May 22, 2006

The literati versus the technorati.

At BookExpo America:
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." ... [W]ithout 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.
We were just talking about that article here. Remember? It's the one about how authors are going to have to give up on the technology-conquered idea that they can make money selling copies of their writings.
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.

"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."
Meanwhile, a guy named Tom Turvey -- his nickname must be Topsy -- is there from Google, promoting Google's Book Search project.
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.
And Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. With a book to sell -- "iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: Getting to the Core of Apple's Inventor" -- it's not clear if he belongs to the literati or the technorati faction. Asked about the Kelly article, he just says: "It's like everybody's scrambling to figure out how it falls out... and I don't know how it falls out." That sounds like a good condition to have your mind in.


Jake said...

They are all wrong. People will not read books, they will listen to them. Web sites like Audible will replace bookstores. However, authors will continue to be paid for their work.

I personally have 200 books stored on my Ipod.

XWL said...

How many American novelists have become caricatures of themselves once they past 60?

The public figure who ages gracefully is rare.

It's hard to think of any of the young up and comers in American literature of the 60s and 70s and not see a sad parody of who they used to be in their current state.

I suppose you could say the same of those that came up in the 80s and 90s, the cycle of irrelevance has sped up along with everything else.

As far as what Updike is 'defending' Woz's wait and see outlook seems much more appropriate than Updike's hold back the hordes approach.

altoids1306 said...

*Shrug* Economic reality always wins. If copying a book/song/movie takes a few mouse clicks and costs next-to-nothing, with negligible chances of being caught, it will happen. No one has had much success thwarting economic self-interest. Walmart is huge because people like cheap stuff, China is a export juggernaut because people like cheap stuff. If "Made in the USA" campaigns don't work, it's hard to believe "don't copy me because it's evil and bad" will.

I'm not saying this is desirible or moral or good or bad (if these terms even make sense in this context), but that technology shapes our economic reality, whether we like it or not, and the only real course of action is to adapt.

Ron said...

Of course, near the time of Homer, you had the Updike-equilvalent complaining about that new fangled technology: writing. How can I trust a piece of paper? When King So-and-So wants to send a message, he has someone tell me; I can trust that.

People will get lazy if they can just "write it down", and not have to learn to sing the Homeric verses around the campfire...

Beth said...

I listen to books on an iPod, but I'm still getting used to it, and it feels best in a car, on a trip. I also read text online, but I feel too confined even with a laptop. I love books, I love turning pages, feeling paper against my hands and propped against my knees.

It strikes me that for my interests at least, this topic is about novels, not just any text. Some texts really are suited to digital disbursement, and there's no real financial reward for the writers.

When I was teaching at a community college in the early 90s, one of my colleagues was horrified by using my using computers in class, and cited me all sorts of dire predictions on how the internet and computers were going to kill books within a decade. That time has passed by a couple of years with no such result.

Kelly says that "all new texts will be born digital" and sent directly to online libraries, and that "analog" texts will die. Analog texts already are born digital, then made analog. If there's a market for analog, then there'll be analog on the shelves. The paper, bound text is a friendly, portable, annotatable, desirable medium. I might be persuaded by Kelly's predictions if kids were completely flummoxed by books, being as wired as they are, but no, they still curl comic books into their back pockets, grab books off the shelf at Barnes and Noble and sit down in the corner to enjoy them.

I may be naive, but I think the future holds more choices, not fewer, for how people will make a living from writing.

Tibore said...

"commingled, unedited, frequently inaccurate mass of "information" on the Web...".

Commingled? Unedited? Mass of information? I thought that was the point of the web. Cross pollination of texts and ideas can get pretty durn messy at times, but the result of that synthesis has the potential to be something great. There's no need to be completely down on that.

Okay. Yes. He's got a point in his "painfully inaccurate" charge. And the point about "sparkling pod of snippets"... well, there's both good and bad to that. There's an art to brevity, although I think it's a bit used online on some blogs and news/opinion sources. But I'm not sure I agree with an outright condemnation of such.


Word verification: onohonk

Luv it when the Word Verif. thing comes up with something like that. Doesn't that sound like a description of being out of control? "Watch out! He's onohonk!"


tiggeril said...

Paper books will be around as long as people read in the loo.

Bruce Hayden said...

I think that the point about authors not getting that much of the proceeds right now is accurate. We are seeing that play out in the music arena right now, and that is a decent harbringer of what to expect here.

In music, artists can expect $1 or so for a $12-$15 cd. Everyone else in the distribution chain pockets the rest. Yet, Apple is making a killing selling music for $1 a track. So, ultimately, the artists aren't really going to lose there, despite piracy, because what they lose in piracy, they make up in increased sales - esp. from those who only want a track or so. It is all the middle men, starting with the record companies, that are going to get squeezed out, and that is why the RCIA is so agressive in combatting "piracy" - since they are the ones losing the money there.

We also are starting to see it with movies, and will be seeing it a lot more as distribution goes increasingly digital. The theaters are losing some audiences. But the video rental companies are the ones who are really starting to get hurt.

If we are willing to pay $8 for a good paperback, we are more than likely to pay $2 or $3 for a digital copy of the work. If the middle men are mostly cut out, that still leaves a couple of dollars for the authors.

Of course, as with music, the middle men do provide some advertising benefits, and this has to be factored in. In music, we are seeing a lot of new music becoming popular through word of mouth, instead of record company hype. The top tier bands don't need this, so won't suffer under the new regime. And the unknown bands benefit because it is probably easier now to be discovered. But those in the middle suffer.

I suspect something similar here. The big authors won't be hurt. They have their devoted followings, and anything new they write is well anticipated by their fans. It is the newly discovered authors who will be hurt (and everyone is newly discovered at some point). But this also means that there won't be that artificial barrier of being "discovered" by a publishing house.

Finally, this may go a long way to eliminating the celebrity press. Who is going to pay those celebrities those huge advances for first books? Would Valerie Plame have gotten that advance, without a publisher paying it on speculation? Who knows how well she can write, and it is likely that her book will be well-Fisked within days of publication.

altoids1306 said...


I don't know - but there must be someway to monetize the creation of IP, other than charging a per-user distrobution fee.

I'm just reading the tea leaves - as an international student, I always buy my textbooks in my home country, since the international edition is 20 USD, versus the 120+ here (for most science and engineering texts). I buy four textbooks, and I have recovered the cost of my airline ticket. If I had criminal intentions, I could buy 20 of each book, sell them to my class, and make thousands (assuming I could get thru customs).

The price of IP is what the market will bear, and the price in a perfect market is the marginal cost to produce the next copy. For information, that is approximately zero. Entertainers in East Asia are aware of high piracy rates, so they add personalized/collectible items in their CDs/DVDs, and rely on concerts and commerical endorsements. Redhat (a seller of Linux) gives away the software, and charges for service.

I understand that this is all very easy for me to say, and hard to implement, but the alternative is Big Government monitoring us to make sure we don't copy.

A true story: at a printer's shop in my home country, I saw a pallet of obviously cheaply photocopied textbooks, with a shipping order for a local university. The textbook title? "Intellectual Property Law". You can't make this stuff up.

Bruce Hayden said...

I should add that Mr. Updike is fighting a losing battle. It will happen. There is nothing he can do about it, except what he is doing, ranting and raving about technological progress.

The problem is that the middle men just make too much of the money right now. The Internet is showing itself able to eliminate much of those costs.

altoids1306 said...

And I forgot to add, if I then sold my 20 USD textbook, I could sell it for more than I bought it for, since most students would pay 60-80 USD for a 120 USD textbook. The wonders of discriminatory pricing.

However, I don't do that, since it is illegal to resell international editions in the US or Canada. However, I know this practice is rampant on eBay, since more than one of my friends have bought textbooks online that came from Russia or India.

And I have some friends from a certain country, who, when the textbook (or the right edition) is unavailable overseas, will buy the book locally, photocopy the entire book, and return it. Since they all take the same classes, one person photocopies for the rest, and they switch off.

I think IP can support a certain price, since people will pay for quality and convinence. But beyond that, as you can see, there are any number of methods to avoid paying full fare, because the technology allows it.

Maxine Weiss said...

John who? John Updike?

Who's that?



Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...

No disrespect, and I mean this with the fondest of .....whatever

But, how many of those 200 books stored on the IPod, Jake, have you listened to, unabridged?

I know I know, you've listened to each and every one backwards and forwards, two and three times over, in their unabridged versions. You can quote me verses...etc if need be.

You cannot, I repeat: you cannot have technological progress without quality.

We have a quality problem. Nobody knows how to write a good novel. Nobody can write a thoroughly original story with depth and individuality.

200 channels and nothings on. More and more books published ......and they are all formulaic and derivative.

And, so readers aren't reading....not the novel, at least.

EVERYONE: If you can promise me that all the new technology will lead to better quality......I'm all for it.

I haven't seen evidence of that, though, with the Internet, digital, nor wireless.

If anything as tech increases, quality the brain drain, and a bland lack of imagination.

Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me that plastic surgeons (a very high-tech field with lots of advances) aren't creating one generic look for all.

That's what technology does. We all turn into robots, with absolutely no originality/individuality. If someone can show how that isn't happening, currently, I'd like to hear it.

Peace, Maxine

amba said...

I don't know about anyone else but I like to hold the books in the hands when I read them.

Those who still feel this way about actual physical books will love this quote of Updike's.

Ann Althouse said...

I used to have that feeling of preferring to read from a book, liking the way it felt in the hands and so forth. But in the last two years, that's changed. Now, I find it hard to put down the computer or to stay with a book and not dash back onto the computer. There is something about the fluidity of the computer screen, the capacity to penetrate whatever screen I'm reading and to go elsewhere, anywhere. You don't like the idea of reading a computer in bed? I read my laptop in bed all the time.

altoids1306 said...

Scattered comments:

Slocum: Well, on the back or inside cover, international editions all say "Not for resale in the US or Canada." Which I assume means illegal. But they might be bluffing.

Maxine: "Technology" is kind of vague. Advances in technology have created material abundance that allows us to indulge in entertainment - which finances artistic acheivement. In today's culturally-relative world, some believe that cave scratchings of horses has equal artistic merit with Salvador Dali, but I think that's crazy-talk. And the reason Dali was a surrealist painter rather than a cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer is technology. Technology doesn't create creativity, but it allows people the time and resources to be creative.

Bringing it to the modern day, we have this incredible explosion of choice, and our society is rich enough to support movies, music, circuses, David Blaine, and exploding-cows-as-modern-art. Is most of it crap? Yes, but that's nothing new. Most of Roman art was probably crap to them, although we love it now because it's old.

Ann: I like paper. While news/blog browsing and other light reading is okay on the computer, for anything more substantial (conference papers, etc), I like to print it out so I can underline and scribble in the margins.

amba said...

Hmmm. At this point I think I like the idea of a book, but in reality I get impatient with them. They're so inert. The thing about the computer is that it's interactive. There are live people out there you can get a retort or an "olé!" from. Instead of passively consuming a story assembled once and for all by someone else, you can be in the midst of creating several collaborative stories whose endings are unknown. You're in the story, that is. It's an improvised performance.

amba said...

There's something mutinous about this.

Maxine Weiss said...

Henry: Updike is a writer, not a salesman. The words do the selling. I agree with him. All these people parading across Letterman and Leno hocking this and that. That's not Updike's style. And, I personally can't stand it. There was a time when you could go on latenight, with absolutely nothing to sell, and just sit there and converse. That's why Fran Lebowitz can't get on any of those talk shows. She's got nothing to plug. Updike hates that. It makes for horrible TV, and that's not what he does anyway. (Carson was never like that, Carson would have people come on and just talk, you didn't have to shill).

Look at the TV Chefs......the food is supposed to do the selling, not the person. ART: The painting is what you are buying.

At some point the art needs to sell itself, otherwise you wind up with....what we've got today: slick packaging with a lack of artistic originality.

If everything is digitally enhanced, why bother with originality. Actors don't need to act, Painters don't need to paint, chef's don't need to bother cooking, because it can all be digitally enhanced, so why bother?

That's where were at.

Peace, Maxine

Robert said...
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