Burma Through the Eyes of Poets

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Eaindra reading her work at the Arts House, Singapore | Aug 13, 2013

When I think of Burma, I think of an almost mysterious country that seems to have been lost in time, punctuated occasionally by news of a military junta and its struggle with the iconic Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Yet there is another side to Burma that we do not realise, one that is invisible to us – the soul of its people, their stories, their words, where the literary culture is a precious part of their life.

Poetry has a powerful way of transcending lines.

Burma/Myanmar has been isolated from the rest of the world for over 50 years and is only now beginning to emerge from decades of strict military censorship. Poetry has always been the most popular form of literature in Burma, going back to the 9th century, and it has consistently been the most censored. Successive military regimes have managed to keep one of the most poetry-rich traditions something of a secret from the world, that is, until recently.

This event will reflect on just how inventive Burmese poetry has had to be over successive generations in order to thrive and what some of the challenges writers in Burma face today.

In a new era of post-censorship, the three key contemporary Burmese poets — all published in Bones Will Crow: 15 Burmese Poets (Arc Publications, 2012) — Zeyar Lynn, Moe Way and Eaindra, will be joined by James Byrne, poet and co-editor of Bones Will Crow — to launch the first anthology of modern Burmese poetry published outside of Burma — and to discuss issues relating to Burmese poetry, past and present, examining how areas such as political censorship and international translation have affected the country’s literary aesthetic over the years. – World Voices presents Burmese Poets, The Arts House, Singapore, August 13, 2013

The genesis of project started in 2006 when James Bryne realised that there was no access to what was being published in Burma, which has operated under a strict regime of military censorship. In that climate, poets had to be highly inventive to avoid censorship. For example, writers couldn’t use words like rose or mother as it alluded to Aung. In 2012, censorship was abolished.

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Zeyar Lynn
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Burmese poet and publisher, Moe Way

The event gave us a quick introduction to the world of Burmese poetry.  From the classical poetry tradition to the various writing movements that emerged under different sets of conditions in Burma.

In the 1930s, a new movement started called Testing the Times. In the 1950s, the New Writing movement emerged , which was very politicized and leftist. In the 1980s, the Modern Poetry movement, free verse, no structure, no rhyme. It was not considered as poetry by the traditional. Then there came new poetic styles like the Post Modern poetry, the Language Poetry movement and the Conceptual Poetry.

What was interesting to me is how the Burmese poets are defining their own genre and poetic movements.  Zeyar Lynn is considered to be the father of contemporary poetry. As poets who had to struggle for the words, words which we so often take for granted, they convey a special sense of mutual respect for each other as poets and writers.

Moe Way, who is both a poet and publisher, was born in 1969 in the Irrawady Delta. Fifteen years ago, Moe Way worked as a laborer in Malaysia. When he returned home, he saw a gap in the publishing world for modern Burmese poetry, so he started his own press. Circulation for poems is limited.  Famous poets can sell 1,000 books and not so famous ones, 500 books. After publishing 10 poetry books, his money ran out. He had to publish other types of books to supplement his income so that he can continue publishing poetry. Today, the younger generation of poets are coming to him. Expenses could be shared 50/50. He said he will never be able to survive on publishing poetry books but he will go on publishing it anyway.

Eaindra is the youngest poet that evening. Born in 1973 in the Irrawady Delta, she had her first work, As It Were For a Poem, published in 2012. She works as a quantity surveyor in Singapore and is very actively involved in the Aesthetic Life Foundation.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening to hear poetry read lovingly in the Burmese tongue and then hear its translation read with its special nuances captured by James Byrne.

A Giant Shakes – Barnes & Noble

When Barnes & Noble shakes, we know something is happening. After all, it is one of the largest and most powerful bookstore chain in the United States with 720 retail stores and was the first to introduce giant, supermarket-style stores with deeply discounted book that smaller, independent stores could not match. The company recently announced that it was putting itself up for sale in the face of declining profits and the challenges of a fast-changing market in the book industry.

words in motion | photo by ivy
An aggregate of factors has changed the way people buy books and read them. People used to stroll through aisles of books, looking through books they didn’t know existed and buying them. Now people go into online stores and do the same thing, except that the experience is totally virtual. Amazon.com led the revolution when its online stores gave people the option to shop online with its vast selection of books. The physical books were then shipped to the buyer. Today the experience with the advent of electronic readers like Kindle and Apple’s iPad meant that when a buyer has found a book he wants, it can be downloaded and is ready to be read instantly. You can now bring as many books as you like in one device and read them wherever you like, without the physical constrains of paper books. The release of Apple’s very popular iPad in April 2010 has spurred an increased interest in e-books.

Small and Nimble
In a surprising twist of events, it is the small and privately owned independent bookstores in the United States that are holding a competitive advantage in the face of growing digital market. They maintain a close community of readers who would not trade the personal element found in such associations for the anonymity of virtual bookstores. There are more than 2,000 independent bookstores by American Booksellers Association’s estimate. The stand-out factor for them is their ability to know their unique base of customers and what their likes are. However, the challenges remain as more people begin to shift from books-in-hand to books in electronic forms which are less expensive.

Digital Book Publishing Futurists
So what does the future look like for books, physical and otherwise. Sales of E-books is on an upward trend. In the first five months of 2009, e-books made up of 2.9% of book trade sales. In the same period in 2010, it grew to 8.5 percent. (Association of American Publishers). Carolyn Reidy, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster predicted that within the next three to five years, the company’s book revenue from e-books could be as high as 40 percent while it is about 8 percent currently.

With the uncertainties of a growing digital market faced by brick and mortar bookstores and publishers, enter companies like The Idea Logical Company, which present themselves as digital book publishing futurists with a special interest in the challenges and opportunities presented by digital change. This is an area not only to be taken seriously by giant retail bookstores but also for small independent bookstores and publishers. It could be extinction or a second wind, depending on if they can find that sweet spot in the digital market for a new generation of readers who grow up surrounded by digital media and are geared for it, mentally and physically.

What would emerging business models look like for brick and mortar stores as well as for publishers in the future?

iPad Revenue Model for Publishers

The future of publishing will be shaped by those who dare push the boundaries, and Apple has made this into an art. Great ideas together with the power of technology has opened doors no one has thought of. That’s why the launch of iPad on 28th January 2010 is such a significant event. It is not just about some cool looking device but what it portends for the future of publishing, and what it would look like even a year from today. Both the naysayers and stargazers will have their say on this. My take? Apple’s business model will take off.

Apple’s vision will impact the publishing industry, no doubt about that. Based on liberty and sharing of revenue through a harvest model, it is very similar to Scribd’s. The two elements that Apple has incorporated into their business model for content providers are:

1. Apple allows publishers to set pricing
2. Apple takes a 30 per cent cut of sales of books

Consumers of Apple products have been trained to pay for online content. They happily fork out their dollars because they get what they want for a fee that doesn’t hurt their pocket at the push of a button. How easy is that? Real easy. The success of Apps is a testament to this. Media companies better start looking from the readers perspective of things if they want to catch this gravy train. Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster have already signed up with Apple for the iBooks application.

Google: Search Is About People, Not Just Data

I have been a fan of Google since it began, especially in its early days. I was excited about their vision and the way they seem to intuitively understand people.

It was not a great surprise to me that it has grown to become a giant that it is today. Now the challenges it faces are a little different from when it began. The question looming over its head is: Will it become an evil empire? It’s motto being ” Do no evil.” Can it stay on the straight and narrow path with the enormous power it wields.

Hence this interview by BusinessWeek with Manber, vice-president of technology, caught my eye. I have put it down in its entirety because I’d like to think there are insights to be gleaned – the most important one being that Google’s success lies in recognizing that “Search is about people,” and hence there are no formulas. It’s as much art as pure science and speed. The heart of it is something that relies more on intuition than sheer number crunching. It’s a good reminder that all successful business begins with understanding the business of people.

Google’s Udi Manber: Search Is About People, Not Just Data
Posted by: Rob Hof on October 01, http://www.businessweek.com

Udi Manber, Google’s vice-president of technology for core search, joined the company almost four years ago after stints running Amazon.com’s A9 search project and serving as chief scientist at Yahoo. He, like some other leaders on the search quality team, has 20 years of experience in search going back into academia—meaning before the World Wide Web, when it was known as information retrieval.

I talked with Manber on two occasions in recent weeks for my story on Google’s search operation, which appears in the latest issue of BusinessWeek. Customarily stingy with details about Google’s inner workings, to thwart competitors, Manber nonetheless provided a lot of insight into how Google’s core search quality team does its magic. And while he sounds quite confident about Google’s prospects—at first, I wondered, maybe too confident?—it’s also clear that he realizes the threat always looming for any technology company in the form of some unexpected breakthrough from an upstart. After all, Google was one of those upstarts not so very long ago.

This transcript, like the others to come over the next several days, is fairly long. I opted to leave in as much as possible to provide more details for people who are really interested in the inner workings.

Q: How does Google approach the process of improving search?

A: We want to improve search, but unlike networks or disks or some operating system, it’s not easy to measure. If you want to improve a network, you make it faster and bigger and more robust. For search, it’s much more complicated.

You also want to be faster, bigger, more robust. But that’s not the main measure. The main measure is whether we help our users and give people what they need. And that now has to do with people, not necessarily some mathematical measurements. You really have to understand and kind of feel it all the time.

In some sense, it’s against the grain for a computer scientist. As a computer scientist, you learn to deal with science and how you improve particular parameters. A lot of computer science now is directly about helping people.

Q: As you said at Google’s Searchology event in May, the 21st century will be about understanding people.

A: Exactly. But that means that we need to build our systems that not only understand that …but that (allow us to) actually measure things. So we built a measurement system to really understand what people need. That means for us to improve search, we have to figure out what is missing and why it is not perfect for people.

When we suggest an improvement, we need to know whether it’s really an improvement. We have hundreds of engineers and they have great ideas, but a lot of this is kind of intuitive. You may have a great idea and you implement it and it looks good, but it turns out it might hurt more cases than it helps.

Q: How do you determine that a change actually improves a set of results?

A: We ran over 5,000 experiments last year. Probably 10 experiments for every successful launch. We launch on the order of 100 to 120 a quarter. We have dozens of people working just on the measurement part. We have statisticians who know how to analyze data, we have engineers to build the tools. We have at least five or 10 tools where I can go and see here are five bad things that happened. Like this particular query got bad results because it didn’t find something or the pages were slow or we didn’t get some spell correction.

Q: But can those tools really determine what must often be a subjective assessment of whether results were good for a particular query?

A: You have to have really good intuition because you can’t do one query at a time. If you look at all the unique queries we get in a particular day, about a third of them we’ve never seen before. One-third of them every day are unique. If you normalize for traffic in any random query … still about one-sixth of the total traffic is completely new every given day.

I wish there was a formula. But this formula would have to simulate a person. We don’t know how to simulate a person. Yet. Maybe someday somebody will.

Q: What are some of the measures you use?

A: There are obvious things we can do. If somebody did a search for something and didn’t click on anything, that’s a sign that maybe the results are not good. It’s not a good enough sign. All these signs are just an approximation.

Here’s a very good example: You want to try to improve spell-checking, right? So what you expect is that if the spell-checking is correct, people will click on it. That’s not the case. People use us as a spell-checker—they get the right answer and go away. So even though we didn’t get any click, we got the perfect result. So you want to have no clicks.

There are other cases where the results are in the snippet. You don’t have to click on it. It was the perfect result. So you have to be careful. Sometimes when you improve search, you actually get less clicks. And that’s fine.

Q: Microsoft recently said its studies showed people weren’t getting the results they wanted the vast majority of times they search.

A: I don’t know how they computed that. But the numbers they had, I can tell you, were way too high. Maybe that’s true for them. But I shouldn’t say that because I don’t know what they mean by that.

Q: Can you give me a sense of the types of methods you use to improve search?

A: Humans are involved, formulas are involved, experiments are involved. We often do A/B tests, give one set of people an algorithm, give another set of people another set of algorithms and see how they behave. We measure lots of things, not just clicks.

Q: I can imagine that one change that’s good for particular results can have unintended effects on other results. I’m thinking of the butterfly flapping its wings in South America ultimately causing a storm in the North Atlantic.

A: Oh, we absolutely get that. We improve spell-checking somewhere, and suddenly, something completely unrelated changes.

The way you rank is, you score. So every result has a quality score, which is a result of hundreds of different things, and then you sort the results in order. So you change one thing, and one score goes from, say, 5,000 to 5,001. It’s a small change. But it turns out that the three top results were all (scored) 5,000 and suddenly the 5,001 goes to result No. 1. These things happen all the time.

Q: You’ve been in search 20 years, almost four years at Google. Have you changed the process of how you try to improve search in that time?

A: The processes are much more smooth now. Especially the evaluation process and the decision process is much more smooth. We’re very comfortable with that. To do a ranking improvement, you have all the infrastructure in the world to try your idea quickly, sometimes in a day, and get enough data to know whether it’s good enough. Then you have more infrastructure to do a more thorough analysis and we give you all the support.

It’s not like you need to get approval for anything. Any engineer can come up with any idea, can test his idea very, very well, and then analysis and all the work to evaluate an idea, and then they just have to come to a meeting. We know what numbers to look for. And we can make a decision in five minutes. All that allows people to innovate.

Q: You have a weekly meeting of search quality team leaders. What happens there?

A: The crux of those meetings is usually: what’s wrong, how can we fix it, how can we use this insight to do other things. It’s 20 people that are top in their area. We consult and advise them on what else to do.

In general, this is just an overview of certain areas. But what people try to achieve from those talks is to try to discover some things that may not work well and try to use what they’ve done in other areas. Sometimes we bring other groups and grill them. And sometimes we bring our own groups and grill them. But it’s all productive. We’re not saying “you’re bad.” It’s all technical.

Q: Are people searching for different things or in a different way than five years ago that you need to address today?

A: Yes, it has changed quite a bit. For one thing, we’re much better at search. We’re better at the evaluation part. And there are more people who understand the search engine much better. Five years ago, there were maybe three or four people who knew it, and today there are probably 50. That’s probably than all the rest outside of Google. It takes a very, very good engineer about two years to really understand search.

Q: So what’s important today specifically—real-time? Social?

A: All those things are important. We look at all those things. Our job is to give people what they need in terms of search. So if want to follow somebody on Twitter, you should go to Twitter and follow somebody. But if you want to know what happened on that particular topic right now, that’s real-time search. So we need to bring tools. We already have quite a bit, and will have more.

If something is written on the Web that is important, we should bring it back to you in seconds. Right now we’re in minutes. Five years ago, it was once a month. We’ll try to make it faster and faster. Clearly we have the ability to do this. It’s getting possible. Now it’s five minutes, and everybody goes, “Five whole minutes? It should be five seconds.”

Q: But you can’t index everything or even a good number of Web sites that fast.

A: Sure, but not that many things change that fast.

Q: So you have to determine what does change and focus on indexing that?

A: We have to determine from the query whether it can benefit from something in real-time. Like “history of the Renaissance.” It’s possible that somebody on Twitter just mentioned that. But a) it’s not that likely and b) it’s probably not what you want. You want the best article on the Renaissance. So time is not as important on that kind of query.

But search for “earthquake” and time is much more important. Or a particular celebrity that had news in the last five minutes. So we have to change the algorithm based on the query. We do that now.

Q: Aren’t a lot of queries going to be ambiguous in intent?

A: Of course. That’s why we can’t be perfect. But a lot of it is not.

I have a really good example: “New York Times address.” You think, what can be more clear than that query? In fact, the first snippet had the actual address. And all the other links had things like the address and the headquarters. Turns out that’s not what the user wanted. And I can tell because I can see what they clicked on. We inserted somewhere a very new result, a fresh result, that talked about an address given by a New York Times reporter the day before. That’s what the query was about. We got it in the top 10. It’s possible the next day that result will go down.

Q: At some point, does there need to be an interface change that lets you say, “I want results in the last five minutes”?

A: We have that right now. We have (in Search Options the choice to choose) the last 24 hours. We can add “five minutes.” That would be one very clear way to do this.

But that’s not going to be the main thing that we’ll do, because most people don’t want to go in and understand what are the features. We’ll have to understand what you need and bring it to you, and guess as much as we can. It can’t be 100%, so we should give you all those options. But most people just want the right result.

Q: How much of Google’s ability to provide real-time and social search will depend on access to the data, which is limited in the case of both Twitter and Facebook?

A: There are lots of different ways to allow us to get that data.

Q: What about social search, that is searching either your friends’ posts or using their posts or links to inform searches?

A: Sometimes you want to get information your friends recommend. It’s not necessarily the best information. If you want to go to a restaurant or a movie, you can argue that if I give you 7,000 reviews all over the Web, that may have the best information, but you really want to know what the three people that you trust say. For you, that’s better information than everybody.

It’s tricky. We actually experiment with this quite a bit. The question is how often do you really want to be influenced by your friends and how often do you prefer to be influenced by more, by the total knowledge out there?

The way we do it is through personalized search, based on your previous queries if you allow us to do that. I have a feeling for restaurant reviews and movie reviews, these are very specific areas. We’re probably not doing as good a job as specific sites dedicated to that can do. But I think we do pretty well even for that.

I’m of two minds. Maybe I just don’t have enough friends. I find it’s about average. Sometimes I get good things, sometimes not so good.

Q: We’re seeing a lot of companies offering specific kinds of search. Will search become more splintered among many services, or will most people continue to rely on one search engine for most of their needs?

A: Google is central. There will always be cases where very focused, very specialized content will be better for them. That’s absolutely fine. If you’re a researcher and you want medical information, you’re going to go to Medline. It has a much better interface than we have, there’s no question about it. The best we can do is to point you there. We can give you a lot of financial information, but but if you’re a trader, you probably want to have data within microseconds.

Q: Will one size fits all be good enough in the future?

A: Aggregation of so many different things (on Google) gives you more chances of finding what you want. If you know ahead of time that what you need is in a particular niche, that’s fine. But if you can go to one place and there’s a good chance you’ll find it there, why not?

I don’t see it as a failure on our part if somebody does a search somewhere else. It doesn’t even bother me. I think that’s good. It’s good to have a lot of diversity. It’s good to have a lot of competition. In some sense, it’ll drive us to improve if it turns out to be something a lot of people need.

Q: Might not it affect Google’s business if people in larger numbers go to more specialized search engines?

A: Sure. (It’s just that) we cannot be one size fits everything. That’s impossible. If it turns that somebody offers a better service than we do, that’s a concern. If it turns out that we don’t satisfy needs, that’s a problem. What happens now is we satisfy more and more needs.

Q: How do you know that?

A: I see more diverse queries, I see more hard queries, and our market share is going up.

Q: How important is the user interface for search today vs. a few years ago?

A: More and more people are more comfortable with search, and they want more power tools. So we want to provide it to them, even if only 1% or 2% of the population will use it. Maybe in five years, more people will need it.

One conflict I run against is that people want simplicity. But to have really powerful interfaces, you have to have some complexity. So how do you introduce complexity in such a way that you don’t keep people out of that? It has to be optional. And it has to be something you run into slowly or can get it intuitively.

If you search for Harry Potter, it’s going to be very hard to find that person. I bet most of the results are for Harry Potter the book. At some point, we’d like people to be able to say “I want the Harry Potter that’s not in the book.”

Q: A lot of this is what you might call sustaining innovations. Do you have ways to encourage more disruptive kinds of things? Or is that not such a good thing to try to do given Google’s leadership position?

A: Yes, we do. We want to be disruptive. Hill climbing makes it easier for you step on top of some hill and think you’re on top of the world. But you’re not. We’re very cognizant of that.

So yes, we do it in several ways. One of them is an annual, sometimes semiannual event where we take groups and ask them to take a week or two weeks and build something weird. They take off work and for two weeks they don’t do anything else and build this.

We did it with user interface things, called it Demo Days. People came and spent a whole week building a demo, a working demo. We met once a day to track progress. Thirty-five teams built amazing things. We try to pick some things to move forward. We did it also for ranking, though we gave them more time. That was actually more teams—300 people, mostly in teams of two.

You may see some poster (around the Google headquarters), I call it CSI—it stood for Crazy Search Ideas. We encouraged people to do things that are actually crazy. Something that’s obvious, and everybody agrees it’s a good thing, it will be rejected.

Q: What kind of things do you mean?

A: It’s things that you might find it hard to be approved because they are too small or they’re too controversial or they’re too left-field, but we want people to do them anyway, because they could be disruptive.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: One thing launched that was technical, and it had to do with how we do ranking in Chinese. There’s something that should launch soon. [Note: Manber corrected himself later; that particular one, which he wouldn’t describe, is still being explored.] It’s something that probably would not have happened otherwise. There were 118 ideas, and we highlighted four.

In this field, there’s so many things you can do that if you just go in one proven, easy path—which you (also) have to do—that’s not good, you have to do all kinds of things.

Q: Some people, even former Googlers, raise the possibility that Google is too much in a groove in search.

A: There’s definitely a risk. We’re aware of that. My main job is to make sure it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it’s not a groove, it’s a hill. My worry is that we’re stuck on top of a hill, but it’s not the right hill. We’re not in a rut. We’re on some kind of a ridge. But that’s not good enough.

Q: How are you feeling about Microsoft’s Bing search engine and the marketing they’re doing vs. Google?

A: I think competition is great. We can use more competition. It’s good for other people, but it’s also good for us. It triggers more innovation. It’s all good. People like (Bing) for some reason, for good reasons. It gives us more motivation to work harder.

A Soulless Digital Revolution

WE ARE living in amazing times. Like the Gutenberg mechanical printing revolution which historically changed forever the course of history in Europe and then the rest of the world, we are seeing a similar storm brewing in the world of words today.

The technological innovation of movable print type invented by Johannes Gutenberg, positively impacted the culture of Europe and was definitely a key factor in its renaissance. Significantly, the printing of the Gutenberg Bible signaled for the first time the possibility of the bible being made available to the ‘common’ masses. Whether this digital revolution taking place in our generation will be culturally as significant is debatable. I’ve taken excerpts from the article by Andrew Keen from Telegraph.co.uk on this phenomena for further consideration.

Ebooks will make authors soulless, just like their product
They may be cheaper and more convenient, writes Andrew Keen, but ebooks do not represent meaningful cultural progress.

Published: 3:59PM BST 17 Sep 2009

Physical books – those textual products combining paper and words – are slowly but surely being replaced by the ebook, a handheld computer such as Amazon’s Kindle or the new Sony Reader that incorporates hundreds of texts on a single digital device.

Yesterday, for example, on the day that Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster, The Lost Symbol, was released globally by Random House, digital sales of the book on the Kindle were rivalling paper sales on Amazon.com. As The KindleNation blog said yesterday, it’s hard to imagine what could be a 2009 bigger story in the publishing world than the Kindle’s to compete, head-to-head, with the physical book.

Malcolm Gladwell’s much quoted “tipping point” for the e-book has now been reached. Next year, will see seductive new e-book devices including a Plastic Logic device from Barnes & Noble and a $99.99 dual screen e-reader from Asus. Meanwhile, the iPhone, the Palm Pre and every other smartphone is also a de facto e-book able to store hundreds of texts. The end, therefore, is nigh for the standalone book. The single physical text simply won’t be able to survive the growing e-book storm.

The historic dimensions that this dramatic transition from paper to e-book were really brought home to me last week in Brazil. I had the great fortune to be in Rio, speaking – along with writers as diverse as the Israeli novelist David Grossman, the Anglo-American historical novelist Bernard Cornwall and youth cult author Meg Cabot – at the XIV Rio de Janeiro International Book Fair: TV Bienal.

As one of the biggest public celebration of books and writers in Latin America, the Bienal attacts over 500,000 book lovers for ten days of readings and debates. The importance of the Bienal in Rio cultural life is hard to underestimate. For ten days every September, the Rio Book Fair replaces both the Copacabana beach and the Maracana football stadium as the most popular place for Brazilians to hang out.

I don’t suppose that the digital book revolution will actually do away with the book business. As Christina Zahar told me, it might actually represent an exciting commercial opportunity for publishers to reach a broader audience with their long tail catalogue.

But what the e-reader will do is replace the physical warmth of the paper book with the coldness of the digital version.

I doubt it. The digital revolution does, of course, represent a more convenient and probably a cheaper way for readers to enjoy their favourite authors.

The traditional book is the most physical of things, a text to be bent and fingered and written on and imprinted with human signatures. Something to be physically loved. The ebook revolution changes all that. In the new digital age, readers and writers and publishers will increasingly come to reflect their soulless product.

Yes, you can call me a reactionary, but, as a book author, I want my work to be fingered by my readers. I want young women like Lillian to wait in line for me to sign copies of my work. Like a character in a Stephanie Meyer fantasy, the e-book drains the blood from the physical text. No, this cultural revolution can’t be recommended.

What I do recommend, however, is a visit to Rio’s wonderful Biennal. Go soon, however, very soon, before the digital tsunami hits Brazil and begins to suck the blood of readers and writers alike.

Scribd – An Exciting New Platform for Publishers

Scribd has 60 million viewers a month. That kind of potential book-loving viewership would have publishers drooling pools.

Three amazing twenty somethings who co-founded Scribd about two years ago have discovered that a new world demands a new paradigm. I believe they will be hugely successful.

Their business model is simple and fair. Be content to be a platform for distribution, appreciate the content creators and publishers by giving them 80% of the revenue and let them decide on the pricing. Lastly build in copyright protection, that is, take care of their concerns. They have just demonstrated the age-old wisdom to success – be open, flexible and fair. What more can anyone ask for? Just ask the publishers. No wonder they are the latest ‘unlikely fans’ that been won over.

Scribd: An E-Book Upstart with Unlikely Fans
Digital book site Scribd is wooing big publishers by offering greater control and more revenue than Amazon
By Spencer E. Ante, Business Week, June 11, 2009

Last year author Bob Seidensticker flagged his publisher, Berrett-Koehler, that a digitized version of his book Future Hype had been posted on a Web site called Scribd. Anyone could read or print it for free. Berrett-Koehler warned Scribd the copy was illegal, and the company quickly took it down.

Then executives at the San Francisco publisher started checking out the site. It had a large and growing audience of readers, including many who actually went out and bought books. So last July, Berrett-Koehler began offering free excerpts on Scribd, a marketing move that led to the selections being viewed more than 325,000 times. Last month, when Scribd opened its online store, the publisher signed a deal to sell 400 electronic books through the company. “They get so much more traffic than our Web site,” says Johanna Vondeling, vice-president of Berrett-Koehler. “We are pretty optimistic about it.”

SIMON & SCHUSTER DEAL
Scribd, shorthand for scribbled, is a sort of YouTube (GOOG) for publishing, where anyone can upload digital versions of books, research reports, and other printed matter and share them easily across the Web. With 60 million visitors a month, it’s the most popular of several such document-sharing Web sites. On June 12 the San Francisco startup is scheduled to announce its first deal with a major publishing house. Simon & Schuster plans to offer 4,500 e-books for sale on the site, as well as previews of thousands of other titles. “Scribd is an exciting new platform,” says Elinor Hirschhorn, Simon & Schuster’s chief digital officer. “There is a very robust book reader audience there, and we want to be where our readers are.”

The agreement between an Internet upstart and a traditional media giant highlights the potential rewards and risks as publishers move into the digital era. With the public becoming more comfortable reading books in digital form, publishers would like to capture this small yet fast-growing source of revenue while lowering their costs. But they’re worried about piracy and losing control of their business. They’re also a bit leery that Amazon.com (AMZN), the largest online bookseller and creator of the Kindle reader, could become as dominant in publishing as Apple (AAPL) is in music. “Most publishers see e-books as inevitable,” says Sarah Rotman Epps, analyst with Forrester Research (FORR). “But they want control over the distribution and pricing.”

The three twentysomething co-founders of Scribd—Jared Friedman, Trip Adler, and Tikhon Bernstam—see these concerns as an opportunity. The two-year-old site, which already generates enough money from online advertising that it’s profitable, gives authors or publishers the ability to choose their own level of copyright protection and set the price for their work. Scribd keeps a 20% cut of sales. In contrast, Amazon sets the price for e-books and usually takes a bigger cut. By offering a more open and flexible system, Scribd hopes to create a viable alternative to the giant retailer. “The [online] store could be huge,” says CEO Adler. Scribd says it’s in talks with other big publishers and is working to make its content available on the Kindle and Apple’s iPhone.

There’s no guarantee, of course. Publishers are less concerned with which book site triumphs than with having a variety of outlets that help them keep control over sales and distribution. Still, Scribd is helping soothe their concerns about the risks of digital books. “[They’ve got] a very attractive package,” says Adrian Zackheim, publisher of Penguin Portfolio.

Ante is an associate editor for BusinessWeek.

Wordnik has Gumption

Wordnik has attitude and I love it. When asked about possible competition from Google, Worknik’s founder, Erin McKean said: “Nobody’s going to have as much money as Google,” she said, “but nobody’s going to be as interested in this as I am and my lexicographer colleagues are.” Now that’s gumption and that’s the first word I’m going to search on Wordnik. Actually Google would understand Mckean’s passion because their success has been based on that kind of passion, the pursuit of the fastest and ‘bestest’ search.

June 8, 2009 5:00 AM PDT
Old-school word nerds meet the digital age
by Caroline McCarthy

Now here’s one you don’t see every day: Wordnik, which launched out of private beta on Monday and states its mission as “discovering all the words and everything about them.” Taking the basic premise of a dictionary, Wordnik supplements each entry with Web 2.0’s tastiest treats–relevant Flickr images, Twitter search matches, user-contributed tags and comments–and then invites users to add their own words, too.

Calling itself a “project” rather than a company, Wordnik’s origins are sort of like a dot-com fairy tale. CEO Erin McKean, then serving as editor-in-chief of Oxford University Press’ American dictionaries, was giving a talk at the elite TED conference when she raised an issue for lexicographers–dictionary scientists–that, in her opinion, the digital age hadn’t solved yet.

“There are so many more words than dictionaries can handle,” McKean said to CNET News about the issue she raised at TED. “There’s no program for anyone to go out and try to find all the words. People have been conditioned to be more or less content with what they’ve got.” She has a point: many online dictionary sites are little more than digital replicas of their print predecessors.

As is often the case with TED, some pretty important people were listening in, including Silicon Valley venture capitalist Roger McNamee–now one of the investors in Wordnik, which McKean promptly co-founded with two lexicographers and an engineer. Now the Bay Area-based company has six full-time employees, and is launching with 1.7 million words in its directory.

McKean says she isn’t too concerned yet about dealing with the pranksters and vandals who give Wikipedia its more-than-occasional headaches (“people have tended to be well behaved with us, and we’re not sure how long that’s going to last”) and says that copyright issues shouldn’t be too much of a problem (“there’s about 400 years of precedent in terms of fair use in a dictionary”). Right now the priority is expansion. On the way, McKean said, are smartphone apps, a developer API, and a cleaned-up version of Wordnik for kids to use.

The site’s design and depth of information leave a little bit to be desired (it lacks the smooth, words-meet-visuals feel of something like news aggregator Daylife), and McKean said that bringing more interesting and unexpected information to Wordnik is also on the agenda.

But Wordnik faces one of the same concerns that pretty much any information- or search-focused start-up does: what if the likes of Google create a competing product? McKean said that Wordnik’s advantage is its team’s dedication. “Nobody’s going to have as much money as Google,” she said, “but nobody’s going to be as interested in this as I am and my lexicographer colleagues are.”
Now check it out and go look up “bacon.”

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs.

A Digital Book Ecosystem

It looks like the gloves are off! Amazon, Scribd and now Google are going to be the players that will shape the future of e-books and the role publishers will have in this new frontier. It’s like the wild, wild west again when pioneers would pull along their wagon of ideas and boldly venture into new frontiers in hope of building a better tomorrow. This brave new frontier is the digital world of e-books.

Though Amazon was the first to step into the new world of e-books and e-reading, its business model is still from the old world which is reflected in the way it has kept a good part of its revenue from e-books for itself and “cutting authors and digital book publishers out of any substantial returns.”

Scribd, an online document sharing site, has jumped on the band wagon. I’m so impressed that they have the foresight to see that a new world product also requires a new world business model. They have introduced a harvest model of revenue sharing for e-books with authors and publishers which I find incredibly attractive. See post dated — for more on their model.

Now Google has drawn its guns. Like Scribd, they too realize that the success driver is not just about having content and a delivery system for e-reading, but it is about having a digital book ecosystem that is fair to all its stakeholders and rightly recognizing their role and contribution to the ecosystem. These range from the little guys who come up with creative content to publishers who are trying to find their place in this new world.

If Google is true to their motto “Don’t be evil” in how they deal, and more than that, to act honorably and treat each other with respect, then I’ll definitely be very interested in what Google’s business model would look like when they unveil it. This will be reflected in their digital book ecosystem. Let’s see….

The Channel WireJune 01, 2009
Uh Oh, Amazon: Google’s In The E-Book Business

Google has confirmed it will later this year launch a partner program for authors to sell digital versions of their books online — a move that will put Google in direct competition with Amazon, Amazon’s Kindle device, and anyone else with a stake in the exploding market for e-books and e-reading.

Google issued a statement Monday after The New York Times first reported its potential e-book plans Sunday. According to the statement, Google is at work on a “digital book ecosystem” that would allow authors to partner with Google and release and promote their works on a variety of platforms, including any device with Internet access.

“Eventually, we hope to extend this functionality to retailers who embed Google Previews on their Web site,” Google said in the statement.

Amazon’s dominance in the e-reading market took off following the February release of Kindle 2, the second version of its dedicated e-reading device, and last month’s unveiling of Kindle DX, a larger-screen version of the e-reader.

Competitors have since been coming out of the woodwork to challenge Kindle’s dominance, but none, really — whether device or e-reading application — has the weight Google has to throw around. And Google isn’t exactly a stranger to e-reading, either; the company’s ongoing project to digitize public domain books has drawn the ire of the Authors Guild, and also made it a partner of Sony, which in March said it would make all of Google’s public domain e-books available through its Sony eReader.

Google’s plan at first glance, however, seems author-friendly and allows for much variety in how readers access the books — two attributes Amazon doesn’t really share. If you download books from Amazon’s Kindle store, for example, the number of devices on which they can be read is limited to dedicated Kindles and Apple iPhones and iPods running Kindle applications.

We don’t believe that having a silo or proprietary system is the way that e-books will go,” said Tom Turvey, Google’s Strategic Director of Partnerships, at BookExpo over the weekend, according to The New York Times.

Amazon has also been widely criticized for keeping too much revenue from e-books for itself and cutting authors and digital book publishers out of any substantial returns. The online document sharing site Scribd, which recently said it would begin allowing authors a way to charge for their content, is among other e-reading entities seeming to directly target Amazon based on that criticism. Google told the Times over the weekend that it will allow publishers to set consumer prices for e-books sold through Google’s service.

That Amazon has competition isn’t exactly a surprise, but a Google e-book salvo is in a whole other league than, say, new e-reading devices from UK startup Interead.com or Plastic Logic, both of whom showed off their would-be Kindle Killers last week.

“Competitors will attack Amazon’s market position by launching new features, expanding content beyond books, dominating markets outside the U.S., reducing costs, and improving relationships with publishers,” wrote Forrester media and technology analyst Sarah Rotman Epps in a Monday research note. “With retailers, mobile operators, and device manufacturers all vying for a piece of the e-reader action, publishers should proactively shape their own e-reader opportunity — or miss their last best chance to control their own destiny.”

Posted by Chad Berndtson at 8:30 AM
Click for full report

For a quick insightful summary of Amazon and Google’s business philosophy and its mindset, I would recommend you check out this article from ireadreview.com

Liberating the Written Word

AS YOU CAN SEE, I’m becoming a big fan of Scribd. I am totally in support of their vision of liberating the written word. Here’s how a traditional publisher sees the value of Scribd in relation to the printed word.

Word-of-mouth, recommendations and ‘hand-selling’ are tried and true ways to increase sales, and Scribd makes all those things possible in an extremely cost-effective, online environment. Scribd offers publishers an amazing new marketing platform that will surely generate book sales.

This morning whilst browsing through Scribd, I came across a book by Cory Doctorow. I liked his thoughts on the whole issue of e-books, publishing and authors which were beautifully encapsulated in a few brief but succinctly written paragraphs. I couldn’t have expressed them better myself. Below are extracts taken from the book in the spirit of what Cory would have been proud of, and posted here on my blog, of course.

THE COPYRIGHT THING
(My excerpts from page 5 of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow)

I recently saw Neil Gaiman give a talk at which someone asked him how he felt about piracy of his books. He said, “Hands up in the audience if you discovered your favourite writer for free – because someone loaned you a copy, or because someonegave it to you? Now, hands up if you found your favourite writer by walking into a store and plunking down cash.” Overwhelmingly, the audience said that they’d discovered their favourite writers for free, on a loan or as a gift. When it comes to my favourite writers, there’s no boundaries: I’ll buy every book they pub lish, just to own it.

Neil went on to say he was part of the tribe of readers, the tiny minority of people in the world who read for pleasure, buying books because they love them. One thing he knows about everyone who downloads his books on the Internet without permission is that they are readers, they are people who love books. People who study the habits of music-buyers have discovered something curious: the biggest pirates are also the biggest spenders.

Giving away ebooks gives me artistic, moral and commercial satisfaction. For me –for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. Of all the people who failed to buy this book today, the majority did so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free copy.

Ebooks are verbs, not nouns. You copy the, it’s in their nature. And many of those copies have a destination, a person they’re intended for, a hand-wrought transfer from one person to another, embodying a personal recommendation between two people who trust each other enough to share bits. That’s the kind of thing that authors (should) dream of, the proverbial sealing of the deal. By making my books available for free pass-along, I make it easy for people who love them to help other people love them.

Ebooks on computers are more likely to be an enticement to buy the printed book (which is, after all, cheap, easily had, and easy to use) than a substitute for it. You can probably read just enough of the book off the screen to realize you want to be reading it on paper.

So ebooks sell print books. Every writer I’ve heard of who’s giving away ebooks to promote paper books has come back to do it again. That’s the commercial case for doing free ebooks.

My publishers are really important to me. They contribute immeasurably to the book, improving it, introducing it to audience I could never reach, helping me do ore with my work. I have no desire to cut them out of the loop.

There are lots of teachers and librarians who’d love to get hard-copies of books into their kids hands, but don’t have the budget for it. You can sponsor a classroom or adopt a class yourself at http://www.adoptaclassroom.org If you are a teacher or librarian and you want a free copy of Little Brither, email freelittlebrother@gmail.com with your name and address of your school. It’ll be posted to website so that potential donors can see it.

Scribd – A Harvest Model for Digital Publishing

SCRIBD IS INTERESTING because it opens up in a big way the opportunity to get written works out to a world audience. Scribd keeps 20% of the revenue in providing this platform that acts as a bridge between the author and the market. It basically acts as a facilitator and empowerment platform for authors based on a harvest model where the stakeholders of the book enterprise, that is Scribd and the author of the work, will enjoy the fruits of their investment (time, talent and technology) only when a sale occurs through the sharing of the revenue. I love it. My first digital book will defiintely be launched from Scribd!

THE NEW YORK TIMES (Web edition)
By Brad Stone
Published: May 17, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO — Turning itself into a kind of electronic vanity publisher, Scribd, an Internet start-up here, will introduce on Monday a way for anyone to upload a document to the Web and charge for it.

The Scribd Web site is the most popular of several document-sharing sites that take a YouTube-like approach to text, letting people upload sample chapters of books, research reports, homework, recipes and the like. Users can read documents on the site, embed them in other sites and share links over social networks and e-mail.

In the new Scribd store, authors or publishers will be able to set their own price for their work and keep 80 percent of the revenue. They can also decide whether to encode their documents with security software that will prevent their texts from being downloaded or freely copied.

Authors can choose to publish their documents in unprotected PDFs, which would make them readable on the Amazon Kindle and most other mobile devices. Scribd also says it is readying an application for the iPhone from Apple and will introduce it next month.

Scribd hopes its more open and flexible system will give it a leg up on Amazon, which has become the largest player in the burgeoning market for e-books. Amazon sets the retail price for books in its Kindle store and keeps the majority of the revenue on some titles, which has publishers worried that Amazon is amassing too much control over the nascent market. Amazon also allows those books to be read only on its Kindle devices and in Kindle software on the iPhone.

“One reason publishers are excited to work with us is that they worry that publishing channels are contracting as Amazon and Google are gaining control over the e-book space,” said Jared Friedman, chief technology officer and a founder of Scribd.

But Scribd also has some hurdles to overcome itself. Though large publishing firms like Random House have experimented with the site, they also express frustration that copies of some works have been uploaded to Scribd without permission.

Trying to address the piracy problem, Scribd is building a database of copyrighted works and using it to filter its system. If a publisher participates in the Scribd store, its books will be added to that database, the company said.

So far, no major publishing houses have signed on to the store, though the company says it is talking to them. The independent publishers Lonely Planet, O’Reilly Media and Berrett-Koehler will add their entire catalogs.

The Scribd store will also give unpublished authors, or authors who are in a hurry, a well-trafficked Web forum on which to post their books, charge for them and see immediate results.

Kemble Scott, who has released a novel through a conventional publisher, said he would post his topical new political comedy, “The Sower,” to Scribd and charge $2 for it, partly because standard publishing is so slow. “If this is a book that is going to be interesting to people, now is the time that it fits into the national mood,” he said.