The iPad and Information’s Third Age

Today we have a guest post by William Rankin, director of educational innovation, associate professor of medieval literature, and Apple Distinguished Educator, Abilene Christian University. ACU was the first university in the world to announce a comprehensive one-to-one initiative based on iPhones and iPod touches designed to explore the impact of mobility in education. For the past year, they have been considering the future of the textbook. Rankin, who made a brief appearance on NBC Nightly News last night, does a great job here of putting the new Apple iPad in historical context and suggesting why it may solve the great informational problems of our age.

It may seem strange in the wake of a major tech announcement to turn to the past—570 years in the past and beyond — but to consider the role of eBooks and specifically of Apple's new iPad, I think such a diversion is necessary. Plus, as regular readers of Open Culture know, technology is at its best not when it sets us off on some isolated yet sparkling digital future, but when it connects us more fully to our humanity — to our history, our interrelatedness, and our culture. I want to take a moment, therefore, to look back before I look forward, considering the similarities between Gutenberg's revolution and recent developments in eBook technologies and offering some basic criteria we can borrow from history to assess whether these new technologies — including Apple’s iPad — are ready to propel us into information’s third age.

In the world before Gutenberg’s press — the first age — information was transmitted primarily in a one-to-one fashion. If I wanted to learn something from a person, I typically had to go to that person to learn it. This created an information culture that was highly personal and relational, a characteristic evidenced in apprenticeships and in the teacher/student relationships of the early universities. This relational characteristic was true even for textual information. The manual technology behind the production and copying of books and the immense associated costs meant that it was difficult for books to proliferate. To see a book — if I couldn’t afford to have my own copy hand-made, a proposition requiring the expenditure of a lifetime’s worth of wages for the average person — meant that I had to go visit the library that owned it. Even then, I might not be allowed to see it if I didn’t have a privileged relationship with its owners. So while the first age was rich in information (a truth that has nothing to do with my personal bias as a medievalist), its primary challenge involved access.

Gutenberg’s revolution, ushering in the second age, solved that problem. Driven by one of the first machines to enable mass-production, information could proliferate for the first time. Multiple copies of books could be produced quickly and relatively cheaply — Gutenberg’s Bible was available at a cost of only three years’ wages for the average clerk — and this meant that books took on a new role in culture. This was the birth of mass media. Libraries exploded from having tens or perhaps a few hundred books to having thousands. Or tens of thousands. Or millions. And this abundance led to three distinct revolutions in culture. Though the university initially fought its introduction, the printed textbook provided broad access to information that, for the first time, promised the possibility of universal education. Widespread access to bibles and theological texts fueled significant transformations in religion across the Western Hemisphere. And access to information, philosophy, and news led to the dismantling of old political hierarchies and some of the first experiments with democracy (have you ever stopped to notice how many of the American revolutionaries were involved in printing and publishing?). (more…)

Experiments in Publishing (Take 1)

Those who read this blog regularly may remember my past posts (herehere and here) about the Amazon Kindle and recall that I have mixed feelings about it. You'll also know that I’ve been interested in what authors such as J.A. Konrath have accomplished by releasing books on the Kindle itself. (Heck, some of you even knew about Konrath’s successes before I did.—Thanks Kurt.) And now, since recently becoming a happy Kindle owner myself, I've decided it's time to make an experiment in this new fold. So let me tell you about it.

Publishing Experiment 1: If we know anything for sure about publishing right now, it’s that it is changing. Authors, I believe, must become the scientists running experiments with new technology, new publicity strategies, marketing, you name it. There’s just too much money involved for the big (and some small) presses to carry out the kind of testing and idea-trying that needs to be done. That leaves us independent authors to try things out on our own.

In that spirit, I’m releasing a collection of short stories in the Kindle format just after Christmas. A Long Way from Disney is officially out now, but I'm "releasing it" on Sunday Dec. 27th, a day I'm calling Disney Commando Sunday! The thinking here is that by asking people to all buy the book on a single day, I can go after the top of Amazon's Kindle bestseller chart and garner more attention (sales) there, especially with the after-Xmas new Kindle owners.

I’ve priced the collection low ($.99) because I’m more interested in how many copies of the book I can get out there than in how much money I can make off of sales. For those who’ll be counting, the $.99 price point will give me 35 cents and Amazon a hefty 64 cents per book sold. They’ll win out regardless, but it’s their sandbox and I want to play.

You can buy this Kindle book on any computer once you've established a Kindle reader preference/Kindle account. You have three choices here. You can do this with:

1) An actual Kindle. 2) An iPhone running the Kindle App (download) or 3) Any PC running the new Amazon Kindle software for PC (download here).

You cannot buy the Kindle book for anyone else, and no one can buy more than one copy. It's certainly an interesting set of rules, isn't it? Well, this is what Amazon has set up. If you'd like to aid this experiment, please forward this blog post to other authors, readers, Kindle owners, and experimenters in the publishing field. It should be interesting to see what this can generate with a minimum of publicity and zero budget.

If you'd like to sample any of the short stories from this collection, you can hear any/all of them free online at my website and find out more about the Kindle experiment here. I hope you'll choose to come along and help make some waves with this idea. I do think that the more successes independent authors have with this new means of getting things done, the better it will be for all of publishing. Perhaps that'll be our next debate.

I'll be back later this week with a few stories from the collection and then again next Sunday for the big sales kickoff! See you...

Seth Harwood podcasts his ideas on the publishing industry and his fiction for free at sethharwood.com. He will be teaching an online course (The Essential Art: Making Movies in Your Reader's Mind) with Stanford Continuing Studies starting in January. His first novel, JACK WAKES UP, is in stores now.

Kindle Competitor Gets Off to a Shaky Start


Looking to take back some of the e-book market from Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble has released its new reader, the Nook. This week, Walt Mossberg, the influential tech reviewer, gave his thoughts on the new gadget. Needless to say, it's not a good PR day when he says that it feels like a product "rushed to market."  Watch the video review here.

Kindle the Answer? For Author J.A. Konrath It Is

With six published novels under his belt, you might think J.A. Konrath has it made. But, if you know much about the current publishing market, you could certainly question that. Made or not, JA made a very interesting discovery recently when he sat down and compared his Hyperion ebook royalty statements with the proceeds he's brought in by putting up four novels on Amazon's Kindle store all by himself.

What did he learn? That self-publishing ebooks can be a lucrative and very real option for known authors! You've got to read the whole post here to get a full sense of the figures involved and why this has been working for him.

While we're at it, if you want more writers disclosing their royalty statements in blogs, have a look at what Lynn Viehl has to say about the proceeds from her NY Times Bestselling books at Genreality.com. Thanks to April Hamilton at  Publetariat for bringing this to my eye.

You can find out more about Seth’s work (including his latest book Jack Wakes Up) at SethHarwood.com.

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