Monday, February 22, 2010

If you don't like it, change it

The New York Times reports that the formerly respected publisher Macmillan is introducing a system that allows college instructors to change the content of the books they assign to their classes (delivered to the students as e-books), down to the sentence level, without notifying the publisher or author.

Technically, there is no review mechanism to detect whether an instructor introduces errors or adds material that the author whose name is on the cover would find unacceptable. The system is completely under the control of the individual instructor.

Were there a wiki-based approach that allowed a community of similarly situated instructors to revise and improve the text, with the author being able to accept or reject such changes, this would be a way to keep scientific texts, for example, up to date with the latest research. But under the system as Macmillan has designed it, students will soon be subjected to freshman biology texts that replace the Theory of Evolution with Intelligent Design or some such.

This is more than a bad idea (and thanks to Brian Akers for bringing it to my attention). This represents a total abdication of any duty on Macmillan’s part to control the quality of the books they publish. But this is not an entirely new phenomenon. Ever since publishers started to be acquired by conglomerates in, what, the 1980s?, MBAization of their management has turned them away from any sense of social or cultural responsibility. This is just one more (and one very disturbing) step in that process.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

One size fits . . . some

Have you been trying to follow any of the many recent discussions about e-books and e-readers, about access to knowledge and protecting authors’ rights, about book scanning and copyright? Are you confused? Me too.

What confuses me is that putatively smart people are making such simplistic prognostications and arguments. End of the book as we know it indeed! Please. I don’t think so.

The rhetorical problem, it seems to me, is that we have a word, book, that represents not one category but many categories of objects, both concrete and abstract, both physical and virtual. Most people who work with books of one sort see their grove of trees as the whole forest. This is an easy trap to fall into: if you spend your life in the world of genre fiction, then books means genre fiction. If you spend your life in research libraries studying the history of fruit fly research, then books means obscure, long-forgotten monographs in danger of being deaccessioned and lost to history.

So here is an incomplete list of kinds of books and what the current swirl of debates might say about them.

Genre fiction
This is the category that is most in flux and where the current debates are actually meaningful. The mass market paperback sold in grocery stores, discount stores, and airport newsstands is vulnerable. If enough consumers are eventually attracted to an e-reader (one that is better designed, more readable, and less expensive than the generation now on the market), a lot of trees will be saved. For the most part, these books are not designed, in the sense of there being a book designer making decisions about individual books. They are text poured into an innocuous template and printed very very cheaply. The only design money involved goes into often lurid covers, and there will continue to be covers designed, for online marketing purposes, even if these books go all-e.

Literary fiction
Technically, there is no reason serious fiction can’t go the same way genre fiction does. However, there continues to be a social meme that associates reading literature with sophistication and status. People like to have the physical books—well-designed, well-manufactured hardcovers—on display in their homes to impress their friends. I suppose this meme could become extinct in another few decades, and in any case we’re talking about a small portion of the reading public. But for as long as it’s around, there will be printed books in the category. Many will prefer to read these as e-books, of course.

Biography, autobiography, memoir, history, government, politics
This is a mixed bag, but all of these categories share with fiction that they are predominantly straight text. Oh, there might be a few photographs here and there, but even today’s generation of e-readers can handle this sort of material well enough.

There are books in these categories that are the result of decades of research and are meant to stand the test of time. There are others that are more ephemeral, dealing, say, with the current or just-ended political season. The latter will migrate quickly to mostly-e. The former will parallel the fate of literary fiction, with at least some copies printed for the foreseeable future.

Many of vanity press books in this group (memoir, for the most part) will, as people come to understand what a bad idea vanity publishing is, start to be produced as e-books from the get-go—or as blogs, which is what most of them should be now.

Self-help, travel, gardening, cooking, health
Books with charts, graphs, color photos, diagrams, and other graphical information that doesn’t work well with the current e-readers will undoubtedly be accommodated by future devices. Why wouldn’t you rather carry a bunch of travel guides in one lightweight device than lug around a stack of books? For now, though, the devices are either not up to the job or are too expensive for most people or both. So we’re going to be seeing these books printed for the most part for a while yet.

The self-published books in these categories, particularly those sold at the back of the room, may continue to be printed. What is it that you would hand someone in exchange for their twenty bucks at a show booth or a card table if not for the physical book—a gift card? A password? I suppose someone will solve the technical challenge, but from a sales psychology standpoint, I think people will still feel they want a physical object to carry home, for a good while, at least.

Coffee table books, gift books, journals
The same drive for technological innovation that is leading to the virtualization of some kinds of books is also dramatically reducing the costs associated with luxury printing and binding. The book as an art object to savor in one’s lap is going to be with us a long time, I think. At the same time, a lot of the creative energy that goes into these books is beginning to flow toward multimedia extravaganzas that are as likely to be delivered online as through printed, bound books. So the coffee table category may shrink. Gift books will stick around, as will blank journals. There will always be romantics.

Children’s books
Speaking of multimedia extravaganzas, from Beatrix Potter to Pat the Bunny to pop-up books to talking books to interactive books on the iPod Touch, parents have been happy to give kids the latest, busiest books to try to hold their attention. Grandparents will continue to buy printed books, but I suspect they’ll be read less and less by the youngest readers.

For older children, e-books will capture a lot of the market, particularly in school.

A huge amount of inertia—from teachers’ unions, from school administrators, from elected school boards, from schools of education, from state politicians—has kept the process of educating our children mired in nineteenth-century technology despite all the well-meaning efforts to modernize it. Yes, some textbook publishers are embracing e-books as a way to lower costs for schools. But until the whole concept of a standard textbook is seen as hopelessly obsolete, we’ll continue to have printed textbooks, both in K-12 and in college. There will be erosion (e-rosion?), but the hundred-dollar chemistry text will be with us for a while.

Scholarly works
A lot of scholarly work has already moved online. The information gets out there faster and cheaper, and scholarly publishing has never been about profiting from sales.

As I said, this is a partial list. What does it mean overall? Just that you have to look at each category by itself and judge what it means in terms of the businesses of printing, distributing, and selling printed books. Publishing will be with us forever: a publisher is in the business of disseminating information for profit, regardless of the medium. The physical book may become less prominent over time, but it’s not going to disappear soon.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Compulsion at Yale Rep

NOTE: This is a review of a play that officially opens tomorrow. The play, a co-production of the Yale Repertory Theatre, the Public Theater (in New York), and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is scheduled to tour nationally. Because the performance I attended was technically a preview of the show’s world premiere run, it is possible—likely—that changes will be made (gawd, I hope so) before tomorrow’s opening or at least before it reaches a stage near you, wherever you are.

Oy! Where to begin
Okay, I may as well tell you what the play is about, first. Meyer Levin’s book, Compulsion, the title of which was borrowed for this unrelated play, was the first nonfiction true crime novel (about the Leopold and Loeb murder case), the precursor to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, according to the Wikipedia article on Levin.

Levin was a journalist and a prolific writer. One of the defining moments of his life was his witnessing, as a war correspondent, the liberation of concentration camps in Europe at the end of the Second World War. Today we would say that the behavior portrayed in the play was the manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder, but that diagnosis wasn’t around in the 1950s.

The doppelgänger Levin created for himself in his writing was Sid Silver. The playwright, Rinne Groff, collated a set of events in Levin’s life, as recounted in books by Levin; by Levin’s wife, Tereska Torres; by Lawrence Graver; and by Ralph Melnick (see the Wikipedia link), and gave them to the character Sid Silver. So the play is ostensibly a dramatization of the nonfiction novel (form invented by Levin) of Levin’s life, told through the alter ego Levin invented, using a title Levin applied to a book about something else altogether. Nicely recursive, don’t you think? Derivative, too.

The outline
The play is about Levin’s obsession (not really a compulsion, I think) to bring The Diary of Anne Frank to the United States, first as a book and then as a drama. Anne Frank became the medium through which he understood his purpose in the world. Because of ideological and artistic differences with others (Otto Frank among them), he entered into a series of legal battles the narration of which constitutes the heart of the play. Well, what’s wrong with that? I’m not saying there wasn’t conflict or dramatic tension, but I am saying the play consisted almost entirely of exposition. Levin’s story—Groff’s synthesis of Levin’s story—would have made an interesting magazine article. In a good piece of journalism in the New Yorker or Harper’s, I expect exposition. In a play I want more.

The production
Three actors cover seven main and a few incidental roles. In addition, a crew of three puppeteers handle the ghosts of Anne Frank, Otto Frank, and Miep Gies, as well as the play-within-a-play roles consisting of an assortment of actors playing Anne Frank, Otto Frank, and Miep Gies. There’s that recursion thing again, a trick Groff seems fond of.

The play dragged. A third to a half of the scenes could be cut. In particular, the last three scenes were merely maudlin and added nothing to the play—not even a graceful denouement. If the playwright and director have any mercy, these scenes will be gone before the New Haven run is over. But the script has other problems aside from length. At the start of the second act, we’re treated to one of the characters entering the set, walking to the front of the stage to face the audience, and addressing the audience directly with superfluous narration of biographical details we don’t need to know. The whole show is so ponderously expository that it’s a wonder the actors could spit out the lines most of the time.

Moving on…
Hannah Cabell, as the publisher Miss Mermin and as Sid Silver’s wife (based on Levin’s wife, Tereska Torres) was superb.

Stephen Barker Turner, playing a variety of publishing executives and lawyers, who somehow all looked and acted alike, as well as Silver’s friend Mr. Matzliach, did the best he could. Mr. Thomas, Mr. Harris, and Mr. Ferris were all stereotyped WASPs, and Turner played them all pretty much the same way—as flat as they were written. I wasn’t the only one who was confused. At one point Silver called Ferris Harris and was corrected, garnering a chuckle from the audience. I honestly couldn’t tell if the error and correction were in the script or a fluffed line and an quick save.

Mandy Patinkin played Levin aka Silver. I always liked Patinkin in Chicago Hope. And the choice to play the Silver character is completely consistent with everything else I’ve seen him do. But…I dunno. Maybe he was just having a bad night. Or maybe the script, staging, and direction were really that bad. At best, I’d characterize his performance as uneven. He was on stage for nearly the entire play, and that’s a lot of material to master. Still, um, well, he’s a professional actor and I’m an amateur reviewer; so maybe he was just coming from somewhere I don’t understand at all. Or maybe he rose from his sick bed to be a trouper. Or something.

There were moments when I couldn’t tell if Patinkin was pausing for effect or had gone up on his line. If the pause was for effect, the effect wasn’t one I could identify. His rants, his moments of contrition, even his amorous moments with his wife (everyone keeps their clothes on in this one, for a change) all seemed rote, formulaic, phoned in. But I readily acknowledge that Patinkin may have signed on to the project despite a weak script and that he may be making the best of a bad situation. So I don’t want to lay the blame on him.

The puppeteers did everything that was asked of them and did so pretty well. This was straightforward marionette work consistent with the plodding expository nature of the script. No imagination was called for or in evidence.

The set is worth noting. I’ve seen great plays, okay plays, and stinkers at Yale Rep; but one saving grace of even the worst of them has always been the set design. With the resources of the Yale School of Drama, Yale School of Architecture, and Yale School of Art to draw on, the Rep is a showcase for brilliant, imaginative designers. As noted above, though, Compulsion is a co-production of three theaters, with a name star. I suspect this had something to do with the choice of Eugene Lee as the scenic designer. Lee “has been the production designer at Saturday Night Live since 1974,” according to the program notes, and “was recently inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in New York.” Uh-huh. Yawn. I think the set was a castoff from SNL, or else it was sketched on a napkin and faxed in. Blecch.

Don’t feel compelled to see this one. But read other reviews after the show actually opens. Maybe it will get better.