Friday, March 30, 2012

Ursula K. Le Guin on eBooks

While I don't necessarily agree with everything she says about eBooks, this is still a very interesting post by the ever-brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin about the "death" of the book:
When we hear about the death of the book, it might be a good idea to ask what “the book” is. Are we talking about people ceasing to read books, or about what they read the books on — paper or a screen?

Reading on a screen is certainly different from reading a page. I don’t think we yet understand what the differences are. They may be considerable, but I doubt that they’re so great as to justify giving the two kinds of reading different names, or saying that an ebook isn’t a book at all.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Jumbled thoughts on eBook annotations

This at-first unremarkable-seeming Guardian article about the rise of eBook annotations and note-taking immediately reminded me of a conversation I had a couple weeks ago. While speaking with two prolific margin-scribblers, I admitted my own inability to write within the margins of a book. The topic wound its way to the point at which I remarked that I found writing in the margins of an eBook entirely problem-free (perhaps because of how easy it is to hide the notes...?) and the realization that in this regard, for myself, eBooks surpassed print books.

Reading the Guardian's short blurb on the matter, however, I'm struck more by the last paragraph than any of their comments on the nature of eBook annotations:
In response, several publishers have sought to restrict the way their books can be annotated. The Kindle, for example, allows the publisher to limit how much of a book can be shared online, to allay fears of piracy. While it's just about possible to imagine texts being reassembled this way, the more likely result is to frustrate assiduous ebook annotators. Whether the coming years will see a new efflorescence of marginalia – or a readers' revolt over fair use – remains to be seen.
I'm not sure what to make of that. As I do not own a Kindle, I'm not always up-to-speed on the latest shenanigans, however I find it hard to believe that publishers are honestly concerned about how much a reader can annotate a book they paid for. The chutzpah would be astounding. While the background concern is semi-legitimate, if publishers have indeed taken these steps (and I'm not entirely sure that this is a "thing", as no source is mentioned in the article and I don't recall coming across this tidbit anywhere else...) then our situation is worse than I thought... and I've been pretty pessimistic until now.

Monday, March 19, 2012

References and comparisons

I read an interesting post over at The Speculative Scotsman about the marketing technique applied to the new editions of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series. The covers themselves aren't all that impressive, to be honest, but Niall Alexander is more interested by the tagline that appears at the top of the covers: "Before The Hunger Games, there was". He asks the following questions:
Still, the idea of selling one work on the merits of another troubles me somewhat, and I want to know: what do you guys think about this sort of... referential marketing? Good, bad, or butt-ugly? And another thing. If we extend the question out a bit, how do reviews which make such comparisons sit with you?
Here's the thing: I don't think referential marketing and review comparisons belong to the same camp at all. I mean, yes, they're vaguely similar in that they both require some kind of more popular book to support their claims. But referential marketing is marketing, and I would hope that comparisons slipped into a review stem from a critical source.

In general, referential marketing is cheap. It sells your book short, it's unfair to the author, and it's unfair to readers. Publishers need to be working to publish new and original books, and any move on their part to link new books to a more popular previous release (or as we see in this bizarre case, a reissue linked to a newer hit) is detracting from the individuality of the less-popular book. It's furthermore bad business planning - when backlash hits your popular book (and eventually, backlash will strike), readers may want to avoid books they otherwise would have gone for simply because of the association (I have often fallen for this kind of guilt-by-association...). And when the fad fades, you'll be left with a whole bunch of potential readers ignoring your individually worthwhile book because they assume it's just more of the same.

As for comparative reviews, I think the problem goes much deeper. Again we have the issue of having to rest the book up on a more popular crutch and not allowing it to grow individually, but this time there's also a clear benefit to the comparisons. In a critical review, a reader can gain a better understanding of the comparison. I'm not just casually tying The Hunger Games and Uglies without explaining why, I'm going into depth about the way in which both live in the dystopian subgenre. I'm explaining why I think these two books deserve to be compared. I'm using the comparison to highlight aspects of the book I want to discuss on a critical level. It's maybe not the best review style, but I can still find logical justification for it and often use it myself.

Then again, a review that doesn't actually go in-depth about the similarities and differences is probably no better than the referential marketing. It's never all black and white. On the whole, though, I feel we should tread these waters carefully. Just look where referential marketing can lead us.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Britannica's new look

Most of you have probably heard by now about Encyclopaedia Britannica ending its 244-year print run. Many sites and blogs have wondered about the implications of Encyclopaedia Britannica closing its presses, but I find myself surprisingly okay with the new model. To be perfectly honest, I think they're doing the right thing.

The fact is that print encyclopedias are mostly obsolete. Today, when I turn to my personal set of Encyclopaedia Britannic (a 1966 set I inherited from my aunt), I find myself more often than not failing to find what I was originally looking for. The same goes for when I browse through my family's 1986 set. When I need to know something, it's easier to search for it online. Yes, there's the added struggle of ensuring that I'm accessing a reliable source, but it doesn't take long to adjust.

But what I truly admire about this story is how the Encyclopaedia Britannica has come to terms with the modern age. Instead of simply fading away into obscurity, they have turned their focus to the online Instead of simply forgetting their original mission statement, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has seen the face of the future and has decided to embrace it.

Is this an indicator that all print publishing will one day go digital? I've said it before and I'll say it again: no. Twenty-six volumes of a print encyclopedia (of which the vast majority will never be read) is a notable waste of paper. It provides users with a clumsy interface and is outdated the moment it's published. Literature (fiction, non-fiction, regardless) is of an inherently different nature. Yes, publishers should embrace the digital age similar to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but that does not mean that all print publishing is on its way out. It just means that it's time for a change.

In the meantime, I will keep my handsome 1966 set. With entries on countries that no longer exist, mysteries humanity has long since solved, and contemporary observations on what I've studied in history class, the volumes provide me with more information than I could ever find online about how the world was in 1966. This, at least, will never be able to emulate.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reviews are not walls

Years ago, I wrote about my hesitation in rating or reviewing books too quickly. This is a mistake I frequently make, often jumping to conclusions or saying stupid things like "This book will stay with me for a long time to come", and then forgetting all the details one week later. The past few years have seen me trying to rein back this instinct to immediately review, but I haven't conquered it quite yet.

Here's the thing. As much as I want to bite my tongue, sometimes the immediate reaction is the more powerful one. Sometimes that immediacy is what brings the book to life - with all the details still fresh in my mind, I'm not simply attempting to rebuild the book from a dim memory. It's all still real to me. And as a reader who notoriously forgets the names of characters and the finer details of certain stories, maybe these immediate responses are better in certain ways.

What I'm learning is that this doesn't necessarily clash with my previous statement. Opinions change. Reviews can be amended or rewritten. Does this necessarily cancel out the previous review? I don't think so. Those opinions, as well as those thoughts, feelings and impressions, still stand in their relative position. That time has waved its magic wand and has made me see the book differently doesn't negate the fact that at a certain point I held other opinions.

All of this got me thinking about reviewing in general, and makes me wonder about my reviewing style. I've mostly avoided reviews on this site, based on an early impression that simply posting reviews would be a messy way to blog. I was worried that any reviews posted here would get lost and wouldn't reach the appropriate audience. I've stuck to websites like Amazon (and more recently, Goodreads) since then. But those sites compel me to write reviews a certain way. Each has its own style, its own approach to how a review should be. Neither style quite fits the sporadic reviews I write in my personal notebooks. And none of these outlets enable me to write the reviews I truly want to be writing - flexible reviews.

Reviews are not walls. They aren't fixed structures to force me to adhere to a specific model. Every blogger, reviewer and simple book lover will write about books in different ways. Some will discuss their emotional reaction to the book. Some will detail the finer plot points. Others will prefer to quote passages, and others still with dissect the book with familiarity and ease. Some will rate the book according to a personal scale, others forgo ratings and stick to the written word. No two people review exactly the same. And when someone does review, there aren't rules that say opinions can't change. If a few months later you find yourself wanting to amend what you said, there is absolutely no reason not to.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A few places around the web

  • From a comment on this Guardian article on foreign fiction translations: "There's one great plus about being brought up in a minority language and that is it forces you to explore literature from other countries." The truth is that it will take us many more years to begin to approach the diversity in world fiction many other countries have. The comments give rise to many different approaches to translations (from those who avoid them to those who embrace them), and make for very interesting reading.
  • The last remaining hope for eBook library lending has decided that it's going to go the jerk route. Great to see Random House understands the importance of libraries and has decided that instead of making its book freely and cheaply available to the same institutions that greatly encourage reading and book-buying, they're going to up the price...
  • ...which leads us to a nicely concise post from a while back about the recent publishing trends and the eMess*. Almost everything I've ever wanted to say (and have been unable to phrase) about publishing can be found in that post.
  • To end on a slightly cheerier note, I am quite impressed with this concept of a picture book library for small children. What better way to get these kids to love reading, if not give them a wonderful place to fall in love?

* I realize this is not an official term to describe the publishing industry's problems with ePublishing, but it fits nicely in this case...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Sci-fi vs. fantasy

I recently heard this excellent distinction between the two genres.
Fantasy: Because it's magic, dammit! 
Sci-fi: Because it's the future, dammit!