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.

Why Hotels Should Avoid Social Media

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a copy of my column for newspapers)

If The Wall Street Journal is to be believed—and as a former contributor I’ve no reason to doubt it—the best way to get decent hotel service these days is to tweet about how bad it is.

And reading the piece made me realize that, when it comes to an industry like the leisure industry, social media can only be a disaster for your brand.

An article by Sarah Nassauer says that “hotels and resorts are amassing a growing army of sleuths whose job it is to monitor what is said about them online—and protect the hotels’ reputations.” It also offers a handy list of eight tips on how to “snare better service”, including:

Before you check-in: Post a comment on the hotel’s Facebook page or send a tweet saying you’re looking forward to your stay. A savvy hotel will put you on its radar and may dole out perks or give specialized service.

or this one:

Have a lot of online friends or followers. Hotels will pay more attention to your requests.

Now I’m a big fan of social media. And hotels. And the Journal. But this kind of advice is WRONG.

Basically, what the paper is suggesting is that you abuse social media, and the hotel’s check-in system, to snag yourself better service. Unfortunately it betrays a distinct lack of understanding of how things like Twitter work.

First off, you don’t just “have” a lot of online followers or friends. Followers and friends are earned through providing interesting commentary, in the case of Twitter, or being there for them, in the case of friends. OK, you can buy both, but that’s not the point.

Although I suppose you could calculate your savings through free hotel upgrades and offset that against the purchase off Twitter followers through services like usocial (“become an overnight rock star on twitter!”).

Now I’m not averse to hotels and other companies using Twitter and Facebook to keep an eye on what people are saying about them. That’s good, and, frankly, it should have happened a long time ago. I’m frankly amazed that companies measure their footprint on social media quantitatively rather than qualitatively: in other words, they count the number of followers they have, rather than look closely at who those followers are, learn about them and recruit them as unpaid evangelists.

As the piece mentions, hotels and resorts are setting up their own social media monitoring centers which sound like Churchill in the bowels of London in the middle of the  blitz, but is probably more likely some overworked drone monitoring a laptop in the hotel kitchen or a workaholic F&B manager checking TripAdvisor his BlackBerry while his wife is delivering their 4th baby.

The problem is this: Social media is social. If I grumble about my hotel on Twitter, it’s presumably because the other options open to me aren’t working. And those options usually involve something other than boring all my friends about the state of the bath, or the shortage of Mountain Dew in my minibar.

These are things that I should be bringing up with room service, or the front desk, or the F&B guy. If I’ve started twittering about it, it’s proof the system doesn’t work.

So, unless I’ve got really patient followers and friends, using them as a platform for my grumbles isn’t only an abuse of social media, it’s an abuse of my friends.

The problem with the Journal piece is that it assumes that social media is merely a public platform for self-promotion: either for getting better deals, or for getting better service.

But it’s not. Social media only works because we’re interested in what other people are saying. Those people who tell the world they’re about to have coffee don’t have many followers, unless they’re someone famous.

The value in social media—in any network—is the information it’s carrying. Whines about the view from one’s room isn’t information. It’s a whine. (Unless of course it’s me, in which case I’m being wittily ironic in a post-modernist sort of way.)

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and a recent case in point: hotel guest complains about the quality and price of Internet in their hotel on Twitter, including the hotel’s twitter name. Hotel responds within seven minutes, asking guest to direct message them—in other words, to send a message that can’t be viewed by anyone else.

So, now the conversation goes offline. No more tweets that anyone can read. In short, guest is basically saying to his followers: I’ve got what I wanted, thanks to all of you for helping me get my way. Hotel is saying: We’ll solve this problem privately, thank you, and leave no-one the wiser about whether this was a one-off complaint or something other guests may have to worry about.

Neither respects the audience on social media who have to watch this public face-off and miss the private make-up.

The upshot: Guests learn that twittering gets results. Hotels learn that twitter guests can be bought off as easily as non-social media guests. And the followers of that particular twitterer come away none the wiser and feeling slightly used.

For sure, it makes sense to use social media as a platform to air your grievances–if other paths have failed. If you want to warn others. Just like writing a letter to the editor back in the old days.

But hotels and other companies that scour social media to buy off bad-mouthers will do terrible damage to themselves, and to social media, if they seek to reward anti-social behavior. If you broadcast to social media that bad-mouthing your brand pays dividends, expect to get lots of bad-mouthing on social media.

If you then try to solve the problem in private, all you leave is a paper-trail of bad-mouthing, and no happy ending.

So the solution is simple: Social media should be monitored. Grievances should be addressed. But rather than setting up time-consuming twitter monitoring teams money would be better spent on developing rapid responses internally—a instant messaging service only accessible to guests, say, or a texting service so guests don’t have to listen to jingly jangly phone music while they’re being connected to reception.

It comes back to an old adage: Social media is not another broadcast platform. It’s a very public forum. So having a twitter feed is a life-time commitment to allowing every customer grumble to be seen by everyone on the planet. Don’t go there unless you have to.

Instead, keep those private channels with your guests as free of friction as possible. Don’t encourage them to go public, because however it works out, it won’t be pretty.

Oh, and provide a decent service. That always works.

Evoting? First Bad Omen

I’m in the Philippines to look at their preparations for an automated evoting election in May. This morning’s visit to the hotel’s business center wasn’t a good omen: no antivirus software on their computers.

This might not tell us very much about the potential for disaster in an election which is supposed to be entirely electronic, but the staff’s attitude might. When I told her that her computers weren’t running antivirus, she nodded and said she knew that, as if to say that was a luxury this $120 a night hotel couldn’t afford.

When I told her politely she should fix it because her computers would infect her guests’ drives and they wouldn’t be happy, she gave me one of those dismissive smiles that made it clear that wasn’t about about to happen and the input wasn’t welcome.

Unsurprisingly my thumb drive was infected with the Slogod.F worm which is described as “dangerous and self-propagates over a network connection”:

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If the business center of a fancy Manila hotel is so cavalier about computer security, what, I wonder does it tell us about preparedness for this automated election? Hopefully this is a blip. Hopefully.

Calling Aspiring Asia Journalists

I’m responsible again this year to try to track down Asia-based journalists interested in a fellowship, funded by The Wall Street Journal Asia in association with New York University, for the three-semester masters program in business and economic reporting at the NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

If you fit that bill, or know someone who does, please go or direct them here.

Journalism may be a profession in crisis, but the tools and skills acquired on a course like this will never go out of style.

Radio Australia stuff, Jan 23 2009

For those listening to my slot on Radio Australia’s Breakfast Show, here’s what I was talking about:

  • Inauguration fever: How it may have tipped the way we use the Net, just like the election did. (People who weren’t there weren’t googling, they were twittering and facebooking.)
  • ‘Dark ages’ White House:The White House runs on ‘six year old versions of Microsoft software'; press office officials use Gmail. Website doesn’t get updated until evening of first day. Or is it a case of Macopia?
  • Shock, horror: Windows 7 might actually be quite good

and some stuff we didn’t have time to talk about, but which tickled me:

Radio Australia Stuff, Jan 9 2009

For those listening to my slot on Radio Australia’s Breakfast Show, here’s what I was talking about:

Obese Texters, Back to the Future, and Scams

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at about 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

Texting reduces obesity

If your kids are getting a little overweight, then treat them to a bit of texting. But it’s not quite how it sounds (I thought it might be something to do with the aerobic workout you get from the thumb twiddling.) No, a study by the University of North Carolina suggests that if obese kids are encouraged to keep a record of their eating habits via SMS, they are more likely to adhere to the health regimen—less TV, more exerices, less Coke—than those who just wrote down the same information. (Attrition rate was 28% against 61% for the paper diary kids and 50% for the control group.)

Part of this may be down to the fact that the kids get instant feedback via SMS on their results. So actually this is more about the interactivity of health regimes rather than the physical benefits of cellphones or texting. (Actually this whole SMS for health thing is quite a meme. Check out this conference here.)

The miracles of life in 2000—as seen from 1950

Popular Mechanics of February 1950 predicted a number of things, some of which have come true, some of which haven’t, and some of which should, if we got our act together.

What they got right

  • Highways broad without any curves
  • Doubledecked highways
  • soup and milk come in frozen bricks (but thought that cooking would be a thing of the past)
  • TV connected to the phone; but would buy stuff over the TV with store clerks holding the goods up obligingly for customers to inspect…
  • robots in factories, but controlled by punch cards
  • air travel would be frequent, but expensive because of jet fuel; rocket plane fare from Chicago to Paris would cost $5000

What they got wrong

  • Heart of the town is the airport
  • Clean as a whistle and quiet
  • Crime to burn raw coal
  • Illumnitated by electric suns on 200 ft high towers
  • A house would cost only $5000 to build
  • Houses don’t last more than 25 years
  • Wash using chemicals that shave as well.
  • Dishes dissolves in superheated water, so no washing machines
  • Plastics derived from cottonseed hulls, Jerusalem artichocks and and fruit pips
  • Clean the house by turning a hose on it; everything is synthetic fabric of waterproof plastic; drain in the middle of the floor
  • worried by mass starvation, scientists came up with food from sawdust, table linen and rayon underwear converted into sweets
  • ‘calculators’ would predict the weather
  • storms diverted
  • no one would have gone to the moon—yet…

What I wish they’d gotten right

  • Used underwear recyled into candy

Scam lady

Janella Spears, nursing administrator in a place called Sweet Home, Oregon, who practices CPR and is a reverend, has given $400,000 to scammers. She got letters from President Bush, the president of Nigeria and FBI director Robert Mueller. Wiped out husband’s retirement account, mortgaged the house and took out a lien on the family car. Everyone told her to stop but she didn’t.

This is the problem with scams; it’s very hard to accept you’ve been scammed, and so perversely it’s easier to continuing giving money in the belief that it will all come good.

Pocket Keys

A team at UCal San Diego have come up with software, called Sneakey, that can take a picture of a key and convert it to a bitting code, which is enough for a locksmith to make a new key:

  1. The user provides point locations on the target key with a reference key as a guide.
  2. The system warps the target image into the pose of the reference key and overlays markings of where the bite codes are to be found.
  3. The user specifies where the cut falls along each line and the bit depths are decoded by the system into a bitting code.

In one experiment, the Sneakey team installed a camera on their four story department building (77 feet above the ground) at an acute angle to a key sitting on a café table 195 feet away. The image captured (below) was correctly decoded.

They’ve not released the software but say it would be pretty easy to put together.

Video Chat in Gmail

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I’m a big fan of Google Talk (Gtalk) but hadn’t come across this before: Videochat inside the Google Talk widget inside Gmail. Does it get any better than this? (Probably, but this works pretty well. Great for those guys not using Windows, and therefore unable to use the great Gtalk client.)

The Scam Potential of Presence Messages

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David Weinberger as ever hits nail upon head with dose of humor, but his point to me opens the gates to all sorts of thoughts, some of them Web 2.0ish:

Often, on the back of a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign is a ‘Make Up My Room Now’ message of some sort. But, now matter how they phrase it, isn’t it the same as an “I’m Out, So This Would Be a Good to Rob Me, Especially If You Are Squeamish about Violence” sign?

My question is this: When will Web 2.0 presence tools start to create the same informational hazard? Whether it’s twitter, saying you’ve nipped out for coffee, or dopplr, saying you’re planning an overseas trip, at what point do scammers decide this information is useful to them? Or are they already doing so? I’ve long considered automatic Outlook away messages to be dangerous, but I wonder at what point do the scamsters start to pick up on the usefulness of this presence, or rather absence messages.

P.S. I’m off out for a coffee.

Joho the Blog » The opposite of Do Not Disturb

Photo credit: ores2k

Books. The New Google Juice?

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Increasingly I find that if I enter a search on Google for something that I need explaining to me, the first result is a book. Of course, the book is in Google’s Book Search, but chances are the search is in a page that has been scanned and is available without having to buy the book. What I’m not clear about are the implications of this.

(The above example is from me finding myself watching a UK quiz show from 2001 on the BBC’s Entertainment Channel, which I noticed is free this month on our local cable network. As a long-term expat I find these programs compelling viewing, because they offer a window on a culture I’ve lost access to huge chunks of. So when they ask about something old, I’m good, but if it’s a reference to EastEnders since 1987, I’m stumped. Hence the search for what ‘bank’ means on The Weakest Link.)

So back to the implications. Well, Google may be gaming the system. But it looks like a legit result to me:

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I don’t really understand how this works—I always thought links to a page affected its prominence in the rankings, but I’m not complaining. I found what I was looking for. But what does this mean for books? For publishing? Do authors and publishers try to SEO their books? Or will it eat into sales? Is it worth book-ising a website so that it scores higher on Google? Is it worth putting ads into books so when they appear in the scanned form on Google Book Search, readers see the ads? Just some thoughts.