Tag Archive for e-books

Late Age On the Radio

Just a quick post linking you to my latest radio interview, with WFHB-Bloomington’s Doug Storm.  Doug is one of the hosts of a great program called “Interchange,” and this past Tuesday I was delighted to share with him a broad-ranging conversation about many of the topics I address in The Late Age of Print—the longevity of books, print (and paper) culture, reading practices, taste hierarchies, and more.  Toward the end, the conversation turned to my latest work, on the politics of algorithmic culture.

The program lasts about an hour.  Enjoy!

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If You Liked the Cover of The Late Age of Print…

…then you’re bound to like Art Made From Books: Altered, Sculpted, Carved, Transformed, compiled by Laura Heyenga and just out from Chronicle Books. The cover features one of Cara Barer’s striking book photographs—and if it looks somewhat familiar, it should. Another of her amazing images appears on the cover of Late Age.

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And, in other important news, don’t forget—ONLY TWO MORE DAYS REMAIN to download an e-edition of The Late Age of Print for a tweet or Facebook post. Don’t miss it! The freebie will be gone as of August 1, 2013.

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Late Age of Print – the Podcast

Welcome back and happy new year!  Okay—so 2013 is more than three weeks old at this point.  What can I say?  The semester started and I needed to hit the ground running.  In any case I’m pleased to be back and glad that you are, too.

My first post of the year is actually something of an old one, or at least it’s about new material that was produced about eighteen months ago.  Back in the summer of 2011 I keynoted the Association for Cultural Studies Summer Institute in Ghent, Belgium.  It was a blast—and not only because I got to talk about algorithmic culture and interact with a host of bright faculty and students.  I also recorded a podcast there with Janneke Adema, a Ph.D. student at Coventry University, UK whose work on the future of scholarly publishing is excellent and whose blog, Open Reflections, I recommend highly.

Janneke and I sat down in Ghent for the better part of an hour for a fairly wide-ranging conversation, much of it having to do with The Late Age of Print and my experiments in digital publishing.  It was real treat to revisit Late Age after a couple of years and to discuss some of the choices I made while I was writing it.  I’ve long thought the book was a tad quirky in its approach, and so the podcast gave me a wonderful opportunity to provide some missing explanation and backstory.  It was also great to have a chance to foreground some of the experimental digital publishing tools I’ve created, as I almost never put this aspect of my work on the same level as my written scholarship (though this is changing).

The resulting podcast, “The Late Age of Print and the Future of Cultural Studies,” is part of the journal Culture Machine’s podcast series.  Janneke and I discussed the following:

  • How have digital technologies affected my research and writing practices?
  • What advice would I, as a creator of digital scholarly tools, give to early career scholars seeking to undertake similar work?
  • Why do I experiment with modes of scholarly communication, or seek “to perform scholarly communication differently?”
  • How do I approach the history of books and reading, and how does my approach differ from more ethnographically oriented work?
  • How did I find the story amid the numerous topics I wrestle with in The Late Age of Print?

I hope you like the podcast.  Do feel welcome to share it on Twitter, Facebook, or wherever.  And speaking of social media, don’t forget—if you haven’t already, you can still download a Creative Commons-licensed PDF of The Late Age of Print.  It will only cost a tweet or a post on Facebook.  Yes, really.

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The Season for Giving

“As my bishop would say, I’m livin’ because of my givin’.”
—Rev. Run

‘Tis the season for giving, and in the spirit of the season I’m giving away free downloads of The Late Age of Print.

Well, maybe “free” isn’t exactly the right word. The download will cost you a tweet, or a post on your Facebook wall. But hey—that’s a pretty reasonable price for something that took me more than five years to research, write, and publish, wouldn’t you agree?

I’m managing the release with a new social downloading system that I’m excited to tell you about. It’s called, appropriately enough, “Pay With a Tweet.” I discovered it via the 40kBooks blog, whose editors recently released a collection of their best interviews for 2012 (including, ahem, one with me) using the social payment system. I was really intrigued, and even more intrigued once I got it up and running here on this site.

A free, Creative Commons-licensed PDF of Late Age has been available since the physical book was published back in 2009. But truth be told, I grew somewhat frustrated by what I perceived to be the unevenness of the exchange. That’s why I’m so taken with the idea of paying for the book socially: you help me get the word out about the book, and in return you get a free digital copy. If you’re interested in giving back even more, you can also write a review of Late Age or like the book’s page on Facebook.

Of course, none of that should preclude you from buying a physical copy of the book. The paperback edition contains a new foreword that does not appear in the free e-edition, so if you want my most up-to-date thoughts about the late age of print, that’s where you’ll want to go.

Happy holidays, dear readers. Thanks for all of your support, this year and beyond. I’ll see you again in early 2013.

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Cheaper Textbooks (So They Say)

I don’t often write about textbook publishing, but with the start of the new school year I thought it appropriate to say a few more words on the subject. I say more because I blogged about the changing student textbook market around this time last year, exploring how the rental market in particular had started to affect the ways college students acquire and think about their course texts.

Well, that was a year ago, and paper books are soooooo 2011. The big push this year (which, admittedly, has been building over the course of several years) is for electronic course texts or, in some cases, the bundling of electronic resources with traditional paper textbooks. I can’t stop hearing about the subject both on my own campus and in the periodicals I follow, including The Chronicle of Higher Education.

To wit: this week’s Chronicle included a story entitled “With ‘Access Codes,’ Textbook Pricing Gets More Complicated Than Ever.” (Apologies in advance: you’ll have to be a subscriber to read the full text.) It focuses on a business student at the University of Maine, Luke Thomas, who, last semester, needed to buy a (paper) textbook for his introductory English course. Expensive — but so far, so good. The complication occurred when Thomas discovered that the book, published by textbook giant Cenage, came bundled with a code he would need to access supplementary materials, which were only available online. He and his wife had been planning to use the course text together, effectively cutting the net cost of the overpriced book in half. But because each code was tied to one, and only one, student, they were unable to do so — that is, unless one of them was willing to forgo participation in the class’ online element and potentially jeopardize her or his grade. You can read Thomas’ great, muckraking blog post about the incident here.

I’m sure there are myriad instances of college students confronting these types of dilemmas right now, and not only the married ones. I remember friends during my undergraduate years (this was the early 1990s) routinely buying course texts that they’d then share for the semester. I’m pretty sure I did this once myself, in a Communication course my roommate and I had both enrolled in. But what I see, in the emerging age of e-publishing, is a deliberate attempt on the part of textbook publishers, suborned either by greedy or willfully ignorant faculty, to mitigate and even eliminate these types of arrangements.

What makes this situation all the more startling is the language that’s typically used to sell e-learning materials to professors and students. Over and over again we hear how e-texts are “cheaper” than their printed, paper counterparts and how supplementary online materials add real value to them. What the marketing departments won’t tell you is that that “cheaper” isn’t an absolute term and that value-added actually comes at a cost.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a student can buy a $50 e-version of a course text whose paper edition would cost $100 brand new. That’s a 50% savings, right? Well, not exactly. If two friends wanted to share the cost of the book together, that cost savings is already matched — bettered, actually, since there exists a robust used market for paper textbooks that would probably net the students at least a few dollars at the end of the term. (You generally can’t “sell back” an e-text, since you license rather than own the content.) As for the so-called value-added e-features, Thomas’ story makes abundantly clear how, in fact, this value isn’t added as much as paid for.

I don’t doubt that large textbook publishers like Cenage want to follow what they perceive to be industry and cultural (some might say generational) trends in making such an aggressive move into e-publishing. But it’s not only about that. It’s also about hammering away at the first-sale doctrine, which is the legal principle that allows the owner of copyrighted material to share it with or resell it to someone else without fear of legal reprisal. The move into e-publishing is also a way to effectively destroy the market for used textbooks, which, admittedly, has long been difficult to sustain given publishers’ efforts to issue “revised” editions of popular texts every few years.

Bottom line: if you believe in the free market, then you should be opposed many of these types of e-publishing initiatives. There’s no such thing as a free lunch — or even a cheap one, for that matter.

So with that, then, I want to bestow my first ever Late Age of Print Hero Award on Luke Thomas, for his courageous efforts to bring these important issues to public attention. Thank you, Luke.

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Two Interviews

My blogging got interrupted as a result of my (very welcome) spring break travels, so apologies for not posting any new material last week.  But it wasn’t just travel that kept me from writing.  I’ve also been busy giving interviews about my past and current research projects, which, truth be told, were a real blast to do.  Here’s a bit about them.

The first is a two-part Q & A with the great Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture (NYU Press, 2006) and Textual Poachers (Routledge, 1992), among many other notable books and articles.  The interview with Henry was a great opportunity to sit down and revisit arguments and themes from The Late Age of Print, now three years on.  It also gave me a chance to reflect a bit on what Late Age might have looked like were I writing it today, e.g., in light of Borders’ recent liquidation, Amazon.com’s forays into social media-based e-reading, and more.  Part I of the interview, which focuses mostly on the first half of Late Age, is here;  part II, which focuses largely on material from the second half of the book, is here.

I was also interview recently by the good folks at “Future Tense,” a fantastic radio program produced for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  For those of you who may be unacquainted with the show, here’s a little information about it: “Future Tense explores the social, cultural, political and economic fault lines arising from rapid change. The weekly half-hour program/podcast takes a critical look at new technologies, new approaches and new ways of thinking. From politics to social media to urban agriculture, nothing is outside our brief.”  Great stuff, needless to say, and so I was thrilled when they approached me to talk about my recent work on algorithmic culture as part of their March 25th program, “The Algorithm.”  You can listen to the complete show here.  Mine is the first voice you’ll hear following host Antony Funnell’s introduction of the program.

Thanks for reading, listening, and commenting.  And while you’re at it,  please don’t forget to like the new Late Age of Print Facebook page.

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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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Soft-Core Book Porn

Most of you reading this blog probably don’t know that I’m Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication and Culture here at Indiana University.  What that means is that I’m knee-deep in graduate admissions files right now; what that also means is that I don’t have quite as much time for blogging as I normally would.  The good news is that I’m rapidly clearing the decks, and that I should be back to regular blogging pretty soon.

Until then, happy 2012 (belatedly), and here’s a little book soft-core book porn to tide you over — an amazing stop-motion animation video that was filmed in Toronto’s Type Bookstore.  If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, then you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of the whole “the only real books are paper books” motif (much as I do enjoy paper books).  Even so, you cannot but be impressed by the time, care, and resolve that must have gone into the production of this short.  Clearly it was a labor of love, on several levels.

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Happy Holidays!

I’ll be back in 2012, most likely the second week in January.  Until then, happy holidays to all of my readers, and thanks for supporting The Late Age of Print — both the book and the blog2011 has been a banner year for Late Age, and with you it promises to get even better.

Until then, here’s a little something for you — a Christmas tree composed entirely of books.  I’m not sure whether to see the sculpture as a cool art piece or a statement about what to with paper books now that e-readers are becoming ubiquitous.  Either way I guess the image is on theme, at least around this end of the internet.

Photo via Imgur

Best wishes, and see you in 2012.

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