Tag Archives: Bristol

Google and Penguin: Bookending a Revolution

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(my syndicated Loose Wire column.)

As I write this two significant events are taking place: Google has said it will tie up with the American Booksellers Association—the U.S. trade group for independent bookstores—to sell ebooks.

And there’s a conference in Bristol celebrating 75 years of the Penguin paperback.

Both are milestones. And both carry with them great innovation in the book industry, though one sees the future and one doesn’t.

Penguin was set up by a guy called Allen Lane in 1935 because he couldn’t find something decent and cheap to read on the train. So he came up with idea of a paperback book—which had been around, but only for trashy fiction, not serious stuff.

He gave them good covers and made them dirt cheap. And sold them by the truckload. Some of them he sold in a dispensing machine in the Charing Cross Road they called the Penguincubator.

Lane died in 1970, not quite sure what he’d created. On the one hand he’d brought reading to the masses—converting, as he put it, book-borrowers into to book-buyers—but he wasn’t overly excited by the kinds of thing these people wanted to read.

So I’m probably wrong, but if he was around today, I’d like to think he would have seen the future and turned all his stock into ebooks.

Now don’t get me wrong. Part of me doesn’t like this. I worked in bookshops for three years of my life and, frankly, unless I was working for the Peak District Promotion Board I couldn’t think of a better job.

But let’s face it, books are dead. They’re a great technology, and will always be a great technology, and we’re not getting rid of them because they don’t work. We need to get rid of them because they don’t fit this new digital world.

I realized this when I went to visit a guy running a second-hand book business in rural England a few years ago. He was working out of an old electricity sub-station and I’d never come across someone so surrounded by books and yet so miserable.

The substation had two rooms. One had shelves to the roof, laden with books. The other was just a mountain of discarded paperbacks—a tip for all the books he knew he’d never sell. “My job,” he said mournfully, “is to move the books from the shelf room to the tip room.”

Some books were sometimes worth something, but if their price went up on Amazon or some secondhand book website, quickly people would find copies in their attic and the price would plummet again. His business, in a word, was dead.

The truth is that we don’t really know what to do with our books. We love to have them around us, and we probably love to wander around second-hand bookshops, but they’re out of place in this digital age, where all the wisdom of the world is a 22 millisecond search away.

What is the point of wandering around Haye-on-Wye looking for a particular tome when we could find the same thing online and download it to our Kindle in a matter of seconds?

Yes, I know, there’s the thrill of the chase. The joy of being among books, their aroma, of feeling their pages crinkle and crisp in our hands. Of its solid comfort as we hold it under our arm or slip it in coat pocket.

But we can’t afford to indulge ourselves anymore. Books are eating up trees, eating up space, and, most importantly, holding back what Allen Lane might have identified as the logical next step in his revolution: making books available to all.

Books, basically, have to be decoupled from this romantic world and plonked into the digital world of knowledge, of accessible information, of blogs, twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Now we expect our information to be cheap, if not free, and at a finger-tip’s touch. In short, books need to be released from their paper past and converted into something cheap and movable. Into things we can read on trains, on planes, in bed, waiting for friends. Into ebooks.

And this is where Google comes in. If it does it right, it will make Kindles—where you can only read books you bought on Amazon—or iPads—where you can only read books you bought on Apple as absurd as they already sound to my ears.

Google will, I hope, allow you to buy any book you want from any online bookseller you want and read it on any kind of device you want. They’ll give us the same freedom Allen Lane gave our forebears back in 1935.

I hope it ushers in a world where we still peruse physical books in stores, but then we buy a coffee in the bookshop cafe and download the book, all paid on the same bill. The books on the shelves are there just to help us choose.

And, if Allen Lane were on that Exeter station without something decent to read, he could get his books over the air. At a decent price.

It’s not as romantic as the past. But then we’re not in Pride and Prejudice anymore. We’re in a world of digits.

Maybe Mr. Lane wouldn’t have approved of what we were reading, but I’m sure he’d approve of how.

Indonesia’s Slice of the Long Tail

It’ll be interesting to see how this kind of thing pans out: An Indonesian publishing company run by an expat American has launched a catalogue of Indonesian pop music on iTunes (declaration of interest: the guy, Mark Hanusz, is a friend of mine). Could this kind of thing change the way this kind of music is distributed, and, perhaps more interestingly, define a musician’s fan base and therefore their definition of success?

There are plenty of examples of music already crossing boundaries. But moves like Equinox Publishing, which claims its “catalog forms Southeast Asia’s largest selection of music to arrive on the digital music landscape”, represent a significant step forward. Until now it would have been nigh impossible for Indonesians living outside Indonesia, or anyone else for that matter, to get their hands on anything other than a CD of gamelan music. Now they can zip their way through 30–second previews of dozens of Indonesian artists on iTunes. Perhaps more significantly, it levels the playing field a bit: Now anyone browsing iTunes is as likely to stumble on an Indonesian band as they are to find a U.S. or European act.

Already Western bands make their way to a place like Indonesia — from Deep Purple and Procul Harem to more, er, contemporary acts like Foo Fighters, Mariah Carey, Alanis Morissette. With a potential audience of 200 million people, it pays for itself. But maybe the tide could change. Mark likes to see himself as slicing off a thin wedge of the Long Tail, catering to a small but significant market. But what may prove just as intriguing is the possibility that an Indonesian band, via something like iTunes, could become just popular enough in certain places overseas to justify a tour or two. Could we be seeing the likes of Homogenic, Netral and Dewi Lestari playing Boston or Bristol?

News: We’re Losing the Virus Arms Race

This week’s New Scientist confirms what readers of this blog already knew about the growing imbalance in the virus arms race. Antivirus specialists, the mag says, are fighting a losing battle against malicious code like viruses and worms. Research undertaken at Hewlett-Packard’s labs in Bristol, UK, is the first to evaluate the effectiveness of antiviral software. It shows that the way we fight viruses is fundamentally flawed, because viruses spread faster than antivirus patches can be distributed. By the time the antivirus software catches up, the damage has already been done.
 
 
Hewlett-Packard researcher Matthew Williamson designed a computer model to mimic the way in which viruses spread, based on a model that tracks the spread of biological viruses. He then introduced parameters to represent the way the antivirus software responds to this spread. He found that even if a signature is available from the moment a virus is released, it cannot stop the virus spreading if it propagates fast enough. Should we be worried? Yes.