Archive for the ‘event’ Category

At The Wheeler Centre

As mentioned a few posts ago, I did a panel at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne with a bunch of literary luminaries. And it reminded me that the e-book thing is a million miles away from many folk. There’s still some compartmentalisation about screens and devices and print and paper – which is understandable – and point to the challenges ahead for everyone. Anyhow, if anyone has the patience, here’s what I said that night:

What will reading be like in fifteen years?

Academics spend most of our lives struggling to define exactly what it is we’re talking about. Given that I only have a few minutes, I’ll resist the temptation to break down the question any more than is absolutely necessary. But I think there’s two parts to tonight’s question.

The first is “What reading technology will we be using in 15 years?”

The second is “Will people still be reading long-from texts for information and entertainment?”

The answers to which are “a screen of some sort” and “yes”.

Yes, I think that people will be reading long-form texts for information and entertainment in fifteen years time. Reading books. But I think they will be doing it on screens, not paper. Which is where my definition of books differs from many people… There’s a particular view of screen technologies that suggests they are best used for moving images, stunning graphics or short, concise bite sized chunks of information. That the *only* way to read a long-form text is from print on paper.

I have a problem with that point of view. Because it’s not true and it’s determinist. And whilst I hope to be truthful, I’m not a determinist – that is I don’t believe that technologies have attributes which *determine* our actions. Certainly, technologies have constraints – but they also have possibilities.

And putting aside prejudices, a screen has as many possibilities as a piece of paper. Ultimately they are both nothing more than display technologies. They are both, to introduce yet another analogy, merely blank canvases. And just as a piece of paper can carry words, illustrations and photographs, then a screen can do the same. Those who refuse to accept substitutes for paper are simply confusing the form with the content; the object with the ideas.

Is is possible to publish to a screen the way we publish to paper? Of course it is. We do it all the time. Screens are already more than adequate replacements for paper in many areas of our day to day lives. Letter-writing, form-filling, bill paying, report reading. All those things that used to involve paper now exist far more comfortably on screen.

Is it possible to publish different genres on a screen the way we do to paper, from novels to magazine articles, from poetry to op-ed columns? Of course, we do it all the time. I suspect that most of us read more stories on the screens via the world wide web than we do on paper. And increasingly, longer forms – books –  are being read on screens .

Because we are now, happily at a point of technical development where screens are now portable and readable enough for many people to use them to replace paper. We’re living at a time when a range of perfectly usable e-reading devices is now becoming available.

A recent piece in New York Times debunks the notion that reading from screens causes eyestrain – instead citing opthalmolgists who make the argument that different screen technologies work better in different contexts. For many of us, font size and available light are the key constraints – everything else – including the choice of paper or screen – is actually irrelevant. And a survey of 1,000 e-reader owners (yes there are that many of us) in November by the NPD group in the US found that  93% were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their device. Only 2% reported dissatisfaction. Now I know that there are only low numbers of people with e-readers out there and they’re likely to be fairly generous in order to justify their purchases, but even Peter Garrett in his heyday didn’t get a 93% satisfaction rating.

So there’s evidence to suggest that those who have tried reading on screens (using e-readers) *like* electronic books – and it is only those who refuse to try anything other than their normality of the printed book are resistant.

The screen is coming, and will surely be ubiquitous within fifteen years.

Which brings us to the other part of the question. *What* will we be reading? Others (and Margaret might have done this in her piece) suggest that the shift from print to screen will mean the death of the type of long-form reading. That the inter-creative multimedia possibilities of the brave new digital world will sound the death knell for the type of reading and writing that most of us have grown up with. Indeed, some are celebrating that possibility.

Kevin Kelly foreshadows a new kind of screen literacy where users become adept at manipulating and understanding moving images. And there are others. At a Conference last year, I enjoyed a (shall we say) vibrant discussion with a policy wonk who seemed to be making the argument that reading is a hard skill to learn, so if we can find ways to impart information without requiring kids to read, of educating without the need to read, then no child would be left behind. I’m paraphrasing so if this makes a twitter feed somewhere, I apologise for oversimplifying – the Western Australian chardonnay was particularly refreshing that evening.  But it is the extreme end of a meme which champions multimedia, and the death of reading. Replaced by movies, videogames and interactive experiences.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a gamer from way back, I used to be a multimedia producer and I love the the possibilities of the new. But there’s a tendency to think that new media forms *replace* old media forms, when in reality they *displace* them. Nudge them into exploring the limits of their potential, whilst maintaining their very essence. And so it will be with books. Despite all the developments in media forms over the last century, the act of reading words will remain.

As interesting is the proposition that our attention spans are shorter and with the new technologies, we’re only capable of reading 140 characters at a time. I don’t buy that either – sure there’s evidence that a lot of people only read short form texts; but given the right text, words on a page still matter for many. And don’t forget we have a habit of seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses – there probably was no golden age where everybody read novels for hours at a time. After all, Dickens was originally published in serial form.

It’s not the screen, by itself, that will change our reading habits. If people aren’t reading long-form texts in fifteen years time, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. And by ourselves I mean the writers, editors, media producers, publishers that we all are in this so-called 2.0 world. If we want people to be reading the kind of works that need to be read – novels, substantial non-fiction – then we have to write them.

To paraphrase a former US president. It’s the writing, stupid.

As an example, there’s a trend in newspaper websites – particularly Australian ones –  to highlight different stories on screen editions than in printed editions. So inconsequential tech stories, gossip and sex scandals get the emphasis at the expense of investigative journalism which is buried deep in the site. The on-line editors argue that they’re just giving people what they want, that the constraints of a screen lends itself to short, bite-sized chunks of content of little value.

But such an approach is selling the screen short – and destroying the long-term value of the masthead. Within fifteen years, screens will be as commonplace as paper for many people’s reading – and just as there is currently demand for good writing now, there will be demand for good writing then.

If we want the reading to continue, the writing must lead the way.

In short, I think arguments about what reading will look like in fifteen years are pretty much over. There may be a flurry of activity as we all grapple with the new possibilities. But we’ll still be reading books as we have always known them, only they won’t be on paper, they’ll be on a screen of some sort. Of much greater interest is what this means for the book trade; for publishers, booksellers, authors – because electronic books have the potential to be disruptive – their ease of distribution, their revamped economics will make the next fifteen years very interesting indeed. But there is not the time tonight for that particular discussion.

In The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas Adams wrote:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

We’re on the cusp of a new natural order of things, and I say ‘bring it on!’

I’ve just been LiveBlogged

Just gave a keynote a the Information Online conference here in Sydney – and been liveblogged over at stilgherrian. Cool 🙂

The *real* Digital Divide

I went to the Book Conference in 2004 – and noted a clear divide between traditional book-people, the print on paper romantics and the rest of us. Well, nothing’s changed. There’s a trope here (Book Conference 2008) that’s still arguing that the new media is the death of the intellect. Some bloke even complained about people using *gasp* word processors to write. And there’s the usual bumpf about the awfulness of the web. Still, there’s room for some hearty debates 🙂

The Virtual BookClub

Avid Reader Bookclub 27/03/08

Many years ago, in the late 80s, a mate and I fantasised about creating what we called Virtual Cafés – bars with a large wall that was nothing less than a giant video screen with embedded cameras. The idea was that we could build a network of such cafés around the world, and that instead of having a drink with Joe Sixpack from around the corner, you could have one with Joe Sixpack in Rio. Timezones permitting. I still think it’s a cool idea, but at the time the technology was both inadequate and way too expensive to be anything more than a topic for pubtime speculation.

But today’s a different matter – and last night I was part of a virtual bookclub gathering to chat about my book. The hosts were the Avid Reader bookshop in Brisbane’s West End, and I was in my Coogee study, here in Sydney. It wasn’t quite a virtual café, but it worked well enough – and astoundingly was accomplished with nothing more than our respective Macbooks and a data projector. All we needed was Margaret Atwood’s book signing robot and the future would have been complete 🙂 

Here’s the first five minutes… 

Gatekeepers Update

Snap.Just as I published the last post, I got word that The Book is Dead  is January’s book of the month at the Avid Reader bookshop in Brisbane. I guess you gotta take the breaks when they come 🙂

My Broken Brain

I blame the lateness of the hour and a nasty head cold, but Philip Adams on Late Night Live last night stumped me with a question about the proportion of book sales that were Australian as opposed to imported. I had the data at hand, and then promptly forgot it, which made for great radio. Not.

Anyhow, the ABS data suggests that Australian book publishers earned $1.35 billion in 2003-04, of which $541 million came from imported titles. Of course (as I failed to explain properly on LNL), the breakdown is pretty rough and ready – and doesn’t properly distinguish Australian authored books as opposed to Australian editions of overseas titles.

Adding to the data points is the APA’s bestsellers list (pdf link) which shows that for 2005, 2 of the top 10 fiction best-sellers and 5 of the top 10 non-fiction best sellers were Australian authored.

Hope that clears things up 🙂

Sydney Writers Festival 2007

The following is the presentation I gave at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival at a session entitled Books in the Digital Age. I appeared on a panel with author and lawyer Matt Rubenstein and Michael Fraser, who had just left the top job at Copyright Agency Ltd (CAL). My old mate Adolfo Cruzado, ex AFTRS, now doing a PhD up at SCU in Lismore happened to be in the audience. And asked if the papers would be published anywhere. Well, Adolfo, here’s mine 🙂


Sydney Writers Festival: Books in the Digital Age, Friday 1st June, 2006

On this day, twelve months ago, another, far more famous Sherman appeared at the 2006 Sydney Writers Festival. Sherman Alexie– the author of several books, including three novels, as well as several collections of short stories and poetry.
The other Sherman’s new novel was published only recently. It’s called Flight, which, incidentally, had a terrific review in Sunday’s New York Times. But Gleebooks doesn’t stock it yet. Which isn’t all that surprising – I’m not even sure if an Australian publisher has picked it up. In fact, gleebooks doesn’t have Sherman’s two earlier novels: Indian Killer, or Reservation Blues. (Although it does have three of his short story collections.)

But all is not lost for the other Sherman, a quick check of some other Sydney bookshops found one copy of Reservation Blues. But no Indian Killer. And definitely no Flight.

Think about it – this is the sad legacy of the book as a printed object in 2007. This man, Sherman Alexie, was flown out from America to be part of this very festival a mere twelve months ago. A year later, I can’t buy his latest novel in this town.
I know Flight exists. I have read the first six pages on I have read a current review in a New York newspaper. I can get an overseas friend to Fedex me a copy – or buy it online and wait for it to ship. But I can’t walk into a bookshop and buy it in Sydney.
And it’s the same for Indian Killer, first published a decade ago.
At least Indian Killer is still in print and can be ordered in. For older, out-of-print books, it’s even worse. Often, terrific books can’t be bought anywhere. They have ceased to exist.

Digital promises an end to this madness. It promises to let me download a Sherman Alexie novel as easily as I can download an old Bobby Sherman song from itunes. It promises instant availability and an infinite library.
Digital promises that nothing will ever go ‘out-of-print’ because storing a tiny file on a server somewhere costs much less than keeping a few copies lying around in a warehouse somewhere.

Look at the online versions of newspapers and magazines – they show how traditional print publishing can be transformed – and point to ways that books could be revolutionised.

There are, of course, issues to work through. Things like making a suitable reading device for large quantities of text. And creating an appropriate distribution infrastructure.

Not to mention the need to negotiate a reasonably seismic cultural shift, probably involving an enormous debate about what, exactly, is a book anyway.

Finally, there will be a huge barmy about copyright.

But this is the 21st century. Printed books are beginning to make as much sense as cassette players or cameras that need film.

We’re already taking the first baby steps towards a digital future for books (with google book search and the sony portable reader)
Suppose those baby steps resulted in a complete journey, and we reinvented book publishing to embrace a new world of instant, affordable access to every title in existence; suppose we created what I call the Heavenly Library. A world where books were purchased as digital downloads for a few dollars, and read on portable reading devices. In that world, the book would be open to a range of new possibilities.

Books would no longer be scarce.
It costs money to print books; it costs money to distribute them. As physical objects, they fit within a model of economic scarcity. Their price and value is dependent on their relative rarity – with limited supply, and sufficient demand, money can be made.
Electronic books would be cheaper to produce; once “published”, there are no print costs, and online distribution is cheaper than shipping another thousand copies from China.
And the key feature of lower costs is that publishers might have the courage to publish titles which they otherwise would not have touched. If it cost less to publish books, and they could be sold globally – then maybe worthy Vogel runners-up would be published more frequently than is currently the case. Rather than celebrity cookbooks, reality TV tie-ins, or cash-register stocking stuffers (what I call anti-books), publishers might deem it possible to publish a modern day Patrick White.
Electronic books exist in an economy of abundance – the cost of physical reproduction is essentially zero, so electronic books must be cheaper than printed ones. Of course a reading device would cost money – but the experience of mobile phones shows us how dramatically prices of electronic devices can fall; if there’s a little creativity in pricing models.

Moreover, books would no longer be lost.
Walk into a bookshop and try to find a particular book. If it’s a 3 for 2 special on the front table, you’re OK, otherwise good luck. The trend in bookselling may be towards larger stores, but finding individual titles can be difficult. Obscure, interesting books get lost. Either hidden away on the high shelves where no-one can look; or never stocked in the first place. And even stocked items might be held in the wrong category. Is it Business Books, or Cultural Studies; Literary Fiction or Crime. In the real world, a book can’t easily be in two places at once.
Digitally, the experience is different: searching is easy – by any number of keywords; books can exist in any number of categories; and software is intelligent enough to simulate serendipity and make clever suggestions about ‘books you might also enjoy’, and other titles with similar themes. All of a sudden, lost books are easily found.

Then, there is the Long Tail
Chris Anderson uses the phrase long tail to suggest that digital goods allow totally different patterns of sales to emerge. He argues that rather than rely on immediate hit-driven sales, the digital realm allows different factors to come into play. Anderson cites a number of examples. Itunes sales data suggests that a list of best sellers doesn’t merely contain the latest hits, but a vast selection of titles from long ago and far away; And then there are the sales figures, where a quarter of book sales come from outside its top 100,000 titles. The Long Tail explains an expanded market – where there are enough buyers for almost anything that is for sale – given time and availability.

So, rather than give a book a couple of months on a shelf, before being returned to publishers and perhaps pulped, a digital book can always be on the shelf; and be part of that long tail, available whenever a reader might want it.

You could think of it as An abundance of niches
And it’s global. If a book appeals to a particular niche of say 500 people in Sydney, you can almost guarantee that a similar number will be interested in every major english-speaking city on the planet. At the moment it might have 500 hard-won sales, individually placed by a sympathetic sales rep. Digitally, with the right online community building and virtual word of mouth, it could garner similar sales in San Francisco, New York, London, Toronto and a dozen others. All of a sudden, the book is more viable.

(What about the Royalties though)
But if the digital book is cheaper, surely that means authors will suffer a per copy loss. I reckon that’s not necessarily so.

I’d suggest that it’s entirely feasible for per-copy royalties to remain at their current rate.

Unless you’re JK Rowling, most authors probably get about 10% on net sales. So a $30 book, which would net the publisher about $15 give or take, would pay the author around $1.50 per copy.

The net price is what booksellers pay – so if the publisher were to sell direct, then there’s a significant amount to be saved. Likewise, printing and distribution costs would probably make up half of the net price – particularly when you consider that publishers have to gamble on the size of print runs and deal with sale and return conditions on the printed books.
At a rough guess, publishers could probably sell an electronic version of a $30 paperback for between $7 and $10, make the same profit as the printed book, and pay the author the same royalty.
Is this a problem for traditional booksellers? Probably. But that’s a whole other discussion.

And there are Other Opportunities
In the music realm, where there have been similar debates around downloads as compared to CDs, many argue that downloaded music has refocussed the revenue opportunity away from recorded music and towards different items of value – such as live performance, merchandising, and interaction with the artists.
The book realm might not have the same possibilities, but they do exist. You may not pay money to hear Peter Carey sing, but you’d happily go to a literary lunch. And who knows, there might be a market for Pico Iyer t-shirts.
Already, there are different models for payment, some authors value their reputation above their royalties – academics, for example, glean rewards from their books from citations, promotion opportunities and the suggestion of further research possibilities and collaboration. In that realm, the digital realm has already been a boon – amazon search inside and google book search have broadened the avenues by which they might have their reputations enhanced.

So, in summary, the digital book, the heavenly library, if properly implemented, would give invisible authors visibility, expand their global distribution, make the books available for longer to exploit every potential sale – and maintain their royalties. Sounds like win-win-win to me.

But some argue that the digital world introduces a factor that has not really been a problem for book publishing. The digital book, they argue is easy to copy; it’s easy to share – so piracy would become abundant…
The fact is that the printed book has built in copy protection – it is difficult to photocopy an entire book – or at least easier to buy or borrow a copy from the library – and this difficulty prevents widespread piracy. Go digital, and that difficulty disappears. Copying becomes incredibly easy.
Some would say, just look at music. Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, Bittorrent. Millions of songs being shared, traded, downloaded – and most importantly, not bought. Go digital and the entire industry will sink in a festering ocean of bloodthirsty pirates. Remove the inherent barrier of having to recreate a hefty physical object, and it’s all downhill.

But the response from book lovers needs to be measured and appropriate – the lessons from music are manifold.

1. For example, just because someone has copied, or downloaded something, does not mean a lost sale. It’s common for industry types to count every downloaded song as one that would otherwise have been bought. Which is wrong. A teenage kid who has downloaded ten thousand songs would not have bought all 10,000. It’s more likely that he downloaded because he could, and for the most part had no intention of buying most of the songs anyway. It’s also likely that having heard a downloaded song, some might have actually gone out and bought an album’s worth of that artist’s material. That download acted as publicity; incentive to purchase – if not immediately, then later when the kid could afford it. It created a fan.

An example from books – Baen Books, a science fiction publisher has long had a free library of electronic books, easily downloadable from their website. And Baen has found that giving away those electronic versions has actually increased sales of the printed books. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

2. Moreover, I suspect that, when given a reasonable choice, reasonable people choose to pay. The itunes store has sold over 2 billion songs and is the 5th biggest music retailer in the United States. By providing an easy to use service, with a vast range and appropriate pricing, people are happy to ‘do the right thing’

The bottom line is that in 2007, books must embrace the possibilities of digital. Sure, there are issues to be discussed and hurdles to overcome, but unless it happens, books are dead. Weighed down by printed objects, the unique qualities and virtues of books will be sidelined in an increasingly irrelevant part of the cultural universe.
Arguments about copyright, whilst they need to be heard, are red herrings, designed to distract us from the bigger challenge – which is that in an age where people expect, or demand, instant access to their information products, the legacy, and blind devotion to printed objects threatens the very existence of books.