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Amazon, the iPad, and the culture of reading in an age of distraction

“It’s like trying to cook when there are little children around.” That’s the assessment of one David Myers, a 53-year-old system administrator in Atlanta, regarding the experience of reading a book on the Kindle Fire. Myers is quoted in a New York Times article about the qualitative aspects of reading on multimedia, Internet-enabled devices. The article finds, unsurprisingly, that devices such as the iPad or the Kindle Fire, which are capable of surfing the Internet or streaming video, promote heightened distractibility among readers.

People who read ebooks on tablets like the iPad are realizing that while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.

Email lurks tantalizingly within reach. Looking up a tricky word or unknown fact in the book is easily accomplished through a quick Google search. And if a book starts to drag, giving up on it to stream a movie over Netflix or scroll through your Twitter feed is only a few taps away.

The argument is not a new one, having been well rehearsed in volumes such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and William Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry. Nor is it likely to gain much traction with technophiles who envision a not-so-distant future in which even dedicated e-readers will feature enhanced books that link to external multimedia content.

And there is something to be said for the devices’ insistence that a book hold a reader’s attention. As Erin Faulk says in the NYT piece: “Recently, I gravitate to books that make me forget I have a world of entertainment at my fingertips. If the book’s not good enough to do that, I guess my time is better spent.”

Still, what Cory Doctorow referred to as an “ecosystem of interruption technologies” embedded in devices such as the iPad may be partly to blame for the reason Carr is able to quote Clay Shirky as writing, “No one reads War and Peace.… It’s too long and not so interesting.” Or maybe the lure of YouTube is just too great.

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Books of the Year 2010

There’s no formula for choosing the books of the year. Some break ground, some tackle familiar themes with new energy. Some represent the best work from established authors, some introduce us to important new voices. And some are simply in-house favourites we feel deserve a little more attention. Together, these 20 books made the biggest impact in 2010.

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Books of the Year 2010: Books for Young People

There’s no formula for choosing the books of the year. Some break ground, some tackle familiar themes with new energy. Some represent the best work from established authors, some introduce us to important new voices. And some are simply in-house favourites we feel deserve a little more attention. Here are the Books for Young People that made the most impact in 2010.

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Should writers be paying closer attention to the copyright bill?

There’s a lot of talk about Bill C-32, the government’s proposed amendment to the Copyright Act. Most of the discussion has focused on consumer rights. Not many writers have weighed in, perhaps because the word copyright seems tantamount to saying thorazine or income tax or let’s watch great aunt Irma’s vacation slides.

The bill contains a new educational exemption for fair dealing that could allow teachers to copy and distribute materials without compensating creators. Given the fact that annual public lending right cheques and other collective licensing schemes can sometimes provide more income than royalty pay-outs, authors should take note. But as always, it’s hard to parse what’s real, and what’s hyperbole. (Full details on the bill, provided you’re fully caffeinated, can be found here.)

Nino Ricci fills this void today in The Globe and Mail with a piece claiming that Canadians need to get angry, because should the bill pass, writers and publishers are going down.

Imagine if a government tried to reduce its education budget by requiring the makers of blackboards to provide them for free. Far from getting free blackboards, schools would soon find themselves with no blackboards at all, since every blackboard maker would have had to close up shop.

As far-fetched as this scenario seems, it is exactly what the government proposes in a new bill to reform the Copyright Act. Bill C-32, now making its way through Parliament, has a clause that will allow the free use of copyrighted material for “educational” purposes.

Many readers have commented that Ricci’s article is far-fetched and lacking nuance. But again, few of the opinions are coming from working writers. It would be useful to hear further perspectives, and not just from tech-celebs or pundits, but everyday working writers who represent the majority.

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Copyright holders “greedy” say Woodlief, Curtis

In a July 9 Wall Street Journal article, Tony Woodlief argues that current practices for securing permission to reprint copyrighted material are too intricate and costly to survive. He cites his own experience writing a memoir and attempting to secure permission to use copyrighted material as chapter epigraphs:

When I asked to use a single line by songwriter Joe Henry, for example, his record label’s parent company demanded $150 for every 7,500 copies of my book. Assuming I sell enough books to earn back my modest advance, this amounts to roughly 1.5% of my earnings, all for quoting eight words from one of Mr. Henry’s songs.

Woodlief writes that the compromise between rewarding artists for creating original works and allowing the appreciation and dissemination of those works to be as easy and widely available as possible has been historically skewed too far in the former direction.

The copyright thicket is a growing frustration among writers and editors. One editor of a popular literary anthology (who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from publishers) confirmed that many publishers pursue illusory short-term profit at the expense of both profit and art. By demanding fees that most people won’t pay, they forsake free advertising for the artists they claim to protect. If restaurants behaved that way, not only would they deny you the right to take home leftovers to your dog, they’d try to charge you for smelling their food when you pass by.

It’s a clever analogy that has only one problem: it’s wrong. The proper analogy would involve someone walking into a restaurant, going up to the pass, taking some food off a plate, walking out and handing the food to a passerby on the street without paying for it, but charging the passerby a fee, which is then pocketed (Woodlief’s “modest advance” is surely combined with a royalty scale in his contract).

This minor inaccuracy, however, does not prevent Richard Curtis from picking up on Woodlief’s line of reasoning and extending it to encompass enhanced e-books that incorporate other media such as video and music:

What’s the problem?  For a recent webinar on the subject I stated it this way: “The challenge of clearing rights for enhanced e-books is so dauntingly complex that nothing less than an overhaul of the current antiquated system is necessary if enhanced e-books are not to die aborning.”

Curtis goes on to bemoan the process of tracking down permissions for copyrighted material, which he calls “extremely tedious,” as though the relative interest level of the task itself renders it untenable. He suggests that in the digital era, the battle over copyright “is intolerable and will simply have to stop.”

The rationale for this conclusion seems to be that traditional copyright protections make the production of enhanced e-books too complicated, meaning that only “auteurs” who produce, write, edit, direct, and score their own material will be able to create them. The faulty assumption here is that just because a particular technology (i.e. the ability to “mash up” videos, text, music, etc. to produce enhanced e-books) exists, everyone should be able to exploit it without restriction. This is the new digital fundamentalism, and it is deleterious to the notion that artists deserve to be adequately compensated for their artistic output.

It is, however, a notion that is becoming accepted if only through repetition. Jonathan Lethem (in “The Ecstasy of Influence”) and David Shields (in Reality Hunger) have both made the argument that artistic products should be freely available to be recombined, plagiarized, and enhanced as anyone sees fit. The ability to do this is made manifest by the digital tools that are now at our fingertips. Arguing that these digital tools are poisonous to the process of artistic creation is reductive, but so is the notion that the copyright battle currently underway “is intolerable.”

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Daily book biz round-up: Doctorow slams iPad; Tintin in trouble again

Today’s book news:

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Bookmarks: Google Editions, and more

Sundry links from around the Web:

  • Google announces that its online e-book service, known as Google Editions, will launch sometime in the first half of 2010. According to a report on CNET, Google will take a 37% cut on titles sold through its own website; for books sold through a third party – such as Amazon – the publisher would get a mere 45%
  • Delivering the keynote at Frankfurt’s TOC conference, Cory Doctorow says that the publishing industry is bent on destroying itself through a restrictive approach to copyright
  • The jurors for the 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize are: Anne Carson, Kathleen Jamie, and Carl Phillips

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Bookmarks: Barnes and Noble e-reader leaked; Google Books tweaked

Some tech-themed book links from around the Web:

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Bookmarks: Amazon pays off kid, Auster and Rushdie support Polanski, and more…

  • The new October writer-in-residence at Open Book Toronto is former Eye Weekly arts editor and new poet,  Damien Rogers
  • It’s happened to every author – you plan a reading and two people show up. Author Tao Lin shows us how to take it like a champ
  • Short stories sent straight to your cell phone
  • Today’s Amazon irony alert: Amazon settles with student for breaking into his Kindle, and stealing his e-copy of 1984
  • Dionne Brand is Toronto’s  new poet laureate


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Why your e-books should be free … even though Dan Brown’s aren’t

On his Guardian blog Digital Rights, Digital Wrongs, sci-fi author Cory Doctorow argues the case for releasing free e-books simultaneously with print editions. (Doctorow does this himself through the use of Creative Commons licences.)

A publisher’s publicity and marketing for a book is an excellent way to get it into some readers’ hands, and the word of mouth enabled by freely copyable e-books then acts as a force-multiplier to expand the publisher’s efforts. Whether your “natural” audience is small or large, free downloads generally expand it, by letting readers make informed guesses about who else will like it, and giving those readers a persuasive tool for closing the sale.

On a related note, Random House announced late last week that Dan Brown’s upcoming blockbuster The Lost Symbol will be released as an e-book simultaneously with the hardcover on Sept. 15. Prior to this announcement there was some hope that Random House might challenge Amazon’s $9.99 pricing strategy, but it seems that not even Brown (and his rumored English-language print run of 6.5 million copies) has that kind of clout.

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Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Eva Stachniak poses with a copy of her book, Empress of the Night

Tea and snacks inspired by Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

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Eva Stachniak talks to the audience about the best and worst of Catherine the Great's favourites

Eva Stachniak smiles as she signs a copy of Empress of the Night for a fan

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