Archive for the Book News Category

Where You Find It: The Best Cease-and-Desist Letter Ever

Posted in Book News, Media, Where You Find It with tags , , , on July 25, 2012 by JE Cornett

Who says the art of letter writing is dead? This cease-and-desist letter from Jack Daniel’s’ rep Christy Susman, asking writer Patrick Wensink to stop using a Jack Daniel’s label-style image on the front of his book Broken Piano For President, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever (click on the letter, then click again for a larger, readable version):

Via: The Atlantic Monthly

Fractured Fairy Tales

Posted in Book News, E-books, Media with tags , , , on July 17, 2012 by JE Cornett

According to a recent post on Smart Money‘s blog, nearly 50% of U.K. parents say they now read books to their kids on e-readers or tablets.

Andi Sporkin of the Association of American Publishers tells Smart Money that sales in the juvenile e-book category (books for children 18 and under), grew  233% to $64 million in the first quarter of 2012, and called children’s e-books “the fastest growing category in trade.”

For teens and preteens, who live increasingly digital lives, this news is heartening, as it gives a McLuhanite hope that books and reading will be embraced by the reluctant readers who’d never pick up a dead-tree book by choice. But for younger children, this news is troubling.

Anything that brings children and their parents or caregivers together over a book cannot be all bad, of course, but e-books, for all their positive qualities, may deny young children one of the most wondrous experiences of childhood: discovery.

When I think of my own childhood reading habits, I think automatically of libraries. Of public libraries and school libraries, and browsing in shelves and stacks, looking at books, discarding books, choosing books to take home with me. My parents/caregivers were only tangentially involved in the process of my book selections; for the most part, what I self-selected. Moreover, the books were mine to read when I wanted, where I wanted, once I checked them out.

For the youngest readers and pre-readers, the roadblocks e-books pose to this kind of self-directed reading and browsing are obvious. The transactions required to access e-books are too complex, even with child-centric devices that limit functionality and direct browsing. The number of steps between the child and the book are too many, and selection lies in the hands of parents and caregivers. So too, is the access to the books, once chosen; while many parents may give young children free reign with tablets and other devices, barriers will nevertheless exist to spontaneous reading.

But it is the element of choice, perhaps, that is most disheartening when children’s reading is restricted, even with the best of intentions. Librarians, educators and parents who’ve experienced the Accelerated Reader phenomenon decry the effect on motivation and enjoyment of reading in school-aged children when prescribed reading lists remove choice from the equation. For younger still children, whose choices may be further restricted by well-meaning or time-crunched parents and caregivers, the risk is even higher. No matter what age the reader, when the experience of browse through shelves, be they physical or digital, is removed, the worlds that reading have to offer shrink.

The ways children experience books on devices brings another troubling aspect to the ascendancy of e-books. As the Smart Money article points out, “experts say younger children like the graphics and color of e-readers, as well as the option to hear the book read aloud even when a parent is unavailable.”

Reading with a child creates a vastly different experience for the child than giving the child a device which reads the story to the child. A tablet, no matter how bright, shiny or audio-equipped, cannot automatically pause to allow a concept time to marinate in a child’s mind, nor can it sense when a child needs more or additional information to make sense of a story.

And, unless e-books are used as a way to engage children, rather than occupy them, they may be doing more harm than good to reading skills.  The Guardian recently reported on a study that found that reading enhanced e-books was actually detrimental to children’s reading comprehension:

Children reading enhanced ebooks also “recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story”, said the researchers, speculating that the extra features may be distracting. But while “print books were more advantageous for literacy building co-reading”, ebooks, and particularly enhanced ebooks, were better “for engaging children and prompting physical interaction”.

But my biggest problem with the book-on-a-device idea, when it comes to children, must be seen to be appreciated. Click on the image twice (it should expand to fill your whole screen), as it just can’t be done justice otherwise:

It’s two pages from one of Richard Scarry’s books (What People Do All Day, to be exact). Scarry’s books, almost always oversized and thick, explode with details and information that simply cannot be captured on a screen, including the one you are reading this on. They beg to be looked at again and again and again; a copy of Busy Busy TownCars and Trucks and Things That Go, and Best Word Book Ever is soon smudged and dog-eared, favorite pages blurred with fingerprints where a child just can’t help but point out and touch the things she loves over and over again. That’s an experience no device can replace.

E-Books Won’t Disappear — But The Way We Read Will

Posted in Book News, E-books, Internet, Literature, Media, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2012 by JE Cornett

Don’t worry – they’re not coming for your e-books. Not yet, anyway.

The blogosphere/libraryland/readers everywhere are in a dither over Hugh McGuire’s TEDx talk about the disappearance of e-books within five years or so. There’s much weeping, wailing and wringing of hands, most of it due to a blog post  by Porter Anderson that seems to vaguely extrapolate from this TEDx talk that e-books are going to disappear into the “ego noise” of the Internet.

It’s much ado about nothing. In fact, McGuire’s presentation says no such thing, something he’s quick to point out in the blog post’s comments.  “I never said books (or ebooks) will disappear; I said that “the distinction between books and the internet will disappear”” says McGuire in the comments, and the other commenters, some of which beat McGuire to the punch, wholeheartedly agree.

Whether this TEDx talk/blog post’s viral nature speaks to lovers of print books’ need to disparage e-books, or just a complete misunderstanding of the source material is but one interesting aspect of this story. The more intriguing thing is how McGuire and Anderson both miss the whole point. The difference between e-books and the Internet is already so fine as to be, in many cases, non-existent, as anyone with a Kindle or an iPad knows well. The better question, however, is how reading an e-book, whether on the Internet, a Kindle, an iPad or even a smartphone, changes the way we read.

When you pick up an actual book, your mind may wander, but the information remains the same. Without laying that book aside and seeking out more and different information, there is no way to add value to the information as it is (unless someone has made margin notes, which is a conversation for another day). All you have is what’s before you; the viewpoint of the author is static, as is the information presented, until you manually seek out additional information. There is time, then, to absorb the information without extra-contextualization.

Reading e-books on an Internet-ready device changes the experience completely. Want to know what other readers think of the book? Go straight to the linked reviews. Come across a name you don’t recognize? Google it. Want to know more about the author? Google it. Want to highlight a section? See if anyone else has highlighted it, as well.

The larger question is, how does reading a book that is basically a living thing differ from reading what many laughingly call a “dead tree” book? It’s a question that’s already been asked and answered of the e-book’s next of kin, the Internet.  Way back in 2008, The Atlantic‘s Nicholas Carr began to worry that the Internet was affecting his ability to read and digest text in an article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid“. While 2008 does not seem to be eons ago, it pre-dates the e-book frenzy that began around 2010-2011, so much so that Carr does not even mention e-books to any degree in the essay. Yet the conclusion he draws from his online reading habits mirrors almost exactly what McGuire forecasts in his TED talk:

When the [Internet]* absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the [Internet’s] image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed.

This recreation of the e-book in the Internet’s image is what McGuire is extolling as the e-book as Internet’s biggest virtue, and what, as Carr has already discovered, is the biggest difference in the way we read even ten years ago and the way we read now.

But is it indeed a virtue? The examples that McGuire and Anderson use are hardly relevant to most e-book reading; while the majority of Amazon’s e-book sales are fiction and creative non-fiction, McGuire and Anderson cite a YouTube interactive Bible and an online version of  the 1912 journal of Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole that’s linked to Google Maps. The best thing about the Google Maps-enabled Scott journal, according to McGuire? It’s “a beautiful web experience.”

Is a beautiful web experience what we want, when we reach for a book? Do we want the same type of added-value, extra-context information that we get from a web page? Is that even good for us?

Carr references developmental pyschologist Maryanne Wolf’s  Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain extensively in making his argument that Google and the Internet are (or already have) changing the way we read:

… the style of reading promoted by the [Internet], a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, [Wolf] says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

The idea that the Internet was changing the way we think so disturbed Carr that he expanded his article into a full-length book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In the book, Carr states something that is intriguing, if the line between books and the Internet is indeed blurred:

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

If you’re ready to dismiss Carr and Wolf as hysterical doomsayers, don’t do so just yet.  As a reader, can I learn to recognize symbolism if it’s highlighted and pointed out to me? Can I derive understanding from a chunk of text when it’s diluted by links to ever more information? Or will I, as Carr noted that he already had, simply skim the text, jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink, never actually absorbing what the author is saying?

As someone who’s already noticed the same changes in reading habits as Carr has, I’m not sure I want to read books the way I read the Internet. I want a literal disconnect, when I read. I want to be absorbed by the text, not continually distracted. This is coming from someone who loves to read annotated non-fiction, the original hyper-textualized text; when I read non-fiction, I expect additional information. When I read creative non-fiction or fiction, I find it intrusive.

McGuire’s vision of a world where e-books are the Internet is frightening to me. We’ve already reached a stage where simply choosing to read the print book instead of the hyperlinked, added-value version may be threatened. E-book sales on Amazon have already surpassed the sales of printed books, and Amazon is quickly gobbling up print and e-book publishers, including one that caters to libraries. Many books are being published in e-book format only, leaving a reader no other choice but to read the e-book.

As e-books overtake printed books, and e-books become Internet, our reading becomes Internet reading, as well. Do we want the old way of reading to disappear? And can stop it?

*In each instance where you see [Internet], I’ve substituted for Carr’s quaint use of “the Net,” out of fear that you, reader, are already a victim of the type of reading he and Wolf are concerned about. “The Net” functions as hypertextualization that will have you laughing aloud as you fondly recall the days when the Internet was known as the “World Wide Web” and “Information Superhighway.”

Justice Department Possibly Suing Apple, Publishers Regarding Agency Pricing

Posted in Book News, E-books, Uncategorized on March 8, 2012 by JE Cornett

I’ve grumbled for months about the agency pricing scheme that drove up the price of many e-books, wondering how on earth such a patently disingenuous scheme could not violate anti-trust laws.

Now it would appear that the Justice Department is wondering the same thing. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Justice Department has warned Apple and five major publishers of their intent to sue them for “allegedly colluding to raise the price of electronic books.”

The five publishers who’ve been warned are Simon & Schuster Inc.; Hachette Book Group;  Penguin Group (USA); Macmillan; and HarperCollins.

The possible litigation stems from Apple’s push to radically alter the way publishers price e-books as the tech company promoted the iPad as a tablet/e-reader in 2010. In the past, publishers had traditionally sold books to retailers for around half of the recommended cover price — i.e. wholesale. Retailers were then free to sell the books for less than cover price if they so desired. However, this wholesale model, originally designed for physical books, was upended by Amazon and the Kindle, when Amazon began routinely selling e-books for less than the suggested retail price as the company worked to promote the Kindle line of e-readers.

Amazon’s strategy did not sit well with publishers or with their biggest competitor in the tablet/e-reader market, Apple. According to the WSJ article, the late Steve Jobs, along with several major publishers, cooked up an “agency model” pricing strategy, under which the publishers would set the price of their e-books, allowing Apple to take a 30% cut of the profits. While that’s hardly egregious, Apple sweetened the deal for themselves with a stipulation demanding that publishers not allow rival retailers to sell the same book at a lower price. The new agency pricing model put rival e-book retailers over the figurative barrel; retailers were required to sign an agency pricing contract, or be denied access to the included publishers’ e-books.

According to WSJ, “the Justice Department believes that Apple and the publishers acted in concert to raise prices across the industry, and is prepared to sue them for violating federal antitrust laws.”

The Justice Department isn’t the only entity concerned about the lopsided agency pricing scheme. The European Union is also investigating the agency pricing scheme, and multiple class-action lawsuits have been filed and consolidated in a New York federal court, questioning the legality of such a scheme. Also not surprisingly, Apple moved to dismiss the class-action case, claiming that it did not collude with publishers to change the pricing structure for e-books. In their motion to dismiss, WSJ reports that Apple argues that their entry into the e-book market simply “created new competition in eBook distribution and a vastly larger pool of eBook consumers.”

WSJ sources say that several of the parties involved have held negotiations to settle the case. This could prevent a court battle that can only make the agency pricing scheme look worse than it already does.

All I can say is, it’s about time.

Agency pricing has artificially inflated the costs of e-books long enough. And as for me, I’m glad to see Apple getting as much of the blame as the agency publishers. While e-book purchasers, retailers, and libraries alike have decried the agency pricing scheme for a year now, most of the ire has been directed at the big bad publishers. I’m not sure if this is due to misinformation, or just the goodwill that Apple has created among the millions of people who love the company’s products.

I believe that Apple fully expected to be given a pass on all fronts for their alleged role in the agency pricing scheme. From other e-book retailers and e-reader manufacturers, to libraries and the law, it seems to me that the prevailing wisdom at Apple was that their rabidly loyal following wouldn’t care about their involvement in the agency pricing scheme. And now, the company would appear to be distancing itself from the whole drama, or at least that ‘s what I take from the company’s argument to dismiss the class action lawsuit in New York.  The company’s claims that it simply created so high a demand for e-books with the iPad and other products that the pricing model had to change is insulting, not only to consumers but to other manufacturers and retailers of e-readers and e-books. Apple’s part in the agency pricing scheme seems clear, at least if you believe the Justice Department’s allegations. And I do.

For me, the best part of the whole WSJ article was this statement in regards to the deal struck between Apple and the publishers:

Contracts such as Apple’s prevent publishers from selling books to other buyers at a cheaper rate. Such terms, known as “most favored nation” clauses, have drawn the scrutiny of the Justice Department in recent years in the health-care industry because they can sometimes be used to hamper competition.

While I’m sure the language is hidebound, comparing Apple to a “most favored nation” is nevertheless succinct. And who has more experience with the favoritism toward Apple than the Justice Department’s employees, whose Blackberrys are being retired in favor of iPhones?

Now, if we can just get something done about the publishers’ blatant discrimination toward libraries