Monthly Archives: September 2009

the kindle gets poor grades at Princeton

The following is an article by Hyung Lee in yesterday’s Daily Princetonian
When the University announced its Kindle e-reader pilot program last May, administrators seemed cautiously optimistic that the e-readers would both be sustainable and serve as a valuable academic tool. But less than two weeks after 50 students received the free Kindle DX e-readers, many of them said they were dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the devices.
On Wednesday, the University revealed that students in three courses — WWS 325: Civil Society and Public Policy, WWS 555A: U.S. Policy and Diplomacy in the Middle East, and CLA 546: Religion and Magic in Ancient Rome — were given a new Kindle DX containing their course readings for the semester. The University had announced last May it was partnering with, founded by Jeff Bezos ’86, to provide students and faculty members with the e-readers as part of a sustainability initiative to conserve paper.
But though they acknowledged some benefits of the new technology, many students and faculty in the three courses said they found the Kindles disappointing and difficult to use.
“I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool,” said Aaron Horvath ’10, a student in Civil Society and Public Policy. “It’s clunky, slow and a real pain to operate.”
Horvath said that using the Kindle has required completely changing the way he completes his coursework.
“Much of my learning comes from a physical interaction with the text: bookmarks, highlights, page-tearing, sticky notes and other marks representing the importance of certain passages — not to mention margin notes, where most of my paper ideas come from and interaction with the material occurs,” he explained. “All these things have been lost, and if not lost they’re too slow to keep up with my thinking, and the ‘features’ have been rendered useless.”
Wilson School professor Stan Katz, who teaches Horvath’s class, said he is interested in whether he “can teach as effectively in using this as in using books and E-Reserve material and in whether students can use this effectively,” adding that “the only way to find out is to try it.”
One of Katz’ main concerns is whether students can do close reading of the texts with the new device, he said.
“I require a very close reading of texts. I encourage students to mark up texts, and … I expect them to underline and to highlight texts,” Katz explained. “The question is whether you can do them as effectively with a Kindle as with paper.”
Katz added that had to confront the issue early when he transitioned from using familiar texts for teaching.
“I have all of my books marked up,” Katz said. “Either I use my own annotations, or I take the time, an immense amount of time” to annotate with the Kindle.
Katz also said he has little incentive to move his annotations to the Kindle, explaining that he heard the University won’t use the Kindle next year and adding that he finds the device “hard to use.”
Katz also added that the absence of page numbers in the Kindle makes it more difficult for students to cite sources consistently.
“The Kindle doesn’t give you page numbers; it gives you location numbers. They have to do that because the material is reformatted,” Katz said. He noted that while the location numbers are “convenient for reading,” they are “meaningless for anyone working from analog books.”
Though using a Kindle is voluntary, no one has opted out of using a Kindle in Katz’ class, so he has permitted his students to use location numbers in their written work for the course.
Should students from any of the courses choose to not take part in the pilot program — called “Toward Print-Less and Paper-Less Courses: Pilot Amazon Kindle Program” — they will be allowed to print their readings.
While the Kindle may hinder the reading experience of some, others may benefit from the device’s unique electronic display.
Classics professor Harriet Flower, who teaches Religion and Magic in Ancient Rome, said in an e-mail that the Kindle “is very easy on the eye,” adding that she could “read for longer without [her] eyes feeling tired.”
But Rachel George ’10, a student in Katz’ class, said in an e-mail that she has found it “a little difficult to adjust to the e-reader.”
“A huge benefit to the Kindle is having large quantities of reading available at your fingertips and not having to print and lug around books and articles,” she said. “Some disadvantages are the necessity to charge the Kindle and the impossibility of ‘flipping through’ a book.”
George also said the annotation software was “useful but not as easy or ‘organic’ feeling as taking notes on paper.”
“For some people,” she explained, “electronic reading can never replace the functionality and ‘feel’ of reading off paper.”

the launch of MediaCommons Press

Cross-posted from Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s blog at MediaCommons
Today I have the pleasure of unveiling MediaCommons Press, a project we’ve been working toward for several months now. MediaCommons Press is the second major project hosted by MediaCommons, and it is dedicated, as the header has it, to open scholarship in open formats. MediaCommons Press hopes to promote the digital publication and discussion of texts ranging from article- to monograph-length, in forms ranging from the traditional to the experimental, serving all areas of scholarship in media studies.
Today’s also the day that I put my money where my mouth is, in more senses than one: I’m serving as the test case for MediaCommons Press by releasing, as our first major publication, the book that I’ve been working on for the last year and a half. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy will, if all goes according to plan, come out in print sometime next year from NYU Press, but it’s available online right now, for open review.
And that’s the second way I’m putting my money where my mouth is. One of the key arguments that I make in the book is that the peer review of digital texts must be an open, conversational process, one that draws on the wisdom of a far greater number of readers than the usual two or three anonymous reviewers, one that focuses on discussion among the reviewers, and between the reviewers and the author, and one that allows the multiplicity of responses to a text to become part of the text itself.
I hope you’ll come by and join the discussion. And I also hope you’ll consider joining in by publishing with us. MediaCommons has developed into a thriving community network in media studies; we’re excited to take the first steps today in transforming that network into a viable, community-based scholarly publishing system.

from if:book London

This note is from Chris Meade, director of if:book London
IF:BOOK’S FIRST FICTIONAL STIMULUS – a digital boost to the book
Apologies for any cross posting, but it’s the end of week one in if:book’s FICTIONAL STIMULUS and already visible on the site is new work by Kate Pullinger, Naomi Alderman, Cory Doctorow, Jacob Polley.. and more. Next weekend readers will be invited to contribute to the 24 HOUR BOOK being written, edited, printed and published by if:book, Spread the Word, The Society of Young Publishers and, and before that there are more batches of great new writing.
We’ve so far attracted a fascinating group of 120 readers from around the world, just through Twitter, Facebook and emailing contacts. It’s not too late to join and we would love to find out what you think.
If you’re ready to log on, go to where you’ll find 4 short batches of digital literature with more added every few days for the next three weeks.
If you want to read more about it first, go HERE,
All the best

a clean well-lighted place for books

The following started out as a set of notes to various colleagues suggesting that successful digital publishing involves much much more than coming up with a viable form for networked books. rather unexpectedly this led to the question of how bookstores might evolve to give publishers a way to reassert their brands and strengthen their position vis a vis Amazon (as well as Google and Apple). This is very much a work in progress but i thought i’d post it and bring others into the discussion along the way.
The idea that “a book is a place (where readers, sometimes with authors, congregate)” arose out of a series of experiments investigating what happens when the act of reading moves from the printed page to an online space designed for social interaction. as we expanded the notion of a work to include the activity in the margin, in effect we re-defined “content” to include the conversation that a text engenders. Put another way, locating a text in a dynamic network brings the social aspects of reading to the fore. (see Without Gods, Gamer Theory, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and The Golden Notebook projects)
In an earlier set of notes (“A Unified Field Theory of Publishing in the Networked Era”) I suggested that as discourse moves off the page onto networked screens, the roles of authors, readers, editors, publishers will shift in significant ways. For example, the author’s traditional commitment to engage with a subject matter on behalf of future readers will shift to a commitment to engage with readers in the context of a subject. Successful publishers, i posited, will distinguish themselves by their ability to build and nurture vibrant communities of interest, often with authors at the center, but not necessarily always.
The purpose of this new set of notes is to expand the thinking beyond how a specific text is presented or interacted with. Reading (and writing) do not happen only at the level of the individual work. There is a broad ecology of behaviors, activities and micro-environments that surround each work and our relationship to it — how things come to be written, how we choose what to read, how we make the purchase, how we share our experience with others. Currently (i.e. toward the end of age of print), that ecology is defined by agent/editor mechanisms of acquisition, sharp delineation between authors and readers, top-down marketing, heavy reliance on big mainstream media to get the word out, the bookshelves that make our books part of our daily life, bookstores and — yes — Amazon. Much more than not, Amazon is a product of the same DNA that underlies the still-dominant mode of the print-book read by the solitary reader. Everything about the Kindle, from its interaction design to its draconian DRM provisions, underlines its conservative role in preserving the ecologies of print.
The current e-book business (the buying/selling bits) was designed (or at least evolved) to minimize friction with the legacy business; pricing, release schedules and DRM all structured so as not to challenge print, which is still the predominant source of revenues.
To succeed at publishing in the networked era, it won’t be enough just to re-conceive the work as a “networked book.” If we accept that social interaction will be paramount, not just at the level of the individual work but throughout the ecology of networked reading and writing, then it’s important also to ask the question “if a book is a place, what is the place for books? (or, more accurately but less forceful, “what are the places for books?”)
Currently the predominant place(s) for books are bookstores, libraries, classrooms, cafes (as a stand-in for the general category of informal brick-and-mortar gathering places), living-room reading groups, and the infoweb (mainstream media + internet) where books are reviewed, promoted, and on sites like LibraryThing and Shelfari, discussed. Each of these places has its own culture, its own social fabric that determines how people relate to each other, what their transactions are like, how you meet “new” people, how you come to trust them or not, and how you manage ongoing connections/relationships.

The bookstore, The Library and The Cafe
Brick and mortar bookstores are much better for (un-directed) browsing than online stores. This is probably mostly a function of bandwidth, i.e. I can see so much more in a bookstore than I can on my 2D screen. This will change as the web and its attendant hardware/software develops over time, but my guess is that a satisfying browsing experience of the order i can get in a great bookstore is many, many years away from practical. On the other hand if you know what you’re looking for, online shopping excels at simplifying the process of making the transaction. In fact, in every sense except immediate transfer to the buyer of the object they’ve purchased, online buying is vastly more efficient. When the bulk of our book purchases are in electronic form, and therefore delivered instantly, the significant advantages left to the bookstore will be the superior browsing experience, the help desk and the cafe.
[And before you say “oh, it will be years before the bulk of what we’re buying is in electronic form,” think about how many iPhone apps or iTunes purchases you or your friends have made in the past few months (including the books you’ve been reading on your phone or Kindle) compared to how many print books you/they bought. This part of the future seems to be near-now.]
[Although many/most stores have an online presence, presently online and physical experiences tend to be relatively cut off from each other. However, that will change as online and physical experiences increasingly encroach on each other. At first this will happen in obvious ways: having access to the detail on the web when shopping in a physical store, being “joined” by a reading group buddy from Buenos Aires while talking with friends in a cafe. Eventually, as wearables become more powerful and ubiquitous, so much of our behavior will be sufficiently mediated by online access that the distinction will begin to disappear. So . . . whether you start with online or start with bricks and mortar, success will depend on making decisions which take into account the whole range of potential interactions.]

Intersecting Problems and Questions:
In terms of ebooks, as long as formats are hardware-bound and the hardware vendor controls the store, it will be next to impossible for publishers/creators to have much influence on the broader ecology (including the purchasing experience) as described above.
Sadly, publishers put themselves in this situation by believing in the necessity of powerful DRM schemes which made them susceptible to Amazon’s Kindle pitch (and presumably whatever Apple is telling them now about the soon-to-come iTablet).
Amazon, by doing its best to disconnect works from their publishers has nearly completed the deterioration of the value/meaning of publisher brands, a process that started with the rise of the big aggregator bookshops. In order to survive in the networked era, publishers will need to reverse this trend and forge much closer connections to their customers. this could call for a variety of solutions, including newly conceived publisher-owned, online-meatspace bookstores, or a re-imagining of the Foyles arrangement (now since abandoned) of shelving books according to publisher. [in high-end department stores, this is already the norm in the cosmetics sections on the ground floor, with each maker having its own defined sections.

The first publishers were printers and booksellers.
There was a long tradition of publisher bookshops in in NY. Could a publisher open up a bookshop/cafe of an entirely new type?
• great cafe/bar/restaurant with lots of comfortable/flexible seating arrangements that encourage interaction.
• POD for out-of-print works AND for chapters
• part of store set-up for optimum browsing of in-print books, both front- and back-list
• concept of “staff picks” vastly extended to include recommendations by readers and represented both on screens and in sections set aside for browsing of actual books.
• immediate download of ebooks in whatever formats are not proscribed by hardware vendors
• knowledgeable personnel
• robust and free wi-fi
• easy access to large monitors for group discussions of various sizes.
• flexible spaces that can accommodate author appearances, saturday morning children’s activities, and group discussions
• very active user/customer (electronic) bulletin board for recommendations and ad-hoc social group formation (of an endless variety).

a friend who read an earlier draft of these notes send a note expressing doubt about the viability of physical stores to which i sent the following reply:
The point i was trying to make in raising the question of physical stores was that the broader ecology of reading and writing encompasses both online and physical components. While of course it’s cheaper to go 100% online, i’m doubtful that it’s the route to success at this time. By example, wasn’t Bezos’ genius in figuring out how to move one crucial part of the reading experience — the purchase of the book — online; the physical object was still delivered to your door. [The early success (a single as opposed to a home run) of the Kindle is interesting. I think it works because the Kindle’s display is just barely good enough to read on, and again Bezos made the purchase experience relatively painless. But as long as we’re still occupying our corporeal bodies, i don’t think the Kindle/whispernet combo is sufficient yet to make up for the desire for in-store browsing plus all the social components of the store including knowledgeable personnel and the opportunity to be out and about in a lively retail environment. Shopping isn’t just about the purchase. Would Apple be where it is today if it hadn’t opened its stores?]
The crux of the matter, i think, is branding. Over time publishers yielded the primacy of publishing house brands to the aggregators (Barnes and Noble, Borders, Amazon). and having lost the power of their brands, publishers relied more on the star power of individual authors which made it much more difficult to launch new writers etc., making the publishers even weaker over time.
Clearly anything as important a game-changer as the shift from page to screen is/was an opportunity to re-set the terms of the competition. Amazon recognized this much earlier than any of the publishers and in launching the Kindle launch put publishers into an even more defensive position.
One aspect of what i’m working on here is the question of how do publishers (established ones and/or new ones) change the current model so that they are in a better position to compete. And the answer in part is, in the case of established publishers to take back their brands and for new publishers to build their brands.
[Interestingly, GiantChair understood this and built a business model which used google-based discovery to send consumers directly to a publisher’s website rather than Amazon or another aggregator. GC’s embrace of Commentpress and Sophie included the recognition that succeeding with these new formats which allow (nearly require) publishers to sell directly to consumers, will help publishers regain some of the ground lost to Amazon and others.]
I find myself thinking a lot about what i call the “Foyles” model. in the not too recent past Foyles in London shelved books, not alphabetically by subject or genre, but by publisher such that there was the Penguin section and the Bloomsbury section. For a more recent example, video stores usually shelve Criterion titles on their own — precisely because of the power of the brand. From this perspective I see two sorts of physical store plays — one could open a completely new sort of superstore . . . . where publishers, like perfume companies, effectively rent space to show their wares (fulfilling in some cases with actual books but also via POD and online). The second is a publisher branded cafe/store — McSweeney’s, Lonely Planet, Canongate, maybe Knopf/Vintage but certainly not it’s parent brand Random House which is much too diffuse at this point). As i wrote in the draft i sent you the success of such stores would depend on doing many things right.
however, just to keep things in perspective, the main point i’m trying to make in “a clean well-lighted place for books” is not about the potential of physical stores to build brands per se, but about the need to re-think the whole shebang of which the retail venues are only one part.

transmedia storytelling — interesting exchange between Bordwell and Jenkins

Henry Jenkins wrote an interesting three-part response to a post by his mentor, film scholar David Bordwell on the subject of transmedia storytelling. In addition to being thought-provoking it’s a lovely example of how discourse can be thoughtful and meaningful without becoming antagonistic — two minds working together to understand a complex problem.