Monthly Archives: April 2009

An ATM machine for books?

Stop the presses, as it were. The Espresso Book Machine “can print and bind books on demand in five minutes, while customers wait,” according to the Guardian. Currently it has access to 500,000 books, but the British bookseller Blackwell’s

hopes to increase this to over a million titles by the end of the summer—the equivalent of 23.6 miles of shelf space, or over 50 bookshops rolled into one. The majority of these books are currently out-of-copyright works, but Blackwell is working with publishers throughout the UK to increase access to in-copyright writings, and says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

According to maker On Demand Books, the Espresso is “in essence, an ATM for books.”

No word on how U.S. publishers have reacted, but as the Espresso is the brainstorm of American publisher Jason Epstein, my guess is we’ll find out soon. I can imagine brick-and-mortar stores won’t be hopping for joy (according to Douglas A. Mcintyre, the bookseller Borders will be gone by the end of 2009), but Amazon will lap the news up.

On Demand apparently plans to have the machines available at retail outlets in the UK. Is this really going to fly? What if there are 50 people waiting for a book? That would stretch out five-minute quite a bit. Will you have to make an appointment? Perhaps online? In that case, why bother with a retail outlet at all? Why not just order online?

I can envision a warehouse of ever-more efficient Espresso machines churning out the books 24 hours a day, new orders streaming in to be packaged up and mailed out. A warehouse of blank paper and mail clerks. Big-name authors and publishing houses see the writing on the wall and skip the entire traditional print run in favor of on-demand orders. Both eliminating a great deal of waste and leveling the publishing industry. A Netflix of books, if you will. (Meanwhile, the real Netflix is driving big-box rental outfit Blockbuster to bankruptcy.) As Julia at HarperStudio recounts, “I vividly remember an agent I respect sitting in my office a couple of years ago saying “if the Espresso takes off, publishers and editors will be dead men walking.”

Maybe. Or is this yet another business model for Amazon to swoop down on—its acquisition of Lexcycle being the latest?

Of course, if you’re really interested in getting your books quick, fast, and in a hurry (not to mention free if they’re in the public domain), you’d be making the move to e-books. It’s pure speculation on my part, but I imagine if the Espresso machine is widely adopted, a lot of people who might have moved to e-books will stick with print, particularly if “Espresso books” (to coin a phrase) become progressively cheaper. Alternatively, more people might be drawn to e-books, particularly those available with Kindle-like ease. After all, why wait five minutes when you can have a book now?

If the logistics could be worked out, this could also be a great opportunity to offer e-books alongside print books. Package deals. Buy five print books, get one e-book free, say. Opportunities abound, it seems to me.

If the Espresso Machine really does take off, will the publishing industry be agile enough to respond positively? Though their comrades in music and Hollywood don’t offer much hope, with Amazon on the prowl and e-books on the march, it’d better.

This post originally appeared at Teleread.

Who is Mark Twain?, available as (copyrighted) hardcover and ebook

There has been a decided uptick in interest in Mark Twain recently. All to the good: the great satirist deserves as large an audience as he get in this and any other time. Now HarperStudio is getting in the game with its release of Who is Mark Twain?, a collection of 24 previously unpublished essays by him.

Who is Mark Twain book cover

And if you buy the hardcover, you also receive the DRM-free e-book.

While I can’t see why anyone would buy both a hardcover edition and an e-book, if HarperStudio is giving it away and it’s DRM-free in the bargain, I don’t see how you can lose. And not just any old e-book. This one features possibly America’s greatest satirist wondering if “Jane Austen’s goal is to ‘make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters?’” And:

Twain plasters the city with ads to promote his talk at the Cooper Union (he is terrified no one will attend). Later that day, Twain encounters two men gazing at one of his ads. One man says to the other: “Who is Mark Twain?” The other responds: “God Knows—I Don’t.”

Be sure not to miss John Lithgow reading a selection wherein it is revealed how Twain determined which manuscripts to publish, and which to burn.

image I’ve read pretty much everything Twain has written up to this point, and as a writer, I’ve taken his 19 Rules of Literary Art much to heart. I don’t usually buy hard covers, but this one comes in at a reasonable $19.99 and with the e-book to boot, I think I’ll make an exception. Maybe I can give the hardcover away …

One thing I’m very curious about: All Twain’s writings have long since passed into the public domain. So can Harper Studio hold a copyright to these 24 essays? They’re handpicked by Robert Hirst, General Editor of The Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley, so possibly they’ve been edited. If so, does that mean they can be copyrighted?

Update:   Looks like the copyright question is answered: The Daily Beast has run an excerpt from Who is Mark Twain? with this addendum at the bottom:

Extracted from Who is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain. © 2009 With permission from the Publisher, HarperStudio.

What I want to know is, how can this be? I’ll be asking the folks at HarperStudio. We’ll see if they get back to me.

Note: This post originally appeared at TeleRead.

Slow posting pace explained; Facebook manners and you

To say I’ve fallen off on my posting pace would be an understatement. Finally fed up with Blogger’s various silly restrictions and having to perform workarounds on practically every interesting function, I’m in the process of migrating over to WordPress. Which isn’t an excuse so much as … okay, it’s an excuse. But EE 2.0 will, I hope, feature an uptick in incisive personal commentary on my repatriated homefront, along with more on free culture, reviews, ebook downloads and possibly even more short stories of mine.

Be posting EE’s new home address shortly.

In the meantime, there are tons of less-hilarious ways you could spend the next 4:13 of your life than the following:

This is how I feel every time I go out the door

An Excuse For Not Returning the Visit of a Friend
by Mei-Yao Ch’en (translated by Kenneth Rexroth)

Do not be offended because
I am slow to go out. You know
Me too well for that. On my lap
I hold my little girl. At my
Knees stands my handsome little son.
One has just begun to talk.
The other chatters without
Stopping. They hang on my clothes
And follow my every step.
I can’t get any farther
Than the door. I am afraid
I will never make it to your house.

[Thanks, Jen!]

Inevitable Minds by Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly has a wonderful post about the preponderance of minds in nature, all the way down to plants.

Plants exhibit all the characteristics of intelligence, except they do it without a centralized brain, and in slow motion. Decentralized minds and slow minds are actually quite common in nature, and occur at many levels throughout the six kingdoms of life. A slime mold colony can solve the shortest distance to food in a maze, much like a rat. The animal immune system, whose primary purpose is to distinguish between self and non-self, retains a memory of outside antigens it has encountered in the past. It learns in a darwinian process, and in a sense also anticipates future variations of antigens. And throughout the animal kingdom collective intelligence is expressed in hundreds of ways, including the famous hive minds of social insects.

It’s worth reading the whole article. There’s even speculation about what “Dinoman” would have looked like had dinosaurs not been wiped out, and continued to evolve instead of mammals. The result would have been, well, something like this:


Kelly does get a little too enamored with his own rhetoric, to the point where it seems he comes dangerously close to assigning purpose and / or intention to the blind processes of evolution.

The daily grinding of evolution, as accelerated by technology, churns out more and more complex organisms, with higher rates of energy use, and with increasing specialization. Minds are the ideal way to express complexity, energy density, increasing specialization, expanding diversity — all in one system. Mindedness is what evolution produces. Mindedness is what technology wants, too.

As I understand it, evolution doesn’t “want” anything. It happens because it happens, and for no other reason. But then I’ll grant you my view is very much that of a layman’s, simplistic and unnuanced. So perhaps I’m missing something.

And the speculation that AI research could “evolve” minds in its own way; well, I don’t know about that. I guess it could happen. It is the stated intention of the folks at Google, anyhow, and they’re powering this (sub par) Blogger system. I don’t think it’s inevitable, but Kelly’s point that already web AI can do something no human can – remember everything via a search engine – seems to point to the very distinct possibility. Anyhow, more than I can chew off here.

The whole article is here.

Kevin Kelly, by the way, is the founding executive editor of Wired magazine. Which I didn’t know until I’d been around his sites for a while and a commenter mentioned it. No doubt this is common knowledge to the technorati but it was news to me. While I was busy growing up and then gallivanting around foreign parts the digital age happened and I’m on a steep learning curve of catch-up.

Book Review: Password Incorrect

Password Incorrect is a truly zany collection of “tech-absurd” short stories by Nick Name, pen name for Polish author Piotr Kowalczyk, which only a networked world could have unleashed. It’s available for free from Feedbooks.

Start with the title story to see the absurd in action. My Kindle sat untouched for a couple weeks while I transitioned back to the U.S. from Thailand. When I got back to my Kindle’s homepage again, I did a double take—Password Incorrect? What password? I never needed a damn password before!—until it all came back to me. My reaction is strikingly similar to the befuddlement of the uniformly oddball characters of Password Incorrect confronted by the unexpected repercussions of their tech-doings.

Nearly all the 25 stories are flash fiction; that is, under 1000 words. My favorite was “Wishes Shovel Best.”

On Christmas Eve Slawek Przekosniak received an SMS with these wishes: “Wishing yo good ping super new”. He didn’t know who sent him that surprisingly enigmatic message.

Inspired, he creates software to manufacturing randomly bizarre messages, starting an online phenomenon that makes him the 67th-richest man in Poland. Until a curmudgeonly official is offended by an SMS which reads “Wishes shovel best” and turns him over to the Inquiry Board, the Board of Inquiries, and the Special Security Agency. Black limousines appear at his house on the night he is to receive a lobbied-for Site of the Year Award. In the Age (Moment?) of Twitter, this seems less a merely imagined story than another possible permutation of reality.

“Part-time Evening Elementary School” features a school designed for kids “too busy to learn during the day due to the time spent on the difficult task of maintaining our country’s high ranking in the very competitive field of computer games.” A school where PE classes are for stretching the spine and practicing joystick skills and English is considered vital because it allows “for quick mastery of games not yet translated into Polish.”

“Happiness in a Four-Pack” is about a revolutionary new product, “ingestible energizing happiness”. Unfortunately, after an initial burst of popularity, sales soon collapse. Consumer studies reveal that “customers don’t want to be happy. They are much more effectively motivated by misfortune.” Not to worry. “That’s Sad” quickly comes on the market. Its wide popularity causes the company’s owner to throw himself from a bridge in, you guessed it, a fit of happiness.

Outlandish characters are the order of the day. A sampling includes a professor from the Department of Westernmostenatatious European Polonisation, hockey-playing bacillus, and a Dr. Kaliszewski: “He entered the room happy as a lark, which normally accompanied him when he was happy as one. Now the lark was somewhat tense and you could feel it in the air.”

These are the sort of tropes, I think, that a native-English author would reject out of hand as clichés, but in Kowalczyk’s hands, manage to find new life. Gustave Flaubert, in teaching writing, counseled writers to find the “unexplored” element in the commonest of things, and I think this is what Kowalczyk has done here. Password Incorrect abounds with literary dexterity without ever sinking to the merely clever.

A couple of the pieces don’t quite measure up, as in the one featuring a middle-aged man who regresses into an embryo and the one with a talk show host who is “So sensitive and so sweet at the same time. Handsome. Appetizing. Just like a spring onion.” Kowalczyk stretches quirky to the very edge of its readable definition, and, in a couple cases, beyond. The collection would not have suffered from having only 20 stories.

Translated from Polish by Anna Etmanska, there are several spots where the English is, well, quirky. Generally these are very minor, but still noticeable. For instance: “He imagined Czeslawa Ceracz using this liquid and kept dreaming for good.” Truth be told, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, these are nothing an editor couldn’t quickly fix up. On the other, they seem to me characteristic of the international English that is the world’s actual lingua franca, as opposed to that of the Queen. So long as the text is readable, I don’t see any point in standing on ceremony. The English of Password Incorrect reflects its origins in the mind of a non-native speaker, and the idiosyncrasies never seriously detract from the meaning or humor of the stories. Therefore I don’t mind them. Just bear in mind that as you read these stories, you will notice them.

We have so quickly come to take the internet for granted that I think we forget just how recent and radical a phenomenon it is. As much as anything, these stories serve as a reminder. Issued up from the heart of Poland by a wired writer in translated English making absurd light of situations unimaginable even a decade ago, ones fraught with the danger of banality. But this nimble writer deftly zigzags to humor and sheer wackiness. It has been suggested that multimedia “books” could be literature’s future, and that may well be. But I think more likely candidates are the sort of short stories you’ll find in Password Incorrect, which exploits the networked world’s novelties while remaining true to the universal commonalities of the human experience.

You not likely come across anything quite like Password Incorrect any time soon. Unless this work receives the wide audience it deserves and imitators spring up. By which time, I hope, Kowalczyk will have delivered another collection to our e-readers.

Note: For more of Piotr Kowalczyk’s tilted take on the world, including a one-second book promo, see his blog Password Incorrect.

This review also appeared at TeleRead.

Savage posts poems

The poet Norman Savage, whose autobiography Junk Sick I reviewed here, has begun posting poems on his blog. You don’t want to miss them.

Some of these originally appeared in the countercultural magazine Changes, started by Susan Graham Mingus, wife of Charles Mingus. The poem “Sunday” came complete with pictures by Andy Warhol. (Unfortunately Savage is unable to upload them.) That’s all right. The poem speaks for itself. An excerpt:

SUNDAY

body repose,
mind nomadic;
constant flux even on the day
of rest. all is quiet. the rape
goes on. and on. coercing
lover over food, soft beverages
and burps of what happened
during the preceding six days.
it is boring,
with feeling.
slick, sophisticate gray-haired
news shows are on t.v. tell us
nothing. except that you can’t catch
the week on one days notice.

He’s put up eight poems so far and tells me he’s planning on putting up more. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll soon see an e-book poetry collection.

Having just returned to the US as I have, my favorite is “No Mistake”. It’s not often a writer hits the nail smack on the head in just 14 words:

NO MISTAKE

The way back home
is not always
the easiest.
Poe’s fall
was not

Norman Savage
Coney Island
1969

Fail: Excessive Celebration

I used to do this blog from work. Now I do it at a kitchen table while the scionness scrabbles around underneath my legs. Time presses in a whole new way. So, this morning I’m going to leave you with this gem from Failblog. If you subscribe to only one Funny site, this would be my recommendation.

The whole thing’s hilarious, but to really get the joke, make sure to watch until the very end.

Excessive Celebration Fail: