bookify: a proposal

I went into the park, sat on a bench — I seemed to have developed some variety of what I believe is sometimes called “hysterical” coughing — and then it suddenly hit me that everyone on earth who could read John Donne was now dead. They were all dead. And as I turned this odd fragment of information around in my brain, I realized that I was the only one left who would even be aware of the passing of this particular group, this group which was so special, at least in their own eyes.
–Wallace Shawn, The Designated Mourner

Toward the end of August, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about Google Books entitled “Google Book Search: A Disaster For Scholars.” It’s still floating around the social networks of academics; it’s very well-researched and amusingly indignant. The author, Geoffrey Nunberg, gives a shockingly long list of problems with Google Books, most of them resulting from Google’s lazy attempts to automate cataloguing by reading off scanned title pages or by taking an institution’s word about a book.

Nunberg continues,

That realization lends a particular urgency to the concerns that people have voiced about the settlement —about pricing, access, and privacy, among other things. But for scholars, it raises another, equally basic question: What assurances do we have that Google will do this right? […]

Seen in that light, the quality of Google’s book search will be measured by how well it supports the familiar activity that we have come to think of as “googling,” in tribute to the company’s specialty: entering in a string of keywords in an effort to locate specific information, like the dates of the Franco-Prussian War. For those purposes, we don’t really care about metadata—the whos, whats, wheres, and whens provided by a library catalog. It’s enough just to find a chunk of a book that answers our needs and barrel into it sideways.

But we’re sometimes interested in finding a book for reasons that have nothing to do with the information it contains, and for those purposes googling is not a very efficient way to search. If you’re looking for a particular edition of Leaves of Grass and simply punch in, “I contain multitudes,” that’s what you’ll get. For those purposes, you want to be able to come in via the book’s metadata, the same way you do if you’re trying to assemble all the French editions of Rousseau’s Social Contract published before 1800 or books of Victorian sermons that talk about profanity.

Nunberg is right — there’s no question about it — and yet, as my Carrie Bradshaw-like voiceover began to play in my head, I couldn’t help but wonder: Are the primary challenges facing today’s readers really a matter of the books Google now potentially owns, such as “orphan” texts, and specific versions of texts in the public domain?

I don’t think so. The real disaster for scholars continues to be publishing houses, especially (I’m sorry to say) publishers of academic books. Here are the problems they’ve created for us:

1) The public doesn’t have any way to get electronic copies of many important texts. This makes such texts hard to access and search.

2) Books are overpriced. Academic books are unbelievably overpriced. It does not make sense to pay the same amount for a 1MB book that I’m paying to download a 6GB HD movie that cost the studio $60 million to produce. Any book that is more than $40, and does not include individual watercolors and gold leaf, is a crime against humanity.

3) Even available books are done sloppily. iBooks had to ship a new version of Steve Jobs to people who bought Walter Isaacson’s biography OF THE FOUNDER OF APPLE. Amazon had to send me a new version of Doris Goodwin’s Team of Rivals several months after I purchased it, due to “missing content.”

4) Project Gutenberg (and its many, many exploiters) are doing an incredibly valuable public service, but naturally these editions contain errors as well. Often, a serious scholar has to own the professionally edited version of a text, rather than the one that happens to be available via PG.

In many ways, honest-to-God scholars (students and researchers) are less beholden to Google Books than the rest of the public. They have library access. They are less likely to be fooled by bad metadata (presumably, somebody researching Dorothy Parker has at least a vague idea of when she was born). They often need to look at physical artifacts themselves, because even the best scanner has trouble with documents like handwritten proofs or annotations.

For the general public, on the other hand, it’s still basically impossible to become acquainted with an author like Haruki Murakami without a fairly large financial investment. For most of the population, the question is not how they will access French editions of Rousseau, but whether they will ever read a single work by Rousseau in their lifetimes. (Consider the fact that, in a recent study, 71% of Americans identified Jonathan Franzen as “a type of boxed wine.”) The general public deserves to be able to purchase, relatively inexpensively, an authoritatively translated and edited electronic version of any of Rousseau’s works.

That is why I’m proposing a new model for the electronic distribution of text, which I call “Bookify.” For legal reasons, I must tell you that this name has no relation whatsoever to Spotify. The same goes for my company Totally Irrelevant, which is not, as some have claimed, my version of Rhapsody and Napster.

Here is my Bookify Bill of Rights:

1) You have the right to pay a monthly fee, in exchange for the right to borrow books. A consumer should be able to pay $5 a month and read Bender and Lewis in September, and then Eugenides and Isaacson in October. While it may seem awful to have to pay for library rights, even the best public libraries end up with 125 people waiting for 6 copies of any major new release. (The same is true of the UC Irvine library when it comes to an in-demand philosophical text like Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology.) It is ridiculous that we have Spotify/Rdio for music, and Netflix/iTunes/Amazon/Hulu for video, and nothing for books except Amazon Prime.

2) Publishers should stop colluding to fix prices for e-books. Every time I see “this price was set by the publisher,” I want to kill somebody. I know this is how Jeff Bezos wants me to react, but…he’s absolutely right.

3) Every book that is in print should be available in a reasonably-priced, error-free digital download.

4) It should be possible to purchase parts of a book. Amazon already does this with “Amazon Singles,” but the selection is poor. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to buy just the essays Adorno wrote about consumerism, adding those to my awesome collection of books, punk albums, and movies critiquing consumerism. Likewise, I should be able to buy Eat without necessarily also buying Pray and Love.

5) E-books should come in one format. I realize that Apple has tried to go its own way with AAC files, but most music downloads are MP3 files, and that’s a good thing.

6) Scholarly bibliographies should accompany books as official recommendations. You just read Moby Dick — congratulations, that is totally great — would you like to buy an article about it? (NB: In a perfect world, readers would actually be able to sponsor articles about newer publications of interest. What if, along with a bunch of other readers, you could bid a contribution of $.25 to have Chuck Klosterman write an article about the Kanye West album? Or $.30 to have Stephen Greenblatt write about anything other than his mother/quantum physics?)

7) Annotations should follow social networks. I could care less what random people highlighted in Greil Marcus’s new book on The Doors, but if my friend Pat marked it up, I’d be interested to see that.

***

I’d also like to see somebody invent “literary remastering,” which would make “deluxe editions” of books more lively, provocative, and relevant, but that’s probably many years away.

Bookify. Music Wants To Be Free. Text Will Settle For Being Affordable.

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