Interview with David Wilk

David Wilk invited me to his Publishing Talks Podcast, to about LibriVox, iambik, libraries, PressBooks, and general future of publishing stuff.

Here is the link.

And here is the audio [mp3].

Categories: books

Freedom Ain’t So Great: Why Franzen’s No Genius

Publishing needs its darlings to keep afloat – its Dan Browns and Tattooed Girls and Meyerses – and what is true for genre is true for literary fiction as well. And so 2010 brought us Franzen’s “Freedom,” the great white hope of American Letters.

I’m always puzzled (no, not puzzled … annoyed) by literary types who sneer at Dan Brown or Steig Larsson and their ilk. What that sneer means is: “I enjoy a different kind of writing, and if you enjoy this kind, you are stupid.” But people buy Brown and Larsson, and love them, and those clumsy sentences don’t seem to bother most people one whit. Perhaps those “clumsy” sentences are just what the mass market wants: the kind of sentences they themselves would write. And good for them: Brown doesn’t pretend to be Tolstoy, and so shouldn’t be held to that standard. Instead Brown et al should be assessed on their own terms: as entertainments that people enjoy to read; if you don’t enjoy them, that’s a matter taste, and criticizing Dan Brown for bad dialogue is like criticizing Keith Richard for his poor flute skills.

Franzen’s “Freedom,” on the other hand, is trying to be something different, and so opens itself up to more literary knife-wielding. Because Franzen (painfully) does pretend to be Tolstoy (so much so that he has to remind readers twice). Which in itself is fine, by the way, and doesn’t justify knives, necessarily. Anyone in the world is perfectly in their rights to write a novel they wish were as good as “War and Peace,” and I wouldn’t say a peep. There are thousands of such books published every year.

But what ripens “Freedom” for attack is the glowing talk of Genius that came with it.

I can’t get my head around it. Numerous serious ciritics read Franzen and agreed with the author’s own wishes for the book. It’s been call “Great,” a “Masterpiece” and “Genius,” which is par for the course in book blurbing, but with “Freedom” there was a breathless sense that this was more than your run-of the-mill “masterpiece,” this was, rather, a “Major Book,” a “Masterpiece,” the kind of book that comes once in a generation, a kind of “Masterpiece” that all writers and readers ought to pay attention to.

And I can’t figure that out.

I mean… really?

Do you, Sam Tanenhaus, editor of NY Times Book Review (and a conservative to boot!) *really* think that this is a “masterpiece of American fiction” ? I just cannot believe it. I mean, literally, I cannot believe that Sam Tanenhaus could read this novel and think it a masterpiece. Ron Charles at the Washington Post was more reasonable – but he too (begrudgingly) called the book “brilliant.”

I don’t know if I’m like the Dan Brown haters out there, but I just can’t let this slide. So, here are 10 reasons why “Freedom” is not a masterpiece. It may be a good book, or perhaps a sweeping look at American culture. Certainly it’s popular. But, it’s so riddled with flaws and laziness, that I just can’t believe it’s a masterpiece.

Here are 10 reasons why it isn’t (NOTE: I haven’t backed up my complaints with examples, mainly because my iPhone version of Kobo won’t allow for note-taking, and … yes … when you want to look at a book more closely, you want paper). Anyway, the list of crimes include:

1. The Expository Essays.
Franzen wants to tell you about strip mining and birds and Iraq. And every time Franzen went off on one of these tangents I felt like I was reading the third draft of a first novel by an earnest high school student. When these essays were shoehorned into dialogue, I was just about ready to throw the book (contained inside my iPhone) across the room. This is genius? Editor, please.

2. The Voice(s).
In two sections of the book, Franzen presents a manuscript supposedly written by Patty. You have to be kidding? That’s Patty’s voice, Mr. Franzen (and editor)? Come on. Ironically, I found Patty’s first section the best part of the novel (though I didn’t realize till the end that Franzen was putting in “the autobiographer notes…” I kept reading “the biographer notes …” – my brain had decided this wasn’t Patty’s voice, and took appropriate action). Anyway, this section was the part of the book I enjoyed most (Franzen should have stopped here). But it sure wasn’t Patty’s voice.

3. Where the hell did the editor go?
There were so many clumsy, ugly sentences I just couldn’t believe it. Franzen has been called a master stylist. I suppose he does the odd interesting thing with dialogue, but for so much of the book I was cringing.

Look: genius doesn’t have to be perfect. Probably it shouldn’t be. But I don’t think a work of genius should display such laziness. And that’s what this book felt to me: lazy, in so many different ways.

4. Conservatives
Do you think Franzen has ever spoken to an actual conservative? His conservatives were plastic, juvenile caricatures, and not worthy of a writer of genius.

5. Joey
Joey is the most phony, inconsistent and completely unbelievable character I’ve read in a book in ages. Describe him for me. Does *anything* about him make any sense? The relationship with Connie? He’s described one way, but behaves totally differently. The whole Joey chapter was a complete disaster. I think I might have enjoyed the book somewhat if it weren’t for that dog’s breakfast of crappy writing.

6. Conspiracies
I don’t know how other writers come up with their satirical conspiracies, but do you get the feeling Franzen kept reading an article in Harper’s, and then throwing in another “subplot,” for padding, with the plan to edit later? And then he just never got around to editing. Is it too much to expect a little bit of work? You know, I liked his Estonian satire in Corrections. Maybe he got too much flack for that, and tried to pull back in this one. With the result: milquetoast. Or rather, the butter that sits on the surface of milquetoast.

7. Characters
Franzen has been lauded for painting a portrait of a family. But these characters just didn’t make any sense to me half the time. Patty who careens all over the place. The relationship between Patty and Joey. Walter: I mean, tell me about Walter. Connie? Totally baffling. Not to mention bit players Jonathan and Jenna, completely cardboard, unbelievable. Read War and Peace, and then lets talk about character.

8. The Disdain
I don’t think I have ever read a writer who is as disgusted by his characters as Franzen is. Thankfully, the disdain dissipated as the book went on. But that first section just dripped with disdain. It was so strange.

9. Adverbs.
Sorry, but I just can’t abide so many adverbs. And glib adverbs too. The worst kind.

10. Technology
Franzen should be banned from writing anything about technology – Twitter, blogs, cell phones. Write what you know, Mr. Franzen. You ring false when you try to talk about technology.

Now look, I’m not saying that the book’s no good. I read the whole thing, so I was entertained enough. I’m a sucker for love triangles, and the Walter/Patty/Richard made a good one, a very good one. And I suppose it’s heartening that someone’s taking a stab at a big sweeping novel about America. He tries, which is good, to tackle some of the big themes of our time: war and the environment, not to mention sex. It’s accessible and in a grand old tradition of literary fiction. I won’t fault Franzen for any of those decisions. But still, it’s not a great book.

So Franzen gets a B for intent, a C for effort. His editor gets an F for letting Franzen’s “Freedom” go out into the world looking like such a shoddy, lazy piece of work.

And, no, it’s no masterpiece.

Categories: books, web

Books as Web Objects: Publishers with APIs

I’ve been meaning to write this post about truly connected books for ages. It’s up on O’Reilly Radar:

Ebooks to date have mostly been approached as digital versions of a print books that readers can read on a variety of digital devices, with some thought to enhancing ebooks with a few bells and whistles, like video. While the false battle between ebooks and print books will continue — you can read one on the beach, with no batteries; you can read another at night with no bedside lamp — these battles only scratch the surface of what the move to digital books really means. They continue to ignore the real, though as-yet unknown, value that comes with books being truly digital; not the phony, unconnected digital of our current understanding of “ebooks.”

Of course, thinking of ebooks as just another way to consume a book lets the publishing business ignore the terror of a totally unknown business landscape, and concentrate on one that looks at least similar in structure, if not P&L.


Categories: books, misc

Advertisements in Books

Over on a publishing email list there has been some chatter today about advertising in ebooks.

While I’m not crazy about being sold washing detergent with my War and Peace, I see no reason not to have ads in some ebooks, and I would rate the odds of it happening at 100% …

As with online book reviews that link to an online retailer (with affiliate fees), there is no reason an ebook about, say, rugby shouldn’t link to somewhere where I can buy tickets for the World Cup. If it’s a proper ebook – I mean, not just a book I can read on a digital device, but a proper ebook that is cloud-based and dynamically updated – then the link/interaction will point to 2011 tickets today, and in 4 years it will point to 2015 World Cup tickets. If I am reading about knitting I may well want to buy needles, and there’s no reason an ebook that makes me want to buy knitting needles shouldn’t help me do that (and make some money for the publisher, as well as the needle-maker, in the mean time).

As my friend Alistair Croll says: Buying a book is an expression of serious interest in a certain topic, and there is all sorts of valuable business to be done when people have expressed clear interest in a topic.

Certainly the level of engagement, and value of the average eyeball reading a book far outweighs the value of an average eyeball on a webpage. Digital books will and should allow any number of commercially valuable interactions – not just display ads. Or perhaps not display ads at all.

Doing this in a way that does not distract from the book itself will be the trick, but good design, and the powerful nature of new reading platforms means that doing this right is easily imaginable. If I can toggle night-reading on my Kobo for iPad, I can toggle ads.So ads needn’t distract from reading – they could be just another layer to which a book is connected.

Categories: books, librivox, myprojects, web

LibriVox Turns Five

On August 10, 2005 I put up a website, called it LibriVox, and posted the following:

LibriVox is a hope, an experiment, and a question: can the net harness a bunch of volunteers to help bring books in the public domain to life through podcasting?

LibriVox is an open source audio-literary attempt to harness the power of the many to record and disseminate, in podcast form, books from the public domain. It works like this: a book is chosen, then *you*, the volunteers, read and record one or more chapters. We liberate the audio files through this webblog/podcast every week (?).

Five years later, it seems as if the answer is: yes. [more…]

Categories: audio, books, media

arcade fire + premium digital + all sorts of other things that we might add in the title

The Montreal/Texas band Arcade Fire has just released a new album, Suburbs. Arcade Fire is about as big as indie bands get, and their plan is to stay indie – as far as I know.
You can buy the new album here:

And some interesting notes about how you can buy:
* Premium digital ($7.99)
* CD + Premium digital ($12.99)
* Vinyl + premium digital ($24.99)
All orders come with non-premium digital (ie in lossy m4a format) … with “visuals for each song, lyrics & contextual hyperlinks.”

Finally, you get one of 8 covers … randomly assigned.

In short:
– low quality digital is the baseline
– and it’s implied that if you want that for free you can find it
– everything else is a bundle of some sort: digital + something
– high quality digital, and physical copies are premium products
– a kind of customization: only 1 in 8 purchasers will have the same cover as you.

The digital is almost a give-away, everything else you are paying because you care enough to have something more substantial.

I suspect the big problem in the book business is that most books aren’t worth caring about enough to want a memento. So the real problem in publishing is not so much the shake-up of digital, but rather that consumers (and publishers) just don’t care that much about the majority of books that are published and bought.

Categories: books, technology, web

Sifting Through the Books

I have a post up over at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change blog, Sifting through all these books:

…We have a massive and growing supply and demand imbalance in the book business. And, as the technologies for creating and distributing books becomes trivial, the supply of books is just going to keep growing exponentially. There is a whole other article to write about the business implications of these numbers, but I’m interested here in some ideas about how our info systems might manage this huge pile of books. That is, how are people going to sift through all these books to find what they want?…


Categories: books, web

Four Reasons to Worry about Publishing

I was invited to do a panel on Social Media for Authors at the Writers’ Union of Canada AGM. Writer Nichole McGill was the moderator, and I was joined by the wonderful Jenny Bullough, of the visionary publishing house Harlequin. (Harlequin is the most clued-in about digital of all the publishers I know of, along with O’Reilly).

As we discussed how things would play out, it was decided that I would be the prophet of doom – describing why everything has changed, and no writer can afford to ignore the web; while Jenny would follow-up with a concrete overview of the things writers should be doing on the web.

My – minimalist – slides are below, and I’ll give a tiny bit of context below that.

Here are my Four Reasons to Be Worried, and One Reason to Be Optimistic about Publishing:

Worry number one:
There are so many damn books published every year.

[Context: from 2002, number of titles published in the USA has stayed roughly constant, oscillating between 250,000 and 280,000. Which is an astramoical number of books. But in that period, a couple of things have happened: works of “literature” have increased from ~6,000 titles to roughly 9,000 titles, without any detectable increase in readership of literature. Secondly, the number of print-on-demand, self-published books was on the order of 25,000 in 2002. By 2008 that number was 285,000 – outstripping the number of traditionally-published books. In 2009, the number of self-published titles reached an astonishing 750,000; so there were more than 1 million books published in the USA in 2009. And that’s ignoring all the stuff published without ISBNs.

Compared to the rest of the world, I am a relatively heavy reader: I read perhaps 25 books a year. So there are at least 999,975 books published every year that I don’t read. There is a massive glut of books for people to read, and your book is one in a million.]

Worry number two:
Publishers can’t support all those damn books.

[Context: most publishers have tried to address this glut in supply by doing something counterintuitive: they’ve started publishing more books. Publishing is a lottery business: most books don’t break even, and a tiny percentage are the big hits (Harry Potter) that actually finance the industry. No one really knows what the next big hit is, so the theory goes: if you double the number of books you are publishing, you double your chances of having a big hit.

But even if publishers are not publishing more books, they aren’t swimming in cash either. Most writers think they are being neglected by their publishers, but the truth is everyone I know in publishing tells me that with the web etc. they have to work twice as hard as they used to, but they are still selling the same number of books.

Whether there are villains or heroes, I don’t know, but I do know this: publishers have less time than they used to for editorial and marketing, except for a tiny handful of successful authors. Most writers are not in that tiny handful; and the tiny handful might not have to worry about the web all that much. The rest of us do.]

Worry number three:
Readers don’t have any damn time to read books anymore.

[Context: It used to be that books competed against radio, TV, bridge and cocktail parties, baseball and square-dances. Now they compete against all that, plus Youtube and Twitter, and the blogs, and Facebook and World of Warcraft and Chatroulette, and Xbox, and Wii, and and and… The competition for readers’ leisure time is fierce, and writers and publishers need to do everything they can to make sure that readers will choose to read when they have a choice.]

Worry number four:
Prices are collapsing. Damn.

[Context: There will be lots of debates about ebook pricing and cost structures and hardcover sales and Amazon and 9.99 and all the rest. The debates will rage on with different theories about how much a book should cost, where the costs are (advances and editorial and marketing), and where they aren’t (printing and distribution). But in the end, readers don’t care about any of that: they will vote with their walltes. If you can spend $8.99/month for unlimited movie downloads from Netflix — in the US — then spending $27.99 on a hardcover of a book you aren’t sure you’re going to like starts to seem a bit dear. Not to mention the quadrupling of the number of available books, and the plentiful ways you can spend your time without paying a cent online, or elsewhere.

The price of most books will drop, because books are “leisure time items” and we have a massive massive glut of leisure time choices. The pressures will be different in different sectors of the publishing business, but the short, medium and long-term trend is this: down.

No matter what you think the value of books, or literature, or your writing, you cannot fight against physics, and when you have a glut of supply, prices drop.]

Reasons for optimism, numbers one two and three:
There are more people writing and more people reading than ever before and you can reach all of them on the web.

[Context: And, after all this bad news, here is the good news: there are more readers, and more writers than ever before in the history of the universe. People who love books love them as dearly as ever. And the web gives every author the ability to connect with those readers, with other writers, with the people who love what they do in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. The business side of all this will evolve, but we are about to enter a golden age of writing — perhaps we are already there — and that is something to celebrate].

Categories: books, technology

Best books about the digital, the web & culture?

I’m doing a little informal survey. I’d like to know what you think are the three most important books about the web, the digital, and its cultural implications. These could be books about technology, about sociology, about philosophy; but generally books that have helped, and will continue to help us navigate the future as it becomes increasingly digital.

That is, what three books have you read about computers and culture that have stood the test of time, and deserve to be read, or reread again?

I’ll get the ball rolling, with three that have had a profound impact on my thinking:
* Wealth of Networks, by Yochai Benkler
* Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig
* Programming the Uviverse, by Seth Lloyd

If you have suggestions, why not post comments here, or Tweet with the hashtag: #digitalculturebooks.

Categories: books, technology

An Open, Webby Book-Publishing Platform, Based on WordPress

Ever since Book Oven shifted focus in November 2009 to Bite-Size Edits, I have been wanting to write about one of the major reasons for the shift: my realization that:
a) the world needs an open book-publishing platform
b) rather than building from scratch at Book Oven, we should have started with WordPress, and built atop it.

I just published my thoughts about this on O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing blog. The key points are:

The key insights behind Book Oven were the following:

* publishing a book is (almost always) a collaborative enterprise
* online tools (should) make collaboration on making books easy(er)
* if you build a “book” in the cloud, using structured mark-up, then expression of that book in various forms (print, epub, pdf, mobipocket, html, etc), on various devices (including paper & print) becomes arbitrary, and should be nearly trivial
* further, if the “book” exists in the cloud, then the range of things that can be done with this “book” multiplies significantly
* if a system built on these ideals is implemented well, it will be transformative, both for professional publishing workflows, and for the emergence of a new grassroots of indie publishing.

I am still deeply committed to this vision. But I have shifted towards a belief that the above-described platform should be open source. Or at least, an open source version of such should exist.


WordPress, it seems, is an ideal candidate as a platform on which to build an open source, online, webby, book-publishing system. There may be other likely candidates, but WordPress has the following characteristic which suggest to me that it is an excellent place to start:

* it is a familiar and comfortable tool to most writers and publishers who are at all engaged online
* it is a stable platform that can handle just about any scale of traffic you can throw at it (the New York Times, for instance, runs on a heavily-hacked version of WordPress)
* it is open source
* through its plugin architecture, it is infinitely extensible
* through its template architecture, it is infinitely stylable
* through WordPress Mu, it isinfinitely scalable it has a huge, world-wide community of committed developers
* existing plugins and plugin suites already achieve much of what would bewanted in a WordPress-based book publishing system.

And elaborating more fully, here is a list of plugins such a system would need:

1. robust version control
2. (based on the old commentpress)- to allow para by para commenting for editors, and later, if desired, for readers
3. wordpress –> epub conversion
4. wordpress –> ~LaTeX –> print-ready pdf conversion (or similar)
5. wordpress –> InDesign-compliant mark-up conversion
6. book-friendly front-end template(s) (including Table of Contents, Title page etc)
7. generation of a download/(sales?) page that lists available formats (epub, html, pdf etc)
8. table of contents generator
9. a book metadata generation/management tool (ONYX, OPDS compliant?)
10. …etc.

This list of plugins can continue, subject to the interest of developers, and the needs of users of such a system.

You can read the whole thing here.

And props to John Maxwell and his students at the Simon Fraser Masters of Publishing Program for actually building a protoype and publishing a book with it. Also, do head over to and see another implementation of something similar.