“The Dumbest Generation”? Depends whom you ask…

I’m at Book Expo America in LA this week, so here are a few random thoughts and links that I”ve stored on the shelf:

A thought-provoking piece appears in the current issue of Newsweek, called The Dumbest Generation? Don’t Be Dumb, discusses a new book by Mark Bauerlien of Emory University: The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)

The reviewer writes:

It really aggravates him that many Gen-Yers are unapologetic about their ignorance, dismissing the idea that they should have more facts in their heads as a pre-Google and pre-wiki anachronism.

Here’s a contrary perspective from another author, who happens to be the moderator of the session I’m currently sitting in (“Scaling the New Economies: In Search of Book Publishing’s 2.0 Business Model”)

In “Print Is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age” – published in hardcover last November, and now available for the Kindle – author Jeff Gomez challenges authors and publishers to think creatively about the new medium: “It’s not about the page versus the screen in a technological grudge match. It’s about the screen doing a dozen things the page can’t do.” Digitized words should count for more. “What’s going to be transformed isn’t just the reading of one book, but the ability to read a passage from practically any book that exists, at any time that you want to, as well as the ability to click on hyperlinks, experience multimedia, and add notes and share passages with others.”

So we seem to be moving towards a grazing style of literary consumption, and away from the more traditional “three square meals a day” paradigm. It’s now possible to read a few pages of your favorite novel on your iPhone while in line for the ATM or in the airport departure lounge. Or listen to it on your iPod. That is if you’re not too busy Twittering…The whole world is suffering from digital ADD.

http://www.newsweek.com/id/138536

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121115298895702155.html?mod=todays_columnists

For an opposing view on the digital future, involving a Print on Demand offering see this letter:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121193712530024831.html

Breaking up is hard to do… Borders and Amazon part company

Like Brad and Jennifer, Tom and Nicole, the rumors surrounding the breakup of Borders and Amazon’s seven year partnership are true. Today, Borders launched its own website, after it terminated an alliance with it had Amazon since 2001. The execs at Borders probably watched the film “Sleeping with the Enemy” and got nervous. Good coverage can be found on this mashable post:

http://mashable.com/2008/05/27/borders/

An interesting part of Borders new strategy is their e-book offering. The website shows a tab for e-books, which takes the customer to the following page:

 

 

 

which is simply a link to Sony’s Ebook Reader, and its online store.  By distancing itself even further from Amazon, and hitching its wagon to the Sony platform, it merely hastens its slide into oblivion. E-books can actually drive customers into the store, instead of out of it, if the correct strategy is in place. For example, many readers will still be willing to purchase a physical copy of a book even if they’ve already downloaded it in an electronic format, perhaps to give to a friend as a gift. Borders could offer to apply some or all of the purchase price of the e-book toward the cost of the dead tree variety. Their challenge is to get customers in the store, and then offer them reasons to shop there. A coupon for a healthy discount off a book in the store (at least 25%) might do that, and this could easily be delivered as part of an ebook download. It could be for a backlist title from the same author. They may choose to adopt this pricing model in their alliance with Sony, but it doesn’t look too promising at this point. I can personally count the number of visits I’ve made to a bookstore on both hands since I got my Kindle, and that’s a drop of probably 90% over a six month period. So by embracing all e-book formats, bricks and mortar retailers like Borders can look at this new technology as much of an opportunity as it is a threat.

In related news, Amazon announced a price drop for the Kindle to $349. Curiously, though, it’s without fanfare. You’re not told the price until you click on the item. Maybe they don’t want to create another stampede?

Score: Teen Fiction 1, Video games 0

An encouraging piece of news appeared in Newsweek’s web edition on May 19:

Generation R (R Is for Reader)

The book business may be flat, but there’s at least one bright spot: the booming sales of books for teens–and no, it’s not all Harry Potter. Contrary to the depressing proclamations that American teens aren’t reading, the surprising truth is they are reading novels in unprecedented numbers. Young-adult fiction (ages twelve to eighteen) is enjoying a bona fide boom with sales up more than 25 percent in the past few years, according to a Children’s Book Council sales survey. Virtually every major publishing house now has a teen imprint, many bookstores and libraries have created teen reading groups and an infusion of talented new authors has energized the genre.

And one publishing executive quoted sheds some light on a trend that might be behind this development:

“because of MySpace, Facebook, blogs and authors’ and publishers’ Web sites, young readers are communicating interactively now with each other and with authors.” Another reason for the YA boom cited by Levithan and others is that teen books have become an integral part of today’s overall pop-culture entertainment menu. They segue into television series, movies, videogames, cartoons and the Internet. If teens see that, say, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” is coming out in theaters, they’ll read the book in advance of the movie.

This is a trend that smart publishers will pick up on, and leverage the rise of social media to drive a huge market that lives on the net to become lifelong readers. Think of it: releasing a new chapter a week of an up and coming YA author’s latest novel in digital format, building audience and loyalty as readers post them on their blogs, on their Facebook page, create fan clubs, etc. THis is one use case in which free will lead to higher sales, because unless everyone has a Kindle (or possibly an iPhone), many readers will opt to go out and buy the book rather than read the whole thing on a tiny cellphone screen. Maybe this strategy would’t move the needle on sales of Harry Potter books, but there are plenty of lesser known works that could find a new audience using this approach. It could also breathe new life into publisher’s backlist.

http://www.newsweek.com/id/136961/page/1

Cracks in the Dam: Publishers dabble in digital tales

The following appeared in the May 22 edition of Canada’s Globe & Mail newspaper:

A pair of Canadian book publishers dipped their toes ever deeper into the online world this week by offering free digital downloads of entire books. House of Anansi Press and HarperCollins Canada have decided to make the full text of a single book available to readers for a limited time, hoping to attract new readers, raise the authors’ profiles and boost sales of traditional copies. Jon Evans’s mass-market paperback Invisible Armies can be read for free until June 30 through the HarperCollins read-only interface called Browse Inside, which normally allows readers access to excerpts of books. HarperCollins chose Evans because of his enthusiasm for the experiment and for his status as an established writer with a solid following that they hope to expand.

While it’s encouraging to see a publisher go out on a digital limb, one has to wonder whether they have thought through the best way to proceed in this Brave New World:

“We didn’t feel like we were going to risk anything in terms of the book’s sales,” Anansi president Sarah MacLachlan said. “I could be delusional in this, but I really don’t think the digital book has come of age, so I don’t think that people would prefer to read something digitally than they would to own the actual book.”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080522.wbooks22/BNStory/Entertainment/?page=rss&id=RTGAM.20080522.wbooks22

Now there’s an example of innovative, cutting edge thinking: “We can give it away, because nobody really wants it anyway.” Not,  “How can we use this new medium to build market share and capture an audience that we couldn’t reach before?”  To show how ill-conceived their strategy is, when I went to their website, I was able to download the PDF file of the book without even registering! I then emailed it to my Kindle, where is is quite readable.

If the Anansi executive had discussed this approach with Leslie Hulse, Vice President of Digital Business Development at HarperCollins (parent of Anansi Press) who spoke at the International Digital Publishers Forum on MAy 14, she would have heard her say: “People will register for free content”. (For a look at a site that takes this premise to a higher level, check out www.wowio.com, where users are asked to complete a fairly detailed profile in order to download a free e-book daily.)   Harper Collins is arguably the furthest along in experimenting with digital content, with their “Browse Inside” feature, which looks a lot like Amazon’s “Search Inside” option. It actually lets you read quite a bit of the book online (in a few cases, all of it) (http://www.harpercollins.com/book/browseinsidemain.aspx) But I think they’ve still got some work to do on the pricing model. The books I looked at listed for $24.95 for the hardcover edition, and $19.95 for the e-book version (full DRM included at no extra charge). Not exactly a compelling enough discount to try out a new format. (“Let’s not risk those margins”)  They do however, require registration in order to download the occasional free e-book they offer. Maybe the Anansi folks should check it out.

OLPC 2.0: The future of e-book readers?

Could the next generation of the OLPC be a “Kindle-Killer”? If Nicholas Negroponte’s predictions of the XO-2 are borne out, then children in third world countries may be surfing the web on a unit that has dual screens, and a foldable e-book form factor. “The next generation laptop should be a book,” Negroponte said.

The XO-2 will employ the dual indoor-and-sunlight displays, which was pioneered by former OLPC CTO Mary Lou Jepsen. The design will provide a right and left page in vertical format, a hinged laptop in horizontal format, and a flat, two-screen continuous surface for use in tablet mode. “Younger children will be able to use simple keyboards to get going, and older children will be able to switch between keyboards customized for applications as well as for multiple languages,” the press release reads.

http://blog.laptopmag.com/first-look-olpc-xo-generation-20

If Negroponte et al can overcome the trials and tribulations of the last few months (high profile employee defections, OS flip-flops, missed sales targets, PR snafus) and get this device out for a sub-$100 price point, I would argue that it would obviate the need for a product like the Kindle. What I can see occurring is a mad rush of consumers in the developed world to the “Give one – Get One” program.

No word yet on a feature like the Kindle’s “WhisperNet”, which allows auto-downloading of content without an internet connection. If that were included, it would truly put global literacy within reach.

E-Pub: It’s not a social network for beer drinkers; it’s a digital publishing standard

Last week I attended a conference in New York called Digital Book 2008, organized by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). The organizers might consider changing the name to the CIPNATA, for the Consortium for the Introduction and Proliferation of New and Arcane Technology Acronyms. Here, as Exhibit A, is an excerpt from the IDPF’s home page, which asks the question that’s been on everyone’s mind:

What is EPUB, .epub, OPS/OCF & OEB?

“.epub” is the file extension of an XML format for reflowable digital books and publications. “.epub” is composed of three open standards, the Open Publication Structure (OPS), Open Packaging Format (OPF) and Open Container Format (OCF), produced by the IDPF. “EPUB” allows publishers to produce and send a single digital publication file through distribution and offers consumers interoperability between software/hardware for unencrypted reflowable digital books and other publications. The Open eBook Publication Structure or “OEB, originally produced in 1999, is the precursor to OPS.

Throughout this one day confab of several hundred publishing and technology executives, I heard these acronyms, and many other unfamiliar ones bandied about. Another concept that was the subject of many presentations was what is known in the business as “reflowable text”, which essentially refers to the ability of the text to maintain its formatting, searchability, and readability regardless of font or screen size. Since page numbers in a printed book are constant (page 245 is the same in everyone’s copy), digital versions of the content by necessity cannot use page numbering; if the user changes the font on the device from 10 point to 20 point, the entire book must be re-formatted and still maintain the readability. The near universal PDF standard is based on a bitmapped image of the page and does away with features such as a table of contents when downloaded to an e-book reader. Book designers and layout editors express reservations when faced with the possibility that the aesthetic quality of their publication may be compromised to accomodate the reflowability of text. This is much more of an issue for image and graphic intensive publications than plain text, so that reading a James Patterson thriller might be a more satisfying experience than browsing through say “Skydiving for Dummies”.

It’s anyone’s guess if this new format will be the one to that becomes the de facto standard for digital books. No doubt the publishing industry will learn from the Tower of Babel that the braintrust in the recording industry produced, leaving listeners to choose from a veritable Baskin Robbins of protocols, including WMA, AAC, MP3, MP4, WAV, OGG Vorbis, Chunky Monkey, etc. And of course, don’t forget everyone’s three favorite initials, DRM.

The most promising sign that the publishing world is not blindly following the recording industry down a litigious death spiral is that the new E-Pub format does not have DRM built in by default. If the publisher chooses to add it to the otherwise freely shareable e-book, then it can be done easily, (providing yet another diversion for bored high school students who will no doubt crack the DRM code while cutting their AP Physics class).

Stranger in a Strange Land (with apologies to Robert Heinlein)

I just returned from spending four days with approximately 18,000 reading teachers from around the world, who met in Atlanta, GA for the International Reading Association’s Annual Convention. There were many outstanding speakers throughout the conference, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Alice Walker, and David Baldacci. Yet perhaps the most inspirational speaker was not a famous actor or blockbuster author, but a teacher. That speaker would be Rafe Esquith, who, while not a household name, is considered a celebrity and a rock star in the world of elementary education. He has garnered a litany of awards, including the American Teacher Award, the President’s National Medal of the Arts, and recognition by the Dalai Lama. He’s been the subject of a PBS documentary, and has authored two books that describe his approach to teaching: “There Are No Shortcuts” and “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire”. Here’s an excerpt from the cover flap of the second book:

In a Los Angeles neighborhood plagued by guns, gangs, and drugs, there is an exceptional classroom known as Room 56. The fifth graders inside are first-generation immigrants who live in poverty and speak English as a second language. They also play Vivaldi, perform Shakespeare, score in the top 1 percent on standardized tests, and go on to attend Ivy League universities. Rafe Esquith is the teacher responsible for these accomplishments. In Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire!, Rafe Esquith reveals the techniques that have made him one of the most acclaimed educators of our time. The two mottoes in Esquith’s classroom are “Be Nice, Work Hard” and “There Are No Shortcuts.” His students voluntarily come to school at 6:30 in the morning and work until 5:00 in the afternoon. They learn to handle money responsibly, tackle algebra, and travel the country to study history. They pair Hamlet with rock and roll, and read the American classics. Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire! is a brilliant and inspiring road map for parents, teachers, and anyone who cares about the future success of our nation’s children.

Both books are available from Amazon, but only the second one is offered in a Kindle version.

In this brilliant treatise, (which should be standard issue to all new teachers) Esquith writes the following:

Reading is not a subject. Reading is a foundation of life, an activity that people who are engaged with the world do all the time. It is often exceedingly difficult to convince young people of this fact, given the world in which they are growing up. Esquith continues: Never as a child was I put through thousands of hours of testing to assess my reading progress. I spent those hours reading great books. Those books made me hungry for more books. My appetite for literature and trips to the library were a better assessment of my progress than any standardized test. My students made up their own reading test consisting of only three questions. According to them, it is a far more accurate test of reading proficiency than anything designed by some testing service:

1. Have you ever secretly read under your desk in school because the teacher was boring and you were dying to finish the book you were reading?

2. Have you ever been scolded for reading at the dinner table?

3. Have you ever read secretly under the covers after being told to go to bed?

My students agree that if a child answers yes to all three questions, he or she is destined to become a reader for life.

Esquith, along with many other presenters at the conference, had nothing but contempt for two current pillars of the American education system: Basal readers, and No Child Left Behind. [According to Wikipedia, “Basal readers are textbooks used to teach reading and associated skills to schoolchildren. Commonly called “reading books,” they are usually published as anthologies that combine previously published short stories, excerpts of longer narratives, and original works. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basal_reader] Or as Esquith puts it,

school districts have turned to monotonous shared reading texts and have ordered all teachers to teach the same material at the same pace to all students. The district’s list of reading objectives always focus on fluency, comprehension and other necessary but deadly dull goals. I have never seen district reading objectives in which the words joy, passion or excitement are on the list.

You can learn more about this heroic individual by visiting his website at:

http://www.hobartshakespeareans.org/

As an outsider looking in on the field of education, I couldn’t help feel a liitle like Valentine Michael Smith, the hero of Robert Heinlein’s 1961 classic sci-fi novel, ” Stranger in a Strange Land” (I just couldn’t grok so much of it). Wandering around the massive exhibit hall, and sitting in on many of the seminars, I came away with a couple of admitedly simplistic observations:

1) School administrations and state education ministries are motivated by a paralytic fear of failure to deliver adequate test scores, resulting in a massive juxtaposition of education budgets, now reallocated to support the holy grail of acheiving and maintaining “Adequate Yearly Progress”. No mention of terms like “love of learning”.

2) The textbook publishing and test prep industries have capitalized on this fear and paranoia by creating, at great expense, vast amounts of “scientifically researched and designed materials” to help students master the tests. Using complex diagnostic and analytical approaches, along with prescriptive programs of intervention and remediation, (only to be administered by highly trained and highly paid experts) the industry offers desparate school districts lifelines that promise spectacular results in terms of student achievement. (If said results are not forthcoming, not to worry, there’s another program you can try. )

3) Lost among all the hysteria is the fact that the greatest influence on kids’ ability to learn is the quality of the teachers, and their discretion in choosing inspiring and exciting material to teach their students. For demonstrated proof of this “theory”, see above discussion of Rafe Esquith and his 5th grade “Hobart Shakespeareans”.

So instead of spending billions on achieving such vague and nebulous objectives as “Adequate Yearly Progress”, maybe we should simply reallocate some of that money to hire really good teachers, pay them a decent wage, and let them teach the way they want. (Oh yeah, and spend some of those billions on good books that the kids can take home and actually read. This convention simply reinforced the conviction I have that probably half of the expenditures on areas such as intervention and remediation of below-grade readers would be unnecessary if more parents simply read to their kids)

You can find Esquith’s second book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire here:

http://www.amazon.com/Teach-Like-Your-Hairs-Fire/dp/B000OZ0NRG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=digital-text&qid=1210340572&sr=1-1