Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The technology of reading: a long view (ii)

My second eureka insight arising from Casson's Libraries in the Ancient World centres around the question of "who makes money from books?". Whilst we are accustomed to the norm that (some) authors, (most) publishers and (most) booksellers are able to make money out of words, it's salutary to note that this was certainly not the case in the ancient world. In all of the ancient societies reading and writing were high status activities, and anyone who was anyone sought to write down and disseminate their works. If we stop to think, we know this: after all the writings of Julius Caesar are still taught in those (largely private) schools that still have Latin and other ancient languages on the curriculum. And just as publishing one's thoughts was an indication of power, insight and status - so was ownership of and access to texts. It's interesting that one of the love gifts from Antony to Cleopatra (possibly the world's first celebrity couple) was a library; the 200,000 volume collection in the library at Pergamum to be precise. Casson comments that this could have been a shrewd cost-control measure on Mark Antony's part - the funds required to maintain such a resource were enormous. Nonetheless it's hard to imagine such a gift exchanging hands between twenty-first century A-listers as a token of esteem and devotion (although it's a fair bet that a few iPads have).

It seems the only people in the ancient world who made money from texts were booksellers and librarians. Authors received not a penny for their efforts (their rewards were indirect, on the way up the intellectual, social and political ladder). Most authors completed a master copy and employed scribes (usually slaves) to make a limited number of presentation copies which were then bestowed upon those individuals the author held in high regard (or wanted to ingratiate themselves with). Thereafter the text was considered to be in the public domain and anyone could make a copy. Indeed the earliest booksellers ran scriptoria - copy shops using human labour in place of any form of mechanised duplication. By the last century B.C. it was possible to buy most of the acknowledged "classics" from Rome's booksellers. Even if Cicero bemoaned in a letter to his brother that "For books in Latin I don't know where to go; the copies sold are so full of errors." Q.A. issues have obviously beset our industry from the outset.

Librarianship gradually became an valued occupation, sometimes carried out by highly educated slaves who were often manumitted for long and devoted service, and also by freemen. Indeed in Rome stewardship of the city's libraries became one of the recognised stepping stones on the fast-track civil service ladder to high office. So those who curated texts and those who organised the reproduction of texts were the only people who actually made a living from them. There were no agents brokering deals - and the author and the publisher were one and the same (unpaid) person.

In the West, the invention of the printing press in 1440 was what made publishing as a financial enterprise viable - and for centuries thereafter the printer and the publisher were one and the same (and sometimes even printer, publisher and author). Sir Walter Scott was one of the first writers to pen his way out of bankruptcy, and he is amongst those authors who had a financial involvement with his printing company. Even in the twentieth century, authors and Bloomsbury Group luminaries Virginia and Leonard Woolf established The Hogarth Press which (ironically given the current e-royalty furore) was eventually subsumed into Random House upon the purchase of Chatto and Windus in 1987.

All of which takes us full circle. No-one in our industry has an automatic right to make a living out of what we do. It is not enshrined in law (state or economic) that authors, agents, publishers or booksellers can and shall make a living and run economically viable businesses. We can only do so if we know exactly who values what we have and what we do; if we know how much they are prepared to pay, and this price is one that covers the costs of our activities. As Brian O'Leary (content work flow guru and founder of Magellan Media Partners) observed in a blog post today - what we really learn from the conflict between The Wylie Agency and The Random House Group is about the supply chain - and the fact that Amazon is entirely customer focused (which might explain the phenomenon a marketing director I know calls "the Circle of Hell known as Vendor Central"). Amazon understand that in a consumer society, serving the customer is where there's money to be made. Like those first bookshop owners in ancient Rome.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The technology of reading: a long view (i)

I'm currently enjoying reading a (print) copy of Lionel Casson's Libraries in the Ancient World (Yale). It's a great read for anyone interested in the cultural heritage of literature, information, authorship, book selling and publishing. When I first picked it up in Topping's Ely bookshop (more of which in a later post) I did not expect illumination for the many puzzles that beset me in my professional life, but that's precisely what it has provided. The conventional axiom is that Gutenberg and movable type were the point at which books and technology began to merge - but I'm now reminded that this isn't true. The technologies of reading and publishing have entwined and evolved since writing was first invented - often in response to the available resources and the cultural pressures in play as societies have changed. So over the next few days I'm planning a sequence of short posts on some of "eureka" moments I've experienced while reading the book.

Let's start with publishing formats. Casson describes the formats known to have existed in the Ancient world - starting with wood and clay tablets, and graduating through papyrus and parchment scrolls to the codex (bound volumes). Each one of these technologies had advantages and disadvantages for their manufacturers, readers and librarians. In his discussion of the shift to codices, Casson shares some statistics using archaeological finds from the dry sands of Egypt, as base data:
"Over 1,330 pieces of Greek literary, scientific and other such writings have been discovered that date to the first and the second centuries: all are on rolls save less than twenty, a mere 1.5 percent, on codices. In the third century the percentage rises from 1.5% to about 17 per cent; clearly the codex was gaining favour. Around AD 300 the percentage has climbed to 50 percent - a parity with the roll that is reflected ins some preserved representations which depict a man holding a roll next to one holding a codex. By A.D. 400 it is up to 80 per cent and by A.D. 500 to 90 percent. The roll still had centuries of life ahead of it, but only for documents; what people read for pleasure, edification , or instruction was virtually all on codices."
After describing the manufacture of codices, Casson highlights a remarkable exception to their gradual adoption over several centuries. He points out that all eleven earliest surviving copies of the Bible date from between the end of the second century and the early part of the third century and all eleven are codices. Yet the evidence previously quoted suggests that in the same period as these codices were manufactured, the vast majority of non-Christian literary, scientific, historical, philosophical and spiritual texts were still produced on parchment and papyrus rolls. The codex was not yet the preferred format.

Casson comments that there could be a number of contributory factors that led to the Christian preference for the Codex ranging from the fact that Rome - where Christianity was quick to take hold - is where the codex format seems to have begun, to the fact that the codex was free from the cultural connotations attached to Jewish parchment scrolls and pagan papyrus scrolls. Moreover, he suggests that Christians used their scripture as a manual for living - rather than simply a sacred document - and the codex was much more suited to this utility.

All of which set me thinking. It seems that the most significant change to the format in which text and information was disseminated from ancient times to the advent of the eBook was driven by a coalescence of technological development (aka human inventiveness), emotional and cultural sensibilities and sensitivities, and utility. Or to put it another way, the drivers for change were the needs and preferences of the user or consumer of the text. It was all about what the customer wanted.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

On (i)Tools and (i)Toys

We have all known have we not, Dear Reader, that the events of yesterday have been inevitable for over a year? The Caxton branch of the Bounford family finally bowed to fate and become a household possessed of (and obsessed with) not just one, but two ipads.

So yes - along with the Victorian music cabinet (a recent ebay purchase collected yesterday evening) it's been an eye-wateringly expensive weekend in this corner of England. But already my only regret is that I didn't bite the bullet earlier. I recall blogging last year that my reluctance to part with cash for a Kindle lay in the fact I couldn't use it for anything other than reading books bought from Amazon. Whereas I wanted one piece of kit I could read from, purchase my groceries on, watch films, view photos, IM with the children from. And here, in the ipad is something that does all that and more. I haven't yet rigged up a camera so I can spy on the chickens via it - but I'm pretty sure it would be possible.

Here I sit, therefore, in the garden blogging on the ipad with it docked into a lovely little portable keyboard (that would also work with my iphone). And I know I've fallen in love - in a way I never did with the Kindle (still defunct on the dresser - looking hopelessly old world and analogue next to this shiny new toy) or even my iphone which - useful as it is - never grabbed me in the way this has. Thanks to Project Gutenberg and the ibooks app I sat in bed last night grazing on Marcus Aurelius, Huckleberry Finn, Shakespeare (mugging up on The Comedy of Errors so I can answer the children's questions when we see it at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park next Saturday). Today I reluctantly went down-market and loaded Dan Brown's Angels and Demons - which Felix was half way through on the ill-fated Kindle. We couldn't find this book on ibooks so loaded the kindle app for free and bought it that way.

So why two ipads? I've been a parent long enough to know that if I'd only bought one - I'd never get a look in. And also Hannah was due a laptop. She'd been eyeing up a Hewlett Packard with a swivel screen (at significantly greater cost than the ipad). And I had an epiphany. There's just no point buying her a laptop, when she will get so much more out of this. Docked to the keyboard she can write essays, while she surfs content online and in books. Through Project Gutenburg she has instant access to the classics and the staples of world literature, culture, philosophy and religion. Not to mention Angry Birds, Facebook, Hotmail, Gmail, YouTube, and all the other mandatory requirements of the modern 14-year old. She has resources at her fingertips I could not have dreamed possible when I was the same age. And moreover all rolled into a bit of kit that's totally seductive and as cool as it comes. Libraries were never this sexy.

I've heard educational and children's publishers talking a lot since the arrival of the ipad about the blurring between books and games that is beginning to take place. I think the change is more fundamental than that. In this instance it's not about the content it's about the kit. Just as interactive whiteboards have changed the classroom, the ipad has crossed a social Rubicon in a way smart phones, kindles, laptops and net books have never quite managed in being both a tool that is necessary and/or useful to achieve constructive work - and a toy that brings entertainment, pleasure, creativity and play. Smart phones nearly got there - but the screen size was always going to inhibit them. When I first saw Steve Jobs proudly holding the ipad aloft - like many others I sniggered that all Apple had done was create an iphone on steroids. But now I'm using one, I'm embarrassed by that cynicism.

Yes, I'm concerned that the infinite variety on offer has a detrimental effect on concentration and self discipline - my own let alone Hannah's. But something in me tells me that in this - and the generations of technology that will follow hot on its heels - there is a blended-experience future for our industry and probably our culture. Unless we want to go the way of the Amish and become a tiny, quaint minority, we have to address the inherent problems through engagement, use and experience - not through abstention.