Thursday, December 31, 2009

Terrorism: Good for the Publishing Industry

This week the TSA introduced a new set of guidelines for both domestic and international flights, as a result of the Underwear Bomber's attempted detonation of a thusly-concealed explosive on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. The new rules include increased gate screening like pat-downs and bag searches, plus during flight passengers may be asked to stow personal items, turn off electronic equipment and remain seated "during certain portions of the flight". The wording is confusing, travelers' reports present conflicting experiences, and the blogosphere has been abuzz with commentary.

But one positive (in both senses: definitive and favorable) implication is the trumping of eBook readers by real, live books. MediaBistro publishing blog GalleyCat picked up on a Gizmodo post about the literary relevance of these new flight restrictions:
"Bring a Book or Prepare to Die of Boredom: Bring a book. Not a Kindle, not a Nook, not any other sort of ebook reader, but a plain ol' low-tech book. Because apparently books are pretty much the only thing you can have in your hands during the final hour of your flight ('the government says ok') and how the hell else will you keep from falling into a cold and uncomfortable slumber?"
Score one for the traditional media camp.

In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the eponymous "book" is actually a precursor of today's Kindles and Nooks:
"The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in."
Adams' science fiction cult novel is supposed to be humorous, but he has a point. Mobile devices make written material more transportable. I've been reading Anna Karenina for over a month now, since I can only bite off snippets here and there at home, the volume being too hefty to cart around in my purse.

Maybe that's why some schools, like Toronto's Blyth Academy, are replacing textbooks with Sony Readers. I remember being weighted down, to the point of chronic back pain, by a backpack with screaming seams. I think involving technology in schools is almost essential, given the frequency of updates in each discipline (scientific discoveries, additions to history books), the necessity of learning how to use such technology to prepare for a professional life in a high-tech society, and the boon of social engagement's enhancement via modern media. Time was when weekly class visits to one of the school's two computer labs were an exciting field trip. Time was when teachers' grades were handed to you in person, in red ink, rather than posted online. My 17-year-old cousin recently G-Chatted to my older sister when she asked why he was signed online during school hours, "Ok, Miss I-Went-To-High-School-In-The-Nineties. We use technology in the classroom."

But reading a text for pleasure, rather than curricular education, is another issue. When it comes to reading recreationally, like some travelers are wont to do on flights or in airports, I'm still all for a (small-to-medium-weight) paperback.

In a December interview with Lucky magazine, Emily Sugihara, creator of Baggu Bag reusable shopping bags, said she preferred eBooks to print books because of the ease of travel. Looks like she may be out of luck.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Google Book Search

From Google’s overview of its Book Search:

“We believe a tool that can open up the millions of pages in the world's books can help remove the barriers between people and information and benefit the publishing community at the same time.”

Critics see this mission statement as a fancily worded admission that Google hopes to take over the world. Supporters applaud the aim to grant users universal access beyond their most farflung imaginings.

Until recent, pre-eReader years, books had been a safe haven in which modern readers could rest assured technology would not come knocking. Magazine and newspaper articles could be easily transferred from the printed page to the computer screen; scholarly research could be made searchable and archivable on an Internet database; the blogosphere shattered the traditional forum for commentary and reader-publisher engagement. But books have always existed as wholes- even those written in installments like the works of Dickens and his confederates were intended to be read in entirety, each release the equivalent of a chapter. (In Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Cecily speaks to her governess Miss Prism of the three-volume novels sent to her by Mudie, the London circulating library.) The idea that the entire text of a book, let alone all the books of the world, could be Internet-implanted was a game-changer.

I sympathize with those wary of such a tool’s potential violation of authors' and publishers' rights, and potential signalling of Doomsday for the printed word. But, at the same time, as a reader with an insatiable literary appetite, the prospect of being able to tap into such bottomless annals is invigorating. The great bookshops of yore seem quaint in contrast. And there's more: enhanced opportunities for print-disabled readers, security of texts for the future (like backing up our files to a hard drive rather than relying on a hanging file desk drawer), newfound exposure to backlist books, and automatic refurbishment of libraries' and schools' holdings.

How does Google have access to these reams of material? Artfully, as ever, the brains behind Google Book Search have navigated their way through the brambles of legal mire by displaying only excerpts and bibliographic information from copyrighted text. Only books out of copyright are offered in full. In-print books' display is contingent on authors' and publishers' direction.

So the goal, in short, is to assist authors and publishers in circulating their products, and extend said products on (sterling) silver platters to readers. Like I said, my perspective as an avid reader and a Generation Y'er who has grown up accustomed to the inclusion of technology in everyday life makes me biased toward the existence of Google Book Search. But my equally avid love of the physical volume- my bookshelves literally sag with weight- and my entry into the publishing industry workplace make me wary of the involvement of the Internet in book-browsing (note: eBooks and their marketplace are an entirely different topic- here I'm limiting my discussion to Google Book Search). Arguments in the Book Search's favor abound. I'm just worried that it's impossible to reconcile one route with the other, that letting technology in("dealing with the devil", in the words of Ursula K. LeGuin, who resigned from the Authors Guild over its support of the Google Books settlement) will lead to an eventual shut-out of print. This fracture is the dilemma facing my generation. We're caught uniquely on the brink of a new world, not quite uprooted nor yet taken new root.

From Robert E. Blackwell's "Fork in the Road":

As I start my new walk,
I think maybe, if I’m lucky,
The roads will rejoin
Once I pick up all the pieces
And fit them together
Into something whole,
But if not,
My healing heart and I
Will walk toward
The next sunrise
While wishing your road
Never loses the sun again.

You can purchase Blackwell's work on his website, read his poems on AuthorsDen, and clip them for future referral with a simple copy-and-paste. Or you can hand your bookstore cashier cash, or your librarian your membership card. Either way, we'll all walk on, brightened, just hoping our avoidance of the shadows doesn't leave them blackening another pathway.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Piñatas at a Birthday Party

In this the Great Age of Disaggregation, all the old forms are being smashed apart and their contents spilled out like piñatas at a birthday party.
-Adam Gopnik, "What's the Recipe?", The New Yorker, 11/23/09

This weekend I cancelled my Maghound membership.

The customer service form asked me to specify from a list of options why I was closing my account. I scanned down the list and selected "too much money". But the $6.24 charged to my Amex each month wasn't really stretching my purse strings.

Each morning when I walk to work, I read The Daily Beast's Morning Scoop and the Slatest Morning Edition on my iPhone. Throughout the day, in spare moments polka-dotted among meetings, phone calls, and trips to check the oft-laden communal office kitchen table, I check my thirty-some RSS feeds for news updates, among other things. I also get Washington Post and New York Times breaking news e-alerts. I use my family's New Yorker subscription digital account to read articles in full, I browse Time's Best&Worse Lists, and I plug away at the weekly Times free archived crossword puzzle. I also, in long stretches when my Outlook calendar is appointmentless, keep a book on my desk. But that's besides my point here.

I've spent a total of two summers and an entire academic year working at magazines. I look forward to getting a pedicure as much for the trashy magazine selection as the foot pampering. I keep a stack of them on my coffee table. I'd rather read a magazine than a book at my counter over breakfast since it lies dead flat and I don't have to juggle five things.

But the cold truth is that society has made a bandwagon of technology, and it's writing magazines' obituary. There are solutions afoot, like a super-conglomerate of Time Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst and Meredith that would sell magazines both in print and iTunes-style. Or compromises between print and digital, like U.S. News and World Report's new weekly digital magazine, a downloadable PDF offered gratis to print subscribers or for $19.95 annually. And there are suggestions like developing a shared investment among readers in a publication, like Good's contribution of subscription proceeds to charity.

But plans like AOL's to let computers, rather than editors, run a digital newsroom is eerily 1984-like. (Julia has "some mechanical job on one of the novel-writing machines".) "Mass-production"- AOL CEO Tim Armstrong actually used that phrase- of magazine content undercuts the very lifeblood of magazines. Can nuanced and heartfelt content be produced by an algorithm?

Maybe if the algorithm drives the production, rather than the copy. Derek Powazek of The Magazineer blog has launched MagCloud with HP Labs, a print-on-demand system specifically for magazine publishers. You upload a PDF to the site, print and circulate through mail or online orders, and collect royalties via PayPal. The project preserves the traditional format of magazines, but adapts to the demands of 21st century readers. Powazek asks,

"[W]hat if we could combine the best parts of the web (no waste, personalized content, open to all) with the best parts of print (sexy print quality, permanence, no batteries required)?"

The further we move away from the printed page, beyond the Kindle and the Nook, beyond, even, the upcoming Tablet, the more letters we etch into magazines' gravestone. There may be commercial success in transitioning from the glossy page to the screen, if one of the ideas like the media giants' merger works, but then what's to stop the line between all digital journalistic content blurring beyond recognition? Does it matter if magazines' defibrillation keeps them alive, if in so doing we destroy their identity as distinguished from newspapers, newsletters, blogs, citizen journalism sites?

So maybe I shouldn't have caved. Maybe I joined the funeral procession by ending my print subscriptions. I remain as avid a reader of my favorites. But convenience, lack of time, and (yes, a monthly $6.24 can really add up) financial straits have converted me to an online consumer of them. It's a measure of our Digital Age's accelerating hoofbeats that even someone as invested in magazines as me conceded defeat. But I still haven't bought a Kindle.

Mother Goose 2K9

I was seven when I published my first book.

My dad set me up on Storybook Weaver at his giant gray-yellow block of a Macintosh. I sat on the cushy chair, feet dangling, typing into the text box and assembling clip-art illustrations. I don't remember what the story was about. But I do remember waiting, itching, by the printer as it spooled out my work. There was even a cover page. My dad helped me staple the sheaf together. "By Allison Stadd", it read.

Even at that time, the dissonance between traditional and high-tech publishing was ostensible. I reiterate the assertion that my age bracket is situated in the problem's perfect storm: we grew up with Shel Silverstein hardcovers, AOL usernames, Highlights magazines, Oregon Trail computer games, Peanuts comics, and, all in equal measure. Too young to remember a time before e-mail existed, but not young enough to forget when "buy stamps" was a weekly entry on Mom's fridge-magneted to-do list.

The Internet's cannibalization of print publishing has been remarkable (Canadian web marketing agency Dialect moved from documenting traditional publishing's decline to officially declaring it dead with a formal elegy). To the extent that the collision between old and new affects both my personal and work life, to keep afloat I take a unicycle position: pedal forward, pedal back, swivel this way or that, arms out for balance, senses always attuned, can't stop-content- or you'll fall.

So it isn't simple. Every pressure point between traditional and 21st century media has infinite facets to consider both in developing an opinion on each matter (say, you can boycott the idea of citizen journalism, but also subscribe to ten average Joes' RSS feeds) and in negotiating the effect on cultural consumption (Do I buy a Kindle? Do I cancel my Time subscription? In my case, the first answer is "not yet", the second is "just did"). But the conflict's complexity doesn't mean that every new publishing development is equally tangly.

What about something as crisp-autumn-day clear as giving kids the opportunity to create their own books? Storybook Weaver planted a seed for me. Today the software has a newfangled cousin in the form of, for one example, A fresh-faced approach to children's publishing, Tikatok markets itself as a “free creative community” for children 13 and under to become published authors. Two mothers developed the idea in 2007. Tikatok kids write and illustrate their story ideas, then can order the finished products in paperback, hardback or eBook form. Joining the site is free, and the editing software is available right from the site. The kernel of the idea is that Tikatok is more than a crafting venue for budding Hemingways; the site includes features for collaboration made capable by the Internet. It's a refurbishment of the Storybook Weavers of my own youth. Tikatok cultivates the notion that the act of writing centers on more than the physical application of utensil to paper. Writing should be a social outlet, thriving from the cross-pollination offered by a community. Tikatok features book clubs, discussion threads and other opportunities for social networking.

It's hard to imagine people taking issue with the facilitation of constructive dialogue among children who want to write, or with the opportunity for these children to self-publish. But critics may claim that the ease of the process deemphasizes the idea of writing as a honed art. Or that it doesn't hold kids accountable for the building-block-instruction necessary for coherent, cogent writing. Or that their time would be better spent on math homework, or learning vocabulary lists, or getting mulch in their shoes from running around the playground with their friends- in person.

I'm not a parent, or a teacher, so I can't weigh in on how I think my kids' or students' time would best be allocated. But I do know that a tool like Storybook Weaver, forebear of Tikatok, enshrines the practice of story-telling so endangered in our Internet-driven society.

Ben Macintyre of The Times in London writes in "The Internet is killing story-telling",
"Storytelling is the bedrock of civilisation. From the moment we become aware of others, we demand to be told stories that allow us to make sense of the world, to inhabit the mind of someone else... [But] the internet is there for snacking, grazing and tasting, not for the full, six-course feast that is nourishing narrative. The consequence is an anorexic form of culture."

In his elegant blog "Anecdotal Evidence," Patrick Kurp writes, similarly,
"[St]ories, telling them and listening to them, are primal human acts. They entertain us and help make sense of the world, and most everyone outside of the nation's English departments enjoys them."

Sometimes, too, storytelling is a way to preserve, like pressing flower petals flat. In "Spin" from They Things They Carried, soldier-cum-author Tim O'Brien writes,
"[S]ometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."
It's also a release. O'Brien writes later,
"Telling stories seemed a natural, inevitable process, like clearing the throat. Partly catharsis, partly communication, it was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exatly what had happened to me."
Storytelling can be an unbottling that quenches both server and drinker.

The Tikatok homepage nudges kids to "Imagine a Story. Create a Book." Equal emphasis on each step. A lifeline, then, for the ritual of narration; a story circle for the modern age.

When I was twelve and thirteen, I published two stories in “Stone Soup” magazine (my first official paychecks!). Later they were posted on the publication's website, with a soundclip of my narration. Learning, through a computer game and a website, that publishing my own writing was possible was a beacon for me. I would have drooled over the chance to talk about writing and publishing and stories and character traits and plots with other kids. What better use of the imagination and energy of the Internet than to channel the imagination and energy of children?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dictatorship, Dictatory, Diction, Dictionary

In the dark night’s insomnia, the book is a stimulating sedative, awakening my tired imagination to the hypnagogic trance of language. Retiring to the canopy of the bedroom, turning on the bedside light, taking the big dictionary to bed, clutching the unabridged bulk, heavy with the weight of all the meanings between these covers, smoothing the thin sheets, thick with accented syllables–all are exercises in the conscious regimen of dreamers, who toss words on their tongues while turning illuminated pages.

-Harryette Mullen, "Sleeping with the Dictionary"

In elementary school I had a paperback Bugs Bunny dictionary, pages well-thumbed to butter-softness, print large like in the books in the eye doctor's waiting room.

In middle school I had a thin Random House Webster's Student Notebook Dictionary, pages made of newsprint, three-hole-punched to fit into the front of my big plastic binder.

In high school I relied on the doorstop Merriam-Webster my family kept on the bottommost row of a living room bookshelf. It was a big block of a thing with miniscule print. Its weight conveyed its dependability.

I didn't pack a dictionary when I moved to college. I don't know when exactly I started relying solely on the Internet to look up definitions, pronunciations, etymologies, translations. But since then my book collection and my desk have been devoid of a print dictionary, and I can't say I feel the loss. A friend recently told me she and her roommates keep one on their coffee table- like a book of photographs, or a magazine, or a vase of flowers.

I have set as one of my search providers on both my work and home computers, and I use it frequently. I may not be able to "clutch the unabridged bulk, heavy with the weight of all the meanings", but I'd ask Harryette Mullen: can you discover the origins of whole phrases? Can you hear a pronunciation aloud, in a pleasant British voice, no less? Can you translate to and from over 40 languages?

Online dictionaries enable users to scroll through words in alphabetical order, just as I can flip through the pages of my family's hardback tome. So they afford the same basic usage, but treat this function as a platform off of which to spring into linguistic riches. Should a physical dictionary hold sentimental value, I would of course support its owner's endorsement. And, as always, I can relate to the comfort of holding a book in your hands, feeling confident in your mastery over it because of the physicality of the possession. There's no intimidation, no overwhelming sense of the illimitable reaches, because you can confirm at a physical level what the book contains. Sometimes when you sit with hand hovering over mouse, eyes flitting like fireflies over your computer screen, it can feel like you're at the lip of the Grand Canyon. Yet from an informational standpoint I think online dictionaries are a paragon of how technology can revolutionize the written materials in our lives.

Maybe, too, they're not just well-suited to Cyberland, but somehow intended for it, in its synergistic capacity?

Fact-checking for magazines sometimes includes verifying accurate word usage. I quickly learned during one of my editorial internships that "" is shorthand for Merriam Webster's site. I used to then find myself wondering just how, exactly, the process of sanctioning new dictionary entries works. The question is particularly relevant in light of the 2009 crowning of the New Oxford American Dictionary's "word of the year" (ancient news, but worth mentioning). And here are some even more ancient neologisms.

Oxford University Press, publisher of the preeminent OED in addition to the New Oxford American, apparently implements an expansive project called the Reading Programme whose research team constantly examines printed materials for word lightbulbs (either new terms or new usages of terms). The general public, too, submits thousands of suggestions to the dictionary. The OED’s original editor James Murray during his tenure published an “Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public of Great Britain, America and the British Colonies” in an effort to cast forth his nets and receive word of… well, words. Of course, the Oxford wordworms prioritize longevity of each suggested coinage to ensure its lasting absorption into the English language. Credible, and manifold, sources are other obvious gauges of OED-worthiness.

In all, then, the process seems simple. More of an art form than a science, which is logical. Perhaps this sense of universal teamwork, an ongoing and impartial project to collectively enhance the completeness of our language, is just as edifying as the final product itself. And, further, aren't collaboration, connection, global engagement the calling cards of the Internet? It's called the World Wide Web for a reason.

I say keep your great uncle Roy's handbound, gold-embossed dictionary, and cherish it. But also celebrate this rare uncontroversial concession to the digital remodeling of print.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Paper Trail

I’m a paper person. In all senses.

Touch: To crease the spine of a paperback, to dog-ear pages that bear quotes to treasure or references to remember, to fold the newspaper at the breakfast table and prize the kiss of smudged ink left on the fingertips. These, and more, are sensations to savor. They're tactile elements that enhance the reading experience and are lost with the mechanization of words.

Smell: One of the wacky childhood habits that has stuck with me is paper-smelling. There is a running register, ten or so, of standard paper smells.

There's the musty-grandmother's-attic classic literary hardcover. Stick your nose in the binding and inhale; it smells like you've peeled the cracked tape off water-stained cardboard boxes, or shaken out your grandmother's stale, dust-powdered mink.

There's the the sharp, sterile scent of a magazine. Flipping through the pages wafts up the smell of beach-ball-plastic plus floral traces of unstuck perfume samples.

Best-selling fiction novels? Clean wood shavings.

Book of crossword puzzles? Smutty wood shavings.

Library book? Eraser shavings.

Cracking open the spine of a book or re-creasing a brochure flap or pulling a fresh sheet off the printer: these experiences change, for me, when I can't touch the pages, yes, but also when I can't smell them. Every laptop and Kindle and Blackberry screen smells the same. Keith Lubely on the New Yorker's books blog The Book Bench makes this point for me, in quoting John Freeman's book The Tyranny of E-Mail: "Computers have become handier, cuter, some might even say sexier, but they do very little to engage us as physical beings. They have almost no smell; only the most fanatical have tried licking them.” Although, who knows, we may not be far from that.

Apparently there's even some scientific substantiation of the import of book odors. Steve Mersky writes, "[R]esearchers identified 15 organic compounds that made good markers to track the condition of books." See what I'm saying? (Listen to the Scientific American podcast here.)

And, lastly-

Sight: The bookstore is my Canaan. The library is my lunch break refuge. The newsstand is my oasis on a subway-grate-belching, gum-stamped city street. All things paper, great and small, are a source of interest, appealing in any state of mind or physical or temporal setting. Paper, and the visual information it affords us, is the bearer of knowledge, opinion, humor, beauty, hope, despair, enlightenment, provocation. Finding a book of poetry that clutches your heart can usher you through the most trying of times. Sorting through the miscellany that clogs your (snail)mailbox, or comes raining through your front door, might be irking but also validates the fact that you have a roof over your head. The jazzy blurbs on the back of your cereal box help pump oxygen into your veins when there’s no time for a second cup of coffee. The playbill you leaf through while waiting for the house lights to dim stimulates conversation with your neighbor, just passes the downtime or makes you an informed concertgoer.

Whatever the feel, whatever the smell, whatever the look, physical paper matters to me. But maybe more significantly, as I gain my footing in the post-college world, paper offers information, fodder for creativity, inspiration for action. Flyers in my apartment building elevator announcing a holiday dinner, business cards slipped from wallets, the flow chart pinned to my cubicle wall IDing the 22 people whose team I'm now a member of: these paper products are tools to help me build a new adult life for myself. Just like LinkedIn and the Publishers Weekly RSS feed on my Google Reader and my subscription to the Penn Alumni Club listserv.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

From the Dust Jacket...

Setting: 21st century America

Protagonist: A Generation Y-er ensnared in the crosshairs of the traditional/digital media struggle.

The conflict: She’s a bibliophile who would bottle the scent of age-yellowed books, and an '09 English major graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, whose founder Ben Franklin established the first library. But she is, too, a tech-savvy social media user and a fledgling in the medical publishing industry.

The plotline: Exploring the professional and personal implications of technology's media overhaul for a generation caught between the tactile products of our youth and the glowing screen of today and beyond.

Resolution: ?