Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Archive for March, 2013

Reading is a Technology that is still Changing

When Greeks began to write, Plato lamented this new technology, claiming it would ruin learning and memory. Instead of having to memorize everything, people could store knowledge externally in print and in text form. If you have some time to read more about how writing is a technology, check out this article (warning: it’s long and dense). In the long run, people still retained knowledge and added to our knowledge base over the millennia in art, science, math, literature, and so on. We live in an age where one newspaper may contain more information than the average citizen might come across in a lifetime just a few centuries ago. But how well are we remember these days in a new era? Nick Carr explores how we treat memory and attention span differently know that we are constantly on the Internet and can store vast amounts of information in cyberspace. Why remember when Marie Antoinette was beheaded when you can look it up in seconds on Wikipedia? Why memorize your friends’ phone numbers when they’re stored on a mobile device?

Out With the Old, In With the New 

I’m getting off topic, but what I mean is that whenever we develop a new way to store and disseminate information, we evaluate if this new technology will affect our way of thinking, analyzing, and remembering. And it usually does, although we cannot fully analyze the long term effects for decades. Along with multitasking and web surfing affecting our train of thought and ability to concentrate  we’re changing the way we read because of the e-book. I read an article that explores this topic. I’ve already talked about how e-books change reading comprehension for people who’ve grown up on print books (though not children). I’ve also talked a little bit about how some publishers and retailers like Amazon want to make reading social with shared underlinings and annotations (Amazon, stop sharing my notes! It’s creepy); some applications like Riffle try to make reading and recommendations a social media experience.

But apart from sharing our highlights and notes, e-readers gather information about our reading habits–how quickly we read, where we stop and start reading, how often we read, etc. What you read and how you read it is no longer your private information. This is obvious when we get book recommendations from retailers, but publishers might use this gathered information to encourage readers to edit. For example, if readers on average stop around page 50, the publisher might recommend that the writer shorten the exposition. What if a book you buy is automatically tailored to your tastes via algorithms that know your buying habits and your preferences? What if readers have the option to group edit a text? Of course, publishers have been coming out with new editions of books for years, but usually a new edition takes a while to write and is widely publicized.  What if the edition is specific to you, or you never know that what you’re reading isn’t what came out originally? What if the accessibility of a book is dependent on other readers? All of a sudden, that quiet, private afternoon curled up with a book seems way more disturbing and intrusive.

Is Sharing Caring? 

Mikhail Bakhtin theorized about the relationship between writer, audience, and genre. From what I can remember, a writer writes a book and publishes it, but its reception and genre is dependent on audience. For example, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was intended as an adult novel, but now it is widely considered YA fiction, though much of the content is memoir. Now, that relationship might books more malleable and changeable than ever before: writer publishes book, audience reads book on an e-reader, publisher gathers information and edits the book, and the book comes out again in a new, revised form based on the reader’s preferences and tastes.

I have no idea if this is a good or bad thing. If publishers really do start changing books to appeal to the audience preference’s, both the author’s autonomy and the reader’s choice will be limited. However, as long as the original print version is still available, I guess I’ll just switch back to print instead of risking reading a book that is not what the author intended. I would like to interpret and make reading decisions for myself, thanks very much.

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The E-Reader Wars

Okay, fine, that title is a little incendiary. But the wars behind e-readers are varied: libraries getting mad at publishers because publishers limit the number of e-rentals before the libraries have to pay again; price collusion on e-books leading the DoJ to sue five of the Big Six; self-published e-books taking on the traditional publishing industry. Yes, the battles are varied and many, but I want to go back to a topic I discussed a little while back: a new meaning of “ownership.” I read another article on another e-reader war about digital rights management (DRM). The Big Six publishers require that their e-books be sold with DRM protection so that readers cannot make copies of books, and because of DRM requirements, a book you buy for Kindle can only be read on other Kindle devices or apps (or Nook with Nooks and Nook apps, etc.) Many consumers hate DRM because if they decide to switch e-readers, there is no way for them to convert the file to read on another device. However, the issue goes further; non-DRM books can’t be read on Kindles (some can, but relatively few). So, if you have a Kindle, you’re pretty much stuck getting your e-content from Amazon. An “easy” way to circumvent this problem is to get a tablet with multiple e-reader apps, but a Kindle e-book has to stay in the Kindle app, and an iBook has to stay in the iBook library. 

Independent booksellers want to sell e-books without DRM so that no matter the customer’s e-reader/tablet, that customer will be able to buy whatever book he or she likes. Some imprints of major publishers are ceding to this trend and allowing non-DRM content to be sold. Hopefully other publishers will come around and let independent bookstores fight Amazon’s growing market share of e-readers and e-books. 

As a writer, I’m pretty torn about copyright law and piracy. On the one hand, I respect intellectual property and do not want my work stolen without my permission, but I feel that in some ways copyright law is outdated, overly strict, and stifling. When a music label sues a mom for using a song on a YouTube video, that label comes across as out of touch and stingy. I know; I know; the music industry is struggling right now, but the woman didn’t intend to break the law, just add a cute soundtrack to her video. And don’t get me wrong–I’m super against piracy. Unless a friend gave me the song/CD, I’ve bought every song on my iPod and every book on my Kindle. 

I’m just not sure that ruthlessly cracking down on every possibility of copyright infringement is really in the creator’s or the consumer’s best interest. I’m glad that the resources in the creative commons are growing, but we are a long way from recognizing that copyright laws might be getting in their own way. I’m going to go into more on this in my next post, so stay tuned. 

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