What fun! John Updike takes on Kevin Kelly's NYTimes magazine piece "Scan This Book!" I've written about Kelly's piece here and here. I'll probably throw some of my own snarky commentary in below. Can't resist taking to jibjabs at his venerable Updikeyness.
At BookExpo America, Publishing's Digital Wave Crashes Against a Literary Pillar
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006; C01
The "Buzz Forum," as this exercise in competitive salesmanship is called, represents business as usual for BookExpo America -- the annual publishing convention that brought roughly 25,000 book people to Washington over the weekend.
If you listened, though, you could hear another kind of buzz at BEA this year. It was an angrier one, generated by a clash of cultures in an industry frazzled by technological change.
The clash is between what you might call the technorati and the literati. The technorati are thrilled at the way computers and the Internet are revolutionizing the world of books. The literati fear that, amid the revolutionary fervor, crucial institutions and core values will be guillotined.
When John Updike approached the lectern in the Convention Center ballroom Saturday morning, most of his bleary-eyed, coffee-swilling audience expected him to talk about his latest novel, "Terrorist." But Updike, the much-honored 74-year-old author of dozens of volumes of fiction, poetry, essays and criticism, said that would be "immodest." Instead, he praised the assembled booksellers as "the salt of the book world" and reminisced for a while about bookstores he had loved in his youth.
Then, without warning, he opened fire on the technorati.
"I read last Sunday, and maybe some of you did too, a quite long article by a man called Kevin Kelly," he began. He proposed to read a few paragraphs so that listeners who hadn't seen the article might "have a sense of your future."
The reference was to a piece called "Scan This Book!" in the previous week's New York Times Magazine. (The title echoes activist Abbie Hoffman's 1970 provocation, "Steal This Book.") In it, Kelly described -- in the messianic/hyperbolic style favored by Wired, the magazine with which he has long been associated -- the inexorable march toward an "Eden" in which the totality of human knowledge will be downloadable onto a single iPod-size device.
Reading further, Updike noted Kelly's assertion that "copy-protection schemes" are helpless to hold back the technological tide. "Schemes," he repeated sarcastically, drawing a laugh. As his audience well knew, the Association of American Publishers filed suit last year on behalf of five major publishers alleging that Google's library scanning project is a massive and flagrant violation of copyright law.
[Now, I'm no technological determinist, but even casual literary observers have to know how much this sounds like Plato in The Phaedrus bemoaning that TERRIBLE new technological invention that would be the death of intellects throughout Greece, causing their great Greek memories to simply atrophy (as they most certainly did) before the "marching dragon's teeth" that became syllabic letters on the page, alphabetic literacy. The invention? WRITING. Mr Updike, do you know whose side you're really on here?]
Updike went on at some length, heaping scorn on Kelly's notion that authors who no longer got paid for copies of their work could profit from it by selling "performances" or "access to the creator." ("Now as I read it, this is a pretty grisly scenario.")
Unlike the commingled, unedited, frequently inaccurate mass of "information" on the Web, he said, "books traditionally have edges." But "the book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets.
[The part of this that is the most peculiar to me is the invoking of the Renaissance. I'd characterize that period as a time of explosive artistic and intellectual growth unleashed largely by social unrest due to structural and technological changes. Basically, the established "powers that be" found themselves overthrown, not so much be a deliberate and plotted revolution, but by something Marx would probably chalk up to historical determinism. I wouldn't call it that either, however.
Regardless of what actually swung the tipping point against the entrenched power arteries of the Church and Aristocracy, toward the rising merchant class and new ways of thinking, learning, and making, the end result was that the "fruit basket upset" of turning the known world's power structures upside down opened the way to new kinds of art and literature and science.
So I believe we are (or were) in a similar entrenched period like that now. Except that there is a similar revolution underway. It unsettles many people. Many are brittle and want to fight it. I'm no determinist. I don't see it as an inevitability. It looks to me more like a shift in the prevailing winds. The wind does not deterministically affect all who are buffeted the same way. Some resist, some bend, some spread their wings and fly off to wherever the wind will take them, for good or ill.
Normally, I'd hope the leading edge of our best artists and writers would understand such a shift, would be excited to be present at the birth of a new Renaissance. So it puzzles me that John Updike is sounding so much like those entrenched powers of the First and Second Estate who faced the Enlightenment and wondered why anyone would want a mass-printed book when clearly monk-copied manuscripts from the scriptoria are so much better?!]
"So, booksellers," he concluded, "defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity."
[Updike wants edges to define the form, as if the form "book" exists in all time, on some Metaphysical Plane, a unit into perpetuity, and not something that was invented, evolved, and has had all different kinds of shifting edges throughout all of time, other than periods of oral cultures like Plato's, when even the existence of a book, a scroll, was a deeply-resisted threat to the intelligentsia of that time.]
Google has been coming to BEA for three years now, but it seemed a bit more visible this year. Maybe it was the fleet of subcompacts with "Google Book Search Mobile" painted on them that cruised the streets around the convention center offering free rides to people with BEA badges. Maybe it was the cookies bearing the phrase "Just a taste -- Google Book Search" thrust at conventioneers near the main entrance, or the lavish party the company threw Friday night at the old City Museum.
Turvey's business card gives his title as "Head, Google Book Search, Partnerships, Content." He has a PR problem and he knows it. His company's controversial library scanning program is not the same as Google Book Search, he said, but media coverage of the former has been such that most people confuse the two. [emphasis mine]
He explained: Book Search is a program supported by publishers, including the ones suing over the library program. It's a partnership with publishers in which Google digitizes their books with their permission, then refers any Google users who encounter the books while searching to the publishers' Web sites and to online vendors like Amazon.com, where the books can be purchased.
Not that he was disavowing the notion of library scanning. Libraries, he said, have been with us a long time and "all the books in them are free to end users."
Turvey liked Kelly's article. "I think he nailed it," he said. Told of Updike's criticism, he suggested that there's a bit of an "apples and oranges" thing going on.
"For novelists and trade publishers that publish books to be read sequentially," he said, the utility of searching within a book's content is harder to understand. But this kind of book is a minority, and a lot of publishers know that they can increase their sales by allowing searches that lead potential customers to texts they otherwise might never have found.
[that says it all in a nutshell, doesn't it?]
At the W.W. Norton booth, a crowd gathered around a familiar, furry face. It was Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, founding member of the technorati and author of a fall book titled "iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: Getting to the Core of Apple's Inventor."
Had he by chance read the Kevin Kelly article on the future of the book?
He'd "glanced at it, at least," Wozniak said. "It's like everybody's scrambling to figure out how it falls out," he added, "and I don't know how it falls out.
"But I do know that heck, I wrote a book, and you know I did it for Norton -- and I wouldn't want to get copies somehow spread around the Internet.
[Generally I'd defer to the venerable Woz as well (all hail the Apple co-founder), but he's woefully behind the curve here. While he's stuck in unquestioned assumptions of a model of intellectual property that's been increasingly and restrictively defined by corporations, he seems to be unaware that quite a number of authors are releasing both print and electronic books at the same time, and not suffering on their sales (and I don't mean strict pay-per-electronic copy models either). Quite a few times already, I've read books online (like Dan Gillmor's "We the Media") and then went out and bought the HARDBACK edition for my library.
Looks to me like Woz is thinking electronic copies of books should be treated like software updates, with strict serial numbers just to open them or something bizarre like that (I'm torqued off these days because I lost a LEGAL copy of software I PAID FOR, because I can't find the &*(%$^%##@$#@ serial number! Like how many little slips of paper am I supposed to keep track of for little $49 pieces of software?!).]
'Who Needs Megahits?'
Score one for the literati. But the technorati had their innings as well.
At another BEA talk, Wired editor Chris Anderson presented a concept called "The Long Tail," about which he wrote a famous article in 2004 and which he has now turned into a book. It contains both hopeful and troubling news for publishers.
The basic concept is fairly simple, though it helps to have an illustration in front of you to understand it. Picture a graph showing sales numbers for, say, books. At the left, way up high, are the numbers for blockbusters like "The Da Vinci Code." The curve then dips sharply down and bends to the right, flattening out and stretching at some length (hence the name "long tail") as the sales per book get smaller and smaller.
It used to be that it simply wasn't worth keeping anything in print below a certain sales-per-year figure. But with the Internet's ability to reach niche markets, combined with online booksellers' infinite shelf space, this has changed.
The good news? More titles can be sold profitably over a longer time. The bad news -- for an industry highly focused on the care and feeding of bestsellers -- was summed up on a screen to Anderson's right as he began his talk.
"The Long Tail: Who Needs Megahits?" it read.
Steve Rubin, president of Doubleday -- who publishes Dan Brown and has reaped the benefit of Brown's astonishing sales -- scoffed at the notion that the long-tail phenomenon means blockbusters will become less important.
[Does saying so make it so? Cuz last time I checked, an argumentative point like this would need SUPPORT or else it should be roundly dismissed as a hasty generalization, a logical fallacy. If the president of Doubleday would like to send me the missing support for this argumentative point, I'd appreciate it, as perhaps a careless Washington Post editor cut that bit out for space or something (oh wait, in electronic texts, you don't HAVE to edit down for space. Silly me.)
Jane Friedman, president and CEO of HarperCollins, said she embraces digital change. HarperCollins is "friends with Google," she said, because "we like the searchability of our books -- it's like taking the shrink wrap off books in bookstores to allow a consumer to see a page."
But Friedman doesn't want to give up those digital files to anyone. She was chair of the American Association of Publishers when it sued Google over the library scanning project. "I'm very bullish on everything digital," she said, but "w e are going to control the destiny of our digital files," no matter how much Google cites HarperCollins as an ally in its PR.