Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Strange Bedfellows

Shelf Awareness reports today that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has entered into an agreement with Amazon to handle the distribution of the books published by Amazon's east coast publishing operation. This is surprising and somewhat bucking a current trend among publishers questioning Amazon's dominance in the book world.

Frankly, it's kind of reminiscent of the partnership between Borders and Amazon for Borders'Web site. That probably wasn't a great idea for Borders and one has to wonder about just what HMH is thinking are the advantages of this partnership.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I hear that one is a real page turner...


Libraries and Wild Carrots

I’ve been meaning to write a few posts about my own personal history with books. I post a bit about the book trade, libraries, and the impact of e-books on physical books, but I haven’t much discussed my own involvement in books. I’m going to start first in a field.

When I was little, I was lucky enough to live in a home with three generations. My father’s mother and father, Mary and Sam, lived with us in the Chicago suburb of Streamwood. The farmhouse for the farm that used to exist where the subdivision we lived in sprouted was right behind our house, and we could walk to it from our backyard. They still had chickens, and a cow. At the end of our block sat an empty meadow. I remember going to that field often, usually in the morning, with Mary, my grandmother. One day she said to me, “Tony, you’re very smart, a really clever boy. But you have to know more than you can only know from books, you know this, right?”

I nodded.

“Come here. Do you see this plant? What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is called Queen Anne’s Lace or Bishop’s Lace. Now come over here.” She pulled the plant from the ground and held the roots under my nose. “ Smell this.” I inhaled the smell of the damp earth, and what smelled like carrot. “Looks and smells like carrots, no?”

I nodded my head.

“Okay, now follow me.” She walked a little and found another big, white, papery, flat flower head. “Is this the same?” She held the two flowers next to each other. They looked the same. The flowers more than the leaves, but they looked like they were probably related.

“Maybe?” I tentatively offered.

She sighed. “To really answer the question you must look at the roots. But if you’re only looking for carrots, look here.” And she pointed to the center of the flowerhead of the Queen Anne’s Lace. “Do you see that tiny spec of blood” She was referring to a minuscule cluster of black-red petals in the center, easy to miss, like a spec of dirt. “That tells you it is wild carrot. If you are starving, you must know the difference. Because the other one, the one without the tiny drop of blood, that one is hemlock. This too, you must learn. Not only from books. My father taught me how to identify a wild carrot, and more importantly, how it’s different from poison. Someday, finding a carrot, and knowing it’s a carrot, could save your life. It once saved mine back in the old country.”

The small field at the end of our block where this lesson took place didn’t stay empty for long. The street we lived on was Library Lane. The field on the end of it was supposed to eventually hold a library. But the promises of the developer never really materialized so in the mid-Seventies, my mom and several other members of the community organized a referendum to create a taxing body and a library district. The referendum passed, and a beautiful, though almost Brutalist, library building was built. I spent a good part of my childhood there. I learned about current events from Doonesbury and human dynamics from Jules Feiffer. Vonnegut taught me to laugh through tragedy, and those old Bob and Ray albums taught me about timing. I spent a good deal of time in the children’s area, though mostly volunteering, but I really preferred the adult sections. I suppose it’s like Mitch Headberg used to say: Any book is a children’s book if the kid can read. I loved that library, and I think spending so much time there had an impact on what I would eventually do with my life, but I also miss that field. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if they hadn’t built a library on Grandma’s classroom. What might I have been instead?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Scholar's Resource

The publisher I work for is a part of the library at Penn State and the folks at the library just launched a Web site that provides a variety of resources to scholars looking to disseminate their work. They did a really great job on this resource and I can see it becoming a really valuable tool to the scholars here. Hats off to my colleagues at the library for putting together such a useful and informative resource.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Rioting for the Right

Heard on the radio this morning that there were “scuffles” in line among folks waiting for the release of the iPhone 4S at some Beijing Apple stores, which got worse apparently when Apple decided not to open the stores over concerns about violence. Some are blaming Apple for the problems as there’s talk among their potential customers that the real reason they wouldn’t open the stores was because Apple had sold all available phones to corrupt officials and their families.

And Apple’s response, there are plenty available online.

This got me thinking. Did those customers not know they could simply get it online, or did they want one immediately. Or, is this a chicken and egg problem—Do some of those customers need an iPhone to get online? Or is it something else. Is this about being able to get it at a brick and mortar? Is it about the process of going to the store, looking at the product, trying the product, and taking home the product? I ask this because as we watch Borders fade into the sunset, and Indies close at a rate of one or two a day, I wonder if what those people in Beijing were rioting over was as much about the experience of buying the product as it was the product itself. I have always adored the experience of shopping in a bookstore. What happened in China makes me wonder if I should be somehow actively protesting to protect it.

On another note, the director of the publisher I work for just went publically against H.R. 3699, also known as the Research Works Act, which ostensibly protects commercial publishers from the “threat” of Open Access by putting limitations on the use of Open Access systems for some research. I’m really pleased that we took this stand and that we’re doing the right thing on this issue.

This is from the act itself, and it demonstrates how the act prohibits the use of Open Access without the commercial publisher's permission, and then goes on to prohibit Federal agencies from requiring the public to be allowed to read the research it paid for:

SEC. 2. LIMITATION ON FEDERAL AGENCY ACTION.

    No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that--
      (1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or
      (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.
It's enough to make a citizen want to riot.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Michael Humphrey at Forbe's Asks: Should Google buy the Nook platform?

Well, actually, he gives five reasons why they should. It's a fascinating proposition and there is certainly a logic to it. It makes yesterday's odd announcement by B&N that they're considering splitting off their Nook division suddenly look a little smarter.

Best Selling Item

These days, when the differences between readers, authors, and publishers are blurring like never before, it's unusual to be surprised by anything occurring in the retail book environment. But there's a fascinating detail on the bottom of this list of the year's bestsellers on the tumblr blog of New York booksellers McNally Jackson. Sure they list the books, but note the detail in the paragraph below that. Their number one selling "item" was the set-up fee for folks printing self-published books on their Espresso Book Machine.