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Paul Carr is a British author of several books as well as a columnist for such acclaimed publications as The Guardian and TechCrunch. Thanks to his satire and hilariously cynical style, he has been called a latter-day Jonathan Swift. While he likely does not wear powdered wigs, he’s certainly one of the wittiest and thoughtful writers today, covering such topics as Silicon Valley and technology, publishing, travel, partying, sobriety, and being a terrible boyfriend. Paul has lived an intriguing life: he has worked as a magician (really), an entrepreneur, has a degree in law, and has been “homeless” for several years living permanently in hotels…an adventure for which his (fantastic) book The Upgrade was written. He recently launched NSFW Corporation, which will publish magazine-style content for tablets and e-readers. Paul has written much about publishing and the future of books and reading, so we were excited to chat with him. Our biggest surprise? He’s been known to burn books.
How do you do most of your reading today? Do you read physical books or publications?
Of course I do. Who answers no to that question? Print is still by far the best way to consume both books and magazines. You can write on it, you can read it on long flights, even during takeoff and landing, you can give it to your friends without dicking around and most importantly you can throw it across the room when it makes you angry. Also, it’ll still be here in 200 years. The downside, of course, is that it’s also a pain in the ass to access if you don’t happen to already have the book or magazine you want to read. And searching is a non-starter.
So, yes, I read a lot in print. Until a few months ago I used to live exclusively in hotels so I’d buy books and then abandon them on the road. Now I have a real office so I have started building a library again. Whenever I pass a bookshop, I go in and buy a handful. Same with magazines/newspapers — I subscribe to the NY Times (in print!), mainly for the crossword. I also buy the Economist and the New Yorker and all that shit you’re supposed to say you buy, but I actually do. Right now I’m reading the history of Spy (“The Funny Years”), Michael Wolff’s book about Rupert Murdoch and a few Agatha Christie novels I’d never got around to.
THAT HAVING BEEN SAID, the bulk of my reading is digital. I get all my news online, obviously, but I also buy a ton for my Kindle and iPad. Right now I’m reading Meghan McCain and Michael Ian Black’s “America You Sexy Bitch” on Kindle, and an advance copy of Adam Penenberg’s new novel on my iPad. I also tend to subscribe to every new iPad magazine, mostly out of professional curiosity/jealousy. The latest is Arianna Huffington’s “Huffington” which reads like it was written for three of her friends, in both a good and bad way. I subscribe to the New Yorker, Esquire and about half a dozen other things on the Apple Newstand but I never read any of them. That thing is a total shitshow. Christ, I think I subscribe to the Daily too.
How has reading become more social for you?
It hasn’t, I don’t think. Reading isn’t supposed to be social. Maybe you’re thinking of eating, or playing Twister? Seriously, though, I tend to tweet about stuff I’m reading and I think I’ve written a total of one Amazon review. I’m always a sucker for a personal recommendation on Twitter and the like, but honestly I don’t think my reading is any more social than it was ten years ago when I did all those same things offline.
Where do you discuss what you read?
In real life a lot, and then sometimes on Twitter. I know you’re looking for a real NEW MEDIA answer here, but I don’t have one. The idea of a book club drives me nuts, even. It has too many echoes of school, having to wait for the slow kids to catch up before I can move on to the next book. Also, I rarely have anything profound to say about books I read. Maybe I don’t read profound enough books. I much more frequently discuss stuff that I’ve read in magazines or newspapers — mainly because it’s my job to do so. But, again, there’s not a huge amount of difference between how I used to riff on stuff when I wrote a column for an old-school newspaper than how I do it now online.
How do you decide what to read?
I guess it’s coming from social tools slightly more. But I really think that’s just because more of my friends who would previously tell me about stuff in person are now doing so online. The truth is, I hear about most new stuff I read through very old media channels — I walk around book stores (even if I buy online), I read reviews (sometimes online but also in print) and I get a lot of face to face suggestions. I’m so old. Online it’s usually because I know the subject I’m interested in and then search on Amazon for something appropriate.
Do you highlight or annotate what you read?
Sometimes. I tend to get animated — and annotated — when something upsets me. I once set fire to a copy of Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s wikileaks book out of pure rage…does that count as highlighting?
I’m a hypocrite, though, of course — I LOVE it when people electronically highlight stuff from my own books and have spent many happy minutes poring over the snippets that they’ve shared on Amazon etc. It always fascinates me what catches someone’s brain. In fact, I slightly resent all of those who haven’t highlighted anything. REALLY? NOTHING INTERESTED YOU? NOTHING AT ALL? DICK.
How do you see reading evolving in the years to come?
It saddens me to say that it’ll probably polarize between the word snobs (like me) who turn our noses up at the slightest hint of an illustration — “I’m perfectly capable of imagining Sherlock Holmes for myself, thank you very much!” — and the rest of the world who will increasingly demand fucking video games in the form of ebooks. Why read when you can play a game or watch a cartoon? Attention spans are being sapped, so the books that really catch fire (so to speak) will be those which reward dipping in and out. James Joyce is fucked, but then he always was. And Stephenie Meyer’s next book will be published in Claymation.
Non-fiction could be interesting though — as newspapers and magazine publish less and less long form and people become more and more comfortable with paying for ebooks, we could very well find that ebooks become the new home of investigative reporting. It remains to be seen if that’s in the form of words or pretty video pictures though.
Where do you see print going?
Prestige. Talking points. Gifts. A good way to store a single copy of a book for posterity. Definitely not mass-market within 20 years.
Are there any tools or platforms that make you a better writer?
There are no digital tools that would make me a better writer. Not that I couldn’t use the help — truth be told, I’m a pretty shitty writer most of the time. And lazy. But beyond the shift from analogue (typewriter) to digital (word processor, with spell-check), I’m not sure any technological development has really helped with the actual slog of writing. In fact, you could make a compelling argument (and smarter people than I have done so) that even the word processor was a retrograde step as it allowed people to yack on and on without any reason to stop typing.
That said, there are definitely tools which make the job easier. Spell check, sure, but also access to everything ever published anywhere anyhow makes it simpler to check if your great idea is original (or, of course, to steal great ideas from others).
How about tools that help you be a better or more satisfied reader?
As a reader, the swell of digital reading has made things infinitely easier. It bugs the living shit out of me when a book I want to read isn’t available electronically — I’ve come to expect — demand — that everything is just a click away. I’m not smart enough to predict what’s coming on the horizon, but I assume whatever it is will make it even easier for me to fill my mental inbox with new stuff to read. I guess that’s a good thing.
Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve spoken of as the “connected consumer” and the importance of deep linking into and out of texts?
I think what I meant is that, whether publishers like it or not, people expect content on screen to be clickable and interactive. Also, they have become accustomed to being able to consume it in short bursts rather than, say, consuming an entire issue of Wired in one sitting. Now, note I’m not saying that’s a good thing (as many do). In fact, as I said above, the video game-ization of reading is something i detest. I just think there needs to be a middle ground.
At NSFW that means publishing in HTML5 so we’re browser agnostic and there’s no big download. We’re also publishing new stuff daily as opposed to dolloping everything out in one big weekly slop. And there are links. Our policy — and I think it’s a good one for magazines and books is that we use links to provide supporting evidence for facts or analysis but never *as* facts and analysis. Which is to say, you should be able to read anything we publish without clicking a single link and still understand exactly what we’re talking about. I hate it when journalists don’t give background at the top of their story but instead assume you’ll follow the links they give to bring you up to speed. It’s annoying, and often lazy.
As for books, people are more accepting of the idea of books as downloads. As books become more connected, I hope we don’t end up with authors linking to more content than they actually write. That’s one big problem with everything being so accessible — at some point we’re all just copying and pasting and linking to the same stuff rather than writing anything new.
As an author, do you like seeing highlights from your works by readers?
It’s wonderful. Given my point above about being obsessed with the parts of my books that people highlight, Findings is like an RSS feed of crack. It occurs to me that this kind of data could be dangerous as it encourages authors to write in soundbites. But fuck that — look at all those highlights! Woo!
For this installment of the How We Will Read series we chatted with comedian and author Baratunde Thurston (@baratunde on Twitter). A man once called “someone I need to know” by Barack Obama, Baratunde has been an internet pioneer of political satire and comedy for years. He is an author, a standup comedian, a lecturer, and even a television host. Baratunde’s playfulness using digital media to tell stories and connect people is legendary…from holding a real-world rally to maintain his Foursquare mayorship, to sharing his computer’s desktop to the public while writing his recent book How To Be Black. Among other real and imaginary positions of importance, he has served as Director of Digital at The Onion and co-founded popular black political blog Jack and Jill Politics. Read on to find out why Baratunde hates hardcover books and how he hacked a hashtag into his own book.
How has reading become more social for you?
I’ve experimented with the bookshelf app on Facebook that will capture everything I’ve ever read and just rate books. I did all that and then I didn’t use it. And I did it with GoodReads. I got into GoodReads years ago. It was a community of really intentional readers, sort of like Artisanal Reader World. If there were farmer’s markets for books, the people on GoodReads would be the ones to shop there. [laughs] Again I didn’t stick to the service, I invested a bunch of time and rated a bunch of things and then stopped. So the way I find books is mostly through what my friends write (I have a lot of writer friends), and books that I hear about through conversation, whether it’s online or offline.
How do you read books today?
Almost always digitally. I feel about hardcover books the way I feel about phone calls. There is a burden associated with receiving a book. Like when you get that phone call and you wonder “Is this an emergency, did someone die? You couldn’t have used an asynchronous form of communication? You really want me NOW?” So when someone gives me a book, I’m grateful, but it’s kind of like giving me a CD. Now I have to convert this.
Plus, I live in an New York apartment. Space is the most valuable thing in my life. Time is money, space is money, too. Plus, I travel all the time. I use a Macbook Air and I’m given a book which does 1/1000th of what that computer does and weighs twice as much and takes up five times as much space.
Where do you discuss what you read?
I do not engage in book clubs. I think they’re racist and fascist and anti-earth. [laughs] No, I just have never been a part of a formal book club. I do talk about what I’m reading. I post my thoughts about what I’m reading online in Facebook and in Twitter, and I share some of those quotes. I’m a big fan of the pull quote…finding some really juicy nugget and boom! Toss it out as a provocation and see how people react. And I do that even with articles I’m reading. That’s how I use Instapaper. I rarely tweet out an article I’m reading, I tweet out a quote from the article I’m reading.
I let the world come to me, mostly. I look mostly at my feeds, and whatever’s happening in those feeds. If something bubbles up that looks interesting I save it. I have If This Then That programmed to push favorited tweets to Instapaper, and then when I’m on flights I load up my Instapaper and read. I also talk to people a lot. I have a very new app, it’s called “Conversation”. [laughs] It’s really immersive. It’s high touch, high impact. I think there’s a future in it, but it doesn’t scale very well. When I think about other ways I discover or share my reading process, I notice it’s mostly passive. Rarely do I ask “What do I need to read right now?”
Is that because now there’s so much to read you don’t even have to ask the question?
With books, I think because the time it takes to read a book I’m never short on material. It’s really about prioritizing what I read next. I probably have fifteen books on my Kindle that I haven’t read! It’s so easy to buy them, but you can’t consume them fast enough.
I’m also a big audiobook person. I grew up listening to books on tape, like actual cassette. I’d go to the public library to get them through from middle school all the way through college, and then shifted to CD’s. Then when Audible came out I died and went to heaven. I have books in Audible, I have books in my Kindle, I have all kinds of queues. I get into certain media consumption modes. Like, I’ll want an immersive long form reading experience, so will focus on that and shift away from Instapaper articles and the New York Times and just read a book. Same with audio, I’m either into a bunch of podcasts for a couple of weeks or I pick a book. And I occasionally deviate from the book for one or two critical weekly podcasts that I think make me a smarter and a better citizen.
Do you read more fiction or non-fiction?
Much more non-fiction, but there are some fiction books. I’m in Game of Thrones right now. I’ll read a chunk of a series and then go to a different book to mix it up. Epic tales…that’s what I love in books. I, Robot series. Foundation series. Dark Tower series. I love series, including in television. The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Killing…those long arc TV shows. The reason I love those is because they’re like books. They keep you going…it’s like watching a book in a way a movie doesn’t. It’s too tight, 90 minutes isn’t enough time.
The beauty of series is that they exist counter to the instant, tweetable, gratification that we are obsessed with. To invest the time into watching all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica, or reading all 16 books of the Left Behind series, or Game of Thrones…it’s such a counter-intuitive investment to make. But I think because we have such short attention spans, thanks to our devices and general media model, there’s a piece of all of us that craves a long form tale. We crave the idea of sitting around a fire listening to a storyteller weave this magical thing. And that’s how I feel about books, though TV has become more book-like.
Where do you see print going?
Print is becoming a specialty. A novelty. A vanity. It’s things that end in -ty mostly. [laughs] It doesn’t make a lot of sense, given planetary resources, given inefficiencies, to force the maintenance of a physical distribution model for most book reading. As an author who has gone through the process…it is painfully delayed in so many ways. I was in London just yesterday and stopped by Waterstone’s book store in Trafalgar Square. “Do you have my book?” “No we’re out, but Picadilly has it.” You don’t go to Amazon and hear, “Oh port 80 can’t distribute the book right now, come back to Amazon next week.”
We’re beyond scarcity, and that is a known fact of the new world. What we do still have as a value is a visual social indicator physical books communicate that ebooks can’t…unless we had a display on the back for the cover of what you’re reading.
While you were writing How To Be Black, you shared your screen with the public as a kind of live social reading experience. What was that like?
A friend of mine sent me an email that I should use this screen-sharing service join.me to share my screen and let people watch as I write. And I wrote him back this really long message about how it would ruin the writing process, would be too invasive, and would turn the creation into performance…and by the end of this long rejection I said, “Yeah I wanna do it!” [laughs] I got my own custom join.me screen-sharing URL, cleared my desktop and put a little billboard that said “Welcome to the live writing experience. This is what I’m testing. Pre-order the book! (with a link)” And then I just wrote. There was a chatroom which created an instant community. It turned me into a platform for other people to connect. I made it clear “You’re not here to talk to me, but I’m an excuse for you to talk to each other.” That’s what’s so much of the world. Twitter is an excuse to connect. Facebook is an excuse to connect. So, I became a service, a platform for people, and that blew my mind. Plus there was stuff going on in the chatroom, “Oh this reminds me of that,” and “Oh my friend so-and-so told me about this thing.” So, not only are you giving people a generic reason to connect, you’re giving them a reason to share their version of your story…or see themselves in it. When I looked back over the logs there were a lot of personal stories emerging from that.
It’s like a having a comments section as you’re writing.
I just shifted the timeline. But it still was a social reading experience. I’ve seen other artists do this. Sculptors, specialty painters, visual artists…they will create in public. But I had not ever seen someone use screen sharing. Someone told me of an example from a while ago, like back in the typewriter days, of a writer sitting and writing in public. But you don’t get the chatroom. Using the web for that was not something I had ever come across.
How do you feel your audience is different for your book versus the web?
I don’t have book author analytics, but I know who reads my website. I go to Quantcast or Facebook stats. I know where they are and what their ages are and what languages they’re speaking. The book…I have a sense from only a few indicators. Twitter, Facebook, and the real world. Twitter is self-selected though: readers who also tweet about what they’re reading and do so in a way that I can see them. They must spell the title correctly, mention me, or use the book’s hashtag. We’re talking a funnel within a funnel within a funnel. So that’s going to lean heavily toward young, digital, probably male. People who post to Facebook are much fewer than Twitter. And then there are live events. When I go out into the world, physically, that’s my focus group. It’s speaking at Pratt Library in Baltimore, or doing a book party in Chicago, or running into people who just recognize me and say “Oh I read your book.” It’s like a real world tweet.
The book was supposed to come out in February 2011. That didn’t happen. Then they decided to push it to the fall of 2011. I proposed we split the publication, to come out with a digital-only book in February, because production-wise we could meet that. Then we’d follow it with a very special hardcover edition. But the publisher was really against it. And I was like, “But I’m a digital dude!” I literally yelled that at a meeting. My audience is connected to me through the internet mostly. I said, “We’ll do well. We’ll kill it.” And they said “No, you’re going to leave too many other readers behind.” And they were absolutely right. My sales are 50/50! There are too many people out there who need to read this book who would have never heard of it. Not everybody has a Kindle, not everybody has an iPad.
Speaking of which, how do you feel the rise of digital books versus physical books are affecting the digital divide?
You know, there is probably a Pew study on this. I have not seen anything in particular about ebook consumption by age, by race, by language. I would assume there’s a lower penetration of ebooks among black people, even though there’s a higher penetration of mobile devices than the general public. Mobile internet use is much higher. I have not anecdotally come across people who’ve read my book on a phone, nor do I have a sense whether more or fewer black folks are reading the book on a device. I will tell you the level of social digital conversation around this book by black people is very high. Because of Twitter, because black people run Twitter.
Black people run Twitter?
This is the hidden truth: black people dominate Twitter. The trending topics, the amount of mobile penetration of devices…study after study continues to prove that Twitter is disproportionately black. And if it’s a conversation around my book, I think it’s heavily black. I want to pull the avatars of all the people tweeting about the book, and view the shades of what those images generally are…assuming people are putting their faces up, you’d get a sense of the color line.
I came across a Twitter reading group because they mentioned me and I love myself. [laughs] So I looked at this thing Ninjas Be Reading (#NBR), and it was a heavily black hashtag-based reading group. So I joined in, and I took questions. They were like OMG we got the author! And I retweeted some of the best comments. It was so natural. Because of Twitter’s bias toward black out of proportion to the population leads me to think that social reading and cultural discussions around book objects or cultural objects by black people in general is high. There is a great market, a great opportunity there. That it is not leaving people behind, quite the opposite.
So does your book have an official hashtag?
#HowToBeBlack! In fact I went so far as to print it on the top of every other page, instead of the title. I hacked the book! This is the fun part, the playing. I worked at The Onion doing digital storytelling all these years, I’ve been flying through Twitter, doing Foursquare campaigns on the streets of New York. I love this. And the idea of doing a book was kind of counter to my general direction as a storyteller [makes a record-scratch noise] WHAT? Baratunde is writing a hardcover WHAT? [laughs] But, even within that framework I made room to put a hashtag on every other page to provoke a conversation. And it worked! That’s the beauty of it. People want to engage. It doesn’t mean they have to have a 3D immersive reading room that you walk into Second Life-style. It may be as simple as printing a hashtag on every page of your book to indicate that conversation it possible. Let the audience fill in the blanks. It’s not all high tech.
This interview was conducted by Findings co-founder Corey Menscher.
This post is part of “How We Will Read,” an interview series exploring the future of books from the perspectives of publishers, writers, and intellectuals. Read our kickoff post with Steven Johnson here. And check out our new homepage, a captivating new way to explore Findings.
This week, we were extremely honored to speak to Internet intellectual Clay Shirky, writer, teacher, and consultant on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. Clay is a professor at the renowned Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU and author of two books, most recently Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.
Clay is one of the foremost minds studying the evolution of Internet culture. He is also a dedicated writer and reader, and it was natural that we would ask him to contribute to our series to hear what he could teach us about social reading. Clay is both brilliant and witty, able to weave in quotes from Robert Frost in one breath and drop a “ZOMG” in the next. So sit down and take notes: Professor Shirky’s about to speak.
How is publishing changing?
Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.
In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a Wordpress install.
The question isn’t what happens to publishing — the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers. Will we have a movie-studio kind of setup, where you have one class of cinematographers over here and another class of art directors over there, and you hire them and put them together for different projects, or is all of that stuff going to be bundled under one roof? We don’t know yet. But the publishing apparatus is gone. Even if people want a physical artifact — pipe the PDF to a printing machine. We’ve already seen it happen with newspapers and the printer. It is now, or soon, when more people will print the New York Times holding down the “print” button than buy a physical copy.
The original promise of the e-book was not a promise to the reader, it was a promise to the publisher: “We will design something that appears on a screen, but it will be as inconvenient as if it were a physical object.” This is the promise of the portable document format, where data goes to die, as well.
Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution. Now publishers are in the business not of overcoming scarcity but of manufacturing demand. And that means that almost all innovation in creation, consumption, distribution and use of text is coming from outside the traditional publishing industry.
What is the future of reading? How can we make it more social?
One of the things that bugs me about the Kindle Fire is that for all that I didn’t like the original Kindle, one of its greatest features was that you couldn’t get your email on it. There was an old saying in the 1980s and 1990s that all applications expand to the point at which they can read email. An old geek text editor, eMacs, had added a capability to read email inside your text editor. Another sign of the end times, as if more were needed. In a way, this is happening with hardware. Everything that goes into your pocket expands until it can read email.
But a book is a “momentary stay against confusion.” This is something quoted approvingly by Nick Carr, the great scholar of digital confusion. The reading experience is so much more valuable now than it was ten years ago because it’s rarer. I remember, as a child, being bored. I grew up in a particularly boring place and so I was bored pretty frequently. But when the Internet came along it was like, “That’s it for being bored! Thank God! You’re awake at four in the morning? So are thousands of other people!”