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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.

Disappointed, But Looking

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Back in early 1987 I was lured into a store on the Tottenham Court Road by a window display of computers. And I’ve been disappointed ever since.

Well, actually they were called Word Processors. Made by a company called Amstrad which to my ear sounded impressive, a railroad-meets-violin mix of Amtrak and Stradivarius.(I only found out later it’s short for Alan Michael Sugar Trading, which isn’t quite as impressive.)

Anyway, I was working on a history thesis at the time, and as I glanced in the window thought I saw the potential of a computer to help me. That in itself was smart. But my mistake was—and remains—the notion that somehow I could bend the computer to my will.

I can’t. And it won’t. Or rather, we users are always hostage to the guy who writes the software that runs on the computer. A computer has to compute something, after all, and it computes what the software tells it to.

I guess I didn’t realize this when I asked the guy in the shop to tell me what the Amstrad PCW8512 did. I was collecting historical data on Thailand and Vietnam in the 1960s at the time and my tutor had taught me the importance of getting things in the right chronological order. (Simple advice: You’d be amazed how many historians don’t bother with such niceties.)

So would the PCW8512 help me do that?

“It lets you write letters,” the assistant said.

That sounds good, I replied, but would it, for example, create a table that let me put in dates and big slices of text and sort them?

“It has 512 kilobytes of RAM,” he said. “And two floppy disk drives.”

I’ll take it, I said.

And I’ve been unhappy ever since.

This is the problem, you see. We don’t buy what we need, we buy what’s available. I couldn’t then, and I still can’t, get a computer to do the things I want to do, I have to do what it wants me to do.

Sometimes this is good. Sometimes we don’t have a clear idea of what we want to do. No one went around saying I’d love to be able to swish, pinch and shake my device but when the iPhone came along everyone decided that was what they wanted to do. Nobody said “I want a device a bit smaller than a drinks tray that mesmerizes me on the couch so I forget who I’m married to and to feed the kids”, but doubtless the iPad will dazzle both users and Wall Street.

But heaven help you if you have a specific problem you want your computer to fix.

I remember when, four years after my Amstrad experience, I decided to buy a computer running Windows. I clearly hadn’t learned my lesson. I asked the guy in the shop to show me how to organize the windows in a specific way and keep them that way for the next time I used the computer. He looked at me as if I was mad.

“It has a 20-megabyte hard-drive,” he said.

I’ll take it, I replied.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of great programs out there. I love PersonalBrain for finding connections between ideas, people and things, and Liquid Story Binder is great for writing books. Evernote is great for saving stuff. ConnectedText is useful as a sort of personal database with cross-referencing. But they are all someone else’s idea of how to work. Not mine.

They don’t say to me: Tell me how you work, and how you want to work, and I’ll make the computer do it for you.

I have a vision of a computer, for example, that will let me throw anything at it and it will know what to do with it. This has a date on it, and some key words I recognize, so it needs to be added to a chronology, unless it’s in the future in which case it’s probably for the calendar.

In my wildest dreams I imagine a computer that just lets me start drawing on the screen and the computer can figure out I’m drawing a table. That what I put in there is text, but also drawings, calculations, images. Software, in short, that does what I want it to do, rather than what it thinks I should do.

That, in short, was my mistake on the Tottenham Court Road. I thought that thing I saw in the window was an intelligence, a thing that make me more productive at how I was already working, or wanted to work,

Turns out I was wrong. Turns out it was just a souped-up typewriter. Turns out that unless we all become programmers, we’ll never actually bend computers to our will.

And, yes, 23 years on, I still haven’t found a program that lets me add, sort and filter chronologies easily. I’m still looking though. Disappointed, but looking.

The Future of Animal Advertising

For those of you who listen to podcast versions of my slot on the BBC World Service, this isn’t one. Apologies. What this is is what I hope will be the beginnings of more regular podcast fare known, tentatively, as Loose Wireless. To start off, it’s just me yakking away on subjects that interest me, either stuff I’ve already written about or stuff I’m reading about. I’m hoping to be joined by a few collaborators later, but for now it’s just an experiment. If it doesn’t take up too much time, and there’s an appetite for it, I’ll try to do more. Here’s today’s edition of Loose Wireless, which takes a look at three stories in today’s International Herald Tribune, which seem to carry a theme, best described as: Could cows be the next form of online advertising?

Here it is