Category Archives: longtail

back to the backlist

russianthinkers.jpg An article in last Sunday’s NYT got me thinking about how book sales can be affected by media, in quite different ways than music, or even movies are, as illustrated in Chris Anderson’s blog mentioned here by Sebastian Mary. While bands, and even cineasts, are increasingly using the Web to share and/or distribute their productions for free, they are doing it in order to create a following; their future live audience in a theater or club. Something a bit different happens with classical music, and here I include contemporary groups that don’t fit the “band” label, where the concert experience usually precedes the purchase of the music. In the case of classical music, the public is usually people who can afford very high prices to see true luminaries at a great concert hall, and who probably don’t even know how to download music. The human aspect of the live show is what I find fascinating. A great soprano might be having a bad night and may just not hit that high note for which one paid that high price, but nothing beats the magic of sound produced by humans in front of one’s eyes and ears. Though I love listening to music alone, and the sounds of the digestion of the person sitting next to me in the theater mortify me, I wouldn’t exchange the experience of the live show for its perfectly digitized counterpart.
coastofutopia.jpg This long preface to illustrate a similar, but rather odd, phenomenon. Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin has disappeared from all bookshops in New York. Anne Cattaneo, the dramaturg of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” (reviewed here by Jesse Wilbur) which opened at Lincoln Center on Nov. 27, provided in the show’s Playbill a list titled “For Audience Members Interested in Further Reading” with Russian Thinkers at the top. Since then, the demand for the book has been such, that Penguin has ordered two reprintings (3,500 copies) for the first time in the twelve years since the book has been printed, and which used to sell about 36 copies a month in the whole US. “A play hardly ever drives people to bookstores” says Paul Daly a book buyer, but Stoppard’s trilogy has moved its audience to resort not only to the learned notes inserted into the Playbill, but to further erudition on the Internet in order to figure out the more than 70 characters depicting Russia’s 19th century amalgam of intellectuals dreaming of revolution.
Penguin has asked Henry Hardy, one of the original editors of the book to prepare a new edition that could be reissued as a Penguin Classic. If all this is product of a play whose audience is evidently interested in extracting, and debating, the meaning of its characters, a networked edition would have made great sense. Printed matter seems to have proven insufficient here.

google and the future of print

Veteran editor and publisher Jason Epstein, the man who first introduced paperbacks to American readers, discusses recent Google-related books (John Battelle, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, David Vise etc.) in the New York Review, and takes the opportunity to promote his own vision for the future of publishing. As if to reassure the Updikes of the world, Epstein insists that the “sparkling cloud of snippets” unleashed by Google’s mass digitization of libraries will, in combination with a radically decentralized print-on-demand infrastructure, guarantee a bright future for paper books:

[Google cofounder Larry] Page’s original conception for Google Book Search seems to have been that books, like the manuals he needed in high school, are data mines which users can search as they search the Web. But most books, unlike manuals, dictionaries, almanacs, cookbooks, scholarly journals, student trots, and so on, cannot be adequately represented by Googling such subjects as Achilles/wrath or Othello/jealousy or Ahab/whales. The Iliad, the plays of Shakespeare, Moby-Dick are themselves information to be read and pondered in their entirety. As digitization and its long tail adjust to the norms of human nature this misconception will cure itself as will the related error that books transmitted electronically will necessarily be read on electronic devices.

Epstein predicts that in the near future nearly all books will be located and accessed through a universal digital library (such as Google and its competitors are building), and, when desired, delivered directly to readers around the world — made to order, one at a time — through printing machines no bigger than a Xerox copier or ATM, which you’ll find at your local library or Kinkos, or maybe eventually in your home.
espressobookmachine.jpg Predicated on the “long tail” paradigm of sustained low-amplitude sales over time (known in book publishing as the backlist), these machines would, according to Epstein, replace the publishing system that has been in place since Gutenberg, eliminating the intermediate steps of bulk printing, warehousing, retail distribution, and reversing the recent trend of consolidation that has depleted print culture and turned book business into a blockbuster market.
Epstein has founded a new company, OnDemand Books, to realize this vision, and earlier this year, they installed test versions of the new “Espresso Book Machine” (pictured) — capable of producing a trade paperback in ten minutes — at the World Bank in Washington and (with no small measure of symbolism) at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.
Epstein is confident that, with a print publishing system as distributed and (nearly) instantaneous as the internet, the codex book will persist as the dominant reading mode far into the digital age.

questions on libraries, books and more

Last week, Vince Mallardi contacted me to get some commentary for a program he is developing for the Library Binding Institute in May. I suggested that he send me some questions, and I would take a pass at them, and post them on the blog. My hope that is, Vince, as well as our colleagues and readers will comment upon my admittedly rough thoughts I have sketched out, in response to his rather interesting questions.
1. What is your vision of the library of the future if there will be libraries?
Needless to say, I love libraries, and have been an avid user of both academic and public libraries since the time I could read. Libraries will be in existence for a long time. If one looks at the various missions of a library, including the archiving, categorization, and sharing of information, these themes will only be more relevant in the digital age for both print and digital text. There is text whose meaning is fundamentally tied to its medium. Therefore, the creation and thus preservation of physical books (and not just its digitization) is still important. Of course, libraries will look and function in a very different way from how we conceptualize libraries today.
As much as, I love walking through library stacks, I realize that it is a luxury of the North, which was made more clear to me at the recent Access to Knowledge conference my colleague and I were fortunate enough to attend. In the economic global divide of the North and South, the importance of access to knowledge supersedes my affinity for paper books. I realize that in the South, digital libraries are a much efficient use of resources to promote sustainable knowledge, and hopefully economic, growth.
2. How much will self-publishing benefit book manufacturers, indeed save them?
Recently, I have been very intrigued with the notion of Print On Demand (POD) of books. My hope is that the stigma will be removed from the so-called “vanity press.” Start-up ventures, such as, have the potential to allow voices to flourish, where in the past they lacked access to traditional book publishing and manufacturing.
Looking at the often cited observation that 57% of Amazon book sales comes from books in the Long Tail (here defined as the catalogue not typically available in the 100,000 books found in a B&N superstore,) I wonder if the same economic effect could be reaped in the publishing side of books. Increasing efficiency of digital production, communication, and storage, relieve economic pressures of the small run printing of books. With print on demand, costs such as maintaining inventory are removed, as well, the risk involved in estimating the demand for first runs is reduced. Similarly, as I stated in my first response, the landscape of book manufacturing will have to adapt as well. However, I do see potential for the creation of more books rather than less.
3. What co-existence do you foresee between the printed and electronic book, as co-packaged, interactive via barcodes or steganography? etc.
Paper based books will still have its role in communication in the future. Paper is still a great technology for communication. For centuries, paper and books were the dominate medium because that was the best technology available. However, with film, television, radio and now digital forms, it is not longer always true. Thus the use of print text must be based upon the decision by the author that paper is the best medium for her creative purposes. Moving books into the digital allows for forms that cannot exist as a paper book, for instance the inclusion of audio and video. I can easily see a time when an extended analysis of a Hitchcock movie will be an annotated movie, with voice over commentary, text annotation and visual overlays. These features cannot be reproduced in traditional paper books.
Rather, that try to predict specific applications, products or outcomes, I would prefer to open the discussion to a question of form. There is fertile ground to explore the relationship between paper and digital books, however it is too early for me to state exactly what that will entail. I look forward to seeing what creative interplay of print text and digital text authors will produce in the future. The co-existence between the print and electronic book in a co-packaged form will only be useful and relevant, if the author consciously writes and designs her work to require both forms. Creating a pdf of Proust’s Swann Way’s is not going to replace the print version. Likewise, printing out Moulthrop’s Victory Garden do not make sense either.
4. Can there be literacy without print? To the McLuhan Gutenberg Galaxy proposition.
Print will not fade out of existence, so the question is a theoretical one. Although, I’m not an expert in McLuhan, I feel that literacy will still be as vital in the digital age as it is today, if not more so. The difference between the pre-movable type age and the electronic age, is that we will still have the advantages of mass reproduction and storage that people did not have in an oral culture. In fact, because the marginal cost of digital reproduction is basically zero, the amount of information we will be subjected to will only increase. This massive amount of information which we will need to process and understand will only heighten the need for not only literacy, but media literacy as well.