Category Archives: the future

On Fashion and Man Repeller Leandra Medine’s Nonfiction Debut

Jessamine Chan -- September 4th, 2013

MAN REPELLER cover image

My love of fashion and appreciation of fashion journalism began in early childhood, when, as an enterprising and not particularly considerate 4-year-old, I used my Aunt Kay’s issues of Vogue as my coloring books. If you were to flip through those pages, you would have found all the models’ lips redrawn with red ballpoint pen, and wobbly, talon-like red fingernails added to every single hand. My sister (who produced a fashion zine in high school) and I often rue the fact that fashion blogging didn’t exist when we were adolescents/college students/entering the work force.

Lately, my favorite blog has been The Man Repeller, produced by New York native Leandra Medine, a 24-year-old writer who launched the blog as an undergrad at the New School, and who quickly figured out how to monetize it, thus skipping the rite of passage called working for other people. When galleys for her debut essay collection, Man Repeller: Seeking Love. Finding Overalls.: Essays (Grand Central, Sept. 10) arrived at PW, I had to explain to a young male colleague—who said, “How could this woman repel anyone? She is GORGEOUS!”—that man repelling is about fashion, not attractiveness. Continue reading

Why Are We Still Not Bundling E-books?

Alex Crowley -- August 15th, 2013

The e-book vs. physical copy debate in publishing is for the most part, frankly, kind of a boring one. Some people like their e-readers, others—like myself—don’t care about them, and I’m sure there are others who like both for whatever reason(s). So, yes, there are 3 kinds of people in the world. Most talk from the consumer end tends to be about how one format is better/easier/more-papery/more-electrical than the other and that’s fine. Industry conversations seem to be about money, which to me is largely uninteresting, but I suppose if you have a financial stake in this it matters.*

Now I have a musician friend who basically only reads e-books these days. He asked me one day why publishers/presses weren’t offering a bundled physical copy and e-book package. I didn’t have an answer because, well, because it seemed so obvious that I couldn’t figure out why nobody was doing that either. In the music world, or at least in more “underground” scenes, it’s fairly common for bands/artists to offer free album/track downloads when you buy a physical copy, particularly if it’s vinyl. It’s standard practice on sites like Bandcamp, and I’ve even bought band t-shirts that come with an album download code.

So, yes… why aren’t more presses doing this? I get that the big houses probably aren’t going to be trendsetters here, but what about small/indie presses?

I took a cursory look into it and found that only Angry Robot has done something like this (through certain UK bookstores) and, geez, I can see why nobody followed suit, since it only tripled their sales on those bundled titles. That linked piece from TechDirt gets to most, if not all, of the salient points that my friend and I could think up: people like free stuff, you can lend a physical book while retaining an e-copy for future use, and—a big point that larger houses tend to miss—that you can’t monetize everything just because you think you’re leaving money on the table. (As far as that last point in concerned, that’s money you were probably never going to make in the first place since people aren’t generally going to buy both physical and electronic versions of the same book. It’s incredibly easy to pirate electronic versions of anything, whether it be games, music, books, etc.) It seems like an incredibly shortsighted strategy, IMO, but what do I know? This has only been been under discussion for several years now. Hey, even Nicholas Carr gets it.

Mostly right now I’m curious as to why publishers haven’t done this yet (and it’s been three years since B&N apparently tried doing it in their stores). Do the “numbers” just not pan out? Are there structural reasons that bundling doesn’t work?


*Please keep giving Publishers Weekly all your money. Thanks!

The New Ones: The Only Horizon Is Before Us

Peter Brantley -- April 29th, 2013

Chasing birds at the Hunt Library by meikimeikiRecently, I had the opportunity to meet a young software developer who is a graduate student at UC Berkeley. He’s amazingly quick; a good coder, confident in his abilities, and a budding novelist. Both for school and his own needs, he helped to build an open source ebook reader, FuturePress, in javascript. In part, he and his friends felt the need for a lightweight reader; and as a novelist he also wants to play with versioning, reader collaboration, and all the other cool things you can do on the web. What struck me was not that they had written an ebook reader: others have done that. My more significant realization is about the world they know. Continue reading

Reading a Story, Taking a Trip

Peter Brantley -- January 14th, 2013

Consulting a mapThanks to a suggestion from David Riordan of the New York Public Library Labs, I got a quick introduction to Field Trip, a new augmented reality (AR) Android app that emerged out of Google last autumn. Field Trip comes out of an internal startup called Niantic Labs at Google headed by John Hanke, who created an early online mapping application called Keyhole. Keyhole was acquired by Google and turned into Google Maps under Hanke’s leadership. I think Field Trip points toward a new generation of geolocal story telling, enabling us to find stories and interact with narratives wherever we happen to be. Continue reading

Design for Communites: United Steps, Big Impact

Peter Brantley -- January 2nd, 2013

Child climbing stairsAs we start a new year, it might appear that the hurdles facing public libraries have never been greater. With financially burdened communities; ebooks, movies, and music increasingly delivered through walled gardens by technology companies that have no resonance with free-to-all service; and rapidly evolving modes of publishing, it would appear that libraries are in a tight corner. That may all be true, but there are signs of rescue, signs of hope.

One of the best things coming is the growing awareness that public libraries need to solve their own problems. That is not an easy proposition; public libraries come in all shapes and sizes, from Boston and New York research libraries to small town libraries in the American west. However, the internet bridges both vast distances and town/gown differences, and we are starting to see a whole new community of libraries emerge. A portion of this effort is being negotiated through the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), but the greater and more important aspect is being developed peer to peer.

A current example is the ReadersFirst initiative, a growing collaboration of libraries that has endorsed a straightforward set of propositions that seek to provide more seamless access to digital resources. ReadersFirst seeks simple but high impact goals: make content like ebooks more portable between providers, and more available to patrons; simplify integration into library discovery systems to ease access by patrons; and make content available in any useful format, whether EPUB, Mobi, or a website. And in this effort, amazingly, they may succeed.

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Moving Up to a Bigger Musket

Peter Brantley -- November 12th, 2012

Artillery at Fort Sumter
I just got back from the Charleston Conference – a lively mix of publishers and librarians discussing digital transitions in information access. It was the first time I attended, and I was struck by how many other friends in trade publishing were also there for the first time, ranging from Smashwords and Safari Books Online to the Frankfurt Book Fair. O’Reilly also organized a premier Tools of Change Charleston with Mitchell Davis, the local entrepreneur behind BookSurge and BiblioLabs.

One thing that immediately struck me was how much the conversation about trade publishing seems increasingly to leak into discussions about other sectors of publishing, including Charleston’s focus on academic and A&I resources. Part of that was intentional by the organizers, and part because it’s hard to open a newspaper without reading about the titanic shift towards Big 6 trade consolidation. The combination of Random House and Penguin seems inevitable to everyone, and most pundits and prognosticators agree that more combinations are on the way. Additionally, there seems to be strong concurrence that the merger’s primary achievement is to buttress a strong arm against the market power of Amazon, giving ever larger publishers more heft in negotiations, and heading off ultimatums from Amazon’s perceived monopsony power.

One critique of this trend is that there may be little benefit to making publishing businesses ever larger through M&A because internal coordination costs for larger firms grow faster than the benefits of output efficiencies. At Charleston, there was speculation that inevitably one would see a dissolution of the great houses, and a re-emergence of their imprints as stand alone publishers. In an age of networked production and ebook distribution, the strong countervailing argument against consolidation is that there is no better time for Alfred A. Knopf and Panthenon to take themselves out of megalithic houses and re-assert editorial and business independence. I must admit, as a literature geek I find this scenario romantically appealing, and I would love to see these noble brands born anew and ascendant.

However, I think that the opportunity for those organizations to resurface is gone. That’s not due to change in the brilliance of their staffs or their aspirations – it’s a result of wholesale changes in publishing. Once we start producing literature without traditional firms, even born-again, smaller and nimbler houses based on traditional publishing structures are not going to be successful. It will take an entirely different model of publishing to succeed – one that recognizes that the costs of literary production are plummeting; distribution occurs on the network; and that entry points into story-telling are growing increasingly diverse. New publishers are as likely to be independent videographers or game companies as trade houses, and a growing industry meme focuses on how likely it will be for film producers to commission books, rather than see traditional publishers managing 360 deals. With tools like Mozilla’s Popcorn, transmedia production is reaching the hands of technically unsophisticated creators.

Making strategic choices about optimal organizational form based on a desire to achieve effective market position against the dominant retailers of the existing industry will not be successful. Newly emergent publishing models are going to develop on the periphery of the existing publishing industry, often wholly independent of it, with both large and micro actors emerging to produce a wide range of new forms of content. The consultant Mike Shatzkin has persuasively argued that everything but traditional text narratives in trade is merely an experiment, and that’s a logical analysis. However, it’s not in trade that those experiments are going to be successful.

During the Charleston Conference, I grabbed a quiet morning and toured Fort Sumter, site of the start of the U.S. Civil War. One of the things I learned was that the war bridged a great transition in artillery technology, with field bombardments shifting to vastly more deadly and accurate rifled cannons. It seems a similar transition is amongst us within publishing. As armies in this war, Random House and Penguin have reached for a bigger musket to arm themselves in order to retain financial independence. Unfortunately, more innovative firms have started to adopt Kalashnikov AK-47s.

The Confederate Army abandoned Fort Sumter in February 1865, as Sherman swept his way through South Carolina.

Leveraging torrents for libraries

Peter Brantley -- August 8th, 2012

The Internet Archive has announced that it is using BitTorrent to encourage more efficient downloading of content from its servers. Over 1 million archival items are now available as torrents, including Librivox audio books, movies from the Prelinger Archive collection, old radio broadcasts, and hundreds of thousands of digital books.

This is an innovative use of BitTorrent technology, demonstrating that large digital libraries can foster accessibility of selected materials for broader access. As Brewster Kahle notes in his blog post:

BitTorrent is the now fastest way to download items from the Archive, because the BitTorrent client downloads simultaneously from two different Archive servers located in two different datacenters, and from other Archive users who have downloaded these Torrents already. The distributed nature of BitTorrent swarms and their ability to retrieve Torrents from local peers may be of particular value to patrons with slower access to the Archive, for example those outside the United States or inside institutions with slow connections.

John Gilmore, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, notes in the same blog post that BitTorrent can be reliably used for a wide range of content, including “large files that are permanently available from libraries like the Internet Archive.”

The use of technologies such as BitTorrent can facilitate not only greater access but also increased opportunities for preservation of digital content.

(N.B.: Although employed at the Internet Archive, I was not part of this project).

Hey, Dad, what’s a “file”?

Peter Brantley -- August 3rd, 2012

Like a lot of people in my generation, I am system administrator for my parents. That’s okay – I’ve been one in real life, so I don’t mind it very much, and I try to think of it as a learning opportunity. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had to update my father’s computer, a Mac Mini, and it was instructive in unexpected ways.

Most experienced systems admins will tell you they abide religiously by several inviolable rules, one of which is: upgrade applications when necessary; operating systems, rarely. The problem with an OS upgrade is that it often changes how people work with their computers, not just in one application, but across the board. Throw in a random number of incompatibilities and surprise, forced upgrades in both peripherals and utility software, and you have a predictable nightmare. Yet sometimes, pain is necessary, and I knew that upgrading my dad’s Mac Mini was going to mean a move to Mountain Lion. I read John Siracusa’s review and got ready.

I keep system privileges for myself, and it was after I created his “standard” user account that I found myself surprised. When you create a new user in 10.8 and open up the finder, you get a very simple menu. In the left hand panel, “All Files” will show you a flattened view of your account; there are the customary folders for “Music”, “Pictures”, and “Movies”; plus “Documents” and “Downloads”. Snarkily, I didn’t expect to find “Books”, and it wasn’t there. Continue reading

Who speaks for publishing policy?

Peter Brantley -- July 26th, 2012

The Chronicle of Higher Education has released its first ebook, appropriately enough an expanded version of its Rebooting the Academy series, which examines changes in the practice of research, teaching, and institutional management in the midst of technological change. Nearly simultaneously, on the occasion of John Siracusa’s exhaustive review of the new Apple operating system Mountain Lion, Condé Nast’s Ars Technica will soon make available a Kindle ebook for those wishing to absorb all 26,000 words in a digestible format. And, in September, the New York Review of Books will release their first title in their new ebook only imprint, NYRB-Lit.

That digitally facile publishers such as the Chronicle and Condé Nast are able to quickly produce and sell ebooks is simultaneously exceptional, and increasingly mundane. Ten years ago, publishing an ebook from a lengthy periodical series would have taken months of preparation; today, as the tools for publishing on the internet enter the mainstream book trade, anyone who can run a blog can produce an ebook. That’s not necessarily terrific news if you are an established publisher; with each news release about self- and independently-published ebooks, the value proposition of large, integrated publishing firms seems less obvious. When Los Angeles media entrepreneurs like Barry Diller and Scott Rudin see the virtue of starting up their own high-brow literary publishing endeavors, midtown real estate in Manhattan starts looking particularly expensive.

The presence of active tumult in a prominent economic sector makes it especially troubling when government agencies listen uncritically to entrenched publishing multinationals for advisement and consultation in areas of high-impact policy formulation. For example, there has been significant worldwide interest in negotiating a WIPO treaty that would make require countries to allow published, in-copyright print works to be converted into an accessible format for the blind and others with reading disabilities, and permit accessible works to be shared around the world without permission from the copyright holder. However, the United States has wavered in its support for a binding treaty, and is instead seeking softer, non-binding recommendations or guidelines.

This U.S. reluctance to finalize treaty language echos the concerns of the American Association of Publishers, as evidenced in a videotaped interview with the AAP’s vice president of policy, Alan Adler. Adler voices concerns that a binding international treaty will introduce a precedent that will make negotiations over copyright exceptions and limitations more likely for educational, library, and archival uses. Adler, and by extension the AAP, seem to forget that copyright is itself a set of specially codified grants that are carved out from public access for a limited duration, and that exceptions and limitations simply return to the public the access to creative works that is society’s baseline.

However, the rapid influx of Internet-based publishing tools, and the blossoming of a rich diversity of new self- and independent publisher services, along with new mixed media entrants taking advantage of mobile content platforms from companies like Google and Apple force us to raise a more fundamental issue: who can speak for publishing-related policy issues? Surely today we must listen not only to the large publishing combines, but also to new companies like Smashwords, Aerbook, Vook, Byliner, and The Atavist in order to understand the perspective of publishers. And equally, as publishing becomes an integral part of the firmament of the internet, the government must consult and evaluate the competing aims of Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft.

The time in which the AAP can speak authoritatively for publishing is over. Formulating policy over intellectual property issues that heretofore was considered the domain of a few specific industry and interest groups is instead the domain of all internet users, including readers and authors, as well as a wide range of new publisher entrants. Ours is a economy undergoing network industrialization, and if the federal government wants industry consultation, it will need to listen to the wider array of people and firms who are engineering and empowering the future of expression, instead of a handful of companies fighting the U.S. Justice Department after colluding to maximise their interests at the expense of consumers.

Storm Clouds in Academic Publishing

Peter Brantley -- May 25th, 2012

Today two different thunderbolts struck in academic publishing, one from an old storm, and the other from a new one. The weather forecast continues to be troubled, but as they say, we need the rain.

The first story is the imminent closing this summer of the University of Missouri Press, after five decades of operation. MU Press is not the first university press to close, and it certainly won’t be the last. It was receiving a subsidy of $400,000 annually and still not able to obtain a profit from its operations; that is a lot of money, but not exceptional in the realm of university presses. Nor, sadly, is the lack of profitability, which is why we are likely to see more closures on the horizon.

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