoted in the story.  Here’s what I had to say, echoing some of my points in Chapters 2 and 3 of Late Age, in addition to the Preface to the paperback edition:

“Amazon is doing something vitally important for book culture by making books readily available in places they might not otherwise exist,” said Ted Striphas, an associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington. “But culture is best when it is robust and decentralized, not when there is a single authority that controls the bulk of every transaction.”

When Mr. Striphas’s book, “The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control,” first appeared in paperback in 2011, Amazon sold it for $17.50, the author said. Now it is $19.

“There’s not much competition to sell my book,” Mr. Striphas said. “The conspiracy theorist would say Amazon understands this.”

Needless to say, the rest of the piece is worth the read, too.  My thanks to David for giving me the opportunity to speak to this important issue.

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Friends of Art Bookshop at Indiana University

IMPORTANT UPDATE: On Tuesday, April 16, 2013, I received an email from Laurel Cornell, President of the Indiana University Friends of Art, stating that the IU Friends of Art Bookshop ”must close because its existence violates the contract which Indiana University has with Barnes & Noble for the sale of books.”  Cornell indicated that Friends of Art generates “a significant portion of its income” from the Bookshop.  That income, in turn, goes to support “the programs of the Indiana University School of Fine Arts and the IU Art Museum by providing over $30,000 every year in scholarships and grants,” according to the FOA webpage.

Today my local newspaper, the Bloomington Herald-Times, is reporting that the closure of the FOA Bookstore will not happen after all, and that the whole controversy was the result of a misunderstanding: “Leaders of the Friends of Art organization came away from a recent meeting believing the store violates an existing contract between IU and Barnes & Noble. That contract has Barnes & Noble College Booksellers LLC paying IU for the right to be the university’s only textbook supplier.  But an IU spokesman said Tuesday that the contract does not prohibit the art bookstore’s existence. And a Barnes & Noble representative said the company has no knowledge of the Friends of Art issue.”

The Indiana Daily Student offers a somewhat different account: “Mark Land, associate vice president of University Communications, said the situation is still being worked out.  ’We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen to the bookstore,’ Land said. ‘As of right now, no decision has been made on the fate of the store. Regardless of what ultimately happens, it won’t be a result of our contract agreement with Barnes & Noble.’”

The broader issue I addressed in my original post—the privatization of public universities—remains.  But for now, I am more hopeful today that the IU Friends of Art Bookstore will remain in operation on the Indiana University Campus.

I thank all of my readers for your support and interest in the issue.  I have taken down my original post and will provide additional updates should more details become available.  If you’d like to follow up-to-the-minute developments on your own, there’s also a “Save the Friends of Art Bookshop” Facebook group.

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E-Reading on a Schwinn

I just wrapped up an interview about Late Age, where my interlocutor asked me about my scholarly relationship to e-books.  It was such an intriguing question, because it forced me to admit to, and to begin working through, a contradiction with which I’ve wrestled privately for quite some time now: the amount I write about e-books is incommensurate with my consumption of them.  Or, to put it more straightforwardly, I haven’t read many e-books, despite the fact that I write about them all the time.

There you have it, then.  The cat’s out of the bag.  Truth be told, I’ve read exactly two e-books “cover to cover” (although we cannot exactly say that about them, can we?) since I began writing about the technology back in 2001: Keith Sawyer’s Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration; and Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning and Unfair Game.  Currently I’m halfway through the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs.  That brings the tally up to two-and-a-half, and it may be as high as three, four, or five once you’ve factored in all the sample chapters I’ve downloaded and read.

The question is, why have I kept my distance?  I’m not lazy — of that much I can assure you.  I’ve spent countless hours studying the designs, interfaces, capabilities, terms of use, and any number of other aspects of most major commercially available e-readers.  And I’m not one of those fly-by-night academics who picks up on some trend but has no personal investment in it.  I don’t read a lot of e-books because I can’t read a lot of e-books.  The technology as it currently exists is ill-equipped to handle my particular needs as a scholarly reader.

I’ll show you what I mean.  Below are three photos of a book — Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness — that my graduate students and I discussed two weeks ago in seminar.

 

The first shows the inner flyleaf, where I’ve created an index based on key ideas and themes from the text.  The second is the title page, where I’ve jotted down a brainstorm about the text in general.  The third shows another small index consisting of passages, themes, and so forth that I wanted to address specifically in class.

I know what you’re thinking: Kindle, Nook, and iBooks all allow you to take notes on a text, mark passages, and more.  You’re absolutely right.  The difference for me, though, is the way the form of a physical book allows you to organize this information, both spatially and temporally.  You’ll see, for instance, the double lines appearing in my index in the image at left.  That’s a “generational” marker for me, cuing me to notes I took upon rereading (and rereading and rereading…) the text.  This also then signals ideas and themes that were most recently on my mind, ones that I ought to be returning to in my current research.  Ditto the brainstorm page, which allows me to take notes on the text independent of any specific passage.  (Sometimes these pages of notes become quite elaborate for me, in fact.)

It’s an archival issue, I suppose, and as a scholar I have unusually specific archival needs when it comes to reading books.  And with this I realize that however much the Kindle, Nook, and iPad may be devices for readers (that’s the tagline of a marketing campaign for the e-ink Kindle), they’re actually designed for general or nonspecialist readers.

This isn’t really surprising, since to grow market share you want to capture as broad an audience as possible.  But beyond that, most people don’t need to read books like scholars.  In fact, that’s a reason why portable, paperback books became so popular in the late 19th century and again in the mid-to-late 20th century: books can actually be cheap and even disposable things to which readers might not ever return. Very few people want or need to treat them as sacred objects.

So why am I not a prolific e-reader?  I’ll put it this way: would you rather ride the Tour de France on a clunky, off-the-shelf Schwinn or a custom Italian racing bike?

I’m not drawing this analogy to be snooty.  As I’ve said, most people don’t need the expensive Italian racing bike.  It would be a complete waste of money, especially when most of the time you’re just out for a casual ride.  Instead, I’m trying to underscore how the mark of a good technology is that it seems to disappear for the user — something I discovered, incidentally, from reading the Kindle edition of the Steve Jobs biography.  The present generation of e-readers forces me to get caught up in and become frustrated with the technology — this in contrast to the technology of the physical book, which has more of a capacity to disappear for me, or at least work with me.

Maybe I’ll come around in the end, or maybe Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple will continue adding features to their devices so that they become more agreeable to specialist readers like me.  Until then, though, I’m sticking to atoms for serious reading and bits for fun.


P.S.  Please don’t forget to like the Late Age of Print Facebook page that I just launched!

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How Publishers Misunderstand Kindle

Last week, in a post entitled “The Book Industry’s Moneyball,” I blogged about the origins of my interest in algorithmic culture — the use of computational processes to sort, classify, and hierarchize people, places, objects, and ideas.  There I discussed a study published in 1932, the so-called “Cheney Report,” which imagined a highly networked book industry whose decisions were driven exclusively by “facts,” or in contemporary terms, “information.”

It occurred to me, in thinking through the matter more this week, that the Cheney Report wasn’t the only way in which I stumbled on to the topic of algorithmic culture.  Something else led me there was well — something more present-day.  I’m talking about the Amazon Kindle, which I wrote about in a scholarly essay published in the journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies (CCCS) back in 2010.  The title is “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  (You can read a precis of the piece here.)

The CCCS essay focused on privacy issues related to devices like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, which quietly relay information about what and how you’ve been reading back to their respective corporate custodians.  Since it appeared that’s become a fairly widespread concern, and I’d like to think my piece had something to do with nudging the conversation in that direction.

Anyway, in prepping to write the essay, a good friend of mine, M—-, suggested I read Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (New Riders, 2006).   It’s an astonishingly good book, one I would recommend highly to anyone who writes about digital technologies.

Greenfield - Everyware

I didn’t really know much about algorithms or information when I first read Everyware.  Of course, that didn’t stop me from quoting Greenfield in “The Abuses of Literacy,” where I made a passing reference to what he calls “ambient informatics.”  This refers to the idea that almost every aspect our world is giving off some type of information.  People interested in ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, want to figure out ways to detect, process, and in some cases exploit that information.  With any number of mobile technologies, from smart phones to Kindle, ubicomp is fast becoming an everyday part of our reality.

The phrase “ambient informatics” has stuck with me ever since I first quoted it, and on Wednesday of last week it hit me again like a lightning bolt.  A friend and I were talking about Google Voice, which, he reminded me, may look like a telephone service from the perspective of its users, but it’s so much more from the perspective of Google.  Voice gives Google access to hours upon hours of spoken conversation that it can then use to train its natural language processing systems — systems that are essential to improving speech-to-text recognition, voiced-based searching, and any number of other vox-based services.  Its a weird kind of switcheroo, one that most of us don’t even realize is happening.

So what would it mean, I wondered, to think about Kindle not from the vantage point of its users but instead from that of Amazon.com?  As soon as you ask this question, it soon becomes apparent that Kindle is only nominally an e-reader.  It is, like Google Voice, a means to some other, data-driven end: specifically, the end of apprehending the “ambient informatics” of reading.  In this scenario Kindle books become a hook whose purpose is to get us to tell Amazon.com more about who we are, where we go, and what we do.

Imagine what Amazon must know about people’s reading habits — and who knows what else?!  And imagine how valuable that information could be!

What’s interesting to me, beyond the privacy concerns I’ve addressed elsewhere, is how, with Kindle, book publishers now seem to be confusing means with ends.  It’s understandable, really.  As literary people they’re disposed to think about books as ends in themselves — as items people acquire for purposes of reading.  Indeed, this has long been the “being” of books, especially physical ones. With Kindle, however, books are in the process of getting an existential makeover.  Today they’re becoming prompts for all sorts of personal and ambient information, much of which then goes on to become proprietary to Amazon.com.

I would venture to speculate that, despite the success of the Nook, Barnes & Noble has yet to fully wake up to this fact as well.  For more than a century the company has fancied itself a bookseller — this in contrast to Amazon, which CEO Jeff Bezos once described as “a technology company at its core” (Advertising Age, June 1, 2005).  The one sells books, the other bandies in information (which is to say nothing of all the physical stuff Amazon sells).  The difference is fundamental.

Where does all this leave us, then?  First and foremost, publishers need to begin recognizing the dual existence of their Kindle books: that is, as both means and ends.  I suppose they should also press Amazon for some type of “cut” — informational, financial, or otherwise — since Amazon is in a manner of speaking free-riding on the publishers’ products.

This last point I raise with some trepidation, though; the humanist in me feels a compulsion to pull back.  Indeed it’s here that I begin to glimpse the realization of O. H. Cheney’s world, where matters of the heart are anathema and reason, guided by information, dictates virtually all publishing decisions.  I say this in the thick of the Kindle edition of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, where I’ve learned that intuition, even unbridled emotion, guided much of Jobs’ decision making.

Information may be the order of the day, but that’s no reason to overlook what Jobs so successfully grasped.  Technology alone isn’t enough.  It’s best when “married” to the liberal arts and humanities.

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The Book Industry’s Moneyball

Some folks have asked me how I came to the idea of algorithmic culture, the subject of my next book as well as many of my blog posts of late.  I usually respond by pointing them in the direction of chapter three of The Late Age of Print, which focuses on Amazon.com, product coding, and the rise digital communications in business.

It occurs to me, though, that Amazon wasn’t exactly what inspired me to begin writing about algorithms, computational processes, and the broader application of principles of scientific reason to the book world.  My real inspiration came from someone you’ve probably never heard of before (unless, of course, you’ve read The Late Age of Print). I’m talking about Orion Howard (O. H.) Cheney, a banker and business consultant whose ideas did more to lay the groundwork for today’s book industry than perhaps anyone’s.

Cheney was born in 1869 in Bloomington, Illinois.  For much of his adult life he lived and worked in New York State, where, from 1909-1911, he served as the State Superintendent of Banks and later as a high level executive in the banking industry.  In 1932 he published what was to be the first comprehensive study of the book business in the United States, the Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930-1931.  It almost immediately came to be known as the “Cheney Report” due to the author’s refusal to soft-peddle his criticisms of, well, pretty much anyone who had anything to do with promoting books in the United States — from authors and publishers on down to librarians and school teachers, and everyone else in between.

In essence, Cheney wanted to fundamentally rethink the game of publishing.  His notorious report was the book industry equivalent of Moneyball.

If you haven’t read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003), you should.  It’s about how the Oakland A’s, one of the most poorly financed teams in Major League Baseball, used computer algorithms (so-called “Sabermetrics“) to build a successful franchise by identifying highly skilled yet undervalued players.  The protagonists of Moneyball, A’s General Manager Billy Bean and Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, did everything in their power to purge gut feeling from the game.  Indeed, one of the book’s central claims is that assessments of player performance have long been driven by unexamined assumptions about how ball players ought to look, move, and behave, usually to a team’s detriment.

The A’s method for identifying talent and devising on-field strategy raised the ire of practically all baseball traditionalists.  It yielded insights that were so far afield of the conventional wisdom that its proponents were apt to seem crazy, even after they started winning big.

It’s the same story with The Cheney Report.  Consider this passage, where Cheney faults the book industry for operating on experience and intuition instead of a statistically sound “fact basis”:

Facts are the only basis for management in publishing, as they must be in any field.  In that respect, the book industry is painfully behind many others — both in facts relating to the industry as a whole and in facts of individual [publishing] houses….”Luck”; waiting for a best-seller; intuitive publishing by a “born publisher” — these must give way as the basis for the industry, for the sake of the industry and everybody in it….In too many publishing operations the theory seems to be that learning from experience means learning how to do a thing right by continuing to do it wrong (pp. 167-68).

This, more than 70 years before Moneyball!  And, like Beane and DePodesta, Cheney was raked over the coals by almost everyone in the industry he was criticizing.  They refused to listen to him, despite the fact that, in the throes of the Great Depression, most everything that had worked in the book industry didn’t seem to be working so well anymore.

Well, it’s almost the same story. Beane and DePodesta have enjoyed excellent careers in Major League Baseball, despite the heresy of their ideas.  They’ve been fortunate to have lived at a time when algorithms and computational mathematics are enough the norm that at least some can recognize the value of what they’ve brought to the game.

The Cheney Report, in contrast, had almost no immediate effect on the book industry.  The Report suffered due to its — and Cheney’s own — untimeliness.  The cybernetics revolution was still more than a decade off, and so the idea of imagining the book industry as a complexly communicative ecosystem was all but unimaginable to most.  This was true even with Cheney, who, in his insistence on ascertaining the “facts,” was fumbling around for what would later come to be known as “information.”

Today we live in O. H. Cheney’s vision for the book world, or, at least, some semblance of it.  People wonder why Amazon.com has so shaken up all facets of the industry.  It’s an aggressive competitor, to be sure, but its success is premised more on its having fundamentally rethought the game.  And for this Jeff Bezos owes a serious thank you to a grumpy old banker who, in the 1930s, wrote the first draft of what would go on to become publishing’s new playbook.

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The Indies and the E’s

OR, HOW TO SAVE INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ONE E-BOOK AT A TIME

Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University.  It’s been a blast so far.  My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture.  More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.

Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers.  I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of Amazon.com, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.”  In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.

One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading.  Really, it’s an oligarchy.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States.  And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies.  Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away.  But these booksellers have it backward.  The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are.  How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?

The first thing they need to do is, paradoxically, to cease acting independently.  Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online.  I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding.  Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete.  Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.

Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly.  So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats.  Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library.  Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! – one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.

What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic.  Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism.  The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller.  In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures.  That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them.  The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.

How do you make it work, financially?  The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect.  Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books.  It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway.  So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē.  Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.

There you have it.  Will the Indies run with it?  Or will all of the students enrolled in my next  “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?

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Rent This Book!

I’ve been struck this start of the school year by the proliferation of textbook rental outfits here in Bloomington, Indiana and elsewhere.  Locally there’s TXTBookRental Bloomington, which brokers exclusively in rented course texts, as well as TIS and the IU Bookstore (operated by Barnes & Noble), both of whom sell books in addition to offering rental options.  The latter also just launched a marketing campaign designed to grow the rental market.  Further away there’s Amazon.com, which isn’t only offering “traditional” textbook rentals but also time-limited Kindle books.  These are “pay only for the exact time you need” editions that disappear once the lease expires.

There’s been a good deal of enthusiasm about textbook rentals.  Many see them as a welcome work-around to the problem of over-inflated textbook prices, about which many people, including me, have been complaining for years.  Rentals help to keep the price of textbooks comparatively low by allowing students the option of not having to invest fully, in perpetuity, in the object.  Indeed, the rental option recognizes that students often share an ephemeral relationship with their course texts.  Why bother buying something outright when you need it for maybe three or four months at most?

My question is: are textbook rentals simply a boon for college students, or are there broader economic implications that might complicate — or even undercut — this story?

I want to begin by thinking about what it means to “rent” a textbook, since, arguably, students have been doing so for a long time.  When I was an undergraduate back in the early 1990s, I purchased books at the start of the semester knowing I’d sell many of them back to the bookstore upon completion of the term.  Had I bought these books, or was I renting them?  Legally it was the former, but effectively, I believe, it was the latter.  I’d paid not for a thing per se but for a relationship with a property that returned to the seller/owner once a period of time had elapsed.  That sounds a lot like rental to me.

So let’s assume for the moment that the rental of textbooks isn’t a new phenomenon but rather something that’s been going on for decades.  What’s the difference between then and now?  Buyback.  Under the old rental system you’d get some money for your books if your decided you didn’t want to keep them.  Under the new régime you get absolutely nothing.  Granted, it wasn’t uncommon for bookstores to give you a pittance if you decided to sell back your course texts; more often than not they’d then go on re-sell the books for a premium, adding insult to injury.  Nevertheless, at least you’d get something like your security deposit back once the lease had expired.  Now the landlord pockets everything.

Some industrious student needs to look into the economics of these new textbook rental schemes.  Is it cheaper to rent a course text for a semester, or do students actually make out better in the long run if they purchase and then sell back?

If I had to speculate, I’d say that booksellers wouldn’t be glomming on to the latest rental trend if it wasn’t first and foremost in their economic self-interest — even if they’re representing it otherwise.


Coming next week: textbook rentals, part II: what happens when books cease being objects that ordinary people own and accumulate?

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A Second Age of Incunabula

What a difference a few years can make.  I’m talking about the proliferation of e-reading devices among my Indiana University undergraduates — devices that were virtually non-existent in their lives not so very long ago.  Let me explain.

In 2006, I piloted a course based loosely on The Late Age of Print called “The Cultures of Books and Reading.”  We ended, predictably, with a unit on the future of books in an age of digital media.  We read (among other things) a chapter or two from Sven Birkerts’ Gutenberg Elegies, in addition to Kevin Kelly’s provocative essay from The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!“  The materials provoked some intriguing thoughts and conversation, but it seemed to me as if something was missing; it was as though the future of books and reading wasn’t palpable yet, and so most everything we talked about seemed, well, a little ungrounded.  Remember — this was about a year before the first Kindle landed, three years before the Barnes & Noble Nook, and a full four years before the release of the iPad.  We’re talking ancient history in today’s technological terms.

When I taught the course two years later, things had changed — somewhat.  There was genuine curiosity about e-reading, so much so that a group of students asked me to bring in my Kindle, hoping to take it for a test drive.  I did, but didn’t realize that the battery had died.  The demonstration ended up being a bust, and worse still, it was the last day of class.  In other words, no do-overs.  Still, that didn’t stop some of the students from writing papers about the possibilities e-readers held for them and their peers.  While I appreciated the argument — and indeed, the earnestness — I ended up being a little disappointed by those papers.  On the whole they were flatly celebratory.  The lack of critical perspective was, I believe, a function of their having had little to no actual interaction with e-reading devices.

Now it’s 2011, and I’m teaching the course once again.  Boy, have things changed!  On day one I asked the group of 35 if any of them owned an e-reader.  I expected to see maybe a few hands, since I’m aware of the reports stating that these devices have had more uptake among older users.  Much to my surprise, around half the class raised their hands.  We’re talking mostly 20 year-olds here.  I had to know more.  Some told me they owned a Kindle, others a Nook, and still others said they were iPad people who read using apps.  In a couple of instances they owned more than one of these devices.  They especially liked the convenience of not having to lug around a bag full of heavy books, not to mention the many public domain texts they could download at little or no cost.

There I was, standing in front of a group of students who also happened to be seasoned e-book readers.  Because they’d self-selected into my class, I knew I needed to be mindful about the extent to which their interest in electronic reading could be considered representative of people their age.  Even so, it was clear on day one that our conversations would be very different compared to those I’d had with previous cohorts in “The Cultures of Books and Reading.”

At the end of class a student approached me to ask about which version of Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, one of the required texts, he should buy.  Old analog me assumed he was referring to cloth or paper, since I’d brought in my hardback copy but told the group I’d ordered paperbacks through the bookstore.  My assumption was wrong.  He told me that he wanted to purchase the Kindle edition but had some hesitations about doing so.  How would he cite it, he asked?  I said he should go ahead and acquire whichever version most suited him; the citations we could figure out.

A very different conversation indeed — one that I expect will become much more the norm by the time I teach “The Cultures of Books and Reading” the next time around.  For now, though, here go the 36 of us, slouching our way into a moment in which analog and digital books commingle with one another.  It reminds me a little of the first 100 years of printing in the West — the so-called “age of incunabula,” when manuscripts, printed editions, and hybrid forms all co-existed, albeit not so peaceably.  I wonder if, at some point in the future, historians will begin referring to our time as the second age of incunabula.

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And…We’re Back!

It’s been awfully quiet around here for the past six weeks or so.  I’ve had a busy summer filled with travel, academic writing projects, and quality time with my young son.  Blogging, regretfully, ended up falling by the wayside.

I’m pleased to announce that The Late Age of Print is back after what amounted to an unannounced — and unintended — summer hiatus.  A LOT has gone in the realm of books and new media culture since the last time I wrote: Apple clamped down on third parties selling e-books through the iPad; Amazon’s ad-supported 3G Kindle debuted; Barnes & Noble continues to elbow into the e-book market with Nook; short-term e-book rentals are on the rise; J. K. Rowling’s Pottermore website went live, leaving some to wonder about the future of publishers and booksellers in an age when authors can sell e-editions of their work directly to consumers; and much, much more.

For now, though, I thought I’d leave you with a little something I happened upon during my summer vacation (I use the term loosely).  Here’s an image of the Borders bookstore at the Indianapolis Airport, which I snapped in early August — not long after the chain entered liquidation:

The store had been completely emptied out by the time I returned.  It was an almost eerie site — kind of like finding a turtle shell without a turtle inside.  Had I not been in a hurry (my little guy was in tow), I would have snapped an “after” picture to accompany this “before” shot.  Needless to say, it’s been an exciting and depressing summer for books.

Then again, isn’t it always?  More to come…soon, I promise.

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A Genre Is Born

“Well folks, it’s official: literature is dead,” announces Geekologie, in a post commenting on this photo, snapped at a Barnes & Noble bookstore:

Evidently this is a real placard meant to direct shoppers to a new section of the store.  It’s capitalizing on the extraordinary success of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series and all of those who have followed in its wake (and have come before it, for that matter.)

My first — admittedly flippant — response to the sign was, “well, isn’t all teen romance paranormal?” But then I got to reading the Geekologie post and accompanying commentary, and realized people were in fact quite concerned about what a sign like this meant for the wellbeing of books and literature. Indeed many, although not all, of those who commented agreed with the general argument of the piece: the day when “teen paranormal romance” becomes an accepted literary genre is the day when literature has ceased being, well, literature and has become something lesser.

I’m at once surprised and unsurprised by how a sign like this could provoke so much concern. (A good friend of mine, who posted the image to Facebook, called it a sign of the apocalypse.) I’m unsurprised because, as a historian of media, I know that “Teen Paranormal Romance” follows in a long line of popular genres that well-meaning people have dismissed as trash or, worse, accused of undermining the good standing of literature itself. I’m thinking here of detective novels, mysteries, sci-fi books, popular horror, and the like.

I’m surprised, however, by the narrowness of this perspective. It goes something like this: let’s tell lots of young people who love (…wait for it…) reading books that what they’re enjoying is not only drivel but also wrecking all that has ever been good about literature. Great message, eh?  Yet, it seems as if this exactly what the critics are saying when they get all in a huff about the teen paranormal romance genre.

In fixating on a particular category of books — whatever its merits may be — the critics lose sight of the bigger picture: young people are developing a passion for reading, and of paper books, no less.  This is short-term thinking at its worst.  Maybe one day these young readers will develop a love for “real” literature; maybe they won’t.  But why go out of your way to stack the deck against them?  Indeed, the best way to turn people off to something for a lifetime is to ridicule them for it in their adolescence.

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