Interactive eBook Production Software

The Open University has made the software stack behind their Open Learning initiative available for download. It’s on [SourceForge](http://sourceforge.net/projects/bookbind/). I have yet to try it out: it’s a Windows executable, but I hope to do so when my own university makes it possible to download and install Windows software.

Scottish Science Fiction

My genre fiction of choice — apart from hating the term “genre fiction” and the way it marginalizes with a single otherwise useful word like genre what amounts to the majority of fiction sold and read — is science fiction. And one of my science fiction writers of choice is Iain M. Banks. It turns out there may very well be a few more fine Scottish science fiction writers, all of whom might be worth examining:

As well as one other British newcomer:

Tribal Leadership

Business books are an interesting genre. In another life, I would love to have participated in something like critical business studies that took its cue from critical legal studies. (Maybe this field exists?)

That noted, I have to admit that I have read enough of the books in my time that I recognize the role many books have as consulting pitches and not really as standalone commodities. That’s perfectly acceptable. In some cases the humanities pursue a similar economy: scholarly books aren’t really published for the raw sales numbers they will accumulate but more for citations and/or speaking engagements, which are very similar economy to consulting.

And so when a book titled Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization crops up on my intellectual/professional radar I am intrigued. How substantial will the book be? How well will its use of tribes articulate with domains of knowledge that I hold near and dear? I haven’t read it, but I will keep an eye out…

The 99-cent Book

Kevin Kelly observed recently that in the era of authors being able to self-publish through Amazon, especially self-publish e-books that do not come with the same kind of distribution costs as paper books, the 99-cent book becomes a viable way to make a living. His example is of an author who had a book priced at $2.99 and was selling 40 copies day. When he dropped the price to 99 cents, he sold 600 copies a day. (How long this lasted is not clear.)

Re-reading Alistair MacLean

Shortly after moving into our old house, my wife and I stepped into the wonderful maze of the remaining independent bookseller in Lafayette that also happened to be in our neighborhood. Inside, in one of those lovely moments of finding something from your past, I came across a copy of Alistair MacLean’s South by Java Head. As an adolescent reader, I had rapidly run through my father’s collection of MacLean novels. They were, in a way, my next step after the Hardy Boys.

I had read the Navarone books, and I remembered reading a whole lot of others, but I had never read South by Java Head, which was MacLean’s third published novel. Strangely enough, it was a lot like one of my favorites of MacLean, The Golden Rendezvous, which I had carried with me as a battered paper back through many years of graduate school. Reading South by Java Head scratched an itch and it didn’t spur me to read more of MacLean for a while. A few years went by and I found myself purchasing a few more here and there, but I wasn’t drawn to read them. Not until this past summer when something about being in the new house returned me to MacLean and I read The Golden Rendezvous (again), Ice Station Zebra, and Night Without End.

And now I am reading The Secret Ways, and my initial response is that I like South by Java Head and The Golden Rendezvous better. Unlike the other books, at least those I have re-read so far, SbJH and TGR do not feature professional spies as protagonists but rather capable men simply caught up in larger events. It may be no accident that both men are executive officers of merchant ships. MacLean was himself a sailor: his first book H.M.S. Ulysses was, I believe, based fairly closely on his naval experience. Perhaps he is at his best when imagining himself caught up in larger events.

Another response is that MacLean’s prose, when he is at his best, is quite good. Better than Clive Cussler. I am listening to Cussler’s The Chase right now as an Audible book, and I have listened to two of the books from the Oregon Files series. Cussler’s prose really can’t be even described as workman-like, for at times it is so — clumsy? awkward? — that it actually gets in the way of itself. (Please note that I am quite sure Cussler doesn’t care one whit about evaluations of his prose style: the man has produced a remarkable oeuvre not only in his “only-author” books but also in the franchises he has set up with other authors. He is able to do so because readers have come to expect a certain kind of book from him and his name is a trustworthy brand to deliver that content. I should be so industrious and smart as Cussler … I just wish I could edit him here and there. That’s all.)

I read both MacLean and Cussler less as an English professor and more as a writer: Could I do this? Could I pull off this plot line? How would I do it different? What story can I tell? What do they do well that I could imitate/use in my own work, no matter whether it is nonfiction or fiction?

I have no idea if there is any scholarly treatments of either author. Ian Fleming has certainly achieved a certain status now. Perhaps it is time to give MacLean his due. I wonder where he fits within the larger chronology of the development of the spy thriller or whatever one calls this genre that also includes the work of Cussler and Robert Ludlum — remember his three word titles? — and later folks like Tom Clancy and I suppose now Dan Brown(?).

Alan Lomax, Catcher of Songs

The Wall Street Journal has a nice review of John Szwed’s biography of Alan Lomax, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. (I can’t link to it because the WSJ just makes it too difficult.) In that weird version of journalism where the review is really a summary, here are some of the highlights (the good):

Capturing such performances and the stories they told was a lifelong obsession for Lomax, who wandered America and the globe in search of the sounds of traditional music endangered by the very technology he used to record them for posterity. His travels took him from his native American South to remote outposts of the Caribbean and across the ocean to the British Isles and the fishing villages of Italy and the mountains of Spanish Basque country. His work spanned six decades, from the Depression all the way to the 1990s. (Lomax died in 2002.) He began his career gathering songs with a 300-pound disc-cutter in the back of a Model A and ended it using hand-held video cameras for backwoods documentaries. No matter what the gear, Lomax never wavered from his mission—to find evidence that the world’s poorest places offered some of the richest cultural treasures.

and (the bad):

The staggering output came with a heavy cost, dooming Lomax’s first marriage and other relationships as he followed his collecting compulsion, often working himself to the point of physical collapse. A charmer and a bully, an antiacademic who depended on educational funding, a man equally at home in a straw hut in Haiti and at a White House reception, Lomax was a controversial figure, often accused of exploitation and grandstanding. He made enemies well beyond the field of folklore, not least the FBI agents who trailed him for years on account of his radical politics. An early file report depicts “a very peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folklore music, being very temperamental and ornery. . . . He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner.” Even so, Lomax had fiercely loyal supporters in high places, ranging from Margaret Mead to filmmaker Nicholas Ray, and he has been a revered mentor to several generations of historians, including Mr. Szwed.

The review is by Eddie Dean, who himself is co-author of the biography of Ralph Stanley’s Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times.

Paper Press

Once upon a time, while I was taking in break from graduate school and working as a management consultant, I took the time to teach myself how to make paper and to make books — though I later took a class in bookbinding, because trying to learn how to sew a perfect binding from illustrations is not easy.

Now I find myself ready to teach my daughter, and perhaps some of her classmates, how to make something which they may interact with fairly little as adults.

What I never had in my little studio apartment was a proper press for my leaves of paper. I found [a nice one at Dick Blick](http://www.dickblick.com/products/arnold-grummers-papermaking-paper-press/), but given its simplicity I think I could probably make it:

Google eBooks

Google’s eBooks has finally emerged from its Google Book shell:

Today is the first page in a new chapter of our mission to improve access to the cultural and educational treasures we know as books. Google eBooks will be available in the U.S. from a new Google eBookstore. You can browse and search through the largest ebooks collection in the world with more than three million titles including hundreds of thousands for sale.

The full post is here.

Books about Objects

In the most recent issue of Museum Anthropology Review, there is a review of Chris Caple’s Objects: Reluctant Witnesses to the Past. (Please note the link is to the HTML version of the review, but a PDF version is also available.) The reviewer, Jeb Card, does a good job of laying out the strengths and structure of the book, which strikes me as being somewhat divergent from my own interests in material culture. That noted, it did send me to Amazon.com to see what a search on history of the world in objects would turn up. It’s an interesting mix:

First up there is Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, which he describes as follows in the introduction:

In this book, we travel back in time and across the globe, to see how we humans have shaped our world and been shaped by it over the past two million years. The story is told exclusively through the things that humans have made — all sorts of things, carefully designed and then either admired and preserved or used, broken and thrown away. I’ve chosen just a hundred objects from different points on our journey — from a cooking pot to a golden galleon, from a Stone Age tool to a credit card, and each object comes from the collection of the British Museum.

The next book, and I’m only going to sketch out the top three because the focus of the search results rapidly deteriorates past the first six hits, is Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future. Gilbert Taylor, of Booklist, describes the book thus:

Only the supremely self-confident put forth all-encompassing theories of world history, and Morris is one such daredevil. An archaeologist by academic specialty, he advances a quasi-deterministic construct that is suitable for nonacademics. From a repeatedly enunciated premise that humans by nature are indolent, avaricious, and fearful, Morris holds that such traits, when combined with sociology and geography, explain history right from the beginning, when humanity trudged out of Africa, through the contemporary rivalry between China and America. Such temporal range leaves scant room for individual human agency: Morris names the names of world history, but in his narrative, leaders and tyrants, at best, muddle through patterns of history that are beyond their power to shape. And those patterns, he claims, can be numerically measured by a “social development index” that he applies to every epochal change from agriculture to the industrial revolution. However, the reading is not as heavy as it may sound. His breezy style and what-if imagination for alternative scenarios should maintain audience interest; whether his sweeping perspective convinces is another matter altogether.

Finally in the top three is Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By, by Anna Jane Grossman and James Gulliver Hancock. The title gives away the fact that the book is breezily nostalgic, as the product description notes: “Obsolete contains essays and entries on more than 100 alphabetized fading subjects, including Blind Dates, Mix Tapes, Getting Lost, Porn Magazines, Looking Old, Operators, Camera Film, Hitchhiking, Body Hair, Writing Letters, Basketball Players in Short Shorts, Privacy, Cash, and, yes, Books.”

An interesting collection. It moves in short order from the serious to the silly rather quickly, with a trip through the future along the way. All three books have been published in the past year: the first two in 2010, and Obsolete in 2009. Clearly, along with making, there is a rise in interest in objects. Given this search result, it’s just not clear that we know what to do with objects, or, conversely, objects can do just about anything.

Rethinking the relationship between physical and digital

In most discourses about the relationship between the physical and the virtual, or digital, worlds, e.g. books, there is an assumption that the digital version will supersede the physical. (There are a number of interesting conversations about those things that will be better left to the physical, especially in terms of books, but that’s for another time.) [*Editions volumiques*](http://www.volumique.com/en/) is a development shop that seems to be one of the few to get that the advent of the digital affords us the opportunity to re-think the relationship between virtual and physical dimensions. The link above will take you to their website where you can preview a number of their projects:

* *Pawn* is a dynamic board game, somewhat like the old text adventure games, e.g. Zork, where you move a piece on your iPhone and different options pop up near it.
* *Pirate* takes the opposite tack: you move your iPhone around on a paper map and interact with other ships, i.e. other phones.
* *The Night of the Living Dead* attempts to turn the physical book into a linked narrative, a la the early experiments in hyperfiction. (Really, only _Hopscotch_ did that somewhat well to my mind, but I could be proved wrong rather easily.)
* *Labyrunthe* pursues this in an even more elaborate physical form, resembling the cube folding puzzles from standardized tests at time.
* *Duckette* plays with e-ink to make an interactive game.
* *Kernel Panic* … I don’t quite get.

But you should definitely go check these things out for yourself. Each project has a flash animated preview that is short and fun just to watch.

Everybody’s Talking Bout Disintermediation

Everybody’s talking about disintermediation, but, as Don Linn points out:

Disintermediation is nothing new. It happens when businesses change so get used to it. Sears, Roebuck disintermediated the local dry goods store when it mailed its first catalog and it continues unabated in every sector…not just publishing and bookselling.. As Mike Cane has pointed out, there’s a sad irony in watching independent booksellers ranting about being disintermediated by Amazon as they listen to music they downloaded to their iPods from uber-disntermediator, Apple iTunes.

Books in the Age of the iPad

Too much ink and too many pixels has been spilled of late about the state of reading or the state of publishing or the plight of books in the IT era. Craig Mod has a simple take on the matter: good riddance to all the ink and paper spent on books that simply don’t require it. By that he means mass market books, paperbacks we buy, read, and sometimes simply recycle or give away or shelve and never think about again.[^1]

Mod would probably include more books in that category, since he argues that any book that is almost all text and really doesn’t require any kind of design is probably best read on devices like the iPad or Kindle, where the text can be manipulated by the reader to their own preferences.

Reserved for valuable ink and paper in Mod’s world of future publishing are books that are designed with, well, design in mind. Books with lots of illustrations or books that have their layout as part of how you read them — I am particularly reminded of Joshua Mowll’s books.

That is, what the tablet opens up is the chance to read print books as print books and to read text books as texts. It’s an interesting idea.

[^1]: Please note that I am still a little worried about the ability to give away books in the digital era. Even as an author, I would rather see my work passed around and read than see its use limited only to one person.

The Future of Books

This iPad app version of _Alice in Wonderland_ is not everything one could hope — it appears to involve only a limited amount, and kind, if interaction — but it’s a clear start, and it begins to reveal just what even a small amount of imagination unbound from the conventions of what books have been can do.

*Please note*: I love books. Love, love, love them. I love the way they feel, and I love the way they work. I am working on a book of my own right now. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t hope that the new tablets won’t open up a world of possibilities for content creators. That’s where I hope all this is taking us: that we can fit the medium to the message, and not the other way around, as has been the case with a fairly limited set of media that were largely controlled by a limited number of organizations.