Authors tell Google to suck it

February 23, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

In what amounts to a strong rebuke to Internet behemoth Google’s proposed plan to digitize the world, the Guardian is today reporting that court documents show some 6,500 authors, from Thomas Pynchon to Philip Pullman, have opted out of the controversial Google Book Search settlement. The deal is an amended version of a similar agreement reached in October 2008. That version of the settlement was widely contested by international bodies, and prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice as to whether it violated American antitrust laws. The new agreement, which was meant to address the most contentious issues, was to be ruled on in a fairness hearing last Thursday. However, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin declined to make a ruling, saying that there was “just too much to digest.”

From The Associated Press:

In court papers submitted last week, Google Inc., which is based in Mountain View, Calif., defended its deal with authors by saying its digital library lives up to the purpose of copyright law, which is to create and distribute expressive works.

“No one seriously disputes that approval of the settlement will open the virtual doors to the greatest library in history, without costing authors a dime they now receive or are likely to receive if the settlement is not approved,” Google said.

The Department of Justice said Google and the plaintiffs have made substantial improvements to the original settlement, but it said “substantial issues remain.”

One of those “substantial issues” appears to be the fate of so-called “orphan works,” that is, out-of-copyright works for which no rightsholder can be found. American Libraries quotes Judge Chin as specifying orphan works as one of the key issues in the settlement: “’I would surmise that Google wants the orphan books and this is what it is about – orphan books that will remain unclaimed,’ Judge Chin conjectured.”

Regardless, the number of authors who have decided to opt out of the agreement whether or not it gets judicial approval is going to be a tough hurdle for Google to surmount. One of the authors who opted out, Ursula K. Le Guin, famously resigned from the Authors Guild because of their support for the deal. In an open letter to the Guild last December, Le Guin wrote:

I am not going to rehearse any arguments pro and anti the “Google settlement.” You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so. I wish I could accept them. I can’t. There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.

In addition to copyright and antitrust concerns, critics have also suggested that the deal raises serious privacy issues.

While confessing aggravation over the way this entire procedure is dragging itself out, yr. humble correspondent must express sympathy with the authors and others concerned about the implications of the settlement for copyright, and nervousness about the prospect of vesting so much in one set of corporate hands. Google’s proselytizers claim that the Borgesian digital library the company is proposing, which would feature ready access to everything ever written (as someone who was once in charge of a publisher’s slush pile, I can only shudder with horror at that prospect), would be an unqualified boon to humanity. My own view is that in addition to taking significant control out of the hands of content creators, the settlement also represents a dangerous step along the road to media and corporate consolidation. Call me crazy, but I don’t particularly want one single gatekeeper in charge of allowing access to the world’s accumulated knowledge. Particularly if that gatekeeper is a publicly traded company.

The new mixologists

February 17, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

You may not have heard of Helene Hegemann, but the 17-year-old German writer is at the centre of a brewing storm around the subjects of copyright and the nature of authorship in the Internet age. Hegemann is the author of a book titled Axolotl Roadkill, which has become a bestseller in her native country and was recently nominated for the fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. What makes this book noteworthy is that it apparently contains passages – including one that allegedly runs an entire page – that have been lifted from the work of another writer, a blogger who goes by the online nom de plume Airen.

Hegemann, a child of the Internet age, does not consider what she has done plagiarism; she prefers to call it “mixing.” An article in The New York Times quotes the German teenager as saying that “Berlin is here to mix with everything.” Which sounds very DIY and cutting-edge, until you realize that Hegemann lifted that line from Arien’s blog. Hegemann claims to represent a new generation with new ideas about proprietorship vis à vis intellectual property. Essentially, for Hegemann (and, by extension everyone in her demographic cohort), in the Internet age, everything is up for grabs. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway,” Hegemann says, “only authenticity.” (How one can claim “authenticity” if one’s work is largely the creation of another is a mystery to me, but we’ll let that go for the moment.)

The current farrago puts yr. humble correspondent in mind of two other famous cases of “borrowing” material. In the first, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan was roundly excoriated when it became apparent that her 2006 novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life contained passages that were lifted verbatim from two novels by Meg McCafferty. The second case, however, turned out rather differently. In that case, not only was the “borrower” not vilified, he went on to win the 2002 Booker Prize. When some perceptive readers noticed that Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi bore a suspicious similarity to a lesser-known 1981 novel called Max and the Cats, by Brazilian author Moacyr Scilar, Martel freely acknowledged the debt. At the time, Mobylives quoted Martel:

“This is how it happened,” he writes in an e–mail interview with Orin Judd at “Ten years ago. Review in New York Times Book Review by John Updike of a Brazilian novel by one Moacyr Scliar … Not a good review. Did nothing to Updike. But premise sizzled in my mind. I thought ‘Man, I could do something with that.'”

Martel went so far as to say that Scilar provided the “spark of life” for Pi, and told the Associated Press, “I don’t feel I’ve done something dishonest.”

That being the case, one might imagine that Martel would have a certain sympathy for Hegemann. But if Axolotl Roadkill represents the thin edge of the wedge, what can we expect the future of books to look like in a world where everything from current releases to classics in the public domain is available for remix, refashioning, and reuse? We’ve already seen a glut of Jane Austen-inspired “mash-ups,” thanks to last year’s unlikely Quirk Classics bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; can we now expect that similar revisions (or, more properly, “re-visionings”) of canonical works will be forced upon us by writers with a clever idea and access to cut-and-paste computer software? For modern works, will copyright have any practical value at all?

In an interview with Hugh Maguire for Open Book: Toronto, Sean Cranbury envisions a “ridiculously dystopic” future in which source texts become collages at the hands of Internet users employing the digital equivalent of scissors and a glue stick:

People are going take text that they like or want to use for a specific purpose from wherever they can find it, and they are going to manipulate it to whatever ends they desire. Then they’re going to slap it into some kind of digital container and probably cross-pollinate the work with video, stills, music, scans of random junk found lying around and then they are going to share it. That content will then be reconstituted by others who have picked it up somewhere in the digital aether.

In this new world, Cranbury posits, “Digital content will have a universal currency rate of 0. It will simply be given away, shared, remixed and reconstituted, and the only way to determine anything like our common sense of ‘worth’ will be by its buoyancy and popularity on the P2P networks.”

In his book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, Andrew Keen quotes cyberpunk author William Gibson as saying that the words “appropriation” and “borrowing” are in fact outmoded terms that don’t mean anything to the participatory culture of the Internet. “The record,” Gibson says, “not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.” To which it is tempting to point out that without the record, there is nothing to remix in the first place (hence the term remix …), but again, we’ll let that one go for now.

Keen goes on to write:

A survey published in Education Week found that 54 percent of students admitted to plagiarizing from the Internet. And who is to know if the other 46 percent are telling the truth? Copyright and authorship begin to lose all meaning to those posting their mash-ups and remixings on the Web. They are, as Professor Sally Brown at Leeds Metropolitan University notes, “Postmodern, eclectic, Google-generationists, Wikipediasts, who don’t necessarily recognize the concepts of authorships/ownerships.”

Given Hegemann’s comment that there is no such thing as originality, it may be that the word “necessarily” in Professor Brown’s assessment is de trop. What makes me nervous, however, is not that the generation coming of age with the Internet has no conception of the importance of authorship. What makes me nervous is that they do recognize this – they just don’t care.

The problem of sustained reading in a distracted society

February 3, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

This past weekend, yr. humble correspondent finished reading Under the Dome by Stephen King. The endeavour took approximately 30 days to complete. While a novel of 1,072 pages is by no means a minor undertaking, 30 days to read a single book seems – to an inveterate reader such as myself – excessive. True, I completed two other, shorter books for review in the interim, but for the most part, my reading time in the month of January was devoted to a single book.

One reason for this is that I read the book in snippets – short gulps here and there whenever I could fit them in – rather than setting aside blocks of time to read, say, 100 pages or so. True, I have a day job that cuts into my reading time, and it’s clearly important to maintain a life outside the confines of a book’s covers, lest one become a kind of anti-social hermit. Still, it’s not as though my life is so back-breakingly full that I couldn’t find a quiet hour or two for sustained reading each day. Indeed, if I were to add up all the time spent staring at various screens in the month of January, the total would probably have been sufficient to allow me to finish a book of 1,000+ pages in 10 days or so.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember a time, not so long ago, when blocks of several hours per day could easily be found to read for pleasure. What has changed? In a word: distraction. The Internet, social media, reality television, and 24-hour-a-day celebrity culture have increased easy access to all manner of distraction, and distraction is anathema to sustained reading. Reading requires concentration and active engagement, qualities that are in short supply in today’s hyperlinked, attention-deficit society.

Alan Bissett, writing on the Guardian‘s Books Blog (yes, I recognize the irony), makes the same point, and extends it to include a value judgment:

So besieged are we by the entertainment industry that we are being stimulated only in certain directions. The sound of fizz is everywhere. Sustained concentration on the printed word, whether in-depth argument or fictional narrative, creates a particular cerebral event which visual-dependent media cannot. The assault upon this has meant the very theft of our thinking space.

This argument has been made before, notably in a 2008 article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. Carr points out that although we are engaging with the written word more than ever before, the way we are doing so is changing:

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking – perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, 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, she 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.

This is no small matter. Skimming an online news article for tidbits of information or the next interesting hyperlink on which to click does little to develop the kind of complex thinking skills that are necessary to engage in a sustained analysis or argument, nor does it allow for an acceptance of ambiguity or nuance.

Jakob Nielson, an influential figure in “web usability,” provides statistics to support this shift in the way people read online: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word by word.” All of which might be fine in an online environment, but the same kind of reading habits have begun to bleed into our offline lives. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t picked up the print edition of The Globe and Mail recently. If you had, you’d surely have noticed that the news articles are getting shorter, and are frequently displaced by verbal graphics, “charticles,” and bulleted lists. All perfect fodder for people who want their information provided to them quickly and cleanly, without requiring the reader to chew over intricate concepts or bedeviling subject matter.

Neil Postman was certainly ahead of his time when, in his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, he surveyed the media landscape and noticed the deleterious effect that television was having on our political culture. It was a brilliant time-waster, to be sure, but Postman also realized that the ubiquitous home entertainment device was destroying rational argument and civic awareness. In his foreword, he juxtaposes the visions of two authors, George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Huxley – who, while nailing our “almost infinite appetite for distractions,” could hardly have foreseen American Idol, Twitter, or Perez Hilton – was also far ahead of his time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read a book.

A blogger’s disclosure: I have received free books

October 5, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

When I sit at my desk in the Quill & Quire offices, I am surrounded by books. Dozens upon dozens of books. All of them have been sent to me by publishers for review consideration. When I sit at the desk in my home office, I am also surrounded by books. Dozens, even hundreds, of books. Many of these I have purchased with my own cash money, which I earn at my day job. Some, however, have been sent to me (either at my request or on spec by a publisher’s representative or directly from an author) in the hope that I will mention them on my blog. Sometimes I do. Many times I don’t. But in practice I have never disclosed a book’s provenance if I decide to review it or to profile the author in this forum.

I mention all of this because new guidelines from the American Federal Trade Commission, which go into effect on December 1, 2009, will require all (U.S.) bloggers to disclose whether they received compensation – either monetary or “in-kind” – to review a product or service. From the FTC press release:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

In other words, if yr. humble correspondent receives a book from a publisher (or directly from an author) that I then review (positively) on my blog (and assuming for the moment my hypothetical U.S. citizenship), the FTC regulations would require me to tell my readers that I received the book for free. If I failed to do so, I could be liable for fines of up to $11,000 (U.S.).

This seems absurd on its face. First off, the conflation of bloggers and “‘word-of-mouth’ marketers” is at the very minimum suspect when it comes to book reviewing. Believe it or not, when I review a book on this site (or anywhere else for that matter), I’m not acting on behalf of a publisher’s marketing department. I’m performing the job of a critic. Although review attention does provide the kind of exposure that publishers are constantly hankering after, reviewers are not in the business of promoting books or authors, and most media organs have explicit conflict-of-interest guidelines to prevent reviewers who may have a hidden agenda or lack objectivity from reviewing books that they are too closely connected to. Notwithstanding the FTC’s overly simplistic wording, book reviews are not “endorsements,” but rather critical assessments.

Book reviewers have always received free copies of the books they review. A review editor (me, for example) contacts a freelancer and asks if that person would review the new Margaret Atwood novel. The reviewer agrees, and the editor sends a copy of the book (or an advance reading copy), which has been supplied (free of charge) by the publisher, to the reviewer, who retains the product after writing the review. This has always been considered acceptable practice, and the transaction is generally understood by readers of book reviews. However, under the new FTC guidelines, if a book blogger behaves in a similar fashion, that blogger must disclose the provenance of the book under review.

What’s the difference between a newspaper or magazine reviewer and a book blogger? According to Richard Cleland of the U.S. Bureau of Consumer Protection, who spoke with book blogger Ed Champion, the difference is that in the case of a newspaper reviewer, the book remains the property of the newspaper, and the reviewer returns it upon completing the review:

“We are distinguishing between who receives the compensation and who does the review,” said Cleland. “In the case where the newspaper receives the book and it allows the reviewer to review it, it’s still the property of the newspaper. Most of the newspapers have very strict rules about that and on what happens to those products.”

This is, in a word, horseshit. When a freelancer reviews a book for any newspaper or magazine of which I’m aware, the reviewer retains the book. When Champion asked how a book blogger might avoid the appearance of conflict, Cleland responded that the blogger could return the book after writing the review:

“The primary situation is where there’s a link to the sponsoring seller and the blogger,” said Cleland. And if a blogger repeatedly reviewed similar products (say, books or smartphones), then the FTC would raise an eyebrow if the blogger either held onto the product or there was any link to an advertisement.

What was the best way to dispense with products (including books)?

“You can return it,” said Cleland. “You review it and return it. I’m not sure that type of situation would be compensation.”

Cleland also told Champion that when a publisher sends out a free copy of a book for review, it is in the expectation of a positive notice. This, too, is utter horseshit. Publishers send out review copies in the hope of gaining any kind of attention at all: I have never encountered a situation where a publisher insists on positive reviews of books they provide (and, indeed, would immediately sever ties with any publisher who made such a bizarre stipulation). “If there’s an expectation that you’re going to write a positive review,” said Cleland, “then there should be a disclosure.” I couldn’t agree more. The only problem being that there is no such expectation.

In the last few years, publishers have been shifting their focus away from traditional media outlets (newspapers and magazines), which are routinely curtailing their book coverage (if not eliminating it altogether), and targeting the people who are still paying attention to books: bloggers and other online writers. From a publishing perspective this only makes sense: faced with limited resources for promotion, you send your books where they have the best chance of getting coverage. Does this mean that publishers and bloggers are somehow in collusion with one another? Absolutely not.

I have given both positive and negative reviews to books I’ve purchased myself, and I’ve done the same with books I’ve been sent by publishers. My opinion has never been, is not now, and never will be for sale. If the new FTC regulations gain traction, however, and similar Canadian legislation is contemplated, let’s assume for the purposes of this blog that I get all my books for free. That’s my blanket declaration. You are welcome to take everything I write in these pages with as much or as little salt as you see fit. It just seems simpler that way.

Faster, higher, stronger … Well, okay, faster

September 29, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

On the day before Michael Jackson died, Quebec-based publisher Pierre Turgeon sent a book called Michael Jackson: Return from Exile to the printer. The next day, upon hearing news of the King of Pop’s untimely demise, Turgeon called the printer and had them stop the presses so that the book’s author, Ian Halperin, could hastily pen some new material. The revised book, now titled Unmasked: The Final Years of Michael Jackson, has been a bestseller since its release, mere weeks after Jackson’s death. Although it doesn’t entirely qualify as an “instant book,” Halperin’s title clearly cashes in on the notoriety of a breaking news story.

Tina Brown would no doubt approve. According to an article in today’s New York Times, Brown, the erstwhile editor of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and the now-defunct Talk magazine, has plans to parlay her latest venture, the Internet site The Daily Beast, into a publishing imprint. Along with Perseus Books, Brown anticipates her new imprint, Beast Books, “will focus on publishing timely titles by Daily Beast writers – first as e-books, and then as paperbacks on a much shorter schedule than traditional books,” says the Times.

On a typical publishing schedule, a writer may take a year or more to deliver a manuscript, after which the publisher takes another nine months to a year to put the finished books in stores. At Beast Books, writers would be expected to spend one to three months writing a book, and the publisher would take another month to produce an e-book edition.

This compacted timeline would help keep the books current, according to Brown, who is quoted in the Times as saying, “There is a real window of interest when people want to know something. And that window slams shut pretty quickly in the media cycle.”

Brown speaks like a seasoned magazine editor, which, of course, is precisely what she is. Books, however, have traditionally taken the longer view, and the time it takes to put them together allows for the kind of measured, sober thought that is impossible with such a frantic turnaround. Moreover, the books that Brown is proposing, largely because of the timeframe involved, will come in at around 150 pages apiece: not exactly a length suitable for providing much in the way of nuance or breadth. Instead of classics like A Bright Shining Lie or Barbarians at the Gate, Beast Books promises the non-fiction equivalent of the 3-Day Novel Contest winners.

At the heart of Brown’s scheme is a fundamental misunderstanding about why people read books. People read books because they want to immerse themselves in a subject or a story, because they crave the kind of deep understanding that is impossible to glean from a newspaper or magazine article. Absent this craving, people would simply read newspapers and magazines. The very practice of reading a book-length text demands concentration, patience, and a certain time commitment. For instant news on the fly, there are blogs and websites such as The Daily Beast. The two are not now, and never will be, equivalent.

Books, by their very nature, demand slowness and deliberation, which is one of the reasons they have fallen out of favour with such a large portion of the 21st century populace. They are the antithesis of the sound-bite, the hyperlink, or the instant gratification that proliferates in such forms as Twitter, iPhones, and text messaging. But their pleasures are commensurate with the time and attention devoted to them by both writer and reader. The American playwright Ben Hecht once commented that trying to understand the world by reading a newspaper is like trying to tell time by looking at the second hand on a clock. Hecht understood what Brown doesn’t: true wisdom comes only in the fullness of time. The whole premise behind the aptly named Beast Books ignores this fundamental truth.

TSR digitization roundtable

July 31, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

For anyone who cares about literature these days – writers, publishers, booksellers, readers – the subject of digitization seems to be inescapable. The book, a technology that has been around since Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press in 1440, is often seen to be in jeopardy, prey to the whims of a new technology that has only really been available to the public consciousness in the last two decades. The Internet is changing the way we do business: literally. E-books, podcasts, wikis, and print-on-demand – all relative newcomers to the literary scene – are changing the way books are discussed, read, and conceptualized. The pace of this change can sometimes seem staggering, and there’s no precedent for it: the road ahead leads into unmapped territory.

Always aiming to be at the forefront of public service in the area of literature and literary discourse, TSR has gathered together three experts from various backgrounds to discuss the subject of where this brave new world of digital reading may be taking us.

The participants in this special roundtable are:

Pasha Malla, author of the short-story collection The Withdrawal Method.
Mark Medley, editor of the National Post’s literary blog, The Afterword
Julie Wilson, digital goddess, and the brains behind Seen Reading

Acting as curmudgeonly traffic cop is yr. humble correspondent.

SWB: Hey, guys. Thanks for agreeing to participate in this special roundtable on the changing landscape of literary culture. The future of reading and publishing seems inextricably connected to the subject of digitization, for good of for ill. (Maybe, for good and for ill.) In a Globe and Mail article from June 26, Marina Strauss pointed to statistics from the Association of American Publishers stating that e-readers accounted for 2% of U.S. book sales to that point in 2009, an increase from less than 1% the year before. That would make e-readers the fastest-growing segment of the book market in the States, where sales of physical books seem to have plateaued year-over-year. (The one segment of the industry that does seem to be doing improved business is graphic novels, which grew 5% in 2008 according to an article that ran in USA Today at the beginning of this year.) In the same Globe and Mail article from June 26, Strauss paraphrased Indigo CEO Heather Reisman, who apparently made the jaw-dropping claim that she expects a 15% erosion in book sales to the digital world over the next five years.

This new environment obviously provides the potential for a vastly expanded readership, but there are still issues that need to be worked out. Payment for content is a big one. (How much are each of you getting paid for participating in this roundtable, for example?) Digital rights management (DRM to the cool kids) is another. And the essential soullessness of the new technology, a subject that is often sniffed at by digital evangelists, is a third. In a recent New Yorker article about the Kindle 2 e-reader, Nicholson Baker, who once waxed rhapsodic about the virtue of the library’s paper card catalogue, bemoaned the coldness of the new hand-held reader this way: “A century and a half of evolved beauty and informational expressiveness is all but entirely rinsed away in this digital reductio.”

The proponents of digitization ignore this argument. Many go so far as to say that even making an argument for the printed book – a technology that has existed relatively unchanged since the 15th century – is futile: the future is here, they say, and it’s digital. Adapt or die. This ahistoric approach treats the advent of digitization as a fait accompli: there’s no point in arguing against it, or even in expressing melancholy for what might be lost in its wake. To do so simply renders you a crabby, elitist dinosaur. Is there any validity to this approach? Do we risk losing more than we might potentially gain in the coming sea change? Does anyone really know for sure at this point? These are the questions that are preying on my mind as we move forward into an untested, uncertain future.

PM: Well, I have to admit that I’m pretty clueless as to what the stats and public discourse around this stuff have been, but from my perspective, as someone who hopes to be making books (in whatever format) in this “digital age,” here’s my take:

I love books. I published electronically long before I ever had anything in print, and it might just be my anachronistic way of thinking, but the print publication felt so much more real – it was something to hold in my hands, something tangible that existed in physical space because of me (and, you know, some other folks, too). Same thing with my book: I saw the PDF long before the hardcover, and it wasn’t until I felt that weight, smelled those pages, tasted the glue (no, just kidding) that it seemed like a legitimate achievement. I could club someone to death with something I typed! Try doing that with a Kindle; you’ll break your Kindle.

That said, I think authors shouldn’t be resistant to new technology – this stuff could get pretty exciting and liberating, if you allow yourself to think creatively and go with it. Right now, what the Kindle is capable of is very basic (and I use that as my go-to example because it’s the only e-reader I’ve used), but the potential for digital books to do all sorts of things that print can’t seems limitless. Think of an annotated Ulysses in digital format, where each of the references and allusions leads to a little explanatory video or mini-lecture, or what David Foster Wallace (who I think might have been a huge technophobe, but work with me) could have done with a hypertext version of Infinite Jest. If anything, e-books open up a universe of creative possibilities to any writer who’s open to putting some thought into it. Robert Coover is a huge proponent of electronic literature; I’d love to hear his views on all this.

One thing I’d like to see, in a more practical sense, is publishers starting to offer free downloads of e-books if you buy the hard-copy – just a one-time-use code that dumps the file onto your computer. Some record labels are doing this with their vinyl releases, since they’re difficult to get onto your iPod without fancy technology. I think it’s a great idea, as it honours both the history of analog and the future of digital formats. I love having a record to listen to at home on my turntable and the files to take with me when I’m traveling – free of charge, but also completely legal.

MM: I’ve long been a proponent of that same idea – the customer receives a free digital copy when they purchase the book – but something tells me publishers will prove resistant to giving e-books away for nothing, considering the stats Steven mentions. Publishers aren’t just going to start giving away the one sector of the industry that’s growing. It’s been established that people will pay $9.99 or whatever Amazon is charging these days for a file. It’s too late to go back now.

I want to touch on this issue of “realness” that Pasha mentions, because I think that’s going to be the real battleground between print and digital. It reminded me of an interview Salon did with Dave Eggers a couple of weeks ago. Eggers – who’s become one of the leading champions of the printed page – mentions that one way they motivate the students at their 826 Valencia (the non-profit writing centre Eggers founded) is by printing the kids’ work: “That’s the main way we get them motivated, that they know it’s going to be in print,” he says. “It’s much harder for us to motivate the students when they think it’s only going to be on the Web.” I think back to my time in j-school, not too many years ago, when students were given the option of studying print, magazine, broadcast, or online journalism, whatever that is. Few students were interested in the online stream – the thinking was that if your work isn’t printed, it doesn’t count. (Funnily enough, the students who studied online journalism are the ones with jobs.) I think many authors feel the same way.

I’ve always maintained digitization doesn’t scare me; I read this blog on a screen and as far as I can tell that doesn’t decrease my enjoyment of it. Would I like it more if it was printed? (Get to it, Steven!) I don’t know. I’m more concerned with the content then the format. A good story is a good story, whether on the page or on a Kindle. And yeah, e-books will probably usher in some really cool stuff. I really want to see a Mark Z. Danielewski e-novel.

JW: Alongside stuffing our novels into handheld devices, I’d love to see publishers acquire authors who know how to write for smaller spaces. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if a few years from now, someone printed off a title that had previously only been available in a digital format and it will be 150 pages long. We’re slaves to the signature, designing books to come in at cost-effective page counts. There’s an opportunity right now to acquire texts that remind us all, and the reader, that people will pay for quality content, not just a quality container. I say this as someone who dislikes reading online, but I recognize the advantages.

I’m very interested in what this all means in terms of rights. If I, as an author, can sell world rights in English to a publisher, where does that leave our acquisitions editors? I think that beyond the death of the book, we should be paying close attention to the future of publishers, period. Not unlike Richard Nash leaving Soft Skull, I feel like the next steps are going to be taken not by an industry that works together, but a rogue editor who breaks from the pack and goes it solo. I also wonder where this leaves indie pubs who rely on granting bodies to support their programs. If a publisher is in the position to acquire world rights to a text, will they remain eligible for funding? I just think there are a lot of big chances that individual industry members will have to take to really make a dent. We’re trying to be Cirque de Soleil, but we’re still running on the hamster wheel, in so many ways.

One other note. I often ask people what they’re reading on their e-readers, etc. Far more often than not, I encounter people who may be reading, but haven’t purchased. No offence to Bram Stoker, but when I see someone holding Dracula, the book, I know someone dropped some cash. When I see an iPhone, I know that Apple made a few hundred bucks. A publisher doesn’t get a cut of a reading “experience.” Read the aforementioned thoughts on acquiring smaller texts. Once the consumer is used to reading things online in a pleasurable way, especially once transit systems get up and running with wireless, you’re going to find more readers adapting to the idea of short reads in short distances.

Finally, publishers have a remarkable opportunity with digitization to take back their backlists. Limited resources aside, why not hire someone to design a monthly magazine that makes your backlist fresh again? Excerpts. Author catch up. In the news, etc. We spend a lot of effort trying to get other people to do the talking for us. A $2.99-per-month subscription. I’d buy that, and I’d read it. If you included a link to where I could buy the books, you’d have me in the palm of your hand.

Just some thoughts.

PM: Yeah, that’s a good point, that different kinds of writing work in digital and print formats. I can’t think of the last humour book I read, for example, but basically all I read online is humour. And the news! I haven’t bought a newspaper in a couple years, but I check the BBC and New York Times websites pretty much every day. Also the potential of digital archives is huge: I’d never read Fitzgerald’s 1936 essay, “The Crack Up,” until today – and only then because it was linked to from a piece in the Economist. How else would I have come across it? The accessibility, as Julie was saying, of back catalogues and lost classics might be the most encouraging thing about this whole e-book business.

SWB: Funny you should mention humour (oh ho, see what I just did there?) vis à vis online writing. In that New Yorker article, Baker talks about reading a passage of Robert Benchley, which he found humorous when he read it on the page in a Common Reader edition, but humourless when he read it on the Kindle 2. Maybe that’s just a matter of personal taste, or maybe there’s something deeper going on there in terms of the way we relate to texts onscreen vs. on the page.

But, Julie, I’m interested in what you have to say about using the digital environment to inject new life into a publisher’s backlist. “[W]hy not hire someone to design a monthly magazine that makes your backlist fresh again? Excerpts. Author catch up. In the news, etc.” Isn’t this one of the things that blogs were supposed to do, for free? A lot of literary blogs have spotlight features on neglected books, or books that other media outlets aren’t covering, and they give this material away. Do you really think people will be willing to pay $2.99 a pop for something they’ve been told they should be getting for free?

JW: It would pertain only to one publisher’s backlist. And if it’s run like a magazine, maybe acquiring one-time digital rights to a new short story by an author who’s in between books would work. I would pay $2.99. It’s access to the authors you already have a relationship with. Pasha, for instance. (Not to rope Anansi into this, because these are my own thoughts.) But, Pasha, for instance. You do a lot. In between nominations and wins for The Withdrawal Method, a staff writer could catch up with you and do an interview, or create a podcast, something that doesn’t get in the way of the media’s job, but only enhances your appeal to them, and to the reader. And if a link was included to your book at the Anansi online bookstore, it’s a great opportunity to make a sale.

I should have also mentioned that such a magazine would run advertising. Additional forms of revenue could be created. I suppose what I’m proposing is a high-quality advertisement for your product. Something more interactive than a catalogue. Something your authors might even want to participate in. Sure, you can start up a blog, but why compete with your publisher’s efforts to promote you at the point of sale? They could work together quite nicely. And it’s a chill read when you’re on the streetcar. Or when I’m on the pipe.

MM: I’d pay for that. Have you guys ever read Five Dials? It’s an online book store/literary mag produced by Hamish Hamilton U.K., and it has a very similar aim, in my mind anyway, to what Julie describes: “At this site you can read more about us, learn what’s new, meet our authors … browse our titles and download our monthly literary magazine, Five Dials.” The best part? They don’t charge $2.99.

I’d like to make a confession: there’s a part of me that feels discussions like this are a bit premature. E-book sales, according to the figures Steven provides, still account for only 2% of all book sales. I’d imagine in Canada, where Kindle still isn’t available, that number is drastically lower. While I know lots of people in the industry who own one, I have never, ever seen someone reading an e-reader in public. Never. While I’m sure e-book sales will rise, I think all this talk of Kindle being a game-changer may be more hype than reality.

I’m more interested in the impact something like the iPhone is having. What struck me about the Nicholson Baker essay wasn’t that he disliked the Kindle, but that he fully embraced the iPhone: “Forty million iPod Touches and iPhones are in circulation, and most people aren’t reading books on them. But some are. The nice thing about this machine is (a) it’s beautiful, and (b) it’s not imitating anything. It’s not trying to be ink on paper. It serves a night-reading need, which the lightless Kindle doesn’t.” And he says it makes books funny again, to boot!

JW: I’d like to make a confession, too. I actually like the yellow Lifesavers. But, I digress.

I’m with Mark and the iPhone. Funny, though, I sat beside a fellow this morning on the way into work who was reading on an e-reader. He saw me watching Web Therapy on my iPhone and we had a moment. I said, “I don’t want to know what you’re reading, I just want to know if you paid for it.” And he hadn’t. Just a bit of market research.

I don’t mean to sound antiquated when I talk about the digi-reading experience as only existing on a handheld, but what’s the point of me putting my whole life into a palm-sized device just so that I can carry around an additional toy that’s the same size as a book? If it’s going to come down to the container again, I like my books to be floppy. I do like a nice storage device, though, which is why I’ll buy books for my iPhone to have on hand when I’m stuck at an airport.

Now, if a publisher wanted to partner with Kindle to load a reader up with their whole fall list, that would be a nice one-time purchase that incorporates both container and content, and eliminates at least some of the competition while the consumer works her way through it all. Kind of like Trent Reznor’s model. What is it? He makes the content available for donation, but also sells limited-edition merch that runs hundreds of dollars. While we’re figuring out whether consumers will pay $2.99 or $9.99 or nothing at all, let the consumer who is willing to drop a bundle do so.

SWB: Kind of like Scribner’s idea to sell a limited number of signed copies of Stephen King’s upcoming novel, Under the Dome, for $200 a pop. In addition to making up to $300,000 for the publisher and its author, Scribner publisher Susan Moldow says, “This is fighting back against the disappearance of the book as an object.” Unless it’s just a blatant cash grab.

PM: Right, and the book has to be a worthwhile object: well designed and laid out, printed on good paper in a nice font, etc. Houses that don’t put a lot of thought into their book design should really start to consider why anyone would want to sink money into something that isn’t more worthwhile on an aesthetic level than the electronic version. Concerns about fetishizing the book as an object are totally stupid – there was some backlash against McSweeney’s for this at one point, and they do run the risk of being precious sometimes, but at least they’re trying stuff, having fun with what books can be.

This, to me, is the main disadvantage of the e-reader or iPod: the artwork in digital format doesn’t really cut it. When I was a kid, I loved (and, to be honest, still love now) the tactile experience of something like a Graeme Base or pop-up book – imagine pop-ups on a computer screen? No fun. Without resorting to gimmickry, the physical experience of a book has to be something that publishers pay attention to. I mean, as you say, if they actually care about books, and not just sales.

JW: There are two streams of publishing: culture and commerce. ECW is a good publisher model for producing cheap and cheerful pop culture titles that sell well in an effort to support smaller-run first novels and authors, etc. Perhaps this is applicable to a new model of publishing in which only some of your titles go to print. If poetry, for instance, is already a niche market, why not truly invest in its container as a thing of beauty and ask the hard question, does this “other” book really need to exist on paper?

MM: Yikes! I find the idea of physically publishing some books while relegating “others” to online-only status troublesome. Do that, and you risk ghettoizing the whole digital universe; it suddenly becomes a place for lesser writers – those that don’t deserve the paper (they’re not) printed on. It reminds me of what I was talking about in journalism, where stories that appeared only online were seen as less important.

Maybe I’m overreacting. What you need to do is cut the number of books published. I look at the catalogue for a press like Gaspereau or Coach House and think, yes, this is manageable; while I won’t read all the books they publish, I could. I look at the catalogues, plural, from the major houses and recoil in horror. Books and books and more books. Making those extra titles digital-only, as Julie seems to suggest, doesn’t fix the fact that there are still too many. When I eventually get a Kindle – okay, if – I don’t want it to be like my iPod, filled with tens of thousands of songs I never listen to.

PM: Totally agree with Mark here. The beauty of electronic publishing is that it has the potential to broaden the accessibility of books, not create more divisions.

SWB: I’ve always argued that most Canadian publishers would be twice as far ahead if they published half as much. If you’re pumping out 20 or 30 books a season, there’s no way you’re going to be able to give the necessary publicity or marketing attention to all of them, so some titles are doomed to be lost in the shuffle even before they hit bookstore shelves. This may be an advantage of moving to an online environment, but there’s a lot of competitive noise online, too, and it’s not self-evident to me that the digital cream will rise to the top the way most advocates claim it will.

MM: Of course the cream won’t rise to the top. Look at what we read and watch online. Monkeys and kittens and other cute animals. An industry-wide move to e-books will help the Stephen Kings and John Grishams of the world, but I’m not so sure about quieter books. I fear they’ll get lost in cyberspace. (Does anyone even use that word anymore?)

JW: “Yikes! I find the idea of physically publishing some books while relegating ‘others’ to online-only status troublesome.” The author would have to be on board. That’s a matter for negotiation. And I totally agree that there’s too much out there. But not all authors have the dream of ending up in physical pages. I’m certain there are more than a few out there who would choose digital domination over possible pulping. We have to start with them. They are the original creators, after all.

PM: Re: Cyberspace. I’m pretty sure we’re onto reclaiming “Information Superhighway.” Take back the night!

Big Brother is watching … and its name is Google

July 30, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Yr. humble correspondent hasn’t written much anything to this point about the Google Book Search settlement because, well, I don’t care. This whole Internet thing is just a fad, after all, a mere flash in the pan, and as soon as it fizzles, we can all go back to life as we knew it in 1985. (Now, there’s a horrifying prospect.)

Anyway, for those of you who haven’t been following it, Google has plans to digitize a shitload millions of books, which they will then make available on their site. The upside of this plan is that huge numbers of out-of-print titles will be available to anyone who wants them. The downside is that many of these works remain under copyright, which has roused the ire of rightsholders who feel that Google is in effect stealing their work. Last October, Google reached a settlement in a class action lawsuit, paving the way for it to proceed with its ambitious plans to unleash its Borgesian library on the world. The settlement, which still needs judicial approval, includes an opt-out clause that allows rightsholders to deny Google access to their copyrighted works. There is a fairness hearing scheduled for October 7 to decide, in part, whether Google’s plan to allow exclusive access to so-called “orphan” works – books still under copyright, but for which no rightsholder can be found – violates U.S. antitrust laws.

All of this is a thorny thicket of legal issues, made all the more complicated by the fact that there is no precedent for this kind of massive digitization plan.

Up to now, the arguments about the Google settlement have largely centred around issues of copyright. But lately, another issue has sprung up: privacy concerns for users of Google Book Search. On The Washington Post‘s (or, WaPo, for those so inclined – I’m looking at you, Murray) Short Stack blog, Steven E. Levingston reported that the ACLU and other civil liberties organizations in the U.S. are “turning up the heat” on Google to get them to address privacy issues where their Book Search service is concerned.

On July 23, the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at Berkley Law School sent a joint letter to Eric Schmidt, Chairman and CEO of Google, expressing in strong language their concerns that the expanded Google Book Search may violate users’ privacy rights. The letter reads, in part:

Under its current design, Google Book Search keeps track of what books readers search for and browse, what books they read, and even what they “write” down in the margins. Given the long and troubling history of government and third party efforts to compel libraries and booksellers to turn over records about readers, it is essential that Google Books incorporate strong privacy protections in both the architecture and policies of Google Book Search. Without these, Google Books could become a one-stop shop for government and civil litigant fishing expeditions into the private lives of Americans.

This is not a minor concern. Given the Bush administration’s efforts to compel libraries to turn over borrowers’ records to the government in the wake of 9/11, the argument that “it can’t happen here” is pretty much dead in the water. The ACLU letter asks that Google include, at a minimum, four planks in its privacy policy for Google Book Search:

  • Protection against disclosure
  • Limited tracking
  • User control
  • User accountability

Under its current privacy policy, Google maintains server logs that “may include information such as your web request, Internet Protocol address, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request and one or more cookies that may uniquely identify your browser.” The policy also states that Google places cookies on users’ computers “to improve the quality of our service, including for storing user preferences, improving search results and ad selection, and tracking user trends, such as how people search” (my emphasis). Extrapolating from the current policy, it’s not hard to imagine Google storing and maintaining vast lists of what its users have been reading – lists that could easily be used for profiling or other unsavoury purposes.

Google has responded to such concerns on their Public Policy Blog, saying,

[O]ur settlement agreement hasn’t yet been approved by the court, and the services authorized by the agreement haven’t been built or even designed yet. That means it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to draft a detailed privacy policy. While we know that our eventual product will build in privacy protections – like always giving users clear information about privacy, and choices about what if any data they share when they use our services – we don’t yet know exactly how this all will work.

Which, suffice it to say, is not entirely reassuring. While they stipulate that they are determined to “[uphold] the standards set long ago by booksellers” and libraries where privacy is concerned, it is still possible for a person to anonymously browse a bookstore or library’s collection, and to purchase a book with cash, thereby leaving no paper trail for some intrepid snoop to follow later on. Under the current umbrella policy that Google has in place, similar privacy online seems like a pipe dream at best.

Whatever the outcome of the judicial approval process, it is incumbent upon Google to ensure that its users are afforded the strictest privacy protections possible. If returning to 1985 is a horrifying prospect, creating a brand new 1984 would be even worse.

RIP Pages, Seen Reading

July 9, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

It’s not a good day to be a book lover in Toronto. According to an e-mail press release that was sent out this morning, Pages Books & Magazines, the downtown institution that specialized in small press, cultural theory, avant-garde, and literary titles is shutting its doors as of August 31. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Pages’ debut on the corner of Queen and John Streets.

Skyrocketing rent is blamed for the closure, although the press release also mentions the character of the Queen Street neighbourhood, which is not what it was 30 years ago:

“When we opened on the corner of Queen and John 30 years ago, it was where artists lived and worked,” says proprietor Marc Glassman, who heads up the Queen West Business Improvement Association. “Now our neighbours are CTV, The Gap, and Club Monaco.”

Or, as NOW Magazine puts it:

The neighbourhood Pages will leave behind isn’t – and long hasn’t been – the one it helped forge. The store, which opened in 1979, is no longer part of a punk-inhabited art scene. The ’hood’s long been ultra-FCUK-ed.

Earlier this year, Pages received a six-month stay of execution when the landlord agreed not to raise the property’s rent, but that agreement expires at the end of August. Glassman had been scouting an alternate location for the store, but found nothing suitable. The loss of the alternative independent will be deeply felt by literary types in the city, who counted on Pages to stock the kind of edgy, idiosyncratic fare that big-box chain stores wouldn’t carry. Glassman says that he’s not ruled out reopening elsewhere should the opportunity present itself, but for now, it looks like the end of an era for the city.

Another Toronto-based institution, Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading, is also being shuttered, at least in its current incarnation. In a message on her site, Wilson said that after three years, she’s decided to wrap up her project in literary voyeurism, which has become a popular destination for online literary types. She plans to keep the site as a personal blog.

According to Wilson:

I’m renewing my efforts to craft a collection of microfiction loosely based on the over 300 sightings amassed here. This will be, I hope, the first in a series of such collections. I haven’t abandoned my novel; I’m simply allowing myself to own that this is voodoo that I do do (she said, doo doo) so well. That I should also enjoy writing it as much as I enjoy eating orange creamsicles and drinking french-pressed coffee is what makes life hella kinda cool.

The decision to shift focus comes a scant two months after expanding the site by bringing on writers from other parts of the country. Vancouver’s Monique Trottier, Montreal’s Saleema Nawaz, and Nova Scotia’s Ami McKay will publish their final Seen Reading posts in the first week of August.

Notes from the dark side: UPDATED

June 24, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Bookninja George Murray and I recently had a little e-mail exchange about the culture of book blogging and the implications for readers of a digital environment.

Quoth George:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in six years of blogging it’s that the internet reader who will attach him/herself to your site and stay loyal isn’t someone who’s settling in for a long gawk at a good book or magazine. S/he’s an information addict who wants to pick and choose among info bits (what I call infochum) and meatier pieces. I’ve always done the blog side of Bookninja as a kind of newslog, in which I make brief, pointed commentary on news items and link out to longer articles. The Magazine allows for longer, in-depth forms.

Quoth yr. humble correspondent:

Last year, The Atlantic published an article called “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” which quoted Maryanne Wolf, among others, suggesting that the Internet changes not only what we read but how we read. We read horizontally online, we “power browse,” but we don’t allow for a deep immersion in content, and our sense of nuance and ambiguity is affected. Nicholas Carr, the author of the article, writes, “Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

The entire interview’s up at Open Book Toronto, should you be interested.

UPDATE: Okay, the interview was up earlier this afternoon, but it appears to have been taken down. I’ll let y’all know when it’s back live once again.

UPDATE: Link’s fixed. Thanks, August.

Seen Reading goes national

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Julie Wilson, online content manager at House of Anansi Press and the brains behind the popular literary site Seen Reading, is expanding her blog’s focus to encompass the entire country. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past two-and-a-half years, Seen Reading is a locus for what Wilson calls “literary voyeurism.” Wilson makes a note of what she sees people reading on her travels, goes to a bookstore and copies a passage from the book, then creates a short imaginative piece based on the book and her impression of the individual reading it. For her troubles, she and her site have appeared everywhere from the CBC to the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and elsewhere.

Until now, Seen Reading has been pretty much a one-woman affair. Last year, Wilson instituted a “Readers Reading” section on her site, featuring podcasts of readers (including Rebecca Rosenblum, Mariko Tamaki, and Stacey May Fowles) reading short passages from some of their favourite books. But for the most part, the site has spotlighted readers Wilson noticed on her travels around her home city of Toronto.

Not anymore. Beginning this Victoria Day, Monday, May 18, Seen Reading is expanding its focus to include the entire country, from the East Coast to the West. Wilson has enlisted the help of three writers from different parts of Canada to provide installments for the site each week. The new national format will begin on Monday, with a post by Nova Scotia’s Ami McKay, author of The Birth House. Other new contributors to the site include Montreal’s Saleema Nawaz, author of the story collection Mother Superior, and Vancouver’s Monique Trottier, who runs Boxcar Marketing, an Internet consultancy firm.

Wilson initiated the idea of bringing other bloggers from around the country on board a few months ago:

It had been over two-and-a-half years of collecting sightings and responding to them, and I was unsure of the next step. I confided in Monique who, remarkably, offered to take care of Seen Reading if I wanted a break. Through Twitter, I had learned that Ami and Saleema were both supporters of the site. I simply took the plunge. I admire each of them as writers and their sense of community within the publishing industry. I had the utmost faith that they would be kind to the project, while offering a new perspective from different parts of the country.

The feeling of admiration is clearly mutual. McKay says that she’s been a fan of Seen Reading “from the start,” and was “thrilled” to be asked to participate. “I plan on bringing a quirky, curious, rural sensibility to my posts,” McKay says. “My sightings will largely be based in the day-to-day of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley: pee-wee baseball practices, doctor’s offices, small-town coffee shops, and grocery store parking lots.”

For her part, Trottier says that she has long admired Seen Reading. “The structured format was fun and flexible and as a fellow blogger I wished that I’d thought of something similar.” And Nawaz admits to a similar strain of blogger envy where Seen Reading was concerned: “Just about every weekday on my way to work, I’d notice somebody reading something fantastic and I would be thrown back into the same wishful reverie of a Montreal Seen Reading.” Nawaz wants to bring Montrealers’ love of reading out into the open: “Montreal readers are keen and passionate. I can’t wait to find out more about them. I’ll be the one on the back of the bus, in the park, in the café, furiously scribbling notes while trying to look invisible.”

Wilson herself plans to continue posting from Toronto, but says that she envisions a time when her role begins to resemble that of an acquisitions editor. “There’s no reason why Seen Reading couldn’t evolve into a true community,” she says. “It will take a larger team, and funds, but the possibilities are exciting.”

In the short term, Wilson plans a three-pronged approach to publicize the new, expanded Seen Reading. She is soliciting the assistance of litbloggers and booksellers to help get the word out, and has partnered with McNally Robinson in Toronto to give away two books per month on Twitter. “People are asked to submit 10 words to describe themselves. Using that biographical information, two winners a month will be picked to have their book needs met by Book Madam,” an alter ego Wilson created for the Twitter venture.

Secondly, Wilson wants to mount a charity event with an evening of readings by authors whose books have been “seen.” The proceeds would go to support a national literacy program.

And finally, Wilson is relying on word of mouth, through blogs (McKay’s Incidental Pieces, Trottier’s So Misguided, and Nawaz’s Metaphysical Conceit), as well as social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, to reach out to the online community. Calling this “connector publicity,” Trottier expects that the contributors’ various Web-based networks will form the “first line of promotion” for the beefed-up Seen Reading. “It’s very exciting to see how quickly interest in the project has surfaced.”

This focus on Web-based marketing is entirely appropriate for Seen Reading, of course, and each of the contributors to the site is a passionate advocate for the Internet’s potential to spur interest in, and discussion of, books. Says McKay:

Without a doubt, there’s a literary community out there [online] that is just as valid and valuable as the writing in publications such as The New York Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement. Universal access is part of what makes the ‘Net such a brilliant place for sharing ideas. It makes room for conversation rather than striving to be the last word. I guess I’d say to the critics that I believe our words and our creative selves are like nature, they thrive on diversity.

Nawaz agrees, saying that “writers, readers, and publishers are generally delighted with the way the Internet can expand and enhance traditional coverage, as well as the opportunity it offers for bringing books to a wider audience.” And Trottier points to declining book coverage in traditional print media versus the volume of online coverage, which continues to grow. “Depending on whose numbers you cite,” she says, “60-80% of offline purchase decisions are made after online research or recommendations. In my mind, this signals a huge opportunity for literary blogs to reach an audience interested in books and reading.”

Wilson also points out the creative side of Seen Reading, and emphasizes its function as a repository of what could be termed “flash fiction”:

Seen Reading has most often been discussed as a project that notes reading habits, and less as an archive of creative writing. By bringing in more perspectives, and certainly authors such as Ami and Saleema, my hope is that the site will begin to function more visibly as a publisher, and that contributors will be viewed more apparently as writers.

THIS POST CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT HAS BEEN CORRECTED. Julie Wilson is no longer a publicist at House of Anansi, as was originally posted. Her current position is online content manager. TSR regrets the error.