Bring back the midlist!

There’s a great blog post on YARN (Young Adult Review Network) about the danger of the blockbuster mentality in the publishing world, and about the value of the fast-disappearing “midlist” – books that neither sold millions of copies nor flopped, by authors who had talent and the potential and promise to keep writing good quality books.

We can all identify the blockbusters – The Hunger Games, Twilight, Harry Potter are the obvious ones in YA, and all of those had crossover appeal, which helped them sell even more. There are adult blockbusters too – just look at The New York Times bestseller list. Again, nothing against reading popular books, but let’s brainstorm our favorite off-the-beaten path books – fiction or nonfiction, YA or adult. Here are a few of mine:

Overture by Yael Goldstein

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

The China Garden by Liz Berry

The Good People of New York by Thisbe Nissen

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

A Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev

The Various and Celandine by Steve Augarde

Lucky Girls: Stories by Nell Freudenberger

Love Begins in Winter: Stories, Simon Van Booy

What about you? Books that maybe haven’t hit the bestseller list or been heaped with literary awards or prizes, books that haven’t received much publicity buzz from publishers or reviewers, but good books nevertheless. Share your favorites in the comments!

Booktalk

A booktalk is exactly what it sounds like: a talk about books. Earlier this month, I gave a booktalk to the Wilmington Women’s Club at the library; it was a lot of fun picking the books, writing up a booklet ahead of time, and giving the talk.

Right before the talk, I pulled all of the books I could find from the shelves and created this display. Some of the books were out, of course, but most are here, and in some cases I included the authors’ other books, if s/he had any.

From left to right: Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill; State of Wonder, The Magician’s Assistant, The Patron Saint of Liars, and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett; How to Talk to A Widower and Then We Came to the End by Jonathan Tropper; Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer (An Available Man wasn’t available); Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first); Commitment by Elizabeth Gilbert; The Widower’s Tale, Three Junes, The Whole World Over, and I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass; The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights by Joan Didion; Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce; and The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow (author of The Girls From Ames).

Not pictured (fiction): Her Fearful Symmetry and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; Wayward Saints by Suzzy Roche; The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey; The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly; The Paris Wife by Paula McLain; I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck

Not pictured (YA): The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Not pictured (biography/memoir): Bossypants, Tina Fey; The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin; My Life in France, Julia Child and Alex Prudhomme; An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken

Not pictured (nonfiction): The Girls From Ames: A Story of Women and Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow; The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman; The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler; The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Hopefully, there’s something for everyone!

Hand over your password? Er…no.

Every week I get an e-mail from LinkedIn with the top five articles of the week. Usually these are along the lines of “what makes a remarkable boss,” “how to be a great employee,” “what interview mistake are you making?” etc. But this week there was a link to an article called “Job seekers getting asked for Facebook passwords,” and yes, this is exactly what it sounds like.

If you, like any smart person, have your Facebook or other social media site settings set to “private” so that only the people you want to see your profile and other information can see it, it turns out you may be asked in an interview to hand over your login and password. To me, this is an outrageous violation of privacy and an unreasonable request – it is simply over the line. (More reasonable requests that potential employers might make include asking you to “friend” someone in Human Resources. Or, if you have your profile set to “public,” you can safely assume they’ve looked at it before they called you in for the interview.)

What legal recourse do you have to say no? Is this like the Fourth Amendment where they have to establish probable cause? On the other hand, if you refuse, that job opportunity might be lost to you, and in this economy, who can afford that? Well, giving anyone else your login information is a violation of the Facebook terms of service, but right now that’s the only obstacle in these invasive employers’ way. The ACLU has protested the practice, and some states – Maryland and Illinois – are working on legislation to forbid public agencies from asking for access to social networks, but private companies could continue it.

This touches on a larger issue. I was horrified to read about this practice, and even in an interview situation where I really wanted or needed the job, I think I would say no if asked for my password to Facebook (let alone e-mail!). It’s not that I have anything to hide, but rather the principle of personal privacy that’s at stake.

The whole idea of privacy may be eroding; it seems to be less important to “Millennials”  (just Google “Millennials + privacy” – some articles about how savvy they are at protecting it, others about how their views on it are simply different from traditional views of personal privacy). From personal observation, it seems that teenagers and those in their early 20s are less protective of their personal information – and with so much of it available online, it might seem like a hopeless effort to keep any information private.

However, for a potential employer to ask you for personal information that you have deemed private seems beyond the pale. (It may also allow them to find answers to questions they are not legally allowed to ask in interviews, such as your age, marital status, or religion.) They already have your resume, your cover letter, your application, as well as whatever they have gleaned from what is publicly available online; they can contact your references and ask you questions in an interview; they can even give you a drug test (with your consent). Is it really necessary to hand over your passwords as well? I think not.

Do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars: Apple and the publishers vs. Amazon?

Do you buy e-books? Did you feel surprised, taken aback, betrayed, indignant, outraged when the average e-book price suddenly jumped from $9.99 to $12-15? Now: have you thought about why those prices changed?

First, it’s important to understand that $9.99 is not the actual cost of an e-book: Amazon set that price point, and they were taking a loss on every e-book sale, in the hopes of luring more and more customers to buy their Kindle e-reader. Amazon was able to set e-book prices because they bought the books from publishers on the “wholesale” model: Amazon paid the publishers about half the cover price of the book, then set its own price for its customers.

A quick note about the real cost of a book: just because it’s a digital version – an e-book – rather than a book printed on paper doesn’t mean it was free to produce. Authors, editors, publicists and marketing people still had to be paid, offices still had to have lights on and computers running. The cost of paper and printing is somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 for a hardcover, less for a paperback.

So with the wholesale model, publishers could not set their own prices for books. With the “agency” model, however, they could: when Apple entered the e-book market, it allowed publishers to set their own prices and take 70% (Apple taking the remaining 30%). Apple also “reportedly stipulated” that publishers who used the agency model couldn’t sell their books for less to anyone else; thus, no more selling to Amazon on the wholesale model. The price change across the board is what drew the attention of both consumers and of the Justice Department, which is threatening Apple and five of the “big six” publishers with “allegedly colluding to raise prices.” (Never mind when airlines change their prices and policies one suspiciously close to the other. And do not get me started on cable companies. Or Amtrak.)

However, Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein advises the long view in this situation. True, when Apple broke up Amazon’s de facto monopoly, prices for consumers went up, not down; but, he points out, “What looked to consumers like a great bargain at $9.99 a book looked to others in the industry suspiciously like predatory pricing, or selling below cost today in order to gain a monopoly and raise prices in the future.” Which is better, he asks, “a market in which Amazon uses low prices to maintain its e-book monopoly and drive brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business, or one in which the major book publishers, in tacit collusion with Apple, break Amazon’s monopoly and raise prices?”

When you think about it that way, maybe paying an extra few dollars for your e-books is worth it.

Internet Archive

After having written about the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) recently, it’s only fair that I should write about the Internet Archive as well. (Brewster Kahle, founder of Digital Librarian of the Internet Archive, is actually on the DPLA Steering Committee, so the two organizations are linked.) The Internet Archive is, quite simply, an Internet library. It is a nonprofit and was founded in 1996, so it’s been around for some time now.

One of its cool features is the “Wayback Machine,” which allows you to plug in a URL and pick a date to see what a given website looked like, say, ten years ago (if it was around then).

Amazon.com was around in 2002; let’s see what it looked like, shall we?

A little different than it looks today.

So the Wayback Machine is fun to play with (also, useful). And the Internet Archive’s digital library is a great project; but just in case digital copies aren’t enough, Kahle is also building a physical library (or, as The New York Times poetically puts it, an ark). “In case of digital disaster,” the article states, Kahle’s goal is to collect one copy of every book. Kahle said, “We must keep the past even as we’re inventing a new future. If the Library of Alexandria had made a copy of every book and sent it to India or China, we’d have the other works of Aristotle, the other plays of Euripides. One copy in one institution is not good enough.”

Considering how many various file formats and digital storage options we have already gone through in the past few decades, keeping one hard copy of every book isn’t a bad idea. Think about it: if you have some files on a floppy drive from 1998, can you still access them? And if you can’t access them, do they really exist, practically speaking? Whereas a book printed at the birth of the printing press hundreds of years ago can still be read by pretty much anyone (well, anyone patient enough to make their way through a whole variety of spellings).

A Day in the Life

Toward the end of this TechCrunch article about how Random House just tripled the price of ebooks for libraries, there was a link to this well-written, insightful blog post on MetaFilter about why libraries are not anachronistic – about why, in fact, they are more essential than ever.

In the post, the author urges the reader to “imagine this: you’re 53 years old, you’ve been in prison from 20 to 26, you didn’t finish high school, and you have a grandson who you’re now supporting because your daughter is in jail. You’re lucky, you have a job at the local Wendy’s. You have to fill out a renewal form for government assistance which has just been moved online as a cost saving measure (this isn’t hypothetical, more and more municipalities are doing this now). You have a very limited idea of how to use a computer, you don’t have Internet access, and your survival (and the survival of your grandson) is contingent upon this form being filled out correctly.”

Then the author goes through every step of the scenario, and concludes, rightly, “If you have any concept of a free and equal society, then libraries are still an integral part of that.”

Building the Digital Public Library of America

On Friday a friend and former classmate and I went to the “Building the Digital Public Library of America” program at Harvard, where Robert Darnton and John Palfrey both spoke and answered questions. Darnton is the Director of the University Library and also a professor at Harvard, as well as a co-founder of the DPLA, and the author of The Case for Books, among many others; Palfrey is also a Harvard professor and the chair of the DPLA steering committee, as well as the author of Born Digital and other books.

The DPLA is envisioned as “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform and empower everyone in the current and future generations.” Naturally this goal is viewed by some as utopian or simply impossible, but as Darnton said Friday, “We don’t have answers, [but we do have] the determination, expertise, funds, and public support…We will make it happen.” Calling the DPLA a big task is an understatement, but, Palfrey said, “This is exactly the moment to think this big…[if we don't] we are falling short.”

There are design challenges and technical challenges, but “these challenges can be met and will be met,” said Palfrey. As for what exactly the DPLA will contain or look like, he said, “What is the DPLA? We’re not sure yet. And we’re not sure on purpose.” People have dedicated themselves to workstreams for the five elements of the DPLA: code, metadata, content, tolls & services, and community.

The biggest challenge is that of copyright; it’s why Google Books ultimately failed. In order to succeed, there must be some agreement between the creators (authors), the publishers, and the service/platform/distributors. Unlike Google Books, the DPLA aims to provide free access, not commercial access, to a broad public. Behind the DPLA is the belief that access to information is (a) the right of citizens, and (b) fundamental to democracy.

Models of this type already exist; one is Europeana, “a single access point to millions of books, paintings, films, museum objects and archival records that have been digitised throughout Europe. It is an authoritative source of information coming from European cultural and scientific institutions.”

The digital divide is one concern; despite the growth of e-readers and e-books, and the widespread (but not complete) availability of Internet access, for many people, print content is still more accessible than digital content, especially when digital content comes encumbered with DRM and other limitations.

Another concern, raised during the Q&A on Friday, is how the DPLA will affect public libraries. The people working on the DPLA are pro-library; many are librarians. Darnton emphasized that they are designing the DPLA “not to undercut public libraries…[but rather] to reinforce public libraries.” The DPLA, he argued, would make public libraries more important: not only could they serve as an access point, but librarians could create and curate local collections. Overall, the DPLA “is a very complex ecosystem and we need guides through it.” Librarians, Darnton says, can be those guides.

This is one of my answers when people ask if librarians are necessary anymore, because “everything is on the Internet.” Perhaps it is (though not everything is Google-able) – but can you find it? The proliferation of information, both in print and online, is overwhelming – “information overload,” anyone? – and most people could use some help sifting through the hundreds, thousands, or millions of search results to find something reliable and relevant. That’s one reason why librarians are necessary – and this librarian is excited to search within the DPLA as soon as it is up and running, just over a year from now.