Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Slow Books Movement

An interesting idea is a powerful thing, but you can't eat it. You really have to give it away to make it worth anything, and even then you can't eat it. So what if you're good at having interesting ideas? You can go arounds giving talk at conferences. If the idea is incomprehensible enough, maybe you can even get tenure and a salary out of it. But what if it's an easy idea, one that resonates with a lot of people? Then your best option for making a living off the idea for a while is to write a best-selling book.

 Clay Johnson has an interesting idea, and I encountered his talk at this month's Tools of Change for Publishing Conference. I can even explain it for you, but of course Johnson does it much more entertainingly, and the TOC talk is on the web. In short, Johnson's thesis is that the things that are right and wrong with out information diets are the same things that are right and wrong with our food diets.

Humans are evolved to prefer fat and sugar over the things that are good for us because these foods were scarce in the environment we evolved in. Fat and sugar aren't scarce anymore, and the result is that we eat too much of them and are not as healthy as we could be. Worse, the economic structure of our society has created incentives for corporations to create huge complex systems that efficiently feed us sweet fatty food at a low cost. It's what we want. Fast Food.

Thus the "slow food movement". Slow food is the opposite of fast food. Inefficiently and locally produced with few of the benefits of technology or high fructose corn syrup from Iowa. Cooked from raw ingredients, crafted by a grandmother in a small kitchen. High in fiber, vitamins, protein and minerals. Low in antibiotics and fossil fuel byproducts. I exaggerate, but I'm smelling a frozen pie in the oven, and my zeal for slowness is tempered by my desire... to finish writing before it cools!

We suffer similarly from our "information diets". People want information that confirms what they already believe. Who wants to be intellectually challenged, really? We want sweet stories that entertain us, make our lives seem justified, and feed the emotions we most want to feel. And so we get information products designed to give us what we want, not what's good for us. Our news is designed and selected for search engine optimization rather than human wisdom maximization. It's Fox News and MSNBC, not Walter Cronkite and the New York Times.

Johnson's idea and his presentation of it are so tasty, so delectable, so comforting, that once you absorb it you become suspicious that it's self-referential. Are we liking the idea because it's confirming a bias we already have? Is it a "Fast Idea"? Aaaaack!

Luckily there's a book, The Information Diet, published by O'ReillyThe book's cover looks like a cereal box, the kind that's supposed to be good for you. The book is thin and lean, and has little of the fat or sugar of Johnson's presentation. It has footnotes and ScienceDirect URLs in all their unshortened bleakness. There are no pictures. It's the ideal souvenir from a Clay Johnson talk. It grounds Johnsons talk in tight argument and factual background. It's a "Slow Book" for a "Fast Idea".

And this leads Johnson to a concept that he calls "Infoveganism" in the book, but more appealingly, "Slow Information" in his talk.
A healthy Information diet always starts locally-and your political information should be no different. The goings-on of your state representatives and city and county governments, along with your school boards, and other local government offices are the best, healthiest forms of content for political news, and should be consumed over the national or global news.
Really. The main problem I have with Johnson's book is its "veganism". It's a sermon that, as much as I might agree with it, is not going to change my behavior.

It's my view that economic and social incentives are what ultimately determine the behavior of organisms, not information, whether slow or fast. If we want a better information diet, we need to alter the economics of information availability. That's why a society with libraries can be better that a society with only bookstores, Harry Potter notwithstanding. It's also why I'm developing If authors and publishers are rewarded for the value that people have received from books rather than for the catchiness of the cover art or the placement in the bookstore, we'll have better books to read. The books will last longer, and they'll connect people in richer ways. They'll be "slow books" because the economic model will have a long view.

I think I'll skip the whipped cream on my apple pie!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Borrowing vs. Buying Books: the Numbers

CC BY-NC by O'Reilly Conferences
I had many stimulating discussions and met many interesting people at this week's Tools of Change for Publishing Meeting in New York. I'm much too busy helping with development of to do a proper review. I'm obsessed with bug-fixing at the moment. So I just had to write and fix a minor bug in a presentation I heard.

Tim Coates, of Bilbary, made the statement that "twice as many books are borrowed in the US as are sold by booksellers". This factoid made it into at least one report of the session, on the role of libraries moving forward. I recently worked on compiling some data about this, and while the effect of the statement is still valid, it's not accurate. And for all I know, Coates may have misinterpreted something I wrote, so I feel that I should participate in fixing this data bug.

In 2009, the most recent year for which real data is available, US public libraries circulated 2.44 billion items, according to data from IMLS. That's a lot. But not all of them were books. In Ohio, 40% of the public library circulation that year was non-book material, or in other words, audio and video. If we assume the same fraction for the entire US, we're left with a book circulation of about 1.45 billion. US public libraries spent $889 million on print materials in 2009, or 61 cents per book circulation.

The BookStats 2010 survey reported publisher net unit sales of 2.57 billion. Trade books comprise about half the dollar volume, $13.94 billion. So if we compare public library circulation with trade book unit sales, they're roughly equal in units. If we compare the public library spend with the trade book total revenue (offset by one year), we see that public libraries make up about 6.4% of the market. If you add the K-12 education sector to the total (34% of library circulation is "juvenile" literature), the library share drops to 4.6%

These data-based numbers are worth keeping in mind when we think about the economic impact of library lending on book sales. We shouldn't single out Coates; I've heard un-sourced numbers quoted that are all over the place. There's so little hard data available that these real numbers are all that more precious.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Libraries Happen

Michael Scotto's Just Flash is a children's book about a strange animal trying to figure out its identity.
Flash is the only animal of his kind, but he wishes he could just belong to a pack like everyone else at the zoo. He first tries to become another animal, in order to fit in. He tries to be a giraffe; he tries to be a gazelle; he even tries to be a zebra. Along the way, though, Flash realizes that it's more rewarding to be himself – no more, no less.
Libraries and librarians crossing over from print to digital must feel a lot like Flash. Even newly born entities like the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) are finding themselves in an awkward period of not knowing what they should be.

I was a guest at a recent DPLA "Audience and Participation Work Stream" meeting that brought together participants with a variety of perspectives and experience, but joined by a deep concern for the future of libraries. We met at the Dallas Public Library, just after the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting at the nearby Convention Center. Our charge was to help articulate "why we need a public library when it's all on the web" and suggest how to attract involvement from all types of libraries.

The DPLA has the incredibly difficult task ahead. It must weave together many distinctive strands of activity emerging from a strong but inchoate desire for the missions of libraries to continue in new more powerful ways.  It's encouraging to me that the DPLA leadership is spending a lot of time learning about the needs and desires of diverse communities. But I think that sometimes our understanding of what libraries are today holds us back from seeing what the library movement could be tomorrow. Separating the essential from the institutional manifestation is not always easy to do.

During my time in Dallas, I had the fortune to witness a "library" happening in its purest, most human form.

YALSA is one of the American Library Association's many incomprehensible abbreviations. YALSA stands for the Young Adult Library Services Association. I don't really know much about what YALSA does, but on the Sunday exhibit floor of the ALA meeting, I saw more than one group of teenagers roaming the exhibits wearing YALSA T-shirts. On the way back to my Dallas hotel, I shared a subway train car with one of these groups. I started chatting with two of the teens. It seems that the librarian at their suburban Dallas high school had organized their expedition. The teens had made off with huge bags full of books courtesy of the exhibit vendors.

Sitting on the other side of the train car was a Hispanic family- a young mother, her daughter of perhaps 6 years, and an older man who was probably the girl's grandfather. The little girl was reading what appeared to be a fast food restaurant placemat, but it didn't seem to interest her much. The YALSA teen next to me noticed. She asked the mother, "Are you going a long way on the train? I have some books here she might like." And out of the bag appeared a copy of Just Flash. The girl's eyes lit up. For the next 20 minutes I watched the girl enchanted by an illustrated story that had appeared as if by miracle, chosen specifically for her. As I got off the train, a second book was emerging from the teen's bag.

I don't know what sort of animal libraries will evolve into. Maybe librarians will ride trains with mega-book digital libraries on memory sticks for kids who need them. Maybe restaurant placemats be ultra-cheap reading devices. Whatever stripes it wears or what name it answers to, the simple act of letting a book bring joy and wonderment to a little girl will define what a library must be, no more, no less.
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