What Can Publishers Learn from Indie Rock?

The Scholarly Kitchen • 16 November 2012

1+1>2. Former publishing consultant Michael Clarke argues that digital vs. hardcopy is not an either/or proposition. He says book publishers could learn a lot from indie record labels, which have learned that including a digital download with a CD or vinyl sale is good business. "If implemented the right way, publishers could kill two birds with one stone: they could support a mechanism for downloading e-books purchased in conjunction with hardcovers that not only makes their best customers happy and extends the life of hardcover sales, but that actually fosters competition in the e-book marketplace." Read on for a fresh view on the e-publishing wars.

The author makes a powerful argument that publishers should be giving away a free e-copy with every work sold in hardcover. Hardcover buyers, Clarke insists, are arguably a publisher's best customers; providing them with free DRM-less e-copies would eventually build up an expectation among them of finding such non-proprietary copies widely available in the e-book marketplace. Best of all for publishers—as the comments following the article clearly bring out—by giving print buyers a website and a key where they can go to download the e-copy, publishers would come into direct contact with their customers in a way that they've never been able to do in the past. This would seem to be a win-win idea for publishers, as they were never going to sell both print and electronic to the same customer anyway. But one wonders: could "win-win" conditions persist if "libraries" were substituted for "hardcover buyers" in the argument above? (OK, it was a rhetorical question . . . )  (Massie)

Out of Touch

Slate • 15 November 2012

See me, feel me. This excerpt from Andrew Piper's Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times celebrates the "graspability" of hardcopy while offering a brief tutorial on the historical and linguistic connections between reading and touch. Many of the words we use to describe reading material—handbook, manuscript and even digitization—reinforce that linkage. Read on for a fascinating look at how e-books are changing the equation.

Piper's piece is so lovely that it's quite nearly a prose poem. Beautiful use of language, and lovely quotations from canonical authors (such as St. Augustine and Aristotle) to make his points about the power of turning a physical volume's pages to "hold" a person's attention and "convert" that person via a tactical experience. On the other hand, the fact that he whizzes past the earlier transition from scroll to codex suggests that he hasn't thought very hard about the significance of other techno-transitions in the history of reading. I easily agree with him that the nature of reading, and of interaction with the vehicle, totally changes with digital reading of any type of content (newspapers, ahem), but some of his arguments seem sort of weak—and I say this as someone who has yet to acquire an e-reader. I like the way I can navigate a physical book, and I especially like giving them to friends when I'm done (my version of evangelism). But I learned a lot of really cool bits from this article, and now I'm dying to know whether any of Napoleon's soldiers actually learned Braille. (Dooley)

Fragrances as Art, Displayed Squirt by Squirt

The New York Times • 15 November 2012

Making scents. The newly opened "Art of Scent 1889-2012" exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design offers museum goers a whiff of 12 fragrances as they traverse through individual cubes designed to showcase each experience. The minimalist design translates "an extraordinarily evanescent art form—one that is typically encountered on the skin, or lingering in the air—into the visually oriented context of a museum." This is an interesting example of displaying nonvisual art in a visual environment.

The notion of applying "terms typically reserved for visual art and architecture like Modernist, abstract or Brutalist" to the description of manufactured scents is an interesting one, motivated by a desire to classify and arrange transitory sensory experiences without reference to marketing clichés, chemical components, or olfactory notes. I quite liked the description of the cotton candy-inspired Angel scent created by the celebrated nose Olivier Cresp as "a work of beautiful overt Surrealism" and wondered how Chandler Burr, the exhibit's curator, would classify scents with longer historical pedigrees. Eau d'ange, for example, is a classic perfume with many variants, including a complex preparation preferred by the alchemist Sir Kenelm Digby, and a simpler distillation proposed by botanist Asa Gray. Do these creations represent distinctive artistic works or are they different expressions (in FRBR terminology) of some more general conceptual abstraction? I admire Burr's efforts to elevate the artistry in scent-making but suspect that the "faddish fashion trends dictating the market's fortunes" have less to do with creative genius than the commercial ambitions that animated César Birotteau, the Parisian perfumer immortalized by Balzac. (Malpas)

Joshua Foer on Memory

The Browser

Memory games.U.S. Memory Champion Joshua Foer offers recommendations for learning more about the art of memory. The five books about memory that he discusses help explain the important role that manuscript illumination; rhyme and meter; and mental metaphors have played in memorizing lengthy texts.

This "FiveBooks" interview style review focuses on memory, especially the importance and approaches to memory in the past. I've never thought my memory particularly good, but reading this makes you realize that with some effort people can greatly improve their memories.

Two interesting quotes from the interview:

"Once you had printed books, it was no longer important to keep thoughts in your mind because you could reference them externally. We no longer needed to exercise our memories to the limits of their capacity. To some extent, we've forgotten how to remember."

"Studies show that you can easily teach elderly people to use memory techniques, but that once they leave laboratory conditions they forget to apply the techniques." (Hickey)


Learning to Love Volatility

The Wall Street Journal • 16 November 2012

Survival instinct. In his previous writings, risk engineering expert Nassim Nicholas Taleb has warned of "black swans"—cataclysmic events like 9/11 that no one sees coming. In this article, Taleb examines the qualities that enable organizations "to thrive and improve in the face of disorder." Check out Taleb's five rules for improving what he calls "antifragility" to help inoculate your organization against unanticipated adversity.

Most of us are conditioned to avoid adversity whenever we can, but Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that it is exposure to adversity that makes some organizations stronger and more robust in the face of low-probability, high impact events—the so-called "black swans." To reduce the down-side risk associated with economic calamities like the financial crisis of 2008, organizations should strive to make themselves "antifragile," or in other words, cultivate the ability to absorb and benefit from the stressors posed by adverse events. Taleb discusses five implications that follow from antifragility: 1) excessive economic policy intervention in the face of small crises can diminish an economy's ability to defend itself against big ones; 2) policies should favor businesses that benefit from adversity by learning from their mistakes; 3) the relentless pursuit of scale can lead to fragility by concentrating risk and potential losses; 4) trial and error, rather than top-down theoretical knowledge, is the true engine of innovation—and the ability to learn from mistakes; 5) decision-makers must be exposed to the risks of their actions, not just the rewards. The antifragility thesis is a good reminder that the goal of a robust organization is not stasis, but growth, and that growth must proceed in an environment fraught with uncertainty, volatility, and adversity. (Lavoie)

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