Other, less difficult media

While rummaging through my shelves, I came across a poem from the 1950s that seems strangely apropos to current debates about the future of the book, or its possible lack of one: “To Posterity,” by Louis MacNeice:

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

I now also see, thanks to the online equivalent of rummaging, that MacNeice’s letters will be published in a couple of weeks.

Flotsam

As I was coasting down the Manhattan Bridge’s final slope into Chinatown this afternoon, I realized that the orange-line train to the left of my bike, descending the same slope, was tracking my speed exactly, and when I turned I saw the conductor grinning at me. He must have been waiting to see if I would notice. He waved, and I waved back with a wave that nearly knocked off my own bike cap, so when I recovered I waved again for good measure.

I’m trying to shift my attention, this week, from one project to another, and all I seem to be able to think of are disconnected anecdotes, some of which I have carried around for more than a year now. For instance, there’s the story of the local church book fair. Attending it a few years ago, I found a first edition in its dust jacket of a not terribly well-known novel from the 1930s, which, I knew from having looked the title up on Bookfinder not long before, some booksellers priced in the thousands of dollars. I bought it for two dollars! I was tiresome about it at dinner parties for months afterward, though of course the profit to be made remained theoretical, because I couldn’t bear to sell it, and it sits on a shelf a few yards from this keyboard as I type. (Moreover, as long perusal of the blog Bookride has taught me, books that are priced on the internet at ridiculous prices do not necessarily sell at such prices.) At next year’s church book fair, I was prepared to score triumph after triumph, but when I arrived, a few hours into its progress on a Saturday morning, I found it filled with college-age people carrying handheld scanners. They picked up book after book—bleeping their bar codes, checking prices on the internet, and plopping all titles worth more than a predetermined threshold into large boxes between their feet. Automated capitalism had destroyed another niche of humanism, I moaned to friends, making myself tiresome in a new way at that year’s dinner parties. A friend pointed out that it could be argued that the injustice was actually in the previous state of affairs, when card counters like me knew that particular 1930s novels harbored literary value, and that the internet-connected scanners merely evened the playing field. (They didn’t even it completely, of course, because 1930s first editions don’t have bar codes. They don’t even have ISBNs.) But it was strange to watch a technology that gave to people who didn’t even necessarily have the habit of reading books the ability to judge their value. At the time I had also been bewailing the disappearance at the local YMCA of the Plexiglas book holders for the elliptical trainers. One by one the book holders had cracked and been discarded, in a process as gradual and inexorable as the upgrading of the elliptical training machines themselves, which were alwyas replaced, when they broke down, by machines with pre-installed television monitors. In the end, every elliptical trainer in the gym had a television monitor, and there were no more Plexiglas book holders. Instead there was a thin ridge beneath each television screen, where it was possible to prop up a glossy magazine, if the magazine wasn’t perfect-bound. Without the restraining lip of something like a Plexiglas book holder, however, perfect-bound magazines and books tend to get jiggled shut by the vibrations of an elliptical trainer in use. I tried for a while artfully folding a towel over the corners of my books’ pages, to keep them open by weighing them down. But the towel had to be refolded every time I turned the page, and there was in addition the social pressure of being the only person in the gym to insist on reading a book when so many nice television screens had been made conveniently available. Somehow the two phenomena—the deployment of the handheld ISBN scanners and the vanishing of the Plexiglas book holders— seemed of a piece, at least in my mind, as if technology and the pursuit of economic efficiency were rationalizing the reading of books out of existence. Not long afterward, I quit the gym, because I was riding my bike all the time anyway.

At this year’s church book fair, which took place not too many weeks ago, there were fewer dealers with handheld scanners, and none of them seemed to have hired college students to help them for the day, as they had the year before. The books themselves seemed to be of lower quality; maybe the church had invited a bookseller to buy the better titles for a higher price beforehand. This time around, the economic metaphor, if there was one, seemed to be that in a recession people were pleased to have an opportunity to buy cheap things in large quantities—to fill a cloth shopping bag with books and pay no more than twenty dollars. I got half a dozen Classiques Garnier paperbacks from the 1950s, in yellow covers with sewn bindings and “vellum” paper—Stendhal, Rousseau, and Voltaire, perhaps someone’s college curriculum.

Reading for a living

Over at the Boston Globe‘s Brainiac blog, Christopher Shea relays the news that NPR has a new slideshow up about jobs that no longer exist, including copy boy, bowling pin setter, and lector, a person paid to read aloud to people rolling cigars by hand.

I knew I’d heard about this job before, though it took me a minute to remember that it was in James Weldon Johnson’s lovely 1912 novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man:

After I had been in the factory a little over a year, I was repaid for all the effort I had put forth to learn Spanish by being selected as “reader.” The “reader” is quite an institution in all cigar factories which employ Spanish-speaking workmen. He sits in the center of the large room in which the cigar makers work and reads to them for a certain number of hours each day all the important news from the papers and whatever else he may consider would be interesting. He often selects an exciting novel, and reads it in daily installments. He must, of course, have a good voice, but he must also have a reputation among the men for intelligence, for being well posted and having in his head a stock of varied information. He is generally the final authority on all arguments which arise; and, in a cigar factory, these arguments are many and frequent, ranging from discussions on the respective and relative merits of rival baseball clubs to the duration of the sun’s light and energy—cigar making is a trade in which talk does not interfere with work. My position as “reader” not only released me from the rather monotonous work of rolling cigars, and gave me something more in accord with my tastes, but also added considerably to my income. I was now earning about twenty-five dollars a week . . .

The narrator is even able to afford to hire a piano.

Update (March 24): Jenny D. just relayed to me the news that on Thursday, March 25, at 7pm, here in New York, the Americas Society is hosting a reading by Araceli Tinajero from her new book El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader. (Alas, I won’t be able to make it, because I’m chained to my laptop impersonating El Escritor until further notice.)

Further update (later on March 24): The topic reminds my friend Gabe of Felipe Jesus Consalvos, a cigar roller in the early twentieth century who incorporated cigar boxes into his outsider-art collages.

And still more: Irin Carmon tells me via Twitter that there’s also a 2007 short documentary film about cigar lectors, With a Stroke of the Chaveta.

Into the horizon

Edwin B. Coddington bookplate

I found this bookplate, unglued but still tucked into the front endpapers, in a history that I spent today reading. The book, which I bought used last week, was published in the 1930s; the Internet tells me that Edwin B. Coddington, its sometime owner, was the longtime chair of Lafayette College’s history department and wrote the definitive history of the Battle of Gettysburg, published in 1968, some time after his death. I like the way the bookplate evokes the idea of American history. I’ve been using it as a bookmark, and I must have looked at it half a dozen times before I had a Sesame Street moment and realized that the Indian and the airplane don’t belong in the same picture.

Clash of the titans

Sometime on Friday night, the New York Times reports, Amazon deactivated the Buy Now buttons on its website for all books published by the Macmillan group, including such imprints as Farrar Straus & Giroux, Henry Holt, and St. Martin’s Press. As of this writing, you cannot buy a new copy of the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell from Amazon, though it’s still available from Barnes & Noble, Powells, and other indie booksellers. The same is true of thousands of other titles.

This is a bit of a stunner. Macmillan and Amazon have been arguing, it transpires, over the pricing of e-books, but Amazon yanked Macmillan’s ink-and-paper as well as its electronic books—bypassing conventional weapons in favor of first-use nuclear.

As a writer with friends who work at Macmillan imprints, my sympathies are with the publisher. To judge by the comments being left at the New York Times article on the conflict, however, quite a few people are siding with Amazon, in many cases because they believe it’s greedy of publishers to demand higher prices for e-books. Greed, no doubt, exists on both sides, living as we do under capitalism, but greed alone doesn’t explain the dispute. Yes, Amazon wants to sell e-books for $9.99 or less, and Macmillan wants Amazon to sell them for $15 or less. But as Macmillan’s CEO John Sargent explains, in a statement released today as an advertisement to the book-industry newsletter Publisher’s Lunch, Amazon and Macmillan aren’t at the moment fighting to see who can make more money on a book sale. They’re fighting to see who can lose more money. This is a very peculiar battle.

And it may only be the beginning. My sense, as a somewhat interested observer, is that the year 2010 is going to see radical change in the way books are sold. The catalyst, I suspect, is this month’s announcement of half a dozen new handheld electronic reading devices. Apple’s Ipad tablet is the most famous, but the Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of January saw the announcement of the Skiff Reader, Plastic Logic’s Que Pro Reader, Entourage’s Edge, and Spring Design’s Alex. Not all of these are likely to make it to market, but those that do will be competing there with Sony’s Reader, Amazon’s Kindle, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Google seems to be planning to sell e-books soon. In other words, a large number of capitalists have been betting, lately, that increasing numbers of people want to read e-books.

Let’s leave to one side, for the duration of this blog post, the question of whether it is wise for our society to spend colossal sums of money replacing an existing technology that is durable, versatile, and aesthetically pleasing. (I will let slip this much: No, I do not care how many trees die. They should be so lucky as to be reincarnated as, say, the poems of Surrey. Ents, do you worst!) Assume, for the sake of argument, that a preponderance of these capitalists will prove lucky in their bets, and that a lot of people are going to buy these devices. That suggests, as I wrote in passing in a recent review of Adrian Johns’s new history of intellectual piracy, that a lot of people will soon be roving the internet in search of free or cheap electronically available texts.

Until recently, books have not suffered from internet-assisted piracy the way that music or film has. That’s mostly because it’s easy to make a digital copy of a CD; you slip it into a slot on the side of your computer and click Import. Making a digital copy of a physical book, on the other hand, is cumbersome, as a book pirate recently confessed to the blog The Millions. At the very least you have to turn all the pages. To do it elegantly, you even have to volunteer your services as a proofreader, which is not very many people’s idea of fun, and I say that as someone who has done his share.

But if publishers themselves are selling digital versions of their books, and all that’s needed to liberate them is a little hacking, the calculus changes. Hacking is fun in a way that proofreading is not. Let us pause here and observe a moment of silence for the death of the idea that book pirates, more literary and therefore more moral than their peers, will somehow prove honorable, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. To the contrary, the pirate interviewed by the Millions said that he deliberately avoided stealing the works of the most successful authors, because they can afford lawyers. Instead he limits his purloining to the work of less commercial writers, such as John Barth, whom he calls “someone who no longer sells very well, I imagine.” Such nobility! “From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” If electronic reading devices catch on, the threat of piracy to book publishers—and to authors, at all income levels—is very real.

Of course, large swaths of the publishing industry have not waited for pirates in order to be undone. Since the earliest days of the world wide web, newspapers and magazines have pillaged themselves, giving their articles away for free in pursuit of larger audience share. This is now widely understood to have been a mistake. Newspapers like the Times have many more readers online than they ever had in print, but even with these greater numbers, online ads bring in tiny sums compared to print ads. And online readers pay nothing. In the journalistic world that I happen to inhabit, much of the excitement about Apple’s new device has been driven by a hope that it will offer a chance to press the reset button. People stole MP3s, but they buy ring tones. They downloaded software for free, but they buy apps. Perhaps, publishers hope, people will prove willing to buy newspaper subscriptions on their Apple tablets, even though they’ve never been willing to pay to read them in their desktop browsers. (Long Island’s Newsday recently revealed that three months after putting its website behind a pay wall, only thirty-five people have purchased subscriptions.) Thus a week before Apple announced its tablet, the Times announced that by next year, it will be charging its online readers. Will the new business model work? Will newspapers be saved? Who knows, but there isn’t much to lose by trying. In the weeks before Apple’s announcement, I found myself muttering, in an echo of a recent, very bad movie trailer, “Unleash the Kraken.” We might as well find out what the Kraken will do. At the very least, if it finishes the print media off, we will be spared having to listen to further hectoring sermons from internet triumphalists.

Which reminds me that I’ve strayed from my topic: Amazon. Book publishers, unlike newspaper publishers, still have a lot to lose. About nine months ago, I received an email alert from a friend whose excellent book of nonfiction had just been published and who had discovered, to his dismay, that it was accruing one-star reviews on Amazon, not because readers disliked his book but because they objected that its Kindle price was only a few dollars less than its hardcover price. (The anti-Kindle-price reviews appeared on the webpage of both the Kindle and the hardcover version and figured into his book’s combined star rating.) He was caught in the crossfire of an early skirmish of the war that went nuclear this weekend. Eventually the Kindle price of his book was lowered, though I don’t know who blinked. I remember thinking at the time that the one-star ratings were a bad sign, because they suggested that Amazon had in a way already won the dispute over e-book pricing. Consumers already felt that e-books ought to be no more than ten dollars, and felt it with so much indignation and righteousness that they were willing to punish the very author they wanted to read, if they thought he was charging such sums. (My friend, of course, had no control over the pricing of any of the versions of his book.)

Consumers had come to feel that way largely because Amazon had trained them to, by keeping the prices of nearly all its e-books below ten dollars. Though few consumers understood it then, and probably few still understand it today, Amazon did so by sacrificing heaps and heaps of cash. Most publishers have until now sold their e-books to Amazon for the same wholesale price that they sell their hardcovers—roughly half the hardcover’s list price. It is up to a retailer like Amazon whether to sell the book to consumers at its list price, as printed on the inside front flap, or at a discount. With e-books, Amazon has usually offered a discount so low that it actually loses money. That is, Amazon buys for $12 an e-book whose hardcover list price is $24.95, and then Amazon sells the e-book to its customers for $9.95.

Why would Amazon want to do such a thing? When Amazon first introduced its Kindle reading device, the reception was tepid. But Amazon improved the device in later models, and thanks to its aggressive low pricing on e-books, it now reports that the Kindle and e-books are selling briskly. In other words, with the money that it has lost by discounting e-books, Amazon has bought market share for its e-book reader and for itself as an e-book retailer. To put it still another way, Amazon sped up the American public’s adoption of e-books by unilaterally lowering the American public’s idea of what the natural price of an e-book should be. The outrage of the Amazon customers who punished my friend with one-star reviews, and the outrage of commenters siding with Amazon on the New York Times blog post this weekend about the Macmillan-vs.-Amazon dispute, suggest that it may be too late for publishers like Macmillan to alter that idea.

Newspapers have no one to blame but themselves for having taught the public that they have a right to read newspapers online for free. Publishers, on the other hand, have woken up to the unpleasant discovery that the value of their work is being cheapened in the public mind by a third party: Amazon.

Some consumers have objected that e-books must be cheaper to make than ink-on-paper books. A simple cost breakdown by Money magazine last year, however, suggested that only about 10 percent of a book’s list price goes to printing. But ink-on-paper books have to be shipped, stored, and (when they go unsold) returned, and e-books would be spared these costs, too, as this analysis suggests. Also, according to TBI Research, because e-books are likely to end up with a lower list price after the dust clears, author royalties, calculated as a percentage of the list price, are likely to be lower, too—additional savings! Yay! When all these savings are added up, do you succeed in dropping a list price of $28 to one of $9.95? That’s a big drop. Profit margins at book publishers now are rumored to be no more than 10 percent, where they exist at all. It may not be possible for a single company to publish e-books at that price and also retain the infrastructure necessary to publish ink-on-paper books.

To return to the dispute of the moment: Macmillan has probably been selling its e-books to Amazon at the wholesale price of about $12, and Amazon has been selling them retail for about $10. Macmillan says that it would like to sell its e-books at the wholesale price of about $10.45, and have Amazon sell them for the retail price of $14.95. In other words, Macmillan was offering to earn $2 less per e-book. Amazon, however, insisted that it would prefer to take a $2 loss on each e-book, instead, and became so indignant over the matter that it has now ceased selling any Macmillan titles, print or electronic. Macmillan’s proposal is known as the “agency model” for e-book pricing, and the company probably only dared attempt it because Apple has promised that it will sell e-books for its new tablet on exactly those terms. (Amazon has said that they’re willing to accept the agency model, starting in June, but only if an e-book’s list price does not exceed $9.99.)

As I said at the beginning, my sympathies in this dispute are with Macmillan. Why shouldn’t a book publisher be able to exercise some control over their product’s price? Apple, to choose a wild example, rigidly controls the prices at which retailers may sell its products, and as Paul Collins noted in 2007, the legal barriers to publishers’ exercise of such control no longer exist. Here, alas, is where the pirates come in again. Pirates don’t bother when legal copies are available cheaply and easily. What’s perhaps most breathtaking about the Amazon-Macmillan dispute is how little, finally, is at stake: should the highest price of an e-book be $9.95 or $14.95? No one dreams any more that it’s going to be $28. What’s being fought over is control, and the reason control is being fought over so viciously is that the only way such massive cost savings are going to be achieved is by consolidation—by collapsing a few of the intermediary steps somewhere between the creation of a book and the reading of it. Will you some day download your e-books directly from Farrar, Strauss & Giroux’s website? Will Amazon some day be the publisher of Jonathan Franzen’s novels? Some future between these two outcomes is more likely to happen, but precisely where the division will fall remains to be seen. Authors, in the meantime, had better ask their agents to negotiate their e-book royalties very carefully, seeing as how, while the titans rage, the financial analysts have already factored into their bottom lines the expectation that someone else will be eating our slice of the pie.

The Knee-capping of intercapping

“Against Camel Case,” my attack on the intrusion of capital letters into the middles of words, is published in the 29 November 2009 issue of the New York Times Magazine. Herewith an online bibliographical supplement.

The Wikipedia entry on camel case is perhaps the most thorough treatment, and traces in detail the contribution of software programming to the trend. For those interested, wiki pages elsewhere also explain and critique the use of camel case in programming. As for journalistic treatments, William Safire tackled camel case in 1984 and again in 1997. New Scientist looked at the problem in 2007. That same year, font genius Jonathan Hoefler wondered if camel case could redeem itself by making web links newly legible. Among language mavens, Bill Walsh tried to draw the line in his 2000 book Lapsing into a Comma; some of his arguments appear in one of his online columns. He wasn’t able to, of course. You can also trace the camel’s depredations in back issues of the online magazine Copyediting.

In the course of researching modern camel case, I stumbled across the medieval phenomenon of run-together text, formally known as scriptura continua, and could not resist chasing it down the rabbit hole. The pioneer and dean of this paleographic subfield is Paul Saenger. As I explain in my article, Saenger believes that the introduction of space between words in the seventh and eighth centuries laid the psychic groundwork for modern individual consciousness—that most of the intellectual breakthroughs that Marshall McLuhan credited to Gutenberg are more properly to be attributed to monks in Ireland and England, who, because their native tongues of Gaelic and Saxon shared so little with the Romance language family, needed space between words to make Latin a little easier for them. Saenger first set forth this bold theory in “Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society,” in the medieval-studies journal Viator, vol. 13 (1982), pp. 367–414, an article that, as far as I can tell, has never been digitized, not even by any of the for-pay scholarly databases. Saenger elaborated the theory and provided further evidence for it in his book Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford University Press, 1997). Because the original journal article
is less heavily laden with technical descriptions of manuscript evidence, I as a layperson found it livelier and easier to digest. Saenger’s thesis is not uncontroversial! Reviews of his book in the scholarly literature either acclaimed it as a paradigm-busting breakthrough or disparaged it angrily—or both.

What is to be done? Here is a simple program of orthographic reclamation: When all the elements of a camel-case compound are words that could stand on their own, slice it open: Master Card, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Word Perfect. When some elements are letters or word fragments, sew it up and capitalize conventionally: Iphone, Ebay, Fedex. Proper names with hyphens can keep them (Jell-O), and new compounds can stand unaltered if their capitalization is traditional (Facebook). Humanism in orthography forever!

Update, Nov. 28: Michael Hartford lucidly lays out the case for camel case, at least in Irish and in programming languages.

Halcyon days

Walking the dog one evening last week, after dark and in a drizzle, I was surprised to find a number of young families leaving the park as I entered it. The night was fairly warm, but now that the dark comes early, it is not often hazarded by more than a runner or two. That evening the light rain added a further deterrent. As I crossed the ring road, however, and followed a path that turns right to run beneath a row of lamps, I found even more families, and Toby pulled me between them. They were speaking German. Almost all the children were carrying paper lanterns, for the most part home-made. Between the two baseball diamonds, where they had gathered beside the path under their umbrellas, someone was holding a pony by its bridle. As I passed, I asked a couple pushing a stroller what the holiday was. "Saint Martin's Day," the father told me. "A fine old German tradition, come all the way to Park Slope."

It was strange to find an unsuspected ritual near to home. Though I've lived in Park Slope more than half a dozen years, I had no idea that people here brought lanterns to the park once a year after nightfall, nor that they did so with so much enthusiasm that they were willing to brave rain and hire a pony. Fortuitously I had heard of Saint Martin; I even knew that his saint's day had recently passed. I'd just begun reading Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 1, and in that play, Joan of Arc promises her aid to Charles, the future king of France, in these words:

Expect Saint Martin's summer, halcyon days,
Since I have enterèd into these wars. (1.2.131–32)

Saint Martin's summer, the notes at the back of my edition explain, is "warm weather in late autumn, St Martin's Day being 11 Nov." The explanation stuck in my mind because it was 11 November when I read it. The celebration in Prospect Park came a day or two later—maybe the English and the Germans honor him according to different calendars. The week was indeed mild for late autumn, as Saint Martin and Joan of Arc augured. When Peter and I bicycled into the city on Sunday afternoon, we had to shed both our jackets and our sweaters. But I'm straying from Shakespeare, whom I mean to talk about somehow. "Halcyon days," the notes further explain, are named after the halcyon, a bird thought by the ancients to make its nest on the sea around this season of the year, and to "charm the waves to a calm" while it brooded.

In graduate school, when I was a youth drunk with the breath of my own significance, I read several of Shakespeare's plays and wrote about them in a notebook, in a hermetic style, believing myself to have pierced through to their true drama, which was, as I then saw it, a war between the characters for possession of the poetic power in the words that formed them. I stopped after a handful of plays, because I had a dissertation to write. More than a decade has gone by since then, and now I'm at the age where one wonders if one will ever get around to achieving certain ambitions. I still want to read Shakespeare's plays and take notes on them. This time I want to read all of them, in the order he wrote them. I gather that a fair amount of guesswork has gone into the order that scholars have established, so I'm not going to be strict about my sequence. As I understand it, for example, there's some evidence that Henry VI Part 1 was written after Henry VI Part 2 and Part 3, but I'm starting with Part 1, as the first of many acknowledgments that I'm reading as an amateur, not as a scholar. Another such acknowledgment is my choice of edition: John Dover Wilson's New Cambridge Edition. As best I can suss out, it's respectable but superseded. Wilson, however, is very companionable as a writer of notes, and the books themselves, hardcover duodecimos from the 1930s and 1950s with typography by Bruce Rogers, approach in size and style my ideal of what a book should physically be. Also amateurish will be the schedule I keep.

Why not ask for more?

A couple of days ago, in a successful attempt to sabotage my own efforts to meet a deadline, I decided to look into the Google Book Settlement. The settlement is an agreement, hammered out last fall between Google and the Authors Guild, about how Google will share with authors some of the money it hopes to make from its digitization of books in copyright. The agreement itself is very long (you can download it here) and rather complicated. It isn't set in stone quite yet, but the cement is hardening. In order to opt out, you have to notify the settlement administrator by 5 May 2009. You can also stay in the settlement but object to some of its terms, if you make your objections by 5 May 2009. That's only a few months away, so it's not too early to start forming an opinion.

I haven't yet read the agreement all the way through. I didn't think I was going to need to, because I have warm, fuzzy feelings both about Google and the Authors Guild. Also, the site that the settlement administrator has set up for authors to claim their work looks streamlined and friendly and is in fact very easy to use. But now that I've used it, I have some questions, and I'm not sure how to answer them.

For one thing, I'm pretty sure that I filled out the online claims form "wrong," but I felt that I had little choice if I wanted to protect my rights. Then again, I may not have filled them out "wrong"; I'm not sure. Here are some of the dilemmas I found myself facing.

First, under the terms of the settlement, I allegedly don't have rights to my published work unless it was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. The settlement's fine print claims that this is in conformity with a court decision. I don't think this fine print matters much in my case, because I suspect that most of my published work was copyrighted on my behalf by my publishers, but if it did matter, it would be more than a little enraging. When I started life as a writer, the law of the land rendered it unnecessary to register one's work with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to own copyright in it. In fact, the consensus was that only fussbudgets bothered to. Copyright of one's expression was a common-law claim that didn't need bureaucratic imprimatur; if challenged, you only needed to be able to prove that you and no one else had written the words in question. Listed in Google's database, though not yet digitized, is my undergraduate thesis on Nelson Algren. I know I never registered the copyright. I'm also fairly sure that there are only two surviving copies of it, one on my bookshelf here at home and another in the bowels of Widener Library at Harvard. But it's nonetheless distressing to imagine that if Google were to digitize it, I might not be able to control what happened to it, or make money off it if suddenly a great number of people wanted to know what I thought about Chicago realism when I was twenty. I've also never registered the copyright to any of my magazine articles, ever, but I've felt confident until this week that I owned copyright in them nonetheless, and continued to own copyright when they were reprinted in books, and would not lose that copyright if someone scanned and uploaded it.

Another problem is the settlement's division of the literary world into books and "inserts." An "insert," in the terms of the settlement, is a part of a book that an author owns a right to. For example, the introduction and notes to the Modern Library edition of Royall Tyler's Algerine Captive are copyrighted in my name, so they're my "inserts" in that edition. Since the book is still in print, I told Google that Modern Library still has the rights, and I presume this means the Modern Library will get the lump-sum cash payment for its digitization, not me. But an article that I wrote on Milan Kundera for the magazine Lingua Franca was reprinted in the anthology Quick Studies, which is now out of print, so presumably I will get some money off of that. Not as much as I think I deserve, though. Google is offering to reimburse authors in several ways: first through lump-sum payments for digitization, and later through revenue sharing, based on the money Google makes by selling subscriptions to its database to libraries and colleges, by placing ads on webpages that display the digitized material, and perhaps by selling downloads of books otherwise out of print. As an insert, my old Lingua Franca article will bring me a $15 lump-sum payment and later, perhaps, a $50 payment for inclusion in databases that Google sells to libraries and colleges. But according to Attachment C of the settlement agreement, my insert will bring me nothing from any of Google's other revenue-sharing programs. If Google sells ads next to my Kundera article, or sells someone a download of it, I get zilch. Since Quick Studies is an anthology, it consists entirely of inserts. So who's this revenue going to be shared with? The magazine Lingua Franca, by the way, is defunct. As a writer, I've made far more money off of magazine articles than books at this stage of my career, and I still make money off the reprinting of some of them. It seems to me that excluding "inserts" from substantial revenue sharing is an element of the settlement agreement worth objecting to.

A confusing element of the system: multiple digitized versions. Google's database seems to know that it has scanned both the hardcover and the paperback versions of a short story collection that I helped to translate, Josef Skvorecky's The Tenor Saxophonist's Story. I claimed inserts in both versions, even though the instructions told me not to, because I figured Google would be able to figure out that they were the same book. I claimed both of them for a reason: how else am I to be be sure that Google knows that I have a rights claim (in this case, as a translator, a pretty limited rights claim, but still, something) to both versions? For some reason, Google has scanned two versions of my book American Sympathy, and its database doesn't seem to know they're the same book. Moreover, it also has a reference to what seems to be a free-standing copy of one of my book's chapters, not yet digitized, which I never published separately. I claimed that, too. And I claimed an "insert" in a scholarly anthology that reprints a journal article that overlaps a great deal with one of the book's chapters. I know for a fact that no one else has any right to that insert. Google's instructions say that if an insert reprints material also published in a book, the author should only claim either the book or the insert, but not both. Well, that makes sense as far as the lump payments go. But if Google is later going to sell ads on webpages or sell downloads, it doesn't make sense. The income that Google will be making off my content will be split between the various versions of my work that are in its databases, and I should be able to claim revenue from all versions they hold of everything I've written. (By the way, this book, too, remains in print, so as I understand it, I won't be getting any lump-sum payments for it no matter how I fill out the forms.)

I'll end by saying that this agreement is so complex that it seems destined to have unintended consequences, and that I welcome corrections to any misunderstandings I may have made here. I look forward to learning other writers' reactions to the agreement and the claims process, because my sense is that most of us in the rank and file have yet to weigh in on them.

Why I remain pessimistic

The National Endowment for the Arts has just released a new report, Reading on the Rise, which contains good news: In a 2008 survey administered by the Census Bureau, Americans reported higher rates of literary reading than they did in 2002. In earlier reports, the decline of readers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four had been a subject of special concern. Between 2002 and 2008, however, the proportion in that age group who reported that they had read a work of literature in the previous year jumped by 8.9 percentage points.

I've had an interest in American reading rates for some time, and I wrote an article on the subject for the New Yorker that was published in December 2007, so I read the New York Times article on the report and the report itself with great curiosity. I'm happy that there's some good news on the topic. I nonetheless remain pessimistic about the trend of reading in America overall, and it might be worth explaining why.

Before I do, though, I'll waste a paragraph or three on the Sisyphean task of trying to clear up a common misconception about the NEA-sponsored surveys. It is often claimed that in earlier surveys, the NEA undercounted literary reading because it failed to ask about reading that happened online. This is not exactly true. Starting in 1982, the survey asked, "During the last 12 months, did you read any a) plays, b) poetry, or c) novels or short stories?" Respondents weren't prompted to think about the internet, but they weren't told not to think about it, either, and the NEA has always said that a poem read online counted just as much as a poem read in a book. Moreover, the NEA asked a nearly identical question in 2008 (the only change was a variation in the order of the genres). So if the new report does show that reading rates have indeed recovered, it isn't because the NEA has only just now gotten around to asking about the internet. That, nonetheless, is the latest misconception about the NEA in circulation. For example, on Monday morning, Publisher's Lunch, a publishing insider's newsletter, made fun of NEA chairman Dana Gioia for claiming that his agency was partly responsible for the rise and suggested that the props should instead go to the internet:

Aside from the yeoman efforts of the NEA chairman, what could possibly explain the sudden change? "In 2008, the survey introduced new questions about reading preferences and reading on the Internet."

The quote within the quote is true but the juxtaposition is somewhat misleading. Yes, the 2008 survey for the first time asked about reading preferences (i.e., it asked whether those who read prose preferred mysteries, thrillers, romance, or "other" fiction) and about internet habits. But the central measure—that of literary reading—came from the question I quoted above, the wording of which neither included nor excluded online reading. In other words, the improved results can't be explained by a shift in the NEA's methodology about the internet.

There's another way of reading the Publisher's Lunch passage: PL might have been trying to imply that Internet use has itself spurred the appreciation of literature in the past six years. That, more or less, is the claim made in a similar mocking report in the blog Valleywag. It's a pretty bold claim. It doesn't seem outright impossible to me, because as I noted in my New Yorker article last year, there's some evidence that internet use and literacy go hand in hand. But relatively few of the internet's electrons are devoted to poetry and fiction, and it seems to me on the face of it unlikely that the internet could have caused significantly more people to take an interest in those genres. (Yes, I know about fan fiction, and despite the existence of it I stand by these hunches.)

But enough about the internet. Why aren't I celebrating the new numbers about the reading of literature? First, the numbers are good, but they're not that good. The proportion of Americans who said in 2008 that they read some literature in the previous twelve months may be higher than it was in 2002, but it's lower than it was in 1992, 1985, and 1982. Moreover, the same is true of the rates in the eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old bracket. Over the longer span, we're still talking about a decline.

Second, another of the NEA's measures shows a continued, stubborn decrease. To the question "With the exception of books required for work or school, did you read any books during the last 12 months?" the proportion of respondents saying yes dropped from 56.6 percent in 2002 to 54.3 percent in 2008. Here the internet may be relevant, because the word "book" is generally understood as referring to the ink-and-paper object. But even if the internet is the culprit, I'm still dismayed. Nationwide, there aren't yet that many e-book readers; it's simply not yet possible for very many people to read the electronic equivalent of books. Online substitutions may be taking place, but they're probably not "literary," so I doubt it's good news if the proportion who say they read books for pleasure continues to decline.

Okay, but a piece of good news is still good news, even if it's not great news, and even if another piece of news is bad. Right? Yes, but even of the limited good news I'm skeptical, because I can think of three reasons why the results might not be as good as they seem. First, there's a chicken-and-egg-like measurement difficulty. In the readiness to make fun of Gioia for crediting his own agency with the turnaround, the critics have so far missed a trick. It may be that Gioia does deserve credit, but not for what he thinks he does. The sticky part about the measurement of reading, sociologically, is that reading is a prestige activity. People tend to lie and say they do more of it than they do. As the afterword to the new report points out, the NEA in the last few years has reached out to millions of Americans with brand-new, well-funded programs to encourage reading. In the fall of 2007 it released a report on reading's decline that got lots of attention from journalists like me. Thanks in part to the NEA, literacy was a big news story in 2007 and 2008. I even saw it referred to on television, and I don't watch much television. All of this is worthy and to the good. But it's possible that in raising people's awareness of the importance of reading, the NEA encouraged them to exaggerate their reading habits. With a survey like the NEA's, which relies on self-reporting, there's no way to know for sure whether reading habits themselves were changed. It's as if there were a kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle at work here. A government agency can either measure reading habits or intervene in them, but if it tries to do both, it runs the risk of measuring no more than the spread of its intervention message. (As I wrote in my article, the best way to measure reading is with a time-use survey, which is harder for respondents to fudge.)

Second, the new survey took place in a different month. In 2002, the NEA's survey took place in August. In 2008, it took place in May. If people had steeltrap minds, that wouldn't matter, but twelve months is longer than most people remember very accurately. I suspect that when you ask people about behavior over such a broad timespan, especially when you're focusing on the subset of people who are the liminal case—that is, on people for whom it was a toss of the coin whether they did or didn't read a work of literature in the past year—respondents may sometimes extrapolate from their sense of themselves in the present, rather than answer according to a comprehensive memory. If that's the case, then the month will influence their answer, if the month happens to have any relation to the aspect of themselves relevant to the question. And in this case it does. Like it or not, literary culture in America is largely keyed to the school year. Search Google Trends for the word "literary," in fact, and you'll see a curve that has acute declines every summer and every Christmas. (You'll also see that it slumps slowly over time, but that's not relevant to my point here.) You'll see the same shape if you search for "poem" and "short story". (Intriguingly, the novel has some but not all of this characteristic wiggle, perhaps because it hasn't altogether surrendered to the academy.) I don't know in which month the 1982, 1985, or 1992 surveys took place. But it's possible that the improvement between 2002 and 2008 owes something to the difference between May and August.

Third, and finally, there's the matter of the years. When Americans were asked in August 2002 about their reading habits over the preceding twelve months, they were of course being asked about the year immediately following 9/11. That was a period when everyone's media intake was wildly disrupted. If you look at the NEA's graph of the percentage of adults who read literature between 1982 and 2008, the outlier isn't 2008. It's 2002.

NEA, Percentage of Adults Who Read Literature, 1982-2008, from Reading on the Rise (2009), p. 3

In fact, if you ignore the 2002 results, you're looking at a gentle but almost uncannily straight descending line. One possible explanation of the graph above: Reading has been declining in America for decades, but the 2002 results were worse than they ought to have been, because in the aftermath of September 11 the nation was panicked out of its usual literary diversions. Between 2002 and 2008, the interruption of 9/11 corrected itself, and many people returned to literature, but not all of them. The underlying decline, the part owed to secular causes, continued.

These are mere speculations, and I'm grateful to the NEA for providing the data that I'm reluctant to accept. Time will tell whether I'm just being a curmudgeon; inshallah, my pessimism will be belied. But right now I think it's too soon to unpop the corks. If other indicators were favorable—in particular, if there were better prospects for newspapers or book publishers, or if anyone had figured out how to make enough money off of writing on the internet to subsidize lots of high-caliber investigative reporting—I might be willing to partake in the festivities. As things stand, though, I think the fate of reading is still a matter of concern.

The story so far

In October, the Christian Science Monitor announced that as of April it will no longer be printed on paper. The Newark Star-Ledger announced a 40 percent staff cut. Radar closed, for what seemed like the fourteenth time, and Culture and Travel closed for the first and probably only time. Time, Inc. announced it would be laying off six hundred staffers, and the Gannett news chain announced it would be laying off 10 percent of its workforce. Condé Nast shrank Men's Vogue into a Vogue supplement, pruned Portfolio down to ten issues a year, and asked its other magazines to cut budgets by 10 percent.

In November, the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said it was not going to purchase any new manuscripts in the foreseeable future. U.S. News and World Report announced that it, too, would go all-web, except for consumer guides.

In December, Fine Books & Collectibles said it was trading in its print magazine for an electronic newsletter, and the Rare Book Review ceased publication altogether. On so-called Black Wednesday, Simon & Schuster laid off thirty-five staffers, Penguin and Harper Collins froze salaries, and Random House underwent a massive consolidation, turning five divisions into three, a change expected to lead to many more layoffs. A few days later, the New York Times quietly announced it was putting up its new building as collateral for a loan of cash. Then Tribune Company, the owner of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy. And today Macmillan, owner of FSG, Picador, and St. Martin's, joined Penguin and Harper in a salary freeze.