Archive for Trends

Rabid Capitalism and the “Democratization” of Book Reviews on Amazon

Photo of British poundsThere’s something to be said for expert critics in the art world, though they have often been criticized for being “elitist.” I am less enamored of “populism” lately, and don’t really have an axe to grind against most elites. The reason is that those who are criticized for being “elites” are often merely the target of less educated people who are envious of others’ achievements, and want to drag them down somehow. Pure and simple.

One may disagree with many of the experts who offer critiques of films, books, restaurants, or other things. But most of the time, the real experts have at least educated themselves in their field, and can offer genuine reasons why they drew the conclusions they did. They can give real critiques of how the writer/chef/painter performed their craft.

But with the current fad of “democratizing” everything, so that everybody gets an equal say no matter how educated or uneducated they are, critiques have become a free-for-all of opinion, often based on nothing but “I like it so it’s good,” or “I don’t like it so it’s crap, no matter how well done it is.”  Or, god forbid, critiques are offered not as genuine assessments of how well something is crafted, but as screeds that push an ideology at the expense of, well, everything else.

So for example, I never read the comments after news articles because there is virtually never a reasoned discussion about anything. There is nothing but ideology-pushing, with the most fervent ideologues being the least coherent (and the least able to spell or put a complete sentence together!). And eventually the comments section is merely a shouting match with a few brave souls attempting to speak rationally, while hundreds of others yell at them, frothing at the mouth and proud of it.

Photo of American money(And this is civilization? How do these people look themselves in the mirror and think, “I am so proud of my civilized society, and I’m glad to be a typical representative of it”? How do they not look in the mirror instead and think, “My society is getting more and more barbaric and vicious, and I am a typical representative”?)

Now combine this system of “democratized critique” with the rabid capitalism of our day, and you get what has long been a problem on — people writing scathing “reviews” of a book that competes with their own, or a book that contradicts their own ideology. These so-called “reviews” have nothing to do with whether the book is good, well-written, well-crafted, well-argued. It’s all about “preventing anyone from buying their book so they will instead buy mine.”

Amazon has tried to prevent this sort of thing, but has never really succeeded. And now we have another instance of it: Women writers at war over fake book reviews on Amazon. Not only are rival writers seemingly leaving blistering anonymous (cowards!) “reviews” of others’ books. But there are firms who actually hire themselves out to place favourable reviews for other books.

Photo of Canadian MoneyAll for the almighty buck (or, in the case of this story, the almighty pound). This scrabble for dollars and, of course, prestige has turned everyone into slavering beasts clawing each other’s eyes out. It demonstrates that no, we haven’t learned anything in our efforts to civilize ourselves, and we’ll happily turn back into animals at the least opportunity. It’s depressing and nasty. And a desperately failed experiment.

I think I’ll watch out for true, educated, thoughtful Experts from now on. And maybe the occasional personal review on book blogs where the writer is just talking about books they like, and has nothing at stake.

I’m also thinking that I may no longer read reviews on Amazon, any more than I read comments on news stories. At least — no reviews of new or current books. At least I know that reviews of older books are more likely to be honest, because nobody is scrabbling on the floor for loose change over them any longer.

Orbit’s “Trends in Fantasy Cover Art”

I love that there is someone who actually searches out things like this.

Remember when most covers of science fiction and  fantasy novels seemed to feature scantily clothed women (or “better” still, women in clothing that had been torn until it was now scanty), and men with inhumanly bulging muscles and long, suggestive swords?

Orbit Books has had one of their interns look over all the fantasy covers from 2009, to compare them to the covers of 2008, and to note the motifs that appear most often. The result is The Chart of Fantasy Art, 2009.

"fantasy trends"

Fantasy Trends 2008/2009

The stalwarts are still there; you’re not going to get rid of swords that easily. Though it’s really interesting that castles and citadels have diminished steeply in just one year. Those have kind of been staples of the genre.

And the damsels are still there, but many of them are not “in distress,” which is a new trend that pleases me to no end. Meanwhile, unicorns are pretty much a non-presence, but I always figured they wouldn’t last.

The only trends from last year that haven’t gone down are the dragons — ah yes, one needs dragons in fantasy; I’ve got a fantasy novel of my own with a dragon in it — and guns. A trend that has increased, and which I don’t like at all.

Still, what I do like is that there are people who look at these things and make charts. Fun things to know.

Why e-Readers will always be my Second Choice

Sony ereader

Sony ereader

I feel like just pointing at this blog post (Why We Need Books) from Heidi Turner, over at The Happy Freelancer blog, and saying, “What she said!” She makes some great arguments for why the real paper book should always stay in existence, no matter how electronic everything goes. They can exist alongside each other, but buying the paper version should always, always remain an option for any book.

Her #1 point (Just about everyone can afford books) is very pertinent to me. I got a survey from Random House Canada a couple of days ago, asking my opinion about ebooks. At the end of the survey when they asked for “Other” opinions, I asked if they would always at least make paper books available to libraries or something, because poor people simply couldn’t afford Kindles, the Kobo reader, or other readers. Or was reading going to be denied to the poor from now on?

Do you think that point is unimportant? I don’t. I don’t make a lot of money, and I can’t even afford to replace my aging computer, let alone blow cash on a Kindle.

Heidi’s #2 point rivals #1 in importance. She talks about upgrading. How many of us repurchased all our favourite music as CDs, when vinyl records went out of vogue and CDs came in? And how many have since repurchased all that music again, to put on their iPods? And what will be the next repurchase necessity?

I can tell you, as a Records Management person who worked in the industry for years that it only takes three generations of technology improvements before everything that was made four generations ago is absolutely unreadable in any way. Every time there’s a technology change, even supposedly in the same medium (say, reading magnetic tapes), the newer operating systems are less and less able to read files created with older systems.

How easy is it for files created with Windows 95 to be read by programs using Windows 7? How about Windows 3.1?

How much money do you have? Do you want to have to upgrade/repurchase every single digital book over and over again, say, once every five years or so, for the rest of your life? Funny — I’ve had some books for twenty years, and I’ve never had to “upgrade” them once because they had become unreadable.

Penguin books

A small fraction of my Penguin books

Heidi’s points #4 and 5 deal with the fact that the readers are electronic devices. They need insurance, or have to be bought again if something goes wrong. And books don’t need batteries or electricity.

This issue was brought home to me just this morning, when one of my Twitter contacts tweeted about a client who had dashed into a store looking for a book because her Kindle had died in the middle of her reading the book. Funny – I’ve never had a paper book’s pages suddenly go blank on me.

And of course, after the debacle where they pulled Orwell’s 1984 off people’s Kindles, after the people had bought the book meaning it was supposedly their property – we saw another thing that can happen if we get digital books. They are NOT OURS. Someone else can tamper with them at any time, or that company could go out of business and we’d lose our book because their supporting servers were turned off.

And we can’t loan the book or resell it to a second-hand store. That will all be gone.

No, thanks. I may eventually get an e-reader for convenience if, say, I want to take 40 books with me on a vacation or something. But for durable, long-lasting reading pleasure, I will always prefer to own my books once I buy them, and have the freedom to read them for decades and do what I please with them for the rest of my life.

Book Review – The Case for Books, by Robert Darnton

Case for BooksA few weeks ago, I was involved in an extensive Twitter chat with several authors and editors, and discovered that a great many of them were all for taking every book digital and doing away with physical books altogether.

I have a feeling that Robert Darnton would say to these people, “How admirably enthusiastic you are! But how very naïve.”

This is a man with one foot in each world, the physical and the digital. He founded the Gutenberg-e program that ran from 2000 to 2006, an attempt to turn selected PhD dissertations into digital books with multiple layers. He has aspirations to write his own multi-layered digital history ebook. And as Director of the Harvard University Library, he’s been instrumental in creating the program to digitize Harvard’s vast scholarly collections and make them accessible to everyone, rather than limit their availability just to that university’s closed community.

So the guy is no Luddite. He likes ebooks. Yet in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (**), he argues that we should neither be in such a rush to eliminate physical paper books, nor should bookish people look down their noses at digitized books and e-readers. We are not confronted with an either-or situation, says Darnton, despite what people on both sides of the divide believe.

Darnton, a scholar as well as library director, advances arguments that will make each side both smile and weep. He was probably farther ahead in the late 1990s, with his ideas on where ebooks should go, than most people who are pushing ebooks so strongly today. Yet at the same time, he describes just how much published material there really is, and will be in the future, so that the complete digitization of all books and printed matter simply will never happen. He also argues that modern libraries, rather than doing away with physical books and going entirely digital, should stock even more books than ever before.

Darnton’s primary concern, through each essay in this book, is the wider public good. In this regard, while he admires Google’s goal of digitizing all books and making them accessible to everyone, he believes this should be done by a public non-profit consortium of libraries rather than a private corporation. The recent class action settlement with Google essentially gives it a monopoly, and while the current owners of the company appear to have only benevolent motives for what they’re doing, that guarantees nothing about what future owners will choose. In the end, the company’s main goal is not the public good, but the greatest monetary value for its own shareholders. So while Darnton loves the idea of everyone in the world having access to all books, he is convinced that handing ultimate ownership of every book ever published to Google is a very bad way of achieving this.

The Case for Books is a collection of essays about ebooks and the value of physical books, published by Darnton over the last decade. The essays are grouped into a Future, Present, and Past configuration, looking at where we might be going, where we are now, and what the previous history of books has been. It’s the last section that might give readers a bit of difficulty, depending on who Darnton’s audience is supposed to be. Those who aren’t used to scholarly analysis may find the final essay (“What is the History of Books?”) rather hard slogging, fascinating though it is. It’s a great demonstration of how books make history rather than just describe it, but as the end of this book, it concludes things rather quietly.

Indeed, the entire “Past” section is academic enough that it may bring some readers down with a bit of a thud, after the excitement and, occasionally, strong emotions of the first two sections. Perhaps it might have been better to arrange them Present-Past-Future, or perhaps to take the first essay (“Google and the Future of Books”) and make it the last one instead, to end this volume on a more powerful note.

However, on the whole, Darnton makes a very strong case for the crucial importance of physical books continuing to exist and be promoted alongside ebooks. Some of his views will make people on both sides gnash their teeth, but his suggested solutions may be the only way the two views can ever be reconciled, and books of any type be preserved.

(**Note: The Case for Books is published by PublicAffairs, whose goal is to publish “good books about things that matter.” My copy was an advanced reading copy, and there may be changes when the final version is published on October 27, 2009.)

(**Further Note: for Darnton’s own summary of his thoughts about the future of the book, you may be interested in an article he published on September 14, 2009, in Publishers Weekly: On the Ropes? Robert Darnton’s Case for Books.)

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