Closing the Book: Anathem

Book Cover: Neal Stephenson's AnathemWith the mixed feelings of sadness and accomplishment that typically comes with finishing an engrossing (and challenging) novel, I closed the back cover this weekend on Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. I’m astonished still by how well Stephenson was able to weave extended discussions of philosophy, theology and even geometry into a narrative that gains an unstoppable head of steam — all within a world textured with the rhythms of thousands of years civilization and inhabited by real people I came to care about.

Highly recommended.

Reading Room at the British Museum

I spent some time at my local library branch the other day, and it reminds me of how these spaces foster curiosity, questions and, at times, even a dazzling sense of wonder. That was how I felt when I walked into the Reading Room at the British Museum a few years ago (below, drawn from a blog post I posted at the time)…


It’s the Thought that Counts? Gifting in a Virtual World

As social networking has become a fixture in our lives, it’s only natural that the personal exchanges that occur in our offline lives — like gifting — are migrating to the virtual realm, too. I’ve looked on with some curiosity as the concept of virtual gifting has taken hold in Facebook and other venues. Can gifts that exist purely in digital form really take the place of tangible, physical presents?

On Facebook, gifts often take the form of graphical tokens that are sold for a small cost (typically $1) and are displayed on the recipient’s profile. They have no functionality beyond the symbolic — their value comes from being tokens of good will or affection, along with being the virtual approximation of a very visible display of flowers delivered at the office.

facebook gifts

Virtual gifting in Facebook.

So are people really buying these things?

I’ve personally sent some of the freebie versions of the Facebook gifts in the past year. Apparently, I believed that these tokens had some value both to the recipient and to me since I went to the trouble of sending them. On the other hand, I was never convinced enough to actually spend real money. By some estimates, however, Facebook is currently selling them at a rate of about 270,000 gifts per week — equivalent to $15 million in revenue, annually. Clearly, a lot of people are not like me — for them, the nominal monetary cost is outweighed by the convenience and symbolic value.

At WOWIO, we’ve been thinking about this phenomenon and considering it against the more traditional venues for gift giving, such as greeting cards and physical objects like books. WOWIO’s ebooks straddle the line between virtual and physical — as digital files, they’re clearly in the virtual realm, but as a medium for ideas and communication, they’re not so different from their paper counterparts. Further, the ebook’s written content has a powerful inherent symbolism that can go far beyond the purely visual representations of Facebook-style tokens.

Given this natural fit, we developed a new feature at the WOWIO site that allows registered users to gift ebooks in just this way. In sending my own ebook gifts, the process is remarkably familiar — it’s not unlike shopping for a paper-based gift book. I find a title that fits with the purpose of the gift and resonates with my relationship with the recipient, virtually wrap it in a decorated dust jacket appropriate to the occasion, and write a note on the ebook’s inside cover. The big difference is in the immediacy and relatively low cost of the gift. Delivery is as instantaneous as the Internet can make it, while the pricing ($3–5) makes it much more of an impulse gift, like Facebook’s tokens.

personalized ebook

Gifting a WOWIO ebook.

It will be fascinating to see how this fares in the coming months. If any of you are using (or even just thinking about using) this feature, I’d love to hear how you are using it and what you think of the process.

Green Titles, Green Books

World Meteorological OrganizationBlog Action Day and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize are now past, but it remains an apt time to highlight a few key books on environmental issues which are available (for free) at WOWIO.

This year’s awarding of the Peace Prize to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was met with controversy in some circles. Essential to any reasoned discussion of the merits is an actual reading of the IPCC’s report, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis — particularly the Summary for Policymakers.

The Battle over Hetch HetchyFor perspective on the larger debate over environmental policy, a look at the early clashes over preservation and resource utilization in America can provide insight on the debates that continue to this day. The Battle over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism by Robert W. Righter (Oxford University Press, 2005) looks at the social and political conflict that led to the birth of the modern environmental movement and reframed the national conversation in the terms we see today.

Walden and Walden Pond, A HistoryHenry David Thoreau’s Walden (WOWIO Books, 2007) is the seminal work that gave a voice to the then-unarticulated tension between the yearning for nature’s simplicity and a modern lifestyle increasingly dissociated from the natural world. Walden Pond: A History by W. Barksdale Maynard (Oxford University Press, 2004) tells the story of the pond itself, from its days as a spiritual retreat for Thoreau and Emerson to today’s role as environmental and cultural icon.

In a nice congruity with the spirit of the subject matter, these books are all in downloadable ebook format. Despite the not-insignificant environmental cost of running the web and the life-cycle costs of the devices needed to consume the content, digital books are still an enormous step forward compared to the impacts of printed books — some 20 million trees consumed for books sold in the US alone, plus the power and waste by-products associated with their printing, distribution and disposal.

When considering the issues surrounding the environment, what are the titles that influenced you the most?

Frankfurt Book Fair: Publishers Seeing Pixels

reading at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Frankfurt Book Fair logoThe Frankfurt Book Fair is the biggest book event in the world, with a history stretching back to the days of Gutenberg and the emergence of printing in the west. The billing on its web site is true by all accounts — “everyone who is anyone in the industry will be there: authors and publishers, booksellers and librarians, art dealers and illustrators, agents and journalists, information brokers and readers.”

This year’s edition is now in progress. This year’s hottest topic — adaptation and prosperity in an ever more digital world (from the Book Fair site):

Digitisation will be centre of attention at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair (10 to 14 October 2007), as the world’s largest book and media event focuses on a topic which has become a major priority for the publishing industry.

The programme will examine how all aspects of digitisation – from e-books, e-marketing and Web 2.0 through to online platforms such as Google or Amazon – will impact on the industry.

Frankfurt Book Fair preparations

Preparing for the Frankfurt Book Fair.

This trend is evidenced by the increasing industry forays into the digital realm — for example, if you’re already a WOWIO user, you’ve seen this movement first-hand in the steadily growing stream of new books and the publishers embracing its unique, all-digital (and all-free) business model.

From a dpa news story reporting on an industry meeting at the Fair:

As publishers gathered Tuesday for the October 10-14 Frankfurt Book Fair, they heard that free online books funded by advertising are one of the up-and-coming ways to earn a living from literature.

Evan Schnittman, a New York-based Oxford University Press executive giving a briefing on digital books, said US website WOWIO was already in the free e-book business […]

WOWIO will make a lot of news in the future,” he said.