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reviews

Review: Kitten Clone by Douglas Coupland

kitten-cloneKitten Clone by Douglas Coupland (Visual Editions) is a look at the company that has developed the internet we know and love today, in a beautifully-designed book that questions what an internet-saturated future looks like.

Alcatel-Lucent is a powerful corporation that builds and maintains the internet via fibre-optic cable networks, research facilities, and patent-generating computer scientists. Coupland details the history of the company, and in more peripheral terms, the internet, through a series of snapshots of what everyday life is in the company, and how the people who work there strive to connect us all. It’s a humanizing portrait of a corporation, and a layperson-friendly crash course on the mechanics of the internet.

The book is structured through visits Coupland made to Alcatel-Lucent branches in New Jersey, Paris, and Shanghai, framing the company’s development through the past, present and future. Images of dim cubicles, skeins of wires, and vacant office space expose the idea of a smooth, silver internet future as instead an unglamorous mess of cables and cutbacks. Coupland focuses on the question of how the internet has begun to shape us, rather than the other way around.

No book about the internet would be complete without cat photos, and Kitten Clone delivers, with a series of anecdotes about the human desire to share images of their cats throughout time, which has culminated in the ultimate cat-sharing network. Coupland fears that “the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist”, but only the internet can tell what the future has in store.

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This review first appeared as “All Zeit, No Geist?” in Geist 97.

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Social Reading Revolution: What’s Next?

In Sean Prpick’s CBC article ‘Social reading’ the next phase of e-book revolution, he claims that e-reading is going to evolve into a social activity. The article mentions two types of social reading: Socialbook, an in-browser reader that lets you make comments, add marginalia, highlight text and more, while also allowing your friend network to see what you’re reading; and what are essentially hyperlinked web books, of which Hugh McGuire is a major proponent. McGuire’s vision is for books to be published online as their own websites, with hyperlinks peppering the text connecting to useful information such as photos and maps to enrich the text. The article mentions using a web book edition of Dracula to take a tour of the book’s setting in London. Both of these types of books and networks offer different and social reading experiences.

Social reading is new again. Via Wikimedia Commons
Social reading is new again.
Via Wikimedia Commons

The article asserts that McGuire’s vision of free web books is frightening to publishers because they “are in the business of selling access to that information in order to get you to buy a copy.” While this is for the most part true, I don’t think that free web books are necessarily scary to publishers – for example, Penguin UK has its own series of interactive web books called We Tell Stories, including one Google Maps-based version similar to the one described for Dracula. I also predict that free web books will work best for public domain texts, because websites for books do not offer the same kind of revenue stream that traditional books or e-books do, because there are no sales; website revenue is driven by ad sales, which would likely be undesirable on this kind of website. If publishers got on board with this kind of model, it would be just as but probably more expensive than developing an e-book: regular editing and marketing and some production costs would still apply, while the development and maintenance of the website (similar to building an app, I suspect), the research necessary to provide useful hyperlinked information and other costs, would also apply to this project. Unless the book was hidden behind a paywall, I don’t see how web books would be a lucrative channel for publishers; the paywall, of course, dashes McGuire’s dreams for open access content. (Side note: Hugh McGuire gave a talk similar in content to the CBC’s interview to my Public Texts class at Trent University last fall. It is interesting to note that his new book, Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto is available for purchase in traditional format as well as online in a free, hyperlinked web book. Even Hugh needs to pay the bills, I guess.)

As for SocialBook, I like that its creator links his service with the oral and social history of the book. In the CBC article, Bob Stein, SocialBook’s founder, connects it to the “pre-historic, preliteratre era [when] storytelling was communal, as tales were told around the campfire.” In fact, you don’t need to go quite that far back to find social reading as a part of everyday culture. Reading aloud was a form of entertainment as late as the 19th century, before silent, isolated reading became popular. While I agree with Stein that social reading is valuable and deserves a comeback, I don’t know if I would use his product. While I have not taken the plunge into e-reading on devices, I have tried desktop readers, and browser-based readers such as Zinio, Issuu and Flipbook. I do not like sustained on-screen reading. Additionally, I am not sure that I actually want my friend network knowing what I am reading as I read it via a social network (for that matter, I don’t want another social media platform to keep track of). Furthermore, Socialbook is also only available for Chrome and Safari, which excludes Firefox users like me, as well as Internet Explorer and other browsers. The ability to add marginalia is cool, but I think adding this feature to an e-reading device would eliminate SocialBook’s edge.

Both of these new forms of e-reading raise interesting questions about the direction of e-books and publishing. Will offering different e-reading experiences increase sales or an interest in reading? I am not sure. People who use e-reading devices might not try out a new type of in-browser reading. As mentioned before, I don’t see how web books can be profitable enough for traditional publishers or authors to become mainstream, while the source of SocialBook’s online library is unknown. McGuire is suggesting a move away from publishers-as-gatekeepers and towards open access and self-publishing. I think that if SocialBook takes hold, it could be an interesting alternative to GoodReads (rest its independent soul) if a review feature were added, while web books might work for traditional publishing if they were paid content; otherwise I suspect they will be more popular with public domain and self-published books. Either way, I will stick to reading a codex or on an e-reading device.

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Gendered book covers are over, if you want it: Tumblr, Fan Interaction and Publishing

Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip project, which made the rounds on twitter, tumblr and news sites such as the Huffington Post a few weeks ago, calls attention to the differential treatment of male and female authors, specifically in relation to the covers for their books. Johnson, a veteran YA author, notes that the treatment of texts written by female authors still “is of a lower perceived quality” than work by male authors, and is so outfitted in “girly” packaging and reduced to being called a “girl book” or “chick lit,” no matter what the subject matter. Johnson asked her followers to take book covers and redesign them as if a person of the opposite gender wrote the book. Her call to action resulted in hundreds of flipped covers, with books by Salinger, Kerouac, Jonathan Franzen, among others, appearing with teenage girls on softly-lit pastel backgrounds, while covers of Lauren Olivier, Sarah J. Maas and Johnson herself lost those qualities.

Coverflipped Why We Broke Up by tumblr user <a href="http://heart-deco.tumblr.com/post/49833231620/so-i-was-inspired-by-maureen-johnsons-post-to">heart-deco</a>. Used with permission.
Coverflipped Why We Broke Up by tumblr user heart-deco. Used with permission.

In a follow-up post after her idea went viral, Johnson both defended the right to like the more feminine covers (after all, femininity is not inherently degrading!) and stated that despite the buzz, nothing is likely to change on the publishing end of things unless the readers speak out. She invites readers to not only consider books beyond the cover, but contact publishers to let them know what they as readers would like to see instead.
Johnson acknowledges that the writers themselves, for the most part, have no say in what cover appears on their book.  She also is clear that she doesn’t believe publishers are “trying to subvert the cause of feminism and keep us down”. Instead, they are just trying to sell books. The decision for covers are up to the publishing house, usually a team of editors, designers and marketers. The publishing team chooses a cover that reflects what they think is the taste of the market. Since #coverflip, it has become evident that the taste of the market is more broad than publishers previously assumed, and that gender-neutral covers are, in fact, desirable.

As publishers, I think it is important that the demand for gender-neutral covers is not forgotten or disregarded. Besides eliminating underlying sexism, gender neutral covers expand a book’s market by making it more appealing to all readers, instead of just those who are attracted by “girly” covers. Johnson tweeted “I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, “Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. – signed, A Guy.” Johnson’s tweet suggests that there is an untapped market of male readers who are put off by feminine covers, and the following discussion surrounding #coverflip indicated that many female readers feel the same way. While this is not the venue to discuss why feminine covers are seen as unappealing to guys (and girls), it is significant to note that readers want book packaging to appeal more broadly to them, in order to help them find reading material that they like. If a gender-neutral cover could help sell more books, why would we as publishers not accommodate that?

06book  "Why We Broke Up" by Daniel HandlerInstead of creating another lookalike feminine cover because we think that’s what the market wants, those of us in the publishing industry should strive to deliver strong, interesting book packaging that doesn’t rely on gender stereotypes or suggest that women’s writing is inherently less valuable.

For publishers, #coverflip shows again the values of a fan base on social media as a means to engage and mobilize an audience, while at the same time it gives the publisher more information on what readers would like to see in regards to the books they read. In addition, Johnson’s call for readers to contact or tweet publishers with their concerns further highlights the role of social media as a way not only for readers to connect with authors but publishers as well. By giving consumers the opportunity speak directly to the publishing house, the publishing house is able to collect more information about what their readers want to read and possible new directions or trends to follow.

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Should Authors Tweet? Publishing and Platform in the Social Media Age

Publishers Weekly’s recent article Teenage Tweetland by Karen Springen investigates the importance of social media platforms for authors trying to capture the teen reader. The article examines many of the top social media sites and gives examples of authors successfully using them to engage their readers. The article notes that some authors devote up to several hours per day maintaining their social media presence, while others consider it a burden. The verdict: a well-attended social media platform can help sell books, but the hot social media space for teens evolves quickly and authors will need to adapt.

The PW article demonstrates the importance of linking authors through social media with their audience, especially for books aimed at a teen audience. The article recommends that authors select platforms that their audience uses, but only ones they themselves feel comfortable using. Examples include YA author John Green, who has 1.5 million twitter followers, 1.1 million YouTube subscribers and over 400 000 Tumblr followers. While Green’s social media platform with the largest scope can arguably said to be his YouTube channel that he shares with his brother, Green asserts that Tumblr is “right now a bigger deal than facebook or twitter” and that the best use of Twitter is to promote one’s tumblr. Green says that social media promotion helped him sell “a LOT” of The Fault in Our Stars leading up and at its release. But a year after its publication, “it’s other people talking about it, not [Green], that sells it.” Green’s case is one that demonstrates the benefit of an active social media presence and fan base: it helps get the initial word out there, while engaged fans keep spreading the word after the book moves off the frontlist.

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Tumblr > Facebook and Twitter, According to John Green.

As a reader, I like to keep track of my favourite authors through social media – in fact, it is one of the primary places I learn about books I might like to read. Being able to engage with an author’s online content, and having the illusion of intimacy that social media gives, allows me to be a more involved reader and fan. I follow and engage with John Green on all his social media platforms, for example, in addition to being a consumer of his books; in fact, I was aware of his social media presence before I became a reader. The same can be said, for me, of Neil Gaiman, Maureen Johnson and Kate Beaton. In reverse, when I find an author I like, one of the first things I do is look for their Twitter account so I can stay connected with them – frequently I find that they have no meaningful social media presence (Daniel Handler, Jonathan Safran Foer, Donna Tartt, I’m looking at you). I count this as a missed opportunity for the author to promote themselves to their fans.

As a publisher, this engagement on established social media platforms is highly desirable for an author, from the acquisition of their manuscript to the publication of their book, because it indicates both a built-in audience and some measure of sales for the author’s book. As a publisher, I would look for an established social media platform from any new author I would attempt to acquire; if they don’t have one, I would suggest getting at least one platform, probably either Facebook or Twitter, depending on what the author is comfortable with, and the demographic they are attempting to engage.

Besides building engagement, social media platforms also allow publishers to mine data about an author’s fans. Through platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the publishing house can establish information about where an author’s fans live, and provide concentrated real-life media promotion to those areas, adjust print runs accordingly, tap overlooked markets, or keep those destinations in mind should there be an author tour. The publishing house can also find out more about the readers’ other interests, which may help them discover new trends. The information about a customer’s specific reading habits (as discoverable on GoodReads, for example), or general interests (such as on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube) has not been freely available in the past. I would argue that access to this trove of information is something that publishers should seize upon and use to their advantage, especially during the midst of the digital and e-reading revolution. Social media benefits both the author and the publisher: the author can interact with a fan base and self-promote, while the publisher profits from the author’s established fan base and free information on the consumers of the product. Overall, as both a reader and a future publisher, I think that engaging readers through social media has become an important and necessary part of the job.

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Pinterest and Publishing: Engaging Readers through the Last Social Media Platform

As far as social media platforms go, publishing hasn’t quite caught on to Pinterest yet. Pinterest is mainly used for posting standalone images, and is not friendly towards large amounts of text. As Marcello Vena for Future Book points out, just pinning covers is not enough to attract readers’ interest to a new book, and it’s not converting into followers. As a Pinterest user, I would not be interesting in following a publishing house that only flogged their own books. For one thing, Pinterest is not a place I look for new reads. For another, the platform does not offer me an innovative way of interacting with the pinned books – as demonstrated by Maureen Johnson’s coverflip project – covers are not always an accurate portrayal of a book’s contents. This leaves publishers searching for ways to engage Pinterest users with their content.

Publishers have varying levels of success with Pinterest. For example, Harper Perennial’s Pinterest is an example of one which does not attract me as a follower. With only 736 followers, Harper Perennial posts just covers with short summaries, while the clickthrough links don’t even go to the publisher’s book page, but the individual image page. This means possible lost conversions and an inherent misunderstanding of the platform’s potential. Random House, on the other hand, has successfully used Pinterest to post thousands of pins of anything to do with books and reading, not just their own books; providing a diverse mix of fun content has translated into over 1.5 million followers, one of the top Pinterest users, and more than double the number of followers @randomhouse has on Twitter. Still, of the publishers only Random House has achieved this level of success, likely because they are creating a good brand image with this platform. I would consider following Random House because they pin a variety of things without excessively promoting their own titles.

One Italian publishing company, RCS Libri, has done something innovative with their Pinterest. Last week they launched an e-book streaming feature, which allows users to read a sample of over 100 titles in-browser. RCS Libri pins the cover and a blurb about a book, while the clickthrough link leads to an external site called Flipbook, which allows the user to read an excerpt of the book. Currently they have 121 followers.

Stream Pier Bergonzi’s e-book here.
Stream Pier Bergonzi’s e-book here.

I think that RCS Libri has found an exciting way to bring more dimensions of books into Pinterest and an interesting way of promoting e-reading. They have found a way to connect Pinterest, one of the last social medias to be adopted by publishing houses as a marketing channel, to their content in a dynamic way. Used in conjunction with other social media platforms, especially Twitter and Facebook, this concept could both drive traffic to RCS Libri’s Pinterest page and boost their sales (or at least, put more attention on their content).

While I like this idea, I don’t think that this experiment will be successful unless all the major publishers on Pinterest start doing it. For one, a pin with e-book clickthrough looks just like any other pin when I am scrolling through my Pinterest dashboard. Nothing in the picture’s description mentions anything about being an e-book sample and the pinner of a photo is not always immediately obvious. To me, this means that I would probably skip over RCS Libri’s pins without realizing what I am missing. Unless users come to expect e-book samples upon clickthroughs for all books posted on Pinterest, I suspect that RCS Libri’s content will be lost in the mix. Another thing is that there are no links to purchase the book either on the Pinterest page or in the e-book clickthrough page, only an ISBN. Without providing a venue for readers to buy the book after sampling it, the publishing company loses out on potential conversions since there is no call to action.

Do I think that RCS Libri’s model is the best way to unite publishing and Pinterest? No. Random House’s method has proved more effective at earning followers, because it posts more fun content that is not obviously marketing-driven. However, RCS Libri’s concept fills a need in the publishing-Pinterest relationship that I can see other houses adopting. At present, RCS Libri is brand new, and it may be too soon to judge whether their model will succeed.