Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Library eBook lending - revisited

A couple months ago, I posted about what I saw as the strange phenomenon of readers avoiding a convenient and free method of acquiring eBooks - library eBook lending programs. In the post, I raised some of the issues with the current eLibrary models, and comments backed up these negative claims, rightly pointing out how cumbersome and often clumsy the current library systems are. Unlike me, for whom the prospect of acquiring new books in English from halfway across the world is a huge advantage, most readers saw the messiness and limited quality of these eLibraries as making it rather worthless.

So today, I'm pleased to announce (somewhat belatedly) that at least one of the three eLibraries I patron (don't judge me...) has made a tremendous step in the right direction. And surprisingly, it's the one that until now was the messiest, the most cumbersome, and the least cooperative. Northern California Digital Library, I commend you.

Up until just a couple months ago, NCDL's site was cramped, uncomfortable and extremely difficult to maneuver. This is the eLibrary I frequented least often, in large part because I could never seem to find the books I was looking for. Their search bar was practically unusable, their collection seemed mostly comprised of travel books, and all in all, it was a nightmare to use the site. So, like many readers pointed out in the comments, I just didn't.

Now as you can see (if you clicked the link...), the site is much more modern, much more clean. It's a little hard to compare without the previous look and feel (I found only two small, blurry screenshots that don't accurately portray how annoying the site used to look), but regardless: the NCDL's new site is nice. But more than just the general aesthetics, the site now has a much smoother functionality. Most importantly, it also has an excellent browsing method because for the first time, one of these three eLibraries I patron has figured out how to use filters.

This seems like the most obvious thing on the planet, right? I mean, search engines have had filters for so long now, it seems somewhat absurd that a site like an eLibrary wouldn't. And yet they don't seem to see the direct correlation between how easily patrons can find books and how much they'll, you know, check them out. The relatively limited collection is still a problem, but with these simple, easy filters, I can find those few, good books I want quickly, easily and without any unnecessary headaches. I've already seen hints on another library's site that they're going to upgrade to a similar style; here's to hoping the others follow in the NCDL's footsteps soon.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Women and men (one last time)

Two things.

First of all: Ryan left a very interesting comment on my previous post about women and men, rightly referencing something that, in retrospect, is a huge oversight from my post. Namely, he had a problem with how the differences between men and women reviewers could be so far from the proportions of men and women book bloggers (and in general, men and women readers), where women do not merely triumph but dominate.

Though my book blogger statistics are several years out of date by now (and I will now publicly, and subtly mention that I would love the chance to do them again, but perhaps with some help this time so that the statistics actually get published), there is one finding in them that I have no doubt in my mind remains fairly constant - women book bloggers outnumber men by a wide margin. Essentially, among non-professional (or, more accurately, non-print-publication) book reviewers, there is a more predictable, reasonable spread of women/men when compared to the actual reading statistics - because surveys of who reads more (men or women) consistently show that women read more, and they read significantly more fiction. How is this not better represented in the publishing and reviewing industries?

I wish I had an answer for this. My gut tells me that women do fairly well in online publications, which will probably never factor in VIDA's stats. My gut also tells me that regardless, this clear slant against women is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with seriously (and not in a reactionary fashion).

The second thing I wanted to point out is this set of numbers crunched from specifically sci-fi/fantasy book blogs. Lady Business looked at a small sampling of blogs (written by both men and women), and analyzed how many books they reviewed by women, and how many they reviewed by men. The results are quite interesting, but I would describe them as somewhat skewed - surprisingly, in favor of women. For example, the general stat says that reviews of books by women make up 42%. Looking a bit deeper, however, I realized that one book blog specifically reviewed women writers almost exclusively. No surprise, then, that the numbers came out so high.

I really recommend reading the whole post, as well as many of the comments. It's really interesting to see the way readers view their own imbalances and preferences, as well as how they plan to change (or not change) their habits. Some food for thought.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Women (and men), revisited

There's something about charts. You can list statistics, you can have gut feelings, you can suspect... but nothing hits harder and proves a point more strongly than a good series of graphs and charts. And so I urge readers to look over VIDA's yearly summary of book reviews from major publications. It's illuminating, and not in a good way.

Now that you're back (and possibly as angry as I am), let's have a little chat about this. Because seriously - what. We often talk about "imbalances" and "subtle sexism" and all sorts of other neutral concepts, but VIDA's statistics make it really hard to shy away from the truth. And the truth is that something is seriously skewed with the literary world. Look at those numbers - for the most part they don't even approach 50% in the authors reviewed sections and the reviewer gender polls don't show much better results. What's truly shocking is how consistent this is. There is no example of a review outlet that employs more women reviewers than men, and scant examples of publications that has reviewed an equal number of books by men and by women.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: I don't like to rely too much on statistics. I love numbers, but it's too easy to get caught up in one-sided beliefs when relying entirely on percentages. So though most of these reviewed books may be written by men, that does not necessarily mean that the publications are automatically sexist. That these books are mostly written by men doesn't mean that there aren't strong women within their pages, it doesn't mean that these books are also all about men.

The statistics do, however, mean that books by women are not getting the same attention as books by men. That review publications do not employ many women. And that the problem, despite being one I first heard about three years ago, is still thriving.

We can lay the blame anywhere. We can say it's the fault of publishers for marketing books by and about women as exclusively for women. We can say it's the fault of literary publications, who clearly prefer men in the position of reviewer, despite the fact that women tend to read more than men. We can say it's the fault of reviewers for believing that men writing about family life is timeless while women writing about family life is fluff. We can say readers are at fault for buying into all this nonsense. We can lay the blame anywhere and everywhere, and we should. This is a joint effort. Two years ago I commented that these stats and the general dismissal of women writers for literary awards was not outright sexism. At the time, this was the right thing to say: one outlying year of skewed reading is unfortunate but doesn't say much. Two is a reason for taking note. Three is already a trend. We have a trend of male-preference in literature. Something needs to change, and we have a role to play in that. It's time we take it more seriously.